Archive for September, 2020

Mychal Denzel Smith’s revolution: radical left magical thinking

September 25, 2020

I was shouting at the TV while watching with my wife The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah interview Mychal Denzel Smith (right), author of Stakes is High.

Smith saw little point in voting for Biden, deeming him just the same-old same-old, whose election would make no real difference. He feels America needs a thorough reinvention to right all its wrongs. While Noah suggested Biden would take us in the right direction, Smith was having none of it, saying Biden, once in office, would merely be a tool of the old establishment. Somewhat ironic given Trumpers painting Biden as a tool of radicals — like Smith himself!

Noah also tried to get Smith to acknowledge how bad, for America (and indeed Smith’s own agenda), another Trump term would be. Smith was having none of that either. Seemed to be saying, let the country be wrecked, then we can build our New Jerusalem on the ruins. Finally, Noah asked him what individuals can actually do. Smith’s wordy response didn’t answer that at all — infuriating my wife.

Afterward, we tried to make sense of this Mychal Denzel Smith. She thought maybe he was fine with Trump’s re-election, anticipating an assassination. I didn’t think so, unable to see that as advancing his radical aims. But then how does he imagine their achievement? Given that almost half the country is gaga Trumpist, while on the Democratic side even a moderately radical candidacy got whomped.

There’s something “radical chic” about people like Smith —thinking it cool — hence a kind of one-upmanship in radicalism — “mine more extreme than yours.” Like Smith thinks his politics is more serious. Yet can it be serious without some roadmap for getting there?

Smith seemed to be on a Yellow Brick Road of magical thinking. Simply ignoring that very few Americans actually want his revolution, with many horrified by it. How to win them over did not appear to be of interest to him. Thus he can’t, indeed, envision some sort of political campaign or action movement. Instead, it would have to be magic — America suddenly waking up and saying, en masse, “You’re right! Why didn’t we see it before?”

My wife poked around online and found that Smith, though unwilling to say so in the interview, does actually advocate violent revolution if needed. (Echoing Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.”)

I said, so does he think they’ll have more guns than the other side?! If violence is to settle our political dispensation, it will be by right-wing gun nuts, not left-wing peaceniks.

Smith reflects a common cynical leftist view of America as irredeemable with racism and social injustice. Epitomized by Noam Chomsky, and by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States — chronicling two centuries of efforts to overcome injustices and achieve progress, yet with nary a word acknowledging that anything was achieved at all. As if America was born in sin because it did not, in 1787, immediately free the slaves, give women the vote, empower labor unions, and right all wrongs. And it’s no better today.

Zinn’s litany might have included gay marriage. Except that no one could even imagine it when he wrote in 1980. Really proving how little he understood this nation’s capacity for progress.

America was not birthed in perfect justice. But into a world where there wasn’t even any such thing as self-government. Our starting it came to serve as a guiding light for much of humankind. What we also created was the kind of society that could progress and improve and right wrongs. And so we have. We did end slavery, did extend voting to the propertyless and then women, did give labor unions rights, constructing a host of other economic rights and protections, did end child labor, establish minimum wages and build social safety nets, did act to curb racial discrimination and segregation and to integrate our society. And much more — yes, even gay marriage.

Are we perfect now? No, we are still a work in progress, continuing inch by inch down that long hard road, not chasing some mirage of overnight revolution. That’s my noble conception of America. Which people like Mychal Denzel Smith tragically refuse to embrace.

More tragically, as his own book title says, the stakes right now are high, with that vision of America threatened as never before. Trump has already battered it. With four more years, it will be destroyed.

You want a revolution, Mr. Smith? Trump will show you a revolution.

John Lewis and the “Beloved Community”

September 22, 2020

One of my book groups read John Lewis’s 1998 autobiography, Walking With the Wind. He’s long been a hero to me.

The subtitle is A Memoir of the Movement, referring to the 1960s civil rights crusade. Lewis was there from the start, when he was twenty, in 1960. From 1963 to his 1966 ouster he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a frontline organization. Those few years were a very intense time for him.

