Archive for April, 2020

Trump and China

April 28, 2020

It’s now clear that in November Trump will be running against — China.

Republicans are in a panic that Trump’s ghastly Covid-19 performance means he won’t be re-elected. (Not seeing it means he shouldn’t be re-elected.) So now, his last-ditch campaign plan is targeting China as the enemy, and Biden as “soft on China.” Recycling some ancient anodyne Biden quotes welcoming China’s integration into the global community.

Reality has never figured much in Trump’s shtick. But painting himself as our avenger against China is particularly preposterous. As for quotes, plenty of his own kiss the feet of China’s ruler. His idiotic trade war hurt America’s economy and consumers more than China. Covid-19 began in China, but Trump’s incompetence was what made it catastrophic here.

Soft on China? His first day, Trump torpedoed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal among 11 nations the Obama Administration painstakingly negotiated, to combat China’s regional dominance. Trump’s action handed China a giant geopolitical triumph. Its newly empowered rulers couldn’t believe their luck.

Though I doubt Biden will highlight this, the words “trade deal” having alas become myopically toxic for many Democrats as well as Republicans.

Even if you favor toughness toward China, it’s a complex problem, and Trump just lashes out erratically and ignorantly. The proverbial bull in a China shop.

And for him to run a China-bashing campaign will be especially bizarre since China will likely work with Russia to help him win. Because they know how bad he is for America, undermining the U.S. as an adversary.

Trump’s Covid-19 disaster vindicates their judgment. Initially the virus gave China a black eye, but America’s is worse. Now China crows that it’s proven how great their system is and how America’s is weak and dysfunctional. Trump’s vileness had already battered our global standing. Covid-19 makes people everywhere lose yet more confidence in, and admiration for, America. A recent global poll showed China is now preferred over the U.S. as a world leader.

That is truly chilling.

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes recently authored The Light that Failed. Referring to the idea (epitomized by Fukuyama’s The End of History) of liberal democracy as a blueprint for the flourishing of human values. Now being beaten back, the new book argues, by populist onslaughts fueled by a nationalism that actually sees liberal democracy (often demonized with the term “neoliberalism”) as some kind of alien implant.

Nowhere is this more true than in China. Optimists had once envisioned a richer China, more globally integrated, becoming a better and more benign China. But its regime, through fierce propaganda and mind control, has succeeded in turning the population’s psychology against “Western” liberal humanistic values, and toward truculent nationalistic chest-pounding.

A recent column in The Economist tells of “Fang Fang,” whose candid blogging about being quarantined in Wuhan gained a huge adoring following. Fang Fang criticized the government for its cover-ups and missteps. Then her writings were translated and published in the West. China’s netizens turned on a dime, now vilifying her en masse as a traitor, assailing her right to be heard at all. Dissension within the family might be okay — but not giving China’s foreign critics ammunition.

So saturated with nationalism have Chinese minds become that, far from coveting human rights, they enthusiastically embrace a regime that crushes them. The Chinese, the columnist drily concludes, actually “are demanding less freedom of speech . . . an autocrat’s dream.”

Trump wants to posture as tough on China. Yet never whispers a word against the Orwellian tyranny his great friend Xi Jinping is building.

And this is why it’s chilling that world opinion now prefers Chinese over American leadership. This is the kind of pathology that is prevailing nowadays over ideals of liberal democracy. I am hoping that Trump’s November defeat can break the spell and be a catalyst toward restoring sanity. Outside China at least.

You can help Afghanistan fight Covid-19

April 27, 2020

Intense as the Covid-19 coverage is, I have the sense that most of us can only dimly grasp, yet, the human tragedy’s true depth. More the economic devastation than the sickness and death. Both hit our poorer citizens hardest; they’re less able to protect against infection; and, in precarious financial straits to begin with, they’re suffering the brunt of the economic collapse. The recent legislation actually gives more money to people who need it less than to those needing it most. (Some voices blame the poor themselves for their poverty. No such idea could apply here.)

The suffering is even greater in poorer countries, many with shambolic health systems and no real social safety nets. Their disaster is only starting. Here’s one chilling aspect. Much of the income in these countries is “remittances,” money sent by people working abroad, to their families. They’re losing their jobs in droves. Moreover, the systems used for remittances are becoming problematic, many of the little stores and kiosks being closed or locked down. Some estimates put the plunge in remittances at 80% or more.

