Now it really begins: the end of our democracy

October 14, 2018

The National Park Service is proposing to charge protesters for demonstrating in the nation’s capital.

You read that right: a fee, levied by the government, upon free speech. In the nation formerly known as America.

Recently, here in Albany, there was a demonstration by The Poor People’s Campaign. Which was then handed a $1400+ bill, by the city, for the cost of police keeping order at the event.

I wrote to Mayor Kathy Sheehan, expressing outrage. I am not a supporter of the The Poor People’s Campaign. But the idea of government charging anybody for exercising freedom of speech is an insult to the First Amendment. Free speech is not free if there’s a charge for it! I pointed out that keeping order at public demonstrations is a normal police function, that’s part of why we pay taxes to have a police force.

Sadly, I got no reply.

Now the Trump administration aims to apply the same idea to protests in the capital (for starters). Perhaps predictably, with Trump calling the opposition party an “angry mob.” Demonstrators will now have to pay the cost of police keeping order. The bills will be sizable; the obvious intent is fewer protests. (Maybe people should be charged too for 911 calls, to keep down their numbers also.) And how nice it would be if the regime, I mean the government, could go about its work without pesky citizens getting in the way with annoying protests. How nice if newspapers and screens were not filled with images of “angry mobs” making their opinions known. Criticizing the president and everything.

This is how democracy is snuffed out.

Click here to sign an ACLU petition against the Park Service proposal. And click here to submit a comment directly to the Park Service, until the close of business Monday.

There is no charge for such public comments. Yet.

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What is the basis for morality?

October 12, 2018

This question has vexed philosophers through the ages. My humanist book group is reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass a Global History of Ethics. Wherein of course this question is central.

For some the answer is simple: God’s word. But this merely begs another question, which Socrates expressed: is something holy because the gods love it, or do they love it because it is holy? In other words, is stoning to death a disobedient child right because God says so (in Deuteronomy), or does God say so because it is right? And in either case, how does God know? If he’s just making it up, we can do better by applying our reason rather than his arbitrary rules. If he arrived at rules by using his own reason, so can we, with no need for him.

And passing the buck to God doesn’t change the reality that responsibility for morality remains ours alone. To follow his laws is a choice we ourselves make. Indeed, even believers who say God decrees morality still pick and choose among his decrees. Few kill disobedient children.

David Hume said you can’t get an “ought” from an “is.” That is, no facts, including about what people do, can tell us what we should do. Nor can moral truths be “self evident.” Female genital mutilation seems self evidently wrong to me, but not to millions of others.

Thus later philosophers, notably A.J. Ayer, have posited that moral ideas are only expressions of personal taste, not objective facts. As Malik puts it, “the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ express not information but feelings.” So the statement “murder is wrong” stands no differently from “I like beer.”

But what would Ayer think of the statement “murdering A.J. Ayer is wrong?”

Malik notes that physicists used to believe the Universe was filled with an invisible substrate they called ether. But ether doesn’t exist, so any assertion about its nature is meaningless. Malik quotes philosopher J.J. Mackie that for morality to be objective it would have to be an “intrinsic part of the fabric of reality” — like ether supposedly was. But no such “moral ether” exists either, hence any statements about it are likewise meaningless.

MacIntyre

Malik goes on to discuss Alasdair MacIntyre’s “brilliant, bleak, frustrating, and . . . provocative” 1981 book After Virtue. It says moral thought is in “grave disorder.” How so? Thanks to that old culprit, The Enlightenment which, we’re told, destroyed Aristotelian notions of humans as embedded in roles, in favor of (horrors!) seeing us as autonomous agents creating our own roles. Morality, MacIntyre says, can only have meaning if there’s a distinction between “man-as-he-happens-to-be” and “man-as-he-could-be.” Otherwise, there’s no roadmap. MacIntyre, Malik notes, was a Marxist who ultimately became a Roman Catholic.

And, says Malik, that book owes much to Elizabeth Anscombe’s “seminal” 1958 paper, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” which said it’s all foundationless. How so? Because any “law” requires a legislator. That used to be God. But we’ve fired him; so whatever moral rules or laws any human posits, there is no legislator behind them.

