My optimism reality check

May 10, 2021

When I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2008, that case was powerful. My innate optimism intensified by observed reality. The big global story seemed to be progress toward greater human flourishing. Writers like Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, explained it. I was proud of my own contribution, making the case across the whole waterfront of human concerns.

I’ve followed up with my blog. Naturally, bad things have commanded attention, but I’ve tried to highlight good news, countering pessimists and cynics. However, looking back, I must acknowledge that my positive outlook too often proved misplaced. In a spirit of humility, I present a catalog of instances:

Egypt: a very democratic coup” (July 4, 2013). Ouch. Mubarak’s overthrow led to an election producing a Muslim Brotherhood government. It was an undemocratic disaster. I welcomed the coup that ousted it, seeing it as hopefully presaging a “do-over” putting Egypt on a sounder democratic path. I should have been more cynical about coup leader Al-Sisi, who became a more repressive autocrat than Mubarak. 

Democracy wins in Thailand” (July 14, 2011). Well, it did. For a while. Then here too the army ousted the elected government, and has settled in to stay. 

Modi for India” (December 27, 2013). Here I did have misgivings, over Modi’s rotten history on Hindu-Muslim relations. But he seemed to instead stress economic liberalization, which India desperately needed. He has initiated some good reforms. But that’s overshadowed by running a Hindu nationalist regime, enflaming intercommunal antagonisms — and following what has become the standard authoritarian playbook, giving India’s democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Plus now he’s much to blame for India’s Covid disaster.

Great news: Sri Lanka blows off authoritarianism” (January 15, 2015). I was delighted by the unexpected election ouster of another autocratic regime, under the Rajapaksa clan. Unfortunately the new government proved feckless. And guess what? The latest vote produced a Rajapaksa landslide. 

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil” (May 10, 2018). Similar story. The longtime ruling party was so corrupt and awful that extensive election rigging didn’t stave off defeat. But the successor government seems a mess. The tale is still unfolding, but the old lot’s reprise would be no surprise. 

Good news from Kenya” (September 2, 2017). Its highest court overturned President Kenyatta’s dodgy election victory. But guess what? He prevailed anyway in a second go.* In the wings: William Ruto, an even stinkier candidate.

Myanmar — On April 5, 2012, I wrote, with tentative hopes, about President Thein Sein’s democratization moves, after decades of military rule. On October 15, 2012, came my gushing paean to Aung San Suu Kyi. Who subsequently destroyed her heroic aura by making herself complicit in the Rohingya pogrom. And now the army has come back — with a blood-soaked vengeance. 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story” (October 12, 2019). This new prime minister seemed a dream of an African leader, doing so much right. Even got a Nobel Prize. But hardly was the ink dry (so to speak) on my tribute when things went to to hell, the regime prosecuting an internecine war with appalling human rights abuses. 

All this begins to look like a pattern. And then:

America. Just after the 2008 election, I wrote in my book that “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and good will. . . . So we are becoming far more united than divided.” Ouch again. I did not foresee how Obama’s presidency would produce not just a racist backlash, but an intensification of racial disaffection by whites seeing their loss of caste more real. Which led to Trump — an optimist’s ultimate nightmare — America’s collapse as the avatar of Enlightenment values.

Thankfully we’ve reversed that — by a hair’s breadth — and how fully remains to be seen. A Trump return (could America go that insane?) would fit the pattern of cautionary tales I’ve related above.

Before he took office, I wrote (November 16, 2016) that power does not make bad men better. That, at least, proved prescient. And that is also a through-line in my recaps here. Lord Acton’s famous quote was “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You can actually leave off the last five words. Power corrupts. A proposition whose importance grows the more I observe the world. Not only does power not make bad men better; it can turn good men bad. 

But I keep saying that progress does not go in a straight line. For a time, liberal democratic values were on a roll; now, they’re in a bad patch. And China looms as a huge and growing anti-democratic center of gravity. Nevertheless, where the world will be in half a century is hard to foresee. It’s been documented that people are, on average, becoming smarter. I have to hope tolerance for repressive rule will wane. And while the political realm does have much to do with human flourishing, it is far from the whole story. All across the planet, lives continue to improve in countless other very important ways.

Finally — while I’m eating humble pie — on March 9, 2020 I posted:

Coronavirus/Covid 19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

*In 2020, Malawi’s courts similarly ruled the president’s re-election illegitimate; and there, the decision seems to be sticking. So far.

Covid and the social contract

May 6, 2021

Covid will eventually be, more or less, history. Life will renormalize, more or less. But something big has changed in government’s role in people’s economic lives.

For thousands of years it had very little. That really began to change with Bismarckian Germany’s pension scheme, to save the elderly from penury. It expanded greatly in the Depression, developing a broader “social safety net.”

This sparked some pushback from people seeing beneficiaries as coddled moochers — an aggravating factor being racial. On the other hand, there’s been the rise of “social justice” rhetoric targeting inequality.

Two points. First, inequality is not per se a bad thing; some people being rich is not a problem as long as everyone has enough to live decently. And secondly, “social justice” is a mistaken framing. The word justice entails concepts of deservingness. A polemical can of worms, with some, as noted, deeming safety net beneficiaries undeserving. Better to talk not of “justice” but simple humaneness. Helping people for no other reason than they’re fellow human beings. 

