Archive for January, 2020

Impeachment facts

January 26, 2020

Facts. Trump’s lawyers try to sound like they’re all about facts. My twenty years as an administrative law judge gave me tons of experience with lawyers twisting facts to push what are really lies. Especially lawyers for the telephone company. But they were paragons of honesty compared to Patsy Baloney and the rest of Trump’s team.

They paint impeachment as an illegitimate partisan fraud. A one-sided proceeding in the House? Only insofar as Trump refused to participate. But Republicans had a full opportunity to question witnesses and cover themselves with shame screeching falsehoods on his behalf.

Democrats’ selective “hand-picked” witnesses? Only because Trump himself blocked other witnesses like Bolton, Mulvaney or Pompeo from testifying. But the upstanding patriotic civil servants who did testify — Taylor, Vindman, Hill, and many others, who were privy to what happened — told the truth, and the resulting damning picture is factually indisputable. Even Trump’s flunkey Sondland confirmed it. And how about getting testimony from Lev Parnas, who’s now produced a shocking video of Trump proving he’s a liar (and a creep)?

They accuse Democrats of trying to steal two elections: undoing 2016, and barring Trump from the 2020 ballot. Sheer nonsense. Removing Trump from office won’t make Hillary president. Nor keep Trump off the ballot this year. He could still run. Likely as the Republican nominee.

The Constitution provides for elections. Also for impeaching a president who abuses his office. If Trump’s argument had any logic, the Constitution’s impeachment provision would not even be in there, because any successful impeachment would “undo an election.”

I actually didn’t think they’d dare insist “he did nothing wrong.” But I underestimated the brass of these liars. Seeking to use U.S. aid to extort a bribe from a foreign leader to pervert a U.S. election by falsely smearing an opponent — breaking the law — and trying to cover it up — and to block Congress from investigating it — all proven facts — are wrong. Bigly.

Trump’s team claimed foreign aid is often held up, for various good reasons. True, for routine aid within executive branch discretion. This was different, specifically mandated by congressional legislation. Thus coming within “impoundment” laws — which Trump violated (as the Government Accountability Office has adjudicated).

And the idea that he held up the aid for legitimate reasons relating to Ukraine corruption is a sick joke. Nobody with any sense actually believes this. A Trump lawyer quoted Fiona Hill (as though a gotcha) in the House hearings saying that combating Ukraine corruption was U.S. policy. It was indeed — in spite of Trump. He couldn’t care less about that, it was irrelevant to his Ukraine aid suspension.

If Trump’s phone call with Ukraine President Zelensky was “perfect,” why did everyone around him freak out and swiftly move to cover it up? The facts show the call was just a small piece of a long sordid scheme, with Giuliani doing the dirty work, aimed solely to achieve a phony smear of Biden. We now know how much effort went into this. How many levers were pulled, people deployed, others overridden, machinations undertaken. If only Trump were so assiduous dealing with our actual problems.

And here’s a question. Why didn’t Zelensky just give in to Trump’s demand? Not even an actual investigation, merely announcing one. Why not simply do it, to get the aid, and White House visit, Zelensky desperately sought? Because he knew it was wrong. He steered clear of what National Security Advisor Bolton called Trump’s “drug deal.”

Because humans evolved for social life, we got programmed with strong instincts to know who’s trustworthy and who isn’t. But Trump cultists seem to have deleted that app from their brains. If you actually believe Trump is a good guy and Adam Schiff is not — if you can’t see Trump is stinking human garbage and Schiff is a patriotic hero — then something has gone seriously wrong with you.

And with America. This country’s integrity and ideals are being destroyed. Our keystone institutions, rule of law, democratic accountability, respect for truth and facts, and plain-out human decency, are all crumbling under this intensive assault.

Other societies have fallen. God did not decree America immune.

Religion destroying India

January 24, 2020

India is heralded as the world’s largest democracy. Proving that democracy is not just a luxury for rich nations. Some claim messy democracy is bad for economic development — citing China’s high growth rates under authoritarianism. Yet is dictatorship really good for prosperity in the long term? After all, the richest countries are the most democratic. But anyhow, man does not live on bread alone, economics is not everything, and people value democratic rights for their own sake.

