Archive for December, 2020

Covid relief: can we get our heads straight?

December 30, 2020

Besides killing a third of a million Americans, sickening many millions, and disrupting our lives and metal health, the pandemic has been economically devastating. Something like 100,000 businesses have cut back or shut down, many permanently, hitting lower wage earners especially hard. On the other side of the tracks, anyone owning stocks has done very well. Thus further widening economic inequality.

I’m no left-wing social justice warrior, blaming economic disadvantage on the successful, considering their wealth morally “obscene.” But the question is what kind of society we want to live in. I want one that’s humane. With ameliorating human suffering a primary raison d’être.

Covid relief efforts have reflected such an ethos; sort of; up to a point. But, as seems endemic in human affairs, we don’t act with direct clarity, being waylaid by other interests and concerns.

Last spring’s initiative entailed $1200 checks. The latest, $600 checks (with efforts to increase them). But most Americans get them, instead of specifically targeting the neediest. Maybe figuring out who’s really needy would have been a fraught hassle. Or maybe too many would resent checks given to other people. Many Americans hate “welfare” but don’t put in that category any goodies they get from government. Anyhow, while the checks cost the nation hugely, the effect is diluted by spreading it so widely; the help to the neediest is piddling; and the aim of economic stimulus is also blunted, most recipients just holding onto the money rather than spending it.

The spring legislation also splashed out money supposedly to help businesses survive the pandemic. But this too was like an indiscriminate shotgun blast rather than laser-focused on where there was real need. The program wasn’t user-friendly, thus favoring big firms over the small ones that were actually hurting the most. Moreover, surprise, politically connected businesses somehow made off with bundles. Indeed, not just actual businesses. Joel Osteen’s cash-rich Texas megachurch got millions.

There’s also been an eviction moratorium, and New York State is enacting a more muscular version. Here again, instead of targeting the help where it’s most needed, it seems likely to benefit many better-off people. Supposedly, you’ll have to do paperwork showing hardship. The non-poor are better at working the system like that.

The eviction protection schemes point up a further problem. Keeping people from being thrown out on the streets is certainly a good intention, but there’s no free lunch, and legislators aren’t oriented at thinking about who pays. Here, we’re told that rent obligations are not being waived, that back rents will ultimately have to be paid. Oh, really? By tenants living from hand to mouth? In fact, is this eviction protection — or postponement? Kicking the can down the road (while making it heavier).

Of course nobody loves landlords. The word conjures fat aristocrats eating oysters in mansions while their peasant tenants starve. But actually, today we’re talking about businesses — supplying customers with a “good” in the truest sense, a roof over their heads — and rather than being a lucrative game, it’s actually a very tough business. And many are indeed the kinds of small businesses, hurt by the pandemic (often unable to collect rent), that other programs are supposedly aimed at helping — even while eviction moratoria screw them.

If low income tenants need help, how about government just manning up and paying their rent, instead of shoving the burden off on landlords?

Then there’s the student debt monster awaiting the Biden administration. With similar issues arising. How to help those truly in need, without most of the benefit going to people who are actually better off. College grads do tend to economically outpace the degreeless. Their student debt may seem onerous, but they made a calculated investment that should pay off handsomely over their working lives. On the other hand you have poorer students — poor in both senses — who gained little from their studies and now owe crippling debts. And where will the cost of debt relief really fall? Meantime, the whole student loan program was a big factor making colleges so expensive — knowing there was money there, they boosted tuition to soak it up. Forgiving loans will feed that syndrome.

The bottom line on all these issues is that we should just make a societal decision to help people truly in need (including for health care), as a basic principle. Not because that fits with some political ideology, but simply because it is humane and reflects our best selves. And we, as a society, should simply pay for it. Which we are amply rich enough to do. The costs of raising everyone to what we should all agree is a minimally decent living standard are actually dwarfed by benefits handed out to the better off without our batting an eyelash.

George Will: What is conservatism?

December 27, 2020

American “conservatism” has become a perverted travesty of its former self. Writer George Will, in his book, The Conservative Sensibility, offers a bracing corrective. Discussed in a terrific interview with the New York State Writers Institute’s Mark Koplik.

Both Will and I came to conservatism in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. And left with Trump. Mainline “conservatism” is no longer a philosophy, it’s a tribal cult.