Meantime, inequality is blamed on capitalism. Another mistake. While capitalism does produce disparate results, with some people getting rich, it’s wrong to see their wealth as “taken” from the rest. Steve Jobs got very rich by creating products which delighted customers and improved lives. Thus not a zero-sum game but win-win. That’s not universally the case, yet by and large those who earn riches do so by creating value benefiting others. Wealth is not evil.

And capitalism does not cause poverty. In fact, over the past century, average real dollar worldwide incomes increased something like sixfold. Not thanks to socialism; but masses of people being productively employed in a capitalist system, to make their own contributions to societal wealth, and enabling them to buy the resulting products. Capitalism’s critics never offer an alternative system to achieve that.

However, there are concerns that advancing technology will destroy a lot of jobs. This goes back to the Luddites. In every generation, what has actually happened is technology’s efficiency gains freeing up people to be productive in new and different ways, thus enlarging the overall pie. And despite predictions that Covid would accelerate automation, there’s actually zero evidence so far. But can this go on forever?

Good question, with artificial intelligence ultimately likely to replace human work like never before. A growing population segment already lacks the capability for productive employment. Largely due to what is really the key inequality in modern societies: educational inequality. And even if that could be remedied, it’s still doubtful there’ll be enough productive work for everyone. Perhaps if we can at last produce all we need with little human labor, we should just relax and enjoy it. The question then becomes how to distribute the fruits.

All of which brings us back to the governmental response to Covid’s economic fallout. Previously, social safety net programs tended to be massively encrusted with bureaucracy, means testing, other eligibility requirements, and so forth. Much of that out the window with governments now focused instead on just getting money into people’s hands. Arguably this has gone too far, with a lot of babies thrown out with bath water. But it represents a big paradigm shift in our view of the social safety net — in the direction of a universal basic income. Unemployment benefits have even exceeded what some people earned from jobs, which used to be a caricature lobbed by welfare state critics. Yet most Americans now seem okay with it, shrugging off such concerns. 

A recent David Brooks column reflects this: “Ten years ago, I would have been aghast at this leftward shift. But like everybody else, I’ve seen inequality widen, the social fabric decay, the racial wealth gap increase. Americans are rightly convinced that the country is broken and fear it is in decline. Like a lot of people, I’ve moved left on what I think of the role of government and income redistribution issues. We surely need to invest a lot more in infrastructure and children.”*

So far at least, actual wealth redistribution is limited. President Biden is proposing tax rises only for the richest, and for corporations. But most of the new spending is being financed by borrowing. Cheap to do with interest rates at rock bottom. And our society is, on the whole, plenty rich enough to do what we’re doing. But how long can we do it this way? There have to be limits, though we don’t know where they lie, and hitting them could be a rude shock. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says the lack of fiscal discipline in all this spending is totally unprecedented. In the longer term, we have to face up to paying the bills. (Which Brooks too worries about.)

We could instead inflate away the debt, shrinking the value of the dollar, so the rich would pay through devaluation of their assets. But that would be economic havoc; better to just tax them. But again, it shouldn’t be on some social justice theory, as a punitive equalizer, as if their wealth is undeserved. Rather, it should be a re-envisioning of the human responsibilities of members of society toward one another.

That could be Covid’s most lasting legacy.

*Brooks mirrored my own thinking; similarly pushed leftward; partly by how utterly vile American “conservativism” has managed to make itself. 

Transgender wars

April 29, 2021

Changing gender wasn’t even a thing till the 20th century.* This new concept discombobulated many minds, with hostility toward trans people. But now, happily, they’ve won the argument over their right to be themselves. In fact we seem to have gone to the other extreme. Transgender issues have become a minefield of political correctness, with a pitiless orthodoxy one mustn’t question. 

Here are the biological facts. Standard females — I use “standard” to describe most people, others reflecting naturally occurring differences — have two X chromosomes; males an X and a Y. Those genes guide development of an embryo’s sex characteristics. Male and female anatomies differ, as does the brain software accompanying each. Deploying all this in utero is a complex, tricky process, and glitches can occur. 

Obviously, for reproduction’s sake, standard brain software tells men to mate with women, and vice versa. But sometimes variant software gives you same-sex attraction. It’s not a choice. (Try to imagine yourself choosing it.)

More rare is a mismatch between anatomy and brain software. A genetic and anatomical female can get a male brain, and feel male in their heads. This is called gender dysphoria. Not a psychological condition, it’s actually biological. It tends to show up quite early in life (because males and females are raised and acculturated differently), and no psychotherapy can talk it away. Though of course some people try to fight it or deny it, and to live with it.

But now it can be rectified. Such children are typically given puberty blocker medication, to delay sexual maturation until an age when they can make an informed choice to undergo sex change treatment. That at least is the idea. We’ll get back to this.

Previously, gender dysphoria did seem quite rare. Less so now, with all the attention and ready access to treatment. In fact, it’s acquired a kind of cachet, with transitioning not just accepted, but even made attractive.

So we’re seeing an epidemic of “late onset gender dysphoria,” showing up during puberty and adolescence. Mostly girls coming out as trans males. And today’s society is very supportive of their choice — indeed hostile toward any impediments. They’re often moved straightaway to puberty blockers and/or hormone treatments, on a path to surgery. In one Australian case, a child was removed from parents who resisted. 

