Archive for March, 2022

My Greatest Celebrity Sighting Ever!

March 30, 2022

I’m in an elevator in New York with several others. One a tallish woman, in dark glasses, and some kind of concealing headgear. Yet I detect something vaguely familiar. Careful scrutiny produces recognition. I catch her eye and give her a look that says, “You’re Jackie O.”

And, with a trace of a smile, she gives me back a look that silently says, “Yes. Let it be our secret.”

Then the elevator opens and she’s gone. I say to myself, “Wow! But wait — didn’t Jackie O die ages ago? . . . Maybe I’m mis-remembering that.”

Then I think, I should write this up for my blog! Title it “My Greatest Celebrity Sighting Ever!”

Then I wake up from the dream and laugh.

(Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died 28 years before.)

Ketanji Brown Jackson versus the Republican Slime Squad

March 26, 2022

Republican senators in the Jackson confirmation hearings were an abominable disgrace. I am shocked, shocked.

An Exceptional Merit award goes to Lindsay Graham. The guy who, during the 2016 primaries, denounced Trump as a monster. Who then became a Trump lover. Until January 6, when he re-denounced Trump, declaring himself all done with him. Until a few days later when he was back in Trump’s pocket.

Graham in the hearings spit fire over Democrats’ past treatment of Republican Supreme Court nominees. Especially beer-loving Brett Kavanaugh, credibly accused of sexual assault. Graham apparently thinks that should never have been brought up. Nor the issue of Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament, after his deranged partisan rant calling the opposition to his nomination a Clintonian revenge conspiracy.

Yet Kavanaugh was, after all, confirmed. Strangely (or not) Graham never mentioned how Republicans treated Merrick Garland in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Oh, wait. They never gave him a hearing at all.

But mainly the Jackson hearings showcased Republicans’ grand project of confabulating an alternate reality. Where they’re fighting to save America from destruction by evil Democrats. Mirroring Putin’s alternate reality where the “special military operation” is to save Ukrainians from Nazis, and protect righteous Russia from the wicked West. Here, it’s Judge Jackson as some sort of extremist left-wing woke “critical race theory” radical. Her color was all Republicans needed; it was off to the races (pun intended).

Reality check: Judge Jackson is an upstanding model of mainstream centrist responsible judicial professionalism. Almost colorless, you might say.

“Soft on crime” was another key theme. When I hear those words “soft on crime,” I gag at the cynical bullshit. Antipathy toward criminality is baked deeply into all normal human brains. No reasonable person is “soft on crime.” It’s always questions of what really serves justice and society’s true interests, which can be very tricky. “Soft on crime” accusations don’t help.

And Republicans are thoroughgoing hypocrites on this, because a huge part of America’s crime problem is guns, and Republicans have for decades warred against all sensible gun regulation. If anyone’s “soft on crime,” it’s them.

And they’ve been notably soft on America’s premier criminal — Donald J. Trump.

As for Judge Brown, they tried to paint her as soft on child porn in particular, by raking over her sentencing record. (Though sentencing isn’t a Supreme Court function, but never mind that.) Sentencing — trying to do proper justice with a flesh-and-blood human being before you — is always problematic.* From the hearings, it seemed Judge Jackson acted much in line with how most judges act. Her sentences were typically lower than what prosecutors advocated, but it’s their job to go for the max. Hardly shocking if a judge is more moderate.

Hawley on Jan 6

One key case concerned 18-year-old Wesley Hawkins, sentenced to three months. Republicans like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley called this scandalous leniency. Now, child porn is a vicious crime — by those who produce it. But this teenager did not create the porn, just downloaded it. True, it would not exist without an audience for it. And it was described as sadomasochistic, very disturbing, I can’t fathom anyone getting off on that. Nevertheless, a kid of 18 merely accessing something readily available on any computer doesn’t seem a heinous criminal. Just being put through a trial was surely punishment aplenty. Jackson moderated justice with mercy and humanity. I myself might well have given him no jail time.

It’s those holier-than-thou Republican moralists, baying for the blood of a misguided kid, who are truly depraved. Not fit to lick the shoes of Ketanji Brown Jackson.

They tied themselves in knots trying to avoid the appearance of outright racism while cynically playing the race card in pandering to their white nationalist peanut gallery. And in that regard President Biden handed them an unfortunate gift by having promised to appoint a Black woman. So unnecessary a pledge. I wish he’d just nominated Judge Jackson without it. Thus she could’ve been seen as the best possible person all around. Not implausible considering her very great merits. But Biden’s advance pledge served to relegate Jackson to being merely the pick of the limited crop of Black women lawyers. A diminishment of her.

