Archive for November, 2017

The Soul of the First Amendment

November 27, 2017

How far should free speech go?

Floyd Abrams is the country’s leading First Amendment lawyer. I bought his book, The Soul of the First Amendment, at the recent symposium on the post-truth culture (mainly for the opportunity to shake his hand).

The book’s introduction discusses my favorite painting: Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech (in his “Four Freedoms” series). If not an artistic masterpiece, it’s a gem of conveying an idea that’s very dear to me. Abrams explains that it illustrates an actual event Rockwell witnessed, at a Vermont town meeting. The speaker was a lone dissenter against a popular proposal. He’s an ordinary working class Joe. A telling detail is the paper protruding from his pocket. It suggests he’s not talking through his hat, but has gathered some information — a point of particular resonance today. And even more so is the painting’s other key feature — the respectful listening by the man’s fellow citizens. For me this painting captures America — and civilization — at its best.

Freedom of speech in America is enshrined by the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . . .” (The Fourteenth Amendment made it applicable against state governments too.) A key point of the book is how unique this actually is, not only in history, but in today’s world. In fact, no other country so exalts the inviolability of free speech. All others subject it to varying restrictions. And mostly they involve what are basically political concerns — the very sphere wherein freedom of expression is actually the most consequential.

People have been jailed in Europe for the crime of Holocaust denial. That is, advocating a certain interpretation of history. Europe also has many laws against “hate speech,” quite broadly (if vaguely) defined. Abrams cites a Belgian member of parliament prosecuted for distributing leaflets calling for a “Belgians and European First” policy, sending asylum seekers home, and opposing “Islamification.” His sentence included a ten year disqualification from holding office. It was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights! And such a case is not unusual in Europe. Actress Brigitte Bardot was fined 15,000 Euros for writing a letter objecting to how French Muslims ritually slaughter sheep.

America is a free speech paradise in comparison not only to such other places, but to our own past. The First Amendment actually played almost no role in our law and culture until around the mid-20th century. Abrams cites a 1907 Colorado episode. A lame-duck governor, defeated for re-election, exploited a newly passed law to pack the state supreme court with judges who thereupon ruled that he’d actually won the election. A newspaper published an editorial criticizing this ruling. The Colorado court held the editor in contempt. And that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by the famed Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The idea underlying all these cases is that rights are never absolute, being always subject to a balancing against the public interest. I myself have written that the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” does not mean you can possess howitzers or nuclear weapons. And freedom of religion doesn’t cover human sacrifice. So it’s similarly argued that freedom of speech and press must be balanced against other public goods, and may sometimes be required to give way.

Abrams argues, however, that the First Amendment’s language, absolute on its face, reflects its authors having already performed such a balancing. The benefits to society, to the kind of polity they aspired to create, of unfettered freedom of expression were balanced against what public good might otherwise be promoted. And in that balancing, freedom of expression won out, being found the weightier. It’s more important to have a society with such freedom than, for example, one where religious sensibilities are protected from insult — or where judges are shielded from editorial criticism. That’s why we have the First Amendment, and why it actually does not permit the kind of balancing underlying that 1907 Colorado case. Justice Holmes himself came to repent his decision there, dissenting in similar future cases, and eventually the Court overturned its Colorado ruling.*

As Abrams stresses, the issues raised by the Belgian and Colorado cases go to the heart of the matter: free expression with regard to issues of public concern. This is crucial for meaningful democracy, which requires open debate and dissemination of information, with contesting advocates each subjecting the other’s views to critical scrutiny. Without that, voting itself is meaningless.

The exact same considerations were central to a case Abrams argued before the Supreme Court, which he discusses. He there contended that the government, because of the First Amendment, may not criminalize distribution of a film critical of a presidential candidate. (I quoted Abrams about it on this blog.) He won the case. And given our common understanding of free speech in America, that might seem a no-brainer.

