Archive for October, 2022

The Pelosi Attack

October 31, 2022

Okay, one swallow does not a summer make, nor one nutjob’s violence a holocaust. But it’s one more signpost on our downward road.

David DePape was a Trumpian conspiracy drivel blogger. In the wee hours he smashed a glass door at Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home — she was away — and attacked her husband, 82, with a hammer, breaking his skull. Shouting “Where is Nancy?” — eerily echoing the January 6 rioters. Whom DePape had defended online.

Numerous Republican officials came out saying such violence is unacceptable, but . . . . Always with a snarky “but.” Like Virginia Governor Youngkin’s “but we’re going to send her back to be with him in California.”

Ha ha. Cute.

Recalling Kevin McCarthy’s having said he looks forward to getting the Speaker’s gavel from Pelosi, but would have to restrain himself from hitting her with it.

Ha ha.

In the MAGAsphere, political violence is not only no longer unthinkable, it is very thinkable indeed. Romanticized even. Pro forma denunciations of it are disingenuous. The Pelosi attack is only the latest harbinger. Men have been convicted of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor. Death threats against non-MAGA officials proliferate. Election workers, and school board members, are targeted and intimidated. Armed men have been “guarding” ballot drop boxes and will be Election Day “poll watchers.” Lindsay Graham threatened riots in the streets if Trump is ever brought to justice for his crimes. People died in the attack on the Capitol.

The crazy left is not guiltless. But the vastly greater problem is MAGA madness. And yet, otherwise sane people will vote to empower them.

No pious statements opposing violence (especially with winks) will move us back from this cliff’s edge. It seems nobody in today’s America can be persuaded of anything. Republican Congressman Steve Scalise’s opposition to gun control didn’t budge even when he himself was badly injured in a mass shooting.

The only way to restore sanity is if all MAGA Republicans are rounded up and shot.

Right Track, Wrong Track: I Lied

October 29, 2022


I lied, to a pollster. Asked the iconic “right track/wrong track” question, I said America is on the right track. Because my truthful answer would redound against the Biden administration — thereby speeding us further down the wrong track.

Which we’ve been on since November 8, 2016. I’d hoped Biden’s election would turn us around, but that’s proven just a brief detour. It’s not Biden’s fault. He’s done plenty trying to get us back on track. Criticism in that regard is just mindlessly partisan.

Look, while he’s racked up what are some remarkable achievements, I’m no great fan. The Afghan pullout was a shameful blunder. His handling of the border is feckless; I feel he’s broken a personal promise to me concerning refugees. Yet I still strongly support him, because the alternative is unthinkable.

A majority of voters do believe we’re on the wrong track, but for different reasons. Many of those negativists are Trump cultists who swallow his absurdities about Democrats imposing socialist tyranny, promoting crime, and otherwise deliberately destroying America. (Wouldn’t they have done it by now?) Nevertheless, even sensible people have understandable reasons for dissatisfaction with the state of things. Like inflation of course.

But even if you think Democrats are doing a lousy job, is it plausible that Republicans will do better? Of course they have no plan to cure inflation. Worse yet is their scare campaign about crime — while they themselves hypocritically block any gun regulation, a huge cause of our epidemic of gun crime.

Yet many voters do trust Republicans more on issues like crime and inflation. When in fact those are just Republican camouflage, misdirection. Exploited as a means to an end. What it’s really all about for them is getting power for the sake of their white nationalism.


Say what you will about Democrat policies, that party consists of sincere people working in good faith to address our problems. Republicans have proven their bad faith, dishonest to the core. Democrats believe in democracy; Republicans do not. These things are fundamental, superseding concerns of the moment like inflation or crime.

It’s all exemplified by the big lie of a “stolen” 2020 election, which most Republicans continue to push, and the violent attempt to overthrow that election, which they refuse to accept happened at the behest of their Dear Leader. While actively working toward a repeat in 2024.

Take Arizona GOP Gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake. Denouncing the 2020 election result as “fraudulent, corrupt, crooked” is a centerpiece of her campaign. Never mind her party commissioning a huge audit of the Arizona ballots, which not only confirmed Biden’s win, but found his vote was undercounted. Yet Lake says as governor she would have refused to certify the result — and will refuse to certify the 2024 result if she doesn’t agree with it. A slew of other GOP candidates across the country are like that.


