Archive for August, 2018

Trump is the Antichrist

August 31, 2018

Fundamentalist Christians have long been obsessed with the Antichrist. He figured prominently in the “Left Behind” books. Not an abstraction, the Antichrist would be a real person, come among us, the avatar of Satan himself, working to destroy God’s kingdom.

Turns out it’s true. The Antichrist is here. It’s Trump.

Isn’t it obvious, explaining everything? Firstly, the Antichrist could not be some two-bit player on the world stage. He’d have to be a huge figure, cutting a wide swath, as befitting his Satanic role. No one has ever filled that bill like Trump. No public character has ever so dominated the landscape.

And the Antichrist would, of course, be literally the anti-Christ. The antithesis of Christ and everything he represented. That’s Trump to a “T.”

Christ would never lie. Or “grab them by the pussy.”

Love thy neighbor? Canada and Mexico are our neighbors. (Not Russia.) And how about our more immediate neighbors, living among us? All those non-white people, all those immigrants? (And Democrats.) Trump is all hate-thy-neighbor.

Turn the other cheek? Trump tries to make the opposite seem a virtue — “fighting back.” That is, viciously smearing every critic or opponent. Calling them names. And now abusing his power to punish them (like yanking honest John Brennan’s security clearance).

Chase money changers from the temple? Trump welcomes them in. Having promised to “drain the swamp,” he deepens it. Flynn, Price, Pruitt, Carson, Manafort, Cohen, Bannon, Wilbur Ross. Trump’s own corruptly milking the presidency for personal profit. A total swamp of sleaze.

Suffer the little children to come unto me? Even little children he makes suffer, ripping them from parental arms.

Loyalty? Christ was loyal to Peter even after Peter denied him; loyal to God even on the cross. Trump (who demands loyalty from others) is loyal to nothing and no one but himself. Least of all his country, which he’s betrayed to its worst enemy, Russia. (I didn’t write “sold out” because he actually got nothing in return.)

And did I mention the lying? “Lying” is an inadequate word here. Trump wars against the very concept of truth, to create a world in which reality and truth are meaningless.

But these are details. The big picture is indeed wholly at odds with the heart of Christ’s teaching. Trump is a moral black hole sucking in everything and everyone around him. A vortex of evil.

Now, realize that the Antichrist doesn’t wear a costume with horns and tail, proclaiming his identity. Of course not — the whole point, the real danger, is his deviously disguising it. To fool people, so the Satanic agenda can be achieved. Admittedly, Trump’s disguise is ridiculously thin, transparent to anyone with eyes to see. But Satan has thrown black magic dust in the eyes of Christians.

They say never mind his personal peccadillos, they like what he’s doing. That’s the snare, the dust thrown in their eyes. And what is he doing that’s so wonderful it could possibly justify the poisoning of America’s whole civic culture, everything it stands for — everything Christ stands for?

So these fools fall right into Satan’s trap, blind to their plunge into the vortex of evil — dragging down with them their precious religion itself, demonstrating its falsity.

In the fantasies of uber-Christians, like in those “Left Behind” books, the Antichrist is always ultimately defeated by the legions of the godly. But what if those legions are bamboozled into fighting for the wrong side?

They’re marching in Satan’s army — straight into Hell — where they will all burn forever.

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Robert Ingersoll — the greatest man you never heard of

August 28, 2018

We went to a Syracuse shindig celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. Run by the Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist organization, its first day featured presentations, the second a bus tour to Ingersoll’s and other freethought landmarks. About ninety attended.

Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was known as “The Great Agnostic.” A lawyer, he was America’s foremost public speaker in the late 19th century, traveling the country giving lectures, mostly anti-religious. People flocked to hear him. In those times, other kinds of public entertainments were almost nonexistent. And Ingersoll was such an engaging speaker that he always got a respectful hearing.

How different America is today. People were ignorant then, but knew they were. Now Americans are a little less ignorant but a lot more sure they know everything (regardless of empirical truth).

