Archive for July, 2020

Tales of Bermania

July 8, 2020

Once traveling with my family through Philadelphia Airport, I encountered an acquaintance, and introduced my little daughter to him as the King of Bermania. I guess it made an impression on her young mind.

Fast forward a dozen years or so. She showed me a draft of her college application essay. About travel broadening one’s horizons or something. Mentioning how, in an airport, she’d once met a king. “Ahem, Elizabeth,” I said. “You see, that was actually . . . ”

Allen Berman. A fellow coin dealer. He also goes by Alanus I, King of Bermania. But that’s all in fun. Though it’s very elaborate fun. He’s held Bermanian fests at coin shows. (Remember those BC [before covid] times when we had coin shows?) Now he’s written a book about Bermania, Please Ignore Our Time Machine. He finagled me into buying a copy. At least it was cheaper than on Amazon.

As its opening explains, Bermania is a (very) small old kingdom somewhere in Eastern Europe; whose name does not actually derive from his own. It seems the land’s early inhabitants had a thing for lawn ornaments. One fellow displayed a large wooden bear. He became known as the “Bear man.” The rest, as they say, is history (explicated rather more verbosely in the book). And since Renaissance times, hawking “relics” of “the true bear” has been a Bermanian cottage industry.

But Bermania is a very small country indeed. Even smaller than Grand Fenwick. As the author notes, the kingdom avoided Napoleon’s armies by hiding behind a tree.

The book is basically a history of Bermania and its quasi-yiddische people. Interwoven with the history of Europe and indeed the rest of the world. For example, few people know that General Tso’s chicken is actually more a Bermanian dish than a Chinese one.

The stories are amusing. Perhaps not S.J. Perelman hilarious — but amusing. There’s mention of “[w]hen the famous flying saucer arrived in 654 A.D.” Note this was the famous one.

Numismatics is never far from the author’s mind. One of the stories concerns what are called royal touch-pieces. This was an actual thing, in pre-modern Britain, whose people believed a certain nasty illness (scrofula) was curable by the King’s touch. In connection with these touch ceremonies they minted coin-like “touch-pieces,” often holed and worn on a ribbon around the neck. In the case of Bermania, the malady to be cured was glumness, the monarch administering the remedy of jokes and ticklings. So the Bermanian equivalent of the touch-piece was the tickle-token. Allen had restrikes made; some years ago he gave me one with the request that I carry it in my pocket so eventually he could see what it would look like with natural circulation wear. This was pure Allen. Actually, I didn’t know why he couldn’t do it himself; but flattered by this royal trust, I have performed it faithfully till the present day.

The picture shows the worn one from my pocket. Note the angel is not spearing the dragon but tickling it with a feather. As always, I try to thoroughly research my blog posts, so I went to Google Translate to get the technical meaning of the Latin word “placebo.” Google helpfully translated it as “placebo.”

After WWII, like several countries in its neighborhood, Bermania suffered Communist occupation. Then there was the “fig revolt” in the ’70s, resulting in a delegation of Bermanian dignitaries dispatched to Bridgeport, Connecticut, their archaic costumes causing them to be initially mistaken for trick-or-treaters confused about the calendar. They may also have been confused about Bermanian royal genealogy. The book unfortunately omits detailing the Bridgeport connection. In any case, these Bermanian emissaries were under the impression that a 14-year-old kid there was the rightful heir to the throne. This was Allen, later Alanus I. (Earlier Bermanian monarchs had much sillier names.)

Alanus, like all Bermanian kings, has ruled with a light touch. So light in fact that when Bermanian meshuginauts landed on the moon, in 2013, nobody told him. He learned of it later from Edward Snowden.

Still and all, humanity has outgrown monarchical government. Bermania should become a democratic republic.

Let’s talk about race (again)

July 5, 2020

My 2009 “Rational Optimism” book addressed race. Rejecting the trope of America as a fundamentally racist society, I saw a nation “that has made titanic efforts to right these wrongs.” Recapping all the progress in just my own lifetime. Quoting black scholar Shelby Steele that America has achieved the greatest moral evolution in human history.

Obama had just been elected. The symbolic import seemed huge: we were “choosing a civic father, a tribal leader.” And “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and goodwill.”

I wrote that “[t]hose few who still spout white supremacy are mostly disadvantaged, powerless whites,” with “no influence upon the larger society, and scant real impact on blacks.” And “institutional racism . . . is largely a figment of imagination . . . no significant American institution could actually practice it. Indeed, today’s institutional bias is affirmative action . . . favoring blacks.” (Emphases in original.)

My view has since evolved. I obviously did not foresee the racist backlash against Obama’s presidency soon to explode. Nor a successor empowering the racism I’d thought was relegated to America’s dark corners.

