Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

May 29, 2020

That’s the title of a book in the Edge series edited by John Brockman, each containing short essays by a wide range of leading intellects answering a question.

The internet clearly changes how we behave, and live. But think? A much harder question because how we think is not, to begin with, well understood. But the answer is probably closer to no than yes, because our brain function is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. And it’s increasingly clear that much if not most of what we think of as thinking takes place on a level below conscious awareness. What you think you think and what you really think can differ.

Humans have developed ever more sophisticated tools to facilitate thought. First, language; then writing; both really huge add-ons to our pre-installed neuronal thinking apparatus. Then disseminating written language via printing. The internet, important though it is, must be seen as yet one more such tool, like an external hard-drive appended to our basic thinking machine. Which still remains basically unchanged.

But it bears noting that Edge asked a cultural elite about their thinking. Not “the man in the street.” Naturally many Edge responders emphasized benefits in terms of pursuing their intellectual, research, collaborative, scientific endeavors, etc. I was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s saying religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. Smarter people aren’t necessarily better people. But in some ways the internet is a good thing for very smart people and a bad thing for the rest.

Those writing Edge essays can use it very advantageously. Some did bemoan being distracted by extraneous stuff. Cat videos? But cat videos are harmless. What very smart people don’t get waylaid by is all the internet’s toxic crap, all the stuff reinforcing pre-existing misconceptions, the political craziness, all the conspiracy theories. They’re too smart for that.

Notice I’m saying very smart people. Unfortunately being just “smart” isn’t enough. The anti-vax hysteria shows this. Anti-vaxxers are actually, on average, smarter than average. But not as smart as Edge contributors, who would never fall for such harmful nonsense — spread mainly by the internet.

The difference is that Edge writers and their sort tend to have a deep grounding of knowledge and understanding about the world, to vet things like anti-vaxx, creationism, new age fads, Trumpism. Too many others lack that: blank slates onto which rubbish sticks as well as truth. Suckers for hucksters, charlatans, and demogogues.

Roger Schank’s essay put it thus: “The intelligentsia may well be getting smarter because they have easy access to a wider range of good thinking, but the rest of the world may be getting dumber because they have easy access to nonsense.”

Or Mark Twain (supposedly) said: a lie can run around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. That was before the internet really got going. And the book was published in 2011, before a lot of the worst net-instigated problems became evident — before anti-vaxx really exploded, and of course before we became aware of the pernicious aspects of social media, especially in relation to the 2016 election.

Changing topics, I’ll quote Alun Anderson’s essay: on the net, “[i]n a few hours, an innocent can see more of the pleasures and perversions of sex . . . than an eighteenth century roué could experience in a lifetime devoted to illicit encounters.” It really was so challenging back then. I’ve written previously about online porn’s ubiquity profoundly affecting this most elemental aspect of human life. In advanced Western societies, at least, sex has become a lot more open than it used to be, for a long time already, and we’ve grown somewhat jaded. This moderates the impact of widely available porn. But consider societies that remain more traditional. Anderson, with some experience of them, does so. He believes this aspect of the internet (a very big aspect indeed) will ultimately shake their foundations.

Stay tuned.

Zoom event with Biden — is he up for the job?

May 25, 2020

I participated in a May 21 Q&A with Biden via zoom. It’s been called, in the press, an event for “Wall Street donors.” I’m no Wall Streeter, nor did some other attendees look to me like Wall Street types. (Though two ex Treasury secretaries were there.) And an issue has been made of reporters being barred.

So here you get my exclusive insider’s report.

Dillon

Campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon started it off recapping the election landscape. The campaign seems to be doing things right. Targeting, of course, swing states, especially the key three Trump unexpectedly won in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. He’s losing those now, and several others he’d carried. Remember that his “great victory” was actually a squeaker. Dillon referenced polling data showing falling support among, notably, older voters and less educated whites. But she was mindful that Republicans will try to block as many opposition citizens as possible from casting ballots. (Like cutting Milwaukee’s 80 polling sites to five in the recent voting.)

Biden spoke briefly, mostly detailing Trump’s terrible Covid-19 performance, then answered questions for about an hour.

Hartley

The moderator was Jane Hartley, former ambassador to France. Overall, the Q&A spotlighted the daunting immensity of the task facing Biden come January 20. Putting right all the fundamental damage done, with a pandemic likely still raging, and a shattered economy. All together, worse than what FDR confronted in 1933.

Is Biden up for it? Yes, if any human ever could be. This event showed the ridiculousness of all the “sleepy Joe” nonsense, impugning Biden’s mental acuity.

He is known to have overcome stuttering, with vestiges in just occasional speech hesitancies. But Biden cogently answered questions at length and in depth, with intelligence, energy, and passion. Having to do this constantly must get wearying. But Biden didn’t show it.

His answers demonstrated the benefit of long decades of experience with policy issues. Biden knows what he’s talking about, and has clear informed ideas about what he wants to accomplish. All contrasting with the know-nothing “genius” in the White House whose mind is a cesspit of depravity.

