Archive for October, 2020

Third Factor: My political journey to radical centrism

October 30, 2020

I was invited to contribute a piece to Third Factor (an interesting magazine with a superb editor) — as a counterpoint to one wherein a Democrat expressed some disillusionment.I spent 53 years as a Republican, even considering myself very conservative. But today’s so-called “conservatism” is the antithesis of my beliefs and values.

Is it me that’s changed? In part. I feel I’ve grown in wisdom, my understanding deepened and broadened. Yet my Republican party changed more. Fell off a moral cliff.

It wasn’t overnight. My article explains my long grappling with ugly tendencies in the party. Mirrored now by grappling with unattractive things among some Democrats. But the latter pale in comparison.

Today I consider myself a radical centrist. Transgressing shibboleths of both left and right. Yet I believe my program should appeal to reasonable, rational people. Which seems radical today.

My political peregrination still feels weird to me. I imagine going back and telling a former self: “You will support a candidate with a passionate intensity like never before. To literally save the country from a monstrous regime. A Republican one. And the savior will be . . . Joe Biden.”

“May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse.

Read my article here:

The election: seeing is believing — or believing is seeing

October 28, 2020

A guy interviewed on NPR hoped his candidate would win in a landslide, fearing a close result would mean turmoil. His man: Trump. He worried about Democrats stealing the election.

With the election machinery in most swing states controlled by Republicans? And all signs showing Trump consistently far behind. Having totally repelled sane people, already voting in record-shattering numbers, which favors Democrats. Trump’s asinine campaign isn’t helping. Conceivably he might still eke out a squeaker. But a landslide??

The local paper recently profiled Edwin Lawson, 21, president of his college Republican club. Saying what he heard from “liberal media” and left-leaning professors didn’t match what he knew from experience or what a “reasonable careful accounting of the facts led him to.” Lawson saw a “mob mentality” on campus shutting down debate and making him “extra cautious when reading the news,” seeking a variety of sources across the political spectrum, being skeptical about bias or slant.

Sounds admirably sensible. I myself have assailed the left’s intolerance of divergent views. And Lawson was critical of Trump’s “unbecoming behavior.” Yet he supports Trump — citing “Biden’s occasional gaffes and misstatements.”

This is where Lawson’s professions of objectivity foundered. Yes, Biden occasionally misspeaks. Who doesn’t? But  Trump is a monster liar. That’s a much bigger deal.

So is the pandemic. Saying Trump did a good job defies reality. It’s hard to imagine worse. With this disaster still unfolding, to re-elect him would be insane. Lawson doesn’t even mention this elephant in the room.

Yet another pachyderm is spotlighted by that clueless NPR interviewee: the danger to democracy. No, it’s not Democrats who will try to blow up the country if they lose. Trump has virtually said he will. This too should be a deal-breaker for Republicans who actually care about America. But this too they choose to ignore.

The syndrome is epidemic in comments on my blog. Eagerness to believe almost anything negative about Democrats, while blind to every Trump horror. It’s not defending the indefensible, they don’t even try. Instead typically deflecting to attacks on Trump’s opponents. (“Whataboutism.”)

This reality disconnect is what’s so disturbing about Trump supporters. Like that guy hoping for a landslide; and actually Lawson too. Especially Lawson — a person who otherwise seems so intelligent and reasonable.

I was struck by a non-political remark the same day on NPR, by a contestant in its weekend puzzle segment, involving anagrams. He explained his difficulty: once you start to see something in a certain way it’s hard to unsee it.” 

Trumpers see things in a certain way and seem incapable of unseeing it. I see things a certain way too. How do I know mine is true and theirs is not?

Many, like Lawson, have a lot of information; often spouting fountains of it. Some is even true. But it’s all in service to their seeing things that certain way, to sustain and bolster it. Confirmation bias: welcoming information that supports a belief (or what you wish to believe), and rejecting discordant information. Most of us do this, and smarter people are actually better at it, better at coming up with rationalizations for how they curate information.

I’ve written (in 2013) of my ideology of realityRather than letting my beliefs shape the facts I see, I shape my beliefs upon the facts I see. That is my core belief; my ideology. It trumped my half a century as a Republican, enabling me to see Trump’s ghastly reality. A reality I’m thus sure is real, while the one inhabited by Trump cult devotees is not.

The big question is what happens after Trump’s defeat. How many of his suckers will finally wake up, their heads exploding, realizing they’ve been conned? How many will burrow deeper into rabbit holes of unreality, believing Trump the victim of some vast conspiracy of fraud? This will determine whether America has a future.

Marriage counselors know that an attitude of contempt between partners dooms a marriage. We Americans are perilously close to that point of no return. I for one, understanding this, am prepared to forgive, and reconcile with, Trump supporters. They’re not evil; just misguided. I believe — based on long experience and observation — thus a belief shaped by reality — that most people are good at heart. But it remains to be seen whether enough Americans share that belief, to overcome our divisions.

America slams door on refugees

October 27, 2020

Back in 2015, when I wrote unfavorably comparing America’s intake of Syrian refugees with Europe’s, my daughter (working in the Middle East for humanitarian organizations) reminded me that overall, we had been welcoming more refugees than any other nation. This indeed made me proud of my country.