Will begins by differentiating between two kinds of sociopolitical divisions. One — the healthy sort — involves ideas. Differing interpretations of history and understandings of the world, leading to differing policy perspectives. Those can be argued, and having such arguments is a very positive American thing. If you don’t like arguments, you’re in the wrong country. And you shouldn’t see a disagreement over ideas as an attack on your personhood.

One thing I’ve noticed is that blog comments by Trump supporters almost never actually advance arguments. Rarely grapple substantively with opposing points or facts. Instead they’re mainly bald (and usually irrelevant) assertions and ad hominem disparagement.

This introduces the second, unhealthy kind of division, tribalism. Where it’s all us-against-them, the individual subsumed into a tribal identity. We are all embedded in social, cultural settings, but a person is much more than that, Will said. He does recognize that attachments to subgroups are a normal part of life. But it’s another thing when that becomes the basis of your personal identity, your tribe. Especially pernicious when it incorporates a set of political stances. Will spoke of “furnishing” one’s mind by swallowing such precepts whole, so you never have to think about things for the rest of your life. American “conservatism” has become that kind of tribal cult (in thrall to a very bad guru).

Yet, says Will, the whole point of modernity is the contrary, to rescue individuality from being a passive plaything of circumstances. That is, to rescue human agency. We have the free will to change our destiny. Will called the opposite view “historicism.” That’s a nod to Karl Popper, whose 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies similarly argued that we are not prisoners of some historical inevitability.

So what are the positive ideas constituting George Will’s conservatism (and my own)?

He saw them as actually America’s foundational ideas, the nation “conceived in liberty” as Lincoln put it. Democracy, Will said, is a process; liberty a condition, which comes first. Government does not give us rights, but is our creation as their guardian. Thus it should be inherently limited — strong enough to protect our rights but not so strong as to threaten them. The Bill of Rights was enacted to put certain things beyond the reach of majorities.

Will strongly distinguished American conservatism from its European antecedents, rooted in Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and defense of hierarchies, in opposition to egalitarianism and the dynamics of change. Thus “conserving” the status quo. This has always been a misnomer as concerns the American version, at least since the 1950s, opposing much of the prevailing dispensation. Will says that what it wants to “conserve” is America’s founding principles, while not otherwise being hostile to change. It celebrates the free market precisely because of the spontaneous “churning” it produces, making for progress and upward mobility. Unlike the stagnation when government controls everything (the extreme example being the old Soviet Union).

Thus Will correctly traces American conservatism not to Burke but rather to the classical European liberalism of thinkers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill.* The aim is to promote individualism while also having a commodious civic life. The drama of modern politics is people disagreeing about “the good;” the challenge is to accommodate such diversity, so we can pursue differing visions but still coexist.

Asked whether his stance is “libertarian,” Will said he’s “libertarian-ish” (the pure doctrine having untenable implications). Will characterized his moderated libertarianism as a common sense approach that practically everyone actually embraces. The key idea being that if government tells us what to do, it ought to have a strong reason (consistent with its remit of protecting us from each other while maximizing freedom).

But none of this has much to do with what calls itself “conservative” in today’s America: an incoherent conceptual mess. Nor of course does it resonate on the big-government censorious left. The sound structure of classically liberal ideas that Will lays out is a homeless vagabond in the nation’s current political landscape.

Will’s conservatism entails an ethos of carefulness, with respect for facts and reality, also obviously gone out the window under Trump. In favor of “alternative facts” one prefers to believe. Of course that’s not exclusive to the right; Will speaks of a left-wing academic culture with a “high ratio of certainty to information.” But a salient example on the right is the trope of America founded as a “Christian nation.” That’s not just historically false, here again it’s today’s conservatives turning upside down what our founding principles actually were.*

Will in contrast forthrightly calls himself an atheist. And morality, he says, comes from philosophy, not religion. I would add that it’s actually encoded in our biology; and philosophy explicates moral principles we already feel in our bones. We don’t, says Will, need anything from the supernatural (which doesn’t exist anyway).

Indeed, that can only be a source of moral confusion. American conservatives are steeped in religion, and religion’s divorcement from rationality and reality set the stage for their going off the rails morally with Trumpism. That’s how we got children ripped from mothers’ arms and put in cages. 

* “Liberalism” still has that meaning in Europe, different from what Americans call “liberal” politics. In fact, the U.S. left opposes that kind of classical liberalism, labeling it “neo-liberal” as a pejorative.

