Archive for January, 2022

Would I kill him if I could?

January 27, 2022

A radio interview with scientist Robert Sapolsky shocked me. My humanist book group was currently discussing his tome on human behavior. Sapolsky spoke of his fantasy of killing someone. Not just killing — but with torture, described in graphic detail.

The “someone” was Hitler.

Sapolsky’s fantasy might seem innocuous because of course Hitler is already dead. But if this were 1944?

Capital punishment opponents deem killing always morally unacceptable, no matter how bad the person. Yet I believe some people deserve the ultimate punishment, as a matter of justice.

So with Sapolsky: fantasizing himself an avatar of justice. However, torture adds a problematic dimension; it must entail mindful cruelty by the torturer, a corruption of their soul, and of the moral legitimacy of whatever authority sanctions it.

There used to be a widespread fetish in academia denouncing “judgmentalism,” with categorical judgments considered always suspect. Of course that’s turned completely around, now academia embraces judgmentalism with a vengeance, punishing viewpoints not in lockstep with the catechism of the day. But without going to such extremes, the former anti-judgmentalism was surely wrong. Humans are built to be judgment machines; life is all about making judgments. We are also programmed to be justice seekers. Thus Sapolsky vis-a-vis Hitler.

My own judgment app is set on “high.” A lifetime of hard thinking about issues confronting us makes me feel, at this point, pretty strong in what I judge good or bad, right or wrong.

Certain personages are on the wrong side of that judgment, earning the sort of hatred Sapolsky evinced toward Hitler. This is not hate as a baseless prejudice (as with, for example, white racial hatred). To the contrary, its salient characteristic is being justified by sound rational considerations. Thus I hate Putin; Assad; Maduro; Lukashenko; Ortega; Erdogan; Kim Jong Un; Xi Jinping; Min Aung Hlaing; alas the list goes on, it’s far too long. I hate them for the evil each has perpetrated.

There’s one person I hate more than anyone, ever. (You knew where this was going.) A hatred burning with a pure incandescent flame. Yet this too is no irrational prejudice, but its exact opposite. A deeply considered moral judgment grounded in facts. The crimes are not in the Hitler-Stalin-Mao class; however, unlike the other mentioned cases, this one for me is personal. Because it concerns my own country, which I have profoundly loved for what it represented and stood for. Which this evil monster has damaged beyond calculating. Maybe wrecked forever.

So do I fantasize like Sapolsky? Or would I actually do the deed if I had some opportunity? In fact, no. It would be self-immolation. He’s already caused me so much suffering — heartache, anxiety, literal lost sleep. He can destroy my country, but I would not let him destroy my life itself. And assassination would make him a martyr in many eyes, throwing gasoline on America’s political dumpster fire.

However, I do harbor a fantasy, every morning, when I retrieve our newspaper and open it. A fantasy of a big black headline. It might not be justice; after all, everybody dies. And even if it’s from natural causes, conspiracy theories would run wild, and millions of his cultists would expect him, Christlike, to return. But he could do no more harm. And maybe, just maybe, most of America could recover its sanity.

El Exigente at the NY International Coin Show

January 22, 2022

The New York International Coin Show is the premier event. It used to be each December; until 2001 when there was a little problem with the location — the World Trade Center. Organizers managed to scramble a new venue for January, so it’s been January ever since. It started in 1972, was cancelled in 2021 due to Covid, but went ahead this year — the fiftieth. I’ve attended every one.

It’s truly international, many dealers from overseas, which is what makes it great. Though fewer than usual this time, with Covid still inhibiting travel.

The show goes several days; Thursday is “Early Bird” day, with $125 admission. I do that on the theory that “the early bird catches the worm” — some good buy that would soon have been snapped up. Also, “Early Bird” day is less crowded, making things more efficient. And more prudent this time with omicron peaking (January 13). Entrance required vaccination proof, and masking, which everyone scrupulously observed. It worked; I eluded infection.

