Archive for December, 2021

What are America’s Global Interests?

December 28, 2021

After their December 7 video call, President Biden said Putin got the message “loud and clear” that invading Ukraine (again) would incur a big price.

The actual message: the price would be tolerable.

Economic sanctions? Pah! Putin doesn’t give a turd about that. He’d care about a military bloody nose. But Biden made clear we won’t meet force with force.

Russia casts us as aggressors, pulling Ukraine from its ancient ties. Actually Russia was building a partnership with the West under Yeltsin, but Putin took it elsewhere; and bullied Ukraine into enmity instead of cultivating their historic affinity.

The seven decades after WWII saw a rules-based world order, with the most basic rule being no invasions. Major advanced nations no longer attacked each other. This was huge. Not only curbing war’s death and devastation, but promoting wealth-expanding world trade, driving global prosperity up and poverty down.

The architect and guarantor of this world order was America. Exemplified by treating Japan and Germany not as conquered domains, but building them up as our partners; the Marshall Plan to resuscitate Europe; and so much more. This was a new concept in world annals. And it reflected not just airy altruism, but self-interest, properly understood. Realizing we ourselves were primary beneficiaries, making a world better for us to live in.

Then it began to unravel. Perhaps starting when President Obama declared a red line regarding Syrian chemical weapons use, only to muff it. And in 2014 the system took a big hit when Russia got away with grabbing Crimea. Incurring economic sanctions that were, for Putin, mere annoyances.

Trump, ignorant of our true global interests, shredded them. Telling the world we could no longer be looked to, or trusted. Didn’t even understand what side we’re on. And whatever Biden does to patch things up, it’s clear there’s no longer a U.S. political consensus behind it, our global role now beholden to the whims of bloody-minded voters. Trump or his like could return. Congressional partisanship stymies our global engagement by blocking even many ambassadorial appointments. And Biden’s gestures are contradicted by the Afghanistan fiasco, making America look undependable.

The biggest looming test is Taiwan. Which China insists belongs to it. In fact, Taiwan is effectively an independent (and democratic) nation; and previously, except for 1945-49, was held by Japan, not China. Yet China asserts a right to seize Taiwan by force. And has been methodically assembling the means.

After Russia’s Crimea crime, it may be too late to get this genie back in the bottle. China’s raping Taiwan would be the death-blow for the post-WWII global order. Would America act to defend it? Militarily?

Our commitment to Taiwan was always left fuzzy — “strategic ambiguity” it’s been called. But Biden recently said we would indeed defend Taiwan. Yet China might not be deterred, skeptical that America today is up for such a battle. Taiwan means much more to China than (seemingly) to us. And it’s increasingly doubtful a Chinese invasion could be beaten.

In a recent gabfest, a friend (no dummy) said we’re tired of being the world’s hegemon — let some other country do it now. As if that might be one like Switzerland — not China! Other serious voices echo this. Words like “limits of power,” and “restraint” resonate. There’s a growing feeling that overseas engagement, like in Afghanistan, is doomed to futility. A creeping defeatist fatalism. One foreign policy maven on the PBS Newshour advocated resolving our “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan by announcing we would not defend it. (An open invitation for China to invade.)

Few Americans seem to grasp the big picture of what’s at stake. The Economist has said that after the global order’s demise, “Americans themselves may be surprised to discover how much they benefited from it.” We won’t like living in a world built to China’s blueprint.

Supreme Court Follies #2: Guns

December 23, 2021

The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision said no Black person can have any rights. That set a high bar for decisional badness. But today’s court seems determined to clear it, careening toward an unfettered right for anyone to tote guns anywhere, with no regulation or restrictions.

The Dred Scott case was soon countered by constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and giving its victims citizenship and equal protection of the law. But in today’s political dysfunction, no amendment on guns is possible. Even though an overwhelming majority of Americans favor limits on gun rights.

