The health care debacle

March 26, 2017

Have you finally had it yet — with the incompetence and dysfunction; the war on truth; the conflicts of interest; the irresponsibility; the ties to Russia’s criminal regime; the just plain craziness?

It would be a joke if it weren’t sickening. The one signature Republican campaign promise — indeed, a downright hysterical vow — to repeal Obamacare — they’ve fluffed. Over seven years, they voted around 50 times to repeal it, just phony posturing without control of the White House. Now they do control it, plus the Senate and House, and they can’t even manage to get to a vote.*

And blame the Democrats! Trump’s fulminating afterwards was simply deranged, saying “explosion” of the health insurance system (a wild exaggeration) will be their problem (“now they own it”), and they’re bound to come running to the White House to make a deal to fix it. As if the Great Deal Maker could consummate a deal with Democrats when he couldn’t even do it among his own Republicans. And as if Democrats control Congress. And as if it’s not actually the Republicans’ problem because they’re the ones in charge now.

Indeed, Trump even says failure of his very bad health care bill may be a good thing, not because it was a bad bill, but because now we can (somehow, later) get that beautiful, tremendous, wonderful program he’s still bizarrely fantasizing about. As if he actually had any idea what such a program might actually be, never mind how to get it passed.

And never mind about health care anyway now. After seven years of obsessing about it, why, we’ll just forget about it and move on. To tax reform, perhaps. That should be easy enough to solve, right?

Before his health bill collapsed, Trump had lamented, “It’s all politics.” Well, duh. The problem is that this asinine blowhard came in with zero understanding of the political system, his ego too inflated to imagine he needed to learn anything, believing he knows everything, and all our problems are because everybody else is just stupid.

We’ve elected an insane creep as president. Doing so was insane. How does this end? How much damage will it first do to America, and the world?

* I was actually hoping they’d at least ditch the tax penalty, which would have helped me and my wife. But not even that could they accomplish.

The gem, mineral, and fossil show

March 24, 2017

unknownMy wife Therese had the idea of going to the gem, mineral, and fossil show held at the State Museum. To humor her, I agreed, though this isn’t really my thing. Well, something to do, a little salutary marital togetherness. I was kind of expecting a dull exhibit, but instead it was a vendor bourse, very different, quite extensive, and fascinating.

We saw some amazing and bizarre stuff; the variety mind-boggling. So many mineral names I’d never heard before, seemingly without end. Many crystals looked quite astonishing, like dramatic little sculptures.

Cephalopods

Cephalopods

And cool fossils. Lots of ancient cephalopods (sea creatures like squids), highly polished and beautiful; hard to believe they were not carved by cunning artists.

Many items, like those, seemed surprisingly affordable too. As a passionate collector myself (of coins), I could see how people could really get into collecting this stuff. Rocks rock!

Therese and I tend to be lookers, not buyers, at art shows and the like, and we certainly had no expectation of purchasing anything here. But when I drew attention to one small item, Therese was blown away by it. Next to all the other bigger and dramatic pieces on view, it might not have seemed like much, a very simple little thing. Indeed, its very simplicity made it dramatic in its own way. It was a piece of whiteish rock on which was perched a good sized perfect cube* of silver-black pyrite crystal, about an inch on each side. With surfaces so smooth they were mirrors. I couldn’t recall ever having seen a crystal so geometrically perfect. Therese could hardly believe this was actually made by Nature; it took some convincing.

untitled-1And this too was not terribly expensive ($45), so we bought it. No sooner had we done so, and moved on to other sellers, suddenly we started seeing similar ones, even cheaper. But none possessed quite the dramatic in-your-face perfection of ours, so I was not unpleased.

It looks other-worldly to me, as though dropped onto our planet by ethereal aliens, like something out of Kubrick’s 2001. With mystical powers.

Therese calls it spooky, saying it almost scares her, and that it changes her relationship with existence.

* Actually, it’s what’s called a rectangular prism, as the facets are not exactly square.

