Snobs

August 1, 2021

Someone was leaving books in the post office with cheery stick-on notes saying “Free Book!” They’d often languish forlornly. I’d give them a glance, but I’m not inclined for random novels. However, Julian Fellowes sounded like a sophisticated British writer (creator of Downton Abbey). The title, Snobs, fit with that. So I took it.

Edith is an upper middle class working girl, at 27, in the mid-’90s, beginning to foresee a potentially dreary future. Then, a fluke: accidentally encountering Charles, from one of those moneyed, landed, noble houses. An Earl. She’s got enough native assets, mainly looks, that he marries her.

I expected their sexual relations would be only circumspectly described. But Fellowes mans up and gives us the wedding night in quite graphic detail. Neither disaster nor triumph; and important for what’s to come.

Charles is not a bad human being. Nor is his aristocratic mother, despite being sort of the villain. Initially, Edith revels in her status elevation; servants calling her “milady” and all. But there’s soon a growing sense of “is that all there is?”

The book is less about plot than about the kind of people in its cast of characters. And the title, Snobs, says it all. It’s not heavy-handed, but it is merciless.

One gets the picture very quickly. I asked myself, can I take 250 more pages of this? And, indeed, the rest is filled with embellishments upon the theme. Yet Fellowes is a good enough writer that it’s never a bore. (I often felt I could be reading Henry James.) You wouldn’t think there are so many ways of portraying a subspecies of people whose principal characteristic is how limited they are.

They form a web whose principal characteristic is its being a web. Fellowes calls it the “Name Game,” social interactions centered largely upon reaffirming one’s place in the web. “We don’t know them” is the ultimate and irreversible judgment. Someone outside the web cannot be “known” — not in the way that counts. Edith’s breaking through was, again, a definite fluke.

We read novels to understand people, and society; and ourselves. This book’s characters were about as alien from me as possible. Their lives being utterly defined in relation to other people, I was struck by how untrue that is for me.

I’m not an antisocial hermit. Have numerous acquaintances. But intimate friends? If honest, I must say none — apart from my wife. The difference between me and those populating the book is that I feel pretty much sufficient unto myself. I do my coin business; I read; I write. Mostly I write for my own amusement. My life’s meaning, as I go through the day, is based within me, not other people. Only my wife really exists for me. (And maybe my daughter.)

But let me add this. The older I get the more I value society. In the senses both of the milieu in which we live our lives, and of the great human enterprise. Being part of that is, perhaps contradictorily, a very big aspect of my inner life. The last five years heightened this, forcing us to face fundamental issues about our society. And I understand thoroughly how that society makes it blessedly possible for me to live a rewarding life not centered upon other people.

Fellowes says he tried to convey some aspects of the depicted type that are actually creditable, which is fair enough. He also says Snobs is not really about class but about choice; and that does come to take center stage. Edith’s choice to marry for reasons other than love was for her a largely unexamined one. Then she makes another choice — running off with a ridiculously handsome actor. Sure, people have affairs, but you can try to manage it discreetly. Edith does not. What could she be thinking?

The rest of the book is about her coming to terms with these choices — and whether she can make a further one. I give myself points for anticipating Edith’s wanting to go back, after all, to the husband who’d seemingly so bored her. Just arranging a tete-a-tete with him was a challenge, the rest of the family conspiring to be truly rid of her. I mentally scripted her speech to Charles, all that I felt ought to be said. What I, in her place, would have said. But in the end it all resolved into a single word reply.

Of just two letters.

Status Cuomo update: New York’s disgrace

July 30, 2021

First, the Moreland Act Commission, convened to investigate state government corruption. Governor Cuomo cheered it on while it probed others. When it started poking into his own office, he abruptly shut it down, saying “it’s my commission.”

Percoco

So nothing to see here, folks. Except Joe Percoco, Cuomo’s “other brother” and enforcer who, with Todd Howe, another Cuomo henchman, went to jail for bribery. We learned too that Percoco illegally used state facilities for political work. (I’m shocked, shocked.) Then JCOPE — New York’s Joke Commission on Public Ethics — established under Cuomo and stuffed with his sycophants — refused to investigate Percoco.