One subject that came up several times was the shambolic mishandling of the Covid-19 rescue program. It’s so screwed up that very little help is going where it’s really needed, most scarfed up instead by big corporations. (Trump swiftly fired the Inspector General tasked with overseeing where the money went.) Biden stressed the importance of people having a sense of dignity about their work.

A key point was healing the nation’s divisions. That must sound like empty verbiage now. But I keep returning to it because tribal hatreds really impede tackling all our other problems. We even see it in politicization of pandemic measures. America may indeed be too far gone to heal, but gosh we must try. I supported Biden from the start as the candidate best suited for that. However, he warned that the coming campaign will be nasty — surely an understatement. I fear he’ll come to office so demonized by Republicans that they’ll continue warring against him with rabid derangement.

I didn’t love all his answers. Asked about returning to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Biden was strong criticizing Trump’s blundering trade war, but actually sidestepped TPP. Well, too many voters are allergic now to “trade deals.” Then there was stale blather about reviving America’s manufacturing and stopping “shipping jobs overseas.” So twentieth century.

But as I always say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I support Biden enthusiastically. I don’t expect perfection.

One subject not coming up was immigration, and the abominable cruelty of Trump’s policies. We’ve just learned of this administration deporting children unaccompanied by parents or relatives. Just imagine being a child dropped alone in some crime-ridden foreign land. This is America? Made great again?

We are in deep shit. Pray for Biden.

Harvey Havel: Dealing with rejection

May 23, 2020

This big fat book showed up unexpected in my mailbox. Harvey Havel is a fixture in the local literary scene. Chatting with him at a recent author talk, it had emerged that we’d both published blog essay collections. So he sent me his. He’s a sweet person. Also tormented.

The book starts with political essays (a decade and more old). Perhaps unusual for a professional writer of color, his viewpoint is determinedly centrist. And Olympian, looking past the issues of the day, in a larger perspective, trying to see the tectonic forces shaping our politics. As a professional writer, Havel has a glib command of the relevant lingo. Yet I found his analyses somewhat oversimplified, falling short of profundity. (Sorry, Harvey.)

So after reading some of this I decided to skip ahead to the later sections dealing with more personal matters, and stuff like sexual politics. This was much more engaging. Havel speaks from the heart with unsparing candor.

Like about his alcoholism. It nearly destroyed him; he believes it’s actually necessary to sink that low before one can overcome. He’s apparently been off the stuff for a good long time now, but alcoholism still looms as a big presence in his life.

He was also ruined, he says, by money. Given a big lump sum by his father upon college graduation, he lived the high life, as though it would never run out. Of course it did, while turning him into “a man of low morals and character,” blocking his capacity to grow. Thus he says he remained a child (as of 2005 anyway). He had to learn the meaningfulness of earning what one has. He feels his “relationship with money now is the happiness and satisfaction that I have somehow rid myself of it.”

Here, and elsewhere, he brings in belief in God, crediting that for positive change in his life. I know many people feel the same. But Havel never really analyzes this (as he analyzes so much else). I have no such belief. For me, divorcement from reality cannot be the basis for an authentically meaningful life.

One 2009 piece starts off, “read this poem and then we’ll have a discussion about it.” Titled “Qualm” it ostensibly debates pushing an airplane alarm button, and Havel does discuss it at length. Finding this in the book was a nice surprise, as the poet is Therese L. Broderick (my wife).

Havel is not one of those many people who write as a sideline or hobby. Instead, he decided out of college to make this his career. Now approaching 50, he’s been at it for decades. With little reward. He has self-published many books (including this one), but his indefatigable efforts with established presses have met with constant rejection. Publishers tend to be very picky; selling printed books that make money is extremely hard; so a stream of rejection letters is inevitably part of any writer’s life.

But, having indeed devoted his life to this, Havel cannot just shrug off the disappointment. He has quite a lot to say about it. Mostly he discusses this as a sociological/cultural phenomenon. But one essay tells of his reading a terrific short story. Bringing on an attack of FAS — “Failed Author Syndrome” — and its corrosive resentment of others’ literary success. (He doesn’t mention dissecting that story to tease out what made it so good.)

I am no stranger to literary rejection myself. I spent years struggling to get my magnum opus (The Case for Rational Optimism) published. UntiI finally remembering the press that, over 30 years prior, had reissued my Albany political book. I’ve had ten book publications and made money on all but one. But the loss on that one exceeded all the gains. So I guess I’m no literary success either.

Havel also writes about rejection by women. This too resonated with my own history.

He has a “thing” for white women. Who, he says, generally refuse to view him romantically because of his color. For me it was height (or its lack). One guy’s recent radio essay related how he’d meet women for dates and see their “libido drain away” when he’d stand up, revealing his shortness. I was clueless in my own younger days (part of my problem), but in hindsight being 5’4″ explains a lot.

