Archive for August, 2022

“Riots in the Streets”

August 31, 2022

Senator Lindsay Graham, the on-again-off-again toady, foresees “riots in the streets” if Trump is prosecuted for stealing classified documents. Graham reflects a Republican party increasingly legitimizing, even romanticizing, political violence. Evoking South Africa 2021 — when corrupt ex-President Zuma was ordered jailed for defying court orders, and resulting riots killed at least 72, with massive property destruction.

We’ve been learning more about the importance of the documents Trump improperly took, how much that endangered national security, and hence the seriousness of his crime. If searching an ex-president’s home was “unprecedented,” so was the reason for it.

Why did he do it? Why not, as soon as an issue was raised, simply hand over everything? In fact he resisted and lied to government officials. It makes no sense. But the explanation has long been evident. Trump is insane. Literally, clinically, insane.

Judging from the crazed outcry at the mere search, Graham may be shamefully right about violence if Trump is actually prosecuted. Making a decision to do so epically fraught. But this criminal case against him would seem open-and-shut; the crimes are very serious; and if he isn’t held accountable, that would be a scandal. Showing Trump is indeed “above the law,” become a Death Star exerting a dark gravity that warps our whole civic justice system.

The Trumpian smear of the FBI includes alleging a “double standard” because Hillary Clinton was not prosecuted for her email issues.* That’s absurd whataboutism. In fact Hillary was thoroughly investigated, and no criminal offenses were found. Her exoneration doesn’t mean a different person, in a different case, should not be charged.

Yet his cultists (calling themselves patriots) will (like South Africa’s Zuma fans) defend him even unto violence. This is the us-against-them tribal war gone berserk. The eternal narrative is Trump as the (heroic) tribune of the people beset by evil elites determined to bring him down, by any means necessary. Graham said, “Most Republicans, including me, believe that when it comes to Trump, there is no law . . . It’s all about getting him.”

How many times have we gone through this? It might indeed seem “there is no law,” given Trump’s consistent history of evading it. How many criminal travesties must he commit before his followers will entertain the thought that maybe — just maybe — he might have actually done something rotten?

But no. That will never happen. Facts and realities and irrelevant. The deranged war must be fought to the bitter end. God help us.

* Double standard? The FBI publicized its investigation of Hillary, hurting her campaign, while keeping mum its investigation of Trump’s for Russia collusion.

Assholes — A Theory

August 28, 2022

“Well, he’s got the asshole vote,” I remarked to my wife early in 2016. “But are there enough assholes?”

Now I’ve read Aaron James’s book, Assholes — A Theory. Trump appears right on page 2. The book was written in 2012. (James has produced a sequel titled Assholes — A Theory of Donald Trump.)

Of course not all Trump voters are assholes. But they deify him regardless. That signals something disturbing in today’s America.

So what exactly is an “asshole?” My 2016 remark entailed a very general concept of obtuseness. James (a philosophy professor) is concerned with something more particular, defining it in terms of interpersonal relations: systematically arrogating special advantages to oneself, from an entrenched sense of entitlement, disregarding complaints of others.

A quintessential asshole utterance is “Do you know who I am?” Asserting status above ordinary peons.

James is talking about an enduring pattern of behavior, recognizing that even normal people lapse into it occasionally. Thus he excludes someone “better classified as a jerk, a boor, a cad, a schmuck, or a mere ass.” Yet he also inexplicably excludes “the ‘royal asshole,’ who is distinguished even among assholes.” These categorizations seem weird.

James uses male pronouns throughout, on the basis that assholes are generally men. He explores how males in particular are thusly acculturated, from early childhood. Indeed, he considers “asshole” a gendered word (like “bachelor” or “spinster”). With a different word applicable to females: “bitch.”

Yet curiously, the book is short on etymology. I would note that “ass,” importantly, references an animal (donkey) considered to exemplify dumbness, as well as human anatomy, whereas “asshole” refers exclusively to the latter. James does associate it with “a foul stench,” and “a part of the body we hide in public . . . that many people feel alienated from and perhaps wish wasn’t there.”

His take on the subject is fundamentally moralistic. Assholes are morally repugnant, in failure (or refusal) to operate according to the most basic social precept: recognizing everyone’s human equality. That doesn’t mean we’re all alike. But the asshole puts himself before others in a way that doesn’t accept their right to any consideration at all from him. (White supremacist racism is a special subclass of this.)

