Archive for June, 2020

How Trump sinks U.S. global standing

June 28, 2020

One of Trumpdom’s most ludicrous lies is that’s he’s raising America’s world standing. In the Fox News alternate reality maybe. In the real world it’s the opposite.

As a longtime conservative Republican, no “isolationist,” I always supported constructive global engagement.* It’s not merely about national pride, but what’s good for people here and abroad. Following WWII, the U.S. undertook leadership to painstakingly build a rules-based world order grounded in a web of alliances and international institutions. (Not just the UN and NATO but many others like the global financial infrastructure, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, etc.) All crafted to promote planetary prosperity and peace. A more peaceful world is better for America. A richer world is better for America.

Trump hates all this and tries to wreck it — his warped idea of “America First.”** Totally ignorant of how the system actually works and how greatly it has served U.S. national interests. That’s why we built it in the first place. Trump thinks all those Americans who did so were stupid, and his uninformed instincts are superior. It’s that kind of attitude that’s tragically stupid.

So he’s pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Health Organization, the Paris Climate accords, the Iran nuclear deal, arms control agreements, and on and on. Did you know he’s paralyzed the World Trade Organization just by refusing to fill the U.S.-designated seats on its court?

At one time America would have led (as we did with Ebola) a global pandemic response. Trump wound up not even leading among America’s own states. His self-congratulatory lies about our “tremendous” efforts fool only Fox fans. Other nations see the scandalous reality, a huge blow to our international stature. In fact, several European countries are banning travelers from America, because covid-19 is out of control in many states.

Indeed, most of the world views Trump as a boorish monster and Americans as nuts for electing him. That’s why Russia connived to elect him — knowing it would weaken America. Other national leaders quickly learned to play him like a fiddle, by flattering his deranged vanity with empty pageantry. Laughing behind his back.

U.S. global standing never rested mainly on our economic or military might. Instead the world looked to us chiefly for leadership as a force for good. America alone among nations was founded not on blood and soil but values and ideals. That’s not to say we’ve been perfect in living up to them. Of course not. Yet more than any other country America had striven to be guided by such principles.

And much of the world had seen us as representing a vision of democracy, openness, generosity, justice, and human progress toward all those ideals. Both at home and in our relations with others. That’s what’s called our “soft power,” but it doesn’t mean weak. Defense Secretary Mattis said soft power is stronger than the other kind. Trump is shredding it.

For him everything is just transactional. Natural to a man with no moral core. As if morality is just for dummies. But nothing could be dumber than throwing away America’s most valuable international asset — being seen as standing for what’s right. Lord knows not everyone has seen us that way. Now Trump is forcing those who did to revise their opinion. A recent global poll actually showed more people today look to China than to America for global leadership.

We’re certainly no longer seen as a haven. Taking in refugees, and even legal immigration, have been virtually stopped.

Our president used to be called “leader of the free world.” Under Trump we’re not the leader of anything. He has done nothing but undermine our relationships with those nations still committed to an idealistic vision of global progress — while shamelessly getting in bed with the world’s vilest regimes.

In Helsinki he stood up for Putin’s lies against the findings of our own intelligence agencies. When the Saudi ruler was implicated in a ghastly murder, Trump stood up for him too. Trump congratulated the Philippine president’s “drug program” of simply murdering thousands. When Turkey’s authoritarian ruler wanted to attack the Kurds in Syria — faithful U.S. allies — Trump stabbed them in the back and green-lighted Turkey’s invasion.

And while he postures as “tough on China,” we now learn that when China put a million Uighurs in concentration camps for trying to practice their religion, Trump told Xi Jinping he approved of it as a good idea. Unsurprising given Trump’s own policy of ripping children from parents and putting them in concentration camps. Another villainy that will long blacken America’s name in the eyes of humanity.

“Leader of the free world?” Trump has switched us to the other side.

* Thus I was very critical of Obama’s foreign policy squeamishness.

** Bolton says his foreign policy is really entirely “Trump First.” But much of it makes no sense from either standpoint. He just thrashes around blindly.

Confederate flags and statues and racism

June 25, 2020

They claim the Confederate flag symbolizes Southern cultural heritage, or independence, or states’ rights — or some such baloney. Who do they think they’re fooling? That flag says “Fuck n—–s.”

People actually often don’t understand what goes on in their own minds, a lot of it being below conscious awareness. It’s themselves they are fooling, telling themselves they are not racist. Those who call the Confederacy a “noble cause” are trying to pretty up in their own heads what is really racial animus.

Yeah, sure, 1861 was all about state rights. What rights specifically? To enslave people. The Civil War was about nothing except slavery. No slavery, no war. Confederates were not heroic warriors. They were traitors to America and to fundamental human morality. Blacks know this flag stands for their enslavement and anyone flying it is giving them the middle finger. It belongs only in textbooks and museums.

And naming military bases after Confederate soldiers? What nation thusly honors men who fought against it? What kind of president defends this?

They say removing Confederate monuments erases history. And indeed today’s Americans lack much sense of history. Otherwise they’d understand why these statues must go. There’s a difference between remembering history and celebrating it. We have a Holocaust Museum to memorialize that part of the world’s history. We don’t put up statues to Hitler and Goering.

