Sholem Aleichem and my Jewish roots and American identity

January 18, 2019

We watched a PBS documentary about Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) — making me ponder what I feel as my personal identity.

People used to be securely rooted in distinct cultures, but those boundaries have become fluid in today’s cosmopolitan world. Yet many still crave the belongingness of cultural identity. (It’s a big factor in Trumpism.)

Sholem Aleichem’s roots were in the Jewish shtetl culture of Russia and Eastern Europe. Mine too. My mother (now 98) arrived in America in 1938 as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. My paternal grandparents were apparently born here, but their ancestry was in Sholem Aleichem country. “Robinson” was presumably anglicized from something like Rabinovich (which was Sholem Aleichem’s original name too).

I had long supposed that all these Jews were traceable back to the Holyland. But when I wrote an autobiography, research indicated that isn’t likely. We may well have derived instead from the Khazars, a Central Asian people whose ruler, for some reason, decided to go Jewish around a millennium ago. (Making “anti-Semitism” a misnomer; the Khazars were not Middle Eastern Semites.)

Sholem Aleichem bopped around various European locales but finally wound up in America — like a couple million other Jews. The documentary said most jettisoned their traditions. “Tradition”  is the insistent refrain of a lead song in Fiddler on the Roof, which was based on Sholem Aleichem’s work. Again we see the powerful role of cultural tradition in delineating one’s personal identity.

Religion is a big element of that. And many Jews in America have — like me — eschewed the religion. A big issue for Fiddler’s main character Tevye was his daughter’s marrying a non-Jew. As many American Jews have — like me — also done.

But a great thing about the human animal is our adaptability, always changing ourselves to fit new circumstances. And if we Americans of Jewish ethnicity have cast off old traditions, it is to create new ones.

Yet my lineage is by no means irrelevant to who I am. My Jewish immigrant heritage is important to it — not the Jewish part so much as the immigrant part. I feel spiritual kinship with all those who made the journey; the leaving behind and the creating anew. That indeed is the very essence of what America represents. This country was conceived as a new human beginning, free of all the stifling old baggage of the lands from whence we came.

So my identity is as an American. I feel embedded in that American story of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” to reinvent not only themselves but the world. Creating a great society where human beings can best flourish. America has indeed enabled me to have a wonderful life, and that’s thanks to its openness and fundamental character, which has been such a magnet for others to come here.

Many Americans today, however, see their identities rooted not in such universal ideas and values but rather in an ethnic parochialism. Thus the hostility to those migrants who are the latest legions of “wretched refuse” knocking on our golden door. Thousands of children, taken away from their parents, are in detention camps, in horrible conditions. This cruel inhuman treatment, by an America that seems to have forgotten its own true identity, breaks my heart.

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Facebook: the monster destroying civilization

January 13, 2019

First it was Facebook as an addictive time sink; substituting for life in the actual world; even ruining marriages. But all that was in a more innocent time. Now there are bigger issues.

PBS’s Frontline recently ran an eye-popping two-part report on Facebook. The mantra of Facebook and its creator/boss Mark Zuckerberg is “open and connected.” It’s the idealism of improving the world by bringing people together and empowering them. The 2011 Egyptian revolution was organized largely via Facebook.

But Facebook, as Reinhold Niebuhr said of religion, is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. And while most people are good, unfortunately not all are. Containing bad people’s badness is civilization’s age-old problem. Bad people have had a field day exploiting Facebook’s idealistic concept for their own malign purposes, and Facebook has failed abysmally in dealing with this.

Facebook makes its money by using its algorithms to target ads to people likely to be receptive. The Russians utilized this to subvert the 2016 election (with the connivance if not collusion of the Trump campaign); a well-financed and well-organized attack on America and its democracy by the Internet Research Agency operating under the Kremlin’s aegis. The IRA launched a tsunami of Facebook ads. But it did much more, also flooding Facebook with trolls pretending to be Americans posting content, including establishment of innumerable Facebook groups that attracted millions of followers.