The case was Citizens United, where the movie in question had corporate funding. Abrams is unrepentant and defends the Court’s decision, which has been ferociously assailed for affirming that businesses have the same rights to free speech and public advocacy that individual citizens have, and for allowing them to spend money in such endeavors. Abrams rejects the effort to make a distinction between money and speech, arguing that no right can be meaningful without the concomitant right to spend your money in its exercise. And he insists that businesses, being part of society, must have the right to participate in public debate.

Abrams cites here a case in which Nike was accused of corporate misdeeds and sought to rebut the charges with press releases and publications. For that, the company was sued in California state court under a consumer protection law barring false advertising and the like. The real issue was whether the First Amendment protects Nike’s freedom of speech. When the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York Times submitted a brief which Abrams quotes: “businesses and their representatives have just as much a right to speak out on any public issue as do interest groups and politicians . . . .” And because issues concerning businesses “are increasingly fundamental to the world’s social and political landscape, the withdrawal of corporate voices on those issues from the media would deprive the public of vital information.” Abrams deems the newspaper’s stance there starkly at odds with the position it later took on Citizens United, where the issue was really the same. Issue advocacy, and backing candidates for office, stand on identical ground as far as the First Amendment is concerned.

For me personally, all this is not abstract, but essential to my being. Abrams discusses the landmark case of Times v. Sullivan, which particularly protects criticism of public officials. That saved my butt in 1973 when I was sued for millions by guys whose misconduct I mentioned in a book on local politics. I love the freedom to express myself like that, and in this blog. I’ve been called fearless but the fact is, in America, there’s nothing to fear. In most other places blogging like mine requires a courage I probably don’t have. People literally risk their lives, and some have been killed.

Abrams notes Europe’s “right to be forgotten,” with search engines being required to erase true information about people when requested, such as reports on criminal convictions. I blogged about this in 2009 (again quoting Abrams), when two convicted German murderers, Wolfgang Werle and Manfred Lauber, sued to erase their names from Wikipedia. In defiance of that affront to freedom of information, I made a point of putting their names in my blog post, and do so again here. God bless America and the First Amendment!

* Yet even this right isn’t actually absolute. The First Amendment doesn’t protect libel or slander, child pornography, or shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater (as the same Justice Holmes famously explained).

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What’s so bad about infidelity?

November 26, 2017

We have loosened up tremendously in matters sexual. Just letting people pick their own partners was a huge liberalization. Now we can not only pick them, but divorce them. They can be the same sex. We can even have sex, and children, without marriage. Today, it seems, anything goes.

Except infidelity. That remains very much unacceptable. Given all the liberalization mentioned, this might seem a quaint anachronism.

I read an article recently about sex/marriage counselor Esther Perel whose book, Mating in Captivity, argues that it’s unreasonable to insist on 100% fidelity in a couple. That demands, she says, a standard of human perfection which people aren’t generally capable of. Perel doesn’t think marriages should break up over a little thing like adultery.

Many are shocked by this, insisting adultery is a Big Thing indeed — a fundamental breach of the marriage contract. And there is some biology behind this, with marriage as a pact between two people to raise children on the basis that they’re in fact their biological offspring. The female gives the male that pledge so he’ll stick around and help raise the kids. He wouldn’t necessarily make that investment without some confidence the kids really are his. And the woman doesn’t want his energies diverted to some other gal’s brats. All this is straightforward “selfish gene” biology — behavior manipulated by a set of genes to promote that set’s replication into the next generation (because children raised by two devoted parents are likelier to survive and reproduce themselves). This is why sexual jealousy is so powerful — it’s part of this system to maximize gene replication.

And all this psychology being part of our biology, we cannot simply shuck it off. But Perel has a point in suggesting, in effect, that we step back and look at matters from the standpoint of our true personal interests — which may not actually align with that genetic programming. We don’t have to want what our genes want. Moreover, especially with modern birth control, the parentage concern is really a non-issue in most adulteries.

