“Educated” by Tara Westover — Wow!

November 15, 2018

There’s a huge genre of “Parents from Hell” memoirs. Tara Westover’s is intensely gripping.

She was born in 1986 into an extremist Mormon family, standing in opposition to mainstream Mormons (whom they called “gentiles”) and everything in the outside world, including doctors, hospitals, medicine, the government, and of course the schools, all seen as a socialist/Satanic/Illuminati (yes) conspiracy. Tara was home-schooled — notionally. In fact she learned almost nothing apart from Mormon dogma.

Her mom practiced midwifery and was much into herbalism, “essential oils,” and homeopathy as their alternative to conventional medicine. “Homeopathic” remedies are a fraud, they’re plain water. Several times Tara noted that when treated with these “tinctures” they had no effect (not even a placebo effect, which requires some belief). But she never fully acknowledges it was all hokum.

Father “Gene” ran a junkyard and construction business, into which all his kids were dragooned. In lieu of ordinary safety precautions, Gene relied upon the Lord. But the Lord was not reliable, and OSHA’s writ did not run here. The book is a litany of nasty accidents, including two car crashes, one probably leaving Tara’s mother brain damaged. At ten, working in the junkyard, Tara barely escaped from inside a forklift loader dumping tons of scrap iron, her father oblivious to the danger. A brother was severely burned using a torch after having been doused in gasoline.

Finally, Gene himself used a torch on a wrecked car without bothering to drain its gas tank. It literally blew up in his face. All these accidents were handled using only mom’s concoctions. Gene’s injuries were horrific, but he did survive, albeit badly disfigured and partly crippled. Nevertheless, word spread about this “miracle healing” — causing mom’s herbal business to go viral. And the Westovers became rich.

Before that, Tara decided to go to college, to Brigham Young University. One older brother had similarly escaped the Westover la-la land. Tara crammed alone for the college entrance exam and scored well. Lying to BYU that her home schooling had entailed a rigorous curriculum, she was accepted. Only at college did Tara begin to grasp the depth of her ignorance and outsiderhood.

Long story short, she winds up with scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard, and a PhD in history.

But the real story is Tara’s wrestling with her relationship with her family — and with her own identity which, throughout, remained shaped by that relationship.

Her dad was not okay with her educational pilgrimage. He invoked God’s wrath against her. Tara was considered treasonous, dangerous, possessed by Satan. And a big part of her problem was the degree to which she herself bought into all this: “It was not that I had done something wrong so much as that I existed in the wrong way. There was something impure in the fact of my being.” Indoctrinated to loathe herself, she did so.

Tara was particularly hung up on the word “whore,” flung by a brother who repeatedly violently abused her (though not, overtly, sexually). Mormons in general are obsessed with antediluvian ideas about female chastity. This American Life recently profiled how Mormon “bishops” (volunteers, really) get their jollies formally interrogating young girls about matters sexual — deeply disturbing. But the Westovers were extreme even for Mormons, so terrorizing Tara that when, at about 17, she had a longtime dating relationship with a lad, she couldn’t even bear his touching her hand. And yet, accused of being pregnant, she imagined it could somehow be true.

Tara eventually figured out that her dad was, well, nuts. Bipolar, to be specific. I attended a talk she gave; asked whether the religious extremism made him crazy, she said it was really the other way around. But the nuttiness and religion obviously fed each other. Yet even while recognizing the pathology, Tara remained infused with a powerful tropism to belong to this tribe, hardly able to conceive of a personal identity exiled from it. (This power of tribal belongingness is seen in our politics.)

Her education entailed a series of epiphanies. I was gratified that one came from reading John Stuart Mill (who tops my own hit parade of thinkers), on how social conventions repress women, which “moved the world” for her.

Berlin

She also learned of Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of freedom: external versus internal coercion, the latter a function of irrational beliefs and fears. Tara knew that applied to her, yet extrication was an almighty struggle. She suffered a paralyzing mental breakdown.

Toward the end I was like, “enough already,” impatient with Tara’s inability to break the hold of her toxic family and its absurd religion. It’s so revealing about the human mind. Tara surely had an extraordinary level of cognitive intelligence to overcome her educational deficits and achieve what she did. Yet she struggled to free herself from ideas she knew were irrational and messing up her life.

But the book has a happy ending — it is really a “triumph of the human spirit” book. Though nothing suggests Tara ever relinquished Mormonism, she finally did kiss off most of her immediate family, saying she hasn’t seen her parents in years.

