America Trumped (my “Trolley” article)

March 21, 2018

The wonderful New York State Writers Institute (founded by William Kennedy; headed by Paul Grondahl) has published a very interesting online magazine, The Trolley. (Click here.) I was asked to contribute an article, a follow-up to my blog review of their October symposium on post-truth politics.* The magazine’s inaugural issue focuses mainly on the same general topic.

Since the last election, I’ve been grappling with the really dramatic lurch our civic life has taken into uncharted territory. It has a lot of aspects, and I’ve written a lot trying to unravel them. For this Trolley article, I aimed to draw all these strands together into one big picture, titled America Trumped.

I consider myself a student of history. And we are at an historical hinge point, with huge implications for the future of this country and, indeed, the world. I am not one of those fatalists who believes human beings are at the mercy of forces beyond our control; it’s why I continue to call myself a rational optimist. It is by using our rationality that we can master our situation. That’s how we’ve progressed so enormously since the Stone Age. And in order to master our situation, we must first understand what it is. Such understanding is a key quest in my own life; after half a century at it, I feel I’ve made progress. That’s what I’m trying to share on this blog, and in my Trolley article.

* Find it here; scroll down past a few later posts.


Trump ascends to meta-lying: making stuff up about making stuff up

March 19, 2018

Trump now feels he’s hit his stride as president. Now he’s really strutting his stuff, feeling his oats, his instincts comfortably in the driver’s seat. It’s clear from his latest farrago of actions, lashing out unrestrainedly in every direction. The one thing he’s learned — the only thing — is that however he behaves, there are no bad consequences. So it seems to him, and so far it actually seems basically true. His “shooting-someone-on-Fifth-Avenue” line grows more apt by the day.

Republicans, at least, are so strapped in to this roller coaster ride that they can’t get off no matter what stomach-churning twists and turns it takes. So now there are no checks — internal or external — on Trump’s id-based impulses. He’s broken out of his crib; his baby-sitters are powerless.

Last week there was consternation over a Trump speech at a Missouri fund-raiser, talking about his meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Here are Trump’s actual words (my emphasis): “Trudeau came to see me. He’s a good guy, Justin. He said, ‘No, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none. Donald, please.'” (Trump mimicked Trudeau’s voice.) “Nice guy, good-looking guy, comes in — ‘Donald, we have no trade deficit’ . . . I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know . . . . I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’ You know why? Because we’re so stupid . . . . And I thought they were smart. I said, ‘You’re wrong, Justin.'”

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, in 2017 we had a $2.8 billion trade surplus, in goods and services, with Canada.

Many observers were shocked, shocked, that a president would meet with a foreign leader, discussing our trade relations, without even being prepped with the most basic fact about it. Even more shocking was Trump’s just making it up, asserting something he knew might well be false (which it was). And more shocking still that he’d publicly brag about behaving so irresponsibly. As though his tale might somehow be endearing — like a child giggling about his cute mischief.

This is the guy who’s rushing to negotiate with Kim Jong-un about nuclear weapons. (Who couldn’t even successfully negotiate a hush deal with a porn actress.)

But wait. It actually gets worse. How could it possibly be any worse? It turns out the Canadian government doesn’t know what meeting Trump was talking about. Apparently, it never happened — fake news. He lied about lying to Trudeau. As columnist Kathleen Parker commented, “Not only do weary researchers have to check Trump’s ‘facts,’ but now they also have to check his facts about fictions.”

Call it meta-lying.

Andrew Cuomo and corruption

March 17, 2018


When first running for governor, Andrew Cuomo actually made tackling Albany corruption a campaign theme — pointedly declaring his candidacy in front of the Tweed courthouse — a literal monument to political corruption. He pledged his administration would be the “most transparent” in state history.

As Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill put it, “Cuomo didn’t just break the promise that helped him get elected. He smashed it like a plate at a Greek wedding and danced on its pieces.”


Joseph Percoco was Cuomo’s longtime right-hand man, and ran his election campaign; Cuomo even likened him to a third brother. Percoco has now been convicted in Federal Court of soliciting and receiving $300,000 in bribes from businessmen, to buy his influence to get them cushy deals with the state.

Throughout, Cuomo’s refrain has been that he had nothing to do with this. So — whose influence was really being bought? Percoco had no direct power over state business. But he could get things done through Cuomo. And Cuomo (famous for micro-managing) says he didn’t know? He’s either lying or stupid. Take your pick.

