Another day, another protest

July 14, 2019

I attended Friday’s Albany protest against Trump’s inhuman cruelty to migrant people. Some things one has to do.

Quite a few asked to take pictures of my sign. Maybe I should copyright it. (“Make America Great Again: Dump Trump”)

One speech I really didn’t like. Assemblyman Phil Steck started by saying, “This is no aberration,” that America has always committed villainies, so we shouldn’t be surprised. He went on like that at length; got applause.

No. He spoke before a statue of Washington — a very noble man. I’m proud to be part of a nation conceived in nobility, standing for the highest ideals and human values. Have we been perfect? Of course not. But America has always striven for, and achieved, progress.

Until 2016. It breaks my heart to see my beloved country so degraded. Forced to join a protest against vile atrocities committed in its name.

Many present were veteran protesters. There was a very nice comradely vibe. At the end we all sang, “This Land is Your Land.” Yet there was an air of going-through-the-motions. I felt like an alien. Not just because of Steck’s speech; others said the right things; yet for all the outrage expressed, it somehow seemed inadequate to the seriousness of this moral crisis.

Churchill said America will always do the right thing, after exhausting all the alternatives. I hope he was right and I don’t have to attend many more such events.

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Social disconnection and Trumpism

July 11, 2019

“Grab them by the pussy.” I’ve striven to understand how any Americans could vote to put such a reptile in the White House.

Columnist David Brooks keeps saying America is insufficiently community-centered. Recently I critiqued one such column. But subsequently he wrote another more on target. Doesn’t mention politics, yet it seems very relevant.

Brooks says a market economy emphasizing competition and self-aggrandizement needs to be balanced by a social culture of “cooperation, stability, and committed relationships.” But that’s not where many working class men are at, according to a recent study.

Economic change is driving social change. Less educated working class men don’t fit into the kinds of lives they used to. This is a big factor in the opioid crisis. Also in the explosion of single motherhood.

“Nearly all the men” in the study, Brooks notes, “viewed the father-child tie as central while the partner relationship was peripheral.” Seeing women like they see jobs — cycling from one to another. And of course their own parenting roles are undermined by weak bonds with their children’s mothers.

Cause and effect here is a tangle. While a working class man used to be a family’s anchor, that breadwinner role has eroded, and meantime women are better able to support themselves. They flourish in service-type jobs, like in healthcare, that less educated men don’t adapt well to. A lot of women see such men as okay sexual partners but pretty useless as husbands.

A single mom may be heroic and all, but their kids mostly do worse than dual-parented ones. So their male children tend to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, repeating the story.

Brooks thinks these economic dynamics are aggravated by the cultural zeitgeist emphasizing personal autonomy, aiming for a life “lived in perpetual flux, with your options perpetually open.” Again inimical to lifetime attachments.

All this subverts broader social cohesion too. Brooks’s basic point is that the sort of men we’re talking about don’t have the connectedness, the embedment in societal structures, like they used to. Seen even in declining church attendance, for example. Many still believe in god, but being part of an organized congregation is not for them.

Brooks’s column again doesn’t touch on politics, but a lightbulb went on in my political brain. The social culture he vaunts includes the body politic — one’s role as a citizen participant in a collective, with government part of it, and seen as embodying our values. And this too suffers from the disconnection Brooks laments.

It partly explains why some Americans, at least, could vote for a vulgar creep and continue backing him. They’re disengaged from and no longer invested in our civic institutions. It used to matter to Americans to have a president we could look up to, a role model for our kids, an avatar of our highest ideals. But pussygrabber’s voters don’t give a shit.

William Kennedy and magical realism

July 9, 2019

William Kennedy (now 91) is the great Albany author. Others (like Melville) have had Albany connections, but in Kennedy’s oeuvre, Albany itself holds center stage; it’s called his “Albany cycle.”

In 2018 Paul Grondahl and Suzanne Lance of the New York State Writers Institute published Bootlegger of the Soul: The Literary Legacy of William Kennedy, which includes several critical essays.

I’ve read it, and many of the novels, but have nothing profound to add. I just want to comment on a recurring theme applying the “magical realism” label.

