Archive for July, 2018

Pascal’s wager

July 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Democrats’ divide

July 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s the Democratic platform for 2018 and 2020.

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

What is happiness?

July 23, 2018

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 21, 2018

For Release July 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Note: this statement is imaginary]

Would and wouldn’t

July 19, 2018

Back in my PSC days, a telephone company witness filed prepared testimony containing a huge blunder. On the stand, he said to delete the entire paragraph. Cross-examining, I asked why.

“It was a typo,” he answered, with a straight face.

I was reminded of this by Trump’s Tuesday claim that he’d merely mis-spoken Monday. Faced with a firestorm of condemnation, he did what he always does: he lied.

His Helsinki performance was a disgrace from beginning to end. What he meant was perfectly clear. And he imagines changing one word fixes everything? (Meantime, on Wednesday, he was unable to stick to the Tuesday script; and we still don’t know what he told Putin in private.)

Even before Tuesday’s “typo correction,” Hannity said those who criticize Trump regarding Helsinki are traitors to conservatism. Is this what “conservatism” now has come to? Getting in bed with a murdering Russian dictator who subverted our democracy? To think I once called myself a conservative.

Yes, good relations with Russia are desirable. But not at the cost of trashing everything America used to represent.

My daughter pointed me to a July 8 article by Jonathan Chait about Trump-and-Russia. I started reading, thinking, “yada yada yada;” however, this proved to be a devastating exposition (pulling together information already public) of just how thoroughly dirty Trump is. Read it.

Yet if Putin does “have something” on Trump, it seems a moot point. After “grab them by the pussy,” Stormy Daniels, Trump University, the constant lying, and so much else. Shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. Trump’s mind-slaves have sealed their deal with the Devil.

And whether Putin has him by the balls, or it’s Trump’s own psychopolitical pathology, doesn’t much matter because the result is the same. He is selling out America’s fundamental values and ideals, and tearing down the structure of alliances and the rules-based global order we so painstakingly built, that for seven decades served us and the free world so well, a bulwark of prosperity and peace.

It’s not simply “America First” or even “America Alone;” not merely a cynical transactional view of the world, nor even just a might-makes-right view. All of them myopically self-destructive. It’s worse yet: it’s realigning America, from the free world and the Enlightenment, to the dark side.

A monumental historical tragedy.

Trump’s treason

July 16, 2018

Recently at the G7 meeting in Canada, Trump played skunk at the picnic, refused to sign the agreed communique, and called Canada’s prime minister a backstabbing liar. He’s launched trade wars against our allies.

Then the Brussels NATO summit: cussing them out for not meeting a 2%-of-GDP defense spending target. He says they “owe us money,” which is false, it doesn’t work that way. Then he says the target should be 4%, which not even America spends. Then he turns around and congratulates himself for getting the others to agree to spend more. To which they say, “Wait — what?” They in fact agreed to nothing beyond existing targets.

And who would they be spending more to defend against? Trump never says. (It’s Russia.)

But the 2% thing is just a pretext for picking another fight with our allies and undermining NATO — exactly what Russia craves.

Meantime he accuses Germany’s Angela Merkel of being “totally controlled” by Russia, because of a gas pipeline. In fact Merkel has led the fight to keep sanctions against Russia for its Ukraine aggression. While Trump refused to enforce sanctions voted by Congress (and read below about his Helsinki summit). Who’s controlled by Russia?

Then he travels to Britain, whose people, he says, love him, while thousands protest his visit (he didn’t dare enter London). Prime Minister May had gone out on a limb for Trump, flattering him on her early Washington visit, and taking a lot of heat for inviting him to Britain. Her payback? Once in Britain he attacks and undermines her, saying he could do her job better on Brexit. (As if he understands the least thing about the Brexit complexities she is struggling with.) He threatens to refuse a trade deal, and practically endorses her rival Boris Johnson. But then he denies saying any of this, calling it “fake news,” despite his voice on the tape. And then he nonsensically attacks London’s mayor. And gives a racist rant about immigrants ruining European culture. And has people counting all the ways he dissed the Queen. This was a “diplomatic visit.

