Impeachment, partisanship, and defending the indefensible

January 21, 2020

Now it’s official: the Government Accountability Office (chief federal watchdog agency) has determined that Trump’s Ukraine aid shakedown broke the law.

So Republicans can no longer pretend “he did nothing wrong,” and that holding up the aid was within his presidential prerogative, regardless of the reason. No, says the GAO, it was not — regardless of the reason, genuine or fake.

And of course there was no plausible genuine reason. Trump’s “combating Ukraine corruption” doesn’t pass the laugh test. He was trying to extort a bribe (smearing a political opponent) in exchange for releasing the aid. Republicans point out the articles of impeachment don’t actually say “bribery” or “extortion.” Omission of those plain words doesn’t change the reality; they’re the substance of the case.

Exactly the sort of “high crime” the founders meant in the Constitution’s impeachment section. Abuse of the presidential office for personal gain. (Not “abuse of power” because Trump actually didn’t even have the power to do what he did.)

Is impeachment an attempt to “undo the last election,” or pre-empt the next? No, those cries are ridiculous. Elections and impeachments are separate in the Constitution. And that’s particularly pertinent in this case, where it’s the election itself Trump tried to corrupt. His attempt failed only because the whistle was blown.

Lawyers say if the facts support you, pound the facts. If the law supports you, pound the law. If neither, pound the table. That’s what Republicans are doing. Screaming, with intensifying hysteria, that Democrats are perverting the Constitution out of sheer partisanship. But let’s examine this seriously.

Are Democrats Trump’s political opponents? Yes, of course. Just as Republicans opposed Obama. We do have a two-party system. Have they forgotten the ferocity of their partisan opposition to Obama? Talk about trying to undo an election — they actually denied his right to office, Trump himself leading the “birther” crusade, challenging Obama’s citizenship. Vile nonsense, by the way. There was no record of his mother ever being in Kenya. And being a U.S. citizen, her son would have been born one too, even if overseas.

But this shows how deranged Republican hatred for Obama was. Now they talk as though Democrats’ opposition to Trump is somehow similarly deranged. As though it’s just blind partisan tribal hatred, unmoored from any rational reasons. But there are perfectly rational reasons. Democrats hate Trump because he is hateful. The worst human being, biggest liar, most corrupt selfish person ever to hold the office. But never mind his character. It’s his actions. Coddling dictators while shredding our alliances. Separating children from parents. Not summoning the better angels of our nature, but stirring a toxic brew of people’s worst impulses. The list goes on and on. Republicans blind themselves to it all; Democrats cannot.

Yet not for any of this is he being impeached. Nor even his clear attempts to obstruct justice as proven in the Mueller report. It’s for his incontrovertible, indefensible Ukraine crime.

Is that partisanship, perverting the Constitution? No, it’s upholding the law and the Constitution, Congress fulfilling its assigned duty, protecting our democracy. If Trump’s Ukraine extortion attempt didn’t incur impeachment, no presidential misconduct ever could, and the presidency would now be above the law.

“Sold on a Monday,” by Kristina McMorris

January 18, 2020

The wooden sign reads “2 Children for Sale,” in 1931 rural Pennsylvania. This propels the novel, Sold on a Monday.

Ellis Reed is a struggling junior Philadelphia newspaper reporter with a photography hobby, who snaps a photo of the sign accompanied by two small kids. This leads to a feature article getting wide attention, advancing Reed’s career. And to two children actually being sold.

Their cash-strapped mother thought she was dying. Turns out she was misdiagnosed. Reed goes on a labyrinthine mission to reunite the family, helped by press room secretary Lily — of course they fall in love.

The tale was inspired by an actual newspaper story, from 1948 Ohio, centered on a photo of a mother and four children with a sign offering their sale. Author McMorris’s afterword notes that that sign was suspiciously well lettered. Yet those kids did get sold. Moving the story to the Depression era enhances verisimilitude. However, the book doesn’t really convey a Depression ambience; doesn’t actually show us the deprivation. Go read instead Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, giving a much grittier picture.

In McMorris’s novel, Reed’s original photo had gotten accidentally spoiled, so he went back for a re-do. But the family was gone. He did manage to find the sign lying in the dirt — and a different pair of kids to photograph with it. But after his article goes “viral,” Reed is haunted by the photo’s journalistic dishonesty — as well as its upshot of those kids’ fate.

I would not have been much troubled by different children illustrating the article, if its substance was true. However, about that crucial text we’re actually told nothing. With Reed having interviewed no one, what exactly did he write? Generalized social commentary would have been fine. But if he made up particulars about a family, then we’re in Janet Cooke – Jayson Blair territory. Seriously unethical. This is left strangely unspecified.

As for the book’s writing, I had a hard time putting my finger on what irked me. It wasn’t bad writing. Even fitting, perhaps, for a ’30s flavor. Indeed, it felt like the text for a movie of the time, not a noirish one, but more like Miracle on 34th Street, exuding a kind of forthright innocence.

