Understanding history’s meaning

February 26, 2021

(My Black History Month essay)

America is a divided country — two sides seeing things very differently. Naturally enough that includes history. Interpreting the past shapes one’s current perspective.

One side focuses on correcting what it considers a sanitizing of American history. Thus “The 1619 Project,” emphasizing the centrality of slavery. There’s also genocidal mistreatment of Native Americans, and much else, to portray a history of infamy. The other side deems this unpatriotic, and seeks to restore a positive narrative, epitomized by Trump’s 1776 Commission and Mount Rushmore hagiology. To defend the “nobility of the American character” (said the most ignoble character in U.S. history). But such voices too often centralize whiteness and Christianity, sacrificing for that all other values — and our history’s true meaning.

The divergent viewpoints were discussed in a Washington Post essay by aptly named history teacher Daniel Immerwahr (German for “always true”). Regarding whether students should learn of America’s virtues or its shortcomings, he ended by saying the aim of teaching history isn’t for them to love or loathe their country, it’s to prepare them to live in it. 

That should include civic engagement, for which an understanding of history is indeed essential. And seeing both virtues and blemishes enables properly grasping the full picture. We cannot know where we’re going without knowing where we’ve been, and how we got where we are now. Thus Immerwahr describes “1619ers” as pushing us to live up to our ideals. Loving or hating America isn’t the issue. It’s how we go forward.

Some do talk as though slavery was our deep dark secret, hidden somehow like Mr. Rochester’s madwoman in the attic. But that history has always been very much in our faces. We fought our bloodiest war over it; and its literal descendants live among us.

So, yes, we did have slavery, and Indian atrocities, and WWII Japanese internment, and more. But are there countries whose histories read like fairy stories? It’s hard to think of any. Maybe Norway? Then again, a million Norwegians fled for the greener pastures of . . . America.

Immerwahr cites Howard Zinn’s infamous book, A People’s History of the United States. Which saw America as conceived in sin because we did not, immediately in 1787, abolish slavery, establish universal suffrage, liberate women, empower labor unions, and so forth. The book chronicled generations of Americans who battled for progress on all such fronts. While studiously omitting mention of any success. (Zinn did acknowledge women finally gained the vote, but dismissed that, saying they just voted like their husbands.) 

But America has indeed progressed tremendously, becoming fairer and better. Look at gay marriage. Something Zinn neglected to gripe about. Because in 1980, when he wrote, nobody imagined it possible.

Such progress is America’s true central story. While much was wrong in the past, we established a system that, not set in stone, was conducive to positive change through citizen action. And it is in our national character to achieve that, with an ethos of democratic openness and dynamism. A character shaped by generations of people uprooting themselves to come here for their own betterment, like those Norwegians, thus infusing positive attitudes into our very DNA.

This is why I love and take pride in America. And America is really the best exemplar of a character imbuing all humanity. Here too cynics and pessimists press their indictments. But talk about sanitizing history — the “good old days” were squalid, even our prehistoric past no Garden of Eden. Ever since, we’ve made epic efforts toward improvement, with a degree of success once unimaginable. While bringing our worst instincts, too, progressively under control. This is history’s central story. Also filling me with love and pride. 

Get your shot — please

February 22, 2021

Millions around the country struggle with non-user-friendly systems, desperately trying to schedule their covid vaccinations. While millions of others refuse the shot.

First, about those scheduling systems. Forcing people to battle for appointments, which are often distant, or unavailable, is simply crazy. Disadvantaging those not computer savvy — and especially, as ever, the poor and minorities. Instead, let’s have everyone just register, with their details. Then let the system dole out appointments, as available, in some rational order, and notify people by phone or email. Problem solved. Why aren’t we doing it that way?

Part of it is that while Trump was all self-praise about the rapid vaccine development, he totally flubbed planning for its distribution. The Biden administration seems to be doing far better getting shots into people. It’s a race against the virus, with new strains more contagious and likely more injurious, thus threatening a lot more carnage before it’s beaten.

The more people who are vaccinated — or immune after infection — the slower the spread will be, because each virus in the air has fewer potential victims. If it doesn’t find one, it dies. At some point available targets become so scarce the disease is stymied. That’s “herd immunity.” The quicker we attain it, by vaccinating enough people, the lower the death toll will be, and the sooner we can renormalize.