What I wrote was colored by my own experience interacting with blacks, in the workplace, in commerce, in society. I understood deeply what cause for resentment they had, yet rarely observed its expression. Instead I was always impressed by the friendly decency of most blacks toward whites. If white society had, as I believed, done much toward reconciliation, blacks had done more. Again I quote Kimberly Jones: we’re lucky they seek only equality, not revenge. Their goodwill has outstripped that of whites.

But that does not mean they’re now okay with how things are, and it’s in that respect that my understanding has grown.

In particular, my words “scant real impact on blacks” overlooked policing. Being white, it just wasn’t on my radar screen then. Even if most cops aren’t consciously racist, nevertheless for a lot of them brown skin is a red flag. And for people having that skin, that’s a very big fact of life. They might shrug off the racism of assholes, but it’s another matter when it’s guys who can commit violence against you with near impunity under color of law. (Of course that’s a threat to us all, but blacks bear its brunt.)

I also didn’t fully grasp then how deeply raced-based concepts are culturally embedded in our heads. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, likened one’s conscious mind to a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks he’s directing the elephant, but he’s really just along for the ride. Whites claiming color-blindness is a cliché. But experiments have shown that most harbor unconscious negativity toward black faces vis-a-vis whites. Even blacks themselves do.

I’m not color-blind. I see blacks as people whose forebears were brought here in chains and who struggle against much adversity to live their lives. I respect their blackness.

And even if today’s society were truly color-blind, also deeply embedded into its fabric are the effects of past racism. Studies have found differences between two populations today are often actually rooted in differing circumstances centuries ago. When slaves were freed in 1865, of course they started out very disadvantaged in relation to whites. That gets passed down through the generations. If your parents are poor and ill-educated, you will likely be too, hence handicapped in rising to betterment. And of course white society made sure that continued, at least for a century — the Jim Crow regime in the South erected to keep blacks “in their place” and, elsewhere, red-lining and a host of other discriminatory practices doing much the same.

Most of that is thankfully a thing of the past, yet all the racial baggage described above got lodged pervasively throughout societal structures and institutions.

We’ve tried to rectify this, with civil rights and voting rights legislation to at least remove barriers, affirmative action to counteract their lingering effects, and anti-poverty programs. But in one crucial respect we’ve singularly failed: education. Schooling could be a powerful force for overcoming the effects of inherited disadvantage. Instead, that disadvantage is mostly aggravated by rotten schooling for blacks.

That’s probably a key reason why, despite the mentioned efforts to close the black-white economic gap, it has actually widened over the past half century. A further reason is the over-incarceration of blacks, mostly thanks to the insanely punitive “war on drugs,” which makes everything worse. And another factor is the disintegration of black family life, at least partly the unintended consequences of anti-poverty programs. Even during the worst of the Depression and Jim Crow, the black family was strong. Today, 70% of black children are born to single mothers. That has an undeniably negative impact on those kids’ life prospects.

The chapter I started out quoting from was titled “America the Beautiful.” It didn’t claim perfection. Rather, what inspires me is the place of humanistic ideals in our society and our striving for progress toward fulfilling them. That’s America’s greatness. In the last few years we’ve had a great lurch backward. But progress never goes in a straight line, and in the long view we do grow better.

Francis Fukuyama wrote, in The End of History, of our craving for thymos — for recognition of one’s legitimate place in society, one’s worth and dignity as a human being. This is what “Black Lives Matter” is all about. It is this dignity, in the eyes of white Americans, that black people don’t feel they’ve yet fully achieved. But we’re getting there.

George Floyd’s killing and its aftermath raised the consciousness of millions of Americans, many more whites now able to empathically put themselves in the shoes of blacks, as fellow human beings, seeing the reality that they do, and newly supportive of measures to improve it. Even Mississippi is removing Confederate symbolism from its state flag.

While Trump ramps up his racist divisiveness. Tweeting “thank you” to a video with a man shouting “White power!” Completely insane — such hatefulness is fortunately far outside today’s American mainstream. In November the nation will do the right thing, flush its toilet, and we will move forward.

George Floyd will not have died in vain.

Covid-19: The March of Folly

July 3, 2020

From the start, Trump repeatedly assured us the virus was under control; no big deal; everyone could get tested; it would go away miraculously; and applauded his own performance as “tremendous” and “incredible,” etc. All lies.

Our record on this is in fact the worst of any advanced nation (bar possibly Brazil, with a Trump clone president). Had we acted smartly and swiftly like others, the virus could have been contained without the economic apocalypse that became necessary due to Trump’s dithering. And the economic pain turned out to be for nought, because we were too lax about it, reopening too soon, so the virus is now out of control anyway. Rising in at least 40 states.