Both international and U.S. law establish a right of asylum when a refugee has a reasonable fear of persecution in their home country, for various specified reasons. Asylum seekers have a legal right to a day in court for their claims. Not only is this baseline human decency, but most refugees coming here have contributed far more to this country than they cost us. They’ve helped make America great. 

The U.S. government sets an annual cap on refugee admissions. It once was about 235,000. The Trump administration has slashed that by over 93% to just 15,000 — the lowest ever. While actually, new restrictions and policies now make it almost impossible to gain asylum.

NPR’s This American Life  last week profiled Jessica and Moisés, a Nicaraguan couple, prominent political activists against their nation’s repressive Ortega regime. Moisés was taken away to its torture center. The graphic details were not easy listening. But somehow he managed to come out alive . . . this time. He and his wife decided they had to escape Nicaragua, with their young child. Though America was almost closed, there seemed to be a window. The U.S. condemns Nicaragua’s leftist tyranny. While our current requisites for political asylum are restrictive, Moisés did research and determined their case should qualify. He prepared a file with ample documentation, even including his torturers’ names.

The three set out on the terrible, perilous trek through Mexico, and managed to survive it. They got across the Rio Grande and, to their relief, immediately encountered U.S. border agents. Moisés literally laid out his documents on the sand and in fluent English claimed political asylum in accordance with U.S. law. The three people were taken into custody, separated; for twelve days, held in miserable squalid conditions. Told nothing. Then put on a bus to an airplane. Then, with other migrants, flown back to Nicaragua. Nobody ever looked at the documents.

The Nicaraguan police were waiting at the airport on arrival. Moises knew his cache of documents would constitute a death sentence. While queueing for processing he managed to surreptitiously eat the pages. Then, apparently, the slipshod cops failed to red-flag the family, and they were sent to a parent’s home. But they knew the police would be back, and they were in extreme danger. They managed to find a house where Jessica and Moisés, without their daughter, could immure themselves in strict hiding, in an attic.

I’d been hoping that, inasmuch as the couple was being interviewed for the story, it would have a happier ending. But no, that was it.

The U.S. State Department’s website still proclaims: “The United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

The NPR report quoted the U.S. government’s official characterization of Nicaragua’s regime: “utter disregard for human life and democratic freedoms.” That better describes America now too, than does the State Department website.

Joe Biden has personally promised me to reverse these cruel inhuman policies.

Lest we forget: the full Trump record

October 25, 2020

• Covid-19: America’s done virtually the worst of any advanced nation. Economy shut down, but so chaotically we got huge infection and death rates anyway. Fumbled for two crucial months while the virus spread. Trump lied and misled us at every stage, especially about testing. Admitted deliberately downplaying the danger while he knew its severity. Briefings were orgies of self-praise, misinformation, and divisive insults. Pushing conspiracy theories, a phony hydroxy “cure,” or injecting disinfectant and other quackery. Disregarding, even disparaging and attacking, scientific experts, calling them “idiots;” calling Anthony Fauci “a disaster;” testing “very foolish.” Encouraging protests against his own shutdown guidelines, mask-wearing, and social distancing. Politicizing it all. Withdrawing from the World Health Organization during this global health crisis. Zero feeling for victims. Millions sick, hundreds of thousands dead, economic disaster, massive unemployment, children’s education devastated, widespread psychological trauma. Controlling covid is the key to everything — but it’s now surging again to record levels, with the president still in denial and having no actual national plan. 

• Holding rallies and other gatherings without precautions, spreading the disease. Even at the White House, infecting numerous key officials. Including Trump himself, irresponsibly contaminating others (like Secret Service agents in a car for a pointless joyride). And still telling us covid is going away and is no big deal. As if we can all get the extraordinary medical treatment he did. 

• Threatening American democracy by undermining confidence in election results, refusing to accept them or to promise an orderly transfer of power. Instead sowing seeds for turmoil, trying to stop legitimate mail voting, with lies about fraud. His actual words: “Get rid of the ballots and we’ll have a very peaceful . . . There won’t be a transfer, frankly.” 

• Trying to sabotage the Postal Service to screw up mail voting and the whole election. 

• Encouraging an “army” of supporters to disrupt balloting and scare off voters. 

• Preparing for Republican-controlled state legislatures to override popular votes and appoint presidential electors for Trump regardless. 

• Voter suppression and intimidation, using every trick in the book to keep mainly Blacks from voting.  

• Trying to pervert the census for partisan advantage by adding a citizenship question, to reduce the count of Hispanics. Disallowed by the Supreme Court literally ruling it was based on a lie (i.e., that it was to help enforce the Voting Rights Act — which Trump’s administration has in fact been eviscerating). 

• Underfunding the census and ending it early, to ensure an undercount. Directing the exclusion of non-citizen residents, contrary to the constitution, and ruled illegal by federal courts. The aim of all this is to reduce political representation for targeted demographics and thus illegitimately boost Republican power. 

• At the border, seizing thousands of children away from parents, including babies and toddlers, with poor tracking so many will never be reunited. Caging them in appalling squalor. Lying this inhumanity was an Obama policy he stopped.

• Slashing our refugee quota by over 90%; but with new rules to make asylum effectively impossible.

• Sending suffering people lawfully seeking asylum back to other countries, or even politically repressive ones like Nicaragua where the regime will torture and kill them. This violates both U.S. and international law, which requires that asylum seekers have their cases heard before deportation. The inhuman cruelty of all this will stain America forever.