Constitutionally, the coming decision will be an extremist and idiotic application of the Second Amendment. It’s a fundamental principle that no rights are ever absolute, they’re always subject to some restriction to protect the public. The classic illustration is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Nor does freedom of speech cover slander or libel, or divulging state secrets. Freedom of religion does not include human sacrifice. And so forth. Yet the Second Amendment is now to be held virtually absolute, allowing no restrictions on carrying guns.

No other civilized nation countenances such gun madness. America, with 4% of the world’s population, has 46% of its privately owned guns. And while gun nuts are often the same people hammering on “law and order,” they themselves make “law and order” a problem, with gun violence killing tens of thousands annually. It’s why most Americans, as noted, favor basic gun regulations.

Yet the Court is about to expand gun rights while curbing women’s reproductive rights — in both cases defying strong public opinion, in service to political agendas. Very destructive for the court’s legitimacy as a bulwark for rule of law and democracy.

Columnist Paul Waldman, in November, pointed out that while a small minority of Americans revel in gun culture, other communities cherish a culture too, one wherein freedom from the gun menace is important. And while the Supreme Court is sanctifying gun lovers’ rights, it’s trampling those of everyone else — saying to every American, “You live in Oklahoma now.”

And what is the psychology behind this gun obsession? A recent survey found pro-gun views correlate most strongly with belief in Satan. As if bullets could be effective against supernatural evil.

Note that this is not about sporting or hunting use of guns, which nobody has a problem with, and which are not affected by the kind of regulation at issue before the Court. Let’s be real. This is about shooting not at targets, animals, or Satanic demons, but at human beings.

That indeed is what captivates the imagination of the gun nuts. They fantasize blasting “bad guys,” manfully protecting themselves and their families, if not at the OK Corral. Never mind that the vast majority of persons actually shot by those guns are not criminals (let alone supernatural foes) but their own family members, their children, and often the gun owners themselves. Such realities are not allowed to intrude upon their gun fantasies, enwrapped in macho ideas of manhood.

Real men don’t need guns.

Another Waldman column ties all this to the Republican party’s growing bedazzlement with violence. With ideations of violently taking down enemies; wearing T-shirts depicting Trump shooting guns. Recall Congressman Gosar’s creepy video showing him killing Biden and AOC. And it’s not just fantasizing, but an all too real danger, as we saw on January 6. Which GOP politicians are increasingly unapologetic about.

For a lot of Republicans, guns have become integral to their personal sense of identity. Thus lionizing Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting three people. With a gun he was not even lawfully carrying. So much for “law and order.” Watch for Rittenhouse in a featured speaking slot at the 2024 GOP National Convention. His inexplicable exoneration can only encourage more vigilante violence.

All this — Republicans abetting their supporters’ “most savage impulses,” Waldman wrote, “is utterly repugnant and a threat to the very idea of a civilized democracy.”

The coming Supreme Court gun decision — frankly an insane decision — plays into this. Playing with fire. The country is cracking up. Future historians, chronicling America’s downfall, will wonder “what were they thinking?”

Supreme Court Follies #1: Abortion

December 19, 2021

I use the word “follies” not in the fun sense, but as the plural of “folly.” The Supreme Court is plunging headlong toward great follies, as if calculated to shred public respect. Part of a broad Republican assault on the integrity of the institutions undergirding our democratic society and rule of law.

There’s been much talk of somehow reforming the Court, like adding justices or term limits. But forget it. No such change can get through Congress.

Several justices last summer toured around insisting the Court is not actually (to quote Justice Barrett) “a bunch of partisan hacks.” Methinks they did protest too much.

The local NPR station head has long said they’re “bought and paid for.” I used to hate that cynicism. Sure, you dance with the one who brung you; but Supreme Court judges have lifetime tenure and, once installed, are free to do the right thing.

Even Bush v. Gore I did not see as partisan. That election was, in effect, a tie; the Court had to resolve it; and with any different decision, it would not have been Gore elected, but chaos, a constitutional crisis. The judges acted wisely.

But their ambit to do the right thing can also allow serving personal agendas. And that’s what most Republican appointees are now doing. Chief Justice Roberts’s efforts to restrain this and save the Court from itself are failing. So it will either overturn Roe v. Wade or else otherwise gut it.