In great part that’s because ghosts appear in Kennedy’s books; notably a veritable convocation of them in Ironweed’s opening. In Legs, the title character has much to say after being shot dead. Maybe this is pedantic, but I don’t consider this “magical” because I don’t think the reader is expected to suspend disbelief and imagine those ghosts are real and speaking. A world in which they did would be an alternate reality (as in Garcia Marquez’s magical realism), but Kennedy is writing about our actual world. And it’s peopled by many ghosts, in the sense that the dead are still with us, haunting us not as cartoon spooks but as personages whose relationships with us we continue to process after they’re dead. That’s certainly what’s happening in a novel like Ironweed. To me it’s a form of realism because it’s really getting into a character’s head. The ghosts are a literary device for doing that.

In fact Ironweed in particular I consider the realest realism. The protagonist is a homeless bum in 1938’s Albany, and the lives of such people are shown to us in full intimate grittiness, with no romanticizing. And in full humanity. Francis is not “just” a bum. He is a man haunted by ghosts, wrestling with them. That’s the reality shaping his life.

By the way, I always thought Ironweed a great title. While the plant of that name actually has little resonance for the book’s content, the name’s two components are redolent with connotations that do.

I myself wrote a book about Albany, in 1973, but oddly never crossed paths with Kennedy until 2011, when he had a signing for a new novel. When I handed him my copy and identified myself, he started writing . . . and wrote quite a lot. The recognition was very gratifying. Kennedy is not only a great writer but a gracious human being.

He has also been an inspiration to me, quite literally. At a 90th birthday celebration there was a film about his using his MacArthur grant money to create the Writers Institute. That was a great thing. It made me want to do something great too, with the money I’m fortunate to have. And one of the resulting grants likewise involves writers — Secular Rescue, protecting them from harm in intolerant societies.

Trump at the Rubicon

July 6, 2019

Julius Caesar’s army in Gaul was not authorized to enter Italy. Crossing the Rubicon River made him an outlaw. But he then proceeded to Rome to make himself dictator. (Literally — his title, “Perpetual Dictator.”)

When the Supreme Court told President Nixon to turn over White House tapes, he complied. The Court has barred adding a citizenship question to the Census. Trump now says he’s “seriously considering” an executive order to do it anyway.

Is this finally his Rubicon crossing, making him indisputably an outlaw? Why this issue?

The administration had claimed the citizenship question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Laughable because they spit on the Voting Rights Act. Indeed, their true aim is directly contrary to that act — to undercount ethnic minorities and thus dilute their voting rights and political representation. They refuse to admit this* but documents revealed after the court decision unarguably expose their motive.

But even without that, the Supreme Court ruled the administration’s pretext for its plan was simply a lie. An extraordinary, unprecedented judicial rebuke. Not even this Republican-majority court could stomach the brazen dishonesty. (Well, at least John Roberts could not.)

And why do Trump and Republicans make such a big issue of adding a citizenship question? For partisan advantage; believing it would really skew the Census in their favor.** That’s why it mustn’t be allowed.

If Trump does issue his Court-defying order, what should happen? Those charged with carrying it out should refuse. If they have a civic bone in their bodies. Don’t count on that.

I have opposed impeachment because politically it would play into Trump’s hands. Disobeying the Supreme Court would change my view. If a president does that, and isn’t impeached, our Constitution isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

But even if sanity prevails, and Trump backs off from this particular threat, the fact that he could even utter it cannot be squared with the kind of nation we are — or used to be.

* Trump’s babblings on this disregard the Constitution requiring the Census to simply count people — not citizens — with Congressional apportionment based likewise. Trump’s aim is to deter non-citizen participation. The Census Bureau itself says a citizenship question would do that. (Thus fewer Congressional seats for cities where immigrants congregate.)

** Meantime, under the radar, they’re also aiming for an inaccurate Census by just grossly underfunding it.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire

July 3, 2019

(A condensed version of my June 18 book review talk)

In this 2017 book Kurt Andersen is very retro; believes in truth, reason, science, and facts. But he sees today’s Americans losing their grip on those. Andersen traces things back to the Protestant Reformation, preaching that each person decides what to believe.

