Archive for November, 2016

Death with Dignity*

November 30, 2016

unknownHow would you prefer to die? While having sex, some answer. But most just want to die at home among loved ones. However, most people die in some kind of facility. We also fear pain. But usually pain can be medically managed. The real issue is quality of life at the end. People want to feel they have some control over what’s happening to them.

Our medical and legal systems work against that. Suicide is not allowed, certainly not with medical help. Some get around this by refusing nourishment. Actually a pretty nasty way to go.

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard was a California gal who got brain cancer at 28. Aggressive treatment failed. Maynard’s end-game looked horrible, and doctors couldn’t help her. So she moved to Oregon, which had adopted a “Death With Dignity” law in 1994. This allowed her to get a prescription for 100 Seconal capsules. Maynard enjoyed the time she had left, and when the disease’s depredations duly overcame that enjoyment, she popped the pills. In five minutes she was sleeping peacefully; in an hour or so, an ex-parrot.

unknown-2But before that, Maynard helped campaign for California legislation similar to Oregon’s. Governor Brown signed it in 2015; the fourth state with such a law. Efforts are underway to get one passed in New York.

My libertarianism says you should be free to do what you want, as long as no one else is harmed. Nothing is more fundamental than your right to control your own passing.

The proposed law has many safeguards. It would only apply after a terminal diagnosis (death expected within six months) confirmed by two doctors; and a written request with two witnesses. The patient must be mentally capable, and while there can be help, the fatal dose must be self-administered.images-1 The patient must also receive counseling on other options. And must wear green shoes.

Some opposition comes from religious quarters – the idea of taking things out of God’s hands. Of course all medical interventions do that. There is also the allied “sanctity of life” argument. But if life is sacred, it is sacred first and foremost to the individual living it. Whatever meaning it has is primarily its meaning to him or her; and they should have the freedom to choose the right time to end it. Denying that autonomy seems indeed antithetical to the concept of life as sacred.

Also, some believers maintain that suffering is redemptive. Fine if the suffering is your own choice. But to demand it for another is not redemptive, it’s just cruel.

Medical organizations have also traditionally opposed these laws. Some doctors see them as fundamentally contrary to the Hippocratic oath (“First, do no harm”), and don’t want to be put in morally ambiguous situations. However, some organizations are moderating that stance; in California, the local one opted for neutrality. In Oregon, under the new regime, end-of-life care has improved, and doctors wound up feeling better about things.

Opposition has also come from advocates for the disabled, who fear such laws could put vulnerable people at risk. That’s a paternalistic attitude – most disabled people themselves actually want to have the choices the law would allow. In polls, they are as much in favor as the general population – which supports such legislation, by large majorities. And while many opponents cite potential abuses, Oregon’s experience fails to reveal a single such case.

unknown-1Then there’s the “slippery slope” argument – if euthanasia is permitted, it could evolve into being required, or people pressured into it. Again, Oregon’s experience rebuts this; after twenty years it hasn’t happened, and the numbers utilizing Oregon’s law haven’t risen over time. But meanwhile all of public policy is a slippery slope. At every point on the slope, we must make choices and decisions. As rational creatures, we can do this.

Little by little, step by step, human beings gradually have been getting better at how to do things, improving our quality of life. “Death with Dignity,” giving us more and better options for controlling our own circumstances, is one example. This is progress. It’s why I’m an optimist.

* Note, this post is based on a talk by Corinne Carey of “Compassion and Choices New York,” a nonprofit working to improve care and expand choices at the end of life.

Trump: Making China great again

November 27, 2016

unknownThanks to president-elect Trump’s opposition, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is dead. And considering all his China-bashing in the campaign, it’s a supreme irony that they’re high-fiving each other in Beijing – because Trump has handed China one gigantic geopolitical triumph.

This is America forfeiting – to China – Pacific region trade leadership. The TPP, painstakingly negotiated over many years, was our way to unite the other regional nations with us to resist Chinese bullying. unknown-2With America pulling back, now they’re left to fend for themselves, which will mean accommodating to China as the region’s big Kahuna.