When I went up to her, to have my book signed — she was extremely gracious at this, by the way — I asked her, “Do you love your parents?” I expected a nuanced, if not agonized, response. But Tara said, “Oh yes, absolutely!”

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Bitcoin: a solution in search of a problem

November 12, 2018

Since coins are my business, perhaps I should discuss Bitcoin.

It’s a “cryptocurrency” or digital currency. Or supposed to be. Existing only in cyberspace but worth money of the more conventional sort. It has a whiff of underground rebellion, breaking free from the system of government-run money supply — and all its associated regulation. The idea is to make transactions untraceable by snooping government. Thus, Bitcoin payment has featured in some shady doings, notably the “Silk Road” venue for, mainly, illegal drug trades, and in ransomware attacks (where bad guys hack into your computer and lock you out unless you pay them).

This Satoshi Nakamoto denies it

How does Bitcoin actually work? Such a system’s main challenge is to prevent the equivalent of counterfeiting. People spending Bitcoins they don’t own, spending the same coin twice, etc. Bitcoin’s solution is what’s called a “blockchain,” invented by a mysterious, probably pseudonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto,” who has since vanished. A blockchain, or “distributed ledger” is a kind of database which isn’t centrally controlled, but accessible to everyone, such that when a new transaction is recorded, it cannot thereafter be altered. Thus every Bitcoin transaction ever occurring is indelibly encoded into the blockchain.

Bitcoins are created by “mining.” This entails beating other punters to the solution of a complex mathematical puzzle requiring vast computer power, the winner garnering a reward in fresh Bitcoins. That serves to limit expansion of the “money supply.” In fact, it’s ultimately capped at 21 million coins. Mining Bitcoins consumes so much electricity that this has become a real problem for power supply in areas where miners locate (usually places with low electric rates).

Bitcoin’s value started at nine cents on July 18, 2010. With much fluctuation, it topped $19,000 in December, 2017, then fell by about two-thirds.

That huge run-up in value prompted numerous copycats to jump in with their own “cryptocurrencies,” introduced via “initial coin offerings” (ICOs), mimicking “initial public offerings” for securities. But they aren’t shares in a business or promises to pay (like bonds). They are only worth . . . well, what the market decides they are worth. Not much, it often turns out.

But what makes a Dollar worth a Dollar? A tautological question. Writer Yuval Noah Harari likes to call this a fiction kept aloft because a lot of people believe it. You accept a Dollar as payment because you expect you’ll be able to similarly spend it. But that web of expectation is its only value; you actually can’t take it to the government and exchange it for some commodity of tangible value, like gold. (And what makes gold so valuable, except our mutual understanding to so treat it?)

Anyhow, that ready universal acceptance is what makes a currency a currency; and cyptocurrencies singularly fail that test. A currency must also be a store of value, and the wild fluctuations in cryptocurrency prices fail that too. Nobody wants to accept a currency that could lose half its value in a short time. (Of course, this does happen occasionally with national currencies, like Venezuela’s right now — a huge economic disaster.)

Add to that the lack of what might be called consumer protections. The cryptocurrency world is rife with fraud and sharp practice. Most ICOs are really nothing more than scams.

A lot of people made a lot of money on Bitcoin; a lot of people lost their shirts. The reality is that Bitcoin has become not a currency but, mainly, an object of speculation, which is not at all what “Satoshi Nakamoto” had in mind. And the fact is that Bitcoin, after all, has no objective value that can be ascertained. The mining process is costly, but that expenditure does not somehow confer intrinsic value on the results. Nobody will value a Bitcoin based on its creation having entailed solving an abstruse mathematical puzzle.

Indeed, why it should have any value at all remains a salient question.

Impeach or not impeach: that is the question

November 10, 2018

No president — probably no public official — has ever merited impeachment more than Trump. That’s even before Mueller’s report.

If our civic system were working properly, he would be impeached and removed, almost unanimously. If it were working properly, no such monster of depravity would have been elected. There’s the problem.

Removing a president takes 67 Senate votes. Nixon was forced to resign when told responsible Republican senators would vote with Democrats to remove him. Today there are almost no such responsible Republican senators. They are hostages to their voting base of implacable Trump tribalists. Not just in primaries; on Tuesday they didn’t come out for Republicans of insufficient Trumpist faith, many of whom lost (as Trump himself so nastily crowed).