Ingersoll was a great humanist in every sense of the word — refuting the canard that “atheists believe in nothing.” Ingersoll believed in the power of human rationality to give us progress and good lives. That the happiness of sentient beings is the ultimate source of meaning. That the time to be happy is now, and the place is here, on Earth. That one’s happiness is entwined with that of others. And Ingersoll lived these principles, earning the love and admiration of everyone he touched.

His birthplace museum is in Dresden, NY, a tiny town. We were shown a screenshot from “Tripadvisor” labeling the Ingersoll site “#1 of 1 things to do in Dresden.”

Flynn

Tom Flynn (editor of CFI’s Free Inquiry magazine) placed Ingersoll in the context of what he called “the Braid of Reform” in 19th Century America. The two great causes were abolition and women’s rights (including suffrage). Not all these movements’ adherents were religious freethinkers, but many were; and most freethinkers were abolitionists and suffragists. “Freethought” means thinking outside the box of traditional religious dogmas.

Blumner

Robyn Blumner heads the CFI. She noted that its $5 million budget is the largest for any U.S. secular organization, but is dwarfed by funding for the Christian right. “Campus Crusade for Christ” has a budget a hundred times larger. Blumner said, however, that we have reason, science, and truth on our side. Though truth used to have a bigger constituency.

One CFI program she discussed had particular resonance for me: “Secular Rescue.” I am a fearless blogger — not courageous, but literally fearless because in America there’s nothing to fear over what one writes. Not so in other countries, especially Muslim ones, where “blasphemy” is a crime, sometimes punishable by death; a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes (to be administered in installments). In Bangladesh there’s a vigilante crusade murdering “blaspheming” bloggers. “Secular Rescue” is engaged in protecting such people and even relocating them to safer places.

Smith

Norman Dann spoke about Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), another great figure you never heard of. Extremely rich, all Smith wanted to do with his money was to advance human rights, especially abolition. He freed a lot of slaves by simply buying them. Initially he felt “moral suasion” could end slavery. Then political activism. Finally, a fellow came to him with a different approach: violence and war. That was John Brown, and Smith funded him.

Sue Boland talked about Matilda Joslyn Gage — the third woman’s suffrage triumvir, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though much less famous now.

Gage

Gage was a freethinker whose battle for women’s rights targeted religion, with all its patriarchal ideas. Indeed, Christianity was the most powerful force opposing female suffrage.

Gage’s son-in-law was L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz — which Boland called a freethought fairy tale, telling us that everything we need is already inside us. (No need for that fraud behind the curtain!)

The bus tour included Gage’s house in Fayetteville, as well as, in Peterboro, the Gerrit Smith site and the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

Another program centered on D.M. Bennett, publisher of a freethought periodical, The Truth Seeker, who in 1879 fell victim to “anti-vice” pervert Anthony Comstock, being imprisoned for mailing obscenity — a book of conjugal advice. Whose author President Hayes pardoned. But, bowing to church pressure, he wouldn’t pardon Bennett.

Grube as Stanton

We also had two costumed dramatic impersonations. Melinda Grube channeled Stanton (Gerrit Smith’s cousin). A focus was how her life was shaped by her brother’s death in youth and her father’s inability to take equal pride in her, being the wrong gender. “She couldn’t change her father, or herself, so she’d have to change the world.” Like Gage, Stanton saw women’s oppression rooted in Christianity and the Bible; she authored The Woman’s Bible with plain English explanations of its pernicious passages relating to women.

Margaret Downey gave us Eva Parker Ingersoll, Robert’s wife, focusing on their love story. She quoted from a letter he wrote to Eva: “The world is getting free. I thank God every day that he does not exist.”

After dinner, the keynote speech was by Susan Jacoby, Ingersoll biographer and author of several other books (one of which I recently wrote about). Her theme: what would Ingersoll think of today’s America?

