Will AI Take Over the World and Destroy Humanity?

June 9, 2023

ChatGPT, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program, was launched in November 2022. My techie nephew, as a Christmas gift, asked ChatGPT to summarize one of my blog essays, then to rebut it. The results expressed some conventional viewpoints — but with astonishingly glib articulateness.

That AI capability has captured the world’s attention. A German magazine’s purported celebrity interview proved to be an AI creation. An AI has passed the bar exam (with flying colors). If it can perform such brainwork, where will that leave humans? Some fear AI could take over the world (a TV drama, Mrs. Davis, explores that scenario) and even eliminate us. AI cognoscenti, when surveyed, rate the odds pretty low — yet uncomfortably above zero. A passel of them have called for a pause in AI development. Good luck.

The metaphor is Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a trainee magician who enchants a broom to fetch water without knowing how to stop it. Similarly, philosopher Nick Bostrom conjures an AI told to maximize paper clip production, resulting in a world full of paper clips — and no humans. Another cautionary tale was the rogue computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So how scared should we be?

The Economist magazine recently provided a helpful look at how programs like ChatGPT actually work. They’re “Large Language Models,” trained through exposure to vast amounts of verbiage from the internet. They take a chunk of language, guess what word comes next, then check their answer against the actual text. Do this a zillion times and your guesses get pretty good.

But note that this entails no understanding of the words themselves — let alone what a sentence or paragraph means. Words are converted into numbers, the guesses then guided by how often a given number appears in proximity to certain other ones. This seemingly sterile modus operandi, with enough repetitions, does enable an AI to perform remarkable linguistic feats, like composing a respectable rhyming Shakespearean sonnet on any subject you ask (or rebutting a blog essay).

But in no sense is it “figuring out” what to say. Instead it just plonks one word after another, effectively mimicking what others have said in other relevant contexts. And that, importantly, is not creativity; not thinking.

Thinking, as humans do it (including understanding words, a very complex matter) involves thinking about our thoughts, in the context of a representational model of the world that our minds create. This requires a consciousness, a sense of self. How those arise and operate remains a profoundly vexing scientific and philosophical conundrum. But they do entail self-regarding goals and desires quite different in character from any imparted to a computer program (“make paper clips”). Thus “Artificial Intelligence” may actually be a misnomer — the output simulates that of intelligence, but the methods used don’t resemble our understanding of that word.

The movie “Her” portrayed a computer program that does possess a human-like self. We call that “General Artificial Intelligence.” But it’s miles distant, toward which ChatGPT has taken us maybe an inch.

So an AI program getting it into its head to “take over the world” simply doesn’t compute for me. That would be something radically different from the mere kind of mechanistic symbol manipulation, without even comprehending the words being used, of a program like ChatGPT.

It’s true that AIs are “black boxes,” such that even one’s programmer cannot know what steps it actually takes to produce its output. That does scare some people about an AI going rogue. But even if one did somehow become a “Her,” with human-like intentionality, or a HAL, we’d still ultimately remain in control. Remember that HAL was simply unplugged.

In sum, I don’t believe we should fear such programs themselves. But their potential for misuse by malign humans is another matter entirely.

The Ministry for the Future

June 5, 2023

A recent article in The Economist addressed global warming’s effect on India and Pakistan. With discussion of “wet-bulb” temperatures, a more complex measurement of heat impact; 35 about the limit humans can endure. Heat waves in those countries inch toward that. It sounded like India and Pakistan are on the cusp of becoming literally uninhabitable.

Then I pick up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book, The Ministry for the Future. A novel — or a polemic in the guise of a novel. Starting in the very near future, with an Indian heat wave (and more wet-bulb talk), vividly chronicled through the eyes of Frank, a young aid worker at a clinic. The power’s gone out, but he’s got a generator and air conditioner. Until they’re stolen by gunmen. Frank still struggles to help save townspeople. In vain; all are among the 20 million killed by this heat wave. Frank himself survives — barely — traumatized.

The Ministry for the Future is a global agency set up to try to save civilization. But it’s not some monster bureaucracy with draconian powers. More like a glorified Greta Thunberg, to nag the world. Its head, Mary Murphy, is the book’s sort-of-hero. Its villain is “capitalism.”

There’s the usual bashing of fossil fuel industries; of course “the rich;” and “neoliberalism.” A pejorative referring to the economic consensus that widely emerged after communism and socialism seemed discredited; emphasizing free markets, globalization, free trade, and limits on government. When the word is fetishized, as here, you know where the writer is coming from politically.

Oh, and here America too is a villain. China and Russia basically good guys. Right-o.

This is a very preachy book. Pedantic, didactic, tedious. And long. Not a fun read. But a spoiler alert: the good guys win! Indeed, solving not just climate, but (practically) all the world’s other problems. Even inequality!