I was reminded that in the same age bracket, I too was involved in an intense battle against an entrenched power structure — Albany’s Democratic political machine. And as with Lewis, it ended with a betrayal. My Republican party, which had been its spearhead, basically turned its back on that fight. At my last countywide party meeting, my speech was booed. But I never risked my life as Lewis did, repeatedly.

He never wavered from the basic principles that motivated him from the start. A Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, which for Lewis was a deeply felt moral commitment. With an ideal of equality, all Americans joining together in what Lewis liked to call a “beloved community.”

Perhaps inevitably, such generosity of spirit ultimately could not stand against other impetuses. The degree of violence encountered made some SNCC members want to fight fire with fire. While Lewis’s “beloved community” idea came under assault from those more militantly seeking not integration but separation. Propelled by Malcolm X’s black nationalist radicalism — of which he actually repented before his assassination. Nevertheless, that new “black power” trope made the old SNCC stance seem too tame for some. Stokely Carmichael was in that camp, maneuvering to wrest the group’s chairmanship from Lewis.

In the climactic vote, amid all this dissension, Lewis actually defeated Carmichael by a wide margin. But that was reversed by what amounted to a late night coup, after most meeting attendees had gone to bed. Reading his account, I was surprised Lewis folded to this. But by then perhaps he was no longer up for fighting against what seemed unstoppable.

Two decades later, Lewis returned to prominence, winning a Georgia congressional seat, by defeating his old close friend and movement “golden boy” Julian Bond.

Lewis’s last chapter laments where the country had gotten to, as of the late 1990s when he wrote. His “beloved community” seemed farther away than ever. It felt oddly disturbing to read this in 2020, when the trends Lewis discussed have grown so much worse.

I have no truck with radicals advocating abrupt revolution. America’s great story, instead, has been gradual progress, through hard work, always climbing a steep hill of resistance. That was the story of John Lewis and the civil rights movement. It was a moral battle, and the nation as a whole did come together on the side of what was right and just.

But today it’s a very different country, as Lewis himself already wrote over twenty years ago. In some ways (notably, gay marriage), progress has continued, yet something is very broken. A 2011 book by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum was titled That Used To Be Us. Referring to how America used to tackle problems and challenges — which in many ways had stopped. And here again, since that was written, it’s gotten even worse.

American democracy was quintessentially a project of Enlightenment rationalism. That’s what is failing. Under sustained assault by almost half the country. We are now in another great moral battle, for truth against lies, hope against fear, love against hate. For right against wrong. But the nation will not come together on the side of right as it did for John Lewis’s 1960s movement. Our “beloved community” is breaking into two irreconcilable warring ones.

The Ginsburg seat: into the abyss

September 19, 2020

We were already at Armageddon. Pandemic and economic collapse, schools closed, racial turmoil, and our political tribalism climaxing with the most divisive and consequential election ever, likely headed for a fought-over result.

And now this. Armageddon squared. Buckle your seatbelts, it will be hellacious.

Weeks ago I wrote a blog post hypothesizing Justice Ginsburg’s death just after a Trump election defeat — and suggesting nonviolent resistance to stop his nominee’s confirmation. But now Republicans can’t be stopped from ramming it through.

The religious right has fought forty years for this, and won’t be deterred from grabbing what’s probably their last nick-of-time opportunity. A Supreme Court majority ending the right to abortion. Which only a narrow minority of Americans actually supports. Such a ruling, in this febrile political climate, would be insanely divisive, shredding the Court’s already frayed legitimacy, and indeed that of our entire civic edifice.

They don’t care, obsessed with this one issue. Willing to burn the house down to get their way on it.

Trump’s likeliest court nominee is Amy Coney Barrett, who seems to feel her religious beliefs supersede the constitution and rule of law. Putting such a person on the Supreme Court is also insane. But why not go for broke?

