Archive for April, 2022

Hell of a Book

April 28, 2022

Hell of a Book — that’s the title — by Jason Mott — is actually two different novels coexisting uneasily within one cover.

One is a semi-comical first-person account of the author/narrator’s book tour. He’s Black, but that seems only incidental. There’s a segment with a grotesque caricature of his “media trainer” discussing the imperative to avoid making this a “race book,” about the Black experience.

The other interwoven novel is a race book, about the Black experience.

Does this taco-and-spaghetti combo work? I’m not sure. The race book centers upon a kid who strove for literal invisibility as a way to stay safe. His father became victim of a particularly senseless police shooting. The kid himself is later shot too, and shows up in the author tour book — as a ghost haunting the protagonist.

However, while the two seem clearly the same kid, there’s never any line drawn between the dual father-and-son shootings. Not even by the kid’s widowed mother. I found this puzzling and unsettling.

Elements that might be called magical realism are somewhat accounted for by the author/narrator saying often that he has a “condition,” which is an overactive imagination, so he can’t always tell what’s real or not. This produces much tongue-in-cheekiness, mixing David Foster Wallace style satire and self-parody, and a dollop of Hunter Thompson Fear and Loathing, with what are also actually some pretty heavy reflections, even philosophical ones. Yet much is also keystone cops type stuff. Leaving me unsure how to take the whole thing.

One scene on an airplane has the author asked to sign a book for a fellow passenger. Who turns out to be — or appears to be — the film actor Nicholas Cage. “Oh please,” I said to myself, bracing for more slapstick. And then . . . from Cage’s mouth spill all sorts of surreal and thought-provoking profundities. It’s that kind of book.

For most of it, we understand that the novel we’re reading differs from the protagonist’s eponymous one. It seems its narrator was really bugged by something, which propelled the writing, and which his novel is about. That’s left vague until near the end it’s finally revealed to be his mother’s death. This too I found somewhat disorienting, because the novel in my hands still seemed mainly about racial injustice. The mother’s death (from a stroke), however it may have affected her son (not evident, through most of the text), didn’t have much to do with anything, in terms of this book’s contents.

And meantime, the silliness eventually ceasing, the race book takes over, with the tone become all serious. Overly so, I’d say; even maudlin, oppressive. Long before the end, I’d gotten the point, and had had enough. Though the book tour crashes and burns, the race book’s last few dozen pages, rather than building to a climax, add nothing.

There’s much about “the talk,” that Black parents must give their children, and all that sort of thing. Sorry if that sounds supercilious. I myself have railed about police violence, and the whole larger issue of how non-whites fit in America. But as far as books are concerned, it’s been done. A lot. Ta-Nehisi Coates and so forth. Maybe it’s fair to say there can’t be enough books of that kind. But the problem for an author is how to write one that’s not just yet another in a long parade of such race books. Mott tackles that problem in an idiosyncratic way. Leavening the unavoidable tendentiousness with flakier fare. Again, I’m not sure it works.

And forgive me for this too. I am indeed fully cognizant of what non-white Americans endure. But this book reads, to me, like it’s set in some dichotomous, literally segregated alternate reality where suffering and injustice are experienced solely by non-whites. With no recognition that these are human universals. That white lives . . . .

A Life in Poetry

April 27, 2022

There was a nice piece in today’s Times-Union about my wife Therese Broderick’s poetry life. Written by the inimitable Paul Grondahl (head of the NY State Writers Institute), after spending several hours talking with her. I confess it really delights me being married to such an excellent person. Read the the text of the article here:

Is the Self an Illusion? What can that even mean?

April 24, 2022

Jay Garfield’s book, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self, argues that the “self” is an illusion, and letting it go enables living better, more moral lives. He discussed this with James Shaheen (editor of Tricycle: a Buddhist Review) in a podcast. (Here, with a transcript:

Transcending the self is a Buddhist idea. My wife, who’s been exploring Buddhist philosophy, pointed me to the podcast, knowing my own perspective differs.

The self is a key philosophical problem. We know much about how the brain works, in terms of neuron functioning, processing information, and so on. Which must be the generator of consciousness. But how, exactly? Science doesn’t (yet) have a clear explanation. And while we know consciousness is a real phenomenon, the self is more problematic still. A “meta-consciousness” by which we experience the contents of consciousness. What makes one feel there’s a self in there, a captain at the helm, making choices and decisions, experiencing things? What is experiencing, really?

