Was America founded as a “Christian nation?”

August 13, 2018

We’re often told that it was. The aim is to cast secularism as somehow un-American, and override the Constitution’s separation of church and state. But it’s the latter idea that’s un-American; and it’s historical nonsense. Just one more way in which the religious right is steeped in lies (forgetting the Ninth Commandment).

Jacoby

They assault what is in fact one of the greatest things about America’s birth. It’s made clear in Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Firstly, it tortures historical truth to paint the founding fathers as devout Christians. They were not; instead men of the Enlightenment. While “atheism” wasn’t even a thing at the time, most of them were as close to it as an Eighteenth Century person could be. Franklin was surely one of the century’s most irreverent. Washington never in his life penned the name “Christ.” Jefferson cut-and-pasted his own New Testament, leaving out everything supernatural and Christ’s divinity. In one letter he called Christian doctrine “metaphysical insanity.”

The secularism issue was arguably joined in 1784 (before the Constitution) when Patrick Henry introduced a bill in Virginia’s legislature to tax all citizens to fund “teachers of the Christian religion.” Most states still routinely had quasi-official established churches. But James Madison and others mobilized public opinion onto an opposite path. The upshot was Virginia passing not Henry’s bill but, instead, one Jefferson had proposed years earlier: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

It was one of three achievements Jefferson had engraved on his tombstone.

The law promulgated total separation of church and state. Nobody could be required to support any religion, nor be penalized or disadvantaged because of religious beliefs or opinions. In the world of the Eighteenth Century, this was revolutionary. News of it spread overseas and created an international sensation. After all, this was a world still bathed in blood from religious believers persecuting other religious believers. It was not so long since people were burned at the stake over religion, and since a third of Europe’s population perished in wars of faith. Enough, cried Virginia, slashing this Gordian knot of embroiling governmental power with religion.

Soon thereafter delegates met in Philadelphia to create our Constitution. It too was revolutionary; in part for what it did not say. The word “God” nowhere appears, let alone the word “Christian.” Instead of starting with a nod to the deity, which would have seemed almost obligatory, the Constitution begins “We the people of the United States . . . .” We people did this, ourselves, with no god in the picture.

This feature did not pass unnoticed at the time; to the contrary, it was widely denounced, as an important argument against ratifying the Constitution. But those views were outvoted, and every state ratified.

It gets better. Article 6, Section 3 says “no religious test shall ever be required” for holding any public office or trust. This too was highly controversial, contradicting what was still the practice in most states, and with opponents warning that it could allow a Muslim (!) president. But the “no religious test” provision shows the Constitution’s framers were rejecting all that, and totally embracing, instead, the religious freedom stance of Virginia’s then-recent enactment. And that too was ratified.

Indeed, it still wasn’t even good enough. In the debates over ratification, many felt the Constitution didn’t sufficiently safeguard freedoms, including religious freedom, and they insisted on amendments, which were duly adopted in 1791. That was the Bill of Rights. And the very first amendment guaranteed freedom of both speech and religion — which go hand-in-hand. This made clear that all Americans have a right to their opinions, and to voice those opinions, including ideas about religion, and that government could not interfere. Thus would Jefferson later write of “the wall of separation” between church and state.

All this was, again, revolutionary. The founders, people of great knowledge and wisdom, understood exactly what they were doing, having well in mind all the harm that had historically been done by government entanglement with religion. What they created was something new in the world, and something very good indeed.

Interestingly, as Jacoby’s book explains, much early U.S. anti-Catholic prejudice stemmed from Protestants’ fear that Catholics, if they got the chance, would undermine our hard-won church-state separation, repeating the horrors Europe had endured.

A final point by Jacoby: the religious attack on science (mainly, evolution science) does not show religion and science are necessarily incompatible. Rather, it shows that a religion claiming “the one true answer to the origins and ultimate purpose of human life” is “incompatible not only with science but with democracy.” Because such a religion really says that issues like abortion, capital punishment, or biomedical research can never be resolved by imperfect human opinion, but only by God’s word. This echoes the view of Islamic fundamentalists that democracy itself, with humans presuming to govern themselves, is offensive to God. What that means in practice, of course, is not rule by (a nonexistent) God but by pious frauds who pretend to speak for him.

I’m proud to be a citizen of a nation founded as a free one* — not a Christian one.

* What about slaves? What about women? Sorry, I have no truck with those who blacken America’s founding because it was not a perfect utopia from Day One. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The degree of democracy and freedom we did establish were virtually without precedent in the world of the time. And the founders were believers in human progress, who created a system open to positive change; and in the centuries since, we have indeed achieved much progress.

