Trillions and Trillions

May 16, 2022

No, this is not about government spending. It’s galaxies.

PBS’s “Nova” science series recently had a program about the universe, with casual mention of trillions of galaxies. I was like, “Wait, what?” Trillions?

Carl Sagan never actually said “Billions and billions,” the phrase associated with him. Anyhow, I had long understood that our Milky Way Galaxy has around 100 billion stars; more recently bumped up to 200 billion. Now the same Nova program says 400 billion. I don’t know where those additional 200 billion came from. Not exactly a rounding error.

I had also been under the impression that galaxies number something like a hundred billion. All these numbers in the billions I could get my head around — sort of.

The oft-invoked reference point is grains of sand. Of course, a star is rather bigger than a sand grain. And if there are, say, a hundred billion galaxies, averaging a hundred billion stars each, that would be ten thousand billion billion, or ten trillion billion, or ten sextillion stars. And that’s way more than all the sand grains on earth.

But — if galaxies number not in the billions but trillionsthat finally blows fuses in my brain. That would mean stars in the septillions. Numbers beyond sextillion I cannot register. And, indeed, Nova’s mention of trillions of galaxies does seem to be the current scientific thinking.

Googling about this also revealed that — forget sand grains — the number of stars in the universe is also roughly comparable to the number of molecules in ten drops of water. Which tells us that molecules are really really really small.

And by the way, the universe is 13.8 billion years old, which might seem a big number too. But apparently it’s actually still in its infancy, its lifespan is reckoned to be at least 100 billion years. Maybe a trillion.

But if the universe’s size, and these time scales, seem ultra-humongous, and the size of molecules ultra-small, that’s only from the perspective of our own size and lifespans. There is no universal standard of reference that says the universe is “large” or molecules “small.” In fact, those are meaningless statements. The cosmos just is what it is.

Though it is hard to envision getting trillions of galaxies out of a Big Bang that started smaller than a molecule. But I find it harder still to imagine that galactic vastness was created by some sort of pre-existing intelligent entity (never mind the question of where she came from). Seems like too much work even for an “omnipotent” god.

Republicans and the “Grooming” Lie

May 7, 2022

The word “grooming” has exploded into our culture wars, a cudgel for the right to bash Democrats. The word has been used to describe a sexual predator (usually a gay male) cultivating someone (usually underage) for potential molestation. We heard the word in the Jerry Sandusky case. Also, with Catholic priests and altar boys, et cetera.

Now there’s much rhetoric from Republicans suggesting Democrats are engaged in one giant grooming project. It’s part of Republicans’ focus on school curricula, which they have found politically lucrative, exploiting parental concern with what kids are taught. Republican Glenn Youngkin won Virginia’s governorship last year by hammering on parental control.

“Critical race theory” is a big element, with efforts to scare parents that children are taught to hate themselves with white guilt. Even some math books have been banned for supposedly containing coded CRT messages. Now, another focus is sex education, with paranoia about anything concerning gender or sexual orientation. Thus Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, barring classroom discussion of such matters.

It’s all dishonest nonsense. No white kids are being taught to hate themselves. What they should be taught (hopefully) is the reality of our slavery history, still looming large in shaping today’s America. Students need to understand this. Likewise regarding sexuality, they need to understand the human landscape in which they’re going to live.

But any idea of children being propagandized into gayness is idiotic. As if a straight male can somehow be indoctrinated into feeling sexual attraction to boys, not girls! Worse yet is the “grooming” trope. Some like Fox’s Laura Ingraham (to name just one) make it sound like schools have a program of “grooming” youngsters for sexual molestation. Telling us more about those Republicans (and their dirty minds) than about public education.

For the record: it’s a baseless misconception that gays are more prone, than the average person, to be pedophiles or sexual predators. And the notion of a gay agenda taking over our schools is preposterous. Surely they have not made a point of filling teacher ranks with gays (if anything they’re still discriminated against). Gays are a small minority of the population. The vast majority of school personnel are not gay — why on earth would they engage in some kind of pro-gay “grooming” project?