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio casts a perception as a representation constructed by the brain, with another representation of your self perceiving that representation. And yet a further one of “you” knowing you perceive it. An endless recursion? This does lead some thinkers to posit the self being an illusion. That when you drill down there’s no “there” there. But what exactly does this mean? Even if the self is not really there in some concrete explainable sense, that we can put a finger on, nevertheless our experience of living, with a self at its core, also is a real phenomenon. Something we do experience, even if we can’t explain how.

If you see a ghost, that may be an illusion. But your seeing it is a real event; something that happened in your brain. You can convince yourself there was no ghost, but not that the experience wasn’t real. Similarly, can you convince yourself you have no self?

After all, who or what would do the convincing? Who or what would now hold the belief that the self is an illusion? Saying “I have no self” makes no sense because if true, there would be no “I.”

Yet Garfield, in denying the reality of selves, says “we’re more like roles than we are like actors.” An interesting formulation — however, actors perform roles, following a script. And much of our behavior is actually like that, almost robotic even. Garfield may, if anything, be understating that when he says “we do have these moments of nonegocentric consciousness.” Implying at least moments when an “egocentric” self is in operation.

He also says, “You want your intentions to be caused by your beliefs and your values.” And: “we need to free ourselves from the illusion of transcendental freedom in order to appreciate the kind of freedom that we do have, namely, the ability, very often (my emphasis!), to act in accordance with our intentions and values.”

That doesn’t sound like an absence of self. It’s not fully engaged all the time; we’re often on automatic pilot (probably necessary for sanity). Yet the self is often fully engaged, and that is crucial to one’s lived experience.

While Garfield does, as quoted above, recognize we sometimes act with intentionality, he sees that as a problem: “we focus on the self, and that self is this independent substantial thing different from everything else, free from causality and all that stuff, and that allows us permission to take our own narrow self-interest as motivating. And that’s permission to ignore the demands of morality.”

Wait — what? Sure, having a self does entail motivation to serve its own interests. But that does not trump everything else, and morality is a separate realm of consideration. And it’s precisely because you have a sense of self, and understand what that’s like, that you understand other people have it too, and hence have their own rightful interests. While Garfield says your self puts you at the center of the moral universe, and others at the periphery, that doesn’t make them count for nothing. And evolution imbued us with basic instincts for justice and empathy — constituent parts of our sense of self. Indeed, for most people, acting ethically is actually self-serving because it makes them feel good. So the self is not antithetical to morality.

Garfield’s morality argument fails for another basic reason. Morality is of course all about how one treats others. But if nobody has a self, then who cares how they’re treated? Why would it matter? Without selves, the whole idea of morality is meaningless.

More fundamentally still, without a self, why even bother to live? Garfield intones, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Saying “we don’t have a self that we have to protect . . . that we have to be afraid of losing. And that is freedom from illusion.”

People do fear loss-of-self — that is, dying — because the self is ultimately all we’ve got. There can be no sort of meaning to life except as experienced via the self. It evolved to make creatures care what happens to them, so they’ll strive to avoid injury, pain, and death. That’s a very real fact of life, an evolutionary adaptation. Calling it an illusion seems a meaningless semantic exercise.

It does appear Garfield is hung up semantically on the word “self.” Because he does advocate a conception of “personhood” — urging readers “to reject the notion that their identity is that of a self and to accept that it’s the identity of a person.” And how do those two concepts differ? “Personhood” he characterizes as embedded in a “very vast and complex and often invisible web of conventions that brings us into existence, not some kind of prior metaphysical fact” (whatever that might mean). Or: an “ever evolving set of psychophysical processes in constant open interaction with the world . . . we exist only as nodes in this interdependent web.”

All true except for the word “only.” We are indeed enmeshed deeply in society and the world, but I would actually say that ultimately we exist only as consciousnesses in the workings of our brains. Without that we might exist in a bare physical sense, but wouldn’t know it. Put differently, we have both interior lives and exterior ones, and through former we experience the latter. All the embeddedness Garfield talks about could not be navigated and negotiated without a self to do it with.