We keep hearing the words “Constitutional crisis.” Trump’s actions vis-a-vis the Justice Department and Mueller investigation may indeed become so egregious as to make impeachment almost inescapable. But without Republican support it would backfire. Just intensifying the scorched-earth political climate, while in the end actually handing Trump a win, with Republican senators cravenly voting against his removal. Even making it seem as though he’s finally been acquitted, exonerated, the slate of all his misdeeds wiped clean.

The verdict should come not from compromised senators, but from citizens. Democrats should forswear impeachment, instead relying on voters in 2020, summoning the better angels of our nature. And if it’s our worst demons that prevail, then we will know America is lost.

What the election means

November 7, 2018

Jones

CNN commentator Van Jones said you’d think America’s “antibodies would kick in,” against the disgusting onslaught of lies, hate, bigotry, divisiveness and fear that was Trump’s campaign. But it worked, at least to a sad degree. This vile virus incurably infects a big chunk of America’s electorate. At best we can hope to quarantine them.

So Trump is undaunted; he’s even claiming victory. And there were a lot of disappointments. But at least there is some limit to the creepiness even Republicans can stomach; as in the case of Roy Moore; this time it was Kris Kobach losing the governorship in deep-red Kansas. (Kobach was the epicenter of the Republican “vote fraud” fraud.) Yet, another major creep, Brian Kemp, probably succeeded in stealing Georgia’s governorship.

Republicans did gain in the Senate. But that was largely thanks to the happenstance that the great majority of seats coming up this year were defended by Democrats. And the Senate battle took place largely in Trump country. Whereas the battle for the House of Representatives was nationwide.

And there Democrats did do thumpingly well, overcoming the stacked deck of Republican gerrymandering, to gain a substantial majority. That was the one superveningly important thing at stake, to break total Republican control and subject the Trump administration to some accountability. To literally save the country from it. And it shows this is, overall, a Democratic country. They were more than nine percentage points ahead of Republicans nationally. That’s a blue “wave.”

Antonio Delgado, victor over Faso

I pumped my fist last night when hearing of Congressman Faso’s defeat. I used to think so highly of him. But his campaign was a racist disgrace. And Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Russia) lost too.

** MAJOR PROJECTION: Republicans will never again control the House.

Even if Trump wins in 2020, it won’t be by much, and won’t flip the House back. After that, a lot of Republican gerrymandering will be undone. Several states passed referenda doing so, while Democrats gained at least seven governorships, and hundreds of state legislative seats. They will also roll back some Republican vote suppression. Furthermore, demographic trends will inexorably erode white nationalism.

And the Republican party is now basically, totally, just a white nationalist party. It was the least Trumpy Republicans who left the House or were beaten*; while in the Senate, the increased Republican majority renders irrelevant so-called moderates like Susan Collins, their votes no longer needed.

Republicans will also never again control any legislative house in New York. They lost the Senate and will be gerrymandered out of existence. New York is now a one-party state. That’s bad, but Republicans had ceased to be a legitimate opposition.

The Democratic House majority will be heavily flavored by female military vets. Kind of ironic when Trump (who never served) and the Republicans (mostly ditto) are the ones who drool over the military.

Can the House Democrats now, finally, get hold of Trump’s tax returns? Really amazing he’s managed to keep them from scrutiny this long. Not that anything in them, no matter how slimy, will shake the faith of Republicans. The NY Times recently ran a huge in-depth factual report on how Trump totally lied about how he built his business empire, it was really through massive cheating and tax fraud. Did that move any Republicans? Nope. You can’t fight tribal religion with facts.

Trump will spend the next 18 months demonizing Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats. If they were smart they’d ditch her. She’s a great insider operator, but useless at countering Trump’s shitstorm.

A big lesson from the election is that the idea of Democrats going whole-hog “progressive” was a failure. Never mind Ocasio-Cortez in her ethnic New York City enclave. Look at Florida, where the ideological Andrew Gillum unexpectedly won the gubernatorial primary, and then proceeded to lose an election Democrats really ought to have won. It was a similar story elsewhere. There simply is not a majority in this country for hard left ideology. Democrats who won did so by appealing to the mushy middle, where elections are usually decided.

Landrieu

In 2020 the presidency will be decided by whether Democrats take back Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And they can: all three elected Democratic governors. A candidate like Mitch Landrieu, Joe Biden, or Chris Murphy will win. One like Elizabeth Warren will not. Democrats must rein in their leftwing romanticism and pick a nominee pragmatically, to end the Trumpist nightmare before it totally ruins the country.

But there’s a difference between being hard left and hard anti-Trump. Democrats must stand clearly and forthrightly for a return to the fundamental American values Trump trashes. That must be the issue of 2020.

