Archive for March, 2021

Freedom of speech and lies

March 28, 2021

“Are Jews hidden in your attic?” You answer with a lie.

Kant had a categorical take on morality, with lying considered always wrong. John Stuart Mill’s view was consequentialist — lying is wrong only when someone is harmed unjustly. You don’t owe the Nazi officer the truth. But a public official owes citizens the truth.

Does freedom of speech include lying? Republican have been turning freedom of speech into a political bludgeon. The puritanical “woke” left enables this by persecuting the slightest verbal boo-boo, letting the right posture as though they’re defenders of free speech under dire threat.

Recently a Republican congressman said anyone criticizing racist comments violates freedom of speech. And Trump’s defenders in his second impeachment argued that he was merely exercising his free speech rights when he lied about the election being “stolen” and encouraged insurrection.

Our constitution protects free expression more strongly than in any other country. Yet no right is ever so absolute that it overrides all other societal considerations. The Second Amendment doesn’t allow nuclear weapons. And Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said the First Amendment doesn’t cover falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Yet in 2012 the Court ruled quite differently in U.S. v. Alvarez. Striking down the “Stolen Valor Act,” which criminalized lying about military awards, saying that if Congress could outlaw one sort of statement, it could outlaw any.

A strange anti-Holmesian rationale. Nobody imagines the First Amendment protects lying in all contexts — we punish perjury. Because we consider that inimical to important societal values. Why couldn’t Congress, for similar reasons, punish lies about military medals? 

Such is not what the First Amendment mainly aims to protect. Rather, it’s expressions of opinion, especially political opinion. It’s really about free public debate. And it only bars government restraints. Not public criticism of your racist talk, Congressman. (To the contrary, it’s that criticism that’s protected.)

Inciting violence has always been considered another appropriate exception to free expression rights. Like perjury, another example where those rights bow to valid broader societal concerns. Thus Trump’s pre-January 6 incitements were not protected free speech.

That includes the “stolen election” claim, the biggest and most harmful lie in U.S. history. It’s at the center of a larger phenomenon, the corruption of American civic discourse by severing it from truth and reality. This Republican onslaught undermines the very thing — public debate — the First Amendment aims to protect. Thus their invoking freedom of speech is itself dishonest.

So what is to be done?

One obvious response is to vigorously counter lies. Well, many have been trying. It’s not working. As Mark Twain said, a lie can run around the world while the truth is getting its shoes on. Especially when it seems weak tea as against a lie’s bracing brew. And when the latter is what some people relish swallowing.

In past times, responsible gatekeepers kept the infosphere reality-based. Of course those news media had their own interests — making money — but that actually required maintaining public trust by reporting accurately. It worked pretty well. The public knew to trust the likes of Walter Cronkhite. Debates were about interpretations and consequences of facts, not facts themselves.

Today too many get “informed” by sources having very different incentives, flourishing by catering to discrete niche audiences wanting their opinions and prejudices flattered. The more a factoid does that, the better. Truth being irrelevant.

Twitter and Facebook have justifiably banned Trump. Violating his free speech? No. They are not the government. He can still say what he likes, on his own dime — with no constitutional right to use a platform provided by someone else. Last year, Facebook’s Zuckerberg said his site wouldn’t vet for truthfulness; but it has gotten intense criticism for all the garbage it disseminates. Now Facebook has started blocking anti-vaccine lies and some QAnon lunacy. But purveyors of such bilge just go elsewhere. And as a society we cannot look to private actors like Facebook to solve the bigger problem for us.

So should government step in and outlaw political lying after all? Ohio actually tried, with a law against campaign untruths. That was struck down — it surely did tread the slippery slope the Supreme Court feared in Alvarez. So lies in political advocacy do get some First Amendment protection. And what public officials should be entrusted with deciding truthfulness in political discourse? Laws like that have been introduced by several authoritarian regimes, as handy tools for stomping on pesky critics. Social media sites can block you but not jail you. 

There was actually a time, believe it or not, when being caught in a lie was fatal to a politician’s career. Trump glided through 30,000. This tells us America has changed in a very important way. Political tribalism now pre-empts everything — at least on the right. Among Democrats a major lie would still likely be devastating. But Trump famously said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes. Thus a little peccadillo like lying doesn’t matter. Because his voters have other fish to fry. For some evangelicals, it’s the abortion obsession; but for most Trump voters it’s defending their tribal turf of white nationalism. And for them, literally, nothing else matters

Their amoral scorched earth politics jar against the Christianity they also purport to defend in this culture war. But for many, that Christianity is just an identifier, no longer truly a belief system. Such conventional religious belief is crumbling, and to feed their thirst for religious fervor, a lot of people now instead look to politics. It’s mirrored too in the left’s sanctimonious intolerance. When politics takes the place of religion, no wonder resolving issues through compromise becomes impossible.