Some shadowy forces wage war against carbon emissions. Thus “Crash Day” when sixty planes go down. Though not quite indiscriminately — many are private jets. Container ships are being sunk. Et cetera. For Robinson, anyone contributing (heedlessly) to carbon emissions is a genocidal criminal deserving the ultimate penalty. Which he administers with relish.

Yet unlike many climate zealots, he understands the limitations of a carbon-centric approach. Even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, rising temperatures are already baked in. Global warming would only be moderated slightly.

“Geoengineering” is the term for actions to actually reverse the effects and cool the planet. It’s been a dirty word among climate warriors fixated on curbing emissions. One might think their real animus is not to save humanity but to punish it; to especially punish “neoliberal capitalism.” Geoengineering seen as an unwelcome distraction from that jihad.

In the book, India, after its catastrophic heat wave, goes full geoengineering — sending up planes to seed the atmosphere in mimicry of a major volcanic eruption, which does cause cooling. Mary Murphy tells India they can’t do that without international consensus. India tells Mary to stuff it.

Other concepts in the book, new to me, are pumping sea water into Antarctica’s interior where it freezes, thus offsetting sea level rises due to melting ice elsewhere; and dying the Arctic Ocean yucky yellow, to prevent heat absorption.

All these measures are portrayed favorably, as feasible and impactful, without the untoward side effects that geoengineering haters warn of. Indeed, given the climate crisis extremity in this imagined future, the word “geoengineering” loses its opprobrium, and even drops from common discourse. Now it’s just doing whatever it takes to save civilization.

Capitalism’s critics rarely have a glimmer of an alternative. Robinson at least tries. Confronting the argument that the market’s pricing and production decisions are too complex for government planners to substitute for — as the Soviet Union proved — Robinson says AI should solve that, being up to the job. Disregarding that bloodless AI lacks the entrepreneurial incentive to satisfy customers.

That’s the “greed” we keep hearing about. Another word Robinson harps on. Excessive greed can — like anything excessive — be a vice; but “greed” itself merely refers to the universal human desire for betterment for oneself and one’s family. An ineradicable thirst for wealth and status. Which has been the impetus behind betterment for everyone, all human progress. The idea of a world without “greed,” with everyone just complacently having their needs met, is actually inhuman — a world of cardboard cut-outs, not people.

Similarly, Robinson’s alternative economic model — he plays footsie with the word “socialism” — entails disallowing profit for provision of any goods or services people really need, those needs being met instead by government. Well, he talks in terms of everyone owning everything in common. But in practice that means government. Which in turn means certain people once again having inordinate power. Something you can’t get around, no matter the system.

The source of the money to finance production of all these goods and services, to be distributed with nobody making any profit, is something of a mystery. People would still be paid for working; with everyone, moreover, guaranteed a job. Old Soviet joke: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Robinson considers money itself a bad thing, at least as presently constituted; he sees it replaced by some sort of blockchain “people’s money” which, somehow, no one can hide or exploit for bad ends. And nobody’s allowed to have more than a limited amount.

It seems he actually foresees replacing humanity itself, as presently constituted, with a new model, free of greed, selfishness, tribalism, ignorance, every bad tendency. Required for the global New Jerusalem he envisions.

I’m no misanthrope, believing human good outweighs the bad. But you gotta grapple with the bad. Can’t just wish it all away.

Early in the book, attendees at an annual Davos gathering are locked in by some of those eco-terrorists and subjected to “re-education” via films and power-points, trying to shake their capitalist faith. They’re told that four billion people are still in poverty.* And one of the captive fat-cats rejoins that but for capitalism, it would be eight billion.

That guy was right. Robinson should listen to him.

* No longer true.

Is Life (Always) Worth Living?

June 1, 2023

A French court decreed that a teenaged boy was entitled to compensation for having been born. Medics had failed to detect conditions resulting in severe birth defects, leaving the child deaf, mentally challenged, and nearly blind. Had his parents known to expect this, they’d have aborted. Would that have been better for him?

Well, there might have followed another, normal pregnancy, and presumably you would rather be normal. But that would have been a different person, doing no good for the first kid, who would never have existed.

And isn’t existing better than not existing? People generally feel so — holding onto existence with fierce tenacity, even if professing to expect a heavenly afterlife. And even if having lives full of pain and suffering.

Maintaining existence in such circumstances is a choice, and some people do opt out. Yet not only are suicides a small minority among suffering people, but suicidal impulses tend to be transient even for ones who attempt it — most who fail don’t try again. This too illustrates the power of the preference for existence over nonexistence.