• Deporting parents of young children who are U.S. citizens.

• Even deporting underaged children, by themselves, just dumping them in Mexico and other countries with no adult help. 

• Canceling the DACA program which forestalled deportation of young adults brought here as children.  After the Supreme Court ruled that cancellation improper, flouting its decision by refusing to restore the program as before.

• Virtually halting even legal immigration. 

• All this immigration-bashing foolishly short-sighted, making us poorer economically (actually costing jobs), culturally, and morally. 

• Condoning racist and Neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville; “very fine people on both sides.”

• Leading promoter of the Obama “birtherism” lie; then lying that he was the one who stopped birtherism.

• Pardoning racist Sheriff Arpaio, convicted of defying court orders.

• Divisive comments threatening escalation of violence, regarding George Floyd protests. 

• Violent attack on peaceful protesters and journalists outside White House so he could walk to a church and pose with a Bible. 

• Militarized federal officers sent to Portland to attack and seize protesters, not stopping violence but instigating more of it. 

• Talking “law and order” in Kenosha while actually defending a teenaged pro-Trump vigilante who shot and killed two people. (Trump rants about “Antifa,” but 38 of 42 political-related killings last year were by right-wing extremists.) 

• Saying American-born members of Congress should “go back” to some other country.

• Slamming NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag. 

• Blocking the renaming of military bases named for Confederate generals. 

• Re-tweeting a video showing a supporter shouting “White power!” to which Trump added “Thank you.” Then lying about it. 

• Calling “Black Lives Matter” a “symbol of hate.”

• In debate, refusing to disavow white supremacists, like the Proud Boys hate group, telling them to “stand by.” 

• Yet lying that he’s the least racist of people.

• Telling a convention of policemen it’s good to rough up people arrested.

• Encouraging fans at his rallies to beat people up.

• “Drain the swamp?” An administration that’s a rogues gallery of corrupt lowlife creeps and incompetents.

• Hiding his income tax filings, lying that being under audit prevents disclosure. 

• Turns out he actually paid just $750 in income tax in 2016 and 2017; zero in ten of the 15 prior years. He’s also $421 million in debt, we don’t know to whom, and has previously hidden bank accounts in China and other countries.  

• Enacting a tax cut that’s mainly a giveaway to the wealthiest, and lying that it wouldn’t benefit him.

• Exploiting the presidency for personal gain (like actually billing the Secret Service for accommodations in his buildings while protecting him).

• A New York Times investigation found over 200 companies, special-interest groups, and foreign governments funneled millions into Trump’s properties while reaping benefits from him and his administration — “a system of direct presidential influence-peddling unrivaled in modern American politics.”

• “Grab them by the pussy.”

• Numerous credible accounts of sexual assault, including literal rape. 

• Illegal payoffs to porn stars to hush up adulteries. Lying about this.

• In Helsinki, accepting Putin’s lies against the conclusions of U.S. intelligence services that Russia subverted our 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.

• Firing FBI Director Comey because he wouldn’t bury the investigation of Russian meddling. Lying about the firing. 

• A new August 2020 Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee Report confirms major Russian interference in the 2016 election, with Trump’s campaign chief Manafort colluding with Russian intelligence operatives. 

• Falsely accusing U.S. law enforcement agencies of improperly investigating, and “spying on,” his campaign.

• Appointing Attorney General Barr who lied about what the Mueller report said. 

• Doing nothing about Russian subversion of 2020 election. Denying congressional access to information on the subject. 

• Political interference in Roger Stone case, pressuring DOJ to change its sentencing recommendation. And after even Barr said Stone’s prosecution was proper and the sentence fair, Trump nevertheless commuted his crony’s sentence — for criminally lying on Trump’s behalf. 

• Firing National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for lying, then saying Flynn was “treated very unfairly.”

• Justice Department dropping charges against Flynn, despite his pleading guilty for lying to the FBI. 

• Justice Department firing U.S. Attorney Berman in New York, after falsely announcing he’d resigned. Berman was investigating Trump associates. 

• Justice Department assuming Trump’s defense in a private lawsuit regarding a rape allegation, putting taxpayers on the hook for legal costs and even for any liability.

• Pressuring Justice Department, weeks before the election, to bring charges against political opponents (including Clinton, Obama, Biden) for fantastical imaginary crimes.

• Undermining military discipline by pardoning soldiers court-martialed and convicted of war crimes.

• Insulting war hero John McCain.

• Insulting Khizr Khan, whose U.S. soldier son was killed in Iraq.

• Reliably quoted saying soldiers killed and wounded are “losers” and “suckers,” those who fought in Vietnam should have gotten out of it like he did, and he couldn’t understand why anyone would choose the military over money-making. 

• Tweeting “All talk, no action” about Congressman John Lewis — whose skull was fractured at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

• Covering for Saudi ruler’s murder of critic Kashoggi.

• Congratulating Philippine President Duterte’s handling of a drug problem — by having thousands murdered.

• Claiming a love affair with murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

• Telling China’s Xi Jinping that putting a million Uighurs into concentration camps for trying to practice their religion is “the right thing to do.” 

• Saying Xi’s eliminating presidential term limits is a great idea that we should try. 

