Archive for October, 2021

Robinson’s 2021 Albany Voters Guide

October 30, 2021

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan is running for a third term. Opposing her are Republican candidate Alicia Purdy and independent Greg Aidala; and Valerie Faust as a write-in.

The Republican party, nationally, is a threat to democracy, and insane. Hence I reject all Republican candidates. Purdy has refused to say whether she voted for Trump. That alone disqualifies her.

Aidala is a professional comedian and entertainment promoter. Of his lack of political experience, his basic answer is “look what experience has gotten for us.” A facile posture. It’s easy to take pot-shots. Albany’s problems are complex and difficult.

I strongly supported Sheehan the first time. But her insistence on billing a protest group for police costs during a demonstration was a Russia-like outrage against freedom of speech. I’ve also lambasted her more recent handling of a protest at a police station. I considered voting for Faust in the primary until I heard her on the radio full of God-talk. I actually skipped the mayoral line in the primary. But will vote for Sheehan Tuesday as the only responsible option.

There are 7 propositions (on the back of the ballot). Number 1 concerns legislative redistricting. Here’s the story:

In 2014 Governor Cuomo promoted a supposedly non-partisan redistricting reform. It was a standard Cuomo sham. The “independent” redistricting commission was structured to guarantee its deadlock and failure, so redistricting would revert to the legislature after all. And the commission has duly failed. Tuesday’s Prop 1 is complicated but, long story short, would ensure a Democrat gerrymander.

“Gerrymandering” is when one party controls the legislative maps and can engineer, like, winning 70% of seats with 50% of votes.* It’s a bane of our politics, driving parties to extremes and promoting polarization. Nationwide, it threatens to give the Trumpist party control of the House of Representatives. A Democratic gerrymander in New York would help prevent that. Hence I’m voting for Prop 1. (Also, it seems if it doesn’t pass, New York’s redistricting would be thrown into chaos.)

Proposition 2 is the fake environmental rights amendment, which I’ve previously addressed.

Numbers 3 and 4 would allow voter registration at the polls on election day, and no-excuse absentee voting. We need this. (Number 5 is just technical.) Number 6 would create a residency requirement for Albany’s city council. I don’t see why we need this. Voters should be left free to vote for anyone.

Proposition 7 is very important, giving Albany’s Civilian Police Review Board some teeth. I’ve written about this problem before too. Lookit, we give cops weapons and empower their use against citizens. There has to be oversight and accountability, but heretofore it’s been sorely lacking. Police organizations are mounting a disgraceful campaign against this reform, trying to scare people that it will somehow make the city less safe. In fact it will make us more safe — from police misconduct. They also say it would put police oversight in the hands of “politicians” (who appoint the review board). Well, who should have oversight of the police? Their answer seems to be: themselves alone. Politicians are elected by citizens to perform such functions. The police — hired by us — should be answerable to us, through the political system. That’s how democracy works. Passing this reform is imperative.

* By cramming as many other-party voters as possible into a few districts, which they win overwhelmingly, so your party wins all other seats by just decent margins.

The Donut King

October 27, 2021

Ted Ngoy came to America, a refugee from Cambodia’s genocide, with nothing but some family members — and great drive. Worked hard at various jobs, one in a donut shop, where he learned the business. Then he started his own. Leading the way for fellow Cambodian refugees to make the donut trade their specialty. Eventually Ted built an empire of around 65 stores, and bought a gorgeous California mansion, which he loved.

The story is told in a fascinating 2020 film, The Donut King, aired on PBS.

I was struck by what a positive, welcoming attitude America had then, in the 1970s, toward refugees and immigrants. True to our fundamental ideals. And their rightness was exemplified by the story of Ted and his fellow Cambodian refugees, contributing greatly to this country. Latterly, of course, we’ve lost our way on this, succumbing to a nasty xenophobic irrationalism, poisoning American minds. I’d hoped President Biden would undo Trump’s damage (he promised me), and he’s done some, but not nearly enough. Even some wall construction continues.

Ted’s story included a fairy tale romance. Back in Cambodia, he was a young nobody, smitten by a girl from an elite family. By pluck and grit he won her.