A frequent commenter on the Times-Union version of my blog constantly belabors that my words are just MY opinion, as if I’m smarter than everyone else and even seek to impose my views on them. Well, Albert, I am smarter than you. I can see reality; the difference between truth and lies; and know right from wrong. Unlike Republican Christians.

*UPDATE 12:12 PM — Trump in his “victory” speech named and sneered nastily at Republicans who didn’t “embrace” him and lost. How gracious.

What American nationalism should be

November 5, 2018

Trump now, defiantly, calls himself a “nationalist.” For lefties it’s a dirty word. Some dream of “one world” uniting all humanity. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for.” (But imagine what a united world’s politics and governance would be like, dominated by backward ideas of Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Turks.)

Disagreement about nationalism is part of our own cultural divide. Some say Americans have nothing to be proud of; our history a litany of crimes, our present a cesspool of racism, inequality, exploitation, oppression, and corruption. That’s epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. Should have been titled A Cynic’s History. Zinn condemned America because it was not a perfect egalitarian utopia from Day One, flaying every social ill that ever existed here. With nary a word of recognition that any progress was ever achieved on any of it.

Thus some friends questioned why my house flew the flag. But I was indeed proud to be an American — a supportive member of what, despite its flaws, is as good a society as human beings had yet succeeded in creating. I flew the flag to honor the principles, values, and ideals America at its best stood for.

The progress Zinn refused to acknowledge is this nation’s central story. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, but strove “to form a more perfect union.” A society that could and did rise toward its highest ideals.

That is what our nationalism should embody. Not blood-and-soil but goodwill, civility, generosity, courage. Not truculence toward others but truth, reason, progress, and justice under rule of law. All people created equal, endowed with inalienable rights: to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. E pluribus unum — out of many, one.

I once stood on a corner, passed by a Muslim woman in a headscarf, then a black man, a turbaned Sikh, an Hispanic, an Indian lady in a sari, a Chinese girl, and, yes, a Caucasian too. This was in Westchester. Nobody batted an eye. This is America’s greatness. E pluribus unum. A place where all kinds of people can make homes, be welcomed, and thrive. This is humanity transcending its boundaries and limits.

Our Declaration of Independence was truly revolutionary when, as Rousseau put it, mankind was “everywhere in chains.” We lit a beacon light in the darkness, guiding countless millions of others to liberation. And as America grew more prosperous and powerful (thanks to its ideals), we took on an ever greater role as the vanguard of global efforts to expand freedom and prosperity and combat the forces that would hold people down. That U.S. world leadership has been noble. But also, it recognized that other countries becoming more democratic, and richer — and the resulting peace — are good for America itself.

These then are the values and ideals that made America great, and make for an American nationalism worth holding to. A nationalism not of ethnicity but of principles. Alas, Trump’s us-against-them “America First” nationalism is the antithesis of those values and ideals. Their evil twin, throwing them under the bus.

That is why, on November 9, 2016, I furled my flag. I look forward to — I burn for — the day when I can fly it once more.

The caravan and the craven

November 1, 2018

Democrats make health care the main issue of this election. For Trump it’s the “caravan.” Labeling it an “invasion” of criminals, “bad people,” Islamic terrorists; they’ve been literally called lepers.

These are lies. Trump has even lied that Democrats, or George Soros, are funding the caravan. Does anyone actually swallow such crap? Apparently Republicans. Blind to how cynically they’re being manipulated. It’s all to rev up fear, playing like a violin voters so insecure they see refugees as threats. It’s been Trump’s shtick from Day One when he called Mexicans rapists.

The “caravan” consists of fellow human beings. Victims of such hardships and horrors they’re on a desperately risky, pain-filled journey trying to escape them. People who have nothing, weary and hungry, sleeping on the ground, mothers and children, preyed upon at every step; that’s why they band together.

And what will America greet them with? Guns and bayonets. More soldiers than we’ve got fighting ISIS.

This is how we make America great again? Great like in 1939 when it turned away the St. Louis, a ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees, forcing them back to the Nazis who murdered them?

Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Another Trump applause line is “law and order.” Yet he now proposes to shred the Constitution with an illegal executive order revoking its birthright citizenship clause. He claims legal scholars endorse this.* Another lie. He said no other country has birthright citizenship. Another lie; at least thirty do.

More cynical pandering to hatred for immigrants. But if being born here doesn’t confer automatic citizenship, what makes your citizenship secure?