Setting out, it felt as though the previous show (pre-pandemic) had been a century ago. But once immersed in the familiar ambiance, it was like yesterday. The cast of characters doesn’t change much year to year; many old friends to nod to. Like BCD, the greatest Greek coin collector ever (whom I visited in Athens in 1992). It’s sobering to see the aging, once young guys morphing into old guys. (It’s nearly all guys.) Reminding me of the party in the final chapter of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

And of course there’s another step after the progression from young to old. One I missed seeing there was Lucien Birkler. Still living, but over 80 I think, long in poor health, having lost both legs to diabetes. Yet he’d nevertheless work coin show after coin show. A tribute to human indomitability. But nothing goes on forever.

I go to buy; wasn’t expecting to find much. Several dealers were remarking on how, in particular, it’s getting impossible to buy from auctions, someone will always outbid you. Yet I came away with a good haul of worthwhile material. Even surprisingly a coin from one of the auctions connected with the show, a lovely Lucius Verus sestertius, for $480.* Looking much better in hand than the catalog photo; from the “New York Sale” run by a consortium of dealers. And Goldberg’s cheerful Glenn Onishi delivered it to me personally, saving the shipping fee.

I spent a couple of hours with Robin Danziger of Educational Coin Company. Another guy I’ve known forever. I once visited their amazing Ulster County premises — imagine a Home Depot but filled with coins. Robin is someone who really loves them and their history. He had bags and bags I searched through, typically picking out a coin here and a coin there. Yes, I’m a careful, fussy buyer, very quality conscious.

Robin remarked that it was like selling to “El Exigente.” Referring to an old TV coffee commercial. White-hatted, El Exigente (“the demanding one”) is the buying agent, coming to a Colombian village. Frowning, he carefully inspects their coffee beans. Finally, a smile — and the villagers are joyful their harvest meets his exacting approval.

Examining some of my picks, Robin also commented, “You have terrific taste in coins.” Well, flattering the customer never hurts. One bag was all posthumous small bronzes of Constantine I. Common — but not at all if well centered and struck, with complete legends.

When I chose just one, Robin picked out another, saying surely it too should qualify. I agreed it was lovely in all respects — save the mintmark being missing. But then he did point out one other I accepted.

I wound up with a goodly pile of purchases that pleased both of us.

Afterwards, another tradition, dinner with an old friend (a woman I’d dated in the early ’70s). Then caught the train back to Albany, picked up at the station by my wife — my best acquisition ever — and once again was in bed by midnight. Life is good.

* Really a bargain. The catalog notes it was bought in 1989 from Claude Amsellem — a dealer I remember from the New York show’s old days. And it originated in the Mazzini collection — the most famous ever for Roman bronzes. A nice bonus!

Biden in The Winter of Our Discontent

January 18, 2022

The commentariat’s hair is on fire over the seeming failure of President Biden, his administration, and his Democratic party, with polls showing dismal approval ratings.

What we’re really seeing is the worsening systemic failure of America’s body politic and civic culture, long in the making, but accelerating since 2016.

A former Republican, I strongly supported Biden in 2020, to save the country from Trumpian catastrophe. That by itself was a considerable achievement. Nevertheless, I harshly criticized Biden’s Afghanistan debacle, and not fully unwinding Trump’s reprehensible immigration and refugee policies. But the reality remains that if Trump and Republicans are the alternative, Biden and Democrats are saviors.

We’re told he hasn’t fulfilled his campaign promises; mainly to unite the nation. As if any president actually could. Jesus returning could not. Republicans are so far gone there’s no bringing them back into some kind of common fold. Have you seen the ubiquitous Trumposphere’s deranged demonization of Biden?

But we imagine a president waving some magic wand to make our troubles go away, and sulk if it doesn’t happen. Take inflation. I remember Nixon thinking he could master it, with wage and price controls. What a (predictable) disaster. And Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” buttons. Didn’t work either. Inflation results from deep economic forces generally beyond a president’s powers.

And yes, we’re fed up with Covid. But blaming Biden? It would be much less bad now if we’d had halfway sane competent leadership when it began. Trump’s fecklessness made things so much worse. Biden did yeoman work in overcoming that ghastly legacy. Maybe one can imagine doing even better. In some perfect world. And the main problem now is the idiocy of vaccine refusal — mostly by Republican Trumpers — and their governors like Abbott and DeSantis actually working to undermine vaccination and masking. Yet Biden is blamed?