• Betraying our Kurdish allies by enabling Turkish dictator’s invasion of their northern Syria territory.

• Leaking sensitive classified information to the Russian ambassador right in the White House.

• Ignoring intelligence that Russia offered the Taliban bounties for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Lying that he didn’t know about it.

• Fawning over other dictators while insulting our democratic allies.

• Economically ruinous trade war with China, costing more jobs than it saves (because U.S. manufacturers must pay more for inputs), costing U.S. consumers billions in higher prices (estimated to average nearly $1300 per household), and costing taxpayers billions to counter part of the damage to farmers. Lying that it’s China paying. 

• Boasting of a great economy (which he inherited from Obama, and which his covid incompetence destroyed). But Trump’s term really just proves that if you mortgage our future by pumping a trillion a year of federal deficit spending into the economy, the economy will look good.  

• Remember his campaign promise to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit? Ha ha.  

• Pulling out of Iran deal, thus speeding Iran’s path to nuclear weapons and destabilizing the region.

• Pulling out of Paris climate accord (America now the only significant nation outside it).

• Shutting down the government because Congress wouldn’t fund his wall.

• Funding his wall by pilfering from the military budget.

• Lying that Mexico would pay for the wall.

• Lying that Obama bugged his campaign.

• Lying about his inauguration crowd size.

• Lying about seeing New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11.

• Praising and parroting conspiracy monger Alex Jones, who persecuted grieving Sandy Hook parents by calling them actors in a phony school shooting cooked up by the government, among numerous other insane delusions.

• Praising the “QAnon” conspiracist network (considered a domestic terrorism threat by the FBI), and retweeting QAnon content hundreds of times. The group, among other things, accuses Trump opponents of pedophilia and baby eating.

• Retweeting that President Obama’s administration didn’t kill Bin Laden, but a body double, and shot down a Navy Helicopter, killing Seal Team members, to cover it up.

• Supporting the candidacy of pedophile Roy Moore.

• Accusing a critic, TV commentator Joe Scarborough, of a murder that never happened. 

• Pledging to protect healthcare for pre-existing conditions while his administration was in court seeking to end it.

• For years promising to replace Obamacare with a better program but never coming up with any. 

• Illegally withholding military aid to our ally Ukraine, trying to use the aid to bribe/extort its president into smearing Biden.

• Trying to cover it up, lying about it, and defying lawful Congressional subpoenas for testimony and documents about it.

• Punishing government officials who told the truth about it. 

• Calling journalists “enemies of the people” for reporting truth he doesn’t like.

• Subverting security clearance procedures for family members.

• His “business” history of multiple bankruptcies leaving others holding the bag after he skimmed off assets.

• While routinely refusing to pay his bills, resulting in literally thousands of lawsuits.

• Inheritance tax fraud, documented by the NY Times.

• The “Trump University” fraud for which he paid a $25 million settlement.

• His “charitable foundation” fraud, resulting in a multimillion dollar settlement, and his being legally barred from the charitable field altogether. 

• Contributions to his “charity” diverted to his political campaign, and even to buy a portrait of himself. 

• Siphoning off money contributed to his campaign (like the $55,000 it paid to Trump for copies of his own book).

• His own longtime “fixer” Michael Cohen told Congress Trump is a “a racist . . . a con man . . . a cheat.”

• Employing 200 illegal immigrants in building Trump Tower.

• Found guilty by a federal judge of conspiring to avoid payment of union pension contributions for those workers. 

• Paying someone to take the SAT test for him. 

• By his own account, spending most of his White House time watching TV (almost all Fox) while refusing to read briefing papers. 

• Destroying the staffing and morale of the State Department, crippling America’s overseas diplomacy and influence.

• Governing only for his supporters, not the rest of America. 

• Literal insanity; severe narcissistic personality disorder; depraved indifference to anyone but himself; a sociopath. Confirmed by his own sister and professional psychologist niece in the latter’s book. 

• Over 22,000 documented lies in addition to those noted above; a war on the concept of truth itself.

• Foreigners see all this, and admiration for America has plummeted. Foreign leaders play him like a fiddle with flattery, laughing behind his back. A recent global poll showed more people now look to China for leadership.

• In countless additional ways degrading America’s dignity and political and civic culture; empowering racists, enflaming people’s worst instincts and tribal divisiveness; undermining our democratic values, governmental accountability, and rule of law; undermining our global leadership, our network of international alliances, and the cooperative rules-based world order America hugely invested in building since World War II, which has been a bulwark of our national security and prosperity. All together, shredding the principles and ideals America used to stand for.

Nothing here is fake news, lies, hoaxes, smoke, or BS. But facts, truth, reality. Maybe you can rationalize away some of it. But all of it? 

Joe Biden is a decent, honest, compassionate, conscientious man. Caring about others. A man of great integrity, intelligence, and deep experience. Who genuinely loves this country and its people. Who built his long distinguished career as a political moderate, a man of the center. Who builds bridges, not burns them. Who is sane.

Trump tries to smear him with lies, as some doddering old fool, corrupt, a tool of extremists, who will destroy the country. All ridiculous. Idiotic. Disgusting. That’s who Trump is. 

This election is about far more than policies or issues. It’s about what kind of country we are. America’s democracy and heart and soul. If you somehow imagine this a better country with Trump than Biden, I beg you to shine a searchlight into your own heart and soul. 