This is why your vaccination is crucial. Not only protecting you personally, but helping our whole country defeat this problem. Masks and social distancing are also very important, likewise blocking covid’s ability to infect people and hastening its end.

We know about the covidiots sabotaging us by refusing to wear masks. Claiming an infringement of their freedom. Like obeying a Stop sign infringes your freedom. You don’t have “freedom” to behave in ways that endanger others.

Now we’re also seeing too many people shunning the vaccine, especially in minority communities. This is a very serious problem that threatens us all — delaying herd immunity and a return to normalish life, it will needlessly kill many thousands.

First of course you’ve got anti-vaxxers who oppose vaccines altogether — their views are scientifically bunk. One corner of the wave of internet craziness that’s so ruinous. But covid vaccine resistance goes far beyond those loopy precincts.

Partly it’s that the messages we get from experts may seem confusing. They’re naturally cautious and try to properly hedge what they tell us, creating an unduly convoluted picture. One key thing is being told that vaccinated people may still be infectious so still must take precautions like masking. Leading some to think (wrongly) there’s no point in getting the vaccine.

Here’s the story. Vaccination won’t completely eliminate your chances of getting infected, or infecting others, but it will drastically reduce them. And when we’re told a vaccine is, like, 90% effective, that’s also easily misinterpreted. It does not mean simply that 90% of people getting the shot are protected, and 10% aren’t. Instead, it means that comparing vaccinated versus unvaccinated people, the latter are about ten times likelier to get infected. But even that understates the benefit, because those few vaccinated people who do get infected have much milder symptoms, compared to the unvaccinated average. Their chance of dying is virtually nil. And furthermore, if you do infect another person, they too would likely suffer much less than otherwise.

Another concern is vaccine safety. Some people distrustful because of the rushed development. It was indeed done remarkably fast — but only because the urgency was so extreme, hence enormous resources were devoted to it. That should instill confidence in the result. And these vaccines have been tested thoroughly — those responsible could not have dared risk the repercussions of cutting corners. Nor could the government authorities approving vaccine use.

So are the risks zero? Of course not, nothing ever has zero risk. But one must rationally weigh risks against benefits. Here, clearly, the chances of a serious adverse reaction to a covid shot are exceedingly small. By now millions have been inoculated and there don’t seem to be any cautionary stories. Surely any dangers from vaccination are vastly smaller than the threat of serious illness or death from covid, against which the vaccine provides much protection.

Don’t be a covidiot. Get your shot. Please.

End the filibuster

February 19, 2021

I previously wrote that Democrats, in power, should refrain from exercising it in ways that might look illegitimate — that is, like Republicans have. Even though turnabout might seem fair play, we must try to de-escalate tribalistic partisan warfare. Nevertheless, it’s time to end the Senate filibuster. It’s something very doable, and would help significantly to fix what’s wrong with today’s America.

President Biden did pledge to try to work with Republicans. But it’s becoming clear that most of the GOP, rather than recovering from Trump insanity, is burrowing deeper into it. Incapable of cooperating rationally in the national interest, they have forfeited their seat at the table. We’ll have to work around them.

We venerate our Constitution. It was trailblazing in 1787 and has stood the test of time, not only maintaining our democracy, but enabling us to progressively broaden it. Even through a civil war; and Trump. Yet it’s actually ill-suited to our modern reality and now in many ways has become an obstacle not only to continued progress but even to basic democratic values.

One factor is the difficulty of amending it, which requires agreement by three-quarters of states. Almost inconceivable today for anything controversial, given our partisan divisions. We’re now pretty much stuck with the Constitution we’ve got.

It established the two houses of congress differently, the House of Representatives apportioned by population, while in the Senate all states are represented equally. (In fact, that’s the one thing the Constitution explicitly says cannot be changed by amendment.) This was to allay small-state fears that the big ones would be too powerful. The founders probably didn’t foresee how that would play out in a fifty-state union with many small states. Size might not matter much if it didn’t correlate with other characteristics. But the big states are big because they have big cities; small states don’t, tending to be more rural. And whiter.

And with two senators each, those small rural ones are way overrepresented. Problem enough if the Senate worked by majority rule. But the filibuster rule means it normally takes 60 out of 100 votes to pass a bill. That magnifies small state clout even more; 41 senators representing an even smaller fraction of the population can stymie the other 59. And given such partisan division that neither party can hope to have 60 senators, the result is the gridlock and government paralysis we’ve come to expect.