The whole “grooming” nonsense is rooted in QAnon pathology, which has swallowed the brains of too many Republicans. They believe the Democratic party is one big conspiracy of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles. Seriously. It’s been promoted by Alex Jones; was behind the “pizzagate” whopper of Hillary Clinton running a human trafficking and child sex operation out of the basement of a certain named pizza parlor (which one true believer went and shot up).

Today’s American political polarization is not symmetrical. Democrats are mostly policy-oriented, concerned with issues like climate change, racial equity, economic fairness, etc. On the other side it’s hard to detect much of an actual philosophy. Tellingly, in 2020 Republicans published no political platform (a first in a presidential election). And look at the people who are the party’s face now: the Gosars, Gaetzes, Boeberts, Marjorie Taylor Greenes. Nothing but bomb-throwing provocateurs, with no interest in governance.

This differs from the half century during which I was a Republican. The party used to have policy goals, and to advance them exploited culture war issues; but today it’s all culture war.

Moreover, the specific culture war battles are not, ultimately, what it’s really all about either. It’s tribalism, with the culture war stuff serving mainly as tribal signifiers. An us-against-them thing. The “them” encompasses everyone not their cultural clones — gender and religious nonconformists; non-whites, especially migrants; and now too, seen as fronting for those groups, all Democrats. All to be reviled as outsiders, indeed enemies, who threaten the purity and virtue of the society they imagine themselves defending. Producing a really hateful exclusionary mentality.

As if they’re under siege. Even imagining their religion is threatened, when in reality it’s separation of church and state (actually good for religion) that’s being undermined.

Admittedly their indictment of Democrats is not completely baseless. A few have cuckoo tendencies (“defund the police”), Bernie-ites foolishly romanticize “socialism,” and there’s woke ideology’s intolerance toward free expression. But all of that is far from taking over the broader Democratic mindset, like Trumpist lunacies have hijacked the whole GOP.

So mainly, Republicans hate Democrats for reasons that are grass processed through a horse’s digestive system. Exemplified by “Grooming,” “critical race theory,” all the “Satanic pedophile” QAnon craziness. And a very big one, the 2020 election “steal,” simply a lie, enflaming Republican hatred for Democrats. With more at stake than simple truth versus falsity. This produced January 6 (and all the dishonest Republican behavior surrounding it). The “election steal” lie is corroding trust in the voting process, the heart of our democracy; while also setting the stage for Republicans to really destroy it by stealing the next election themselves.

This is why Democrats’ hatred for the Republican party is not the mirror-image of Republican hatred for Democrats. Democrats (like me, now) see Republicans as not only deranged but a threat to a small-d democratic America. This is not tribalistic antagonism, it is rationally grounded in reality.

Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming”

May 5, 2022

As is typical for me with such books, I was far more engaged with the story of Michelle Obama’s early life, when she was an ordinary normal person, than with the too-familiar chronicle of her time in the spotlight.

Particularly striking was the portrayal of her mother during Michelle’s childhood, living in a tiny apartment with limited income (and a husband succumbing to illness); and eternal diligent frugality, endeavoring mightily so the family could have decent lives. For all the challenges, she managed it very well. We can fail to appreciate what a blessing even such modestly lived lives entail — the great achievement of modern civilization. And reading this understatedly heroic account of Michelle Obama’s mother in her thirties, I was cognizant this woman did wind up living in the White House.

One shocker: On page 307 Michelle explains that though residing there rent-free, they had to cover all other living expenses. “We got an itemized bill each month for every food item and roll of toilet paper.” They were charged for every guest staying overnight or sharing a meal. And since of course the White House upheld world-class standards, it was not cheap. A person of modest means, if elected president, could not afford it. This should be changed.

Michelle writes about her campaigning in Iowa during its 2008 presidential primary. Her first real taste of personal politicking. Constantly asked: how odd does it feel for a Harvard-educated Chicago Black woman talking to roomfuls of mostly white Iowans? She “bristled because the question was so antithetical to what I was experiencing and what the people I was meeting seemed to be experiencing, too.” Not racial or cultural tension but shared commonalities. She’d started out believing a Black man could not be elected president, but changed her opinion.