That was true of Indians — until lately. Now they’re sacrificing democracy, not for economics but for religion.

India was founded as a state both democratic and secular. This made huge sense given its diverse religions, mainly Hindu and Muslim. And its experience of vast intercommunal bloodshed accompanying Pakistan’s being made a separate Muslim state.

Some nevertheless wanted India to be a Hindu state. One was Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Hindu supremacists like Godse hated Gandhi for promoting accommodation with the nation’s Muslims. They’ve instead advocated “Hindutva,” an ideology of “India for Hindus.”

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has its roots in the RSS, a pervasive nationwide Hindutva organization. The BJP’s leader Narendra Modi rose out of the RSS, and in 2014 scored a big election victory, becoming prime minister, on a platform stressing economic reform. He won even bigger in 2019. But Modi seems focused less on the economy than on Hindutva — and on his own power. He’s increasingly authoritarian, and intolerant of criticism or opposition, using every possible means to suppress it. The RSS acts as a parallel government. That’s Modi’s power base. He openly rejects the founding concept of a secular state.

Kashmir is India’s most Muslim region. India and Pakistan have perennially contested sovereignty over Kashmir; effectively they’ve split it. India’s portion had a special status with much home rule. But in 2019 Modi’s government revoked that, putting Kashmir under military rule, while locking up legions of politically active Kashmiris, imposing a curfew, and cutting off communication with the outside world.

Another Indian state with a lot of Muslims is Assam. Hindutva activists claim many have “infiltrated” from next-door Muslim Bangladesh. The government has now created a register of citizens; if your name’s not on it, you’re put through bureaucratic hell to document ancestral Indian citizenship. Almost impossible if you’re poor and illiterate. Over a million Muslims are being thusly made stateless, with nowhere else to go; India is building detention camps.

Meantime, nationwide protests have greeted legislation to fast-track citizenship for refugees — provided they’re not Muslim. This is seen as violating India’s religiously color-blind constitution. And, more importantly, as presaging extension of the Assam initiative to the whole country. To make millions of Muslims not just second class citizens but non-citizens, stripped of rights. Including, of course, the vote. (Muslims mostly vote against the BJP.)

Defenders of religion call it a force for good. But too often it hijacks people’s rational brains. For many Indian Hindus, it’s not enough being freely able to practice their religion. They want it to reign supreme, crushing others. Rather than having a nation of equal rights, and peace among faiths.

Persecuting some small religious minority, though nasty and unjust, might be no big deal really. Not roiling the nation too much. But India’s Muslims number around two hundred million! With already a history of much sickening religion-inspired violence, mostly against Muslims, including lynchings. To deliberately stoke that religious conflict is national insanity.

Godse, the Hindu fanatic assassin of Gandhi, is now being rehabilitated as a hero. While Trump has staged a Texas rally with Modi lionizing him as a great pal.

Impeachment, partisanship, and defending the indefensible

January 21, 2020

Now it’s official: the Government Accountability Office (chief federal watchdog agency) has determined that Trump’s Ukraine aid shakedown broke the law.

So Republicans can no longer pretend “he did nothing wrong,” and that holding up the aid was within his presidential prerogative, regardless of the reason. No, says the GAO, it was not — regardless of the reason, genuine or fake.

And of course there was no plausible genuine reason. Trump’s “combating Ukraine corruption” doesn’t pass the laugh test. He was trying to extort a bribe (smearing a political opponent) in exchange for releasing the aid. Republicans point out the articles of impeachment don’t actually say “bribery” or “extortion.” Omission of those plain words doesn’t change the reality; they’re the substance of the case.

Exactly the sort of “high crime” the founders meant in the Constitution’s impeachment section. Abuse of the presidential office for personal gain. (Not “abuse of power” because Trump actually didn’t even have the power to do what he did.)

Is impeachment an attempt to “undo the last election,” or pre-empt the next? No, those cries are ridiculous. Elections and impeachments are separate in the Constitution. And that’s particularly pertinent in this case, where it’s the election itself Trump tried to corrupt. His attempt failed only because the whistle was blown.