Blacks are key supporters of the Democratic party, and Democrats should be responsive to their concerns and interests. But there’s a good way, and a not-so-good way. The good way is to pursue policies that benefit our society as a whole, making sure that’s done as inclusively as possible, so Blacks get their full share. Appointing Judge Jackson fit with that. The other way is epitomized by Biden’s promising to appoint a Black woman. Making Democrats seem unduly obsessed with identity politics.

The Economist recently reviewed Michael Kazin’s book, What It Took to Win, a history of the Democratic party. The review is tellingly titled, “Tail Wags Donkey.” From the 1930s to the ’60s, Democrats were politically dominant, by following the good way, emphasizing economic policies beneficial to the broadest possible swathe of voters. But since then the party has often seemed bedazzled by culture issues (like gay rights) and, especially, identity politics — which a lot of voters see as disrespecting them, coddling minorities, and divisive rather than uniting. Something Republicans have exploited maximally — and yet more divisively. While the great irony is that though Democrats are criticized for stressing culture issues, for Republicans (as the Jackson hearings showed) it’s all culture issues, they have no economic policies at all; certainly not any that cater to the mass of their voters.

* The night I learned of my own appointment as a judge, I had a harrowing dream, of a road lined by people hanging. “Don’t you remember?” I was told. “You sentenced them.” But fortunately mine was not that kind of judgeship.

Being You – The “Hard Problem” of Consciousness

March 21, 2022

What is it Like to Be a Bat?” was a seminal paper by philosopher Thomas Nagel. Implying bats experience their battiness. Like we experience our own existence. How does that work? David Hume said introspection can’t tell us; I’ve tried endlessly, and it’s true. One cannot use the self to probe the self.

My humanist book group is tackling Anil Seth’s Being You, yet another stab at demystifying consciousness. We know a lot about how the brain works, consisting of neurons, extensively interconnected, processing signals, and regulating behavior. We understand pretty well, for example, how visual signals enter the brain and get processed into images one sees. But those last two words embody what’s been called “the hard problem” of consciousness. Who or what does that seeing? How does that neuronal functioning give rise to what we experience as personhood?

Seth harks back to earlier scientists struggling over the question what is life? Even while knowing quite a lot about living things, what makes them “alive” still seemed a hard problem. They spoke of some mystical elan vital or “life force,” that wasn’t understood and maybe never could be. But that problem gradually went away as science grew to better understand the underlying processes, so that today nobody asks any more what makes something alive. And Seth foresees the same thing eventually happening with the hard problem of consciousness.

Thus he writes in terms of what he calls “the real problem.” Not seeking some “eureka” insight explaining consciousness in one neat formulation. Instead — just as science grew to understand, bit by bit, what life is —we’ll demystify how the various manifestations of consciousness map onto physical brain activity, “to build increasingly strong explanatory bridges between mechanisms and phenomenology.”

Perception is central to the problem. Consciousness and the self are all about experiencing and making sense of perceptions of the outside world and also, importantly, what’s happening inside us. That, once more, raises the question of who or what does the experiencing — and how. Taking vision again, it might seem as if there’s a little man inside our brain viewing a screen on which visual signals are projected (the “Cartesian Theater”). Nothing like that is true.

So how do we make sense of perceptions? When it’s raining, of course the brain isn’t wet. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio posits that the brain creates a representation, like an artist’s picture, of the raining. But also needed is a perceiver — the self, which Damasio says is another representation the brain makes. And it also needs yet a third level representation, of the self doing the perceiving.

Seth’s take is somewhat different, writing of perception as “controlled hallucination.” From the signals, the brain constructs its Bayesian “best guess” of reality. And the aim is not representational accuracy but rather utility in terms of what best enables us to function. We must “understand perception as an action-oriented construction, rather than as a passive registration of an objective external reality.” (“Hallucination” seems an unfortunate word choice, connoting seeing something not there at all.)

Seth writes that “the self is itself a perception, another variety of controlled hallucination.” The mind’s role as part of a living system is crucial. It’s all really about keeping that system going. Seth calls this his “beast machine” theory.

He casts moods and emotions as arising from perceptions. For example, if you see a bear, you feel fear. But, says Seth, what your brain actually perceives is not some picture of what the bear could do to you but, rather, your bodily sensations — heart rate rising, muscles tensing, etc. This seems backwards, ignoring what caused those bodily changes in the first place — the brain’s imagining what could happen, to which your body responds.

This points up a more fundamental problem with Seth’s approach. He also brings in optical illusions as showing how perception and reality can differ, again arguing that reality is something our brains create.

I instead believe in the reality of reality. The threat of a bear is no mere brain “hallucination” or construction; and while optical illusions can flummox our perception systems, those are rare, and mostly what we see is really there. Seth’s dichotomy between accuracy and utility is nonsense. If our brains weren’t extremely good at representing a true reality, we’d quickly die.