But as the whole beautiful story unfolded in the film, I remembered being told at the outset that Ted would lose everything. I kept wondering how.

Then he discovers Las Vegas.

We visited there when our daughter was little. Walking through a casino, I suggested she think about the cost of building that sumptuous edifice. The electricity cost for all the dazzling lights. And wages for all the employees. Et cetera. Where does all that money come from — with the owners making profits besides? From the pockets, obviously, of people gambling there. Most have to be losers.

B.F. Skinner posited that gamblers keep at it because they’re conditioned by the periodic psychic rewards of wins. Such reward/punishment conditioning was Skinner’s theory of everything. He was wrong. Wins are not gambling’s rewards. (Anyhow they’d be outweighed by more frequent losses; and human psychology hates losses more than it loves gains.) Gambling’s reward is instead the spritz of adrenaline thrill with every roll of the dice and turn of a card. A fix to which some gamblers become addicted.

Ted did. That’s how he lost everything. Blowing his whole donut fortune and mortgaging his stores to the point of bankruptcy. He lost his cherished mansion. And his fairy tale marriage, with his wife powerless to stop his self-destruction. The last straw was his having “a little affair,” as he put it with a sheepish grin.

Indeed, the film showed him to be still a cheerful upbeat fellow, despite his catastrophe.

One can understand addiction to the rush each time one bets. How that could have kept Ted coming back again and again. But squandering his entire wealth? Not even holding back a fraction? Didn’t he grasp that by blowing everything, he destroyed his capability to continue gambling? The one one thing he came to crave above all else.

The human story was what was really so compelling in this film. Ted’s donut empire was a monument to rationality. His heedless self-destruction a monument to irrationality.

Human beings: you gotta love them.

The Phony Environmental Rights Amendment

October 23, 2021

This election day, New Yorkers have the opportunity to vote for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing us the right to clean air and water and to enjoy a healthy environment. All that in just 15 simple words!

And after we’ve passed this amendment, the Tooth Fairy will leave money under our pillows.

Dominick Calsolaro’s Oct. 22 Albany Times-Union commentary rhapsodizes about the amendment. Saying it will prevent “government agencies and departments approving corporate projects over the health and safety of citizens.” They’d be “obligated to minimize pollution, degradation, and environmental harms . . . to put people first.”

So “no more Hoosick Falls, where residents have used water contaminated for decades.” No more public housing complexes, like Albany’s Ezra Prentice Homes, built in an industrial-zoned area. No more landfills, like the one in Rensselaer, next to a school. No more incinerators like Norlite’s operating within city limits.

It sounds like passing this simple amendment will be like waving a magic wand, all our environmental problems will be solved, and we can march forward into the bright sunshine of a new day.

If only it were that easy. But this is just a feel-good measure, nothing more. Its fifteen simple words are so general they mean nothing, requiring nothing of anyone. Applying its lofty language to nitty-gritty situations like those Calsolaro enumerates would be very arguable. There are always trade-offs. Indeed, if his expansive reading were actually correct, the amendment would be a strait-jacket, barring sensible consideration of such trade-offs. “Putting people first” can conflict with environmental concerns.

Meantime, state agencies will likely spend extra time and money giving lip service to the amendment. Needing more state workers to crank out more empty verbiage.

And, as Calsolaro himself points out, the amendment will invite more litigation, giving people more legal tools for nimbyism and obstructionism. As if we don’t already have enough of that. As if New York’s economy is not already hamstrung by a welter of business-stifling measures. The amendment could actually be exploited to stymie clean-energy projects like wind farms.

Then of course there’s the law of unintended consequences. It’s hard to say what those unintended consequences will be. But unintended consequences don’t tend to be good.

I’m all in favor of clean air and water and a healthy environment. But that requires hard work, facing painful trade-offs. This amendment is a cynical excuse for not actually doing anything. It sounds high-minded to say we have a “human right” to a healthy environment, but it has to be paid for.

There’s no free lunch. Dressing up a nothingburger as a free lunch is a bad thing.

I’m voting no.

The State of the Union: A Republican comeback?