He deems somehow relevant here an analogy to a woman wanting to see his college. He shows her various buildings, facilities, lawns, etc. She responds, “No, I didn’t want to see buildings and lawns. I wanted to see the college.” But there is no such thing, Garfield comments; “And if you think there is such a thing, you have a profound misunderstanding of what a college is.” He elaborates what constitutes a “college,” and says “it’s just like that with the person and the self.” But even if you cannot point to a concrete thing and say, that’s a college, still the word has a clear meaning, it’s a concept word. Surely Garfield’s college analogy does nothing to demonstrate that the word “person” denotes something real while “self” does not — even if those concepts differ. Which is doubtful. More semantic games here.

And there’s another fundamental problem. Buddhism vaunts the supposed benefits when you transcend your self. But what “you” are they talking about? The only “you” that can perform this supposedly beneficial mental jiu-jitsu is your self. And it’s only your self that can experience the desirable state of being that you’re supposed to thereby attain. If the self is illusory, wouldn’t that desirable state be likewise illusory (if not doubly so)? The very idea of happiness or contentment makes no sense without a self.

And suppose you actually could somehow eliminate your self? It would seem like a lobotomy. What would be left? You might be quiet and peaceful — like lobotomized people. But the “you” would be gone.

Freedom from illusion is central to my own outlook. Only on the basis of reality can one live an authentically meaningful life. Free from illusions — like God, and immortality. But if you truly posit that you have no self, how can anything about life matter to you? If nobody has a self, then nothing can matter at all.


April 20, 2022

Trump Blames Dems, Declares Martial Law

January 22, 2025

By James Thornton, Devon Sharp,

and Julie Montalbano

Associated Press



Flames engulfed the United States Capitol building at 1:20 PM Eastern Time, just two days after President Donald J. Trump’s second inauguration. House and Senate members, with numerous staffers and employees, as well as tourists, were seen fleeing. No deaths have yet been confirmed, but fire officials expect large casualty counts to emerge once the blaze is extinguished. As of day’s end, it had not been.

Those officials also stated they cannot yet identify the conflagration’s cause. The building’s destruction appears substantial if not total. Its iconic dome has collapsed.

President Trump released a video address at 2:35 PM, calling the fire “a vicious attempt to overthrow our democratical elected American government, by evil America-hating traitor socialist crime-loving pedophile Democrats, who will be shown no mercy.” He also said the Capitol was “treated very very unfairly,” and announced a declaration of nationwide martial law, though without citing any legal or constitutional basis for that.

Questions have been raised concerning a 17-minute gap between the first alarms and the start of fire-fighting operations. They seem also to have been impeded by the massive concrete barricades surrounding the building, installed in anticipation of the huge protests that did eventuate related to the presidential election procedures unfolding therein.

Democratic nominee Pete Buttigieg had won a popular vote margin over ten million and a 307-228 electoral vote victory. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate threw out enough electoral votes to deny him a majority, based on fraud claims which (like President Trump’s in 2020 and after) had been thoroughly debunked, with the only significant 2024 electoral chicanery evident on the Republican side.

Nevertheless, pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, the voided electoral vote left it to the House of Representatives to choose the president, with each state having one vote. Twenty-seven Republican-controlled state delegations then handed Trump the presidency. Infuriated protesters were kept out by the barricades and heavy military presence, with thousands arrested. “America is finished,” said one of those, Frank Robinson, 77, of Albany, NY, a retired state administrative law judge.

In a one-page ruling issued January 19, with three dissents, the Supreme Court refused to hear a legal challenge to Trump’s election.

Some historians saw in today’s Capitol fire an eerie echo of Berlin’s 1933 Reichstag fire, just weeks after Hitler came to power. The Reichstag was Germany’s parliament. Hitler blamed the fire on Communists and used it as a pretext to expel them all from parliament, giving Nazis a majority, and to unleash an iron boot. Most observers believe the Nazis likely set the fire themselves, for that very purpose. (Goering supposedly boasted of doing it.) Germany’s parliament was never restored during Hitler’s twelve-year rule.

Kathy Hochul’s Double BB Boo-boos

April 15, 2022

Governor Andrew Cuomo was loathsome. Seemingly redeemed in the pandemic’s beginnings, we soon learned he’d fudged nursing home death numbers, to cover an apparent policy blunder, compounded by a cover-up of the cover-up. Compounded further by his smelly $5.1 million deal for a book about his supposed pandemic wonderfulness. The book largely produced, illegally, by state employees. And then . . . all those women.