Afghanistan is struggling to cope with Covid-19 on top of its other big challenges (like the Taliban). My daughter has been working on projects there to improve quality of life. Her consulting company, Magenta, has a fund-raiser to directly provide soap and personal protective equipment. Here’s the link for donations: *

It’s sometimes said, “Charity begins at home.” I see the whole world as my home. Bad as things are here, they’re worse in many other places, that need more help.

* Note, donations are in British pounds (= about $1.30); they get converted to dollars if you complete the process.

How old is the world?

April 25, 2020

Is the Earth around 4.5 billion years old? Or, just 6,022 and a few months?

PBS’s Independent Lens had a fascinating documentary about Kentucky’s “Ark Encounter” — to go with the “Creation Museum” I’ve written about. The documentary spotlighted some local opposition mainly to the project’s millions in tax subsidies. Surely unconstitutionally violating church-state separation.

This ark is a full-size imagining of Noah’s vessel. Really gigantic, costing in nine figures, to illustrate the ark accommodating every “kind” of animal. But apparently these Biblical literalists weren’t bothered by the implausibility of Noah and his three sons alone somehow managing such a huge project, without the modern technology they themselves used — not to mention the funding.

But of course that’s the least thing that might trouble young-earth creationists. They’ve calculated, from the Bible, Earth’s beginning in 4004 BC. October 23, to be exact! Biblical literalism taken to its ultimate, preposterous extreme.

Actually, the planet is roughly a million times older. If its history were condensed to a single year, then 4004 BC would have arrived on December 31 — at about 11:59 PM.

To swallow that 4004 story, you have to torture a lot of facts. Or just ignore them. One is our seeing other galaxies millions, even billions, of light years distant. A light year is how far light travels in a year. The light from those galaxies took millions or billions of years to reach us. Case closed.*

Likewise, to deny biological evolution you have to work awfully hard waving away practically everything we actually know about life and its history. As geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.

The impresario behind the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter is Ken Ham. The documentary showed what a slick con artist he is. Speaking to a big audience of youngsters, Ham led them in a chant mocking scientists who say the Earth originated billions of years ago: Were you there?

What a killer argument. And if you believe, instead of those scientists, the Biblical story of creation — were YOU there?? And the people who wrote that Bible story — were THEY there??

Also shown was one young woman “scientist,” part of the Ark organization, to give it a patina of “science.” I put those words in quotes because, as one (real) scientist said, one can have the training and capability to do science, but actually doing it is another thing. The young woman “scientist” declared that the Bible is true. How does she know? Because it’s true. It just is. She believes it because she believes it.

As a child I found a price guide to check my Canadian coins. “I’ve got a valuable one!” I exclaimed to my parents. The 1913 dime has two varieties, one rare, one common. My rationalist dad said, “How do you know yours is the rare one?” I said, “I just know it!” I wanted to believe.

In science, facts dictate beliefs. Not the other way around.

Then the show profiled a young man, reared in young-earth creationism. It was very important to him to protect his belief by having all the answers. Which he got from creationist websites arming him with refutations to every fact of mainstream geology and evolution-based science. Refutations which gradually he came to see through as false, misleading bunk.

I’m in awe of someone able to do that, having such intellectual equipment, honesty, and courage. I had it easy; I may have believed in my 1913 Canadian dime, but never in religion. But for people who do, the belief is very powerful. The documentary showed several whose certitude and confidence runs deep. I always remind myself that certain as I am they’re wrong, they’re equally certain I am wrong.

But: what difference does it make, really, whether you think the world is billions of years old, or only a few thousand? If you understand evolution science, or refuse to? It doesn’t exactly affect our daily lives. Or does it? The belief isn’t in a vacuum. It’s integral to a whole way of thinking, to one’s relationship with reality, with existence itself. Indeed, people shape their lives around such beliefs. That’s why they hold them so tenaciously, and why freeing oneself from such false belief is often so traumatic.

Surveys show about 40% of Americans believe the 4004 BC story. These are more or less the same people who don’t believe climate science. Who believe Trump.

* Actually, young-earth creationists answer that God could simply have made that light travel faster. Or created all the stars, and made them visible, all on the first day. Belief in such literal omnipotence is a universal cognitive get-out-of-jail free card.