Excuse me? “Seminal” my ass. No, this is literally an insult to intelligence. As I explained at the start, God’s role as legislator is nonsense; there’s no alternative to choosing our own moral rules.

Likewise absurd are MacIntyre’s burblings about the blight of The Enlightenment. They’re the product of a mind whose Marxism-cum-Catholicism bespeaks profound intellectual confusion. His “man-as-he-could-be” implies aspiration to some imagined higher state; yet “man-as-he-happens-to-be” has always been abundantly capable of morality. And indeed MacIntyre’s conception is not aspirational but the opposite. His “Aristotelian” view of the human role might be descriptive for bees in a beehive. But we are rational creatures, not automata, and the entire meaning of our lives comes from how we ourselves choose to use our rationality to shape our living of them.

The Enlightenment did not destroy the basis for morality. To the contrary, it freed us from false conceptions about it — conceptions rooted in a nonexistent god (like MacIntyre’s Catholicism).

I will tell you the true basis for morality.

The cosmos is indifferent, but we are not. My “murdering A.J. Ayer” line was not a joke, it goes to the heart of the issue. There is only one thing in the cosmos that matters, only one thing that can matter. That is the feelings of beings that experience them. Nothing can matter unless it matters to someone — to such a being. Like A.J. Ayer. That’s why murdering A.J. Ayer would be wrong.

Now, in some circumstances, it might not be. Murdering Hitler, for example, would not have been wrong. You have to consider the effect on the feelings of all sentient beings. Killing Hitler would have inconvenienced him, while benefiting a vast number of others.

This sounds like utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). Utilitarianism has been critiqued for violating Kant’s dictum that people should only be ends, not means. For example, if you’re a doctor with a patient needing a heart transplant, and another needing a liver, why not grab a bystander and take his organs, sacrificing one life to save two? Kant would say this violates a moral absolute. But there is a better answer that actually accords with utilitarianism: nobody would want to live in a society allowing such organ confiscation. So we see the utilitarian calculus may not be so simple. And moral dilemmas may indeed be more complex than that example. But the point is that utilitarianism gives us not a blunt tool, but a touchstone, a baseline, a measuring tool, for analyzing them.

That is all the basis for morality we need. Our reasoning minds can take it from there.

Secular Rescue – saving lives, freedom, and open debate

October 10, 2018

Religion can inspire good deeds. Or killing people with machetes.

This is happening today, notably in Bangladesh, where organized vigilantes target and murder dissenters from Muslim religious orthodoxy, particularly secularist and atheist writers, bloggers, and activists. While the government hardly pretends to disapprove.

The West has its own history, of course, of religious intolerance, persecution, and violence. The Inquisition tortured people for God. Untold numbers were burned at the stake (including philosopher Giordano Bruno who, unlike Galileo, refused to recant his ideas contrary to church dogma). The Thirty Years War, a conflict over theology, killed a third of Europe’s population. Even in America, Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston Common for holding the wrong faith.

But in the West, religion finally calmed down, became domesticated, and nobody here any longer imagines burning people alive for God. My local humanist society meets openly, unmolested, even advertising its nonreligious orientation.

That would not be possible in most Muslim countries today. This actually represents retrogression, because in past epochs Muslims were much more tolerant of religious heterodoxy; but they’ve gone in the opposite direction from the Christian West. There’s no church/state separation. In many Muslim nations, “apostasy” carries a death sentence. (In Pakistan “blasphemy” does. Pakistan has not actually executed anyone for blasphemy, but over 60 people accused of it have been murdered.)

If you read the Koran (here’s my review), its number one theme is nonbelievers will be punished. Repeated on almost every page. But some Muslims today can’t wait for God to do the punishing. They think they’re doing his work for him. A small minority of Muslims, actually; but it doesn’t take many to perpetrate an awful lot of violence.

I am a fearless blogger. Not courageous — but literally fearless because I have nothing to fear in America’s paradise of free expression. I wouldn’t have the courage to do this in a place like Bangladesh, risking machetes.

Some show bravery in battle, for their country or comrades; some in defending their families. But the courage we’re talking about here — for an idea — is of a very special sort. I’m in awe of these noble heroes.