But hold on. These years are emotionally and psychologically tumultuous even for standard kids. Wrestling with their emerging sexuality and personal identities, especially sensitive to social pressures and their place in a peer group. Now bombard them with positive messages about transsexuality, the internet full of it, trans kids showered with affirmation, making it look hip, cool, chic. While standardhood is so . . . dull. Convincing yourself that your confusing sexual feelings mean you’re trans might seem a great way to get attention, cut through the fog, and assert an edgy personal identity. (We used to have the term “drama queen.”) 

Parents who suspect something like this are dismissed as bigots. But they may be right. Seeing not true biologically based gender dysphoria, but a self-induced simulacrum. Which, with no medical interventions, many youngsters in due course get over. Studies indicate that between 61% and 98% of even early onset cases, once reaching adulthood, with all the life changes that entails, wind up accommodated with their genetic genders after all.

Another aspect is that a disproportionate number of these cases actually involve forms of autism, depression, or other psychological problems. Importantly, many of these kids, once they get a clearer fix on their sexuality, turn out simply to be gay. Which is indeed far more common than true gender dysphoria. And for which sex change is not a good answer. 

But meantime many will already be on a one-way track, thanks to the trans-industrial-complex seizing them in its jaws to execute their previous choice to transition. Backing out can take more guts than coming out. Though blocking puberty is said to be reversible, that’s true only up to a point. It certainly creates a biological platform that’s not natural. And use of hormones and other chemicals, not to mention surgery, has lifelong impacts. Even just hormone treatments, writes The Economist, “cause myriad severe health problems,” including heart problems for trans men on testosterone. And many who undergo such treatments, who later regret it, can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. A gal in Britain had her breasts removed before realizing she’s just a lesbian. Others are unable to orgasm. Or sire children. Some are left incompletely transitioned, in a limbo between genders. The psychological damage can be huge. 

Trans activists refuse to hear any of this. I’m reminded of the Soviet Union’s “Stalin doctrine” — once a country is communist, no reversal could be countenanced. So extreme has the trans ideology become that its advocates often seem to insist this isn’t biological at all, that gender (unlike sexual orientation) is a personal choice. That anyone saying they’re a woman must be accepted as female in all respects. Penises be damned. In some places where “conversion therapy” for gays is (justifiably) outlawed, there are efforts to apply the same policy to gender identity — a very different matter. This could prohibit counseling to explore what’s really going on in a claimed case of late onset gender dysphoria, a sensible go-slow approach before jumping to medical intervention. 

Unsurprisingly, there’s a backlash. Some states are moving toward outlawing transition medicine, an opposite craziness. Particularly fraught is the sports realm. Should trans women be allowed to race against standard ones? Men’s and women’s sports were made separate in the first place because of relevant physical differences. Allowing XY people to compete as women scrambles that. Trans athletes have rights but so do cis-gender women. This is a mess. I would solve it with a simple penis rule.

J.K. Rowling got denounced for insisting cis- and trans-women are not biologically identical. More recently Richard Dawkins (noting Rachel Dolezal condemned for posing as Black) wrote “Some men choose to identify as women and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.” Previously he’d deemed the issue “purely semantic,” saying he calls a trans woman “she” out of courtesy.

The American Humanist Association Board voted to revoke Dawkins’s 1996 “Humanist of the Year” award. Dawkins might really be the humanist of the epoch, having spent a lifetime as a top battler for science and rationalism. But none of that counts, for the trans Torquemadas who make the slightest nuance of deviation from their extremist orthodoxy a capital offense. The AHA has lost its mind and disgraced the humanist cause.

This should be a medical issue, not a political one. (Though in today’s polarized America, everything is political.) I salute the courage of transgender people who, in mature consideration, face up to their personal reality and take on the very great challenge of changing gender. But I also feel sorry for immature youngsters who, during a time of stress and confusion, make a dubious choice and find themselves locked into it by adults who should know better. Who should act with caution and thorough analysis before irrevocable action, violating the most fundamental of medical precepts — first, do no harm. But who are too scared of being pilloried as transphobic bigots.

As I will surely be.**

*NOTE: That sentence has been criticized as false. Obviously people were gender-fluid long before the 20th century. The intended reference was to medical/surgical interventions to change gender. If there were any such cases before the 20th century they were vanishingly rare.

** This essay owes much to an in-depth analytical piece, and accompanying editorial, in The Economist: https://www.economist.com/international/2020/12/12/an-english-ruling-on-transgender-teens-could-have-global-repercussions

Vaccination and evangelical Trumpers: The enemy within

April 26, 2021

Since January 20, we finally have a rational national plan for Covid — to vaccinate as fast as possible, to achieve “herd immunity.” That’s when the virus peters out because there aren’t enough susceptible victims. It requires at least 70% immune. Covid won’t disappear entirely, but would be reduced to a minor nuisance. Personal and economic restrictions can end. We all want that, no?

Achieving it is a national effort akin to war. We’re making great progress. Vaccine availability is no longer a problem. Now it’s people refusing the shot.

Many non-whites were mistrustful toward the medical establishment. That has greatly eased. Now, instead, one demographic absolutely dominates in vaccine refusal: evangelical Trumpers.

Why them? In a nutshell, they believe much that isn’t true, and refuse to believe much that is. Also believing we’re ruled by an omnipotent man in the sky; we go to a paradise after death; their deity chose Trump to “make America great again;” and he won in 2020. It all fits together with vaccine resistance.