Vote for hope, not fear. Truth, not lies. Love, not hate. For democracy, not autocracy. For national reconciliation — not worsening tribal division. For plain simple decency and sanity.

Trump’s debate performance: “sleazy, heinous, disgusting”

October 23, 2020

Those were the remarkable words of CNN’s judicious Jake Tapper; much of what Trump said was “completely made up;” his whole campaign the sleaziest ever. Fact checker Daniel Dale, while saying Biden made a few misstatements, called Trump’s entire performance “a bombardment, an avalanche of lies.” Dale likened himself to Lucy in the famous scene with the conveyor belt of chocolates outracing her ability to keep up.

Again I watched the debate with Hajira, 18, from Somaliland. I’m so immersed in this stuff; she provided a welcome fresh perspective, very insightful. Seeing right through Trump’s bullshit storm and weird mentality, literally whooping at it.

Trump thought his best shot was calling Biden a “corrupt politician.” Deploying the words like some magical incantation. This from the man who’s exploited the presidency for personal profit, extracted rent payments from Secret Service agents protecting him in his hotels, paid millions to settle his “Trump University” fraud case, millions to settle his charitable foundation fraud case, perverted security clearance procedures for family members, issued pardons to cronies, went through multiple bankruptcies walking away with millions leaving others holding the bag, literally thousands of lawsuits because he consistently refuses to pay his bills, tried to use U.S. military aid to bribe/extort Ukraine’s president into smearing a political opponent, and has told at least 22,000 documented lies.

Including his accusations against Biden. Damaging e-mails discovered on a laptop left for repair — and never picked up? Are you kidding me? That could actually happen? How gullible can one be? The story has Russia’s fingerprints all over it.

Hearing Trump discuss the pandemic was surreal. He painted a grim scene in New York. As if he were running against the president on whose watch that happened. Forgetting he’s that president. Accusing Biden of wanting to shut down the economy. Forgetting he shut down the economy. Except so incompetently we got no benefit.

Here’s what’s true. We’re not turning a corner. The virus is resurging. We can’t get the economy, the schools, our lives, back to normal without first beating the virus. And Trump still has no plan. After eight months, his only plan is happy talk, still touting a vaccine we don’t have, and insisting covid will just go away. Still refusing to tell anti-maskers they’re wrong. Still even falsely quoting Fauci as anti-mask. And saying we should learn to live with covid. Biden’s best line: we’re learning to die with it.

But Trump even portrays a quarter million deaths (so far) as some kind of triumph. By comparing it to 2.2 million that might have happened. That was the death estimate had nothing at all been done by anybody. As if that might have happened. Fortunately most Americans had more sense than Trump about masking. Those who did not are the main cause of the quarter million deaths.

More surrealism on health care. Trump swore to protect people with pre-existing conditions. While his administration is in court, right now, trying to end it. He’s said he does hope the Supreme Court will end Obamacare — taking away health insurance from over 20 million people — in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Promising he’ll replace it with something wonderful. After four years of such lies, it’s a source of wonder that there are still people who don’t laugh in his face.

Meantime, Trump said Biden would take health care away from 180 million people. Uh huh.

“Nobody’s been tougher on Russia.” Uh huh. “The least racist person in the room.” Uh huh. Saying he’s done more for Blacks than Abraham Lincoln — and he wasn’t too sure about Lincoln. CNN panelist Van Jones generously acknowledged that Trump has indeed done some good things benefiting Blacks. But the problem is that, at the same time, he’s also empowered white supremacists. And when asked to address Black families fearful of police violence, etc., he (unlike Biden) didn’t respond at all.

This exemplified Trump showing, with almost every answer, that it’s all about him. Incapable of seeing anything from a perspective other than his own and his deranged ego. Indeed, when Biden spoke about the problems of ordinary people, Trump actually mocked that as talking like a “politician.” Hello, that’s what “politicians” are supposed to do: understand, represent, and serve the people who elect them. If they’re any good. Right — you’re no politician, Donald.

Biden was restrained and calm, but did exhibit moral fervor about the children taken from parents at the border; for over 500 this administration has no way to even find the parents. An atrocity staining America forever. (That’s what I’d personally asked Biden about last week.) His “empathy and humanity came through” (quoting journalist Rosemary Armao).

The final question — what will you say to those who voted against you? — handed Trump one last golden opportunity to at least feign decency. Any candidate not totally insane would have seized that opportunity. Of course Trump did not.

Trump: a damning indictment

October 21, 2020

The Albany Times-Union’s Sunday presidential endorsement editorial was quite extraordinary in multiple respects.

It was unusually early. Filled an entire page. And was superb.

Of course, endorsing Biden was no surprise. Last time, practically no paper in America endorsed Trump. Unprecedented then, it will surely repeat this year. Trumpsters will say that merely shows the press’s bias against him. As if it’s somehow just a baseless prejudice. In fact journalists, whose business it is to understand public affairs, do so far better than the average citizen. Far less susceptible to disinformation, lies, and propaganda. Thus they see the reality of Trump — and in consequence almost unanimously oppose him.

Much good it did in 2016. That such responsible voices are nowadays drowned out by a cacophony of crazed shouting (like Trump’s own) is one of the signifiers that we’re in real trouble.