Only 27 years ago Justice Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3. That was in a very different country. We’ve always had intense political battles, to be sure, but with all sides committed to bedrock democratic values. That meant accepting pluralism, recognizing opponents’ legitimacy. But Republicans have given up on that. Exploiting levers of power to illegitimately manipulate the system. Like trying to win elections by keeping as many citizens as possible from voting.

And seizing a Supreme Court majority to undo Roe v. Wade, likewise contravening the essence of democratic culture. Simply filling a vacancy might have been legitimate — except for their having previously stolen a seat by blocking Obama from filling it. Their dishonest pretext for that should apply equally to the present vacancy, but of course they’ll hypocritically compound the dishonesty by flouting their own precedent.

Pro-lifers rationalize all this as necessary to combat the supervening moral evil of abortion. But such ends-justify-means thinking is always morally fraught. While a rational analysis of the abortion issue makes it far from black-and-white. And ironically, a Guttmacher Institute study found no link between a state’s abortion restrictions and its abortion rate. A new factor here is increasing use of abortion pills, with no office visits. Probably making the anti-abortion crusade doomed anyway.

Meantime pro-lifers’ refusal to consider the consequences of their single-mindedness is itself profoundly immoral. Consequences like degrading our civic culture by putting a sociopath in the White House. Undermining America’s character as a democratic society founded on truth and reason. This has global impacts on human lives. Two hundred thousand of which — not embryos — have been lost so far in America’s Covid-19 disaster, most of them thanks to Trump being president.

Thanks to the so-called “pro-life” movement.

Rhapsody in Blue

September 17, 2020

I’m no music buff. But being human I enjoy music; mainly music inspiring positive emotion. Often supplying my own words to go with it.

I visit New York City for a yearly midtown event (pre-covid). And hurrying through the rumbustious streets of this city of cities, my inner ear always hears Rhapsody in Blue. Setting the experience to music.

What a pleasure to find in The Humanist magazine an article about Rhapsody by arts editor Daniel Thomas Moran. Discussing its 1924 composition by George Gershwin. But also its meaning. Moran beautifully expresses my own feelings evoked by this music.

It was a sound track for New York, but more, for all of America and what it represented. I can’t improve on Moran’s words:

“[I]t embodies all the hope and exuberance of America at its finest. It was the Jazz Age and the Industrial Age, and the time of an American artistic renaissance in culture and literature . . . .

“It was a time when all our best years seemed ahead of us, when the cauldron of culture and national identity and the embrace by all of that thing that we felt was American was at full boil, in full blossom.

“[W]hen we as a nation and a people seemed to be lifted skyward both literally and figuratively. We were strong and sure and passionate, inspiration was abundant, and we were willing to do the work and take all the risks.”

Yes, this is what I hear in the music. But notice that the foregoing is written in the past tense. That American spirit of Rhapsody in Blue did endure for several decades more — but then lost steam. And in the last few years has fallen off a cliff. Today the country’s psychic ethos is very different. No longer is Rhapsody the anthem of a vibrant American heart and soul. Instead we have the empty, truculent mockery of “Make America Great Again.”

Yet I will end with the words Moran did: “Even in the exuberant echoing vibrato of the opening notes, we can recognize the distant sounds of hope.”

Trump’s depravity explained by his psychologist niece

September 13, 2020

There’s been much psychoanalysis of Trump. Though his depravity seems obvious to any objective observer, supporters dismiss that as baseless partisan slander. Mary Trump cannot be so dismissed. A professional clinical PhD psychologist, she also has intimate first hand knowledge of Donald, her uncle, having been quite close to the family for most of her 55 years. So her book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man is absolutely authoritative.

If she were writing to “cash in,” or vent family grudges, she’d have done it years ago, she says. To avoid any such appearance, she refrained during 2016. Now, however, Mary says her speaking out is a matter of “literally life and death” for the country. (Two hundred thousand, at least, have died so far.)