** I’ve discussed the history here:

Trump’s latest criminal pardons

December 24, 2020

In 2007, four Blackwater organization operatives, working on contract for the U.S. military in Iraq, committed what by all accounts was an unprovoked and indefensible massacre, a shooting spree killing 14 innocent Iraqi civilians including women and children, and wounding 17 others. It was called Baghdad’s “Bloody Sunday.” The U.S. government went to great effort and expense to investigate this atrocity, gather evidence, and bring those responsible to trial. In compliance with our obligations under international law, and demonstrating America’s commitment to humanity and justice. The four were found guilty and received prison sentences from 12 years to life.

Trump has now pardoned them. Mumbling something about trial irregularities — dismissed as simply nonsense by people knowledgeable about the case. It was thoroughly investigated by the FBI, and the verdicts were hailed as incontrovertibly proper.

Blackwater is headed by Eric Prince, who just happens to be a big Trump donor and the brother of his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVoss. This week Trump also pardoned several criminals who were prosecuted in connection with the proven 2016 Russian election subversion (which Trump falsely calls a “hoax”), including supreme slimeball Paul Manafort (convicted of illegal lobbying, tax evasion, and multimillion dollar financial fraud connected with his working for foreign dictators). And Trump pardoned two ex-Congressmen, Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins, both convicted of serious financial crimes, who had been among Trump’s earliest Congressional supporters in 2016. And Jared Kushner’s father (prosecuted by Chris Christie), convicted of tax evasion, witness tampering, and campaign finance violations.

Presidents were given pardon power for mercy and to rectify injustices. But one former federal prosecutor likened Trump’s latest pardons as those of a mob boss.

All this comes on top of a long string of other politically smelly and corrupt crony pardons, including racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio; propagandist Dinesh D’Souza; Roger Stone; and Michael Flynn. All convicted of serious crimes. None of these pardons went through the customary Department of Justice review process. They were just Trump’s whims.

And the Blackwater case reprises Trump’s previous pardons for a Navy SEAL court-martialed and convicted by a military jury for war crimes, and other soldiers punished for misconduct. Trump’s actions horrified military brass, who said they represented a crisis in military governance, undermining good order and discipline in the ranks. Which of course rests upon the concept of accountability for transgressions. Trump also fired the Navy Secretary who objected to those pardons. (So much for Trump posturing as a champion of the military.)

The further perversion of justice represented by the Blackwater pardons has been met with widespread shock and dismay by responsible observers. Human Rights Watch calls it contempt for the rule of law. It’s a gut-punch to the people of Iraq, who’d believed justice was being done. It’s a terrible black eye for America’s standing in the world. It will make things harder for U.S. troops everywhere, who will now be looked upon with heightened suspicion.

America’s greatest asset, in its global relationships, has been not its economic or military power, but admiration for this country as being indeed admirable, standing for what’s right, upholding universal values. Putin and China jeer that that’s just bullshit, that we’re hypocrites, as bad as they are. Trump is trying to prove them right after all. Telling the world we don’t give a damn if our soldiers commit atrocities.

Trump did this latest pardon blizzard while completely ignoring covid’s accelerating death toll; except to irresponsibly trash the covid relief bill negotiated without him; and vetoing the military budget for taking Confederate names off bases; while still obsessing about somehow overthrowing the election.

Trump cultists, who call themselves “patriots,” trying to shrug off or defend the pardons (with predictable whataboutism — Marc Rich pardon? — and other lame deflections) will prove their literally insane moral depravity.

Equally insane is their denial that Trump lost a fair election — in part due to his long record of reprehensible conduct like these despicable pardons.

Is this their idea of “draining the swamp?” Of “law and order?” That slogan may still play in Trumpmania. But I wonder how it plays today in Baghdad.

Still four weeks to go. God help us.

Airplane! Don’t call me Shirley

December 23, 2020

Remember when you got a full meal on domestic flights? When you’d board a plane with no security line? When female flight attendants were called “stewardesses” (and they all were female)?

Remember flying?

On Netflix my wife and I stumbled on the 1980 film “Airplane!” Remember when comedies were actually full of laughs?

Of course not all were. But this one sure was. The gags were sometimes lame, yet funny for their very lameness, with puns abounding. This film’s iconic signature piece of dialog:

“Surely you can’t be serious.”