I’ve written in this vein myself, under the rubric of “arrogance,” deeming that the ultimate sin underlying every moral violation. The unjustified privileging of oneself above others.

A related concept is narcissism. Now, we are all narcissists, to a degree; we all have egos. It’s a fundamental psychological reality that for each individual, the most important person on Earth is themself. And a certain degree of self-love is essential to a healthy psychology. But the degree is crucial. When it trumps other people’s right to recognition of their proper self-concern, that makes an asshole.

James invokes Rousseau’s distinction between a person’s natural sense of self-worth (amour de soi-même) and a “potentially destructive concern for rank or status as compared to others (amour propre).” Rousseau said healthy self-love does not require feeling superior to anyone; we can recognize mutual needs for status recognition while still considering everyone basically equal. But the asshole, says James, “won’t settle for mere equality.”

He posits that unlike “the psychopath, who either lacks or fails to engage moral concepts, and who sees people as so many objects in the world to be manipulated at will,” the asshole is morally motivated, in deeming his behavior justified, and being resentful or indignant when his claimed entitlements are not respected (“treated very very unfairly”). This distinction too eludes me; assholes and psychopaths fall along a spectrum, it’s only a matter of degree in privileging oneself above others (which again every normal human does, to some degree).

And while James works from the standpoint that assholes, believing they’re entitled to behave as they do, are thus acting according to a moral concept, albeit a mistaken one, I think this perspective is itself mistaken. Assholes need notconsider themselves morally entitled. Morality mostly does not enter the picture for them. Rather, it’s solipsism, acting as they do simply because it suits them, serving their own felt needs and wants, which requires no further justification. That is the essence of assholery.

James suggests its proliferation might be explained by “the near plague of narcissism in our culture.” Through most of human history, almost everyone was treated like dirt, making humility the norm; its reversal a largely positive development. But perhaps we’ve overcompensated, giving too many people an exaggerated sense of themselves. It’s one thing to have a world where everyone feels their human dignity respected; another where everyone thinks he’s king. (Trump an extreme case.)

Yet on the other hand, my own positive outlook is grounded in lifelong observation seeing most people as basically virtuous. I’ve actually encountered relatively few proper assholes. Maybe this testifies to my discernment in associations. Or maybe modern life has not corrupted us that much after all.

A chapter titled “Naming Names” does so. Yet much here just vents the author’s personal animus, without in fact fitting his own “asshole” definition. Certainly Richard Dawkins does not (his The God Delusion deemed an “asshole title”). And James blasts French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy for calling the “lynching” of Libya’s Gaddhafi “revolting,” after having advocated his armed ouster. I guess that means I’m no asshole since I wrote a poem celebrating the episode.* But Lévy’s alternate view is defensible. Perhaps James is the asshole here.

Many pages explore whether assholes are blameworthy for their behavior, or it’s outside their control. This is the eternal question of free will. James calls it “freedom of will” and, strangely for a philosophy professor, doesn’t reference much of modern philosophizing (or neuroscience) relevant here. He seems to go around in circles on the subject. Getting tangled in the question of whether an asshole can reform; suggesting that maybe it’s like alcoholism, the person can restrain their behavior, but would still remain an asshole inside. His conclusory line here: “They are to blame simply because they think like an asshole, whether or not they will, or even can, ever change.” Thought crime?!

I’d answer the problem this way: people may not be able to control their personality, but behavior is always within one’s control. Good people squelch their worst impulses. Assholes do not.

* Read it here:

“Evil Geniuses – The Unmaking of America – A Recent History”

August 24, 2022

Kurt Andersen’s 2020 book is about “political economy.” He argues that ours went from being basically fair to unfair, the turning point around 1980. Achieved by his title’s “evil geniuses,” the rich and corporations working with right-wing political forces.

I previously reviewed Andersen’s excellent 2017 book, Fantasyland,* chronicling America’s descent out of reality-based epistemology. His new book is a polemic, history with attitude. For most of the time in question, I was politically on the side he castigates. Yet I actually agree with much in this book — today’s “conservatism” having betrayed the principles I’d embraced. However, I think Andersen’s argument goes way overboard. And the book is maddeningly tendentious and bloated. I got tired of shameless brazen repetition of words like “shameless brazen greed.”