And I’m proud to support them, with money at least, by funding Secular Rescue, a program run by the Center for Inquiry (a leading organization promoting secular humanist values). The program assists, defends, and protects writers under threat for expressing viewpoints that challenge local religious orthodoxies, mainly in Muslim countries. It provides tangible help, such as legal services, and even relocating them to safer places — a kind of “underground railroad.” Secular Rescue works very hard to evaluate and verify cases, to make sure the people helped are truly in danger. All that work, and the help itself, costs money.

I will match contributions to Secular Rescue by any of my blog readers (click here).

This is not just a matter of freedom of expression — increasingly important though that is in today’s world. Open debate is crucial for moving any society forward. But it’s especially urgent for the nations in question because they do harbor the kinds of pernicious beliefs that bring forth the sort of violence described. These Muslim societies are in need of an Enlightenment, like the one in the West that ultimately tamed religious persecution, and opened the path for human progress in so many other manifold ways. That sort of progress requires people with the vision and courage to challenge reigning orthodoxies. That sort of progress cannot happen if such people are silenced, intimidated by violence, squelching free debate. Not only the lives of these brave individuals, but these societies’ futures, are at stake. That is the importance of Secular Rescue.

One nonbeliever in a Muslim country was not killed but was actually diagnosed as insane by its medical establishment, forcibly hospitalized and “treated” for his “affliction.” I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode where a gal undergoes surgery for her ugly facial deformity. But when, in the hospital, the bandages come off, it’s a failure — she’s still (in our eyes) beautiful, in contrast to all the “normal” people around, only now revealed as (to us) grotesque.

Atheism is the sane, rational understanding of a cosmos whose observable reality is wholly at odds with religious ideas. Those ideas would be called insane, delusional, if held only by a few; but when held by the many, they are normal. But that nonbeliever may have been the only truly sane person in that Muslim nut house.

Religion, politics, and abortion

October 7, 2018

A piece by “writer and consultant” Jacob Lupfer on my local paper’s “Faith & Values” page talked mainly about political independents. But this got my attention:

“For decades, scholars and practitioners agreed that religion was the causal factor that shaped political behavior. New research upends that assumption: Partisanship affects religiosity. It is a foundational social identity, driving rather than flowing from values and attitudes . . . people bring their religious beliefs in line with their party . . . Instead of assuming that Christianity is their primary loyalty, we should see evangelicals as Republicans first who toss religious values aside to accommodate their Trump support.”

I have previously written of polling research showing that political tribalism has become the salient one in shaping felt personal identity in today’s America, even more powerful than religious tribalism. But that doesn’t mean the former drives the latter. As though being a Republican Trumpeter causes you to be an evangelical Christian. I still think the causation runs the other way, even if the resulting political identity does turn out to be the more powerful.

But that’s not to say, either, that their Republicanism mirrors their religious values. That might have been more true in past times, when what the Republican party represented did align better with what Christianity supposedly stands for. However, Trump has shattered that correspondence, representing, really, the antithesis of traditional Christian values. Yet he retains their allegiance; indeed more strongly than any previous Republican leader.

Why? Because today, again, it’s the political tribal identity that rules as never before. Even superseding the actual content of the beliefs. What Trump and Trumpism actually represent do not, in the final analysis, matter that much. It transcends that sort of rationality. It’s more simply us-against-them.

So how does one get sucked into such a tribe in the first place? I increasingly think it’s more psychological than political or ideological, having a lot to do with self-image. How guys see themselves. In a word, macho. There’s a notion that Democrats are the party of weakness, Republicans the strong party. Democrats the party of snowflakes and pussies; Trump’s the party of pussy grabbing. Even some women voters are susceptible to such attitudes. This partly explains why “grab them by the pussy” didn’t destroy Trump’s candidacy. The macho factor outweighed the ewww factor.

Hillary’s gender didn’t help; it fed into the idea of Democrats as the girlie party. And the Kavanaugh drama was in part about men pushing back against what some of them see as an emasculating war upon them.

And, of course, there’s also the white tribe against the browns.

