Archive for January, 2021

Free speech and America’s escalating crisis of Trumpist insanity

January 16, 2021

Trump’s 2016 election put America, and what it represents, into a crisis that has only escalated. Every time we think we’ve seen the bottom, we’re proven wrong. Now he’s been impeached for incitement to insurrection, a violent attack on the Capitol demanding overthrow of our presidential election. Which 147 Congressional Republicans then obeyed.

Yet even after this shocking perfidy, Trump’s approval ratings are still between 29% and 39%. For a job he isn’t even doing. While covid rages and the economy craters, he’s been focused on trying to subvert the election and handing out pardons to criminals and medals to sycophants. And a third of Americans approve? Are they insane? 

Many wonder what he was thinking, urging his mob to attack the Capitol. That this might somehow keep him in office? But Trump’s never had a clue how our government and politics actually work. While pundits still talk as if there must be some calculated plan, the truth is simpler: he’s insane.

Many supporters don’t merely “approve” but worship him, as god-emperor — battling a deep state conspiracy of Satanic baby-eating pedophiles, according to Q-Anon, which millions believe. So they storm our sacred Capitol, smearing it with feces, carrying racist flags and weapons and bombs, assaulting policemen, screaming for heads on pikes and for hanging the Vice President, erecting the gallows. It was a close-run thing that no elected officials died. The attackers called themselves “patriots.” And Trump afterward sent them “love.”

We’re told the Republican party is splitting between Trumpism and sanity. But it’s still a very lopsided division; the great majority of GOP voters remain gaga. Just ten in the House backed impeachment. One serious observer suggests some of the rest feared being killed by fanatics in their own voting base. Meantime, now even members of Congress must go through metal detectors after at least one Republican brought a gun into the chamber.

All this might be less insane if centered upon some arguably noble heroic figure, a Pericles, a Napoleon. But this guy?? Vicious, depraved, degraded, a lying con man. Trumpsuckers can’t see the obvious. The word insane hardly suffices.

He rode to power exploiting widespread grievances with at least some tether to reality. Efforts for Black equality are not a figment of Trumpist imagination. Now though, it’s foaming-mouth fury at this “stolen election” idea, totally divorced from Planet Earth. But for them, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

And so they stormed the Capitol. Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

The internet and social media loom large here, spreading the poison. On Thursday I was asked by ex-Gov. Deval Patrick to attend a zoom, with Media Matters for America, discussing Facebook, Twitter, etc., banning Trump, part of a broader crackdown on right-wing extremist content. A video showed some hair-raising examples, including major Fox creeps talking up violence as a somehow legitimate recourse.

I pointed out that “conservatives” have long alleged silencing by opinion gatekeepers, making free speech an issue. And they certainly have a point regarding academia, punitively enforcing ideological conformity. Yet MMA’s presentation was all about suppressing right-wing content. What about trying to bring these people back to sanity? MMA’s president Angelo Carusone answered that major platforms have actually failed to enforce their own rules, enabling extremist advocates to “cheat,” and that’s what’s being targeted.

I am almost absolutist about freedom of speech. With Jefferson, holding that the answer for bad ideas is not censorship but better ones. Banning anyone — especially the President! — from a public platform is troubling. Ones like Facebook and Twitter do have too much power over the landscape of public debate. However, what the First Amendment bars is government restricting speech, which is not at issue here. And while everyone has a right to speak, nobody is entitled to a megaphone provided by someone else. In this case, banning Trump and other incendiary extremists is the right thing to do.

I began by saying America’s been in crisis. Disinformation is a key aspect, shredding our civic culture. We can’t have rational discourse without some shared reality. Bad enough being polarized over genuine issues; now it’s over what’s simply a lie. Many millions deranged by this pernicious “stolen election” nonsense, stoked to insurrectionary violence. Yes, we must try to coax them to sanity. But first at least turn off the fire-hose fueling the madness.

It won’t end soon. Trumpsters see January 6 not as a climactic disaster, but a galvanizing call to arms. They will be raging again tomorrow, and vow inauguration day trouble in all fifty state capitals. Some say President-elect Biden should avoid danger and forgo an outdoor public ceremony. I strongly disagree. Traditions matter. Normalcy — sanity — must be restored — and seen to be restored.