Richard Dawkins’s 80th birthday party

March 25, 2021

Richard Dawkins is one of my intellectual heroes. I was thrilled to be invited to his 80th birthday party, on zoom, with about twenty others; hosted by Robyn Blumner (head of the Dawkins Foundation and allied Center for Inquiry, home of Secular Rescue, which I support, a kind of underground railroad for atheists persecuted in mostly Muslim countries). 

Dawkins has authored numerous landmark books, including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Blind Watchmaker (which I’ve reviewed). He spoke of two imminent new ones: Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science, a collection of pieces about other books, and Flights of Fancy: Defying Gravity by Design and Evolution, about how both nature and humans have solved the problem of getting airborne.

I got a chance to tell him how important some of his books have been to me, particularly The Selfish Gene — saying that if you really understand that book, you understand evolution. In response, Dawkins remarked that he’s often asked whether he’d retract the book (published in 1976), but he still feels confident it’s right. Its take on evolution might seem extreme. In a nutshell: Life must have begun (no alternative is conceivable) with a molecule having the capability to replicate. As copies proliferated, variations crept in. Effectively putting them in competition. Variants proving better at staying in existence and replicating would become more numerous. In that competition they’d develop “survival machines.” Those molecules are genes; the survival machines are organisms. Just devices for getting more genes into the next generation. That, indeed, is what humans are, in the big scheme of things. (And a chicken is just an egg’s way to make another egg.) 

This doesn’t trivialize our lives. Indeed, having no cosmic purpose frees us to set our own agenda.

I also got to submit a (cheeky) question — in what year do you predict the last remaining believers in conventional religions will be generally regarded as crazy crackpots? Dawkins started by noting that many past religions have fallen by the wayside, only to be supplanted by others no better. He fears that today’s religions will be replaced by “dopey woo-woo new age superstition.” Yet directly answering my question, he said a pessimistic estimate would be a hundred years! (That actually seems optimistic to me.) 

Asked how people can be dissuaded from false beliefs (a question he must get daily), Dawkins avowed that evidence, alas, doesn’t do the trick, because people’s beliefs actually have little to do with evidence, being more a function of tribal affiliation. Frustration at this led him to suggest telling religious people, “This is science. If you don’t agree with it, fuck off.” 

But one thing he did seriously urge was to stop calling evolution a “theory.” Yes, yes, scientists use that word differently from its everyday sense, but creationists exploit this by labeling evolution “just a theory.” It’s as much a fact, said Dawkins, as Earth going around the Sun. 

Also on the subject of labeling, he said we should stop automatically calling the children of Christians “Christians,” and so forth. It’s something unique to the religious realm; the offspring of Marxists aren’t called Marxist children. Small kids are too young to know their minds on these matters. Eliminating such labeling would help free them to find their own paths, breaking the perpetuation of false beliefs down the generations. Now if only religious parents would comply. 

Doubt toward science right now is manifesting in widespread resistance to covid vaccination. Dawkins, discussing this, observed that development of these vaccines is actually a bigger scientific breakthrough than most of us realize. Not just another typical set of vaccines, but using a different paradigm, employing Messenger-RNA — which should enable researchers to readily tweak them to fit other emerging ailments. 

Interestingly, some scientists now think the primordial molecule that started life was something like RNA.

Europe’s covidiocy

March 23, 2021

During 2020, Europe put America to shame regarding Covid, as our president willfully refused to treat it seriously, even encouraging flouting precautions, surely responsible for our outsized half million death toll. Now the tables have turned. 

The European Union is botching vaccination, epitomizing all the EU’s weaknesses. It is overly bureaucratized and rule-obsessed, gumming things up. Aggravated by a need to coordinate all 27 member countries, and prioritizing nitpicking about fairness over speed. Worse yet, the EU wasted precious months dickering with vaccine makers on price. Well, they did finally win lower prices than America. But those savings were surely swamped by the vast costs associated with more people hospitalized and dying — preventable by quicker vaccination. It was penny wise and pound foolish.

The Biden administration, in contrast, is acting aggressively to get shots into as many arms as possible, as fast as possible. Realizing this is a race against the virus, especially with new and more dangerous variants proliferating.

We’re undermined by some states prematurely lifting restrictions aimed at curbing the spread, giving us Spring Break crowding sure to cause innumerable infections and deaths. President Biden caught hell for calling that “Neanderthal thinking.” Horrors, a president using strong language! “The former guy” never did. But of course Biden was right. “Neanderthal” was actually mild. It was reckless disregard for human life.

Still, America is way ahead of Europe in vaccination rates and thus in ultimately beating Covid. Thank you, President Biden (and the 81 million with the sense to vote for him).