Also revealed at the trial was Percoco’s breaking the law by continuing to use his government office, even after he’d formally left state employment, to run Cuomo’s political campaign. Right under the Governor’s nose. Cuomo tries to avoid legal complicity by saying he believed Percoco was just doing “transition” work. Which apparently included some 68 days in the office and over 800 phone calls. Cuomo also believes in the Easter Bunny.


The prosecution of Percoco was almost derailed by their star witness, Todd Howe, another Cuomo goon and Percoco’s partner in crime, who’d pled guilty and agreed to testify against him. Copying The Sopranos, Howe and Percoco referred in e-mails to their bribe money as “ziti.” But anything Howe said lacked credibility because of his huge record of lies and frauds.


Highlighting that, while testifying, Howe was actually arrested and jailed for trying to defraud a hotel on its bill by denying he’d ever stayed there. In fact, he’d stayed there while negotiating his plea deal with prosecutors — a deal in which Howe pledged to commit no further crimes.

These two slimeball creeps, Howe and Percoco, were both top henchmen for Andrew Cuomo for many years. What does that tell us about Cuomo?


Coming soon is another Cuomo corruption trial, relating to his “Buffalo Billion,” an economic development program that was a honey pot for his donors. And the trial of former Nanotech Czar Alain Kaloyeros, who’d been the second most powerful figure in New York, working hand-in-glove with Cuomo, also charged with abusing his position to extort bribes from businessmen seeking state contracts. And the re-trials of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, former heads of the State Assembly and Senate, likewise charged with what amounts to extortion and bribery.*

Meantime, the bribes Percoco extorted for himself are only the tip of the iceberg. The real scandal is the legal bribery: Cuomo now has over $30 million in his campaign war-chest, mostly contributed by business people not for civic altruism but because they are buying favorable treatment, tax breaks, subsidies, state contracts, etc. It’s called pay-to-play. They’re able to buy politicians like Cuomo with large sums, getting around contribution limits, through the infamous LLC ( limited liability corporation) loophole — which furthermore allows the bribes — er, “donations” — to be hidden from public scrutiny.

Cuomo will likely coast to re-election, using his ill-gotten $30 million kitty to crush any opponent with a barrage of sleazy, smearing TV ads.

Asked to comment after Percoco’s conviction, Cuomo continued insisting, “There was absolutely no suggestion ever made that I had anything to do with anything. Right?”

Wrong. He also said Percoco’s crimes were “a violation of everything my administration stands for.”

Wrong again. They reflect exactly what his administration stands for.

*Their first convictions were reversed based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s egregious ruling in the case of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, defining bribery so narrowly that it’s almost impossible to prove. Yet New York’s finest were so flagrant their corruption may well pass even the McDonnell test.

The Great Deal-Maker tackles North Korea

March 14, 2018

The Great Deal-Maker, Making America Great Again. First day in office, he hands China — for nothing in return — a gigantic geopolitical boost. The TPP deal we’d painstakingly negotiated with key Asian nations, to set the regional terms of trade to our advantage and stymie China, Trump cancels. China’s rulers high-five each other and chortle.

Then on to the Middle East. Actually bragging that he’s removed an obstacle to peace by taking Jerusalem off the table. What The Great Deal-Maker took off the table was one of our own biggest bargaining chips. Making a peace deal virtually impossible.

All leaders face the problem of residing in a bubble insulated from reality. Trump’s never had much grip on it, and now everyone — his flunkeys, GOP politicians, foreign leaders — see this fool can be played by means of fawning flattery, the more cringeworthy the better. Feeding his delusion that he and all his doings are the greatest. Don’t need no stinkin’ policy briefings, etc. Gets all he needs from his instincts. And Fox Fake News.

So on to North Korea.

I’ll say this much: negotiating is better than a military strike that could well bring about the very thing we should ultimately be aiming to prevent. Not North Korea having nukes, but using them.

Normally, a summit meeting between leaders is preceded by substantive negotiations, adumbrating a deal, to ensure a successful outcome. Then the leader is thoroughly briefed with a clear grasp of all the ramifications and well thought-out responses to whatever the adversary might say. But this isn’t Trump’s style. Don’t need no stinkin’ policy briefings. The Great Deal-Maker will just trust his great instincts and wing it. Greatly.*

Meantime, The Great Deal-Maker has (yet again) already given away — for nothing — one of our biggest bargaining chips. A sit-down with the president of the United States is a huge coup for Kim Jong-un, legitimizing and exalting his status. That might have been dangled to Kim as an inducement to make a deal. Instead, he’ll come to the table having already gained a key objective.