“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

“Airplane!” was, again, very much a time capsule. There was political incorrectness you couldn’t get away with now. Like two Black passengers using dialect so thick it needed subtitles. When a stewardess can’t understand them, a white passenger (played by Barbara Billingsley, who my wife remembered as Beaver’s mom) steps up to interpret, saying, “I speak jive.” Hearing her do so was jarring.

Both pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated by sickness, and stewardess Elaine takes one of their seats. Instructed to press the “automatic pilot” button, it inflates a pilot-shaped balloon into the other seat. The sexual aspects of Elaine’s relationship with the automatic pilot are tastefully explored.

Meantime, Elaine’s (other) boyfriend, Striker, couldn’t get past his WWII fighter pilot tragedy. This couple didn’t seem to have aged in the intervening 35 years, but never mind that detail. Anyhow, Elaine, finally having had enough of Striker’s crippling emotional baggage, left him behind when boarding the plane. He determines to overcome his fear of flying and go after her.

“Smoking or non-smoking?” the ticket agent asks him. (Remember smoking on planes?)

“Smoking,” Striker answers, so he’s handed a ticket that’s literally spewing a plume of smoke.

My wife chimed in, “He’s going to save the plane.”

She’s always right; of course he does. And they live happily ever after. (It helps if you never age beyond twenty.)

The autopilot, it seems, also lives happily ever after, with an inflated female counterpart.

We give this film two thumbs up, four stars, and a partridge in a pear tree.

For Trump disease, there’s no vaccine

December 20, 2020

WAMC, the local NPR station, has a morning “roundtable” of journalists and others discussing the news. In 2015 it became the Trump roundtable; even while his candidacy was still seen as a joke, he was sucking up attention like no other personage ever had. Of course it intensified during his chaotic presidency.

That would cease, columnist David Brooks once predicted, with Trump’s 2020 defeat. Republicans would abjure him as that most despised of beings, a loser. But Trump seems to be pulling off his biggest con of all — convincing them (and probably himself) he actually won the election. Being cheated by a massive conspiracy of fraud.

This delusion piles one more upon a towering edifice of nurtured grievances, and fits right in with fantasizing Trump as some tribune battling a Satanic “deep state” cabal conniving to bring him (and America) down. They’ve long salivated for his final triumph. Seems they’ll have to wait longer. More reason to continue giving him money.

Which of course he’s cynically exploited, with floods of “stop the steal” email appeals. They’re the real 2020 election fraud — because instead of financing Trump’s disgraceful ballot litigation, most of the money goes elsewhere. After the electoral college vote, the “defend the election” theme vanished from emails, perhaps now looking too absurd even for Trump chumps. Yet they’re still being relentlessly squeezed for cash.

And the sore loser assault on democracy is unabated. The messages now label Biden an “illegitimate president,” while Trump refuses to meet with him or otherwise cooperate in the transition, continuing his shredding of civic norms. It’s not merely ugly. All this does great harm to the country.

Key to democratic culture is willingness to amicably accept election outcomes and the legitimacy of the other side’s role. We’ve already long had a real problem here, with such divisiveness that political legitimacy itself had become a sore point. A president explicitly declaring his successor illegitimate carries that to a whole new level. 

One more way in which Trump has been the most destructive single person in America’s history. Being well versed in that history, I say this literally and judiciously.

We did hope to turn the page by voting him out. But this monster will continue sucking up attention, grinding down democratic norms, dividing us, and sabotaging efforts to dig ourselves out of the hole. Making his cult followers even more angry, embittered, and disaffected. Their worship unfazed by his hunkering in the White House dementedly plotting to overthrow an election he lost by seven million votes while he ignores everything else — including three thousand daily U.S. deaths.

For this sickness there’s no vaccine.

Another facet of Trump’s destructiveness is his blowing up our information ecosystem. To discredit any news he doesn’t like and create an alternate reality. Many Americans don’t know what to believe any more when it comes to basic public facts. Many, indeed, so befogged they can’t see through the most blatant disinformation — as with Trump’s “election fraud” scam. 

The internet’s proliferation of infogarbage paved the way. And now we’ve got lies spewed by shameless national propaganda broadcasters masquerading as news sources — Fox, and even more egregious, One America News Network and Newsmax.