Religious zealotry has repeatedly afflicted America. But in the early Twentieth Century that, Andersen says, seemed to be fizzling out. Christian fundamentalism was seen as something of a joke, culminating with the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. But evangelicals have made a roaring comeback. In fact, American Christians today are more likely than ever to be fundamentalist, and fundamentalism has become more extreme. Fewer Christians now accept evolution, and more insist on biblical literalism.

Other fantasy beliefs have also proliferated. Why? Andersen discusses several factors.

First he casts religion itself as a gateway drug. Such a suspension of critical faculties warps one’s entire relationship with reality. So it’s no coincidence that the strongly religious are often the same people who indulge in a host of other magical beliefs. The correlation is not perfect. Some religious Americans have sensible views about evolution, climate change, even Trump — and some atheists are wacky about vaccination and GM foods. Nevertheless, there’s a basic synergy between religious and other delusions.

Andersen doesn’t really address tribalism, the us-against-them mentality. Partisan beliefs are shaped by one’s chosen team. Climate change denial didn’t become prevalent on the right until Al Gore made climate a left-wing cause. Some on the left imagine Venezuela’s Maduro regime gets a bum rap.

Andersen meantime also says popular culture blurs the line between reality and fantasy, with pervasive entertainment habituating us to a suspension of disbelief. I actually think this point is somewhat overdone. People understand the concept of fiction. The problem is with the concept of reality.

Then there’s conspiracy thinking. Rob Brotherton’s book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories says we’re innately primed for them, because in our evolution, pattern recognition was a key survival skill. That means connecting dots. We tend to do that, even if the connections aren’t real.

Another big factor, Andersen thinks, was the “anything goes” 1960s counterculture, partly a revolt against the confines of rationality. Then there’s post-modernist relativism, considering truth itself an invalid concept. Some even insist that hewing to verifiable facts, the laws of physics, biological science, and rationality in general, is for chumps. Is in fact an impoverished way of thinking, keeping us from seeing some sort of deeper truth. As if these crackpots are the ones who see it.

Then along came the internet. “Before,” writes Andersen, “cockamamie ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail.” Now people slurp up wacky stuff from websites, talk radio, and Facebook’s so-called “News Feed” — really a garbage feed.

Andersen considers “New Age” spirituality a new form of American religion. He calls Oprah its Pope, spreading the screwball messages of a parade of hucksters, like Eckhart Tolle, and the “alternative medicine” promoter Doctor Oz. Among these so-called therapies are homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, reiki, etc. Read Wikipedia’s scathing article about such dangerous foolishness. But many other other mainstream gatekeepers have capitulated. News media report anti-scientific nonsense with a tone of neutrality if not acceptance. Even the U.S. government now has an agency promoting what’s euphemized as “Complementary and Integrative Health;” in other words, quackery.

Guns are a particular focus of fantasy belief. Like the “good guy with a gun.” Who’s actually less a threat to the bad guy than to himself, the police, and innocent bystanders. Guns kept to protect people’s families mostly wind up shooting family members. Then there’s the fantasy of guns to resist government tyranny. As if they’d defeat the U.S. military.

Of course Andersen addresses UFO belief. A surprising number of Americans report being abducted by aliens, taken up into a spaceship to undergo a proctology exam. Considering the nearest star being literally 24 trillion miles away, would aliens travel that far just to study human assholes?

A particularly disturbing chapter concerns the 1980s Satanic panic. It began with so-called “recovered memory syndrome.” Therapists pushing patients to dredge up supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. (Should have been called false memory syndrome.) Meantime child abductions became a vastly overblown fear. Then it all got linked to Satanic cults, with children allegedly subjected to bizarre and gruesome sexual rituals. This new witch hunt culminated with the McMartin Preschool trial. Before the madness passed, scores of innocent people got long prison terms.

A book by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise, showed how increasing formal education doesn’t actually translate into more knowledge (let alone wisdom or critical thinking). Education often leads people to overrate their knowledge, freeing them to reject conventional understandings, like evolution and medical science. Thus the anti-vaccine insanity.

