Archive for August, 2017

White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the president they love

August 17, 2017

When white supremacists march with Nazi swastika flags, and one of them, an avowed Hitler flan, intentionally kills and injures counter-demonstrators, the response of the president of the United States should be a no-brainer.

It does not include saying there are “fine people” among the neo-Nazis, defending what they were marching about, and blaming the victim. In a snarling, belligerent rant no less.

It’s suggested that Trump’s veering back and forth reflected some tug-of-war among his lackeys, and he’s calculatingly pandering to his base — at least that small segment that’s racist neo-Nazi. And those knuckleheads, like David Duke, loved it.

But there’s no political calculation here, cunning or otherwise (as if swastikas are a net vote winner in America). Rather, the president is a deranged moral moron without the sense to control his vicious impulses.

Like Trump, white supremacists have no self-awareness. Do they actually somehow imagine that behaving as they do promotes white racial superiority? When instead it screams the opposite: look at this bunch of stupid loser creeps!

And if you really want to advance white superiority, maybe lose the swastikas? Ya think?

Marching with Nazi flags spits on the graves of those who gave their lives fighting the Nazis. So does Trump.

The Nazis too considered themselves a superior race. They showed it by murdering millions they deemed inferior. Is that how superior beings behave? Even if Jews (and blacks) were inferior, even subhuman, shouldn’t superior beings treat them with humane compassion? Even animals deserve as much.

When it’s needful to explain the moral wrong of Nazism it’s a sad day for America.

Feminist PC Thought Police strikes again: the Damore Memo

August 15, 2017

Google engineer James Damore wrote a memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” criticizing the company for suppressing honest discussion about why women are underrepresented in tech workplaces. As if to prove his point, Google fired him.

The politically correct answer explaining women’s underrepresentation is sexism and discrimination. Any suggestion that innate biological differences have anything to do with it is politically incorrect, and that was Damore’s transgression.

This is deja vu. In 2005 Lawrence Summers was pilloried, and ultimately ousted as Harvard’s president, for a similar offense of querying whether biological differences might partly explain women’s underrepresentation in math and sciences.

Is it really the feminist position that male and female brains work identically? In fact, a 1987 book by four female academics argued exactly the opposite, celebrating the differences. Titled Women’s Ways of Knowing, it was considered a feminist manifesto. And Deborah Tannen’s 1990 book, You Just Don’t Understand explicated (to wide acclaim) differing male and female communication styles. I guess it’s feminist when women say such things, but thought crime if men do.

Actually, the problem with Damore’s memo was that it might be read as suggesting that all women are innately less suited than men for tech work, which of course would be stupid. The reality is distribution of mental functionalities along spectrums for both men and women. While the average woman may be more temperamentally suited for professions like psychotherapy than computer coding, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of women way better at coding than most men are. Each woman must be judged on her own capabilities rather than stereotyped. To the extent women felt Damore’s memo contributed to obstacles they already face, they had a point.

It’s argued that Google had a right to fire Damore because the First Amendment protects only against government restricting free speech. And I don’t defend everything Damore said. But allow me to quote Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Google’s action does indeed prove Damore’s point that there is a culture of enforced political correctness, so that instead of debate and discussion, differing opinions are suppressed and even punished.

This is exactly the sort of McCarthyism the left has always yapped against. Their own zeal to crush dissent is breathtaking hypocrisy.

Another recent case: when the subject of adding more women to Uber’s board arose, one guy quipped that that would just mean more talking. Ha ha. Guess what, he’s off the board.

Well, do women talk more than men? Both men and women actually think so. It’s a cultural stereotype, portraying women as more communicative, more in love with verbalizing, whereas men tend to be more buttoned-up.

But science says otherwise. Yes, we have research on this. A large sample of varied groups of university students, outfitted with devices to record their spoken words, found statistically indistinguishable results between genders.

Perhaps that’s what you’d expect in a university setting where roughly equal male and female populations continuously mix socially. In normal life it might be that women speak more words because they tend to more often put themselves in conversational environments.

But maybe we just think we hear women talk more. Another study had men and women read from a script, with their speaking times perfectly balanced, but hearers on average thought the women spoke 55% of the time. (It didn’t change even when the scripts were swapped.)

That again presumably reflected the unconscious social stereotype. But the stereotype may indeed reflect a kernel of truth. As the mentioned Tannen book illuminated, men tend to be more goal-directed, women more connection-directed. Talking about an issue is more important to women than men; men focus more on resolving it. Male speech tends toward conveying information; female speech is more relationship-oriented. But again, these are generalities that mask broad spectrums of difference within each gender.