The health care travesty

March 21, 2017

For seven years, Republicans pursued Obamacare with the obsessiveness of Captain Ahab pursuing the white whale. Now they resemble a dog chasing a car, and catching it. Or Captain Ahab tangled up on the whale’s back and going down with it.

What they hated so much about Obamacare was never quite clear, except perhaps for the “Obama” part. It was based, after all, on what was originally a Republican concept, put forward as a market-based alternative to “socialized medicine.” Indeed, to get something done about all the Americans without proper health care, Obama had to give up the politically difficult government option, and to buy off the insurance industry by giving it what seemed a very sweet deal (selling more insurance).

Anyhow, for all their obsessing, Republicans never did have an alternative plan. Now their bluff is called. And, as a genius recently said, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Yet, whereas Obamacare was hammered out through an agonizing months-long process of give-and-take with input by numerous interested parties, Republicans have skipped all that, and whipped up a bill in the dead of night. Do you suppose they’ve really thought through all its consequences?

Trump had been saying his beautiful, tremendous, but unspecified, imaginary health care plan would cover everybody; with better care too, and at lower prices. Ha ha. Don’t we know by now that Trump just says stuff, with no thinking, or regard for truth, reality, or decency? Of course the now-unveiled GOP plan doesn’t cover everybody. In fact it would kick many millions out of the health care system. It replaces direct subsidies with tax credits — mainly so they can call it different from Obamacare. But it will give low income people much less help. While furthermore, removing healthier ones from the insurance pool will inevitably force premiums up. Most Americans will pay more for less coverage and less care. Older citizens will be particularly screwed. While the richest get tax cuts. When will foolish Trump lovers wake up that they’ve been conned?

Obamacare, at its heart, was based on making younger and healthier folks subsidize the old and sick by requiring everyone (on pain of tax penalties) to buy insurance . This is often defended on the basis that that’s how insurance works – like with car insurance, where safe drivers pay into the system, to cover accidents by others, while if you do have an accident, it’s there for you too.

Wellll . . . not so fast. Actually the concept of insurance is to spread a risk that the buyer wouldn’t want to shoulder alone. A house fire has low probability but unacceptable financial consequences, so you insure against it, spreading that risk among many others doing the same. But that’s voluntary, based on your own evaluation of the risk versus the cost of insurance.* You don’t buy fire insurance to help others, but because it’s worth it to you.

This original insurance concept has gotten perverted in the health care sphere. Like fire insurance, health insurance should cover only major episodes one couldn’t otherwise afford, not every routine little outlay. Doing the latter has meant that health care doesn’t act like a market, with consumers shopping among competing providers; a basic reason why prices have gotten so out of line. And it’s not surprising that Obamacare’s forcing people to buy such insurance, that they don’t judge to be a good deal for themselves, meets so much resistance.

But look. We are a very rich society. The basic idea that we, as a society, should take care of the less fortunate, and make sure nobody suffers unnecessarily, is a fundamental moral concept that most Americans would accept. That’s why even so amoral a creature as Trump would blurt it out (however disingenuously).

We have to come up with a way for every American to have at least minimally decent basic health care. The Republicans are not doing this; they are going in the other direction entirely. While the Trump-Putin administration’s proposed budget gives the Pentagon more billions to waste, and billions for the wall boondoggle, paid for by eviscerating everything else, including all kinds of government help for the less fortunate.

2012 Democratic campaign ad

For years, some Democrat partisans caricatured Republicans as heartless toward those less fortunate, as actually desiring to destroy programs like Medicare and Social Security, to keep poor people poor, and even to make middle class people poor, all just to (somehow) benefit the rich. It was a false caricature before. But Trump and today’s Republicans are making it true.

* Though the bank may require it, to give you a mortgage, because otherwise, if the house burns, you wouldn’t be able to meet your obligations.