Then Trump was quoted Sunday saying that America’s biggest foe is the European Union.

Next, having thoroughly pummeled our European “foes,” it was time for a love-fest with our pal Putin.

Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns, interviewed beforehand, stressed that Trump’s job is to protect America, and he must confront Putin forcefully about election subversion. Calling this a “witch hunt” (now it’s “rigged witch hunt”) becomes increasingly absurd. Thirty-two people have so far been indicted by the Mueller investigation, with full details about exactly what they did and how, the majority for attempting (probably successfully) to subvert our election. An attack on America more damaging than anything by the Soviets during the cold war. American intelligence is absolutely clear and unanimous about this. It was also the bipartisan conclusion of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The latest indictments name Russian military and intelligence officials, proving that this was an operation by Putin’s regime.

So Trump promised he’d ask Putin the question. We’re told that in their private meeting they discussed it at length. Well, here’s the complete transcript:

Trump: Did you mess with our election?

Putin: Nyet.

Trump: OK.

But Trump welcomed Putin’s offer to have our people go to Russia to work with his people to investigate what he denies happened. Ha ha.

Bizarrely, while denying that Russia’s cyber-attack affected our election, or that it even happened, Trump continues to berate Obama for a weak response to it. But is Trump responding forcefully now? And while his endlessly repeated mantra is “no collusion” during the campaign, his stance ever since — denying the attack, minimizing it, smearing the investigation of it*, refusing to confront Russia about it, or to act to thwart a repeat — is collusion. (The legal term: “accessory after the fact.”)

In the news conference following the meeting, Trump said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia having done the election stuff. Thus indeed crediting Putin’s lies, against our own intelligence and law enforcement institutions. More: Trump even blamed our bad relations with Russia on America. Our relations were poisoned not by anything Russia has done, but by our “foolish” investigation!

Putin is also guilty of trying destabilize other European democracies (including having a hand in the Brexit vote); a devastating cyber attack on Estonia; military aggression in Georgia and Ukraine, including the seizure of Crimea; military intervention to prop up the blood-soaked Syrian dictator; crushing dissent within Russia by brutal means including outright murders of opposition politicians (like Boris Nemtsov), whistlebowers (like Sergei Magnitski) and crusading journalists (like Anna Politkovskaya); and even extending the murder spree to Britain with poison nerve gas.

Yet Trump calls out Putin on none of this, instead totally kisses his ass with lavish praise, and endorses his lies. “Trump sides with Russia” is the headline. John McCain said no American president has ever abased himself so abjectly before a foreign tyrant, and this is a low point in the history of the presidency. (Read McCain’s full extraordinarily harsh statement.)

And what did the great dealmaker get for America in return for this gift to Putin? Zilch. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said the meeting’s outcome was “better than super.” Trump’s shredding relationships with our (former) allies, in particular, is a huge triumph for Russia. Exactly what Russia aimed to achieve in subverting our election. Putin brazenly said yes, he did want Trump elected. And sandbagging America with this president is exactly why the Russian election subversion was in fact such a big deal.

Our president used to be called “the leader of the free world.” Trump is trying to switch us to the other side.

“Treason” is a very strong word. May sound like exaggerated hyperbole. I have never before used it in discussing politics. I use it now with judicious care (and not metaphorically). Treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”

Adhering to our enemies, giving them aid and comfort. Putin and Russia are still our enemies.

Trump is a traitor.

* Trump trotted out a new thoroughly phony attack on the investigation: “where’s the server?” Watch for Fox Fake News and congressional Republicans go to town beating this hollow drum.

King Zog

July 15, 2018

Knowing nothing about the story, except vaguely its strangeness, out of simple curiosity I picked up this biography, King Zog, by Jason Tomes.

Albania was an outlying part of the Ottoman Empire. A most backward, primitive, impoverished land (which it still is). A century ago it had no railroads, hardly even any roads, and three automobiles. Scant literacy or intelligentsia. No law, apart from a tribal vengeance code.

The tale begins with the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912, a confusion of would-be states scrambling in a war of all against all.

Enter Ahmed Zogolli. Just turning seventeen.