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Bye Bye Britain

August 11, 2018

A parent’s decline and demise is a sad thing. Britain was our mother country.

The Brits turned a bad corner in voting for Brexit — that is, to leave the European Union. Voters bought a false bill of goods about its supposed benefits, including a much-ballyhooed and wholly bogus claim of gaining hundreds of millions of pounds weekly for the National Health Service. (In fact, Britain will have to pay the EU tens of extra billions.) Russia had a hand in this disinformation campaign (and was cheered on by its tool fool Trump); the aim was to weaken both Britain and Europe.

The Brexit vote did in Prime Minister David Cameron, who was then replaced by Theresa May — a hapless mediocrity devoid of Thatcherite intellectual strength.

Theresa May

She opposed Brexit during the referendum, but upon becoming prime minister decided it was her job to fulfill voters’ wishes. Indeed, her mantra became “Brexit means Brexit.”

This refers to the debate over “hard” versus “soft” Brexit — basically whether Britain remains in the European free trade system. Now, the raw truth is that Brexit voters were really mainly voting their hostility toward foreigners and immigrants. They were encouraged to imagine they could have their cake and eat it too — close the doors to migrants but not to trade.

May’s “Brexit means Brexit” catered to this fantasy that Britain could, outside the EU, gain trade terms just as advantageous as inside it. But it’s being punctured in actual negotiations with the EU; they insist that if Britain wants favorable access to the European market, it must accept the free movement of people, and other parts of the EU system.*

So May has been forced to backtrack, and her latest iteration of a negotiating plan looks much more like a soft than a hard Brexit. But hardline Brexiteers in her own Conservative party see this as “betraying the Brexit dream;” two top cabinet members have resigned over it. While the Europeans still don’t think it goes far enough.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking down to the March 29, 2019 deadline for Britain’s departure. It was another big mistake for May to have triggered the 2-year countdown in March 2017 before having clarity about the terms. Now there’s a growing possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Another of May’s mantras has been “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Indeed, this slogan has been a rare success for her, with polls showing British voters agree by a two-to-one margin. Unfortunately, that actually makes things worse, because it’s really stupid and restricts May’s bargaining room.

It might sound like a tough negotiating stance, but the Europeans consider it an empty bluff because “no deal” would be disastrous for Britain. This is becoming very clear to people thinking seriously about it. There’s now much chatter about “stockpiling” goods against the prospect of big trade disruptions with a no-deal Brexit. But there’s no way Britain could really get prepared for such a dire eventuality.

So May has painted herself into a corner. Either she does slash Britain’s wrists with a no-deal Brexit, or else swallows a soft Brexit deal that’s bound to be pilloried as betraying both of her own key slogans. One that retains so much of the status quo ante that Britons must wonder what the point of Brexit is.

In June 2017, having insisted she wouldn’t call an early election, May reversed herself, aiming to strengthen her parliamentary majority and thus her Brexit negotiating hand. Instead, running an insipid campaign, she lost her majority and now runs a crippled government. It’s becoming hard to see how any Brexit deal, that May manages to negotiate, could pass parliament (especially if, as is likely, the Labour opposition wants to distance itself from her deal and sabotage May’s government).

Now there’s also talk of a second referendum, either to reverse the 2016 Brexit vote, or else between hard and soft Brexit plans. But there’s no sign that Brexit buyer’s remorse has really set in yet, especially with May still suborning the fantasy; nor that voters will now be equipped to make a responsible choice among options. And approving and organizing another referendum now is probably a non-starter.

Comrade Corbyn

Waiting in the wings is the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. His winning the next election is taken as almost a foregone conclusion. Young voters in particular seem gaga for him as something new, daring, and fresh. In fact he represents something very old and putrid — Stalinism. Literally; no hyperbole. Corbyn is the quintessential old-time morally blind extreme left hypocrite who’s always prating about the rights of downtrodden people while applauding regimes everywhere most guilty of trodding them down. And he wants to undo everything Thatcher achieved in the ’80s that set Britain on a path to prosperity. Coming on top of Brexit’s economic hit, a Corbyn government would be the coup de grace.

Brexit voters imagined they’d “Make Britain Great Again.” That’s working out as great as on the other side of the pond. It’s a sad decline into senescence for a nation that once indeed ruled the greatest empire in the world, and led it in intellectual and industrial advancement. The classically liberal principles that have guided humanity onward and upward originated in Britain. Now the Brits are losing the thread of all that.

Not so long ago, it might have been said that Britain had passed the torch to America. But America itself today is falling into its own similar political cul-de-sac. It seems the flame is flickering out.