So, does it really make sense for romantic partners to insist on perfect sexual exclusivity? Or might it make better sense to recognize that a partner may have psychological reasons for seeking a sexual experience outside the relationship that do not actually constitute a betrayal of it? Confirmation of one’s attractiveness to others is an ego boost. It may simply be nothing deeper than novelty, fun, exciting, enlivening. So is bungee jumping, and nobody thinks bungee jumping violates a marriage bond.

That might sound too coolly rational. But, again, Perel is on to something in trying to get couples to see things that way, when they’re working through the aftermath of infidelity. After all, while sex is something very important in human life, it certainly is not everything, and it normally isn’t even the chief element in a long-term romantic relationship. There is just so much else going on in how two people relate to each other and what they give each other. It does seem kind of crazy to throw out that baby with the bathwater of mere sexual infidelity.

Yet such is nevertheless still a powerful social norm, even in this age of tolerance and permissiveness. Indeed, given that reality, pragmatist that I am I’m often baffled at people risking a relationship central to their lives in order to obtain what seem to me such limited and fleeting rewards. And, we’ve lately been seeing, risking careers too for a moment’s sexual frisson.

But perhaps I come by that olympian perspective from a standpoint wherein the temptation doesn’t figure. Women have never thrown themselves at me. It was hard enough trying to seduce them while single that attempting it while married was never conceivable. (Likewise finding one as attractive as my wife.)

Trump’s depraved disregard for truth undermines democracy

November 23, 2017

Mary McCarthy famously said of Lillian Hellman, Every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the.”

Tuesday Trump said, about Alabama Senate candidate Doug Jones, “I’ve looked at his record. It’s terrible on crime. It’s terrible on the border. It’s terrible on the military.”

“I’ve looked at his record.” Every word in that sentence is a lie. Trump never looks at any records. He only looks at TV.

“Terrible on crime?” Jones was a federal prosecutor. He prosecuted crimes. Roy Moore, Trump’s candidate, commits them.

Doug Jones prosecuted perpetrators of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, which killed four young girls. That redeemed rule of law in Alabama. Roy Moore defied rule of law, resulting in his removal from the bench, twice. He has molested underage girls (based on credible testimony of more than a few victims).

Yet it’s Jones who’s “terrible on crime?” I want to throw up.

And “terrible on the border?” And “terrible on the military?” How, exactly? Trump doesn’t say. Because he can’t. There’s nothing there. He just flings out these slippery, slimy accusations. The loathsome creep spewed exactly the same pus at Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. (And he’s never retracted his idiotic lie that President Obama wiretapped him.)

“All politicians lie,” is a common refrain. It isn’t true, though some bend and shade the truth. But none, in American history, has ever shown such depraved disregard for truth as Trump. He simply could not care less whether anything he says corresponds to reality. Recently he deemed it “disgusting” that the press can say whatever it wants. Yet mainstream press is very careful about reporting truthfully. It’s Trump himself saying whatever he wants, truth be damned. That’s disgusting.

I may sound like a broken record, but this is so important that every fresh travesty compels my bearing witness. This — like a computer program that’s corrupted and scrambles information — corrupts the public discourse and debate vital to democracy. They fundamentally depend upon a concept of what a fact is. Upon words themselves having meaning. In Trump’s mouth they do not; the concept of “fact” has no meaning.

And the words “president of the United States” used to carry a certain dignity. Now they convey the howl of the madhouse; the stench of the sewer.

Khizr Khan — what America means

November 21, 2017

There’s a lot of flag waving these days. Often with no clue what it really means.

Khizr Khan knows what it means. He got it as a law student in Pakistan, in a course on comparative constitutions. There he read America’s, and the Declaration of Independence, and was blown away. He read them as manifestoes of human dignity, a concept alien to his native Pakistan (and many other places).

And human dignity was foremost in Khizr Khan’s mind at that sublime moment when, finally, he stepped into a court room and took the oath as an American citizen.