It wasn’t always like this. The filibuster rule is not in the Constitution. Originally both houses of Congress had unlimited debate. That soon became unworkable in the House of Representatives, having so many members, so they limited debate. The smaller Senate — only 26 members at the start — saw itself as a more collegial, deliberative body.

Not until the 1850s did “filibustering” become a thing — Senators preventing a bill’s passage by keeping debate going. But that was rare. Only in 1917 was it deemed necessary to institute a way to end debate — called “cloture,” it was considered an extraordinary measure, and hence required a two-thirds vote. But such situations were still rare, until the 1950s when southerners filibustered to block civil rights legislation.

It was of course hard to get 67 Senate votes for anything. Finally, in 1975, they reduced the requirement to 60 votes, thinking to make cloture, and bringing bills to a vote, easier.

But the result, perversely, was the opposite. It would never have seemed reasonable to effectively require 67 votes for every bill. But 60 felt different. Another factor: in the past, a filibuster meant you actually had to keep debating. Strom Thurmond set the record in 1957, holding the floor talking for 24 straight hours. Now, however, it became a given that every major piece of legislation would require cloture with 60 votes; the actual speechifying dispensed with. Thus giving a minority an effortless automatic veto over everything.

Again, none of this was required by the Constitution; but it became a hardened status quo. Changing the filibuster rule was called the “nuclear option,” as if tantamount to an act of war. But during the Obama administration, Republicans were using the rule to block his judicial nominations, so Majority Leader Harry Reid went for a limited nuclear option, scrapping the 60-vote rule just for those nominations. Then, when Republicans got control of the Senate, they extended this to Supreme Court nominations, to keep Democrats from blocking Trump appointments.

What all this shows is that the 60-vote rule is by no means sacrosanct. Its resultant minority veto is a major factor undermining the health of our body politic. And it’s one that actually has an easy fix: the Senate can change the rule by a simple majority vote. For that, 60 votes are not needed!

And once that’s done, a lot of other problems can be tackled effectively. A big one is immigration. Desperately needed reform has been stymied for decades by the filibuster rule. Without it, immigration reform should happen quickly. Another priority is election reform. We need to set national standards, to allay concerns about fairness and fraud. But particularly to outlaw all the ways Republicans use to make voting harder. We should also make DC and Puerto Rico states, likely adding four Democratic senators and reducing the perverse Republican small state advantage.

Yes, they will howl bloody murder, accusing Democrats of a power grab. That will dominate talking heads and internet blowhards for, oh, maybe two or three days. Then will be forgotten as we move on to something else. After all, the Senate being able to pass a bill by majority vote shouldn’t seem very radical. We’ll quickly get used to it, and if we think of it at all, will wonder why the previous bizarre rule wasn’t junked long before.

My zoom short story reading Saturday 1 PM

February 19, 2021

Hi,

At 1 PM tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 20, on zoom, The Hudson Valley Writers Guild will have public readings of three prize winning short stories from its recent contest. Mine will be first: THE STATUE. Though actually written almost 50 years ago, it might have resonance for contemporary America. Rather more so in the months since I submitted it!

Here is the zoom link:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84854202344?pwd=ejJ2ZkpFYi85a2VFNUI1dEc1T2pmdz09#success

The Plague

February 17, 2021

It starts with rats, coming out, bloodily dying, all over. Of course it’s the plague. Literally; the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century. In the 20th it hits the French Algerian city of Oran, in the famous Albert Camus 1947 novel, The Plague. Having a new vogue now, and one of my book groups chose it, for obvious reasons.

Camus based his depiction on an actual cholera epidemic striking Oran a century before. Philosophically, Camus has been called an “absurdist,” believing that our lives always ending in death makes them fundamentally absurd; yet it’s up to us to nevertheless make of them what we will. Here, the capriciousness of plague death highlights the absurdity, while the characters do what they can to combat it, imbuing them with a valiant power. 

The main protagonist is a doctor, Bernard Rieux, in the forefront of the struggle, doing his best to cope under terrible strain. As the death toll inexorably rises, the walled city is closed off, no one allowed in or out. Many separated from loved ones. Supplies run short. Naturally it’s hard to maintain a semblance of normal life. (The Covid restrictions we’re enduring seem tame in comparison.)