There will be ample security. Better include anti-aircraft guns. Not a joke.

Caste: America’s deep problem

January 14, 2021

Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, about Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South, was inspiring. Her new book Caste is dispiriting.

Wilkerson defines caste as a cognitive system situating people in a social hierarchy, governing who’s on top and what others are deemed allowed to do. Captured in that old locution about Blacks “knowing their place.” She brackets America with the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. Seeing this as the skeleton underlying America’s social architecture, analogized to the unseen programming imprisoning people in The Matrix, with only rare individuals able to realize it and free themselves.

So this isn’t just about race and racism. Nor does the word “class” cover it, referring to economic differences. Caste is a broader concept, concerning social status relationships. The ability of even the most degraded Whites to hold themselves above Blacks has been a crucial fact of American culture. Taking it away feels devastating to many, relegating them to the bottom.

Wilkerson posits “Eight Pillars” for a caste system:

1) Divine sanction. Blacks supposedly descended from Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, cursed by him (unjustly).

2) Heritability — people born unchangeably into their caste.

3) Regulating procreation to preserve caste boundaries.

4) A concept of purity versus pollution. Thus the “one drop of blood” rule concerning ancestry. I recalled Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! — where a plantation owner rejects his daughter’s suitor — not because he was already married — nor even the relationship being incestuous. The real reason: one drop.

5) Occupational segregation, exemplified in India, where caste dictates one’s work.

6) Dehumanization and stigma. Wilkerson details how Nazis and America’s slave system stripped victims of perceived humanity.

7) Terror as enforcement and control. To keep slaves in check, they were brutalized, even though this meant masters damaging their own property. Emancipation removed even that inhibiting factor. Thus lynchings.

8) Concepts of inherent superiority and inferiority. Each caste supposedly deserving its status.

Wilkerson gives a harrowing account of slavery’s U.S. history. While slavery has existed since civilization’s beginnings, in most cases victims bore no physical markers for their status. Thus it was subject to erasure. Even India’s rigid caste system is short on overt physical cues. But in America the visual distinctiveness of Blacks served to exacerbate their perceived low status and perpetuate it across generations.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, the Nigerian protagonist says she never knew she was Black until she came to America. Wilkerson quotes a similar statement, likewise saying no European is “White” before coming here. She makes the familiar argument that these racial categories are not actually biological facts but social constructs. Human DNA is 99.9% identical. The supposed division into three “races” was always junk science, struggling to justify some sort of hierarchy among people based on immaterial variations. It’s nonsense to deem any human subgroup innately superior or inferior. And in any case “racial” characteristics are not distinct but blend into each other in a continuum of gradations. Some “Whites” are darker than some “Blacks.”

Yet these points seem at odds with Wilkerson’s argument about clear visual markers facilitating U.S. caste divisions. Those differences of skin color and other physical attributes are real enough. We know what we mean when saying someone is Black. And that, Wilkerson writes, is “the historic flash card to the public of how [Blacks] are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of position they are expected to hold,” and so forth.

She relates some humiliating personal experiences. In one, as a New York Times reporter, she went to a scheduled interview, and the guy wouldn’t accept who she was. Saying, “I must ask you to leave, I’m awaiting an important interview with the New York Times.”Reading of Wilkerson’s air travel indignities reaffirmed my eschewing First Class and its entitled jerks — but also reminded me of my white privilege. I’ve hated that term; believing it’s just normality; that the issue is really Black dis-privilege. But the book made me think about my running in airports and other public places — very risky if I weren’t white.

There is a large political dimension to all this. Wilkerson describes a film of Germans adulating Hitler. She says the Nazis needed masses falling under the spell, susceptible to propaganda giving them an identity to believe in. Seeing the same dynamic in Jim Crow’s brutalities, reflecting the “weaknesses of the human immune system.” Not speaking biologically, of course. She quotes psychologist Erich Fromm regarding one aspect of dominant caste mentality: “He is nothing, but if he can identify with his nation, or can transfer his personal narcissism to the nation, then he is everything.” And social theorist Takamichi Sakurai: “Group narcissism leads people to fascism . . . a fanatical fascist politics, and extreme racialism.” Fromm too pointed to Nazi Germany and (writing in 1964) the U.S. South. With the working class particularly susceptible — “eager to have a leader with whom it can identify.” And “the narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.” Does this ring a bell?

