Archive for November, 2018

Movie review: The Grinch, a humanist film

November 30, 2018

For our anniversary we decided on dinner and a movie. After carefully studying reviews of all current offerings, my wife chose The Grinch. (She’s a big Benedict Cumberbatch fan.)*

For readers from Mars, the story is set in Whoville, whose inhabitants are Christmas-crazy. Mr. Grinch hates Christmas, and sets out to ruin it by masquerading as Santa and, instead of leaving presents, steal them.

The film has two main themes.

One is redemption. Here is a character as nasty as can be. Though actually, in this version, we see signs of humanity throughout. (He treats his dog better; he’s even kind of likable.) And we also get here a backstory, lacking in previous versions, that explains his hostility to Christmas, in a convincing human way, that also helps make plausible his ultimate turnaround. (Though another, wished-for backstory might have accounted for Mr. Grinch’s relative affluence.)

The film’s other main thrust is humanist. Now, this is a Christmas movie; about nothing but Christmas. And what is conspicuously missing? Christ! The name was heard once in a carol being sung, but otherwise the film’s Christmas is wholly Christless, its conception of the holiday’s meaning entirely secular and humanistic. It is all about human fellowship, and the joy of living — here on Earth.

In fact, so determinedly non-supernatural is this film (despite, well, bending laws of physics) that it’s not only Christless but Santaless. While the Who children believe in Santa, the film winks at his nonexistence. There’s no suggestion the gifts the Grinch steals were actually left by Santa.

The production is dazzling. Since there were two quite serviceable previous versions, this one’s raison d’etre had to be outdoing them. And it did. The state of the art, in animated films like this, has progressed tremendously. Don’t dismiss this as insignificant lowbrow entertainment; that doesn’t respect the artistic achievement. I often wished I could linger over scenes to absorb all the clever detail and art, which went by at a breakneck pace.

This is a story-telling tour-de-force. Until, sadly, the lame ending. The one in the book, and 1966 film, had the Grinch joining in the town-wide sing and then, enthusiastically, in its great communal feast. Here, he just visits one home, and is moreover subdued. After all the dizzying, walloping, over-the-top action that precedes it, this modified ending is underwhelming. What were they thinking?

Nevertheless, go see this film and enjoy the visuals. I give it 3-1/2 stars (knocking off half a star for the weak ending).

* He voiced the Grinch; but early in the film I was sure there’d been some mistake because it didn’t sound like him at all. Seeing the credits surprised me. Quite a performance.

Republicans, and the hole in America’s moral soul

November 27, 2018

“Republicans must stand up to Trump,” declared the heading on a recent Michael Gerson column.

“How fatuous,” I thought.

Gerson

Gerson is a former Bush 43 speechwriter and member of that endangered species, “principled conservative.” Usually clear-eyed about the gulf between those principles and Trumpism.

This column was about prospects for a Republican running against Trump in 2020. Gerson cites a poll saying 16% of Republicans prefer Trump to be a one-term president. “At least a place to start,” he says.

Good luck. The other 84% of Republicans are a red wall for Trump. Undaunted, Gerson muses that could change with “a particularly damaging new administration scandal,” or Mueller developments that “destabilize Trump’s personality in new and disturbing ways.” As if nothing so far has been damaging or disturbing enough. (Here’s a list.)

Yet Gerson does suggest the Trump cesspool is already stinky enough for a Republican challenger to pose the question: “why not conservative policy AND public character?”

Actually, Republicans now get neither; this ain’t “conservative.” But Trumpism is not mainly about ideology anyway. Instead it’s psychology; tribal and personal social identity. I increasingly think that deep down, many Republicans back Trump not in spite of his horribleness but because of it. Like women attracted to “bad boys;” like moths to a flame. It’s a fat middle finger shoved in the eye of a society which, Trumpeters feel, deserves it.

These are the people who spout about America’s “moral decline.” Mainly focused on homosexuality and other sex-related stuff. As though gays marrying, people changing gender, etc., is somehow immoral. They also feel the browning of our population somehow represents moral decline.