Reading this account, I had to remind myself it was just fourteen years ago. But it feels like she’s writing about a different planet. Sure, we had hot issues, conflicts, divisions. Yet we were a positive thinking nation of goodwill, civility, decency, even open-mindedness. Of sanity. Back then, I’d never have imagined how a single rotten person could wreck so much of that.

I recall commentator Van Jones querying, “When do the antibodies kick in?” It turns out our national immune system, protecting our civic health (as illustrated in Becoming), was compromised, perhaps ripe for the infection. We managed to survive it — barely—for the moment. Whether we ever recover to full health remains very doubtful.

I did not vote for Obama. I was proud to vote for John McCain. Remember his beautifully gracious concession speech? But there were tears in my eyes too when Obama’s victory was declared and the TV showed a middle-aged Chicago Black woman jumping up and down shouting, “God bless America! God bless America!”

Well, there is no God. We’re on our own. For two centuries the better angels of our nature were advancing. Now they’re battered, bruised, bloodied.

NY High Court Ruling May Doom America

May 1, 2022

The backstory: In 2014 Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through a constitutional amendment supposedly ending gerrymandering. This involves legislative district maps, with one party packing the other’s voters into a few districts — so they lose everywhere else. Cuomo’s reform was a sham. Ostensibly establishing an independent redistricting commission, but engineered to fail and thus throw the process back to the legislature. Which then drew maps giving Republicans only four congressional districts.

The state’s highest court has now ruled this unconstitutional, appointing a “special master” to replace those maps with (presumably) non-partisan ones.

Ordinarily, I’d have applauded. But Republican-controlled states are heavily gerrymandered, while some others (notably California) have non-partisan systems. Giving Republicans, nationally, a big advantage. New York’s gerrymander would have offset that somewhat. But the court ruling should now give Republicans several more seats. Quite conceivably, in a close contest, tipping control of the House of Representatives.

Republicans also gain from voter negativity toward President Biden and Democrats, over issues like inflation, immigration, crime, etc. This might seen understandable, under political normalcy. But we don’t have that. Now there’s one giant issue that should trump all others:

How can Republicans be trusted on ANYTHING?

They’re a cult worshipping a very bad man who literally attempted to overthrow our democracy, instigating a violent insurrection attacking the Capitol. Based on a stupendous lie, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Created because Trump’s diseased psyche couldn’t face losing. Any fool knows that.

But it’s not just that Republicans swallow this lie. They’ve actually made it central to the party’s whole ethos. In Georgia’s gubernatorial primary debate, one candidate (Dave Purdue) literally led off by declaring the 2020 vote fraudulent. Both then argued over who is the truest believer. (Probably neither; most Republican politicians know it’s a lie, but they cynically exploit it.)

The lie corrodes trust in the integrity of elections, a key underpinning of a democratic system. Moreover, Republicans are acting on the lie to mess with voting procedures going forward. While also striving to whitewash January 6 and obstruct the investigation of it. And if they control Congress after the next presidential election, they will throw out its results if necessary to put Trump back in office.

That’s no fevered fantasy. Nothing would restrain them from such a brazen deed, if they have the votes. Remember how they stole a Supreme Court seat. Stealing the presidency would kill American democracy.

How can voters shrug off the unprecedented threat of today’s deranged Republican party, while in contrast viewing Democrats with unforgiving harshness?

Recently the NY Times reported on a conversation shortly after January 6, wherein House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy held Trump culpable for it, said he’s “done” with Trump, and would call for his resignation. But as with other Republicans, McCarthy’s moment of clarity quickly passed, and he pilgrimaged to Mar-a-Lago to kiss his master’s ring. And when the Times story broke, McCarthy roundly denied having said what was reported.

Then the newspaper released the audio, proving McCarthy’s denial an outright lie.

Once upon a time this would have ended a politician’s career. And McCarthy was doubly in trouble because of his lèse-majesté. Yet Trump magnanimously forgave him. (Groveling by toadies feeds his voracious ego; McCarthy’s earlier betrayal made his recanting especially delicious to Trump.) Then McCarthy went before his GOP colleagues — and wound up with a standing ovation!