Lawyers say if the facts support you, pound the facts. If the law supports you, pound the law. If neither, pound the table. That’s what Republicans are doing. Screaming, with intensifying hysteria, that Democrats are perverting the Constitution out of sheer partisanship. But let’s examine this seriously.

Are Democrats Trump’s political opponents? Yes, of course. Just as Republicans opposed Obama. We do have a two-party system. Have they forgotten the ferocity of their partisan opposition to Obama? Talk about trying to undo an election — they actually denied his right to office, Trump himself leading the “birther” crusade, challenging Obama’s citizenship. Vile nonsense, by the way. There was no record of his mother ever being in Kenya. And being a U.S. citizen, her son would have been born one too, even if overseas.

But this shows how deranged Republican hatred for Obama was. Now they talk as though Democrats’ opposition to Trump is somehow similarly deranged. As though it’s just blind partisan tribal hatred, unmoored from any rational reasons. But there are perfectly rational reasons. Democrats hate Trump because he is hateful. The worst human being, biggest liar, most corrupt selfish person ever to hold the office. But never mind his character. It’s his actions. Coddling dictators while shredding our alliances. Separating children from parents. Not summoning the better angels of our nature, but stirring a toxic brew of people’s worst impulses. The list goes on and on. Republicans blind themselves to it all; Democrats cannot.

Yet not for any of this is he being impeached. Nor even his clear attempts to obstruct justice as proven in the Mueller report. It’s for his incontrovertible, indefensible Ukraine crime.

Is that partisanship, perverting the Constitution? No, it’s upholding the law and the Constitution, Congress fulfilling its assigned duty, protecting our democracy. If Trump’s Ukraine extortion attempt didn’t incur impeachment, no presidential misconduct ever could, and the presidency would now be above the law.

“Sold on a Monday,” by Kristina McMorris

January 18, 2020

The wooden sign reads “2 Children for Sale,” in 1931 rural Pennsylvania. This propels the novel, Sold on a Monday.

Ellis Reed is a struggling junior Philadelphia newspaper reporter with a photography hobby, who snaps a photo of the sign accompanied by two small kids. This leads to a feature article getting wide attention, advancing Reed’s career. And to two children actually being sold.

Their cash-strapped mother thought she was dying. Turns out she was misdiagnosed. Reed goes on a labyrinthine mission to reunite the family, helped by press room secretary Lily — of course they fall in love.

The tale was inspired by an actual newspaper story, from 1948 Ohio, centered on a photo of a mother and four children with a sign offering their sale. Author McMorris’s afterword notes that that sign was suspiciously well lettered. Yet those kids did get sold. Moving the story to the Depression era enhances verisimilitude. However, the book doesn’t really convey a Depression ambience; doesn’t actually show us the deprivation. Go read instead Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, giving a much grittier picture.

In McMorris’s novel, Reed’s original photo had gotten accidentally spoiled, so he went back for a re-do. But the family was gone. He did manage to find the sign lying in the dirt — and a different pair of kids to photograph with it. But after his article goes “viral,” Reed is haunted by the photo’s journalistic dishonesty — as well as its upshot of those kids’ fate.

I would not have been much troubled by different children illustrating the article, if its substance was true. However, about that crucial text we’re actually told nothing. With Reed having interviewed no one, what exactly did he write? Generalized social commentary would have been fine. But if he made up particulars about a family, then we’re in Janet Cooke – Jayson Blair territory. Seriously unethical. This is left strangely unspecified.

As for the book’s writing, I had a hard time putting my finger on what irked me. It wasn’t bad writing. Even fitting, perhaps, for a ’30s flavor. Indeed, it felt like the text for a movie of the time, not a noirish one, but more like Miracle on 34th Street, exuding a kind of forthright innocence.

With characters not unreal, exactly, yet behaving in such a formulaic way that I couldn’t quite take the story seriously. The nastiness of some characters was almost made to feel endearing. Even the tense conflict between Reed and his father seemed formulaic.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve been spoiled by more searing modern literary realism. For all the iniquity it actually depicts, this novel seemed like a throwback to a more innocent time.

Numismatic fun: A Quietus Tetradrachm

January 15, 2020

I’ve written before about the fun of collecting Roman coins. The realm is really so rich, with so many fascinating byways.