And meantime, already way behind, Europe has compounded its misfeasance with its AstraZeneca stupidity. It seems that out of five million receiving the AZ shot, 30 reported blood clots. So in what they described as “an abundance of caution,” at least 16 European countries suspended AZ jabs.

The blood clot rate is less than 0.001% of vaccinations. Five million of which surely saved thousands of lives. For that, 30 blood clots would have been a minuscule price to pay. Vaccines always have occasional side effects. But again Europe is being penny wise and pound foolish.

Yet it’s even dumber than that suggests. Because out of any five million people, how many normally get blood clots? The answer, it turns out: more than 30! If anything, the AZ vaccine may somehow prevent blood clots.

How many times must we repeat so elementary a mistake? Confusing correlation with causation. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Assuming that if one thing follows another, the former caused the latter. When they may be unrelated. Remember the huge ruckus over women getting sick after silicone breast implants? Well, hello, people get sick all the time, for a million reasons. It was finally proven that implanted women’s ailments occurred at a rate no greater than for women generally. 

The Europeans say they’ll research the blood clot issue and then maybe re-authorize AZ use. They say this will help instill public confidence in vaccine safety. Excuse me, on what planet? The bare fact of the suspension needlessly gives credence to irrational fears about all covid vaccines (not to mention all others). If authorities originally authorized AZ, then changed their minds, and then change their minds again, that will hardly promote confidence among millions of people inclined to be skeptical toward both those Eurocrats and vaccines. And what of the legions of people who will suffer and die for lack of vaccination while authorities dither? 

I hate to say this: Brexit, otherwise disastrous, has been fortunate for Britain in at least this one way, removing it from the EU’s covidiocy. Britain’s vaccination rate is far higher. 

Cancel culture and “The Human Stain”

March 20, 2021

Coleman Silk was a dynamo college dean who put his school on the map. Now he’s teaching a classics seminar; two students enrolled therein have never attended. “Does anyone know them?” he asks. “Do they exist, or are they spooks?”

That’s the set-up for Philip Roth’s 2000 novel, The Human Stain.

Turns out the students were Black. A complaint is lodged. Silk insists “spooks” meant ghosts, not a racial slur. He digs in; nobody backs him; winds up resigning in a huff. Which only seems to corroborate the odor of racism.

Making a big deal out of so obviously innocent a word usage might seem outlandish. Yet cases like this have proliferated since Roth wrote; “cancel culture” prosecutors lacking all sense of their extremist aburdism.

The subject was explored in Skidmore Professor Robert Boyers’s 2019 book, The Tyranny of Virtue (which I’ve reviewed). Since its publication another Skidmore prof met with calls for his firing, after his silently observing a “Blue Lives Matter” demonstration. Now even silence can be construed as “hate speech.” 

Whose definition, of course, is any idea or opinion not rigidly conforming to the ideological catechism of today’s “woke” left-wing political correctness. Whose culture warriors are ever on the warpath for heretics to persecute.

More recently, Skidmore’s student government refused to allow Young American Libertarians to organize on campus. Saying YAL might make some students feel unsafe. Because YAL might engage in “hate speech.” Not that it has; it might. While in fact, what really makes everyone feel unsafe on campuses is this atmosphere of intolerant repression, with dire consequences for any perceived verbal misstep. 

The woke Thought Police seem oblivious to how this horrifies normal sane people. “Cancel culture” hands the right an issue they exploit. Meantime, there’s almost nothing else in today’s right-wing belief system that doesn’t flout reality. Take your pick between those ugly extremes.

Roth’s own view is clear. Near the end, Coleman’s teacher sister delivers a damning indictment of how the modern education establishment betrays the essence of what education should be. Opening minds, not closing them.

Back to Coleman himself, his grievance against the college intensifies when his wife dies, killed by the “spooks” controversy, he feels. One of his children, Mark — always estranged, with some deep attitudinal problem — says the whole mess could have been defused by Coleman simply apologizing for the word. Roth doesn’t dwell on this, but Mark is, oddly enough, dead right. However, Coleman could not have apologized because of who he was.

And who was he, really? That’s what the novel is mainly about.

Coleman was, you see (spoiler alert), Black. Passing for white for half a century. How central (or not) to Coleman’s inner reality was his great secret? The narrator (Roth’s alter ego) poses the question, but cannot answer it. 

A white girlfriend of two years didn’t know. When Coleman finally takes her to meet his family, she freaks out and is gone. He won’t make that mistake again, and tells his mother so. Resulting in his banishment from the family.

But it’s not a simple story. Roth, a consummate novelist, peels away layer after layer, and not just for Coleman, but other characters too, probing and probing what makes them tick.