But religious affiliation does play a big role too. Fundamentalist Christians, by and large, were fundamentalist Christians before they were Republicans; and certainly before they were Trumpers. And if you are deeply embedded in a social milieu full of fellow fundamentalists, most of whom are also Republican tribalists, that will naturally be your tribe too.

In this way, the religious and political tribal identities reinforce each other. They meld together into one overall outlook upon the world. Never mind any internal contradictions (don’t ask WWJD about separating immigrant children from parents). Rationality is again dispensable. It’s the tribe uber alles.

And there is this consistency: the ability to seal oneself off from reality and inhabit instead a make-believe world. One created 6,000 years ago, ruled by a benevolent God, wherein evolution didn’t happen but Noah’s flood did (don’t ask why so many innocent people and animals were drowned), with final justice administered in Heaven and Hell. If you believe all that, it’s but a small further step into the world of Fox News, where Trump is a truth-telling champion of Christian values, making America great again in the face of a deep state conspiracy witch hunt.

Yet the political behavior of fundamentalists might seem rational in relation to one big issue: abortion. Their final line in the sand, after having irretrievably lost on a wide range of social issues, like gay marriage. And on abortion they might actually now be close to a big victory, rolling back Roe v. Wade. But what shall it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his soul?

They see abortion as a key moral issue. But it’s become such an obsession, fogging their minds, that they lose sight of the bigger picture. Even if they were right about abortion (and they do have a point, albeit carried too far) — with everything else going on in today’s huge complex fraught world — is abortion really the number one issue? Many seem more concerned for the potential human life in a fertilized egg than the lives of actual living human beings (like the 30,000+ Americans killed annually by guns). As if “right to life” is only for the unborn.

And there really is a much bigger moral issue than abortion. Is winning on abortion worth the price of damaging the Supreme Court as a pillar of our civic life, our bastion of impartial justice, sullying it with a stink of political and religious partiality (not to mention of beer and attempted rape)? Worth handing the leadership of the nation to a monster of depravity? Worth complicity in his assault upon truth, decency, and everything good and great about America? Worth blinding yourself to it all? Worth losing your soul?

(Cartoon by Matson. Pillars labeled “Gorsuch” & “Kavanaugh”

Thomas Friedman’s latest column warns that scorched earth politics is heading us toward literal civil war. He says a Rubicon was crossed when Republicans trashed norms of democratic governance by stealing a Supreme Court seat. Yet that didn’t stop their shamelessly vilifying Democrats for holding up the Kavanaugh nomination. Our tribe’s always right; the other evil.

They vaunt the “right to bear arms,” as supposed protection against tyrannical government. What will unfold in 2020 if they lose power — and believe that somehow illegitimate?

The Anti-Trump Albany Book Festival

October 4, 2018

This event, put on by the wonderful New York State Writers Institute, was not really political. But nobody would read this if I just titled it “Albany Book Festival.” And in fact it says a lot about our times how politics did inevitably color these proceedings. There’s no escaping America’s current crisis of the soul.

The kickoff was a reception installing Colson Whitehead as the New York State Author and Alicia Ostriker as State Poet. Both were introduced by former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who did an admirable job talking about their work.

Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, drolly previewed his plans for his first hundred days as State Author. Ostriker read some of her poems which didn’t seem very poetic to me. But she also read from a great one: Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus. That choice was obviously timely, with the golden door being slammed shut.

As is customary for Writers Institute events, the munchies were superb: little cakes, a chocolate fudge & whipped cream confection, cookies, fruit, etc. (A thankyou to Paul Grondahl, the Institute’s dynamic leader.)

Broderick

A legion of local authors manned individual tables showcasing their work. Noteworthy among them was poet Therese L. Broderick, author of the acclaimed Breath Debt. (My wife.)

And a legion of other great literary luminaries spoke to packed audiences. Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of our leading historians, and talked about her new book, Leadership in Troubled Times. It focuses on the lessons from four presidencies: Lincoln, TR, FDR, and LBJ.

Goodwin

Goodwin’s theme was that character, above all, is what matters. She ticked off a list of key traits: humility, empathy, valuing diverse opinions, ability to connect with all manner of people, controlling negative impulses, and keeping one’s word. In sum, emotional intelligence. Goodwin’s rundown here elicited loud laughter from the audience, for the obvious reason that our current “leader” is so glaringly devoid of all these virtues.