And those who understand history know Confederate monuments were not really erected to honor the individuals depicted. It was to send a message: “We’re not sorry we fought for slavery. We’d restore it if we could. So watch out, n—–s.”

White trash who say “go back to Africa” overlook that blacks didn’t choose to come here. Brought in chains on harrowing voyages to be worked to death. But now we’re all stuck here together on this lifeboat, and must live together. As Kimberly Jones said, whites are lucky African-Americans seek only equality — not revenge.

Showing they are better human beings than whites who would deny that equality. Whites who consider blacks inferior prove themselves to be the inferior creatures.

Okay. Let’s take a deep breath.

Like any movement often tends to, our current spate of iconoclasm goes too far, becoming indiscriminate and senseless. Jefferson’s name comes up. Even Washington’s. At least one Washington statue has been toppled. Also a Ulysses Grant.

Talk about erasing history. Grant went because someone said his wife’s family owned slaves. So forget he was the man most responsible for defeating the Confederacy. But that was not all. As president, Grant battled mightily defending the rights of newly freed slaves. When the KKK arose against them, Grant sent troops to suppress Klan terrorism.

On my wall

No human being is ever a perfect angel. Ideally, our statues honor people who have done great and worthy things, inspiring us to emulate their best qualities. That is why we memorialize Washington and Jefferson — and Grant. Their monuments move my own spirit deeply. When I see Washington what I see is a nation founded in the great virtues he exemplified. When I see Jefferson I see the words that gave that nation its sublime ethos.

Words we still must strive to fulfill.

Big Bang, big questions

June 22, 2020

Our Universe began with the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago. It started virtually volumeless, virtually infinitely dense and hot, and then expanded. What came before, and triggered the Big Bang? That’s not a valid question, because Time itself began with the Big Bang.

This is the “standard model” of today’s science. I am a believer in science. But that’s not like a religious belief or faith; instead, a matter of epistemology. Which refers to how we know things.

This doesn’t mean everything in science is “true.” That misunderstands the point. Scientific precepts (unlike religion) are always subject to revision with more information. That can disprove a theory, but none is ever proven with finality. That said, however, the bulk of modern science can be pretty much taken to the bank. The concept of biological evolution, for example, will not be disproven by new information. And the same applies to most of modern physics.

Current cosmology devolves from Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery that most other galaxies are moving away from us. The farther distant, the faster. This means the Universe is expanding. Run that movie backwards and it contracts. Ending all crunched together: the Big Bang.

Note that the expansion doesn’t mean everything is enlarging. Instead it’s space itself that’s expanding, carrying everything along with it. And stuff all moving away from us doesn’t mean Earth is at the center. Picture instead a raisin cake rising; as it expands, each raisin moves away from every other.

Science has figured out the physics of the Universe’s start, back to a very teensy fraction of a second after the Big Bang. But then you get to a point where the extreme conditions of density and heat mean the laws of physics as we know them don’t work. We call this a “singularity.” (The same applies inside a black hole. Some scientists speculate that a black hole’s singularity can give off big bangs; maybe that’s our own origin.)

Inability to parse out just exactly what happened in that very first instant might be considered a problem in the standard model. But there’s a difference between “don’t know” and “can’t know.” While some theorists say “can’t know,” I prefer to suspend judgment on what future science may be able to penetrate. Scientists a century ago could not have imagined today’s knowledge.

Meanwhile, inability to wrap our heads around the notion of Time beginning with the Big Bang might also feel like a problem. Yet hitting that seeming conceptual wall doesn’t stop thinking about explanations for the Big Bang. Some reasonable concepts have been sketched out at least in a general way. We can say they’re not science because we have no way to test such ideas experimentally or with predictions — today. But again, a different story in the future should not be ruled out.

But here’s another problem. The Universe’s diameter is currently estimated at 93 billion light years. (At least that’s what we can see; the whole thing could be larger.) That doesn’t gibe with its age being only 13.7 billion years; it implies expansion exceeding light speed.

The explanation is inflation: during an infinitesimally small interval after the Big Bang, the Universe expanded faster than light speed. But didn’t Einstein tell us nothing can travel faster than light? Yes; but that applies only to objects moving through space. In inflation, it was space itself expanding.

And what caused this? It’s theorized that the force of gravity suddenly reversed, pushing stuff apart rather than pulling it together. Then, just as suddenly, it switched back. We have some ideas about why that could have happened.

However that, and the whole inflation theory, is mainly supported on the basis that it’s the only way we can account for what we observe.

Here’s another problem. We know the law of gravity: proportional to mass and decreasing with the square of the distance between objects. But other galaxies don’t appear to obey it, unless there’s much more mass than we can see. Scientists call that extra stuff “dark matter,” and have debated various ideas for what it might be. We just don’t know.

A possible solution is “Modified Newtonian Dynamics” (MOND). Just as some laws of physics change when it comes to the ultra small (quantum mechanics), the law of gravity might not apply to the ultra large distances associated with galaxies. Realize that gravity being far the weakest of nature’s fundamental forces — and diminishing with the square of the distance between objects — we’re talking about a force of evanescent smallness at galactic distances. A tweak to Newton’s gravity law might explain things without requiring any additional “Dark Matter.” (While I find this idea attractive, it is not orthodox physics.)