His early life is murky. The bio is full of “might haves” and “perhapses.” He apparently had some schooling in Constantinople (Istanbul). But in 1912 he didn’t come out of nowhere — not quite exactly. He’d inherited the chiefdom of a small Albanian backwoods clan, the Mati, with a ragtag army of maybe a few hundred men.

Albania was actually full of petty chiefs like him. But Zogolli, despite his extreme youth, excelled them all in intelligence, self-possession, self-discipline, guile — and in his vision for nation-building. Already he was a player when a statelet of Albania emerged out of the war in 1912. The European powers put a minor German prince on the throne; Zogolli backed him; he didn’t last. When WWI soon erupted, the Austrians came in, and he aligned with them too.

They gave Zogolli, now 21, a rank of Colonel, and even brought him to Vienna to receive a medal and an audience with the new Emperor Karl. All very nice. But then he was told it would be best to just remain in Vienna.

So he sat out the rest of the war, nightclubbing — and studying history. At war’s end he finally returned to Albania where, Austrian rule having disintegrated, a provisional government emerged. Within months Zogolli was minister of the interior, and soon thereafter calling all the shots. By 1922 (now all of 27), he was also prime minister.

The next year Zogolli organized elections — the only free election Albania ever had until the 1990s. His own party didn’t do too well. In 1924, on his way to Parliament, he took three bullets from a would-be assassin but persevered to deliver his speech. Nevertheless, things were falling apart, and Zogolli was soon ousted and exiled. However, his successor was such a crackpot that by year’s end Zogolli managed to return again, raise a new army, and seize control. He rode at the head of his tribal warriors wearing a pressed business suit.

Now, he made himself president, restyled as Ahmed Zogu; and in 1928 as King Zog I.

It was not a cushy billet. Albanian politics (if it could be called such) was a morass of tribal blood feuds; and in consolidating power, Zog had stepped on many toes. He managed to hold things together, just, but foresaw an almost inevitable violent end.

A certain fearlessness had vaulted him to power, yet he lived in constant fear now, and it kept him virtually imprisoned in the palaces he built.

In these circumstances, a benevolent monarchy was not in the cards. Some repression was required. Some inconvenient characters did die violently. At least the word “torture” does not appear in the book.

However, it was not solely self-aggrandizement. As mentioned, Zog did see himself on a nation-building mission, little though he had to work with. Albania was still a collection of feuding clans with no national consciousness. Zog did do some things of a liberal, progressive nature, trying to drag the country out of the Dark Ages. But a key hindrance was simple lack of money. Obviously, these grizzled tribesmen would not submit to taxation. Indeed, what funds Zog did manage to scrape together went largely to buying off warlords.

He did not get a queen until 1938: Geraldine. He couldn’t marry any Albanian gal because of the clan rivalry factor, and mainline European royalty shunned him as an upstart adventurer. Geraldine was of minor Hungarian nobility and half American. It actually seems to have been something of a love match.

Zog’s challenge was not just to play off rival warlords but (to keep Albania in existence) also Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. He made Albania virtually an Italian client state. Though accused of selling the country out to Mussolini, the riposte was that he’d never actually delivered it. But finally, in April 1939 — Mussolini, to keep up with the Joneses — that is, the Germans, who rolled up Czechoslovakia — invaded Albania, after an ultimatum that Zog refused.

Albania would have been totally outclassed militarily, even had anyone been willing to fight. But no one was. Zog fled into exile, yet again.

For the next 22 years he and his court flitted among various countries, financed by quite a bit of loot he’d managed to accumulate and abscond with. Unsurprisingly, Zog intrigued relentlessly for a return. During WWII, various partisan armies — none supporting him — fought over Albania. The eventual victor was Enver Hoxha’s Communists, who installed a brutal Stalinist regime, that lasted until 1991.

Zog had meantime ruined his health in numerous ways, including smoking more cigarettes than was humanly possible. He was 65 when he died in 1961.

He did not come back again.

Geraldine lived until 2002.

China’s Xinjiang: “1984” meets the Gulag

July 12, 2018

Xinjiang is China’s northwest province, home of the Muslim ethnic Uighurs (“wee-gurs”). Also home to a vast gulag of “re-education” camps — hundreds or possibly thousands, with more being built. And one local security chief said these camps are so full that their officials are begging police to stop bringing people.