“It’s debasing for Republicans to give this guy a standing ovation,” said one GOP Congressman on Fox News. So at least one retains some integrity? No, it was Florida’s walking cesspool Matt Gaetz — unwilling to forgive McCarthy’s prior momentary apostasy.*

Talk about “debasing.” Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jim Jordan, Lauren Boebert, Louie Gohmert, Madison Cawthorn, Paul Gosar, Elise Stefanik, and McCarthy himself, are the leading face of today’s Congressional Republican party. All dishonest and irresponsible to the core. The worst of the worst.

This is the creep squad American voters seem blithely likely to hand control of Congress. McCarthy will be speaker. What a disgrace; totally insane. I’ll weep for my country, fallen so low.

*Liz Cheney is the lone remaining honorable Republican seeking re-election. The party is intent on her destruction.

Hell of a Book

April 28, 2022

Hell of a Book — that’s the title — by Jason Mott — is actually two different novels coexisting uneasily within one cover.

One is a semi-comical first-person account of the author/narrator’s book tour. He’s Black, but that seems only incidental. There’s a segment with a grotesque caricature of his “media trainer” discussing the imperative to avoid making this a “race book,” about the Black experience.

The other interwoven novel is a race book, about the Black experience.

Does this taco-and-spaghetti combo work? I’m not sure. The race book centers upon a kid who strove for literal invisibility as a way to stay safe. His father became victim of a particularly senseless police shooting. The kid himself is later shot too, and shows up in the author tour book — as a ghost haunting the protagonist.

However, while the two seem clearly the same kid, there’s never any line drawn between the dual father-and-son shootings. Not even by the kid’s widowed mother. I found this puzzling and unsettling.

Elements that might be called magical realism are somewhat accounted for by the author/narrator saying often that he has a “condition,” which is an overactive imagination, so he can’t always tell what’s real or not. This produces much tongue-in-cheekiness, mixing David Foster Wallace style satire and self-parody, and a dollop of Hunter Thompson Fear and Loathing, with what are also actually some pretty heavy reflections, even philosophical ones. Yet much is also keystone cops type stuff. Leaving me unsure how to take the whole thing.

One scene on an airplane has the author asked to sign a book for a fellow passenger. Who turns out to be — or appears to be — the film actor Nicholas Cage. “Oh please,” I said to myself, bracing for more slapstick. And then . . . from Cage’s mouth spill all sorts of surreal and thought-provoking profundities. It’s that kind of book.

For most of it, we understand that the novel we’re reading differs from the protagonist’s eponymous one. It seems its narrator was really bugged by something, which propelled the writing, and which his novel is about. That’s left vague until near the end it’s finally revealed to be his mother’s death. This too I found somewhat disorienting, because the novel in my hands still seemed mainly about racial injustice. The mother’s death (from a stroke), however it may have affected her son (not evident, through most of the text), didn’t have much to do with anything, in terms of this book’s contents.

And meantime, the silliness eventually ceasing, the race book takes over, with the tone become all serious. Overly so, I’d say; even maudlin, oppressive. Long before the end, I’d gotten the point, and had had enough. Though the book tour crashes and burns, the race book’s last few dozen pages, rather than building to a climax, add nothing.

There’s much about “the talk,” that Black parents must give their children, and all that sort of thing. Sorry if that sounds supercilious. I myself have railed about police violence, and the whole larger issue of how non-whites fit in America. But as far as books are concerned, it’s been done. A lot. Ta-Nehisi Coates and so forth. Maybe it’s fair to say there can’t be enough books of that kind. But the problem for an author is how to write one that’s not just yet another in a long parade of such race books. Mott tackles that problem in an idiosyncratic way. Leavening the unavoidable tendentiousness with flakier fare. Again, I’m not sure it works.

And forgive me for this too. I am indeed fully cognizant of what non-white Americans endure. But this book reads, to me, like it’s set in some dichotomous, literally segregated alternate reality where suffering and injustice are experienced solely by non-whites. With no recognition that these are human universals. That white lives . . . .