There’s yet another problem. We had assumed that after the Big Bang’s initial energy burst (and the inflation episode), the momentum of the Universe’s expansion would be slowing. There was debate whether it would eventually slow to a stop, with gravity then starting to pull things back together, toward a “big crunch;” or would expand forever, dissipating into virtual cold nothingness; or would do neither, reaching stasis (a “flat universe”). All dependent on exactly how much mass there is. The third option seemed to be winning.

But then a new discovery blew scientists’ minds: after having slowed for some billions of years, the expansion started speeding up! And is still accelerating.

What’s causing that? “Dark Energy.” Meaning, as with Dark Matter, we don’t know. Yet Dark Energy is calculated to comprise some 70% of the entire Universe. (Remember that per Einstein’s famous equation, energy and matter are interchangeable.)

So . . . the singularity; no Time before Time; inflation; Dark Matter; Dark Energy. Science likes beautiful elegant theories. The standard Big Bang model begins to look like a clunky a Rube Goldberg contraption. With a lot of question marks. Might it all be just a huge mistake? What could an alternative possibly look like?

But suppose the Universe’s expansion does ultimately run out of steam and reverse, falling into a Big Crunch. It wouldn’t necessarily have to collapse all the way back to a singularity. Before that point, the extreme conditions could conceivably trigger a new Big Bang. Going back and forth like that forever. This avoids the conundrum of a singularity and also of a “Time before Time.” Though not the mind-bender of the word “forever.”

This is called the “Oscillating (or Cyclic) Universe,” discussed in Brian Clegg’s book, Before the Big Bang. That title hooked me in, but a more accurate one would have been About the Big Bang. Anyhow, Clegg shows there are serious problems with the Oscillating Universe concept too. He says it’s either equivalent to a perpetual motion machine or else must eventually run out of energy and expire.

There are other theories, like “branes.” And multi-universes. I won’t go into them. None strikes me as anything more than complete speculation.

Anyhow, one is forced to confront an irreducible mystery. Either the Universe had a beginning, arising out of nothing. Or else something always existed, without ever having had a beginning. No human mind can really grasp either possibility.

And there is an even deeper question: why is there something and not nothing? Scientists and philosophers have grappled with this.* Their efforts are far from satisfying. (Of course religion does no better. Why should there be a god rather than no god? At least we can be sure the universe exists.)

“Why is there something” is a question deep in my consciousness. Why I have one is itself a conundrum; but that’s only one small piece of the far larger mystery of existence itself. Most of us take it for granted, but not me. In fact, it’s my understanding of the clockwork of existence — imperfect though that understanding surely is — that nags me with that final “Why?”

It seems we should more logically expect a Universe of nothingness — a non-universe. That at least would raise no deep questions whatsoever. It would just be. (Or not-be.)

But I remain a believer in humanity’s ability to gain understanding. Someday people will look back with bemusement at us primitives, just as we look back at flat earthers.

* As I’ve discussed; here are some links:;;

Ecce Homo

June 19, 2020

At a Buffalo NY Floyd protest, Martin Gugino, 75, longtime Catholic peace activist, was shoved backward by two policemen in full military gear. His head cracked on the pavement, spurting blood. The squad marched over him. One cop momentarily bent toward Gugino but another urged him forward. We all saw this sickening video.

Gugino was eventually taken to a hospital, listed in critical condition. The officers were disciplined. Their entire squad resigned in protest — from the squad, not the department — not against Gugino’s mistreatment but against the disciplining.

Five days later — with the nation in turmoil over repeated police brutality — Trump tweeted that Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” was somehow trying to “black out” police equipment, and his fall may have been a “set up.”

Trump dredged this nonsense out of the sewer — from “One America News Network,” an extreme right broadcaster that, to quote columnist Michael Gerson (a Republican), makes “Fox News look like a model of journalistic integrity by comparison.” Trump apparently spends time viewing OAN.

Gerson says that if Trump believed OAN’s crap, he’s “a credulous simpleton.” If he didn’t, he’s “a cynical weasel.” But Gerson concludes he’s both.

I think it’s worse. What Trump tweeted was insane. And, even if he believed it, to imagine it was somehow a good idea to tweet it was doubly insane.

Gerson adds that for a president to single out a private citizen with such slander is “a serious abuse of power.” An “act of malice” that borders on inhumanity.”

Borders on?? It blows past the border. Trump is a full sociopath. Gerson does say: “If what you see doesn’t revolt you, you have lost the capacity for revulsion.”

Yet still some Trumpsters snidely attack Biden’s mental fitness!

Note to readers: this may feel wearying. I am weary. When Trumpery began, I resolved to let no travesty pass unremarked. Chronicling the tragic defilement of a nation that had been a great human achievement. But the task has proven impossible. I feel like a battlefield triage medic, forced to choose subjects for attention. Things that in a sane era would have been shocking monstrosities now seem pinpricks. (Like, the other day, the Treasury Secretary professing no need to reveal where hundreds of billions in covid relief actually went. And Bolton’s revelations.)