The idea of Trump, unprepared, comprehensively ignorant of world affairs and realities, with his unmediated rat’s-nest of wrong instincts, negotiating directly with Kim Jong-un, is frightening. What else will he give away (removing sanctions — and our troops from South Korea?) in order to brag again about a supposed great triumph? The fool will be played, and rolled.

Trump will come out saying he and Kim got along great. And why not? Birds of a feather. North Korea will be our new friend.

Sure, Kim will agree to give up his nukes. Praise The Great Deal-Maker! Raise the champagne glasses! Kim will pocket all concessions and agree to ditch his nukes — but won’t do it. We’ve seen exactly that movie before with duplicitous North Korea. And Trump won’t nail down the nitty-gritty verification safeguards any North Korea deal should require. Rolled.

The sensible policy toward North Korea would have been to ignore it. It was insane to draw a line in the sand, declaring we won’t allow it having nukes, when it does have them and we have no plausible way to alter that. And the saber-rattling was pointlessly juvenile. Kim surely knows we have the capability to obliterate him. Deterrence was always our implicit policy and nothing more was needed.

Teddy Roosevelt had it right: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Trump speaks loudly and gives away our sticks.

*Crudely firing Secretary of State Tillerson, ostensibly over North Korea policy, was always on the cards since Tillerson called Trump a “moron” (actually “fucking moron”). Everybody sucked into Trump’s orbit gets chewed up and spit out.

Democratic presidential prospects

March 11, 2018

I enrolled Democrat to have a presidential primary vote — for a candidate who can beat Trump, and make America great again. Maybe after four years we can still climb out of this stinkhole. But after eight . . . .

Berlusconi — Italy’s Trump

In a recent column, David Brooks worries that we’ll follow Italy’s path. They too had previously elected a businessman-outsider promising to drain their swamp. Instead Berlusconi deepened it, ignoring Italy’s real problems, and degrading its politics with his corruption and shameless lack of decency. In Italy’s latest election, the responsible center was swamped by nutsy parties. Trumpism could similarly spin future American politics into a race to the bottom.

Several factors push that way. We’ve become poisonously, tribalistically partisan. It’s aggravated by the internet. We once thought the greater access to information would be elevating. Instead it’s a flaming cesspool of confirmation bias, falsehood, and incitement. Russia hardly even needs to lift a finger, we’re doing it to ourselves. For all our education (which rarely includes any civics now), voters are ill-equipped to perspicaciously evaluate what they see and hear. Thus we have the political equivalent of Gresham’s Law — “Bad money drives good money out of circulation.”

Trump exacerbates all this. We won’t wake up suddenly with our democracy dead. Instead, it will be the death of a thousand cuts.

You might think it easy to beat the worst president ever. But think again. Around 38% of voters stick with him no matter what. And the electoral college still works in his favor, enabling him to win last time with only 46% of the popular vote. To repeat that in 2020 he only needs to add around one in eight other voters to his 38% base.

Most of those others are solid Democrats, so actually, of the ones truly up for grabs he needs maybe a third. But that’s still a fairly low hurdle, hence Democrats cannot afford to lose many of those swing voters.

This means playing it safe. Democrats can easily blow this by nominating someone who will turn off enough swing voters; a sitting duck for the dirty campaign of lies, insults, and demonization Trump is sure to mount again.

So: no woman. No ethnic. No ideologue. Sorry, this is pragmatic reality. True, we elected a black president, but a lot of whites Democrats need in 2020 will not vote for another one. And while misogyny is not a big factor, it still does exist, and Hillary would have won if she’d had a penis.* We will have a woman president in due course. But achieving that is far less urgent than ridding ourselves of Trump.

Unfortunately, while Republicans have plunged to the dark side, Democrats — instead of grabbing the vacated center ground — have veered sharply left. The activist base was all gaga for Sanders, and still is.