Yet it is true we’re in a national moral tailspin. Not because of tolerating gays but tolerating Trump. These people so full of moralistic blather sent to the White House the worst moral creep ever — and continue backing him, and his war against America’s values and ideals. Here we see the real hole that has opened up in our country’s moral soul.

“Republicans must stand up to Trump?” That horse left the barn long ago. What responsible Republicans must do is leave this degraded party (as I have).

I used to call myself, like Gerson, “conservative;” the odd man out in my social milieu full of liberals. My political principles haven’t changed, but have been superseded by more fundamental concerns, about the very character of our society. I and my liberal friends are together in opposing what’s happening. Yet I still feel somewhat alone in my grasp of just how bad it is, and what it portends for the whole world’s future.

I’ve made a lifelong effort to understand the world. It culminated in my 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism, where I tried to bring it all together. A comprehensive global picture, justifying a positive outlook.

Martin Luther King said the moral arc of the Universe is long but bends toward justice. However, there is no force out there, no deity or law of nature, that so bends it. Only we humans, with our actions, can. My book argued that, in the great sweep of history, we’d been doing better and better.

The Enlightenment began three centuries ago, putting us on a path of progress through increasing rationality. Plagued at every step by fools dancing around bonfires of Enlightenment values. Today those flames are getting out of control, threatening to engulf us all.

If Trump is defeated in 2020, maybe the fire can be contained. If he’s re-elected, maybe my book should be thrown into it.

Do people still need religion?

November 24, 2018

My daughter asked my opinion about an essay in the New York Times, by philosophy professor Stephen Asma, titled, “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).” (Here’s a link.) Asma says he’s not religious, but argues that we still need religion.

He starts with a story about a woman whose son was killed. She was shattered, and “suffered a mental breakdown.” But what saved her, enabling her to “soldier on” to raise her remaining kids was (guess what) religion, including belief that she’d see her dead son again in Heaven.

Asma calls that irrational; but says “its irrationality does not render it unacceptable, valueless or cowardly. Its irrationality may even be the source of its power.” (I’ve seen people say they have faith not in spite of its irrationality, but because of it.)

Asma is distinguishing between rationality and emotion. He locates emotion in the “limbic mammalian brain,” and reason in the more evolved neocortex. “Religion,” he says, “nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty,” and “can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.” He mocks the idea of trying to soothe that bereaved mother with scientific information.

But drawing such a clear line between emotion and reason is a fundamental mistake. Asma cites neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, yet the one thing Damasio is famous for is the idea that reason and emotion are actually inextricably intertwined. You can’t separate them. Indeed, patients who suffered brain lesions that did separate them had disastrous results, because it is emotion that provides the motivation for reasoning.

And what exactly does Asma mean by “direct access to this emotional life?” Simply that people can be more emotive about God and Heaven than pondering theories of evolution or relativity? Well, so what?

Asma’s is hardly a startling new argument. It’s a very old and lame apologia dressed up with a lot of neuroscience and psychology jargon. It’s a utilitarian argument: that religion is useful because it works in soothing the existential dis-ease that life entails; truth or falsehood is immaterial. In fact, Asma actually calls the “emotional management” provided by religious belief “healthy.” He even likens religion to pharmaceutical pain management remedies.

This echoes Marx calling religion the opiate of the masses. In effect Asma is  saying religion is a placebo! Placebo treatments work because they affect mental attitude, and mental attitude affects the body. Admittedly, of course, religion does do that.

But is this a reason to choose a religious belief? Remember that what one believes is, nominally at least, a choice. We don’t have beliefs pre-installed like software; we develop them ourselves based on what we’re taught, what we learn, what we experience. At the end of the day, does it make sense to say to oneself, “this isn’t true, but I’ll believe it anyway because it will make me feel good?”

My basic answer is this. One cannot engage authentically and meaningfully with life and the world while laboring under false concepts about their essential reality.