The Open Society and its Enemies

April 21, 2020

(A condensed recap of my talk at the Albany Public Library on Nov. 19)

Philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945. It seems timely now. The old political categories of right versus left, liberal versus conservative, are breaking down. Today’s true divide is over the open society idea. Meaning openness to change, toward ideas and free debate, individuals following their own paths, immigration, globalism, free trade, and so forth.

Popper attacks what he calls “historicism” — the idea that history has laws we can discover. But concepts of future inevitability inhibit efforts to change it. Popper says “the future depends on ourselves, and we do not depend on any historical necessity.”

Also, he contrasts “piecemeal” social engineering against utopianism aiming to remake society entirely. The former pragmatically targets the most urgent problems; deploying reason rather than passion, to achieve its aims democratically. Whereas utopianism pretty much requires coercion. A closed society. And that, says Popper, leads to the Inquisition, the secret police, and a “romanticized gangsterism.”

So who are the enemies of the open society, of Popper’s title? Plato, Hegel, and Marx. Most of book is a critique of these three.

We start with Plato’s “Theory of Forms.” It holds everything in our world is a pale shadow of a corresponding perfect prototype, its Form. The Forms are more real than our “actual” things, which are doomed to decay. Of course this is nonsense.

But for Plato it had big implications. “The state” too had a corresponding Form — a perfect antecedent, which once existed. Plato saw his contemporary states as necessarily less perfect; indeed, degenerated. To arrest that degeneration, by opposing all change, was the essence of his political program.

He gives lip service to a goal of human happiness, but it’s the happiness of the whole society, not of any individuals. He seems to assume his ideal state is a “good” in itself. Having nothing to do with the well-being of ordinary people, who Plato says exist only to serve the state. As do, indeed, even the rulers.

Those rulers would be a class apart, a race apart — with no mixing allowed. This leads Plato to eugenics; he actually invented the idea. The ruling class must preserve its racial purity through carefully supervised breeding.

We associate Plato with the idea of “philosopher kings.” Supervising the eugenics program required trained philosophers — meaning men indoctrinated with Plato’s ideas, giving them the necessary “wisdom.” And also, the mystical “Platonic Number” they’d need.

Yes, he said there is a magic number, which he didn’t reveal. But without rulers privy to it, racial degeneration is inevitable. (Plato was really angling to be made ruler himself.)

Popper casts Plato’s ideal as a quintessential closed society; a tribal, collectivist, caste society. Collectivism is often held up as a virtue, the idea that the community supersedes the individual, and one must transcend selfishness and valorize something higher — the collective. Whereas in an open society people are free to choose social connections as they please.

The transition from the former condition to the latter is a profound and even wrenching social revolution. It was first seen in Plato’s Athens, with the rise of democratic and individualist ideas. Popper says Plato actually diagnosed the resulting social strains quite acutely. Longing for a return to ancestral virtues — Make Athens Great Again. But that ancient faith was gone forever, and against it was rising a new faith — in reason, freedom, and human brotherhood — the faith of an open society.

Plato’s ideas may not have seemed so extreme in 400 BC as now. Our quest for wisdom was just beginning. Yet other ancient thinkers, like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius, were already capable of deeply humanistic ideas. And before Plato, in his own Athens, there was Pericles, who said the state should serve the many, not the few. That reason and humanitarianism should rule.

And there was one other giant upon whose shoulders Plato might well have stood: Socrates. He’s seemingly a major voice in Plato’s written dialogs. But Socrates was the true soul of humility and wisdom, knowing how little he knew; a believer in individualism, and that it’s reason that makes one human. He died for these beliefs. Plato betrayed him.

Plato was Athenian, but saw its perennial enemy Sparta as more like his perfect state. Today, we see one even closer to it — North Korea.

Hegel was a German philosopher of the early 1800s. Popper quotes Schopenhauer, who knew Hegel personally: “The Certified Great Philosopher was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.” I wish Schopenhauer had told us what he really thought.

But for all the gibberish, Hegel did have something to say. Whereas Plato saw civilization’s trajectory as degeneration, Hegel saw progress toward an ideal. But not in a straight line. This is the concept of the “dialectic,” with every thesis having its antithesis, and out of their conflict comes a synthesis, a kind of unity of opposites. Then the process can repeat on a higher level. “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” But alas, what Hegel meant by “freedom” is nothing we’d recognize. The essence of Hegel was the romanticized worship of the state, the nation, and its historical destiny.