With characters not unreal, exactly, yet behaving in such a formulaic way that I couldn’t quite take the story seriously. The nastiness of some characters was almost made to feel endearing. Even the tense conflict between Reed and his father seemed formulaic.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve been spoiled by more searing modern literary realism. For all the iniquity it actually depicts, this novel seemed like a throwback to a more innocent time.

Numismatic fun: A Quietus Tetradrachm

January 15, 2020

I’ve written before about the fun of collecting Roman coins. The realm is really so rich, with so many fascinating byways.

One is that there are coins of guys who don’t appear on the regular list of Emperors. These were “pretenders” or “usurpers” or rebels, typically military commanders who’d make a brief grab at power — typically fatally unsuccessful. One way to cloak themselves with legitimacy was to issue coins with their portraits. Generally of course these are rare, but many are reasonably obtainable.

One such rebel was Macrianus. This was in the “East” (Asia Minor and the Levant); for about a year, 260-261 AD. He didn’t actually take the purple himself, but had his two young sons crowned instead — named Quietus and Macrianus Junior. With coins issued for them. Fairly rare, but not prohibitively so.

In the early ’70s, there were some interesting ads in a coin paper, with an address in Manhattan near where I was doing some regulatory hearings. So I went there, the guy had a loft, and it turned out he was Robert Bashlow — yes, the one responsible for the well-known 1961 “Bashlow restrikes” of the Confederate cent. He was quite a character and had tons of intriguing stuff, which I would sort through, during lunch breaks. In one batch of junk I found a rather low grade Roman coin on which I could read the name “Quietus.” This was before I was really much into ancient coins, but I did recognize this as rare, and bought it. (Bashlow tragically died not long after in a Spanish hotel fire.)

Some decades later, we visited Ephesus, and there were the usual guys hawking fake coins to tourists. I waved them away, but one got the idea I knew coins, and insisted he could show me good stuff. He led me into the recesses of his shop, and produced a little group carefully wrapped in tissue paper. Most of these were fake too, or else too poor to be worth anything. But one was a Macrianus! Genuine and in decent condition. He quoted 100 Euros. I said no and walked away, but he followed and continued to dicker. Finally, on the steps of the tourist bus about to depart, I bought it for 50. I’m not sure if he really knew it was rare. I made some money selling it.

Meantime, for my own collection I’m a real condition snob, and over time have managed to get several types each of Quietus and Macrianus in really excellent preservation. They go for some hundreds.

Those coins are antoniniani, which were the main “workhorse” coins of the Roman Empire in this period. The Romans also controlled Egypt, and the coinage system there was separate and very different. Its principal coin was the tetradrachm. It had started out, in Greek times, as a sizable silver coin, but by the Third Century had diminished to a smaller thick bronze coin (inscribed in Greek). It’s a very nice continuous series of coins that ran into the beginning of the 400s; my collection is fairly comprehensive on them.

Macrianus did have control of Egypt for a brief time, so tetradrachms were issued for his two sons. They are rather more rare than the Roman-style antoniniani. I have had a nice Macrianus tet for quite some time, but Quietus seems somewhat tougher, and had eluded me. A definite gap in my collection that begged to be filled.

Victor England

Classical Numismatic Group is a coin firm specializing in ancients, and the biggest such. It was founded by Victor England, a good guy I’ve known for over 30 years, always a pleasure to deal with. I visited their Pennsylvania offices, a great place, during our Gettysburg trip; bought from Victor a wonderful lot of 50 late Roman bronzes, in superb condition — after my careful cleaning. Anyhow, CNG runs frequent internet auctions. I always bid, though it seems pretty futile, as they’ve built a gigantic clientele, so coins get bid up high. Still, I persist, on the outside chance of getting something cool. Usually I do snag at least one lot — of no consequence.

Recently they had a special sale of a large collection focused on coins of the Valerian-Gallienus period — which included Macrianus and Quietus. One lot was a pair of their Egyptian tetradrachms; the Macrianus fairly nice except for some nasty looking green crust spots on the reverse that I thought I could ameliorate. The Quietus unfortunately was pretty rough. Well, I got the lot for what I felt was a very good price of $140 (plus 18% buyer fee). So I unleashed my restorative skills on the two coins, and was able to make the Quietus, if not superb, at least minimally passable for my snobby collection. It does have a good sharp obverse inscription and portrait detail.

I’ve reproduced here CNG’s original sale photo, above, with the Quietus being the lower coin; and the same (at left) after my cleaning. I enjoyed adding this to my collection.

 

 

 

“People of color” versus “colored people” — call in the language police

January 11, 2020

A recent local newspaper story* reports a Schenectady council meeting, where one member touted the election of a nonwhite council president, rejoicing in the body’s diversity, including two “colored — people of color.” He almost said “colored people” before catching himself.

The article reports “an audible gasp,” an “incredulous-looking councilwoman,” another saying she was “offended” (adding “at least try to be politically correct”), another observer saying she was “stunned,” an African-American man who “walked out of the room in apparent disgust,” and the local NAACP head saying he was caught off-guard and the issue will be taken up at the group’s next meeting.

