Archive for September, 2018

A non-ugly American in Somaliland: Jonathan Starr’s Abaarso school

September 30, 2018

Bad news abounds. Even efforts to improve the world often do the opposite — that’s the history of foreign aid and development initiatives. “Ugly American” overseas misadventures are legion.

In 1991, Somalia imploded, becoming the textbook “failed state.” But an isolated backwater area broke away, declaring independence as the Republic of Somaliland. It’s not an internationally recognized country, and no halcyon place. But at least (by local standards) relatively stable, peaceful, and even democratic.

Enter Jonathan Starr. Having made some bucks in finance, at 32 he wanted a better life mission. So in 2009 this American went to Somaliland to start a school.

Lousy education is a key factor impeding progress throughout Africa. Even where kids do attend school, teachers often don’t, they’re ill-equipped anyway, and lessons emphasize rote memorization, so little is really learned. Starr’s aim was to create not just a good school but a great one. With high academic standards, nurturing and character building, preparing students to go on to the world’s top universities, and come back to become Somaliland’s leaders.

Was he nuts? Many would have said so. I’d actually entertained African school fantasies myself — until realism dissuaded me. Starr was indeed extremely naive thinking he’d just walk into such a hardscrabble country and do this. It broke all the rules. He had no relevant expertise; didn’t even speak Somali.

Abaarso School

The story is told in his 2016 book, It Takes a School. It actually got built, and Starr got some Americans to come teach there (in English). Along the way, some big mistakes were made, and numerous setbacks and nail-biting crises occurred. The book is candid about this. One section is titled, “The Great Miscalculation.” (A later chapter: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”)

For one thing, the Abaarso School of Science and Technology was named for the locale — Starr didn’t realize “Abaarso” means “drought.” So water was an unforeseen problem. Then a local mover-and-shaker he teamed up with, named Khadar, turned into the partner from hell, exploiting his government and clan connections trying to take over the whole project himself. He even planted fake news stories accusing the school of anti-Islamic activities, and tried to get Starr thrown out of the country.

Starr realized he was up against the way things too often work in Africa — or, more accurately, don’t work, stymying progress. But by now he was far along the learning curve, and had built a network of local relationships enabling him to defeat Khadar’s efforts. Starr got the Somaliland government, finally, squarely in his own corner. A blue-ribbon Muslim religious council was summoned to give the school a stamp of approval. And it helped that Abaarso started showing spectacular results: graduates accepted, with scholarships, to leading U.S. universities. That was something unheard of in Somaliland, where those kids became national heroes.

Mubarik

One was Mubarik, a former nomad goat-herder; the first time he saw a truck he thought it was some kind of animal. Mubarik has now graduated from MIT.

We met Jonathan Starr at the Ingersoll event I wrote about; only because my wife happened to notice “Worcester MA” (where she went to college) on his mother’s name tag. That led to seating ourselves beside them at the dinner, and hearing a little of his story. Which also led to our spending some time with three female Abaarso alums, one of them starting at the nearby Emma Willard School. You couldn’t find more impressive, admirable young women. They rhapsodized about how Abaarso, and its founder, changed their lives.

Unlike many American kids who take for granted what they’re given, these Somalilanders realize they’re escaping what would otherwise be a life without hope (that’s led so many Africans into rickety boats), and they behave accordingly. The Emma Willard gal literally kissed the steps upon arrival. No slackers, these kids work very hard to make the most of their precious opportunities.

Cynics and pessimists always see problems as intractable. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. It’s sometimes true. But Starr was not deterred; was naive enough to make the effort, despite all the obvious handicaps he started with. This is a tremendous lesson for positive thinking. We humans have huge abilities to accomplish things — and often making the effort is the key. As the old line goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Starr, in a speech, said that once he’d started, failure just wasn’t an option. (I was reminded of Susan B. Anthony’s motto, “Failure is Impossible.”)

I also think about America’s own failing schools. Indeed, it’s been shown again and again that even in the worst circumstances, students can succeed in schools having positive-thinking leadership. No circumstances could be worse than what Starr faced in Somaliland. If his school could succeed there, ours can here.

