Archive for August, 2021

Lessons of Afghanistan: cynicism versus humanism

August 29, 2021

“Hubris” is the word of choice to sneer at America’s global engagement. Now we’re scolded that we arrogantly deluded ourselves we could do good in Afghanistan. When a hard-nosed realism should have told us to forget it. And so we wasted 20 years, trillions of dollars, and many lives. With, in the end, nothing to show for it.

But 20 years in which millions of Afghans — especially women — could live decent fulfilling lives is not nothing. Legions of girls getting education was not nothing. Which could have continued, for what would really have been very modest cost to us. Quitting was penny wise and pound foolish. Any savings surely outweighed by the damage to America’s global standing. Just in casualties, the 13 soldiers killed in the Kabul airport bombing (a consequence of our leaving) exceeded those lost in Afghanistan since the start of 2020. And never mind the immense damage to Afghan people.

A New York Times essay by Ezra Klein* casts as a failure not the Afghan outcome, but the entire effort. Indicting our whole foreign policy mindset. It’s the “hubris” argument again. The problem with our Afghan venture, Klein argues — as with Iraq — was not merely flubbed execution, but “overreach.” He quotes scholar Emma Ashford: “we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.” Klein thinks focusing on botched implementation just obscures the deeper problem.

He sees it too as “not just the illusion of our control, but the illusion of our knowledge.” Again, Iraq — all the smart people were sure Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. When in fact he was bluffing. (I felt we couldn’t take the risk that he wasn’t.) Anyhow, Klein says, “we do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.”

And, he writes, “to many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop.” And so forth. You know the cynic’s tropes. And, says Klein, binding humanitarian ambitions with “delusions of military mastery” too often end badly — and bloodily.

Klein’s critique itself overreaches. Nobody imagines America is omniscient and omnipotent. If that were the requisite for action, we’d be paralyzed. Sometimes action can make sense even knowing the outcome is uncertain. Indeed, it’s rarely otherwise.

This all recalls Andrew Bacevich’s 2008 book, The Limits of Power. Arguing that because historical processes are too vast and messy for anyone to really grasp, let alone control, and given the law of unintended consequences, trying to remake the world is futile. Reprising Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History, similarly disparaging what he deemed a misguided “messianic” effort to manage history. Writing at a time when the U.S. had adopted an over-arching foreign policy vision to help rebuild nations walloped by WWII, including our former foes; to support democracy; and contain Communism. All rather successful.

Bacevich would have said: don’t even try.

But history is not some ineluctable force impervious to human effort. America is not on some “messianic” mission to democratize the world or “manage history;” rather, we merely believe the world can improve if certain countries can be helped to progress, and some problems can be ameliorated. True, we’re not always consistent, and as Klein notes, we tolerate some bad situations. But is inability to do everything a reason to do nothing?

The whole human story is unwillingness to accept things as they are, trying to do all we can to better our situation. In that, humanity has spectacularly succeeded. And U.S. foreign policy has not been a total failure either.

Some see the Afghan denouement as proving that nothing ever changes; that people never change. It’s certainly disheartening that Afghanistan’s rise from barbarism could not be sustained. Yet people do change. Societies progress. Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature documents how we’ve literally become better people over time. What Afghanistan really proves is that hard men with guns (especially with religion) can defeat such progress, and how to fight them remains a tremendous challenge.

But Klein concludes thus: “if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees . . . Only 1% of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that too.”

We have learned that trying to solve problems by military means often turns out more problematic than we imagined. Of course the whole realm of nonmilitary global engagement — foreign aid and all that — also tends to be pitfall-ridden. The law of unintended consequences is powerful indeed. But throwing up our hands and doing nothing is again not the answer. We do the best we can. And Klein is right that we err in over-reliance on military efforts. Those resources are much better devoted to non-military initiatives:

“We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.”


If civilization goes out

August 26, 2021

I’m not one of those pessimists believing humanity is riding for a fall. We’ve proven remarkably good at overcoming challenges and improving our condition. Climate change is a very big deal, but I believe we are capable of coping with its gradual unfolding. However, more sudden calamities, out of the blue, are possible. A recent PBS drama, “COBRA,” depicted a solar flare event knocking out Britain’s power supply. (Cyber-hacking could do likewise.) In COBRA, the problem wasn’t quickly fixable. Things got ugly.