Will he run again? Well, if you were him, why wouldn’t you? Hillary did beat him in the primaries (by getting more votes, not some sort of conspiracy), but with difficulty, and within the Democratic party she was actually a very strong candidate. Who could beat Bernie in primaries next time? Free college, free healthcare, punish Wall Street — the party’s left-wing base eats this stuff up.

Winning the nomination is one thing; winning the country quite another. It’s a ridiculous delusion that if only Bernie had been the nominee in 2016, he’d have defeated Trump. A grumpy overaged Brooklyn Jew who calls himself a socialist? Please.

Trump would not even need any of his moronic insults, with the word “socialist” a monster albatross hanging around Bernie’s neck. Efforts by lefties to sugar-coat it, as if it merely means government doing stuff like road building and fire-fighting, are dishonest and won’t fly. Call it “democratic socialism,” or “apple pie socialism,” but America won’t buy it.

What America might buy — hopefully, after four years of Trump, will be begging for — is a normal president. A sane, decent, avuncular white male with experience, competence, and understanding of the world, who tells the truth, is not a racist, fraudster or buffoon, and might help unite the country more than divide it. Who reflects America’s foundational principles, values, and ideals.

I have high regard for Kirsten Gillibrand; Kamala Harris is also impressive. But both are penisless. Elizabeth Warren is too, and too far left besides. Oprah lacks a penis and white skin. Cory Booker and Deval Patrick — great guys — have one but not the other. Andrew Cuomo has both and fancies himself presidential timber, but no one else does. (Almost as repellent a character as Trump.) Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy I don’t know much about, but he seems like the kind of plain vanilla candidate needed. And Joe Biden ticks all the boxes. Yes, he’s old. But old beats crazy. I’d be pretty confident of Biden defeatingTrump.

Will Democrats be able to resist the allure of shiny objects, and pragmatic enough to nominate a Murphy or Biden? Or will we follow Italy down the rabbit hole?

*Not one surgically added, of course.

White Rage

March 7, 2018

Alice Green

Carol Anderson’s book White Rage was discussed recently at the Albany Library by Alice Green, Director of the Center for Law and Justice and a longtime activist.

Anderson is a historian and her book takes a historical view. In Green’s telling, the basic theme is that whenever black Americans achieve some advancement, there’s white pushback. And while “black rage” has been very visible, with obvious sources in what they’ve suffered (beginning with slavery, and subsequent discrimination; yet most blacks are patriotic), white rage is a more elusive phenomenon, mostly hidden for a long time until recently.

The story begins with Reconstruction, after the Civil War. The federal government did much to assimilate the freed slaves as citizens, with the 14th Amendment enshrining equality before the law, and the 15th giving black men the vote. Really extraordinarily progressive (in the true sense). Not only did former slaves vote, many were elected to high office in the South (including two U.S. Senators).

But, as Green noted, slaves had been extremely valuable property, and taking it away left some angry people. When federal troops departed the South in 1877, the pushback came, with whites using violence to terrorize and subjugate blacks. Black voting largely ended.

And when the Supreme Court endorsed segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, it put Jim Crow race-based oppression into high gear. While the Court okayed “separate but equal,” the reality was very unequal.

In 1954, Plessy was reversed in Brown v. Board of Education. A genuine advance, Green acknowledged. And of course there was pushback. Public school integration was violently resisted (Little Rock, etc.), and many Southern communities tried to evade it by recourse to non-public schooling. (Schools today continue very segregated.)

This febrile atmosphere engendered the 1960s civil rights movement, with some dramatic results, the passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation. There was again pushback; but enough acquiescence that the face of American society was altered. In particular, unfettered voting by Southern blacks empowered them and made a big difference.

In Green’s view, though, pushback now took the form of heightened emphasis on policing and criminal justice (Nixon’s “law and order” theme), with the war on drugs ramped up. In practice it was a war on black communities, disproportionally affected, and devastated by the mass incarceration of their inhabitants.

When a black man became president, many of us felt we’d finally overcome the demon of racism, entering a post-racial Eden. Of course, it turned out a lot of whites just couldn’t stand seeing a black man in the White House. Indeed, can’t stand whites on track to becoming a minority in America.

Electing Trump was certainly a manifestation of their pushback. His slogan really meant make America white again. He’s brought white rage out of the closet, legitimizing it. Meantime, Republicans have undertaken voter suppression efforts targeted particularly at blacks, to prevent another Obama being elected.