And the Kremlin’s aim was not only Trump’s election (which they didn’t actually expect) but, more broadly, to undermine American society itself by sowing division. They did this through content advocating both sides of hot-button issues, like abortion, immigration, and guns — made as extremist as possible, to enflame partisanship and get Americans to hate one another. (Seems it was pretty successful.)

While all this was happening during 2016 — and happening massively— Facebook’s management was oblivious. Literally unaware how its platform was being so horrendously abused. Only afterward, once the stench finally reached their nostrils, did they start to investigate. And Facebook was shocked, shocked, to discover what had happened.

But things didn’t really blow up in Facebook’s face till the Cambridge Analytica story broke. Cambridge’s business is targeting people with content (not necessarily truthful) that will sway their opinions. Facebook had always sworn to protect users’ privacy and personal information, but sold some to Cambridge, and their controls proved to be so lax that Cambridge winkled out the data for many millions more.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Frontline also showed how Facebook is used to whip up ethnic hatreds and violence in Myanmar, and “weaponized” by backers of Philippine President Duterte to crush critics of his policy of dealing with drugs by murdering thousands. These are just examples of a global problem.

Part of it is that people aren’t mis-using Facebook just to promote political or social agendas. They do it for money. Creating “click bait” content that attracts a lot of eyeballs enables one to sell ads (on top of those Facebook itself sells). I heard a radio interview with one guy who unashamedly told how he’d made thousands by concocting a fake “report” about Hillary vote fraud.

Frontline interviewed a bunch of top Facebook people about all this. Every one sounded downright lame. All acknowledged that Facebook was “slow” to address these problems, but were vague about remedies. The problems at issue don’t much affect Facebook’s profitability; whereas quashing them might.

One thing Facebook is doing pro-actively, though, is trying to dig up dirt to smear its critics.

Zuckerberg appeared frequently in Frontline’s report. He came across as a dewy-eyed robotic snowflake totally out of his depth. Never appreciating the magnitude and seriousness of what’s at issue.

Facebook has always insisted it is a technology company, not a media or content company. And there is a principle, enshrined in legislation, exempting internet platforms from liability for stuff other people put up on them.

But not so fast. Facebook’s “News Feed” has become its most prominent feature. For a vast number of people, it is their primary (if not sole) source of news. Fine and dandy if it’s news like Walter Cronkhite used to broadcast. But this is totally different. This too is governed by algorithms tailored to showing users stuff they are most apt to like and respond to —whether true or not. (The purpose again is selling ads.)

The traditional role of a news purveyor is to exercise editorial responsibility. Recognizing that recipients of their product have an interest in getting accurate news; and, indeed, that this is vital for a society, especially a democratic one. But Facebook exercises no editorial responsibility whatsoever. Doesn’t even recognize that the concept applies to them.

This might not be terrible if Facebook were just another news outlet. But Facebook is now by far the world’s biggest disseminator of “news.” It has a stranglehold monopoly in the “social network” sphere, becoming indeed an integral part of the very fabric of life, throughout the globe. This gives Facebook truly immense power. But it refuses to shoulder any real responsibility.

Zuckerberg on Frontline said he assumes Facebook users are not so naive as to believe everything they see there. How naive is he to believe that? On what planet does he live?

If you’re a bad guy and you throw something up on the web that’s outrageously false but incendiary and calculated to push certain people’s buttons, that’s exactly what it will do, thanks to Facebook, whose algorithms will give it “News Feed” prominence for precisely that reason. Much more prominence than (unexciting) genuine news. It’s a form of Gresham’s law — bad (fake) news drives good (true) news out of circulation. In fact, many people today have less trust in traditional news sources. They refuse to believe CNN yet wallow in Facebook’s “News Feed” — which is really a crap feed.

This is insanity. No wonder we have the president we have.

What is the solution? It is long past time to hope that Zuckerberg and Facebook will suddenly wake up and (somehow) grasp the nettle. Meantime, while I am a believer in free market capitalism, Facebook is not just another standard type of business enterprise. It is, again, certainly a monopoly, and it’s in a class by itself, in terms of its immense societal role. This could be seen as an antitrust matter; but I don’t know that there’s an antitrust solution, along the lines of breaking up the company, that would make any sense.