Apparently such solar flares do happen periodically. An 1859 occurrence wasn’t catastrophic only because there was no power grid then; it did damage the telegraph system.

Imagine waking up one morning and everything is out. Electricity. Phones. TV and radio. No internet or newspapers, no access to news. No water. What is going on? No way for you to know! You might assume a quick return to normal. But nothing happens.

So: what do you do? Since watching “COBRA,” I’ve been pondering this.

I’ve felt I have enough money to protect against adversity. But it’s practically all in one electronic form or another. In this scenario I couldn’t access it. It may even be just gone. And what would “money” mean now anyway? As a coin dealer, I do have a lot of those metal disks on hand, but will someone trade food for them?

I would go through the neighborhood and put up notices calling a community meeting. First, to find out if anyone has any information. Is this a localized situation? If so, presumably government would eventually show up. But with no sign of that yet, it could be a national problem, even global. We’d better assume the worst, that we’re on our own, and act accordingly.

Are we in “Mad Max” territory now? Returned to a Hobbesian state of nature? Where everyone is vulnerable to predation by others. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined people getting together to resolve such a predicament by agreeing to give up their freedom to prey upon others in exchange for mutual protection from predation. That’s the social contract; a system of laws, enforced by a government. Of course that story wasn’t intended as literal; instead Hobbes saw it as embodying the logic underlying our submission to laws and government.

But my neighborhood meeting should do something just like Hobbes hypothesized. I haven’t previously had much interaction with neighbors. However, now we’d want to set up a system to look after and take care of one another, cooperating to protect against possible bad actors who would privilege their self-interest over the common good.

We’d want to stockpile some gasoline as cars (still working!) could come in very handy. But the pumps in gas stations probably won’t work. Does someone know how to access their tanks? Food and water are of course critical concerns. Local stores will presumably be shut. We’d have to break in. Likewise at the mall for other necessities. Our social compact should encompass organized commandeering of necessities. Organized, not violent free-for-alls.

Normally such thefts would of course be wrong. But all ethics are situational; and this is not a normal situation. Store owners have a right not to be robbed, but that is trumped by people’s right to self-preservation. The owners are probably unavailable for consent. Perhaps we could leave IOUs.

Thinking ahead to winter, we’d want some axes, to lay in lots of wood (in my area trees abound); also plenty of matches, and candles. Also, I’d raid the library.

Maybe it would all be kind of fun. No, actually; maybe we could manage to just survive for a few wretched years. But I believe that no matter the nature and extent of the catastrophe, there will be enough people with the capabilities, ingenuity, and will, to restore what was lost. I do not believe civilization would collapse into permanent Mad Maxness.

We have lately experienced a different kind of global catastrophe, that disrupted our lives, in many cases dramatically. Most of us are coping. And in my rather more grim scenario here, one day the lights will come back on. What a triumphant day that will be.

Black holes and humanity

August 22, 2021

The force of gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with distance. When a star dies, there’s a lot of mass in a pretty small space, and no more force pushing outward against the gravity. So the star crushes down, becoming even smaller and denser, further concentrating the gravitational force pulling toward the center. With enough mass it condenses into a tiny nubbin, with gravitation so great that nothing, not even light, can escape. That’s a black hole.

With a ratio of mass to volume virtually infinite, the normal laws of physics cease to apply, which is called a “singularity.” Many formerly doubted this could occur in reality. Now we know it does. There may be a black hole at the center of every galaxy. Meantime, black holes’ weirdness captured popular imagination. Gravity so strong it sucks in anything getting near, while nothing gets out. “Black hole” became a useful metaphor (especially in 2017-21).

When we discovered the Universe is expanding, running that film backwards gets you to something that also has vast mass concentrated into virtually zero space — again a singularity where the laws of physics break down. This has led to speculation that the “Big Bang” and black holes are connected — that a black hole could detonate big bangs — perhaps answering the conundrum of seemingly getting something from nothing. With new universes being birthed all the time out of black holes.

You may have seen in 2019 our first photo of a black hole. We watched a great Netflix film about the scientists working on what was a massive photography project. A big problem was that a black hole is, well, literally black, no light escaping. But it does produce “Hawking radiation” in the surrounding space.