Many of us imagined Obama’s election signified America finally graduating to post-racial nirvana. But the book discusses how it freaked out many Whites and actually triggered retrogression. Not just a backlash by bitter-enders, but a general heightening of White caste truculence. Before, dominance loss seemed hypothetical and distant. Now it felt real and present. Made worse by Obama being so obviously a superior person, confounding negative stereotypes about Blacks. The old hierarchy (in which Whites knew their place) seemingly turned upside down. Antipathy toward Blacks increased.

While liberals have long bemoaned working class people voting against their economic interests, many actually see their interests differently — putting caste status above other concerns. Viewing undeserving groups as getting ahead at their expense. And Republicans as representing White caste interests, while Democrats represent the groups threatening them.

Republicanism also reflects evangelicals’ abortion obsession. But that always seemed excessive. Now I wonder whether it’s a kind of displacement for something deeper: racial caste anxiety. I come back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor (in The Righteous Mindof the rider and elephant, representing the conscious and unconscious minds. The rider thinks they’re directing the elephant, but it’s really the other way around. Riders may believe they’re battling abortion — but are their subconscious elephants ruled by caste insecurity?

And Wilkerson says that while most White Americans disavow or even ostensibly oppose racism, so pervasive is Blacks’ stigmatization that 70-80% hold unconscious biases affecting their behavior without their even realizing it. She also thinks this lies behind America’s social ethos being harsher than in other advanced countries where people are more caring toward each other. Whom they see as fellow citizens, like themselves. America has, rather than such social solidarity, a deep resentment by the White dominant caste toward nonwhite others. Thus all the hostility toward social programs, again seen as unduly benefiting those (undeserving) others.

Wilkerson quotes historian Taylor Branch: given a choice between democracy and Whiteness, how many would choose the latter? And she similarly queries whether the U.S. will adhere to the principle of majority rule if the majority looks different. Some at least gave us an answer on January 6 when White supremacists carrying Confederate flags invaded the U.S. Capitol — something they never accomplished in 1863. Their caste defensiveness translating into nihilistic, anti-democratic, anti-rationalist Trumpism.

Wilkerson notes that Germany has no Nazi memorials, they’re ashamed about that history. There are neo-Nazis in America but not Germany. They have memorials to victims, and even pay compensation to them. My mother still gets a monthly check, having escaped the Nazis. But in my childhood, Jews’ own past history as a despised caste engendered no sense of solidarity with Black Americans. They were indeed considered below us in exactly the way Wilkerson describes.

Yet I believe most Americans have now progressed beyond that. Wilkerson’s interview anecdote seemed more bizarre than typical. That guy shamed himself, not her. Only a fool today would be thrown off by seeing a Black in any prestigious role.

Black Americans do still suffer from persistent after-effects of past subordination. America spent almost twice as long with slavery than without, and the societal impacts don’t disappear easily. Particularly fraught are Blacks’ interactions with police and the criminal justice system. But whereas in the past, such disparate treatment was accepted as normal, that is no longer true, with widespread public understanding that it’s wrong and needs fixing.

At one point Wilkerson refers to a coddling of Whites’ self-images “from cereal commercials to sitcoms.” Perhaps she doesn’t watch enough mainstream TV to realize that ads nowadays actually disproportionately feature Blacks. But many Whites have noticed. My 2017 blog post about this got more hits than any other, and way more comments — the vast majority expressing crude racist hatred. But they’re surely no representative sample of American sentiment.

When I see a Black person, I do see a likely descendant of slaves — but as part of recognizing something opposite to Wilkerson’s theme — the remarkable degree to which such people are normalized — integrated — in today’s culture. Increasingly, I see them as the very backbone of America, in job after job, the working folks who make our society function.

A recent David Brooks column observed that “racial sensitivity training” never seems to actually change people’s attitudes. What does, he said, is putting them in extended relationships with different people. They adapt to the new circumstances, developing new conceptions of who is “us” and who is “them.”