WAMC radio’s Joe Donahue interviewed him about his book, An American Family. Hearing the interview was deeply moving and inspiring.

What Khizr Khan also considers central to America is human caring. Such ideals were instilled in his son, Humayun; Khan told of Humayun’s standing up for a bullying victim in grade school; assuring safety for female college classmates; and finally sacrificing his life in Iraq to protect fellow soldiers.

When Khizr Khan, his wife beside him, spoke at the Democratic convention about Humayun’s heroism, he offered to share his cherished personal copy of the constitution with Donald Trump. Instead, Trump badmouthed Khan and his family.

That piece of filth is not fit to lick Khizr Khan’s shoes.

Khizr Khan is a great American. He’s also a Muslim and an immigrant — both categories many “Americans” today demonize. But his story testifies to why now, more than ever, America needs immigrants. It’s because, much unlike flag-waving “America Firsters,” immigrants like Khizr Khan have a true appreciation for the ideals and values that made America great. Without a population that understands, and lives, those ideals and values, no amount of flag waving will make it great again.

Moore, Franken, Trump, sex, and power

November 18, 2017

Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Bill O’Reilly. Bill Clinton. Kevin Spacey. Louis C.K. Michael Oreskes. Roy Moore. Donald J. Trump.

Abusing power to get sexual jollies is as old as humanity. After all, what is power for​?

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” How much Roy Moore smoke must choke Alabama before it sets off a fire alarm?

Of course, this is politics, and as I’ve recently written, for many Americans today, politics trumps everything. And so we come to this: Alabama Republicans sticking behind a sexual predator and molester of underage girls, because it’s their team, their side. They can’t vote for the other guy. Can’t give the other side a win.

One Alabaman I heard interviewed said he believed Moore because Moore has always been an upright man of God. But how does he know that? Well, Moore has always postured as a man of God. I’m reminded of the old Soviet joke: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” Moore pretends to be godly, and Alabama Republicans pretend to believe him.

And now Al Franken. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the photo. It’s obvious he thought he was just being funny (he was a professional comic); not taking sexual advantage, but mocking that. It was stupid and juvenile, but that’s all it was. (There was also a kiss — while rehearsing a script that included a kiss.) Franken has acknowledged behaving badly, and has apologized.

President Trump — while refusing to condemn Moore — tweeted: “The Al Frankenstein picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?”

Really bad? Did Trump forget this little bagatelle: “I moved on her like a bitch. I couldn’t get there and she was married. Then all-of-a-sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything . . . I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything . . . grab them by the pussy.”

(Trump said that was just talk, he’d never actually done it. The number of women saying otherwise has reached 16. Only seven have accused Roy Moore, so far.)

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The pot calling the kettle black.” Trump’s attacking Franken for sexual misbehavior shows, yet again, that he suffers from a severe psychological defect. Self-perception divorced from reality.

Some have seen the Weinstein story as triggering a witch-hunt. Well, some real evil has been exposed, including Roy Moore’s, but when Al Franken gets sucked in, with what is really a very trivial transgression, then it does start to look like a witch-hunt. But meantime, with all the men who have lately been punished and made pariahs for their sexual misdeeds, why not Trump? Former “family values” Republicans continue supporting him. Politics trumps everything.

There is no comparison between Franken’s behavior and Trump’s own. Asked about it, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made this remarkable statement: “Senator Franken has admitted wrongdoing and the President hasn’t. I think that’s a very clear distinction.”

I agree with her.

This is the world we live in.

What should Democrats do?

November 15, 2017

Back-to-back I read columns by Michael Gerson and The Economist’sLexington” discussing the Democrats’ predicament.

Gerson is a Republican horrified by his own party’s dive to the dark side. He sees strong national majorities likewise repelled by Trump. And yet he notes a recent poll showing that a re-run of the last election would produce a tie. That the Democrats cannot clobber even so reviled a creature as Trump tells Gerson that the party is in “profound crisis.”