Hegel

I next listened to a panel of four other historians. One noteworthy discussion reminded me of Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis cycling to synthesis. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending legalized racial segregation, produced a big backlash among white southerners, resisting it, sometimes violently. But that in turn energized its own backlash, in the civil rights movement, eventual civil rights and voting rights legislation, and, one might say, the eventual election of an African-American as president. Which in turn generated another big backlash culminating in the election of a very different sort of president. Which in turn has energized civic engagement against what that represents (very much in evidence in the responses of attendees at this book festival).

SPOS

I don’t know that we’re near Hegel’s final synthesis. I’m hopeful that Trumpism is a doomed last gasp, and that America will flush its toilet for good in 2020. But experience with my own bathroom suggests a different outcome is possible.

Next I went to Marion Roach Smith’s talk on memoir writing. The room was not ideal; her husband, Times-Union editor Rex Smith, had to kneel by her side manning the computer with her power-point presentation, advancing the slides every time she signaled.

Smith

Though sometimes he misinterpreted her gesturing. But it was an excellent talk applicable not just to memoirists, but to writing in general. Her key theme: focus on what the piece of writing is really about; what its argument is. A memoir’s reader is not interested in the details of what may have occurred but, rather, in gaining some insight on a human issue.

William Kennedy is Albany’s leading literary light, who founded the Writers Institute, and recently turned 90. He’s a literary energizer bunny who just keeps going, premiering a new book at the festival.

Kennedy

His talk was a meditation on writing and the writing life. I particularly relished his discussion of Faulkner, probably my own favorite. He adverted to the idea that Faulkner’s work is uplifting. “This uplift business baffled me,” Kennedy said. Faulkner certainly depicts the worst human behavior. Yet Kennedy said he was uplifted after all, “exalted,” by writing that reaches into a person’s heart. (I have written about Faulkner on this blog, with a somewhat similar take. In fact, it was a Faulkner quote I used as the epigraph for my Rational Optimism book.)

The final event was a panel titled “The New Americans” — a group of authors born elsewhere. Again, a theme with particular resonance in today’s political environment.

Iftin

One panelist was Abdi Nor Iftin, who I got to meet and chat with at the previous night’s reception. He was the Somali guy whose tribulations getting to America were told on NPR’s This American Life. Hearing that story so moved me that I wrote a poem (previously posted here), and sent him something. He now has a book out, Call Me American. What a thrill it was for me to connect with Abdi in person.

Khan

Another panelist was Khizr Khan, whom I’ve also written about (here, and here). It was likewise a thrill to shake his hand and tell him what a privilege that was. Khan continues to remind us how our Declaration of Independence and Constitution enshrine human dignity. He said no other country’s constitution rivals ours in that regard — and that he’s actually read them all! He also said that in over 200 appearances, in connection with his book, he has everywhere found Americans wanting to hold onto these values, and hopeful not only for America but for America as “a source of light” for the rest of the world.

We must not allow that light to go out.

An hysterical Republican message

October 3, 2018

Because I once contributed, I still get Republican fundraising emails. It’s a revealing — and scary — window into their world. (Click here for one parroting Trump’s despicable “spygate” lie.)

A message I received Monday was hysterical — in both senses of the word. I literally burst out laughing. It’s from a PAC called “GreatAgain.org.” Here’s how it begins:

Frank:

The Democrats have struck a blow to President Trump’s

Supreme Court Nominee—Brett Kavanaugh.

They spent nearly 2 weeks trashing his reputation

and insinuating he’s a rapist.

Now they’re delaying a Constitutionally required

UP OR DOWN VOTE!

Umm . . . Merrick Garland?? Whose Supreme Court seat Republicans stole by refusing to vote at all — denying it was “Constitutionally required?”

That’s what made me laugh out loud. The shameless hypocrisy is beyond hysterical. But it isn’t funny that these creeps are actually in power in America.

In addition to asking (of course) for money, “GreatAgain” urged calling three wavering senators to “demand” a vote for Kavanaugh, helpfully listing their numbers:

Call these Senators and tell them:

“We’re not playing this game.”