We’ve just hit a new one-day record of over 50,000 confirmed cases. So far totaling over 2.7 million. Except that the CDC says that’s an undercount by a factor of ten. Because most cases (lacking sufficient testing) are never properly diagnosed. So it’s really closer to 30 million — increasing fast. Deaths (at least 127,000, but also surely an undercount) are actually falling — for now — apparently due to a learning curve on treatment, and older people being more careful. But coming weeks and months look very dire.

It’s Trump’s fault. A total failure of leadership; indeed, of sanity. Denial of reality. Ignoring science. Promoting harmful quack cures and other misinformation. Continued under-testing. His administration crafted detailed shutdown guidance and then shelved it. The limited suggestions they did provide were neutered by Trump’s encouraging morons to rebel against restrictions. Politicizing it all. Mask wearing became demonized as a badge of wimpy Democrat socialists — virile freedom-loving ‘Murricans don’t wear no frickin’ masks.

We’ve seen the video of the jerk refusing to heed a Costco mask requirement. He said, “I woke up in a free country.” Hello, “freedom” does not mean flouting reasonable public health rules. You can go maskless at home, but have no right to risk other people’s lives. This is called living in society.

Tens of millions have lost jobs, millions sickened or killed — and you’re outraged at having to wear a mask??

Most Americans thankfully have more sense, and have been great about acting responsibly, despite Trump’s irresponsible anti-leadership. But he’s undermined their good efforts by empowering the mask rebels, like that Costco fool, who spread the virus. What is so hard about understanding that even without symptoms you can infect others? Predictably, in states (mostly red) that were late and half-hearted about precautions in the first place, and relaxed them even as Covid cases rose, with Trumpsters heedlessly packing into bars and other gathering places (including his rallies) without masks, the disease is now surging.

And whereas states like New York, the worst hit, got it under control by tremendous efforts, with infection and death rates falling dramatically, that’s likely to be undone because they can’t control traveling anti-mask assholes who will re-spread the infection. Thus Europe has banned travel from the U.S.

And what’s the administration’s posture now, with the disease surging? Trump is hoping his voters can somehow be blinded to the catastrophe, which he himself actually worsens by holding super-spreader campaign events. Mike Pence is meanwhile declaring victory, saying the “panic” about Covid is “overblown,” and we’re in better shape now than at the start. While he (and of course Trump) still refuse to push masks.* In lieu of such precautions, Pence recommends prayer.

Indeed (and unsurprisingly, given the irrationality at religion’s core), the worst of Covid folly is seen in churches. Too many pastors insist on continuing live worship services, usually without masking or distancing. These have repeatedly proven to constitute Covid-19 anti-personnel bombs. Some claim God will protect them. As if he’s ever spared his flocks from the afflictions he’s visited upon humanity. While others never miss an opportunity to say God is punishing us for something (abortion, gays, etc., pick your fetish). Some hold that trying to prevent infection is thwarting God’s will.

A “sacrament” at Florida’s mis-named “Church of Health and Healing” is a bleach solution offered as a miracle cure. And Louisiana’s Rev. Tony Spell has even been bussing in people to attend his Covid-19 spreadathons, so they can carry the virus all over the state. But no worries — Spell (who heads the also misnamed “Life Tabernacle Church”) explains that to a pure religious person, death looks “like a welcomed friend.”

But at the pearly gates, will St. Peter say, “No mask, no admittance”?

Hopes are pinned on a vaccine to beat this thing finally. But wait, not so fast. Did you forget the anti-vaxxers? The campaign against Covid vaccination is already underway. We’re told the whole pandemic thing is really a huge plot by Bill Gates to use vaccines to sneak microchips into us.

Religion. Trump. Masklessness. Anti-science. Conspiracy theories. It’s all a package. God save us from this lunacy.

* Some states are only now finally mandating masks. On June 1, Trump himself did finally tell Fox News he’s all for masking, saying it makes him look like the Lone Ranger. (Whose mask didn’t cover his nose and mouth.) But meantime Trump has also said people wear masks just to show disapproval of him, and that masks are ineffective. Science says different. But who cares about science?

Ethics of humanitarian and development efforts: problems versus symptoms

July 1, 2020

My daughter Elizabeth, 27, has worked for five years in the Mid-East for humanitarian organizations, currently for a consultancy much involved in Afghanistan. Wonderful, you might say. She herself is less sure — always engaging in critical self-scrutiny.

There’s much literature criticizing the whole foreign aid and development landscape, the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Much aid has wound up serving to strengthen dictators. Other downsides may be less obvious. Send aid directly to schools and you relieve government of that expense so it can spend more on, say, weapons. Send used clothing and you undermine a nation’s own garment industry. And so forth.