The book is a family saga. There’s a whole genre of “parents from Hell” memoirs. Donald’s mother was missing in action, too fragile and needy to give her five kids any nurturing. But the main character was Donald’s father, Fred Trump, who made a fortune as a property baron. Fred enjoyed only two things in life: money and cruelty. Devoid of human sympathy, his children meant nothing to him except as tools for his ego.

His eldest son was Fred Junior, “Freddy,” Mary’s father. Initially Freddy was tagged as Fred’s successor to run the property empire. He did spend most of his life employed there. Yet Fred himself sabotaged Freddy in that role. His whole existence was a desperate struggle to earn his father’s approval, but he never could; Fred made sure of it. Her father, Mary writes, “withered and died beneath the cruelty and contempt of my grandfather.”

I kept saying to myself, “Freddy, tell your father ‘fuck you,’ walk away, and live your own life.” But Freddy couldn’t. Instead he stuck around and allowed himself to be destroyed. Driven into alcoholism and dying at 42.

Enter Donald, Fred’s younger son. Watching Freddy’s tragic struggle for their father’s respect, Donald went the opposite way. Instead of sucking up to his father and making himself look weak in consequence, Donald acted out as the bad boy and defied his parents at every turn. And not only was he not punished — not only did he escape Freddydom — he quickly found this did perversely gain his father’s approval. Fred saw Donald as his own alter ego. Just as “tough” and ruthless, just as sociopathic. So Donald became the new heir apparent, and soon had the run of the castle.

Some who experience abusive childhoods repeat the syndromes in their own adulthood. Others can overcome that legacy, and, through social interaction with normal people, rebalance their personas into healthier ones. Donald was certainly in the former category. Indeed, the pathologies he developed growing up in that toxic family intensified, to a grotesquely extreme degree.

As Mary writes, throughout his life, Donald “continued to get away with — and even be rewarded for — increasingly crass, irresponsible, and despicable behavior.” At the final capstone — his election as president — she felt “This can’t possibly be happening.” (Her emphasis.)

Mary agrees with the oft-heard diagnosis of malignant narcissism. But it’s much worse than that — she also sees antisocial personality disorder (i.e., sociopathy) — entailing “lack of empathy, a facility for lying, an indifference to right and wrong, abusive behavior, and a lack of interest in the rights of others.” Surely accurate about Donald.

She says that as Donald grew up, “he needed his father to believe he was a better and more confident son than Freddy was . . . he began to believe his own hype, even as he paradoxically suspected on a very deep level that nobody else did.” Thus his insatiable craving for affirmations of his wonderfulness. Which not even becoming president assuages. So he stages cabinet meetings and pandemic briefings, etc., that are really just sycophantic praise-orgies. Foreign leaders quickly learned to play him like a fiddle with flattery. Indeed, Mary says, for all his posturing as the savvy tough “art of the deal” guy, Donald is actually a thoroughly manipulable patsy. As seen endlessly in his presidential performance.

The irony is that his focus on sustaining an image of vast competence has always blocked him from being competent. Like it’s never occurred to him to earn praise by actually being praiseworthy.

But he does have one true talent— for putting across the scam that his whole life constitutes. Fooling people. As Mary shows chronicling his business history: repeatedly leaving others holding the bag when his business disasters have blown up. Trump may be the most successful failure ever.

He’s often reported as enraged — by what is always really insufficient ass-kissing. So huge is his sense of entitlement that he constantly feels he’s being “treated very unfairly,” a phrase that’s virtually a verbal tic. Mary assesses his predominant emotion as fear. Fear of being exposed, finally, as the fraud he, deep down, knows himself to be. Staving that off is his life mission. (This is why he won’t accept, in the most literal sense, election defeat.)

Mary writes that we’ve “been shielded until now from the worst effects of his pathologies by a stable economy and a lack of serious crises.” But the pandemic, the economic collapse, and deepening societal divides “have created a perfect storm of catastrophes that no one is less equipped than my uncle to manage. Doing so would require courage, strength of character, deference to experts, and the confidence to take responsibility and to course correct after admitting mistakes.” Instead, Trump’s toolkit is limited to “lying, spinning, and obfuscating” — now leaving him impotent.