Starr hasn’t stopped with Abaarso. His “Horn of Africa Education Development Fund” has started a second school, a teachers’ college for girls. The plan is for those girls to teach in a network of dozens of good K-12 schools, to be run by Abaarso grads; the first of those is slated to open in 2019. It would not be hyperbole to say the overall project bodes well to ultimately transform the country.

Click here to donate (I have made a significant contribution).

Starr and Abaarso have been profiled on 60 Minutes. Anderson Cooper ended the report by noting that Trump’s Muslim travel ban applies to Somaliland, making it harder for Abaarso grads to seek higher education in the U.S. So far, they’re still managing to get student visas. But staying after their education is another matter. A great self-inflicted loss for America.

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Kavanaugh: America grabbed by the pussy

September 28, 2018

He said/she said. She testified about sexual transgressions by the Supreme Court nominee. He rejoined with an emphatic, highly emotional denial. I was inclined to believe him, giving him the benefit of the doubt.

But in the years since, it has become altogether clear that Anita Hill was telling the truth, and Clarence Thomas was lying. He still sits on the court, its longest serving member. If you call it “serving.”

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was certainly telling the truth. Kavanaugh was not. His tearful, indignant histrionic performance may have been worthy of an emmy, but not of his elevation to the nation’s highest court.

Testimonials from legions of women, who’ve known Kavanaugh, have vouched for his upstanding behavior. Human beings are complex and deep. A person may behave beautifully in most contexts and abominably in another. Kavanaugh testified that he sometimes had too many beers; what “too many” meant was not clarified. But too many beers can make people do things they would not ordinarily do. Things they don’t even remember. Kavanaugh may even have convinced himself his attempted rape didn’t happen.

And if Kavanaugh was sober during his raging performance yesterday, can you imagine what this guy would be like with “too many beers” in him?

And he does not, in fact, have a record of honesty. His previous testimony in these hearings was fundamentally a lie, calling Roe v. Wade “settled law,” as though it would be safe from him, when in truth he will vote to overturn it. Which indeed is virtually the raison d’etre of his nomination.

Some Republican Senators, so vocal in denouncing Democrats and supporting Kavanaugh (like John Cornyn) meantime also said Ford was convincing and credible. It’s been said the sign of true intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs.

At the end of NPR’s coverage, correspondents were asked for one word to describe the day’s events. They arrived at “tragic,” and I agree. This episode shows starkly just how broken our politics, our civic culture, has become. I used to respect Lindsay Graham as a serious, responsible, even statesmanlike character. Now his Trump derangement syndrome was in full flower as he foamed at the mouth in hysterical defense of such a dubious cause.

A poll this morning shows 48% of white evangelical Christians — “Christians” — want Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court even if he tried to rape Dr. Ford. Christians who, unlike atheists, get morality from God.

For all the venom Republicans spewed at Democrats for their conduct here, Republicans’ own conduct is characterized by their leader McConnell’s candid statement that they’re going to “plow right through” everything to get their man on the Court no matter what. No matter what Kavanaugh may have done.

They have the power to do it. America should be ashamed for allowing such people to have power.

Trump’s cruel war on refugees and immigrants intensifies

September 27, 2018

When, for this post, I googled “U.S. refugee admissions,” the very first thing that came up was this quote on the State Department’s website:

“The United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

I thought this might be old — but no, strangely enough, it’s still on the website today.

U.S. refugee admissions have fallen steadily since 1994. The refugee cap for President Obama’s last year was 110,000. In his first year Trump slashed that to just 45,000 — the lowest ever (since Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act). And the number actually admitted was far lower still — 21,000.

The administration has now announced that the cap will be slashed again, for the coming year, to only 30,000.

This at a time when worldwide refugee numbers are surging. There are now 68 million displaced people, including 25 million classified as refugees. Thus we are taking in about one tenth of one percent of the world’s refugees. One in a thousand. Is this the Trump administration’s idea of “compassion, generosity and leadership?”

In his UN speech (where his lying braggadocio was literally laughed at) Trump said the answer for refugees is for their own countries to be fine to live in. Yeah, right. As if he’s doing anything toward that end.

Trump demonizes refugees and migrants as a safety threat. Another of his big lies. In fact they commit fewer crimes than the average American. No refugee has ever committed an act of domestic terrorism. Nor are they an economic burden. Immigrants strengthen our economy and are net contributors. A recent article in The Economist said that if Silicon Valley fizzles out it will be because we’ve foolishly stopped up the immigration pipeline.