Post-Truth politics, post-democratic politics

March 17, 2017

(This was published as a commentary in the March 12 Albany Times-Union)

“Post-truth” has been named word of the year. The subject looms large for America’s political future. It’s not just a matter of occasional innocent misstatements, but of politically weaponizing falsehood.

Gleb Tsipurski (associate professor of history at Ohio State University) writes in The Humanist magazine that if it works for Trump, other politicians will follow his example; if they too succeed, “we’re headed for a downward spiral“ and “the end of our political order as we know it.” This might sound like hyperbole, but Tsipurski is on to something.

Being caught in a lie used to be deadly for a politician. What is so dangerous with Trump is that his fans don’t care, rationalizing away everything. As he put it, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes. This resembles a religious faith impervious to reason. And removing reasoned discourse from politics is not good for sustaining democracy.

We must understand how we got here. Mainstream media has traditionally served as mediator, part of our whole system of political checks and balances. That media role might even have been over-large. Recall how it brought down 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean for a single utterance (the so-called “scream”).

Dean’s “Scream”

Obviously, the media proved unable to perform such a function with Trump.

Why? Tsipurski says “this system for determining political truths has required an intangible but invaluable resource: the public’s trust.” And that trust has been eroding in the last decade (part of a broader decline in social trust generally).

Past trust in the media was due, in good part, simply to a lack of other information sources. But now alternatives have proliferated, notably on social media and elsewhere on the web. And, crucially, it’s not just the same information differently packaged. To the contrary, it’s often material tailored to flatter the recipient’s pre-existing biases. Or even the now notorious “fake news.” Why listen to neutral NPR (and hear things that challenge your beliefs) when you can get fare that instead bolsters what you already think? And when those “alternative facts” differ from what mainstream media says, it’s the latter that might start seeming problematic. Thus mainstream media loses not only its audience, but its authority and trust.

Further, its effort to maintain an aura of objectivity actually undermines mainstream media’s ability to deal effectively with a politician who lies so shamelessly* – and accuses it of being against him (which of course it is, for excellent reasons). Thus the handwringing over whether to even use the word “lie.” And watch the journalists on a program like PBS’s “Washington Week” struggle to act as though Trump is just another normal political figure. They’ll soberly discuss the putative deep policy implications of a Trump statement (like his one-state-solution line), unable to blurt out that it’s simply ignorance.

So a weakened mainstream media couldn’t do to Trump what it did to Dean. And Tsipurski says Trump has a genius for exploiting such systemic vulnerabilities. Use of alternative and social media, bypassing mainstream media (thereby further enfeebling it), played a big role in his campaign. Exploiting trust-related systemic weaknesses similarly fueled his financial enrichment. The Trump Foundation self-dealing, and Trump University fraud, were prime examples. And trust plays a key role in business and commerce generally: vendors supply goods and services trusting they’ll be paid. That’s how the system works. And Trump exploited it by simply not paying, over and over and over.

Is all this “genius?” Or walking through open doors?

The press’s authority is maimed even more by Trump’s continuing attacks, even turning the “fake news” trope against it. Another of his big lies. Tsipurski likens our unfolding situation to a “tragedy of the commons” – when it’s hard to protect a communal resource against those pillaging it. Here, our shared resource is a political environment where objective facts (disseminated by news media) hold sway, so that rational policy choices can be made. “This intangible yet invaluable resource,” Tsipurski writes, “is being polluted and destroyed by Trump’s post-truth politics.”

He understands his followers prefer to have their opinions uncontaminated by pesky reality. (He himself exhibits that very syndrome.) Better yet to feed them falsehoods tailored to those opinions. But voters need a source for, and to care about, truth and reality, to make rational political choices. Only thusly can their interests truly be served. That’s why Jefferson wrote that democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. But if the public doesn’t get it, why should politicians care either – about facts and about people’s real interests? When they can instead succeed by emotional manipulation and lies?

That’s the road to authoritarianism. It’s the one Putin followed. He destroyed Russia’s independent media, so he could work his “magic” on citizens unfettered by truth or any accountability. And that’s the road Donald Trump openly steers toward.