October 20, 2021

Conventional wisdom says a president’s party loses seats in midterm elections. Republicans, needing few gains to control Congress, will benefit from the census shifting seats to red states, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other cheating. But modern American politics confounds conventional wisdom. No longer conforming to a rational paradigm. Many pundits even think Trump may regain the White House. Could voters be so crazy — after January 6 — and with Republicans still steeped in that Kool-Aid?

The “stolen election” story is a pathetic joke. As if the out-party could have pulled that off. Trump (the biggest liar ever) simply made it up because his deranged ego couldn’t accept losing. Any fool could see that. But not his cultists, so unhitched from reality the lie is now literally an article of faith. It was Trump himself who tried to steal the election, culminating on January 6, and the insanity continues to warp our whole body politic. Might voter revulsion at this negate the usual midterm dynamic? Or will Republican distraction efforts succeed? (Despite being undermined by Trump’s obsessive histrionics.)

We’re also being told that if President Biden can’t get his ambitious multi-program bill passed, Democrats will look hapless. While if it does pass, Republicans will have a field day crying “socialism!” So Democrats can’t win. But Republicans will shriek “socialism” no matter what. Now needing, as we’ve learned, no nexus with factual reality for any of their shtick. Screaming that Democrats will destroy America — which Republicans themselves nearly did on January 6.

Meantime, what’s actually in Biden’s legislation is mostly stuff most voters like and want: subsidized day care, family leave, college, etc. Another thing we’re told endlessly is how Democrats don’t connect with the working class economic anxieties Trumpism exploits (without actually doing anything about).

Well, Biden’s big “Build Back Better” bill does tackle those bread-and-butter concerns. But for many voters, it’s “my mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts.” And Republican politics today isn’t about genuine policy issues anyway. Mainly it’s demonizing and hating Democrats. “Owning the libs.”

As a longtime Republican, I have no illusions of Democrat and Biden wonderfulness. I’ve criticized him over Afghanistan, and China policy. His handling of migrants and refugees is disappointing — breaking, I feel, a personal promise. Yet Biden is still a decent, honest, responsible, sane antithesis to Trump who — on top of every other ghastly travesty — tried to overthrow our democracy. And would wreck it forever if, against all reason, returned to power.

I’d like to think it inconceivable. But that’s what I thought in 2016 — before it showed too many U.S. voters gone rogue — against all reason.

Americans are mostly admirable, pragmatic, down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth people. But even before 2016 I warned that our being, in the global/historical scheme of things, a peaceable oasis of democracy and freedom, was not somehow ordained by God. And would not endure without citizens understanding and internalizing the principles undergirding it. Heedless ignorance, flouting those principles, metastasizes. As on January 6. And millions actually believe Trump was “making America great again.” Another pathetic joke.

I fear the power of the strongman syndrome. Bin Laden said, “if people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they will prefer the strong horse.” Even if, as with Trump, it’s strength of badness. Those still gaga for him are psychologically attracted by the illusion of strength. Imagining only a tough character can solve tough problems. And voters in many other countries have made that same mistake again and again, falling for the primitivist, misconceived macho allure of a “strongman.” Like moths to a flame.

I love America. Trump’s presidency felt like watching her raped. Re-electing him would be like infidelity.

Religion as a source of morality and witch burning

October 16, 2021

[I can hardly believe this piece got published in today’s Albany Times-Union. On the “Faith and Values” page! Especially my final paragraph!]*

Most human societies have believed not just in gods but also devils and demons. A way to explain much evil. Such beliefs were commonplace and powerful in the pre-Enlightenment West. While today witches are Halloween figures of fun, people once were terrified of them, and witch hunts were very real.

That might seem crazy now. But no crazier, really, than some beliefs commonly held today. Polls reveal around 40% of Americans still believe in Satan; we had a Satanic panic as recently as the ’80s. Many people were imprisoned on absurd charges of Devil-worshipping child abuse.

And of course even now millions worship an actual living devil. Trump support does have many faith-like aspects. As does the apocalyptic QAnon cult, full of language and imagery emulating religion. Indeed, a witch hunt, accusing political targets of being Satanic baby eaters (prompting one true believer to shoot up a pizza parlor). The January 6 attack on the Capitol too resembled religious fanaticism. As does the anti-vax, anti-mask hysteria — actually responsible for many thousands of deaths.