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine (R-ME)      (202) 224-2523

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.VA)                   (202) 224-3954

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (R-AK)   (202) 224-6665

So, thanks to GreatAgain, I did contact the three: urging a vote AGAINST Kavanaugh, who’s crucially lied about his position on Roe v. Wade, if nothing else; who plenty of evidence shows was a nasty drunk; and whose out-of-control partisan rant before the Judiciary Committee renders him totally unfit for the nation’s highest court.

Last night we had some people over. We don’t drink beer, but my wife filled the fridge with 6-packs. “What,” I said to her, “were you expecting Kavanaugh?”

A non-ugly American in Somaliland: Jonathan Starr’s Abaarso school

September 30, 2018

Bad news abounds. Even efforts to improve the world often do the opposite — that’s the history of foreign aid and development initiatives. “Ugly American” overseas misadventures are legion.

In 1991, Somalia imploded, becoming the textbook “failed state.” But an isolated backwater area broke away, declaring independence as the Republic of Somaliland. It’s not an internationally recognized country, and no halcyon place. But at least (by local standards) relatively stable, peaceful, and even democratic.

Enter Jonathan Starr. Having made some bucks in finance, at 32 he wanted a better life mission. So in 2009 this American went to Somaliland to start a school.

Lousy education is a key factor impeding progress throughout Africa. Even where kids do attend school, teachers often don’t, they’re ill-equipped anyway, and lessons emphasize rote memorization, so little is really learned. Starr’s aim was to create not just a good school but a great one. With high academic standards, nurturing and character building, preparing students to go on to the world’s top universities, and come back to become Somaliland’s leaders.

Was he nuts? Many would have said so. I’d actually entertained African school fantasies myself — until realism dissuaded me. Starr was indeed extremely naive thinking he’d just walk into such a hardscrabble country and do this. It broke all the rules. He had no relevant expertise; didn’t even speak Somali.

Abaarso School

The story is told in his 2016 book, It Takes a School. It actually got built, and Starr got some Americans to come teach there (in English). Along the way, some big mistakes were made, and numerous setbacks and nail-biting crises occurred. The book is candid about this. One section is titled, “The Great Miscalculation.” (A later chapter: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”)

For one thing, the Abaarso School of Science and Technology was named for the locale — Starr didn’t realize “Abaarso” means “drought.” So water was an unforeseen problem. Then a local mover-and-shaker he teamed up with, named Khadar, turned into the partner from hell, exploiting his government and clan connections trying to take over the whole project himself. He even planted fake news stories accusing the school of anti-Islamic activities, and tried to get Starr thrown out of the country.

Starr realized he was up against the way things too often work in Africa — or, more accurately, don’t work, stymying progress. But by now he was far along the learning curve, and had built a network of local relationships enabling him to defeat Khadar’s efforts. Starr got the Somaliland government, finally, squarely in his own corner. A blue-ribbon Muslim religious council was summoned to give the school a stamp of approval. And it helped that Abaarso started showing spectacular results: graduates accepted, with scholarships, to leading U.S. universities. That was something unheard of in Somaliland, where those kids became national heroes.

Mubarik

One was Mubarik, a former nomad goat-herder; the first time he saw a truck he thought it was some kind of animal. Mubarik has now graduated from MIT.

We met Jonathan Starr at the Ingersoll event I wrote about; only because my wife happened to notice “Worcester MA” (where she went to college) on his mother’s name tag. That led to seating ourselves beside them at the dinner, and hearing a little of his story. Which also led to our spending some time with three female Abaarso alums, one of them starting at the nearby Emma Willard School. You couldn’t find more impressive, admirable young women. They rhapsodized about how Abaarso, and its founder, changed their lives.

Unlike many American kids who take for granted what they’re given, these Somalilanders realize they’re escaping what would otherwise be a life without hope (that’s led so many Africans into rickety boats), and they behave accordingly. The Emma Willard gal literally kissed the steps upon arrival. No slackers, these kids work very hard to make the most of their precious opportunities.