* Falsely accusing his predecessor of a serious crime is disgusting behavior for a president. A sane adult would simply admit the mistake and move on. Not this stinking turd.

Paterson: the poem film

March 13, 2017

unknownWe recently saw two films in a row featuring Abbott and Costello.

Those were the names given the aliens in Arrival. And in Paterson we even get a little of “Who’s on first?” (a famous Abbott and Costello routine).

Adam Driver plays a bus driver, named Paterson, in Paterson, NJ. Yes, there’s a lot of twinning in the movie (including several sets of actual twins).images

The film is about poetry. The film is a poem.

Not a drama. It unfolds slowly and quietly. Indeed, the very absence of drama is a salient feature. It’s filled with events the viewer might expect but (spoiler alert) don’t happen:

• The marital blow-up

• The heavily foreshadowed dog-napping

unknown-1• The spurned lover’s bar-room blow-up (which does happen, but fizzles; the gun turns out to be a toy one).

• The cupcake disaster

• The bus crash. (Instead, a mere breakdown. Three people say to Paterson that the bus could have “blown up in a fireball.” But he knows otherwise.)

Paterson is a bus driver who’s a poet. Though very private about it, he takes poetry very seriously. Looming large is William Carlos Williams, another Patersonian, who wrote an epic poem titled Paterson. images-1Paterson reads that, and much other poetry, studies it. But not only poetry, apparently; I was amused to spot a copy of Infinite Jest on his bookshelf.

And he is a very good human being. The film takes pains to show that, while avoiding being saccharine. A rare and welcome departure from the glut of movies filled with human dysfunction and depravity.

My wife made me the brussels sprouts 'n' cheese pie featured in the film. I liked it better than Paterson did.

My wife made me the brussels sprouts ‘n’ cheese pie featured in the film. I liked it better than Paterson did.

One disaster, of sorts, does befall Paterson, near the end. But he takes it with his well established philosophical equanimity, and it sets up completion of the film/poem’s arc in a very positive and satisfying way. What my wife calls a “squeeze” at a poem’s end.

Her being a poet made Paterson a must-see for us (her insights helped me with this review). She is also much attuned to eerie connections in life. I’ve mentioned the film’s twinning theme. Afterwards, we have dinner in a nearby restaurant. A couple seated next to us finishes and leaves. Shortly, another couple enters and takes their table. images-2And the new guy is the previous one’s identical twin brother.

The French election sex drama

March 10, 2017

Hollande

I have written snarkily about French politics. (Not that today’s U.S. politics is to brag about.) I considered Socialist President Hollande ridiculous when elected, and apparently the French themselves soon did too. He isn’t even trying for re-election.

Yet the Socialist presidential nomination was won by a doubling-down purist left winger, Benoit Hamon – consigning the party to irrelevance. (Democrats take note.)

Le Pen

But the big story is Marine Le Pen. Her National Front party was founded by her father as a racist, quasi-fascist one, toxic to most French voters. But then she took over, booted Dad out, and aimed for detoxification and political seriousness.

Some of Le Pen’s critique of the French status quo is actually on target. Its voters have long dwelt in a fantasyland that romanticizes a paternalistic state and reviles the “harshness” of business and commerce. But unfortunately Le Pen’s platform is  a farrago of populist garbage much like Trumpism. Anti-trade, anti-globalist, anti-EU, anti-immigration, promising to restore the 1950s. (I’ve heard her called a rightist candidate with leftist economics — showing how mixed up these categories have become.) Catastrophic if her program were actually enacted. Yet, after the dimwitted Brexit and Trump victories, Marine Le Pen has been seen as threatening to consummate a populist trifecta by riding the same sort of voter rebelliousness into the Élysée Palace. And thus as profoundly threatening Europe’s whole future.