The age of literal witch hunting began in 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII promulgated a bull declaring “evil angels” a big problem, doing vast harm, especially connected with procreation. He commissioned a report, titled Malleus Malificarum, the “Hammer of Witches.” A how-to manual for the inquisitions and burnings that now duly exploded.

Under its system of show trials, devoid of due process rights, any accusation of witchery was effectively conclusive, with torture prescribed to confirm it. An open invitation for accusers to manipulate religious rhetoric for typically bad motives: envy, or personal or political vendettas, or getting hold of victims’ property. Or just one’s own power projection.

Inquisitors were incentivized to profit from their prosecutions. “An expense account scam,” Carl Sagan called it. All costs of the proceedings billed to victims’ families, including banquets for her judges, the costs of bringing in a professional torturer, and of course the straw and other supplies needed for the burning. Any remaining property was confiscated for the inquisitors’ benefit. And as if that weren’t enough, they earned a bonus for every witch incinerated.

Not surprisingly, witch burnings spread like, well, wild fire.

Some people, at least, must have realized this was deranged and horrific. But you’d better not voice such thoughts — lest you be grabbed yourself in the jaws of this death machine. Safer to cheer it on, or even participate.

Misogyny and repressed sexuality were big factors. While men and women were believed equally vulnerable to Satan, those burned were predominantly female. Prosecuted mostly by clergymen — notionally celibate, but we’ve come to know the prevalence of misdirected sexuality. The witchery charges often had sexual aspects, requiring careful inspection of private parts, and tortures tailored accordingly.

How many victims were there in all? Hundreds of thousands at least. Maybe millions. [Alas in the published piece this was edited to merely “Thousands at least.”]

This begs comparison with the Holocaust. Given Europe’s much smaller population then, the death toll was comparable, though spread over centuries. In both cases, the perpetrators saw themselves on a kind of purification mission.

Some religionists claim there’s no morality without God. In the witch hunts, clearly the evildoers were the God-besotted burners, not the burned. Did it never occur to them it was they themselves doing the Devil’s work? With all the extravagant belief in Satan’s power to deviously subvert humans to his purposes — the prosecutors didn’t pause to wonder if he was doing it to them? With the mild teachings of Jesus forgotten, did they not realize torturing and burning innocents, even often children, blackening the church with iniquity, was exactly what the Devil would have wanted?

But that might almost have been rational, and reason and religion don’t go together. No morality without God? The witch burnings prove there’s no morality without reason.

* Though their title is not mine.

Analyzing the religious right

October 12, 2021

Katherine Stewart is an investigative reporter and author of the book, The Power Worshippers. I attended her talk titled “The dangerous rise of the religious right.”

“Christian nationalism” she said, would be a better descriptor. Central to the ideology is the (historically false) idea of America founded as a Christian nation. But this is actually more about politics than religion. And it’s a vast powerful force, a defining feature of our political landscape; threatening our democracy. January 6 showed that.

This did not originate as some spontaneous movement from the heartland, a reaction to the social changes starting in the ’60s. Instead it was organized from the top down, by people whose real agenda is gaining power for themselves and their ilk. They constructed a huge national advocacy and messaging infrastructure, seeking government support for their movement, through measures that privilege it over other societal actors.

Stewart quoted Supreme Court Justice Scalia (an outspoken Christian), ruling against a religious exemption for peyote use, saying we can’t let everyone decide what laws to obey based on their religious beliefs. Yet, she said, that is actually exactly what the religious right is seeking.

The movement is, again, politically driven. The “culture war” stuff is really secondary; indeed, weaponized tools to serve the political agenda. In particular, the abortion issue did not create the religious right; rather, the issue was created to serve the political aims. When Roe v. Wade was decided, most Christians actually supported abortion law liberalization. But new right leaders nevertheless latched onto abortion as an issue that could be exploited to manipulate a sizable voter base and ignite a hyper-conservative counterrevolution. Stewart argued that these leaders do not actually want to minimize abortions; what they really want is to keep the issue boiling.