Like the concept of Heaven. As in the case of the mother Asma discusses, many people do prefer to believe death is not final, for obvious psychological reasons. I myself am profoundly troubled by my mortality. But that cannot persuade me to believe in a fairy tale alternate reality. And I feel that death, being really the most important fact about life, requires one to grapple with its true meaning, come to terms with it, and live life accordingly. Otherwise you’re not living authentically.

Meantime, most people who believe in an eternal paradise are in no hurry to go, and try to remain on Earth as long as possible. What’s up with that? “Belief” is a tricky concept. What people think they believe and what they actually believe can differ. You may persuade yourself you believe in Heaven — but another part of your brain is not on board. (As Mark Twain said, “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”)

I consider it mentally healthy to avoid such cognitive dissonance. To have all parts of one’s mind on the same page.

Further, Asma recognizes that the assertedly good things about religious belief are bound together with some very bad shit. Faith does give some people some comfort, but it also gives some people suicide vests. And that’s unsurprising. Because, after all, the idea of God is a very extreme idea, with extreme implications for how to behave if one actually believes it.

Indeed, if people really and truly believed in God, most would behave very differently. That belief seems to govern their lives only about 10%. But then you do get some people at the 100% level. And that’s a peck of trouble.

Asma refers to aspects of religion apart from dogmas — rituals, songs, human interactions, etc., all of which provide something in the emotional realm. But can’t we have that without ridiculous dogmas? In fact, the Unitarian “church” goes some way in that direction. I have sometimes imagined creating a “religion” devoid of superstition, but with rituals, songs, togetherness, etc.

That “religion” would be an expression of the emotion I feel about what I have referred to as the essential nature of life and the world. The science that Asma disparages as some seemingly cold dispassionate construct is part of it; contemplating it gives me very profound feelings about what I call the human project. One does not have to believe nonsensical things in order to feel deep emotions about the cosmos and human life within it. I would even submit that such emotions are better than ones grounded in concepts that are false — and known, deep down, in one’s heart of hearts, to be false.

Trump, China, and the axis of evil

November 21, 2018

For a long time we imagined China’s rise would be its growing up — into a mature member of responsible world society. But now that society itself is looking ever more ragged, its norms of civilized behavior being shredded by Saudis, Russians, Iranians, and others — including indeed America — as well as China. China epitomizes the badness of the bad old days, a regime exerting muscle to get its way abroad and to repress its own citizens at home. (China employs two million people censoring the internet; has put maybe a million in “re-education” camps.) Not the better new world we’d hoped was a’borning.

An editorial in The Economist’s October 20 issue said the Trump administration is right to step up what had really previously been a weak response to China’s sharp elbows; right to recognize that China’s interests (actually, its regime’s) conflict with ours, and that it’s a bad actor needing to be confronted and opposed.

But in that battle, despite all his bluster, Trump — so besotted with military strength — is unilaterally disarming us. He’s “a bull in a China shop,” whose actions actually boost China.

The first thing he did was to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which had been our most forceful response to China’s challenge. It was a carefully built deal among eleven key nations to set the regional terms of trade to our advantage, blocking China’s aim for economic dominance. When Trump threw that away, the rulers in Beijing celebrated and guffawed, unable to believe their luck.

Then Trump’s trade war hurts America more than it hurts China, weakening our economy by reducing our own exports while making stuff we buy more expensive.

But here is the bigger picture. China has four times our population. Contending with China requires strong solidarity among the alliance of Western-oriented democracies. America actually had the world’s greatest-ever network of global friends. Until Trump came along, showering those alliances with contempt and doing all he could to wreck them. As if we can take on China all by ourselves.

Meantime China itself isn’t so stupidly blind to the need for alliances, assiduously working to build its own such network. Which China does through bullying, intimidation, bribery, throwing its money and its weight around. Which, unsurprisingly, countries actually resent. Whereas America had true friends — nations standing with us because they shared our positive values.

Those values and ideals won the cold war. Communism stood for a closed society of enforced conformism, a repressive Big Brother state. Not only did our economic model work better, it did so by giving people the opportunities freedom provides, with democracy and human rights — a very attractive package. But that crucial American asset too Trump is throwing away. He neither honors, nor even understands, those idealistic values; instead he actually stomps on them.