France votes in two rounds, with a run-off between the first round’s top two contenders. (Nobody ever gets a first-round majority.) Daddy Le Pen once managed to sneak into the second round (pipping another limp Socialist nominee), but then an overwhelming decent-minded majority voted for the conventional alternative. Now Marine Le Pen is considered a shoo-in to also reach the second round – and with far better chances there.

Yet there’s much doubt the French would really break so dramatically with conventionality. Hence whoever faces her in the run-off was still expected to be an overwhelming favorite.

Fillon

Ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy tried for a comeback, seeking the nomination of his center-right party. But he lost to Francois Fillon after they battled to outdo each other in Muslim-bashing, even advocating idiotic burkini bans. Considering too Fillon’s Trumplike pro-Putinism, he did not seem like France’s savior.

And that was before scandals blew up on him. Fillon was charged with giving family members no-show government jobs with fat salaries. And then with failing to declare a big crony loan. How odiously corrupt the French elite is! No wonder outsider Le Pen attracts support. So far, Fillon refuses to quit the race.

So Hamon, Le Pen, Fillon – take your pick. What a depressing menu of choices.

But wait . . .

Here comes the man in the white hat. Running as an independent, Emmanuel Macron, only 39, former investment banker and economy minister, who – in France! – actually seems to believe in open free markets and trade, globalization, and curbing the hand of the state. Maybe even that prosperity is created not by government largesse but by productive work, making goods and services people want to buy. How thoroughly un-French; equivalent to being a bomb-thrower.

Naturally this heretic’s chances were rated at approximately zero. Until Fillon’s scandals. Now Macron is on a tear in the polls, and might even beat Fillon into the run-off.

Macron

Pity those poor French if faced with a choice between two run-off candidates neither of whom presents the comforting political pablum they’re accustomed to. Will they swallow Le Pen’s guileful snake oil or bite the unpalatable bullet of Macron’s economic reality?

The world is watching. Let us hope the tide of madness can finally be turned back.

The President is insane

March 6, 2017

imagesSo he was able to read a nice speech from a teleprompter and appear “presidential.” Then he tweeted that President Obama had tapped his phones at Trump Tower and is a “bad (or sick) guy.”

Hurling put-downs that uncannily apply more to himself is trademark Trump. Like crying “fake news” at legitimate reporting, while his own wiretap accusation came from what really is fake news.

images-1It’s not just baseless but preposterous. Laws prohibit it, it’s inconceivable that Obama would have directed federal officials to violate them, and inconceivable that they’d have complied (instead of blowing the whistle). A warrant would have been required, issuable by a judge only upon convincing evidence of a crime being investigated.

“Those restrictions,” said Ben Rhodes (a former top Obama security aide), in a tweet addressed to Trump, “were put in place to protect citizens against people like you.”

Who’s the “bad (or sick) guy” — recklessly flinging baseless accusations? Why isn’t the nation totally freaked out by a president behaving so grotesquely? unknownDaniel Patrick Moynihan coined the trope “defining deviancy down.” When something previously unacceptable becomes accepted. The Trump phenomenon has shredded what used to be America’s civic standards. The media are having a hard time reporting soberly on Trump without their hair on fire, thus giving it all a seeming patina of normality. So this is the new normal. Hence no huge uproar over Trump’s insane wiretap accusation.

images-2I use the word insane not figuratively but literally, clinically. Trump’s behavior — not only this instance, but too many others to count — shows a deep psychological pathology. The President is insane. He should be removed from office pursuant to the procedures of the 25th Amendment.

Yet congressional Republicans now promise to investigate not the President’s insane behavior but the imaginary wiretapping. While thousands, all across the nation, joined the “March 4 Trump” to support him. Is insanity contagious?

Earlier, some of my friends (who did not support him) lamented that Trump is even worse than they expected. I said he’s not worse than I expected, because I knew how bad he is. But perhaps I didn’t. I had also expected the weight of the presidency would have some impact on him. It has not.

unknown-1No wonder the Russians wanted Trump elected. To sabotage America with a dysfunctional, bull-in-a-china-shop president. And if there be method in his wiretap lie madness, it’s to distract us from the Russian connection.