One is that there are coins of guys who don’t appear on the regular list of Emperors. These were “pretenders” or “usurpers” or rebels, typically military commanders who’d make a brief grab at power — typically fatally unsuccessful. One way to cloak themselves with legitimacy was to issue coins with their portraits. Generally of course these are rare, but many are reasonably obtainable.

One such rebel was Macrianus. This was in the “East” (Asia Minor and the Levant); for about a year, 260-261 AD. He didn’t actually take the purple himself, but had his two young sons crowned instead — named Quietus and Macrianus Junior. With coins issued for them. Fairly rare, but not prohibitively so.

In the early ’70s, there were some interesting ads in a coin paper, with an address in Manhattan near where I was doing some regulatory hearings. So I went there, the guy had a loft, and it turned out he was Robert Bashlow — yes, the one responsible for the well-known 1961 “Bashlow restrikes” of the Confederate cent. He was quite a character and had tons of intriguing stuff, which I would sort through, during lunch breaks. In one batch of junk I found a rather low grade Roman coin on which I could read the name “Quietus.” This was before I was really much into ancient coins, but I did recognize this as rare, and bought it. (Bashlow tragically died not long after in a Spanish hotel fire.)

Some decades later, we visited Ephesus, and there were the usual guys hawking fake coins to tourists. I waved them away, but one got the idea I knew coins, and insisted he could show me good stuff. He led me into the recesses of his shop, and produced a little group carefully wrapped in tissue paper. Most of these were fake too, or else too poor to be worth anything. But one was a Macrianus! Genuine and in decent condition. He quoted 100 Euros. I said no and walked away, but he followed and continued to dicker. Finally, on the steps of the tourist bus about to depart, I bought it for 50. I’m not sure if he really knew it was rare. I made some money selling it.

Meantime, for my own collection I’m a real condition snob, and over time have managed to get several types each of Quietus and Macrianus in really excellent preservation. They go for some hundreds.

Those coins are antoniniani, which were the main “workhorse” coins of the Roman Empire in this period. The Romans also controlled Egypt, and the coinage system there was separate and very different. Its principal coin was the tetradrachm. It had started out, in Greek times, as a sizable silver coin, but by the Third Century had diminished to a smaller thick bronze coin (inscribed in Greek). It’s a very nice continuous series of coins that ran into the beginning of the 400s; my collection is fairly comprehensive on them.

Macrianus did have control of Egypt for a brief time, so tetradrachms were issued for his two sons. They are rather more rare than the Roman-style antoniniani. I have had a nice Macrianus tet for quite some time, but Quietus seems somewhat tougher, and had eluded me. A definite gap in my collection that begged to be filled.

Victor England

Classical Numismatic Group is a coin firm specializing in ancients, and the biggest such. It was founded by Victor England, a good guy I’ve known for over 30 years, always a pleasure to deal with. I visited their Pennsylvania offices, a great place, during our Gettysburg trip; bought from Victor a wonderful lot of 50 late Roman bronzes, in superb condition — after my careful cleaning. Anyhow, CNG runs frequent internet auctions. I always bid, though it seems pretty futile, as they’ve built a gigantic clientele, so coins get bid up high. Still, I persist, on the outside chance of getting something cool. Usually I do snag at least one lot — of no consequence.

Recently they had a special sale of a large collection focused on coins of the Valerian-Gallienus period — which included Macrianus and Quietus. One lot was a pair of their Egyptian tetradrachms; the Macrianus fairly nice except for some nasty looking green crust spots on the reverse that I thought I could ameliorate. The Quietus unfortunately was pretty rough. Well, I got the lot for what I felt was a very good price of $140 (plus 18% buyer fee). So I unleashed my restorative skills on the two coins, and was able to make the Quietus, if not superb, at least minimally passable for my snobby collection. It does have a good sharp obverse inscription and portrait detail.

I’ve reproduced here CNG’s original sale photo, above, with the Quietus being the lower coin; and the same (at left) after my cleaning. I enjoyed adding this to my collection.

 

 

 

“People of color” versus “colored people” — call in the language police

January 11, 2020

A recent local newspaper story* reports a Schenectady council meeting, where one member touted the election of a nonwhite council president, rejoicing in the body’s diversity, including two “colored — people of color.” He almost said “colored people” before catching himself.