(While on Saturday, Trump declared whites are being discriminated against for Covid vaccines and treatment. “If you’re white, you go right to the back of the line.” Another vile lie — as if that needs stating.)

Then there’s Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda — more promises deemed unkept. In fact he did get the infrastructure bill passed — a very very big deal. And a huge Covid economic stimulus, greatly reducing U.S. poverty. Both virtually miraculous achievements given the wall of obstructionism by Republicans dead set on making Biden a failure. (They call themselves “patriotic.”)

The “Build Back Better” and voting rights bills are blocked by two nominally Democratic senators whose votes are needed. (Remember that Democrats have the barest Senate majority only thanks to unexpectedly winning both Georgia runoffs last January.) On BBB, why not just tell Manchin: “Okay, YOU write the bill. Whatever you’ll support. Then we’ll all vote for it.” (I doubt Sinema would still refuse.)

Meantime, why must everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink, be in one giant bill? Might have been good political theater — had it passed. But it can’t. So why not break it apart and mount separate legislative efforts for the climate, family leave, child care, college, immigration, health care, and tax proposals, et cetera? Some should be individually popular and achievable. This is a classic case of the perfect as the enemy of the good.

The Republican war on voting rights makes legislation on that front critical, so I share the frustration of many others at the inaction. But the intransigent Republican blockage means nothing can pass without filibuster reform, and Democrats just don’t have the votes for that. End of story.

All these legislative roadblocks make Biden look weak. There’s an idea that a president can overcome them just by pushing really really hard. It isn’t so.

I started out speaking of the body politic and civic culture. We’re losing concepts of ethics, character, community, and responsibility in civic life. The whole system then unsurprisingly undermined by a collapse of trust. American voters are behaving politically like spoiled children, having tantrums; not grown-ups. Making facile superficial judgements, with no understanding of what’s really going on and what’s at stake. Many crippled in their grasp of reality.

And if Biden and Democrats are failing, it’s because of Republicans. The Gordian knot can be slashed only by electing more Democrats to the Senate in particular. Making filibuster reform — and thus all else — possible. But America seems set instead on returning Congress to Republican control.

That’s simply insane, and not just because it will guarantee government paralysis for two years. Republicans are no longer even a legitimate political party (as we used to understand it). They’re a cult gaga for an evil psycho and his highly pernicious big lie that the 2020 election was a fraud. Responsible for the attempted coup of January 6. Making them enemies of democracy and the fundamental ideals that have guided America’s trajectory since its founding. And Republicans controlling Congress will mean their reinstalling that monster as president, regardless of citizen votes.

Biden is imperfect. But the alternative is the abyss.

Noise: Noisier Than We Think

January 15, 2022

The word “noise” has a special meaning in fields like statistics. Referring to all the reasons why some result deviates from the ideal; like an incorrect prediction. It’s the concept of distinguishing noise from signal.

When people are convicted of identical crimes, with similar backgrounds and circumstances, etc., we nevertheless expect sentences to differ. That too is “noise.” But we don’t expect sentences to vary from thirty days to five years. Nor expect medical diagnoses to be very noisy, differing greatly from one doctor to another.

Such expectations are often wrong, with noise being a bigger problem than we realize. So says the 2021 book Noise – A Flaw in Human Judgment, by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein.

The book refers to “stable pattern noise,” encompassing characteristics about you, different from other people’s, that make your judgments differ; and “occasion noise,” referring to extraneous factors — like your mood at a given moment — that also affect them. Perhaps confusingly, both “stable pattern” and “occasion” noise are subsets of overall “pattern noise.

And the book also differentiates “level noise” — for example, different judges being generally tougher or more lenient — from (again) “pattern noise” when they differ in how they apply that in specific cases. The authors further speak of “system noise” as encompassing the last two together. You got all that? There’s also bias. And plain old error. All told, a whole lotta noise.