When the Saudis sent a 15-strong killer squad to Turkey to dismember a Washington Post journalist, denied any knowledge for two weeks, and then concocted a ludicrous lie about a fistfight (but couldn’t say what happened to the body), Trump initially declared that “credible.” He deemed our selling arms to Saudi Arabia (to brutalize Yemen) more important. And now, with his own intelligence service concluding that the Saudi ruler in fact ordered the murder, Trump dismisses that, calling Saudi Arabia our “steadfast partner.”

Which sends the world a clear message: that America no longer stands for truth, justice, freedom, and human rights. Instead America now stands for a world of might makes right. Where money trumps morality. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with autocrats who commit murder and lie about it.

Who ever imagined America would join the axis of evil?

If the world must choose between an incompetent buffoon of a would-be American autocrat, and the real thing in China, China will win.

 

“REALLY SCARY !!!”

November 18, 2018

That was the all-caps heading on a blast email, to me and some others, from a Texan acquaintance. He’s pro-Trump and always saying Democrats are commie criminals. This one had the attached “quotes” from three leading Democratic senators, saying the Constitution is an obstacle to be disregarded. He called this flabbergasting, showing why Democrats opposed Kavanaugh.

THIS IS SATIRE. DO NOT FORWARD

The quotes looked obviously fake. Googling, I quickly traced them to “The Babylon Bee,” which appeared to be a crazy-Christian website. But then I saw at the bottom: “Your trusted source for Christian news satire.” Another article quoted Hillary Clinton saying her only crime was stealing America’s heart! And another reported she’s gotten a large cash advance for What Happened 2, a book to explain her 2020 election loss!

Well, maybe not as funny as The Onion. But my Texas friend was not the only one suckered. I also found this article (from “Punditfact”) reporting how the Babylon Bee satire went viral and spread across the internet as though the quotes were real.

What is really scary is how messed up America’s politics has become, when people can’t tell the difference not just between real and fake news, but between real and joke news. Babylon Bee was trying to make fun of those who believe extreme nonsense. It’s an irony that the joke was on Bablyon Bee, when its satire got recycled as reality. But it’s no joke when this sort of thing warps political ideas and influences votes.

A lot of people are so unsophisticated in their thinking, so lacking in civic education and understanding of our political landscape, and so ready to believe anything bad about the other side, that they didn’t question the authenticity of these preposterous quotes.

Creating what Babylon Bee did is child’s play. Photoshop enables photos to be manipulated. There’s even technology to make fake audio, with people seeming to say things they never said. How are we to navigate through this house-of-mirrors? You have to use your brain — primed with knowledge about the real world. That seems to be a problem for a lot of people, full of beliefs about a god in the sky, life after death, UFOs, ESP, and other such nonsense.

In the halcyon days when the internet was first flourishing, we imagined this would be great for making people better informed. Alas the opposite is happening; the web is poisoning our whole information pool. Incentives go the wrong way. People have found how easy it is to advance their agendas by simply spreading lies. Indeed, it’s even profitable. I recall a radio interview during the 2016 campaign with a guy who made up a phony report about pro-Hillary vote manipulation, tailored to be click-bait for Hillary-haters. And it got clicks galore — netting the guy tens of thousands in profit.

Worse yet when foreign enemies too are in the game. And, in fact, when the President of the United States himself actively promotes this destruction of rational and informed political discourse. How can this be overcome? Will we allow a blizzard of disinformation and lies to decide the next election?

Postscript: A Facebook commenter linked to this Washington Post article that makes what I wrote seem tame. Worth reading!!

“Educated” by Tara Westover — Wow!

November 15, 2018

There’s a huge genre of “Parents from Hell” memoirs. Tara Westover’s is intensely gripping.

She was born in 1986 into an extremist Mormon family, standing in opposition to mainstream Mormons (whom they called “gentiles”) and everything in the outside world, including doctors, hospitals, medicine, the government, and of course the schools, all seen as a socialist/Satanic/Illuminati (yes) conspiracy. Tara was home-schooled — notionally. In fact she learned almost nothing apart from Mormon dogma.