They are the key obstacle to beating Covid. And, as vaccine resisters go, these are the most immovable. I heard a fascinating radio report about an effort to sway them, enlisting a prominent Republican consultant, Frank Luntz. He convened a zoom focus group of Trumpers, bringing in top-notch medical experts and also Republican icons. 

Nothing would budge them. Many saw the whole thing through a political lens. Deaf to pleas that vaccination is good citizenship. Fearing the vaccine more than Covid. One woman said the body has a natural ability to fend off such infections. This, after her own husband spent three weeks in intensive care and nearly died of Covid!! Another insisted he wanted facts. Odd coming from a believer in Biblical literalism — and Trump.

Finally Luntz brought out his big gun — Chris Christie. Who related his own experience catching Covid — at the White House — where a slew of others, including Trump, did too. The point seemed to register —YOU CAN DIE from this. Whatever the risks the vaccine might hold (truly infinitesimal), the risk of death without it is vastly greater. 

Thus some did soften their anti-vaccine views. A small victory. But Luntz cautioned that this sort of intensive personalized effort can’t feasibly be replicated for millions of people. 

America is, again, at war. But these people — who love calling themselves “patriots” — are on the other side. They are the enemy within. 

Trumpland and America are two different countries. The Trump tribe rejects the most basic values and ideals that used to unify us. Rejects even the concept of democracy, refusing to view themselves as one part of a diverse national patchwork quilt. Unwilling to accept the legitimacy of anyone else’s role. Seen most vividly in refusal to accept losing the last election. 

The only thing about America that really matters to them is maintaining white Christian cultural dominance. Everything else is seen through that prism. Even the “Christian” part is just a cultural signifier rather than truly religious. Surely their political behavior travesties Christianity. 

We used to talk about “culture wars.” Just battles over particular controversies. But now all that’s metastasized into one big over-arching culture war. With even what should be a straightforward public health matter becoming a tribalized political battleground. 

David Brooks writes* that hopes of America calming down without “Trump spewing poison from the Oval Office have been sadly disabused.” It’s gotten worse; even crazier. Trumpers felt some security with him on top. Now that’s gone, and they feel existentially threatened. Many seeing themselves in ultimate combat for cultural survival, in what Brooks calls “an apocalyptic hellscape.” Totally antithetical to being part of a diverse democracy. Brooks ends by envisioning they’ll “eventually turn to the strong man to salve the darkness and chaos inside themselves.” Well, they already did once.

This is horrible for Amerca. God forbid these people regain national power.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/22/opinion/trump-gop.html

Police brutality shocker in Albany, NY

April 24, 2021

Faced with protesters against police brutality, how did the Albany police respond? With brutality.

I supported Mayor Kathy Sheehan when she first ran, against an old-style pol. I wrote about how great it was to attend her inauguration. Even sent her my book about Albany politics. 

Then the city sent a sizable bill to the “Poor People’s campaign,” for policing during a protest. I was no left-wing fan; but wrote Mayor Sheehan objecting to this atrocity against free speech. The kind of thing a Putin regime would do. Pointing out that the city hires police to do, well, police work. 

A delayed reply said a document was enclosed. It wasn’t. My follow-up letter got no reply. When, meeting her, I asked Sheehan about it, she promised to get back to me. Never did. Anyhow, the whole episode showed her mindset about freedom of expression.

Alice Green

I’ve also pointed out that Albany’s police review board is a toothless travesty. Lately the city has conducted a rather opaque “reform process.” Dr. Alice Green, Albany’s well-known head of the Center for Law and Justice and longtime advocate on such issues was — incredibly — not included. Not surprisingly, the process seems to have produced . . . nothing much. 

On April 14, a BLM demonstration at an Albany police station might have gotten a bit rowdy. Police broke it up with what seemed to me needless brutality. Afterward, a group of protesters encamped by the station, seeking a dialog with the Mayor about their demands. She did not respond. Barriers were erected in front of the building, and state troopers brought in to guard it.

Chief Hawkins

There’d been no violence. The protesters were doing nothing except keeping vigil. Nevertheless, on Thursday, Police Chief Eric Hawkins, with Mayor Sheehan’s backing, launched an assault to clear the area. Demonstrators were given just 15 minutes warning. The police wore full military gear. At least some had their badges covered by tape. Hiding their identities. You know something real bad is going down when officers do that. 

It was brutal. Some protesters were injured, others carried off to jail. Much property, including chairs and heaters (it was wintry cold), was bulldozed and destroyed.

And why was this violence necessary? Chief Hawkins said, “Protesters may continue to peacefully demonstrate, but they must do so in a space that is safe and lawful.” Excuse me: bullshit. If there was something problematic about what the protesters were doing — and I can certainly believe that — surely there was a better way to handle it. Like, maybe, talking with them? To work something out? Before launching Armageddon.

People living in the neighborhood had complained about the encampment. Sometimes rights clash. But anyhow, again, surely there was a better way to resolve the situation without going straight to ultra-violence.

Right-wingers bleat about “freedom” from over-mighty government. But where are their voices when government sends armed men to brutalize people peacefully exercising free speech? They bleat “law and order” but excuse police violations of law and order. Today’s American right has only prejudices, not principles.