Does this scare your pants off? How can Republicans be trusted on anything?

I’ve studied politics for a lifetime. What I’d thought I understood was blown up in 2016. Yet still I really expected Republicans would pay an electoral price for January 6 (like after Watergate). Especially after the House Committee’s damning revelations. Wrong again. I was too optimistic, insufficiently cynical. Republicans are not punished — if anything, rewarded. Our electorate, as a whole, is supinely complacent about the attempted putsch — and the coming one.


This is why America is speeding down the wrong track.

Ukraine: Russia’s Dirty Bomb Warning

October 26, 2022

Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has warned that Ukraine will use a “dirty bomb.” That’s a conventional explosive that spews radioactive contamination. And Russia has insisted on a UN session to address this alleged threat.

Ukraine’s allies have denounced it as a preposterous lie. Yet it is very scary — because it warns of dirty bomb use by Russia. Laying the groundwork for doing it while claiming it was the other side. A standard Russian ploy called “mirroring.” (Like Trump trying to steal the election while screaming that Democrats were stealing it.)

Unleashing a dirty bomb might seem a crazy thing to do. As with Russia’s invasion in the first place. A dirty bomb’s military impacts would actually be minimal, possibly even negative for Russia, limiting its own troops’ scope of operations. We’re told they’re already being outfitted with anti-radiation gear (which if true would raise the likelihood of a dirty bomb attack). So for dubious military advantage, Russia would be paying hugely in international opprobrium. And couldn’t seriously expect anyone to believe Ukraine responsible.

However, none of that is the point. To the contrary, what is the point is the action’s craziness itself. Blaming Ukraine is intended to be disbelieved, to show us what a badass we’re up against. Like in a game of chicken, where you try to make the other guy blink, by convincing him you’re crazier than he is.

As if we still needed convincing. But it won’t work. From the outset Putin calculated that a blitzkrieg would cause Ukrainians to just fecklessly fold. Instead it stiffened their resolve — newly instilling a national sense of purpose far beyond what existed before.

It was also, from the outset, a war of sadism. To inflict so much pain that Ukrainians couldn’t stand it. That, rather than any actual military objectives, guided so much of Russia’s actions; aimed less at Ukraine’s army than at the civilian population. Especially with a conventional military victory for Russia looking increasingly impossible. Hence now its effort to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, to give its people a freezing winter. Here too Putin’s cynical view of human nature misled him; with no idea how strong and resilient people can actually be, when put to the severest test.

Those who think he’s bluffing about using nukes should ponder the “crazier than you” model. He’s pointedly said that the nuclear weapons taboo was already broken, by America, in 1945. Though more correctly it was 1945 that cemented the never-again taboo, that held ever after. Until now.

A “crazier than” strategy’s logic can require you to actually do the crazy thing. A dirty bomb may not technically be a “nuclear weapon;” but that in fact heightens the danger of Russia using it. Because besides denying responsibility, Putin can also deny it breaks the taboo. Even while it certainly, at least, would be the most concrete step toward breaking it since 1945. The hymen would no longer be intact.

Meantime — Republicans have signaled that their Congressional control after this election will mean blocking further U.S. support for Ukraine. I’d call that a “dirty bomb” too.

Chinese Exceptionalism: the Mandate of Heaven, and Political Legitimacy

October 23, 2022

Xi Jinping has started a third term as China’s ruler.

Not “elected.” While democracy has achieved such moral cachet that even the worst dictators (like Putin) pretend to hold “elections,” China remains a notable exception. And, as Francis Fukuyama stresses in his book The Origins of Political Order, although rule of law generally circumscribed even Europe’s most powerful past monarchs, that was never true in China, whose Emperors reigned with no constraint.

Mao too ruled as an essentially unrestrained autocrat. The bloody “Cultural Revolution” (1966-76) was his final effort to crush all opposition. After Mao’s excesses, Deng Xiaoping did establish at least an orderly system, with leaders emerging from the Communist party’s highest echelon, accountable to it, and limited to two five-year terms. This held until Xi Jinping came along. And the third term decision was not collective; no Chinese functionary can oppose Xi without the direst consequences. He too now rules without constraint. (Also contrary to post-Mao practice, no next-in-line has even been named.)