The article reports “an audible gasp,” an “incredulous-looking councilwoman,” another saying she was “offended” (adding “at least try to be politically correct”), another observer saying she was “stunned,” an African-American man who “walked out of the room in apparent disgust,” and the local NAACP head saying he was caught off-guard and the issue will be taken up at the group’s next meeting.

The relevant linguistic background is fraught.** “Colored people” once was a term they themselves preferred, as the polite one. Eventually it acquired a demeaning odor and was supplanted by “Negro.” That word echoes a past paradigm classifying people into three races — “negroid,” “caucasoid,” and “mongoloid.” (It’s not really that simple, nor even is the concept of “race” scientifically coherent.)

And using “Negro” was not new, but repurposed an old word, which originated as the Spanish for “black,” and had actually referred to slaves. The N-word was a more degrading version. Some southerners would later snarkily pronounce “Negro” as “Nigra,” to be just this side of politeness while conveying what was really meant.

Then “Negro” was discarded and “black” became the chosen word. Even though it too had designated slaves. At least “black” is English, rather than Spanish. Though brown might be more apt — as well as unfreighted with historical baggage.

Next it was “African-American.” A bit of a mouthful, but possessing a certain verity, since most people so described do have African ancestry, albeit usually far in the past.

And so we come to “people of color.” I generally believe in calling people what they want to be called. But I’m frankly baffled by this latest rehabilitation of old words once considered derogatory. “People of color” does perhaps entail a nuance of putting “people” first; and whereas “colored people” typically implied just African ancestry, “people of color” today encompasses all non-caucasians. Yet still the words in the two phrases are actually identical in meaning, and both arise from the same linguistic roots, using the same word as a signifier of ethnic difference. If “people of color” is now acceptable, “colored people” should be too. Maintaining a sharp distinction seems absurdist hair-splitting.

True, the two terms can have different meanings depending on who uses them and why. But political correctness tends to put that cart before the horse, with inferences drawn from the bare words alone, regardless of context. What it’s really all about is people setting themselves up as paragons of right-thinking, while wrong-footing others, as offenders against purity, consigning them to outer darkness.

This syndrome was on full display in the Schenectady council episode. A few people quoted did acknowledge that the “offender” was guilty merely of a slip of the tongue, and nothing ought be made of it. That’s just common sense and reasonableness. After all, the fellow was applauding nonwhites. But common sense and reasonableness go out the window in such cases. There are now always people eager to mount high horses, getting out their pitchforks and torches.

The absurdity here rises to dizzying heights, when it’s not even about something the man said, but what he almost said. Nevertheless, that was sufficient pretext for those who relish the deliciousness of taking offense.

A final irony: the article, again, quoted the local NAACP head. Perhaps in that future meeting he talked of, they can also discuss their own organization’s name: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

 

https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Councilman-s-remarks-rankle-some-members-of-14960079.php

**Here’s a good article discussing it: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/11/07/362273449/why-we-have-so-many-terms-for-people-of-color

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part II — Is it OK to eat animals?

January 8, 2020

I eat meat; not a lot, but am troubled by the ethics. Michael Pollan too, discussing this in depth in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Like me, he’d like to be able to justify meat eating. While recognizing that bias.*

Descartes saw animals as just machines without feelings. We know better. Pollan quotes Jeremy Bentham in 1789, that the question isn’t animals’ mental abilities, but can they suffer? (Note, we’re really talking about higher animals; seafood creatures don’t have much inner life to fret over.) However, Pollan notes, pain and suffering are different things. Humans suffer from pain in great part due to the mental constructs we form around it, which animals generally cannot do. (Having no conception of death or really, even, the future.)

Eating them is defended on the basis of nature. We evolved to do so, part of the overall natural schema of predators and prey. Certainly the ubiquitous animal predators think nothing of eating other animals alive. Ethics is indeed a purely human thing, evolved to regulate relations among ourselves, and absent in the rest of nature.

So we don’t treat other humans like animals, don’t eat our weaker kin. Just because they’re “humans” and animals are not? Thusly privileging humans in a way denied to other animals is called “speciesism.”