This week’s Minneapolis verdict struck a welcome blow for police accountability. This is what democracy looks like. Justice is never perfect, but in a free society, we try our best, and we showed it in Minneapolis. A real milestone in America’s march toward a more perfect union. How disheartening that only days later my own city became a poster boy for continuing police brutality. 

Goodbye, Afghanistan

April 23, 2021

She’d gotten a new job offer, our daughter Elizabeth said on the phone from Jordan. Asking our opinion. A nice surprise, that she’d ask. 

“It’s in Afghanistan,” she explained.

A lot of parents would have blanched. But we encouraged her to go.

Afghanistan is an afflicted country. I was proud of America’s helping, and that my own kid would be part of that good effort (albeit with a French organization). She didn’t stay there long, moving on to other jobs in the region, but would frequently return to Afghanistan working on development projects there. When asked to suggest a birthday present recently, she encouraged a contribution to an Afghan library-building initiative.

The modern cycle begins in 1978 with a pro-Communist coup. Insurgent Mujahideen guerrillas fought the new regime; the Soviets invaded to back it. America helped the rebels (including Osama bin Laden; a lot of thanks we got). When the Russians quit, the regime fell, ultimately replaced by the Taliban, a repressive extremist one, that harbored bin Laden’s al Qaeda. After 9/11, we invaded to go after them. Successfully at first. We managed to shepherd into being a more or less democratic government. A new day of freedom — especially for Afghan women, brutally repressed under the Taliban.

But we failed to fully exterminate the Taliban, leaving them to regroup, and torment the country ever since. So our troops kept fighting.

President Obama campaigned calling this “the right war” and ramped up our military involvement. That achieved nothing. So then Obama ramped it back down. Trump went back and forth; eventually the Great Deal Maker got a “peace deal” slating a U.S. withdrawal in exchange for, basically, nothing.

So finally this mess landed on President Biden’s desk. He made the decision to pull out.

I probably would not have. I’d cancel Trump’s crap deal. Unlike in the past, what Afghanistan is costing us now is actually very small in relation to the great risks and certain harm of withdrawing. Nevertheless, I give Biden much benefit of the doubt. In contrast to Trump, he acts responsibly, trying to figure out what’s really our best course, drawing from a well of deep experience. The military was against this decision, but I am sure Biden heard them out and gave all due consideration to their input. It was indeed a very difficult decision, and he faced up to it.

Originally, Afghanistan was our first front in the post-9/11 “war on terror.” Fighting there to prevent more attacks here. But what we wound up spending there, in lives and money, was out of all proportion to any terrorism risk. Which in the great scheme of things is insignificant. Yet we let it warp our entire foreign policy, the tail wagging the dog. President Biden is right to see that and stop it. (Meantime our biggest terrorism threat is home-grown, as we learned on January 6.)

I’m not one of those who say we can’t be the world’s policeman; can’t fix every problem; have plenty to do here at home. Well, your neighborhood could be a nasty place with no policing; we have to live in the world; we can fix some distant problems; and can do it without neglecting our own. It’s not an either-or choice. And like the Bible’s “good Samaritan” we have a human responsibility toward even people not like us. 

But there’s also the “serenity prayer” — the wisdom to know what we can fix and what we can’t. And the principle of “enough is enough.”

We did try hard to fix Afghanistan, and it’s painful to kiss off the huge investment we’d made in that effort, coming out with nothing to show for it. Our leaving is very bad news for Afghanistan. International help, not just of the military kind, will ebb away. Violence will escalate. Taliban power will grow and will probably wind up taking over the country. Women will lose all the freedom and dignity they’d achieved.

Malala Yousafzai was a teenager shot in the head, by the Taliban’s Pakistan branch, because she was an advocate for girls’ education. More recently, in Afghanistan itself, the Taliban has been conducting an extensive, methodical campaign of assassinations specifically targeting women with prominent societal roles — legislators, judges, journalists, etc.

Afghanistan is also full of ordinary people, fellow human beings, who just want to live decently like you or me. But alas, also many very misguided, ignorant, backward people and, yes, very bad people. It’s one of the tragedies of human life that the kind of situation that exists in Afghanistan is a playground for bad people to act out their badness. Worse yet when they’re imbued with the insanity of believing they’re doing God’s work. All this will make for untold harm until people finally grow up and free themselves from it. We can help show the way, but in the last analysis, it has to come from Afghans themselves.

Another thing I don’t believe is that people never change, cultures never change. History is full of examples of people and cultures that did change. Look how much America changed, in a very short time, with regard to gay people. But another thing we learn again and again is how tough it is when you’re facing hard men with guns.

Tucker Carlson and “replacement” racism

April 20, 2021

United Airlines announced a program to get more diversity in its pilot training. Fox’s Tucker Carlson went on a rant saying all that should matter in the cockpit is competence and safety, not skin color. And if that’s no longer true — planes will crash.

Wait, what?

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah slammed Carlson. My wife objected that all Carlson said was that only competence should matter. What’s wrong with that?

It falsely confuses issues of safety and racial fairness. Did United ever say color would trump competence? That it would accept less capable pilots? Of course not. That would be absurd. So what was Carlson on about?

Nobody can openly say, “We don’t want more Black pilots.” Saying we want capable pilots seems fine. Except for the unstated premise that Blacks will be worse pilots. Carlson was giving his racist fans another way to think they’re not racist. Even while thinking an America with more Blacks in prominent roles is a worse America.