But digging down deeper, Seth goes on to query what it means for an organism — or anything — to exist.* He says this requires a boundary between it and everything else. Living things must maintain that over time, fending off the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its associated entropy rise. And this, Seth writes, requires “occupying states which it expects to be in” (his emphasis). Which brings in neuroscientist Karl Friston’s “free energy principle” — free energy equates to “prediction error,” the gap between the brain’s expectations and actuality, which must be minimized. By actively working at that, living systems “will naturally come to be in states they expect — or predict — themselves to be in.” And this, Seth seems to posit, is the nub of consciousness — “I predict myself, therefore I am.”

Circling back to his “hallucination” concept, Seth says the “hard problem,” implying “that the conscious self is somehow apart from the rest of nature . . . turns out to be just one more confusion between how things seem and how they are.” He also writes of consciousness as “the perceptual expression of a deep continuity between mind and life.”

This sounds like spinning mysticism, no help on the “hard problem.” Seth is talking in metaphors with no clarity on what the metaphors represent, because that defies being stated.

Let’s not forget that the problem is how neuronal functioning gives rise to what one experiences as the self. It is a mechanistic problem. And in the end Seth seems to acknowledge this. Saying his construct is not really a theory of consciousness but rather a theory for consciousness science — to point the way for tackling the hard problem.

So Seth does not (of course) claim to solve it, and his final line deems it “not so bad if a little mystery remains.” A little! But I would still love to understand what it’s like to be me.

* The very concept of existence is indeed philosophically problematic. I’ve written about this, using the term “isness” to denote the fundamental quality of existing, while also arguing that it’s actually impossible. Though readers of my essay ( did not seem to realize it was a tongue-in-cheek parody.

Ukraine versus Russia versus the West

March 17, 2022

Issues are not usually black and white but shades of grey; not good versus evil. Not so with Russia’s Ukraine atrocity. There’s talk of the International Criminal Court investigating war crimes. Investigating? “War crimes?” The entire thing is a crime. What’s to investigate?

Putin labels it a “special military operation,” and any Russian calling it “invasion” or “war” is subject to arrest. Yet paradoxically he purports to justify doing what he denies doing on the lie that Ukraine is run by crazed Nazis. Saying it’s not a legitimate country, traditionally belonging to “Great Russia.”

That’s the real gravamen, supplying at least a pretense of appealing to human aspiration. Claiming Russian civilization’s inherent natural greatness, its consequent proper world historical status, and its strong traditional values as against the alleged corruption, decadence, and weakness of the West.

Which has supposedly humiliated Russia. This “humiliation” trope is a powerful driver in human psychology. We see it too in Muslim attitudes toward the West. And in China, carrying a big chip of truculent nationalism on its shoulder, to redress past humiliation. Though Mao harmed China far more than the West ever did. Xi Jinping’s talk of “The Chinese Dream” doesn’t mirror “The American Dream” of individual human fulfillment; Xi’s is about swaggering on the global stage. Just like Putin’s Russian greatness dream.

Russia’s “humiliation” was the loss of the cold war, of empire as the Soviet Union broke apart (many nations freed, including Ukraine), and the economic travails of the transition out of communism (which was never going to be easy). Blaming it all on a supposedly craven West rather than any failings in Russia’s national character and its inglorious record. In fact we tried to help them overcome that legacy and build back better. Though I felt we could have done more. But Putin took Russia down a different road. And if Russia was humiliated, it had only itself to blame.

Just as with “The Chinese Dream,” what is conspicuously missing from the “Russian Greatness” trope is any nod to real human values, serving people’s wellbeing not just as parts of a collective but as individuals. As with Ukraine’s resistance to Russia — they have something truly worth fighting for. What Russian Greatness ideology aims to provide instead is (at best) a form of pride, puffing people up (even if their lives are crap) as part of something (supposedly) great.

Strength is a key element, also psychologically potent. Even if not exactly believing might makes right, people are attracted by strength per se contrasted against weakness. That’s what Putin is selling. It even attracts some in the Western right devoid of actual principles, fools like Fox’s *ucker Carlson, and of course Trump. But what is the strength used for? Surely it’s a perverse sort of pride in strength when used for bombing cities and slaughtering innocents. No “greatness” there.

At least communism as an ideology purported to offer a path (however mistaken) to better lives for individual people. Putin’s Russian Greatness idea doesn’t even try.

And of course calling the West corrupt is a cruel joke. Russia itself being endemically shot through with corruption. Putin hardly pretends to battle it, kleptocracy an organizing principle of his regime. (In China too corruption is a deeply entrenched way of life.) While in fact the West is the least corrupt civilization ever — because of rule of law, which Russia lacks. A nation where people inconvenient to the regime are simply murdered calls the West “corrupt?”

Its permissiveness Putin calls decadence. This too points up the difference in mindset. We are indeed permissive — to allow as many people as possible to flourish and enjoy their lives in their own individual ways.

