The truth about UFOs

July 22, 2021

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

Um, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The voting rights fight: Is humanity ready for democracy?

July 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coin Ad Rip-off

July 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-19: Now the Republican Disease

July 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe cosmic justice.

How many brains do you have?

July 13, 2021

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

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

But it gets yet more interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is America’s real story?

July 9, 2021

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

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

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

That’s what lifts my heart on July 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump gets away with it again

July 5, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memento Mori – Thinking about death

July 1, 2021

Each night at midnight, I close the book I’m reading, go upstairs, piss, enter the bedroom, climb into bed.

Thinking: Here I am, doing this again. Deja vu? Groundhog Day? It feels like I’d only just performed the exact same actions, moments ago. However, unlike in Groundhog Day, it’s not an endless loop, but inexorably consuming a finite supply of days. Now another one is gone.

That feeling intensifies as I age. The hourglass an increasingly apt metaphor. Indeed, more reality than metaphor.

Except that it actually seems to speed up. When you’re ten, a year is a tenth of your life, and feels like forever. At 73, a year is only a tiny sliver, and disappears like quicksilver.

Old European paintings often included a skull. This was called “memento mori,” meaning “remember you will die.” And, in those times, likely soon. But those people all supposedly believed they’d go to Heaven. Yet deep down they must have feared it wasn’t true.

I’m certain it’s not, and have a strong sense of memento mori. My wife and I watch a lot of science shows, often depicting ancient skeletons crumbling to dust. In them, I always see myself someday.

With that “someday” nearing with each passing hour. For most of my life the end seemed so far distant I could almost pretend it was never. Now at 73 it feels more like closing in.

Does that frighten me? My wife and I recently had this conversation. “Fright” is not exactly the right word, implying some doubt about the outcome. Instead it’s mindfulness of impending loss, both certain and total. It’s not dying I fear so much as what comes after. Though I won’t be around to experience it. The ultimate philosophical conundrum. People liken death to the eternity of nonexistence preceding one’s birth. But of course that entailed no loss. Whereas loss is quintessential in death.

It’s the loss of everything one loves. All one’s human connections; possessions; prideful accomplishments. All become as those crumbling skeletons in those documentaries. But most importantly it’s one’s aliveness, having experiences, thoughts, sensations, feelings. I’ve been very fortunate to live a wonderful life, which of course makes the loss all the greater.

My mother died recently (not unexpected, at 100). A key feeling I have is that I’m alive and she’s not. Her death is a loss to me but so much greater a loss to her. A life so deeply lived is now simply over. Making me savor all the more my own aliveness. Which only accentuates its coming loss.

It’s impossible to truly grasp that condition of nonexistence. And I try not to. Ordinarily I avoid it, stopping myself if I start thinking too concretely about it. Even here, I’m writing this as an intellectual exercise, while trying to steer clear of the existential quicksand of actually modeling nonexistence in my mind.

Yet even if I keep it vague it’s still there. Sometimes while going about in the world, I’m conscious that when I’m gone it will all continue merrily along just as before. A few people might miss me. A little. For a while. Seeing a newspaper obituary of someone I knew gives me a brief frisson. And then I turn the page. Projecting myself into that place is a weird feeling.

Picasso was someone who really lived life to the fullest. He did a famous self-portrait when he knew he was nearing death. Confronting it was starkly imprinted on his face. I can see myself in his place. But then I think that maybe when I’m, say, 100, I’ll already be “sans everything,” without much of life’s pleasure; it will have grown harder, frustrating, even painful; or I’ll have simply grown tired of it, difficult though that is to imagine. Meantime, as long as it’s at least years away, it can still feel distant enough that I don’t really have to confront it. Indeed, to avoid that kind of stark Picasso-like confrontation, I think I’d actually prefer to fade away gradually and gently, my selfhood dissolving without my realizing it.

Meantime too, I counterpose all this with another fundamental understanding. Existence is not something I take for granted. Not at all; to the contrary, looking at the cosmos, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that there should exist an entity such as me, with a consciousness, a sense of self — something which indeed our science, far advanced though it is, cannot totally account for. Thus I see my existence as a virtually miraculous gift.

What a churl I’d be to have this gift while griping that it’s not forever. That is the gift’s conditionality. That’s the deal. I accept it because it’s a good deal. And because there is literally no alternative to accepting it.

The Four Americas: Is there any hope?