A recent Michael Gerson column also demystifies Carlson, as epitomizing today’s Trumpian Republican right. Big there is “replacement theory.” Remember “Jews will not replace us?” Gerson quotes Carlson: “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate of the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” Carlson denies this is a racial issue, calling it instead “a voting rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?”

As if white voters like him have a birthright entitlement to their political dominance. And in Carlson’s eyes, Western civilization itself is under attack: “rotting from within because the people in charge don’t think it is worth preserving.” Welcoming in people who make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided,” Carlson said in 2018.

There you have it. Dirtier. The ancient racist purity trope. Those other kind are polluting. Darker skin is dirtier.

Oh, but it’s not about race, he still insists. Yeah, as if voting restrictions like Georgia’s are about ballot integrity — not making it harder for Blacks to vote. As if it’s not racist to say that with more nonwhite pilots, planes will crash.

Not only is all this racist, it’s dishonest. And such is the core of today’s Republicanism.

For the record: Democrats do not somehow “import” new voters. That’s not what’s behind people immigrating here. And studies prove that immigrants do not make America “poorer,” but richer, being net contributors to our economy. “Dirtier?” I know of no studies, but strongly suspect they’re actually cleaner on average. And “more divided?” Who’s more divisive than Tucker Carlson, demonizing some of our citizens as civilization destroyers?!

The idea that Carlson and his ilk are just defending lofty civilizational values is very insidious; another way to sugar-coat their racism. And what is it, exactly, about immigrants, that supposedly corrupts our civilization? Trump said other countries don’t send us their best. Like they pick out their dregs to get rid of. Idiotic. Immigrants are not “sent,” they choose to come. And willingness to leave behind everything familiar and battle all the obstacles to immigration takes enterprise, drive, and capabilities far beyond what the average American possesses. They improve our country. 

But I too believe America, and Western civilization itself, are under assault — from the likes of Carlson and his sick fans. Their “replacement” by an electorate less white, with more newcomers who understand what America is really about, cannot come soon enough.

And if I see a Black pilot on my flight, I’ll risk it. 

Our Gal in the New York Times

April 18, 2021

My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, has made her debut in the august pages of The New York Times. A letter to the editor, signifying serious chops. And it’s in her chosen field of professional endeavor — educational development in disadvantaged spheres. 

Furthermore, happily, I agree with her (not always true). The article she was answering I found basically naive. (Here is a link to it: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/opinion/stanford-admissions-campus.html.) The writer suggests that higher education opportunities for non-rich people could be expanded by simply “cloning” schools like Harvard. Here’s Elizabeth’s trenchant response:

Mr. Kirp suggests that elite universities should “clone” themselves, opening second branches around the country to allow more students to enroll and access their high-quality education. “It’s not hard,” Mr. Kirp writes, “to contemplate a Bill Gates or Laurene Powell Jobs writing an eight-figure check to help underwrite the venture.”

This is one of those shiny ideas whose sparkle far exceeds any potential impact. Allowing another 6,700 students to enroll in Harvard’s undergrad program every year would do little to address the systemic issues that make it so difficult for so many students to get into — not to mention pay for — elite universities in the first place.

Why not use that eight-figure check to help pay off student loans nationwide, or increase access to high-quality preschools, or set up tutoring programs for high-potential but struggling teenagers, or provide scholarships for the many low-income students who, as Mr. Kirp notes, have already demonstrated they can succeed at elite universities?

Dedicated efforts to mitigate income and educational inequalities across the country would do more to help these universities realize their mission than simply duplicating the same restrictive admissions dynamics in another city. And Harvard already has not an eight but an 11-figure check at the ready: its endowment.*

Note that Elizabeth has her own blog too (https://lizrobinson.squarespace.com/blog/) Mostly discussing issues in the realm of humanitarian work. (The latest post suggests aid agencies competing for the “custom” of aid recipients — a fascinating concept. But she also tackles personal life issues.) 

Elizabeth noted that writing letters-to-the-editor is something she got from me. I had one in the Times over 50 years ago. It defended Vietnam “draft dodgers” — while noting that if drafted I myself would serve. Frankly somewhat disingenuous, as I was trying hard to medically disqualify. 

My picture was once in The Times too. Because I was, indeed, a poor physical specimen, to fill my college’s phys ed requirement I looked for something non-athletic — and hit upon “outdoor education and camping.” Not foreseeing an actual camping trip. Oddly enough, a Times reporter covered it. He wrote that everyone showed enthusiasm — except for “one grim youth who carried his gear in a red plaid suitcase.” There was a photo (from the back).

I used that suitcase for years afterward. 

But my Times record is not all bad. Just as I started dating my now-wife, she, a librarian, stumbled upon an article there about a regulatory decision of mine. Nice way to impress a girl! 

* As it happens, Elizabeth just got accepted by Harvard for graduate school, but she hasn’t decided. 

How to Create a Mind

April 15, 2021

Humans try to understand our reality. Including how our minds do that. 

“Futurist” Ray Kurzweil has posited a coming “singularity” when artificial intelligence outstrips ours, and everything changes. His book How to Create a Mind seeks to reverse-engineer our minds, to apply that knowledge to AI’s development.

Our thinking about something, perceiving something, remembering something, etc., may seem simple. We just do it. Like tapping an app on your phone just brings it up. But hidden, behind that app icon, is a tremendous web of complexity. Our minds are like that. We normally don’t need to peek under the hood. Unless we want to truly understand ourselves.