The “traditional values” that Russia is said to stand for are antithetical to that, repressing people, imposing upon them not values they themselves choose but rather values chosen by others (often based on totally false scripture). And Russia today is among the most repressive nations on Earth — become one big prison. Crushing, not serving, human values.

At the heart of this difference between our values (and Ukraine’s) and Russia’s (and China’s) is democracy. Nothing more fundamental, giving everyone a voice, elevating their individual human dignity. If Putin really believed Ukrainians are blood-bound brethren, he might simply have asked them. But he knew the answer. They see Russia for what it is, and voted against that — and continue doing so, with Stingers and Javelins and Molotov cocktails.

In his Wednesday speech to Congress, Ukraine’s President Zelensky proposed creating a “Union of Responsible Countries,” to combat evils like Russia’s. I’ve written similarly of a league of democracies, to do what the United Nations was conceived to do but cannot (blocked mainly by Russian and Chinese vetoes). Such a league would have the moral authority to fill that void and promote true human values throughout the world.

I attended two zoom briefings by Alexander Vindman. The National Security Council official fired by Trump for testifying truthfully in the first impeachment; now working on Ukraine issues. The big take-away is that Russia can’t win. Regarding a no-fly zone, Vindman thought it wouldn’t mean WWIII, questioning whether Russia would take the huge risks of shooting at NATO aircraft. But anyway, he said the West seems to be giving Ukraine enough weaponry to defend its skies itself. Though the fear is that Russia, otherwise stymied, would escalate to chemical or even nuclear weapons.

Ukraine should agree to whatever it takes (short of ceding territory) to give Putin a fig leaf to claim victory and withdraw. And once Russian troops are out, Ukraine should ignore that agreement. It owes Russia no good faith on anything agreed under criminal duress.

Especially after Russia violated its own 1993 commitment to honor Ukraine’s borders in exchange for giving up its nukes. If Russia remonstrates, the answer should be . . . .

The Dalai Lama: Ethics for the New Millennium

March 14, 2022

This 1999 book says nothing remarkable. That’s what’s remarkable about it.

The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is known as a religious or spiritual leader. But he is Buddhist, which is more a philosophy than a religion, and there’s practically no religion in his book. No mention of reincarnation (even though it’s central to his own life story — he was deemed the reincarnation of his predecessor). No mention of any afterlife, or God, or references to scripture.

Leaving all that out makes for a book that can speak to everyone, giving us a take on ethics that’s universal. Unlike efforts messed up by dicey religious notions, this book doesn’t ask the reader to suspend disbelief, with propositions not readily accepted by our rational minds, which must be forcibly overridden by “faith.” In contrast, there’s very little here that doesn’t strike a reader as perfectly reasonable and indeed obviously true.

That might be a formula for anodyne platitudes. But not for nothing has this man spent his life thinking about the issues here addressed. Furthermore, in contrast to so much that’s written under the rubric of “philosophy,” here there’s nothing abstruse, difficult, esoteric, convoluted, or subtle. He tells it straight and clear.

But enough of characterizing the book. What does it actually say?

Everyone desires happiness and avoidance of suffering. So much a part of our nature is this (and it would be strange if it weren’t) that it requires no further philosophical justification. “Suffering” is self-explanatory but “happiness” is a much trickier concept (as exemplified by John Stuart Mill suggesting it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a satisfied pig). The key dichotomy is between transitory sensations and feelings about one’s life as as whole. Gyatso doesn’t deny the pleasures of the former; but beware the “hedonic treadmill,” when satisfying a desire merely sets up the next desire.

In his view, the key to happiness — and to ethics — is avoidance of harm to others. Or, more broadly, promoting their happiness. (Recalling the golden rule.) This actually may not seem so obvious a proposition. I get there by positing that the only thing that can matter is the feelings of beings able to feel. Gyatso doesn’t put it that way, but the conclusion is equivalent.

It’s also the essence of ethics — harm avoidance and happiness promotion. But how this figures into one’s own happiness is again tricky. While Gyatso argues that it’s served by promoting the happiness of others, Garrison Keillor queried if one’s purpose is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? It’s not actually a supercilious question. Is “pay it forward” a sort of Ponzi scheme? (But the existence of feeling beings needs no justification. They just are.)

A related issue is whether there’s truly any such thing as altruism. If doing something for another makes me happy, per the Dalai Lama, isn’t that actually self-serving? My daughter and I have had this conversation endlessly about my philanthropy.

I answer this way. My feeling good about philanthropy is not a bad thing that negates the happiness in others it produces. It augments it. If both donor and recipient benefit, that adds to the global quantity of happiness. Which is what it’s all about. And though Gyatso suggests there is a difference between self-serving and selfless altruism, I believe our egos and self-regard are so powerful that the latter cannot truly exist.