My professional career was spent in the public regulation of monopoly utilities. The deal was that government would license them as monopolies, in exchange for their agreeing to being subject to regulation, including rate regulation. I would suggest designating Facebook a public utility. Rate regulation would be irrelevant here, but there needs to be regulation of how Facebook operates. At a minimum, the “News Feed” should be subjected to public oversight so that if it continues to exist at all, it must be limited to what is generally recognized as legitimate actual news.

The Trump diaries

January 11, 2019

There’s two kinds of people. Strong and weak. Winners and Losers. I’m so strong and such a winner, biggest in the world, it’s so great. There was a German writer, Neechie, who said it’s masters and slaves; wrote about the “Ubermench.” That’s me!

I haven’t read Neechie, people have told me. I don’t read, reading is for losers who don’t already know everything, ha ha! Not for the Ubermench.

And the great thing about knowing everything — well, and being president — is that you can do anything and say anything, whatever you feel like. So the failing New York Times says it’s a lie. Who gives a shit? Not those stupid suckers out there who love me. You know what? It’s really because they wish they could be like me. Bunch of pathetic losers. What a joke!

Putin — now there’s a guy who’s strong too. I love that guy! Somebody disses him, Putin snaps his fingers, and that loser is gone. And I mean gone. What a shame we don’t have that in America. Boy, I’d have such a list!

And Xi Jinping, he makes those stupid Chinks worship him like a god. Practically licking his feet — cause he can snap his fingers too, you know. And it sure helps if you have a whole nation of dumb losers like China. Though Xi Jinping, that’s kind of a weak sounding name. Not like Trump, now that’s a real strong name. Trump! And Donald, not “Don!” Nobody calls me Don, I wouldn’t stand for it. All these weenie politicians using pal-sy names. Started with Carter. Calling himself Jimmy, not James, I mean, come on. Maybe Jim, okay, but not Jimmy. Like he’s a kid or something. What a wimpy loser. Not me!

Can’t believe I get away with all the shit I get away with. But God, I hate people who don’t grovel to me. Me, the ubermench! So unfair! Stupid losers.

I wonder what Obama is doing right this minute. That weakling laughed at me — at me — at that dinner. Not even white. Well, who’s laughing now!!

And that sniveling little Canadian twerp Trudo, what a loser. And that French guy, little Macron. Married to an old bag old enough to be his mother! In fact, she’s got a son older than him! I wonder if they actually fuck. I wish that little bitch Melania would let me fuck her. What a cushy deal she’s got, and she doesn’t even have to put out. As if there aren’t a million hot pieces of ass out there who’d fuck my brains out to be first lady.

One of the more tasteful photos of Melania

But what can I do? That’s the one thing I didn’t think of when I ran for president. All those Secret Service flunkies always there. How do I get any pussy in here? You’d think that would be one of the perks. So unfair! What kind of crap country have you got where the president can’t get pussy? I bet Putin gets it, served to him on a silver platter every day! No, gold, actually.

Transgender wars

January 7, 2019

Sex is a huge, and very anxiety-ridden, part of the human psyche. That (not the Bible) is why some are freaked out by gays. Well, they lost that war; but transgender freaks them out even more. So then we had the bathroom wars. And then Trump tried to ban transgender people from the military. His latest atrocity is to define, for all federal purposes, your gender as what’s on your birth certificate, deemed immutably fixed at birth or before. As if people go trans for nutty or perverse reasons.

This is not just cruel and hateful, it’s counter-factual. Here’s some biological information:

An embryo actually begins sexless, able to develop into either gender. (That’s why men have nipples.) Which gender it assumes is (normally) governed by its genes, with a lot of complex steps, elaborately choreographed by chemical signaling (via hormones). This creates male or female hardware and software. The hardware is the anatomy. The software tells you how to use it, and is installed in your brain.

My own software makes me sexually attracted to females. But there’s another aspect – feeling male– that’s so second nature we’re not even aware of it. It’s just part of one’s operating system, humming along in the background.

But what if there’s a signaling glitch during embryonic development, and incorrect software gets installed? We know some males have software telling them to mate with males instead of females. But, more rarely, some get entirely the wrong package – telling them they are female.