* One vexing problem is that Britain has a land border with the E.U. — between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Everyone agrees that a hard customs border there would be highly undesirable. But no one seems able to figure out how to avoid that, if Britain exits the EU’s customs union.

Fact of the day

August 10, 2018

According to a June 28 article in The Economist, the number of people employed in China censoring internet content is estimated to exceed two million. (Nearly as many are believed to work for the Chinese government “injecting propaganda and misinformation into the social-media flow.”)

“Reveal” International Contemporary Art Fair in Saratoga Springs

August 8, 2018

We had lucked out during vacation trips to Dubai and San Francisco, happening upon unanticipated international art shows in both places. So when I saw there’d be one in nearby Saratoga, we had to go.

 

(We are not real connoisseurs, or buyers. We’ve only ever bought one serious pricey art work. Our walls display paintings by my late father, a surprisingly good amateur, and my own from my surrealist phase half a century ago. Plus one large Picasso copy by my ex-girlfriend’s artist sister, a gift the girlfriend left behind.)

 

But my wife and I do enjoy the visual treats and surprises one always finds at such shows. People have been doing art for thousands of years, so you might think everything’s been done, with nothing new being possible. How untrue that is. What is great at such shows is seeing how artists are always coming up with amazing new concepts for art.

Rothko

 

Well, not all do. My wife made a negative comment about those Rothko-like square canvases with bland horizontal color bands, a few of which were seen at the show. Borrrring! To me at least. But fortunately stuff like that was the exception.

One nice thing is being able to chat with artists about their work. Maybe they talk to us because we have a look like we might just possibly be eccentric millionaires. But they do seem to relish an opportunity to talk with anyone about their art. One gallery owner, too, chatted us up quite amiably, but then suddenly turned and walked away. Guess he decided we weren’t eccentric millionaires after all.

Most beautiful thing at the show

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We discussed with artist Derek Gores his picture, “Directory Assistance” (above), a gigantic collage from fashion magazines, with many intriguing bits on close inspection (including quite a few breasts). Derek liked my wife’s boots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another artist, Brett Loving, showed us a video of how he’d done his painting “Evolution” (below) — with an excavator. That’s right, he sat at the controls of that huge piece of equipment with paint brushes fitted to its arms. Interesting results.

 

A painting by Daniel Marin (below) was quite stunning. I called it “Explosion in a Paint Factory,” but its actual title was “Arcane.” I couldn’t figure out how he could get paint to do what it did there.

 

Really incredible was Gwen Adler’s “Porcelain Frida” (below). That Frida Kahlo sure has become an icon.  Here her image in porcelain was at the center of what might have been a wildly baroque religious picture. It seemed to be a collage of innumerable photographed parts, with the whole thing then re-photographed as a single image. Is that a noose above her head?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As noted, a lot of contemporary art aims to surprise the viewer. Sometimes it’s an aesthetic surprise, of real beauty achieved in novel ways. Sometimes it’s a matter of being playful with visual elements. Both applied in the case of the green sculpture shown below; I actually didn’t register the echo of the human body in it till I saw my photo.

 

Sometimes too the playfulness is an unexpected and strange juxtaposition of disparate elements — as in Timofei Smirnov’s “Where No Voices Heard” (with telephone).

Or this horse carrying packs of crayons.

 

But then there’s the category of just plain weirdness. This photo of Edgar Endress’s “The Shrine of the American Dream” (below) shows only a portion of the wooden panels, there were many more.

 

 

And how about Michele Mikesell’s “The Lookout” (right). Clown pictures can often be subtly unsettling, but this one has that characteristic in spades. An art work like this sure is arresting and intriguing to look at it, but I wouldn’t want it on my wall where I’d have to look at it every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And some pieces of contemporary art I put in the category of just plain fun. Here is Paul Rousso’s “A Twisted Grand.” It’s a Thousand Dollar bill, a pretty accurate representation of the real thing; oversized and sculptural.

 

 

And here’s one final piece, a photograph, that was not actually in the show. It’s a picture I took recently, of our kitchen sink. It’s titled “Kitchen Sink.”

QAnon and the Republican war on reality

August 5, 2018

QAnon” is the handle of an online person or group claiming access to all kinds of secret information (“Q” refers to a high security clearance) about “deep state” conspiracies against Trump; with Trump actually being the great mastermind behind everything. QAnonism is spreading like wildfire among his Republican fans, especially at his rallies (where big “Q” signs are proliferating).