The Times-Union’s editorial presents a damning indictment. Setting forth the facts — not “fake news,” BS, lies, hoaxes, spin, or hype, but facts — such things do still exist — with blistering, devastating thoroughness. Nailing Trump as a very bad man, very bad for America.

His cultists, if they read it at all, will just wave it away. That itself is a key reason why Trumpdom bodes terrible for our future. So many people so impervious to reason and indeed reality itself. Living in an alternate reality bubble. We can’t go on like this.

It was apparently written by editorial page editor Jay Jochnowitz. A masterpiece of the genre, meriting attention for that alone. But more importantly, it does cogently illuminate the stakes in this election: good against evil. Really and truly.

Please do read it here:

(Coming soon: my own final comprehensive indictment.)

The Black Swan

October 19, 2020

You get fed every day. All you can eat. Treated very nicely too. As such days go by, you grow ever more confident they will continue. Then comes Thanksgiving — and you are a turkey.

Or a sucker, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Like that turkey, we are all suckers of a sort in failing to anticipate the possibility of a dramatic discontinuity in our reality. What Taleb calls a “black swan.” We may believe all swans are white, until a black one comes along, blowing up that assumption.

The book is fascinating, engaging, thought-provoking. It was published in 2007, just before a big black swan, the financial crisis. And reading it in 2020 gave it special added force. The Trump presidency makes many of us feel like that turkey. And then of course the pandemic hit.

The book’s watchword is unpredictability. Taleb considers it an inherent characteristic of existence. Yet we go through life seeming to ignore that. Thinking we know what’s going on, when in a deep sense we do not. Taleb is from Lebanon, his perspective shaped by the trauma of its 1975-90 civil war — coming after a thousand years of sectarian comity, this unforeseen black swan utterly changed the country.

Taleb divides things between Mediocristan and Extremistan. In the former, as its name implies, matters cluster around a middle, dictated by averages, conforming to a bell curve. Take height for example. Outliers like three foot dwarves and seven foot basketballers exist but disappear into the average, hardly affecting it because of the vast numbers closer to the middle.

But while in Mediocristan you do get people 50% above average, for something like wealth the outliers are thousands of times higher, with big effects on the overall picture. That’s Extremistan. Taleb sees reality as more like Extremistan; yet again we behave largely as Mediocristanis.

Trump’s election prompted an avalanche of analysis. Seemingly a tectonic cataclysm, but remember it was extremely close. Had it tipped the other way, the after-talk would have been totally different. His 2020 defeat will be, in major part, attributable to the pandemic. But for that, history might be going in a very different direction.

However — those things are not in fact black swans as Taleb defines the term. (He’d actually call them gray swans.) His black swan is something not just unforeseen but unforeseeable (except in hindsight). Taleb says we retrospectively paste our explanations onto past events as though they were (or should, or could, have been) foreseeable. But history just doesn’t work that way.

Reality is complex to an extreme degree. To navigate it, one’s mind creates a representation of it that is perforce vastly oversimplified. I’m reminded here of “LaPlace’s demon,”  hypothetically knowing literally everything about the Universe at a given moment — what every particle is doing — enabling it to predict the next moment (and the next). Of course humans are way short of that. One of Taleb’s key points is insufficiency of information available to us. Especially what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns” — things we don’t realize we don’t know.

The book mentions the “butterfly effect” — a butterfly flapping its wings in China causing a storm in Kansas. I’m not sure that can ever literally happen, but the point is that a very small cause can trigger a very big effect. A black swan. Which we cannot foresee because we, unlike LaPlace’s demon, cannot assess every small thing happening in the world at a given moment. And, Taleb argues, the black swan’s disproportionately big impact renders what we do know about the world pretty much nugatory.

While most of us did not expect Trump’s presidency, we did at least see it as within the realm of possibility. And many voices had long been warning of a pandemic, someday, much like what we’ve got. It makes sense (though not to Trump) to prepare for such things. Los Angeles has preparations for an earthquake bound to happen someday. But in human psychology, “someday” is not an immediate concern, and for all practical purposes Angelenos live their lives in disregard of the earthquake threat. Just as we all did regarding the possibility of a pandemic. That’s actually not crazy.

Taleb is scathing about hosts of so-called experts, analysts, economists, etc., calling them frauds who are anchored in Mediocristan and oblivious toward Extremistan. Who don’t know what they don’t know. Taleb cites psychologist Philip Tetlock’s famous study of political and economic “experts,” analyzing their predictions compared against results. Their predictions stunk. And the bigger their reputations the worse they stunk. Taleb comments: “We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control.” I recall hearing one forecast Taleb would have applauded: a “psychic” who predicted “unpredictable weather!”

Taleb’s particular bête noir is the Gaussian bell curve, which he deems an artifact of Mediocristan with scant applicability to the real world. I disagree, considering the bell curve a useful conceptual tool for understanding. For example, regarding the mentioned distribution of heights. Though of course one has to know when not to apply a bell curve. A black swan can blow it up, as Taleb insists.

For the stock market, you might expect daily ups and downs to fall along a bell curve — that is, most clustering around the average daily change, with the more extreme moves growing in rarity as they grow in size. That would be Mediocristan. But again Taleb thinks that’s not reality. He presents an analysis showing that if you remove from a fifty year stock market chart the ten most extreme days, the total return falls by half.