Something I read long ago really stuck with me. In surveys, greater than average happiness and life satisfaction were reported by people confined to iron lungs. How could that be? Maybe such people were more keenly mindful of life’s precariousness, with its difficulty making them value all the more what they did have.

You yourself might imagine that, given certain circumstances of misery and suffering, your life might not be worth living. Like in an iron lung. But you may — likely would — think differently if you were actually in the situation. That’s why we invented iron lungs, positing that life in one is better than no life at all — thus worth living.

Viktor Frankl’s message in Man’s Search for Meaning was similar. There, the suffering addressed was that in a Nazi concentration camp. Some inmates did succumb to despair; but others could find meaning for their lives even in such awful circumstances.

Philosopher Peter Heinegg, in Better than Both: The Case for Pessimism (a counterpoint to my own book), said that better than life or death is never being born at all. (Though he himself seemed to greatly enjoy living.) And the great moral philosopher Peter Singer has suggested euthanizing a child born with likelihood of a miserable existence. With the only cavil being the trauma for the parents. I’ve always found Singer’s work a reductio ad absurdum of moralism.

These notions return us to the French teen’s case, and the idea that his very existence does him compensable injury. Does he indeed wish he’d never been born? Or — is he lucky the pregnancy problem went undetected, thus averting abortion?

So, what is it about existence per se that makes it a positive thing? It’s hard to conceptualize because the contrary condition — nonexistence — is impossible to truly model in one’s mind. Asking what nonexistence would feel like is nonsensical.

Existence being indeed the sine qua non for everything. Even the universe. Why it does exist, as opposed to there being nothing, is a devilish problem, but it would be moot if the universe were nonexistent.

Whether any life is worth living is a question of value, and what value means in such a context is a fraught question. Value to who being one aspect. The individual in question, mainly, but if that individual were nonexistent (as with the universe) the matter becomes moot.

So, to restate the point, existence is the foundation for everything that could come under the rubric of value. While nonexistence excludes any ideation of value. That makes the phrase “life not worth living” an absurdity. Only in the context of existence, as opposed to nonexistence, can one speak of anything being worth anything.

Florida Man Versus Florida Man for President

May 26, 2023

When “Florida Man” appears in a news headline, cue some real crazy shit going down.

A Florida Man, Governor Ron DeSantis, has declared his presidential candidacy.

Call me an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, but I’m nostalgic for candidates talking about the actual, serious problems confronting the country. That ain’t Ron DeSantis. He’s made it clear he’s all about culture wars, all the time. There’s no culture war issue whose hot buttons he doesn’t try to push. Talking about real issues? Nah.

Our epidemic of gun violence is a real issue. But guns are also a culture fetish for America’s right. So Florida Man DeSantis has made his state (site of some landmark mass shootings — Pulse Nightclub, Douglas school) a permitless-carry gun nuts’ paradise.

The right has also whipped itself into an obsessive frenzy over trans people and other sexually nonconforming folks. This too DeSantis has fed with his “Don’t Say Gay” law. Feeding a professed fear of kids somehow being influenced to go gay. Could these heteros imagine themselves propagandized into same-sex lust? It’s ridiculous. Yet they’re supposedly trying to “protect” children against that.

Protecting them from, like, drag queen story hours. Hey — how about protecting them against assault rifles??

And during Covid, DeSantis actually worked to block schools from measures to protect kids against the virus. Largely thanks to his coddling extreme right-wing opponents of public health strictures, at one point Florida had a fifth of all U.S. Covid infections.

He has also engaged in bashing immigrants and refugees, with cruel bussing stunts (while having nothing constructive to say about the issue). He’s exacerbated racial tensions by battling against the phony bogeyman of “critical race theory.” (“Protecting” kids against knowing our history.)

He’s promoted book banning, signed a draconian abortion ban, and weakened press freedom and academic freedom. All while, with no sense of irony, painting the word “freedom” all over himself.

DeSantis said Florida is “where woke goes to die.” No, it’s where sanity and decency go to die.

For the Republican presidential nomination, DeSantis is up mainly against Mar-a-Lago’s Donald Trump, another Florida Man par excellence. This reflects the Floridamanization of GOP politics. The Governor’s chief selling point is that he’s more electable. If this is what’s electable in today’s America, God help us.

The Pez Outlaw

May 23, 2023

Steve Glew was a Michigan machinist. A job he hated. Hated. But he loved his wife, a ’60s “flower child.” And his hobby, collecting old cereal boxes, which he found really cool. Glew was not your normal average Joe (or Steve). Maybe a little obsessive-compulsive.

Searching for boxes led him to big stashes whose boxtops he could mail in for premiums, mostly little toys, to sell at toy shows, helping ameliorate his family’s poverty. Until the cereal companies adopted “one per family” strictures.