This is not some psychological hang-up, confusion about gender, or wishing one’s gender were different. Male and female brains are different, not just in how they work, but even physiologically. And it’s possible to be genetically and genitally male while having a mismatched female brain.*

Most of us, with everything matching, can hardly imagine what it would be like otherwise. But that’s the transgender situation. A basic incompatibility with one’s own body. That’s not something you can make yourself simply adjust to, or ignore. It’s something fundamental to who you are.

The condition is called “gender dysphoria,” usually showing up (and strongly) fairly early in childhood. The treatment can include drugs to delay puberty; then, if the condition persists, hormones and surgery to change the anatomy to better match the brain software.

Going through all this is a terrible experience; one’s social structures, and even one’s own family, are often non-supportive if not downright hostile. Even after transitioning, it’s still very tough for trans people to adjust. Their suicide rates are very high.

So they deserve empathy and human kindness; anything to make their road easier. Trump’s opposite tack is vile.

As to the bathroom panic, it’s not completely baseless. Some male sexual perverts and predators might try to get their jollies in women’s rooms. But let’s take a deep breath and remember that such behavior is always illegal and punishable, and transgender rights don’t change that.

This concludes this essay’s politically correct portion.

Just as Trump, playing to his most retrograde supporters, makes the transgender phenomenon political, it has also become political on the other side. Support for the “full Monty” of transgender rights has become part of the politically correct “progressive” catechism — and Heaven help anyone murmuring heresy.

This means all-in with the idea of gender self-identification — no questions asked. Any male who says he wants to be treated as female gets treated as female. More, it means children not only taught to be accepting, but actually encouraged to question their own gender identity. And, by all means, to change it if they like.

The power of suggestion is very big for youngsters. And a lot of kids are, of course, mixed up in varied ways, having trouble fitting in socially, relating to their families, struggling to form their personal identities, etc. Moreover, adjusting to puberty and the whole sexuality thing is difficult enough for even the most normal of kids. In this hothouse environment, being trans or “gender fluid” might seem an attractive ticket to coolness, to hipness. It’s the in vogue as thing to be now. And so there’s an epidemic of kids coming out with “gender dysphoria.”

Brown University scientist Lisa Littman recently studied this, and found many teen gals in friendship groups all suddenly asserting trans identities — often after binge-watching online videos by trans teenagers. Littman called this “rapid-onset gender dysphoria.”

But meantime, the “transactivist” movement is geared to fully honoring such a seeming choice. That means putting the kids on an express train to hormone treatments and surgery, irreversibly altering their bodies. That can be salutary for true dysphoria cases, but where some different psychological thing is actually going on, it can be a catastrophic mistake that will screw up that person’s later life. There have already been numerous such cases; sad stories. Yet in effect transactivists insist that these kids be allowed to self-diagnoseand get the associated treatment, with no second-guessing by medical professionals or other adults.

Where a child insists they are the other gender, starting early and consistently for years, that can be accepted at face value. But when it springs up suddenly in a teenager, it’s reasonable to question what is really behind it. Yet anyone urging such a cautious wait-and-see approach in such cases is condemned as an anti-trans heretic. After transactivist lobbying, Brown University withdrew its report about Littman’s research, saying it might “discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.”

So with that smarmy bullshit, Brown caved to the trans Torquemadas. Yet another example of the left’s troubled relationship with freedom of thought and expression. At least Littman has not been burned at the stake.

* Rarely too, the anatomy can be messed up, ambiguous or in-between.

Consciousness, Self & Free Will — my talk 1/13

January 6, 2019

I will give a talk at the Capital District Humanist Society, Sunday, Jan. 13, 12:45 PM, Room 224 of Sage College Campus Center, Academy Rd & New Scotland Ave., Albany. (Nice refreshments!)

What does it really mean to have a self? Or feel that you do? Making choices and decisions? Philosophers have long wrestled with these problems. Some argue that neuroscience reveals the self and free will are illusions. A book by Daniel Dennett argues otherwise. My talk will resolve these issues once and for all.