During my 53 Republican years, I could always understand the minds on the other side. Even now, much as I oppose the hard left, I can comprehend the thinking. But my bafflement over Trumpism grows. Assholes of course support one of their own. But how can so many others put their brains, their morality, and their humanity in deep freeze?

Trump’s death rallies

June 16, 2020

Many Trump supporters still think covid-19 is a hoax.* Now he invites them to stake their lives on that.

He’ll hold a rally June 20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; later in Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina. The main thrust is to show America back in business. Evoking Admiral Farragut — “damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

For the Tulsa rally, the New York Times reports, Trump campaign officials foresee no social distancing or mask wearing, because Trump doesn’t want to be seen with people doing that. And because such precautions “would be unnecessary because the state is so far along in its reopening.”

Most states are reopening. Some, like New York, cautiously, keyed to falling infection and death rates. Others — mostly red states like Oklahoma — willy-nilly, actually disregarding the disease’s trends, rising in many of them.

In Oklahoma the virus is not receding. And remember that Trump supporters are the most likely to ignore the threat, to have already heedlessly exposed themselves to it, and hence are the most likely to be walking covid bombs.** A rally with thousands of such people crammed closely together, indoors, with no protective masks, is called, in the lingo, a “super-spreader” event. Or let’s just call it insane.

That epitomizes Trumpdom.  Here we see this con man’s narcissistic vanity trumping even the very lives of his fans. Plumbing new depths of depravity, he draws them  literally to their deaths. (They’ll be required to sign waivers, promising not to sue.) And still they love him.


But this is Trump’s political strategy in the face of the health and economic apocalypse his fecklessness surely worsened. Act like it’s all over with. Even as the death toll rises. Damn the torpedoes!

And even this may not be a bridge too far for Trumpsuckers already cocooned in the alternate reality he spins with Fox News’ help. If Fox simply stops talking about covid carnage, it won’t be happening. Except to those actually dying. It’s said doctors bury their mistakes. Trump is trying something similar.

* Coin World reports a widespread conspiracy theory that Australia’s $10 bill proves it’s a hoax, orchestrated by billionaires and governments to force vaccinations on the public. Pointing to design features they say picture the virus, and show Bill Gates at his desk. Those actually, Australia’s Reserve Bank says, show the country’s wattle plant, and the writer Mary Gilmore, so identified on the note. Also, it was introduced in 2017!

** The big annual national coin show slated for Pittsburgh in August has not (yet) been cancelled and organizers promise plenty of precautions. But I will likely skip it, sadly, because it will draw Trumpsters who blow off precautions and thus irresponsibly endanger others.

The biology of the pandemic

June 14, 2020

My Capital District Humanist Society recently had a talk (over zoom) on the biology of the pandemic. It was a good scientific overview.

The speaker, Ricki Lewis, is an Adjunct Professor at the Alden March Biocenter; author of numerous scientific books and papers.

She began with a Joshua Lederberg quote saying humanity’s biggest threat is viruses; and by harking back to the great past fear over polio (another virus); as well as the once-common childhood illnesses Measles, Mumps and Chicken Pox; all now defeated by vaccines (at least until anti-vaxxers came along).

SARS-CoV-2 is the name of this virus. Covid-19 is the illness it causes. It’s common for viruses to jump to humans from other animals. Particularly bats; they’re a quarter of all mammals, can harbor viruses without dying, and spew them all over. This is a natural enough explanation for Covid-19’s source. Lewis noted that no part of its genome matches anything in labs, though she couldn’t rule out its originating in a lab without human intentionality.

A virus is not a living thing, being much simpler than a bacterium or other kind of cell. It straddles the boundary between the biological and the chemical. Now, our genetic material is DNA; DNA is a molecular template for making RNA; and then RNA makes proteins. The genetic material for a virus can be either DNA or RNA. That genetic core, in a virus, is encased in a capsule of fatty stuff. “Coronavirus” gets its name from its crownlike exterior of spikes that lock into what are called ACE2 receptors on the outsides of our living cells. That enables the virus to inject its genetic material into a cell, and grab its chemical innards to make copies of itself. Then the cell bursts, spewing out more viruses.

We have a hierarchy of defenses. First are simply physical barriers, like skin. Then there’s “innate immunity,” mainly white blood cells tasked with combating invaders in general, through what we call “inflammation.” The third level is “adaptive” immunity, when the body manufactures antibodies specific to a particular invader. But that takes a while. Lewis noted that Blood Type O seems to block the covid virus better than other types; whereas Type A is overrepresented among the victims. She also said that Africans may be suffering less than us from covid because their immune systems are already revved up due to all the various illnesses they’re exposed to.

We get infected mainly by taking in viruses in droplets spewed out in coughs or sneezes, or just breathing, by infected people. That’s why masks help a lot. Lewis discussed the possibility of getting sick from touching surfaces where Viruses have come to rest. While this can happen, she didn’t think it’s much of a factor.