The huge irony here is that for all Trump’s “fake news” assaults on mainstream media as his enemy, it’s actually that very media that played his game and gave him power by gifting him with an unprecedented spotlight. And while Trump whines that the media was out to get him, it was a largely uncritical spotlight. (Only lately have they found the guts to speak forthrightly of “baseless fraud claims” and the like in news coverage.) Many in the mainstream media by now seem to recognize how much they themselves foolishly helped create this monster.

Will they finally learn the lesson, and dampen Trump’s spotlight once he’s out of office? Or will they, like heedless moths to a flame,  continue giving over-the-top coverage to his every abominable rally and deranged tweet?

A test will come on January 20 when Trump tries to upstage the inauguration.

Can you love multiple partners?

December 17, 2020

Having multiple sex partners is common enough. But what about love?

This was a question discussed at a social gathering; an intellectual group. Earlier we’d discussed whether love is a “choice.” The consensus was pretty much in the negative; that it’s just something that happens, outside of one’s control.

Well, we do make choices. But the real issue is how we make them. A powerful metaphor is Jonathan Haidt’s in his book The Righteous Mind — the conscious mind as the rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks they’re in charge, directing the elephant. But mostly it’s the elephant going where it wants, with the rider making up rationales for why they’re going there.

That applies to falling in love. Yes, it’s a choice, but an elephant choice. Your conscious, thinking, rational mind is along for the ride. You do have reasons for falling in love with someone, maybe even ones you can articulate. Yet the true reasons operate at an unconscious level, deep in your psyche. The two sets of reasons may coincide, to at least some degree. But we shouldn’t imagine really understanding what’s going on.

So what about simultaneously loving more than one person, in that way? (Loving parents or children, etc., is a different thing.) In a romantic love relationship, exclusive fidelity is a cornerstone concept, with infidelity seen as incompatible. This is a sociological, cultural idea, powerful enough to influence our elephants. Yet our elephants may still harbor other ideas too. Judging from how humans actually behave.

This is crucially shaped by evolution. The only thing nature cares about is reproduction — producing offspring, and getting them to adulthood to reproduce again. That accounts for all our sexual feelings. Embedded deep in our genes.

And fidelity is an element here. Women are programmed to want male partners who’ll stick around to protect and help raise the kids. And the male wants the female to be faithful so he knows the kids he’s expending resources on are really his. These imperatives are a very big deal, evolutionarily.

Indeed, our group discussion noted male animals sometimes killing their mates’ offspring sired by a different partner. Even among humans, how often we read of the “boyfriend” mistreating or even killing a woman’s child by a previous guy. That’s evolution driving him. That boyfriend (his genetically shaped elephant) wants to perpetuate his own genes, not to invest work in someone else’s.

All that said, however, it’s far from the whole story. The male is also programmed to spread his sperm around as widely as possible, to increase the chances for his genes to appear in the next generation. Some readers may have noticed how this factor manifests in human behavior.

The calculus for a female differs since she’s strictly limited in numbers of offspring. Thus she must make each one count — birthing the healthiest children, most apt to reach adulthood. That’s why she too has a roving eye. Her mate may be nice enough, but some other male may attract her as likelier to give her a better baby. Also, her mate may be shooting blanks. Sex with additional men makes getting pregnant more likely.

So while we do have some cultural and evolutionary drivers for exclusivity in love, we also have genetic drivers for playing the field. At any rate, certainly our elephants are not programmed to rule out multiple simultaneous loves.

And meantime there’s a lot of psychology in play, wholly apart from our evolutionary and cultural programming. To name just one factor: ego. That’s why we talk of romantic “conquests.” In sum, the elephant may be perfectly capable, even desirous, of multiplicity in love. If one is good, mightn’t two (or more) seem better?

Stated another way: the heart wants what it wants. And it may want more than one.

A Christian asks Christian Trumpers: “What in God’s Name are You Doing?”

December 15, 2020

Kathryn Shihadah wrote this piece (11/15/20) on, a religion site. My humanist society’s newsletter reprinted it. I found it quite powerful too, and have edited it slightly: 

Trump-supporting Christians have abandoned the call to be Christlike, and turned Christianity into something barely recognizable. It’s time to ask ourselves honestly: what are we doing? I’ve been a lifelong Christian, and I intend to remain faithful to God till I die. But I’m no longer sure about wearing the “Christian” label. Why? Trumpism. 

Here’s a quote I saw recently, trying to belittle atheists: “When people choose not to believe in God, they then become capable of believing in anything.” No, the exact opposite is true: When people choose to believe in God, they become capable of believing in anything.