Then some JCOPE commissioner votes were illegally leaked to Cuomo, and he vented his displeasure about them to State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The State Inspector General’s office was asked to investigate the leak but found no evidence. Didn’t look terribly hard — didn’t even interview Heastie or Cuomo.

At the pandemic’s start, Cuomo ordered nursing homes to accept Covid patients from hospitals. In hindsight, a mistake. But ever since, he’s tried to cover it up with lies, blatantly manipulating Covid death statistics.

Then he wrote a book about his glorious pandemic leadership. Actually no — seems most of the work was done by his staffers. As volunteers, he claims. Yeah, sure. Using government resources in Cuomo’s side hustle as an author was a really big no-no. Demands for JCOPE to investigate this fell on deaf ears.

Meantime Cuomo was paid $5.1 million by Crown Publishing. Must have expected a blockbuster bestseller. Even though his previous book (also with a hefty advance) sold embarrassingly few copies. Now Crown, after the nursing home fiasco, has basically deep-sixed the new book. So why on Earth did they pay him $5.1 million up front? Seems awfully fishy. Maybe JCOPE should investigate.

And then there are the numerous women accusing Cuomo of sexual harassment. After several Cuomo attempts to get this handled under friendlier auspices, it wound up with State Attorney-General Letitia James running an inquiry. Previously she’d issued a devastating report on Cuomo’s nursing home scandal. Now, in February, fending off resignation demands, Cuomo said, “Let’s get the facts . . . that’s what the Attorney-General is doing. And that’s what we should all respect.”

That respect, by him, lasted for about a nanosecond. Ever since, Cuomo, through his bulldog mouthpiece Rich Azzopardi, has been badmouthing James and her investigation as a political hit job. Saying she’s just aiming to run for governor. The response was the same when the highly respected State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli called for investigating whether Cuomo criminally used state employees for his $5.1 million book. But, says team Cuomo, it’s DiNapoli who’s unethical. How so? Because he too is running for governor. “Albany politics at its worst,” tweeted Azzopardi.

They even impugn James’s investigation because one of its lawyers once worked for federal prosecutor Preet Bharara — who, guess what, supposedly wants to be governor.

Their response to this blog post will probably be that I’m running for governor.

For the record, I’m not. Nor are James, DiNapoli, or Bharara, either. Alas, there’s actually no credible candidate on the horizon who could threaten Cuomo in the primary. While Republicans, deep in their alternate reality, are set to nominate Congressman Lee Zeldin, a thoroughgoing Trumpsucker. Good luck with that.

Meantime, back when all the stuff started hitting the fan, and calls for Cuomo’s resignation peaked, the Democrat-controlled State Assembly started an impeachment. It never seemed in earnest, and now it’s clear they’re slow-walking it to death. Recently Speaker Heastie let slip a remark indicating that nothing the Attorney-General reports can result in impeachment.

So will Cuomo be re-elected next year? Of course! This is New York!

Excelsior!

Investigating January 6: Republicans compound the crime

July 25, 2021

January 6 was a bloody attack upon the heart of American democracy. Initially the two parties negotiated what seemed to be a very fair deal for a bipartisan Congressional investigation, modeled on the 9/11 Commission. But 9/11 occurred in a different nation. No chance today’s Republican lawmakers would honestly cooperate to investigate even an attack on Congress that threatened their own lives.* And so they duly killed the bipartisan agreement.

House Speaker Pelosi nevertheless went ahead with a Congressional investigating committee — as bipartisan as possible under the circumstances. She actually made a Republican (Liz Cheney) one of her own appointees to the panel. And invited GOP leader McCarthy to name five further members.

Once upon a time we might have imagined his choosing upstanding, judicious people whose reputations would call forth widespread trust. But this is 2021.

So instead McCarthy’s picks included Jim Banks and Jim Jordan. Jordan is a rabid Trump bulldog, his considerable verbal talents perverted to making absurdities sound plausible. David Brooks called both men “stinkbombs,” lobbed by McCarthy to make a farce of the investigation.