Thus did Hegel propel the rise of German nationalism, appealing to tribal instincts, again putting the collective over the individual. Hegel conceived the nation as united by a spirit that acts historically, with the state as its incarnation, asserting its supremacy through war, which he also idolized. The state is exempt from any moral consideration; only historical success matters. And of course you have the Great Man as leader, the one who expresses the will of his time, embodying the idea of a heroic life, contrasted against shallow mediocrity.

All this Popper deems a surrender of reason and humanity. And German thought is riddled with such tripe, from Fichte to Nietzsche. With, of course, a straight line to Hitler.

Then we come to Marx. (I wonder if history would have been different if he’d had a longer name. “Marxism” is punchy. Would “Schickelgruberism” have such appeal?)

But Marx was not a Marxist, in today’s sense; nor a communist. Instead he was mainly the ultimate historicist, promoting the idea of history as a science, with the working class overthrowing capitalism being predictably destined.

But Popper says that unlike Plato and Hegel, Marx really applied careful reason in his analysis. He also had a genuine humanitarian impulse, troubled by the lousy conditions suffered by working people in industrialized economies. In Marx’s social analysis, economic class interest and class struggle was central. But Popper casts him as an enemy of the open society insofar as Marx sanctioned social change not through democracy but violence. A kind of revolution without moral legitimacy.

And Marx and his followers had no handle on the greatest problem of politics: how to control power. Marxists saw state power as a threat only in the hands of the bourgeoisie or capitalists. How wrong that was. Only democracy, says Popper, can hope to protect human values from the state. And he was writing at a time when Soviet Communism’s horrors were still largely unrevealed.

Marx predicted capitalism’s downfall because competition would force intensifying worker exploitation, their worsening misery making revolution inevitable. He never foresaw a totally different story: how proletarians would make the state work for them, by democratic means, achieving a host of reforms regulating and improving working conditions, while also gaining a substantial share of the rising wealth created by vastly increasing productivity. All this led not to greater misery but mass affluence on a scale Marx never imagined. Invalidating his historicist approach.

Popper says “history” is not really even a thing. Human existence is too complex. What people usually mean by “history” concerns just one aspect, political power; which Popper calls an idolatrous worship of power (recalling Hegel). And he’s particularly scathing toward Christians who see “the hand of god” in this so-called history.

He also discusses rationalism versus irrationalism. Of course nobody explicitly advocates irrationalism. But that’s what it actually is when people attack what they call a “soulless” faith in rationalism that supposedly leads to all sorts of excesses, even the Holocaust. Postmodernism, that flourished after Popper, denied there’s any such thing as truth. But while truth may not be absolute, we use our reason to get ever closer to it. The Holocaust did not result from over-reliance on reason, but from the kind of Hegelian irrationalist romanticism Popper denounces.

Popper’s final conclusion is that history has no meaning. And while the fact of progress is written large in human annals, no law of history propels such progress. Nor can history tell us what to do. Rather, it’s all a matter of what we choose to do. And that is how, if history has no meaning, we can give it meaning — by our choices, working for right principles — rule of reason, justice, freedom, equality — humanism — the open society.

“Total authority” and Robinson’s Law

April 16, 2020

Trump has claimed “total authority.” Robinson’s Law: Any democracy is one bad man away from dictatorship.

Germany was a democracy until January 30, 1933. Then President Hindenburg named yet another new Chancellor (prime minister). The chancellorship had been a revolving door. Now it was the turn of National Socialist party; though never winning an electoral majority, they did have a large parliamentary bloc. Hindenburg was unaware of Robinson’s law. (I hadn’t been born yet — in fact Hindenburg’s action led to my birth.)

We’ve seen this movie enough times, we know the script. Put in power the wrong kind of bad man and there’s no turning back. Erdogan in Turkey. Putin in Russia. Maduro in Venezuela. Ortega in Nicaragua. Orban in Hungary. Sisi in Egypt. Modi in India seems to be trying.

China was no democracy, but did have term limits and no one man wielding total power. Until Xi Jinping got it and made himself president for life. Sri Lanka appeared stuck with the Rajapaksa brothers until its voters defied the script and did see them off. But then idiotically brought them back.

It doesn’t actually have to be a man. Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh appears to be on this script.