A Life in Poetry

April 27, 2022

There was a nice piece in today’s Times-Union about my wife Therese Broderick’s poetry life. Written by the inimitable Paul Grondahl (head of the NY State Writers Institute), after spending several hours talking with her. I confess it really delights me being married to such an excellent person. Read the the text of the article here:

http://www.fsrcoin.com/poet.html

Is the Self an Illusion? What can that even mean?

April 24, 2022

Jay Garfield’s book, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self, argues that the “self” is an illusion, and letting it go enables living better, more moral lives. He discussed this with James Shaheen (editor of Tricycle: a Buddhist Review) in a podcast. (Here, with a transcript: https://tricycle.org/podcast/jay-garfield/)

Transcending the self is a Buddhist idea. My wife, who’s been exploring Buddhist philosophy, pointed me to the podcast, knowing my own perspective differs.

The self is a key philosophical problem. We know much about how the brain works, in terms of neuron functioning, processing information, and so on. Which must be the generator of consciousness. But how, exactly? Science doesn’t (yet) have a clear explanation. And while we know consciousness is a real phenomenon, the self is more problematic still. A “meta-consciousness” by which we experience the contents of consciousness. What makes one feel there’s a self in there, a captain at the helm, making choices and decisions, experiencing things? What is experiencing, really?

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio casts a perception as a representation constructed by the brain, with another representation of your self perceiving that representation. And yet a further one of “you” knowing you perceive it. An endless recursion? This does lead some thinkers to posit the self being an illusion. That when you drill down there’s no “there” there. But what exactly does this mean? Even if the self is not really there in some concrete explainable sense, that we can put a finger on, nevertheless our experience of living, with a self at its core, also is a real phenomenon. Something we do experience, even if we can’t explain how.

If you see a ghost, that may be an illusion. But your seeing it is a real event; something that happened in your brain. You can convince yourself there was no ghost, but not that the experience wasn’t real. Similarly, can you convince yourself you have no self?

After all, who or what would do the convincing? Who or what would now hold the belief that the self is an illusion? Saying “I have no self” makes no sense because if true, there would be no “I.”

Yet Garfield, in denying the reality of selves, says “we’re more like roles than we are like actors.” An interesting formulation — however, actors perform roles, following a script. And much of our behavior is actually like that, almost robotic even. Garfield may, if anything, be understating that when he says “we do have these moments of nonegocentric consciousness.” Implying at least moments when an “egocentric” self is in operation.

He also says, “You want your intentions to be caused by your beliefs and your values.” And: “we need to free ourselves from the illusion of transcendental freedom in order to appreciate the kind of freedom that we do have, namely, the ability, very often (my emphasis!), to act in accordance with our intentions and values.”

That doesn’t sound like an absence of self. It’s not fully engaged all the time; we’re often on automatic pilot (probably necessary for sanity). Yet the self is often fully engaged, and that is crucial to one’s lived experience.

While Garfield does, as quoted above, recognize we sometimes act with intentionality, he sees that as a problem: “we focus on the self, and that self is this independent substantial thing different from everything else, free from causality and all that stuff, and that allows us permission to take our own narrow self-interest as motivating. And that’s permission to ignore the demands of morality.”

Wait — what? Sure, having a self does entail motivation to serve its own interests. But that does not trump everything else, and morality is a separate realm of consideration. And it’s precisely because you have a sense of self, and understand what that’s like, that you understand other people have it too, and hence have their own rightful interests. While Garfield says your self puts you at the center of the moral universe, and others at the periphery, that doesn’t make them count for nothing. And evolution imbued us with basic instincts for justice and empathy — constituent parts of our sense of self. Indeed, for most people, acting ethically is actually self-serving because it makes them feel good. So the self is not antithetical to morality.

Garfield’s morality argument fails for another basic reason. Morality is of course all about how one treats others. But if nobody has a self, then who cares how they’re treated? Why would it matter? Without selves, the whole idea of morality is meaningless.

More fundamentally still, without a self, why even bother to live? Garfield intones, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Saying “we don’t have a self that we have to protect . . . that we have to be afraid of losing. And that is freedom from illusion.”

People do fear loss-of-self — that is, dying — because the self is ultimately all we’ve got. There can be no sort of meaning to life except as experienced via the self. It evolved to make creatures care what happens to them, so they’ll strive to avoid injury, pain, and death. That’s a very real fact of life, an evolutionary adaptation. Calling it an illusion seems a meaningless semantic exercise.

