Archive for December, 2018

Fear and Loathing in France and Britain

December 11, 2018

France is having a meltdown; a toddler’s screaming tantrum, pounding its fists and kicking its legs. Convulsed with truly scary violence around protests against Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

I used to be contemptuous of France and its politics (here’s an example). Then in 2017 they had a fit of seeming sense, electing an actually good president, with 66% of the vote no less — a landslide of proportions unheard of in America. After that, his brand-new party swept parliamentary elections too. But this revolution wasn’t all it seemed. In the presidential contest’s first round, Macron got only 24%, just enough to make the runoff, which he won only because the other candidate was utterly beyond the pale. (Though just such a candidate was elected in America.) Macron’s new party romped because the French had lost all faith in the old ones.

Still, Macron did win with pledges of long-overdue reforms to juice France’s anemic economy. (Unemployment is 9%, due in good part to an over-regulated labor market.) But the French are like St. Augustine who said, “God, make me chaste, but not yet.” So France has a repetitive history of presidents rolling out reforms, followed by eruption in the streets, followed by presidential capitulation. Macron vowed this would not be his story too.

Then the streets duly erupted. The immediate issue was a fuel tax, but the deeper complaint is the idea that Macron is out-of-touch and his reforms benefit the rich. Those actually protesting may be a small minority, but most French citizens back them. Contrary to his brave vow, Macron folded on the fuel tax. However, that’s seen as too little, too late, and the violence continues. On Monday he made a speech offering more concessions. It doesn’t seem to be working.

Meantime in Great Britain —

I wrote in August recapping the Brexit picture. Parliament was supposed to vote Tuesday on Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal with the European Union. But she cancelled the vote because it was clear she’d lose, badly. Brexit voters in the 2016 referendum were delusional in imagining Britain could keep the benefits of the EU while freeing itself of the drawbacks. It turns out to be the reverse. The best deal May could get is clearly worse, all around, than the status quo. The Europeans are unbudging. But Brexiteers, still unable to face up to the hard reality, are screaming “betrayal” at May.

How can this mess be resolved? Britain should have a new referendum question — accept the deal on offer or stay in the EU. The latter would likely win. But Brexit zealots probably won’t allow such a vote. The deadline is March 29, and Britain now seems headed for crashing out of the EU without any deal — an economic nightmare. Meantime May’s hold on power hangs by a thread, within her own Conservative party. While waiting to take over is the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. A very bad man whose accession would consummate Britain’s national suicide.

What do the French and British situations have in common? Citizen bloody-mindedness. Unreasonableness. Irresponsibility. Wanting what they want without regard to sense and reality.

The French overwhelmingly elected a government but refuse to let it govern. The Brits still refuse to give up the utter folly of Brexit.

And what about America? Trump has jeered at Macron’s poll ratings; elected with 66%, he’s now fallen to an abysmal 20%, while Trump remains at 40%. Is Macron really worse than Trump?! But if the French are fickle, America has the opposite problem. Trump’s steady poll numbers, in the face of his presidency’s total train-wreck, bespeaks a different and worse pathology. At least the French are reacting (if wrongly) to what they see is happening. The 40% of Americans backing Trump refuse to see what’s happening.

Here is the problem of democracy (which the Chinese regime smugly points to). Democracy’s weakness is not politicians behaving badly, it’s voters behaving badly. Politicians only march to voters’ tunes. In all three countries — France, Britain, America — and, alas, many others — voters have been behaving very badly indeed.

Why? A big subject. But read this past blog post for part of the answer; a review of a book titled The Death of Expertise. In a nutshell, today’s culture encourages the narcissism of thinking your opinions are as good as anyone’s.

Well (sigh), democracy is still better than authoritarian regimes (like China’s) with government not accountable to citizens at all.

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Coming to America

December 9, 2018

Olga Porterfield, a friend of mine, gave a talk to the Capital District Humanist Society, about Jewish refugees exiting the Soviet Union. She was one of them, at age 20, in 1979.