Jacoby

Jacoby stressed Ingersoll’s linking religion’s rejection of reason with the whole spectrum of social issues like women’s rights and immigration. Yes, he was enlightened even on that, battling against the onset of immigration restrictions with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As ever, his argument was moral: Chinese are human beings who should be treated the same as any other. “A great nation,” he said, “should be bound by the highest conception of honor and justice.” (Funny how believers insist morality comes from religion, when so often religious dogmas make them morally blind.)

Jacoby sees increasingly successful efforts by today’s religionists to undermine church-state separation, using protection of religious freedom as a wedge, twisting it into a right to impose their beliefs on others. She said Ingersoll may have been too optimistic about science’s ability to overcome all this.

The word “tribal” has been invoked a lot in analyzing Trump support. Jacoby sees that tribalism as being animated more by religion than anything else (such as economic concerns). It’s a fact that the 40% of Americans who back Trump are largely the same people who are Christian fundamentalists. And just as religious faith works to seal people off from reality checks, the same seems true in the political realm, with Trumpism more like a faith cult than a mere political viewpoint.

This too shall pass

Is there hope? Yes. One writer recently called the religious right’s ascendancy “a cultural stab from the grave,” demographically speaking. Throughout the rest of the developed world, Christian religion is in sharp retreat, with belief and churchgoing collapsing. In America, the younger you are, the less religious you are apt to be. The religious right’s flame will ultimately burn out. In the long run, reason will defeat unreason.

John McCain

August 26, 2018

The two presidential candidates I was most proud to support were both Arizonans. I believe that had John McCain won in 2008, America today would be in far better shape than it is. A better nation.

“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, okay?”

No, not okay. I like people who don’t say such things, okay? Had McCain won in 2008, we surely wouldn’t now have a president who does.

McCain reflected honor upon America. Evoking the better angels of our nature.

With him gone, it is now up to us to make America great again.

Manafort, Cohen, and the Prevaricator of the United States

August 24, 2018

Manafort

Paul Manafort was Trump’s campaign chief. Bad enough that he worked for foreign villains like Yanukovych, whom even Ukraine couldn’t stomach (which is saying something). But Manafort compounded his crime by ducking income tax on his ill-gotten lucre. He’s been convicted on eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud. One of the many caught by Mueller’s witch hunt. Manafort faces years in prison and a further trial for failure to register as a foreign agent and so forth.

Manafort even literally wears clothing made from snakes. Yet this reptile Trump still insists is a fine human being. And that his prosecution was “unfair,” a favorite Trump word (applicable only to him, or his lackeys). A jury convicted Manafort of eight serious crimes. Where was the “unfairness?” As WAMC radio’s Alan Chartock incessantly warned, a single Trumpy juror could have stonewalled to get Manafort off the hook. But not one did. The verdict was unanimous.

Calling the whole thing unfair is an insult to the public servants who properly did their jobs in bringing a criminal to justice, and to the citizen jurors who conscientiously fulfilled their civic responsibility. Of course, civic responsibility is a concept wholly alien to Trump.

Capone

He tweeted comparing Manafort’s treatment with Al Capone’s (misspelling his name). Capone, after a long crime extravaganza full of murders, was finally imprisoned for tax evasion. Just like Manafort. Interesting comparison, O Great Genius.

Then Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer and “fixer” pled guilty to a bunch of felony campaign finance violations, in arranging hush money for sluts with whom Trump committed adultery.*

Cohen

Cohen’s testimony that Trump directed these payments makes Trump’s previous denials his 2,768th outright lie. (Trump also still laughably denies the affairs.) More important, Cohen’s evidence implicates Trump in serious actual crimes.

Trump, despite (of course) calling Cohen a liar, apparently no longer denies his role in the payments. His new lie is that they weren’t a crime anyway — because the money came from his pocket, not his campaign.

He said this on his favorite TV show, Fox & Fiends. Why did none of the little foxes there challenge his statement? And say, “Excuse me, Lord and Master, but I’m afraid you’re mistaken. That actually makes it a worse crime.”