But the words “trade deal” have become so politically toxic here. Shame on Democrats for their cowardly unwillingness to defend one of President Obama’s key initiatives. He himself was forced to give up on it. Not to mention Republicans, who until recently knew better on this issue too.

America’s share of global manufacturing has not been falling. Manufacturing jobs have been disappearing — but due more to technological advancement than trade. And trade-related job losses are overwhelmed by the benefits to U.S. consumers when prices we pay are lower. That savings translates into more consumer spending, which creates jobs, making up for any lost. Furthermore, if trade makes countries like China and Mexico richer, that’s good for us — they can buy more from us. And anyhow, the TPP would not actually have given other countries much added ability to sell us stuff – our tariffs were already quite low. unknown-1But it would have required those other nations to reduce their trade barriers, enabling U.S. businesses to sell more to them. For us, it was a no-brainer. But I guess we have no brains now.


November 24, 2016

unknownMany of us feel our world has been shattered, and we’re hurled into an alternate reality – like one of those dystopian future movies where the president is a bizarre mutant. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

But that makes thankfulness all the more important. I wrote recently how one’s temperament is largely inborn; happiness or misery more a personality trait than a consequence of one’s circumstances. And a psychology of thankfulness and appreciation is a big part of it. Being thankful for what you have is a foundation for happiness; coveting what you don’t have, misery. And pity the cynic who sees everything as rotten.

Being thankful is indeed integral to my own personality. And that inborn temperament is greatly reinforced intellectually, because I am so keenly aware of how other people – and creatures – have lived, throughout history, and in so many places today. I am grateful to be human; to live in this time; in this society; and for the mind that gives me that positive perspective. This is what I focus on.

images-2Even beyond what I’ve mentioned, I’ve been exceptionally lucky. To explain more would be bragging, so I’ll limit myself to just one particular: the most perfect wife. Not that she is a perfect human being of course. But she is perfect for me.

Having each other, we can endure whatever happens in the larger world.

On to Mars

November 21, 2016

unknownI was 21. And I vividly remember newscaster David Brinkley, with his distinctive twang, calling July 20, 1969 “a date that will be remembered as long as people remember anything.”

We have always been a race of explorers. Hillary said he climbed Everest “because it is there.” We recently saw a NOVA program about how humans spread to every corner of the Earth. How did early peoples conquer the Pacific? We were shown their boat-making and navigational prowess, that got them all the way to remote Hawaii and Easter Island – tiny specks in a vast nothingness. images-1But how did they know those islands were even there? Someone had to set out first, without knowing, to find them. Imagine getting in that boat.

Setting foot on the Moon took it to another level. Brinkley was right, and so was Armstrong: a giant leap, yet only a first step on a new and monumental journey. This was a rite of passage.

Since then, the journey seems stalled, if not exactly abandoned. Half a century ago, it was spearheaded by government, necessarily so in light of the cost. Since then, governments don’t really have time for the vaulting ambition of space travel, having become mired instead in a more mundane concern trying to reconcile somehow the contradictions of welfare state politics.

But of course human beings are not just creatures of politics and government, and the same impetus that propelled ancient Polynesians across the Pacific still pushes us toward more distant destinations.

unknown-1The Economist recently profiled the Mars project of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a private company. The aim is to make available, in coming decades, $200,000 Mars tickets. This would be cheaper than the Apollo program’s cost to get men to the Moon – 50,000 times cheaper in fact. But SpaceX is developing serious plans for actually accomplishing its goal. They entail a BFR – a technical term, it stands for “Big Fucking Rocket” – dwarfing previous rockets, and reusable besides – to boost on its way a smaller vehicle carrying 100 passengers, which could double as temporary housing once they reach Mars. Necessary supplies and equipment would already have been dropped by previous missions. Thus would begin the human occupation of Mars.

Musk sees this as a much-needed “Plan B” for humankind, lest Earth become uninhabitable for one reason or another – as Cassandras keep warning. But The Economist says it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which making Mars livable isn’t much harder than making Earth livable. (Though that was before Trump’s election.)