Ilhan Omar: from refugee camp to Congress

January 4, 2019

THIS IS MY AMERICA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), taking the oath of office yesterday.

Walls and ladders

January 3, 2019

Something there is that loves a wall.

A wall for keeping people out;

People who are not like us.

Of course they’re not like us;

They wouldn’t build a wall.

But wall lovers don’t conceive of ladders,

For raising people up, transcending barriers.

I lift my ladder up against your wall;

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Witch hunt watch

December 31, 2018

1. Trump’s charitable foundation has been described as “a personal piggy bank for his businesses, legal bills and presidential campaign.” (Albany Times-Union, 12/19) Why should we care? Because donations to a charitable foundation are tax deductible. Using that money to benefit him personally, rather than for any philanthropic purpose, enabled Trump to illegally deduct those dollars from his income tax, as “charitable contributions.” A fraud upon the government and a theft from taxpayers.

Examples of disbursements by this so-called “charity” included $100,000 to settle a claim against Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort and $158,000 to settle one against the Trump National Golf Club. I have no details about those claims — likely they involved more of the fraudulent rip-offs that were Trump’s stock in trade. So he settled those frauds by means of a further fraud.

The “charity” was also suborned by Trump’s presidential campaign to make at least five $100,000 grants to Iowa groups in the days before the political caucuses there. Political contributions or expenditures are not tax-deductible, and not allowed for a charitable foundation. (This scam additionally violated campaign finance laws.)

Due to these abuses, Trump’s “charity” is being shut down, with Trump and his sons barred from serving on any charitable boards.

We already knew the 2016 election was subverted by Russian hacking and disinformation. This criminal mis-use of Trump’s charitable foundation is one more way in which he corrupted the election and procured the presidency by fraud.

A footnote: The Washington Post reported that the foundation’s remaining assets include a football helmet signed by Tim Tebow, bought for $12,000, and two paintings of the business genius Trump that cost $30,000; “the three items are now valued at $975.”

2. The New York Times recently ran an extensive report on Trump’s business history, littered with lies, cheating, frauds, and rip-offs. The Times detailed, in particular, how his family cheated the government out of hundreds of millions of dollars in estate tax on his father’s fortune. How exactly? Fred Trump ran a real estate firm owning many properties. Donald set up a fake company supposedly in the business of providing services (like maintenance, accounting, etc) for such properties — and falsely billing the father’s firm for those supposed services. The real aim was to move money from Fred’s empire into Donald’s pocket, improperly avoiding the estate taxes that would have been due if Fred had just left him the money.* This was actually a double fraud, because Fred’s business could deduct these payments from its own tax returns, as though they were legitimate business outlays.

A footnote: Trump lied in insisting he got nothing from his father except a small loan that was repaid. (It was not.)

3. Michael Cohen, at Trump’s direction and using Trump’s money, bribed two women to bury their stories of adulterous affairs with Trump. Trump originally lied that he knew nothing about it. Now he admits otherwise, yet he insists it was merely a private matter and not illegal. But the Justice Department thought differently, and Cohen is going to prison for these crimes.

Here’s why: the payments were made shortly before the election for the obvious purpose of affecting its outcome. The idea that it was to spare his wife is preposterous; as if Trump cared; and Melania knew what she was marrying. No, these were plainly political expenditures, coming under the purview of federal election law. Which limits such contributions and requires their reporting. Trump’s secret payments were a serious crime.

This too corrupted the 2016 election which Trump won by fraud.

A footnote: Rudy Giuliani dismissed the significance of these crimes by saying nobody died. This was immediately followed, on the radio news, by a report on the death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal, in the custody of ICE, resulting from the inhuman policy of this fraudulently elected president.

The foregoing is by no means a full list of Trump’s misdeeds. There’s also, for example, the Trump University fraud, which he paid $25 million to settle. And now the corruption of his inaugural budget is under investigation. And of course also the Mueller stuff. Some will doubtless say, “They all do it.” No sir; not like this. (Anything the Clintons may have done pales in comparison.) In all the annals of U.S. political history, Trump’s record of pervasive criminal fraud is utterly without precedent. But the really shocking thing is that 40+% of Americans still view him favorably.

