Fear and Loathing in France and Britain

December 11, 2018

France is having a meltdown; a toddler’s screaming tantrum, pounding its fists and kicking its legs. Convulsed with truly scary violence around protests against Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

I used to be contemptuous of France and its politics (here’s an example). Then in 2017 they had a fit of seeming sense, electing an actually good president, with 66% of the vote no less — a landslide of proportions unheard of in America. After that, his brand-new party swept parliamentary elections too. But this revolution wasn’t all it seemed. In the presidential contest’s first round, Macron got only 24%, just enough to make the runoff, which he won only because the other candidate was utterly beyond the pale. (Though just such a candidate was elected in America.) Macron’s new party romped because the French had lost all faith in the old ones.

Still, Macron did win with pledges of long-overdue reforms to juice France’s anemic economy. (Unemployment is 9%, due in good part to an over-regulated labor market.) But the French are like St. Augustine who said, “God, make me chaste, but not yet.” So France has a repetitive history of presidents rolling out reforms, followed by eruption in the streets, followed by presidential capitulation. Macron vowed this would not be his story too.

Then the streets duly erupted. The immediate issue was a fuel tax, but the deeper complaint is the idea that Macron is out-of-touch and his reforms benefit the rich. Those actually protesting may be a small minority, but most French citizens back them. Contrary to his brave vow, Macron folded on the fuel tax. However, that’s seen as too little, too late, and the violence continues. On Monday he made a speech offering more concessions. It doesn’t seem to be working.

Meantime in Great Britain —

I wrote in August recapping the Brexit picture. Parliament was supposed to vote Tuesday on Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal with the European Union. But she cancelled the vote because it was clear she’d lose, badly. Brexit voters in the 2016 referendum were delusional in imagining Britain could keep the benefits of the EU while freeing itself of the drawbacks. It turns out to be the reverse. The best deal May could get is clearly worse, all around, than the status quo. The Europeans are unbudging. But Brexiteers, still unable to face up to the hard reality, are screaming “betrayal” at May.

How can this mess be resolved? Britain should have a new referendum question — accept the deal on offer or stay in the EU. The latter would likely win. But Brexit zealots probably won’t allow such a vote. The deadline is March 29, and Britain now seems headed for crashing out of the EU without any deal — an economic nightmare. Meantime May’s hold on power hangs by a thread, within her own Conservative party. While waiting to take over is the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. A very bad man whose accession would consummate Britain’s national suicide.

What do the French and British situations have in common? Citizen bloody-mindedness. Unreasonableness. Irresponsibility. Wanting what they want without regard to sense and reality.

The French overwhelmingly elected a government but refuse to let it govern. The Brits still refuse to give up the utter folly of Brexit.

And what about America? Trump has jeered at Macron’s poll ratings; elected with 66%, he’s now fallen to an abysmal 20%, while Trump remains at 40%. Is Macron really worse than Trump?! But if the French are fickle, America has the opposite problem. Trump’s steady poll numbers, in the face of his presidency’s total train-wreck, bespeaks a different and worse pathology. At least the French are reacting (if wrongly) to what they see is happening. The 40% of Americans backing Trump refuse to see what’s happening.

Here is the problem of democracy (which the Chinese regime smugly points to). Democracy’s weakness is not politicians behaving badly, it’s voters behaving badly. Politicians only march to voters’ tunes. In all three countries — France, Britain, America — and, alas, many others — voters have been behaving very badly indeed.

Why? A big subject. But read this past blog post for part of the answer; a review of a book titled The Death of Expertise. In a nutshell, today’s culture encourages the narcissism of thinking your opinions are as good as anyone’s.

Well (sigh), democracy is still better than authoritarian regimes (like China’s) with government not accountable to citizens at all.

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Coming to America

December 9, 2018

Olga Porterfield, a friend of mine, gave a talk to the Capital District Humanist Society, about Jewish refugees exiting the Soviet Union. She was one of them, at age 20, in 1979.