Well, I’m lucky I can’t be fired for anything I write. This is a free speech zone.

Jefferson had it right two centuries ago. The remedy for bad ideas is not banning them, but answering them with better ideas.

Groupthink in the Divided States of America

August 12, 2017

I remember, on Election Night 2008, when the result was declared, a middle-aged black woman in Chicago jumping up and down crying, “God bless America! God bless America!”

Though I didn’t vote for Obama, I was deeply moved by her. Just seeing black Americans then made me empathize with how it must feel – after centuries of abuse, now one of theirs was president.

But the coin had another side, which only gradually grew visible. While blacks could now feel more at home in America, some whites felt less so. While blacks saw the president as kindred, some whites saw him as wholly alien. This metastasized into the “Birther” and Obama-as-Muslim nonsense, embraced by surprisingly large numbers, really as badges of their active dissociation from what Obama represented. J. D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy depicts how large this cultural factor loomed among the working class whites he wrote about.

Now the worm has turned. The alien black president has been replaced by one those same whites see as theirs. Never mind that he’s a New York billionaire. After their eight-year Obama-trauma, they’ve latched onto Trump as their guy, seeing him as speaking for them, and they ain’t gonna let go of that. Even if he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue.

A recent “special report” in The Economist, “The Power of Groupthink,” analyzes the phenomenon. Trump’s first months in office have been such a travesty that many are puzzled why his support has not eroded all that much. It’s partly down to what I’ve written already. His supporters’ emotive commitment lets Trump get away with a lot, to change his mind, lie outrageously, behave boorishly, and even to promote policies that actually harm them.

As The Economist elucidates, their stance is not tied to specific policies, nor even realities. Again, it’s mainly cultural, the sense that they, through him, are back on top, or at least no longer being thrown under the bus (even if they are). It’s the old line: “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”

And it’s important to understand that facts are not much in the picture. The Economist estimates that only about a fifth of Americans are politically engaged and paying close attention; about equally split between pro-Democrat and pro-Republican partisan zealots. “For the rest, political issues are little more than ‘a sideshow in the great circus of life,’” says The Economist, quoting Robert Dahl in 1961.

It’s still true. Most people see political issues “through a glass darkly.” Of course they often have bedrock viewpoints on issues like abortion, guns, gays, and God. But the day-to-day chatter of news reports is just a blurry background buzz.

That applies to the Russia stuff. Most voters just don’t seem to care, failing to understand the powerful reasons why they should. And if Trump says it’s fake news, many accept that, taking his word over that of the news media. Not because he’s actually more credible; they just choose to.

It’s very different now than in the past when so many Americans sat down en masse to watch the evening news. When LBJ lost Walter Cronkhite on Vietnam, he lost America. And I remember seeing John Chancellor open with, “President Nixon stunned the nation today . . . .” Within weeks, Nixon was gone. Now those days are gone.

No such voices of authority today can nail Trump on his lies and make it stick.* And Chancellor’s assumption of “the nation” reacting collectively, as one, also has become quaint. Now everyone can choose their own truth. And as for what I called bedrock views, voters don’t act like calculating machines. Most, The Economist says, have only hazy ideas of what candidates and even parties really stand for. Rather than picking those “that best fit their own political views, they are deciding on some other criteria.” Some actually first pick the candidate they feel most comfortable with, and then associate that candidate (often incorrectly) with policies they notionally favor. And even bedrock can shift. The Economist notes that in 2011, white evangelicals were the most likely group to say personal morality is important in a president. Along comes Trump, and they’re the least likely to say that now. Similar political expedience has reversed past Republican antipathy toward Russia.

The Economist used the word “groupthink” and this too is a key factor. Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, The Big Sort, showed how America is becoming increasingly segregated politically, with people clustering in like-minded communities. Of course, political dividing lines are to a considerable extent socio-economic (and thusly geographic), with upscale urban professionals seeing things very differently from Vance’s rural working class. And there is some tendency, at least among those who take their politics seriously, to gravitate to locales where they feel at home. But for the less engaged majority, The Economist sees a different factor operating: “Most voters make political choices based largely on what people like them are doing.” If most guys in your local bar are talking Trump, you ain’t gonna be for Hillary. Many voters are political Zeligs who, chameleonlike, take on the prevailing political colors of their surrounding communities, fitting in with their peers.