Drain the swamp.

Lock him up.

Make America great again.

* Living parents can give children gifts, free of tax, but above $15,000 annually they incur a gift tax; this is to prevent avoiding the estate tax via gifts.

Democrats and anti-democrats

December 26, 2018

Democracy is great . . . until you elect people who don’t believe in it. Like in Venezuela, where a criminal gang got power, and now can’t be voted out while looting the country.

And like Wisconsin and Michigan. Republicans were voted out of the governorships and other statewide offices. But though also outvoted for state legislative seats, they kept majorities through extreme gerrymandering. And, Venezuela-like, used that legislative control to strip the incoming governors and other officials of key powers, grabbing those powers for themselves.

Politics is a hardball game. But this is something new — shredding the rules of the game as they’ve long been understood in democracies. A key element of democratic culture is honoring voter sovereignty, pluralism, and the legitimacy of opposition. When you lose an election, you accept it, bow out, and let the other side have its day.

But Republicans no longer believe in democracy. They only believe in their own power. They executed their power grabs in Michigan and Wisconsin, with hardly a fig leaf of justification, because they could. Likewise when they abused their U.S. Senate majority to steal a Supreme Court seat, something unprecedented in our history.

Republicans’ rejection of democratic culture has long been clear too from their voter suppression tactics. Instead of trying to attract opposing voters, they aim to stop their voting.

Blacks are primary targets. A lot of Republican election wins have actually been achieved by preventing many blacks (and members of other demographic groups) from voting. This was certainly true of Georgia’s gubernatorial election; maybe the 2016 presidential election too.

Despite these shameful tactics, most blacks in America still can vote. And what mystifies me is why their turnout is not virtually 100%.

We’re endlessly told how racist America is; that “black lives matter” must be fought for. Well, the most powerful weapon in combating all that is the vote. We’re also endlessly told that the system is rigged and voting is pointless, it doesn’t matter. Yet while a single vote may not change anything, millions of votes do. Money may rule, but only if it can buy votes. People can refuse to be fooled. And at the end of the day, it’s votes that rule.

Look again at 2016 and tell me voting doesn’t matter. America would be a completely different country today if all blacks able to vote in 2016 had done so. Probably if just 5% more had done so.

Racism? Don’t talk to me about racism if you don’t vote.

Mad Dog

December 24, 2018

While the government is partly shut down, held hostage to his futile wall demand, the Russian stooge in the White House is pulling our troops out of Syria. He says ISIS is defeated. That’s as true as his claiming North Korea is denuclearizing. Trump’s first foreign policy precept is (as in everything): just lie.

Here too is the great deal maker in action. His negotiating strategy, and second foreign policy precept: give away everything for nothing in return. As with moving our embassy to Jerusalem, which he actually boasted took that issue off the table. For nothing in return. Now he’s given Putin, and Iran, and Bashar Assad, and ISIS, and Turkey’s Erdogan, something they all wanted very much. Getting nothing in return.

Meantime our erstwhile Kurdish allies — the one force in the region that was really in our corner — we’ve now repaid by royally screwing, abandoning them to the mercies of the Turks, Syrians, Russians, Iranians, and ISIS, all of whom want them destroyed.

Trump is also pulling half our troops from Afghanistan. For years we’ve tried to get the Taliban to negotiate. Now their intransigence is rewarded. They too are delighted by Trump’s actions.

So there’s his third foreign policy precept: give our allies the finger while rewarding our foes.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest against this policy, pointedly saying Trump “deserves” a defense secretary who’s in line with it. If such a person exists. (But none of this should be dignified with the word “policy;” in truth Trump just acts blindly on whim.)

Mattis’s letter said he’d retire February 28. Trump then tweeted he’d be out by January 1.

When first nominating him, Trump reveled in his “Mad Dog Mattis” nickname. Mattis himself reportedly hated that name. Who’s the real mad dog?

Jim Mattis should be the Democrats’ presidential candidate. “Make America great again?” Let’s just hope it survives this shitstorm. Not even half over, two years and 27 days left. And it will get worse.