Anyhow, “Plan B” isn’t the real reason to go to Mars. It is, after all, there. What more reason do we need? We will go there just as the Polynesians went to Easter Island.

images-2The Economist also says that while some adventurous souls undoubtedly would undertake the huge sacrifice such colonization would entail, to become truly self-sustaining Mars would need a population of around a million, and that would be a heavier lift. And, for all Musk’s hubris, the challenge of getting even one person to Mars does remain enormous.

unknown-2But again I quote our species motto: the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer. And I remember that some individuals who once deemed powered flight impossible lived to see men fly to the Moon.


President Trump, of the Nation Formerly Known as America

November 16, 2016

Give him a chance. He can’t be so bad. He’s our president now. Let’s hope he succeeds. You’re just a bunch of political sore losers, get over it. This is what we’re hearing.

unknownThere’s an idea that his critics have been refuted, that being elected somehow laundered him – proving all the negative stuff about him during the campaign was untrue or irrelevant. That the media misrepresented him. Sorry, not so. Things said don’t become unsaid; facts don’t become non-facts. He’s still Donald “Grab them by the pussy” Trump.

But America does love redemption stories, and it’s hoped the presidency’s awesomeness will reform him. He did seem subdued in his post-election appearances. However, so many times I’ve seen some foreign leader elected, thinking what a great opportunity he has to prove the doubters wrong. They never do. Look at South Africa’s Zuma. A creep before. A bigger creep after.

Power does corrupt. It doesn’t make bad men better, it makes them worse. As a student of history and world affairs, I know this story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

It’s also hoped that a “successful businessman” will naturally surround himself with the best people. What a joke. He was a failure at actually building businesses, making his fortune by looting them and leaving others holding the bag; then marketing his celebrity name. And the best people? Steve Bannon? Reince Priebus? Rudy Giuliani? Newt Gingrich?

Send in the clowns.

In hindsight, Trump won the election on his campaign’s first day, with two words: “They’re rapists.” Not that it was believed literally, but it set the tone. Enough voters instantly latched onto him as their personal avatar, and nothing could budge them. “He tells it like it is.” Another sick joke – the biggest liar in our political history.

His voters feel America has been going downhill, and Trump will turn it around. They’re right about the former, in some ways, but not the latter. unknown-2Our politics has certainly been going downhill, with divisions hardening, and truth, reason and decency among the casualties. Trump is the culmination; not a national renewal, but a national degradation; the bottom falling out.

This is not being a sore loser about an election, it’s the loss of our country. Not about politics or ideology, but culture and values. I keep hearing, “This is not who we are.” And I say to myself: “Well, it is now.”

Of course this is all hyperbole. Life will go on much as before; America is still a great place to live. Unlike in many others, I can still freely write this blog. For now; Donald Trump truly does not like that, nor do a lot of his followers. That’s just one way they trash the principles that actually made America great. unknown-3When will we see the Trump neighborhood brigades to “defend the revolution,” like in Cuba and Venezuela? (And in Sinclair Lewis’s now uncanny 1935 book, It Can’t Happen Here.)

This American travesty reflects an unfortunate worldwide trend of short-sighted voters brainlessly demolishing what was so painstakingly built. Like in the Brexit vote. The democratic, genuinely liberal and humanistic lights are also going out in Turkey (a huge tragedy), the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Thailand; France and Italy could well be next. The EU’s continuation is doubtful. While Russia and China get more repressive and emboldened; look for a Baltic invasion, putting NATO to the test. And America’s steady leadership is a bygone. A tough time for optimists.

I am politically homeless today. The name “Republican” is ashes in my mouth. I find myself in some sympathy with “progressive” Trump opponents; however, they’re wrong on so many issues, and often just as bad on the fundamental ideal of freedom of thought and expression. The alternative in the next election will likely be far left.

unknown-4But no matter how lonely, I will continue speaking out for the humanistic values I hold dear, and that have given us so much progress. I will continue — until that brigade comes for me.

Our new lawn sign

November 14, 2016

Rational optimist – or pessimist?

November 12, 2016

On Wednesday morning I changed this blog’s title from “The Rational Optimist” to “The Rational Pessimist.”

unknown-1Psychology research shows that optimism-versus-pessimism, happiness-versus-unhappiness, is largely inborn, and largely impervious to life’s vicissitudes. That we have a set-point of temperament, to which one’s mood reverts, after the immediate impact of some positive or negative event dissipates. I have been blessed with a setting at the far end of the range. It was no coincidence that I literally wrote the book on optimism.