Cynics and pessimists always see problems as intractable. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. It’s sometimes true. But Starr was not deterred; was naive enough to make the effort, despite all the obvious handicaps he started with. This is a tremendous lesson for positive thinking. We humans have huge abilities to accomplish things — and often making the effort is the key. As the old line goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Starr, in a speech, said that once he’d started, failure just wasn’t an option. (I was reminded of Susan B. Anthony’s motto, “Failure is Impossible.”)

I also think about America’s own failing schools. Indeed, it’s been shown again and again that even in the worst circumstances, students can succeed in schools having positive-thinking leadership. No circumstances could be worse than what Starr faced in Somaliland. If his school could succeed there, ours can here.

Starr hasn’t stopped with Abaarso. His “Horn of Africa Education Development Fund” has started a second school, a teachers’ college for girls. The plan is for those girls to teach in a network of dozens of good K-12 schools, to be run by Abaarso grads; the first of those is slated to open in 2019. It would not be hyperbole to say the overall project bodes well to ultimately transform the country.

Click here to donate (I have made a significant contribution).

Starr and Abaarso have been profiled on 60 Minutes. Anderson Cooper ended the report by noting that Trump’s Muslim travel ban applies to Somaliland, making it harder for Abaarso grads to seek higher education in the U.S. So far, they’re still managing to get student visas. But staying after their education is another matter. A great self-inflicted loss for America.

Kavanaugh: America grabbed by the pussy

September 28, 2018

He said/she said. She testified about sexual transgressions by the Supreme Court nominee. He rejoined with an emphatic, highly emotional denial. I was inclined to believe him, giving him the benefit of the doubt.

But in the years since, it has become altogether clear that Anita Hill was telling the truth, and Clarence Thomas was lying. He still sits on the court, its longest serving member. If you call it “serving.”

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was certainly telling the truth. Kavanaugh was not. His tearful, indignant histrionic performance may have been worthy of an emmy, but not of his elevation to the nation’s highest court.

Testimonials from legions of women, who’ve known Kavanaugh, have vouched for his upstanding behavior. Human beings are complex and deep. A person may behave beautifully in most contexts and abominably in another. Kavanaugh testified that he sometimes had too many beers; what “too many” meant was not clarified. But too many beers can make people do things they would not ordinarily do. Things they don’t even remember. Kavanaugh may even have convinced himself his attempted rape didn’t happen.

And if Kavanaugh was sober during his raging performance yesterday, can you imagine what this guy would be like with “too many beers” in him?

And he does not, in fact, have a record of honesty. His previous testimony in these hearings was fundamentally a lie, calling Roe v. Wade “settled law,” as though it would be safe from him, when in truth he will vote to overturn it. Which indeed is virtually the raison d’etre of his nomination.

Some Republican Senators, so vocal in denouncing Democrats and supporting Kavanaugh (like John Cornyn) meantime also said Ford was convincing and credible. It’s been said the sign of true intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs.

At the end of NPR’s coverage, correspondents were asked for one word to describe the day’s events. They arrived at “tragic,” and I agree. This episode shows starkly just how broken our politics, our civic culture, has become. I used to respect Lindsay Graham as a serious, responsible, even statesmanlike character. Now his Trump derangement syndrome was in full flower as he foamed at the mouth in hysterical defense of such a dubious cause.

A poll this morning shows 48% of white evangelical Christians — “Christians” — want Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court even if he tried to rape Dr. Ford. Christians who, unlike atheists, get morality from God.

For all the venom Republicans spewed at Democrats for their conduct here, Republicans’ own conduct is characterized by their leader McConnell’s candid statement that they’re going to “plow right through” everything to get their man on the Court no matter what. No matter what Kavanaugh may have done.

They have the power to do it. America should be ashamed for allowing such people to have power.

Trump’s cruel war on refugees and immigrants intensifies

September 27, 2018

When, for this post, I googled “U.S. refugee admissions,” the very first thing that came up was this quote on the State Department’s website:

“The United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

I thought this might be old — but no, strangely enough, it’s still on the website today.

U.S. refugee admissions have fallen steadily since 1994. The refugee cap for President Obama’s last year was 110,000. In his first year Trump slashed that to just 45,000 — the lowest ever (since Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act). And the number actually admitted was far lower still — 21,000.

The administration has now announced that the cap will be slashed again, for the coming year, to only 30,000.