Notably, a chapter is titled “The Ethic of Restraint.” I read it shortly after writing about how restraint and its lack creates a power imbalance between good and evil. Moral action concerns not just one’s good impulses, but restraining the negative ones we all experience. Gyatso dilates upon how negative thoughts and feelings — anger, jealousy, resentment, etc. — undermine one’s ability to be happy. While positive ones — kindness, compassion, love — serve it. Thus giving us the lifelong task of controlling the former in favor of the latter. Taming a wild elephant, the book says.

This promotes inner peace, deemed the sine qua non of happiness. And inner peace helps us to restrain our negative feelings.

All fine and dandy. But how does one know when one is doing that? Self-justification is also a powerful force. Even from the standpoint of promoting the well-being of others, fallible humans can get it wrong. Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot believed they were working for human betterment. Gyatso would say they lacked inner peace. I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

Interestingly, he rejects the idea of “karma” as commonly understood, some sort of cosmic force for giving people their just deserts. Gyatso sees that as powerlessness. Instead, he says, what happens to us does depend on our actions, but as direct consequences, not due to some mystical force. (Which of course does not exist.)

I did not agree with every word. He impugns “the culture of perpetual growth” as leading to “discontents.” He seems to mean inequality, then bizarrely says that if Europe were the whole world, the “endless growth” ideology might be justified; but elsewhere people are starving. In fact he takes for granted that globally, poverty is worsening.

A common mistake. Actually, poverty has been plummeting for decades (apart from the recent pandemic effect) — and it’s thanks to economic growth. Not the cause of poverty and inequality, but their remedy. The world will never be equal, but human life can be made better for more people if there’s more wealth available.

That’s an ethical proposition.

Espically Stupid

March 12, 2022

As a lover of language, I’m always pleased to encounter a fun new word. So it was with a recent column by economist Paul Krugman, writing that a Republican congressman had “said something espically stupid.”

I took “espically” to be a mash-up of “especially” and “epically” — with maybe a dollop of “despicably.”

Krugman was referring to Congressman Thomas Massie (R-Ky) saying, “Over 70 percent of Americans who died with COVID, died on Medicare, and some people want Medicare For All?”

It reminded me of another Republican Congressman, Idaho’s Raul Labrador, who in 2017 said “nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” (Citing that howler got me a letter published in The Economist, a feather in my cap.)

Massie is actually a serial nonsense machine. Krugman found it needful to explain his quoted statement’s absurdity. Of course Medicare did not cause those deaths; it surely has prevented many. Massie does espically epitomize today’s Republican party, with dishonesty (if not downright lunacy) at its heart. They seem to just hate the idea of helping less fortunate people. And Krugman was mainly highlighting a much overlooked Biden administration achievement: strengthening the Affordable Care Act to benefit many more Americans.

But maybe the word “espically” was merely a typo.

Ukraine – The Nuclear Option

March 8, 2022

I’ve written about the power imbalance between good and evil. It’s because the good are constrained by moral scruples, while the evil are not. I was writing mainly about U.S. politics, but Ukraine exemplifies the principle.

This will get worse, because there is no moral restraint on the Russian side. Is Putin a madman? Maybe not exactly, but he seems messianic about restoring Russia’s greatness (even as he destroys any goodness in it; compounding the vast Ukraine crime with a spiraling crackdown against Russia’s own civil society). And Putin conflates Russia with himself, making the stakes existential for him. He will do anything — anything — to avoid losing. Hence his nuclear threat should not be dismissed as mere bluster.

Already his original plan is faltering, so he’s gone to Plan B. Russia’s invading forces have performed worse than expected, while Ukrainian defense is much stronger. So rather than overrunning and occupying cities, Plan B is to annihilate them. The morale gap between the sides being obviated by use of devastating weaponry.

And yes, that could include nuclear, if all else fails. Having gone this far, smashing through other guardrails, why would Putin stop at the nuclear taboo? He sees this as the strong against the weak; literally, might making right. Exploiting that power imbalance between good and evil. Out-crazying his opponents.

Meantime we have gone to our own version of the nuclear option — in terms of sanctions. Far beyond what anyone ever envisioned. Previous sanctions Russia could laugh at. But not these, a wrecking ball to its economy. Western nations are unexpectedly willing to take some pain to their own. Though stopping short of blocking Russia’s crucial oil sales. And even that extreme step may come soon.

Putin was not expecting sanctions so severe, just as he wasn’t expecting Ukrainians to put up such a fight. But neither factor is stopping him. Instead, pushing him to the next level, raising the stakes. Having now already paid such a big price for his Ukraine adventure, that’s all the more reason to do whatever it takes.