Most who get infected with the covid virus suffer only mild symptoms, or none. It’s actually better from the virus’s point of view if it can do its thing without killing the host; hence Lewis saw some possibility that covid could mutate its way into such relative benignity. Meantime, however, it does make a minority of victims very sick. A lot in the body goes wrong. We have endothelial cells that kind of hold things together; and they “come apart at the seams.” The alveoli in our lungs, which transfer oxygen into our blood, fill up with “stuff,” and blood oxygen plummets. You also get blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, and organ failure. Your own immune system goes haywire trying to fight this, resulting in a “cytokine storm” with nasty positive feedback loops. (Also, those who recover from a bad covid episode seem to be left with a range of problems that will be long-lasting.)

As for treatment, the drug remdesivir seems to inhibit virus replication, somewhat hastening recovery. But Lewis was skeptical about a vaccine, saying we don’t actually know if that’s even possible, and anyhow it would take a lot longer to deploy safely than optimists currently contemplate. Meantime “herd immunity” would deprive the virus of enough potential victims to keep itself going; that would happen once about 70% of the population has been infected and are presumably immune; though we don’t yet actually know they are immune from reinfection. And we’re a long way from herd immunity levels. Reopening economies could accelerate that, with a “second wave” of infections. Lewis said she initially expected that in the fall, but now thinks it could come within weeks due to the George Floyd protests likely having spread the virus.

Margaret Atwood: The Testaments

June 13, 2020

The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in Gilead, a near-future theocratic dictatorship, in lands between Canada and Mexico.

Gilead is a classic dystopia, whose societal raison d’etre is baby production. Apparently there’s been some kind of infertility epidemic. Many wives are barren; their husbands assigned concubines who aren’t. Those are the handmaids. But all women are medievally subordinated to men. Their schooling limited to things like embroidery; no reading or writing. The system enforced with ruthless brutality. All, supposedly, to serve God.

The Handmaid’s Tale struck a chord at a time when America’s religious right was flexing its political muscles. The book enjoyed a second coming when it seemed they were gaining yet more ground in the Trump era. So the sequel is timely.

For all the fears about America becoming a Gilead, actually no Christian fundamentalists advocate anything like such extremism. And for all their seeming political mojo, they’re doomed. Religious belief correlates inversely with age. In past conformist times, faith was an unquestioned default, but now that people can see an alternative path, more are taking it. Fundamentalists are already only a small minority, though their power is outsized because they vote so assiduously. But their credibility is undermined by hitching themselves to the most morally corrupt gang in our political history. (In that sense, perhaps, today’s America foreshadows Gilead.)

So I don’t see a Gilead coming through conventional politics. The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t explain how it did come about. The Testaments fills in that story, though not in any detail. Gilead’s founders long plotted their coup, then just used guns, slaughtering Congress. No mention is made of, like, the U.S. Army. To impose their rule would have required really an awful lot of men with guns. Texas, California, and maybe some other states seem to have fought them off. I find the takeover rather implausible. But in a novel one must suspend disbelief.

The “testaments” of the title are first-person accounts, unearthed long after, written by three female participants in the book’s action. One had been a 53-year-old unmarried judge, minding her own business, when the coup brings gunmen to her office building to take all the women away. To a stadium, where they’re segregated by profession and held in sadistic humiliating conditions. Groups of blindfolded women are marched onto the field and shot. This is just the start of her ordeal. Which she surmounts — emerging as “Aunt Lydia,” the new regime’s head enforcer of all things female.

Another character is “Commander Judd,” a top leader with a penchant for barely pubescent wives. One after another. Somehow they keep dying. It’s very typical for men posturing as god’s mouthpieces to be doing it for sex, especially with younger females. (Like Joseph Smith.)

I wondered about Gilead’s economy. It seemed to have none, apart from vague references to “econopeople,” never actually shown in productive work. And it gradually emerges that even the big shots live in very straitened circumstances, with even mundane consumables in short supply. That’s what you get when everything’s about God. God does not provide.

The book has some nice writerly touches. Here’s Aunt Lydia talking about her statue: “At least I look sane. . . . . the elderly sculptress . . . had a tendency to confer bulging eyes on her subjects as a sign of pious fervor. Her bust of Aunt Helena looks rabid, that of Aunt Vidala is hyperthyroid, and that of Aunt Elizabeth appears ready to explode.”

But my enjoyment waned as Lydia’s plot to avenge her torture and bring down Gilead unfolded with tedious convolutions that didn’t make much sense to me. A cache of devastating documents (including about Commander Judd’s crimes) is smuggled into Canada on a “microdot” implanted into the arm of a girl likewise perilously smuggled into Canada (on the “Underground Femaleroad”).

I’d have just mailed the microdot to Canada inside an ordinary letter. But such prosaic thinking doesn’t make for a literary thriller.

The stadium scene too might have seemed ridiculously over the top. Atwood making Gilead’s regime an epitome of evil, with no nuances or shades of grey. But the stadium episode actually reprised quite faithfully what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban seized power. And while such horrors might seem implausible in America, we are too often reminded that human brutality can have no limits when the guardrails are removed.

I keep saying: America represents the culmination of long human efforts to build societal institutions protecting against such horrors. But their perpetuity is not decreed by God. We kick them down at our peril.

“Defund the Police”? Or law and order for police?