Consider hitting a baseball. Coming at you with maybe a second to calculate its path, and the precise body motions needed to connect bat with ball. Imagine trying to work it all out consciously. But we don’t have to. The brain does it for us.

Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Works went through an exercise of identifying all the logic steps for answering a fairly simple question, how an uncle and nephew are related. That answer might seem obvious. Yet the necessary logic consumed quite a few pages — reminding me of Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica laying out 362 pages of logic to reach 1+1=2. 

But Pinker’s example assumes you understand the question in the first place. And that’s a whole ‘nother thing — which Kurzweil explores. What does “understanding” really mean?

The mind can be seen as arising (or emerging) from the the workings of billions of neurons. Kurzweil probes how that happens, on a deep level. Pattern recognition is central. We are bombarded with incoming sensory data; its information content, in bits, is astronomical. If we couldn’t detect patterns to make it intelligible we couldn’t function.

You see a mass of pixels, detect the pattern of a lion, and run. (Indeed, for extra safety, evolution actually gave us overdeveloped pattern recognition, often seeing things that aren’t there. Making us suckers for supposed paranormal and supernatural stuff, including religion.) 

Kurzweil casts the brain as consisting largely of a massive number of parallel processing modules (each comprising around a hundred neurons) for pattern recognition. And this too, like the uncle-nephew logic mentioned, is deep with complexity. You don’t just simply seea pattern. Much has to happen for that perception to arise. 

Take reading. You seemingly glide across the page effortlessly. But obviously, before you can understand a sentence, you have to understand each word; and before you can even see a word, you have to see each letter. But it doesn’t stop there. An “A” has two slanted upright lines, and a horizontal line. The brain has to register not only each of those, but also their orientations and positioning. Then it has to refer back to, and compare against, its stored database of letter memory, to come up with the brilliant synthesis: “That’s an A!”

Kurzweil describes our brain’s pattern recognition modules as working hierarchically; passing information up and down the line. You start with the A’s three components. That information goes to the next level(s) where the lines’ positions and orientations are registered. Once you’ve got the A, it goes up to a yet higher level bringing it together with other letters. More upward steps are needed to “get” a whole sentence.

But meantime, information is also being passed down the hierarchy, which Kurzweil deems at least equally important. Because at each level, the system generates tentative conclusions and predictions of what’s likely coming next. This greatly speeds the whole process. 

If you’ve got an A, and then a P, P, and L, you may expect an E next. The context can eliminate other possibilities (I, A, or Y). This analysis would occur at a yet higher level, and be passed back down the system.

This at least is Kurzweil’s model. I’m not sure I entirely buy it. While the logic is unarguable, I think we learn shortcuts. I don’t think the brain has to go through all those steps to grasp the word “apple;” we do recognize it as a unit, in one go. That’s what learning to read really is. 

Nevertheless, the Kurzweil model helps to understand some aspects of our mental processing. At the highest levels of the hierarchy, we are collating inputs even from different sensory systems, and developing abstract concepts. This is the level at which the self emerges.

Kurzweil discusses IBM’s “Watson” program that won at Jeopardy! Watson understood the questions sufficiently to answer them, but some say that’s different from what is meant when we say a human “understands” something. Kurzweil counters, however, that the hierarchical processing in both cases is really the same. What’s different is having a sense of self. 

Consciousness and the self are deep conundrums. Philosophers posit the zombie problem: if a seeming human exhibits all the behavior we expect, but without inner conscious experience, how could anyone tell the difference?

At some point this will become a big issue with respect to artificial intelligence. Claims will be made for AI consciousness. Kurzweil believes we’ll accept it as a matter of course, citing how we empathize with characters like R2D2 in popular entertainment. I think that’s way too optimistic and the real thing will provoke ferocious resistance. Some people still can’t accept other ethnicities as fully human. Robot protest marches will demand their human rights.

And while Kurzweil thinks we will accept artificial consciousness that emulates the human sort, what about completely different, alien forms of consciousness? May be hard to conceptualize, but we certainly cannot assume ours is the only possible kind. What might the differences be? Here’s one: they may not necessarily have emotions — love or fear, for example — that mirror ours.

And if we do encounter some non-human consciousness, machine or otherwise, how — as with zombies — will we know it? Pioneer computer theorist Alan Turing proposed the Turing Test. Whether a machine, interrogated by a human, can convince them it is conscious. This never made sense to me. A human’s mere subjective judgment here cannot be conclusive. Surely a computer can be programmed (like Watson) sufficiently to give answers that seem to pass the Turing test.

Amconscious? I perform, to myself, all the indicia of consciousness, as a zombie would. Am I fooling myself, in the way a zombie would? But who or what is “myself” in that question? This is actually a puzzle I think about a lot. My brain has thoughts I know about. And I know I know about them. And know that I do. This can go on forever with no final knower. I can never seem to put my finger on the “me-ness” at the bottom of it all. This is what makes consciousness and the self such maddeningly hard problems. And if we don’t truly understand the nature of our own consciousness, how could we determine whether some other entity is conscious? 