However, the numbers of policemen rival those of camp inmates. In at least one city (Hotan), every shop and restaurant must have a cop on duty, so thousands of their workers have been enrolled as part time police officers, fully equipped and made to undergo training.

The camp population has been estimated between half and one million; around a sixth to a third of young and middle aged Uighur men have been detained. The government does not acknowledge the camps’ existence, and little information about them has seeped out. One released prisoner said he was not allowed to eat until he’d thanked President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. There have been (unsurprisingly) reports of torture.

In Xinjiang, there’s one police station for every 500 or so people, to keep tabs on them. Roads are clogged with checkpoints, up to four or five per kilometer. Hi-tech security cameras are everywhere, and facial recognition technology is aggressively in use. Uighurs are required to carry identity cards (constantly checked) recording everything about them. To submit their phones and passwords to police for scrutiny. To install a “spyware” app enabling the government to track all activity. Even to provide blood samples for biometric data.

Because of a past knife attack, knives and scissors are almost impossible to buy. In restaurants, kitchen knives are registered, and chained to walls to prevent use as weapons.

Police go in teams of half a dozen from house to house compiling dossiers of personal information, used to rate citizens for “trustworthiness.” Flunking gets you sent to a camp. What are they looking for? Basically any signs of Muslim religion — praying, eschewing alcohol, Ramadan fasting, long beards, and of course Koran possession. Going to mosque is a huge red flag, so mosques are empty. (China’s constitution purports to guarantee freedom of religion.)

Being sent to a camp does not require any judicial process; just an order from the police or a party functionary, for any reason, or none. An undertaker was sent for washing bodies according to Muslim custom. Thirty in one town for suspicion of wanting to travel abroad. Others for asking where their relatives are, and failing to recite the national anthem in Chinese.

Sound extreme? There’s more. The government also has a program called “becoming kin,” wherein a local family (usually Uighur) “adopts” an official (usually Han Chinese), who visits regularly, verifying dossier details, and even living with the family for short spells, “teaching” them. A 2018 report states that 1.1 million of these indoctrinator/snoops have been paired with 1.6 million families — roughly half the Uighur population.

And what is the government’s rationale for this ultra-totalitarian police state? To tamp down Uighur Muslim restiveness. It began when ethnic Han Chinese were encouraged to settle in Xinjiang to dilute the Uighur population dominance. With that came discrimination against Uighurs. This provoked Uighur protests, resistance, separatism, and eventually, as the government responded with escalating ferocity, some terrorism (that knife attack). China’s regime aims to crush all that. For now, the sheer extremism of its effort seems to be effective, leaving no option for Uighurs but to knuckle under.

Will Trump phone Xi Jinping to congratulate him on his “great security success” in Xinjiang?

This story raises the most fundamental question about the relationship between citizen and state. China’s regime is acting as a Hobbesian leviathan par excellence. But with what legitimacy, and to what ultimate purpose? Hobbes’s leviathan was conceived as being empowered by a social contract to protect people’s safety. What Uighur would willingly sign on to this social contract? Who benefits from it?

And this is pure speculation on my part — I could be wrong — but is it just possible that China’s policy in Xinjiang exacerbates the very thing it’s supposedly combating — creating an entire population of deeply embittered enemies?

(This report is based on one in The Economist, June 2, 2018, and contains no exaggerations; in fact it’s mild in comparison.)

How to become a Nazi

July 9, 2018

You’re a nurse, and a doctor instructs you, by phone, to give his patient 20 Mg of a certain drug. The bottle clearly says 10 Mg is the maximum allowable daily dose. Would you administer the 20 Mg? Asked this hypothetical question, nearly all nurses say no. But when the experiment was actually run, 21 out of 22 nurses followed the doctor’s orders, despite knowing it was wrong.

Then there was the famous Milgram experiment. Participants were directed to administer escalating electric shocks to other test subjects for incorrect answers. Most people did as instructed, even when the shocks elicited screams of pain; even when the victims apparently lost consciousness. (They were actors and not actually shocked.)