She began with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. — “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Olga Zemitskaya was born in Moscow in 1959. Jewish identity was submerged; in fact, she said, growing up she had no idea what “Jewish” meant. Her Jewish consciousness was awakened when her father brought her to a synagogue for a Simchat Torah celebration. This was actually a subversive thing to do in the atheistic USSR. Also subversive was the family’s “anti-Soviet” attitude; as a teenager she was reading “samizdat” — underground literature passed secretly from hand to hand. Being doubly such a rebel was heady stuff, especially when she fell in love with a boy with the same proclivities. But he was planning to leave for America.

Anti-semitism has a long and dreadful history in that part of the world. Russian anti-semitism went into overdrive in the wake of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory. The situation was aggravated by the 1970 “Airplane affair” when a group of Jews tried to hijack a small plane to escape the USSR.

You couldn’t just pick up and leave. The authorities had to grant permission — and just requesting it marked you as a pariah, you were persecuted for it. Quite a few Jews nevertheless got permission, and went to either the U.S. or Israel. But there were also a great many “refuseniks” — Jews whose exit visas were refused. This became a focus of international condemnation toward the USSR. In 1975, America in response enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, punishing the Soviets on trade terms.

To illustrate the issue’s prominence, Olga showed Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner babbling on about “Saving Soviet Jewelry.” When informed that the issue was actually “jewry,” she responded with her standard line, “Never mind.”

Shcharansky

A leading refusenik agitator was Anatoly Shcharansky. I remember first seeing him, interviewed in Russia around 1976, and being flabbergasted by the courage of his outspoken criticism of the Soviet regime. In 1977, he was arrested, falsely charged as a spy, and sent to a Siberian ordeal. In 1986, finally, America got him out — exchanged for real spies. Today, as Natan Sharansky, he is an Israeli government minister.

Also mentioned by Olga was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who became a vocal dissident, and his Jewish wife, Elena Bonner. Sakharov was immured in internal exile in Gorki.

Sakharov

But as the dictatorship began to crumble, Sakharov actually became a member of parliament, called the nation’s conscience. He died the month after the Berlin Wall fell.

But for Olga her greatest hero was her mother, for whom Olga’s emigration was a deep personal loss; yet she actively supported her daughter in this.

In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, becoming even more of an international pariah. In a piqued response to the criticism, the Russian regime slammed shut the door on emigration. But luckily for Olga, she had rejected her family’s pleas to hold off and wait until they all could go; she had applied for her exit visa; and got it before the door shut. Her parents were subsequently refused. (They finally reached America in the Gorbachev era.)

Soviet exit visa

Olga showed on the screen that most precious document — her official permission to leave the Soviet Union — forever.

She travelled first to Vienna, then to Rome, to wait for documents to come to America. She loved the weeks she spent in Rome. People were all smiling, she said; “nobody smiled in Moscow.” The workers’ paradise.

Olga arrived in the United States of America on June 21, 1979. When we still welcomed immigrants.

“The Discovery” — Scientific proof of Heaven

December 6, 2018

Our daughter recommended seeing this Netflix film, “The Discovery.” It starts with scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) giving a rare interview about his discovery proving that we go somewhere after death.

This has precipitated a wave of suicides. Asked if he feels responsible, Harbor simply says “no.” Then a man shoots himself right in front of him.

Next, cut to Will and Ayla (“Isla” according to Wikipedia) who meet as the lone passengers on an island ferry. Talk turns to “the discovery.” Will is a skeptic who doesn’t think it’s proven.

Turns out Will is Harbor’s estranged son, traveling to reconnect with him at Harbor’s island castle. Where he runs a cult peopled with lost souls unmoored by “the discovery.” While continuing his work, trying to learn where, exactly, the dead go.

Meantime, people keep killing themselves, aiming to “get there” — wherever “there” is. Will saves Ayla from drowning herself and brings her into the castle.

Harbor has created a machine to get a fix on “there” by probing a brain during near-death experiences — his own. It doesn’t work. “We need a corpse,” he decides.