Included in the deranged QAnon catechism: Kim Jong-Un is actually a CIA puppet; the Democratic National Committee hired Salvadoran Gang MS-13 to murder its staffer Seth Rich; the Mueller probe is actually a counter-coup by Trump himself to expose Democratic wrongdoing; Obama, Hillary, and George Soros are child traffickers, also plotting a coup; that Trump’s enemies like John McCain wear ankle bracelets so he can track them; that J.P. Morgan sank the Titanic; that the Rothschild family heads a satanic cult. That QAnon explains the whole universe and will usher in a Christian “great awakening.”

The clues to all this are labeled “breadcrumbs.” When asked, QAnoners are fuzzy about how the dots actually connect and just say follow the breadcrumbs. But they’re certain it’s all true.

Striking too is the crazed obsession to pin fantastical misdeeds on Hillary — admittedly no paragon of virtue — and Obama, who actually was one, guilty only of officeholding-while-black — while blind to unquestioned facts showing Trump as the filthiest turd in U.S. political history.

In June a guy was arrested on terrorism charges after driving an armored vehicle, wielding an AR-15, and blocking traffic for two hours at Hoover Dam, claiming to be on a QAnon mission demanding release of an FBI report on Hillary (that had actually already been released). Previously another guy shot up a pizza parlor flagged by QAnon for having a Hillary-run pedophile ring headquartered in its basement. (Allegedly.)

Loopy radio conspiracy monger Alex Jones earlier promoted QAnonism, but now it’s too far out even for him. Even for Alex Jones. So now, within the Republican universe, Alex Jones is something of a moderate.

Meantime, at his recent Pennsylvania rally, Trump loudly called Russian election meddling a “hoax,” even while the rest of his government held a top-level meeting sounding the alarm about Russian election meddling. He also said “Russia is very unhappy that Trump won, that I can tell you.” While Putin, standing beside him just weeks earlier in Helsinki, openly said he’d wanted Trump to win.

So Trump lies outrageously to a huge crowd, and they cheer madly. (Literally.) Those waiting for his base to turn against him for something got their final answer in Helsinki where he sold us out to Russia. And 79% of Republicans (in an Axios poll) approved his Helsinki performance.

“Great awakening?” More like a great conking out.

My previous review of a book about conspiracy theories is worth re-reading (click here). It explains the deep evolutionary and psychological reasons why conspiracy theories (like QAnonism) find a ready audience. And we all want to believe what we’d like to be true. Yet most people retain a grip on reality. Except Republicans.

That’s not just a cheap shot but making a serious point. Having been a Republican myself till last year, I am still struggling to understand why most Republicans have totally drunk this Kool-Aid. I keep returning to the point that most of them believe in a supernatural god, Heaven, Hell, and the Bible. Does sustaining such fantasy beliefs compromise the brain’s ability to grasp reality — priming it to accept all the constant massive Trump lies?

Most religious people are able to compartmentalize — keeping their faith delusions in a separate mental folder, while thinking rationally and normally in other spheres. Even Republicans seemed to do this, until Trump came along. I could see through him from the start, as a very bad character in every possible way. I watched with horror as most other Republicans, en masse, dove over the cliff like lemmings. Where were their critical faculties?

This would be sad for them if Republicans were on some island of their own, and the rest of us could move on. But with 40% of our electorate embedded in this meshugas, it infects everything.

America has built up a tremendous reservoir of assets over two centuries. Strong institutions, rule of law, a culture that promotes dynamism, and a wonderful population full of good energetic people. And again, despite religious faith, empiricism was a crucially prevailing ethos. Empiricism means knowledge grounded in reality. Without that, we’re cast adrift. But now America’s leader actively, intentionally, assiduously works to destroy the line between reality and falsehood, and the credibility of real information sources. With too many following him down that road to perdition.

I have on my wall an enlargement of a onetime U.S. postage stamp that proclaimed “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.”

That light is going out.

Mitch Landrieu and Confederate monuments

August 2, 2018

Mitch Landrieu was mayor of New Orleans, 2010-18. In 2015 he started the process of removing Confederate monuments. Landrieu expected opposition, but its ferocity surprised him. Such was the violence and intimidation that it was a big problem even getting contractors to do the work. Statue removal became something of a military operation.

We saw Landrieu interviewed on The Daily Show and were very impressed. So my wife bought me his book, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.

The book impressed me even more, for its eloquence in expressing fundamental human good will, honesty, and decency; the values that made America great. And I wept anew at the contrast between that virtuous Americanism and Trumpist loathesomeness.