One is Faunia, half Coleman’s age, become his lover. Seemingly the very picture of a beaten-down woman. Some assume Coleman is likewise ruthlessly exploiting her. But that’s not so. What is it, exactly, that they have together? Not simple either. Sex is key, and there are denials that it’s more than just sex, but saying “just sex” is wrong because their sex carries a heavy load of more fundamental human intimacy. How the author juxtaposes and balances these almost contradictory aspects of the relationship is a novelistic tour-de-force.

Indeed, he’s a master word-slinger, playing the language like Yefim Bronfman plays a piano. The book describes Bronfman himself doing just that at a rehearsal. Here is the passage, the power of Roth’s prose mirroring the very thing it describes:

“Enter Bronfman to play Prokofiev at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring. He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso, a force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt, somebody who has strolled into the Music Shed out of a circus where he is the strongman and who takes on the piano as a ridiculous challenge to the gargantuan strength he revels in. Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it. I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew. When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air. And when it does, everything out there in the open, the last of the last pulsation, he himself gets up and goes, leaving behind him our redemption. With a jaunty wave, he is suddenly gone, and though he takes all his fire off with him like no less a force than Prometheus, our own lives seem inextinguishable. Nobody is dying, nobody — not if Bronfman has anything to say about it!”

Bronfman is not the only actual personage popping up in the novel. I was tickled to see there someone with whom I myself had a recent phone conversation. 

How to write a blog

March 16, 2021

I think about things. About what’s happening in the world, my life, things I read, etc. Being exposed to much thought-provoking content, it literally provokes thought. And I feel I have by now gradually developed a framework of sound basic ideas and perspectives about life and the world, to put such thoughts into proper context.* 

This is the impetus for my blog writing. I have a lot to say. Self-expression is a common enough impulse, but the idea of possibly influencing, enlightening, or just entertaining other people is an important propellant for my writing. But actually I do it mainly for myself. I love language as well as ideas, so putting the two together, finding just the right words to express ideas, has become part of my very being.

The way it works is that the seed for a piece, its theme, will lodge in my head and start sprouting limbs — concepts and tropes connected to it. My mind commences to play with the pieces, seeing how to fit them together into some cogent whole. When it’s something in the news, further things I’m hearing or reading about it add to the stew.

After these ingredients slosh around my brain for a while, the thing jells sufficiently that it’s time to put pen to paper. I like to sit back in a comfy chair and write longhand. A discrete concept can take several sentences to express. Doing so can be challenging. Words are, of course, a tremendous tool for thinking. Yet I’m in awe that a mind can instantiate a complex concept before it actually has words to express it.

First is just getting the ideas on paper. Normally any one essay actually strings together a number of individual concepts. Often for me they just flow in a logical sequence. But sometimes that takes work, figuring out what goes where.

So now I have a draft. Which I go over several times, crossing stuff out, adding stuff, changing stuff. Moving paragraphs around. The directive “insert” occurs a lot. Often I didn’t initially cover every nuance. The process of writing itself, and then re-reading, can bring to mind points I hadn’t previously thought of. 

Strunk and White tell the writer, “omit needless words.” An awkward locution for a writing guide, I’ve always thought. But I take it much to heart. Conveying a message in six words rather than eight makes it more direct and powerful. The reader gets it quicker. So I ruthlessly search out ways to condense my prose. Like right there: I originally wrote “shorten what I write.” One word longer.

The opening should grab a reader’s attention. The ending should be a smack on the table.

I try to examine sentence structure to ensure clarity. And to avoid repeating any word. Anything that might cause a reader to stop and notice, however fleetingly, something about the language will impede communication. I also try to replace fancy words with simpler ones. And bland expressions with punchier ones. A thesaurus is a great tool.

There are certain words I’m partial to. “Indeed,” “actually,” “in fact.” Very useful words that can do a lot of work. But I try to go easy on these, not to overdo it. Another is “somehow.” Actually a very useful word too (oops, there’s an “actually”).

However, in writing, all rules are made to be broken. But you have to know when and why.

I take my squirrely handwritten draft to my computer and type it up. Of course, while doing so, I keep tweaking it, aiming for better, shorter, stronger verbiage. Once typed, I go over it again. Maybe even print it out, to review it back in my comfy chair.

Then I let it sit, at least overnight, often longer (I always have a backlog of pieces to post). During that interval it will continue to percolate in my brain. More thoughts will come to me, which I’ll go back and incorporate. (This one was first written many months ago; since then, I’ve returned to it several times and fiddled with it.)

All this may sound like work. But I enjoy it enormously. I feel it keeps my brain alive. Doing it gives me the kind of experience psychologist Abraham Maslow called “flow.”

Also fun is adding pictures, to liven it up. Mainly I use “Google images.” Amazing what you get with the right search terms; and how often the first of many pictures is the best one. When I wrote about reading aloud, with my wife, The Brothers KaramazovI entered “man reading to woman” and the first image coming up was an old Russian man reading to a babushka. Perfect. 