So Will — his skepticism now forgotten — and Ayla steal one from a morgue. This is where the film got seriously silly. (Real scientists nowadays aren’t body snatchers.) The scene with the dead guy hooked up to the machine and subjected to repeated electrical shocks was straight out of Frankenstein 1931.

This doesn’t work either. At first. But later, alone in the lab, Will finds a video actually had gotten extracted from the corpse’s brain. Now he’s on a mission to decode it.

I won’t divulge more of the plot. But the “there” in question is “another plane of existence.” Whatever that might actually mean. There’s also some “alternate universes” thing going on, combined with some Groundhog Dayish looping. A real conceptual mishmash.

One review faulted the film for mainly wandering in the weeds of relationship tensions rather than really exploring the huge scientific and philosophical issues. I agree.

The film’s metaphysical incoherence goes with the territory of “proving” an afterlife. There was no serious effort at scientific plausibility, which would be a tall order. Mind and self are entirely rooted in brain function. When the brain dies, that’s it.

The film didn’t delve either into the thinking of any of the folks who committed suicide, which would have been interesting. After all, many millions already strongly believe in Heaven, yet are in no hurry to go. But, as I have said, “belief” is a tricky concept. You may persuade yourself that you believe something, while another part of your mind does not.

The film’s supposed scientific proof presumably provides the clincher. Actually, religious people, even while professing that faith stands apart from questions of evidence, nevertheless do latch on to whatever shreds of evidence they can, to validate their beliefs. For Heaven, there’s plenty, including testimonies of people who’ve been there. But there’s still that part of the brain that doesn’t quite buy it. Would an assertedly scientific discovery change this?

I doubt it. Most people have a shaky conception of science, with many religious folks holding an adversarial stance toward it. Science is, remember, the progenitor of evolution, which they hate. Meantime — this the film completely ignored — religionists generally consider suicide a sin against God. Surely that can’t be your best route to Heaven!

The film did mention that people going on a trip want to see a brochure first. That’s what Harbor’s further work aimed to supply. Without it — without “the discovery” having provided any idea what the afterlife might be like — killing oneself to get there seems a pretty crazy crapshoot. Even for religious nuts.

George H. W. Bush

December 3, 2018

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That was a novel’s famous first line. George H.W. Bush was president in just such a foreign country.

It is hard to imagine a major political candidate in today’s America who isn’t some kind of ideological/cultural warrior. That wasn’t Bush. In his foreign country, it was all about just doing the job. You know, “public service,” remember that quaint concept? Bush was a capable man; a serious man; who took his responsibilities seriously. A thoughtful man of honor and integrity, who spoke and acted carefully, and whose word could be trusted. A thoroughly decent human being.

Of course you know where this is going.

Gary Hart

Another candidate in the 1988 election, that Bush won, was Gary Hart, and there’s a new movie out about him, The Front Runner. Hart’s campaign was ended by his adultery. In a different country.

Our president now not only had extramarital affairs — with porn actresses no less — but paid them hush money to cover it up — and lied about that. (And smeared his own “fixer” who revealed his lies.) And even bragged about committing sexual assaults, too.

Meantime he paid $25 million to settle the “Trump University” fraud case. And the New York Times ran a huge analysis of how his whole business history was one big lie; built on cheating, fraud, and tax evasion. His “charitable foundation” has been exposed as a fraud too.

None of it seems to matter. But just look at him, listen to him. Anyone with half a brain can see he’s totally full of shit. Is a total piece of shit. Yet we elected him president — and his poll ratings have hardly budged since.

I often talk about human evolutionary history, being shaped by our living in social groups, where cooperation and mutual trust was central. Thus we evolved highly tuned lie detectors, and instincts to punish those who violate behavioral norms. But now we’re a different species, inhabiting a different kind of society.

I heard an interview with one of the makers of The Front Runner. He commented that Trump is not being judged as a politician or public official would once have been (and as Hart was), but instead as a celebrity. And that Trump is not an aberration; rather, the new normal. He doubted we’ll ever go back to the old model, with leaders of the George H. W. Bush type. Now celebrity culture rules.