The religious right will celebrate their great triumph, decades in the making. How did they achieve this, in the teeth of clear majority public opinion? Undemocratically of course. They illegitimately blocked President Obama from appointing one Supreme Court judge (Merrick Garland) and then rammed through a third Trump appointment in the last days of his doomed administration. Both by an undemocratically structured Senate, with small rural states overrepresented.

And that’s no accident. Do you know why there are two Dakotas? Because Republicans who then controlled Congress divided the sparsely populated Dakota territory into two states just to give them added Senators and electoral votes. That picture is basically repeated throughout the west. And the electoral college gave us three justices appointed by a president who lost the popular vote!

I mentioned public opinion. Most Americans favor allowing at least early-term abortions. Of course the Supreme Court should be guided by the Constitution and law, rather than being a political body swayed by public opinion. Nevertheless, if they do defy it, as here, the judges better have good reasons.

I actually think Roe was bad law and bad politics when decided in 1973. Its critics, arguing before the Court in the current Mississippi case, had a point saying abortion was better left to state legislation than judicial fiat. The latter sparked decades of divisive nastiness, whereas other advanced nations resolved the issue calmly through democratic processes. (Mostly allowing abortion only until 15 weeks or so.)

But in America the toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube. Fact is, for better or worse, for nearly half a century Roe has been part of the fabric of American life. To reverse it now will be incredibly disruptive — indeed redoubling Roe’s politically inflammatory divisive effect. And the societal repercussions will be large. Studies suggest abortion had much to do with falling crime rates over decades, by averting some problem-ridden childhoods that make for potential lawbreakers. Now there will be more unwanted children. And more poverty and other social dysfunction. All imposing greater burdens on taxpayers.

When a fetus becomes a human being, with rights, is a complex debatable issue (though it takes religion to arrive at the extreme answer that it’s the moment of conception). Nevertheless, whatever else might be said of Roe, women able to control their reproductive lives made America a freer, better, more humane country. Part of dismantling an oppressive patriarchal culture that denied women human equality. Now this will actually be the first time the Supreme Court has ever taken away a basic right it previously enshrined.

Of course this reeks of politics and justices masking personal agendas under a guise of legalism. Giving an early fetus not only rights, but rights trumping those of its mother, is not grounded in any traditional legal paradigms, nor science-based, but instead is, again, merely religion-based.

The stance is labeled “pro-life.” But for all the ostensible moralism, there’s no genuine concern for human life. Indeed, fetishizing the unborn is downright weird given the utter disregard for the lives of children once they’ve made the mistake of being born. In states Republicans control, public policies tend to be the worst for child welfare.

And these so-called “pro-life” Republicans are killing many thousands with their Covidiocy — loopy conspiracy theories, anti-science nonsense, and they even actually obstruct public health measures like vaccinations and masking. This is literally, clinically, insane. And shows that Republicans are certainly not “pro-life.” If anything, they’re a death cult.

Their Public Enemy #1 is Doctor Fauci! With Senator Rand Paul in particular on the warpath. If you think Rand is a hero and Fauci a villain, not the reverse, then you are an asshole. But such utter lack of basic human judgment pervades today’s Republican party. Matt Gaetz? Taylor-Greene? McCarthy? Cruz? Gosar? Stefanik? Anyone with sense could see what they are. What Trump is.

Ironically one of their anti-vax slogans is “My body, my choice!” Of course, they don’t apply that to abortion, refusing women any such choice. While pro-choicers refuse to recognize any human life value in fetuses before birth. Alas those two extremist positions shape the debate, while the middle ground, supported by most Americans, gets outshouted.

The Supreme Court is also perverting our legal landscape by refusing to slap down the Texas abortion law vesting its enforcement in vigilante bounty-hunters, a blatant scheme to evade judicial review that could metastasize all over.

And then there are guns. So-called “pro-life” Republicans promote too an insane gun culture that also kills tens of thousands of Americans annually. That’s the subject of another looming Supreme Court folly, which I’ll address soon.