Rambert is a journalist, caught accidentally in Oran. He deems it unfair, having no real connection to the town but now imprisoned with the rest, aching to get back to his distant beloved. But all his pleas for an exemption fail. Desperation leads him to shady characters to smuggle him out for a price. There follows an opera buffa of missed connections. And when escape at last does seem imminent, so much time has passed that Rambert changes his mind, now feeling he does belong here. He settles in to help fight the plague. 

When it’s finally defeated, Rambert is reunited with his love, embracing on a railway platform. But it’s not so simple a happy ending. Life is a flow, and like a river, is never really the same even from one moment to another. We cannot totally return to what existed before, when it’s interrupted by something like a plague. But even without such a dramatic discontinuity, we never can anyway. Rambert realizes this when hugging his gal. Likewise for us, Covid-19 will prove to have changed everything forever. 

Then there’s old Monsieur Grand. A drone of a clerk in the municipal administration. He’s not good with words, struggling to express himself. That scuppered his long-ago youthful marriage; his wife gave up on his inexpressiveness and left. 

For many years since, Grand’s had a secret pastime. Turns out to be a literary endeavor. Odd for a man short on words. Yet he’s striving for a work that will be greeted by “Hats off!” Eventually he shares with Rieux and others at least the first sentence, on which he’s been obsessing forever, struggling for perfection, each of its words in turn getting agonizing attention. 

Grand falls ill. Seems dying. Shows Rieux the full manuscript — found to contain nothing but that lone sentence in all its endless permutations. Burn it, Grand commands, so forcefully that Rieux complies. 

But then Grand surprisingly recovers. It’s okay, he assures Rieux — he can remember the line. And later, when the plague is over, amid the rejoicing, he relates that he’s now simply eliminated all the adjectives he’d struggled over. And that he’s written to his ex-wife. 

The character I found most compelling, strangely enough, is the old Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. Struggling to reconcile Oran’s travail with his Christian faith. In a big sermon, he calls the plague “the flail of God” whirling over the city, comeuppance for insufficient faith. Oran now learning the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah. The sermon doesn’t go over well. The citizens really don’t feel like bigtime sinners. 

But as the plague continues ramping up, as do efforts to combat it, with Father Paneloux joining in them, he has a rethink. He preaches another, rather different sermon. Instead of saying “you,” he now says “we.” Acknowledging that his previous scourging words lacked charity. Suggesting that the plague actually cannot be understood at all. In this, Paneloux was bitterly mindful of a child’s agonizing death he’d attended. 

What it all comes to, he says, is their arrival at a time of testing. “We must believe everything or deny everything.” Must accept the plague; accept that child’s torture. It’s not mere resignation, but actually embracing humiliation. Paneloux acknowledged preaching now a kind of fatalism, but an active fatalism. We cannot understand God’s will yet must make it ours. Otherwise we’re rejecting God. 

And Paneloux practiced what he preached. Soon falling sick himself, he refuses any sort of intervention that might have helped him. Without struggle, deeming it God’s will, he goes to his death. If he’s consoled by an expectation of Heaven, the book is conspicuously silent about that. 

Was Camus portraying Paneloux as some kind of saint? Certainly not. The plague does present a time of testing — it tests the idea of a God. For Paneloux, failure on that test is impossible. He’d rather die. But fail God does. Paneloux’s renunciation serves to demonstrate the incoherence of the belief system he struggled to make sense of. Our lives may ultimately be absurd, but less so without God.

Biden’s “Buy American” mistake

February 15, 2021

Trumpers persist in caricaturing President Biden as some kind of mentally defective fool. One Facebook graphic even denying that such a man could have gotten 81 million legitimate votes. While in the real world, Biden demonstrates what strong, sound, intelligent, honest, competent, sane and humanly decent leadership looks like, moving briskly to tackle unprecedented challenges and repair much of his predecessor’s damage to America. 

But Bidenism is not a cult like Trumpism. I don’t support his every stance.

For one thing, far too much of the $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan is earmarked for checks to people not really needy. Maybe that’s considered the price of political support for the rest. But I’d rather see more money going to those hurting most.