How is it done? You still hold elections, but with varying degrees of rigging. Demonizing, delegitimizing, silencing opposition. Some regimes stuff ballot boxes, or don’t even bother, simply faking results. In Congo’s presidential election, Fayulu got at least three times as many votes as Tsishekedi; Tsishekedi was decreed the winner. America’s Republicans use voter suppression: enacting all sorts of rules hampering opponents (students, the poor, minorities) from casting ballots, voiding their registrations, requiring particular IDs most don’t have, while polling stations in their neighborhoods are few and far between. With resulting hours-long waits.

Usually, the bad apple has to actually win an election at least once. And too many voters are suckers for them, like Brazil’s creep Bolsonaro. It’s the perennial appeal of the strong man, the tough guy, who will put all to rights. “I alone can fix it.” Even badness itself exerts a strange allure. “Grab them by the pussy.” Duterte in the Philippines, whose anti-drugs program entailed simply murdering thousands, still enjoys robust approval ratings.

You also chip away at checks-and-balances. Co-opt or discredit bodies like the FBI or Justice Department. Stuff the courts with your tools. Stonewall Congress by just disregarding it. All power to the leader. Gradually it becomes the reality.

Then there’s propaganda. You flood the zone with lies, aided by a state propaganda broadcaster (Faux News), while undermining the credibility of real news reporting — “the enemy of the people.” That phrase literally straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, chillingly echoed by dictatorships everywhere. Trump candidly told reporter Lesley Stahl he smears the press so when they report the truth about him, people won’t believe it.

And it works. You might think citizens in a country like Russia would understand it’s a regime of lies and refuse to swallow it. Some do keep their independent minds. But too many just swallow the propaganda. It can be very slick, like Faux News. And of course it fits with what they want to believe.

Total authority.” Today it’s just another grotesque lie. But it could be prophetic. In November, American voters have one last chance to reverse the ghastly mistake made in 2016.

I am hopeful. The vote is sacred. Wisconsin has been ground zero for Republican voter suppression efforts, where they forced an election last week to grab another state high court seat. But enough voters, God bless them, literally risked their lives to go to the polls, and the Republicans lost.

The American Crisis

April 13, 2020

These are the times that try men’s souls. “Try” meant “test” when Thomas Paine wrote those words.

We’re having an extraordinary economic crisis, entwined with an extraordinary health crisis. While America was already undergoing a crisis of the soul. A political and leadership crisis that was also a moral one, testing the very principles this nation stands for.

All this will end. But the world will be different.

We’re not hearing much now about limited government. I’m no government-loving “progressive,” but even libertarians recognize a need for government to protect us in situations like this, organizing and mobilizing a societal response. But unfortunately we’re also seeing why the big modern bureaucratic state is distrusted. It’s not size that counts so much as how you use the thing.

China’s authoritarian regime sneers at governments hamstrung by democratic accountability. China was indeed unfettered in imposing draconian measures to contain the virus. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have been such a big problem if they hadn’t started out silencing doctors who raised the alarm. China also failed to properly alert the world. Thus its regime is very culpable.

So is ours. Even given China’s guilt, the disaster here did not have to happen. Had we done what South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore did — merely acting competently. Instead, America’s government bumbled and fumbled in a disorganized manner for almost two months because Trump refused to heed experts ringing alarm bells. This tragic fact is now well documented by multiple responsible sources. It cost us many thousands of lives, untold other human suffering, and trillions of dollars.

So a key lesson is the importance of competent, intelligent, responsible, sane leadership. That’s up to voters. So far I don’t see that lesson sinking in.

COVID-19 threatens our national security. Trump fetishizes the military, imagining this conveys strength. Actually the bulk of our giant defense budget is oriented toward re-fighting WWII (all those costly aircraft carriers, etc.), not the real threats of the modern world. Like pandemics. Wasting all those resources on useless “defense” actually weakens us. Spending a tiny fraction of that money on defense against threats like COVID-19 could have made all the difference. We didn’t do it.

This American failure is not invisible to other countries, who are suffering in consequence. They expected better. A real blow to our international standing.

Meantime, big government is getting bigger. The crisis prodded Congress into the kind of bipartisan action that seemed unimaginable just weeks ago, expanding government’s role in both size and scope to support the economy in ways also unimaginable weeks ago. We may think this is just a temporary emergency response. The bipartisanship already is fading. But expansions of government don’t have a tendency to reverse themselves. The idea of government relieving businesses of downside risks, and subsidizing paychecks, may stick around, with large implications. Not socialism, exactly; more like state capitalism. And the bailouts seem more accessible to big businesses than small ones, accelerating a trend toward consolidation, as against the more dynamic small-firm end of the business spectrum.