Still, getting a photo was a huge challenge because so few photons reach us across the cosmic vastness. The film illustrated this vividly by first showing a grid of squares, with one small square containing our solar system. Then it zoomed out to show that whole grid as just one square in a far bigger grid. Then it did it again. And again and again and again. I lost count, before we finally saw a grid big enough to contain both our solar system and the black hole.

That was one of two the team targeted. The other was a thousand times bigger — and a thousand times farther away.

The paucity of photons reaching us meant an ordinary telescopic photo would be, like, one or two pixels. Hardly helpful. To get a decent meaningful image would have required a camera the size of the Earth. So that’s what they built — by coordinating a whole slew of telescopes all across the planet. Each making images simultaneously. Having good visibility conditions at all of them, simultaneously, was a problem too. Somehow they succeeded. The result was an immense amount of data shipped on hardware from all those locations to a central clearinghouse where computers could put together the pieces of this stupendous jigsaw puzzle. Revealing the picture of a black hole.

Meanwhile . . . the film also focused on a group of theoreticians working with the late Stephen Hawking, he of “Hawking radiation,” the leading thinker on black holes who practically invented them. The main concern was with what they called the “information paradox.” “Information” here means more than its common parlance; it refers to what’s encoded in the structure of any physical object. In that sense, your body, for example, entails many trillions (or quintillions?) of bits of information. Throw it into a black hole and that information seemingly disappears. That bothered the theoreticians, a lot, contravening their intuition for how the Universe should operate. (This is about as well as I could manage to understand the matter.)

So they banged their heads against the mathematics. I didn’t begin to grasp the interplay between the very complex mathematics and the physical phenomena. But finally, it seemed, they did get the sums to work out such that information sucked into a black hole is not truly annihilated but is conserved in some manner.

But here is what struck me viewing this film. All the numerous people involved in these enterprises, especially the photography effort, exemplify what I see as our great human project. To understand — everything. And to use that understanding to imbue our lives with meaning and fulfillment. With nothing given to us but what we seek and find ourselves. Everything else pales beside the immensity of that great human project. Membership in this species fills me with pride.

Afghanistan disaster

August 17, 2021

President Biden decided that 20 years of commitment to Afghanistan was enough, so he’d pull out our few thousand troops. Never mind that we’ve had tens of thousands in Germany, in South Korea, in Japan, for over 70 years — with far less compelling rationales.

We had invested vastly in Afghanistan. But at this point the mission’s cost there — in manpower, money, and casualties — was comparatively small. Yet had a big payoff. While we weren’t winning the war, we were managing to sustain a status quo with the Taliban contained, thus enabling millions of Afghans to live decently. Pulling out gained very little, with huge risks of the horrible outcome now unfolding.

Even politically it made no sense. American voters were not clamoring for an Afghan pullout. But the result is egg all over Biden’s face. Deservedly.

He blew off the consensus of military and intelligence experts who warned of dire consequences. Which came even faster than foreseen.

Thanks also to the bungled execution. This was no well-planned withdrawal. While only weeks ago Biden swore we’d never see people airlifted from the embassy roof like in Saigon in 1975, that’s exactly what happened in Kabul. Ghastly airport scenes of people frantically trying to get out, some killed in the chaos.

The Afghan army melted away, after all the billions we’d invested in it. Notably in their air force, a key factor against the Taliban. But with us gone, those planes could no longer be maintained and kept flying. Afghan soldiers had already made tremendous sacrifices battling the Taliban, taking huge casualties. With very little in pay and back-up. Then we completely abandon our partnership. Yet Biden cravenly slams them for not throwing away their lives to continue a fight we’d now made futile.

Our rush to the exit is supremely callous toward the whole Afghan people, left to a grim fate. Especially women. The Taliban has long mounted a campaign of targeted assassinations of the intelligentsia — government officials, judges, journalists, etc. Especially women, who had ascended to such roles. Now they won’t even be allowed in school. Nor, apparently, will unmarried females be allowed. Holdouts to be forcibly married to Taliban fighters.

What perverted humanity. I can never fathom vast numbers of people lining up behind such evil. Fighting it was a noble endeavor.

For another perspective on our responsibility to Afghanistan, I highly recommend an essay ( by my daughter Elizabeth, who has lived there, working in the international engagement.