Tuesday night was the worst thing ever in my life. Worse than 9/11. Worse even than when my longtime girlfriend left me. Someone has said that “Never Trump” Republicans (like me) are now the loneliest people in the world. I have agonized about changing my enrollment; but the Democrats will likely continue their leftward march. images-1I’m the man without a party; I feel like the man without a country.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a local gathering (celebrating an election upset 50 years earlier). I wore black. However, as I ran toward the entrance, in the rain, I realized I was already actually feeling cheerful – confirming all that set-point psychology research! (A nod here to my wife and marriage, which have been my rock.)

But my book and blog referenced rational optimism – not a Pollyanna attitude with rose-colored glasses. Another strong personality trait of mine is realism. I see no benefit in deluding myself about things I wish were true. Thus I’ve also written of my “ideology of reality.”

One of the realities I accept is that the cosmos is purposeless, undirected, and our existence is an evolutionary accident. But that means it’s entirely up to us to make the best of our situation; and, unlike every other creature that ever existed, we have great tools for it. Mainly, our incredibly powerful brains. And, using those tools, we have actually done fantastically at making for ourselves lives worth living. unknown-2Especially in modern times, since the Enlightenment, humanity has achieved incredible progress. (Once again I reference Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) This is the heart of my rational optimism.

In that march of progress, building the means for people to live good lives, one of our greatest creations has been the United States of America.

But the realist in me knows that we are not perfect beings, and for all the reasoning power of our brains, we are subject to rampaging emotions and irrationality. What people build people can also destroy – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly. America is not immune. No God protects her from human folly.

unknownAn enterprise like America can only be sustained if the people in it actually understand what it’s all about. Tuesday showed that America – well, half at least – has lost the thread. It’s freedom and democracy, yes, but also rule of law; pluralism; human dignity; tolerance; openness; generosity; fair play; civility; responsibility; community spirit; and, not least, devotion to truth and reason. What Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (inspiring Pinker’s title).

Those establishment “elites” whom Trump voters so resent have upheld those values quite well, indeed kept up the momentum of progress (for example with gay marriage). But meantime, lamentably, the rest of America has undergone a long process of civic decline – decline in genuine devotion to its ideals and values, because too few people are educated and acculturated nowadays in what those precepts mean. Too many have reduced Americanism to flag waving and snarling empty slogans.

There are a lot of reasons, a lot of culprits, it’s not a simple story, and a lot of it is actually fallout from some aspects of our progress (like greater racial equality) – but the bottom line is that too few Americans still understand what actually made America great. unknown-4This is why the “Make America Great Again” slogan was so painfully ironic. I wish we could make America great again – like it was before Tuesday.

We heard much talk of voters expressing their pain. I won’t belittle what anyone feels; but surely conditions of life in today’s America are not historically bad. Things in the Depression, for example, were much, much worse. However, voters in the Depression did not fall for such a blatant, un-American demagogue. Nor would have tolerated a candidate with such grotesque defects of character.* That all this was accepted in 2016 bespeaks a sad corrosion of America’s character.

This is why I am so heartbroken. Hearing the national anthem has always teared me up. Now it will be for what’s been lost.

And yet there may be hope, because perhaps strangely, it is older people who most embody the decline, while younger people – more shaped by the trends of modernity I mentioned – seem to better embrace those Enlightenment civic values their elders have forgotten. unknown-5It’s true too of the new arrivals – that’s why I so welcome immigration – people come here because they do crave America’s true meaning, and their coming is a national renewal.

Well, our new first lady is an immigrant.** That’s one thing at least to celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” images-2Seeing that great trend of history made me an optimist. But it’s never a smooth curve, and America has just bent sharply the other way. But I’m not ready to believe humanity’s whole arc has changed. Nor am I ready to give up on what America used to stand for. I have tried to promote those values on this blog. Now, I will have to work harder at it.

I have restored this blog’s title.

* Please, stuff the spluttering about Clinton. There’s no comparison. Indeed, the very fact that so many failed to see this shows how messed up the country has become.