The Fourteenth Amendment unequivocally says anyone born here is a citizen. Only a constitutional amendment can change that. It was enacted to make clear that the ex-slaves (freed by the Thirteenth) would now be citizens, with equal protection of the law. The Fifteenth Amendment gave them the vote. The noble generosity of spirit in these amendments is breathtaking. Slaves had been the most despised of people, forced to suffer the utmost degradation. Lifting them up, and embracing them as equal fellow citizens, America showed its supreme humanity.

Trump and Republicans show supreme inhumanity. They call themselves Christians. Where did Christ say poor suffering refugees are to be repulsed with guns? These Republicans, professing to love the Ten Commandments, violate the first of them by worshipping a false god, immolating on his altar every Christian principle. For their great sin they deserve the fires of Hell.

I lift my bayonet beside the golden door.

* When Paul Ryan disagreed, Trump slammed him, saying he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Ryan deserves whatever he gets from Trump.

Make America America Again

October 29, 2018

When I wrote recently about the coming elections, I didn’t mention “health care.” Which Democrats pitch as their main issue. (Republicans respond by lying about their record.)

Columnist David Brooks thinks Democrats are missing the boat. In the remote past (pre-2016), health care might have been a great issue for them. They continue to think in materialist, transactional terms, trying to offer voters good policy. But Democrats could never fathom why many people voted against (what Dems saw as) their economic interests. And today, more than ever, many are voting not their wallets but their values, their souls.

This election is indeed not about material issues like health care. It’s about America’s soul.

In two ways. First, Trump offers a story: that America has been screwed by foreigners, both immigrants and other nations, and by corrupt elites. He offers an appeal to cultural identity; a raw nationalism, both economic (however misguided) and ethnic. Not all Trump supporters are racists; but all racists are Trump supporters. And now, gender chauvinism is added to the stew, as Trump bangs the Kavanaugh drum.

All this, as Brooks notes, reflects how today’s core ideological divide is no longer between traditional left and right, but between open and closed societal visions. Thus, on the international stage, Trump says he rejects “the ideology of globalism.” This has profound implications; a go-it-alone policy will produce a world America will find much less comfortable to live in. China’s outlook, notably, is the opposite, in terms of global engagement.

Secondly, as Brooks puts it, Trump has “overturned the traditional moral standards for how leaders are supposed to behave. He’s challenged basic norms of honesty, decency, compassion and moral conduct. He unabashedly exploits rifts in American society.”

Many Republicans say they don’t like Trump’s behavior but like his policies. Never mind how wrong they are about much of the policy picture. What they fail to grasp is how Trump’s conduct is of the essence. Especially the war on truth. He is methodically degrading our civic society, not just morally, but really destroying its whole underpinnings. We can’t have a democracy with debate unmoored from factual reality, and refusal to accept each other’s political legitimacy. This matters more than any particular policies.

All of this is why America’s soul really is on the line. As Brooks says, Trump and the Republicans have “thrown down a cultural, moral and ideological gauntlet.”

And Democrats respond with: better health insurance?

That’s not entirely fair. Many Democrats do push back against everything Trumpism represents. But not in a coherent, focused way, that really meets and answers the Trumpist threat with an alternative big-picture story. Part of the problem, according to Brooks, is that Democrats’ moral vision is of the “social justice warrior” sort, targeting how societal structures marginalize certain segments (the poor, women, blacks, gays). But “if your basic logic is that distinct identity groups are under threat from an oppressive society, it’s very hard to then turn around and defend that society from an authoritarian attack, or to articulate any notion of what even unites that society.”

It doesn’t help that Democrats don’t speak with a single voice, but a gaggle of them, that cannot really get heard in answering the huge Trump shout-a-thon. In 2016, the news media (far from working against him as Trump claims) gave him billions in free air time to blast his message. And they’re still doing it, having failed to learn their lesson, continuing to broadcast his every rally and tweet, becoming his enabler in spreading his poison. Indeed, by presenting it as news, they even give it a patina of legitimacy.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate must focus on articulating an American cultural identity different and better than what Trump appeals to. One that re-embraces the principles, ideals, and values that made America great. A vision of this nation as an open, confident and optimistic society, where all people are accorded equal dignity. A nation strengthened by its diversity. A nation that engages in the world to make it a better place, for our own benefit as well as others. In sum, an appeal (like Abraham Lincoln’s) to the better angels of our nature.

And at their convention let them reprise proudly the song they played in 1988 — what a different country it seems! — Neil Diamond’s They’re Coming to America.

Love, sex, and the internet

October 27, 2018

The Economist recently ran a great report on how the internet has changed dating and mating. Mostly for the better.