President Biden also proposes expanding regulations privileging American suppliers over foreign ones. That might seem like apple pie. But it runs up against World Trade Organization rules targeting discriminatory practices (against foreign vendors), to make trade free and fair. Trump, in his “America First” folly, tried to weaken the WTO. Not understanding how promoting free and fair trade globally benefits all countries, America included. 

A “buy American” policy sounds good for U.S. jobs. But The Economist recently explained that “by locking firms out of global supply chains and shielding them from competition it promotes inefficiency, destroying more employment than it creates.” The magazine cites one estimate that we actually lose 300,000 jobs. 

How so? Simple, really. If another country can make something cheaper (or better) than we can, we’re better off buying it from them and having our own workers instead make those things wecan make better or cheaper. That’s what economist David Ricardo called “comparative advantage.” Focusing our investment on our strengths, not our weaknesses. That makes us richer. 

Yes, buying cheap Chinese goods means fewer Americans employed making those things. But the savings to U.S. consumers enables them to buy more of other things — and that creates more U.S. jobs. And the trade also makes China richer, enabling Chinese to buy more stuff we export — creating yet more American jobs. Win-win. The beauty of global free trade.

President Biden (like others before him) seems bedazzled by the dream of “bringing back U.S. manufacturing jobs.” That’s so twentieth-century. In fact we manufacture as much as ever — but we do it with a lot less labor. That’s a good thing. U.S. jobs are not being lost to foreign countries so much as to improving automation and other technological advancements. That is, rising productivity.

At one time, almost the entire workforce was needed on farms just to feed everyone. Improved agricultural productivity freed most of us up, to work in factories instead. Thus we could produce food andmanufactured goods, making us richer. Now, another wave of productivity advancement similarly liberates us from factories, so more can be employed elsewhere, like in services. So we can produce food and manufactured goods and services. Another wealth gain. 

America’s future prosperity does not lie with metal-bashing smokestack factories, but high tech and services.

None of this is the economics equivalent of rocket science. “Buy American” is tired old-line Democratic stuff that reminds me why I used to be a Republican. But tragically that Republican party, with actual principles, that actually made sense, is long gone. At least Democrats are sane and sincere, not disingenuous and deranged. 

The Trial

February 12, 2021

In Kafka’s novel The Trial, Josef K is charged with a crime no one ever specifies. It ends with his execution.

Trump’s trial is the inverse. His crime obvious. It ends with his exoneration.

Hearing his lawyers’ arguments almost made my head explode. It was indeed Kafkaesque — set on a planet far, far away, where black is white and up is down.

With table-pounding indignation they denounced the trial as an assault upon democracy. When that’s the very thing their client is guilty of. They decried the trial as divisive. After four years of the most divisive president in history.

They portrayed Democrats as pursuing a vendetta against him. As if a baseless prejudice unconnected to Trump’s behavior. The lawyers even bizarrrely played a recorded medley of numerous Democrats calling for impeachment. As if somehow proving their unjustified malice. When in the real world those impeachment calls highlighted his crimes. But in Trumpworld white is black.

I previously thought Trump mentally incapable of a serious January 6 coup plan. But the trial evidence makes clear he actually did plot out siccing a mob of supporters on Congress, intending for them to overthrow the election and keep him in office. The insurrectionists believed they were following his marching orders. And it wasn’t just his January 6 speech. He’d been working toward this long in advance, stoking them with his lies, preparing the ground.

The lawyers also insisted his freedom of speech is being denied. Well, maybe a president does have a right to lie. But not a constitutional right to violate his oath to protect the constitution; a right to instigate its overthrow. And regardless of whether Trump did incite the insurrection, his refusal throughout those ghastly hours to do anything to stop it was surely the gravest conceivable violation of his presidential oath.

Could it have succeeded? How close did it come? Most of those rampaging fools didn’t really understand what they were doing. But some, we’re learning, did. And brought weapons. It seems almost miraculous now that no elected officials were killed. Pence, Pelosi, and others were targeted and had narrow escapes. (Officer Brian Sicknick less lucky.)

So after four years of Pence’s slavish loyalty, Trump launches a mob to literally hang him. And just when it’s hot after Pence, Trump — instead of sending help — releases a tweet denouncing him again. Trump loyalty goes in only one direction. He’s a black hole that sucks in and destroys anyone venturing too close. Yet still some haven’t learned this.