The book isn’t only about the statues. It tells Landrieu’s life story. He became mayor in 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina. His predecessor, Ray (“chocolate city”) Nagin was corrupt and incompetent; the recovery was a shambles. Thus Landrieu came into office with huge challenges. What he’s achieved testifies to the can-do spirit that’s so central to America’s story.

One thing Landrieu talks about is the schools. Even before Katrina they were a disaster area. The storm literally destroyed most of New Orleans’ public schools. But instead of just rebuilding them, the city took a different path, going whole-hog with charter schools. The liberal rap is that they “siphon” resources from public education, cream the best students, and educate them less well. This ignores that our most disadvantaged kids are the worst served by their public schools, and they do better in charters. Landrieu relates that switching his city to mainly a charter school model has produced way better results — especially for black kids.

“Very fine people on both sides”

Landrieu sees the subject of race as central to his whole life story. I used to optimistically believe the bad old days were behind us, with racism confined to dark peripheral corners of American society. That even the South had culturally moved on. We’d elected a black president, after all. But I’ve come to realize those dark corners are larger than I’d thought. (Indeed, Trump has brought racism out of the corners.)

The canard is that statue-removers are trying to “erase history.” But ironically it’s the statue-lovers doing exactly that. Landrieu gives us a history lesson.

After the Civil War, Southern whites created “the Cult of the Lost Cause” — romanticizing it as having been a battle for states’ rights and, mainly, the noble defense of a genteel culture, contrasted against a Northern one dark with factory smoke and industrialist greed.

Truth: The war was about slavery. No slavery, no war. “States’ rights?” It was the right to enslave human beings. The supposedly refined culture being defended had its foundation in the kidnapping, brutalization, torture, and rape of human beings. So much for moral superiority. This was not some noble cause, but among the foulest in history.

Of course, southern whites didn’t see themselves as brutalizing human beings. To anesthetize their consciences they convinced themselves blacks were inferior creatures, made by God to be slaves. Thus the salience of white supremacy thinking. (Today’s white supremacists are self-refuting; their belief, contrary to biological fact, proves it’s they who are the less evolved creatures.)

After the war that freed the slaves, southern whites strove to undo that result to the greatest extent possible through a campaign of violence and terror to beat down black people and eviscerate their human rights.

That is the context for the erection of these “Lost Cause” monuments. They came in two waves: one circa 1900 when Jim Crow was getting established, and later during the civil rights era. In both cases the aim was to strut whites’ unrepentance and rub it especially into black faces, to keep them “in their place.” These were white supremacy monuments. Statues of traitors.

And there were never any memorializing slavery’s victims.

Landrieu’s tale did, again, impress upon me the depth of white racism still persisting. As he chronicles, unreconstructed whites responded regarding the monuments just as they had to emancipation, and the civil rights era, with terroristic violence. A noble cause honoring history? Yeccch.

While the former Confederate states have big black populations, they are minorities, and voting is largely along racial lines. Republicans are the white party. Not all, but a majority of southern whites who vote Republican are voting to express disapproval and hostility toward black citizens. (There’s not a single white Democratic congressman left from the south.)

America has never been a perfect country. But its greatness — exemplified by Mitch Landrieu’s story — has always been its striving toward perfection, through the efforts of people like him, with nobility of spirit. And even despite what I’ve written here, we had indeed been on an upward path, toward a more perfect union. The statues, in New Orleans, and many other southern locales, did come down.

But alas right now we’re on a radical detour from that path of human progress. A sharp lurch downwards.

Landrieu is being touted for president. He’d be the perfect candidate to beat Vile Creep. Would the Democrats have enough sense to nominate him? Would America have enough moral sense to elect him?

Pascal’s wager

July 30, 2018

Assume 50-50 odds of God existing or not. Which way should you bet? With your afterlife, that is. This is “Pascal’s wager.”

Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematical genius responsible for great advances in probability theory. He answered his question this way: if you go “yes” and are wrong, you lose nothing. But if you wrongly bet “no,” you can wind up in Hell. Therefore believing in God is the logical choice.

Childish though this little game might seem, it actually was a step toward a proper theory of decision-making and risk management. Pascal was propounding a method for analysis when weighing uncertain future possibilities, based on mapping out their consequences. It may seem obvious today, but in his time it wasn’t.

Yet Pascal’s analysis of the God problem was faulty (even assuming the odds really are 50-50). Betting “yes” is not actually cost-free. Far from it — as well illustrated by Pascal’s own life. At an early age he put all his chips on that bet, and devoted himself entirely to religion. He gave up mathematics completely. What a waste of genius!