The relevant linguistic background is fraught.** “Colored people” once was a term they themselves preferred, as the polite one. Eventually it acquired a demeaning odor and was supplanted by “Negro.” That word echoes a past paradigm classifying people into three races — “negroid,” “caucasoid,” and “mongoloid.” (It’s not really that simple, nor even is the concept of “race” scientifically coherent.)

And using “Negro” was not new, but repurposed an old word, which originated as the Spanish for “black,” and had actually referred to slaves. The N-word was a more degrading version. Some southerners would later snarkily pronounce “Negro” as “Nigra,” to be just this side of politeness while conveying what was really meant.

Then “Negro” was discarded and “black” became the chosen word. Even though it too had designated slaves. At least “black” is English, rather than Spanish. Though brown might be more apt — as well as unfreighted with historical baggage.

Next it was “African-American.” A bit of a mouthful, but possessing a certain verity, since most people so described do have African ancestry, albeit usually far in the past.

And so we come to “people of color.” I generally believe in calling people what they want to be called. But I’m frankly baffled by this latest rehabilitation of old words once considered derogatory. “People of color” does perhaps entail a nuance of putting “people” first; and whereas “colored people” typically implied just African ancestry, “people of color” today encompasses all non-caucasians. Yet still the words in the two phrases are actually identical in meaning, and both arise from the same linguistic roots, using the same word as a signifier of ethnic difference. If “people of color” is now acceptable, “colored people” should be too. Maintaining a sharp distinction seems absurdist hair-splitting.

True, the two terms can have different meanings depending on who uses them and why. But political correctness tends to put that cart before the horse, with inferences drawn from the bare words alone, regardless of context. What it’s really all about is people setting themselves up as paragons of right-thinking, while wrong-footing others, as offenders against purity, consigning them to outer darkness.

This syndrome was on full display in the Schenectady council episode. A few people quoted did acknowledge that the “offender” was guilty merely of a slip of the tongue, and nothing ought be made of it. That’s just common sense and reasonableness. After all, the fellow was applauding nonwhites. But common sense and reasonableness go out the window in such cases. There are now always people eager to mount high horses, getting out their pitchforks and torches.

The absurdity here rises to dizzying heights, when it’s not even about something the man said, but what he almost said. Nevertheless, that was sufficient pretext for those who relish the deliciousness of taking offense.

A final irony: the article, again, quoted the local NAACP head. Perhaps in that future meeting he talked of, they can also discuss their own organization’s name: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

 

https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Councilman-s-remarks-rankle-some-members-of-14960079.php

**Here’s a good article discussing it: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/11/07/362273449/why-we-have-so-many-terms-for-people-of-color

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part II — Is it OK to eat animals?

January 8, 2020

I eat meat; not a lot, but am troubled by the ethics. Michael Pollan too, discussing this in depth in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Like me, he’d like to be able to justify meat eating. While recognizing that bias.*

Descartes saw animals as just machines without feelings. We know better. Pollan quotes Jeremy Bentham in 1789, that the question isn’t animals’ mental abilities, but can they suffer? (Note, we’re really talking about higher animals; seafood creatures don’t have much inner life to fret over.) However, Pollan notes, pain and suffering are different things. Humans suffer from pain in great part due to the mental constructs we form around it, which animals generally cannot do. (Having no conception of death or really, even, the future.)

Eating them is defended on the basis of nature. We evolved to do so, part of the overall natural schema of predators and prey. Certainly the ubiquitous animal predators think nothing of eating other animals alive. Ethics is indeed a purely human thing, evolved to regulate relations among ourselves, and absent in the rest of nature.

So we don’t treat other humans like animals, don’t eat our weaker kin. Just because they’re “humans” and animals are not? Thusly privileging humans in a way denied to other animals is called “speciesism.”

Its basis is dubious. As Peter Singer (the leading animal rights thinker) argues, most of us subscribe to an ethic of human equality. But that’s a moral, not a factual, idea. We recognize humans vary greatly in, say, intelligence, yet hold everyone’s lives and interests nonetheless entitled to equal consideration. Hence you may not exploit another for your own ends. Why then are humans entitled to thusly exploit animals — those that are sentient, feeling, and certainly possessed of lives with interests?

While cynics and pessimists deny it, humanity has in fact made great moral progress over time. Yet again, read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. People used to accept practices — like slavery — now condemned morally. Will that one day be true of meat eating?

Pollan suggests, however, that Singer is looking at the matter from the standpoint of an individual animal, but he urges a wider species-oriented perspective, positing that species have interests too. The domesticated animals we eat actually represent a mutualism or symbiosis between their species and ours — rooted in an opportunistic aboriginal deal with us, enabling them to survive and prosper better than if on their own. And their populations are now vast, while those in the wild have shriveled. So the deal is advantageous even while individual animals do die. Which of course is true of all individuals in any case. “As a rule,” Pollan says, “animals in the wild don’t get good deaths surrounded by their loved ones.”

(One might counter that a species has no consciousness; only its individual members do. So a species cannot value enjoyment of life as an individual can, and its having larger numbers serves no moral value.)