Back to Havel and his attraction to white women. One entry in the book is actually titled “In Defense of White People.” I was expecting something sardonic. But no. Havel explains that at one time he did share the stew of negative feelings toward whites that some non-whites hold. However, he says, he joined a white family for a time — what he means by this wasn’t clear to me — but anyway, he received acceptance and love, leading him to reject, as simply incorrect, the standard indictment of whiteness.

Of course that doesn’t mean all whites are good. But white people are, mainly, just people, and most people are good. Yet it almost seems as though Havel puts whites on a pedestal.

Perhaps this partly explains his attraction to white women. Then again, a majority of American women are white, so Havel may actually be conflating an attraction to women with one for white women. But he does feel his color is a barrier with white women in particular.

I found this odd. No doubt some racist women would manifest this, but in my observation, many if not most females are sexually receptive to nonwhites, many indeed positively attracted to them. Secondly, while Havel is slightly brownish, his ethnicity is far from evident visually. In fact, being of Indian ancestry, he is caucasian. Also, while I’m no great judge of this, I would rate him pretty good looking.

So what, really, was the trouble? Relating an actual romantic debacle might have helped elucidate this, but Havel includes none. The book makes it sound as though he never actually had a relationship (despite a lot of sex). However, there are some clues in the book regarding his mindset about women. It smacks of that old stereotype, “objectifying” women. He wants one not just white, but beautiful, well-educated, and affluent; it’s very much a package. He seems to believe the ideal way to get such a woman is to fight for her — literally. Physically fighting other men. His writing so often of “winning” women does make it sound like a competition. And he posits that what a woman most wants from a man is to be protected by him.

How about just relating to a woman as a fellow human being?

Obamagate: Biggest political scandal ever

May 19, 2020

We’re in the worst national catastrophe of our lifetimes — death toll nearing 100,000, millions losing jobs, normal living suspended. Worsened by Trump’s feckless response. So what does he now come out with?

Obamagate! Biggest political scandal ever! Pile on the hyperbole. And of course drag in Biden.

Asked at a press conference to explain just what, exactly, is the crime he’s talking about, his truculent answers ranged from “You know!” to “Very obvious!” to “everybody knows!” But whatever this crime might be, Trump says it’s horrible and people should be jailed — for fifty years!

Duly, Fox News rocketed into full hysteria mode — Hannity, Ingraham, Pirro — shrill with fake indignation over bombshell revelations sure to come.

Trump’s Obama obsession has long been deeply psychotic. On his deathbed he’ll probably be muttering, “Obama, Obama . . . . ”

If Trump himself can’t quite explain “Obamagate,” let me help. It’s a rehash of “spygate” (whose promised bombshells fizzled) —  the idea that “deep state” villains in the FBI and intelligence agencies, and now Obama and his whole administration, somehow nefariously conspired from the get-go to bring Trump down. A “coup” he calls it. The Mueller investigation part of it — a “witch hunt” based on the Russian election meddling “hoax.” So too, somehow, the prosecution of Flynn.

Whew. Now for some reality.

Russia’s pro-Trump subversion of our 2016 election, with his campaign’s encouragement if not collusion, is indisputable fact. The FBI’s investigation of it proceeded from ample proper cause. Trump obstructed it.

It’s been documented that the Obama administration, knowing of the Russian attack, was in a quandary about responding. Obama didn’t want it to seem partisan. He shared the intelligence with top Republicans, to organize a bipartisan response. Mitch McConnell nixed that.*

But one simple fact refutes the conspiracy theory of a “coup” against Trump:

During the 2016 campaign, the FBI made public its investigation of Clinton’s e-mails. And its reopening just days before the election. That likely sank her. But the investigation of Russia’s pro-Trump subversion was never revealed before the election. It would have sunk him.

So if there was a conspiracy, it was against Clinton, not Trump. If there was a scandal, it was the FBI shielding Trump.

And most of the supposed “Obamagate” story actually unfolded not during Obama’s presidency, but Trump’s. That’s when Flynn’s crimes were prosecuted. The Mueller investigation was initiated by Trump appointees in Trump’s Department of Justice.

But don’t let reality spoil your fantasy. Trump, knowing how dirty he is, still desperately craves whitewash. His base is full of people prone to conspiracy theories and racist Obamaphobia. Thus “Obamagate.” Talk about witch hunts, hoaxes, and fake news!

Farcical as all this sounds, it’s no laughing matter. It’s unbefitting for a great nation, descending into a squalid pit of derangement. And an immunity to facts and reality is literally deadly, as the pandemic shows. (Refusal to wear protective masks is now a badge of Republicanism.)

“Obamagate” takes lying to a whole new level. Not just lying about a story’s facts, but making up the entire story. Trump says the things he says simply because he can. Reality irrelevant. He’s long since learned he can indeed say literally anything, however absurd, and his cult devotees will swallow it, parrot it, even embellish upon it. If mainstream media squeals, all the better.

For all the stones thrown at mainstream news media, they are not in fact partisan, work hard to report the truth, and correct the record when they err. If their coverage of Trump seems mostly negative, it’s because his character, behavior, and record stink. I think they’ve actually gone too easy on him, even empowered him, indulging the pretense that his crazy flailings have some rationale, that his outlandish utterances must be treated as if serious.