The Biden administration is trying to blame this disaster on Trump. Who’d negotiated a deal with the Taliban, for a cease-fire and anti-terrorism promise, in exchange for our withdrawal. (They also got 5,000 prisoners released.) Those Taliban pledges were always worthless and immediately violated. Biden had no reason to stick with our side of that phony Trump deal. It’s no excuse for his actions.

This is one more damning signal to the world that today’s America is a weak feckless country that cannot be relied upon. China is laughing at us. After Trump’s brainless shredding of our international credibility, I expected better from Biden. But in every aspect of this Afghan fiasco, he bears an unnerving resemblance to Trump at his worst. Even down to falsely blaming his predecessor.

* * *

After long observing the world I’ve learned to expect disillusionment. I’d hugely supported Biden’s campaign. But what I’ve also come to understand is the world’s complexity. A vast machine with myriads of moving parts, and no master control. Thus bad stuff is inevitable. Yet I remain an optimist because in the (very) big picture, far more is going right than wrong. I supported Biden, most fundamentally, because he is a good person. Far from perfect, but good. I think that’s still true. Whereas Trump was wicked through and through. Good people don’t always do what’s good. But better than bad people.

* * *

Hakainde Hichilema, a businessman, lost five Zambian presidential elections; surely cheated out of victory, and persecuted and imprisoned, by the ruling party. In this sixth try, against President Edgar Lungu, The Economist said Hichilema would win a free and fair election — but saw no chance of that. Lungu, whose corrupt misrule has been wrecking Zambia, did everything possible to rig the poll. When Hichilema nevertheless clearly won, Lungu tried to pull a Trump, claiming the election was not free and fair (!). We’ve seen this movie too often, especially in Africa. But now — surprisingly — Lungu has relented and conceded defeat.

Some optimist sugar for me on the bitter pill of Afghanistan.

When Politics Gets Bloody

August 15, 2021

Isabel Allende’s Long Petal of the Sea is a meaty, old-style novel, centered around historical events. It begins with Spain’s 1936-39 civil war. Shortly before, they’d seen off their monarchy and gotten a democratic government, dominated by the left. Francisco Franco was an opportunistic general who led his troops to overthrow the Republic. Hitler and Mussolini backed him militarily. Stalin supported the Republicans, many being Communists, joined by a lot of American volunteers. When Franco’s fascists won the war, thousands of opponents fled for their lives, into France, and squalid concentration camps. Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda arranged for a ship, the Winnipeg, to carry some of the refugees to new lives in Chile.

Among them Victor and Roser. He’d spent the war as a medic; she had a baby fathered by Victor’s brother before his battle death. They marry just to qualify for the ship. They spend 34 good years in Chile and their relationship evolves into love.

And then it happens again — Victor in a horrible concentration camp, after Chile’s 1973 coup, overthrowing left-wing President Salvador Allende (Victor’s friend), accompanied by ghastly brutality. History records that Allende committed suicide. That always seemed fishy to me. The novel says the military killed him.

Its author was his cousin and became a refugee herself after the coup, winding up a U.S. citizen.

Victor manages to get out alive, and he and Roser flee to Venezuela — then an oasis of democracy, prosperity, and the good life. Later, its voters would throw all that away, seduced by “socialism.”

Back to Spain’s civil war, the novel shows just how vicious it was, with gross brutality on both sides (but worse by the fascists). Reading the account, what struck me was that many wars entail nationalistic jingoism — bad enough — but this was somewhat different, a war over political ideology. That seems to be what made so many so willing to go so far, losing all human moral restraint. That’s what can happen when political differences get out of hand.

The story repeated with Chile’s coup, preceded by escalating political extremism, each side developing an apocalyptic hostility toward the other. But again more so on the right, viewing the left as threatening everything good and holy. And in its crusade to stamp that out, the right shredded everything good and holy. Thus the inhuman atrocities.

Reading about both the Spanish and Chilean stories was chilling because it could happen here. In fact America has already gone quite far down that road. We no longer have just normal type political disagreements. One side has fallen into a very dark place of lies and conspiracism. January 6 was a fire bell in the night, showing how such political craziness can become violent, justified in the eyes of people willing to do literally anything to crush opponents. They hate what they see as America becoming, want its institutions burned down, and fetishize guns. Clear echoes of 1930s Spain and 1973 Chile. We’ve avoided wider actual bloodshed — so far. But it’s all too easy to envision.