Its national establishment, he says, is “arrogant, complacent, and corrupt” (as highlighted by Donna Brazile’s memoir). But that establishment is besieged by an army of zealots for identity politics and utopian socialism.

So we are left with “two very sick political parties that have a monopoly on political power and little prospect for reform and recovery,” and hence for dealing with the nation’s true problems. Gerson doubts that moderate conservatism and moderate liberalism can rally to the rescue. And if we are really stuck between Republican ethno-nationalism and Democrats’ identity-socialism, we are a nation in decline, likely to forfeit global leadership, which would undermine the whole world’s outlook.

Lexington meanwhile focuses particularly on former Obama voters who switched to Trump — only about 4% of the electorate, but enough to tip the outcome. Democrats seem obsessed with getting back these mostly rust-belt working class voters. Thus they aim to stress their economic issues. And, indeed, we’ve heard endlessly how economic anxieties caused Trump’s win.

But Lexington sees some bad news for Democrats in an analysis by the bipartisan Voter Studies Group, finding no unified attitude among Trump voters on any economic issue. This, and other careful analyses, reveal that actually Trump voting correlated most with cultural rather than economic preoccupations. The ugly reality is that Trump won by running against Mexicans, Muslims, and blacks. Hence, says Lexington, to win Democrats must show that they are at least in touch with those voters’ cultural anxieties. However, he thinks this will be a heavy lift because simultaneously Democrats must call out Trumpian bigotry; and economic arguments are doomed to lose to cultural ones.

The Democrat brand was made toxic to part of America by Obama, seen as culturally an alien interloper, not only (though mainly) because of his color, but also by his intellectually elitist manner and aggravated by his seeming, in some important ways, weak. Hillary Clinton was no antidote; embodying a discredited establishment; misogyny did play a role; and her ethical challenges, though nowhere near as bad as Trump’s, enabled him to demonize her preposterously. It was said during the campaign that she was the only Democrat Trump could beat*, so it’s not too surprising that even today she’d still only get a tie.

Yet, for all this, are Democrats in fact the less popular party? Polls actually show the opposite. Clinton did win the popular vote, and Democrats also won more Congressional votes, losing the House only because of Republican gerrymandering. Only 29% of Americans now favorably view the Republican party, and a majority strongly disapproves of Trump’s presidency. In the Virginia governor’s race, Republican Ed Gillespie ran a Trumpian ethno-nationalist campaign; Democrat Northam was an anodyne plain-vanilla candidate. And Northam won big.

So I don’t even think Democrats need to run campaigns venting about the Trumpist horrorshow. The country can see perfectly well why it stinks and doesn’t need Democrats to bang on about it. Instead, on the theory that a majority of Americans haven’t actually lost their civic minds, Democrats should be positive, mainly positioning themselves as the (contrastingly) sound, sober, serious, sane, truthful, decent, responsible party.

Not another party of shouting extremists — as many of its left-wing socialist Bernie-loving Torquemadas would make it. (To oppose them is why I switched my enrollment to Democrat.) But Gerson, echoing Yeats, may be right that they can’t be stopped by more moderate voices: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” And if we indeed have two parties each going off its own deep end, then America itself is sunk.

* Though it’s nonsense to think Sanders would have won. Not with the word “socialist” hung around his neck.

Statistical wisdom and Weldon’s dice

November 13, 2017

 

I went to a library talk, by my friend Jonathan Skinner, reviewing a book, The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom, by Stephen Stigler. Jonathan was a professional statistician. One thing I enjoyed was his quoting Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

I also learned how the Arctic and Antarctic got their names. Skinner said Aristotle named them, based on the Greek word for “bear.” That surprised me; could Aristotle have been aware of the poles’ existence? And how could he have known about polar bears? But when I mentioned this to my (smarter) wife, she suggested the “bear” reference was to a constellation. I checked Wikipedia and while the Greek origin is correct, there was no mention of Aristotle. And of course my wife was right.