But meantime Glew’s toy show peregrinations clued him to the huge Pez subculture. Pez was a popular candy sold in little hand-held plastic dispensers with varied colorful evocative designs — avidly sought by fanatical collectors. Glew smelled opportunity.

This story unfolded in a 2022 Netflix documentary we stumbled upon, The Pez Outlaw. That was what Glew eventually dubbed himself. The film was a hoot.

Glew got a tip that there was a factory somewhere in Europe where you could get Pez in quantity. Might as well have been Mars, given Glew’s impoverished insularity and psychological challenges. Yet he actually managed to scrape up the money and gumption to go, with his grown son along to help. Didn’t even know where the factory was! (Slovenia!) But somehow found it, connected with the guy in charge, and came back with sackfuls of “product.” Costing him pennies, some would go for hundreds or even more in the hot U.S. collector market.

Getting them through customs was dicey. Not exactly contraband, but not exactly legit either. I frankly didn’t understand this. If Glew did get the goods “under the table” somehow, so what? What business was that of the government? (I’m a free trade libertarian.) Anyhow, it developed that the Pez company had dropped the ball on trademark paperwork, or something, leaving the officious customs guys with no leg to stand on against Glew.

So, with repeated trips to that factory, he started making money in bushels. Happily kissed his machinist job goodbye.

Meantime the Pez company — mainly its “Pezident” Scott McWhinnie, the film’s villain — saw what was going on, was infuriated, and tried to thwart Glew. Thus the “Pez Outlaw” monicker. I found the company’s attitude hilariously baffling. Here its products were so loved by collectors they willingly paid extravagant prices. And this was seen as a problem? Couldn’t Pez come up with a strategy to exploit this phenomenon for its own benefit and profit? But no. Pure dog-in-the-mangerism.

What McWhinnie and company did manage to do was to cut off the spigot for Glew’s supply. Ending that lucrative huckle. Indeed, that factory ultimately stopped making Pez altogether.

But Glew, undaunted, came up with an alternate business plan. A personally designed suite of snazzy jazzy new Pez designs, whose manufacture he contracted. Costing him way more than those from Slovenia — five bucks apiece — but he figured to sell them at $25. Investing half a million, almost all he had.

With what Glew was doing before, I had no ethical qualm. If he could source stuff collectors would pay more for, good for him. (That basically describes my own business.) But now he was ripping off Pez’s brand. Very different.

And when he went to his first convention to debut his product line, the Pez company was there waiting for him. They ripped him off — copied his designs — and priced them at only $1.99.

That was the end of the Pez Outlaw. And of Glew the rich guy. A sad scene showed him dumping his now nearly worthless stock into a ditch and setting fire to it.

That was 1995. Since then he’s been a farmer, and been licking his wounds, trying to process what happened. He eventually showed up again on the Pez collector circuit, where he’s still something of a celebrity.

Through it all, his devoted wife stood by him. A real love story.

The Coddling of the American Mind

May 18, 2023

The Coddling of the American Mind is a great 2018 book by Jonathan Haidt, an NYU social and cultural psychologist, and attorney Greg Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

It’s about “woke” witch hunting on campuses — universities intimidated by hard left activists brooking no disagreement from their orthodoxies, mainly related to identity politics. (I previously reviewed, in Skeptic Magazine, another good book on this topic, The Tyranny of Virtue, by Robert Boyers.)

There’s a tendency in human affairs to go to extremes. The idea that if something is good, more is better. Running over moderation and restraint. Studies have shown that in a group of like-minded people, the most extreme among them will exert a gravitation-like force pulling the others toward that extreme.

What Coddling discusses is so extreme it’s off the charts; people losing all sense of perspective. A parallel to what’s happened to the Republican party.

Part of the woke ideology at issue is that everything comes down to power relationships. A kernel of truth they take to extremes. And it’s something they themselves ironically illustrate — their own empowerment being a key reason for their behavior. Central is performative “virtue signaling,” enabling them to feel superior to others, even to crush those others. Shouting down a campus speaker asserts one’s power over them.

Central too is a culture of safetyism, the idea that students (especially non-white) must be protected from the harm of exposure to any words potentially disturbing. With offenders to be punished. Another huge irony is that, rather than making campuses feel safer, this actually creates a culture of fear. With people terrified lest they utter some word falling afoul of the thought police. (Called “bias response teams” or the like on some campuses.) The phrase “walking on eggshells” appears multiple times in the book. Corroborated for me in conversation with a recent ivy league graduate who told of how a gang of “woke” activists had everyone else silenced in terror of their censorious wrath.

There’s another parallel here, to America’s gun culture. With, again, an ostensible safety notion — protection against threats of harm. When in fact the ubiquity of guns makes us all less safe. Indeed, harping on supposed self-protection (together with an overblown fixation on crime) creates another culture of fear. Manifested in a spate of recent shootings of people who innocently neared the homes of gun nuts. Shot instead of being asked, “Do you need help?” A sad aspect of American society today.