Facing impeachment, Cuomo resigned. Now he’s trying for rehabilitation as an innocent victim of political hit-jobs. Everybody politically motivated — except him, of course. Puh-leeze.

The elevation of Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul last August felt like a breath of fresh air. No Cuomo henchperson, he’d actually tried to get rid of her. She seemed the un-Cuomo.

High on her agenda was ethics reform. The state’s ethics watchdog, JCOPE, had become known as JJOKE, being stuffed with political operatives by the very officials it was supposed to watchdog. Most prominently Andrew Cuomo. Unsurprisingly, JCOPE was a lapdog. Hochul did advocate a seemingly dramatic reform. But it’s been so watered down that it too is a sorry joke. (New York’s pols just won’t give up control.)

Then came Hochul’s first big BB boo-boo: The Buffalo Bills. A football team, from her original home turf, whose billionaire owner fancies a snazzy new stadium. Threatening (as they always do) that if he doesn’t get it, courtesy of taxpayers, he’ll take the team elsewhere. Hochul promptly caved, pledging $650 million in state money. Plus $250 million from the county. Biggest public stadium giveaway in America.

I happen to consider the obsession with professional team sports ridiculous. To people who derive vicarious jollies from meaningless victories by teams they don’t play for, I say: get a life. But if fans want to pay for their fetish, fine.

However, with millions of New Yorkers struggling just to get by (if at all), it’s criminal to blow so much state money on a needless new football stadium. That will be used only around ten times yearly, distant from the city center, and thus unlikely to spur local economic development. Further, the $650 million is only the start, the state will be on the hook for upkeep too. The eventual cost may exceed a billion. (Reprising Cuomo’s own “Buffalo Billion,” another ill-considered (and probably corrupt) economic stimulus boondoggle.)

And will state taxpayers, who are footing the bill, get discounted tickets? Don’t be silly.

And get this: Hochul’s thrill for the Bills is not mere hometown boosterism. Her husband is a bigwig with a company profiting from stadium concessions. Plus, she got fat campaign contributions from lobbyists for the Bills. Indeed, she’s been on a tear scarfing up many millions in donations from lobbyists with business interests before the state, raising ethical issues troubling to say the least. And she flew to many of these fund-raisers on state aircraft.

So now comes Hochul’s second big BB boo-boo: Brian Benjamin.

A state senator she appointed to fill the lieutenant governorship. Being Black didn’t hurt. Ostensibly with some record of community development. But there were already some queasy questions. Now blown up into a federal corruption indictment, and Benjamin’s arrest and resignation.

He allegedly, as a senator, arranged a state grant for a crony that was converted directly into campaign contributions — doubly ripping off taxpayers thanks to New York City’s matching program for campaign finance. One might ask how the legislature could have been complicit in such a scheme, authorizing the money. But this is New York, after all. (And actually, Benjamin’s scam was little different from what many legislators do, only his was stupidly more overt.)

Hochul says that when appointing Benjamin she was assured his legal issues were all resolved. How naive was she? This was a big boo-boo.

He can’t be removed now from the June 28 primary ballot, leaving the lieutenant governor election in chaos. We’ll also choose gubernatorial nominees. One Hochul rival is Jumaane Williams, an elected NYC official, loudly “progressive,” with Tourette’s Syndrome. The other is Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, who distances himself from the left-wingery indulged by many New York Democrats. I’ve heard him interviewed, and he generally seemed to make sense.

I will vote for Suozzi. (Good luck.)

Republicans are nominating a Congressman who voted, on January 6, to overthrow American democracy.

Well, maybe all this is not so bad, compared to what’s happening in Ukraine.

“The True” — Machine Politics and Sex

April 12, 2022

February 1977 — Dan O’Connell is finally dead. So begins Sharr White’s play, The True, performed at Capital Rep, directed by its leader Maggie Cahill. (Runs through April 24.)

O’Connell, 91, was still boss of the political machine he’d built more than half a century earlier. I had to see the play, having authored Albany’s O’Connell Machine — now nearing its own half century mark.

The play’s focus is Polly Noonan, “confidante” of Erastus Corning, whom O’Connell had installed as Albany’s mayor in 1941. Polly had been Corning’s secretary when he was a young state senator, and they’d been very close ever since, with Polly as a behind-the-scenes political operative. (Her granddaughter is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.)