Skinner discussed a basic statistical concept: probability. He talked about it in connection with dice as an example. This reminded me of the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Guildenstern’s repeated coin flips. They come up heads every time. Not statistically impossible, but increasingly unlikely as the number of flips mounts. Stoppard is jesting with the laws of probability.

Of course they tell us heads and tails should be 50-50. But I also remembered a guy who wrote in to Numismatic News, doubting that theory, and reporting his own test. He flipped a coin 600 times and got 496 heads! Of course, the probability of that result is not zero. But I actually calculated it, and the answer is one divided by 6.672 times 10 to the 61st power. For readers not mathematically inclined, that’s an exceedingly tiny probability. Ten to the 61st power means 1 followed by 61 zeroes.

However, that guy, as if to flaunt his scientific rigor, explained his procedure: on each of his 600 tosses, he methodically started with the coin in the heads-up position, and then . . . well, enough said.

But Skinner related a similar tale, of Frank Weldon who (in 1894) really did try to put the theory to a rigorous test. He rolled a dozen dice 26,306 times, and recorded the results. That huge effort would make him either a martyr to science, or a fool (like the Numismatic News guy) because, after all, what is there to test? Is there any sane reason to doubt what such a simple probability calculation dictates?

However, Skinner quoted Yogi Berra: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice they are not.”

Well, guess what. Weldon found the numbers five and six over-represented. With six faces to each die, you should expect any two numbers to come up one-third of the time, or 33.33%. But Weldon got 33.77%. You might think that’s a minor deviation, down to random chance. But statisticians have mathematical tools to test for that, i.e., whether a result is “statistically significant.” And the odds against Weldon’s result were calculated to be 64,499 to one.

So another fool (er, researcher), Zacariah Labby, decided to repeat Weldon’s experiment, but this time using machinery to roll the dice, and a computer to tabulate the results. He got 33.43%, a smaller deviation, but still statistically significant.

How can this be explained? It had been suggested that the small concave “pips” on the die faces denoting the numbers might affect the results. And then Labby measured his die faces with highly accurate equipment and found the dice were not absolutely perfect cubes.

But don’t rush out to a casino to try to capitalize on the Weldon/Labby deviation. Labby concluded his paper by noting that casinos use dice without concave pips and more precisely engineered, to scotch any such bias.

Roy Moore and Christian hypocrisy

November 11, 2017

Alabama has a special Senate election in December for the Jeff Sessions seat. Governor Robert Bentley had appointed Luther Strange to the seat. Strange was the state attorney general who just happened to have been investigating one Robert Bentley for misusing state resources to cover up an illicit sexual affair. A cynic might have thought Bentley was trying to rid himself of Strange. The Bible-thumping governor was soon forced to resign anyway.

Also a gun thumper

Roy Moore is a former Alabama chief justice. A bigger Bible-thumper. He was removed from the bench, twice. First for installing and then refusing to remove a huge monument of the Ten Commandments. Elected again, he was removed again, this time for instructing state judges to defy the law of the land on gay marriage.

Moore challenged Strange in the primary for the Senate nomination. Trump endorsed Strange. But Moore campaigned on the idea that Strange was not pro-Trump enough. Alabama is big-time Trump country (well, the white parts). Moore won the primary. Now his main campaign theme is that America isn’t godly enough.

And now it turns out that this Ten Commandments lover also loves molesting underage girls. The woman’s account of what he did when she was 14 and he was 32 is both disgusting and thoroughly credible. It has been corroborated by testimonies from several others about their encounters with Moore in their teens. Everyone who has actually looked at the evidence finds it highly persuasive.

Moore denies it, calling it a politically motivated attack. (The woman is actually a Republican Trump voter.) In other words, the fake “fake news” defense. Anything that’s reported that you don’t like is “fake news.”