And will the Court, in January 2025, deem perfectly lawful the Republican coup, setting aside popular votes in several states and giving their electoral votes to Trump, returning him to office?

We’re headed off a cliff.

Whoopi Goldberg critiques human behavior

December 15, 2021

Whoopi Goldberg is a comic. Or so I’ve heard. Can’t say I’ve ever actually seen her being funny. Nevertheless, seeking a break from my customary heavy reading, I picked up her 2010 book, Is It Just Me? Or Is It Nuts Out There?

Shocker alert: that’s not her birth name. Whoopi isn’t short for Wupaleena or something. (It was Caryn Johnson.) The name “Whoopi Goldberg” is obviously supposed to be funny. Playing on ethnic incongruity. In fact, there’s traditionally been tension between Black and Jewish communities, with Goldberg a stereotypical Jewish name uttered by Blacks in a hostile way. If Whoopi was trying to satirize that, it seems a bit disturbing.

The book (with no fewer than six two-letter words in its title) is a collection of short peevish essays. A misanthropic self-indulgence. Not funny.

The first chapter hits drunk driving. Not a topic lending itself to hilarity. Whoopi thinks anyone driving drunk should have their cars taken away. Likewise for texting while driving.

Well, okay. And why do we need Whoopi Goldberg’s opinion on this?

Drunk driving is just one of many common behaviors she doesn’t like. Much concerns how people interact with Whoopi herself. Like criticizing her wardrobe choices. Well, okay. But if you put yourself out there as a big celebrity, that kind of comes with the territory. And panning how Whoopi dresses doesn’t seem quite on a par with drunk driving.

She doesn’t mention noise pollution, one of my own peeves. Neighbors running loud mowers, leaf blowers, even chain saws, while I’m trying to enjoy the weather out on my deck.

Several of Whoopi’s chapters address flight etiquette. One earnestly implores readers to turn off computers and phones on a plane when so instructed. A full page lists malodorous foods you shouldn’t bring on a flight. There’s a chapter on how to pack for a plane trip. I’m not kidding. She’s annoyed with people not packing smart. It’s actually pretty sensible advice. But I didn’t buy a book by a comic for that sort of thing.

All the foregoing I scribbled up after a few chapters. But, as with a car wreck, there was a weird fascination that kept me reading. And eventually I began to see the book differently. Shelves are full of self-help advice books, but this one is actually kind of unique. Covering not big philosophical and character matters, but mostly mundane everyday stuff. Expressing things many of us feel. But who would think of writing a book in that vein?

A companion to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice this is not. Yet taken all in all, it does have something significant to say. Running through it is a basic premise that too many people just don’t think enough about how their actions affect others. Whoopi is taking a stand, and it’s one worth taking. Even writing an unfunny book about. Doing so was gutsy.

Human beings operate with what’s really a remarkable degree of rationality, but are imperfect and sadly subject to lapses of rationality. While Whoopi concentrates on personal life, and that’s worthy, what bugs me more are so many people’s larger beliefs that are so divorced from reason.

Beliefs about evolution, the drug war, guns, conspiracy theories, migrants, white supremacy; belief in Trump, belief in religion (connected). A perfect storm of irrationality coming together in vaccine resistance, exactly what Whoopi was talking about — disregard for how one’s actions affect others. In this case, literally killing them.

Like Whoopi, I wonder: Is it just me? Or is it nuts out there?

I think I know the answer.


December 11, 2021

As someone vaunting human reason, the 2006 comedy film Idiocracy haunts me. It starts with an upscale couple — intelligent, educated, thoughtful — agonizing about whether to have a child. Then we see a gaggle of lowlife dumbasses reproducing like rabbits. Repeat for a few generations and you get a dumbass nation. An idiocracy.

The president in this dystopian future is of course a crass buffoon (Black — go figure). Back then we could laugh. But politics is incidental in the film, more concerned with a dumbed-down cultural landscape. Epitomized by its most popular TV show — “Ow! My Balls!” Yucks galore. (As if people would still be watching network TV generations hence.)