** Though not the first; that was Louisa Adams. However, also ironically, the first family will include its first Jew.

The morning after

November 9, 2016

No serious, thinking, responsible, conscientious, civic-minded people supported Trump (even before the sexual assault stuff). He was rightly seen as a perfect storm of horribleness. No newspapers (apart from the KKK’s and one other) endorsed him, a remarkable break with business-as-usual. Electing him is, to quote Thomas Friedman, “insane.”

We kept hearing about voter anger, craving for change, resentment toward elites, and economic anxieties. All true of course; and yet Trump voters have the highest living standard of any people ever. (Their incomes are actually above average.) They are spoiled brats. No civic-mindedness, no we’re-all-in-it-together community spirit. No thought for the consequences of their action. Instead self gratification, solipsism, narcissism. No wonder they backed a man epitomizing those very characteristics.

unknown-4It’s also naked tribalism. A famous social science experiment put two similar groups of boys into two isolated wilderness camps. Each group developed an internal tribal solidarity. But when the two eventually met, it was us-against-them tribal conflict. Such tribalism blights our politics and governance.

Us against them, us against the world, was a key dynamic of Trump support. This wasn’t ideological, or about policies, but identity politics. His voters whipped themselves into an hysteria of Hillary-hatred while shrugging off Trump’s being a psychopathic monster. That didn’t matter; facts didn’t matter; much of the Hillary rap sheet was conspiratorial nonsense, like all that wacky Obama nonsense, that he’s a Muslim, etc. (His main crime was skin color.) A lot of this garbage comes from Facebook and other internet sources where anyone can say anything. Trump’s followers lap it up.

(The Economist reports that the most accurate predictor of Trump support was believing Obama is a Muslim. (Ironically, no one ever calls him an atheist – which could be true.) The Daily Show recently featured some Trump supporters and their cuckoo tropes. Some insisted Obama was absent from the Oval Office on 9/11!)

I have written before about confirmation bias: embracing whatever supports your prejudices while rejecting any conflicting information. And smarter people can actually be more likely to believe untrue things because they are more skillful at spinning rationalizations to bolster their deluded ideas.

The country has experienced vast social change: more opportunities for women, blacks, gays, other minorities; more ethnic diversity, and openness to the world. Even that black president. The inevitable backlash, till now, was contained; but Trump has brought it to the center of our politics.

unknown-5Amanda Taub in the New York Times wrote on November 2 of a “crisis” in white identity. We anchor our identities in two ways: what we achieve, and what we identify with. Economic changes make the former tougher for many people, so they cleave harder to the latter. Whites used to feel a privileged status vis-à-vis other ethnicities; but now that too has become tougher. There’s a feeling of, “this is not my country any more.” However, “[f]or decades, the language of white identity has only existed in the context of white supremacy,” which was taboo, thus leaving white identity effectively voiceless. Trumpism provided an outlet for it, a key element of his support.

Plain misogyny was a factor too. Some males just couldn’t stomach a woman as president. Trump’s caricature of macho played to that.

And of course, he is quite simply a con man, and fools bought the con. Polls wound up with voters bizarrely seeing him as the more honest and trustworthy candidate. Trump, the most colossal liar in American political history.

There used to be standards: of veracity, decency, character, civility, fairness, seriousness. Trump drove a bulldozer through them all, they’re demolished, and our politics will never be the same.

His pious words about uniting the nation are empty. His candidacy was resentment and division incarnate. If anything, the truculence can only be expected to ramp up with its victory, with the smell of blood in its nostrils. (This was on exhibit with the snarling of his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on CNN this morning – no magnanimity there.) And considering the vicious political divisiveness through the last several presidencies – well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Bill Maher the other day said maybe the left had erred in so demonizing George W. Bush and even Romney – honorable men, actually – thus “crying wolf.” And now there is a real demon to demonize.