The President of the United States

The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicted a future where intelligent Americans have few children while nitwits breed like rabbits. Result: a nation of nitwits. Unsurprisingly, its president is a flamboyant performance buffoon. The film was a comedy.

Our reality is a tragedy.

Movie review: The Grinch, a humanist film

November 30, 2018

For our anniversary we decided on dinner and a movie. After carefully studying reviews of all current offerings, my wife chose The Grinch. (She’s a big Benedict Cumberbatch fan.)*

For readers from Mars, the story is set in Whoville, whose inhabitants are Christmas-crazy. Mr. Grinch hates Christmas, and sets out to ruin it by masquerading as Santa and, instead of leaving presents, steal them.

The film has two main themes.

One is redemption. Here is a character as nasty as can be. Though actually, in this version, we see signs of humanity throughout. (He treats his dog better; he’s even kind of likable.) And we also get here a backstory, lacking in previous versions, that explains his hostility to Christmas, in a convincing human way, that also helps make plausible his ultimate turnaround. (Though another, wished-for backstory might have accounted for Mr. Grinch’s relative affluence.)

The film’s other main thrust is humanist. Now, this is a Christmas movie; about nothing but Christmas. And what is conspicuously missing? Christ! The name was heard once in a carol being sung, but otherwise the film’s Christmas is wholly Christless, its conception of the holiday’s meaning entirely secular and humanistic. It is all about human fellowship, and the joy of living — here on Earth.

In fact, so determinedly non-supernatural is this film (despite, well, bending laws of physics) that it’s not only Christless but Santaless. While the Who children believe in Santa, the film winks at his nonexistence. There’s no suggestion the gifts the Grinch steals were actually left by Santa.

The production is dazzling. Since there were two quite serviceable previous versions, this one’s raison d’etre had to be outdoing them. And it did. The state of the art, in animated films like this, has progressed tremendously. Don’t dismiss this as insignificant lowbrow entertainment; that doesn’t respect the artistic achievement. I often wished I could linger over scenes to absorb all the clever detail and art, which went by at a breakneck pace.

This is a story-telling tour-de-force. Until, sadly, the lame ending. The one in the book, and 1966 film, had the Grinch joining in the town-wide sing and then, enthusiastically, in its great communal feast. Here, he just visits one home, and is moreover subdued. After all the dizzying, walloping, over-the-top action that precedes it, this modified ending is underwhelming. What were they thinking?

Nevertheless, go see this film and enjoy the visuals. I give it 3-1/2 stars (knocking off half a star for the weak ending).

* He voiced the Grinch; but early in the film I was sure there’d been some mistake because it didn’t sound like him at all. Seeing the credits surprised me. Quite a performance.

Republicans, and the hole in America’s moral soul

November 27, 2018

“Republicans must stand up to Trump,” declared the heading on a recent Michael Gerson column.

“How fatuous,” I thought.

Gerson

Gerson is a former Bush 43 speechwriter and member of that endangered species, “principled conservative.” Usually clear-eyed about the gulf between those principles and Trumpism.

This column was about prospects for a Republican running against Trump in 2020. Gerson cites a poll saying 16% of Republicans prefer Trump to be a one-term president. “At least a place to start,” he says.

Good luck. The other 84% of Republicans are a red wall for Trump. Undaunted, Gerson muses that could change with “a particularly damaging new administration scandal,” or Mueller developments that “destabilize Trump’s personality in new and disturbing ways.” As if nothing so far has been damaging or disturbing enough. (Here’s a list.)

Yet Gerson does suggest the Trump cesspool is already stinky enough for a Republican challenger to pose the question: “why not conservative policy AND public character?”

Actually, Republicans now get neither; this ain’t “conservative.” But Trumpism is not mainly about ideology anyway. Instead it’s psychology; tribal and personal social identity. I increasingly think that deep down, many Republicans back Trump not in spite of his horribleness but because of it. Like women attracted to “bad boys;” like moths to a flame. It’s a fat middle finger shoved in the eye of a society which, Trumpeters feel, deserves it.