The government is throwing around trillions of dollars very fast and without preparation or forethought. A massive program like this ought to have been preceded by a careful legislative process with input from divergent viewpoints. Of course this is an emergency situation. But oversight is definitely lacking. In fact, Trump’s already fired the inspector general who’d been tasked with keeping tabs on the handouts. Why? It’s hardly paranoid to foresee massive abuse and corruption. Surely there must be an investigation of where all the money is going. Trump will foam at the mouth screaming “witch hunt.”

This is also changing us as a society. Sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone pointed up a trend toward atomization. That preceded the smartphone era, which has prompted vast handwringing about growing solipsism. Strangely, on one level, it’s all about human connectedness, with people fixated on their phones mainly for stimuli from others. Yet while our Facebook “friend” rosters grow, real friendships contract. (I’m baffled by people obsessing over online content concerning others they hardly know.)

Now we have “social distancing” — as if that hadn’t already been an apt way to describe what was happening. In-person communication being supplanted by virtual communication. If this were a battle between the two, the former has just suffered a devastating strategic reverse. Now it’s actually wrong for us to socialize in person, it’s bad for public health!

Our society is built upon our webs of human interconnectedness, embodied in the term “social capital.” A key element of that is social trust. It’s the very basic understanding that you can walk down the street with no expectation that a passer-by will bash you on the head and grab your stuff. Or, more prosaically, that when you buy packaged food it won’t be poisoned. Et cetera, et cetera. A vast range of ways we trust that society will work as it should. This can’t be taken for granted, it was built up over thousands of years.

Countries where social trust — and, in particular, trust in government and other institutions — is high (like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) have seen commensurately high levels of citizen cooperation with public health directives.

But polls have shown that Americans’ social trust is eroding. It’s not that people are actually becoming less trustworthy. It’s that more of us believe others are less trustworthy. This can become self-fulfilling if we act in ways that exhibit less trust. The decline in social trust may be partly due to reduced face-to-face interaction. And it’s aggravated by having two political tribes each believing the other consists of bad people who threaten everything that’s good and holy.

And now, we look at other people we encounter in the street, in stores, etc., and view them as literally potential threats to us. “What if that guy has the virus?” What if this kind of distrust becomes ingrained, even after the crisis ends?

Yes, Virginia, there are racists

April 11, 2020

My last post ended by noting how many people doing important work, especially in these perilous times, are non-whites. Which irks certain whites. My writing this irked certain commenters (on the Albany Times-Union platform).

Some quotes: ” . . . castigate an entire race of people [whites], based solely on THEIR skin color;” “fueled by a sense of superior, and excessive righteous indignation;” ” . . . this tripe — like we’re still living in 19th century America under Jim Crow? . . . who notices the color of one’s epidermis? Fringe nuts and Frank . . . a racebaiter pure and simple;” ” . . . blatant example of the politics of division.”

I’ve always rejected rhetoric calling America an incorrigibly racist society, having seen tremendous progress in my lifetime. Signified by electing a non-white president. I didn’t vote for Obama but was deeply moved, that election night, by a middle aged Chicago black woman jumping up and down, with tears in her eyes, shouting “God bless America! God bless America!” I understood what African-Americans must have felt at that moment after what they’d experienced all their lives.

And I did believe racism was finally relegated to the fringes, the dark corners of our society. Not foreseeing what a backlash Obama’s election would provoke. Some whites’ antipathy toward non-whites had been contained by believing they were still really in an inferior station. For those whites, Obama’s election was a rude awakening. Now America’s reality as an integrated multiracial society, with whites no longer securely on top, hit them in the face. They might tolerate blacks as subordinate but not as equals (let alone in the White House).

So they acted out. Some of the criticism of Obama (like  mine) was principled or ideological, continuing what had been the Clinton wars and Bush wars. But for some Obama’s real sin was governing-while-black. It drove them nuts — epitomized by the idiotic “birther” foofaraw — promoted by Trump.*

Even so, they were still really on the fringe, with no legitimation in mainstream society. Which only deranged them more.