June 11, 2020

Why do liberals try so hard to appear crazy? Could have said “All Lives Matter” or “Black Lives Matter Too.” But making it just “Black Lives Matter” invites the pushback it gets from the right, an unnecessary argument. “Abolish ICE” invites accusations of wanting “open borders.” Now it’s “Defund the Police.” Inviting Trump’s saying: See how crazy these people are? Like, we don’t need police? He’d love for the election to be a referendum on that. Ammunition for his “law and order” shtick.

Let’s be clear. Ill-conceived slogans notwithstanding, nobody advocates eliminating policing. And those protesting police excesses do not oppose or threaten law and order. In fact we want more of it. George Floyd’s murder was a breach of law and order.

Looting and burning must not be justified as some sort of legitimate expression of rage against injustice. More stupid rhetoric. Nobody who smashed a window to steal stuff was doing it for George Floyd. Linking the looting with the protests is just what Trump wants.

Law and order is a two way street. It does apply to citizens; but also to cops (as in Minneapolis) and other public authorities. Last week Trump ordered a violent militarized assault on peaceful protesters and journalists near the White House, including  helicopters intentionally flying so low the impact of the whirling rotors injured people and damaged property. The kind of thing authoritarian rulers do — as in Tiananmen Square. Trump endorsed that Chinese bloodbath, with the same “law and order” rhetoric he aims against George Floyd protests. But his own actions in Lafayette Square were probably a breach of law — and certainly of order.

Lafayette Square was not a one-off. Recent days have seen repeated videos of protests against police brutality being met with — vicious police brutality. (Like the old guy knocked to the pavement in Buffalo, which Trump defended with some deranged conspiracy theory.) It’s again not protesters violating law and order, it’s out-of-control violent police.

Rather than the (really dumb) slogan “Defund the Police,” it should be something like “Re-set the Police.” Or even “Law and order for police.” Recognizing there’s much wrong with our policing that needs change.

We keep talking about “rotten apples” like Floyd’s killer, versus all the good cops. But while police work does attract many good recruits for the right reasons, it also does attract the wrong sort for the wrong reasons. Antisocial bullies with chips on their shoulders looking to swagger and assert their manhood.

And we’ve aggravated that problem by militarizing the police. There’s even a Defense Department program to give them military kit. (Obama cut it back; Trump reversed that.) Now police commonly have stuff like armored personnel carriers and grenade launchers. Too many policemen see themselves as occupying forces rather than community servants. Minneapolis actually had “warrior-style training” for cops (which its mayor tried to end). This fits with Trump’s call for police to “dominate” protesters like on a battlefield. When forces trained and equipped like this are deployed into our streets, it’s no surprise the result does look like a war zone. And that civilians see them not as public servants but public threats.

As Hobbes elucidated, we have government most basically to protect us from harm. But that takes governmental power, from which we also need protection. By making that power accountable to us. And there’s no more immediate a need for such accountability than when it comes to the police — whose power over us is exemplified by George Floyd’s story. But such accountability is distinctly lacking. Floyd’s killer stared calmly into the camera recording him, hand in his pocket, as if to say, “What’s anyone gonna do about it?” His being called to account was indeed almost as rare as a snowstorm in July.

The lack of police accountability is very much institutionalized. Many police unions have negotiated contracts that stymie any citizen complaints and keep cases hidden. Floyd’s killer had skated through seventeen previous charges of misconduct. New York is currently wrestling over a section of law, 50-a, that’s been read to bar public disclosure of police disciplinary proceedings.

Of course we still have constitutional rights. Like the Fourth Amendment’s prohibiting “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But courts have made this virtually a dead letter, allowing police to confiscate property on mere suspicion of criminality, no proof needed. Police departments have exploited this, using such confiscations to pad their budgets — helping to acquire the military style equipment mentioned.

Indeed,The Economist recently quoted an appellate court decision dismissing a lawsuit against cops accused of simply stealing hundreds of thousands in cash and rare coins while enforcing a search warrant — because “there was no clearly established law holding that officers violate the Fourth or 14th Amendment when they [thusly] steal property [!]” (My exclamation point.) Law and order??

Yes, we need police to deal with lawbreaking (other than their own). But we give policemen a far larger societal role than that, making them ubiquitous trouble-shooters. Providing security in schools, monitoring the polls in elections, directing traffic, dealing with accidents, with the homeless, responding to people’s mental health crises, domestic disputes, drug problems, etc. The Economist quotes Alex Vitale, a professor and “defunding” advocate: “Policing is about use of force. It should be a last resort . . . We don’t want another meeting with police. We want them out of our lives.”

A lot of those functions we give police would be better assigned to non-uniformed — and non-armed — specialist civil servants, trained for all those tasks (which the police in fact mostly are not). Such mission reconfiguration is what “defund” really seeks. And Camden, NJ, is an example showing how to do it. They abolished their police department and built a new and different one from scratch. In a radio interview, their former police chief explained that Camden had one of the nation’s worst crime problems. Cops were doing the standard things, and it wasn’t working. Lots of arrests only made way for more crime while exacerbating the victimization of local residents. He said the police were operating like an alien force with no legitimacy, lacking the people’s consent. The new and different approach proved far more effective. Crimes dropped dramatically, and a far higher percentage were solved, because the population started cooperating with the police instead of seeing them as enemies.