Another point is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Taleb cites the story of the ancient philosopher (Epicurus) shown portraits of sailors who prayed to the gods and survived shipwrecks. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” Of course those couldn’t testify about their experience. That’s absence of evidence, or what Taleb calls “silent evidence.”

So what should we do? Taleb says (his emphases) “the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that . . . . This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty. Much of my life is based on it.”

Reading this charitably, Taleb spent most of his life in financial markets, and that’s the context he’s mainly talking about. But as advice for life more generally — it’s insane.

One problem with his above quote is that if something really isunknown, you can’tguess its effect. But even in the realm of the knowable, myriad possibilities for disasters could conceivably strike us. We may not be able to gauge their probabilities with precision, but we can in fact know they are individually very small. A life spent trying to avoid every remote danger would be absurd. If you actually followed Taleb’s advice and focused on the potential (very large) impacts in disregard of their (very small) probabilities — you would never get out of bed in the morning.

No, we cannot know everything, and can be hit hard by things we couldn’t foresee. But we do the best we can. Evolution gave us minds — and psychologies — that, for all their undoubted limitations, are actually pretty darn good at equipping us to navigate through life and avoid pitfalls. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

A dozen daffy delusions

October 17, 2020

1. Urban rioting is scarier than Covid-19.1

2. Only Trump can fix it.2

3. Face masks infringe on freedom.3

4. Immigration is bad for us.4

5. Foreign trade costs jobs.5

6. Gun ownership makes people safer.6

7. Whites are better than blacks.7

8. 2016 Russian election meddling was a hoax.8

9. Trump tells it like it is.9

10. He can only lose the election by fraud.10

11. He’s making America great again.11

12. He’s chosen by God.12


1. Covid’s human and economic toll is literally thousands of times greater.

2. Trump stokes the societal divisions that lead to such violence. And he’s screwed up horribly on Covid.

3. Science is clear that masks curtail the spread of disease. Nobody has “freedom” to endanger others.

4. Immigrants contribute workers and skills we need, creating wealth, paying taxes, and adding consumer demand that means more jobs.

5. Trade enables consumers to buy things cheaper, leaving them with more money to spend on other things, which in turn creates more jobs, not fewer.

6. A gun in the home is way more likely to injure a family member than an intruder. America’s gun violence far outstrips other countries, because of less regulation and more guns.

7. Anyone believing that proves their own inferiority.

8. Major Russian subversion was conclusively proven by evidence.

9. He’s the biggest liar ever (also proven).

10. He can only win the election by fraud, because sensible Americans are fed up with his freak show.

11. His mishandling Covid and the resultant economic fallout hugely damages America. His disgusting behavior degrades our global standing.

12. There is no God. But if there were, he’d be a fool to rely on Trump.

My Q&A with Biden

October 14, 2020

I was privileged to participate in a zoom with Joe Biden today, and got to ask him a question.


The session began with Steve Ricchetti (Biden’s chief of staff as vice president, now in a top campaign role) giving an election update. He urged watching Biden’s recent Gettysburg speech,* displaying his character and vision for the country. Ricchetti lauded how well the campaign has adapted to covid’s exigencies, tearing up the old playbook — a success he ascribed to Biden’s personal leadership.

He talked about the electoral map, looking better and better, with Biden holding and even increasing a strong lead nationally, while leading too in nearly all the swing states — some of which weren’t swing states until Trump support lately eroded. But he also stressed the campaign’s strong focus on voter protection and fighting Republican efforts to disrupt the election.

Listening reminded me how I’m consistently impressed with the straightforward honest seriousness that characterizes all the many communications I get from the Biden campaign. I also receive, as a former Republican, numerous daily ones from their side. The contrast couldn’t be greater. The Republican blasts are all blatant dishonesty, name-calling, and deranged hysteria. Lately they’ve been frantically touting supposed matches for donations, at levels up to 825%! Never specifying the source for those matching funds. Of course it’s just simply a lie, a scam.

Biden began with a brief talk, saying it’s “the character of the country on the ballot.” Explaining how it was Charlottesville that persuaded him to run, which he hadn’t anticipated. He emphasized that he will govern for all Americans, not just a narrow base; that reuniting the country is crucial if we are to move forward. He eviscerated Trump’s ghastly performance on covid. And urged voting for hope over fear, light over darkness, truth over lies — and “science over fiction.”

He answered five questions, each in considerable depth. At this stage of the campaign, it must get wearying. But Biden didn’t show it, treating every question with full respect.

Mine was: “Trump slashed our refugee quota by more than 90%, and made it harder to apply for asylum. Will you reverse these shameful actions? Also, thousands of children were separated from parents at the border, many with poor tracking. It’s so chaotic that I couldn’t find out the number still in custody. How will you tackle this shameful mess?”

Biden’s response was impassioned and eloquent. Yes, he would reverse those policies — “immediately — immediately.” Recognizing how they betray what America should be. “What have we become?” he said, assailing Trump’s “relentless assault on immigrant communities.” We do have to enforce immigration laws, but “in a way that’s humane.” He promised to quickly tackle the whole immigration problem with comprehensive legislation, that will include, at long last, a path to citizenship for our 11 million undocumented residents. The refugee quota will be restored to its pre-Trump level, with more resources, like immigration judges, to facilitate asylum seekers; and his first executive order will be to protect the “dreamers.” Regarding separated children, Biden avowed that keeping families together will be key to his policy.