The human tendency to fall in line with what others around you say is well documented. In experiments (e.g., featuring a “which line is longer?” question), people will even give what they know is a wrong answer if surrounded by others giving that answer.

Remember the “culture wars?” They never ended; indeed intensified. Today’s bitter divisions are as much cultural as political, between two worlds that see each other in apocalyptic terms and don’t even agree on what reality is. One can even imagine the country splitting up. Yet, once more, only about a fifth of Americans take things so seriously, and the rest go about their lives as normal human beings. That would be reassuring, except for this: it’s because America is the kind of country it is that most people can live their lives as normal humans without having to concern themselves greatly about politics. Yet that very character of America is itself a product of our political ethos (somewhat unique in global history), and it’s actually endangered. Maybe we can no longer indulge in the luxury of political disengagement.

*Perhaps they’ve given up. Last night discussants on “Washington Week” mentioned Trump’s claim to have refurbished the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and its being untrue, but without further comment. Previously such a presidential whopper would have been a Big Deal. Now it’s the New Normal.

 

North Korea: fear the madman

August 9, 2017

We keep hearing about the “madman” in Pyongyang. Is Kim Jong Un bad? Yes. Mad? Probably not. It’s the guy in D.C. who’s both.

Kim doesn’t have to be told that attacking America would be suicide. Trump’s “fire and fury” declaration was brainless bluster serving no purpose except foolhardy provocation. He warned Kim against any further threats. Kim promptly responded with a new threat. Where will this schoolyard standoff end?

As long as it’s just a war of words, okay. But this is recklessly dangerous because North Korea in the past has shown a penchant for military provocation too, as with its 2010 bombardment of a South Korean island. In today’s belligerent climate, the moment one side or the other does the least thing military, the risk of tit-for-tat escalation will be severe. Neither will back down readily.

The Economist recently ran a detailed scenario for how it could well unfold, ending in nuclear warfare with mass casualties. Either side could all too easily miscalculate. And Trump is no paragon of finesse.*

So what should we do about North Korea? I’ve wrestled with this problem before. Right now, the answer is: just shut up. Trump’s chest thumping achieves nothing except to make things worse.

We don’t have to do anything. Kim will not commit suicide by attacking us unless we force him to.

It’s the madman in the White House I fear.

* He might even calculate (insofar as he’s capable of such) that war with North Korea would produce a “rally ’round the flag” effect, just the thing to bury his Russia troubles on page 8.

Venezuela’s tragedy: be careful how you vote

August 8, 2017

Chavez & his mentor

It began in 1992 when paratrooper Hugo Chavez tried a military coup. He failed and was jailed, but vowed he wasn’t done. Released, in 1999 he won a democratic election as president.

Be careful how you vote.

Chavez strutted as an adversary of “U.S. imperialism” and avatar of “21st century socialism,” earning adoration from a Hollywood claque and the usual left-wing moral morons, bedazzled by the word “socialism” into excusing all manner of anti-democratic repression.

Chavez did enjoy much genuine support among poorer Venezuelans, whom he basically bought off by distributing the country’s oil wealth — while he crippled that very industry by nationalizing it and stuffing its ranks with political types, and wrecking the rest of Venezuela’s once-rich economy with an insane farrago of anti-market, statist policies.

Dwindling oil revenues could not sustain the game, the rich got poorer, and so, ultimately, did the poor too. Chavez died of cancer at 58 in 2013 before the mierda fully hit the fan. His chosen successor, former bus driver Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won a 2013 presidential election.

Maduro

Be careful how you vote. Though Maduro’s win was almost surely fraudulent, he couldn’t have pulled that off without votes from nearly half the electorate.

Then Venezuela really went off the rails, the economy collapsing in structural disarray, producing nothing, inflation exploding, people unable to get food or medicine. Instead of reversing the economic idiocies causing this, Maduro doubled down, and blamed the troubles on supposed U.S.-inspired sabotage. But few fell for this nonsense, his political support also collapsed, and the opposition won big in 2015 congressional elections. Only more fraud and manipulation denied them a decisive two-thirds majority. Maduro’s policy was now to intimidate, emasculate, and simply disregard the congress.

Meantime, the opposition also gathered more than enough signatures to force a presidential recall vote, pursuant to the Chavez-promulgated constitution. That too the regime quite simply disregarded, refusing to hold the vote.