Its basis is dubious. As Peter Singer (the leading animal rights thinker) argues, most of us subscribe to an ethic of human equality. But that’s a moral, not a factual, idea. We recognize humans vary greatly in, say, intelligence, yet hold everyone’s lives and interests nonetheless entitled to equal consideration. Hence you may not exploit another for your own ends. Why then are humans entitled to thusly exploit animals — those that are sentient, feeling, and certainly possessed of lives with interests?

While cynics and pessimists deny it, humanity has in fact made great moral progress over time. Yet again, read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. People used to accept practices — like slavery — now condemned morally. Will that one day be true of meat eating?

Pollan suggests, however, that Singer is looking at the matter from the standpoint of an individual animal, but he urges a wider species-oriented perspective, positing that species have interests too. The domesticated animals we eat actually represent a mutualism or symbiosis between their species and ours — rooted in an opportunistic aboriginal deal with us, enabling them to survive and prosper better than if on their own. And their populations are now vast, while those in the wild have shriveled. So the deal is advantageous even while individual animals do die. Which of course is true of all individuals in any case. “As a rule,” Pollan says, “animals in the wild don’t get good deaths surrounded by their loved ones.”

(One might counter that a species has no consciousness; only its individual members do. So a species cannot value enjoyment of life as an individual can, and its having larger numbers serves no moral value.)

But meantime, also looking at the big picture, Pollan deems it “doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production.” He doesn’t think it’s practicable for all of us to become vegetarians. A totally plant-based food chain would consume even more fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, and might actually kill even more animals as collateral damage. If our goal is the fewest animal deaths, we should all eat the largest possible ones grazing the least cultivated land.

But all this assumes animals, before and during slaughter, are at least treated humanely. Finally returning to Bentham’s suffering point. Whatever else can be said about our overall interspecies relationships, inflicting suffering on innocent sentient beings is indefensible. And while it can be avoided, as Pollan’s reportage about a model farm showed, our vast industrial American meat-producing machine tends to sacrifice such niceties to economic efficiency. Though it’s true that absent that industry, the animals would not even exist, their existence is no boon either to them as individuals or to their species when it’s an existence of misery.

Consistent with the book’s title, for Pollan this issue remains a dilemma. He does not advocate vegetarianism. He sees the problem as our simple obliviousness to the reality, modern consumers being thoroughly insulated from how food gets to us.** Transparency is his answer; if only we really knew, we wouldn’t tolerate the animal suffering. Producers would have to heed consumer qualms. Making meat costlier. We’d eat fewer animals, and “with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.”

When pigs fly.

And what about me? Giving up meat entirely is hard; making ethical distinctions among meats even harder. Being human, my morality is imperfect. I live with that, perhaps consoled by being at least above average. Of course, everyone thinks that.

However, right after I finished Pollan’s book came an article in The Economist (“Fake Moos”) about great strides in developing plant-based imitation meat. It doesn’t yet taste quite the same, and costs more, but both problems are on track for resolution. So maybe we can have our cows and eat them too.

* He quotes Franklin that the great advantage of being a reasoning creature is that you can always find a reason for whatever you want to do.

** Unwilling to eschew his inner carnivore, Pollan decides he’s honor-bound to, at least once, eat something he’s personally killed. His successful wild pig hunt is detailed at length, with much nuanced meditation on what it all means. Initial atavistic elation mixes with later disgust and shame. But here too Pollan arrives at no definitive conclusion.

Psycho-sociology, politics, and reality lenses

January 5, 2020

“Events, dear boy, events.” That was British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s famous reply, when asked what could shake up the status quo.

We’ve seen a lot of events in the last three years. Government shut-downs. Mueller investigation. Cruelties at the border. Charlottesville. Kavanaugh. Ukraine scandal. Impeachment. Yet nothing moves the political needle. Trump’s poll ratings have stayed stuck at around 40%.

This is actually very strange. If anything, historically, and throughout the world, voters have exhibited not steadfastness but fickleness. France’s President Macron was elected in 2017 with 66% of the vote (unimaginable in America), then his favorability polling plummeted to only 23%. Never mind whether that made sense — at least the French were attuned to events, and changing opinions in response thereto. In almost any country, a leader conducting himself as abominably as Trump, caught in so many lies, etc., would see his support plunge close to zero.