And indeed it’s not just refugees (and their children) Trump is targeting — and illegal immigrants — but legal immigrants too. He’s been pushing a set of proposals that would cut legal immigration by up to half. And as if that weren’t enough, now Trump proposes (Congressional action not needed) that receiving any sort of public benefit will disqualify an immigrant from a green card (which means legal residence).

The range of public benefits, that have become so much a part of American life, is vast, making it hard to imagine how anyone could comply with such an extreme rule. For example, suppose you, like most seniors, receive prescription drugs under Medicare Part D. That’s a “public benefit,” pursuant to Trump’s prospective rule.

Ostensibly the rule would apply only to new green card applicants (in order to reject many of them), but it seems unclear how it could affect people previously approved. Some may be caught out when reapplying or renewing their green cards. Some may feel compelled to stop using “public benefits” to protect their status. Anyhow, when all these benefit programs were enacted, they didn’t say “citizens only.” In some cases there’s a five-year waiting period. But otherwise, legislators knew these benefits would be available to legal residents, and nobody ever imagined it would make any kind of sense to exclude them entirely.

How many more times will I have to use this picture?

Nobody until Trump and his depraved administration. The vicious meanness of this latest atrocity takes away one’s breath and twists one’s stomach.

In a different country — Canada — it’s been reported that citizens brought folding chairs to queue up overnight to apply for the privilege of sponsoring a refugee.

Somebody ought to re-write that State Department website, now a cruel mockery of what America used to stand for.

Statement by the Honorable Brett Kavanaugh

September 25, 2018

Members of the Senate, and fellow citizens:

Telling the truth

Two women — Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and Deborah Ramirez — have described episodes of improper sexual behavior, by me, as a teenager. I wish that I could continue my denial about these things. But, searching my heart and soul, I no longer can.

These things did happen, they were wrong, and I profoundly regret them. To say otherwise now would compound the offense — compound it by lying, and compound the injury I committed against these women by falsely calling them liars; indeed, further, by subjecting them to the kind of disgraceful partisan vilification we have already seen. Instead of that, I wish to extend to Dr. Ford and Ms. Ramirez my heartfelt, though much belated, apologies.

I could say that my past misdeeds in question occurred in an extreme state of inebriation. That is true, but doesn’t excuse the behavior. Getting so drunk was itself irresponsible and wrong. I could also say that such behavior was condoned, indeed encouraged, by the “boys will be boys” frat culture in which I was immersed at the time. That is also true, and also not exculpatory. That culture was rotten; my participation inexcusable.

I come before you now as a reformed, repentant sinner. The long-ago episodes at issue have weighed upon my soul ever since. I have tried to atone for them by living the rest of my life — more than a third of a century — in the opposite way. So that when I stand before my God, for judgement, those three decades of what I hope has been mature right conduct will outweigh the wrongs I so carelessly committed as a foolish, callow youth. And, senators, I put myself before you for the same judgement. Hopeful that you will see me as the man I have been for thirty years; not the boy I was so long ago.

Finally, in the same spirit of honest truthfulness, I wish to add this. I have said that I consider Roe v. Wade settled law. That is true, but not the whole truth. Of course the Supreme Court can change settled law. I believe Roe v. Wade was a wrong decision, and if presented with a case posing that issue, I would vote to reverse it.

(Note to readers: the above is satire.)

White pride and white privilege

September 23, 2018

Omarosa, in her book, tells of asking Steve Bannon whether it’s true that he’s a racist. “No,” he answered. “The same way you are a proud African-American woman, I am a proud white man. What’s the difference between my pride and your pride?”

All the difference in the world.

Pride can have many sources, some appropriate, some not. I’m proud of many things about human culture that I associate myself with. Whiteness isn’t one of them. Talk of white pride (or black pride) makes the racial identification salient, which it can be only in relation to the other race, and relations between them.

The central fact of that relationship is the long past history of blacks, as a people, inferiorized and suffering at the hands of whites. Black pride is an aspect of rising above all that. Like Jewish pride at overcoming all that Jews have suffered. If you’re not Jewish, being proud of your non-Jewishness would equate to anti-semitism. Likewise, white pride can only be understood vis-a-vis non-whites, setting oneself against them rather than for something. It’s negative rather than positive; a rejection of racial amity. It has the odor of burning crosses.