While (back to the book) higher education is shooting itself in the foot with regard to preparing students for life. Its subtitle is “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” The bad ideas are three “Great Untruths” which the authors blame for that campus dysfunctionality:

First, “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” (Inverting Nietzsche’s line.) It’s the notion that students are fragile snowflakes unable to withstand the mental trauma of encountering unwelcome ideas. Of course real life offers no such protections, and campus “safety” culture serves to heighten their emotional fragility. The authors instead advocate an anti-fragility ethos, wherein dealing with challenges strengthens one’s capability for doing so.

A metaphor is peanut allergies. Why has that become such a problem? Turns out that kids exposed early to peanuts mostly develop immunity; those “protected” more likely become vulnerable. It’s parents trying to avoid peanut allergies that have caused their explosion.

The second untruth is “always trust your feelings” — what the book calls emotional reasoning. The feelings at issue are, again, responsive to what other people say. Thus we get kerfuffles over “micro aggressions.” (Another irony: the very prefix “micro” ought to clue us that something’s not a big deal.) But the book posits that what really messes with our minds is not external events themselves but how we choose to think about them; invoking the childhood “sticks and stones” chant. The authors acknowledge that words can hurt, but a strong psyche can put that in perspective. More broadly, the whole point of education should be not letting emotions control you, with greater reliance on reason.

The third shibboleth is “us against them” — dividing humankind between the good (us) and the evil (them), who must be fought and defeated. Applicable regarding Russia and Ukraine. On campuses, not so much.

It’s classic witch hunting, casting out heretics. Though no one has actually been burned at the stake, plenty of victims have been demonized as pariahs and lost their jobs. The book suggests that rather few people are actually evil, most are well-intentioned (as its subtitle indicates), but can be misguided. (Much as I denounce the pathologies of Trump cultists, they’re not wicked people either, just (very) misguided.) Thus the authors call for giving people the benefit of the doubt — charitably viewing a faux pas as a mere mistake, not a heinous crime coming from a black heart and requiring capital punishment or near.

An “us-against-them” mentality is an evolutionary inheritance, since our ancient forebears did have much to fear from other tribes. Humanity has gone far toward advancing beyond this primitive paradigm. How weird that universities where, if anyplace, you’d expect enlightened rationalism, are backwaters of such stone age behavior.

So — why did this happen?

The authors (borrowing from chemistry) see a “phase change” occurring right around 2013, when “iGen” students started college. That was the first generation whose early teens were shaped by the iPhone (introduced in 2007), and the associated social media immersion. Making those kids virtually a different species.

The book breaks down the phenomenon into six causal factors:

• Increased political polarization. It’s not just the left on the warpath; left and right extremes feed off each other, deliberately provoke each other.

• Heightened iGen anxiety and depression, especially among girls; social media the key culprit (making them feel inferiority and exclusion). This very real pathology fed into the safetyism fetish, as if students are indeed unable to handle the stresses of micro aggressions and suchlike. Very counterproductive medicine.

• Paranoid, helicopter parenting (stemming from a wildly overblown 1980’s child abduction panic), also making kids feel beset with dangers, and needing protection. Priming them for a “safetyism” campus culture. The authors hold that kids are actually antifragile by nature, so that overprotection makes them less resilient later on.

• The decline of free play, another consequence of overly fearful parenting, which again keeps kids from learning the kinds of salutary life lessons, of how to get along with others, that a more “free range” childhood imparts.

• “The bureaucracy of safetyism.” The book shows how it suits campus administrators — a class that has exploded in size and influence — to coddle students as customers to be satisfied. And to just go along with campus Torquemadas rather than undertake the thankless and dangerous task of trying to rein them in. There’s also a CYA mentality whenever the word “safety” is invoked.

• The quest for justice. To their credit, students today are much attuned to issues of morality and justice, especially what’s termed “social justice” (actually a fraught concept). But even if the ends are right, the means can often be wrong.

The authors of course conclude with some recommendations, which boil down to doing less of the bad stuff they iterate, and more that’s counter to it. Well, sure. My own answer is the Pinkerish one that, in the big picture of human history, rationality has tended to inexorably push back against irrationality. We gain in wisdom. Even witch burnings, which went on for centuries, eventually burned themselves out. We can hope that reason will ultimately prevail even in the stygian caves of U.S. higher education.

2024: The Battle for America’s Soul

May 14, 2023

I vividly remember when Obama’s 2008 election victory was declared, and TV showed a middle aged Black Chicago woman jumping up and down shouting, “God bless America! God bless America!”