The film’s premise of an intelligence collapse was silly. Studies show average human intelligence is actually increasing (the “Flynn Effect”). Yet what’s descending upon us is something darker and scarier than mere innocent dumbness. Imagine another movie:

Though 74 million vote to re-elect a crass buffoon president, he’s unsurprisingly defeated. But his deranged ego can’t accept it. So he makes up a lie that the election was a fraud. Laughed out of court; but instead of hooting him off the stage his cult followers storm the Capitol in support of his attempted coup. After which his hold on his party actually grows, their indignation over the imaginary “election steal” intensifying. And its unprincipled politicians use that as a pretext for every possible underhanded trick to steal the next election themselves and return to power.

Nah, that movie would be too implausible. This is America, not some banana republic (or “shit-hole” country.) Weren’t we made great again?

Meantime, polls show voter support for Biden and Democrats plunging. A lot of the reasons are bogus (“socialism,” “defund the police,” “critical race theory,” “open borders”). Biden is not blameworthy for inflation. And voters are also venting frustrations over the pandemic — perversely, since of course it’s Republicans hugely blameworthy, insanely battling against needed public health measures. Forgotten too is the rest of Trump’s litany of atrocities, even including the January 6 attack upon our democracy itself, and how Republicans have abetted it.

There’s been tons of analysis trying to explain voters. Many just act like bloody-minded nihilists. Maybe it’s idiocracy after all. So as of now, reprobate Republicans (helped too by their gerrymandering) look poised to retake the House of Representatives in 2022.

But if you suppose this would be just another routine swing of the political pendulum, you’re not paying attention. We saw what lengths Trump went to, last time, to overturn the election and keep power. He might have succeeded, if Democrats hadn’t (barely) controlled both House and Senate. Next time, a Republican-led House of Representatives can block certifying electoral votes. Throwing the election to the House itself, where they’ll crown Trump. They’ll have the votes; think they won’t have the balls?

We see country after country where such manipulations prevail. Often just simply fabricating vote counts. Even presidents with real public support skirting zero, like Maduro, Ortega, Assad, and Lukashenko, get “re-elected.”

This is the movie we’re in now. A tragedy, not a comedy. Much darker than Idiocracy, with its mere innocent dumbness.

We won the Cold War, defeating Communism, with democracy ascendant. But now it’s under vicious assault again, as Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlantic, from what has grown into a new alliance of anti-democratic regimes, supporting each other and perfecting the tools of repression. Trump actually aligned with them. If he returns to power, sinking democracy even in America, it’s game over.

I could live in an idiocracy. Not in a trumpocracy.

Isness: What is existence?

December 6, 2021

The deepest of all questions is why is there something and not nothing? Existence either sprang from nothing, or is eternal. Both possibilities make our minds go kablooey. In contrast, it might seem easier to envision a cosmic emptiness, that never had any existence in it. A total void. Yet if you cogitate on it, that’s actually hard to conceive of too. Wouldn’t even such an empty cosmos, itself, be said to exist? Thus not solving the something-versus-nothing conundrum. Can we actually truly conceptualize nothingness? And what is this thing we call existence anyway?

There is a school of thought holding that nothing really exists except insofar as it is perceived in a human mind. The bathroom disappears while you’re in the kitchen. This was actually, more or less, the thesis of the seventeenth century philosopher George Berkeley. But what is a human mind? Is that something that exists? Do the neurons in our brains exist only because they exist in our minds? But don’t our minds only exist because of the neurons?

In order for anything to exist, it seems axiomatic that it must exist in Time. Something lasting for only zero seconds could not be said to exist at all. But note too that something can only exist in the present. The past no longer exists; the future doesn’t yet. The past lasted a long time; the future will too; but the present actually lasts only exactly zero seconds. There is no span of time during which the present takes place. Ending as soon as it begins. So, if nothing lasting zero seconds can exist, and nothing can exist except in the present, and the present lasts zero seconds, that proves nothing can exist.