It has brought much efficiency and rationality to what was a haphazard process of seeking a partner. I know. First single in the early ’70s, I had to get out and beat the bushes. It was hard work. Joining every poetry group in sight. Even spelunking — one of the worst experiences of my life (and no girls showed up).

The internet vastly expands the pool of potential mates, making it easier to find someone. And not just anyone. As The Economist points out, we all have our criteria. Religious compatibility is a big one. People do hook up in church, but online it’s actually easier to zero in on good targets. This is especially true for gays, for whom only a small percentage of the overall population are possible prospects. Now 70% of gays find their partners online. Even for straights, it’s fast becoming the commonest way couples meet.

Some might consider the idea of getting dates online icky. Surely no more so than in bars. (A nondrinker, girl-hunting in bars was not for me. I couldn’t imagine being interested in a girl who’d hang out in bars.) In fact, the internet gives one a better opportunity to vet prospects before meeting in person.

The bottom line is that because this does enable people to hone in on potential partners based on compatibility factors, those who pair up that way have longer and happier marriages, studies have shown.

The article reports some fascinating data about how people rate potential dates. Female desirability starts high at age 18, then descends sharply in an almost straight line. Men, in contrast, start off lower (no sensible gal wants a guy under thirty, my wife remarked), with desirability ratings rising gradually, peaking at 45-50, and falling only gently thereafter.

Ethnically, the highest desirability ratings are garnered by white men and Asian women, whereas Asian men rank in the basement, above only black women, and markedly lower than black men. Why rate Asian females so highly? Methinks a whole lot of stereotyping going on. (Men who imagine Asian women as docile haven’t read the Tiger Mother book.)

On average, both men and women concentrate on prospects who are rated (by others) 25% more attractive than themselves.

On China’s leading dating app, Tantan, men tend to like 60% of all female profiles they see, whereas women like just 6% of the male ones. Thus the least attractive women do as well as the most desirable men; while the men rated least attractive are lost causes. (Realize that Chinese gals are in a seller’s market, due to the past one-child policy, and sex-selective abortion, resulting in an excess of men.)

*   *   *

There’s one big facet of the internet The Economist didn’t mention, with huge implications for male-female relations, that are not good: pornography. I am no censorious prude; my libertarianism is okay with folks getting jollies from porn if they like. And it’s not the case that people are growing raunchier — rather, it’s that we have far wider opportunities now to gratify our proclivities, which by itself is a positive for human happiness.

But pornography has to skew how men see and relate to women. In past times social constraints made women terra incognita to men; closed books they had no way to read. Most marriage partners being thusly aliens to each other didn’t serve connubial bliss. Opening the book is a good thing, but there can be too much of a good thing. Putting it differently: women (and their bodies) used to be mysterious to men; but no longer. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was something shocking” — now naked women are everywhere.

Often more attractive than the one in your bedroom. And they don’t talk back or nag, too. Some men today find they’d rather relate to available fantasy women than real ones. (Especially in Japan, where many men shy away from flesh-and-blood women, while women don’t see this as much of a loss.)*

The lure of screens draws men away not only from wives and lovers, but also from work. The phenomenon of young males dropping out of the workforce to hole up in their parents’ basements playing video games has become a real thing. I haven’t seen any actual studies, but suspect gaming isn’t the sole attraction. This cannot be good for economic productivity.

Heaven help us when online porn gets to the next level, jazzed up with virtual reality and beyond. Who’s going to be doing any work? Well, actually, women, who tend to be much less susceptible to such stuff than men. Here’s a nice sci-fi concept: our future society with all the men whacked out with porn, leaving women to run everything.

A program on The New Yorker Radio Hour cued me to another point I hadn’t considered. As a longtime political observer, I’d felt sure “grab them by the pussy” would kill Trump’s candidacy. That it didn’t shocked me, and I’ve struggled to understand the societal change this signals. New Yorker suggested porn as an explanatory factor. Porn has a long history of course but until lately it lurked in the shadows, not visible in our everyday cultural landscape. That has changed. It’s not the whole explanation, but perhaps a significant part of it. In a society where sexuality in the crude form of porn is now ubiquitous and taken for granted, “grab them by the pussy” mightn’t seem nearly as big a violation of norms as it once would have. And, alas, this coarsening effect is larger — Trump has pornographized our whole civic culture.

* At dinner, I blew my nose; and while I had the tissue in my hand, I unthinkingly used it to wipe off a spot of sauce that had dripped on the table. “Did you just wipe snot on the table?” my wife asked. “Men!”