Andersen’s tale really starts in the 1960s, with the counterculture abhorred and producing a backlash, which right-wing politicians and ideologues, in cahoots with business interests and the rich, exploited to get their hands on levers of power, which they utilized to pick apart the old New Deal political economy. The details of the culture clash have metamorphosed over time, but the basic story continues — if it’s not anti-war hippie drugheads demonized, it’s welfare moochers, or sexual deviants, or non-whites, or immigrants, and so on.

The “evil geniuses” pursued their agenda in three key ways: gutting labor union power; reducing regulation; and cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. Andersen sees this as wrecking our past social contract with a rising tide lifting all boats — now most boats are stuck in the mud while the yachts of the rich speed ahead. Inequality widens. Andersen thinks we’ve actually turned the clock back, beyond the New Deal, to the “Gilded Age” of “robber barons.”

A key villain of his is economist Milton Friedman, who posited that a corporation’s sole obligation is to seek profits for its shareholder owners, which Anderson says green-lighted that “shameless brazen greed.” I understand Friedman to have been arguing that society is actually best served when businesses stick to their knitting, producing what people want to buy, while leaving other concerns more properly to the political sphere.

More generally I’m dubious of Andersen’s notion that there were villains and villainies behind everything that happened. Some of it, yes, but far from all. It’s an ancient human proclivity to see all phenomena as caused by conscious agents — that’s how we got cosmologies populated by gods. Yet much of the time, it’s instead that “stuff happens,” for reasons other than intentional calculated action. For example, a big part of Andersen’s story concerns globalization and the “hollowing out” of America’s industrial job picture. As if his “evil geniuses” contrived that just to enrich themselves. Instead it happened inexorably due to fundamental tectonic economic and geopolitical forces, as well as technological developments.

Which Andersen worries will continue gathering force, with AI and robots eliminating more and more jobs for humans. That actually makes us collectively richer. Our key challenge, as Keynes foresaw back in 1930, is how to enable the mass of people to enjoy the fruits of that wealth. And for all Andersen’s lamentations, the fact is — as he acknowledges, sort of — we haven’t done badly on that score. While the rich have gotten a lot richer, the poor have not gotten poorer (globally they’ve advanced tremendously). And if the middle class has been shrinking, it’s a case of more people rising into the ranks of the reasonably affluent than falling into penury.

I was reminded of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas — which I read while on a cruise filled with very average Americans — and reviewed critically in 2010.** Frank was suffering from the frustration of liberals baffled by what they saw as so many people voting against their economic interests (that is, for Republicans). I saw it as people understandably voting their values rather than their mercenary interests. (Ironically, it’s Democrats who decry “money being everything.”)

But then the “values” actually represented by the GOP went haywire. Andersen’s book details much polling data suggesting that when it comes to specific questions, both the values and economic concerns of strong U.S. voting majorities now align more with Democrats. We saw this vividly when 60% voted this year to safeguard abortion rights — in Kansas, of all places.

Yet Kansans also keep voting for Republican politicians who oppose abortion rights and a lot of other things those voters actually favor. Why? The ensorcelment Republicans managed to put across in past decades, with cultural tribalism and demonizing Democrats, is still working. So those voters have their heads up their behinds.

Andersen professes some hope those heads can be extricated. Well, it wouldn’t do to have a completely dark book. Whereas he thinks Democrats have played patsy to his “evil geniuses,” he does consider it possible they’ll get their act together to capitalize on all the ways Republicans are actually screwing most voters and what those voters truly want. Especially as older ones die off.

This assumes evil genius Republicans don’t succeed in their effort to overthrow democracy.



Soccer Life Lessons

August 22, 2022

I am the least sports-minded person on Earth, but here’s a thing I can confidently say most soccer champs do wrong.

You’re about to take a penalty kick. The goalie is positioned center. You know they’ll almost always lunge left or right — because penalty kickers almost always aim for a corner. So your chances of guessing the correct corner are around 50-50. But your chance of scoring is lower because kicking to a corner risks missing the goal entirely. Not so if you kick to the center — where, again, the goalie rarely stays. So a kick to the center is more likely to score.

But soccer players almost never do that. Why?

This is discussed in Think Like a Freak, a 2014 book by Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner.

The answer is that if you kick to the center, in the rare case where the goalie stays there and hence easily blocks your kick, you’ll look ridiculous. That potential humiliation, however unlikely, outweighs the cheers you’d get by scoring. Better to accept lower odds of scoring than to risk embarrassment.