Like his hapless lawyers in this impeachment trial. Trump reportedly enraged at them for their performance. But enragement is his daily norm; “treated very unfairly” a constant mantra. His psychologist niece’s book defined his underlying pathology — knowing he’s a fraud, he’s terrified of exposure. Thus his constant state of infuriated aggrievement.

How has this guy not had a heart attack or stroke?

A friend on Facebook posted “stolen election” particulars. One jurisdiction where thousands more mail ballots were received than had been sent out. Another where thousands more people voted than were registered. And so forth. As if such things could really happen, let alone without making headlines. But my friend was furious that mainstream news media don’t report these stories. And why don’t they? Because they’re lies. Somebody somewhere on the internet simply made them up. But my friend believes such nameless nobodies rather than NPR or PBS or CNN.

Of course there’s also the (former) president of the United States. Whose veracity record is unmatched. Thirty thousand documented lies.

Even before the election (fearing he’d lose), Trump was preemptively calling it a giant fraud, but without ever actually explaining how so. And if there were any truth to those “facts” my Facebook friend invoked, surely Trump’s 62 lawsuits would have brought them forward. They did not. And all were thrown out — many by judges he appointed — including his three Supreme Court picks.

He’s out of office and out of his mind, but not out of our minds, and we’re not out of the woods. Many millions still worship Trump, marinated in his cesspool of lies, fancying themselves “patriots” battling for righteousness against a corrupt criminal communistic conspiracy. Endorsing violence, even fetishizing it. Seeing us already in a civil war.

This evil abroad in our land will be turbocharged by the Senate acquitting Trump, re-empowering his wickedness. Leaving unpunished the most despicable of assaults upon our democracy. Republican senators so voting are traitors to America and everything it ever stood for.

That’s not too strong a word. Traitors.

Lessons from Myanmar’s coup

February 10, 2021

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History, heralded liberal democracy’s apparent final triumph, fulfilling basic human aspirations. But alas, bad people also have aspirations — and often guns.

Cheerleading for democracy is frustrating. Hopes often raised, then betrayed. Visiting a democratic Russia — shortly after Fukuyama wrote — was thrilling. Then history returned. The story repeats again and again. As in the Arab Spring. In Thailand, and Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. Now Myanmar (formerly Burma).

The problem isn’t just guns. It’s also voters. Too few have read Fukuyama to understand how democracy serves them. Too many foolishly fall for strongmen. (America saved by its would-be strongman being himself a fool.)

Myanmar’s voters, though, understood fully. Overwhelmingly choosing democracy over military rule. Perhaps a no-brainer, given their military’s remarkable vileness. As evidenced by its brazen power grab, claiming “election fraud.” (Sound familiar?) And no one was deluded that the army acted benevolently with the people’s interests at heart. They ruled by the gun, as Al Capone in Chicago, a criminal gang doing it for their own power and (importantly) profit.

The army had ruled since 1962. Democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. She’d been heroic; her book, Freedom From Fear, an inspiration. Then, in 2012, a new military president, Thein Sein, initiated a transition to democracy. It seemed for real, aiming at the nation’s progress. Suu’s party won elections and she became Myanmar’s top leader. But the military still retained much power.

Suu’s luster dimmed when she refused to criticize, and even defended, the army’s savage genocide of rape and murder against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. (Buddhist pacifism?) Admittedly her tense relationship with the army circumscribed Suu’s power and authority; but she had some; and what good are they if you’re afraid to use them? Freedom from fear?

Mao famously said power comes from the barrel of a gun. He knew whereof he spoke. In past epochs it was the “divine right” of kings. Few today (apart from Republicans) can be persuaded that God chose someone to rule. Instead we do it ourselves, by voting. But Mao had a point — bullets can trump ballots.

The paradigm of an army using its guns to rule is so familiar it seems inevitable, like the weather. How to keep soldiers in their barracks is a perennial conundrum. Yet few question why a country like Myanmar even has an army in the first place.

Armies originated in a world where might made right. Your city-state needed one because others had them and would use them to pillage yours otherwise. Russia’s Ukraine depredation was a throwback to that kind of world, no longer customary. By and large that just doesn’t happen any more. Most national armies, especially for small countries, are anachronistic holdovers from past history. The idea of a country like Myanmar needing to defend against invasion by some neighbor is basically just ridiculous.