It does appear Garfield is hung up semantically on the word “self.” Because he does advocate a conception of “personhood” — urging readers “to reject the notion that their identity is that of a self and to accept that it’s the identity of a person.” And how do those two concepts differ? “Personhood” he characterizes as embedded in a “very vast and complex and often invisible web of conventions that brings us into existence, not some kind of prior metaphysical fact” (whatever that might mean). Or: an “ever evolving set of psychophysical processes in constant open interaction with the world . . . we exist only as nodes in this interdependent web.”

All true except for the word “only.” We are indeed enmeshed deeply in society and the world, but I would actually say that ultimately we exist only as consciousnesses in the workings of our brains. Without that we might exist in a bare physical sense, but wouldn’t know it. Put differently, we have both interior lives and exterior ones, and through former we experience the latter. All the embeddedness Garfield talks about could not be navigated and negotiated without a self to do it with.

He deems somehow relevant here an analogy to a woman wanting to see his college. He shows her various buildings, facilities, lawns, etc. She responds, “No, I didn’t want to see buildings and lawns. I wanted to see the college.” But there is no such thing, Garfield comments; “And if you think there is such a thing, you have a profound misunderstanding of what a college is.” He elaborates what constitutes a “college,” and says “it’s just like that with the person and the self.” But even if you cannot point to a concrete thing and say, that’s a college, still the word has a clear meaning, it’s a concept word. Surely Garfield’s college analogy does nothing to demonstrate that the word “person” denotes something real while “self” does not — even if those concepts differ. Which is doubtful. More semantic games here.

And there’s another fundamental problem. Buddhism vaunts the supposed benefits when you transcend your self. But what “you” are they talking about? The only “you” that can perform this supposedly beneficial mental jiu-jitsu is your self. And it’s only your self that can experience the desirable state of being that you’re supposed to thereby attain. If the self is illusory, wouldn’t that desirable state be likewise illusory (if not doubly so)? The very idea of happiness or contentment makes no sense without a self.

And suppose you actually could somehow eliminate your self? It would seem like a lobotomy. What would be left? You might be quiet and peaceful — like lobotomized people. But the “you” would be gone.

Freedom from illusion is central to my own outlook. Only on the basis of reality can one live an authentically meaningful life. Free from illusions — like God, and immortality. But if you truly posit that you have no self, how can anything about life matter to you? If nobody has a self, then nothing can matter at all.

CAPITOL BURNS

April 20, 2022

Trump Blames Dems, Declares Martial Law

January 22, 2025

By James Thornton, Devon Sharp,

and Julie Montalbano

Associated Press

_____________________________

Washington

Flames engulfed the United States Capitol building at 1:20 PM Eastern Time, just two days after President Donald J. Trump’s second inauguration. House and Senate members, with numerous staffers and employees, as well as tourists, were seen fleeing. No deaths have yet been confirmed, but fire officials expect large casualty counts to emerge once the blaze is extinguished. As of day’s end, it had not been.

Those officials also stated they cannot yet identify the conflagration’s cause. The building’s destruction appears substantial if not total. Its iconic dome has collapsed.

President Trump released a video address at 2:35 PM, calling the fire “a vicious attempt to overthrow our democratical elected American government, by evil America-hating traitor socialist crime-loving pedophile Democrats, who will be shown no mercy.” He also said the Capitol was “treated very very unfairly,” and announced a declaration of nationwide martial law, though without citing any legal or constitutional basis for that.

Questions have been raised concerning a 17-minute gap between the first alarms and the start of fire-fighting operations. They seem also to have been impeded by the massive concrete barricades surrounding the building, installed in anticipation of the huge protests that did eventuate related to the presidential election procedures unfolding therein.

Democratic nominee Pete Buttigieg had won a popular vote margin over ten million and a 307-228 electoral vote victory. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate threw out enough electoral votes to deny him a majority, based on fraud claims which (like President Trump’s in 2020 and after) had been thoroughly debunked, with the only significant 2024 electoral chicanery evident on the Republican side.