Then there’s Fox, a propaganda broadcaster masquerading as a news network. In the Fox universe, politics no longer entails actual debate about actual issues, it’s just propaganda. And even if it were true that CNN and the others are partisan, at least they are independent voices; whereas Fox being a regime mouthpiece is a much scarier thing. That’s what they had in Nazi Germany, and have in countries like Russia, China, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, etc. Something we’ve never had in America, until now. Trump tries to tear down legitimate news sources to clear the field for his flacks on Fox to spread his poisonous lies. Fox’s totally dishonest “Obamagate” jihad shows just how pernicious this is. Colluding with a war on truth by the president himself, this profoundly corrodes the foundations of our democratic civil society.

That’s why the “Obamagate” story may indeed be the most scandalous in U.S. political history.

* See the book Russian Roulette by Isikoff and Korn.

Is Biden’s fundraising corrupt?

May 16, 2020

A recent article on medium.com decries solicitations for large contributions to Biden’s campaign, entitling one to attend a zoom event. (Today’s substitute for fundraising dinners.) The writer talks of “greed” and “corruption,” and that this isn’t democracy but “an auction to the highest bidder.” She says it shows Democrats are no better than Republicans, and she’s done with them.

I am such a donor. Not for any dark or corrupt purpose. Rather, from a sense of moral obligation, literally to help save my country in its hour of need. I’d never done the like in 50+ years as an active Republican. But now alas Republicans are shredding every principle that made America great.

Does that article’s writer fantasize they can be combated without significant funding? On $5 and $10 contributions alone? Trump’s campaign has already raised hundreds of millions, three times more than Biden’s, to spread its disgusting lies. With Russian help too. That needs to be countered.

They’re also trying to steal the election through voter suppression — measures making it harder for many citizens (mainly Democrats) to cast ballots. And Republicans have brazenly trumpeted budgeting $20 million to fight voting by mail. Battling all this will require a lot of manpower, on the ground, voter by voter. Very costly.

I do not naively assume all donors are altruistically motivated. (New York’s “pay to play” culture is notorious.) But in this free country everyone has the right to pursue their interests. Of course some have unequal resources to do that. There is no social or political system without some people having more power than others. That’s certainly been true of every socialist or even communist regime. At least in our democracy the interests of some are typically countered by others likewise pursuing theirs. Further, while a large donation may get you a hearing in the corridors of power, in a presidential campaign no one contribution is more than a tiny fraction of the total, diluting its force.

I have advocated diluting it further, with a flood of small contributions encouraged by a tax credit (say, $100), so the money comes from the Treasury. A form of public campaign finance with individuals deciding the recipients.

But anyway, suggesting Biden is somehow corrupted by a vast array of divergent interests supporting his campaign is absurd. His long record of upstanding public service refutes that. (In contrast to Trump whose record proves him corrupt to his core.)

The mentioned article (if it wasn’t a Republican/Russian plant) epitomizes a pernicious Democrat circular firing squad, tearing down Biden on one pretext or another: his fundraising, his age, his mental acuity,* his hugging (and the dubious sex assault allegation); his moderation; combing through his half century record in public life finding things to nitpick. Even were there something worthy of criticism in all this (I don’t think so), it seems blind to the alternative: the depraved monster in the White House destroying everything we hold dear.

Is Biden a perfect candidate? There’s never any such thing. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Joe Biden is a decent human being, an honest, responsible, public-spirited, compassionate man.

I am proud to support him, and the ideals and values America should represent, by contributing as much as I can to his campaign. Please join with me.

* Even parroting Trump’s ridiculous “Sleepy Joe” canard. There’s nothing wrong with Biden’s mind. It’s Trump’s that’s a cesspool of mental illness.

Woke Gone Wild

May 14, 2020

(My book review being published in Skeptic magazine* (slightly revised))

 A regime-imposed ideology, tolerating no dissent, enforced by a surveillance state and thought police, with transgressors punished. Welcome to Nineteen Eighty-Four. China? Yes. But increasingly, America’s “liberal” universities too. If nothing else, surely liberalism means promoting human liberty, with freedom of thought and expression essential. Yet U.S. campuses have seen the rise of speech codes, speakers disinvited or shouted down, professors offending against the approved catechism forced to apologize, submit to re-education, or even to resign. And an obsession with “diversity” while suppressing the kind that should matter most — diversity of viewpoint.

Robert Boyers has taught in academia for half a century, currently at Skidmore. He’s the longtime editor of Salmagundi, a magazine of politics, culture, literature and the arts, and is very much a man of the left. His 2019 book, The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, The Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies, calls out the perversion of liberal ideals he sees in American universities — political correctness becoming a rigid party line that brooks no dissent, while plunging down rabbit holes of absurdism. The book is full of horror stories from the author’s own experience. Contradictions and ironies abound. The reader enters a hall of mirrors.