O’Connell’s death occasions something of a power struggle over both the mayoralty and the party chairmanship. But the play is really more about the personal dynamic among Corning, Polly, and her husband Peter Noonan, also a Corning buddy.

It was much better than I expected. Antoinette LaVecchia’s portrayal of Polly was so forceful and compelling, perhaps the play should simply have been titled “Polly.” (“The True” refers to people who are true in their loyalties.)

Audience advisory: the play includes much strong language. Polly Noonan was renowned for her uninhibited tongue.

Particularly riveting was her scene with Jimmy Ryan, an old O’Connell henchman, battling Corning for control. Ryan looks like a slob, in his underwear (?) — but what a powerful personality, another great performance (by Kevin McGuire).

I never met Polly, nor Jimmy Ryan. I did meet Corning several times, interviewing him for my book (he was very gracious), and recall his gratuitously badmouthing Jimmy Ryan as a drunk (in 1972). I also went to Dan O’Connell’s home for an interview, but didn’t get much, he was already very frail. And actually, young fool that I was, I did those interviews before knowing what tough questions to ask.

Michael Pemberton played Corning as a hard-drinking stereotypical old pol. With none of the patrician manner so evident in life.

However, somewhat ironically given its title, the play isn’t presented as all true. Some liberties are taken. Corning’s relationship with Polly is of course central, but there is much talk of his wife; he is told several times to “go home to Betty.” As far as I’m aware, there had been no home with Betty for decades. Corning’s “family life” was entirely with the Noonans.

Not with his own children either. I actually spent time with Erastus Junior, on “numismatic tours” of Russia in the ’90s which he led; and it was strangely evident that his father (by then deceased) was totally a non-person to him.

Late in the play, with Polly hashing things out with Erastus in his living room, Betty finally appears. A ghostly flapper-like figure lurking offstage. Silence. Will she proceed to enter the room? That’s the play’s greatest moment of dramatic tension. Eventually Betty wordlessly exits upstairs.

So — were they ever fucking? Polly and Erastus? The question isn’t skirted, in fact it’s central to the dynamic. Everyone assumed they were. With O’Connell’s death putting Corning under new political pressure, he feels a need to distance himself from Polly. She takes that rather badly.

But the answer to the question was an emphatic “no” — according to Polly. Husband Peter believes her — well, maybe 85% of him does. The question was explored in Paul Grondahl’s magisterial Corning biography, and he came to the same conclusion.

Sex is important. But it’s not everything.

How Do We Know Right From Wrong?

April 9, 2022

Emails between Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Ginni (Mrs. Clarence) Thomas, recently revealed, strategized to overturn the 2020 election. Meadows called it “a fight of good versus evil.”

Did he really believe that? He’s a very intelligent man. Moral judgments can differ. Today’s two American parties each believes itself battling for good against evil. Many Russians view their Ukraine invasion that way. How do we know what’s really right?

In the big picture of human history, we’ve actually made much moral progress, people in general are better than they once were, with societal norms improving. Though of course we’re still far from perfect, often misjudging right versus wrong.

Some might say it’s all subjective, there are no moral verities or absolutes. All just arbitrary human constructs. That seems nihilistic. While it is true no moral guidelines are built into the fabric of the Universe, and we’re on our own constructing them, that doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary. We can use our reasoning minds to apply some compelling basic precepts.

Call the first factualism. There is such a thing as reality, as truth and falsity, and they matter. Judgments premised on falsehoods can only result in unintended outcomes. You cannot get moral clarity from muddled facts. Only by dealing with actual reality can we hope to do right.

Biden’s election was not fraudulent. Ukraine is not a nest of Nazis. Those are facts.

“Wishing doesn’t make it so” is folk wisdom. Yet many people believe things because it suits them. Lincoln used to say, “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have? Four! Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” But we’ve got a lot of five-legged dogs running around, and those who love them. And others who benefit from that.

Thus one key factual matter is people’s motives, with great bearing on assessing their moral claims. Get the motives wrong and you’re in trouble. Is Putin really motivated to “denazify” Ukraine? Was Trump motivated to protect American election integrity? Or to subvert it, to stay in office and, especially, to avoid facing the humiliation of losing?