These are the people who spout about America’s “moral decline.” Mainly focused on homosexuality and other sex-related stuff. As though gays marrying, people changing gender, etc., is somehow immoral. They also feel the browning of our population somehow represents moral decline.

Yet it is true we’re in a national moral tailspin. Not because of tolerating gays but tolerating Trump. These people so full of moralistic blather sent to the White House the worst moral creep ever — and continue backing him, and his war against America’s values and ideals. Here we see the real hole that has opened up in our country’s moral soul.

“Republicans must stand up to Trump?” That horse left the barn long ago. What responsible Republicans must do is leave this degraded party (as I have).

I used to call myself, like Gerson, “conservative;” the odd man out in my social milieu full of liberals. My political principles haven’t changed, but have been superseded by more fundamental concerns, about the very character of our society. I and my liberal friends are together in opposing what’s happening. Yet I still feel somewhat alone in my grasp of just how bad it is, and what it portends for the whole world’s future.

I’ve made a lifelong effort to understand the world. It culminated in my 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism, where I tried to bring it all together. A comprehensive global picture, justifying a positive outlook.

Martin Luther King said the moral arc of the Universe is long but bends toward justice. However, there is no force out there, no deity or law of nature, that so bends it. Only we humans, with our actions, can. My book argued that, in the great sweep of history, we’d been doing better and better.

The Enlightenment began three centuries ago, putting us on a path of progress through increasing rationality. Plagued at every step by fools dancing around bonfires of Enlightenment values. Today those flames are getting out of control, threatening to engulf us all.

If Trump is defeated in 2020, maybe the fire can be contained. If he’s re-elected, maybe my book should be thrown into it.

Do people still need religion?

November 24, 2018

My daughter asked my opinion about an essay in the New York Times, by philosophy professor Stephen Asma, titled, “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).” (Here’s a link.) Asma says he’s not religious, but argues that we still need religion.

He starts with a story about a woman whose son was killed. She was shattered, and “suffered a mental breakdown.” But what saved her, enabling her to “soldier on” to raise her remaining kids was (guess what) religion, including belief that she’d see her dead son again in Heaven.

Asma calls that irrational; but says “its irrationality does not render it unacceptable, valueless or cowardly. Its irrationality may even be the source of its power.” (I’ve seen people say they have faith not in spite of its irrationality, but because of it.)

Asma is distinguishing between rationality and emotion. He locates emotion in the “limbic mammalian brain,” and reason in the more evolved neocortex. “Religion,” he says, “nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty,” and “can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.” He mocks the idea of trying to soothe that bereaved mother with scientific information.

But drawing such a clear line between emotion and reason is a fundamental mistake. Asma cites neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, yet the one thing Damasio is famous for is the idea that reason and emotion are actually inextricably intertwined. You can’t separate them. Indeed, patients who suffered brain lesions that did separate them had disastrous results, because it is emotion that provides the motivation for reasoning.

And what exactly does Asma mean by “direct access to this emotional life?” Simply that people can be more emotive about God and Heaven than pondering theories of evolution or relativity? Well, so what?

Asma’s is hardly a startling new argument. It’s a very old and lame apologia dressed up with a lot of neuroscience and psychology jargon. It’s a utilitarian argument: that religion is useful because it works in soothing the existential dis-ease that life entails; truth or falsehood is immaterial. In fact, Asma actually calls the “emotional management” provided by religious belief “healthy.” He even likens religion to pharmaceutical pain management remedies.

This echoes Marx calling religion the opiate of the masses. In effect Asma is  saying religion is a placebo! Placebo treatments work because they affect mental attitude, and mental attitude affects the body. Admittedly, of course, religion does do that.

But is this a reason to choose a religious belief? Remember that what one believes is, nominally at least, a choice. We don’t have beliefs pre-installed like software; we develop them ourselves based on what we’re taught, what we learn, what we experience. At the end of the day, does it make sense to say to oneself, “this isn’t true, but I’ll believe it anyway because it will make me feel good?”

