Why Pro-life Christians should dump Trump

July 13, 2020

To some Christians, abortion is a primal sin blighting America’s soul. It’s a supervening moral issue guiding their politics; they can’t imagine voting for a pro-choice Democrat.

Pro-life is a legitimate moral stance that can be debated. Abortion does end a life. It’s reasonable to hold that at some point a woman bears some moral responsibility toward a life she’s carrying.

But can this justify support for Trump?

Michael Gerson (a Republican pro-life Christian) explored this in a recent column. He too, of course, understands why moral feelings about abortion drive some people’s politics. But he sees a problem when this becomes “a moral claim without a limiting principle.”

Abortion cannot be the only concern. Life is never that simple. You also have moral responsibility toward your neighbors, community, nation, and world. Their collective fate matters at least as much as the unborn. Gerson is saying that when you’re willing to justify anything in service to a single concern, sacrificing to it everything else, that is actually morally wrong.

Especially when it means supporting a man who, in so many ways, is shredding the basic principles, values, and ideals that used to govern America and its global role. That affects many more human lives, and is thus more morally consequential, than abortion.

Christians have a special burden here. They need to apply their overall Christian ethics not just to one issue but to the whole waterfront of what should be powerful moral concerns. The number of U.S. abortions is exceeded at least tenfold by living children who die of preventable illnesses globally. And shouldn’t “pro-life” mean wearing face masks and social distancing to keep people from dying of covid-19? And compassion for suffering refugees and their children? And when an obsession with abortion leads Christians to support a pussygrabber president who lies relentlessly, enflames racial divides,* flouts rule-of-law and democratic values —who rips children from mothers’ arms and puts them in cages — their moral compass is out of whack.** They’ve made a deal with the Devil. Jesus would not approve.

Furthermore, Gerson points out, such obviously messed up morality undermines societal respect for their religion, and its overall sway. People see it and conclude this religion is for the birds. Why listen to Christians prattling about morality when they clearly just don’t know right from wrong?***

Gerson also thinks they’re naive to imagine getting their way through raw political muscle. The hardline pro-life stance actually commands the support of only a small minority of Americans. At the end of the day, says Gerson, pro-lifers “are only going to win the abortion debate if we persuade enough people . . . We are not going to prevail by gaining power and imposing our view.” Persuasion requires thinking about how their arguments look to people coming to the debate with very different perspectives. And Gerson suggests that having those pro-life arguments linked with Trump — with all his baggage of vileness — “is not likely to be helpful.”

An understatement. Moral blindness has led them to miscalculate spectacularly in hitching their wagon to Trump. He is going down, and will take them with him.

* For some (not all), pro-life actually camouflages even from themselves what really drives their politics — hostility toward “the other” — other ethnicities and nationalities.

** Meantime, falsely claiming to “protect women’s health,” they try to restrict abortion by, for example, requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges in local hospitals, or even regulating abortion clinic corridor widths. Such dishonesty belies their movement’s moralism.

*** A true morality must be grounded in the reality of the world. Religion’s false reality undermines sound moral thinking.

China crushes Hong Kong

July 10, 2020

I could not write this blog in China or Hong Kong. It would be erased from the web — and me along with it, thrown in jail.

When Britain agreed to hand Hong Kong back in 1997, China’s regime pledged Hong Kong would keep its culture of rule-of-law and civil liberties at least until 2047. The catchphrase was “one country, two systems.” (Admitting the other system didn’t entail rule of law or civil liberties.) China even promised to move Hong Kong toward freely electing its leader.

But then, inexorably, “one country, two systems” translated into “Ha ha, we lied.”

Thus the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong last year. Many feared the Beijing regime would ultimately respond as it did at Tiananmen Square in 1989, with a bloodbath. I never thought so; it wasn’t necessary. They could just do nothing and wear the protesters down with intransigence. (They were never going to dialogue with Hong Kongers to reach some reasonable modus vivendi.)

Meantime, one might have imagined the protesters had some safety in numbers. The authorities couldn’t jail a million people, could they? Actually, they could — they did in Xinjiang.

Then Covid-19 seemed to resolve the situation. Fear of the virus, not violence, pretty much ended the protests. But that was not enough for the rulers in Beijing. In the spirit of Carthago delenda est, they now sprang on Hong Kong a draconian law criminalizing any and all political activism or criticism. This went way beyond what Hong Kongers had been protesting to forestall in the first place. Not even the territory’s toady local government was consulted. Now mainland authorities can reach into Hong Kong to enforce their law, in courts they create, operating in secret, with penalties up to life imprisonment. Indeed, victims can be whisked to China for trial where execution would be on the menu. And don’t imagine these would remotely resemble fair trials.

Xi Jinping is saying: One country, two systems, my ass.

Some leading democracy advocates were arrested right away. Just to drive the point home, it was some of the most moderate and respected of them. The rest got the message. Silence descended. One youthful elected pro-democracy legislator, Nathan Law, fled the country.

The new law even applies to foreigners. Good thing I’ve visited China and  Hong Kong before. I can’t now, I could be imprisoned for this blog post. I wouldn’t bet on the regime, pervasively riding herd on the internet, overlooking it.