So what to make of that recorded February 7 interview where Donald said he knew coronavirus was really bad, but was telling the nation the opposite to avoid panic? Some say his only concern is re-election, not lives at stake. Surely true, yet this was no way to gain votes. He could have ensured his re-election with swift and strong covid action. But no — actually, he couldn’t. Was incapable of that.

It was himself he didn’t want to panic. A national catastrophe did not fit with his ideation of personal glory, so he tried to will it away. After all, he’d skated through his whole life on lies. Saying Covid was under control and would magically disappear was just one more. Lying to himself as well as the public. Donald’s biggest sucker is Donald.

Talking heads often discuss his actions as if there’s calculation behind them. Mary Trump makes clear what’s always been obvious — Donald is incapable of real calculation, foresight, or strategy. He’s an unguided missile. True too of his February 7 interview. A considered strategy of avoiding panic? No. That trope came into his head just as the words came out of his mouth.

Mary’s book anatomizes Donald’s depravity, but the picture has long been clear to anyone with open eyes. But too many American eyes were closed in 2016, and far too many still are. While Trump voters are filled with factoids that defy reality,* and too uninterested in learning the real reality. A charitable view is that they just don’t care. Less charitably, they’re so irresponsible it’s insane. No set of political views or supposed values or feelings or resentments can justify it.

Trump is trying to exploit fear of violence in the streets. A poll shows many now fear it more than covid. My own sister shocked me by falling for this. As if Trump isn’t himself greatly responsible for the societal divisions behind these “riots.” And as if they’re harming the country more than the pandemic. What does truly threaten our future is putting it in the hands of this corrupt, incompetent, lying sociopath. Street violence won’t destroy our democracy. Trump will.

*The Economist’s latest issue quotes one who “especially liked Trump’s commitment to reducing the national debt,” and another saying, “He’s made — who is it, China or Japan? — pay our farmers billions of dollars. He got health care done, which the Democrats could never do.”

Economics and sex

September 10, 2020

(NOTE: the following was actually written before the pandemic (I have a backlog). Question for discussion: how is this analysis altered, if at all, by the new economic environment created by the pandemic?)

I heard Professor Paul Hohenberg review Binyamin Applebaum’s book, The Economists’ Hour. That title plays off “The Children’s Hour” with a hint that economists don’t do much better. The book chronicles recent decades when they had much influence on policy. Hohenberg says two things ended that: the 2008 financial crisis, leaving economists with egg on their faces; and Trump’s election, blowing up the whole idea of relying on expertise.

Government used to be dominated by lawyers, Hohenberg noted. But that was when it didn’t do much. That changed with the Depression, WWII, and the rise of the welfare state, with government now seen as managing the economy.

The basic challenge there is stability. Its textbook is John Maynard Keynes’s 1936 opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Positing a tradeoff between unemployment and inflation. If unemployment is low, businesses must compete for staff, driving up wages, which must be recouped through raising prices — inflation. Which tends to feed on itself by shrinking the value of paychecks, driving workers to demand still higher pay. It was thought some optimal unemployment level would keep things in balance.

But the ’70s brought “stagflation,” high unemployment coupled with high inflation, breaking Keynes’s law. The explanation, Hohenberg says, was demographic. Baby Boomers reaching adulthood flooded the workforce. Also women, now much freer to work outside the home. These extra working hands produced much wealth and higher living standards, but the economy couldn’t create new jobs fast enough, hence high unemployment. While higher family incomes boosted consumer demand, pushing up inflation.

It took a serious recession to break stagflation, thanks to Fed Chief Volcker aggressively raising interest rates. Since then, the problem has actually been to get enough inflation to avoid deflation, a different economic curse.

Keynesianism also meant government stabilizing the economy through the stimulus of spending when it’s weak, borrowing the needed money, then reversing course when the economy is strong. Stimulus does seem to work, notably in 2009. But it’s unfortunately addictive, and politicians like to keep the spigot open even when the economy is booming.