Wilkerson writes of a plumber arriving at her house in a MAGA hat. At first he was cold and unhelpful. But then both spoke of recently losing mothers. That human connection overrode the caste hostility. We have similarly seen examples where antipathy toward immigrants melts when people actually interact with them.

White supremacy is a lie, and people believing it prove who’s really inferior. While Blacks who, despite all the crap they have to endure, are decent human beings, prove they’re the superior ones. As activist Kimberly Jones said, Whites are lucky Blacks want only equality — not revenge.

Racial conflict is not inevitable. After the Civil War, with Blacks only just emerged from the most degrading, despised condition, and few Whites truly believing them equal, America nevertheless made them voting citizens. That humanistic generosity of spirit still takes my breath away.

Strangely, Wilkerson says virtually nothing about what I see as the true caste divide in today’s America — not between races but educational levels. Blacks who get well educated basically join the upper caste. That’s not to say they never experience painful slights like those Wilkerson relates. But those are not (or needn’t be) central to their overall life experience.

It is true that race and educational attainment do correlate to an unfortunate degree. This is the biggest continuing after-effect of America’s racialized history. We cannot erase skin color but we can— if we really set our minds to it — ensure equal educational opportunities. It’s long overdue and would solve most of the problem we all live with.

The deadliest sin: arrogance

January 10, 2021

One of the traditional “seven deadly sins” is pride. But that’s actually not the right word.

Most of those “sins” have unambiguous meanings — sloth, gluttony, lust. But “pride” is trickier. It can indeed be bad if excessive, and people often take pride in the wrong things. However, pride in the right things is good. To gain that feeling motivates us to do good things. I take pride in those I’ve accomplished. And then we have “gay pride,” “Black pride,” etc., certainly positive feelings. (“White pride” — uh-oh. Maybe not so much.) 

The Greeks had the word hubris, meaning immoderate pride. It has a connotation of self-aggrandizement, which comes closer to the concept we want here. But I think the most appropriate word is arrogance. That’s the sin that makes my blood boil.

It differs from succumbing to sloth, gluttony, or envy, which are understandable and, really, forgivable human frailties. Wrath and lust are also normal feelings. Every human experiences these. And are they indeed wrong? Anger is often justified; in the face of evil, lack of any wrath would be wrong. And of course we are imbued with lust as a natural feeling in order to keep the species going! Anyhow, these kinds of feelings are to a great degree outside our control.

This raises the eternal free will conundrum. I’ll limit myself to simply saying we’re all subject to impulses beyond our control — but we do have the power to countermand them. Lust aroused by an attractive person is not a choice, but rape is.

This brings in another key point. The religious concept of sin as an offense against God fails if there is no god. It’s better to think in purely human terms. Nothing can be a sin unless it harms another person. The “deadly” seven don’t fit well with that — generally not deadly at all, typically harming, if anyone, only the “sinner.” That’s true of pride, insofar as it’s merely an inner feeling. Arrogance, however, operates in relation to other people. Not just a feeling, but a behavior, that does harm them.

And I see arrogance as the fundamental sin, the ur-sin, behind most bad things people do. Consider its opposite: humility. A recognition that other people are entitled to the same rights and respect as you. The sin of stealing, for example, is a rejection of that ethos. The thief believing they’re somehow more entitled to whatever is stolen. That’s arrogant.

This applies to almost anything we call a crime. Arrogantly disregarding the rights of the victim; privileging one’s own wants above theirs.

This is why arrogance is so hateful. Even in mere boastfulness and braggadocio. That’s saying, “I’m better than you,” privileging your ego above those of others and making them feel bad. Contrast again humility, embodying deference to their equal humanity.

Humility is also epistemologically important. Confirmation bias is the tendency to welcome information validating pre-existing beliefs and shun contrary information. We all suffer from this, but humility is a good antidote. As opposed to the arrogance of thinking you know it all. 

The ultimate in arrogance is abuse of power. Privileging oneself totally over others, dictating their very terms of existence. The related word, “arrogate,” as in arrogating power, bespeaks the illegitimacy. A true public servant, in contrast, regards power as a solemn trust, to be used to benefit others, not just their own ego.