However, there’s something very strange here. If Pascal was so deeply religious, how could he even have hypothesized God’s nonexistence? And then fail to foresee his loss if he were wrong? No true believer would think that way. But perhaps I’m making here the common mistake of imputing some sort of rationality to religious thinking. The true cost of faith is sacrificing your rational engagement with reality.

Anyhow, Pascal’s wager is as ridiculous as all so-called logical proofs of God’s existence that religious apologist philosophers indefatigably concoct. The simplest answer is to ask why Pascal’s same wager should not equally apply to every other religion in the world. Why bet on Christianity as opposed to Hinduism? Pascal would have to choose. Now the bet doesn’t look so easy.

Well, hello, there is no God, no Heaven or Hell; no religion is true. You can bet on it. The odds are 100%.

The Democrats’ divide

July 27, 2018

Many Democrats insist they mustn’t be namby-pamby, but instead run as full-throated unapologetic “progressives” — as tax-the-rich class and social justice warriors, for medicare-for-all, free college, and $15 minimum wage. The Full Bernie.

I have argued instead that Democrats should seize the center ground vacated by Republicans — where elections will be won, since the ideological voters on both left and right cancel each other out.

The July 14 Economist has a good in-depth examination of where the Democratic party stands.*

Start with the fact that Democrats have actually been getting more votes than Republicans in most elections, including for Congress and the presidency. But that hasn’t given them power because Democrats suffer a structural disadvantage. The electoral college was set up intentionally to give smaller states extra clout. Piling up even bigger margins in states like California and New York won’t help Democrats in 2020 if they can’t do better in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Furthermore, within states, Democrats tend to bunch up in cities while Republicans are more advantageously spread among rural districts, giving them more seats. Which they’ve leveraged further by gerrymandering. Hence in 2018, Democrats will actually need about 54% of the national congressional vote to gain a House majority.

A further factor is that showing up to vote increases with income, and the poorest voters tend to be Democrats. This too Republicans have cynically exacerbated with voter suppression measures targeting the poor and minorities.

Republicans are also more united than ever, with 85-90% support for Trump despite his vileness. This reflects the deep tribalism of today’s American politics. Democrats are tribalistic too, though not as psychotically; and anyhow their tribe is no larger. Which again means they must win swing voters in the middle.

Those voters are not ideological; indeed, that’s why they’re up for grabs. They tend to be the least informed, least engaged, who vote by their gut, for the candidate they feel more in tune with. (A big reason why Hillary lost.)

The Economist quotes historian Mark Lilla that “Republicans have successfully persuaded much of the public that they are the party of Joe sixpack and Democrats are the party of Jessica yogamat.” There’s also their talking in terms of group interests (LGBT, ethnic minorities, labor, etc.) “rather than a universal sense of the public good.” Their 2016 platform mentioned LGBT rights 20 times but immigration reform almost never.

The diversity within the Democratic party is actually a problem for it. A big part of its base comprises the mentioned kinds of interest groups, including the poorest and most disadvantaged Americans, while another consists of upper class chablis-drinking liberals. That diversity is laudable, The Economist says, but makes it hard to define what the party truly stands for.

Theoretically, if they could really yoke together those yuppie Bernie-lovers with all the LGBT, black, Hispanic, and poor and working class voters, etc., they could win. But the trouble is that all these disparate groups don’t actually see a shared identity. Blacks don’t come out for Hispanics, nor vice versa; there isn’t brown-skinned solidarity. Let alone solidarity with white yuppies. And it’s a mistake to assume being a minority goes hand-in-hand with a leftist political outlook. The Economist says, “to suggest that people’s views are a product of their skin colour, gender or sexuality is bad enough. As a principle for uniting a party as diverse as the Democratic Party, it is a disaster.”

A recent David Brooks column similarly describes two contending “narratives” dividing Democrats. One is the Sanders/socialist story of class conflict and battling against economic power. The other is the story of oppressed minorities fighting for their place in the sun. Brooks sees congressional primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as blending the two; he calls it “racial justice socialism.” (I’d say “ethno-socialism.”) But, says, Brooks, Democrats have never really been able to consummate this marriage, and moreover those Democrats who’ve actually won national elections — Bill Clinton, Obama — did so by reassuring voters they do not embrace such radicalism.

A lot of Democrats, in their zeal for ideological purity, are oblivious to how they sound to Middle America. Most Americans do now accept gay marriage — but feel, like, “enough already.” They also accept abortion rights — up to a point — but don’t get why Democrats talk as though abortions are wonderful. Nor why they seem to want to give out unearned handouts right and left. And no matter how much lipstick they put on that pig, I don’t think Americans will elect someone wearing the word “socialist.” (Though admittedly I didn’t think they’d elect a pussygrabber.)