Meantime the anti-Keynesian stagflation episode brought to the fore a different economic theory — monetarism, personified by Milton Friedman, arguing that it’s really through regulating the money supply that government controls economic ups and downs. But just as Keynesianism proved oversimplified, monetarism too is not the whole story.

There was also “supply-side” economics, touting tax cuts as stimulus, arguably engendering enough added economic activity that the cuts would actually pay for themselves. This has been widely derided. However, there ought to be some optimal level of taxation, enabling government to collect enough revenue while maximizing the economic activity that produces earnings to be taxed. Whether tax cuts “pay for themselves” probably depends on how they’re structured and who benefits.

With my bodyguards in Somaliland

Hohenberg also discussed free market fundamentalism, trying to limit regulation so that business and industry can just get on with wealth-creation. I have noted, apropos my Somaliland visit, how government’s scant regulation there actually leaves businesses vulnerable to predation and thus inhibits economic activity. Here again the issue really isn’t regulation versus no regulation. It’s having the right kind of regulation that protects the right things, thereby maximizing economic opportunities. But that’s hard to do, and government hasn’t proven very good at it.

Also a butt of ridicule is so-called “trickle down” economics. This relates to the cause du jour, inequality. There’s a notion of equalizing things by just taxing away the wealth of the rich. (Sanders says billionaires should not even exist.) It’s legitimate to have affluent people pay a greater share if government needs the money to fund what it does. Taxing them simply because some envious people feel they just have too much is not any kind of “justice,” social or otherwise.

Hohenberg observed that, ironically, economists get attention when there’s debate but not when there’s consensus. They almost unanimously support a carbon tax; politicians almost unanimously demur. And while practically all economists say trade is beneficial, few politicians have the courage to argue this, and so the public increasingly rejects it.

One audience questioner posited we should just seal America off from global trade and meet all our needs domestically. At least we’d all have jobs. Whereas trade leaves too many without — increasing our impoverishment, ever more Americans unable to afford all the goods being imported.

This idea is indeed commonly believed. But it’s quite false. As Hohenberg explained, the autarky envisioned by the questioner would send consumer prices through the roof; buying stuff cheaper from China than we can make it ourselves saves us money and thus enriches us. The savings we can spend buying other stuff we do make ourselves. It’s also untrue that the average American has been growing poorer. Average incomes have been rising, and trade plays a role in that.

And it’s also untrue that “we don’t make anything anymore.” We manufacture as much as ever, but can do so with ever less labor; it’s advancing technology and automation, far more than trade, that’s responsible for reduced manufacturing employment. But that increased productivity also makes us richer. It frees up labor to do other things, particularly in services, which consumers increasingly spend money on. There’s a notion that producing intangible services is somehow less real than manufactured goods. That’s yet another fallacy; people’s willingness to pay money for something decides its value.

And finally, what about the “sex” promised in my heading? This illustrates another concept of economics. Called “bait and switch.”

My beautiful birthday brunch buffet

September 8, 2020

I’ve always loved food buffets — being able to taste many different flavors. (Maybe my welcoming immigration is psychologically related.) One of the reasons I’ve so enjoyed cruises, with a buffet at every meal. Of course, that kind of experience has been unavailable for half a year. Indeed, I’ve lamented to my wife that food buffets may actually never return at all. Something I regard as a tragic loss to our quality of life.

Yesterday was my birthday, and she surprised me with: a brunch buffet! A lovely gourmet spread, with some of my favorites: olives, cheese, cherries, dates, cupcakes, pastries, banana bread, chocolate pudding, orange slices, and more. Everything absolutely delicious.

But not as delicious as she is — my best birthday present, every day.

Darwin’s apostles and evolutionary science: fighting “fake news”

September 6, 2020

Dr. Abby Hafer has her doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and currently teaches at Curry College. She has authored the book Unintelligent Design, among others, and claims to be famous for testicles. (Not her own; see below.) I heard her recent talk about what today’s fighters against fake news can learn from Darwin’s apostles.