Hence Pelosi rejected the pair. Commentator Jonathan Capehart saw this as reflecting true dedication to her constitutional responsibilities. This investigation is extremely serious public business, and she wanted to include Republicans, but was not going to let them make a circus of it.

Now McCarthy indignantly says if Banks and Jordan are excluded, then no Republicans will join the committee at all (apart from Cheney, who he does not control).

What is really going on here? The Republican party has become a deranged bunch of nihilistic bomb throwers with, for all their “patriot” prattling, zero loyalty to America’s democratic fundamentals and institutions. Comprehensively irresponsible. Desperate to avoid all serious probing of January 6, knowing their god-king has its blood all over his hands. And that the continuing threat to our democracy comes from within their own ranks. While some are so divorced from reality they actually blame others, or even deny it happened at all.

Trump himself, interviewed for a recent book, described January 6 as a love fest, with police welcoming folks into the Capitol. He also believes he won the election. And in the tooth fairy.

But here’s something I actually don’t understand. Why this has to be a congressional investigation in the first place. True, the attack targeted Congress. But really our whole constitutional system. The 9/11 Commission included members from outside Congress, as did the Warren Commission, investigating JFK’s assassination. Why can’t an investigation, along similar lines, be organized under the auspices of, say, the Justice Department? Or, better yet, by presidential executive order, convening a bipartisan blue ribbon panel of widely respected personages. Like, for instance, John Roberts and Mitt Romney. Wouldn’t that end-run around Republican insanity** garner far more public credibility?

* Being himself a mass shooting victim didn’t change GOP Congressman Steve Scalise’s opposition to gun sanity.

** Herschel Walker plans to run as a Republican for a Georgia Senate seat despite a history of battling mental illness. His slogan could be, “Probably less nuts than your average Republican.”

The truth about UFOs

July 22, 2021

They’re out there! It’s real! The government finally admits it!

Um, no.

For all the media frenzy, the actual story is a big nothingburger. The Pentagon produced a document saying reports of “unidentified aerial phenomena” by U.S. military personnel are for real. Meaning that, yes, some military people did report such unexplained sightings.

Which tells us nothing about what the explanations might be. The Pentagon says it cannot rule out extraterrestrial explanations. That tells us nothing either. Actually, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the true explanations are prosaic.

Many people have always reported witnessing all sorts of strange, seemingly inexplicable phenomena. Often their senses deceived them, something extremely commonplace. Or their stories were embellished. Or simply didn’t happen. Many people telling such tales have a screw loose. Or dishonest motives. (Another whole category is in the religious sphere.)

I always apply Occam’s Razor, also known as the principle of parsimony. Telling us that the simplest, most mundane explanation for anything is the likeliest. When a story is seemingly inexplicable, the likeliest explanation is that the facts are somehow wrong, or misinterpreted.

I recall seeing a remarkable UFO video. Real, not doctored. Filmed through an airplane window, it appeared to show a bright saucer-like object flying beside the plane and making weird zigzag maneuvers defying the laws of physics.

Unexplainable? Turned out to be just a bizarre reflection of a cabin light from inside the plane.

My UFO skepticism is very great. I actually consider it likely that intelligent life has evolved elsewhere. But the distances between stars are stupendous, and planet hopping would be a formidable challenge for even the most scientifically advanced civilization. Would they make such a prodigious journey — merely to lurk silently in our skies, doing nothing? Or, even less plausible, to abduct occasional humans for proctology exams? As if beings with the capability of traversing the cosmos would have anything to learn that way.

If UFOs were really visiting us, there’d be no mystery about it. We would know it. (Just like if there really were a God, there’d be no mystery.)

The voting rights fight: Is humanity ready for democracy?

July 19, 2021

I believe in democracy. That might sound platitudinous, but it’s actually a carefully developed philosophical stance, grounded in a utilitarian concept of the greatest good for the greatest number.

America led the way in 1776, with our democratic manifesto. Eventually the idea caught on in many other countries, and for good reason. As Francis Fukuyama explained, it serves a fundamental thirst for recognition of one’s human dignity (which he gave the Greek word thymos).