She began with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. — “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Olga Zemitskaya was born in Moscow in 1959. Jewish identity was submerged; in fact, she said, growing up she had no idea what “Jewish” meant. Her Jewish consciousness was awakened when her father brought her to a synagogue for a Simchat Torah celebration. This was actually a subversive thing to do in the atheistic USSR. Also subversive was the family’s “anti-Soviet” attitude; as a teenager she was reading “samizdat” — underground literature passed secretly from hand to hand. Being doubly such a rebel was heady stuff, especially when she fell in love with a boy with the same proclivities. But he was planning to leave for America.

Anti-semitism has a long and dreadful history in that part of the world. Russian anti-semitism went into overdrive in the wake of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory. The situation was aggravated by the 1970 “Airplane affair” when a group of Jews tried to hijack a small plane to escape the USSR.

You couldn’t just pick up and leave. The authorities had to grant permission — and just requesting it marked you as a pariah, you were persecuted for it. Quite a few Jews nevertheless got permission, and went to either the U.S. or Israel. But there were also a great many “refuseniks” — Jews whose exit visas were refused. This became a focus of international condemnation toward the USSR. In 1975, America in response enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, punishing the Soviets on trade terms.

To illustrate the issue’s prominence, Olga showed Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner babbling on about “Saving Soviet Jewelry.” When informed that the issue was actually “jewry,” she responded with her standard line, “Never mind.”

Shcharansky

A leading refusenik agitator was Anatoly Shcharansky. I remember first seeing him, interviewed in Russia around 1976, and being flabbergasted by the courage of his outspoken criticism of the Soviet regime. In 1977, he was arrested, falsely charged as a spy, and sent to a Siberian ordeal. In 1986, finally, America got him out — exchanged for real spies. Today, as Natan Sharansky, he is an Israeli government minister.

Also mentioned by Olga was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who became a vocal dissident, and his Jewish wife, Elena Bonner. Sakharov was immured in internal exile in Gorki.

Sakharov

But as the dictatorship began to crumble, Sakharov actually became a member of parliament, called the nation’s conscience. He died the month after the Berlin Wall fell.

But for Olga her greatest hero was her mother, for whom Olga’s emigration was a deep personal loss; yet she actively supported her daughter in this.

In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, becoming even more of an international pariah. In a piqued response to the criticism, the Russian regime slammed shut the door on emigration. But luckily for Olga, she had rejected her family’s pleas to hold off and wait until they all could go; she had applied for her exit visa; and got it before the door shut. Her parents were subsequently refused. (They finally reached America in the Gorbachev era.)

Soviet exit visa

Olga showed on the screen that most precious document — her official permission to leave the Soviet Union — forever.

She travelled first to Vienna, then to Rome, to wait for documents to come to America. She loved the weeks she spent in Rome. People were all smiling, she said; “nobody smiled in Moscow.” The workers’ paradise.

Olga arrived in the United States of America on June 21, 1979. When we still welcomed immigrants.

“The Discovery” — Scientific proof of Heaven

December 6, 2018

Our daughter recommended seeing this Netflix film, “The Discovery.” It starts with scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) giving a rare interview about his discovery proving that we go somewhere after death.

This has precipitated a wave of suicides. Asked if he feels responsible, Harbor simply says “no.” Then a man shoots himself right in front of him.

Next, cut to Will and Ayla (“Isla” according to Wikipedia) who meet as the lone passengers on an island ferry. Talk turns to “the discovery.” Will is a skeptic who doesn’t think it’s proven.

Turns out Will is Harbor’s estranged son, traveling to reconnect with him at Harbor’s island castle. Where he runs a cult peopled with lost souls unmoored by “the discovery.” While continuing his work, trying to learn where, exactly, the dead go.

Meantime, people keep killing themselves, aiming to “get there” — wherever “there” is. Will saves Ayla from drowning herself and brings her into the castle.

Harbor has created a machine to get a fix on “there” by probing a brain during near-death experiences — his own. It doesn’t work. “We need a corpse,” he decides.

So Will — his skepticism now forgotten — and Ayla steal one from a morgue. This is where the film got seriously silly. (Real scientists nowadays aren’t body snatchers.) The scene with the dead guy hooked up to the machine and subjected to repeated electrical shocks was straight out of Frankenstein 1931.