Another book, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, focuses on our culture’s anti-intellectual strain. Too much education, some people think, makes you an egghead. And undermines religious faith. Yet Jacoby also notes how 19th Century Americans would travel long distances to hear lecturers like Robert Ingersoll, the great atheist, and Huxley the evolutionist. Jacoby also vaunts 20th century “Middlebrow” American culture, with “an affinity for books; the desire to understand science; a strong dose of rationalism; above all, a regard for facts.”

Today in contrast there’s an epidemic of confirmation bias: people embracing stuff that supports pre-existing beliefs, and shutting out contrary information. Smarter folks are actually better at confabulating rationalizations for that. And how does one make sense of the world and of new information? Ideally by integrating it with, and testing it against, your body of prior knowledge and understanding. But many Americans come short there — blank slates upon which rubbish sticks equally well as truth.

I also think reality used to be more harsh and unforgiving. To get through life you needed a firm grip on reality. That has loosened. The secure, cushy lives given us by modernity — by, indeed, the deployment of supreme rationality in the age of science — free people to turn their backs on that sort of rationality and indulge in fantasy.

Anderson’s subtitle is How America Went Haywire. As if that applies to America as a whole. But we are an increasingly divided nation. Riven between those whose faith has become more extreme and those moving in the opposite direction; which also drives political polarization. So it’s not all Americans we’re talking about.

Still, the haywire folks are big shapers of our culture. And there are real costs. Anti-vaccine hysteria undermines public health. The 1980s child threat panic ruined lives. Gun madness kills many thousands. And of course they’ve given us a haywire president.

Yet is it the end of the world? Most Americans go about their daily lives, do their jobs, in a largely rational pragmatic way (utilizing all the technology the Enlightenment has given). Obeying laws, being good neighbors, good members of society. Kind, generous, sincere, ethical people. America is still, in the grand sweep of human history, an oasis of order and reasonableness.

Meantime religious faith is collapsing throughout the advanced world, and even in America religion, for all its seeming ascendancy, is becoming more hysterical because it is losing. The younger you are, the less religious you are likely to be. And there are signs that evangelical Christianity is being hurt by its politicization, especially its support for a major moral monster.

I continue to believe in human progress. That people are capable of rationality, that in the big picture rationality has been advancing, and it must ultimately prevail. That finally we will, in the words of the Bible itself, put childish things away.

Making Burundi great again

July 1, 2019

Burundi is a very fortunate country. True, they had a 12-year tribal civil war killing 300,000, but that ended in 2005. Fewer die these days. As for the economy, many Burundians are spared from having to toil at a job, while a quarter don’t live in extreme poverty!

Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was appointed by God; he’s the nation’s “Eternal Supreme Guide.” If only all lands had one!

He garnered a well-deserved third term in 2015. Some nitpickers cited the Constitution’s two-term limit, but they were taught a salutary lesson, many hundreds sent to an even better place by the Eternal Supreme Guide’s valiant defenders. What part of “eternal” did they not understand?

Nkurunziza plans another re-election in 2020; to pacify even the most annoying nitpickers, there will be voting. However, he wisely foresaw difficulty paying for it, since miserly international donors now snootily stiff Burundi (due to fake news of brutality and corruption). So Nkurunziza prudently introduced an annual “Election Tax,” a mere dollar or so per household. Surely a small price to pay for democracy’s blessings!

Photo from The Economist

The tax is collected by his party’s “youth wing,” appropriately titled “Those Who See Far,” the “Imbonerakure.” (You can’t spell it without “boner.”) Groups of them come to homes bearing sticks. The Economist’s report did not mention carrots, but one can assume their use too. (One should also assume the money collected duly reaches government coffers.)

The Imbonerakure are admirably assiduous, visiting homes repeatedly, and even manning roadside checkpoints, to make sure the tax is paid. Many deadbeats claim they’d already paid; they would, wouldn’t they? But can they show a receipt for their supposed payment? Of course not!