But America’s own democracy is now in trouble. Almost half our citizens in a movement in effect seeing democracy as an impediment to goals they value more. (Mainly preservation of white Christian cultural domination.)

Thus the battle over voting rights. Republican rhetoric about ballot integrity is simply dishonest. We have no ballot integrity problem. It’s a smokescreen for their real aim, to win by any means necessary. They don’t expect to win fair elections. The larger the vote, the lower their chances, so they want to prevent as many citizens as possible from voting. Especially targeting minorities who overwhelmingly vote against them.

Such voter suppression is nasty enough. But even scarier is the push, in many states, to shift authority over vote counting to Republican-controlled political bodies.

We’ve seen this movie too many times across the world. This is how dictatorships hold onto power. It doesn’t actually matter how people vote, if you control the count. You just make up the results.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad was almost certainly trounced for re-election in 2009, but the regime simply said otherwise, then brutally crushed widespread protests. In Congo’s 2018 presidential election, Fayulu apparently got three times more votes than Tshisekedi, yet Tshisekedi was declared the winner. And in Belarus, reviled dictator Lukashenko surely lost to his challenger, but here again announced the opposite result, and unleashed ultra-violence when the citizenry erupted in protest.*

Can it happen here? January 6 was an effort to overturn the 2020 election result. That violent attempt failed, but now Republicans are laying the groundwork for doing it under color of law. What if Trump loses Georgia in 2024 but the vote counting authority, set up by the Republican-controlled state legislature and staffed with its operatives, simply announces different numbers? If you doubt they could be that dishonest — where have you been for five years?

Yet almost half the country supports this gang. Fervently. That’s the scariest thing of all.

I was thrilled visiting Russia in the ’90s. A democratic Russia! The triumph of my ideals. It seemed democracy was busting out all over. Since then, it’s gone the other way. Autocrats learned to adapt to today’s world — with a lot of help from foolish voters. While finagling elections does help too, unfortunately many people are suckers for political snake oil.

Take Italy. Its electorate is divided among a bunch of parties — one more crackpot than another. Old-fashioned sober serious parties can no longer compete.

India used to be heralded as the world’s biggest democracy. Now Narendra Modi is consolidating the classic authoritarian model, giving democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Press freedom is almost entirely extinguished. A new “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act” empowers the regime to jail anyone it doesn’t like, no specific charges even needed. The law is being utilized with gusto. A recent victim was an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and human rights advocate, Stan Swamy, with no criminal record. Denied bail, and medical care, he died in his cell.

Worse yet, this Hindu nationalist regime seems bent on making non-citizens of India’s hundred million Muslims. An insane folly if there ever was one.

India’s voters might have stepped back from the brink in the last national election. Instead they gave Modi a stonking majority.

So this is the problem of democracy: voters. I still believe a nation is better off with democracy than dictatorship. I do not believe in Plato’s idea of a philosopher king knowing best. But I increasingly worry whether enough people have the mature wisdom to vote sensibly.

Religion is part of the problem, scrambling minds into pathways of irrationalism. India is again a prime exemplar: Hindus actually thinking it’s a good idea to enflame intercommunal conflict. Such irrationalism also characterizes America’s quasi-religious Trump cult. As long as religion continues to mess up so many minds, I question whether humanity is ready for democracy.

* It’s a tribute to the power of the democratic idea that even dictators feel they need to have elections — even if phony ones.

Coin Ad Rip-off

July 17, 2021

The Albany Times Union 7/16 issue had a full page ad hawking Walking Liberty half dollars for $39 each. Supposedly a special release deal for New Yorkers only! As a coin dealer for 40 years, I can advise that ads like this are always rip-offs. Always.

This one is full of breathless verbiage about the coins’ claimed rarity. In fact they are exceedingly common, the vast majority worth no more than the silver melt value, around $9.

But the ad gushes that SOME are worth UP TO 100 times face value. Those words “up to” are always slippery. Actually certain Walker halves are worth thousands. For sure you won’t get any such rare ones. Meanwhile, “100 times face value” for half dollars equals $50. You’re already paying $39. These hucksters think their suckers can’t do math.