The Economist also points out that while so many aspects of American society are pervasively regulated by laws and rules, this is not generally true of police forces, who are mostly left to regulate themselves. Really not a good idea when we’ve given them weapons. States and localities must grapple with this and legislate clear rules governing police activities. That is, subject the police to law and order.

Such rules might include, say, do not keep your knee on the neck of a man in handcuffs on the ground until he’s dead.

Save America: Boycott Fox advertisers

June 8, 2020

America is in deep trouble. The glue holding it together is dissolving. To say we’re divided into mutually hostile tribes is stating the obvious. But it’s not just differences of opinion. That you’ll always have in a vibrant democracy. What we’ve got are two tribes inhabiting very different realities.

I’ve written (in 2013) of my “ideology of reality.” That means one’s opinions being shaped by reality — as opposed to letting your opinions shape the reality you see. Applying that, I can see one of our conflicting tribal realities is basically true and the other is false. Tellingly, the latter is that embraced by what was previously my own tribe. The reality I saw changed my opinion. That’s objectivity.

It helps to have a deep grounding of knowledge about history, the world, how institutions work, science, etc. Not false “knowledge” from conspiracy theorists. The background knowledge I’m talking about equips one to properly judge what’s believable or not. Unfortunately such a knowledge base is rare.

Still, people ask me how Republicans can blind themselves to a reality so obvious as the Trump administration’s vileness. Trashing every value they supposedly once held dear. A key factor is today’s internet and social media echo chamber culture. I recall a study showing that with a group of generally like-minded people convened in a room, their average viewpoint tends to shift toward that of the most extreme among them. The internet and social media propel this.

But it’s increasingly clear the single biggest cause is Fox News. That about 40% of Americans still — still!— approve of Trump is largely thanks to the Fox alternative reality machine. People imagine there are two sides to every question, so you’re free to believe the one you like. And Fox, if nothing else, gives seeming legitimacy to its false reality, enabling people to feel okay believing it.

Fox was originally conceived as a counter to mainstream media’s liberal slant. Not an unreasonable concept. Mainstream media’s people do tend to share the generally liberal viewpoint typical among America’s educated intelligentsia. However, mainstream media nevertheless strives hard to play it straight. Take PBS’s “Washington Week,” with reporters discussing the news. Watching them, it’s always hard — maddeningly hard — to discern their personal opinions.

Not so with Fox. “Fair and balanced?” Well, they’ve dropped that slogan. Real news outlets draw a bright line between news reporting and opinion. On Fox, it’s all spin. Full of nonsense to boot. Fox people don’t go on “Washington Week.”

Still, if you want a broadcaster providing right-wing opinion, even right-wing nonsense and lies, it’s a free country. But Fox is not merely that either. It’s the regime’s propaganda mouthpiece. As in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and today’s North Korea and Russia. We’ve never before had such a thing in America.

Scary enough if there were a normal presidential administration. But, worse yet, ours is not, with its war on democratic institutions, on truth, and on truthful media. Melded with a broadcaster accomplice, that’s a deadly combination.

So Fox is a central culprit in creating the false alternate reality its viewers inhabit. Where Trump is the good guy full of accomplishment making America great again, while his critics are the corrupt wicked traitorous lying criminals. A total black-is-white bizarro reality. Just look at Fox’s promotion of Trump’s vicious “Obamagate” hoax.

That’s not just my opinion. Most sensible people understand what Fox is doing, it’s such a blatant disgrace. And it won’t stop with Trump’s defeat. Expect Fox to mount a guerrilla war of lies against the Biden administration.

Fox corrodes the very fabric of our democratic society. When a future Gibbon chronicles America’s decline and fall, Fox News will be front and center, and readers will shake their heads in bafflement that we let this happen.

So what can be done?

Fox News could be bombed. Maybe catching Hannity, Carlson, Ingraham, Pirro, Dobbs all present. You could do that. “But it would be wrong.”

Or a Biden administration could investigate Fox to death, killing it with criminal prosecutions and fines. Or even just yank its broadcasting license. But that too would be wrong. (Very Trumpian.) Our First Amendment gives even the Fox creeps the right to spew their disgusting bilge.

My better answer: boycott Fox’s advertisers. That’s its lifeblood. They buy ads to make money, and if they’ll lose more business than they gain, they’ll quit. Tell them enabling Fox’s lies will tarnish their brands.

Small quiet acts of conscience by decent-thinking Americans aren’t enough. Make it loud and public to get advertisers’ attention. “Boycott Fox Advertisers” — BFA— has to go viral.

Googling, I found this list:

Also at least two online petitions for such a boycott:

And, of course, please share widely what I’ve written here.


Proof of Heaven?

June 5, 2020

Dr. Eben Alexander is a Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon. He’d never been a religious nut. Then in 2008, aged 54, he suddenly had a strange and severe bacterial meningitis infection, putting him in a coma for a week. During which he visited an alternate reality, a full deluxe tour.

This was a 2012 Newsweek cover story, blazoned “Heaven is Real.” I wrote critically about it here. Then Alexander published a book titled Proof of Heaven.