These experiments are noted in Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc, in a chapter about the Nazis. Shermer argues that in the big picture we are morally progressing. But here he examines how it can go wrong, trying to understand how people became Nazis.

Normal people have strong, deeply embedded moral scruples. But they are very situation-oriented. Look at the famous “runaway trolley” hypothetical. Most people express willingness to pull a switch to detour the trolley to kill one person to prevent its killing five. But if you have to physically push the one to his death — even though the moral calculus would seem equivalent — most people balk.

So it always depends on the circumstances. In the nurse experiment, when it came down to it, the nurses were unwilling to go against the doctor. Likewise in Milgram’s experiment, it was the authority of the white-coated supervisor that made people obey his order to give shocks, even while most felt very queasy about it.

Nazis too often explained themselves saying, “I was only following orders.” And, to be fair, the penalty for disobeying was often severe. But that was hardly the whole story. In fact, the main thing was the societal normalization of Nazism. When your entire community, from top to bottom, is besotted with an idea, it’s very hard not to be sucked in.

Even if it is, well, crazy. Nazi swaggering might actually not have been delusional if confined to the European theatre. They overran a lot of countries. But then unbridled megalomania led them to take on, as well, Russia — and America. This doomed insanity they pursued to the bitter end.

Yet they didn’t see it that way. The power of groupthink.

And what about the idea of exterminating Jews? They didn’t come to it all at once, but in incremental steps. They actually started with killing “substandard” Germans — mentally or physically handicapped, the blind, the deaf — tens of thousands. With the Jews they began with social ostracizing and increasing curtailment of rights.

This was accompanied by dehumanization and demonization. Jews were not just called inferior, genetically and morally, but blamed for a host of ills, including causing WWI, and causing Germany’s defeat. Thusly Germans convinced themselves the Jews deserved whatever they got, had “brought it on themselves.” These ideas were in the very air Germans breathed.

Part of this was what Shermer calls “pluralistic ignorance” — taking on false beliefs because you imagine everyone holds them. Like college students who’ve been shown to have very exaggerated ideas of their peers’ sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse, causing them to conform to those supposed norms. Germans similarly believed negative stereotypes about Jews because they thought most fellow Germans held such views. Actually many did not, but kept that hidden, for obvious reasons. There was no debate about it.

Of course it was all factually nonsense. An insult to intelligence, to anyone who knew anything about anything. Yet Germany — seemingly the most culturally advanced society on Earth, the epicenter of learning, philosophy, the arts — fell completely for this nonsense and wound up murdering six million in its name.*

Which brings me to Trumpism. (You knew it would.) Am I equating it with Nazism? No. Not yet. But the pathology has disturbing parallels. The tribalism, the groupthink, the us-versus-them, nationalism, racism, and contempt for other peoples. The demonization of immigrants, falsely blaming them for all sorts of ills, to justify horrible mistreatment like taking children from parents — even saying, “they brought it on themselves.” And especially the suspension of critical faculties to follow blindly a very bad leader and swallow bushels of lies.

I might once have said “it can’t happen here” because of our strong democratic culture. Today I’m not so sure. Culture can change. That within the Republican party certainly has. Not so long ago the prevailing national attitude toward politicians was “I’m from Missouri,” and “they’re all crooks and liars.” Too cynical perhaps but the skepticism was healthy, and it meant that being caught in a lie (or even flip-flopping) was devastating for a politician. Contrast Republicans’ attitude toward Trump (a politician after all). Not only a real crook and constant flip-flopper, but a Brobdingnagian liar. That 40% of Americans line up in lockstep behind this is frightening. And as for our democratic culture, the sad truth is that too few still understand its principles and values. Germans in their time were the apogee of civilization, and then they became Nazis.

Shermer quotes Hitler saying, “Give me five years and you will not recognize Germany again.” Fortunately Trump will have only four — let’s hope. But America is already becoming unrecognizable.

* My grandfather was a good patriotic German who’d even taken a bullet for his country in WWI. But that didn’t matter; he was Jewish. Fortunately he, with wife and daughter, got out alive. His mother did not.