It’s true. We have been guilty of a massive lack of discernment, and the sooner we admit it, the better. First we paired ourselves with a man who . . . well, you know the long list of strikes already against him even before 2016. In spite of his many indiscretions and deep-seated vices, we Christians excused and embraced him. Every time some new trespass came to light, we found a way to brush it off. 

Everyone is a work in progress; everyone deserves forgiveness and a second chance, but we’re not talking about a friend or coworker here. This is the man we put in charge of our country. He showed us he was a fake Christian. Showed us he was self-centered and arrogant. Showed us he was a racist – even as he told us he was “the least racist person in the room.” The opposite of Christlike. We are guilty. We knew all this and we elected him. We looked at him and his Muslim ban, and his Mexico wall, and we said, “yes, this is the man for us.” We completely ignored Jesus’s straightforward words, “whatever you have done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” 

That’s right, we turned away Jesus at every international airport and deported him at our southern border. We ripped babies from Jesus’s arms and put them in cages. Not Obama. Us. Nearly every day for four long years, the president we elected did something obscene, or lied to us or to the world, or bullied the weak, or cozied up with tyrants. For the last ten months, he has ignored hundreds of thousands of Americans as they died. Now, the majority of Americans are done with him. And we can’t handle it. He is probably the most hated man in the world right now, but we think the only way he could lose an election is through some kind of massive conspiracy. 

What have we become, Christians? Do we still believe we have the moral high ground here? Do we even care about integrity? It seems to me (and hundreds of millions of people around the world) that all Christians care about anymore is winning. 

Are our leaders being Christlike? Christian leaders weaponize Christianity, and use it to demonize and/or ridicule every American who didn’t vote for “our man.” Paula White** talks of a “demonic confederacy against the election, against America, against who you have declared to be in the White House.” Kenneth Copeland: “The media said Joe Biden is president. Hahahahahaha. Hahahahahaha.” Michelle Bachmann: “God, take your rod of iron and smash the delusion of Joe Biden as our president – he is not.” 

When the president tear gassed a peaceful protest so he could walk across the street and hold up a Bible for a photo op, that was distasteful. We can say, “Father, forgive him. He knows not what he does.” But Paula and Kenneth are pastors. They know better. Not only are these people’s words offensive and decidedly un-Christlike, they are using God’s name and the Bible as a weapon. In defense of a man who watches TV and plays golf all day while Americans are dying. 

So I ask again, what have we become? Does this in any way resemble Jesus? Are we being Christlike? We’re pretending like we just want a fair election, but won’t consider it fair unless our candidate wins. We’ve suggested that “liberals” must have tampered with vote counts, and implied that “conservatives” would never do such a thing. We cannot accept the fact that it’s over. We are demanding to keep that person in charge of our country. Oh, and many of us are still selfishly refusing to protect our communities by wearing a mask. 

Yeah, I’m still a Christ-follower. But “Christian?” I’ll have to think about it. When people choose to believe in God, they become capable of believing in anything.  What in God’s name is wrong with us? 

* Here’s a link:

** Trump’s so-called “spiritual adviser.”

Police reform: a conservative issue

December 12, 2020

A recent local TV discussion included some Black activists and Albany’s police chief and other officials. The big takeaway was insufficient police accountability to the citizens for whom they’re supposed to work. Albany has had several injuries and deaths in recent years resulting from dubious police conduct. Since 2000 we’ve had a “Community Police Review Board,” but the TV discussion made clear its toothlessness. I’m not aware of any officer ever disciplined due to its actions.

Then we watched Aaron Sorkin’s film, The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Including footage of police assaulting protesters during the 1968 Democratic convention. Called a police riot, it was horrific. Were any cops disciplined?

I was active in Republican/conservative politics in New York City in the ’60s. We wore “Support Your Local Police” buttons, opposing a civilian review board. This pro-police “law and order” stance has long been a conservative staple. It was a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign.

But what is “conservatism,” really? If nothing else, belief in limited government, and distrust of its power, especially when it intrudes upon our lives. Now suppose I tell you government will enforce its will by deploying guys with weapons, authorized to use them against citizens, at their own discretion (or lack thereof), with scant accountability? Doesn’t that scare the crap out of you?