The Beijing gang can act this way because there’s no constraint. That’s down to the mentality of the Chinese people. Those in Hong Kong have (had) a very different, Westernized mentality, but they’re just a tiny part of China. The rest, pumped up with xenophobic nationalist swagger, mostly side with the regime against the Hong Kongers, condemned as traitorous enemies. The Chinese accept a government treating them like children, where the basis for any rule is, “Because I said so.”

Some of us had imagined that, as China became a richer, more cosmopolitan, educated, advanced modern society, that mentality would change. There’s no sign of that happening. Maybe the Beijing regime is right after all when it derides “Western values” of democracy and human rights as alien to Chinese culture. Maybe the Chinese really are that different from us. Maybe in a century that can change. I hope so. Our way is better.

Is there anything we can do? In the short term, not really. But that shouldn’t mean we just shrug and let Beijing believe there is no price at all for its conduct. Even if we can’t make it pay a tangible price, the Chinese regime actually cares a lot about international legitimacy and respect; and that can be stripped away. There should have been strong coordinated condemnation of China from the world’s democracies led by America. But unfortunately America no longer leads the world’s democracies. Trump has openly expressed idolization of Xi Jinping, particularly for his authoritarianism. He told Xi that putting a million Uighurs in concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do.” His posturing as “tough on China” is, like all things Trump, bullshit. The Economist has just run a devastating deconstruction of Trump’s fecklessness toward China, and his trade war’s stupidity. It is well worth reading: https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/06/27/is-donald-trump-tough-on-china

We do need to deal strongly with China, but that requires a sane, honest, responsible president, who reads briefing papers and actually knows what he’s doing.

Tales of Bermania

July 8, 2020

Once traveling with my family through Philadelphia Airport, I encountered an acquaintance, and introduced my little daughter to him as the King of Bermania. I guess it made an impression on her young mind.

Fast forward a dozen years or so. She showed me a draft of her college application essay. About travel broadening one’s horizons or something. Mentioning how, in an airport, she’d once met a king. “Ahem, Elizabeth,” I said. “You see, that was actually . . . ”

Allen Berman. A fellow coin dealer. He also goes by Alanus I, King of Bermania. But that’s all in fun. Though it’s very elaborate fun. He’s held Bermanian fests at coin shows. (Remember those BC [before covid] times when we had coin shows?) Now he’s written a book about Bermania, Please Ignore Our Time Machine. He finagled me into buying a copy. At least it was cheaper than on Amazon.

As its opening explains, Bermania is a (very) small old kingdom somewhere in Eastern Europe; whose name does not actually derive from his own. It seems the land’s early inhabitants had a thing for lawn ornaments. One fellow displayed a large wooden bear. He became known as the “Bear man.” The rest, as they say, is history (explicated rather more verbosely in the book). And since Renaissance times, hawking “relics” of “the true bear” has been a Bermanian cottage industry.

But Bermania is a very small country indeed. Even smaller than Grand Fenwick. As the author notes, the kingdom avoided Napoleon’s armies by hiding behind a tree.

The book is basically a history of Bermania and its quasi-yiddische people. Interwoven with the history of Europe and indeed the rest of the world. For example, few people know that General Tso’s chicken is actually more a Bermanian dish than a Chinese one.

The stories are amusing. Perhaps not S.J. Perelman hilarious — but amusing. There’s mention of “[w]hen the famous flying saucer arrived in 654 A.D.” Note this was the famous one.

Numismatics is never far from the author’s mind. One of the stories concerns what are called royal touch-pieces. This was an actual thing, in pre-modern Britain, whose people believed a certain nasty illness (scrofula) was curable by the King’s touch. In connection with these touch ceremonies they minted coin-like “touch-pieces,” often holed and worn on a ribbon around the neck. In the case of Bermania, the malady to be cured was glumness, the monarch administering the remedy of jokes and ticklings. So the Bermanian equivalent of the touch-piece was the tickle-token. Allen had restrikes made; some years ago he gave me one with the request that I carry it in my pocket so eventually he could see what it would look like with natural circulation wear. This was pure Allen. Actually, I didn’t know why he couldn’t do it himself; but flattered by this royal trust, I have performed it faithfully till the present day.

The picture shows the worn one from my pocket. Note the angel is not spearing the dragon but tickling it with a feather. As always, I try to thoroughly research my blog posts, so I went to Google Translate to get the technical meaning of the Latin word “placebo.” Google helpfully translated it as “placebo.”

After WWII, like several countries in its neighborhood, Bermania suffered Communist occupation. Then there was the “fig revolt” in the ’70s, resulting in a delegation of Bermanian dignitaries dispatched to Bridgeport, Connecticut, their archaic costumes causing them to be initially mistaken for trick-or-treaters confused about the calendar. They may also have been confused about Bermanian royal genealogy. The book unfortunately omits detailing the Bridgeport connection. In any case, these Bermanian emissaries were under the impression that a 14-year-old kid there was the rightful heir to the throne. This was Allen, later Alanus I. (Earlier Bermanian monarchs had much sillier names.)

Alanus, like all Bermanian kings, has ruled with a light touch. So light in fact that when Bermanian meshuginauts landed on the moon, in 2013, nobody told him. He learned of it later from Edward Snowden.