Also, it says the $39 price is “just $585 for the full Bank Rolls.” Thus 15 coins per roll. In fact a standard bank roll of halves is 20.

Even the ad’s enlarged photo is a fake. It shows a 1919 half with a “D” mintmark on the front. No such coins exist.

Covid-19: Now the Republican Disease

July 15, 2021

The ultimate political wet dream: a deadly disease that, somehow, selectively targets the other party.

U.S. Covid cases and deaths are climbing back up. Spurred by the especially nasty Delta variant. Deaths are 99.5% unvaccinated people. And most unvaccinated people are Republicans.

They’ve needlessly brought this holocaust upon themselves, by politicizing Covid, and vaccines in particular, bathing in a sea of lies, and making vaccine refusal a “freedom” issue. As in freedom to jeopardize not only your own life but your family’s and neighbor’s. (All of ours, actually; failure to end the pandemic allows further variants to emerge, potentially one that defeats the current vaccines.)

Vaccination’s alleged risks are simply lies promoted for various bad motives. Fox News creeps like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are especially culpable. But even if most of the claimed vaccination risks were real, your risk of illness and death from Covid is still vastly greater. The anti-vaxxers can’t do math.

Not only are unvaccinated people now the ones really in danger from Covid, but the risk rises steeply with age too — and Republicans, on average, tend to be older. Furthermore, especially if you’re not vaccinated, mask wearing offers much protection. And who refuses masking? Republicans again.

So Republicanism is becoming a major health risk. Will insurers start asking for party affiliation — and charging Republicans more?

Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a top official of Tennessee’s Health Department, has been fired for promoting vaccination for young people. In today’s political climate, that’s a firing offense. Similar stories proliferate in other states.

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, America’s failure to meet vaccination targets was greeted with raucous applause. These people — who call themselves “pro-life” — were cheering the march of death. “Macabre,” said columnist Michael Gerson, wondering how we got “to such a strange, desperate place.”

Remember Trump actually claiming huge credit for the “warp speed” vaccine development? That was then; now he’s silent. If Trump runs in 2024, you might think he’d want his fans vaccinated so they can live to vote for him. He could put out a video urging that. Why doesn’t he? Because he himself is trapped in the deranged alternate universe that is Trumpism.

Vaccination refusal is the apotheosis of the Republican flight from reason, decency, reality, and sanity. They’ve made war on truth; on voting rights; on immigrants; on the press; and much else. Now their war on vaccination is actually a war upon themselves.

Maybe cosmic justice.

How many brains do you have?

July 13, 2021

Though some people are called brainless, most would say they have one brain. But how many minds do you have? Perhaps a trickier question. You might say you’re “of two minds” about an issue. There’s even a phenomenon called “split personality” (or “multiple personality disorder”).

While we do talk of “the brain” as a unit, we also speak of right and left brains with differing functionalities. The left brain being more logical, the right more intuitive and creative, and so forth. But there have been cases of people losing one hemisphere, yet able to live fairly normally, the remaining hemisphere taking over the other’s duties. On the other hand, I’ve written about a stroke victim whose damage was in the right hemisphere, enabling the left to become more dominant, changing her personality.*

But it gets yet more interesting.

The two hemispheres are really quite separate physically, being connected only by a clutch of fibers called the corpus callosum. A conduit for messaging between them. Now, it’s been found some epileptics can be helped by severing the corpus callosum, keeping seizures from passing between hemispheres. The patients seemingly unharmed.

They’ve been the subject of experiments testing the effects of thusly splitting the brain. Each hemisphere controls the opposite side the body. You can show each eye different things. In one experiment, the right eye saw a snow scene, the left a chicken claw. Next, the subject was asked to choose something related from among a group of various pictures. One hand picked a snow shovel; the other a chicken. Logical enough.

But then the subject was asked why he’d picked the shovel, which he could see he’d done. However, the speech center is in the right hemisphere, so it does the talking. And the right hemisphere was unaware of the left’s (through the right eye) having previously seen a snow picture. So he answered, “The shovel is to clean up the chicken shit.” In other words, having no access to the real reason, lodged in the other half of his brain, the half that answered made up something plausible.