Her mom practiced midwifery and was much into herbalism, “essential oils,” and homeopathy as their alternative to conventional medicine. “Homeopathic” remedies are a fraud, they’re plain water. Several times Tara noted that when treated with these “tinctures” they had no effect (not even a placebo effect, which requires some belief). But she never fully acknowledges it was all hokum.

Father “Gene” ran a junkyard and construction business, into which all his kids were dragooned. In lieu of ordinary safety precautions, Gene relied upon the Lord. But the Lord was not reliable, and OSHA’s writ did not run here. The book is a litany of nasty accidents, including two car crashes, one probably leaving Tara’s mother brain damaged. At ten, working in the junkyard, Tara barely escaped from inside a forklift loader dumping tons of scrap iron, her father oblivious to the danger. A brother was severely burned using a torch after having been doused in gasoline.

Finally, Gene himself used a torch on a wrecked car without bothering to drain its gas tank. It literally blew up in his face. All these accidents were handled using only mom’s concoctions. Gene’s injuries were horrific, but he did survive, albeit badly disfigured and partly crippled. Nevertheless, word spread about this “miracle healing” — causing mom’s herbal business to go viral. And the Westovers became rich.

Before that, Tara decided to go to college, to Brigham Young University. One older brother had similarly escaped the Westover la-la land. Tara crammed alone for the college entrance exam and scored well. Lying to BYU that her home schooling had entailed a rigorous curriculum, she was accepted. Only at college did Tara begin to grasp the depth of her ignorance and outsiderhood.

Long story short, she winds up with scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard, and a PhD in history.

But the real story is Tara’s wrestling with her relationship with her family — and with her own identity which, throughout, remained shaped by that relationship.

Her dad was not okay with her educational pilgrimage. He invoked God’s wrath against her. Tara was considered treasonous, dangerous, possessed by Satan. And a big part of her problem was the degree to which she herself bought into all this: “It was not that I had done something wrong so much as that I existed in the wrong way. There was something impure in the fact of my being.” Indoctrinated to loathe herself, she did so.

Tara was particularly hung up on the word “whore,” flung by a brother who repeatedly violently abused her (though not, overtly, sexually). Mormons in general are obsessed with antediluvian ideas about female chastity. This American Life recently profiled how Mormon “bishops” (volunteers, really) get their jollies formally interrogating young girls about matters sexual — deeply disturbing. But the Westovers were extreme even for Mormons, so terrorizing Tara that when, at about 17, she had a longtime dating relationship with a lad, she couldn’t even bear his touching her hand. And yet, accused of being pregnant, she imagined it could somehow be true.

Tara eventually figured out that her dad was, well, nuts. Bipolar, to be specific. I attended a talk she gave; asked whether the religious extremism made him crazy, she said it was really the other way around. But the nuttiness and religion obviously fed each other. Yet even while recognizing the pathology, Tara remained infused with a powerful tropism to belong to this tribe, hardly able to conceive of a personal identity exiled from it. (This power of tribal belongingness is seen in our politics.)

Her education entailed a series of epiphanies. I was gratified that one came from reading John Stuart Mill (who tops my own hit parade of thinkers), on how social conventions repress women, which “moved the world” for her.

Berlin

She also learned of Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of freedom: external versus internal coercion, the latter a function of irrational beliefs and fears. Tara knew that applied to her, yet extrication was an almighty struggle. She suffered a paralyzing mental breakdown.

Toward the end I was like, “enough already,” impatient with Tara’s inability to break the hold of her toxic family and its absurd religion. It’s so revealing about the human mind. Tara surely had an extraordinary level of cognitive intelligence to overcome her educational deficits and achieve what she did. Yet she struggled to free herself from ideas she knew were irrational and messing up her life.

But the book has a happy ending — it is really a “triumph of the human spirit” book. Though nothing suggests Tara ever relinquished Mormonism, she finally did kiss off most of her immediate family, saying she hasn’t seen her parents in years.