Early on, the book talks about insurance underwriters — professionals tasked with setting premiums to be charged corporate customers. Too high and the insurer will lose business. Too low and it loses money. When asked to guesstimate the variance among quotes by experienced underwriters (that is, the noise quotient), insurance executives typically say 10% or 15%. In reality it’s more like ten times greater. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

The authors quote one veteran underwriter: “When I was new I would discuss 75% of cases with my supervisor . . . After a few years, I didn’t need to — I am now regarded as an expert . . . Over time I became more and more confident in my judgment.”

Now here’s the key point: her confidence grew as she “learned to agree with her past self.” Not from any objective confirmation that those past judgements were, in any sense, correct.

This describes a vast range of human psychology and behavior. It is, quite simply, doing what one’s always done. With no deep consideration of that behavior’s optimality. But — if we actually tried subjecting ourselves to such examination, comprehensively, we couldn’t function. Probably couldn’t get ourselves out of bed in the morning. That has to be recognized — even while we must recognize the suboptimality.

This applies to Kahneman’s entire well-known oeuvre — Thinking Fast and Slow, etc. Showing how evolution has saddled us with many non-rational biases in our thinking. Like putting more weight on potential losses than on equal potential gains. Because, for our distant ancestors, “loss” could very well mean loss of life. So a loss avoidance bias made sense.

But even if many of our cognitive biases are not rational, in a narrow sense, the whole system of cognition they comprise is deeply rational. Because, again, we couldn’t function if we had to subject every daily decision or choice to conscious examination. To avoid that, evolution has given us a system of cognitive shortcuts and quick decision heuristics. (The fast thinking of Kahneman’s book title.) And it must be a terrific system because it does enable most humans to function extremely well from moment to moment — and from year to year.

One concept that has grown in my thinking is the role of contingency in human affairs — ranging from individuals to groups to whole societies and their history. I have long been mindful of this effect in my own life, with tiny causes altering its whole course. The Noise book presents much evidence for how individual and group decisions can be affected by such small contingencies. Like something so simple, and seemingly unimportant, as who speaks first in a meeting. Jury deliberations a particular focus of concern. The authors write about cascades, describing how even just one expressed opinion can trigger a succession of responses by other people, not realizing how they’d been unconsciously influenced.

A striking finding is that in making various kinds of judgments or predictions, based on various bits of information, mechanical formulas almost always do better than human analysts, even supposed experts. The key reason — humans are just too plagued by noise. And so we see growing recourse to artificial intelligence to make evaluations, like medical diagnoses.

More: when a human evaluates a set of variables to come up with a judgment, it’s not a formulaic process, yet it’s as if a formula is being applied, albeit a complex one. Studies have found that when such an actual human’s judgments are made the basis for a computer model, which is then applied to the same variables, the model outperforms the human. We may think we bring complexity and richness and insight into our judgments. But what we really bring is noise.

And more: not only do such models outperform the humans they model, studies have found that any mechanistic formula, even randomly weighted, applied to the set of variables in play, will do better than “expert” human judgments.

But supplanting human judgments with mechanistic decision methods provokes backlash. When noisiness in criminal sentencing became evident, the consequently enacted federal sentencing guidelines led to objections that this interfered with judges, well, judging. People do still value the idea of human judgment, bringing a “holistic” perspective to any decision. “This has deep intuitive appeal,” the authors acknowledge.

But, they say, their recommended “decision hygiene” strategies mostly aren’t mechanistic, not jettisoning human judgment. Instead, they mainly urge noise reduction by breaking problems down into component parts. And recognize that while reducing noise is broadly desirable, excessive fixation on it can conflict with other values. Noise is like dirt in your home — its optimal amount is not zero, because attaining zero costs more than it’s worth.

Intelligence also helps combat noise. Yes, “intelligence” is a fraught concept. But the book argues that in fact, tests of “General Mental Ability” are highly predictive of performance. High achievers overwhelmingly tend to have higher GMAs. Even within the top 1%, gradations actually make a big difference. Someone in the 99.8% GMA percentile will likely significantly outperform the 99.0% person. (My own example bears this out. I think I’m at least close to 99%, but not higher. And I feel that difference, compared to really smart people.)