A recent David Brooks column tackles what’s going on. “Events,” he writes, “don’t seem to be driving politics. Increasingly, sociology is.” Who you are as a person tends to be determinative. This by itself is no revelation: a gay urban artist is likely to vote Democrat; a rural churchgoing construction worker Republican. But Brooks goes on to say an event itself is not what’s salient; “it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event.” Each seeing it through our own lens.

And, says Brooks, different segments of American society “now see reality through nonoverlapping lenses. They make meaning in radically different ways. Psychosocial categories have hardened.”

This cultural segmentation has very deep roots. Brooks writes that if a region was settled, in the 17th and 18th centuries, predominantly from East Anglia, it probably votes Democratic; if from the North of England, for Trump. He adds that the 1896 election is also a good predictor of today’s politics — 22 of 23 states voting for Democrat Bryan in 1896 are Republican now.

But if that kind of sorting is not new, it has greatly intensified in recent decades. For reasons Brooks says he doesn’t understand.

Nevertheless, in the rest of the column, Brooks contends that any political analysis must today concern itself not just with the ostensible ramifications of events themselves but with the different ways different groups see them. However, nothing he writes here suggests that those very different lenses are not equally valid. Yet therein lies much of the tale.

I wrote recently of a conversation with some Trumpers which included assertions that Adam Schiff had been outed as a pedophile; that Biden was not a candidate when Trump spoke with Zelensky; that child migrants were caged only during the Obama administration; they weren’t separated from parents, as proven by DNA tests! And so on and so forth. All right-wing fake news. Including saying mainstream media spouts fake news.

This isn’t just seeing reality through a different lens. It’s seeing reality on a different planet.

Can 40% of Americans have succumbed to mass psychosis? If Brooks is baffled by what’s happened, I’ll suggest a theory:

Our reality perception was honed by evolution to promote survival. That makes us very good at seeing reality insofar as that aids coping with all life’s hazards. You won’t mistake a red light for green. But that doesn’t apply to the realm of public affairs; that’s a freebie, where reality perception isn’t life-or-death, giving us the luxury of a different criterion: what makes us feel good.

That’s a perfectly valid human concern. One might even say it’s the very purpose of being alive. Hence feeling good, along with the survival instinct, is a powerful motivator.

Nevertheless, in normal circumstances, we don’t really see it as an option to believe something that’s false just to feel good. However — if it does somehow seem to be an option — if one can rationalize believing it — then heck, let’s go for it!

Trump and his enablers have hypercharged this. Helped by the explosion of garbage on the internet, much put there with cynical intent. They’ve made it seem a valid choice to believe things that actually are, well, lies. Indeed, they’re undermining the whole concept of truth versus lies. Truth is whatever you’d like it to be.

It helps if you’re not alone, if there’s a whole community of others with you. And a major TV network. Even  the President of the United States. 

In this environment, “events” actually don’t matter much at all. It’s not just that you see events through your own sociological lens. Social psychology dictates your politics regardless of events. 

All this plays to people wanting (naturally) to feel good about themselves. Eliminating the cognitive dissonance of trying to reconcile support for Trump with the rotten reality. Without having to give it up and admit to yourself you’ve been conned. Especially with everyone around you staying conned. Far preferable to live in an alternate universe where what you’re supporting is all good (and opponents are all bad). Where DNA tests prove no children were taken from parents.

 

What we eat: The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Part I)

January 2, 2020

Michael Pollan is a food thinker and writer. Not a restaurant reviewer; he looks at the big picture of what we eat in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants; omnivores eat both.)

The book is a smorgasbord of investigative reporting, memoir, analysis, and argument. Pollan does have a strong point of view; cynics, pessimists and misanthropes will find much fodder here. But Pollan is no fanatical purist ideologue. We saw him on a TV piece summing up with this core advice: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” Seems pretty reasonable.

He’s a lovely writer. Here’s a sample, concluding the first of the book’s three parts, talking (perhaps inevitably) about McDonald’s:

“The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. I said before that McDonald’s serves a kind of comfort food, but after a few bites I’m more inclined to think they’re selling something more schematic than that — something more like a signifier of comfort food. So you eat . . . hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger, or French fry, as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably full.”