But meantime, also looking at the big picture, Pollan deems it “doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production.” He doesn’t think it’s practicable for all of us to become vegetarians. A totally plant-based food chain would consume even more fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, and might actually kill even more animals as collateral damage. If our goal is the fewest animal deaths, we should all eat the largest possible ones grazing the least cultivated land.

But all this assumes animals, before and during slaughter, are at least treated humanely. Finally returning to Bentham’s suffering point. Whatever else can be said about our overall interspecies relationships, inflicting suffering on innocent sentient beings is indefensible. And while it can be avoided, as Pollan’s reportage about a model farm showed, our vast industrial American meat-producing machine tends to sacrifice such niceties to economic efficiency. Though it’s true that absent that industry, the animals would not even exist, their existence is no boon either to them as individuals or to their species when it’s an existence of misery.

Consistent with the book’s title, for Pollan this issue remains a dilemma. He does not advocate vegetarianism. He sees the problem as our simple obliviousness to the reality, modern consumers being thoroughly insulated from how food gets to us.** Transparency is his answer; if only we really knew, we wouldn’t tolerate the animal suffering. Producers would have to heed consumer qualms. Making meat costlier. We’d eat fewer animals, and “with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.”

When pigs fly.

And what about me? Giving up meat entirely is hard; making ethical distinctions among meats even harder. Being human, my morality is imperfect. I live with that, perhaps consoled by being at least above average. Of course, everyone thinks that.

However, right after I finished Pollan’s book came an article in The Economist (“Fake Moos”) about great strides in developing plant-based imitation meat. It doesn’t yet taste quite the same, and costs more, but both problems are on track for resolution. So maybe we can have our cows and eat them too.

* He quotes Franklin that the great advantage of being a reasoning creature is that you can always find a reason for whatever you want to do.

** Unwilling to eschew his inner carnivore, Pollan decides he’s honor-bound to, at least once, eat something he’s personally killed. His successful wild pig hunt is detailed at length, with much nuanced meditation on what it all means. Initial atavistic elation mixes with later disgust and shame. But here too Pollan arrives at no definitive conclusion.

Psycho-sociology, politics, and reality lenses

January 5, 2020

“Events, dear boy, events.” That was British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s famous reply, when asked what could shake up the status quo.

We’ve seen a lot of events in the last three years. Government shut-downs. Mueller investigation. Cruelties at the border. Charlottesville. Kavanaugh. Ukraine scandal. Impeachment. Yet nothing moves the political needle. Trump’s poll ratings have stayed stuck at around 40%.

This is actually very strange. If anything, historically, and throughout the world, voters have exhibited not steadfastness but fickleness. France’s President Macron was elected in 2017 with 66% of the vote (unimaginable in America), then his favorability polling plummeted to only 23%. Never mind whether that made sense — at least the French were attuned to events, and changing opinions in response thereto. In almost any country, a leader conducting himself as abominably as Trump, caught in so many lies, etc., would see his support plunge close to zero.

A recent David Brooks column tackles what’s going on. “Events,” he writes, “don’t seem to be driving politics. Increasingly, sociology is.” Who you are as a person tends to be determinative. This by itself is no revelation: a gay urban artist is likely to vote Democrat; a rural churchgoing construction worker Republican. But Brooks goes on to say an event itself is not what’s salient; “it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event.” Each seeing it through our own lens.

And, says Brooks, different segments of American society “now see reality through nonoverlapping lenses. They make meaning in radically different ways. Psychosocial categories have hardened.”

This cultural segmentation has very deep roots. Brooks writes that if a region was settled, in the 17th and 18th centuries, predominantly from East Anglia, it probably votes Democratic; if from the North of England, for Trump. He adds that the 1896 election is also a good predictor of today’s politics — 22 of 23 states voting for Democrat Bryan in 1896 are Republican now.

But if that kind of sorting is not new, it has greatly intensified in recent decades. For reasons Brooks says he doesn’t understand.

Nevertheless, in the rest of the column, Brooks contends that any political analysis must today concern itself not just with the ostensible ramifications of events themselves but with the different ways different groups see them. However, nothing he writes here suggests that those very different lenses are not equally valid. Yet therein lies much of the tale.

I wrote recently of a conversation with some Trumpers which included assertions that Adam Schiff had been outed as a pedophile; that Biden was not a candidate when Trump spoke with Zelensky; that child migrants were caged only during the Obama administration; they weren’t separated from parents, as proven by DNA tests! And so on and so forth. All right-wing fake news. Including saying mainstream media spouts fake news.

This isn’t just seeing reality through a different lens. It’s seeing reality on a different planet.

Can 40% of Americans have succumbed to mass psychosis? If Brooks is baffled by what’s happened, I’ll suggest a theory:

Our reality perception was honed by evolution to promote survival. That makes us very good at seeing reality insofar as that aids coping with all life’s hazards. You won’t mistake a red light for green. But that doesn’t apply to the realm of public affairs; that’s a freebie, where reality perception isn’t life-or-death, giving us the luxury of a different criterion: what makes us feel good.

That’s a perfectly valid human concern. One might even say it’s the very purpose of being alive. Hence feeling good, along with the survival instinct, is a powerful motivator.