Still and all, humanity has outgrown monarchical government. Bermania should become a democratic republic.

Let’s talk about race (again)

July 5, 2020

My 2009 “Rational Optimism” book addressed race. Rejecting the trope of America as a fundamentally racist society, I saw a nation “that has made titanic efforts to right these wrongs.” Recapping all the progress in just my own lifetime. Quoting black scholar Shelby Steele that America has achieved the greatest moral evolution in human history.

Obama had just been elected. The symbolic import seemed huge: we were “choosing a civic father, a tribal leader.” And “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and goodwill.”

I wrote that “[t]hose few who still spout white supremacy are mostly disadvantaged, powerless whites,” with “no influence upon the larger society, and scant real impact on blacks.” And “institutional racism . . . is largely a figment of imagination . . . no significant American institution could actually practice it. Indeed, today’s institutional bias is affirmative action . . . favoring blacks.” (Emphases in original.)

My view has since evolved. I obviously did not foresee the racist backlash against Obama’s presidency soon to explode. Nor a successor empowering the racism I’d thought was relegated to America’s dark corners.

What I wrote was colored by my own experience interacting with blacks, in the workplace, in commerce, in society. I understood deeply what cause for resentment they had, yet rarely observed its expression. Instead I was always impressed by the friendly decency of most blacks toward whites. If white society had, as I believed, done much toward reconciliation, blacks had done more. Again I quote Kimberly Jones: we’re lucky they seek only equality, not revenge. Their goodwill has outstripped that of whites.

But that does not mean they’re now okay with how things are, and it’s in that respect that my understanding has grown.

In particular, my words “scant real impact on blacks” overlooked policing. Being white, it just wasn’t on my radar screen then. Even if most cops aren’t consciously racist, nevertheless for a lot of them brown skin is a red flag. And for people having that skin, that’s a very big fact of life. They might shrug off the racism of assholes, but it’s another matter when it’s guys who can commit violence against you with near impunity under color of law. (Of course that’s a threat to us all, but blacks bear its brunt.)

I also didn’t fully grasp then how deeply raced-based concepts are culturally embedded in our heads. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, likened one’s conscious mind to a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks he’s directing the elephant, but he’s really just along for the ride. Whites claiming color-blindness is a cliché. But experiments have shown that most harbor unconscious negativity toward black faces vis-a-vis whites. Even blacks themselves do.

I’m not color-blind. I see blacks as people whose forebears were brought here in chains and who struggle against much adversity to live their lives. I respect their blackness.

And even if today’s society were truly color-blind, also deeply embedded into its fabric are the effects of past racism. Studies have found differences between two populations today are often actually rooted in differing circumstances centuries ago. When slaves were freed in 1865, of course they started out very disadvantaged in relation to whites. That gets passed down through the generations. If your parents are poor and ill-educated, you will likely be too, hence handicapped in rising to betterment. And of course white society made sure that continued, at least for a century — the Jim Crow regime in the South erected to keep blacks “in their place” and, elsewhere, red-lining and a host of other discriminatory practices doing much the same.

Most of that is thankfully a thing of the past, yet all the racial baggage described above got lodged pervasively throughout societal structures and institutions.

We’ve tried to rectify this, with civil rights and voting rights legislation to at least remove barriers, affirmative action to counteract their lingering effects, and anti-poverty programs. But in one crucial respect we’ve singularly failed: education. Schooling could be a powerful force for overcoming the effects of inherited disadvantage. Instead, that disadvantage is mostly aggravated by rotten schooling for blacks.

That’s probably a key reason why, despite the mentioned efforts to close the black-white economic gap, it has actually widened over the past half century. A further reason is the over-incarceration of blacks, mostly thanks to the insanely punitive “war on drugs,” which makes everything worse. And another factor is the disintegration of black family life, at least partly the unintended consequences of anti-poverty programs. Even during the worst of the Depression and Jim Crow, the black family was strong. Today, 70% of black children are born to single mothers. That has an undeniably negative impact on those kids’ life prospects.

The chapter I started out quoting from was titled “America the Beautiful.” It didn’t claim perfection. Rather, what inspires me is the place of humanistic ideals in our society and our striving for progress toward fulfilling them. That’s America’s greatness. In the last few years we’ve had a great lurch backward. But progress never goes in a straight line, and in the long view we do grow better.

Francis Fukuyama wrote, in The End of History, of our craving for thymos — for recognition of one’s legitimate place in society, one’s worth and dignity as a human being. This is what “Black Lives Matter” is all about. It is this dignity, in the eyes of white Americans, that black people don’t feel they’ve yet fully achieved. But we’re getting there.

George Floyd’s killing and its aftermath raised the consciousness of millions of Americans, many more whites now able to empathically put themselves in the shoes of blacks, as fellow human beings, seeing the reality that they do, and newly supportive of measures to improve it. Even Mississippi is removing Confederate symbolism from its state flag.

While Trump ramps up his racist divisiveness. Tweeting “thank you” to a video with a man shouting “White power!” Completely insane — such hatefulness is fortunately far outside today’s American mainstream. In November the nation will do the right thing, flush its toilet, and we will move forward.