Religion’s defenders claim that it’s the basis for morality. Yet so often it’s a cloak for immorality. How often the biggest Bible thumpers are secretly sex perverts. The pedophile Roy Moore is but the latest in a long disgraceful parade.

I’ve written recently how political partisanship has come to trump all other tribalisms in America. It even trumps religion. In polls, evangelical Christians used to be the most likely to say personal morality is important in a public office-holder. Now they’re the least likely! How else can they reconcile voting for an admitted sexual predator, who boasted he could “grab them by the pussy”?

State Auditor Jim Ziegler says what Moore did with that 14-year-old was actually okay because similar stories are found in the Bible, like that of Joseph and Mary. And I have said that religion warps the brain.

The Democratic Senate candidate in Alabama, Doug Jones, seems to be an excellent man. Certainly not a vile reptile like Roy Moore. Has America really sunk so low that Moore wins?

Magical thinking in America

November 7, 2017

Mass shootings keep us revisiting the gun issue. Many Americans want guns for self-protection in the home. But guns in homes overwhelmingly shoot family members. They kill or maim about 7,000 children every year. Intruders stopped: practically none.

Another fantasy is guns protecting our liberties against the government. If the constitution and courts fail, will these gun-toting clowns do the trick? As if the Feds’ firepower wouldn’t obliterate them!

These gun ideas constitute magical thinking. Believing something because you wish to, even if actually — even if manifestly — untrue. We obsess over “keeping us safe” from terrorism, while shrugging off the firearm death toll, 30,000 Americans annually — a hundred times greater. “Right-to-life” is for the unborn, not for gun victims.

Now, it happens that many of these same magical thinkers about guns also believe evolution and climate change (and the human role in it) are lies; that mainstream media disseminate fake news; while Trump tells it like it is. That immigrants are bad for the economy. That corporate tax cuts will create jobs. That the Bible is the inerrant word of a benevolent god watching over us, good people go to Heaven, and bad ones to Hell. Some of these same people also believe whites are a superior race (and victims of discrimination); that confederate statues honor history, not racism; and millions vote illegally.

Is there a pattern here?

The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist recently examined this, citing a forthcoming book by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, Enchanted America. The Trump phenomenon may be rooted not so much in conservative ideology as superstition. (Indeed, traditional conservative ideology has been turned on its head.) People holding some or all of the beliefs I mentioned are called “intuitionists,” understanding the world on the basis of feelings and gut instincts, not principles, values, or empirical facts (to which they’re impervious).

Fear plays a role, tending to warp rational thought. Oliver quotes his five-year-old son: “If there’s no monster in the closet, then why am I scared?” Clinging to guns for supposed safety is similar thinking.

“How,” asks Lexington, “has such a rich, well-governed place come to this?” He invokes Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” — a tendency which may be triggered by being on the losing side of cultural conflicts. This applies to religious fundamentalists and rural and rustbelt whites. Their gravitating toward the political right makes the right particularly “the domain of unreason.” (Though there’s plenty of irrationality on the left too.)

Kurt Anderson’s recent book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, finds magical thinking pervades our history. After all, the country began with religious fanatics (the Puritans). Anderson cites, inter alia, Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, quack medicines, Esalen, and P. T. Barnum (“the first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe, the founder of infotainment”) as well as, of course, the long-running story of protestant fundamentalism. Today, magical thinking is pitched into yet higher gear by economic insecurity, racial resentment, demonization of immigrants, and the psychic discombobulation of social and cultural change. All this turned the GOP into “the Fantasy Party,” imagining they’ll “make America great again” with a creep who’s actually making America rancid.

People with a grip on reality no longer even have a place in the Republican party. Truth-telling Senators Corker and Flake concluded they could not win renomination. Party loyalty is now defined as believing the naked emperor is resplendently clothed. (I quit in May.)

Of course Americans are not alone in magical thinking. It’s common everywhere. Yet today’s America is striking for the broad range of delusions many people hold. The book I recently reviewed about conspiracy theories shows those who swallow one are likelier to swallow others. It’s the way they see the world.