Elizabeth and I have discussed such issues as relating to my own support for a Somaliland education project. Her thing is trying to find what actually works best in the context of a local culture and its idiosyncrasies. She’s troubled that the project was started by a rich white guy who went there with good intentions but scant local knowledge. She pointed me to a sardonic short story in the voice of an African employed by some sappy do-gooder Americans who created a program actually accomplishing nothing. But I was moved by the proven success of the one in Somaliland.

The words “white savior” come up. We’re told to worry instead about problems closer to home. But Africans are no less my fellow humans than those across the street. And their problems tend to be much the greater, with resources to tackle them far smaller. I don’t see myself as a white savior; hopefully, a human contributor.

That makes me feel good. Is my Somaliland involvement really an attempt to buy myself those feelings? We’re actually programmed by evolution to feel good when doing good, it’s a mechanism to promote such behavior, thereby aiding group survival. So is there any such thing as true selfless altruism? But I’d maintain we are what we do. The doer of a good deed doesn’t delude himself believing he’s altruistic — he is in fact behaving altruistically. And his motivation is immaterial to the other beneficiaries of his action.

Elizabeth recently wrote a blog essay concerning the Oscar-winning film Learning to Skateboard in a Warzoneabout an NGO project for Afghan girls — and an Al Jazeera article, Skateboarding Won’t Save Afghan girls. The latter contends the program just covers up the country’s problems, which it blames on “centuries of ruthless Western military and political intervention.” The skateboarding is likened to “palliative care” that makes dying patients feel better without curing them. The article invokes the “white savior” trope, and says the program and film “decontextualize” the girls’ lives, presenting them as “ideal victims for pity.” While making “Westerners feel good about” the Afghan war “which ‘liberated’ girls and women and gave them opportunities their own society would never have afforded them.”

Why put “liberated” in snide quote marks? America’s intervention did liberate them, did give them opportunities the article actually correctly characterizes. Though obviously Afghanistan’s problems were not all solved. Is that really the bar for judging any project’s worth?

Elizabeth says the real question is whether a program like the skateboarding —which does have real benefits — comes at the cost of other initiatives, which might have larger impacts. “Should we address the problems, or the symptoms of the problems — or both?”

She cites a book, Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas, arguing that the business world is too focused on symptoms rather than underlying problems — and indeed those so focused are the very people benefiting from the system that perpetuates the problems. Giridharadas cites the example of a phone app to help people with “unpredictable employment” to even out their incomes. Which he characterizes as a symptom of the real problem, an economic system making unpredictable employment so common — a system he says the app’s developers themselves helped create and benefit from.

Seriously? As if they somehow calculatingly orchestrated the whole global economic structure just so they could profit from the app? And does Giridharadas have a workable solution to the underlying problem he sees? No, he just wants other people to simply forgo their self-interest. Thanks a lot.

Casting the problem as the fault of villains is a kind of scapegoating all too prevalent (particularly in the left-wing economic perspective). But those who profit by hiring people for temporary work enable those employees to earn money by creating goods and services whose buyers value them above what they pay. Seems win-win-win to me. Not rendered villainous because Giridharadas imagines some fantasy world in which people’s earnings are divorced from the economic value their work creates. (I suggest the result would actually be a nightmare world.)

Elizabeth too largely disagrees with Al Jazeera and Giridharadas. She sees nothing wrong with addressing “symptoms” — while also working on “problems” — which may take decades if not centuries. These are not mutually exclusive. No reasonable person could view the skateboard film and think all Afghanistan’s problems are solved. Indeed, she considers it important to spotlight such successes. Whereas moralistic symptoms-versus-problems dichotomizing can make doing what’s merely feasible seem pointless.

Elizabeth’s main concern is with the impact one’s actions can achieve, and thus whether to target “problems” or “symptoms” — the “policy level” versus the “personal level.” But as for what any individual can do, she interestingly invokes the concept of “comparative advantage.” That’s an economics doctrine saying a nation gains from trading whatever it’s best at producing, even if other nations can produce that thing better. Applying it here would mean doing what one is best equipped or positioned to do. Better to have a modest success than an over-ambitious failure. But she also suggests a third option: start small and strive to scale up.

I think Al Jazeera’s analogy to palliative care is also fatuous moralizing. One is not usually able to achieve big-picture solutions. But regardless of what level you’re looking at, what matters is quality of life — for the many, or a few, as may be. Every one counts. Every improvement counts. Inability to go big doesn’t negate the value of the small. A cancer patient may not be cured but meantime palliating the pain is worth doing. Likewise for the Afghan skateboarding girls.

No individual can “solve” the kinds of big problems at issue. All one can do is what helps as much as one can. A lot of people doing that helps a lot.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.