Keen sports analyst that I am, I’ve also written about something basketball players do wrong — with a similar dynamic operating. Statistics prove that free throws done underhand more likely score than overhead throws. But players never throw underhand. Because they think it looks sissy. I commented that Vince Lombardi was wrong: winning isn’t everything.

The authors use the soccer point as a lead-in to a larger one: people’s reluctance to ever say, “I don’t know.” We’d rather answer a question wrong than confess ignorance. Because we feel the latter would make us look worse.

Reading about this made me wince to recall a personal instance over 50 years ago. I was a new PSC lawyer assigned as sidekick to a senior guy on a big telephone company rate proceeding. Given little to do, I mostly slept through the arcane hearings. Then the case was slated for oral argument before the full commission. And who was handed that gig?

So I plunged into a crash course on the issues. I did manage to get through the grueling session — pretty well. Except at one point, a commissioner asked a yes-or-no question. I didn’t know the answer, but unwilling to say so, I simply guessed. Of course I guessed wrong.

This didn’t go unnoticed. Our staff experts, in the room, went into action. We duly produced a formal letter to the Commission correcting my blooper. Far more embarrassing than if I’d just said, “I don’t know, we’ll get back to you on that.”

So I learned a good lesson there. It wasn’t the only mistake I’ve ever made, but I do try to learn from them, and cumulatively improve. I figure I should have this thing called “life” down pat in about thirty more years.

But people do commonly pretend knowledge they don’t actually possess. The likelihood of being outed, with its attendant ego crusher, may seem smaller than for the hit confessing ignorance would entail. And reluctance to say “I don’t know” is not just shame avoidance. Often people actually don’t know they don’t know; ignorance would affront their own sense of themselves. So in lying about an answer, they’re lying to themselves. The Dunning-Kruger effect says deficient cognitive ability causes people to not realize their cognitive abilities are deficient.

Liz Cheney at the Alamo

August 19, 2022

Liz Cheney’s politics are orthodox conservative. She believes in the Constitution, democracy, rule of law, and truth. But unlike almost every other Republican today, she really believes in those things, and understands their meaning. She’s courageously put herself on the line for them. Liz Cheney is one of the best people, perhaps the very best, still in the GOP.

Losing her primary for renomination to her Wyoming congressional seat —by a landslide — though shocking was predictable. She’d previously been purged from the House GOP’s third ranking post, and censured by the state party. Trump wanted her scalp. Because she’d voted for his impeachment after January 6, and has exercised incisive leadership on the committee investigating that plot and bringing out the facts.

History will record this primary as a seminal signifying milestone on America’s road to perdition. Wyoming voters chose the liar over the truth teller. The monster over the hero. Grendel over Beowulf.

“She may have been fighting for principles,” said Trump adviser Taylor Budowich. “But they are not the principles of the Republican party.”

Indeed. There’s a meme now metastasizing among Republicans that democracy is a menace, and voting should not be allowed to give power to people they don’t like.

That’s why they’re fine with it’s having been Trump, not Democrats, who actually tried to steal the last election. The lie that Democrats stole it is just a cover story. Cheney is hated for calling that out too. And for all the Republican “election integrity” claptrap, they themselves are the ones who’ve committed most vote fraud. In New York, Republicans submitted 11,000 fake signatures trying to get another ballot line for their gubernatorial candidate — Lee Zeldin, who in Congress voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election.

Some anti-Trumpers, like Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (the January 6 committee’s other Republican), did not seek re-election, considering it hopeless. That’s understandable, though they might have stood and fought for their beliefs. If you lose, that’s an honorable loss. One going down that road was Michigan’s Rep. Peter Meijer, who lost his primary to a Trump election denier — thanks in part to ads run by Democrats to boost Meijer’s rival — who they thought would be easier to beat in November.

A wild card Democrats have disgracefully played elsewhere. If they believe Trumpers endanger America, there’s no excuse, however Machiavellian, for helping such candidates get nominated. Be careful what you wish for.

Liz Cheney too did not flinch from running for re-election. She had the balls to make her stand, to go down fighting for what’s right, rather than surrender to the madness.

She’s a special kind of American hero. Think of the Alamo.