My wife and I have been reading together a book discussing the philosophy of pragmatism expounded by William James and John Dewey. It saw a person’s beliefs as valid not based on mirroring reality but, rather, if the beliefs somehow work for the person. Mainly, this was an effort trying to justify belief in God. But religion, grounded in a fundamentally false construct of reality, can only lead us into a moral wilderness, as history has repeatedly proven. Russia’s church totally backs Putin’s regime and its “godly” war.

So facts are fundamental. Also fundamental is the question, what makes rightness? Again, no such concept is built into existence. But we can start by realizing that ultimately the only thing that can matter is the feelings of beings that feel. Thus rightness consists in what promotes happiness and curbs suffering. And in this accounting, all people stand equally. A corollary is that all have rights to decide some things for themselves. The principle might be called humanism or universalism.

It’s not instinctual, for us evolutionarily tribalistic humans, programmed to view different folks very differently. Nazis believed they were serving the greater good by purging people deemed inferior (which also violated factualism). Putin too speaks of “purifying” Russian society by ridding it of — well, its factualists.

There’s also the perennial conundrum about ends justifying means. A strict utilitarianism — “the greatest good for the greatest number” — might sanction anything that increases the overall quantum of wellbeing even if creating some suffering. Justifying, say, killing someone to harvest their organs to save multiple others. But that contravenes the principle of all people equal in worth, with rights over their lives; no way to maximize overall happiness. Who’d want to live in a society where your organs can be taken?

Some Trumpers who plotted what was really a coup engaged in ends-justifying-meansism. Willing to torture truth and torpedo democracy in order to keep Trump in office. Even if you thought those ends worthy, surely the means were inimical to the greater good, again flouting both factualism and the principle that all people (including Democrats, and their votes) stand equally. Yet many Republicans continue down that road.

Honor factual reality. Honor individual human dignity. That’s how to tell right from wrong.

Ukraine: The War for Civilization

April 5, 2022

This is huge. Our most fundamental values are on the line. Russia must lose, and be seen to lose. No plausible pretense of victory. No ambiguity.

Ukraine is heroically bearing the brunt of the fight for us. And pretty effectively so far. Putin has a powerful tank army, but tank technology has been outstripped by tank-killing technology. Russian casualties are horrendous. Still, their military resources remain immense, amply capable of continuing destruction and slaughter. We’re just learning the extent of Russia’s outright mass murder of Ukrainian civilians.

Meantime a big chunk of Ukraine’s army is much endangered by Russian encirclement in the east near the Donbas conflict region. Russia might still wind up expanding those separatist-controlled territories, and taking Mariupol to create a land bridge to Crimea. Putin could call that a victory, albeit at ghastly cost.

We must prevent that. Doing so would be a seminal triumph for peace and democracy, boding well for the whole future of civilization. Otherwise we’re back to an ugly past with brutal wars of conquest like this the norm.

We’d thought that was finally behind us. True, we’d seen Russia’s prior villainies in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Donbas, Crimea. And Russia is not the only transgressor. But the Ukraine atrocity differs, in scale if nothing else; not dismissible as a one-off aberration. Mariupol was a city of 430,000, reduced to a terrorized remnant of maybe 100,000 struggling to survive in rubble.

So the stakes are exceedingly high. The West has risen to the challenge more strongly, with more unity, than might have been expected. Germany in particular has done a sharp U-turn, ending its longtime policy of smooging Russia.

And yet our response is still insufficient. Which The Economist calls “a reprehensible failure of strategic vision.” This fight should be given, militarily, everything we’ve got. We spent trillions building the strongest military ever — what for, if not this? But we’re squeamishly splitting hairs over what might provoke Putin. How ridiculous. His claims of provocation, to justify this war, were already a sham. And for him, this was always really a war against the West, America, the EU, and NATO. So what if we help Ukraine with less restraint?

Yet we agonize, rule out sending troops, or a no-fly zone; send anti-tank weapons but not tanks; and cavilled even at facilitating Poland’s giving Ukraine jets. And while we’ve provided lots of drones, they’re not actually our best drones, Alexander Vindman said in his latest zoom briefing. Oddly enough, the really lethal drones are a Turkish product, that Turkey is going all-out to manufacture for Ukraine.

Turkey and Poland are no poster boys for democracy. But they have reasons to hate the Russians.