And of Confederate monuments. They’re not about honoring a supposedly noble past history. They were erected to send a message: that blacks are lesser beings. Why else memorialize men who fought to preserve slavery?

White pride, in fact, has the odor of burning flesh. Of the thousands of innocent human beings lynched, often hideously mutilated, burned alive, to keep blacks terrorized “in their place.” I don’t think American white southerners have a noble past history to memorialize and take pride in. It’s a vile history requiring instead atonement.

So white pride cannot be whitewashed as merely some innocent positive feelings about one’s own race. It’s not remotely analogous to black pride.

Yes it is

If blacks take pride in overcoming, can whites take pride in creating the evils blacks overcame? Human beings, acting in their humanity, have achieved great things. White people, when acting in their whiteness, conceiving themselves apart from non-whites, have perpetrated horrors.

White priders take a leaf from the victim playbook, as if merely seeking fairness. This is an Orwellian mockery. For all the affirmative action practiced — at the edges of society, really — the far bigger reality is still that one is better off white. Those who march for white rights are not disadvantaged because they are white. They are disadvantaged because they are the sort of losers for whom “white pride” seems to make sense. That’s what puts them on the outs in today’s America.

No we’re not

At the opposite end from white priders are liberals suffering white privilege guilt. We’ve been hearing an awful lot about white privilege. I’m reminded of the Eddie Murphy SNL skit where he discovers white privilege by masquerading as white. Sitting on a bus, everything is quietly normal . . . until the lone black passenger exits. That frees the rest to break out the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, turn on the music and start dancing in the aisle.

Of course that’s not how things are; “white privilege” is a misnomer. People aren’t favored because they are white (“You’re one of us, so you get special treatment”). That certainly doesn’t apply for the losers described above. Instead, it’s just that whites are not discriminated against on account of race.

No it won’t

Some non-whites may take offense at whiteness being seen as the normal, default condition of a human being, implying that non-whites are something apart, not quite full members of the club, or members on sufferance. But that reads too much into the situation. All it is is that if you pick an American person at random, she’s more likely to be white than black. More likely brunette than a redhead too. That doesn’t mean redheads aren’t part of the club. In fact there is no such club. True, there are some whites who do see there being a club. And for them there is one: a club of losers to which blacks shouldn’t want to belong. It sure isn’t the club of American society.

So white privilege is not a thing. It’s the absence of one. Whites do not get some undeserved benefit as the other side of the coin of non-whites undeservedly disadvantaged. What whites get is nothing more than what everyone should get.

Seriously??

White privilege does not invest Caucasians with the guilt of original sin. Instead we are individual human beings, each of us come fresh into the world, and who we are is defined by what we do.

 

Truth, beauty, and goodness

September 20, 2018

Which among the three would you choose?

I read Howard Gardner’s 2011 book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-first Century. (Frankly I’d picked it up because I confused him with Martin Gardner; but never mind.)

Beauty I won’t discuss. But truth and goodness seem more important topics today than ever.

Many people might feel their heads spin as age-old seeming truths fall. “Eternal verities” and folk wisdom have been progressively undermined by science. Falling hardest, of course, is God, previously the explanation for everything we didn’t understand. He clings on as the “God of the gaps,” the gaps in our knowledge that is, but those continue to shrink.

Darwin was a big gap-filler. One might still imagine a god setting in motion the natural processes Darwin elucidated, but that’s a far cry from his (God’s) former omnicompetence.

While for me such scientific advancements illuminate truth, others are disconcerted by them, often refusing to accept them, thus placing themselves in an intellectually fraught position with respect to the whole concept of truth. If one can eschew so obvious a fact as evolution, then everything stands upon quicksand.

Muddying the waters even more is postmodernist relativism. This is the idea that truth itself is a faulty concept; there really is no such thing as truth; and science is just one way of looking at the world, no better than any other. What nonsense. Astronomy and astrology do not stand equally vis-a-vis truth. (And if all truth is relative, that statement applies to itself.)