Trump’s is not the kind of mental illness that might elicit sympathy. It’s malevolent. Previously I’ve called him a “vile creep” and “stinking piece of crap.”* But now I’ll have to come up with something stronger.

*  The sanitized version.

The ICE man cometh

March 4, 2017

unknownThis title was unavoidable. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I have long referred to it as our Gestapo. And that was before Trump. Under Obama, 2.7 million were deported, and horror stories abounded. But at least there were some restraints. Now ICE is totally out of control.

As in the case of law enforcement generally, ICE has an unfortunate tendency to attract the wrong sort — who get their jollies abusing people. And it’s reported that “morale” in ICE ranks has soared under Trump, with the “shackles” now off. When his travel order came out, ICE men were emboldened to enforce it with sickening excess. Many victims legally entitled to be here were treated brutally and denied entry by ICE pricks.* (“And some, I assume, are good people.”)

poster420x415f8f8f8-pad420x460f8f8f8-u1Now the administration has issued new deportation guidelines. The idea of deporting all undocumented residents was always considered, well, crazy, at least if you have brains and human decency. Alas, those are not hallmarks of the Trump administration. The new guidelines target not only those having committed crimes, but even minor traffic offenses. And — get this — people merely “SUSPECTED” of offenses. (By who? On what basis?) How can that square with the 14th amendment, which says all “persons” (not just citizens) are entitled to due process of law. A noble assertion of what used to be America’s fundamental values.

imagesBut in practice, ICE men now seem free to seek out and grab not just “bad hombres” but anybody. Like Ramiro Martinez-Chacon of Hudson, (formerly from violence-wracked El Salvador), in the U.S. since 2002, minding his own business at home on February 7 when some ICE men came, handcuffed him, and dragged him away, in front of his children, who are U.S. citizens. His sole transgression was being here. This story is being repeated all over the country.

unknownI get it that undocumented residents don’t have a legal right to be here. But many of them were brought as children and have lived their whole lives here. And many have minor children who are citizens. Don’t those kids have a basic human right to live with their parents? Deporting those parents is an extremely cruel, stupid, shamefully pointless policy that harms American children!

And the great majority of these people make a positive contribution to our country. It’s actually only thanks to them that our population and workforce isn’t shrinking. Not only do they do a lot of needed jobs, but by spending money in our economy, they actually support a lot of other jobs held by citizens. It’s been estimated that spending by undocumented residents comprises 5% of our economy. They also contribute taxes (while not being entitled to many benefits). Booting them out makes America and its citizens worse off.

But economics or rationality have nothing to do with Trump’s policy. He’s simply pandering to those who just hate living beside people who don’t look or talk like them. And he’s furthermore whipped up those prejudices by harping on crimes by undocumented people. When in fact studies show they commit fewer crimes on average than U.S. citizens. As should be expected, since the potential penalty (deportation) is more severe.

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

It’s also ridiculous to say other countries are exporting undesirables to America. To the contrary, anyone undertaking all the risks, difficulties, and challenges of such migration must possess the kinds of personal qualities that make them an asset to whatever community they join. I want them here.

Better than ignorant, hate-filled Trump supporters.

* And not just Muslims. Click here.

Trumpism reveals religious right’s moral bankruptcy

February 28, 2017

unknownTheir support for Trump starkly proves the moral fraudulence of the religious right — those fundamentalist bible-thumpers with their in-your-face Christianity and moralistic preening.

My friend Rob Boston has written cogently about this in a recent issue of The Humanist magazine. (I’ve previously reviewed his book.)

Eighty percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, which, Boston says, “demonstrates the paucity of moral values [they] so often claim to champion.” Because he is “everything the gospels say Jesus was not — crass, boorish, narcissistic and full of anger. Immature, vain, power-hungry . . . .”