Because even were it arguable whether campaign funds can be used for hush money, if the money (indisputably benefiting the campaign) circumvented the whole system of campaign finance regulation and reporting, that’s incontestably a clear and bigger no-no.

Lawyer Cohen himself seemed pretty clear on the doings being criminal, and indeed unarguably so. Why else plead guilty to charges that will send him up for years?

Hey, Christians still stuck in Trumpland’s alternate reality — as an atheist I don’t have your morality. I rape and murder whenever I want.

* “Slut” is not a nice word, but fits any female who’d do it with such a creep.

America’s eviction problem

August 21, 2018

A trivial incident — kids throwing snowballs at a car. Next thing you know, Arleen, a single Milwaukee mother, is evicted. Sheriff guys give her a choice: all her stuff dumped on the sidewalk, or taken to storage, where she can pay $350 to reclaim it.

Arleen doesn’t have $350.

So begins Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

Words like “profit” and (on the cover flap) “economic exploitation” set a tone. “Landlord” has always been a dirty word too. Landlords are way outnumbered by renters, so the politics, and the common narrative, are against them. Stalin and Mao demonized them to justify their murder. Desmond doesn’t go so far, but does think landlords “exploit” poor tenants and make excessive profits.

There seems to be an idea that housing is somehow “out there,” like handed down from God, with landlords sort of leeching onto it to suck profit. Not that housing is a good that landlords provide to tenants, earning some just compensation for their investment and efforts.

But a few pages into the book we meet Sherrena — a black woman of middle years and Arleen’s landlord. And just as Desmond does depict the trials and tribulations of renters, so too does he show those of landlords. “Profit?” Maybe — if they can manage to overcome all those things that can and do constantly go wrong. (I’m thankful to have my own different and very smooth business.) In the landlord-tenant relationship, it was often arguable who was “exploiting” whom. The “system” has a lot of aspects hostile to landlords. In Milwaukee, if there are more than three 911 calls in a month, the landlord faces fines, property forfeiture, and even jail. She has to file a plan for “abating the nuisance.” Usually that means eviction.

And what was Sherrena earning? Desmond estimates her net at about $10,000 a month, on three dozen inner city units. A nice income, yes, but not much above middle class par. Which she really worked hard to earn, negotiating hurricanes of hassles and headaches. (Desmond does profile another guy making about half a million running a trailer park with 131 units.)

New York has actually had a “Rent is Too Damn High Party.” And that theme seemed to pervade Desmond’s book, with poor people paying high proportions of their incomes in rent. Implying this contravenes social justice. The author even notes that rents for wretched slum dwellings are not greatly lower than for nice one ones in better neighborhoods.

So are the poor being gouged to subsidize better-off tenants? Of course not. As the book shows, slum apartments actually entail a lot of operating costs landlords don’t face in nicer areas. Like apartments constantly being trashed. (One flat incurred repeated plumber visits because the tenants kept throwing crap down the drain.) All the court costs for frequent evictions. The mentioned 911 problems. The constant hassle of chasing after overdue payments. Et cetera. Excessive profits? Considering what landlords have to put into the business? If rents were lower, who’d want to supply tenants with apartments?

In the final analysis, this is a highly competitive free market, with multitudes of suppliers, and rents determined by supply and demand. I kept wondering: if profits are so great, why aren’t guys rushing to build more apartments? (Expanding the supply, which would drive down rents. That’s how markets work.)

But again, being a slumlord is actually a fraught business. A lot of it is due to the life dysfunctionality rampant among lower income renters. The picture is sadly familiar from books like Hillbilly Elegy and Our Kids. Drugs, alcohol, lack of education, casual violence, marital/family/relationship chaos, and much involvement with the criminal justice system. It’s wrong to blame the poor for their poverty. Anyone born into such an environment is greatly handicapped in life from the start. Yet in so many of Desmond’s stories, folks make some really bad choices. He offers the psychologically understandable explanation that, with lives full of difficulty and uncertainty, poor people tend to prioritize the “now” over the future, while also withholding their full energies from today’s problems, to keep some in reserve for tomorrow’s.