It’s a glaring irony that however rabid these people are about protecting human life before birth, they lose all interest in children once they’re born. The states where “right-to-life” is strongest are the states where actual living children are treated worst by public policies.

This movement has always been anti-democratic and authoritarian. Not just another set of voices debating in the public square. Its leaders don’t really imagine they can persuade a voting majority to their point of view. Instead they aim to prevail by flouting democratic processes, having contempt for the idea of the common good. This again was exemplified on January 6. Stewart noted that other authoritarian leaders, like Putin and Erdogan, have similarly exploited religion as a vehicle for political power without democracy.

She also saw the movement as inseparable from racism, though the connection is complex. The voter suppression that is part of its tool-kit for holding power undemocratically targets ethnic minorities. There are notions of “purity” versus impurity, and an emphasis on concepts of identity and appeals to a heritage culture (read: white).

Stewart said that the religious right is far more organized and focused than its opponents. We need a range of voting reforms to stymie undemocratic techniques like gerrymandering and voter suppression. But while the movement fully understands the importance of voting, others are more casual about it. Failing to realize how much is really at stake.

At the end of the day, Stewart opined, the narrow-minded Christian nationalist vision embodies what would be a weak society, not a strong one. I would add that this movement clearly has its head up its butt, all pretense of morality made absurd by their supplanting the worship of Jesus for a cult-like devotion to Trump, the most morally depraved personage in our political history.

“Lookism” — Life is unfair

October 7, 2021

Discrimination is a hot topic — race, gender, age, sexual orientation. But there’s one sort widely unrecognized: what columnist David Brooks calls “lookism.” Discrimination against unattractive people.

He cites studies about how they’re treated worse than the good looking. Shocking! And whereas many varied classes of people are now legally protected against discrimination, there’s none such for the unattractive. That fact itself is discriminatory. And there’s no National Association for the Advancement of Ugly People.

A subcategory is heightism. I’m a 5’4″ male. I’ve never fixated on my shortness; but do recall a recommendation letter from a law school professor that began, “Frank is a little bit of a guy, but . . . . ” I saw that and thought, WTF?! I have no proof shortness stunted my professional and political careers, but as exemplified by that letter, it surely affected people’s perceptions. Maybe a subtle reason why I eventually wound up as a coin dealer, where height is irrelevant.

Brooks, perhaps strangely, doesn’t even mention one key realm where lookism is indisputably huge: love. The less attractive have a harder time getting partners (duh). My own experience is again relevant. Many women simply do not see a man in a sexual way below a certain height.

Anyhow, Brooks explores the psychology underlying lookism. It starts with attractive people being simply more pleasant to look at and have around (all else equal). But further, he says, we project onto them all sorts of putative characteristics: trustworthy, competent, friendly, likable, intelligent. An aura of athleticism looms large (also lacking in my own case). We view fit people as healthier and even morally superior, while supposing slugs are responsible for their looks (especially when overweight) and are probably lower class.

Yet not only shouldn’t we assume attractive people are better people, the opposite is actually more likely. Precisely because they do become accustomed to better treatment, “spoiling” them. It can be corrupting. People sucking up to you all the time, throwing themselves at you sexually, does not build strong character.

Brooks says studies show more people feel discriminated against because of looks than race, and the earnings gap between attractive and unattractive people exceeds the racial earnings gap. He argues we should actively combat lookism: “the only solution is to shift the norms and practices.” Is he serious?

I think folks can be helped to overcome prejudices based on ethnicity, religion, gender, etc., using rational arguments. But bias regarding looks is much more deeply hard-wired by evolution. Programming us to choose mates based on perceived fitness to produce the most fit offspring. What we find attractive embodies those aboriginal outward indicia of reproductive fitness. Just as an example, that’s why most men are attracted to bosomy women. There’s no way to purge such preferences from human brains.

Meantime, popular media has always glamorized the good-looking, making the merely average feel substandard. Recent news highlights how Facebook and Instagram do this to young females especially, causing much mental trouble, even suicides. Even if “lookism” can’t be suppressed entirely, it should be dialed down a notch (or two).