Myanmar does have internal conflicts, with regional/ethnic insurgencies, that its army battles. That sort of thing is what mainly occupies modern militaries — to the extent they do any actual military stuff at all. But query what would obtain absent a national army. The aggressiveness of Myanmar’s toward those regional elements is itself a major instigator of bloodshed. Without its army, the country would likely work through such conflicts politically, and peacefully.

What’s suggested here is not some utopian pacifist fantasy. Naturally, disbanding any army faces much opposition, not least from that army itself; which, after all, has guns to back up its resistance. (Myanmar’s proved unwilling even to coexist with a civilian government.) Yet a few countries have succeeded in abolishing national armies. Costa Rica, for example, did so back in 1948, after a civil war. It has not since experienced another, nor an invasion — nor, of course, a military coup. Its democracy thrives unmolested.

And for countries that still feel an itch for military defense, here’s another proposal: the U.S. can sell invasion insurance. For an annual premium payment, we’d promise to defend a nation against foreign invasion. (Russia’s neighbors would pay a surcharge.) But their cost would be far less than for maintaining national armies. This would be good for America; the payments would help defray our own defense budget. Which could be reduced even further because armed conflicts would be fewer, as more nations join the plan. A more orderly world like that would be more prosperous too, further serving our national interests.

This is a practical path toward the pacifist dream of a world without war.

What is philosophy about?

February 6, 2021

What is the true nature of reality? The meaning of life? How should one live? I read a collection of essays (The Power of Ideas) by philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97). He does not answer such questions. Rather, explores how we are to think about them. Berlin posits four categories of questions.

One is a straight factual (empirical) question. Who killed JFK? That can be answered, exactly and certainly, from observation and evidence (conspiracy theories notwithstanding).

Two: Why did Oswald kill JFK? Also a factual question, it cannot be answered with similar exactitude and certitude, requiring interpretation of evidence. That’s qualitatively different.

Three: what is the square root of nine? To answer, we don’t seek empirical evidence, we use mathematical logic. This raises the ancient conundrum: is mathematics something “out there” as part of existence, that we’ve discovered, or is it a human construct?

I’m of the former view. An isosceles triangle doesn’t exist in nature. The idea of it is a human construct. Yet one embodying the way existence works. That statement is not a matter of observation but, rather, of deducing how existence must work. A universe where that’s not so is inconceivable. Not just by limited human minds, but inconceivable in principle.* Thus our discoveries of mathematical truths are discoveries about the fabric of reality.

So the foregoing question types all concern reality. But “reality” itself can be a slippery concept. Berlin discusses the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley (pronounced Barkley, 1685-1753). “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there, does it make a sound?” That was Berkeley. I answer yes because of course it makes sound waves. Berkeley said no.

Did he really? What he actually said is hard to untangle. Berlin tries, calling Berkeley the ultimate empiricist, holding that what we get from our senses is all there is. If we can’t see it, touch it, smell it, etc., it isn’t there. Yet Berkeley believed in the spiritual (God and all that). How could this be reconciled? He posited (in Berlin’s words) “eternal souls or spirits . . . whose existence does not depend . . . on being sensed, or being otherwise the content of someone’s experience.” In other words, nothing exists outside sensory perception — except when it does. That’s how religion scrambles the brain.

Some modern voices still tell us nothing exists outside our brains — which don’t really exist either. I’ve deconstructed such nonsense here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/is-reality-real/

It’s true that the reality we perceive is, to a great extent, constructed within our minds. A simple example: a rose is not actually “red.” At the level of its molecules, atoms, and quarks, you will find no redness. But those particles’ behavior does cause the resulting photons, when processed in our brains, to tell us something about the rose. Something we visualize as “red,” different from some other characteristic we see as “blue.” It’s not as though seeing something not there — we’re getting information about what is really there.

Our senses do have limitations in perceiving reality. Even science has a tough time modeling it. A bowling ball seems a solid object, but again at the subatomic level there’s nothing solid. Yet if you drop it on your foot, it sure behaves as solid.

Thus there is a lot of reality in our perception of bowling balls and other objects. Otherwise our lives would be impossible. The fact that our senses do guide us pretty successfully through the world’s reality proves both that that reality is real and that our senses are pretty good at registering it.