She started by suggesting that pre-Trump we could not have imagined an American president establishing a bizarre, counter-factual, evidence-free narrative, yet succeeding in gulling much of the population. But “Welcome to my world,” Hafer said — every evolutionary biologist has always had to deal with such an environment of factual denialism. “Objective reality exists!” she insisted, steadfastly disregarding all the evidence to the contrary.

The Darwin apostles Hafer discussed were scientists who fought, against powerful entrenched interests, to gain acceptance for the concept of evolution by natural selection. After a long hard campaign they succeeded to a great degree (despite pockets of resistance, notably including a high proportion of Americans). Hafer cited publication, in 1889, of a book, Lux Mundi, in which notables in the Church of England discussed reconciling their faith with evolution — which they already assumed was true.

John William Draper was a scientist who authored History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874. The lesson Hafer took from his efforts: don’t quail from battling fundamentalist religion, but work with religious people wherever it’s possible.

Alfred Russel Wallace was of course the guy who figured out evolution at about the same time as Darwin. Darwin had long feared publishing would cause a big backlash. But Wallace, Hafer said, struck a different kind of terror into Darwin: not getting credit. So he finally finished up the book he’d been working on for two decades. (He and Wallace actually reached an agreement about public presentation of the theory. In this negotiation Darwin had much back-up from colleagues. I recall one writer saying they “took Wallace to the cleaners.”)

Joseph Hooker was one scientist who had long actually fought against the idea of biological evolution. But ultimately, he said, the conviction was “forced upon an unwilling convert.” He couldn’t fight the facts. That was intellectual integrity.

Darwin’s greatest proponent was Thomas Henry Huxley. Hafer discussed his lengthy battle with Richard Owen, who maintained that brain differences ruled out any close connection between humans and apes. Huxley showed Owen was just wrong on the anatomical facts: “Before I have done with that mendacious humbug I will nail him out like a kite to a barn door, an example to all evil doers.”

Huxley was indefatigable, working the “social media of his day” — newspapers. Letters to the editor, and replies, were a very big thing.

One audience member remarked that many people who most need to hear such messages refuse to listen. Hafer acknowledged this, and how a lot of these issues have become politicized. But she held that persistent efforts to debate such issues, vigorously battling error, in the public square, can have an effect. And Americans are actually leaving evangelical Christianity in droves, indeed angry because they feel they’ve been lied to.

A point she emphasized was that to overcome biases you have to tailor the message to engage people. Mention was made of Galileo’s experiments with the motions of balls, illustrating his ideas in a visually unarguable way. Hafer also pointed to her own work on how the human body actually shows un-intelligent design.* A prime example is testicles, hanging vulnerably outside the body cavity, whereas many other animals have them safely inside. It’s because human testicles have to be kept cooler. (I asked whether there was any connection between testicles and Galileo’s balls and she gave a straight-faced answer.) Anyhow, the point was that when you start talking about testicles, people sit up and listen.

She also said the current pandemic is a golden opportunity to make people grasp the importance of being serious toward science. And the virus, of course, evolved. If it weren’t for evolution, there’d never be any new diseases.

Hafer avowed that we are struggling today not only for the soul of this nation — but for its brain. Its integrity. Scientists are on the front lines of this battle.

She channeled Martin Niemoller: First they came for the evolutionary biologists . . . .

* Here’s my earlier discussion of that: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/unintelligent-design-–-why-evolution-explains-the-human-body-and-“intelligent-design”-does-not/

“I’m not making this up” — Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits

September 3, 2020

This book was in my cupboard for years — okay, decades. I noticed it was published during the Reagan administration when I pulled it out and decided to read it, as a counterpoint to having just finished philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s The Power of Ideas. Dave Barry would have titled that book The Power of Boogers.