Finally comes the moment to actually post the thing. Then I get the infuriating comments. Or, worse, none at all.

* While single, I saw a gal’s personal ad saying she was “interested in ideas.” Wow, I jumped to reply! But our date was disappointing. I asked what she’d meant by “ideas.”

“Oh,” she said, “new ways to cook spaghetti, things like that.”

The British royals: Netflix’s “The Crown”

March 11, 2021

“The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them.”

Jefferson wrote that in his last letter. Perhaps strange, inasmuch as he owned slaves. However, he was writing there about hereditary privilege and power. With that understanding I’ve always loved the quote.

So it may seem odd that my wife and I have been captivated by the Netflix series “The Crown,” chronicling the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (now in its 70th year). But this is no hagiography. Indeed, a pretty good indictment of hereditary monarchy, an absurd anachronism in today’s world.

The series is beautifully done, compelling to watch. The producers present it as drama rather than history, and so take liberties with the facts. Sometimes that’s annoying, but in the big picture the show tries to show truth. It depicts real human beings, imprisoned in circumstances that pervert their humanity. Themselves, in a sense, victims of the social paradigm Jefferson decried. Not to be envied.

This is no comedy, yet I find myself laughing out loud a lot. At the sheer bizarreness of the deadpan drama, and gobsmacking words coming out of the characters’ mouths. Irony abounds.

Do they themselves watch it? Curiosity reportedly does draw their eyeballs. How must it feel? Their feelings cannot be what yours or mine might be. It’s been reported that Elizabeth actually likes it, though her portrait hardly seems flattering. Yet as the drama itself shows, the criteria by which she judges her own behavior are not those you or I would apply to ours either.

I take issue with Margaret Thatcher’s depiction as an affected woman with silly hair, an arrogant ideologue whose cruel policies caused much suffering. I know she’s still hate figure for the left. But the nation was sinking into what was being called “British Disease” and she administered some needed medicine, putting the country on a path to prosperity.

Prince Charles, on the other hand, I’ve always considered a supreme ass. His portrayal here (by Josh O’Connor) in no way redeems him. Not even by way of complexity. But here too, assuming Charles has viewed this, one can easily suppose him actually seeing it as a vindication, imagining that anyone watching would assess his conduct exactly as he himself did. Saying to himself, when he’s shown crazily denouncing Diana, “Yes, that’s right!”

He seems to have suffered from a lifelong identity crisis. His major complaint against Diana was her being more glamorous and popular than him.

One laugh line (for me) occurred when Charles, first pondering dating Diana, vets her by phoning her sister. “Is she fun?” he asks. It didn’t sound like code for sex, rather being asked straightforwardly. As such, a pretty weird thing to ask about a potential future queen. But the really striking thing was its coming from the least “fun” person on Earth. 

Indeed, watching this portrayal, the word “hangdog” kept coming to mind, his very posture conveying lugubriousness. He’s almost like a hunchback, evoking Richard III. You want to shout, “For God’s sake, man, straighten up!” In more ways than one. His mother pretty much does tell him that.

Diana once complained there were three in the marriage. Charles still stuck on Camilla, who’d married Parker-Bowles years earlier. This infatuation reprising that of Charles’s great uncle (Edward VIII) for Wallis Simpson — in both cases the men so hopelessly besotted it emasculates them.

In one scene, Charles and Camilla sit talking in a car. Prodded, she assures him of the strength of her love. I expressed bafflement, Camilla herself being long besotted with Parker-Bowles. But my astute wife observed that she was careful not to say she loved Charles more than him.

Nevertheless, in some presumed future episodes, they will each eventually divorce, and eight years after Diana dies (no seat-belt), Charles and Camilla will finally marry, and live happily ever after. One hopes ; -)

At least, thank goodness, these absurd people no longer have any actual power. In fact, while Elizabeth is often shown berating prime ministers over political issues, I doubt this could occur, so circumscribed is her role.

But in 1826 Jefferson’s quote did not reflect reality and does not fully yet today. It’s aspirational. Looking toward a world in which nobody is born saddled, with others to ride them. Slowly we are getting there. One hopes.

The Republican war on voting rights

March 7, 2021

Republicans are a minority party. Winning the presidential popular vote only once (and then barely) since 1988. Their weakness masked by the electoral college overweighting small rural states; and by a 2010 high water mark showing, which gave them control of many state legislatures, enabling their perpetuating it via gerrymandering in that census/redistricting year. While their voting base, centered upon older rural religious white males, inexorably shrinks. 