That’s my conservatism talking. You might answer, well, I’m white, and law-abiding, so I have nothing to fear. But most demonstrators whose heads police cracked in Chicago were white, and in fact law-abiding. It was lawless police that instigated the violence. Those demonstrators were basically just exercising their American right to free expression — one that I particularly value. I’ve marched in protests too.

Maybe you welcome police brutalizing people you disapprove of. But if they can do it to them, they can do it to you. “First they came for the Jews . . . .” A nation where a Breonna Taylor or a George Floyd can be wantonly killed by “law officers” is not safe for any of us. That’s not “law and order.”

Yes, we do need police. Thusly giving government a monopoly on legitimate use of force is essential to our social compact. As explained by Thomas Hobbes, the answer for the “war of all against all” we’d have without it. We give up our freedom to prey upon others in exchange for protection from their predation. Thus we establish rule of law and a government to literally police it. But that use of force must be accountable to us.

Accountability is a central problem of government. That’s why conservatives cast a wary eye on bureaucrats in distant offices whose actions can affect our lives. But the more immediate concern — its real ground zero — is the cop on the beat, right there among us, armed not with a pen but with a gun, which government says he can use on us if he so decides. Often indeed police are armed like an invading army. That’s where accountability is needed most.

And it’s sorely lacking. Police are powers in their own right, unto themselves. Unlike politicians, they don’t have to earn our votes. They’re further insulated from citizen accountability through powerful unions and contracts that stymie discipline and even hide such matters from public view. George Floyd’s killer had 17 prior transgressions on his record and still remained on the force.

How is defending this unfettered and indeed violent governmental power “conservative?” Working to constrain it isn’t just a left-wing issue. Conservatives — those who actually understand conservative principles — should join with them.

America’s sanity crisis

December 9, 2020

Though just 51% voted for Biden, I’d hoped his election might dispel the fog of insanity gripping most of the rest. But so far if anything it’s deepening.

Deepening too is America’s worst crisis of my lifetime. A 9/11’s worth of deaths every day, 15 million sickened, hospitals overwhelmed, psychological trauma, economic devastation widening. And where the fuck is the President??

If ever there was a time crying out for real national leadership, this is it. But Trump has been MIA for months about the pandemic. Except to claim credit for vaccines, even while he disregards the daunting challenge of administering them. Instead of working on that, or to curb covid’s spread, or with Congress on stalled relief legislation, instead of rallying the nation’s resolve or comforting the suffering — a deranged president in his bunker fixates on trying to undo the reality of his amply deserved election defeat. Spewing lies about nonexistent fraud. When the real fraud is scamming his suckers to donate to a phony “election defense fund” ($200 million and counting).

Peter Baker’s Sunday analysis in The New York Times* — “Trump’s final days full of rage and denial” — reads like literature. Full of Shakespearean references. Trump as some mad medieval monarch careening toward the implosive last act. Even after four appalling years, the picture now is yet more extraordinary and unnerving.

And astoundingly, 47% voted for this guy! One of the vilest men on Earth. Still swallow his lies, still worship him. Only 27 of 249 Republican members of Congress recognize Biden’s election; many say Trump won. In Pennsylvania, 75 GOP state legislators have called on Congress to reject the state’s Biden electors. Almost the whole party is complicit in what truly amounts to Trump’s (fortunately shambolic) coup attempt.

This is insane.

And it has grave consequences. It sets a terrible precedent for a future bad guy slicker than Trump. It will hobble the Biden administration’s ability to function in this time of crisis. While trust in the integrity of elections is a key pillar of our democracy. Now almost half the country thinks the whole system is illegitimate. Indeed, millions of Christians believe Trump was installed by God, with Biden a Satanic usurper. Literally! This is part of the crisis we’re in. It’s a sanity crisis.

A Staten Island bar owner was cheered by “supporters” after being busted for violating covid restrictions and then attacking a cop with his car. Last Friday, the New York Young Republican Club held a big gala in a New Jersey restaurant — none in New York would host such a prohibited event. The revelers, including Matt Gaetz, a Trump-crazed Florida Congressman, posed pressed together with big smiles — and no masks.

Local officials harshly condemned this irresponsibility. But club president Gavin Wax responded, “We embrace life and living while you all cower in your pods worried about a disease with a 99%+ survivability rate. The left wants you to live in a world where socializing and being with friends and loved ones is a crime and a sin. It’s sick.”