The civility issue

July 7, 2018

Actor Robert DeNiro shouts “Fuck Trump!” Comedians Samantha Bee and Kathy Griffin, respectively, call Ivanka a “cunt” and pose with a (fake) severed Trump head. Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen is heckled in a Mexican restaurant; Sarah Sanders is refused service in another eatery. And I’ve labeled Trump a “stinking piece of shit.”

Welcome to American political culture 2018.

Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” A fine sentiment. And indeed the candidate against Trump in 2020 must not join him in the gutter, but should instead embody a contrast against the boorish degradation of Trumpism. (Even if the better angels of our nature are out to lunch.)

It’s Trump we can thank for all this. He’s the one who really has pulled American political culture into the sewer; it’s one of the very things that so outrages opponents and provokes them to obscenities. Political nastiness does have a long history; but as a close student of that history, I can say Trump represents a stark discontinuity. It’s bizarre that Trumpists take offense at incivility toward him and his lackeys, such as I’ve mentioned, and even say it strengthens his support; when he, like, invented horrible behavior.

Jordan Klepper’s Comedy Central show, The Opposition, tried to be an over-the-top parody of Trumpism. But it was ended basically because the parody had a hard time topping the grotesque reality.

I never voted for Obama, and often, as a Republican,  harshly criticized him here. That’s politics in a free country. But never in talking of Obama did I use the kind of language I use for Trump. Obama was an honest, virtuous, dignified man who, even when wrong, was a credit to America’s civic culture. Trump is a stinking piece of shit.

Example of a metaphor

Now, when I say this, it is a metaphor. And I am someone for whom language is very important, and I use it with care. My metaphor reflects careful consideration for its verity.

We are endowed with reasoning minds that make judgments, based on facts and evidence (well, some of us). As a longtime political junkie, faced with a phenomenon so dramatically altering our political landscape, I worked hard to learn the facts about Trump. And even before the election, it was clear that he is a very bad man. Far worse than I could ever have imagined in a president. Bad through and through, in every aspect of character and personality. Columnist Thomas Friedman used the words “disgusting human being.”

I have supported that judgment by marshaling facts, and was ringing the alarm bell before the election. Afterward, I was actually prepared to be surprised — hoping Trump might rise to the magnitude of the responsibility thrust upon him. Yet I also warned that power doesn’t make bad men better. Alas, it’s the latter that has proven true.

In contrast to my own carefully considered judgment, grounded in judicious evaluation of all relevant facts, Trump flings around verbal bombs in utter disregard of them. One of his most odious traits. Like his insulting John McCain’s war hero status. Accusing Obama of bugging him. All that “weak on borders, weak on crime” garbage. Calling numerous honest people “liars,” day in and day out. His “spygate” accusation against the FBI, deliberately and falsely undermining public confidence in our institutions of rule of law. The list goes on and on. Res ipsa loquitur.

So —

Kathy Griffin’s severed head? Tasteful it wasn’t. But she’s a comic, after all. And this was another metaphor, for what would be Trump’s just comeuppance for what he’s done to this country — removal from office in humiliation and disgrace.

Nielsen (I tried to find the nastiest looking picture)

The Nielsen episode? In this democracy, public officials — especially the highest — are answerable to citizens. That comes with the job. Calling her out in a restaurant may not have been polite and decorous but those citizens had a right to express disapproval of her official conduct when an opportunity arose. A cabinet member cannot expect to leave it all behind at the office at 5 PM. In this case, the irony of her eating in a Mexican restaurant was too rich. And in the moral balance, does Nielsen’s being shouted at compare with taking children away from parents? (And Trump’s falsely blaming Democrats for it?)


The Sanders episode? The 1964 Civil Rights Act assures equal access to public venues for racial minorities and the like. Its protections don’t cover public officials who are bathed in lies. That restaurateur had a right to express her political opinion by kicking Sanders out.

DeNiro? When I call Trump what I call him, it’s always in the context of some specific transgression, my disapproval of which is fully explained (as here), with an effort to persuade readers to my point of view. This was not true of DeNiro’s ejaculation, making it kind of pointless.

But finally, once more, if all this rawness is not your cup of tea, you know who’s to blame. The malodorous defecation product.