The book’s main theme is the suppression of argument, with no discussion allowed. How to justify this? Postmodernism promoted the idea that argument itself is suspect because nothing is really true. And a fetish for nonjudgmentalism strangely transmogrified into a judgmentalism of the harshest sort — against any deviation from the canonical ideology.

Boyers relates how his own younger self once swallowed an apologia by Herbert Marcuse that freedom of speech must yield to an enlightened minority whose virtue entitles it to censor. Fortunately, Boyers himself ultimately gagged on this bilge. Unfortunately, such intellectual arrogance is at the heart of today’s academic culture.

If the PC catechism is really as manifestly correct as its woke minions seem to think, then how is it threatened by debate? Maybe they fear they’ve built a house of cards that cannot withstand scrutiny.

Some European nations ban “hate speech,” which includes anything deemed offensive. Holocaust denier David Irving, for example, was jailed in Austria. In America’s First Amendment culture, freedom of speech trumps any sensitivities of hearers. After all, almost anything can offend someone. Jefferson said the answer to bad ideas is not suppression, but better ideas. But our universities today elevate protection against being offended, or even just being made “uncomfortable,” above freedom of expression.

Thus speech codes, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Like the helicopter parenting aiming to shield children from all life’s vicissitudes  —  leaving them unable to cope with a real world lacking safe zones. It’s also antithetical to actually educating students. Boyers wonders: how could you teach any novel, for example? A university’s mission used to be moving students out of their comfort zones, opening their horizons, cultivating inquiring minds. Now they’re re-education camps enforcing the narrow bounds of a prevailing orthodoxy.

Looming large in today’s PC catechism is the concept of “privilege,” not just “white privilege,” but any sort of power or status. An egalitarian idea: no one’s above anyone else. Fair enough, utopian though it may be; but privilege warriors go further and actually turn the tables. Anyone deemed speaking from a standpoint of “privilege” is delegitimized and to be silenced. Yet aren’t the attackers invoking a privilege of their own — polemical, ideological privilege? The privilege of feeling virtuous as against an evil “privileged” status?

Another key concept is “inclusiveness.” Applicable to previously marginalized identities and people who’ve sometimes been seen as “the other.” Yet aren’t those tarred with the “privilege” label being marginalized, themselves “the other” now? Further, anything possibly construed as condescending toward some now-coddled group is an unpardonable sin. But isn’t the shielding of such groups, in a way that implies their inability to endure even the subtlest affront, not itself highly condescending?

And the notion of identity is fundamentally a concept of us vis-a-vis them, if not indeed us versus them. Rather than being liberated to live out self-actualized identities, people are put in identity boxes defined by the prevailing ideology. A trans person not allowed to be anyone beyond trans. No Whitmanesque containing of multitudes!

Boyers grapples with what racial identity entails, quoting James Baldwin about his fraught relationship with European cultural icons like Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Bach, in the context of his African heritage. I couldn’t help thinking that my own Jewish ancestry feels relatively immaterial to who I am as a human being.  Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Bach are part of our common human heritage, as is the experience of Africans who were enslaved. My race is the human race. That statement itself might be labeled “racist” in woke culture.

There’s a lot of polemics lately about “whiteness” that seems incoherent, like white people should somehow get over or move beyond their whiteness, whatever that means. “Whiteness studies” has now become an academic subject domain, with those harping on “white privilege” stereotyping all whites as a monolithic block. There’s a word aptly describing this: racism.

“Micro-aggressions” refers to anything that makes anyone uncomfortable. But no such transgression is ever treated as “micro;” anybody accused of one subject to aggression that isn’t “micro” at all. They’re said to create a “toxic environment.” Yet what’s truly toxic in today’s academic environment is a climate of fear lest one blurt out anything crossing the innumerable PC red lines, becoming subject to sanction.

Boyers is really faulting a basic lack of human decency. Seen in the unforgiving condemnations of things that are often, on any sane view, trivial. He cites examples of people denounced for merely confusing a name. Sometimes, he says, a mistake is just a mistake. Which should simply be forgiven — by decent human beings.

Disability is another minefield. Boyers describes a poster incongruously headed KEEP SKIDMORE SAFE, with a catalog of “ableist” language to be avoided (on pain of disciplinary action), including such everyday idioms like “turn a blind eye,” or “run to catch a train.” So plainly ridiculous that this might have been satirizing the whole offense-taking culture. But no, it was in earnest. Boyers deems it “hard to imagine a better example of a hostile work environment,” putting everyone in fear of the thought police.

Then there is the absurd notion of “cultural appropriation,” barring white artists and writers from touching upon minority cultures. A white painter’s take on the famous Emmett Till funeral photo met with demands that it be removed from the Whitney Museum—indeed, that it be destroyed. “Stay in your lane,” voiced one critic. The artist’s intent was of no account. Boyers says a “stay in your lane” norm would limit every writer to memoir only. But it’s no two-way street. Black writers can freely depict whites. Indeed, theater is opening up for blacks to portray white characters. Don’t dare the reverse, of course.