China does have a written constitution, which means nothing. The Communist party actually rejects “constitutionalism” as a wicked Western idea, and conceives itself as the supreme authority. (And today, for “party,” read “Xi.”)

And what confers such authority? Western monarchs invoked “the divine right of kings,” claiming their power came from God. (In truth, it was one guy muscling out rivals.) China’s similar concept, from BC times, has always been “the mandate of Heaven.” Another mystical source for political legitimacy. But note that China never had traditional religions akin to ours with supernatural powers. So “Heaven” does not equate to God. Fukuyama translates “the mandate of Heaven” as invoking “the grand order of things.” Thus, a ruler’s ruling by that mandate means it’s just the way things ought to be. Confirmed by the very fact of rulership. Once you’ve got it.

A tautological post-hoc rationalization for power, not a legitimate source for it. We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.

Mao more candidly theorized that “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Most Chinese emperors inherited the “mandate of Heaven” from their fathers; but periodically a dynasty was overthrown, typically by violence and upheaval, the next ruler fighting his way to the throne. Another route to the mandate. Xi got there by political infighting, but it wasn’t exactly nonviolent — numerous rivals wound up in prison.

It may seem odd that China never developed in a rule-of-law direction, or with governmental accountability, since as Fukuyama also details, China was actually the first country to build an otherwise recognizably modern state, with a rational, functionally organized administrative system, not kinship-based, thousands of years ago. But Fukuyama suggests that the lateness of Western state building, compared to China’s, actually explains the subsequent political liberty: “precocious state building [like China’s] in the absence of rule of law and accountability simply means that states can tyrannize their populations more effectively. Every advance in material well-being and technology implies, in the hands of an unchecked state, a greater ability to control society and to use it for the state’s own purposes.” Thus China’s history of extreme repression.

Another key concept in Fukuyama’s book is that democracy and accountability took hold only where major power loci in a society were roughly in balance, none able to dominate, forcing them to accommodate each other. So perhaps one reason for democracy’s recent retreat is the ability of one power — generally, a strongman and his gang getting control of state apparatus — to dominate after all, trumping the claims of rival groups. (Republicans aim for this.) China has never had a coherently organized societal power locus outside of the state (like, for example, the Church in the West), to challenge its pre-emptive control.*

This may explain Xi’s recent assault on the tech sector, and titans like Jack Ma, knocking them down a few notches. It seemed like economic self-harm for China. But it forestalls any challenge to Xi’s power from that quarter.

One thing I’ve learned from history is that nothing is ever inevitable. Always dependent upon the decisions and choices humans make. Many millions who work as cogs in China’s crushing party machine do it with zeal, believing it a Very Good Thing. Some may realize it’s not, but support it to survive and feather their own nests. The world is full of such.

In fairness, the “mandate” actually claimed by China’s Communist party is this deal with the populace: you let us rule, and we give you stability and prosperity. Maybe understandable given China’s ghastly history in those regards.

And the party has delivered. It’s also true that rulership accountable to no one but itself can often get things done more efficiently (ruthlessly) than “messy” democracy.** Yet “Man does not live by bread alone;” freedom and democracy are valued by people too, as integral to quality of life. And the Chinese are paying, for what the regime gives them, a very high price in freedom.

Just how high a price received a bone-chilling look in a July essay in The Economist about Hong Kong repression (“Anatomy of an Erasure”). And is it a price Chinese must necessarily pay for their stability and prosperity? Those are provided abundantly in most Western societies without sacrificing freedom and democracy. Indeed, the latter have a high correlation with stability and economic strength.

Surely the Western model offers citizens a far better deal. But China’s people are not given the choice.

* Note too that European kings would sometimes side with an emerging bourgeoisie against aristocrats, seeing the latter as greater threats to their power; thus too promoting rule of law development.

** Though Xi’s extreme “zero Covid” policy (like his tech bashing) is a huge economic detriment, with widespread lockdowns. China could get out of that box with a big vaccination push, but Xi refuses.