Though postmodernism did enjoy a vogue in academic circles, as a provocatively puckish stance against common sense by people who fancied themselves more clever, it never much infected the wider culture, and even its allure in academia deservedly faded. And yet postmodernism did not sink without leaving behind a cultural scum. While it failed to topple the concept of truth, postmodernism did inflict some lasting damage on it, opening the door to abuse it in all sorts of other ways.

All this background helped set the stage for what’s happening in today’s American public square. One might have expected a more gradual pathology until Trump greatly accelerated it by testing the limits and finding they’d fallen away. Once, a clear lie would have been pretty much fatal for a politician. Now one who lies continuously and extravagantly encounters almost no consequences.

It’s no coincidence that many climate change deniers and believers in Biblical inerrancy, young Earth creationism, Heaven, and Hell, are similarly vulnerable to Trump’s whoppers. Their mental lie detector fails here because it’s already so compromised by the mind contortions needed to sustain those other counter-factual beliefs.

But of course there’s also simple mental laziness — people believing things with no attempt at critical evaluation.

A long-ago episode in my legal career sticks with me. I was counsel for the staff experts in PSC regulatory proceedings. We had submitted some prepared testimony; the utility filed its rebuttal. I read their document with a horrible sinking feeling. They’d demolished our case! But then we went to work carefully analyzing their submittal, its chains of logic, evidence, and inferences. In the end, we shot it as full of holes as they had initially seemed to do to ours.

The point is that the truth can take work. Mark Twain supposedly said a lie can race around the globe while the truth is putting its shoes on. Anyone reading that utility rebuttal, and stopping there, would likely have fallen for it. And indeed, that’s how things usually do go. Worse yet, polemical assertions are often met with not critical thinking but, on the contrary, receptivity. That’s the “confirmation bias” I keep stressing. People tend to believe things that fit with their preconceived opinions — seeking them out, and saying, “Yeah, that’s right” — while closing eyes and ears to anything at odds with those beliefs.

A further aspect of postmodernism was moral relativism. Rejection of empirical truth as a concept was extended to questions of right and wrong — if there’s no such thing as truth, neither are right and wrong valid concepts. The upshot is nonjudgmentalism.

Here we see a divergence between young and old. Nonjudgmentalism is a modern tendency. Insofar as it engenders an ethos of tolerance toward human differences, that’s a good thing. It has certainly hastened the decline of prejudice toward LGBTQs.

Yet tolerance and nonjudgmentalism are not the same. Tolerance reflects the fundamental idea of libertarianism/classical liberalism — that your right to swing your fist stops at my nose — but otherwise I have no right to stop your swinging it. Nor to stop, for example, sticking your penis in a willing orifice. Nonjudgmentalism is, however, a much broader concept, embodying again the postmodernist rejection of any moral truths. Thus applied in full force it would wipe out even the fist/nose rule.

That is not as absurd a concern as it might seem. Howard Gardner’s book speaks to it. He teaches at Harvard and expresses surprise at the extent to which full-bore nonjudgmentalism reigns among students. They are very reluctant to judge anything wrong. Such as cheating on exams, shoplifting, and other such behaviors all too common among students. A situational ethic of sorts is invoked to excuse and exculpate, and thereby avoid the shibboleth of judgment.

Presumably they’d still recognize the clearest moral lines, such as the one about murder? Not so fast. Gardner reports on conducting “numerous informal ‘reflection’ sessions with young people at various secondary schools and colleges in the United States.” Asked to list people they admire, students tend to demur, or confine themselves only to ones they know personally. And they’re “strangely reluctant” to identify anyone they don’t admire. “Indeed,” Gardner writes, “in one session [he] could not even get students to state that Hitler should be featured on a ‘not-to-be-admired’ list.”

Well, ignorance about history also seems lamentably endemic today. But what Gardner reports is actually stranger than might first appear. As I have argued, we evolved in groups wherein social cooperation was vital to survival, hence we developed a harsh inborn judgmentalism against anything appearing to be anti-social behavior. That (not religion) is the bedrock of human morality. And if that deep biological impulse is being overridden and neutered by a postmodernist ethos of nonjudgmentalism, that is a new day indeed for humankind, with the profoundest implications.