Nevertheless, in normal circumstances, we don’t really see it as an option to believe something that’s false just to feel good. However — if it does somehow seem to be an option — if one can rationalize believing it — then heck, let’s go for it!

Trump and his enablers have hypercharged this. Helped by the explosion of garbage on the internet, much put there with cynical intent. They’ve made it seem a valid choice to believe things that actually are, well, lies. Indeed, they’re undermining the whole concept of truth versus lies. Truth is whatever you’d like it to be.

It helps if you’re not alone, if there’s a whole community of others with you. And a major TV network. Even  the President of the United States. 

In this environment, “events” actually don’t matter much at all. It’s not just that you see events through your own sociological lens. Social psychology dictates your politics regardless of events. 

All this plays to people wanting (naturally) to feel good about themselves. Eliminating the cognitive dissonance of trying to reconcile support for Trump with the rotten reality. Without having to give it up and admit to yourself you’ve been conned. Especially with everyone around you staying conned. Far preferable to live in an alternate universe where what you’re supporting is all good (and opponents are all bad). Where DNA tests prove no children were taken from parents.

 

What we eat: The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Part I)

January 2, 2020

Michael Pollan is a food thinker and writer. Not a restaurant reviewer; he looks at the big picture of what we eat in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants; omnivores eat both.)

The book is a smorgasbord of investigative reporting, memoir, analysis, and argument. Pollan does have a strong point of view; cynics, pessimists and misanthropes will find much fodder here. But Pollan is no fanatical purist ideologue. We saw him on a TV piece summing up with this core advice: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” Seems pretty reasonable.

He’s a lovely writer. Here’s a sample, concluding the first of the book’s three parts, talking (perhaps inevitably) about McDonald’s:

“The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. I said before that McDonald’s serves a kind of comfort food, but after a few bites I’m more inclined to think they’re selling something more schematic than that — something more like a signifier of comfort food. So you eat . . . hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger, or French fry, as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably full.”

I might disagree with his evaluation, but man, this guy can write.

That first third of the book is all corn. In fact, if “you are what you eat,” we are all corn (well, mostly). Don’t think you eat much corn? Think again. As Pollan explains, a high proportion of our food is derived from corn; even our meat, the animals being mostly corn-fed. Pollan argues that, rather than humans domesticating corn, corn domesticated us. Viewed biologically, that species exploits us to spread itself and increase its population.

Pollan sees food industry economic logic driving us toward a kind of craziness. When the government started intervening in farm produce markets, the aim was to support prices by preventing overproduction. Remember farmers paid not to grow stuff? But in the 1970s that reversed, with the system now incentivizing ever higher yields, aided by technological advances. The resulting glut, in a free market, should drive prices down, signaling producers to cut back. However, if farm prices fall below a certain floor, the feds give farmers checks to make up the difference. Thus their incentive now is to just grow as much as possible, no matter what.

But, even with that government guarantee, Pollan shows, most farmers can barely eke a living, after costs. The bulk of the profit from corn actually being swallowed by the big middleman corporations like ADM and Cargill.

Meantime it’s a challenge to market all that corn. That’s why so much goes to animal feed. The industry has also cajoled the government to require using some in gasoline (ethanol), which actually makes neither economic, operational, nor environmental sense. But it does eat up surplus corn.

Part of the marketing challenge is that while for most consumer goods you can always (theoretically at least) get people to buy more, there’s a limit to how much a person can eat. So with U.S. population growth only around 1%, it’s hard for the food industry to grow profits by more than that measly percentage. But, in Pollan’s telling, it’s been fairly successful in overcoming that obstacle. This contributes, of course, to an obesity epidemic.

The abundance and consequent (governmentally subsidized) cheapness of corn figures large here. It goes into a lot of foods like soft drinks (yes, full of corn too!) that also attract us by their sweetness. Unsurprisingly, lower income consumers in particular go for such tasty fare that’s also cheap — buying what provides the most calories per budgetary dollar.

But the main driver of obesity is simple biology. We evolved in a world of food scarcity, hence with a propensity to load up when we could, against lean times sure to come. Thus programmed to especially crave calorie-rich sweet stuff. But it being no longer scarce, indeed ubiquitous, no wonder many get fat.

Pollan extensively discusses “organic” food. Largely a victim of its own success. “Organic” is a brilliant marketing ploy, it sounds so good. And farming that conforms to the original purist vision of what “organic” should mean may be environmentally cuddlier than conventional farming (though there are tradeoffs, one being greater acreage required). However, in practice, stuff in stores labeled “organic” is not produced all that differently. A key reason is that once “organic” took off and became big business, producers had to use many of the same large-scale industrial practices of conventional farming. Small operators can’t compete. Another is that the USDA rules for “organic” labeling were lobbied hard by producers to give them more leeway. Pollan cites, for example, a rule saying cows must have “access to pasture.” Sounds nice, but if you think about it, what does it really mean? If anything? Here, and in much of the rulebook, there aren’t real rules.*

Pollan muses that salad might seem our most natural kind of eating. But it gives him cognitive dissonance when considering the complex industrial processes that actually put it on our plates. An organic salad mix takes 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. If grown conventionally, it would be just 4% more. Bottom line: by and large, “organic” is a pretty meaningless label. (Wifey take note.)