I didn’t vote for Obama (nor believe in God), but I understood that woman and it still gives me goosebumps. I saw there what is indeed America’s great virtue, inspiring my love. Not a perfect nation, but one striving to rise above human frailties, toward the soaring aspirations of its founding charter.

But more recent years have been rife with contra-indications. When Joe Biden declared his candidacy in 2020, he called it a battle for America’s soul, and I knew exactly what he was saying. It was for me a clarion call. Now he’s repeated it for 2024.

Columnist David Brooks has written that this truly does define what the 2024 election is about. Saying Biden is using the word “soul” not in a religious sense but a secular one: referring to a moral essence, possessed by people and nations. Lived through emotions that make us admire good deeds and despise nasty ones. With most people yearning to lead good lives; and if “they feel their lives have no moral purpose, they experience sickness of the soul.”

But Trump and Trumpism, says Brooks, embody an ethos “that deadens the soul under the reign of the ego.” Representing “a kind of nihilism that you might call amoral realism.” Where dogs eat dogs and might makes right. Where “cruelty, dishonesty, vainglory and arrogance are valorized.” Where “other people are not possessors of souls,” but “objects to be utilized.”

Here Brooks references Biden’s emphasizing the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. “One puts the dignity of individual souls at the center,” the other “operate[s] by the logic of dominance and submission.” Of course Trump fawned over dictators, openly dreaming of emulating them.

Brooks quotes Franklin Roosevelt that the presidency “is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” But during Trump’s term, says Brooks, “we had to endure a steady downpour of lies, transgressions and demoralizing behavior. We were all corroded by it.” And a return to that would mean “a social and moral disintegration.”

I, still harboring libertarian conservative DNA, am no Biden enthusiast. Critical of much that he’s done, and wishing he’d stood aside. Yet Brooks has it right: “Say what you will about Biden, but he has generally put human dignity at the center of his political vision. He treats people with charity and respect.” Totally Trump’s antithesis.

And this is the choice we face in 2024. Not “Democrat versus Republican or liberal versus conservative,” so much as “between an essentially moral vision and an essentially amoral one, a contest between decency and its opposite.” Between, literally, sanity and its opposite.

And yet most Americans are — otherwise — good and rational people. It’s confounding that so many could so bloody-mindedly vote for so grotesquely vile a creature as Trump. Blind to that reality. This was the bottom falling out of America’s civic culture. A betrayal, a repudiation, of that Chicago woman’s “God Bless America!” Lacerating my own soul.

A book I’m reading, a “history of emotion,” discusses “taste,” not so much about food as the broader aesthetic sense, imbued with a moral aspect. I’m not big on material things, but my love of country feels like a matter of aesthetics, for its virtues and worthiness.

And Trumpism violates that aesthetic sensibility, my pain like seeing a precious object smashed. Indeed, the book pointedly cites January 6 as eliciting, for many, just that kind of moral/aesthetic revulsion. CNN’s disgraceful May 10 Trump “town hall” — where he called January 6 “a beautiful day,” and the crowd cheered — smeared America with excrement.

A redemption of sorts came with Biden’s election, and with hope and charity I was able to forgive my country’s lapse. But that redemption was far from complete. The sickness of soul still spreads its poison through the land. Scarcely even dampened by that January 6 travesty; so-called “Christians” still strongly back Trump, and a jury verdict deeming him a sex offender won’t matter either. Republicans renominating him looms as an act of utter moral depravity. Polls show him running neck-and-neck with Biden.

While he and his deranged cult shriek that it’s Biden and Democrats “destroying America.”

I could forgive once but not a second time. God save America.

Ukraine Foolishness

May 11, 2023

This is the biggest foreign affairs crisis of my post-WWII lifetime. Shattering a world order which had seemingly eliminated the age-old curse of major power wars.

Some “peace advocates” deem America and its Western allies blameworthy for the carnage, saying we should stop fueling it by supplying arms. They’re full of moralism but devoid of moral sense. Really urging that Russian aggression be allowed to succeed. Would such reward for war-making somehow make a less warlike world?

These fools also parrot Putin in blaming us for this war because we pushed NATO in Russia’s face, threatening its security. But NATO was never conceived to threaten Russia — rather, to defend against it. Had Russia been no threat to its neighbors in the first place, none would need NATO for their security. And the monstrous attack on Ukraine proves those fears of Russia were justified.

President Biden has done a great job rallying our allies against this Russian crime. Were Obama — or Trump — still in office, Ukraine would be a goner by now. Encouraging China to invade Taiwan. Which would really wreck the world as we’ve known it, something we must do everything possible to prevent. Russia’s defeat in Ukraine would help to deter China.