June 27, 2021

Some people see America divided in two. George Packer sees four Americas. He’s a leading journalist and author, whose new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, is distilled into an essay in The Atlantic.*

The 2016 election shattered my understanding of this country. I’ve since struggled to rebuild it. Packer offers some good insights. He actually pinpoints 2014 as the year America’s character changed. Though that refers to only one of what he sees as really four stories. Four different mentalities that have evolved, each sparking reverberations in the others. He labels them Free, Smart, Real, and Just America.

Free America originally wove together Enlightenment libertarianism with traditionalist conservatism. Opposing big bossy government; “speak[ing] to the American myth of the self-made man and the lonely pioneer on the plains.” This became the Republican party’s ideology.

Packer says “libertarians made common cause with segregationists, and racism informed their political movement from the beginning,” with the 1964 Goldwater campaign. That raised my hackles. I was active in that effort and didn’t observe racism being part of it. We had other ideological fish to fry. Though we did welcome any support we could get, including from segregationists who had their own reasons.

That was then. Packer says that after Reagan, “Free America’s” leadership went downhill. Gingrich being the key political figure of the era, turning politics into scorched-earth war. Then from Gingrich to Cruz to Hannity, “with no bottom.” Government was still the bête noire, but this was no longer a matter of Enlightenment philosophy, but rather of tribal blood-and-soil white caste assertiveness. Republicans “mobilized anger and despair while [only] offering up scapegoats. The party thought it could control these dark energies . . . instead they would consume it.” Culminating in January 6.

Smart America —a core of today’s Democratic party — refers to a relatively new elite class of educated professionals, whose cosmopolitanism somewhat overlaps with Free America’s libertarian streak. Both have a meritocratic ethos, believing talent and effort should determine reward, thus both having limited sympathy for the underclass. Packer says meritocrats no longer feel part of the same country — Smart America having withdrawn, as it were, into its gated communities, disengaged from some larger national project. Seeing patriotism as vulgar, thus leaving it the province of yahoos.

Sarah Palin embodied what Packer labels Real America (which is how it sees itself). Its anti-intellectualism has deep antecedents, standing in opposition to the elites of Smart America. Which, Packer says, discredited themselves with the Iraq mess and then the 2008 financial crisis. “Real America” also reviles “other” people it sees as both alien and unworthy. Its heart is white Christian nationalism (with Christianity more salient as a tribal cultural signifier than as a religious creed).

Those “Real Americans” seized upon Trump as their voice, which he channeled with (I’d say unwitting) “reptilian genius.” If the elites considered them ignorant, crass, and bigoted, “then Trump was going to shove it in [their] smug faces.” Thus did his vileness actually, perversely, work for him.

Free and Real America seem hard to disentangle today; the latter having really subsumed the former. Smothering its principled antecedents, now confined to an impotent rump of Republicanism.

Packer fingers 2014, the year of Ferguson, as a hinge point, a sort of coming-out party for his fourth cohort — Just America — as in “social justice,” with its abiding idea really being Unjust America. Upending universal Enlightenment values of rationalism in favor of a subjectivity seeing everything in terms of power relationships and modalities of oppression (gosh, I’m starting to sound like them). We know by now how insufferably intolerant these “woke” people can be, trolling everywhere for pretexts to assert putative moral superiority over others. (An analog of sorts to white supremacism.) Which, Packer says, does nothing to actually address the kinds of societal problems they spout about.

While Packer divides us into the four groups, the fourth doesn’t seem on a par with the rest, which comprise big population segments. Just America, for all its shrillness and undeniable cultural intimidation, is actually only a small minority. Meantime Packer ultimately sees a dichotomy, putting Free and Real America together in one bucket, Smart and Just America in another. That latter linkage is dubious.

I see the real divide as between, on one hand, Trump cultists in an ugly alternate reality together with the hard left “woke” totalitarians — Crazed America — and, on the other hand, contrastingly reasonable and rational folks of good will. Sane America. Among whom differences of opinion are comparatively benign.

Anyhow, Packer says the societal division “emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years.” (Actually the picture is much more complex than the conventional wisdom of a “disappearing middle class” would have it.) Packer holds that each of his four groups “offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have. Free America celebrates the energy of the unencumbered individual. Smart America respects intelligence and welcomes change. Real America commits itself to a place and has a sense of limits. Just America demands a confrontation with what the others want to avoid.”

I found that too a bit forced. However, says Packer, they all impinge upon each other, pitting tribe against tribe vying for status, pushing each into ever more extreme versions of themselves.

But he says America isn’t dying. We have no choice but living together. And a “way forward that tries to make us Equal Americans, all with the same rights and opportunities — the only basis for shared citizenship and self-government — is a road that connects our past and our future.”

Those words sound like platitudinous moonshine. And his concluding ones contradict them: “we remain trapped in two countries . . . the tensions within each country will persist even as the cold civil war between them rages on.”