Some may hope the presidency will mellow Trump. He has shown himself to be a narcissistic egomaniac – what do you think will happen when someone like that gets hold of the power and glory of the presidency?

unknownI have always been, though a realist, an idealist worshipping at the altar of democracy. I had no time for cynics on that score. Like the Russian and Chinese autocrats who sneer at our democracy as weak and dysfunctional. Jefferson idealized a democracy supported by an informed, civic-minded citizenry – but that’s the Achilles heel. Voters can indeed be fools. We saw it in the stupid Brexit vote, in Colombia’s stupid rejection of the peace deal, and now in the idiotic Trump vote. One bad choice at the polls, falling for a demagogue, can wreck a country; look at Venezuela.

I would like to make citizens of all the undocumented aliens and Syrian refugees and, in exchange, deport Trump voters. We’d have a better country.

unknown-7God has not decreed it forever safe from fools. Trump has debauched the nation. Electing him is a repudiation of the high ideals and values it has stood for. This is not my country any more. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with America, but today is like finding her in bed with a gigolo.



O my America

November 9, 2016





Hillary’s victory speech (draft)

November 8, 2016

unknownTo: HRC

From: FSR

Re: Draft victory speech

Well, Hill, you didn’t use any of my drafts before. Though I bet you wish you had given that e-mail speech. Anyway, here’s what I think you should say tonight:


Gosh! From the bottom of my heart (I do have one), thank you, America. It’s customary on occasions like this to say one is “humbled.” But people who say it really mean the opposite. Humility is the last thing on their minds. I don’t feel humbled, I feel proud, to finally realize my great ambition.

Saying this reflects a new policy of mine: openness and honesty.

unknown-1I won’t be the first president who starts off distrusted by a majority of the country. Lincoln actually did too. Not that I’m another Lincoln. But I do realize that I won only because my opponent was The Bogeyman.

So you see I am trying to be honest. That was not always true in the past, sometimes it was a matter of what I thought I could get away with – which, in fact, I was often wrong about. I’ve learned from all that. And furthermore, being president entails a special burden of responsibility I didn’t have before. You may take that with a grain of salt – but for the good of the country, please give me a chance to prove that if I didn’t earn your trust before, I can earn it going forward.

Another characteristic I’ve unfortunately been known for is scorched-earth political partisanship. In fact, extreme partisan divisiveness lies at the heart of America’s problems, because it prevents action on all the others. And because of my history I know I’m not exactly the ideal person to remediate this. Yet precisely because of that, I feel a special obligation to try – to rise above that past. If I have personified the culture of political tribalism and recrimination, maybe I can be the one to break it.

imagesI may not succeed. But if not, I don’t want it to be because I didn’t do enough, or (unlike my predecessor) I talked the talk without walking the walk.

Now, a lot of my supporters believe those on the other side are not just wrong but wicked, actuated by bad motives. I’m guilty of saying things like that myself. And a lot of Republicans similarly believe Democrats are evil.

This must stop.

President Obama first gained fame with a speech saying there’s no white America or black America, just one America. But whatever our racial divisions may be, our partisan divisions are much worse. I want to say there’s not a progressive America and not a conservative America – but an awful lot of you will disagree. Yet we are indeed all Americans, and, with few exceptions, Americans are good people – even those you disagree with.

Donald Trump lost because he never understood that America is great because it is good.

unknown-2This is why we love America. And I love the American people – all of you – even Trump voters. Yes, I love you, Trump voters. I want to hug you. Though maybe we’ll send you to re-education camps. (Just kidding.)

But most Republicans are just as sincere as Democrats in wanting what’s best for America. You may oppose their policies, because you have different ideas of what is best. But Lyndon Johnson liked to say, “Come, let us reason together.” That will be my policy toward our Republican friends. I will meet with them regularly, respectfully, openly, sharing ideas, and doing my darndest to work with them to come up with solutions to America’s problems.

So while I am a Democrat, it will not be as a Democrat that I will govern; this may sound sappy, but I mean it seriously – it will be as everyone’s president that I intend to govern. The result will not be Democratic party programs; not Democratic “victories,” but American programs, American triumphs.

10f0a216cFinally: there was a famous Washington Post cartoonist, “Herblock,” who had always portrayed Richard Nixon with a sinister-looking five o’clock shadow. But when Nixon was elected president, Herblock’s cartoon said, “This shop gives every new president a free shave.”

I humbly – yes, humbly – ask my fellow Americans for a clean shave.