Nevertheless, pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, the voided electoral vote left it to the House of Representatives to choose the president, with each state having one vote. Twenty-seven Republican-controlled state delegations then handed Trump the presidency. Infuriated protesters were kept out by the barricades and heavy military presence, with thousands arrested. “America is finished,” said one of those, Frank Robinson, 77, of Albany, NY, a retired state administrative law judge.

In a one-page ruling issued January 19, with three dissents, the Supreme Court refused to hear a legal challenge to Trump’s election.

Some historians saw in today’s Capitol fire an eerie echo of Berlin’s 1933 Reichstag fire, just weeks after Hitler came to power. The Reichstag was Germany’s parliament. Hitler blamed the fire on Communists and used it as a pretext to expel them all from parliament, giving Nazis a majority, and to unleash an iron boot. Most observers believe the Nazis likely set the fire themselves, for that very purpose. (Goering supposedly boasted of doing it.) Germany’s parliament was never restored during Hitler’s twelve-year rule.

Kathy Hochul’s Double BB Boo-boos

April 15, 2022

Governor Andrew Cuomo was loathsome. Seemingly redeemed in the pandemic’s beginnings, we soon learned he’d fudged nursing home death numbers, to cover an apparent policy blunder, compounded by a cover-up of the cover-up. Compounded further by his smelly $5.1 million deal for a book about his supposed pandemic wonderfulness. The book largely produced, illegally, by state employees. And then . . . all those women.

Facing impeachment, Cuomo resigned. Now he’s trying for rehabilitation as an innocent victim of political hit-jobs. Everybody politically motivated — except him, of course. Puh-leeze.

The elevation of Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul last August felt like a breath of fresh air. No Cuomo henchperson, he’d actually tried to get rid of her. She seemed the un-Cuomo.

High on her agenda was ethics reform. The state’s ethics watchdog, JCOPE, had become known as JJOKE, being stuffed with political operatives by the very officials it was supposed to watchdog. Most prominently Andrew Cuomo. Unsurprisingly, JCOPE was a lapdog. Hochul did advocate a seemingly dramatic reform. But it’s been so watered down that it too is a sorry joke. (New York’s pols just won’t give up control.)

Then came Hochul’s first big BB boo-boo: The Buffalo Bills. A football team, from her original home turf, whose billionaire owner fancies a snazzy new stadium. Threatening (as they always do) that if he doesn’t get it, courtesy of taxpayers, he’ll take the team elsewhere. Hochul promptly caved, pledging $650 million in state money. Plus $250 million from the county. Biggest public stadium giveaway in America.

I happen to consider the obsession with professional team sports ridiculous. To people who derive vicarious jollies from meaningless victories by teams they don’t play for, I say: get a life. But if fans want to pay for their fetish, fine.

However, with millions of New Yorkers struggling just to get by (if at all), it’s criminal to blow so much state money on a needless new football stadium. That will be used only around ten times yearly, distant from the city center, and thus unlikely to spur local economic development. Further, the $650 million is only the start, the state will be on the hook for upkeep too. The eventual cost may exceed a billion. (Reprising Cuomo’s own “Buffalo Billion,” another ill-considered (and probably corrupt) economic stimulus boondoggle.)

And will state taxpayers, who are footing the bill, get discounted tickets? Don’t be silly.

And get this: Hochul’s thrill for the Bills is not mere hometown boosterism. Her husband is a bigwig with a company profiting from stadium concessions. Plus, she got fat campaign contributions from lobbyists for the Bills. Indeed, she’s been on a tear scarfing up many millions in donations from lobbyists with business interests before the state, raising ethical issues troubling to say the least. And she flew to many of these fund-raisers on state aircraft.

So now comes Hochul’s second big BB boo-boo: Brian Benjamin.

A state senator she appointed to fill the lieutenant governorship. Being Black didn’t hurt. Ostensibly with some record of community development. But there were already some queasy questions. Now blown up into a federal corruption indictment, and Benjamin’s arrest and resignation.