George Floyd will not have died in vain.

Covid-19: The March of Folly

July 3, 2020

From the start, Trump repeatedly assured us the virus was under control; no big deal; everyone could get tested; it would go away miraculously; and applauded his own performance as “tremendous” and “incredible,” etc. All lies.

Our record on this is in fact the worst of any advanced nation (bar possibly Brazil, with a Trump clone president). Had we acted smartly and swiftly like others, the virus could have been contained without the economic apocalypse that became necessary due to Trump’s dithering. And the economic pain turned out to be for nought, because we were too lax about it, reopening too soon, so the virus is now out of control anyway. Rising in at least 40 states.

We’ve just hit a new one-day record of over 50,000 confirmed cases. So far totaling over 2.7 million. Except that the CDC says that’s an undercount by a factor of ten. Because most cases (lacking sufficient testing) are never properly diagnosed. So it’s really closer to 30 million — increasing fast. Deaths (at least 127,000, but also surely an undercount) are actually falling — for now — apparently due to a learning curve on treatment, and older people being more careful. But coming weeks and months look very dire.

It’s Trump’s fault. A total failure of leadership; indeed, of sanity. Denial of reality. Ignoring science. Promoting harmful quack cures and other misinformation. Continued under-testing. His administration crafted detailed shutdown guidance and then shelved it. The limited suggestions they did provide were neutered by Trump’s encouraging morons to rebel against restrictions. Politicizing it all. Mask wearing became demonized as a badge of wimpy Democrat socialists — virile freedom-loving ‘Murricans don’t wear no frickin’ masks.

We’ve seen the video of the jerk refusing to heed a Costco mask requirement. He said, “I woke up in a free country.” Hello, “freedom” does not mean flouting reasonable public health rules. You can go maskless at home, but have no right to risk other people’s lives. This is called living in society.

Tens of millions have lost jobs, millions sickened or killed — and you’re outraged at having to wear a mask??

Most Americans thankfully have more sense, and have been great about acting responsibly, despite Trump’s irresponsible anti-leadership. But he’s undermined their good efforts by empowering the mask rebels, like that Costco fool, who spread the virus. What is so hard about understanding that even without symptoms you can infect others? Predictably, in states (mostly red) that were late and half-hearted about precautions in the first place, and relaxed them even as Covid cases rose, with Trumpsters heedlessly packing into bars and other gathering places (including his rallies) without masks, the disease is now surging.

And whereas states like New York, the worst hit, got it under control by tremendous efforts, with infection and death rates falling dramatically, that’s likely to be undone because they can’t control traveling anti-mask assholes who will re-spread the infection. Thus Europe has banned travel from the U.S.

And what’s the administration’s posture now, with the disease surging? Trump is hoping his voters can somehow be blinded to the catastrophe, which he himself actually worsens by holding super-spreader campaign events. Mike Pence is meanwhile declaring victory, saying the “panic” about Covid is “overblown,” and we’re in better shape now than at the start. While he (and of course Trump) still refuse to push masks.* In lieu of such precautions, Pence recommends prayer.

Indeed (and unsurprisingly, given the irrationality at religion’s core), the worst of Covid folly is seen in churches. Too many pastors insist on continuing live worship services, usually without masking or distancing. These have repeatedly proven to constitute Covid-19 anti-personnel bombs. Some claim God will protect them. As if he’s ever spared his flocks from the afflictions he’s visited upon humanity. While others never miss an opportunity to say God is punishing us for something (abortion, gays, etc., pick your fetish). Some hold that trying to prevent infection is thwarting God’s will.

A “sacrament” at Florida’s mis-named “Church of Health and Healing” is a bleach solution offered as a miracle cure. And Louisiana’s Rev. Tony Spell has even been bussing in people to attend his Covid-19 spreadathons, so they can carry the virus all over the state. But no worries — Spell (who heads the also misnamed “Life Tabernacle Church”) explains that to a pure religious person, death looks “like a welcomed friend.”

But at the pearly gates, will St. Peter say, “No mask, no admittance”?

Hopes are pinned on a vaccine to beat this thing finally. But wait, not so fast. Did you forget the anti-vaxxers? The campaign against Covid vaccination is already underway. We’re told the whole pandemic thing is really a huge plot by Bill Gates to use vaccines to sneak microchips into us.

Religion. Trump. Masklessness. Anti-science. Conspiracy theories. It’s all a package. God save us from this lunacy.

* Some states are only now finally mandating masks. On June 1, Trump himself did finally tell Fox News he’s all for masking, saying it makes him look like the Lone Ranger. (Whose mask didn’t cover his nose and mouth.) But meantime Trump has also said people wear masks just to show disapproval of him, and that masks are ineffective. Science says different. But who cares about science?

Ethics of humanitarian and development efforts: problems versus symptoms

July 1, 2020

My daughter Elizabeth, 27, has worked for five years in the Mid-East for humanitarian organizations, currently for a consultancy much involved in Afghanistan. Wonderful, you might say. She herself is less sure — always engaging in critical self-scrutiny.