You’d think they’d strive to broaden their appeal among other, hostile demographics. An internal party post-mortem after their 2012 loss urged just that. But they went the exact opposite way, doubling down on their pitch to their base to the exclusion of courting others, by nominating Trump. This might have seemed vindicated by his squeaking to victory despite losing the popular vote. But then in 2020 he lost pretty decisively.

So are they retooling their appeal now? No. Instead Republicans are tripling down, going yet more totally Trump, even trying to purge any dissenters. Blind to rational people hating Trump for lies, divisiveness, half a million covid deaths — and the violent attempt to overthrow the government!

So how pray tell do Republicans, waving this rancid flag, envision winning elections? Here’s how: by preventing opposition voters from casting ballots.

Voter suppression has been a central Republican strategy ever since their 2010 state legislative wins enabled it. They figure to do better if fewer people vote. Now they’re on a tear, with literally hundreds of bills introduced across 40 states, to make voting harder.

Their pretense is election integrity and fraud prevention. It’s a total lie. Vote fraud has been proven virtually nonexistent. Trump in 2017 set up a commission to investigate it — galled that he lost the popular vote by three million — but it disbanded after being unable to find even a single improper Clinton ballot.

But now they say the 2020 election raised widespread concerns about vote fraud. This is like the classic illustration of chutzpah, someone murdering his parents and pleading for mercy as an orphan. It’s of course these Republicans themselves who spread Trump’s vote fraud lies. When none of his 60+ lawsuits could prove Biden got even one fraudulent ballot. While responsible authorities attested that the 2020 election was among the most impeccably conducted ever. 

And, if anyone, it was Republicans who cheated in that election — through all their voter suppression.

What does that actually mean? Making it harder to register, eliminating automatic registration. Cancelling registrations of people who don’t vote often enough, or on minor technicalities. Obstructing mail voting, by limiting when it’s allowed, making it more complicated and cumbersome, eliminating drop-off options, etc. Curtailing early voting, closing polling stations, and making them less accessible. Requiring particular forms of ID to vote.

All carefully targeting poor and minority voters, less likely to support Republicans. It’s become common in Black neighborhoods to wait hours on line to vote. Very rare in white areas. Proposed legislation in Georgia would even criminalize giving water or food to anyone waiting to vote!

The Jim Crow South used poll taxes and literacy tests to keep Blacks from voting. They might be asked to explicate an obscure section of the state constitution. If that didn’t work, a beating probably would. Blacks knew enough not to try. So until the 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed these sorts of things, very few Southern Blacks could vote. Then in 2013 the Republican-majority Supreme Court eviscerated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and Republican-dominated state legislatures rushed to enact new restrictions aimed at impeding Black voting. And those the court has consistently upheld.

Bad enough for America if one party thusly perverts the system to illegitimately hold power. Worse yet: while at one time I saw the two parties as each merely representing differing but sincere visions for the common good, that’s no longer true. Say what you will about Democrats’ policies, they are advocated honestly and sincerely. Not so for today’s Republicans. Bad faith pervades their entire enterprise.

Epitomized by their “stolen election” lie. That’s the huge fraud. They know it, but use it to serve their partisan purposes — notably, their voter suppression onslaught. Which — together with a majority of GOP lawmakers voting on January 6 to overturn the election — proves they just don’t believe in democracy. They are no longer legitimate actors upon the nation’s political stage. 

And what further delegitimizes the GOP is its having become, most fundamentally, the white supremacy party. Their trying to prevent Black voting is thus really a twofer — not only aimed at unfairly winning elections, but furthermore reflecting their deep-down feeling that Blacks shouldn’t be allowed to vote anyway.

This is ghastly for the country. After all we’ve been through. The horror of slavery, and the bloody Civil War over it. Followed by a century of Jim Crow crushing the rights that war had seemingly assured. Then, the great civil rights battle to finally make those rights a reality. To fulfill at last America’s promise as a democratic society with liberty and justice for all. Will we now let all this be set back by a dishonest white supremacist minority?

Voting is sacred. Republicans bleat about “freedom” — especially to own guns (giving us an epidemic of gun violence). They’d never accept gun restrictions equivalent to what they impose on voting. They fantasize guns as a bulwark against tyranny; but the primary bulwark is voting, essential to freedom. For most of human history, ordinary people were powerless. Voting gives us the power to shape our collective destinies. Thank God for Black Americans, who in their millions defied Republican efforts to hinder their voting and thus saved the country in 2020. Public servants should be working to expand opportunities for citizens to exercise their voting rights — not to curtail them, as Republicans strive to do.

To combat that we need a new national voting rights law. A good one’s been passed by the House of Representatives. It cannot pass the Senate with the filibuster rule still in force, enabling Republicans to block it. Democrats must bite that bullet, end the filibuster once and for all, and then enact the voting rights bill, while they still have the capability to do so. Otherwise, Republican voter suppression may well enable them to illegitimately regain power — and make America stink again.