When I went up to her, to have my book signed — she was extremely gracious at this, by the way — I asked her, “Do you love your parents?” I expected a nuanced, if not agonized, response. But Tara said, “Oh yes, absolutely!”

Bitcoin: a solution in search of a problem

November 12, 2018

Since coins are my business, perhaps I should discuss Bitcoin.

It’s a “cryptocurrency” or digital currency. Or supposed to be. Existing only in cyberspace but worth money of the more conventional sort. It has a whiff of underground rebellion, breaking free from the system of government-run money supply — and all its associated regulation. The idea is to make transactions untraceable by snooping government. Thus, Bitcoin payment has featured in some shady doings, notably the “Silk Road” venue for, mainly, illegal drug trades, and in ransomware attacks (where bad guys hack into your computer and lock you out unless you pay them).

This Satoshi Nakamoto denies it

How does Bitcoin actually work? Such a system’s main challenge is to prevent the equivalent of counterfeiting. People spending Bitcoins they don’t own, spending the same coin twice, etc. Bitcoin’s solution is what’s called a “blockchain,” invented by a mysterious, probably pseudonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto,” who has since vanished. A blockchain, or “distributed ledger” is a kind of database which isn’t centrally controlled, but accessible to everyone, such that when a new transaction is recorded, it cannot thereafter be altered. Thus every Bitcoin transaction ever occurring is indelibly encoded into the blockchain.

Bitcoins are created by “mining.” This entails beating other punters to the solution of a complex mathematical puzzle requiring vast computer power, the winner garnering a reward in fresh Bitcoins. That serves to limit expansion of the “money supply.” In fact, it’s ultimately capped at 21 million coins. Mining Bitcoins consumes so much electricity that this has become a real problem for power supply in areas where miners locate (usually places with low electric rates).

Bitcoin’s value started at nine cents on July 18, 2010. With much fluctuation, it topped $19,000 in December, 2017, then fell by about two-thirds.

That huge run-up in value prompted numerous copycats to jump in with their own “cryptocurrencies,” introduced via “initial coin offerings” (ICOs), mimicking “initial public offerings” for securities. But they aren’t shares in a business or promises to pay (like bonds). They are only worth . . . well, what the market decides they are worth. Not much, it often turns out.

But what makes a Dollar worth a Dollar? A tautological question. Writer Yuval Noah Harari likes to call this a fiction kept aloft because a lot of people believe it. You accept a Dollar as payment because you expect you’ll be able to similarly spend it. But that web of expectation is its only value; you actually can’t take it to the government and exchange it for some commodity of tangible value, like gold. (And what makes gold so valuable, except our mutual understanding to so treat it?)

Anyhow, that ready universal acceptance is what makes a currency a currency; and cyptocurrencies singularly fail that test. A currency must also be a store of value, and the wild fluctuations in cryptocurrency prices fail that too. Nobody wants to accept a currency that could lose half its value in a short time. (Of course, this does happen occasionally with national currencies, like Venezuela’s right now — a huge economic disaster.)

Add to that the lack of what might be called consumer protections. The cryptocurrency world is rife with fraud and sharp practice. Most ICOs are really nothing more than scams.

A lot of people made a lot of money on Bitcoin; a lot of people lost their shirts. The reality is that Bitcoin has become not a currency but, mainly, an object of speculation, which is not at all what “Satoshi Nakamoto” had in mind. And the fact is that Bitcoin, after all, has no objective value that can be ascertained. The mining process is costly, but that expenditure does not somehow confer intrinsic value on the results. Nobody will value a Bitcoin based on its creation having entailed solving an abstruse mathematical puzzle.

Indeed, why it should have any value at all remains a salient question.

Impeach or not impeach: that is the question

November 10, 2018

No president — probably no public official — has ever merited impeachment more than Trump. That’s even before Mueller’s report.

If our civic system were working properly, he would be impeached and removed, almost unanimously. If it were working properly, no such monster of depravity would have been elected. There’s the problem.