Studying history shows there are always men just itching for the chance to unleash their inner swaggering storm trooper. Like cockroaches they come out of the woodwork when the occasion arises. We must ensure it does not.

Particularly heart-rending was Allende’s depiction of the Spanish refugees, desperate to escape Franco’s cruel extermination, fleeing under horrendous conditions. I could see myself, someday, in their shoes. If lucky enough to have shoes.

At least the Canadian border is not too far.

Meeting the Second Gentleman

August 12, 2021

Doug Emhoff is America’s first second gentleman — spouse of our first female vice president. I recently attended a reception with him in New York.

I walked the couple of miles to and from the bus station — I love soaking up New York’s vibrant ambience. Hadn’t been there in 18 months. This time the soaking was literal, in the rain, but I enjoyed it.

Before, one of the organizers phoned me, requesting removal of a somewhat risque photo in a past blog post. I complied; but at the reception told her I was flabbergasted to have been vetted with such thoroughness. She said it was the Secret Service. (Their presence at the event was low-key.)

I’m the short one

Emhoff is a lawyer, who married Kamala Harris in 2014. He seems to be a lovely human being, sweet, warm, funny, with no grandiosity. Somewhat flabbergasted himself at the role suddenly thrust upon him. Going around the country, to events like this, and many others. He said he’d led an insular sort of life before, and his eyes have been opened to an American panorama he’d never known.

I asked a question in the Q&A. “That’s a great question,” Emhoff said. (I’d recently heard a radio commentary about how ubiquitous that’s become in answering questions; since then I’ve noticed it myself.) I asked how, in his travels, as a non-politician, he communicates with Republicans, not political people either, but everyday folks. He answered that listening is very important — to understand where people are coming from — meeting them where they are at.

I knew nobody at the event, said little to anyone, enjoyed the food, and mostly felt like Oliver Sacks’s Anthropologist on Mars. All attendees (except for one gentleman of Indian heritage) were white. And upper echelon white* (big donors). I was treated very graciously.

On the bus trip (in contrast, the lone white passenger), I’d been reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, relating how in her early life, she experienced the other side of that coin. Such disparities in how people are seen and treated persist. But Michelle Obama did wind up living in the White House, and Doug Emhoff’s non-white wife is vice president. Social progress is too slow and fitful for many of us, but it’s happening.

*One other seeming exception was a scruffy looking long-bearded fellow in shorts and sneakers. He asked an interesting question. Just shows you can’t judge people by appearances.

God’s Holy Apostolic Church of sex criminals

August 9, 2021

As an atheist I have little use for clergy. But I recall a positive vibe when Howard Hubbard, then just 38, became Albany’s Bishop in 1977. A “street priest,” he seemed a good guy, with his head on straight (for a priest). When, after he retired in 2014, allegations of sexual abuse of youngsters began dribbling out, I was actually skeptical. Howard Hubbard? Even Hubbard too? Then the drips became a flood. (He denies abuse.)

It’s hard to be shocked any longer at how pervasive sexual criminality is among Catholic clergy — and how reprehensibly the Church’s highest echelons have handled it. Recently the Albany Times-Union reported that Hubbard acknowledges that (its words) the “Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany engaged in a decades-long cover-up of chronic child sexual abuse committed by its priests.” Via the now familiar paradigm of handling such cases not as crimes for law enforcement but, rather, as personal peccadillos, sending priests for counseling and treatment, and often transferring them to other parishes with fresh victims to abuse. The harm to those innocents engendered scant concern.

The paper reports that one teenaged boy molested by a priest, Gerald Miller, was so traumatized he killed himself. His aunt phoned Bishop Hubbard, who said he knew about the situation. She was so shaken by his next words that she recalled them exactly: “Father Gerry is being sent to New Mexico [a treatment site] where they have more respect for priests.”

Religion is a suspension of rationality. Were such beliefs not widespread, anyone espousing them would be diagnosed as insane.

Sex in particular turns inside out the brains of the religious. Nothing is more fundamental and natural to a human being than sexual feelings. Simply because that’s how nature ensures reproduction. Which is literally all that nature “cares” about; otherwise there is no nature. Thus powerful sexuality was built into us by evolution.