However, Pollan chronicles his stint at one actual farm that might be called beyond organic. This read to me like one of those old-time utopia novels. And that farm is actually extremely efficient. But its model doesn’t seem scalable to the industrial level needed to feed us all. Also, it’s extremely labor- and brain-intensive. Few farmers today are up for that.

The farmer profiled there opined that government regulation is the single biggest impediment to spreading his approach. It gives USDA inspectors conniptions. Pollan shows how the whole government regulatory recipe is geared to bigness. One example: a slaughtering facility must have a restroom reserved for the government inspector alone.

The book also delves deeply into the ethics of eating animals, a fraught issue. I will address that separately soon.

* Well, there are some, like no antibiotics. Today’s organic farming is a sort of kludge — Pollan likens it to trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind your back.

What do we mean by faith?

December 30, 2019

I was flabbergasted by one passage in Tyler Cowen’s 2018 book, Stubborn Attachments. A top economist, Cowen basically argues the moral case for economic growth, as key to improving quality of human existence. All good. Until this:

“There are, of course, many forms of bad faith in politics, and we should not encourage political (or other) beliefs in willful disregard of reason. But we cannot kick away faith itself as a motivational tool, as politics is of necessity built on some kind of faith. The lack — and, indeed, the sometimes conscious rejection — of the notion of faith, as is common in secular rationalism, is one of the most troubling features of the contemporary world.”  (My emphasis)

This is in the context of his arguing that our decision-making tends to give insufficient weight to future impacts. Cowen casts concern about the future as a kind of faith. But what does that word really mean?

Mark Twain said “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Actually, we use the word in two really different ways. One is a synonym for religious belief — with the connotation of Twain’s quip — belief without evidence or even in defiance of evidence. In this sense faith does contrast against reason.

But the word’s other sense, contrariwise, has a strong rational element. As in faith that the Sun will rise tomorrow. Or an airplane will (with a high probability) land safely. Such faith is predicated on factual reality and reason.

There’s much confusion between these two distinct meanings. As when religionists assert that secular humanism, or atheism, is just another “faith,” standing no differently from their own. This is Cowen’s mistake too.

I think what he really wants is to distinguish cynicism and pessimism — nihilism even — from optimism and a positive outlook. In my own book, The Case for Rational Optimism, I explained that the title meant not a “Pollyanna” hope that all will be well, but rather a belief that we have the capability to shape outcomes. Such belief being based on using our reason, supported by all the ways it’s been shown to actually work.

Labeling this a “faith in reason” is another similar confusion. Reason itself, too, is often called just another thing people believe in, again no different really from religious faith. We even hear the words “irrational faith in reason.” But (as Steven Pinker points out in Enlightenment Now) any such arguments actually validate the concept of reason, because all arguments are appeals to reason. That’s how reason differs from faith. Reason is subject to argument; faith is not. (I’ve also heard Pinker remark, “I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in.”)

People will say they have religious faith, because they just do, with reason being inapplicable. Yet actually there are always reasons for a person holding any belief. It may be simply that’s what they were taught. But there are always reasons, that came first, causing the faith. And the question must be whether those reasons are good or bad, rationally valid or specious.

Getting back to Cowen, he’s wrong to deem secular rationalism’s rejection of “faith” a bad thing. The faith it rejects is Twainian faith that sets itself apart from reason, if not in opposition to it. Whereas it’s our use of reason that has produced all the progress humanity has ever achieved. Indulgence in “faith” outside of reason has only ever held us back. Insofar as secular rationalism can defeat that kind of faith, it’s all to our good.

I have faith in our progressively achieving that. It’s a faith of the rational kind. And that, I think, is indeed exactly the kind of faith that Cowen really means to encourage.

Happy — the movie

December 27, 2019

My humanist group recently viewed the 2012 documentary film “Happy.” The pursuit of happiness is a basic American (or human) right. But what is “happiness?” If it’s a feeling, and your pursuit ends in getting it, what then?

This suggests that a sensation at a given moment, necessarily transitory, is not the true aim. The Greeks spoke of eudaimonia, a life well lived. Not the feelings of a moment, but of one’s life in its wholeness.

The film began with an Indian rickshaw driver. Tough way to make a living. But, surrounded by smiling faces, he was smiling too, as happy as the average (far more affluent) American.

Indeed, studies show such life circumstances account for only about 10% of happiness. Fifty percent is genetic, giving each of us a baseline “set point,” to which one’s mood reverts after the impact of some stimulus, good or bad, tails off. And the remaining 40% is a function of what we do.

Dopamine is a chemical, a “neurotransmitter,” produced in the brain, which induces sensations of pleasure and happiness. There’s a “use it or lose it” aspect to dopamine. Thus a key route to feeling happy is to seek out experiences that trigger dopamine release. Physical activity does this; especially when involving novelty.