There’s much literature criticizing the whole foreign aid and development landscape, the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Much aid has wound up serving to strengthen dictators. Other downsides may be less obvious. Send aid directly to schools and you relieve government of that expense so it can spend more on, say, weapons. Send used clothing and you undermine a nation’s own garment industry. And so forth.

Elizabeth and I have discussed such issues as relating to my own support for a Somaliland education project. Her thing is trying to find what actually works best in the context of a local culture and its idiosyncrasies. She’s troubled that the project was started by a rich white guy who went there with good intentions but scant local knowledge. She pointed me to a sardonic short story in the voice of an African employed by some sappy do-gooder Americans who created a program actually accomplishing nothing. But I was moved by the proven success of the one in Somaliland.

The words “white savior” come up. We’re told to worry instead about problems closer to home. But Africans are no less my fellow humans than those across the street. And their problems tend to be much the greater, with resources to tackle them far smaller. I don’t see myself as a white savior; hopefully, a human contributor.

That makes me feel good. Is my Somaliland involvement really an attempt to buy myself those feelings? We’re actually programmed by evolution to feel good when doing good, it’s a mechanism to promote such behavior, thereby aiding group survival. So is there any such thing as true selfless altruism? But I’d maintain we are what we do. The doer of a good deed doesn’t delude himself believing he’s altruistic — he is in fact behaving altruistically. And his motivation is immaterial to the other beneficiaries of his action.

Elizabeth recently wrote a blog essay concerning the Oscar-winning film Learning to Skateboard in a Warzoneabout an NGO project for Afghan girls — and an Al Jazeera article, Skateboarding Won’t Save Afghan girls. The latter contends the program just covers up the country’s problems, which it blames on “centuries of ruthless Western military and political intervention.” The skateboarding is likened to “palliative care” that makes dying patients feel better without curing them. The article invokes the “white savior” trope, and says the program and film “decontextualize” the girls’ lives, presenting them as “ideal victims for pity.” While making “Westerners feel good about” the Afghan war “which ‘liberated’ girls and women and gave them opportunities their own society would never have afforded them.”

Why put “liberated” in snide quote marks? America’s intervention did liberate them, did give them opportunities the article actually correctly characterizes. Though obviously Afghanistan’s problems were not all solved. Is that really the bar for judging any project’s worth?

Elizabeth says the real question is whether a program like the skateboarding —which does have real benefits — comes at the cost of other initiatives, which might have larger impacts. “Should we address the problems, or the symptoms of the problems — or both?”

She cites a book, Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas, arguing that the business world is too focused on symptoms rather than underlying problems — and indeed those so focused are the very people benefiting from the system that perpetuates the problems. Giridharadas cites the example of a phone app to help people with “unpredictable employment” to even out their incomes. Which he characterizes as a symptom of the real problem, an economic system making unpredictable employment so common — a system he says the app’s developers themselves helped create and benefit from.

Seriously? As if they somehow calculatingly orchestrated the whole global economic structure just so they could profit from the app? And does Giridharadas have a workable solution to the underlying problem he sees? No, he just wants other people to simply forgo their self-interest. Thanks a lot.

Casting the problem as the fault of villains is a kind of scapegoating all too prevalent (particularly in the left-wing economic perspective). But those who profit by hiring people for temporary work enable those employees to earn money by creating goods and services whose buyers value them above what they pay. Seems win-win-win to me. Not rendered villainous because Giridharadas imagines some fantasy world in which people’s earnings are divorced from the economic value their work creates. (I suggest the result would actually be a nightmare world.)

Elizabeth too largely disagrees with Al Jazeera and Giridharadas. She sees nothing wrong with addressing “symptoms” — while also working on “problems” — which may take decades if not centuries. These are not mutually exclusive. No reasonable person could view the skateboard film and think all Afghanistan’s problems are solved. Indeed, she considers it important to spotlight such successes. Whereas moralistic symptoms-versus-problems dichotomizing can make doing what’s merely feasible seem pointless.

Elizabeth’s main concern is with the impact one’s actions can achieve, and thus whether to target “problems” or “symptoms” — the “policy level” versus the “personal level.” But as for what any individual can do, she interestingly invokes the concept of “comparative advantage.” That’s an economics doctrine saying a nation gains from trading whatever it’s best at producing, even if other nations can produce that thing better. Applying it here would mean doing what one is best equipped or positioned to do. Better to have a modest success than an over-ambitious failure. But she also suggests a third option: start small and strive to scale up.

I think Al Jazeera’s analogy to palliative care is also fatuous moralizing. One is not usually able to achieve big-picture solutions. But regardless of what level you’re looking at, what matters is quality of life — for the many, or a few, as may be. Every one counts. Every improvement counts. Inability to go big doesn’t negate the value of the small. A cancer patient may not be cured but meantime palliating the pain is worth doing. Likewise for the Afghan skateboarding girls.

No individual can “solve” the kinds of big problems at issue. All one can do is what helps as much as one can. A lot of people doing that helps a lot.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

How Trump sinks U.S. global standing

June 28, 2020

One of Trumpdom’s most ludicrous lies is that’s he’s raising America’s world standing. In the Fox News alternate reality maybe. In the real world it’s the opposite.