I used to reject claims that America is fundamentally racist, contending instead that while racism obviously persists, it is confined to dark corners of our society, and to benighted people who really don’t matter. Of course, being seen as people who don’t matter is part of their grievance, aggravating their white rage. And we’ve learned that it’s more intense and more widespread than it had seemed before Trump came along.

Last May I wrote a blog post, “Why so many blacks in ads?” (suggesting it’s because they convey a positive vibe of hipness). That post continues to attract a far higher rate of hits and comments than any other. Take a glance at those comments. I’ve frankly been shocked at the crude, unabashed racism most of them express. And a friend pointed me to this article, with a brutally candid portrayal of the mindset of white rural Christian Americans (no small part of the country) — which includes a big dose of racial attitude. The article’s author, coming from this community, thinks nothing can change their minds.

There is the idea that blacks are racially inferior, with a sense of grievance against them, that somehow their inferior character and behavior is being unjustly rewarded (a prominent theme in comments to my mentioned “blacks in ads” post). These ideas behind white rage are not reality-based — much unlike the all too factual sources of black rage. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

Yet my optimism endures. Green seemed to imply the historical trajectory is from bad to worse. But bad as things may seem now, we tend to forget how really awful they were in the past. And in the question period, I said, “If I were a Martian hearing your talk, I’d be very puzzled by something: the fact that Obama was elected, even though, as he himself said, he was actually black before the election.” (He was re-elected, too, while black.)

We’re still a very divided society, with most blacks experiencing life very differently from most whites. These divisions are very visible in the news and public discourse. And as noted, the Trump era has brought racism out of the closet and in our faces. But is America actually growing more racist? No. To the contrary, the trend of public attitudes over time is progressively ever less racist and more tolerant. And at the nitty gritty ground level of routine day-to-day social interaction, what strikes me is how well we actually get along with each other. This is still a very positive contrast against an awful lot of places in the world.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor will a paradise of racial amity be built in a day, or even a century. But again: it is not getting worse. While the white Christian rural Americans in that cited article lash out against ethnic minorities as scapegoats for their own failing dysfunctionality, it will catch up with them. Racism is not winning, but inexorably losing. That’s why we see so much pushback; it is the desperation of losers. It can do much harm in the process, but won’t change the ultimate outcome.

Every day more racists die than are born.

Pillow talk

March 5, 2018

While lingering in bed together, my wife asked, “Are you almost ready to get up?”

“Define almost,” I said. “Does it have a time element?”

“Time is an illusion,” she replied.

“In that case, ‘almost ready to get up’ would have no meaning. Indeed, one could not get up at all.”

“No; it still implies that, at some point, the getting up will occur.”

“But you’re forgetting Zeno’s paradox,” I said. “When going from Point A to Point B, you first must travel half the distance. Then, of the remaining half, you must first traverse half of that. And of that quarter, half again, and so forth. So you can never get there. It’s asymptotic.”

“Not true. You don’t have to move in increasingly smaller steps, you can take full steps. And what if you can reach the destination in a single step?”

“But even a single step is not instantaneous. You still must cover half the step first; and then another half of the remaining part — a quarter, then an eighth, a sixteenth, et cetera.”

“However,” she said, “in reality you can take a full step in one go.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in reality,” I said. “You say it’s an illusion.”

“But within the illusion, one can go from A to B.”

I let my wife have the last word, and got up.

The tariffs: economic nationalism or economic madness?

March 2, 2018

Trump is slapping stiff tariffs (i.e., taxes) on steel and aluminum imports. He says it’s to protect our “vital” steel and aluminum industries from foreign competition. Which he calls “unfair” and “disgraceful” (two of his favorite words) because foreigners sell the stuff cheaper than us. So unfair!

This is part of Trump’s “America First” economic nationalism. Here’s why it’s idiotic:

1. It protects American aluminum and steel companies — a very small part of our economy (we no longer make much steel) — at the expense of businesses that use aluminum and steel — a very big part. Their aluminum and steel supplies get costlier. Making them less competitive against foreign manufacturers. Studies have shown that in such cases, we lose many times more jobs, in all those affected industries, than are “protected” by the tariffs.

2. It raises prices for consumers, on all items made with aluminum or steel. That reduces consumers’ living standard and purchasing power, causing a reduction in other things they might otherwise have bought, which in turn costs jobs in all those industries.