Meantime, it’s been a worry that Russia’s absorption of Ukraine would embolden China vis-a-vis Taiwan. Xi Jinping does share some Putinistic messianism. However, perhaps the nightmare Ukraine has become for Russia itself will deter Xi.

For us, in a way it makes sense to use economic weapons rather than the military kind. But on the other hand, we’ve spent trillions over decades building the strongest military machine in world history. For use against — what? If not this? The biggest threat to global peace, to civilization itself, in our lifetimes.

In hindsight, when we saw Russia’s massive buildup surrounding Ukraine, clearly presaging invasion, we ought to have organized a coordinated inoculation of that country with Western troops. A coalition like the one that reversed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Yes, Putin would have gone ballistic, considering that a heinous provocation. But what would he have done? Anything worse than what he’s doing now? Which we might actually have headed off. Would Putin have invaded knowing it would mean actually battling U.S. forces? He went ahead because he saw us as weak. And by relying only on non-military means, we conveyed weakness, encouraging him.

But people in the West feel done with war, a psychology of pacifism become so pervasive that we couldn’t even really believe it when an actual war was staring us in the face. Nobody was advocating sending defensive troops into Ukraine. And that pacifism actually brought on the war. As a Roman general said, if you want peace, prepare for war.

Yet even now we’re still ruling out combat engagement. Ruling out a no-fly zone, which could have us shooting down Russian planes. The fear of escalation might be rational, except that Russia is escalating anyway. If we do shoot down their planes, what more could Putin do, that he’s not doing already? Launch attacks outside Ukraine? — which would certainly incur an equivalent military response. It’s tempting to say, bring it on. Though the nuclear threat is indeed extremely scary. But it’s hard to see how, exactly, Putin can now be deterred from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, if that’s what it takes to enable him to claim victory — however hollow.

Maybe if we’d now declare that any nuking in Ukraine would bring the same on Russia — would that finally deter Putin? Would we have the balls to say it? To do it? Would it be moral?

Or will sane elements in the Kremlin, staring into the abyss, remove Putin, to save their own skins? Easier said than done. The personal risks of any such plotting would seem prohibitive. Those around Stalin were in constant danger from his murderous whims, but that very terror paralyzed any would-be plotters — even when Stalin lay helpless and dying. Putin too is a killer.

He pretends to justify his invasion by ridiculously calling Ukrainian leaders Nazis. Of course, it’s Putin’s own conduct resembling nothing so much as Hitler’s in WWII. After conquering Poland, he went on to subjugate most of the rest of Europe. If not stopped in Ukraine, what nations will Putin threaten next?

Our choice may eventually come down to watching that horror unfold — and with it our ideals for a better global order, which America worked so long and hard to build — versus major military engagement after all. But many Americans seem more worried about gas prices than about the fate of civilization.


March 5, 2022

My blog, “The Rational Optimist,” was started in 2008 while writing my book The Case for Rational Optimism. That now seems long ago, in far-away galaxy.

I have argued that a species capable of living in the Sahara and the Arctic could cope with climate change. But also that while we must do everything reasonably possible to curb greenhouse gas emissions, even reducing them to zero (impossible) would not stop temperatures rising. So we must also work on defensive preparations, and ways to cool the planet. Yet climate warriors seem to wage an anti-industrial jihad, fixated solely on emission reduction. Even there, nuclear power should play a big role; but many oppose that too. And the recent global climate conference, COP26, was pretty much a cop-out.

So our climate action is too little, too late, and global warming looms faster and more severe and harmful than once thought. Humanity may still be resourceful enough to cope, though at great cost. Yet there’s danger of a tipping point to runaway warming that feeds on itself. Earth’s climate has always naturally cycled through warmer and colder periods, but that could be thrown off-kilter by human activity, a significant new factor.

Venus shows what a runaway greenhouse effect can do. Reaching a permanently toasty temperature — high enough to melt metal. Something no life can survive.

Recently I listened to a 2017 public debate, by serious scholars, on “Is democracy committing suicide?” Suicide may not be quite the right word, but the proposition was that democracy does have characteristics dooming it. Those so arguing had much scary fodder to invoke. The other side said things like Brexit and Trump’s election actually show democracy working. Considering it, at least in advanced countries like America, deeply resilient, its institutions strong enough to withstand challenges.

Note was made of Trump’s ominous 2016 refusal to say he’d accept the election outcome. What if, one debater queried, in 2020 he loses but calls on his supporters to reject that result? Well, it happened. Our democracy survived — but just by the skin of its teeth.

Numerous examples tell us a democracy is just one dumb vote away from autocracy. In America it might take two. A recent poll showed Trump defeating Biden.

Our species’ entire progress, from its beginnings, has been achieved through reason. We are very smart, but not smart enough to avoid many pitfalls of irrationality. Rejecting reality is the essence of irrationality. And that’s Trumpism, rejecting the reality of the 2020 election; of his rotten character; of his party whitewashing January 6. The reality of making America not great again, but shredding what makes it great. Yet some voters are turning against Democrats because of . . . mask mandates. Returning Trump to power would slap rationality in the face.