I’ve written how the Putinist Russian ideology traduces human values. The Economist too recently gave a scary picture of this crazed blood-soaked cultural messianism.* Too many Russian people bray with it — eerily evocative of Nazi Germany. And for all its self-worship as against the “decadent” West, Russia and its regime are gigantically corrupt. Covering that up, says Alexei Navalny, requires quite a lot of ideology.

Which would be fed by even a partial success in Ukraine. Whereas failure would likely, eventually, move Russia “to solve its problems by reform at home rather than adventures abroad,” opines The Economist. Making this an historic opportunity to lance one of the great boils afflicting the neck of civilization. And while the risks of escalating conflict may be real, the risks to the world of a Russian success are also very real, and worth taking some risks to prevent.


1619, Critical Race Theory, and America’s Story

April 1, 2022

(This appeared recently as a commentary in the Albany Times-Union)

The “1619 Project” aims to highlight a key aspect of history — 1619 being when slavery arrived here — that is, at America’s very beginnings. As if born in sin. And “Critical Race Theory” puts race at the center of everything.

Both are politicized targets for the right; and both, perhaps typically for our febrile times, do go overboard. For example, 1619ers say 1776 was really about preserving slavery, supposedly against British abolitionism — which in fact hardly even existed yet.

That said, slavery and race do figure hugely in America’s story. Surely schoolkids need to learn about this. Not to make them feel bad, but so they’ll understand their world.

And while slavery was a horror, I’m proud of my country for the ideals that have propelled progress. Election of a black president seemingly relegated racism to America’s dark corners. But then a white backlash jelled, with a newfound anxiety over loss of caste dominance.

Trump could never have been elected absent a Black predecessor, and that underlying race factor continues to bedevil our politics. Many of his supporters won’t admit it to themselves, bristling at the “racist” label; but nobody would have stormed the Capitol on January 6 for the sake of economic concerns alone.

Jeannette Wilkerson’s 2020 book Caste quotes historian Taylor Branch querying how many Americans, given a choice between democracy and whiteness, would choose the latter? And she wonders whether the country will adhere to majority rule if the majority looks different. January 6 was a partial answer.

All this is a continuing legacy of slavery, definitive in America’s story.

I see history as full of contingency — nothing is ever inevitable. While many other societies had slavery, plenty never did. Ours was a peculiarity of Southern agriculture and its plantation system. Yet agriculture was successfully conducted on different models in numerous other places over millennia without slavery. Why then did it take hold here? Contingency factors that might have played out differently. Maybe importing those first slaves in 1619 did prove decisive.

And without our slavery history, today’s America would look very different. Whatever Black population we’d have would have arrived by normal immigration. True, some immigrant groups, like Irish and Jews, suffered discrimination, but it lessened as they assimilated. That could well have happened with Black immigrants.

Instead, Black Americans still earn less on average than Whites, their wealth a small fraction. Why didn’t they rise as far as immigrant groups? Because discrimination loomed much larger. The South’s sharecropper system, which dominated for most years since the Civil War, was engineered to keep Blacks down. Educational opportunities were far more limited, and still are. Housing segregation. Disproportionate incarceration. Et cetera. Blacks have been racially disadvantaged in uncountable ways.

And why, exactly, have they in particular suffered such severe and long-lasting discrimination? The answer is again rooted in slavery. It necessitated belief in Black racial inferiority. Slaveholders weren’t fooled by their propaganda painting the system as benevolent. They knew its brutality. And they could stomach this, shirking guilt for crimes against humanity, only by convincing themselves the victims weren’t really human. Not as human as them, anyway.

There was, indeed, a vast effort to prove it scientifically. Many otherwise upstanding men of science spiraled down this rat hole, torturing evidence. Only later did proper science refute all notions of racial superiority or inferiority.

Yet they’re still a deeply entrenched socio-cultural legacy. Depicting Blacks as lazy, louche, lawless, etc., helped justify enslavement, and persists. Ill-treatment and discrimination make people appear degraded; living in poor conditions causes social pathologies. Treat people like dirt and they’ll look dirty, putting the negative stereotypes on a feedback loop. While whites fancy themselves superior. Of course such racialism is a familiar syndrome worldwide. But our slavery history surely gave it a uniquely powerful impetus. Still casting an ugly shadow upon America.

Lincoln spoke of “a new birth of freedom.” But the story isn’t over. Slavery may have planted a time bomb of race antagonism that will yet blow up our democracy.