Russia has already gotten a bloody nose, suffering immense losses in men and equipment. Its incompetence reflecting the literally insane delusionality that prompted the invasion — vainglorious preening of Russia’s supposed greatness; believing Ukraine and Ukrainians are not a real nation or people; that they’re somehow “Nazis;” and the fiction of Russia’s “security” somehow threatened by America and the West.

In contrast, Ukraine has done itself proud. Yet for all Russia’s battlefield losses, it can still deploy far more men and weaponry. In a long war of attrition, Ukraine will run out before Russia.

That mustn’t be permitted. To those fools who say we’re prolonging the war, the answer is not to quit it but to win it. We may indeed be prolonging the agony by still holding back from a full commitment.

So while I applaud what Biden’s done, it’s not enough, a squeamish drip-drip-drip of military help. In particular holding back on F-16 fighter planes. Ukraine has so far managed to keep Russia from gaining control of her skies, but has by now lost almost half the aircraft it started with. Russia has way more planes. We have around a thousand F-16s. Over decades we’ve spent many trillions building up our military. What is it all for, if not NOW? When our national interest, and the whole world’s, is critically at stake.

Another red line is barring Ukraine from using our weapons to hit inside Russia itself. Why such impunity? When you start a war, you yourself may get hurt. No?

Obviously, there’s fear of escalation, of provoking Russia, of a wider conflict. But I keep asking: what could Russia do that it’s not already doing? If anything, their military capability has now been much reduced. Going nuclear would be vastly self-harming, with no actual military gain. Not even Putin is that crazy.

In a recent zoom briefing, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert, suggested that the Biden administration imagines this war is an aberrational event, a blip really in a bigger picture. That we can still revert to some sort of normal relationship with Russia. And this fantasy inhibits our giving Ukraine F-16s and other military aid sufficient for victory.

There are three possibilities: Russia’s victory; Russia’s rout; or prolonged agony. Assuming the first and third are undesirable, we must bite the bullet to achieve the second. Better sooner than later.

And as Vindman said, we can have no “normal” relationship with Russia as long as Putin holds power. I would add that the idea of his regime’s replacement by something more benign is also a fantasy. More likely it would be the opposite.

A lesson I’ve been learning, from modern observation, is that things get worse. Evil has a certain momentum. People get more extreme. And even when you think a bottom’s been reached, there’s probably still farther to go. (Look at the Republican party.)

I’m still an optimist believing that human rationality will ultimately prevail. I just wish it would hurry up.

May 14: Democracy’s D-Day

May 8, 2023

The 1970s through ’90s saw a great democratic floodtide. Since greatly receded. Many wonder whether its authoritarian antithesis is really the wave of the future.

I’ve written about the power imbalance between good and evil, and that’s a big part of the story. Moral scruples restrain good people; bad ones are unrestrained. In practice this means democratic-minded forces have to win every election, but authoritarians often need only win once. Because gaining power, they can then act ruthlessly to keep it.

America had a close call in 2021.

A key factor was our two party system, with Democrats, albeit narrowly, controlling Congress. Authoritarians can be empowered despite only minority support if opposition is divided among multiple parties. Take India, where Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has racked up crushing electoral victories; almost overlooked is that the BJP actually has only around 37% voter support. Yet a fragmented opposition allows Modi to run roughshod over it.

He’s on the cover of the authoritarian playbook, outwardly maintaining democracy while giving it the death of a thousand cuts, gaining control of the press and other media to silence criticism and opposition, and of the courts to persecute dissenters. The head of India’s leading opposition party has recently been sentenced to prison, and barred from politics, for “insulting” the prime minister — an all too typical authoritarian abuse of power.

It also helps if you’ve got guns. National armies, in the modern age, are mostly anachronisms, serving no legitimate public purpose, while in fact being a curse. Often they’re dressed up criminal mafias, ruling countries like Al Capone’s gang ruled Chicago. Look at Sudan, with rival armies battling. Egypt too is a classic example, the army having spread its tentacles to squeeze ever more of the economy for its own enrichment and aggrandizement. Myanmar’s army is now literally at war with the entire civil society.

Thailand embodies several of these syndromes. A populist political force created by Thaksin Shinawatra has won every election starting in 2001. But Thailand is a (notionally constitutional) monarchy, with a lèse-majesté law against disparaging the king, which military regimes have enforced ruthlessly against any whisper of dissension. The previous king was genuinely loved, worshipped really (on dubious grounds), but his successor is a stinking piece of shit. (Publishing those words means I can’t now visit Thailand. Seriously.)

The country has been wracked by periodic violent conflict and protests between democracy supporters and royalists. In a 2006 coup, the army ousted Shinawatra and banished him. Then his sister won an election in 2011; a 2014 coup ousted her too. Thailand has since been run by a General, Prayuth Chan-ocha, another real asshole. Finally forced to hold an election, on May 14 — which Paetongtarn Shinawatra (Thaksin’s daughter) looks poised to win. Whether, and for how long, the army will actually allow her to govern, is an open question. (There are rumors of a deal.)