A thrice-married, adulterous gambling casino magnate, whose comprehensive ignorance even extends to the proper way to quote Bible verses!

images-1But all that might be forgivable. What’s not is his absolute moral turpitude. One of the Ten Commandments (that the religious right is always shoving at us) condemns lying (“false witness”). It’s a key sin. And there could hardly be a bigger, more aggressive liar than Trump. His whole politics is based on lies and manipulation, “alternative facts,” and viciously attacking the press for reporting it. How can religious believers, if they take their faith seriously, condone such a liar?

And such a cheater. He built his fortune on screwing people — screwing investors and partners in his projects, screwing workers and contractors out of what he owed them, milking those properties for rich payments to himself and then declaring bankruptcy, leaving others to eat the debts. unknown-1Is this what Jesus taught? The Jesus who chased money-changers from the temple? (He even told followers to pay their taxes — “Render unto Caesar” — which Trump apparently violates too.)

And how can these religious folks prattle about ethical truths when they back the culprit of the massive Trump University fraud, scamming people’s life savings? Is this too what Jesus taught?

Did he not also tell us to “turn the other cheek?” Not “thou shalt tweet vindictive insults.”

The Gospel According to Saint Donald

The Gospel According to Saint Donald

I had actually hoped the “grab them by their pussy” tape — brazen boasting of sexual assault — might finally lift the scales from the eyes of Trump’s religious supporters. You know, the “family values” preachers. But no, they had fallen into a moral black hole.

They may answer that God works in mysterious ways; can choose an unlikely man to do his work. A lame, twisted rationalization. If God chose such a perfect monster as Trump, he must have a perverse sense of humor. Or else he’s testing his flock, to see who so misunderstands and betrays his message that they embrace this reptile. And then he’ll smite them.

They may also say it’s mere pragmatism; that Trump is wicked but will do good things. What naive fools. Placing power in evil hands does not usually work out well. But in any case it’s a deal with the Devil. They’re selling out their souls for worldly things. And as for those worldly policies they’re buying, I don’t see much Christianity in them anyway. Building a wall, breaking up families to deport people, and slamming our door on refugees fleeing violence and oppression does not exactly fit with the teachings of Jesus either.

Thus is the false mask of their “Christianity” ripped away. A bunch of hypocrites. And these are the people saying atheists can’t be moral without religious faith!

unknown-3To the contrary, that exemplifies what nonsense you get with belief in a false god. No wonder they’re so morally mixed up. One’s responses to the problems of life and the world cannot make sense (moral or otherwise) when grounded upon a fundamentally wrong assumption about the nature of reality.

A stroke of insight

February 25, 2017

It’s said that a key to happiness is gratitude for what you have. I am extremely grateful for my brain. Not that mine is so special; all human brains are. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 book, My Stroke of Insight, is a good reminder of this.

Jill and her brain

Jill and her brain

Jill, 37, single, awoke one day with a bad pain in her head. She had trouble with normal morning routines. Something was very wrong. A congenital malformation of blood vessels in her brain had suddenly blown, flooding it with blood, which is toxic to neurons. In short, a stroke.

Jill was a neuroanatomist – a brain scientist. She, if anyone, was capable of understanding what was happening. And she knew well that with a stroke, time is of the essence; the faster treatment begins, the better the outcome. Yet her detailed chronicle of that morning is agonizing to read. It took her quite a long while to connect the dots and decide to get help, because the stroke was wreaking havoc with her mental functioning. And that worsened with every passing minute as the hemorrhaging continued.

Still, it seemed puzzling that she didn’t act right away, while she still had most of her wits. I was reminded of Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who got cancer; he too delayed getting help, rationalizing his severe symptoms as just due to the stresses of his intensive medical training. But he should have known better. When he finally got himself checked out, it was too late. He was 37 too, when he died.

imagesBy the time Jill at last grasped the situation, she was so incapacitated that taking action was becoming increasingly difficult. She sat immobilized in front of the phone. The part of her brain responsible for  numbers had been particularly hard hit. In intermittent moments of relative lucidity, she somehow managed to locate a card with her doctor’s number, and even to dial it. But then could not speak.