This Democratic tone-deafness is exemplified by some advocating “sanctuary cities” and now even abolishing ICE. How stupid. I hate as much as anyone how ICE is operating. It needs a thorough overhaul. But Democrats’ abolition talk plays into the hands of Trump accusing them of being for “open borders” and criminality.

I look to Democrats to literally save the country in 2020, by putting their pet ideological fetishes to the side and nominating an electable candidate. That trumps everything. Hopefully by 2020 most of those swing voters will be tired of Trumpian lies and chaos so they’re receptive to an alternative. Democrats have to make themselves palatable, as people like them, as sensible, responsible, good down-to-earth people, who respect facts and truth. Not ones obsessed with weird extreme positions.

Empty talk about “uniting the country” has become as common as it is dishonest. Even Trump does it. Strange how such words are often accompanied by palpably divisive ones. Yet uniting the country — getting us somehow past this insane degree of partisan tribalism — is more desperately important than ever (well, since 1860).

And there are, in fact, principles and values that still should unite us. I say “should” rather than “do” because sadly too few of us still remember them. That makes emphasizing them now all the more needful. Call it “back to basics.”

The Economist’s piece ends by putting words to them. Democrats should “relearn the language of American civil religion: self-evident truths; a shining city upon a hill; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And above all, e pluribus unum: out of many, one.”

These words still have power. They do for me. I got tingles writing them.

There’s the Democratic platform for 2018 and 2020.

*By John Prideaux. He’d previously written an editorial on the disgraceful state of the Republican party. When I sent a letter-to-the-editor saying the party is irredeemable and Republicans should leave it (as I did), Prideaux replied gratefully, calling my letter a welcome relief from the many by irate Republicans saying “Cancel my subscription!”

What is happiness?

July 23, 2018

There is no bigger question. After all, what is the point of life? I’ve authored a book titled Life, Liberty, and Happiness, arguing that ultimately the only thing in the cosmos that matters is the feelings of beings capable of feelings. Nothing can matter unless it matters to someone.

Weighing in on this is Yuval Noah Harari’s 2017 book, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow. He posits that human happiness will increasingly occupy our attention. It didn’t always. “Pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary idea when most people were too preoccupied with just surviving to think about whether they were happy.

Epicurus

Yet unpacking the concept of happiness has always vexed philosophers. Epicurus (341-270 BC) fingered the centrality of pleasure versus pain, but what he advocated wasn’t hedonism; his idea of pleasure was almost Spartan. Harari meantime says all pleasures really resolve down to just internal bodily sensations, which he denigrates as mere “vibrations” (evoking the “good vibes” of the ’60s). And when he says all, he means all. Applying not just to sensations like orgasms but to pleasures we might call mental or psychic. If you feel good about a job promotion, Harari says what’s really happening is a set of bodily sensations. That’s all.

And the problem, Harari insists, is that such sensations are always fleeting. Hardly is one experienced before it’s gone. So if your life is about happiness qua sensations, you’re condemned to forever chasing them without being able to hold onto them. A recipe for frustration and thus, indeed, unhappiness.

This perspective is basically Buddhist, as Harari acknowledges. Buddhism teaches that the quest for pleasure — to fulfill our desires — is actually the root of suffering. We can stop suffering only by letting go of the desires.

We might as well stop living. I find all this a reductio ad absurdum view of happiness, pleasure, and suffering. That it’s all just bodily sensations or “vibrations” is simply wrong, contrary to neuroscience. In fact we don’t experience anything directly. Instead, all one’s sensations are mediated by the mind, a gatekeeper that tells you how to feel about them.

That’s why it’s said our most important sex organ is the brain. And I recently reviewed a book by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio elucidating how pain is “felt” not by signals from the body but by how the mind/brain responds to those signals. He wrote of a patient enduring severe pain who then had surgery to snip a tiny brain section. Afterward he reported, “the pain is the same; but I feel fine now!” The mental phenomenon, not the physical one, was what mattered; and they were not the same thing.

Admittedly, emotions do entail physical sensations. I remember one episode of real bodily pain after an argument with a girlfriend; and I feel tingles hearing the national anthem. But it’s still wrong to assert that such bodily sensations are all there is. Clearly, what the mind thinks in such episodes is the main event.

Philosopher Robert Nozick posed this thought experiment: imagine a machine that simulates, in your brain, pleasurable experiences. For example, giving you all the exact feelings you’d get from winning the New York Marathon (if that’s your wish). Would you spend your life hooked up to that machine? Most people say no. Because we understand that life and reality are more complicated.