It’s said “we’re all equal before God.” Even if there is no god, the essence of the sentiment is true. It leads to another eternal conundrum, between merit and luck. My own success might be ascribed to intelligence and character traits. But those were products of happenstances of genetics and life experiences — i.e., luck. Not some pre-existing aboriginal deservingness in me, compared to others less lucky. My luck does not render me superior.

Understanding this is an antidote to arrogance. It makes me a very humble person. Something I’m quite proud of.

January 6, 2021 — A date which will live in infamy

January 6, 2021

Today, January 6, 2021 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States was attacked — by an insurrectionary mob storming the capitol — and by over 100 Republican senators and representatives preparing to vote to overthrow a free and fair democratic election. In favor of a criminal, incompetent, mendacious monster, literally insane. Who they thusly helped to incite the defilement of our country in the eyes of a shocked world. 

Perhaps those Congressional Republicans, knowing they’d lose, imagined their votes were consequence-free. This afternoon proved otherwise. It all shows how far to the dark side they’ve gone. Nothing is more fundamental to a democratic culture than election losers accepting winners’ legitimacy.

While Trump had long thrown the word “coup” at opponents, THIS was truly part of an attempted coup. Many foreign autocrats have tried similar, too often succeeding. We may have been saved only by Trump’s deranged incompetence.

Congressional Republicans seeking to overthrow the election invoked alleged voting irregularities. Those originated as a pack of lies by Trump, made up out of nothing, because his diseased mind could not take losing. Then right-wing media whipped it up into a frenzy of conspiracy theories. But all Trump’s lawsuits were thrown out, many by Republican judges, some his own appointees. Many election officials attacked are Republicans, as are Georgia’s, who Trump openly browbeat to falsify vote counts. In the end, not a single Biden ballot was proven fraudulent. As if Democrats needed fraud to defeat a monster who horrified a majority of voters. 

Ironically, while Trump insists Democrats cheated, especially in Georgia, it’s actually Republicans who did — especially in Georgia — by blocking many Democrat-leaning voters (particularly Blacks) from casting ballots. And who was pushing state officials to falsify vote counts? This depravity likely contributed to Georgia electing two Democrats — a Black and a Jew! — to the United States Senate. 

Yet Tuesday Trump was idiotically doubling down, tweeting fraud about the Georgia Senate elections too. Demanding Mike Pence throw out electoral votes while presiding over their counting. Publicly calling him a coward for refusing to thusly act unconstitutionally. Then today’s speech by this “law and order” president inciting his mob to attack the capitol. Later calling for peace even while (mostly) hammering the stolen election lie. “A landslide” he dementedly claimed. Actually justifying the insurrection. 

Leaderless, the law enforcement response to it was largely absent. What if it were BLM protesters storming the capitol? 

President-elect Biden pledges efforts to work with Republicans, and heal our partisan divisions. Lord knows that’s desperately needed. But good luck. They’ve long been demonizing Biden as a corrupt fool fronting for socialist radicals and even Satan himself. Now furthermore declaring his election an illegitimate fraud. So far out on a limb they can’t climb down.

The Tea Party savaging Obama was a tempest in a teacup compared to what Biden faces. Thank goodness these criminal seditionists have lost control of the Senate, limiting their mischief-making power. But they’ll still try to sabotage Biden so Republicans can run in 2022 and ’24 calling Democrats do-nothing failures. Contrasting Trump’s “achievements!” (Forget a half million dead and a vandalized capitol itself.) Make America great again again !

And they will insist that sliming Biden, obstructing him, even denouncing his legitimacy, is merely fair turnabout because that’s what Democrats did to Trump. Well, they did resent his winning the presidency while losing the popular vote. But no one denied he was properly elected under our constitutional system. Hillary Clinton graciously conceded right away. Did not falsely cry fraud and launch a blizzard of phony lawsuits. Her supporters did not vilify and even threaten election officials doing their jobs. Democrats did not vote in Congress to overthrow the election. Or refuse transition cooperation, or talk about martial law, while Obama remained president. Nor stormed the capitol! 