The doctor figured out who was calling. “Go to Mount Auburn Hospital,” she said. That was all. I was appalled. Jill couldn’t even talk.

Eventually, she also managed to dial her office. A colleague, alarmed, went to her apartment, and got her to a hospital, probably saving her life.

But here is a fascinating point. One reason for Jill’s delay is that she was loving what she was experiencing.

images-1Very generally, our two brain halves differ; the left is considered to be the rational side, housing our cognitive skills, while the right brain is the artistic, creative, intuitive side. Note that while normally, one cannot really separate the two, experiments cutting the connection between them (e.g., to control epilepsy) reveal that in some ways there really are two separate personalities inhabiting the one skull.

The stroke ravaged Jill’s left hemisphere – so, she says, it “no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly” like what Buddhists call nirvana. “I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.” (My emphasis)

unknown-2Buddhist meditation practice also aims for a kind of annihilation of the self, and this too Jill experienced. She even writes of losing proprioception – the brain’s monitoring of the body. The boundary between one’s body and what’s outside it is something second nature to us, but for Jill that melted away. She describes it as feeling fluid rather than solid (a feeling that didn’t go away for years). I was reminded of the Buddhist asking a hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”

Proprioception is only one element of our sense of self. How the self is created is something we don’t yet truly understand. (For an excellent discussion of that problem, click here.) But as a brain scientist, Jill sheds some light by describing how she lost her self. unknown-3She talks of the brain constantly engaged in reminding you who you are, what your life is about, how you fit into the world, etc. – an unremitting effort like that of a performer keeping a row of plates spinning atop sticks. Jill’s brain stopped doing it, and her very selfhood dissolved away.

She recovered, but it was a tough eight-year slog. Much of her mind had to be rebuilt, reprogrammed – she was like an infant needing to learn the most basic things about life and the world. The hardest, she says, was reading: “I had no recollection that reading was something I had ever done before, and I thought the concept was ridiculous. Reading was such an abstract idea that I couldn’t believe anyone had ever thought of it, much less put forth the effort to figure out how to do it.”

images-2Her mother moved in to help her. Another challenge was the total loss of her number sense. When her mother asked her, “What’s one plus one?” Jill pondered before responding: “What’s a one?”

Motivating herself was hard. Nirvana still beckoned. Jill had to constantly consciously decide to exit from the “enticing and wonderful” right hemisphere “la-la land” of “divine bliss,” and engage her recovering analytical left mind. And she says she wondered how much of her “newly found right hemisphere consciousness, set of values, and resultant personality” would have to be sacrificed in order to recover her left-brain skills. In fact, she now recognized aspects of her past personality – egotism, argumentativeness, meanness, and various hang-ups – that she’d rather leave behind.

images-3And the way she saw things now, those characteristics reflected her left brain having exercised dominance over the right brain; but that dominance was not beyond her control. She says her stroke revealed that it was actually up to her to decide the relationship between the two sides of her brain in shaping her personality. This may be easier said than done, but Jill seems to feel she has done it, and that it is possible for anyone to do it.

The key to such control, she says, is to recognize when she’s hooked into a negative thought loop. She lets it run for about 90 seconds, then consciously asks her brain to knock it off. This must be done with intensity, Jill says, and she tries to get her brain onto different, better thoughts. (I believe I myself do a lot of what Jill prescribes; but click here for a counter-story.)

All this is an ultimate argument for free will; and Jill does provide some powerful evidence for it.

I will end with this quote from the book: “our minds are highly sophisticated ‘seek and ye shall find’ instruments. unknown-4We are designed to focus in on whatever we are looking for. If I seek red in the world then I will find it everywhere. Perhaps just a little in the beginning, but the longer I stay focused on looking for red, then before you know it, I will see red everywhere.”

This is highly relevant to our political lives.