I’ve read it, though not with any afterlife hopes. Instead I was curious why such a man believes his comatose hallucination was real.

He writes that as a neurosurgeon he was familiar with stories of near-death experiences. “But all of it . . . was pure fantasy.” He says he “did know that they were brain-based. All of consciousness is . . . the brain is the machine that produces consciousness in the first place.” He notes the brain is very temperamental. Reduce just slightly its oxygen feed “and the owner of that brain is going to experience an alteration of their reality. Or more precisely, their personal experience of reality.” Should a patient come back with memories, “those memories are going to be pretty unusual. With a brain affected by a deadly bacterial infection and mind-altering medications, (his emphasis) anything could happen.”

Except when it happened to him! That was in, contrast, “ultra-real.”

Attempting to justify this quite remarkable claim that his case differed from all those others he sensibly debunks, Alexander says that during the coma his own brain was not working at all.* Thus, he “was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed (his emphasis) completely free of the limitations of [his] physical brain.”

There’s a problem here. Alexander relates, in great detail, his coma travels, with his tour guide an ineffably beautiful girl, amid millions of butterflies, giving him a look so deep it was beyond indescribable, and on and on. And his memory of it all was recorded where? In the brain he says was out of commission?

You can’t have it both ways. If this trip was in some other reality outside the consciousness in his brain, then that consciousness could not tell us about it. If instead his brain was, on some level, functioning during the coma, it’s far more plausible that what he experienced was (like in all those other cases) just something weird happening in his brain due to the very abnormal coma conditions. It’s to avoid this logic that Alexander posits his experience as entirely outside brain functioning. Yet how can anything be experienced at all, except via the brain?

What, indeed, does it mean to experience something? Who, or what, does the experiencing? This gets back to what consciousness, and the self, are. Descartes suggested they (a “soul”) could somehow exist separate from the brain, but no serious scientist today accepts such “Cartesian dualism.” There’s no rational alternative to consciousness and self emerging out of brain functioning, though we don’t yet know exactly how. Otherwise the very idea of having an experience is incoherent. Alexander claims to have experienced something outside of brain functioning. Even if he somehow did — how would he (the “he” existing within his brain) know it?

And how could a brain in such a compromised state have recorded such a detailed memory as he relates? He himself writes, “The process of memory takes enormous brainpower.” We know how hard it is to remember dreams after waking — even with brains functioning normally.

Interestingly, Alexander says that for several days after his coma, he experienced “paranoid fantasies” that “were extremely intense, and even outright terrifying while happening.” He recognizes they were “something cooked up by my very beleaguered brain as it was trying to recover its bearings.” Yet he insists that was “very very dissimilar” from “the ultra-reality deep in coma.” He says coming out of it he spouted lots of crazy things to his family. But didn’t mention to them the “ultra-reality.” Very strange.

Here’s a clue. Alexander always knew he’d been adopted; his birth parents unwed high schoolers, who he’d assumed had parted ways. But in 2000 he learned they’d actually married and had other kids. And wanted no contact. Suddenly, he says, his view of himself totally changed to “someone cut off from my source.” And “an ocean of sadness opened up within me.” There followed alcohol abuse; a struggle for sobriety; dysfunction in his professional and family life; depression. With his last hope for some force in the universe beyond the scientific “swept away.”

His coma restored it. Though Alexander doesn’t actually say he saw God, God was somehow in the picture. And for all his rapturous description of it, only obliquely does he imply we go there after death. He mentions glimpsing frolicking people but there’s no indication they previously led earthly lives. Still, he writes of “the reality of realities, the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or ever will exist.” Which is: “You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” Boiled down to one word: love.

Dreams are sometimes the brain’s way of chewing on deep anxieties. I am not a trained psychiatrist, but this looks like a person who, in the pit of his being, does have fears; does fear doing wrong; does fear a love deficit. In other words, a man who suffers from the human condition. Which his brain, even in coma, was struggling with.

Before the coma, he’d finally reconciled with his birth family. After it, he got a photo of his sister who’d died. He says he recognized his heavenly tour guide. Studies have shown that memories are not stable, but change every time we revisit them. And again, dreams are particularly hard to recall. When he saw the photo, his memory of his comatose hallucination could have been tweaked to match it.

Alexander’s brain had been rocked by extreme trauma. He just barely survived. Such a trauma might well have lasting effects. Like believing fantastical tales of Heaven. Whether or not his brain was functioning during his coma, it was out to lunch when he wrote the book.

So it’s piffle; but not harmless piffle. Rebellions against truth and reality are buckling our society’s foundations. Anything encouraging people to believe nonsense is pernicious.

Alexander quotes Einstein: “there are only two ways to live. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.” I don’t believe in miracles, in the sense of contravening natural laws. Yet I’m very much in Einstein’s second camp. To me, all of existence — especially my own — is virtually miraculous. I can easily envision the alternative, a cosmos dark, empty, and bleak. Reality is such a gift that I don’t share Alexander’s ache for a better one.

* A neurosurgeon should know that with no brain functioning, he’d be dead. Actually, Alexander later clarifies that it was the “human” part of his brain knocked out, but the deeper parts, that regulate autonomic processes, still functioned.