They did criticize many Trump actions and policies. That’s normal politics in a democracy. They also did investigate wrongdoing. Such governmental accountability too is part of democracy. Do we want a country without those things? Like China or Russia?

The Russia investigation (launched, don’t forget, by Trump’s own Justice Department) was no “hoax.” Proved Russia did mess with our 2016 election — with the connivance of Trump operatives (like campaign manager Manafort, convicted of a slew of crimes). The impeachment was no hoax. Proved Trump did improperly withhold military aid, trying to extort a bribe from Ukraine’s president in the form of smearing Biden.

The Republican counter-narratives are simply counter-factual. No excuse for yet more denial of reality, regarding Biden’s legitimate election. Taking our political polarization to a new level of crazy; aggravating the pre-existing condition of Trump cultism. Today was its long-feared gotterdammerung. 

Shouldn’t this Republican assault upon democracy itself delegitimize them forever? But their diehard adherents, almost half the electorate, are unfazed. They don’t need to fool many others to win. In 2020 they came frighteningly close to re-electing Trump. While actually increasing their strength in statehouses, gaining yet more control over gerrymandering and ways to make voting harder.

Will today’s historic vandalization of democracy — both by the Trump-incited mob, and the Congressional Republican majority voting with them — prompt any GOP officeholder to cry “Enough!” and leave the party? Probably not. That’s how extreme our partisan division is. There’s no hope of Republican redemption.

Meantime, a future Kamala Harris candidacy — brown-skinned, and female, and more to the left — will unhinge them even more. Trump could conceivably return. Even more dangerous would be a Trump clone without all his ugly baggage and handicaps of incompetence and mental illness.

Most Trump voters are good decent people. Except when it comes to politics, not a big part of their lives. People can be 98% rational, but that other 2% is a killer. And when the political insanity bears its ultimate rancid fruit, it will be too late. We’ve seen that befall too many other countries. God does not make America somehow immune.

In two weeks we will have, at long last, a decent, honest, capable, experienced, sensible president, conscientiously public-spirited, who is sane, who will undo much of the damage, especially to our global standing, rescuing our democracy. Yet I am under no illusion that it’s a final victory. The war of reason against unreason continues.

UPDATE: Click here for a list of the 6 Republican Senators and 121 House members who finally did vote to overthrow American democracy.

Crime and punishment in America

January 5, 2021

Cheryl Roberts is an ex-Judge, currently serving as Executive Director of the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, as well as corporation counsel for the City of Hudson. She spoke recently to my humanist society. Her topic was mass incarceration — more specifically, the criminalization of mental illness and substance disorders.

America has the highest incarceration rate of any country. That’s right, of any country. We have less than 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. Our imprisonment rate is five to ten times higher than for other democracies.

Is it because we have that much more crime? Of course not. Though we do have way more gun crime because of our insane gun culture. Roberts noted that U.S. incarceration numbers rose from about 200,000 in 1973 to 2.2 million in 2009. Since then they’ve stayed at about that level. But during that interval crime rates actually fell dramatically. That decline was probably partially attributable to imprisoning dangerous people, though cultural/societal and demographic factors were likely more salient. In any case, an eleven-fold increase in incarceration obviously can’t be justified on the basis of crime rates.

It disproportionately affects mainly minority men under 40, who are already disadvantaged, educationally and economically, etc. For all Americans, the lifetime chance of being imprisoned is 6% [a scary enough figure]; for black men it’s 32%. And meantime, over half of the prisoner population suffers from some kind of mental illness. Such people are ten times likelier to see the inside of a prison than a psychiatric facility.

Also, for those with untreated mental illness, the risk of dying in interactions with police is 16 times greater than for people not so afflicted. And it’s not because the mentally ill are more likely to be engaged in criminality. Actually, according to Roberts, they are more likely to be victims of crime.

And prison, she said, is the last place they should be, suffering horribly there. It’s hard enough even for “normal” people to cope with imprisonment. Roberts cited a Virginia study of 400 prison deaths, finding 41% associated with solitary confinement, 44% were suicides, 18% were tasered, etc.