Democracy was so ascendant in the late 20th Century because it fulfills a basic human thirst for recognition of one’s individual dignity and value, as Francis Fukuyama argued in The End of History. And its debate defenders were right that people won’t knowingly give it up — though actually polls show increasing numbers saying democracy is not that important, and they’d be fine with military rule.

Too many fall for the idea of a strongman, to fix everything. (Strongmen never do, one debater observed; instead they find scapegoats.)

And they never come in saying, “No more democracy.” Indeed, democracy has become so entrenched as a fundamental human value that even the worst regimes pretend to honor it. The world’s autocrats, after being caught flat-footed for a time by democracy’s rise, eventually perfected techniques for manipulating it — giving it the death of a thousand cuts — and then to prevent its resurrection. Thus Venezuela’s regime is impregnable despite crashing GDP by 75%; Russians cannot get rid of Putin even as he drives them to catastrophe.

The paragon is China — it too insists it’s “democratic” — taking the surveillance state to heights beyond Orwellian, making life impossible for anyone not the regime’s obedient toady. The picture of the world’s 1984 future?

Even before 2016, I kept saying America’s democracy is not ordained by God, and could not be forever sustained without a citizenry deeply internalizing its values, understanding what it’s all about. Which was already crumbling. Democracy is not just a matter of elections; more importantly it’s a culture. Of which a key aspect is pluralism — accepting people unlike you having a legitimate role, even having power. That ethos is stomped down in today’s America.

The debate questioned whether democracy is its own worst enemy, allowing people to make bad choices. But an enemy at least as dangerous is guns. However strong people’s democratic feelings may be, guns can be stronger, especially when wielded by regimes without scruples. Look at Myanmar’s army, at war with the entire populace. Too many countries have militaries that are good for nothing — nothing — except using force upon their own populations, to entrench their power and privileges. Guns and democracy don’t mix. That’s why America’s ever growing gun infatuation bodes ill.

An important basis for my 2008 optimism was the post-WWII rules-based world order, evolving into the post-cold war Pax Americana. While guns did continue wreaking havoc within countries, at least major advanced nations were no longer using them against each other. That has now changed. Russia’s monstrous crime against Ukraine is another assault on human rationality. And a huge test, whose outcome will be enormously consequential. If Russia, however bloodied, is seen to ultimately prevail, subjugating Ukraine, we’ll be living in a different and uglier world. While if Russia is bloodied and thwarted, the lesson will be salutary. So much hangs on Ukrainians’ strength and courage.

For the moment at least, those inspiring Ukrainians, and a stronger global response than expected, are antidotes to pessimism. On the other hand, it’s always depressing how many dupes will dance to a tune like Putin’s.

And it’s another weakness of democracy that a lot of people “don’t care about politics.” Thus being oblivious when the thousand cuts begin. Disengagement from politics — not having to worry about it — is actually a luxury of living in a stable democracy, under rule of law, cosseting people (as it should). Inhabitants of Myanmar don’t have that luxury.

Yet broadly speaking, it’s true that politics is not everything. Science, technology, and commerce should continue improving quality of life. And America and its people (even most Trumpers) have many great virtues of which democracy is only one. Without it maybe the rest can endure. Even under a Trump dictatorship, most of ordinary daily life might go merrily along. At least half a loaf. I’ve promised my wife we won’t move to Canada unless truly necessary.

The “yes” side won that debate. I once dreamed of living to see a news headline about the ouster of “The World’s Last Dictator.” Now I wonder if it will be the end of “The World’s Last Democracy.”

The Tyranny of Merit — And Trumpist Revolt of the Losers

March 1, 2022

What is justice? People getting what they deserve — for good or ill. Thus talents and efforts being rewarded. That’s meritocracy.

But meritocracy has a downside, argues Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit. In a society where rewards are unconnected to merit, such as a hereditary aristocracy, non-aristocrats don’t feel shamed by their deprivation. However, in a meritocracy, where winners are reckoned deserving, loserhood is compounded by the sting of feeling personal inadequacy.

That, Sandel posits, drives the populist political upsurge — the Brexit vote, the Trump vote, and so forth. A revolt by meritocracy’s losers, against the winning elites. Feeling disrespected, and resenting it. He says idealistic rhetoric about “going as far as your talents and efforts can take you” creates that resentment, in people whose talents and efforts just don’t take them very far.