With that settled (;-)) we can finally move on to the fourth kind of question. While the others do raise philosophical issues (as discussed), the fourth kind are entirely philosophical. Which, Berlin wrote, “cannot be answered by either observation or calculation, by either inductive methods or deductive; and . . . those who ask them . . . do not know where to look for the answers.” Berlin calls the first three types “factual” (or empirical) and the fourth “formal.”

He gives the example, “What is time?” One might add, was it always elapsing or did it have a start? If so, how? Or why is there something and not nothing?

Yet “what is time?” actually has a certain empiricalness. It’s not unanswerable in principle. We actually have a common sense understanding, and physicists have teased out nuances beyond that. Time is an element of the reality of existence.

So I would call all the foregoing descriptive questions, as distinguished from prescriptive questions. The latter to include ones like how we should live, how we relate to others, how we find meaning in life, etc. The methods for seeking answers are very different than with descriptive questions. There is something about existence that would describe how time works, even if we don’t have the words or concepts to embody it. But there’s no such something that could resolve prescriptive puzzles.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual revolution starting around three centuries ago. Its core was rationalism — believing in use of reason to understand existence and enabling us to improve it. And this did coincide with great leaps in human understanding, through science, through mathematics and logic, and rationalist philosophy. In Berlin’s telling, the Enlightenment’s enthusiasts envisioned that continued progress along such lines would ultimately answer all questions, including the fourth kind. This he called an “heroic attempt to make philosophy a natural science.”

But — long story short — Berlin gives Kant the leading credit for seeing that philosophy’s task is not to elucidate what are really empirical questions, properly the domain of hard science, nor to deploy logic as in mathematics, but rather to tackle issues not resolvable by either method. Whereas to “the great empirical philosophers of the eighteenth century . . . everything seemed far clearer than it” would later.

But Berlin is not denigrating Enlightenment thinkers. “A very great deal of good was done,” he says, “suffering mitigated, injustices avoided or prevented, ignorance exposed, by the conscientious attempt to apply scientific methods to the regulation of human affairs.” Their “intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage and disinterested love of the truth . . . remain to this day without parallel.” And if their greatest goal proved “delusive,” Berlin thinks far worse of the nineteenth century reaction, with “implications that were, both intellectually and politically, more sinister and oppressive.” He’s referring to the romanticism that sacralized the “nation” and “state” as some supreme force trumping the Enlightenment’s morality premised on the individual. That romanticist movement was the wellspring of all the millennial and utopian “isms” that would wrack the twentieth century.

We haven’t overcome that. Even today — especially today — howling fools dance around bonfires of Enlightenment values of rationalism, universalism, humanism, and truth. Wielding weapons whose potency the philosophes could never have imagined. The battle continues.

* One can construct non-Euclidean geometries, internally logical. I cannot say whether a non-Euclidean universe could actually work. But if so, that would not contradict what I’ve written. We’d still have a cosmos wherein certain mathematical laws — whatever they may be — are baked in. A cosmos with no such laws baked in would be an impossible chaos.

Biden restoring America’s moral sanity

February 4, 2021

Tuesday I saw a news clip of President Biden, masked, at his desk, announcing a task force “to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers, and fathers, at the border, and with no plan — none whatsoever — to reunify” them.

Thousands of children were snatched away. So mindlessly depraved and chaotic was what Trump did that we’re still trying to figure out just how many kids remain in limbo.

This is part of a broader unwinding of Trump’s vicious persecution of migrants that President Biden called a “stain on the reputation” of America. It’s an enormous undertaking, requiring much care, examination, and thought (also contrasting with Trump’s modus operandi). An accompanying briefing document said the effort is “centered on the basic premise that our country is safer, stronger, and more prosperous with a fair, safe and orderly immigration system that welcomes immigrants, keeps families together, and allows people — both newly arrived immigrants and people who have lived here for generations — to more fully contribute to our country.” All fulfilling President Biden’s personal promise to me.

Seeing that clip yesterday recalled a Billy Crystal Saturday Night Live bit — asked why he’s hitting his head with a hammer, he says, “because it feels so good when I stop.” Stopping our national degradation feels so good. Now we’ve learned what not to take for granted. I’m once more proud to be an American.

UPDATE: President Biden has just raised our quota for refugee admissions to an all-time high.