“The Statue”— my short story video

March 6, 2021

My tale, “The Statue,” was a winner in the Hudson Valley Writers Guild’s recent short story contest. Originally written around fifty years ago, it might have some resonance for contemporary America — rather more in the months since submittal! 

My friend Frank Wind recorded my dramatic reading (about 24 minutes). View it at this link:

The Status Cuomo

March 4, 2021

 Saying “Sorry if someone was offended” is not an apology.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s first accuser, Lindsey Boylan, might have been shrugged off. I’d assumed any mention of “strip poker” was in jest. Does anybody really play strip poker? But I’m less sure after Charlotte Bennett’s story. Clearly Cuomo was hitting on her for sex. And now there’s the cringe-inducing photo of him with hands on Anna Ruch’s startled face. So a pattern emerges.

His calling it all just playful banter, and saying he’s sorry if it was taken the wrong way, was not going down well. Especially on the heels of his trying to manipulate the situation by having it “investigated” by someone not exactly disinterested. (Now Attorney General James will do it; she’d recently produced a damning report about Cuomo’s nursing home debacle.)

Cuomo, 63, is divorced; he split with his girlfriend in September 2019.

I originally drafted this piece a few days ago, writing that Cuomo should have said this: “What I did was wrong and out of line. I’m sorry for my actions. This is not an excuse, but it happened because I’ve been alone for a while and craved female companionship. While the way I sought it might have seemed normal in previous decades when my social acculturation occurred, I get it that times and mores have changed, and I must change with them. I have learned from this episode and will endeavor to be better in the future. On that basis, I humbly beseech forgiveness.”

Then Cuomo’s own words, at his Wednesday press conference, actually came pretty close. Yet he still ended with, “And if they were offended by it, then I apologize.”

Boylan and Bennett were employed under Cuomo’s authority; seeking sex from them was not merely a matter of it being unwelcome, it was an abuse of power. For too long men with an exaggerated sense of privilege have gotten away with egregious behavior toward women. On the other hand, “#metoo” and “cancel culture” too often fail to fit the punishment with the crime. It’s public death for all, whether Harvey Weinstein or Garrison Keillor or Al Franken. That’s just wrong.

If his moves on these women were Cuomo’s sole transgressions, that should not, in my judicious opinion, necessarily incur the ultimate political penalty. I would say let the voters decide, in the context of his overall record.

One might mention, in this regard, “Grab them by the pussy,” lying about payoffs to women to silence them about adulterous sex, etc. Making Cuomo’s behavior almost look innocent in comparison. But I’d prefer to consider the Trump case a grotesque aberration, rather than setting the standard for judging such things. Indeed, that would eviscerate standards altogether.

And what of Cuomo’s overall record? Previously I’d given him good marks on covid. Here too, in comparison to Trump, he looked heroic. But then there was the nursing home mess. The original decision to require nursing homes to take infected patients from hospitals can be argued — where else could they go, with hospitals overwhelmed? But here again, the problem was a refusal to take responsibility. To obfuscate matters, the ensuing deaths being classified as hospital deaths rather than nursing home deaths, Cuomo long doggedly stonewalling and dodging responsibility.

Then there was the Moreland Act Commission, empaneled to investigate government corruption. When it got too close to his own operations, Cuomo simply disbanded it. The state also has a “Joint Commission on Public Ethics” — hahahaha. A joke of a Cuomo poodle. When his top henchman, Joe Percoco. was convicted of mis-using his office and bribery, JCOPE refused to take up the matter. Indeed, refused even to hold a vote on taking it up. Meantime, Cuomo’s been up to his eyeballs in smelly “pay to play” games, raking in huge campaign donations from businesses getting state contracts. 

And he’s not a nice person. A nasty bully. Even as the nursing home controversy continued aboil, and the Boylan allegations were swirling, Cuomo in a previous press conference saw fit to launch a bizarre personal attack on an obscure state assemblyman, Ron Kim, who had somehow crossed him. And, said Kim, in a hectoring phone call Cuomo had threatened to “destroy” him.

So, taking into due account the entire record, my final verdict: hang the bastard.

Many say he’s now indeed done for. Ron Kim was part of a pattern too. Cuomo bullying victims are legion in state politics. He seemed to follow Macchiavelli’s dictum that it’s better to be feared than loved. So there’s nobody who loves him, leaping to his defense, except of course for his entourage of toadies. And now, seemingly on the ropes, he’s no longer much feared either. The ubiquitous metaphor is sharks smelling blood in the water.

But how, exactly, will they bring him down? He can’t be forced to resign (like Eliot Spitzer did, in a 2008 sex scandal). Impeachment? An unwanted kiss on Boylan might actually have been a criminal offense. But I can’t see a Democratic governor being impeached, by a Democrat-controlled legislature, for that.