This shows just how separate our two hemispheres can be. And the import can be greater than mere choosing among pictures. In one case, a man’s arm reached to hug his wife, while the other arm punched her! Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran reports a patient whose right brain professed a religious belief while the left said he’s an atheist (logically enough). One can imagine two hands fighting over an election ballot.

The real-life model for the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man was found to have been born without a corpus callosum. He could read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye. Memorizing each too, instantly.

All this helps us regarding the problem of understanding consciousness and the self. Which in fact science has not yet cracked. The split-brain stuff reminds me of Daniel Dennett’s concept in his (optimistically titled) book Consciousness Explained. He rejected our commonplace notion of some sort of captain at the helm in our minds, the “I,” who makes decisions. Dennett said it’s more like a scrum of mates fighting over control of the wheel. And it does seem that a lot of competing and often contradictory notions bubble up out of various modules in the brain each running their own separate sequences, until one dominates sufficiently to cause an action to be performed.

Some see the split-brain experiments as showing we are all actually “split personalities.” That we really do have two separate minds co-existing within our skulls, one in each hemisphere.

But let’s remember that literal split-brain is a very special case. Most of us have an intact corpus callosum enabling the two hemispheres to coordinate. Like in a marriage, only more so. I think that normally the two hemispheres work things out. When they can’t, that’s mental illness.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/a-stroke-of-insight/

What is America’s real story?

July 9, 2021

Attending Albany’s July 4 fireworks is always thrilling. This year’s was especially celebratory, with the pandemic (mostly) behind us, as well as (for now) that other unspeakable vileness. Though my exultation was tempered by remembering 600,000 dead.

Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill reflected on this celebration of America — and where we are at. Some on the left see the country as irredeemably unjust and rotten. And the other side, while wrapping itself in a flag of patriotism, is in revolt against modern America’s actuality — likewise rotten in their eyes. “[S]o rotten that a presidential election could be stolen in plain sight . . . No authority or reported fact can be trusted. This democracy is a sham.” Both sides actually think that, for incompatible reasons.

So, queries Churchill, what is there to be patriotic about or celebrate? However, he says, “[t]he good news is that most Americans don’t feel that way. Most know that claims of a stolen election are untrue. And most recognize that this country is uniquely wonderful, exceptional even, despite its division and continuing injustices.” A “glorious, messy, loud, eccentric, restless, frustrating, exhilarating, sprawling and magnificent country.” With “so much to love, so much beauty and freedom and dynamism, all of which helps explain why people from around the world remain so eager to join us. And America, undeniably fairer and more just than it was even decades ago, is getting better.”

That’s what lifts my heart on July 4.

The next day’s David Brooks column took a different tack. We’re having an epistemic crisis; one might say it’s basically truth against lies. Which is so, actually, but Brooks steps back to see a bigger picture. With two great reservoirs of knowledge. One is factual. But the other contains the stories we tell about ourselves: “who we are as a people, how we got here . . . what kind of world we hope to build together.”

Some, Brooks notes, think our system of producing factual knowledge is breaking down. However, he says, “Trump doesn’t get away with lies because his followers flunked Epistemology 101,” but “because he tells stories of dispossession that feel true to many of them.” On the other side, says Brooks, the “woke” lefties “aren’t censorious and intolerant because they lack analytic skills. They feel entrapped by a moral order that feels unsafe and unjust.”

The real problem, he writes, “is in our system of producing shared stories. If a country can’t tell narratives in which everybody finds an honorable place, then righteous rage will drive people toward tribal narratives that tear it apart.” And he notes that current ideological warfare over school curricula (the right trying to whitewash our history, the left painting it black) show “how debauched and brutalized our historical storytelling skills have become.”

Brooks concludes: “It is unfashionable to say so, but America has the greatest story to tell about itself, if we have the maturity to tell it honestly.”

At home after the fireworks, we watched one of those climate change documentaries saying humanity is cooked. Yes, we face severe challenges. But people have managed to thrive in the Arctic and the Sahara — without modern scientific knowledge. Don’t tell me we can’t cope with changing climate.