Idlib: the coming holocaust

September 17, 2018

Idlib is the last part of Syria still holding out against the Assad regime. Which, together with its Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies, is readying a final gotterdammerung bloodbath, against what will likely be equally ferocious resistance. This will not be good for the two to three million civilians there, who will be blasted, incinerated, poison-gassed, starved, and sucked into Assad’s vast torture-industrial complex. Survivors will be made homeless refugees. Where they can go is unclear.

The words “never again” ring ever more hollow.

It was President Obama’s worst mistake to fail to act at a time when there were actually still good options in Syria; compounding it by failing to act even when Assad crossed Obama’s own declared chemical weapons red line. Instead Obama let himself be snookered by a phony Putin-engineered deal. That itself crossed a red line that gave Assad and Putin a green light to act with impunity.

But after hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of refugees, even now it is actually not too late to do something right.

Trump, who conceives himself the total anti-Obama, did ding Assad with airstrikes for a chemical weapons attack. But it was just a pinprick and in reality Trump is actually following Obama’s policy — or non-policy. Indeed, only more so, because his Putin ensorcelment stops his pushing back on anything Russia does.

And Trump’s “policy” makes even less sense than Obama’s because at least Obama was pursuing an arguably desirable strategic objective of engagement with Iran. Trump trashed that, but doesn’t see how his anti-Iran efforts are at odds with his Syria behavior. His only aim in Syria is to defeat ISIS. But ISIS is fighting Iran, and Iran’s client Assad. If Trump really wanted to torpedo Iran, he’d act to stop the victory of the Iran-Assad axis.

And we could. We have the military capability. Some serious bombing could annihilate Assad’s air force and military command-and-control infrastructure. Also what Iran has deployed in Syria.

Trump did apparently, at one point, order Assad’s assassination. Defense Secretary Mattis ignored the order; it was in fact an illegal order (in a normal world, by itself grounds for impeachment). Nevertheless, bombing a presidential palace would be a nice thing to do. If Assad happened to be home, boo-hoo.

NEWS FLASH: Just as I was about to post this, I heard a news report of some kind of deal by Russia and Turkey to establish an Idlib “buffer zone” and put the offensive on hold. Both are bad actors who cannot be trusted.

Readers’ poll

September 17, 2018

1. Trump recently tweeted that the Department of Justice should not have indicted two “very popular” Republican congressmen for crimes before the mid-term elections, thereby putting in doubt two “easy wins.”

• Agree

• Disagree

2. Trump recently tweeted that only around 18 Puerto Ricans died due to Hurricane Maria, not the nearly 3000 subsequently calculated, which is a conspiracy by Democrats to make him look bad.

• Agree

• Disagree

Richard Wolff in sheep’s clothing, on capitalism versus socialism

September 14, 2018

I heard Richard Wolff again on “Alternative [left-wing] Radio.” He’s the “Marxist” economics professor whose LOL take on first class airplane seats I wrote about. Wolf saw them as though created by God but unfairly handed out by dastardly airlines to rich folks, forcing plebeians to suffer in coach. In actuality, the rich subsidize the rest. That’s how airlines make their money. Without milking richies via vastly overpriced premium seats, they’d have to charge coach travelers far more, which wouldn’t fly — literally.

Wolff couldn’t see that reality. But he is a glib talker. His latest was on capitalism versus socialism. He thinks capitalism’s badness will cause socialism to triumph.

A chief theme was “socialism” getting a bum rap because people don’t understand it. This is part of the effort to sugar-coat socialism, making it seem innocuous — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (We saw this with the Bernie campaign.) It’s the trope that if you like public roads and libraries and fire departments, etc., anything government does, why, that’s socialism!

Except that it isn’t. Providing necessary services that a free market cannot (at least not well) is just any government’s job. Socialism instead is government substituting for (and disallowing) a capable free market.

Now, if you think that’s a good idea, fine, try to persuade us. But socialists must doubt its persuasiveness, else why do they constantly hide what they really advocate, under false camouflage about roads and fire service?

Richard Wolff-in-sheep’s-clothing epitomizes this, again saying people misunderstand “socialism.” He repeatedly mocked the idea of any association with Stalin’s crimes. He stressed that “socialism” is not limited to any single categorical definition. But did he ever actually say what it does mean?

Nope.