Yet there’s actually a simple, almost foolproof formula for avoiding poverty: finish high school (at least), don’t have kids before you do, and stay sober. Easy to say, hard to do, if you’re born into poverty.

Desmond makes a good case that the eviction problem is huge: poor Americans just cannot afford market rents. They juggle rent bills with utility bills, unable to keep their heads above water. In all the book’s many stories, the main income sources were government benefits of one kind or another; very little earned by working. Many people are just not realistically employable in today’s economy. Government hand-outs aren’t enough to keep their heads above water. The result is rampant evictions, which devastate their lives, psychologically as well as materially. They often lose their possessions. An eviction makes it much harder to find new digs. Landlords don’t like to rent to people with evictions on their records. It even disqualifies them from government housing assistance programs!

I am no “bleeding heart” liberal. In reading a book like this it’s hard to project myself into the skins of the people portrayed. For me a big hassle is when the DVR doesn’t work. What can it feel like to be evicted, made homeless, all your stuff dumped at the curb? With small children no less. Yet I can imagine it at least a little bit; and it’s really really bad. These are human beings, like you or me. I’ve been lucky. The cosmic lottery could just as easily have given me a life like theirs. And don’t say with all my brains and character I’d have surmounted it. That’s nonsense. Born into such circumstances, I would not be the me I know.

One seemingly obvious answer to the mess that is the housing picture for poor people is for the government to step in and, instead of trying to regulate the market, to simply provide housing itself. In fact, we tried that; it proved a massive disaster. So nowadays the government’s intervention largely takes the form of “Section 8” vouchers, paying part of some poor tenants’ rent. Though Desmond notes the voucher amounts are calculated by reference to average rents in an area — including both slums and nice districts. Thus they’re above the average for slum housing — seemingly a windfall for landlords. (On the other hand, many landlords refuse to accept “Section 8” tenants.)

The book doesn’t mention rent control. It’s been said that the two most effective ways to destroy a city are carpet bombing and rent control. Because it disincentivizes landlords from maintaining properties and developing new ones, so the housing supply doesn’t meet demand. Googling, I found that Milwaukee does have some rent controls, but couldn’t readily find details. I stumbled upon the Milwaukee Housing Authority’s web page, which mentions providing some public housing. Also that the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers is currently closed!

Desmond doesn’t mention this either, but for all the chatter about “affordable housing,” cities typically defeat that by also restricting supply through zoning rules, height and density limits, etc. A study by economists Tang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti estimates that removing such restrictions in just three cities (NY, SF, San Jose) could boost U.S. GDP by 9% by enabling more people to live in them. Some cities have made a “grand bargain,” removing building restrictions in exchange for requiring developers to offer some units at below-market rents.

Desmond’s main recommendation is to expand the voucher program to simply cover all families below the 30th income percentile. He cites a 2013 estimate that this would cost $22.5 billion nationwide, even without changing the averaging formula that he says favors landlords, and without considering offsets like less homelessness with its associated public costs. That $22.5 billion is hardly more than a rounding error in a federal budget with trillion dollar annual deficits.

The book shows government programs for the poor are a convoluted cat’s cradle with highly arbitrary results. Desmond’s proposal for a simplified and widely available housing voucher program might be a step in the right direction. However, it’s become obvious that federal college tuition help has had the perverse effect of enabling colleges to ramp up their fees. I’d fear that expanded housing subsidies would similarly push rents up.

A better approach would actually go further: ditch all the Rube Goldberg welfare programs (and all the huge bureaucratic costs they entail), supplanting the whole mess with one simplified program: a guaranteed annual income.

This would face up to a growing reality. Increasing technological sophistication makes the world richer, but many people are left behind. Simple humanity demands sharing with them a part of those riches. We can afford it. The cost would be a fraction of what’s spent for far less compelling purposes.

The polygamy problem

August 17, 2018

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Or several, in many places in the world.