He allegedly, as a senator, arranged a state grant for a crony that was converted directly into campaign contributions — doubly ripping off taxpayers thanks to New York City’s matching program for campaign finance. One might ask how the legislature could have been complicit in such a scheme, authorizing the money. But this is New York, after all. (And actually, Benjamin’s scam was little different from what many legislators do, only his was stupidly more overt.)

Hochul says that when appointing Benjamin she was assured his legal issues were all resolved. How naive was she? This was a big boo-boo.

He can’t be removed now from the June 28 primary ballot, leaving the lieutenant governor election in chaos. We’ll also choose gubernatorial nominees. One Hochul rival is Jumaane Williams, an elected NYC official, loudly “progressive,” with Tourette’s Syndrome. The other is Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, who distances himself from the left-wingery indulged by many New York Democrats. I’ve heard him interviewed, and he generally seemed to make sense.

I will vote for Suozzi. (Good luck.)

Republicans are nominating a Congressman who voted, on January 6, to overthrow American democracy.

Well, maybe all this is not so bad, compared to what’s happening in Ukraine.

“The True” — Machine Politics and Sex

April 12, 2022

February 1977 — Dan O’Connell is finally dead. So begins Sharr White’s play, The True, performed at Capital Rep, directed by its leader Maggie Cahill. (Runs through April 24.)

O’Connell, 91, was still boss of the political machine he’d built more than half a century earlier. I had to see the play, having authored Albany’s O’Connell Machine — now nearing its own half century mark.

The play’s focus is Polly Noonan, “confidante” of Erastus Corning, whom O’Connell had installed as Albany’s mayor in 1941. Polly had been Corning’s secretary when he was a young state senator, and they’d been very close ever since, with Polly as a behind-the-scenes political operative. (Her granddaughter is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.)

O’Connell’s death occasions something of a power struggle over both the mayoralty and the party chairmanship. But the play is really more about the personal dynamic among Corning, Polly, and her husband Peter Noonan, also a Corning buddy.

It was much better than I expected. Antoinette LaVecchia’s portrayal of Polly was so forceful and compelling, perhaps the play should simply have been titled “Polly.” (“The True” refers to people who are true in their loyalties.)

Audience advisory: the play includes much strong language. Polly Noonan was renowned for her uninhibited tongue.

Particularly riveting was her scene with Jimmy Ryan, an old O’Connell henchman, battling Corning for control. Ryan looks like a slob, in his underwear (?) — but what a powerful personality, another great performance (by Kevin McGuire).

I never met Polly, nor Jimmy Ryan. I did meet Corning several times, interviewing him for my book (he was very gracious), and recall his gratuitously badmouthing Jimmy Ryan as a drunk (in 1972). I also went to Dan O’Connell’s home for an interview, but didn’t get much, he was already very frail. And actually, young fool that I was, I did those interviews before knowing what tough questions to ask.

Michael Pemberton played Corning as a hard-drinking stereotypical old pol. With none of the patrician manner so evident in life.

However, somewhat ironically given its title, the play isn’t presented as all true. Some liberties are taken. Corning’s relationship with Polly is of course central, but there is much talk of his wife; he is told several times to “go home to Betty.” As far as I’m aware, there had been no home with Betty for decades. Corning’s “family life” was entirely with the Noonans.

Not with his own children either. I actually spent time with Erastus Junior, on “numismatic tours” of Russia in the ’90s which he led; and it was strangely evident that his father (by then deceased) was totally a non-person to him.

Late in the play, with Polly hashing things out with Erastus in his living room, Betty finally appears. A ghostly flapper-like figure lurking offstage. Silence. Will she proceed to enter the room? That’s the play’s greatest moment of dramatic tension. Eventually Betty wordlessly exits upstairs.

So — were they ever fucking? Polly and Erastus? The question isn’t skirted, in fact it’s central to the dynamic. Everyone assumed they were. With O’Connell’s death putting Corning under new political pressure, he feels a need to distance himself from Polly. She takes that rather badly.

But the answer to the question was an emphatic “no” — according to Polly. Husband Peter believes her — well, maybe 85% of him does. The question was explored in Paul Grondahl’s magisterial Corning biography, and he came to the same conclusion.

Sex is important. But it’s not everything.