All this plays out against a background of increasing repression (opponents jailed; forget a free press) and rising violence as protests by an increasingly desperate citizenry escalate, and the regime responds brutally. Its intransigence made negotiation efforts useless. President Maduro, who cannot win a fair vote, has now moved to seal Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship by convening an all-powerful “constituent assembly” of handpicked stooges to supplant the congress and rewrite the constitution. That assembly’s “election” was — of course — another farcical fraud. (Even the company that ran it said so.)

Ortega

One of the assembly’s first acts was to fire Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a former regime stalwart, with at least a vestige of integrity that couldn’t stomach Maduro’s extreme illegal power grab, which she condemned.

And where, in all this, you might wonder, is the army? Why doesn’t it step in to protect the constitution, congress, and democracy? Because the army is part of the regime, long since packed with loyalists. Its guns are what really keep Maduro in power. It’s the army brass, not the people, he needs to keep happy. And this is not about ideology. The “socialist” and “anti-imperialist” rhetoric continues, but that’s just a fig-leaf cover for the reality. The regime, and its army, are a gang of thugs ruling Venezuela exactly as Al Capone ruled Chicago, and for the same purpose — their own criminal enrichment.

As ordinary Venezuelans sink into an abyss of deprivation, the regime and its army feed off their flesh and suck their blood. Having destroyed the normal economy, so that not even food can be purchased normally, the army has been tasked with bringing in and selling food — profiting hugely. It’s grubby fingers are in many other businesses too. Further, while the currency has become virtually worthless, they maintain an inflated official exchange rate, at around 1,000 times the Bolivar’s actual value. Why? Only insiders can exchange Bolivars for Dollars at that phony rate, plundering the state to enrich themselves. That’s why they won’t give up power. And because if they do, they’d expect punishment for their crimes.

Here is your “21st century socialism.”

What is the sad lesson of Venezuela? Be careful how you vote.

What Einstein means to me

August 5, 2017

Having read Walter Isaacson’s excellent books on Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, I assigned myself his Einstein. Even though, of course, I already knew all about the man and his work. Doesn’t everybody? Actually, some of what everybody knows isn’t true.

One false myth is that he “failed math in school.” This was even featured in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” What is true is that Einstein’s talking was a little delayed, worrying his parents. But in school he did brilliantly, was a precocious mathematical star. Reading about his childhood intensity with math, science, and philosophy, contrasted against my own sleepwalking early life, I could see why he was a genius and I am not.

Secondly, religious believers love to claim Einstein was a believer too, a perfect validation for them. He did give them a lot of fodder, in delphic pronouncements (like the famous “God does not play dice with the Universe”), using “God” in a somewhat metaphorical rather than literal sense. I do that myself; Einstein was no more a believer than I am. He had a spasm of religiosity in childhood, but snapped out of it at age 12 and never looked back. Whatever his quasi-mystical thoughts about the nature of nature, they certainly included nothing like the God of the Bible – a book he loathed as full of lies.

In fact, Einstein’s early liberation from religion was central to his intellectual development. It gave him a deep suspicion toward all received opinion, authority, and dogma. If so many people could be so wrong about something so fundamental, what else could they be wrong about? This empowered Einstein to look at the cosmos from a fresh perspective.

(I won’t expound here the theory of relativity (but see the appendix); however, it doesn’t mean “everything is relative” – the stance of postmodernist relativism, that nothing truly is true. Such nonsense has nothing to do with Einstein.)

Here is what Einstein does mean to me.

Humanity’s quest for understanding uplifts me. At last – a being on this Earth not at nature’s mercy but capable of mastery. Some people actually hate this, calling it hubris, even wicked. I find that sad. To me our quest for knowledge, and the power it brings, could not be more noble.

Nobility lies in challenge. Ancient man, looking at his world, had so much to wonder about, with hardly a clue for finding answers. But undaunted we searched, through thousands of years, and the efforts of thousands of heroic seekers, giving us finally more understanding than anyone at the start could have dreamt of.

You must crawl before walking, and walk before you run, and that’s the history of science. Most of it was to explain what we saw. But gradually we grasped there is a deeper reality unseen. Einstein’s work, more than any other, ended our stages of crawling and walking, and took us into that deeper reality – a depth that those who commenced the great quest could not even have imagined was there to be plumbed.