We don’t realize how common this is — men using wealth to get multiple wives (and more sex). But why buy cows if you can just buy the milk? Buying sex, in many places, is neither easy nor socially acceptable, whereas polygamy can be. It’s indeed widespread in Africa, the Arab world, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

Some men attract multiple partners through charisma. And it’s endemic among religious gurus. Joseph Smith may have concocted Mormonism just so he could one day announce God’s polygamy plan (for him). But mainly, it’s simply wife-buying. There’s typically a “bride price” (the converse of a dowry), paid to the girl’s family.

Where that’s practiced, it militates toward older husbands and younger wives. Men may need time to accumulate the required sum; and then will want to invest it in the youngest possible (most nubile and fertile) girl. And most families need to sell their daughters before they can afford wives for their sons.

Love and romance? Since when did that figure in marriage? Only since modern times, actually, and mainly in advanced societies.

Polygamy is a factor keeping societies from becoming advanced. It plays havoc with societal stability. There are only so many women to go around (especially in male-obsessed cultures that practice selective abortion and female infanticide). But even without that, for every man with three wives, two others will have none.

Did you ever wonder, regarding those Mormon sects with multiple wives, what happens with all the men necessarily left in the lurch? The answer is simple — they’re kicked out. The elders who call the shots use various pretexts to banish young men who don’t suck up enough, so they can monopolize the girls and build their harems.

But most polygamous societies can’t just make their excess males disappear — and that’s explosive. Young men barred from sex will do almost anything for it. This makes such societies hotbeds of violence and turbulence. They’re actually the ones most likely to spark wars. On one NGO’s list of the world’s 20 least stable countries, polygamy is practiced in every one.

Take South Sudan, embroiled in a horrific civil war. Ethnic antagonisms, weak institutions, and oil wealth for greedy politicians to grab, are all factors. But rampant polygamy is a big one too, with the rich and powerful able to hog much of the bride pool, leaving legions of poor young men decidedly uncheerful. Give them guns, and what happens?

South Sudan is cattle country. The bride price ranges between 30 and 300 cows — nearly impossible for most young galoots. Unless they steal cows. And consequently that too is rampant in South Sudan, with thousands killed annually in cattle raids.

A similar pathology explains the success of Boko Haram and Islamic State in recruiting. Not just in the next life are jihadists promised virgins. These organizations capture women and parcel them out to their fighters. Many are fighting for sex, not God.

But if for many men polygamy is bad, it isn’t good for women either. Though it’s easier to get husbands, being treated as a commodity is not conducive to a rewarding marital bond. A wife must compete with other wives for a husband’s good graces. Men who can just buy wives have little impetus to treat them well. And women get trapped in bad marriages because divorce requires refunding the bride price.

Further, having multiple sex partners detracts from a man’s parental devotion. A study of 240,000 children in 29 African countries found that those in polygamous families are far likelier to die prematurely.

Some people argued that allowing gay marriage is a slippery slope to polygamy as well. Libertarianism does say let people do what they want if no one is harmed. And maybe Western democracies with advanced legal protections can avoid polygamy’s harms. Bigamy is banned because it’s usually a kind of fraud, with a victim, but what about consensual polygamy, with women of course being allowed multiple spouses too (minimizing the surplus male problem)? However, consent in this sphere can be a very dicey proposition; and polygamy opens such a can of worms, societally and culturally, that prudence suggests great caution.

Or perhaps multiple marriage should be allowed only for gays — as a kind of affirmative action, compensating for all the time they couldn’t marry at all.

(This essay owes much (including, I confess, the opening) to an excellent feature article in The Economist.)

Was America founded as a “Christian nation?”

August 13, 2018

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

Jacoby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bye Bye Britain

August 11, 2018

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

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

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

Theresa May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comrade Corbyn

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

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

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

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

Fact of the day

August 10, 2018

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

“Reveal” International Contemporary Art Fair in Saratoga Springs

August 8, 2018

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

 

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

 

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

Rothko

 

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

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

Most beautiful thing at the show

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

Or this horse carrying packs of crayons.

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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