I might disagree with his evaluation, but man, this guy can write.

That first third of the book is all corn. In fact, if “you are what you eat,” we are all corn (well, mostly). Don’t think you eat much corn? Think again. As Pollan explains, a high proportion of our food is derived from corn; even our meat, the animals being mostly corn-fed. Pollan argues that, rather than humans domesticating corn, corn domesticated us. Viewed biologically, that species exploits us to spread itself and increase its population.

Pollan sees food industry economic logic driving us toward a kind of craziness. When the government started intervening in farm produce markets, the aim was to support prices by preventing overproduction. Remember farmers paid not to grow stuff? But in the 1970s that reversed, with the system now incentivizing ever higher yields, aided by technological advances. The resulting glut, in a free market, should drive prices down, signaling producers to cut back. However, if farm prices fall below a certain floor, the feds give farmers checks to make up the difference. Thus their incentive now is to just grow as much as possible, no matter what.

But, even with that government guarantee, Pollan shows, most farmers can barely eke a living, after costs. The bulk of the profit from corn actually being swallowed by the big middleman corporations like ADM and Cargill.

Meantime it’s a challenge to market all that corn. That’s why so much goes to animal feed. The industry has also cajoled the government to require using some in gasoline (ethanol), which actually makes neither economic, operational, nor environmental sense. But it does eat up surplus corn.

Part of the marketing challenge is that while for most consumer goods you can always (theoretically at least) get people to buy more, there’s a limit to how much a person can eat. So with U.S. population growth only around 1%, it’s hard for the food industry to grow profits by more than that measly percentage. But, in Pollan’s telling, it’s been fairly successful in overcoming that obstacle. This contributes, of course, to an obesity epidemic.

The abundance and consequent (governmentally subsidized) cheapness of corn figures large here. It goes into a lot of foods like soft drinks (yes, full of corn too!) that also attract us by their sweetness. Unsurprisingly, lower income consumers in particular go for such tasty fare that’s also cheap — buying what provides the most calories per budgetary dollar.

But the main driver of obesity is simple biology. We evolved in a world of food scarcity, hence with a propensity to load up when we could, against lean times sure to come. Thus programmed to especially crave calorie-rich sweet stuff. But it being no longer scarce, indeed ubiquitous, no wonder many get fat.

Pollan extensively discusses “organic” food. Largely a victim of its own success. “Organic” is a brilliant marketing ploy, it sounds so good. And farming that conforms to the original purist vision of what “organic” should mean may be environmentally cuddlier than conventional farming (though there are tradeoffs, one being greater acreage required). However, in practice, stuff in stores labeled “organic” is not produced all that differently. A key reason is that once “organic” took off and became big business, producers had to use many of the same large-scale industrial practices of conventional farming. Small operators can’t compete. Another is that the USDA rules for “organic” labeling were lobbied hard by producers to give them more leeway. Pollan cites, for example, a rule saying cows must have “access to pasture.” Sounds nice, but if you think about it, what does it really mean? If anything? Here, and in much of the rulebook, there aren’t real rules.*

Pollan muses that salad might seem our most natural kind of eating. But it gives him cognitive dissonance when considering the complex industrial processes that actually put it on our plates. An organic salad mix takes 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. If grown conventionally, it would be just 4% more. Bottom line: by and large, “organic” is a pretty meaningless label. (Wifey take note.)

However, Pollan chronicles his stint at one actual farm that might be called beyond organic. This read to me like one of those old-time utopia novels. And that farm is actually extremely efficient. But its model doesn’t seem scalable to the industrial level needed to feed us all. Also, it’s extremely labor- and brain-intensive. Few farmers today are up for that.

The farmer profiled there opined that government regulation is the single biggest impediment to spreading his approach. It gives USDA inspectors conniptions. Pollan shows how the whole government regulatory recipe is geared to bigness. One example: a slaughtering facility must have a restroom reserved for the government inspector alone.

The book also delves deeply into the ethics of eating animals, a fraught issue. I will address that separately soon.

* Well, there are some, like no antibiotics. Today’s organic farming is a sort of kludge — Pollan likens it to trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind your back.