Appearing in the film was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who gave us the concept of “flow.” This is when one is completely absorbed in an activity, subsuming all quotidian concerns. Good for dopamine.

Also appearing was Daniel Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness showed how poor we are at judging how any future thing will affect our mental state. In particular we overestimate how good an achievement or acquisition will make us feel, in the long term. A related concept is the “hedonic treadmill” or “adaptation effect” (explained in Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice). We adapt to a changed life situation, now taking it for granted as the “new normal,” so its psychological lift dissipates, leaving one no happier than before. And craving the next lift. This “chain wanting” is what Buddhism declares the root of suffering.

Similarly, we over-estimate the impact of bad turns. Illustrative here was Melissa Moody, disfigured in a horrible accident. She not only adapted to her “new normal,” it actually gave her an enhanced perspective on life, and ultimately greater happiness than before.

Schwartz’s book also distinguishes between two personality types: “maximizers” who aim for achieving the best in any situation, and “satisficers” for whom the watchword is “good enough.” It turns out the latter are actually happier with what they get. And another key aspect of happiness is feeling gratitude for what you do have.

The film portrayed Japan as the least happy industrialized nation. Flattened by WWII, Japan emphasized rebuilding, making for an economic miracle of affluence rising from ashes. However, that went to an unhealthy extreme, creating a culture of all work and no play. They even have a word, “karoshi,” for death by overwork — not a metaphor but an all too common reality. Yet the film contrasted one part of Japan, Okinawa, with a very different ethos emphasizing communitarianism: people enjoying each other. And more reach age 100 there than anywhere else.

Bhutan, meanwhile, has sought to de-emphasize Gross National Product in favor of “Gross National Happiness.” That might sound like gooey happy-talk; and while it does make sense to recognize that there’s more to life than wealth production, one film attendee was disturbed at the idea of Bhutan’s government not just pushing happiness but imposing its own prescription for it. Bringing to mind her one-time home — the USSR.

What actually seems to be the happiest country is Denmark (where religion has almost disappeared). But what Denmark does have is, like Okinawa, strong communal feeling. The film showed a “co-housing community,” where a bunch of families live in close proximity, sharing meals and other aspects of life. A big element of human happiness is, again, relationships with other people.

As I keep stressing, social cooperation was a powerful driver in human evolution; we lived in bands where that was essential for group survival. Studies repeatedly show that the healthiest and happiest people are those with the strongest ties to others. Many strive for popularity, attractiveness, and status in the eyes of others. But such superficialties don’t do it for them; they tend to be less happy, and more anxiety-ridden, than those who relate to others with compassion, caring, and love. This was exemplified by the film’s last profile, a man who gave up “normal” life to devote himself to caring for afflicted people in Mother Teresa’s Kolkata sanctuary.

To say one shouldn’t be selfish ultimately misses the mark; “no man is an island” is true but also untrue in the sense that we can only experience anything within the confines of our own skulls — literal islands of experiencing. But the paradox of happiness is that confining one’s concern within that space makes for an unsatisfying life. What happens on other islands is an indispensable source of meaning for us.

Teaching kindergarten in Somaliland

December 23, 2019

When we set out for a humanist event in Syracuse, I didn’t imagine the road would take us to Somaliland.

But at the dinner, sitting beside us was one Jonathan Starr, which led to our involvement in his Somaliland education project. I’ve written about it,* and about the country.** Broken free of Somalia, it’s not internationally recognized. My wife and I traveled there with Jonathan, joined by daughter Elizabeth (resident in Amman).

Took 36 hours to get there; 42 getting home.

The capital, Hargeisa, is a dusty desert town (and I do mean dusty). In 1988, in the civil war, Hargeisa was bombed and 90% destroyed by Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre. It’s risen from the ashes, but the words “ramshackle” and “hardscrabble” come to mind. Most structures are single-storey and wretched, though there are some incongruous first-world-like pockets.

Thomas Friedman writes about “the world of order” versus one of disorder. Somaliland is mostly in the latter category, epitomized by a great trash blight. There’s no public sanitation nor any ethic against littering. We sat in on a student brainstorming session about the issue.

Typical dwelling

But Somaliland is not the heart of darkness; it’s poor, but thriving. Its people have positive attitudes. Women in particular are almost all well dressed (fully covered in this Muslim country). And there are lots of cars. Steering wheels on the right, yet they challengingly drive on the right. Many roads are paved, though often it’s hard to tell. No street signs; indeed, no street names. Terrible traffic. So, unsurprisingly, wrecked cars abound. No way to remove them. Another traffic hazard is zillions of goats wandering everywhere. I asked Jonathan how owners keep tabs on them. “Good question,” he replied.

Restaurant, with goats, we visited

There are myriads of tiny businesses, especially hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and — no surprise — numerous car parts sellers. Hargeisa is one giant bazaar. It was great to see so much enterprise. Government regulation being largely nonexistent, Somaliland might be a model of that bugaboo, “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” Except that government’s absence also means scant rule-of-law protections, so any ambitious business is vulnerable to predation, greatly inhibiting economic development. An important point often lost in arguments over “unfettered capitalism.” Nevertheless, Somaliland’s enterprise culture begs comparison against countries like Cuba or Venezuela whose socialist fetish suppresses businesses. Result: impoverishment.