How did we get here? Roberts quoted John Ehrlichman (a Nixon confidante, speaking decades later) saying that the Nixon administration wanted to hit two “enemies” — blacks and anti-war leftist protesters. Launching a “war on drugs” with harsh penalties was a way to kill those two birds with one stone. It’s the war on drugs that still accounts for the bulk of America’s over-incarceration. Treating drugs, more sensibly, as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one would go far toward addressing both the drug problem and the over-incarceration madness.

While drug use is correlated, to some degree, with mental problems, not all cases where mental problems get people in trouble with the law are drug-related. Mentally ill people used to be put in asylums; one such gave us the word “bedlam.” They were not indeed pleasant places. Thus there was a big societal push to get folks out of them. One impetus was adoption of a Medicaid rule prohibiting payment for most hospital care for the mentally ill.

Roberts noted that in the 1960s we had about 560,000 psychiatric hospital beds; four decades later it was down to about 50,000, for a national population double the size. Those beds came to be used mainly for people coming out of the criminal justice system, deemed incompetent to stand trial. While perhaps incongruously, what was originally the psychiatric hospital population was largely shifted into prisons. (Or into homelessness.)

Roberts said our high incarceration rate reflects a policy choice to use prison as a response to crime; and said it’s that policy that’s criminal. Actually, while certainly some very bad people are sent to prison, that’s not true of most inmates. And for them, incarceration is indeed a very bad, even self-defeating, societal response to whatever they’ve done. Partly that’s because prison is such a blunt tool; we call it the “correctional” system, but actually correcting antisocial behavior doesn’t much enter into it. With a little smartness, we could use prisons to help inmates overcome the personal problems that got them there. But such sensible programs* are very rare in U.S. prison systems.

* I’ve written about them:

Rick Burns, democracy in action, and my coming of age

January 3, 2021

I saw a January 1 obituary for a Richard “Rick” Burns, and it pricked a distant memory. I wasn’t even sure I had the name correct. But his age seemed about right, as did the photo — insofar as I could recall a face I’d seen just once, half a century ago. Then reading the details did show him active in Republican politics then.

So was I. In 1972, my GOP ward leader in Albany quit, wanting me to succeed him. A meeting of committee members was called. This was when we stood for reform, and our ward was the feistiest, actually having a full committee roster. The county leadership sent some operatives to our meeting, introducing Rick Burns as our next ward leader. We’d never seen him before, but were told we had no choice. Several members got up to argue. Discussion was long and heated. Then we voted, and I was elected unanimously.

A true instance of democracy in action.

So Rick Burns was the only person ever to lose an election to Frank Robinson. And that meeting felt like my coming of age. I’d been active in campus politics, but always as an outsider, playing the quixotic clown figure. But now, at that ward meeting, I was finally the serious man. Those other guys, sent from headquarters, were the clowns.

To see that obituary, of a person whose path crossed with mine, so fleetingly, yet tellingly, so very long ago, gave me a frisson of the strangeness of life. And then I remembered that also at that meeting was a woman who’d later represent my coming of age in a different way.*


Gofundme for Somaliland rape and torture victim

January 1, 2021

Cawo, a Somaliland medical student, while living with a host family in order to pursue her university studies, was stalked by a relative of that family, who finally raped her and stabbed her repeatedly. In a coma, she needs medical treatment Somaliland cannot provide. Hajira, a student from that country we’re hosting, is participating in a Gofundme for the needed treatment. Here is the link:

Farewell 2020

January 1, 2021

(We had a zoomed family holiday poetry slam. Here’s my poem.)

2020 Farewell,

A year from Hell;

A year of years,

Of fears and tears.

A sickness spread across the land,

The president without a plan,

A sickness of our national soul,

Fallen into a deep black hole.

Half the country gone insane,

Backing that evil monster’s reign,

Embracing his every lie;

How many had to die?

With children in cages,

Among countless outrages.

The choice was stark,

Between light and dark.

And when finally voted out,

Reality he did flout,

Trying to overturn the vote,

To cut our democracy’s throat.

And so we’ve been tested,

But were not bested;

Up against a wall,

We’ve come through after all.

And in the end,

We’re on the mend.

We did not fail;

We shall prevail.