The Midterms: Exterminate Republicans

October 21, 2018

I was a devoted conservative Republican for 53 years. Today’s Republican party must be exterminated (electorally). It’s in thrall to a cruel monster of depravity, making war on truth, rule of law, human decency, and every principle and value America used to stand for.

The country is ruinously divided. Our president should try, at least, to unify us. Trump does the opposite. Cynically, evilly, intentionally stoking division. I just listened to a Massachusetts senate debate where the Republican banged on about “poisonous politics.” I thought, how dare you? This from a Trump lover and constant defender.

Fools will always be suckers for demagogues and con artists. Those cheering the poison Trump spews at his rallies are a disgusting spectacle. He’s encouraged them to beat up protesters — and flattered Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, where one of them killed a woman — yet he calls Democrats an “angry mob.” And “divisive.” Perhaps fortunately, caring not a fig for the rest of us, he makes no effort to gain broader support.

This is not “conservatism.” Conservatism is not blowing up the budget deficit and national debt. Not trade wars and protectionism that screw the many to benefit a few. Not betraying America to a Russian dictator. Not abandoning our hard-won global leadership. Not abandoning human rights and democracy. Not breaking up families. Not enflaming divisiveness. Not tolerating corruption. Conservatism is not denying reality (like about climate change). Dishonesty is not conservative. It’s not tearing down our law enforcement agencies with lies. Not degrading the nation with swinish behavior. Conservatism is not xenophobia and racism. It’s not misogyny. Conservatives don’t call Nazis “very fine people.”

The Republicans are the party backed by Russia, our enemy, which subverted our 2016 election to put them in power — because Putin knew how bad Trump would be for America.

Are Democrats perfect and without sin? Tell me about it, I opposed Democrats for half a century. And if I see things through a partisan lens, it’s still really one shaped by my decades of Republicanism. But it’s the lens of an open eye, not blinded by partisanship. Now, eyes open, I see no comparison between the parties.

And worse is yet to come, when Trump’s criminality is fully exposed by the Mueller investigation, sending into overdrive the Republican war on America’s civic soul.

So decent, responsible Americans must vote, everywhere, against Republicans (with few exceptions, like for New York governor). I used to think highly of local GOP Congress members Stefanik and Faso; I endorsed Faso in 2016. But Republican control of Congress must end.

With all the attention on that battle, the importance of the other 35 governors’ races may be overlooked. But they are indeed critical, because those governors will be in office during the next redistricting after the 2020 census. Last time around, in 2010, Republicans specially targeted state legislatures, and got control of most, enabling them to gerrymander the bejesus out of the electoral maps to perpetuate their power. Democrats have since been getting more votes than Republicans, yet Republicans snare more seats thanks to gerrymandering.

Republicans have also become masters of vote suppression, imposing ID requirements, reducing early voting, closing polling stations, and purging voter rolls, all cunningly targeted against non-white, elderly, and poorer voters likely to back Democrats. Stopping them from voting. For example, North Dakota has passed a law requiring a street address for voting. Indian reservations — guess what? — don’t have street addresses. This will probably mean defeat for Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Meantime, such vile voter disenfranchisement tactics may well have made the difference in three key states Trump narrowly won in 2016, giving him the presidency. (And they have the chutzpah to talk about “election fraud.”)

Democratic governors can veto Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression schemes. One noteworthy governor’s race is Georgia’s where Stacy Abrams, a black woman with a tremendous background of accomplishment, faces a cringeworthy Trump sycophant flaunting his almost sexual love for guns. He’s also the Georgia secretary of state overseeing the election (refusing to recuse himself) and trying to keep as many blacks from voting as possible. He’s canceled more than a million voter registrations, including 50,000 new ones — mostly by blacks. To steal the election.

“Disenfranchisement” was an overused buzzword some years back. But now it’s a huge reality, with the Supreme Court having eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act; it even upheld North Dakota’s atrocity.

There’s yet another card Republicans are playing from the bottom of the deck. Exploiting their control of the federal government, they’re gaming the 2020 census, by underfunding it and adding a citizenship question to scare off Hispanic respondents (and lying about it), with the aim of undercounting areas where Democrats tend to concentrate. So there will be fewer legislative seats for those areas; and fewer electoral votes for those states.

And as election day nears, watch out for a blitzkrieg of disinformation, dirty tricks, lies, and smears, targeted against Democrats wherever they have a chance of winning, not only from Russia, but financed by tens or hundreds of millions in Republican dark money. There’s a great film detailing how it was done in one state, Montana.