Conventional wisdom says that in any case, a fourth gubernatorial term is always tough in New York politics. It eluded his father Mario. How can Andrew even dare run again, with all this ugly baggage? But there’s no obvious candidate to beat him in the primary. Especially given his pay-to-play campaign slush fund, flush with tens of millions. And New York’s Republican party is a pathetic basket case of Trump cultists in a Trump-loathing state.

If you play strip poker with this guy, watch out for marked cards.

The insane Republican religious cult

March 1, 2021

I’d love to forget Trump ever existed. But Republicans won’t; despite January 6, Trumpier than ever. Kind of circling the wagons around him.

Seventeen GOP lawmakers did break ranks to back impeachment. But state party organizations are voting to censure them! Something quite unprecedented in the annals of American politics. Trying to enforce a slavish conformity no party has ever attempted. It’s a great irony that they continue denouncing “cancel culture.” These censure votes are the GOP’s own cancel culture. Showing it’s no longer a political party so much as a religion, bent on casting out heretics.

Religions have their mythologies; now salient here is “the stolen election.” A trifecta of nonsensicality. It originated with the biggest liar ever. It’s been thoroughly debunked. And third, Trump lost not due to fraud but loathsomeness. Which Republicans also blind themselves to. A divorcement from reality characteristic of religious cults. The “election steal” fits right in with the QAnon fantasy, of some vast Satanic deep state conspiracy of cannibalistic pedophiles, rampant too among Republicans.

Such confabulation of nonsense stories — blaming Trump’s defeat on fraud, January 6 on leftist provocateurs, Texas power outages on the Green New Deal, and on and on — is now pervasively how Republicans engage with the world. Textbook insanity.

But they’re really RINOs — “Republicans in name only.” Everything the party used to represent thrown under the bus in their insane worship of the most destructive individual in U.S. history.

This is what we confront today in place of conventional political debate over ideas, issues, and policies. Not even abortion is to the fore any longer. In this religion, Trump is the messiah, the savior. Their Jerusalem, which they see him as promising, is the preservation of white supremacy, in the most literal sense. To, as they see it, remain culturally dominant, by any means necessary.

This is a fundamental rejection of democracy. A democratic culture means accepting the legitimacy of the role of people different from you, with different ideas. Today’s Republicans do not. I’m reminded of Turkey’s Erdogan saying democracy is like a train — you get off when you reach your chosen destination. To reach theirs, Republicans will stop at nothing. Not lies, not cruelty, not trashing civic decency. All grotesquely contravening the Christianity they supposedly sacralize. In fact, they’re not only RINOs, but CINOs — Christians in name only. Trump having superseded Christ.

They even justify overthrowing the Constitution. That’s what they tried to do on January 6. Many dupes fantasized “protecting democracy” from vote fraud; for others that was just a useful lie. But anyway, it was never actually election integrity that mattered, it was keeping their despicable messiah in office. At least President Biden has never tried to overthrow the government.*

Their failure on January 6 is not the end of it. While Republicans used to claim venerating the Constitution, about half, according to polls, now actually believe force and violence are justified to maintain the white Christian America of their imaginings and defeat their betes noires. No wonder this is now seen as our greatest national security threat. They consider January 6 another 1776. Though in 1776, we got rid of a king; on January 6 they tried to crown one.

This is the party Hawley, Haley, Cruz, Rubio, and others are jockeying to lead. Struggling to square the circle of kissing Trump cultist asses while somehow distancing from their loopiness. Their moral depravity will profit them nought, because the 2024 nominee will be Donald or else Donald Junior. If not a Trump-Trump ticket.

We’re told the party is split, undergoing a civil war, with some Republicans battling for sanity and the party’s soul. But GOP voters harbor great resentment against “elites.” Those still sane are the GOP’s own elite, similarly resented (now being censured), and too few to put up much of a fight. Many (like me) having simply left the party, as irredeemable.

I remember LBJ quoting, “Come, let us reason together.” America was always a place where, while disagreements were real and large, reason helped us work through them. That’s what politics was about. But no longer. There’s no reasoning with a religious cult.

So obviously is this a bad thing for America, one wants to believe it cannot possibly prevail. That we can’t go so far off the deep end. But the fools dancing dementedly around bonfires of reason are so numerous they don’t have to ensnare many additional voters. We’ve already had one bout of catastrophic misrule by their monster messiah, leaving half a million dead. Yet he actually came within 1% of re-election. Can the better angels of our nature keep these demons at bay?

*But Republicans will probably accuse him of it; weirdly inverting all indictnments of Trump. Now calling Biden “anti-science.” A right-wing radio commentator faulted his foreign policy for not sufficiently emphasizing human rights! And so forth.