Unresponsive to sticks or carrots, around 350,000 unpatriotic Burundians have slunk away to neighboring Congo. You’d think they’d know of Congo’s awfulness, but some people are oblivious. One woman there was quoted saying the Imbonerakure would come thrice monthly; claiming (or feigning) inability to pay, her whole family, including small children, was beaten up, her husband dragged away, never seen again. Shame on The (failing) Economist for printing such fake news!

Proving again that the press is the enemy of the people. But happily, Burundi itself, thanks to its Eternal Supreme Guide, is free of that curse!

“Crimes that shock the conscience of civilized men” (and women)

June 28, 2019

That’s a phrase I remember from my legal education.

Over a year ago we learned of Trump’s cruel policy of separating migrant children from parents. Kidnapping them, really; put in cages in concentration camps; often with no tracking to ever reunite them with parents, many of whom were deported. The psychological trauma inflicted on these innocent children is an abomination.

First the administration lied that its hands were tied by prior legislation. Even invoked the Bible to defend this atrocity. When national revulsion nevertheless exploded, Trump then said it was an Obama policy he was stopping — a lie on both counts.*

Today thousands of children remain in these wretched camps. Recently the Trump administration announced cancellation of many services provided to them, including recreational and educational programs.

More recently reports have emerged about the shocking conditions to which these kids are subjected. In tents and concrete blocks with no summer air conditioning, in Texas and Florida. Crowded together in filth, with no baths or showers, no diaper changes for the youngest; scant medical care or adult attention of any sort. Unsurprisingly, deaths have occurred. Sexual molestation is rampant.

Public outrage is muted. Why? No searing photos. One thing this otherwise incompetent administration has managed to accomplish is keeping a lid on pictures in these concentration camps. Not even members of Congress are allowed access.

Speaking of Congress: why no public hearings, to grill administration officials about these atrocities and hold them to account?

They claim there’s no money to care for these children. Should have thought of that before ripping them from their mothers. But Trump says he can find money for his wall. Which will do nothing to stop the influx of people fleeing desperate circumstances in their home countries.** Countries whose U.S. aid Trump has insanely cut.

Meantime he threatens to have ICE round up and deport millions of people who’ve lived here, inoffensively, mostly productively, for years. Many with children who are U.S. citizens, who’ll be devastated to lose their parents.

All this from a political gang purporting to worship Jesus Christ; indeed, fetishizing the rights of unborn children.

Their crimes against humanity will blacken America’s soul forever. The only possible expiation will be to vote out the depraved monster responsible, and all his enablers. They deserve worse.

* The Supreme Court officially ruled yesterday that the Trump administration is a bunch of liars; rejecting its bid to add a citizenship question to the Census, because the pretext for it was false. (The true aim was to undercount Hispanics.) Trump tweeted he’ll seek to postpone the Census — contrary to explicit Constitutional requirement.

** Trump in his first campaign launch called Mexican migrants rapists. Turns out he’s the rapist.

Why does evolution produce such diversity?

June 26, 2019

A science writer friend pointed me to a recent “Edge” essay by Freeman Dyson (https://www.edge.org/conversation/freeman_dyson-biological-and-cultural-evolution). Dyson, 95, is a truly great mind, which I am not. Nor an evolutionary biologist. Nevertheless —

Dyson begins with the question: why has evolution produced such a vast diversity of species? If “survival of the fittest” natural selection is the mechanism, shouldn’t we expect each ecological niche to wind up occupied by the one species most perfectly adapted? With others losing out in the competition and disappearing. Thus, in the Amazon rain forest, for example, just one variety of insect rather than thousands; and worldwide, maybe only a few hundred species altogether, rather than the millions actually existing (many with only slight differences). Also, we might expect species slimmed down to efficient essentials, not ongepotchket ones (a Yiddish word for “excessively and unaesthetically decorated.”) These things puzzled Darwin himself.

Darwin worked before we knew anything of genes, Dyson points out. He discusses the contributions of several later people. First is Motoo Kimura with the concept of “genetic drift,” an evolutionary mechanism separate from natural selection. It’s the randomness inherent in gene transmission through sexual reproduction. A given gene’s frequency in a large population will vary less than in a small one, where such random fluctuations will loom larger. Like if you make 1000 coin tosses you’ll always get very close to 500 heads, whereas with only ten tosses you might well get seven heads, a big deviation. So in small populations such genetic drift can drive evolutionary change faster than in a large population where genetic drift is negligible and slower natural selection is the dominant factor. Thus it’s small populations (often ones that get isolated from the larger mass) that most tend to spin off new species.