When it comes to religion, I’ve always thought beliefs that would be deemed insane if held by only a few have to be considered normal when held by the many. People compartmentalize, and can be perfectly rational on the whole while their minds harbor ghettoes wherein reason’s writ does not run.

Yet what is insanity if not divorcement from reality? Religious faith may get a pass; but when the magical thinking extends to many additional realms, the compartmentalization concept breaks down, and the inmates have taken over the asylum.

The Republican tax plan: “A big beautiful Christmas present” or coal in our stockings?

November 4, 2017

The real question: why?

Why this Republican tax proposal? Well, it’s billed as “reform,” and God knows our federal tax system is an ungodly mess crying out for reform. But this bill isn’t it. Fewer brackets means nothing. Admittedly, eliminating some deductions and, particularly, the Alternative Minimum Tax would be significant simplifications. Yet in other ways, new complications are actually added. Trump’s saying nine out of ten would be able to file on a postcard is a lie even biglier than usual for him.

It’s also a lie to call it the biggest tax cut in our history. It would be true if Trump had added the words for corporations.

And why cut taxes? Because they’re too high? When for decades government spending has exceeded taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars yearly? When the federal debt now tops twenty trillion?

Republicans — supposedly the party of fiscal conservatism — originally were supposedly aiming for a revenue-neutral reform — that is, making up the cuts by getting revenue elsewhere, like capping 401Ks. But of course taking any benefit away from anyone is political poison. So predictably, they jettisoned any notion of paying for the cuts. The budget they passed recently (with virtually no debate) permits them (due to arcane rules) to now enact a tax cut costing a whopping $1.5 trillion, over 10 years, with only 50 Senate votes, rather than an impossible 60.

But even with that giant window, making the math work is very hard. Especially with corporations getting most of the $1.5 trillion available. Additional fat cuts for fat cats necessitate compensatory tax increases for many middle and upper middle class folks. At best, some less affluent people will get peanuts, while caviar is served to the richest and, especially, corporations.

After decades of Democrats caricaturing Republicans as caring only for the rich, the GOP is now shamelessly proving it. When economic inequality has been a growing concern, to propose a tax bill that will significantly aggravate that inequality is disgraceful.

But they say the aim is to stimulate the economy, spur growth, and create jobs. Producing so much more income, and thus more tax revenue, that the cuts will pay for themselves. They’ve been making this argument for forty years. It has never proven true. A tax cut might be stimulative if it put money in the pockets of Joe Sixpack who’ll spend it. But not when most goes to the rich who’ll just save it. And corporate hiring simply has nothing to do with how much tax they pay on profits.

Meantime, the whole growth stimulation idea ignores the impact on deficits and debt. Which are set to explode in years ahead as ever more older people collect pensions and benefits while ever fewer work and pay taxes. We can finance the gap by borrowing, as long as interest rates remain at historic lows. But if ballooning debt spooks the financial markets, interest rates will spike up, and we won’t be able to afford much except interest payments. That makes cutting taxes suicidal economic insanity.

And snuck into the bill is this hidden stinker: repealing the Johnson Amendment, which bars churches from partisan politics. A terrible idea. (Read about it here.)

No wonder they want to ram this through quickly, without any pesky hearings or debate. Before anybody can really figure out what’s happening. Just like they tried to do with health care. Rushing such a hugely complex and consequential plan is also disgraceful and crazy.

But finally, for Republicans, the real reason behind all this is not economic policy. It’s more like religious belief. Tax cuts are a matter of faith, comparable to belief in God for Christians. Never mind economics, reality, or sanity.

Will it pass? Very doubtful. Likely it will get watered down into something insignificant — which Trump will nevertheless call a “big, big win.”

Huuuge!”

(Note, my family would benefit significantly from the GOP plan. And I was a Republican myself until recently. This tax plan epitomizes why I quit.)