Aggravated by disappearance of the 1950s kinds of jobs enabling masses to join the middle class. But rather than jobs “shipped overseas,” the far bigger factor is technology and automation. We’re manufacturing as much as ever — just doing it with much less labor. That frees up people to be productive differently, making us collectively richer. Indeed, the middle class is not disappearing; and more people are rising rather than falling out of it. It’s poverty that’s been shrinking; moreover, Americans classed as “poor” today would, in terms of the life amenities they enjoy, have been rated “middle class” not many decades ago. So the problem Sandel sees is not just economic.

He challenges the very idea of deservingness. I myself have flourished, thanks to traits like intelligence, conscientiousness, etc. Thus deserving? But did I deserve to have those winning traits? Was there some innate, pre-existing deservingness in me, entitling me to be so endowed? Or was it just the luck of the draw?*

The Bible’s Job experienced a blitz of misfortunes, and protested to God this was undeserved. But that’s not how it works, God replied, in Sandel’s reading. “Not everything that happens is a reward or punishment for human behavior.” And this Sandel deems “a radical departure from the theology of merit” infusing the rest of the Old Testament. Going on to discuss how Christianity forever wrestled with the deservingness problem, that is, whether you get into Heaven by being good or because you’re so predestined. (A philosophical black hole.)

Sandel extensively discusses what “luck” really means in the context of inequality. He doesn’t even think intelligence has much to do with it. A football star earns more than a ditch digger because society just happens to be set up in a way that rewards the former more than the latter. Should we try to undo that? By bailing out losers? Hobbling winners? They’re not morally equivalent.

And even if we recognize that success is ultimately a matter of luck, which should be somewhat rectified, to negate such luck entirely would seem, well, crazy. If, for example, everyone is equalized no matter their talents and efforts, then why develop skills or work hard? That was the fatal flaw in the communist idea (which no nation ever truly implemented).

The book extensively discusses “credentialism” — how degrees, especially from elite institutions, serve to divide society between winners and losers. That’s meritocracy if you suppose well-educated graduates contribute more to society. Actually a problematic proposition. And the division is perpetuated because student bodies skew heavily to children of the better off. A more egalitarian society would give the rest better college opportunities. (Rather than compounding deprivation via crappy public schools in disadvantaged places.)

As suggested, Sandel bemoans meritocracy because its losers feel bad about themselves. He wants a society where nobody does. But what, you might ask, is really the alternative to what we’ve got? If rewards don’t go to merit, to talents, to efforts, then what kind of bizarre society is that? Is that just? Is it even conceivable?

That’s not what Sandel is proposing. In his eyes, meritocratic equality of opportunity is a good thing, but it’s not enough. It “does little to cultivate the social bonds and civic attachments that democracy requires.”

And, he says, “a sterile, oppressive equality of results” is not the only alternative to equality of opportunity. Another is “a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity — developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs.”

A nice utopian vision. But the harsh reality is that many people aren’t equipped for the kinds of jobs that “win social esteem” today, or to hold up their end of Sandel’s civic participation ideal.

I’ve long considered the inequality obsession misdirected. It usually comes down to resentment of wealth (the word “obscene” often deployed as a moral judgment). Very different from seeing poverty as morally repugnant. If there were no poverty — no absolute want — with everyone being able to live at least decently — then the very rich are simply not a problem.

Still, just relieving deprivation does not produce the kinds of civic paragons Sandel hopes for. He himself argues that welfare recipients often resent the relationship this puts them in vis-a-vis the rest of society. Part of the overall resentment fueling the populist revolt. Sandel is right that it’s a problem when large population segments feel such alienation. But he doesn’t really have an answer for it.

His concluding paragraphs argue that the problem lies with different societal echelons leading largely separate lives. This recalls Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart (see my commentary, very relevant here).** Murray basically suggested (naively, I thought) that the upper classes should interact more with the rest. And what Sandel finally calls for is humility on the part of the rich and successful as “the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.”

And how to get from here to there? Sandel offers no clue.

The book does, again, attempt to explain Trumpist populism in terms of class resentment. Murray was right that social segregation has grown; Robert Putnam began Our Kids by similarly lamenting that rising barrier. But meantime, increasing egalitarian thinking means people no longer feel deferential toward their “betters.”

Who in past times were indeed widely seen as better, their elevated status accepted as right and natural. A social ethos epitomized by FDR, elite in every bone of his body, yet his leadership was totally embraced by the masses. In a society quite different from ours today. Trumpism is an antithesis of such FDRism.

As such it’s comprehensible. But FDR was a virtuous leader in many key respects, making the political support he inspired appropriate. Whereas Trump, like FDR very elite himself, is the opposite in character. Perhaps his fans latched on to him simply for lack of other alternatives filling the anti-elitist leader role. But it’s still tragically baffling to see unswerving cultist loyalty to a stinking piece of shit.

* Considering it the latter, philosopher John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, argued for (in theory) setting up a society under a “veil of ignorance” where you don’t know what your status will be. He thought that would suggest an egalitarian system.