This doesn’t work either. At first. But later, alone in the lab, Will finds a video actually had gotten extracted from the corpse’s brain. Now he’s on a mission to decode it.

I won’t divulge more of the plot. But the “there” in question is “another plane of existence.” Whatever that might actually mean. There’s also some “alternate universes” thing going on, combined with some Groundhog Dayish looping. A real conceptual mishmash.

One review faulted the film for mainly wandering in the weeds of relationship tensions rather than really exploring the huge scientific and philosophical issues. I agree.

The film’s metaphysical incoherence goes with the territory of “proving” an afterlife. There was no serious effort at scientific plausibility, which would be a tall order. Mind and self are entirely rooted in brain function. When the brain dies, that’s it.

The film didn’t delve either into the thinking of any of the folks who committed suicide, which would have been interesting. After all, many millions already strongly believe in Heaven, yet are in no hurry to go. But, as I have said, “belief” is a tricky concept. You may persuade yourself that you believe something, while another part of your mind does not.

The film’s supposed scientific proof presumably provides the clincher. Actually, religious people, even while professing that faith stands apart from questions of evidence, nevertheless do latch on to whatever shreds of evidence they can, to validate their beliefs. For Heaven, there’s plenty, including testimonies of people who’ve been there. But there’s still that part of the brain that doesn’t quite buy it. Would an assertedly scientific discovery change this?

I doubt it. Most people have a shaky conception of science, with many religious folks holding an adversarial stance toward it. Science is, remember, the progenitor of evolution, which they hate. Meantime — this the film completely ignored — religionists generally consider suicide a sin against God. Surely that can’t be your best route to Heaven!

The film did mention that people going on a trip want to see a brochure first. That’s what Harbor’s further work aimed to supply. Without it — without “the discovery” having provided any idea what the afterlife might be like — killing oneself to get there seems a pretty crazy crapshoot. Even for religious nuts.

George H. W. Bush

December 3, 2018

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That was a novel’s famous first line. George H.W. Bush was president in just such a foreign country.

It is hard to imagine a major political candidate in today’s America who isn’t some kind of ideological/cultural warrior. That wasn’t Bush. In his foreign country, it was all about just doing the job. You know, “public service,” remember that quaint concept? Bush was a capable man; a serious man; who took his responsibilities seriously. A thoughtful man of honor and integrity, who spoke and acted carefully, and whose word could be trusted. A thoroughly decent human being.

Of course you know where this is going.

Gary Hart

Another candidate in the 1988 election, that Bush won, was Gary Hart, and there’s a new movie out about him, The Front Runner. Hart’s campaign was ended by his adultery. In a different country.

Our president now not only had extramarital affairs — with porn actresses no less — but paid them hush money to cover it up — and lied about that. (And smeared his own “fixer” who revealed his lies.) And even bragged about committing sexual assaults, too.

Meantime he paid $25 million to settle the “Trump University” fraud case. And the New York Times ran a huge analysis of how his whole business history was one big lie; built on cheating, fraud, and tax evasion. His “charitable foundation” has been exposed as a fraud too.

None of it seems to matter. But just look at him, listen to him. Anyone with half a brain can see he’s totally full of shit. Is a total piece of shit. Yet we elected him president — and his poll ratings have hardly budged since.

I often talk about human evolutionary history, being shaped by our living in social groups, where cooperation and mutual trust was central. Thus we evolved highly tuned lie detectors, and instincts to punish those who violate behavioral norms. But now we’re a different species, inhabiting a different kind of society.

I heard an interview with one of the makers of The Front Runner. He commented that Trump is not being judged as a politician or public official would once have been (and as Hart was), but instead as a celebrity. And that Trump is not an aberration; rather, the new normal. He doubted we’ll ever go back to the old model, with leaders of the George H. W. Bush type. Now celebrity culture rules.

The President of the United States

The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicted a future where intelligent Americans have few children while nitwits breed like rabbits. Result: a nation of nitwits. Unsurprisingly, its president is a flamboyant performance buffoon. The film was a comedy.

Our reality is a tragedy.