Trumpers’ Heroic Persecution Fantasy

August 16, 2022

Trump cultists’ rabid reaction to the FBI search warrant is revealing. They don’t just see him under threat; they see themselves under threat. Columnist Paul Waldman quotes a tweet by House Judiciary Committee Republicans:

“The IRS is coming for you. The DOJ is coming for you. The FBI is coming for you. No one is safe from political punishment in Joe Biden’s America.”

But if this scares them,”They glory in it,” writes Waldman. Fancying themselves “sympathetic victims, the encircled defenders of justice, oppressed but unbowed. This fantasy of persecution is so powerful because it turns [their Trump fixation] into something dramatic, even heroic . . . You’re a freedom fighter waging war against forces of darkness to secure liberty’s future.” And every rotten thing Trump did, he did for you.

How did we get here? Waldman details how, for example, Trump promised relief for coal country’s economic collapse, but never delivered (natch). Yet still the victims latched onto him as speaking for them like no one ever had. And mainly against those Americans viewed as disdaining them, and despised by them. These feelings of cultural alienation and grievance propelled Trumpism into becoming essential to their sense of identity — to the point where he’s a Jesus-like personal savior.

They fetishize the word “freedom.” The right to own guns become a central totem of this religion. And the nonsense that Biden and Democrats are installing a Marxist tyranny, “destroying America and its liberty.”* Of course what’s really central to American freedom is democracy — which it’s Magadom that truly threatens. Yet they hallucinate that an attempted coup based on lies and fraud (like fake electors), to overthrow a legitimate election, with a violent assault on the Capitol, was somehow a defense of liberty.

The FBI’s own past was not unblemished; but it (and the DOJ) surely knew what intense blowback the search would trigger, and would not have proceeded absent very firm grounds. Trump has lied that he declassified the documents at issue; that Obama committed the same crime; and even that the FBI planted evidence. The fury-fit unleashed against the FBI feeds right-wing paranoia seeing our basic societal institutions as one big nefarious conspiracy. Trump, who’s corrupted everything he’s ever touched, has systematically blown up trust in those institutions: the news media, the intelligence services, the Supreme Court, our election systems. And now law enforcement. All just terrible for America.

Any whiff of criminality would be terrible for a candidate, in normal sane politics. Yet David Brooks thinks the FBI search may boost Trump’s 2024 chances. Whereas there’d been signs of GOP readiness to move on, now the party’s rallied around him. He is, The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist writes, “the black hole at the center of [our] politics” — indeed, his “power to warp reality is so great that enforcing the law against him may actually help wreck the republic.”

Given the firestorm at the mere evidence search, imagine if Trump, while running for president or already nominated, is actually charged with crimes and put on trial. Even without that element, his losing in 2024 would send millions of his backers into deranged fury. Can American democracy, and rule of law, survive it?

* Remember, I’m an old Goldwater conservative saying it’s nonsense.

The Last Rose of Shanghai

August 13, 2022

Shanghai, 1940. The Japanese have ravaged through much of China; they’re in Shanghai, but don’t (yet) control its international settlement. Wherein a top nightclub is owned and operated by Aiyi — a 20-year-old girl — of course impossibly beautiful too.


This is Weina Dai Randel’s 2021 novel, The Last Rose of Shanghai.

Aiyi, we learn, is a daughter of one of China’s richest and most powerful families. They were, at least, until the Japs arrived, confiscating most of their assets. (We’re not supposed to say “Japs,” but in this context that’s being if anything gentle.)

Somehow Aiyi scraped together the financing to buy the club. For a teenaged girl doing that, I suspended disbelief. Not for the first time in this tumultuous melodrama.

Comes now Ernest Reismann, a 19-year-old Jewish refugee from Berlin. (Should be “Ernst?” But never mind.) Also impossibly handsome; arriving in Shanghai penniless. Desperately seeking a job, any job, without success; Shanghai is awash with refugees. But a sequence of chance encounters finally lands him a gig playing piano in Aiyi’s club. Turns out he’s fantastic — soon famous. Why hadn’t he looked for a pianist job in the first place? Well, never mind.

Of course Ernest and Aiyi fall in love. But she’s engaged to her cousin Cheng, a long-arranged family match. She doesn’t exactly hate Cheng, who isn’t exactly hateful — but never mind.

Meantime, the Japs are an increasingly looming menace. Shanghai’s elites party on regardless. I’m saying to myself: Aiyi, blow off your stifling insufferable family, blow off Cheng, sell the club for what you can still get (a goodly sum, apparently) and skedaddle with Ernest.