Then came 2016. Careful psephological analyses have shown that the one factor most strongly correlated with voting for Trump was not economic anxiety, nor even religiosity, but racial/ethnic antagonism. Seeing non-whites and foreigners as muscling in where they don’t belong. Not all Trump supporters are racist but all racists are Trump supporters. Because they know he has their back, giving them the seeming legitimacy so long denied them.

And so these racists and white supremacists now feel empowered to push their misbegotten hatefulness as never before (in modern times). Charlottesville was only the most prominent manifestation. Trump made absolutely clear what side he is on, and continues doing so in repeated despicable ways. (Chutzpah: a Trump fan lecturing about “the politics of division.”)

Still don’t think racism is alive and well in today’s America? Three years ago I wrote a blog post titled “Why so many blacks in ads?” It’s my most widely read ever (and not for its analytical sophistication). It’s attracted way the most comments, over 300 and counting. Here’s the link:

Please look at those comments. If you have a strong stomach, to see the face of today’s American racism in all its unabashed Trumped up vileness.

* And don’t spout that nonsense that it was really Hillary.

Our everyday heroes

April 8, 2020

Medical personnel are the heroes of the moment. On the front lines, working flat out, under great emotional stress, literally risking their lives. Deserving all the praise they’re getting.

But there are many other heroes.

“Grocery Workers Beginning to Die,” read a newspaper story’s April 7 headline. Hardly surprising. The article said many stores delayed providing or even allowing face masks and gloves for employees dealing with the public.

A previous report quoted a woman that she’s looked down on as a supermarket worker. It’s not considered a prestigious occupation. Like mine frankly was. I didn’t see myself as better than people like her, just more fortunate, benefiting from circumstances I didn’t create. Handed a good life on a platter. Others truly have to work for what they get, which is often a lot less. Now they must risk their lives for it.

“Essential” business are kept open, while we’re cautioned to avoid close contact. Many workers hardly can, serving a stream of customers.

Actually they’ve always been essential. Our entire modern society is structured upon a vast interconnected web of people performing myriads of functions. I recall a flight where on the video screen the airline’s head talked about the great numbers of people doing all sorts of different jobs, mostly invisible to us, enabling that plane to fly. And I’ve read it takes twenty-odd people doing varied jobs all across the world just to get a cup of coffee to you.

Much of this is now under strain. One might easily imagine how removing one link in the chain could keep that coffee off your table — or that plane on the ground. Yet it isn’t really happening. My wife wanted to buy a survivalist pack, in case things fall apart, like electricity going out. I persuaded her our civilization is much more robust and resilient than that. People everywhere are rising to challenges. Not even in places worst hit by COVID-19 has the power grid been allowed to fail.

Thanks to millions of everyday heroes, who get up each day and perform their roles in that vast interconnected web that is modern society.

I have no time for cynics who prate about humanity’s dark side, all the evils of civilization. We are not angels, and in building civilization there was no free lunch. It took thousands of years of effort, but what we’ve built gives ever more people opportunities to live good rewarding lives. I salute all the heroes who continue making this possible every day. Like grocery workers.

* * *

A final word. I’d long been noticing just how many of these people, staffing counters everywhere, are African-Americans and other minorities. Seeing them I remind myself their forebears were mostly brought here as slaves. Yet here they are, living upstanding lives, performing all these vital jobs, integral parts of our great societal machine, often with cheerful smiles. Surely testaments to our civilization’s highest ideals.

I also think about those whites actually irked by it. Imagine granting their heart’s desire and making all those people of color disappear. I wonder how they’d like the world then.

My daily coronavirus briefing

April 6, 2020

Today’s key story is undercounting coronavirus cases and deaths. Another great piece of New York Times reporting.

It comes back again to the administration’s failure to quickly disseminate a test both accurate and speedy. Banning travel from China, and then Europe, was a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horse is out. The virus was already on the loose, and the travel bans made little difference. What would have was identifying cases, tracing contacts, and resulting targeted quarantining. South Korea did that very effectively. Not America.

The Times report shows that early in the year, many Americans were already infected and dying, but without covid testing, it was under the radar. Some health personnel were noticing aberrational death surges, ascribed to pneumonia. Many victims died at home, or in hospitals unable to correctly diagnose them. Likewise many got sick and recovered without being counted.

One California woman’s husband, 43, returned from a business trip feeling ill. Within days he was so sick she took him to urgent care — in a wheelchair. Her pleas for a covid test were unavailing. Sent home with antibiotics and cough syrup, he was dead in a few more days. Only weeks later, due to her persistence, were his remains tested — positive.