My basic answer is this. One cannot engage authentically and meaningfully with life and the world while laboring under false concepts about their essential reality.

Like the concept of Heaven. As in the case of the mother Asma discusses, many people do prefer to believe death is not final, for obvious psychological reasons. I myself am profoundly troubled by my mortality. But that cannot persuade me to believe in a fairy tale alternate reality. And I feel that death, being really the most important fact about life, requires one to grapple with its true meaning, come to terms with it, and live life accordingly. Otherwise you’re not living authentically.

Meantime, most people who believe in an eternal paradise are in no hurry to go, and try to remain on Earth as long as possible. What’s up with that? “Belief” is a tricky concept. What people think they believe and what they actually believe can differ. You may persuade yourself you believe in Heaven — but another part of your brain is not on board. (As Mark Twain said, “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”)

I consider it mentally healthy to avoid such cognitive dissonance. To have all parts of one’s mind on the same page.

Further, Asma recognizes that the assertedly good things about religious belief are bound together with some very bad shit. Faith does give some people some comfort, but it also gives some people suicide vests. And that’s unsurprising. Because, after all, the idea of God is a very extreme idea, with extreme implications for how to behave if one actually believes it.

Indeed, if people really and truly believed in God, most would behave very differently. That belief seems to govern their lives only about 10%. But then you do get some people at the 100% level. And that’s a peck of trouble.

Asma refers to aspects of religion apart from dogmas — rituals, songs, human interactions, etc., all of which provide something in the emotional realm. But can’t we have that without ridiculous dogmas? In fact, the Unitarian “church” goes some way in that direction. I have sometimes imagined creating a “religion” devoid of superstition, but with rituals, songs, togetherness, etc.

That “religion” would be an expression of the emotion I feel about what I have referred to as the essential nature of life and the world. The science that Asma disparages as some seemingly cold dispassionate construct is part of it; contemplating it gives me very profound feelings about what I call the human project. One does not have to believe nonsensical things in order to feel deep emotions about the cosmos and human life within it. I would even submit that such emotions are better than ones grounded in concepts that are false — and known, deep down, in one’s heart of hearts, to be false.

Trump, China, and the axis of evil

November 21, 2018

For a long time we imagined China’s rise would be its growing up — into a mature member of responsible world society. But now that society itself is looking ever more ragged, its norms of civilized behavior being shredded by Saudis, Russians, Iranians, and others — including indeed America — as well as China. China epitomizes the badness of the bad old days, a regime exerting muscle to get its way abroad and to repress its own citizens at home. (China employs two million people censoring the internet; has put maybe a million in “re-education” camps.) Not the better new world we’d hoped was a’borning.

An editorial in The Economist’s October 20 issue said the Trump administration is right to step up what had really previously been a weak response to China’s sharp elbows; right to recognize that China’s interests (actually, its regime’s) conflict with ours, and that it’s a bad actor needing to be confronted and opposed.

But in that battle, despite all his bluster, Trump — so besotted with military strength — is unilaterally disarming us. He’s “a bull in a China shop,” whose actions actually boost China.

The first thing he did was to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which had been our most forceful response to China’s challenge. It was a carefully built deal among eleven key nations to set the regional terms of trade to our advantage, blocking China’s aim for economic dominance. When Trump threw that away, the rulers in Beijing celebrated and guffawed, unable to believe their luck.

Then Trump’s trade war hurts America more than it hurts China, weakening our economy by reducing our own exports while making stuff we buy more expensive.

But here is the bigger picture. China has four times our population. Contending with China requires strong solidarity among the alliance of Western-oriented democracies. America actually had the world’s greatest-ever network of global friends. Until Trump came along, showering those alliances with contempt and doing all he could to wreck them. As if we can take on China all by ourselves.

Meantime China itself isn’t so stupidly blind to the need for alliances, assiduously working to build its own such network. Which China does through bullying, intimidation, bribery, throwing its money and its weight around. Which, unsurprisingly, countries actually resent. Whereas America had true friends — nations standing with us because they shared our positive values.