Conversely, lower GMA scores are predictive of people believing in bunk like astrology and falling for fake news. Here’s a GMA test question: in a race, you pass the runner in second place. What place are you in now? Your instinctive answer is likely wrong.

But on the other hand, I’ve long believed that carefully agonizing over a decision doesn’t necessarily improve upon your initial gut response. One chapter began by asking what percentage of the world’s airports are in the United States? “Thirty percent” immediately popped into my head. Then I said to myself, “Wait, let’s think methodically about this.” America has less than 5% of global population. But some big countries are much less developed. And we have a lot of little airports. Mulling over it all, I revised my answer to 15%.

The question introduced a discussion of how one’s first instinctive response is often actually better than a carefully considered one (because the latter is corrupted by noise). The correct answer: 32%!

Trumpism and religion: God help us

January 11, 2022

Nobody is a better advertisement for atheism than Trump.

A man many evangelicals view, despite all his demerits, as God’s instrument for achieving their triumph. That’s how they justify backing such a person. But it’s actually ruinous for the religion they profess to serve.

So argues Jennifer Rubin in a recent Washington Post commentary. Writing about people “in the throes of white grievance and an apocalyptic vision,” seeing America under attack from socialists, immigrants, and secularists. Leading to “an ends-justify-the-means style of politics in which lies, brutal discourse and violence” are embraced. And their rejection of objective reality.

Also their rejection of democracy itself. A democratic culture means not just elections, but acceptance of a pluralism in which diverse voices all have legitimate roles. That in particular they hate, seeing it as a threat. Thus, for all their invocations of “patriotism,” they reject the very meaning of America — the ideas of the Declaration of Independence — in favor of exclusionary blood-and-soil white nationalism.

One might have thought the advent in 2021 of a more conventional, lower-key national administration, of serious purpose, would calm the waters. And that the horror of January 6, a violent attempt to overthrow American democracy, would be electoral poison for Republicans whose deity and his Big Lie instigated it. Yet the opposite has happened. The crisis of our democratic soul has intensified.

Rubin’s main focus is again on the religious dimension. She quotes Peter Wehner (an evangelical Christian and G.W. Bush advisor), discussing a recent speech by Donald Trump Junior. Its message, says Wehner: “The scriptures are essentially a manual for suckers.” Jesus’s teachings have “gotten us nothing.” Indeed, have handicapped prosecuting the culture wars against the left. “Decency is for suckers.”

This, Rubin says, helps explain “the MAGA crowd’s very unreligious cruelty toward immigrants, its selfish refusal to vaccinate to protect the most vulnerable and its veneration of a vulgar misogynistic cult leader.” While “their ‘faith’ has become hostile to traditional religious values such as kindness, empathy, self-restraint, grace, honesty and humility.”

Vaccine refusal not only does trash basic religious ethics, but also reflects a perverted notion of freedom, disregarding that freedom doesn’t mean a right to harm others. That harm is a reality vaccine resisters refuse to believe (killing them in droves). While it’s their dogma that the 2020 election was stolen — also thoroughly proven false. Together showing the astonishing depth of this insanity.

I heard one January 6er on the radio declare he’d taken “an oath to God” that Trump would remain president. “An oath to God!” he repeated, almost shrieking.

Religion is a fundamental divorcement from reality that paves the way for further ones. If you believe in heaven and hell, you can believe nonsensical anti-vax and election fraud lies. If you believe in the man in the sky, it’s but a small step to believing Trump is his instrument. The history of religion is full of suckers falling for what are obvious con men, blind to being manipulated for bad ends. That’s the Trump story.

Rubin’s key point is that while all this “has done immeasurable damage to our democracy,” it also “has had catastrophic results for the religious values evangelicals” supposedly hold. Their God-talk and Jesus-talk has become hollow, their belief systems hijacked by the rotten-hearted Trumpism that cheers making orphans of migrant children.