That’s closer to reality. The “crisis” of Packer’s book title is clear enough; the “renewal” part much less so.

* https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/07/george-packer-four-americas/619012/. All quotes are from the essay. (I thank Robyn Blumner of the Center for Inquiry for pointing me to it.)

Let’s talk about climate change (no, really!)

June 23, 2021

My Humanist Group hosted a (pre-pandemic!) presentation by Tim Guinee, promoting the hoax of human-caused global warming. Just kidding; actually, it was a really excellent explanation of the reality, so I’ll recap it. Then offer a few points in response.

Our atmosphere is actually just a very thin sheath around the planet. It traps solar radiation, warming the Earth, and making life possible. But there can be too much of a good thing. Case in point: Venus, warmed to a toasty 867 degrees Fahrenheit. Carbon Dioxide in our own atmosphere increases its heat trapping effect. Today, mainly through fossil fuel burning (and despite the Paris agreement), we continue to increase atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, topping the previous high 3 million years ago — with sea levels 30 meters higher than now.

So 2019 was the 43rd consecutive year with global temperatures above the average. (New York’s rise exceeds our national average.) Guinee showed charts with the temperature bell curve moving toward the right; while the overall shift may seem small, it results in far more episodes at the extreme end. Thus heat waves have killed tens of thousands.

Most excess heat gets sopped up by the oceans. This has caused wobbles in the jet stream current, trapping weather systems like hurricanes and thus intensifying them. Also, warmer air above the seas increases water vapor, making for bigger downpours, now being called “rain bombs.” The Northeast has seen a 71% rise in extreme rainfall events since 1958. Builders of Kentucky’s full-size Noah’s Ark replica sued their insurers because it was damaged by rain!

The added heat also pulls moisture from land, causing droughts, and forest fires. Recent Australian fires are reckoned to have killed a billion critters — not counting insects, frogs, or fish. We’re also losing tree cover, which feeds back to more warming. While more warmth means more disease-carrying insects, like ticks, and additional air pollution, also adding to human death tolls.

And of course melting Greenland and Antarctic ice raises sea levels, endangering coastal habitations.

Guinee noted that the world’s poorest (who benefit least from fossil fuel burning) suffer the most from climate change.

But his message was hopeful. He noted that deployment of solar and wind power and electric cars has vastly exceeded projections from not long ago. These technologies are improving while costs are falling; this can make adoption of new paradigms quite rapid (look at cellphones). While some worry about economic costs of combating climate change, Guinee pointed out that since 2006 Minneapolis reduced emissions by 20% while its economy grew 30%. And in 1860, America’s biggest capital investment was in slaves; yet we successfully transitioned beyond that.

But people understanding the problem doesn’t mean they’ll act accordingly. Indeed, token actions can induce complacency. And we need big national and international efforts. But small actions can inspire greater ones and create new social norms. Guinee concluded that what we really need is a “mature leap of faith.”

All this overlooks the fact that if God didn’t want temperatures to rise, they wouldn’t.

But back to reality. Climate activists focus almost entirely on curbing carbon emissions. There’s a missionary zeal to this, demonizing humanity as guilty of raping the planet, and prescribing as penitence a hair shirt of dialing back economic activity. However, asking people to accept reduced lifestyles is totally unrealistic. And anyhow, global warming is already baked in, and temperatures will still rise even if we cut carbon emissions to zero. Thus we must give much more attention to investments aimed at preparing for adaptation to higher temperatures. And also more intensively research options for geo-engineering, that is, pro-active measures to reduce global temperatures (like mimicking the effects of volcanic eruptions, which do that). But climate activists resist such efforts as antithetical to their insistence on carbon reduction.

They also tend to resist expansion of nuclear power, which any rational carbon-reduction strategy must prominently include. In terms of climate, nuclear is actually the cleanest possible energy source. I just read a big article in The Economist about renewable power sources, highlighting all the obstacles to their deployment to the extent needed. Astoundingly (to me), the word “nuclear” nowhere occurred in the article.

Further, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to climate warriors, carbon is far from the whole picture. About a quarter of global warming is caused by methane — which, ton for ton, over 20 years from emission, causes 86 times more warming than carbon dioxide. And the good news is that methane could be reduced without incurring the economic damage associated with carbon dioxide. A major methane culprit is the process of extracting and transporting natural gas; with the mundane problem of leaky pipes playing a big role. Reducing these losses could pay for itself because methane, unlike carbon dioxide, is a valuable commodity. Farm animals are another key source of atmospheric methane; that could be meliorated by tweaking their diets.