Removing a president takes 67 Senate votes. Nixon was forced to resign when told responsible Republican senators would vote with Democrats to remove him. Today there are almost no such responsible Republican senators. They are hostages to their voting base of implacable Trump tribalists. Not just in primaries; on Tuesday they didn’t come out for Republicans of insufficient Trumpist faith, many of whom lost (as Trump himself so nastily crowed).

We keep hearing the words “Constitutional crisis.” Trump’s actions vis-a-vis the Justice Department and Mueller investigation may indeed become so egregious as to make impeachment almost inescapable. But without Republican support it would backfire. Just intensifying the scorched-earth political climate, while in the end actually handing Trump a win, with Republican senators cravenly voting against his removal. Even making it seem as though he’s finally been acquitted, exonerated, the slate of all his misdeeds wiped clean.

The verdict should come not from compromised senators, but from citizens. Democrats should forswear impeachment, instead relying on voters in 2020, summoning the better angels of our nature. And if it’s our worst demons that prevail, then we will know America is lost.

What the election means

November 7, 2018

Jones

CNN commentator Van Jones said you’d think America’s “antibodies would kick in,” against the disgusting onslaught of lies, hate, bigotry, divisiveness and fear that was Trump’s campaign. But it worked, at least to a sad degree. This vile virus incurably infects a big chunk of America’s electorate. At best we can hope to quarantine them.

So Trump is undaunted; he’s even claiming victory. And there were a lot of disappointments. But at least there is some limit to the creepiness even Republicans can stomach; as in the case of Roy Moore; this time it was Kris Kobach losing the governorship in deep-red Kansas. (Kobach was the epicenter of the Republican “vote fraud” fraud.) Yet, another major creep, Brian Kemp, probably succeeded in stealing Georgia’s governorship.

Republicans did gain in the Senate. But that was largely thanks to the happenstance that the great majority of seats coming up this year were defended by Democrats. And the Senate battle took place largely in Trump country. Whereas the battle for the House of Representatives was nationwide.

And there Democrats did do thumpingly well, overcoming the stacked deck of Republican gerrymandering, to gain a substantial majority. That was the one superveningly important thing at stake, to break total Republican control and subject the Trump administration to some accountability. To literally save the country from it. And it shows this is, overall, a Democratic country. They were more than nine percentage points ahead of Republicans nationally. That’s a blue “wave.”

Antonio Delgado, victor over Faso

I pumped my fist last night when hearing of Congressman Faso’s defeat. I used to think so highly of him. But his campaign was a racist disgrace. And Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Russia) lost too.

** MAJOR PROJECTION: Republicans will never again control the House.

Even if Trump wins in 2020, it won’t be by much, and won’t flip the House back. After that, a lot of Republican gerrymandering will be undone. Several states passed referenda doing so, while Democrats gained at least seven governorships, and hundreds of state legislative seats. They will also roll back some Republican vote suppression. Furthermore, demographic trends will inexorably erode white nationalism.

And the Republican party is now basically, totally, just a white nationalist party. It was the least Trumpy Republicans who left the House or were beaten*; while in the Senate, the increased Republican majority renders irrelevant so-called moderates like Susan Collins, their votes no longer needed.

Republicans will also never again control any legislative house in New York. They lost the Senate and will be gerrymandered out of existence. New York is now a one-party state. That’s bad, but Republicans had ceased to be a legitimate opposition.

The Democratic House majority will be heavily flavored by female military vets. Kind of ironic when Trump (who never served) and the Republicans (mostly ditto) are the ones who drool over the military.

Can the House Democrats now, finally, get hold of Trump’s tax returns? Really amazing he’s managed to keep them from scrutiny this long. Not that anything in them, no matter how slimy, will shake the faith of Republicans. The NY Times recently ran a huge in-depth factual report on how Trump totally lied about how he built his business empire, it was really through massive cheating and tax fraud. Did that move any Republicans? Nope. You can’t fight tribal religion with facts.

Trump will spend the next 18 months demonizing Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats. If they were smart they’d ditch her. She’s a great insider operator, but useless at countering Trump’s shitstorm.