As a longtime conservative Republican, no “isolationist,” I always supported constructive global engagement.* It’s not merely about national pride, but what’s good for people here and abroad. Following WWII, the U.S. undertook leadership to painstakingly build a rules-based world order grounded in a web of alliances and international institutions. (Not just the UN and NATO but many others like the global financial infrastructure, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, etc.) All crafted to promote planetary prosperity and peace. A more peaceful world is better for America. A richer world is better for America.

Trump hates all this and tries to wreck it — his warped idea of “America First.”** Totally ignorant of how the system actually works and how greatly it has served U.S. national interests. That’s why we built it in the first place. Trump thinks all those Americans who did so were stupid, and his uninformed instincts are superior. It’s that kind of attitude that’s tragically stupid.

So he’s pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Health Organization, the Paris Climate accords, the Iran nuclear deal, arms control agreements, and on and on. Did you know he’s paralyzed the World Trade Organization just by refusing to fill the U.S.-designated seats on its court?

At one time America would have led (as we did with Ebola) a global pandemic response. Trump wound up not even leading among America’s own states. His self-congratulatory lies about our “tremendous” efforts fool only Fox fans. Other nations see the scandalous reality, a huge blow to our international stature. In fact, several European countries are banning travelers from America, because covid-19 is out of control in many states.

Indeed, most of the world views Trump as a boorish monster and Americans as nuts for electing him. That’s why Russia connived to elect him — knowing it would weaken America. Other national leaders quickly learned to play him like a fiddle, by flattering his deranged vanity with empty pageantry. Laughing behind his back.

U.S. global standing never rested mainly on our economic or military might. Instead the world looked to us chiefly for leadership as a force for good. America alone among nations was founded not on blood and soil but values and ideals. That’s not to say we’ve been perfect in living up to them. Of course not. Yet more than any other country America had striven to be guided by such principles.

And much of the world had seen us as representing a vision of democracy, openness, generosity, justice, and human progress toward all those ideals. Both at home and in our relations with others. That’s what’s called our “soft power,” but it doesn’t mean weak. Defense Secretary Mattis said soft power is stronger than the other kind. Trump is shredding it.

For him everything is just transactional. Natural to a man with no moral core. As if morality is just for dummies. But nothing could be dumber than throwing away America’s most valuable international asset — being seen as standing for what’s right. Lord knows not everyone has seen us that way. Now Trump is forcing those who did to revise their opinion. A recent global poll actually showed more people today look to China than to America for global leadership.

We’re certainly no longer seen as a haven. Taking in refugees, and even legal immigration, have been virtually stopped.

Our president used to be called “leader of the free world.” Under Trump we’re not the leader of anything. He has done nothing but undermine our relationships with those nations still committed to an idealistic vision of global progress — while shamelessly getting in bed with the world’s vilest regimes.

In Helsinki he stood up for Putin’s lies against the findings of our own intelligence agencies. When the Saudi ruler was implicated in a ghastly murder, Trump stood up for him too. Trump congratulated the Philippine president’s “drug program” of simply murdering thousands. When Turkey’s authoritarian ruler wanted to attack the Kurds in Syria — faithful U.S. allies — Trump stabbed them in the back and green-lighted Turkey’s invasion.

And while he postures as “tough on China,” we now learn that when China put a million Uighurs in concentration camps for trying to practice their religion, Trump told Xi Jinping he approved of it as a good idea. Unsurprising given Trump’s own policy of ripping children from parents and putting them in concentration camps. Another villainy that will long blacken America’s name in the eyes of humanity.

“Leader of the free world?” Trump has switched us to the other side.

* Thus I was very critical of Obama’s foreign policy squeamishness.

** Bolton says his foreign policy is really entirely “Trump First.” But much of it makes no sense from either standpoint. He just thrashes around blindly.

Confederate flags and statues and racism

June 25, 2020

They claim the Confederate flag symbolizes Southern cultural heritage, or independence, or states’ rights — or some such baloney. Who do they think they’re fooling? That flag says “Fuck n—–s.”

People actually often don’t understand what goes on in their own minds, a lot of it being below conscious awareness. It’s themselves they are fooling, telling themselves they are not racist. Those who call the Confederacy a “noble cause” are trying to pretty up in their own heads what is really racial animus.

Yeah, sure, 1861 was all about state rights. What rights specifically? To enslave people. The Civil War was about nothing except slavery. No slavery, no war. Confederates were not heroic warriors. They were traitors to America and to fundamental human morality. Blacks know this flag stands for their enslavement and anyone flying it is giving them the middle finger. It belongs only in textbooks and museums.

And naming military bases after Confederate soldiers? What nation thusly honors men who fought against it? What kind of president defends this?

They say removing Confederate monuments erases history. And indeed today’s Americans lack much sense of history. Otherwise they’d understand why these statues must go. There’s a difference between remembering history and celebrating it. We have a Holocaust Museum to memorialize that part of the world’s history. We don’t put up statues to Hitler and Goering.

And those who understand history know Confederate monuments were not really erected to honor the individuals depicted. It was to send a message: “We’re not sorry we fought for slavery. We’d restore it if we could. So watch out, n—–s.”