This at a time when worldwide refugee numbers are surging. There are now 68 million displaced people, including 25 million classified as refugees. Thus we are taking in about one tenth of one percent of the world’s refugees. One in a thousand. Is this the Trump administration’s idea of “compassion, generosity and leadership?”

In his UN speech (where his lying braggadocio was literally laughed at) Trump said the answer for refugees is for their own countries to be fine to live in. Yeah, right. As if he’s doing anything toward that end.

Trump demonizes refugees and migrants as a safety threat. Another of his big lies. In fact they commit fewer crimes than the average American. No refugee has ever committed an act of domestic terrorism. Nor are they an economic burden. Immigrants strengthen our economy and are net contributors. A recent article in The Economist said that if Silicon Valley fizzles out it will be because we’ve foolishly stopped up the immigration pipeline.

And indeed it’s not just refugees (and their children) Trump is targeting — and illegal immigrants — but legal immigrants too. He’s been pushing a set of proposals that would cut legal immigration by up to half. And as if that weren’t enough, now Trump proposes (Congressional action not needed) that receiving any sort of public benefit will disqualify an immigrant from a green card (which means legal residence).

The range of public benefits, that have become so much a part of American life, is vast, making it hard to imagine how anyone could comply with such an extreme rule. For example, suppose you, like most seniors, receive prescription drugs under Medicare Part D. That’s a “public benefit,” pursuant to Trump’s prospective rule.

Ostensibly the rule would apply only to new green card applicants (in order to reject many of them), but it seems unclear how it could affect people previously approved. Some may be caught out when reapplying or renewing their green cards. Some may feel compelled to stop using “public benefits” to protect their status. Anyhow, when all these benefit programs were enacted, they didn’t say “citizens only.” In some cases there’s a five-year waiting period. But otherwise, legislators knew these benefits would be available to legal residents, and nobody ever imagined it would make any kind of sense to exclude them entirely.

How many more times will I have to use this picture?

Nobody until Trump and his depraved administration. The vicious meanness of this latest atrocity takes away one’s breath and twists one’s stomach.

In a different country — Canada — it’s been reported that citizens brought folding chairs to queue up overnight to apply for the privilege of sponsoring a refugee.

Somebody ought to re-write that State Department website, now a cruel mockery of what America used to stand for.

Statement by the Honorable Brett Kavanaugh

September 25, 2018

Members of the Senate, and fellow citizens:

Telling the truth

Two women — Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and Deborah Ramirez — have described episodes of improper sexual behavior, by me, as a teenager. I wish that I could continue my denial about these things. But, searching my heart and soul, I no longer can.

These things did happen, they were wrong, and I profoundly regret them. To say otherwise now would compound the offense — compound it by lying, and compound the injury I committed against these women by falsely calling them liars; indeed, further, by subjecting them to the kind of disgraceful partisan vilification we have already seen. Instead of that, I wish to extend to Dr. Ford and Ms. Ramirez my heartfelt, though much belated, apologies.

I could say that my past misdeeds in question occurred in an extreme state of inebriation. That is true, but doesn’t excuse the behavior. Getting so drunk was itself irresponsible and wrong. I could also say that such behavior was condoned, indeed encouraged, by the “boys will be boys” frat culture in which I was immersed at the time. That is also true, and also not exculpatory. That culture was rotten; my participation inexcusable.

I come before you now as a reformed, repentant sinner. The long-ago episodes at issue have weighed upon my soul ever since. I have tried to atone for them by living the rest of my life — more than a third of a century — in the opposite way. So that when I stand before my God, for judgement, those three decades of what I hope has been mature right conduct will outweigh the wrongs I so carelessly committed as a foolish, callow youth. And, senators, I put myself before you for the same judgement. Hopeful that you will see me as the man I have been for thirty years; not the boy I was so long ago.

Finally, in the same spirit of honest truthfulness, I wish to add this. I have said that I consider Roe v. Wade settled law. That is true, but not the whole truth. Of course the Supreme Court can change settled law. I believe Roe v. Wade was a wrong decision, and if presented with a case posing that issue, I would vote to reverse it.

(Note to readers: the above is satire.)