To be human is to go with the flow of that. To fight it is a denial of our essential humanity. Yet that’s exactly what Catholicism in particular seeks to do, making sexual feelings seem dirty and wicked, piling guilt and shame on believers, with terrorizing threats of eternal torture.

Wrestling with their messed up take on sexuality has long plagued Christians. Exemplified by Saint Augustine begging God to make him chaste — but not yet. And it’s also exemplified by Catholicism’s priestly celibacy rule. Surely a very misguided solution to the “problem” of the human sex drive. Asking priests to suppress it completely is asking for trouble. Especially when that’s bound to attract to the priesthood men whose relationship with their sexuality is already troubled.

And they’re guilty not only of crimes harming innocent victims. They are also frauds. Preaching what they cannot possibly believe. How could anyone actually believe sinners burn in hell while committing monstrous sins like raping children? But maybe that’s too harsh. They may be so morally mixed up that they’re blind to the cognitive dissonance, or else somehow convince themselves God condones their crimes. Religion does tend to scramble ethical instincts in that way, as evidenced by the parade of faith-inspired horrors throughout history.

The deepening Republican menace

August 5, 2021

During Trump’s term, I’d periodically write, “It will get worse.” It always did. And it hasn’t stopped.

Some thought Trump’s election defeat might bring Republicans to their senses. Then they rallied behind his “stolen election” lie. His biggest ever. Now we’re now learning more details about how it was Trump himself who tried to steal the election. Finally sending a violent mob to the Capitol on January 6, aiming to wreck the process and retain power.

But not even that sick, bloody, treasonous travesty brought Republicans to their senses. At a July 27 news conference their House leaders responded to the searing testimony of four Capitol Police officers about the horror they experienced on January 6. Elise Stefanik, now Number Three in the leadership, said the American people deserve to know the truth: it was Nancy Pelosi’s fault.

Suggesting that as House Speaker, she controlled the Capitol Police. Not so. And any such responsibility would have been shared with Mitch McConnell, then running the Senate. Blaming Pelosi alone — and not Trump at all! — for January 6 is either deranged lunacy or the most cynical dishonesty. Prior to that news conference shocker, I’d thought Republicans had hit a moral rock bottom. I was wrong.

This is the party that bleats “law and order,” vaunting support for police officers — especially as against violent protests. What was January 6 if not an unlawful violent protest, physically attacking the police? And where does the GOP stand? With the treasonous lawbreakers, actually belittling or even mocking the testimony of the savaged police officers. A moral rock bottom?

Then too it’s mainly Republicans refusing vaccination, masks, or social distancing. They’re the cause of Covid resurging. Republican areas most resistant to sensible health measures have (surprise) the highest illness and death rates. Some GOP governors not only refuse to push vaccination and masking, but actually try to block localities from doing so. Florida’s DeSantis the worst example. With his state consequently breaking hospitalization records, having a fifth of all U.S. Covid cases.

I was a Republican for 53 years. Today’s Republican party threatens not only our democracy but literally all our lives.

Yet dare I say, even now: it will get worse.

Columnist David Brooks offers an interesting perspective. Observing growing family estrangement in America. Mostly children distancing from parents over sometimes real but often exaggerated or imagined childhood grievances, leaving parents, who’d thought they’d given their kids everything, hurt and bewildered. Brooks suggests a cause is “a more individualistic culture” — the family, once “seen as a bond of mutual duty and obligation,” now “as a launchpad for personal fulfillment.” Making people feel freer to sever bonds deemed problematic. I would add that over-indulgent parenting may actually contribute, giving children a sense of entitlement so strong they feel justified in chucking a relationship that doesn’t fully suit them — even with those indulgent parents.

What does all this have to do with today’s Republicans? Brooks sees family estrangement as part of a broader phenomenon of fraying human ties. Remember Putnam’s Bowling Alone? Americans report diminishing close friendships, and growing feelings of aloneness. Brooks says this social fragmentation has wide repercussions, including in politics. Which “has begun to feel like an arena where many people can process and regulate their emotional turmoil indirectly.” Difficult “within the tangled intimacy of family life. But political tribalism becomes a mechanism with which people can shore themselves up, vanquish shame, fight for righteousness and find a sense of belonging.”

Republicans do imagine they fight for righteousness, with moralistic fervor. The psychology is understandable. But not the flight from rationality, the failure to distinguish reality from fantasy and virtue from evil. That is insane.