And this travesty does not go unnoticed by Americans with sanity still intact. It drenches religion in shame. Makes all its pious moralistic prattling a cruel joke. It’s a big reason why younger Americans especially are turning away from religion. Polls show numbers soaring for those saying their religion is “none.”

Republicans, with deranged ferocity, accuse Democrats of somehow, literally, wanting to destroy America. But Rubin concludes that evangelical Republicans are turning it into “a country rooted in neither democratic principles nor religious values. That would be a mean, violent and intolerant future few of us would want to experience.”

Call me Fishmeal

January 8, 2022

Half listening to the radio — some environment report — I heard the word “fishmeal.” And my brain popped out, “Call me Fishmeal.”

For my readers from Mars, there was a famous novel, written by Herman Melville (who lived in my town of Albany, NY), titled Moby Dick, whose opening line, voiced by the narrator, was “Call me Ishmael.” (That was his name.)

My “Call me Fishmeal” was actually, I realized, something of a double entendre. The book was about a whaling ship, sunk in the end. All the crewmen became, literally, fish meals — except for Ishmael, the lone survivor.

This is how immersion (pun intended) in literature enriches one’s life. Well, actually, its rewards are deeper than the little frisson of amusement I got from “Call me Fishmeal.” But life is not all about just exalted contemplation of profound matters. Laughs are valuable too. And broad familiarity with literature facilitates more of them, as illustrated here. “Call me Fishmeal” would never have entered my brain if Moby Dick weren’t already part of its infrastructure.

This is what I love about being alive. Life does of course, again, have its sublime moments, but those are rare, and this did not quite qualify. Yet there are so many little pleasures, to be savored if one has the mindset to do so. Here I’ve actually parlayed my enjoyment of “Call me Fishmeal” into the writing of this essay, which gives me considerable further gratification.

I wish I could prolong it by adding more, but a key element of the writing craft is knowing when to stop.

America’s Catilinarians

January 5, 2022

The Catilinarian Conspiracy was a notorious episode in Roman history.

Rome’s (probably mythical) founding king, in 753 BC, was Romulus — who with his brother Remus had been suckled by a she-wolf. Eventually the monarchy was overthrown, having become so hated that none of Rome’s later Emperors, for all their grand titles, ever dared call himself “king.”

For half a millennium, Rome was a republic. Power resided in the Senate and a hierarchy of elected officials, topped by two consuls, chosen annually. It’s not clear exactly how those elections were conducted, but apparently the “common” people played a role.

Lucius Sergius Catilina — “Catiline”* — was a politician fiercely ambitious for a consulship. There were actually two “Catilinarian Conspiracies.” The first, in 65 BC, entailed dubious claims of election fraud, and a consequent failed plot to overthrow the consuls. This story is murky and Catiline’s role is doubtful — perhaps a case of “guilt by association” from the second Catilinarian Conspiracy.

That was in 63 BC, when Catiline campaigned hard for a consulship, spending a lot of money (that he didn’t have) and posing as a populist champion of Rome’s “forgotten people.” But he came in third, losing to Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida.

Catiline couldn’t stand losing the election, and plotted, with other disgruntled allies, to overturn it and seize power. The plan entailed an army of Catiline’s supporters storming the capital, with Cicero assassinated.

Cicero got wind of the conspiracy and deployed bodyguards to foil the would-be assassins. Then he denounced Catiline in the Senate. Catiline claimed innocence but skedaddled out to the army he’d gathered. A battle ensued; the Catilinarians were defeated, their leader killed. Having earned himself a singularly black name in Rome’s history.

The republic was saved. But not for long, its civic norms having been fatally weakened. Soon came Julius Caesar’s dictatorship, his assassination, and civil wars, with Augustus emerging as the first emperor. Consuls continued to be installed annually, but with no power.

I used to imagine such bloody ancient history had no resonance for modern America. But now we see ominous parallels, with our own Catilinarians — Republicans deluded that they’re righteous “patriots” saving the country from evil others. And they’ve torn down the guardrails that once delineated acceptable, honest, decent civic behavior. January 6 was our first “Catilinarian conspiracy.” The second looms. During Trump’s presidency, I felt hopeful we’d turn the page. Now I’m fearful Republicans will turn it back, determined to do so by any means necessary.