Those values and ideals won the cold war. Communism stood for a closed society of enforced conformism, a repressive Big Brother state. Not only did our economic model work better, it did so by giving people the opportunities freedom provides, with democracy and human rights — a very attractive package. But that crucial American asset too Trump is throwing away. He neither honors, nor even understands, those idealistic values; instead he actually stomps on them.

When the Saudis sent a 15-strong killer squad to Turkey to dismember a Washington Post journalist, denied any knowledge for two weeks, and then concocted a ludicrous lie about a fistfight (but couldn’t say what happened to the body), Trump initially declared that “credible.” He deemed our selling arms to Saudi Arabia (to brutalize Yemen) more important. And now, with his own intelligence service concluding that the Saudi ruler in fact ordered the murder, Trump dismisses that, calling Saudi Arabia our “steadfast partner.”

Which sends the world a clear message: that America no longer stands for truth, justice, freedom, and human rights. Instead America now stands for a world of might makes right. Where money trumps morality. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with autocrats who commit murder and lie about it.

Who ever imagined America would join the axis of evil?

If the world must choose between an incompetent buffoon of a would-be American autocrat, and the real thing in China, China will win.

 

“REALLY SCARY !!!”

November 18, 2018

That was the all-caps heading on a blast email, to me and some others, from a Texan acquaintance. He’s pro-Trump and always saying Democrats are commie criminals. This one had the attached “quotes” from three leading Democratic senators, saying the Constitution is an obstacle to be disregarded. He called this flabbergasting, showing why Democrats opposed Kavanaugh.

THIS IS SATIRE. DO NOT FORWARD

The quotes looked obviously fake. Googling, I quickly traced them to “The Babylon Bee,” which appeared to be a crazy-Christian website. But then I saw at the bottom: “Your trusted source for Christian news satire.” Another article quoted Hillary Clinton saying her only crime was stealing America’s heart! And another reported she’s gotten a large cash advance for What Happened 2, a book to explain her 2020 election loss!

Well, maybe not as funny as The Onion. But my Texas friend was not the only one suckered. I also found this article (from “Punditfact”) reporting how the Babylon Bee satire went viral and spread across the internet as though the quotes were real.

What is really scary is how messed up America’s politics has become, when people can’t tell the difference not just between real and fake news, but between real and joke news. Babylon Bee was trying to make fun of those who believe extreme nonsense. It’s an irony that the joke was on Bablyon Bee, when its satire got recycled as reality. But it’s no joke when this sort of thing warps political ideas and influences votes.

A lot of people are so unsophisticated in their thinking, so lacking in civic education and understanding of our political landscape, and so ready to believe anything bad about the other side, that they didn’t question the authenticity of these preposterous quotes.

Creating what Babylon Bee did is child’s play. Photoshop enables photos to be manipulated. There’s even technology to make fake audio, with people seeming to say things they never said. How are we to navigate through this house-of-mirrors? You have to use your brain — primed with knowledge about the real world. That seems to be a problem for a lot of people, full of beliefs about a god in the sky, life after death, UFOs, ESP, and other such nonsense.

In the halcyon days when the internet was first flourishing, we imagined this would be great for making people better informed. Alas the opposite is happening; the web is poisoning our whole information pool. Incentives go the wrong way. People have found how easy it is to advance their agendas by simply spreading lies. Indeed, it’s even profitable. I recall a radio interview during the 2016 campaign with a guy who made up a phony report about pro-Hillary vote manipulation, tailored to be click-bait for Hillary-haters. And it got clicks galore — netting the guy tens of thousands in profit.

Worse yet when foreign enemies too are in the game. And, in fact, when the President of the United States himself actively promotes this destruction of rational and informed political discourse. How can this be overcome? Will we allow a blizzard of disinformation and lies to decide the next election?

Postscript: A Facebook commenter linked to this Washington Post article that makes what I wrote seem tame. Worth reading!!

“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!”