But most fundamentally, life is unfair. While we should try to make it as fair as possible, a quest for perfect fairness is a fool’s errand (indeed, always proven disastrous throughout history). I keep recalling Kurt Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron, in an ultimate egalitarian society, where a “Handicapper General” gives talented people handicaps to hold them back. Harrison’s is being literally chained to a mass of junk. But in any society there will always be people doing better than others because they were born with certain advantages. Like intelligence — or good looks. That’s just luck, it isn’t “fair,” but there’s no way around it. Some people will always be luckier than others.

I feel I’ve had terrific luck, and don’t go around bemoaning my shortness. If I had the choice to go back and add a few inches, I would not. I might have gotten more sex. But who knows how my life would have turned out? It could hardly be better, and could be a whole lot worse.

Afghanistan’s Bitter Lessons

October 4, 2021

Craig Whitlock’s book, The Afghan Papers: A Secret History of the War, is a depressing litany of what went wrong — reading as if everything did. Is this a balanced picture? In any giant enterprise, involving human beings, horror stories will abound. Afghanistan had more than its share. And things did end badly. But is that the whole story? Did no American do anything right in Afghanistan?

The 2021 book is based on government documents, mainly reports of interviews with frontline personnel, in a “Lessons Learned” exercise. Echoing the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers. Despite the ostensible remit of subjecting the Afghan story to public accountability, the Washington Post had to battle for access to the documents.

Elucidated are two early, crucial, and very contradictory mistakes. First, at Tora Bora, we muffed a chance to get Bin Laden, and to deal the Taliban a death blow. Easier said than done? Monday morning quarterbacking? Actually, Whitlock details how that critical moment cried out for throwing in more assets, but higher-ups nixed it, in order to sustain the picture of a “light touch” military involvement. Thus setting the stage for one anything but light.

Our other, contradictory error: the Taliban expected to be treated as a vanquished foe, and might well have been open to negotiating peace on that basis. Instead they were treated as pariahs to be hunted down and exterminated. Excluded when we organized negotiations among numerous Afghan players, to set up a new political dispensation. This, failing the Taliban’s destruction, ensured prolonged conflict.

George W. Bush campaigned as an opponent of “nation building,” his own ironic terminology. “But we got there and realized we couldn’t walk away,” one U.S. official is quoted. Whitlock says no nation ever needed more building. His picture of Afghanistan’s dysfunction is pretty grim. And we ultimately spent more on it than on the post-WWII Marshall plan to rebuild Europe (adjusted for inflation).

Whitlock says the basic problem was lack of a coherent vision for how to remake Afghanistan, in light of its reality. We tried to build a strong central government, when the nation’s whole history was power dispersion. Few Afghans actually understood the concept of government, in terms we’d recognize. Whitlock cites a Monty Python film where the King on horseback, passing a peasant in the dirt, declares, “I’m the King!” The peasant looks up and says, “What’s a king?”

It didn’t help that the president we installed, Hamid Karzai, was a very flawed and problematic figure. He actually doesn’t come off too badly in the book. Whitlock seems to suggest we didn’t listen to him enough.

The U.S. war strategy appears to have been simply to kill Taliban. Or presumed Taliban — we never had a good handle on exactly who we were fighting. Anyhow, nor was it clear what this would actually achieve. The more we killed, the more Taliban popped up.

“No military solution” is a catch-phrase heard constantly, as though no problem ever does have a military solution. I think there sometimes are military solutions. But there seems a universal tendency to botch them. Certainly true in Iraq (disbanding its army was idiotic). Likewise in Afghanistan we made one big glaring misjudgment after another. For example, in 2009, President Obama announced sending 30,000 more troops — but only for 18 months. Practically telling the Taliban to just wait us out. And certainly our exit was botched.

When it comes to modern wars like in Afghanistan, there’s a fundamental problem. Our military is vastly sophisticated, and undoubtedly very good at fighting a conventional army like itself. As in WWII. But its fighting in a place like Afghanistan is like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. Our capabilities had no nexus to the actual mission challenge. We never got a grip on the nature of the fight we were in.