Nevertheless, in a simple sense, you might, for example, think a chair exists. Yet however solid it may seem, we know it’s composed of atoms, which are mostly if not entirely empty space. In fact, that’s also true of the particles notionally comprising the atoms themselves; and the sub-particles comprising those particles. Et cetera. No matter how deep you go, you can never get to anything solid. There’s no there there. (Or no chair there.)

The problem is with the very concept that we call existence. As the foregoing does prove, there can be no such thing. It is an illusion. Descartes was wrong in saying, “I think, therefore I am.” And while various religions have posited various deities, their existence is obviously even more impossible than that chair’s.

But if we must therefore let go of our concept of existence, we must have recourse to a different one to replace that which we used to think of in that way. Referring to something deeper, the whatever-it-is that’s the substrate for the thing we imagined to be existence. You might consider it a mystery, yet that is a human construct. What we’re talking about here transcends not only human thought, but Time, space, and matter themselves. Even existence itself.

This renders meaningless the question of why there is something and not nothing. The fact is that the “something” at issue is only a manifestation of what is, again, a reality deeper than the question encompasses. Though even the word “reality” itself is a contradiction in terms.

Our language lacks a word or words to express what’s needed. Words like “existence” and “reality” are inadequate if not indeed false. Heidegger may have been nibbling at the thing with his “dasein.” Suppose we non-Germans use, as a mere placeholder, for what cannot be expressed, the word isness. Denoting something that just is.

However, as another famous personage once testified, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Then there was Belgian surrealist painter Magritte’s picture of a pipe labeled “This is not a pipe.” Of course it wasn’t a pipe, but a painting; yet did it actually illustrate the cosmic truth that nothing can be anything? While Wittgenstein showed us that language cannot indeed truly capture any reality. Even if there were such a thing.

But what isness is is actually not something that can be defined or described, let alone grasped. It’s the quintessential quiddity. It just is.

Yet understanding it (if only we could) would be the key to everything. Penetrating through the impossibility of linguistic meaning, and through the fog and shadows of “existence” and “reality,” drilling down beyond all that, to the ultimate underlying isness. Though recognizing that there may — or, perhaps, must — be something yet deeper still. Indeed, even isness itself cannot be, finally, the ultimate isness.

Maybe it’s turtles all the way down.

“Let’s Go Brandon!” and the State of American Political Discourse

December 3, 2021

In case you didn’t know:

“Let’s Go Brandon!” means “Fuck Joe Biden!” The latter phrase was chanted at some NASCAR event and the sportscaster mis-heard it as the former, referring to a race driver named Brandon Brown.

And so a new rallying cry has entered the American lexicon, alongside the likes of “No taxation without representation,” “Fifty-four Forty or Fight,” and “Remember the Maine.”

But notice a difference. Those other slogans each concerned an actual issue. “Let’s Go Brandon!” is, well, something else.

Nevertheless, it has been taken up by Republicans as their great cri de coeur. Flaunted on t-shirts, flags, and bumper strips, even on guns. On “Let’s Go Brandon!” they’re taking their stand. But this is actually something serious. Not merely the reduction of political discourse to a vulgarity.

Democrats do hate Trump for all the very real damage he’s done, though they don’t go around in t-shirts with coded profanity. Republicans may imagine they have corresponding reasons to hate Biden, but by and large those are a witch’s brew of bogus nonsense. Exemplified of course by the great “Stolen Election” lie.

Yet reasons don’t really come into it at all. What “Let’s Go Brandon!” shows is that politics has become — for Republicans at least — wholly tribal. They’re using it as a badge of tribal identity. And the real reason Biden is their bête noire is simply that he’s seen as the avatar of the enemy tribe.

It’s no small irony that for all the passion they invest in the slogan, it actually represents a timidity from openly saying what they really mean. If they’re in favor of a certain procedure being performed on President Biden, fine, it’s their free speech, but why not just say it? What a bunch of pathetic weenies.

Today’s Republican party has dishonesty at its very core. Epitomized by the undisguised disingenuousness of this slogan.

One wonders what Brandon Brown thinks of all this.