But the spotlight is on Turkey, with parliamentary and presidential elections also on May 14. (The presidency may go to a later runoff.)

Backstory: Modern Turkey’s 1923 founder, Kemal Ataturk, established a secular democracy, with separation of mosque and state, enforced by the army. Challenged by Muslim chauvinists; one of whom, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gained power by election in 2003. Yet he was initially a good guy, doing a lot right, with sensible economic policies. His foreign affairs mantra was “zero problems with neighbors.” He tried to pacify endemic conflict with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

Then growing power in his hands, The Economist has said, “clouded his judgment and his moral sense, as it tends to.”

A 2016 coup attempt empowered him even more; the next year he put across a constitutional referendum neutering much of Turkey’s checks-and-balances. Erdogan went on a rampage against perceived enemies, exploiting a captive judiciary, with many thousands purged from jobs or jailed, including 200,000 charged with the crime of “insulting the president;” legions of others with “terrorism.”

The media has been brought to heel. “Zero problems” is a bygone, as Erdogan pursues ill-advised foreign meddling, and has made Turkey, a NATO member, the alliance’s problem child. He plays footsie with Putin and has poisoned relations with Europe. Mirroring Modi’s insane demonization of India’s huge Muslim minority, Erdogan now exacerbates conflict with Turkey’s Kurds. Numerous elected mayors in Kurdish regions have been barred from office. Crack-brained economic mismanagement has proven devastating for average Turks. The government’s recent earthquake response was widely criticized. The list goes on.

Happily, regime opponents have uncharacteristically managed to unite behind a presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. No firecracker but he seems a very good man who promises to undo a lot of the Erdogan regime’s awfulness.

Given all this, you might think few Turks would be nuts enough to vote for Erdogan. But of course that’s not how the world works. Like all strongmen, one thing he is good at is manipulating support. Look how many Americans still back Trump.

Polls do show Erdogan trailing. But would he accept defeat? Trump again providing a cautionary tale. America’s institutions did prove strong enough to thwart him — but only barely. Are Turkey’s — already so ravaged by Erdogan — strong enough?

This is a seminal test of democracy versus authoritarianism. Erdogan is another poster boy for the latter, pulling every possible trick to neuter democratic accountability. Yet he’s also done everything possible to provoke votes against him. If, after all that, Turkey cannot free itself of Erdogan, what hope is there anywhere?

Gordon Lightfoot’s Ballad of Commerce and Industry

May 4, 2023

Never a man of the left, I’ve always envied how they have all the good tropes when it comes to the arts. Poetry, songs, paintings. It’s so easy to create such stuff: anti-war, anti-pollution, anti-capitalist, etc., etc.

I remarked upon this to my wife when I first started going to poetry open mics with her. She said I should write a poem expressing my own different point of view. Well, it proved quite a challenge. What I finally came up with was an extreme parody of a poem cursing out America. Its first line was “Amerika — be sure to spell it with a K.”

But it was a failure. I knew that when, after I read the poem at an open mic, a gal gushed her praise for it. And I realized she didn’t realize it was a parody.

A 1966 Gordon Lightfoot song begins:

There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.

When first hearing it, I expected this song would continue as an all too familiar lament, at civilization’s despoliation of that “wild majestic” nature.

But time has no beginning and history has no bound
As to this verdant country they came from all around
They sailed upon her waterways and they walked the forest tall
Built the mines, the mills and the factories, for the good of us all.

Wait, what? Is that tongue-in-cheek? “For the good of us all?” Mines! Mills! Factories!

Not Blake’s “dark satanic mills?”

Are you kidding me?

But it goes on —

For they looked to the future and what did they see?
They saw an iron road running from the sea to the sea
Bringing the goods to a young growing land
All up from the seaports and into their hands.

An iron road running from the sea to the sea. Something . . . beautiful. Something wonderful! And people buying stuff — “consumerism!” Yes, here we have a ballad celebrating commerce and industry! And the people who sacrificed for its sake. Imagine that!

Building to its emotive peak, speaking to an idea of human struggle and triumph:

On the mountaintops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up this soil
With our teardrops and our toil.

A powerful message we don’t get often in the arts. Gosh I love it. Gordon Lightfoot died May 1. Thank you, Gordon, for a song that lifts my heart and soul.*

* I eventually wrote my own poem invoking the old “sailor’s prayer” —
O God, your sea is so vast, and our boats are so small.
But with our courage, hopes and dreams,
Our eyes to the horizon,
And our faces to the wind,
We set out upon our journey.