Memory: Early morning, August 4, 1987

August 4, 2021

Turn your face to the moonlight.
Let your memory lead you;
Open up, enter in.
If you find there the meaning of what happiness is,
Then a new life will begin.

Memory! All alone in the moonlight;
I can smile at the old days,
I was beautiful then.
I remember the time I knew what happiness was.
Let the memory live again.

Burnt out ends of smoky days,
The stale, cold smell of morning.
The street lamp dies, another night is over;
Another day is dawning.

Daylight, I must wait for the sunrise!
I must think of a new life,
And I mustn’t give in.
When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too.
And a new day will begin.

Touch me! it’s so easy to leave me!
All alone with the memory
Of my days in the sun.
If you touch me,

you’ll understand what happiness is.

Look — a new day has begun!

Leave me she did.

I did not give in.

And a new life did begin.


August 1, 2021

Someone was leaving books in the post office with cheery stick-on notes saying “Free Book!” They’d often languish forlornly. I’d give them a glance, but I’m not inclined for random novels. However, Julian Fellowes sounded like a sophisticated British writer (creator of Downton Abbey). The title, Snobs, fit with that. So I took it.

Edith is an upper middle class working girl, at 27, in the mid-’90s, beginning to foresee a potentially dreary future. Then, a fluke: accidentally encountering Charles, from one of those moneyed, landed, noble houses. An Earl. She’s got enough native assets, mainly looks, that he marries her.

I expected their sexual relations would be only circumspectly described. But Fellowes mans up and gives us the wedding night in quite graphic detail. Neither disaster nor triumph; and important for what’s to come.

Charles is not a bad human being. Nor is his aristocratic mother, despite being sort of the villain. Initially, Edith revels in her status elevation; servants calling her “milady” and all. But there’s soon a growing sense of “is that all there is?”

The book is less about plot than about the kind of people in its cast of characters. And the title, Snobs, says it all. It’s not heavy-handed, but it is merciless.

One gets the picture very quickly. I asked myself, can I take 250 more pages of this? And, indeed, the rest is filled with embellishments upon the theme. Yet Fellowes is a good enough writer that it’s never a bore. (I often felt I could be reading Henry James.) You wouldn’t think there are so many ways of portraying a subspecies of people whose principal characteristic is how limited they are.

They form a web whose principal characteristic is its being a web. Fellowes calls it the “Name Game,” social interactions centered largely upon reaffirming one’s place in the web. “We don’t know them” is the ultimate and irreversible judgment. Someone outside the web cannot be “known” — not in the way that counts. Edith’s breaking through was, again, a definite fluke.

We read novels to understand people, and society; and ourselves. This book’s characters were about as alien from me as possible. Their lives being utterly defined in relation to other people, I was struck by how untrue that is for me.

I’m not an antisocial hermit. Have numerous acquaintances. But intimate friends? If honest, I must say none — apart from my wife. The difference between me and those populating the book is that I feel pretty much sufficient unto myself. I do my coin business; I read; I write. Mostly I write for my own amusement. My life’s meaning, as I go through the day, is based within me, not other people. Only my wife really exists for me. (And maybe my daughter.)

But let me add this. The older I get the more I value society. In the senses both of the milieu in which we live our lives, and of the great human enterprise. Being part of that is, perhaps contradictorily, a very big aspect of my inner life. The last five years heightened this, forcing us to face fundamental issues about our society. And I understand thoroughly how that society makes it blessedly possible for me to live a rewarding life not centered upon other people.

Fellowes says he tried to convey some aspects of the depicted type that are actually creditable, which is fair enough. He also says Snobs is not really about class but about choice; and that does come to take center stage. Edith’s choice to marry for reasons other than love was for her a largely unexamined one. Then she makes another choice — running off with a ridiculously handsome actor. Sure, people have affairs, but you can try to manage it discreetly. Edith does not. What could she be thinking?

The rest of the book is about her coming to terms with these choices — and whether she can make a further one. I give myself points for anticipating Edith’s wanting to go back, after all, to the husband who’d seemingly so bored her. Just arranging a tete-a-tete with him was a challenge, the rest of the family conspiring to be truly rid of her. I mentally scripted her speech to Charles, all that I felt ought to be said. What I, in her place, would have said. But in the end it all resolved into a single word reply.

Of just two letters.