The hard slog of science through the ages has been all about gathering evidence and decoding what it tells us. Evidence can come from experimentation, or (as in Darwin’s case, or all of astronomy,) observation. Yet Einstein stands out because he performed no experiments, and gathered no observations. It was all done between his own ears, by thinking. That’s what gave us a new and deeper understanding.

And so, in the end, he represents for me not just (just!) our achievement of understanding, but the wonder of our tool for gaining it: the human mind. It’s a gift we all have. I may not be an Einstein, nor you, but we are human, we are part of this great enterprise, and those brains of ours give us a richness of experience beyond measure. Be thankful and use it well.

 

APPENDIX

Two things puzzle me. We see light traveling from a star to one’s eye. But it’s not just one light beam. Light from a star a billion light years away would reach anyone that distant. Envision a sphere with a billion light year radius – its surface area would be 12.56 times a billion light years squared – a very very BIG area. Every spot on that area would receive the light. How can a star emit that much light? As light spreads out from its source, the photons should get farther apart; at a billion light years, they should be so spread out that seeing even one would be statistically improbable.

Secondly, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc 2 posits the equivalency between matter and energy; the “c” is the speed of light. But why is that part of the equation (let alone squared)? I admit I’m not privy to the math behind this; but what does light speed even have to do with it? The relationship applies regardless of motion. Newton’s law that gravity diminishes proportionally with the square of the distance intuitively makes sense to me, but I can’t say that about the matter/energy proportionality with light speed squared.

Police State

August 3, 2017

I’d love to get back to non-political topics. But some things demand comment. By now it’s hard to be shocked by anything Trump. His Boy Scout speech was an utter disgrace. But the police speech was worse. Imagine: the President of the United States literally encouraged police brutality. Literally.

Some typically dismissed it as joking. I saw no humor. Trump himself later said he was not joking.

Police chiefs throughout the country have condemned the speech, as urging them to break the laws they are sworn to uphold.

Trump was addressing police in Suffolk County — whose own police chief was recently sent to federal prison for personally beating up a suspect (accused of stealing, from the chief’s car, a bag containing pornography and sex toys).

Police brutality against African-Americans in particular (not fake news) is a major societal sore point. The Trump administration is already thoroughly contaminated with links to white supremacists. And he speaks out for more brutal police behavior? Just what we need.

I sincerely hope that when men in blue finally come to escort him from the White House, they will ignore that speech and treat him with utmost gentleness.

The obviousness of the police brutality problem in some cities had prompted the Justice Department to enter into agreements with their police departments aiming at ameliorating matters. Attorney General Sessions has been working to undo these agreements.

Another major police scandal is the Fourth Amendment, against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” becoming virtually a dead letter with rampant police confiscations of money and property from citizens without needing proof of crime. Here again, the Justice Department, recognizing the abuse, had previously promulgated some rules to curb it. And here again Trump’s administration is rolling back those rules.

Say what you will about Obama (I criticized him plenty), he consistently maintained the dignity of his office, respected the law, and consistently invoked the high ideals and fundamental values that America stood for and which made it great. Trump’s values are of the sewer, smearing America in filth.

Henry Clay and John McCain

August 1, 2017

In my office hangs an old engraving of Henry Clay. It was no accidental acquisition. About 50 years ago I searched antique shops for it, being a political history freak and aspirant. Clay was the consummate model for a public career. The Senate was Olympus, and he its Zeus.

Clay was not a saint; he had eponymous feet; he was human, partisan, intensely ambitious, and scheming. But none of that undermined his devotion to the good of the country. You could even say he saved the country, twice no less, in 1820 and 1850, masterminding great bold compromises over the most divisive issue in U.S. history, staving off civil war.

“I like people that weren’t captured, okay?” said he who never served. “Captured” suggests insufficient warrior mettle. John McCain was shot down flying combat missions in Vietnam. Taken prisoner and tortured for five years. Offered early release because his father was an admiral, McCain considered it wrong to leave without his comrades.

Suffering aggressive brain cancer, John McCain postponed treatment last week to return to the Senate, to speak against the disgraceful way his Republican colleagues were trying to pass a disgraceful health care bill. It should instead be done, he said, in the open, with hearings and outreach and broad input. And, yes, compromise. And then John McCain cast the decisive 51st vote to kill, once and for all, that noxious bill.

Some saw here a rich payback for Trump’s disgusting insult. And perhaps this was some cosmic justice. But the true reason for John McCain’s vote was that it was the right thing to do.

Up in Senate Heaven, Henry Clay was smiling.