Dyson combines this idea with cultural evolution which, for humans in particular, is a much bigger factor than biological evolution. Dyson sees genetic drift involved with big local effects, such as the flourishing of ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence.

Then there’s Ursula Goodenough’s idea that mating paradigms, in particular, seem to change faster than other species characteristics. This too makes for rapid evolutionary jumps in genetically isolated populations. Dyson comments: “Nature loves to gamble. Nature thrives by taking risks. She scrambles mating system genes so as to increase the risk that individual parents will fail to find mates. [This] is part of Nature’s plan.” Because it raises the likelihood that parents who do succeed will birth new species.

And then there’s Richard Dawkins and The Selfish Gene. I keep coming back to that book because this — when fully understood — is a very powerful idea indeed.

It tells us that evolution is all about gene replication and nothing else. Thus I take some issue with Dyson’s language anthropomorphizing “Nature” as gambling. He writes as though Nature wants evolution to occur. But it doesn’t have aims. Nor does a gene “want” to make the most copies of itself; it’s simply that one doing so will be more prevalent in a population. That’s what evolution is.

So taking again Goodenough’s point, supposing any given characteristic (here, a mating paradigm) does result in some copies of the relevant gene failing to replicate, if nevertheless in the long run the characteristic means other copies of the same gene will replicate more, then that gene becomes more prevalent. There’s no “gambling” taking place, and no extra points earned if a new species happens to be created. It’s simply the math of the outcome — more copies of the gene.

I also take issue with Dyson’s associating local cultural flourishing with genetic drift. Whatever happened in Fifth Century BC Athens was a purely cultural phenomenon that had nothing to do with changes in Athenians’ genes. While the local gene pool would have differed a (tiny) bit from other human ones, there’s no basis to imagine there was natural selection favoring genes conducive to artistic flourishing, and in any case there would have been insufficient time for such natural selection to play out.

So — returning to the starting question — why all the diversity? While Dyson does point to some mechanistic aspects of evolution militating in that direction, I think there’s a larger and simpler answer. The problem lies in a syllable. “Survival of the fittest” is not quite exactly right; it’s really “survival of the fit.” There’s a big difference. It’s not only the fittest that survive; you don’t have to be the fittest; you just have to be fit. It’s not a winner-take-all competition.

This comports with Dawkins’s selfish gene insight. The genes that continue to exist in an environment are those that have been able to replicate. That doesn’t require being the best at replicating. The best, it is true, will be represented with the most copies, but there will also exist copies of those that are merely okay at replicating; even ones that are lousy, as long as they can replicate at all. The most successful don’t kill off the less successful. Only those totally failing to adapt to their environment die out.

That’s why there are a zillion different varieties of insects in the Amazon rain forest.

But Dyson’s larger point is that for humans, again, cultural evolution outstrips the biological, and this is certainly true. As Dyson notes, language is a huge factor (unique to humans) driving cultural evolution. And while biological evolution does tend toward ever greater diversification, human cultural evolution is actually pushing us in the opposite direction. The degree of human diversity is being collapsed by our cultural evolution — not only our biological diversity, in “races” whose separateness increasingly breaks down, but also cultural diversity, with ancient barriers that separated human groups into combative enclaves breaking down too, so that it is more and more appropriate to speak of a universal humanity.

The Holier-than-thou syndrome and Biden’s latest “controversy”

June 24, 2019

Joe Biden said that as a senator he’d been able to work with colleagues he’d disagreed with, even segregationists like Mississippi’s James Eastland. For this Biden’s been attacked by rivals Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker.*

Shame on them. Here we go again, with holier-than-thou Democrats trying to tear down the very decent man who is the party’s best hope for saving America from Trump.