One chapter concerns the recurring U.S. effort to destroy Afghanistan’s opium farms. Actually the country’s biggest industry! Any fool should have seen how counterproductive this was, creating more enemies for us. For Whitlock it exemplifies that we just didn’t know what the heck we were doing. For me it also exemplifies the insanity of our whole “war on drugs” mentality, that fucks up everything everywhere.*

Meantime we flooded the country with billions splashed out on do-good schemes so ill-conceived that most of it was pissed away. What those billions really bought was a monster that swallowed Afghanistan, plunging this land without rule of law into a black hole of corruption. Destroying the legitimacy of the government we tried to prop up. While even helping to finance the Taliban.

Dishonesty is a pervasive theme of the book. Nobody ever wanted to say the emperor was naked. “Making progress” was the constant refrain as things went from bad to worse. But it wasn’t just misleading the public. You cannot grapple successfully with a complex situation absent a clear-eyed grasp of its parameters. That, in every aspect of our Afghan involvement, was lacking.

The whole sorry tale reinforces the old-time conservative skepticism of government doing anything right. Even with the best of intentions. Throwing money around without discipline. Even ultimate democratic accountability is too distant to matter. And the law of unintended consequences is very powerful.

Many voices now chide that we should have realized the whole Afghan effort was hopeless. That even if we had done everything right, Afghanistan’s culture was impervious to modernization. Which might actually have been said of many countries before they did modernize their cultures. No nation is born modern.

A recent global analysis by The Economist is relevant here.** Dividing the world between countries that are peaceful and prosperous, and those that aren’t. And what makes the difference? Female empowerment. Patriarchal cultures, where women are repressed, are poorer and violence-prone. Especially where men can have multiple wives; the rich and powerful hog women, leaving legions of men without, a huge source of societal instability. Thus countries with primitive male-female dynamics — like Afghanistan — are the world’s poorest and bloodiest. The road to progress runs through vaginas.

* Like in Colombia. Phil Klay’s novel, Missionaries depicts sickening violence involving police, army, paramilitaries, insurgents, and drug gangs. Drugs really the root cause of it all. More specifically, drugs’ illegality.

** I wrote about this subject myself, in 2018:

Crazies Rule: The State of Play in Congress

October 1, 2021

Republicans have repeatedly cynically harmed America by playing the government shutdown card. Democrats, with narrow Congressional majorities, managed to head off the latest.

But still looming is the debt ceiling. If not raised by mid-October, we’ll default on our financial obligations, an unthinkable economic apocalypse. This too has been cynically exploited continually by Republicans. In the past, they’ve always blinked, if only at the last minute. But now they insist Democrats must do it solely with their own votes. Even threatening to block them with a filibuster.

As ever, the ploy is to paint Democrats as spendthrifts. When in fact raising the debt limit entails no new spending, it pays for past spending. And Republicans under Trump ran up huge deficits. Their hypocritical debt ceiling brinksmanship makes me puke.

But they’re not the only irresponsible Congressional crazies.

Amazingly — amazingly — President Biden had successfully negotiated a desperately needed infrastructure bill (a ball Trump repeatedly dropped, in his standard feckless bullshitfull way.) Biden got enough Republicans on board to win Senate passage (overcoming the filibuster hurdle). Now it only needs passage in the Democrat-controlled House, where Republicans can’t block it.

But “progressive” Democrats can — they’re holding it hostage, refusing to vote for it unless the Senate also passes their giant $3.5 trillion bill for other spending. Which cannot happen. The votes just aren’t there, with several Democratic Senators (and all 50 Republicans) adamantly opposed.

Will House “progressives” (like AOC) really kill the infrastructure bill for the sake of the impossible? Is this what you’d call “progressive?”

Those holdout Democratic Senators seem open to compromise on something less than $3.5 trillion. “Progressives” must also compromise. Otherwise they get nothing. The perfect as the enemy of the good.

Meantime, for all the political jockeying, there has been almost no real public debate about the immense economic and social ramifications of the $3.5 trillion plan. This is sadly typical of today’s America, so full of political intensity, but void of actually coming to grips with actual issues.

And if “progressives” wind up with no infrastructure bill and no omnibus spending bill passed, Biden might seem a failed president. Helping Republicans regain Congressional control, if not also the White House.

Then you fools can kiss goodbye all “progressive” dreams. And America too.