I often do reflect on Harari’s point about the evanescence of sensations. Considering myself a sensualist who does deeply savor pleasures, I am acutely conscious of their impermanence. When eating a cookie I try to do it mindfully, to experience it fully while I can. Trying to grasp hold of its reality. But what it really means to taste a cookie, as a mind/brain phenomenon, is extremely hard to wrap one’s mind/brain around; it seems to disappear in the effort. And meantime, given the fleetingness of sensations themselves, I find that anticipation and recollection are more important. Again, it’s complicated.

Harari weirdly omits any discussion of the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia. It casts happiness not as rooted in transitory sensations but rather in a “life well lived.” What does that mean? Clearly not a life full of caviar and sex but, for example, a life of nourishing connections to others, family love, civic engagement, worthwhile accomplishment, intellectual growth, and so forth. It is the antithesis of focusing just on sensations, looking instead upon one’s life as a whole. That provides a baseline sense of well-being that supersedes not just the momentary impacts of “vibrations” but even of life’s more consequential vicissitudes.

Thus — although as noted all sensations are ultimately mental constructs — eudaimonia (in contrast to Harari’s fleeting “vibrations”) is a mental construct with continuity over time.

Buddhist this is not. At one time my greatest desire was to find a partner; relinquishing that desire would not have brought me to nirvana. Instead I pursued it and succeeded. My marriage does entail some momentary (ahem) bodily sensations — but its impact on my overall mental state continues over time, ever present in my consciousness. A foundation of my eudaimonia.

John Stuart Mill famously queried whether it’s better to be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied. Whatever pleasures the pig experiences, it cannot have eudaimonia, not being capable of sustaining such a complex mental construct. Socrates could and (presumably) did.

Joint Statement by ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and CNN

July 21, 2018

For Release July 21, 2018

We have always taken with utmost seriousness our responsibility to the American people to inform them truthfully, accurately, and objectively. In furtherance of this, we have traditionally maintained a stance of partisan neutrality — even though it has always been deemed appropriate for news media to present analyses, evaluations, and opinions. Editorial endorsements of political candidates have been standard practice for newspapers.

We have ourselves refrained from such editorial expressions until now. But extraordinary times require extraordinary responses.

Our loyalty to our own traditions should not negate our loyalty to our country and to the larger principles it stands for.

Hence we now state here, forthrightly, our editorial opinion: that our country and its principles are today under assault, and disgraced by, President Trump. We will elaborate in future broadcast editorials.

We acknowledge some responsibility on our part for the sad state of affairs. During the 2016 campaign, we thought we were showing what our viewers wanted to see (and, frankly, what would attract viewers). This resulted in one candidate, Donald Trump, receiving a grossly disproportionate share of coverage and what amounted to billions of dollars worth of free advertising. This likely affected the outcome.

We will not repeat this mistake, not only because it was bad journalistic practice, but also to avoid contributing to a bad 2020 election outcome. Based on what we’ve previously said, his re-election would be bad for our country and its ideals.

There are already two major news networks that are highly partisan mouthpieces for this administration: Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group. We will not emulate their partisanship on the other side. But what we will do is to now adopt a code of conduct to ensure, at least, avoidance of any complicity with the administration’s propaganda efforts promoting President Trump’s political interests.

This does not mean we won’t cover the President when his actions are legitimately newsworthy. It does mean we will not give him a soap-box for self-aggrandizement and spreading his message and his lies. We will not broadcast interviews with him. We will no longer routinely cover his tweets, rallies, speeches, and statements — except to expose the lies therein. (Which actually should mean ample air time.)

Also, we will no longer participate in the daily White House “news” briefings currently conducted by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. We have made a determination that they are not a legitimate information source. Nor will we give air time to the President’s other spokespersons, defenders, apologists, or propagandists; except, again, to point out lies and other scandalous utterances.

With those parameters, we will continue our mission to keep the American people well informed of all the facts bearing on the state of the world, to enable them to participate as good citizens.

The President says we are biased against him, and calls any factual reporting that doesn’t flatter him “fake news.” No doubt our statement today will be exploited by him in that vein. So be it. We have now made clear that we are indeed opposed to him, because of our loyalty to our country and its values. And, while we have thusly expressed our view, we will never lie or bend the truth in its service. Heaven knows there’s enough damning truth that our faking it is wholly unnecessary.

The independent news media is not “the enemy of the people.” It is the enemy of liars.

[Note: this statement is imaginary]