I too embrace life and living; I want to continue it. The 99% number is Trump’s, false of course, the true figure being somewhat lower. Yet even for survivors the illness is often a horrible ordeal, and a great many suffer lasting health problems. It’s the mindset represented by that club president that’s sick. Responsible for most of our quarter million deaths.

As is his inspiration: the U.S. President. Who could so easily have been a hero in this crisis. If only he’d taken it seriously, and especially, pushed masking and social distancing. They became anathema on the right only because of him. It made no sense. For all Trump’s obsession with re-election, by inviting the covid catastrophe he screwed himself (and us). But it’s not inexplicable. He’s clinically insane.

The six more weeks before sanity is restored in the presidency is way too long. During that interval covid’s ravages will be devastating. And so sadly preventable. President-elect Biden talks of asking Americans to mask for 100 days. Asking— not curtailing “freedom” but begging us to be good citizens, to protect the lives of others as well as our own. And while Trump has assailed Biden as threatening an economic lockdown, we already had that — under Trump — so mismanaged it didn’t work. We don’t need to repeat that disaster. We could keep most of the economy (and, especially, schools) open as long as we do so smartly, with ramped up testing and tracing, and observing the other kinds of sensible precautions, mainly masking and social distancing.

But too many Trumpsuckers, like those New York Republican clubbers, won’t comply. Half of people polled say they’ll even refuse vaccination. Theyll listen to a low-down lying lunatic of a president — but not Biden.

I’ve quoted Lincoln saying America cannot endure half slave and half free. Nor can we endure half sane and half nuts.

* Here’s a link:

Where the Crawdads Sing (Big spoiler alert)

December 7, 2020

My local paper publishes the NY Times bestseller list weekly, which I glance at. Where the Crawdads Sing, a novel by Delia Owens, topped it forever. Owens is a zoologist and wildlife writer; this is her first novel. I’m not normally into popular novels, but then my book group chose it.

Its appeal is understandable. It’s set in the marshes of North Carolina’s outer banks, leading to the ocean. Kya, known as “the Marsh Girl,” lives there in a shack. By the time she was six, her abusive drunk of a father had driven away the rest of the family; often absent himself, he disappeared for good a few years later. Leaving Kya to survive alone. Which she does admirably.

This story is joined with a murder mystery.

Teenaged Kya, much the loner, nevertheless develops a diffident romance with Tate, a slightly older youngster encountered exploring the marshlands. When he goes off to college, he promises to return. But guess what?

Kya feels really burned. Yet she falls for the next fella to penetrate the marsh and earn her trust: Chase, a “golden boy” in the nearby town of Barkley Cove. He penetrates her too, with promises of marriage. Guess what?

After Chase marries someone else — Kya, devastated, only learns of it in a newspaper she buys on a fluke — he returns and brutally tries to rape her.

Subsequently he’s found dead at the foot of a tower.

Kya fortunately has a good alibi. You see, Tate had meanwhile come back too after all, earned her trust again, sort of, and now a biologist, he gets Kya’s marsh expertise on shells, birds, etc., embodied into beautifully published books. So she makes the only bus trip of her life, to Greenville, to meet with her publisher, for dinner and then breakfast. Just happened to be the night of Chase’s death.

But Kya is arrested anyway and charged with murder. The prosecutor’s theory is that she could have bussed back and forth to Barkley Cove during the night. The bus schedules allowed for that — with just barely enough time to do the deed — if you assume a lot. The bus drivers testified they didn’t see her. But the prosecution suggested she traveled in disguise. All seemingly far fetched!

Kya is acquitted.

A few things struck me. Why would buses run between these small towns in the middle of the night? Seemed a blatant authorial contrivance. And never mentioned is a gaping hole in the case. Assuming Kya did meticulously plot this caper, how did she know she’d find Chase at the tower? On the other hand, she never actually professes innocence.

Anyway, she returns to her marsh life, spending the next forty years lovingly together with Tate in the shack. The murder — if it wasn’t just an accidental fall — is never solved.

But there was one loose end. Missing from Chase’s body was the shell necklace he’d worn for years, a gift from Kya. It whispered to me throughout the aftermath. I knew it would resurface — else why was it there in the first place? Like Chekov’s proverbial gun. And when, on the final page, after Kya’s death, Tate stumbles upon her hidden cache, I knew what he’d find.

P.S. “Crawdads” are fresh water crayfish.