Happily ever after? Would have been a different (less interesting) book. We do know Aiyi will survive and prosper; we actually first meet her in 1980 as a billionaire, in Shanghai. Albeit missing a foot.

But back to 1940 . . . now 1941 . . . things get darker. A monster Jap officer (wrongly) thinks Ernest shot a soldier and threatens to seize Aiyi’s club if she doesn’t turn him in. He’s now tinkling the keys in a different club (as if the Japs couldn’t find him there).

At last he asks her to flee with him to Hong Kong three days hence. And she agrees! But meantime the Japs return to her club and shoot it up. She barely escapes unhurt. The club is closed by Jap order. Get the frick outta there NOW, I’m saying.

But Aiyi tells herself her involvement with “the foreigner” is the source of all her troubles. She changes her mind about leaving with him.

Aiiiyiiii . . . .

This is not even halfway through the novel. I’m shaking my head trying to imagine the next half. Well, I’ve written enough spoilers already.

But the book does conform to Robinson’s Iron Law of Capital Punishment in fiction and other arts. Writers and artistes may hold right-thinking enlightened views opposing the death penalty. Yet something deep in the human psyche insists that sometimes justice demands the ultimate punishment. And when fictional villains cross a certain line of heinousness, capital punishment becomes mandatory. So too here, with that nasty Jap officer. Once he’d wantonly killed a second major character, I knew he wouldn’t get out of the novel alive.

Alas, his comeuppance was not especially gruesome — just shooting. Though the novel does note his face blown off.

The Mar-a-Lago Search — Republican Hypocrisy Incandescent

August 11, 2022

Trumpworld is foaming at the mouth in paroxysms of outrage over the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search, screeching that it’s an improper “weaponizing” of government against a political adversary; “banana republic” stuff; another witch-hunt; the worst thing ever done; blah blah blah.

Anything to avoid their heads exploding at the idea their oh-so-innocent god may be guilty of wrongdoing. (Trump, required to testify in New York this week, pleaded the Fifth Amendment in refusing to answer any questions. He’d previously said anyone who takes the Fifth must be hiding something.)

A little history:

In 2016 Hillary Clinton was already running for president when the FBI investigated her email practices. Director Comey made that public, in announcing the decision not to prosecute. Republicans then had no problems with lawmen investigating a candidate.

In fact, even though that investigation exonerated Clinton, that did not stop Republicans, Trump included, from chanting “Lock her up!” He also said in a debate that she should not even be allowed to run.

Note that while the FBI did publicly reveal its Clinton investigation — and moreover announced reopening it (on dubious grounds) shortly before the election — probably sinking her candidacy — it never revealed, before the election, its also investigating Trump’s campaign, for collusion with Russian election interference (which revelation would have sunk his chances).

Yet that did not stop Republicans claiming improper FBI bias against Trump.

Clinton was investigated (on probable cause) because she was not above the law. Likewise Trump — then, and now. His defenders aren’t actually asserting his innocence — they seem to be saying an FBI raid on his property could never be proper, regardless of any crime he committed. This Mar-a-Lago search had to be approved at the highest levels of Justice Department professionals, the (Trump-appointed) FBI director, and then also by a federal judge. This would not have occurred without ample legitimate cause. Especially since all concerned were surely mindful of the potential repercussions.

How curious that Trumpers idolize law enforcement — except when it’s enforced against them. So much for their “law and order” sloganeering. Some who made such political hay over “Defund the Police” now shout “Defund the FBI!” (And of course their law enforcement infatuation took a time-out when it came to January 6.)

The Mar-a-Lago search apparently concerned theft of White House documents, rather than Trump’s far graver crime of conspiracy to overthrow the government. Incontrovertible evidence for which has been revealed by the January 6 Committee’s investigation. How curious that Trumpers who otherwise never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t love shut their eyes to his lollapalooza conspiracy staring us in the face.

David McCullough 1933-2022

August 9, 2022

David McCullough was a great American. Just weeks ago I read his little 2017 book, The American Spirit – Who We Are and What We Stand For. I did so because I felt in need of a booster shot. McCullough was indeed an eloquent explicator of what this country is all about, mirroring my own sensibility. But while that book gave me the sought uplift, I also read it with a painful cognizance of what’s been lost.

I heard McCullough interviewed before the 2016 election. He was, of course, wholly clear-eyed about the choice and what it meant. Pity the nation didn’t heed him.