I say “cupboard” but it’s not a “board,” actually a bunch of boards assembled into what might more correctly be termed a cabinet. Nor has it any hooks to hang cups. What made me call it a “cupboard” in the first place puzzles me now, but never mind. It’s where I put volumes bought at used book sales on the deluded theory that I’ll someday read them. I also intend to sort my drawerful of assorted size screws someday.

Anyhow, the foregoing represents my lame attempt to capture the flavor of Dave Barry’s writing. He’s no Isaiah Berlin. But then, Isaiah Berlin was no Dave Barry either.

My local paper used to carry Barry’s humor column. His accompanying photo, with its ridiculous smirk, looking like he’d just swallowed a mouse and was about to burst out giggling, always said to me, “Seriously?” Regretfully, googling didn’t turn up that picture to show you.

This book, Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, begins with a chapter titled, “Why Humor is Funny.” (Berlin might have seen a tautology there.) The chapter is a probing disquisition exploring humor’s historical antecedents from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Woody Allen. I’m not making this up (as Barry himself would say). And it’s all contained within less than three pages. Of fairly large type, no less.

The best source for jokes, Barry asserts, is the Encyclopedia Britannica. No, really — its article on “Humor and Wit,” which he calls a “regular treasure trove of fun.” To substantiate this — well, actually to assure us he’s kidding — he quotes “a real corker.” Tell this joke at a dull party, Barry says, “and just watch as the other guests suddenly come to life and remember important dental appointments!” (Exclamation point in original.)

Here is the said joke:

“A masochist is a person who likes a cold shower in the morning, so he takes a hot one.”

Far be it from me to dispute Dave Barry on what’s funny or not, but I laughed out loud. In fact, the above is a conceptual mate to what is actually my own favorite joke:

Two guys in a bar start chatting. One confides, “I’m a masochist. I love pain and suffering.”

The other says, “Funny thing. I’m a sadist. I enjoy inflicting pain. In fact, I’ve got my basement all set up as a dungeon, with whips and everything.”

“What are we waiting for?” says the masochist.

So they go, he’s stripped to the waist, chained up to a post, and the other guy gets out this great big whip, and he’s cracking that whip, and cracking it, and cracking it.

“Well?” the masochist says impatiently. “Aren’t you going to whip me?”

And the sadist says, “No.”

We’re told that if you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. Jokes work through ironic confounding of expectations. Here, the sadist actually does inflict pain, by denying the masochist his heart’s desire; in the shower joke, the masochist does it to himself. But both jokes have a further layer. Denial of what the masochist craves makes him suffer. Yet isn’t suffering what he really wants after all? This raises deep philosophical questions about the meaning of suffering, and of happiness, that Isaiah Berlin might address.

But it is, admittedly, a weakness in both jokes that neither involves boogers.

Here is my second most favorite joke:

A bald man [note, this is an important detail; the joke is less funny if you’re not picturing the man as bald] walks into a doctor’s office with a frog atop his head.

“What seems to be the trouble?” the doctor asks.

And the frog says, “I have this man stuck to my ass.”

Do you see what I did there? Once again, jokes are about twisting expectations. Here of course one expected the man, not the frog, to answer. My drawing particular attention to the man’s baldness served to heighten that expectation. This is the difference between mere joke telling and comic genius.

But Dave Barry really is a comic genius. One of his chapters I found especially amusing told about a 452-page document printed under the auspices of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, with every single word crossed out. That by itself was not a laugh riot. We actually expect such absurdities in the realm of government. No, what really tickled my funny bone was that the document was on sale by the Government Printing Office, for $17 — and Barry related that 1800 copies were sold. For the record, that’s more copies than were sold of my book, The Case for Rational Optimism. Perhaps mine was less wonderful. Or perhaps my publisher missed a good thing by printing it with no words crossed out. Live and learn.

Being myself a person who has often written about religion, I thought I’d conclude with this trenchant observation from Dave: “The problem with writing about religion is that you run the risk of offending sincerely religious people, and then they come after you with machetes.”

I’ve indeed experienced this.