Throughout, the book deploys metaphors from religion, such as the saved versus the damned, a church united by a zeal to persecute heretics. So deranged with self-righteousness, the woke congregation cannot see the contradictions between its preachings and practices. Boyers notes that over 200 U.S. universities now have “bias response teams” that, together with campus police, investigate the speech of professors and students. The University of California system circulated a list of prohibited locutions, including “America is a land of opportunity” or “you speak English very well.”

Yet, Boyers writes, “self-described liberal academics continue to believe that they remain committed to difference and debate, even as they countenance a full-scale assault on diversity of outlook and opinion, enwombed as they are in the certainties enjoined on them by the posture they have adopted, which alone confers on them the sense that they are always in the right.”

Curiously absent from the book is the word “McCarthyism.” Still denounced by the left. People blacklisted and otherwise punished for their politics. Apparently it’s a crime when done by the right, but not by the left.

Is there no hope? In an author talk, Boyers avowed guarded optimism that we may have reached peak PC, with sanity starting to push back. And the craziness in academia has not, to any great extent, yet infected the broader American culture. But as universities continue pumping out more ideological Savonarolas, freedom still needs defending as much as in Jefferson’s time.

(Note, this review was refused by several publications because it was too politically incorrect.)

* Here’s the link: https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/woke-gone-wild-review-tyranny-of-virtue-identity-academy-hunt-for-political-heresies/?mc_cid=5d0b9cbd09&mc_eid=70763442f6

Destroying our rule of law culture

May 11, 2020

After firing Michael Flynn as national security advisor for lying, Trump said Flynn had been “treated very unfairly.” Flynn was then indicted for lying to the FBI (this came out of the Mueller investigation). He pled guilty, twice, and was awaiting sentencing. Now the Department of Justice has dropped all charges. An unprecedented action so bizarre it leaves responsible legal observers dumbfounded with outrage.

Boot-licking Attorney General Barr did this to serve his master Trump and his vendetta trying to discredit Mueller. Giving Flynn a free pass is a frontal assault on the principle of impartial justice. Coming on top of the political interference with Roger Stone’s sentencing, it’s Barr’s DOJ now thoroughly discredited.

(Trump could have simply pardoned Flynn. But having Barr do the dirty work lets Trump paint it as somehow discrediting Mueller.)

Rule of law is a foundational precept of this democracy. Rule of law, not of men; with government accountable to citizens. A departure from most of human history when autocrats were laws unto themselves. “L’etat c’est moi,” said Louis XIV. Laws were only for the peasants.

Changing that meant laws even rulers had to obey. That’s what we think we have in America. We do have a Constitution, and many thousands of pages of other laws. But that’s actually not enough. China too has a Constitution; it even guarantees freedom of speech. What’s lacking in China is a cultural norm obliging the powers-that-be to respect the law. So China has laws, but not rule-of-law as we understand those words. As in Louis XIV’s France, China’s laws are just tools for the rulers to control the peasants.

Ordinary people have little choice about obeying laws. But who will enforce them against a president if he chooses the attitude of Louis XIV?

There’s that cockeyed Justice Department memo saying a president can’t be indicted (which nothing in the Constitution actually supports). Its theory is that for a president the only sanction is impeachment. And now we’ve seen that for this president impeachment is no constraint at all either. Certainly he himself took that lesson.

So what is there left to make him law-abiding? Only his self-restraint, his personal buy-in to the mentioned cultural norm of respect for rule of law. And actually, throughout all our past history, that ethos prevailed. We’ve had presidents better and worse than others, but our rule-of-law culture was always strong enough to restrain them. To make them restrain themselves.

But this president? Not this sociopath who respects nothing but his own exalted view of himself, who believes he is all-powerful, or should be.

Trump (through his toady Barr) took Flynn off the hook simply because he could. No president with an iota of regard for the principle of rule of law, not men, would ever have imagined doing such a thing. Cultural norms? Civic propriety? Those are for wimps, for losers.

Trump is methodically, with no compunction, hammering down this nation’s foundational principles. There is nothing to stop him — except, for now, the fear of election defeat. And his besotted cultists won’t let a little thing like rule-of-law give them pause. Once re-elected, nothing whatsoever will restrain him.

 

The anti-democratic pandemic

May 8, 2020

The 1980s and ’90s saw a global democratic surge. Strongman rule ended in practically all of Latin America, much of Africa, and elsewhere. Communism collapsed. China, while still a dictatorship, at least became economically free. It all culminated in publication of my 2009 book,The Case for Rational Optimism.

Then tyranny made a comeback. What really happened was its practitioners raising their game, perfecting techniques for neutering democratic accountability and suppressing opposition. With sufficient pushback this could not succeed. But they also perfected techniques to dupe enough people to support them.

Turkey, Hungary, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Thailand, Tanzania, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Egypt. India’s masses cheer on Modi’s increasing authoritarianism. Sri Lanka brings back the Rajapaksas. Chinese love Xi as he inexorably tightens the screws.