3. The higher consumer prices raise inflation, and thus interest rates, which also flow through to consumers and make U.S. businesses further less competitive. And given the huge national debt, every bump in interest rates costs taxpayers a bundle, and worsens our already dire fiscal situation, weakening America.

4. Higher interest rates also push up the Dollar’s exchange rate vis-a-vis other countries’ currencies, making all our exports more expensive to them, thus reducing our exports and related jobs.

5. Other countries will likely retaliate by slapping tariffs on stuff we export, thus causing us yet more job losses, even threatening a broader trade war. (Which Trump moronically calls “good” and “easy to win.”) We’re antagonizing our foreign friends, making fools of ourselves, and undermining our international influence and standing.

Understanding all this doesn’t take a business genius (stable or otherwise). No economist disputes it.

Trump, and the aluminum and steel guys, say fair trade is fine, but China isn’t playing fair, it’s cheating. How? By making too much steel  and selling it too cheap! Adam Smith said in 1776 that if another country wants to sell us something too cheap, we should take advantage of the bargain. Rather than trying to compete with them on steel, we should instead concentrate on other industries where we have what economists call our own comparative advantage. Every country doing that makes the world richer.

Adam Smith

Flouting this logic doesn’t “protect” our economy, but harms it. Tariffs always hurt the nation imposing them. That will be true of those retaliating against us with tariffs of their own. They’ll hurt themselves too. But they’ll probably do it anyway, to teach us a lesson, and also because they (and their voters) are not always so smart either.

Protectionism is politically seductive because some people get big benefits, while the vastly greater number who get screwed don’t realize it.

Trump’s view of trade centers upon the old-time mercantilist fallacy that imports exceeding exports is bad (which Adam Smith labelled “absurd”). Trump says China “rapes” us by selling us more than it buys from us. If that’s true, I get raped by a lot of coin dealers. But in fact we make such purchases because it’s advantageous. Walmart buys things from China (and I buy coins) to make money. Consumers buy them to save money. Trade is not a zero-sum game, it’s win-win. A no-brainer.

Too bad we have a no-brain president.

Wall Street gave its verdict on Trump’s tariffs, the Dow promptly plunging 420 points.

The book that changed America: Darwin, Slavery, and God

February 27, 2018


The Book That Changed America is the title of one by Randall Fuller. It’s about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, looking at its impact particularly in Concord, Massachusetts.

That wasn’t just Anytown, U.S.A. Concord was the center of America’s intellectual ferment. The protagonists in Fuller’s book include Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Sanborn, Louis Agassiz, and Asa Gray — all living in or near Concord and interacting with each other and with Darwin’s bombshell book.


It hit Concord almost simultaneously with another bombshell in late 1859: John Brown’s attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and his subsequent execution. Brown was not, as often portrayed, a madman. He considered slavery a great sin that could be undone only through war, which he aimed to start. He was just about a year early.

America was already, of course, hotly divided over slavery, and Harper’s Ferry raised the temperature further. So did Darwin’s book.

How so? The only possible excuse for slavery was the idea of blacks’ racial inferiority. Thus their constant denigration as a degenerate, brutish species. And slavery apologists, being besotted with religion, had to believe God intentionally made blacks separately and enslavement-worthy. Efforts to prove their inferiority litters Nineteenth century science. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.)

(Even most abolitionists thought blacks inferior. But they opposed slavery nonetheless because it was cruel and unjust. This applies to every pogrom, genocide, or other ethnically based abuse or exploitation. Even if its victims were lesser, degraded creatures — it’s never true, but even if it were — their mistreatment would still be cruel and unjust. The creatures proven inferior and degraded are the perpetrators.)

Anyhow, the races’ biological separateness continued to be a matter of intense science-oriented debate.* That’s where Darwin came in.

His book prudently refrained from specifically addressing human origins. (Darwin bit that bullet later in The Descent of Man.) Origin discussed living things in general, and all its numerous examples and case studies concerned non-human life. Many at the time imagined humans were something apart from all that. Yet many others were not so deluded, and they realized that if Darwin’s varied finches and so forth were all close cousins, branches of the same tree, obviously then so were whites and blacks. (We now know that blacks came first, and whites descended from them.)

Thus did Origin explode the moral underpinnings of slavery. And Darwin was not just another polemicist with an axe to grind. Not only was his a science book, it was powerfully supported and argued, hence a devastating blow.