So the numbers reported for coronavirus cases and deaths, horrible as they are, may be just the tip of an iceberg. We’re still not up to speed on testing. Even now, may be underestimating just how contagious this thing is, leading to widespread laxity about precautions. Many “red state” governors refuse to order them. Lack of good data undermines the scientific modeling being deployed to predict and prepare for the disease’s future course. And an ostensible fall in deaths may give a false picture, leading to premature easing of restrictions. Allowing the virus to resurge with a vengeance.

Restrictions should not be lifted until a plan’s in place (like South Korea’s) for widespread testing and contact tracing so potential carriers can be quarantined. We’re nowhere near that capability.

Undercounting the carnage, though, surely suits Trump, who will laud himself for saving millions of lives. A lie eclipsing all his others. But of course the important thing is not death rates but TV ratings for his briefings higher than for “The Bachelor.”

Life in difficult times: German notgeld

April 4, 2020

We’re now seeing pandemic literature — personal accounts from people about coping with home confinement. My own normal life is much like quarantine anyway. Luckily my business of selling collector coins, by mail and internet, is largely unaffected (though I can’t buy at coin shows). Practically my only outings are to the post office.

Recently quite a few hours were consumed working on a lot of over 800 notgeld coins I got from a German auction. These were issued by thousands of towns and businesses during and shortly after WWI. (France also had similar local coins.) As a kid, knowing that “geld” meant money (my mother is German), I assumed “notgeld” meant something like “not real money.” Actually, “not” is a German word for “emergency.” So working on these “emergency coins” during our own national emergency seemed fitting.

Many sport interesting pictorial designs. One noteworthy series of 45 was from Nurnberg, showing all different local landmarks and historical personages. My grandparents were from Nurnberg and had a set of these. They’re common and inexpensive. Over the years I’ve handled many, sometimes in original albums (less common).

Some notgeld coins were issued in prisoner-of-war camps. “Camp” in German is “lager.” Prisoners “gefangenen.” War is “krieg.” Germans often make compound words — thus “kriegsgefangenenlagergeld.” There were also special issues using encapsulated stamps. Those are kriegsgefangenenlagerkapselgeld. One sees these words in German coin sale catalogs. I remember using this as an example, when telling my small daughter about German compound words. Afterward she danced around merrily chanting, “kriegsgefangenenlagerkapselgeld, kriegsgefangenenlagerkapselgeld.”

Most notgeld coins were made of iron or zinc, and often suffer from ugly rust or white encrustation. On many, a little work with a wire brush removes the crud. (I’ve made a board with round slots to hold coins in place for that.) But several hundred needed more drastic treatment. These I put in a rock tumbler (another useful piece of equipment) with some lemon juice (mildly acidic). After four hours nearly all emerged quite nice.

Happily this lot had come alphabetized by town in small envelopes. That saved some effort, but I did have to re-sort the ones I’d tumbled. Next, the real work: having handled thousands before, most of the common ones I could recognize as such, but many I had to research. There isn’t a good up-to-date catalog. I have two older ones that often disagree, but between them I can get an idea about scarcity, to price accordingly.

About 150 better ones I pulled out to sell individually. The rest in group lots. I learned this shtick early in my coin dealing, when I put out a price list including many common German coins at ten or twenty cents each. They didn’t sell. Preparing my next list, I didn’t feel like retyping all that (this was before word processing). So I just added up the prices and entered “Lot of X-number of German coins” at that combined amount. Guess what? Everybody wanted to order it! Collectors love to play around with coins in batches like that (I do too), and it’s a very effective selling tool. Also far more efficient than hawking them one-by-one.

So the bulk of the notgeld coins I carefully organized into nice big group lots, each with all different varieties but uniform quality. (Quality control is another watchword for my business.)

All in all, a lot of work. But having gotten this lot at a very nice price, little over a dollar per coin, I’ll wind up making a couple of thousand on the deal — while having had a lot of fun, and improving my notgeld knowledge. Though my hand is a bit sore from all the wire brushing.

After the era of notgeld coins, in the early ’20s, came the time of paper notgeld notes, from Germany and, even more prolifically, Austria. The varieties are endless, and you can buy them even cheaper than the coins. Sitting here I’ve also got a few thousand of those to work on. At least they don’t need cleaning.