But, talking about “capitalism,” Wolff did exactly what he criticized — painting it as one limited thing — which, typically, was a gross caricature.

I was struck by the contrast with a book I happened to be reading, Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, by historian Joyce Appleby.* Indeed, its key theme is that “capitalism” has been not one discrete concept but endlessly flexible, adaptive, and evolving, with vastly varying iterations — its great strength.

This is clear from the first great book on the subject — titled Capital — by Karl Marx. I will not deride Marx as a fool. He was in fact a brilliant thinker, observer, and analyst, who had some important insights. But he was fundamentally wrong in predicting capitalism’s future. Marx saw an “iron law of wages” always pushing them down to bare subsistence, just enabling workers to stay alive to produce the golden eggs for the capitalists, until they’d revolt. Marx did not imagine the mass affluence capitalism (and the associated industrial/technological revolutions) would bring forth. Even amid all today’s lamentations about inequality, and capitalism’s supposed injustice, the fact is that workers in industrialized societies were able to gain a large enough share of the economic pie to give them living standards unimaginably cushier than the bare subsistence Marx posited.

That’s because the pie has grown so spectacularly. And because of democracy. “Democratic socialism” is really a contradiction in terms because the two ideas have proven in practice to be fundamentally incompatible. That’s due to socialist systems concentrating so much power in government, whereas free market societies distribute power widely. Socialism is not the antithesis of fascism or communism. All three have the central idea of valorizing the collective over the individual, thus being inherently coercive and repressive.

No type of society or system will deliver justice and equality free from the depredations of people who will always try to exploit it for their own advantage. That’s certainly been true in all socialist or communist systems, wherein some individuals always amassed great power over others — using the machineries of the state and its monopoly on violence (legitimate in free societies, but not in others). A free enterprise system at least does not allow that. Instead, there you gain advantage by (in the main) creating value others voluntarily pay you for, making society as a whole wealthier. That’s how Steve Jobs, for example, got so rich. It’s how the whole industrialized world — including its workers — got so much richer than Marx foresaw.

Richard Wolff (Yes, socialism IS for dummies)

Such prosperity has never been produced by socialism. China is a very instructive case. It has two economic systems functioning side-by-side: a socialist one of state-owned firms, and another of very free enterprise. The latter runs rings around the former. It is the source of China’s phenomenal economic advancement, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last few decades.

* She’s no right-wing free marketeer; plenty critical of capitalism’s negative aspects, especially environmental. Appleby is often a trenchant observer, but I can’t let pass how many annoying bloopers I noticed. Like, “Ingenuous people found a new way to exploit electromagnetism.” Really? I thought that was disingenuous.

Vote for the homo, not for Cuomo

September 12, 2018

In the 1977 New York mayoral primary, Mario Cuomo was running against Ed Koch — unmarried and rumored to be gay. Shortly before the vote, posters appeared saying, “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.”

Cuomo disavowed them, but the culprit was never identified.

Cuomo’s son, Governor Andrew, got the legislature, in the dead of night, to name the new Hudson River bridge the “Cuomo Bridge,” after his father. (His newsman brother Chris Cuomo has said their dad definitely opposed having things named after him.) But Andrew obviously expected reflected glory from having the Cuomo name on the bridge. (And some voters don’t seem to know one Cuomo from another.)

So the other day — just before Thursday’s gubernatorial primary — Cuomo had a Big Deal ceremony opening the new bridge. Except that it turned out the bridge was not yet actually ready for traffic. Cuomo wasn’t going to let a detail like that stop him from preening and taking credit.

Then it was revealed that his campaign had targeted Jewish voters with a mailed flyer all but accusing his opponent, Cynthia Nixon, of anti-semitism. (Nixon is raising her kids Jewish.) The campaign says it will send out a correction mailing. Which will arrive after the vote.

Cuomo insists he had nothing to do with the despicable mailing. If you believe that, there’s a bridge over the Hudson I’d like to sell you. (I’m not the first with that line.) But it’s funny how Cuomo, the great micro-manager, never seems to know anything about any of the nasty stuff in his administration that gets exposed (like bribe-taking by his “third brother” Percoco.)

Cuomo is a dirty man running a dirty campaign.

Cynthia Nixon is gay. Vote for the homo, not for Cuomo.