Yet still it was disputed. Inevitably, for a book that gored cherished oxen. And slavery was not the only ox. The other was God himself.

Gods have always been the answer for natural and cosmic mysteries people couldn’t otherwise penetrate. That territory used to be huge. But science has progressively answered those mysteries, inexorably shrinking godly territory.

To naive eyes, the world might look designed, the only possible way to explain life’s diversity and complexity. Literature is filled with rhapsodizing on this theme. Though would any intelligent designer have so filled creation with pain and suffering? Calling this a mystery is no answer.

Thoreau had studied nature intensively, and likewise studied Darwin’s book. He got it, completely; it explained so much of what he’d actually observed. Fuller casts Thoreau as holding that the world is indeed filled with magic and mystery — just not the kind religion postulates.

But Darwin greatly demystified life. His theory was a revelation, a revolution. He called it “natural selection” and “descent with modification;” for short, evolution. His book explained it thoroughly and cogently; there’s hardly a word in it that doesn’t still hold up. A stupendous achievement of human intellect.

And once Darwin unveiled it, the idea of evolution was actually obvious. (I recall Richard Milner’s song, wherein other scientists of the time moan, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”) As Thoreau found, evolution instantly made sense of everything observable about the natural world, everything previously so puzzling. The great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it thusly: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Yet, to this day, half of Americans reject it. Fuller’s book recaps the opposition to evolution as it played out at its advent, with famed scientist Louis Agassiz in the attack’s vanguard. Its essence remains unchanged. Evolution shrinks God almost to irrelevance. And not just in biology. If life is attributable to natural, not supernatural causes, couldn’t the same be true of the entire cosmos? To Agassiz, all this was something literally unthinkable.** As it is for his modern counterparts.

Likewise that we “come from monkeys” (or even lesser creatures). Some believe that degrades us. But “there is grandeur in this view of life,” connecting us to every other living thing. And our animal antecedents make us all the more remarkable. It’s sublime that a Darwin, descended from apes, could have the insight to see it. All we’ve achieved we’ve done ourselves, with no help from any god.

A reader of Fuller’s book must be struck by how one key mistake — belief in a god — traps you in a carnival house of mirrors, distorting everything about life and the world. Escape it and all becomes clear. This is the main reason why Agassiz and other scientists of the time failed to see what Darwin saw. Religion blinded them. And even when shown the light, they hold tight to their blindfolds. They torture facts, evidence, and logic, struggling to hammer the square peg of their belief into the round hole of reality.

I find it far better to just accept reality.

* Some even argued for different species on the basis (by analogy to mules) that mixed-race people tend to be sterile — simply untrue. Furthermore, the vast genre of argument that race mixing somehow “pollutes” and degrades the quality of the white race likewise contradicts manifest biological fact: mixing different gene pools improves strength and quality. It’s called hybrid vigor.

** Scientist Asa Gray entered the fray on Darwin’s side, but even he was unmoored by God’s banishment, coming up with the fallback idea that evolution is God’s method for managing life’s pageant. And even Darwin himself seemed queasy about a purely mechanistic view of creation.

Trump says arm teachers — “problem solved!”

February 24, 2018

Fact: the more guns are around, the more guns get in the wrong hands, the more people get shot by them, and the more also get shot accidentally.

Many Americans keep guns at home, fantasizing that it’s protection. Fact: over a thousand children are killed annually, and thousands more injured, by those guns in the home. Instances of their actually protecting anyone are, in contrast, vanishingly rare.

Teachers with guns thwarting school shootings is likewise a fantasy. Fact: much more often, having more guns firing, in chaotic circumstances, will increase casualties. Much more often, teachers will use those guns wrongly, rather than against school shooters. And much more often, guns will get into the hands of kids, with altogether predictable horrible results. Much more often. These are incontestable facts.

No constitutional rights are absolutes. Freedom of speech does not protect shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Religious freedom does not protect human sacrifice. The right to bear arms doesn’t cover nuclear weapons. Nor should it cover military-style assault weapons whose only purpose is to kill a lot of people fast. Such weapons have no legitimate sports, hunting, or self-protection purpose. They should be banned.

Fact: this will never happen as long as Republicans, beholden to the NRA and gun nuts, remain in power.

Fact: Trump is a deranged ignoramus.

November 3, 2020: problem solved!