Holier-than-thou. Preening as moral avatars by impugning the moral bona fides of others. Drawing a cordon sanitaire to consign others to outer darkness. Casting them as moral lepers (or at least “insensitive”) to validate your own supposed virtue.

This is the face of political correctness. Its bounds of moral acceptability are narrow. Fall afoul of them, and you’re a pariah; with no right to your opinion. Certainly not to be heard. Maybe to be punished. (I recently wrote of a similar attack on Tom Brokaw for allegedly “racist” comments.**)

Between that Scylla of intolerance on the left and the Charybdis of hatefulness on the right, will America be sunk?

Back to Biden’s comment: so now it’s not enough just to disagree with racists, even to condemn their views. You’re not allowed to engage with them at all. To cooperate even on things unconnected to race.

Such moralistic exclusionism has ground our government to a halt. In the past era Biden was referring to, the Senate could still actually function, political adversaries could pragmatically set aside their differences on some issues to collaborate on others. Legislation happened. Problems got addressed. No longer.

The self-congratulatory moral sanctimony of our Bookers, Harrises and Warrens may feel good, to them and their rabid cheering section, but what does it actually achieve? Does it shame the politically incorrect into reconsidering and recanting? Hardly. It does the reverse. They themselves now feel equally morally entitled to damn their own ideological foes. The resulting polarization is tearing America apart.

Biden seems to understand this. When he previously spoke of keeping — oh no! — Republicans in our civic fold — a hard left commenter on my blog predictably flayed him.

We keep talking about “our democracy.” What does democracy really mean? Is it just elections, majority rule? No, what’s more important is democratic culture and attitude; crucially, the concept of pluralism. And it doesn’t mean just ethnic or gender diversity, but mainly diversity of ideas. That there’s space in the public square for more than one viewpoint. That people you disagree with have an equal claim to participation, equal legitimacy; even to win sometimes.

Political correctness rejects that kind of pluralism, seeking the delegitimization of certain viewpoints, their banishment from the public square. Communism had the “dictatorship of the proletariat;” today’s left seeks the dictatorship of, well, the left. Biden’s comment about working even with segregationists, in contrast, epitomizes democratic culture. That’s how democracy works — indeed, how it must work. If it is to work at all.

* Biden noted Eastland didn’t call him “boy.” That in particular irked Booker because Southern racists disrespectfully called black men “boy.” Was Biden’s comment disrespectful? Toward Eastland, maybe. Biden was in fact acknowledging how segregationists did disrespect black men.

** Here’s a link:  https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2019/04/03/witch-hunt-politics-ii-tom-brokaws-racist-comments/

 

ALARM! Russia attacking America

June 21, 2019

On 9/11 we were attacked. America united fiercely, in outrage and resolve, to confront the enemy and prevent a repeat.

In 2016, a different enemy attacked us, with actually far greater damage. But this time we collectively shrugged, with many heads in the sand.

Russian Roulette, a 2018 book by journalists Michael Isikoff and David Korn, details Russia’s war on American democracy and how Trump’s election fit into it. Not news to anyone whose head’s above ground. But the book is an eye-opener about how deep and serious this is.

The 9/11 death toll was terrible, yet Islamic terrorism has never been an existential threat to our way of life. Russia is far more dangerous; has already harmed us more. The Obama administration never got it, the book shows. Obama fell into the trap of fixating on the over-hyped threat from the Middle East, and imagined Russia as a potential partner there. Thus the “re-set” effort to improve relations. But our worst enemy is not terrorism, it’s Russia.

Remember when Romney said this — and Obama mocked him as living back in the cold war? The cold war did end but this is a new and different one. If we fail to see Russia as our deadly enemy, Putin and the Russians certainly see us as theirs. And while during the cold war, the Soviets never imagined destabilizing America itself, that’s exactly what Putin is doing. It wasn’t only screwing with the election, but more generally working to aggravate our societal divisions. They’re doing it elsewhere too; Russia had a hand in the Brexit vote, which is tearing apart Britain’s body politic.

The book shows that the Kremlin had been cultivating Trump for years, playing him, dangling the lure of a big real estate deal (that never jelled). Drooling for it, Trump kept kissing Putin’s posterior. He naively fantasized that his idolizing Putin was mutual, and they could get along beautifully.