I also happened to read recently his Brave Companions, a collection of biographical essays, personal portraits, and the like. Here again, McCullough had such a great feel for the human spirit. For the grand endeavor that I think of as “the human project,” that history is about.

His Truman biography was magnificent. Once again embodying McCullough’s soaring feel for the ideals America represents. Before reading it, while I already had much factual knowledge about Truman and his role in political history, I didn’t really have a sense of the man. I came away from the book with a deep appreciation of what a virtuous human being Truman was.* Not just a politician; a public servant in the truest sense of those words.

Another president, who shared the first four letters of his name, bore no other resemblance.

John Adams also shined in McCullough’s treatment; fortunate to have gotten it, for his place in history. Making a particular impression on me was McCullough’s vivid chronicling of Adams’s travels — and their travails. Hammering home just how difficult, slow, and perilous traveling was in those times. After reading that book, sometimes on an airplane I amuse myself by imagining John Adams resurrected beside me to be flabbergasted at our speed and ease of travel!

The world, today, without David McCullough in it, is a little less wonderful.

* When I was a kid, having written a really jejune political novel, I had the cheek to actually send Truman a letter, asking him to provide an introduction! He answered, declining, but most graciously. (I mainly wanted that for my autograph collection.)

The Ignorance Epidemic

August 6, 2022

Keenya Oliver Bemis, who teaches high school biology in Schenectady, gave a talk to my local humanist group based on Natalie Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap – The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – And How to Fix It. The main idea is that kids don’t know nothin’.

For a long time it was thought that education shouldn’t be about stuffing them with facts, but rather instilling thinking and comprehension skills. Which does sound good. So we get reading lessons presenting some text and asking students to identify its main idea. But the problem is that that requires a certain amount of foundational background knowledge. Which a lot of kids today woefully lack. So the thinking and comprehension lessons fail.

Bemis illustrated the problem by presenting some verbiage about baseball that most Americans would grasp, but not Brits. In contrast, a passage about cricket would baffle most Americans.

She invoked the “Matthew Effect” named for the Biblical snippet saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In education, this means that kids coming in with a good stock of basic knowledge find it easier to absorb further knowledge; whereas those starting out behind fall further behind.

Another concept here is “chunking,” which refers to seeing information in a meaningful context, fitting bits and pieces into a whole picture. That puts less strain on working memory, thus again freeing up brain resources to absorb additional knowledge. But “chunking” requires some knowledge in the first place.

In all these regards, it’s disadvantaged kids whose disadvantage is compounded. They tend to get a lot less basic knowledge in the home environment than do more affluent brats; they rely more on school for it. But (in addition to all the many ways schools don’t serve disadvantaged kids well) they don’t get it in school either, with prevailing educational theories again focusing on trying to develop broad skills like critical thinking and comprehension rather than factual knowledge. Indeed, pedagogy in subjects like social studies and science is being cut back in favor of more reading instruction. Which is nevertheless failing — because the kids lack necessary foundational knowledge. A chicken and egg thing.

Of course this begs the question of what’s to be considered foundational knowledge — and how that gets decided.

But Bemis repeatedly expressed shock and dismay at what very basic stuff her own high schoolers don’t know. Like geography — understanding a map. Is Australia a “city?” How to use a ruler. How to round numbers and use decimals. What an atom is. What the heart does. What gas we breathe.

She posited that kids actually do better, and engage more, with content-rich lessons, as opposed to abstraction-filled ones of the “what is the main idea” sort. And writing is a useful tool, forcing the recollection of information, to help retain knowledge and build long term memory. I think there must actually be a “happy medium” wherein raw factual injections are balanced with at least some attention to more abstract realms of critical thinking and comprehension.

This is part of a larger problem. We’re becoming a nation of ignorami. It’s long been clear we’re in an epistemology crisis — too many people just don’t even understand what makes information information, as to opposed to being crap. When someone says they’re doing their own “research,” it often means shunning sound information in favor of crap. Indeed, in today’s world, getting the straight dope is not actually hard, if you have a minimum of common sense about it. You really have to go out of your way to get the nonsense. Yet that’s what many people do.

This — and the kind of basic ignorance Bemis observed — makes it impossible to sustain our civic culture of pluralistic democracy. When people don’t know what Australia, or an atom is, it’s not surprising they don’t know Trump is a monster.