This face time with the next president was frankly a great thrill for me. And answering my question (and others) the way he did inspired yet greater confidence in him as the leader we desperately need. I am so proud to support him.

* Here’s a link:

The disputed presidential election — of 1876

October 12, 2020

In college I wrote a paper on the disputed 1876 election — a unique case in our history. Which I never thought I’d see reprised.

President Grant, after two terms, did not run again. The Democratic nominee, Samuel Tilden (New York’s reformist governor) won a clear popular vote majority over the Republican Rutherford Hayes. But three southern states submitted different sets of electoral votes, certified by rival state officials. One Oregon electoral vote was also disputed. The southern story was largely a consequence of post-Civil War reconstruction, and electoral chaos, with ex-slaves voting and white efforts to suppress that. (Since most Blacks voted Republican, Hayes would probably have won a fair election.)

The Constitution says Congress counts the electoral votes, but the exact procedure, in case of disputes, was unclear. Needless to say, the situation created an uproar. Congress set up a 15-member “Electoral Commission,” to resolve it, designed to have seven members from each party, including two Democratic and two Republican Supreme Court justices who would choose the 15th member, presumably neutral. Long story short, it didn’t work out that way, and the Commission awarded all 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes — giving him victory, 185-184.

Democrats felt cheated, and there were threats of not accepting Hayes as president. But as inauguration day loomed, the two parties made a deal. Hayes would become president, and in return, federal troops would be removed from the South. Effectively putting white Democrats back in power.

Tilden expressed satisfaction at having had the honor of being elected president while escaping the burdens of office.

In the 2000 election one state’s ballot counting (and hence who won the electoral vote) was contested. There was talk of rival electoral vote submissions like in 1876 (triggering Sec. 15), but before it got to that the Supreme Court resolved the matter. Some did call it a partisan decision, a stolen election. However, it’s impossible to know who “really” won; and had the Court decided the other way, that wouldn’t have given the election to Gore. Instead, the matter would have been thrown back to Florida and into further turmoil, with the path ahead very murky.

Immediately after the decision, Gore made an extremely gracious speech conceding the election without reservations. That helped to persuade his supporters to accept the outcome. And peace did reign in the land. But actually, nobody expected otherwise at the time, even though we did have serious partisan divisions.

In 2020 there is the specter of another 1876, with disputed electoral votes. An unusually high proportion of popular votes will be cast by mail; likely most for Biden. They will be counted after November 3, with a December 14 deadline for certifying presidential electors. The apparent Republican plan is to disrupt that count as much as possible, throwing up baseless fraud claims, so that in swing states with legislatures they control (thanks to gerrymandering), those legislatures can take over and simply appoint Trump presidential electors. The Constitution does not actually say electors must be chosen by popular vote.

But there is a safeguard against that plan. After the 1876 mess, a law (3 U.S. Code Sec.15) was enacted specifying how electoral votes are to be counted. Congress — the new one, in January — can reject electoral votes, if both chambers agree. The House will be Democratic. It’s increasingly likely the Senate will too. Though it’s conceivable that blocking the count of mail ballots could also prevent some Democratic Senators being seated.

Republicans will also employ litigation, aiming to somehow have the election ultimately decided — as in 2000 — by the Supreme Court, which they control. In the past I would not have used those words, strongly defending the Court’s nonpartisan integrity. And I might have trusted Chief Justice Roberts to do the right thing and avoid having the Court’s credibility destroyed by ratifying a blatant election theft. But I’ve just read Joan Biskupic’s Roberts biography, and now I’m not so sure. I fear Roberts is too limited a man to see the picture largely enough, and might rule on some narrow theory of not interfering with state election machinery (as though that’s steering clear of politics). Furthermore, the Court will soon have five other members (out of nine) apt to side with Republicans.

This whole nightmare may be avoided with a decisive Biden victory. But if Republicans can win by stealing just one or two states, they probably will try; if more is needed, it will likely be a bridge too far. Then Trumpsters can accuse me of crying wolf here. Fine. I’d love it if this wolf never arrives.

The country did peacefully accept the outcome in 1876; and in 2000. But it’s a very different nation today, with divisive political feelings far more intense. And impervious to reason, as evidenced by 40% still supporting Trump, in spite of everything. November’s turmoil will put American democracy to an unprecedented stress test. Can it survive this? Or will it finally become the sham democracy that cynics have long called it? With — as in many autocracies today — democratic theater without democratic reality?

No matter how big the vote against him, Trump will refuse to concede, will continue waging media war crying fraud, and millions will believe him, not peaceably accepting the outcome. Many have guns and are busting for the chance to prove their “patriotism.” We’ve just seen a foiled plot by domestic terrorists to kidnap Michigan’s governor and seize control of the state. This was not some joke, it might well have resulted in a very bloody rupture of our civic fabric. And there are surely more where those Michigan plotters came from. Trump, tacitly encouraging them, is playing with fire. After November 3, it may be more than tacit. Buckle your seat belts.

And what if Trump’s putsch succeeds? Will Democrats accept it? I will not. What will I do? I don’t know. I believe in not crossing bridges till you get to them. I still hope this is one I won’t have to cross.