White trash who say “go back to Africa” overlook that blacks didn’t choose to come here. Brought in chains on harrowing voyages to be worked to death. But now we’re all stuck here together on this lifeboat, and must live together. As Kimberly Jones said, whites are lucky African-Americans seek only equality — not revenge.

Showing they are better human beings than whites who would deny that equality. Whites who consider blacks inferior prove themselves to be the inferior creatures.

Okay. Let’s take a deep breath.

Like any movement often tends to, our current spate of iconoclasm goes too far, becoming indiscriminate and senseless. Jefferson’s name comes up. Even Washington’s. At least one Washington statue has been toppled. Also a Ulysses Grant.

Talk about erasing history. Grant went because someone said his wife’s family owned slaves. So forget he was the man most responsible for defeating the Confederacy. But that was not all. As president, Grant battled mightily defending the rights of newly freed slaves. When the KKK arose against them, Grant sent troops to suppress Klan terrorism.

On my wall

No human being is ever a perfect angel. Ideally, our statues honor people who have done great and worthy things, inspiring us to emulate their best qualities. That is why we memorialize Washington and Jefferson — and Grant. Their monuments move my own spirit deeply. When I see Washington what I see is a nation founded in the great virtues he exemplified. When I see Jefferson I see the words that gave that nation its sublime ethos.

Words we still must strive to fulfill.

Big Bang, big questions

June 22, 2020

Our Universe began with the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago. It started virtually volumeless, virtually infinitely dense and hot, and then expanded. What came before, and triggered the Big Bang? That’s not a valid question, because Time itself began with the Big Bang.

This is the “standard model” of today’s science. I am a believer in science. But that’s not like a religious belief or faith; instead, a matter of epistemology. Which refers to how we know things.

This doesn’t mean everything in science is “true.” That misunderstands the point. Scientific precepts (unlike religion) are always subject to revision with more information. That can disprove a theory, but none is ever proven with finality. That said, however, the bulk of modern science can be pretty much taken to the bank. The concept of biological evolution, for example, will not be disproven by new information. And the same applies to most of modern physics.

Current cosmology devolves from Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery that most other galaxies are moving away from us. The farther distant, the faster. This means the Universe is expanding. Run that movie backwards and it contracts. Ending all crunched together: the Big Bang.

Note that the expansion doesn’t mean everything is enlarging. Instead it’s space itself that’s expanding, carrying everything along with it. And stuff all moving away from us doesn’t mean Earth is at the center. Picture instead a raisin cake rising; as it expands, each raisin moves away from every other.

Science has figured out the physics of the Universe’s start, back to a very teensy fraction of a second after the Big Bang. But then you get to a point where the extreme conditions of density and heat mean the laws of physics as we know them don’t work. We call this a “singularity.” (The same applies inside a black hole. Some scientists speculate that a black hole’s singularity can give off big bangs; maybe that’s our own origin.)

Inability to parse out just exactly what happened in that very first instant might be considered a problem in the standard model. But there’s a difference between “don’t know” and “can’t know.” While some theorists say “can’t know,” I prefer to suspend judgment on what future science may be able to penetrate. Scientists a century ago could not have imagined today’s knowledge.

Meanwhile, inability to wrap our heads around the notion of Time beginning with the Big Bang might also feel like a problem. Yet hitting that seeming conceptual wall doesn’t stop thinking about explanations for the Big Bang. Some reasonable concepts have been sketched out at least in a general way. We can say they’re not science because we have no way to test such ideas experimentally or with predictions — today. But again, a different story in the future should not be ruled out.

But here’s another problem. The Universe’s diameter is currently estimated at 93 billion light years. (At least that’s what we can see; the whole thing could be larger.) That doesn’t gibe with its age being only 13.7 billion years; it implies expansion exceeding light speed.

The explanation is inflation: during an infinitesimally small interval after the Big Bang, the Universe expanded faster than light speed. But didn’t Einstein tell us nothing can travel faster than light? Yes; but that applies only to objects moving through space. In inflation, it was space itself expanding.

And what caused this? It’s theorized that the force of gravity suddenly reversed, pushing stuff apart rather than pulling it together. Then, just as suddenly, it switched back. We have some ideas about why that could have happened.

However that, and the whole inflation theory, is mainly supported on the basis that it’s the only way we can account for what we observe.

Here’s another problem. We know the law of gravity: proportional to mass and decreasing with the square of the distance between objects. But other galaxies don’t appear to obey it, unless there’s much more mass than we can see. Scientists call that extra stuff “dark matter,” and have debated various ideas for what it might be. We just don’t know.

A possible solution is “Modified Newtonian Dynamics” (MOND). Just as some laws of physics change when it comes to the ultra small (quantum mechanics), the law of gravity might not apply to the ultra large distances associated with galaxies. Realize that gravity being far the weakest of nature’s fundamental forces — and diminishing with the square of the distance between objects — we’re talking about a force of evanescent smallness at galactic distances. A tweak to Newton’s gravity law might explain things without requiring any additional “Dark Matter.” (While I find this idea attractive, it is not orthodox physics.)