For autocrats always seeking pretexts to grow their power, Covid-19 is a golden opportunity. Everyone recognizes that governments do need extra tools to combat the virus. People scared by it are less fastidious about such power grabs, and distracted from opposing them as might normally occur.* And while such measures might be called temporary, good luck with that once the crisis ends. Authoritarians are not known for relinquishing powers.

At least eighty-four countries have enacted such “emergency” laws. Notable is Hungary, where Viktor Orban was already a textbook exemplar for the mentioned autocrat’s playbook, parlaying the support of a minority of voters to irremovably entrench his regime. Now the parliament has handed him power to “rule by decree.” Temporarily of course. Don’t hold your breath.

Contagion concerns have scotched large gatherings everywhere. Nice for autocrats who hate mass protests — like Hong Kong’s in 2019. When in 1997 Britain returned the territory to China, the deal supposedly guaranteed, for 50 years at least, continuation of Hong Kong’s free institutions. The protesters saw Beijing as reneging on that deal. Now a bunch of leading figures in the democracy movement have been jailed. Meantime, Article 22 of Hong Kong’s “Basic Law” bars China from interfering with its internal affairs. But now China’s “Liaison Office” in Hong Kong asserts it’s not bound by Article 22. Beijing is betting that a world focused on the pandemic will shrug.

Lockdown rules are made in Heaven for dictators, a perfect excuse to lock up opponents. Fighting the virus also entails what would ordinarily be seen as privacy violations — giving countries like Russia and especially China yet more pretexts to ramp up their Orwellian surveillance states.

Free flow of information is vital to democracy and inimical to tyranny. Here again the bad guys are taking advantage of coronavirus, to clamp down. Some countries now outlaw “fake news,” with harsh penalties. What’s “fake” is decided by the governments. It really means news they don’t want their people to hear.

Free flow of cash is vital to dictators’ hold on power, to keep their enablers sweet. The unprecedented amounts being dispensed to fight the virus and its economic damage offer unprecedented opportunities for corruption. Hardly was the ink dry on America’s $2 trillion coronavirus package when Trump fired the inspector general tasked with watching where the money went.

And of course the pandemic offers an ideal excuse to fiddle with elections in the name of protecting public health and safety. This has already become a contentious issue in America, with fights over mail voting. Many are properly worried that a Trump facing defeat might pull something egregious.

A final point. Populist movements, rebelling against “establishments” — Germany’s AFD, Italy’s League and M5S, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Trump of course — are at odds with democratic values. Their supporters feel ill-served by traditional democracy. But in years ahead, the massive costs associated with Covid-19, together with reduced tax revenues — while the economic pain of high unemployment persists — will confront governments at all levels with nasty choices. There will be anger, apt to intensify the populist hostility toward conventional politics, and the allure of demagogic would-be strongmen promising to bust up the system.

The virus will in due course subside. Recovery from its economic damage will take longer. And the damage to democracy could last longer still.

* This is not an endorsement of America’s anti-lockdown protests. We’re still a democracy (for now), and government’s most basic remit is protecting people from harm by others. That includes protection against fools who disobey directives to contain the spread of disease. No one ever has the “freedom” to harm others.

The accusation against Biden — Who are the hypocrites?

May 5, 2020

Republicans call Democrats hypocrites for believing charges of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh but not Joe Biden.

Most women making such accusations are truthful. A lot of men behave like pigs. Especially powerful men with a sense of entitlement and impunity. Like Weinstein, Cosby, Trump, with proven patterns of behavior and numerous victims whose stories taken together lend credence.

The #metoo movement, calling them to account, was long overdue. Much justice was done. But women as well as men are fallible, and facts matter. Here is my assessment of the facts.

Kavanaugh had a clear history of major alcohol abuse, if nothing else, that gave credibility to the accusation, by a woman whose own reputation was stellar.

Biden’s case is entirely different. The alleged conduct would have been totally out of character. His open physical demonstrativeness toward women is not remotely comparable. As David Brooks commented, Tara Reade’s story entails not only lasciviousness but cruelty. That just is not Joe Biden. No similar accusation has ever previously surfaced, and nobody who knows him well believes it.

Having hormones myself, I understand the attraction of illicit sex. But mature, sane people control their impulses. The alleged behavior would have incurred huge risk for meaningless momentary jollies. That doesn’t sound like Biden either.

Reade, who briefly worked in Biden’s Senate office before being terminated, says she filed complaints at the time (1993), but no record of them has been found. People on Biden’s staff who would have known of it remember no such complaints, which they say would have been very memorable.

A few of Reade’s acquaintances, and her mother, have said she spoke of the incident at the time. That does not corroborate the story’s truth. Meantime, just months ago, her public story was totally different, claiming merely that Biden’s physical demonstrativeness made her uncomfortable — a far cry from the crude sexual assault she now describes.

This new story reeks of being contrived, pasting together stereotypical parts. Especially quoting Biden, “You mean nothing to me.” That’s the cruelty Brooks mentioned. It loudly rings false.