A big lesson from the election is that the idea of Democrats going whole-hog “progressive” was a failure. Never mind Ocasio-Cortez in her ethnic New York City enclave. Look at Florida, where the ideological Andrew Gillum unexpectedly won the gubernatorial primary, and then proceeded to lose an election Democrats really ought to have won. It was a similar story elsewhere. There simply is not a majority in this country for hard left ideology. Democrats who won did so by appealing to the mushy middle, where elections are usually decided.

Landrieu

In 2020 the presidency will be decided by whether Democrats take back Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And they can: all three elected Democratic governors. A candidate like Mitch Landrieu, Joe Biden, or Chris Murphy will win. One like Elizabeth Warren will not. Democrats must rein in their leftwing romanticism and pick a nominee pragmatically, to end the Trumpist nightmare before it totally ruins the country.

But there’s a difference between being hard left and hard anti-Trump. Democrats must stand clearly and forthrightly for a return to the fundamental American values Trump trashes. That must be the issue of 2020.

A frequent commenter on the Times-Union version of my blog constantly belabors that my words are just MY opinion, as if I’m smarter than everyone else and even seek to impose my views on them. Well, Albert, I am smarter than you. I can see reality; the difference between truth and lies; and know right from wrong. Unlike Republican Christians.

*UPDATE 12:12 PM — Trump in his “victory” speech named and sneered nastily at Republicans who didn’t “embrace” him and lost. How gracious.

What American nationalism should be

November 5, 2018

Trump now, defiantly, calls himself a “nationalist.” For lefties it’s a dirty word. Some dream of “one world” uniting all humanity. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for.” (But imagine what a united world’s politics and governance would be like, dominated by backward ideas of Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Turks.)

Disagreement about nationalism is part of our own cultural divide. Some say Americans have nothing to be proud of; our history a litany of crimes, our present a cesspool of racism, inequality, exploitation, oppression, and corruption. That’s epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. Should have been titled A Cynic’s History. Zinn condemned America because it was not a perfect egalitarian utopia from Day One, flaying every social ill that ever existed here. With nary a word of recognition that any progress was ever achieved on any of it.

Thus some friends questioned why my house flew the flag. But I was indeed proud to be an American — a supportive member of what, despite its flaws, is as good a society as human beings had yet succeeded in creating. I flew the flag to honor the principles, values, and ideals America at its best stood for.

The progress Zinn refused to acknowledge is this nation’s central story. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, but strove “to form a more perfect union.” A society that could and did rise toward its highest ideals.

That is what our nationalism should embody. Not blood-and-soil but goodwill, civility, generosity, courage. Not truculence toward others but truth, reason, progress, and justice under rule of law. All people created equal, endowed with inalienable rights: to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. E pluribus unum — out of many, one.

I once stood on a corner, passed by a Muslim woman in a headscarf, then a black man, a turbaned Sikh, an Hispanic, an Indian lady in a sari, a Chinese girl, and, yes, a Caucasian too. This was in Westchester. Nobody batted an eye. This is America’s greatness. E pluribus unum. A place where all kinds of people can make homes, be welcomed, and thrive. This is humanity transcending its boundaries and limits.

Our Declaration of Independence was truly revolutionary when, as Rousseau put it, mankind was “everywhere in chains.” We lit a beacon light in the darkness, guiding countless millions of others to liberation. And as America grew more prosperous and powerful (thanks to its ideals), we took on an ever greater role as the vanguard of global efforts to expand freedom and prosperity and combat the forces that would hold people down. That U.S. world leadership has been noble. But also, it recognized that other countries becoming more democratic, and richer — and the resulting peace — are good for America itself.

These then are the values and ideals that made America great, and make for an American nationalism worth holding to. A nationalism not of ethnicity but of principles. Alas, Trump’s us-against-them “America First” nationalism is the antithesis of those values and ideals. Their evil twin, throwing them under the bus.

That is why, on November 9, 2016, I furled my flag. I look forward to — I burn for — the day when I can fly it once more.