Kurzweil then tackles the free will conundrum. A key aspect concerns the distinction between conscious and unconscious decision making. The famous Libet experiment seemed to show that a conscious decision to act is preceded by unconscious readying in the brain. Kurzweil discusses this and then poses the question: does it matter? If our actions and decisions arise from both unconscious and conscious brain activity, don’t both aspects represent one’s mind? Both really just parts of one unified system?

Kurzweil hypothesizes a procedure to create an artificial duplicate of you. Down to every cell and neuron. Maybe with some improved roboticized features. It certainly, of course, behaves as you do. If you are conscious, so must it be. But would you be okay with having your old incarnation dispensed with, replaced by the new one? “You” would still exist, no? Well, I don’t think so. (That’s a problem regarding teleportation. “Beam me up, Scotty” may have seemed fine in Star Trek, but I would refuse it.)

But Kurzweil goes on: imagine a more limited procedure, replacing one brain module with an improved artificial one. No problem there. We already do such things — e.g., cochlear implants. Of course you’re still you. But suppose we keep going and in steps replace every part of your brain.

This is the ancient story of the Ship of Theseus. So famous it was preserved. Its wooden planks would periodically rot and be replaced. In time, none of the original wood remained. Was it still “the Ship of Theseus?” Our bodies actually do this too, replacing our cells constantly (though brain cells are the longest lived). You still feel you are you.

Kurzweil does envision progressively more extensive replacement of our biological parts and systems with superior artificial ones. In my own landmark 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? I foresaw an eventual convergence between our biological selves and the artificial systems we devise to enhance our capabilities. Human intelligence has enabled us to make advances, solve problems, and improve our quality of life at an incredibly accelerating pace. That will go into overdrive once conscious artificial intelligence kicks in. Kurzweil says an “ultraintelligent” machine will be the last invention humanity will ever have to make. 

Guns and Republicans: soft on crime

April 12, 2021

“House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Biden is ‘soft on crime’ but tramples Second Amendment rights.”

Reading that line in the paper turned my stomach.

Republicans shriek hysterically about Democrats taking away your guns. Like just about everything in today’s Republican universe, it’s simply a lie. I’m (now) a Democrat, and would actually favor taking away many guns; and repealing the Second Amendment. But the great majority of Democrats would not, even if they thought it feasible, which they (and I) do not. What most Democrats do favor, instead, is some reasonable regulations to keep guns from the hands of the most dangerous people, and curb the availability of military-style assault weapons whose only function is to kill many people fast.

This doesn’t “trample” the Second Amendment. No freedom is ever so absolute that it trumps all other societal concerns. Freedom of speech does not extend to perjury or libel. And “the right to bear arms” does not include howitzers, or nuclear weapons. Nor should it cover mass murder assault weapons, or allowing lunatics and criminals to buy guns. That’s all Democrats say.

President Biden’s measures are actually extremely modest steps that just nibble at the edges of the problem. That doesn’t keep Republicans, like the morally collapsed local Congresswoman Stefanik, calling them a “gun grab.”

A great majority of Americans — even of Republicans — agree with the Democratic proposals. So why does the GOP make opposition a centerpiece of their propaganda? 

Because the NRA is opposed. It’s an extremist organization, whose stance is as extreme as it could be. Second Amendment absolutism, as if even the most sensible, reasonable regulation of guns must lead to confiscating all of them. (Automobile regulations, including driver licenses, required annual inspections, speed limits, etc., do not curb “freedom” or lead to car confiscations.) Someone should introduce legislation to outlaw private ownership of howitzers — they’re guns, after all — just to test if the NRA will stay consistent and oppose that. 

But legions of gun lovers look to the NRA to call their tune. They’re still only a small minority of American voters. So how does that minority manage to call the nation’s tune?

Many think it’s that Congressional Republicans are beholden to NRA campaign money. Not so. Such contributions are paltry. What keeps Republicans in line is not NRA support but the threat of NRA opposition. A kiss of death.

Why, if most voters actually hate the NRA? Because gun lovers are one-issue voters. Others may care a lot about gun control, but only as one issue among many. They won’t vote against a candidate on that issue alone. Gun nuts will.

It’s a basic problem in democracy. Any issue may be of modest concern to the mass of voters, affecting them only marginally — but of intense concern to a few, who are greatly affected. That concentrated concern will outgun the others, and prevail against the greater good.

Then there’s “soft on crime.” Another in the Republican spit-bag of epithets mindlessly thrown at opponents. Just tossing words, because they can; no need for substance or explanation. Trump specialized in this. “Weak on crime, weak on borders, weak on the military.” (He preferred the word “weak,” as if to contrast his own phony posture of strength.) Republican voters —especially those high on guns — eat up this pap. 

Even generally sane voters can fall for it. “Soft on crime” is an insidious meme that warps minds, so all politicians fear the label, and strive hard to avoid it.

“Soft on crime.” But — what is a key element in crime? GUNS!!!

Morons can’t even spell

Involved in a very high proportion of serious violent crimes. America has vastly more guns, in relation to population, than any other country. We have 4% of the world’s population and 40% of its guns. And — surprise — way more gun crime than any other country. The NRA and gun nuts actually try to tell us the answer for too many guns is — wait for it — even more guns. Literally insane.

Meantime, most Republican “tough on crime” policies actually do little or nothing to reduce crime. What would have a big impact would be stricter gun regulation and diminishing the vast number of guns in circulation, responsible for so much crime. 

By opposing this, it’s Republicans who are the ones truly soft on crime