There’s yet another problem. We had assumed that after the Big Bang’s initial energy burst (and the inflation episode), the momentum of the Universe’s expansion would be slowing. There was debate whether it would eventually slow to a stop, with gravity then starting to pull things back together, toward a “big crunch;” or would expand forever, dissipating into virtual cold nothingness; or would do neither, reaching stasis (a “flat universe”). All dependent on exactly how much mass there is. The third option seemed to be winning.

But then a new discovery blew scientists’ minds: after having slowed for some billions of years, the expansion started speeding up! And is still accelerating.

What’s causing that? “Dark Energy.” Meaning, as with Dark Matter, we don’t know. Yet Dark Energy is calculated to comprise some 70% of the entire Universe. (Remember that per Einstein’s famous equation, energy and matter are interchangeable.)

So . . . the singularity; no Time before Time; inflation; Dark Matter; Dark Energy. Science likes beautiful elegant theories. The standard Big Bang model begins to look like a clunky a Rube Goldberg contraption. With a lot of question marks. Might it all be just a huge mistake? What could an alternative possibly look like?

But suppose the Universe’s expansion does ultimately run out of steam and reverse, falling into a Big Crunch. It wouldn’t necessarily have to collapse all the way back to a singularity. Before that point, the extreme conditions could conceivably trigger a new Big Bang. Going back and forth like that forever. This avoids the conundrum of a singularity and also of a “Time before Time.” Though not the mind-bender of the word “forever.”

This is called the “Oscillating (or Cyclic) Universe,” discussed in Brian Clegg’s book, Before the Big Bang. That title hooked me in, but a more accurate one would have been About the Big Bang. Anyhow, Clegg shows there are serious problems with the Oscillating Universe concept too. He says it’s either equivalent to a perpetual motion machine or else must eventually run out of energy and expire.

There are other theories, like “branes.” And multi-universes. I won’t go into them. None strikes me as anything more than complete speculation.

Anyhow, one is forced to confront an irreducible mystery. Either the Universe had a beginning, arising out of nothing. Or else something always existed, without ever having had a beginning. No human mind can really grasp either possibility.

And there is an even deeper question: why is there something and not nothing? Scientists and philosophers have grappled with this.* Their efforts are far from satisfying. (Of course religion does no better. Why should there be a god rather than no god? At least we can be sure the universe exists.)

“Why is there something” is a question deep in my consciousness. Why I have one is itself a conundrum; but that’s only one small piece of the far larger mystery of existence itself. Most of us take it for granted, but not me. In fact, it’s my understanding of the clockwork of existence — imperfect though that understanding surely is — that nags me with that final “Why?”

It seems we should more logically expect a Universe of nothingness — a non-universe. That at least would raise no deep questions whatsoever. It would just be. (Or not-be.)

But I remain a believer in humanity’s ability to gain understanding. Someday people will look back with bemusement at us primitives, just as we look back at flat earthers.

* As I’ve discussed; here are some links: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing/; https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/why-does-the-world-exist/;

Ecce Homo

June 19, 2020

At a Buffalo NY Floyd protest, Martin Gugino, 75, longtime Catholic peace activist, was shoved backward by two policemen in full military gear. His head cracked on the pavement, spurting blood. The squad marched over him. One cop momentarily bent toward Gugino but another urged him forward. We all saw this sickening video.

Gugino was eventually taken to a hospital, listed in critical condition. The officers were disciplined. Their entire squad resigned in protest — from the squad, not the department — not against Gugino’s mistreatment but against the disciplining.

Five days later — with the nation in turmoil over repeated police brutality — Trump tweeted that Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” was somehow trying to “black out” police equipment, and his fall may have been a “set up.”

Trump dredged this nonsense out of the sewer — from “One America News Network,” an extreme right broadcaster that, to quote columnist Michael Gerson (a Republican), makes “Fox News look like a model of journalistic integrity by comparison.” Trump apparently spends time viewing OAN.

Gerson says that if Trump believed OAN’s crap, he’s “a credulous simpleton.” If he didn’t, he’s “a cynical weasel.” But Gerson concludes he’s both.

I think it’s worse. What Trump tweeted was insane. And, even if he believed it, to imagine it was somehow a good idea to tweet it was doubly insane.

Gerson adds that for a president to single out a private citizen with such slander is “a serious abuse of power.” An “act of malice” that borders on inhumanity.”

Borders on?? It blows past the border. Trump is a full sociopath. Gerson does say: “If what you see doesn’t revolt you, you have lost the capacity for revulsion.”

Yet still some Trumpsters snidely attack Biden’s mental fitness!

Note to readers: this may feel wearying. I am weary. When Trumpery began, I resolved to let no travesty pass unremarked. Chronicling the tragic defilement of a nation that had been a great human achievement. But the task has proven impossible. I feel like a battlefield triage medic, forced to choose subjects for attention. Things that in a sane era would have been shocking monstrosities now seem pinpricks. (Like, the other day, the Treasury Secretary professing no need to reveal where hundreds of billions in covid relief actually went. And Bolton’s revelations.)

During my 53 Republican years, I could always understand the minds on the other side. Even now, much as I oppose the hard left, I can comprehend the thinking. But my bafflement over Trumpism grows. Assholes of course support one of their own. But how can so many others put their brains, their morality, and their humanity in deep freeze?