In all these ways Republicans are destroying our democracy, destroying everything that made America great. They must be stopped and never allowed to have power again. That will probably be assured by demographic trends, should they lose in 2020. And if the country remains divided — with Republicans a permanent disgruntled minority — so be it. They’ve forefeited all legitimacy.

This blog post might sound hyperbolic. At one time, not long ago, I would have strongly condemned such extreme rhetoric. But so far has this country fallen that now I consider it accurate and necessary. I never imagined politics could become so black and white. I am heartsick.

I know I won’t persuade any Republicans. Tribal partisanship blinds them. My intent instead is to impress upon others what the stakes are.

If younger citizens vote in equal proportion to oldsters, Republicans would be annihilated. And the election’s results will affect younger people for a longer time. Yet most don’t vote. Why? Like everything about politics, it’s cultural. Young people are not being acculturated to voting. It’s so Twentieth Century; something their dowdy parents do, not their buddies. The effect is to drop out of our collective civic life. As though politics has nothing to do with them. They will find out too late how wrong that is.

Vote. Vote as if our future depends on it. Because it does.

 

Our coming immortality

October 19, 2018

Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to live on in my films. I want to live on in my apartment.”

Humanity has always battled nature’s limitations — including bodily frailty. For most of our history lifespans averaged around thirty. Now in the developed world they’re above eighty. This reflects elimination of many causes of premature death, especially rampant child deaths. Modern medicine enables many more of us to realize the biological natural maximum lifespan (around 100+ years).

But raising that natural limit is next. That too is a medical problem, and there’s no law of nature barring its solution. Indeed, the same is true of death itself.

telomeres (in red)

You probably won’t turn on the radio and hear, “Scientists today announced a cure for death.” Though lifelong shortening of telomeres (a part of our chromosomes) seems somehow critical — when you’re out of telomeres, you’re out. And there actually is a pill to halt their shortening. Unfortunately it gives you cancer. But maybe, if that can be solved . . . .

But conquering death will likely be more gradual. And not all medical. We fret about intelligent machines supplanting us, but as suggested in my seminal 2013 Humanist magazine essay, “The Human Future — Upgrade or Replacement?I foresee instead a convergence between biological humans and artificial systems. Humanity version 2.0 will benefit from a host of technological advancements and improvements. Anyhow, one way or another, we’ll stop dying.

And nothing could more dramatically change the human condition. Knowledge of mortality has always shaped how we live our lives, so integral to our psychology it’s actually hard to imagine its absence.

Take risk. In many of our activities, risk of death is not zero. While it’s not as though we don’t highly value our lives, knowing we’ll die in the end makes such risks psychologically tolerable. Lack of a clear “term limit” will surely change that. Will people cocoon themselves in fetishing safety?

But immortality may not be for everyone — actually unaffordable to many. Talk about inequality! I recall one of those dystopian-future sci-fi flicks where the monetary unit (registered and transferrable on personal devices) is time — time left to live, that is. The rich of course have plenty and keep getting more. The poor struggle just to “make ends meet” — i.e., not to meet their ends.

Remember Methuselah living 969 years? His kids and grandkids lived to similar ages. The Bible doesn’t mention this, but all those generations would have been hanging around together (at least until finally wiped out by the flood). What will our families be like when you have hundreds of living forebears and descendants? (Maybe invest in Hallmark stock.) Or perhaps — able to achieve immortality through other means — will we stop having children?

Meantime, people who basically don’t age or die probably wouldn’t “retire.” Their continuing economic productivity will sustain and extend global prosperity. Maybe sufficient to obviate the mentioned inequality issue.

And what about religion? Evolution seems to have somehow made our minds susceptible to mystical religious ideas. Rationality enables us to move past them, as science progressively answers the world’s mysteries. Yet still, many people fend off science (evolution for example) in order to hold onto religion’s promise of an afterlife, its “killer app.” Even while having their doubts. What people think they believe may differ from what they truly believe. Those professing belief in Heaven struggle hard to postpone going. Because the promise is inherently unbelievable (and deep down we know it).

But what if fear of death ends? When, as against religion’s dubious promise of eternal life, science offers one that’s pretty darn real? Will that finally be science’s “killer app” against religion? Will all those who’d held science at arm’s length, because it threatened religion, now discard the faith that stands against immortality-giving science?

Well — I’m 71, and immortality probably won’t come soon enough to save me. But my daughter is 25, and I tell her that if she makes it to 100 — highly likely — by then she’ll be home free.