Me with our team

Was it safe? It’s actually a very peaceable place, with little crime or violence. Nevertheless, as apparently required by law, all our excursions were accompanied by two soldiers carrying AK-47s.

In one respect at least, Somaliland is actually more advanced than America. Most payments are made through a user-friendly system of instant smartphone transfers.

There is no tourism and white faces are novelties. I enjoyed waving to people, especially kids, out of our vehicle window, and getting waves and smiles back. Though once, walking in the street, a passing man said, “Fuck your mother.”

Yes, English is widely spoken. Education is highly valued here, and many little enterprises are schools. Though quality may be doubtful. I saw one sign for a “secendary” school offering English language instruction!

Partial view of Kaabe construction

Which brings me to Jonathan’s schools, with contrastingly high standards. Our first stop was the Kaabe School, which we helped finance, nearing completion as the prototype for an eventual national chain of primary schools. It’s an expansive complex, far better built than Somaliland’s norm, ultimately to educate around 700 students. Project leader Harry Lee does a fantastic job.

Next day we proceeded to the original flagship Abaarso School of Science and Technology, a high school, nearly an hour’s drive outside Hargeisa. (Why that location? Jonathan explained that when he’d started in Somaliland, naive, he’d been tricked.) Abaarso too is quite an extensive campus. Its new head is Trudy Hall, formerly leading Troy’s elite Emma Willard School. I was extremely impressed by what she’s doing here. We stayed in a little guest house; a plaque said it was funded by the generosity of the American people through USAID.

Saturday was “project day.” Wife Therese led an intensive poetry workshop. I delivered a powerpoint lecture on the Enlightenment (view it at www.fsrcoin.com/3.html). Trudy was great in stimulating discussion in the Q&A. A topic arose that’s central to daughter Elizabeth’s current work — using communication to change mindsets.

Elizabeth leading discussion

She had a relevant powerpoint on her laptop, so later gave an impromptu presentation and led a discussion. It was wonderful seeing her masterful performance.

Sunday we visited a sanctuary for cheetahs, rescued from poachers; then Hargeisa’s art and cultural center, modest but quite nice.

Photo by Harry Lee

On Monday we could now see Kaabe’s first classes, of kindergartners, in session. I didn’t really teach, but did help out, assisting one boy making English words with plastic letters, and some girls with block puzzles. The children seemed to have progressed amazingly in just a few months. This school is clearly a great thing, and to have helped bring it about was extremely gratifying.

On Tuesday I set out alone — well, with a driver and the obligatory soldiers — back to Hargeisa to get a microwave for the Abaarso teacher’s mess. I wasn’t sure this could be accomplished, but after a tortuous peregrination, including a change of car and escorts, I finally managed it, returning just in time for an important event:

Trudy. Jonathan, & DPW honcho

A visit to Abaarso by a top level delegation from Dubai Ports World, preparatory to announcing a swathe of scholarships and funding another school on the Kaabe model in Berbera.

On Wednesday, Jonathan, Therese and I had a 45-minute private meeting in the Presidential Palace with Somaliland’s President Musa Bihi Abdi. Democratically elected in 2017, Bihi, 71, was a Somali air force pilot who became a top commander in the civil war against Siad Barre. A soft-spoken man, dignified without pomposity, a wise and decent human being (unlike certain presidents I could name).

With President Bihi (photo by J. Starr)

He spoke of the desirability of cooperation among different religious groups — a real issue for Jonathan’s project, still facing attacks on this score. And he was very strong about educating girls, understanding its importance for a country like his. During the meeting we were served delicious lemonades.

I’ve done a lot of foreign travel, but this was — like much else on this trip — a unique and thrilling experience.

Then we travelled an hour north on a “road” (hardly deserving the name) through a fairly desolate scrubland typical of the country. Passing many goats, camels, and giant termite mounds. With passengers squeezed in tight on this very bumpy ride, one of the soldiers volunteered to travel on the vehicle’s roof.

Barwaaqo

The destination was the other anchor in the schema, Barwaaqo University, a teachers college for girls, to eventually staff the Kaabe schools. Another impressive large campus; looked like a military base. A highlight was the debate club where Therese and I joined one of the teams. The question, chosen by the girls, was whether snacks in the school store should be free. Those girls were feisty debaters.

Somaliland certainly — like every society — has challenges. But its people have what it takes to overcome them. My lecture there ended by expressing the belief that Somaliland can rise to become a “developed” country, and that my student hearers can make it happen in their lifetimes.

Finally: how many wives would (while suffering from an illness no less) enthusiastically join in an intrepid expedition like this? (Jonathan’s soon-to-be-ex-wife never did.) Therese and I have a true marriage in that word’s deepest sense. A blessing for which I’m boundlessly grateful.

* Here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2018/09/30/a-non-ugly-american-in-somaliland-jonathan-starrs-abaarso-school/

**Here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2019/06/11/somaliland-the-country-that-was-left-for-dead-a-country-doing-everything-right/