This is not a “conspiracy theory,” but reality. I’ve been trying to sound the alarm; and Barton Gelman writes in The Atlantic detailing how Republican-controlled legislatures in several key states have already put in place the apparatus for overturning the 2024 election. The New York Times daily briefing has also highlighted this threat. Which frankly most Democrats seem asleep about.

The plan is for legislatures to set aside popular votes in those states (on some phony fraud pretext), and appoint Trump electors instead. They’ll be counted if Republicans control Congress. But in any case, and even if they only hold the House of Representatives (looking likely), they can simply block the electoral vote certification. That would throw the election to the House, which will vote Trump in. A perfectly constitutional coup. And the end of American democracy.

On January 6, 2021, Trump’s Catilinarians stormed the Capitol in a failed attempt to stop the electoral vote count. Four years later, they’ll need no resort to violence if they control the House of Representatives.

Will defenders of democracy storm the Capitol to stop them?

* Alternately spelled “Cataline” (as in the newspaper version of this commentary). Further research indicates “Catiline” is preferred.

Don’t Look Up!

January 1, 2022

Kate, a grad student working with astronomer Randall, discovers a new comet. Will hit Earth in six months. Twice as big as the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

That’s the start of the recent Netflix film Don’t Look Up. I wonder if it confuses comets and asteroids. But never mind.

Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) sound the alarm through proper channels, resulting in a meeting with President Orlean (Meryl Streep). Here the fun begins. Orlean is somewhat distracted by a media circus surrounding her, ahem, unconventional Supreme Court nominee. She’s a goofball president (her equally silly son Jason (Jonah Hill of course) is chief of staff). And they cavalierly blow off the comet thing.

Kate and Randall nevertheless actually still think something should be done regarding humanity’s imminent extinction. They land an appearance on one of those morning “news” happy-talk shows. Its vacuous bubbliness deliciously rendered. Though Kate’s spiel is not exactly happy talk — after much silliness by the hosts, she manages to blurt out, “We’re all gonna die!” This killjoy is quickly gotten rid of. While Randall inadvertently manages to make a more favorable impression. Becoming a celeb — an AILF (substituting “astronomer” for “mother”).

Anyhow, it comes out that President Orlean’s been sleeping with her court pick, sending him “cooch pictures.” To distract from that mess, she has NASA organize a space mission to nuke the comet. But moments after the dramatic launch, it reverses course. Because, they’ve just learned, the comet contains trillions worth of rare minerals.

This is revealed by Peter, a billionaire tech guru, with an arresting aw-shucks false-naif persona. Mark Rylance steals the movie portraying this strange character, you can’t take your eyes off him. So Peter introduces, instead of destroying the comet, an alternate (ultra-capitalist) scheme of harvesting its riches, enough to solve all human problems. Assuming any humans will remain alive.

This film is deemed a climate change allegory — you know, humanity’s fecklessness in the face of coming catastrophe. Much commentary finds it smugly overdone. While our climate response can certainly be faulted, it’s nothing like the film’s pervasive idiocy. But I think it really sends up America’s whole current civic landscape. Evoking the movie Idiocracy, which I’ve written about. That one’s target was mainly cultural; the comet film is more pointedly political.

Of course there’s comet denialism, calling it a big hoax, to take away our freedom, our guns, or some such nonsense. The politicization explodes when, as the comet nears and is now visible in the sky, “Just look up!” becomes a catch-phrase meme. Countered, naturally, by “Don’t look up!” The parallel to anti-mask and anti-vaccine lunacy is all too obvious.

President Orlean holds a very Trump-like Don’t-look-up rally. With blatantly asinine rhetoric making this another us-against-them issue. But suddenly noticing the comet unignorably looming above, the crowd turns on her, shouting “Liar!” (If only life could imitate art.)

My wife and I agreed in foreseeing no happy ending; the planet would not be saved. Peter’s dicey scheme inevitably fails. Moments before the apocalypse, a final broadcast on the Foxlike “Patriot News” network tries to change the subject to some celebrity gossip.