It’s not just America I love, but all humanity. A species put here naked and with nothing, except brains. And oh how we’ve used them, in a stupendous undertaking to make good lives. Spectacularly successful. America its highest embodiment.

So why the “all consuming cynicism” that Churchill says isn’t rational? Reading his column made me think of Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice. One thing it explains is the “adaptation effect.” People attaining improved circumstances come to take them for granted as “the new normal,” rather than riding on Cloud-9. Focusing not on what they’ve gained, but instead the next desire — and feeling dissatisfied till it’s achieved. Also called the “hedonic treadmill.”

So too, all the progress American society has made — and indeed all the titanic achievements of human civilization — are likewise taken for granted. Pocketed with only fleeting appreciation. And we thunder at the cosmos, with shaking fist: what have you done for me lately?

Trump gets away with it again

July 5, 2021

Refusal to release his tax returns begged the question: what was he hiding? The Manhattan District Attorney finally got the documents after an arduous court battle. Indicted now is Trump’s top financial honcho, Allen Weisselberg — and the Trump organization — but not Trump himself — for tax fraud. This has nothing to do with Trump’s own returns. Rather, paying Weisselberg and others with benefits, like luxury apartments, in lieu of salaries, to avoid income tax.

In the big picture that seems like small beer. The mountain labored and brought forth a mouse. Trump must be laughing. Crowing vindication again.

Actually, the crimes alleged are quite brazen and serious. But why wasn’t Trump himself charged too? He’s the head of the organization. Signed some of the checks in question.

The New York Times, having previously gotten leaked access to Trump’s own returns, had run some exhaustive articles exposing what clearly looked like huge fraud therein. Trump never paid much tax at all. Claiming business losses year after year. Literally the losingest businessman in America, according to his tax returns. So much for “The Art of the Deal.” But it seemed evident all those “losses” were created by phoney accounting. Cooking the books. Yet no indictment (so far?).

It’s Weisselberg the fall guy headed for jail. Like Trump’s “fixer” Michael Cohen, jailed for his role in illegal payoffs to cover up Trump adulteries. Trump signed checks for that too. It came to light while he was president, and that dumb Justice Department memo said a sitting president can’t be indicted. No basis for that in the Constitution, but never mind now, he’s no longer in office and is certainly subject to indictment. Why is he not being charged for the crime Cohen committed at his direction?*

Why, indeed, does this creep manage to skate through his entire life with no comeuppance for all his countless misdeeds? He did pay $25 million to settle the Trump University fraud case. Chump change for him. But that was just a civil matter. I never understood why it didn’t constitute criminal fraud carrying a prison sentence.

* * *

Trump has also escaped the verdict of historians. Recently C-Span asked 142 of them to rank the presidents, and Trump was not rated worst. In fact, only the fourth worst! What were they smoking?

Their top three turkeys were Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson, all Civil War related. In my youth I immersed myself in U.S. political history. Before Trump, I’d rated Johnson (1865-69) worst, a racist blunderer. But Pierce (1853-57) and Buchanan (1857-61) are faulted, basically, for failing to somehow prevent the war. A bum rap — it’s far from clear what if anything they could have done. At that time Congress was the main event, presidents being bystanders with little real authority.

No, Trump runs away with the title of worst president, by a country mile. Off the charts. To begin with, he’s indisputably the most disgusting character ever to hold the office. And his performance certainly reflected that badness. He plunged our whole civic culture into the toilet. A divisive, racist, compulsive liar. An administration stuffed with corrupt lowlife sycophants. Shredding relationships with allies, cozying up to blood-soaked dictators, and blackening America’s moral standing in the world, not least with intentionally cruel inhuman policies separating thousands of children from parents. I could go on. (And have: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2020/10/25/lest-we-forget-the-full-trump-record/)

But even if none of the above were true, he’d still nail the prize for one supreme dereliction: his thoroughly idiotic handling of the pandemic, bearing personal responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

And those historians thought Franklin Pierce was worse? I repeat, what were they smoking? Trump’s is a record of infamy unparalleled in our history.

* A familiar legal principle says any applicable statute of limitations would be tolled — that is, the clock would be stopped — while the culprit is unavailable for prosecution.