In fact, Putin hated Hillary because she (unlike Trump) had his number; and come 2016, Trump was a tailor-made guided missile for Putin to fire at America’s heart. A president who’d weaken the country with self-destructive policies, weaken its alliances and international prestige, exacerbate our internal divisions, and undermine our democracy. Personal vulgarity, lying, and corruption were added bonuses. Putin didn’t expect his election shenanigans would be enough to make Americans drink this Kool-Aid. But just 77,000 votes in three key states did it. A hole-in-one.

The book details just how extensive and sophisticated that election subversion was, clearly orchestrated at the highest levels, deploying state resources. Taking Hillary down with a tsunami of lies. I was NO Hillary fan, but the Russian-orchestrated demonization that took hold was just nuts. (Especially when compared against Trump’s flaws.) A particularly virulent item was the “uranium deal” which Hillary haters still keep bringing up. The book disposes of this in a few sentences, showing there’s nothing there.

Trump and his enablers pound the lie that the whole Russia story is a “witch hunt,” a “deep state” FBI plot to take him down, an attempted coup. That they “spied” on his campaign. The nonsensicality is obvious because while the FBI tarred Hillary publicly during 2016, they kept a lid on the explosive fact that they were investigating Trump-Russia links. And they had ample reason to investigate, plenty of evidence of Russia’s intervening to help him. The FBI knew the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, and were spilling what they’d gotten. The FBI was also already looking at Trump advisor Carter Page, playing footsie with Russian operatives in Moscow. And George Papadopoulos. And of course campaign chief Manafort, long involved with pro-Russian interests.

So it was far more than the notorious “Steele Dossier.” Christopher Steele was a former officer with Britain’s intelligence service who’d previously given ours much useful material. He was instrumental in our busting FIFA corruption, and also worked with the State Department. So his 2016 work having initially been paid for by Democrats didn’t taint it. When he gave it to the FBI, it fit with what they were already seeing. Though the allegations of Trump hotel sex hijinks couldn’t be documented, Steele’s detailing how the Russians had long been working Trump certainly merited investigation. It would have been scandalous had the FBI not pursued all this.

Meantime the FBI and intelligence services were oblivious to another huge part of Russia’s scheme: its devastating exploitation of social media. And the Obama administration seemed asleep at the switch about the whole thing. But the book chronicles the administration’s terrible quandary. Obama held back out of fear of looking partisan, and strong action could have backfired. He did hold a meeting with GOP Congressional leaders, trying to get them on board for a bipartisan outing of, and response to, the Russian subversion. Mitch McConnell refused.

Russia also tried to hack local election systems. This actually hasn’t been much investigated, but it appears Russia did succeed in some spots, like North Carolina. It’s not just vote counting, serious a concern though that is; in North Carolina they seem to have messed with voter records (concentrating on Democrats). Imagine millions coming to vote and finding they can’t; sowing chaos on Election Day. Russia wants to damage the idea of democracy itself, making it seem a sham, undermining public confidence in the integrity of elections. This is a huge vulnerability.

Much in the book is also documented in the Mueller report. Mueller tried to sound the alarm in his public statement, imploring us to take this seriously. We need presidential leadership to mobilize against the next Russian attack, but obviously we don’t have it. Trump takes the whole idea of Kremlin election meddling as a personal insult — while probably realizing it did help him win —leaving the door wide open for a repeat.*

Basically, the Russians got away with it, paying no real price. Obama had belatedly imposed slap-on-the-wrist sanctions but Trump sought to undo them. When Congress put them into law, Trump said he’d disregard that legislation. He’s been at war not with Russia but with America’s own FBI and intelligence services. It culminated in firing Comey as an attempt to squelch the continuing investigation (which is what led to Mueller’s appointment). Then in Helsinki he acted as Putin’s lap dog, endorsing his lies. Not only did Putin get his man in the White House, but the hoped-for benefits were amply forthcoming.

* Meantime, he recently said that if a foreign government offers dirt on a political opponent, he’d see no reason not to take it. In fact, doing so would be committing a crime.