Why is Reade doing this? Who knows what demons can motivate people. Reade may actually now believe her tale. Memory plays tricks on us — particularly in the fraught realm of sex. The documentary film Capturing the Friedmans showed one young man literally writhing in anguish over his memory of sexual abuse. Which in fact never occurred.

One clue about Reade: She’s been quoted extravagantly gushing over Putin. I wouldn’t suggest she’s part of a Russian plot. Just nutty.

It is reasonable to believe Biden rather than Reade. At the very least, to give Biden the benefit of the doubt.

Now about those Republican taunts of hypocrisy. They not only defended Kavanaugh but of course disregard all women making accusations against Trump, well into double digits, up to and including outright rape. “Grab them by the pussy” is on the record. Likewise illegally paying off women to silence them regarding sexual transgressions. Amid all his innumerable other corrupt deeds (Trump University, charitable foundation fraud, etc., etc.), lies, and offenses against public decency. Yet these Republicans point fingers at Democrats? Who’s hypocritical?

But this is not about principle. For Republicans, all that matters is power. No ploy is too cynical if it might help keep them in power.

Biden has proven himself a thoroughly decent human being, an honest, responsible, public-spirited man, with deep regard for other people.

Everything Trump is not.

Reopening? Your money or your life

May 2, 2020

Jack Benny’s famous bit: A mugger demands, “Your money or your life!” Benny hesitates. Then says, “I’m thinking it over!”

Between economic sacrifices and sacrificing lives, we really had no choice. Couldn’t tolerate seeing hospitals overwhelmed and people dying for lack of care. We opted to accept the economic pain, and it’s proving to be immense. Now we’re confronting the issue of reopening. The federal government no longer endorses shut-downs. In fact, an America that once would have led a global response now won’t even lead its own states. Some (mostly Republican) are already relaxing restrictions, others planning for it.

I have a bad feeling about this.

In many places, notably New York, the restrictions succeeded in flattening the curve, with illnesses and deaths trending downward. Elsewhere they’re actually still rising. Many states aren’t testing much, so are flying blind. In any case, relaxing invites a new virus explosion. At the outset, The Economist foresaw repeated cycling between lockdowns and disease spikes until either there’s a vaccine or until something like 80% of a population has experienced infection. Creating “herd immunity,” where the virus dies out for lack of enough infectable victims.

We’re nowhere near that. On the other hand, reopening could make sense if the number infected were low enough that testing and contact tracing could feasibly contain new outbreaks. Unfortunately we’re in between those two infection levels. Ours is sufficiently high that to reopen safely would require testing and contact tracing on a massive scale, well beyond existing capabilities. Ramping that up enough could cost hundreds of billions. It would actually be worth it, as against the cost of economic shutdown in the trillions. But the Trump administration is not biting this bullet; hardly even tonguing it.*

A compromise approach might conceivably be reasonable: relaxing hard lockdown restrictions while still urging carefulness — masks, social distancing, hand-washing, etc. Perhaps gaining much of the benefit while avoiding much of the cost.

This resembles Sweden’s approach. They never locked down, but did push social distancing and the like, while also taking more rigorous measures to protect the most vulnerable. The idea was to arrive at herd immunity at limited cost in both lives and economic damage. Sweden’s death rate does exceed that in otherwise comparable countries, but it’s not out of control, and may actually represent a reasonable balance between fighting the virus and protecting the economy.

But America is not Sweden, whose citizens have a very high level of social consciousness and trust their government. America’s government is widely viewed with hostility. Certainly its president inspires zero trust in anything he says. He’s even issued lockdown guidelines while encouraging people rebelling against them. Protesting with their “Trump 2020” banners, guns, and Confederate flags — and no social distancing. These nitwits may be a small minority. But even if most Americans act more sensibly, too many (thanks to Trump’s inconsistent messaging) are irresponsibly complacent about Covid-19. Relaxing restrictions will exacerbate that. Enough foolish people and the virus can spread like wildfire.

So the danger of a big resurgence is very high. What’s our Plan B for that? Lock down again? The public’s willingness will be limited, having suffered it once and relishing their escape. And closing the economy again is the last thing Trump will want as the election nears.

During tough wars voices always say we should just declare victory and go home. Trump’s strategy may be something like that. Reopen the economy, swagger about his imaginary tremendous victory over Covid-19, and basically ignore its recrudescence. The administration may use various wheezes to actually avoid reporting infections and deaths. Even now they’re much undercounted. Trump and his dupes are masters of reality-denial. Many Americans will avert their eyes.

Coronavirus coming here was not Trump’s fault. But the human and economic damage would have been much less had he not refused to listen, in January and February, to repeated cogent warnings urging action. Since then his response has been shambolic in every way. He is directly guilty for tens of thousands of deaths and trillions in economic loss. (Talk about “American carnage.”)

And if we reopen too soon, those sacrifices will have been for nought. We’ll have paid the price without getting what we thought we were buying. “Your money or your life” — we’ll have forfeited both.

* At every stage, lying about our testing capability. Claiming it exceeds that of any other country is blatantly false. In fact we’re nowhere near having testing and tracing capability to reopen without a virus resurgence.