Max Boot on Trump Derangement Syndrome

October 19, 2022

“Trump derangement syndrome” is invoked by his fans gleeful at his driving opponents nuts. Of course, those opponents are entirely rational; it’s Trumpers themselves who are deranged.

Max Boot is a writer and pundit, a public intellectual. His 2018 book — The Corrosion of Conservatism — Why I Left the Right — mirrors my own trajectory.

Like me, Boot saw the Trumpification of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, of which he’d been part, as a perversion and betrayal. He cancelled his GOP voter enrollment the day after the 2016 election. I took a few months longer.

Boot thinks what happened to conservatism has pre-Trump roots, and that people like him (and me) bear some responsibility for failing to see it. I’d put it this way: conservatism long had a principled, idealistic, intellectual strain, but also a primitivist “blood and soil” white nationalist strain of cultural revolt. The former was exploiting the latter, but was riding a tiger, and wound up eaten.

It may not be so surprising that primitivism won out. But what Boot (and I) found so shocking is how people who seemed to be principled conservatives capitulated so completely. Not so much eaten by the tiger as changing their own stripes.

What exactly is (or was) the principled conservatism Boot is talking about? His prologue sets it out: prudent and incremental policymaking based on empirical study; support for American global leadership and allies; willingness to oppose the enemies of freedom; respect for character, community, personal virtue, and family; limited government and fiscal prudence; freedom of opportunity rather than equality of outcome; a social safety net to help the neediest without stifling initiative and social mobility; individual liberty to the greatest extent possible consistent with public safety; freedom of speech; embracing immigration. The Declaration of Independence defining us by a shared belief that all people are created equal, with a right to pursue happiness. The Constitution advancing this by limiting government power and ensuring rule of law.

Trumpism repudiates all this. Trump exploited pre-existing primitivist tendencies on America’s right to a depth no previous Republican ever had; but also catalyzed them, turbocharged them.

The resulting transmogrification might be almost comprehensible if led by some charismatic leader, a white knight. But here we have, in Boot’s words, “a moral abomination.” It makes one’s head explode. And of course this doesn’t travesty just conservatism, but America itself.

A key point for Boot is the attitude toward immigrants. He was one himself — at age six, from the Soviet Union. Though he feels totally American, he’s very mindful of the welcome his family experienced, and considers that aspect of America’s culture one of its crowning glories. So do I — seeing someone evidently born elsewhere gives me a jolt of satisfaction to be part of a society so attractive to so many, and with such generosity of spirit to welcome them.” Or rather,” as Boot remarks, “I felt that way before the rise of Trump and his demonization of immigrants.”

Irving Kristol said a neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality. Boot writes something similar from the other side, telling how greater understandings of realities made him revise some of his cookie-cutter conservative precepts. For example, opposing any gun control, which took him decades to realise is insupportable. More broadly, he says he hadn’t just drunk the Kool-Aid of conservatism but bathed in it; a kind of self-brainwashing. Being part of the tribe felt good, and leaving it felt horrible. Boot notes that when a conservative intellectual pal went whole hog Trumpy, the guy justified it by saying politics is tribal, and he had to stick with the tribe.

That helps explain what made Boot different. He was not free of tribal feeling, but his rationalism was strong enough to supersede it. Unlike most conservatives, even the most seemingly intellectual.

My experience is again similar. Since I became a conservative in the 1960s, the world has changed vastly, and one must adjust one’s viewpoint accordingly. (I’ve written about my “ideology of reality.”*) Furthermore, there can be contradictions between positions taken by most adherents of a movement and its underlying principles, properly understood. Illustrated by the left’s tortured relationship with freedom of thought and expression.

Boot says he used to dismiss liberals calling Republicans racist. Now he thinks they were actually right, and white nationalism was long at the core of what actuated most rank-and-file Republicans. And Boot candidly faults his slowness to understand the rotten treatment Blacks, women, and other disadvantaged groups continue (despite progress) to suffer in American society.

Most of the book chronicles the 2016 campaign and the start of Trump’s presidency, all the while lamenting the awfulness and conservatism’s concomitant defenestration of principle. This incisive, comprehensive indictment, showing how much America’s been damaged, would be hugely shocking were it not already so familiar.

What still is really shocking is how we’ve accepted, even normalized, this litany of evil. Well, Republicans have. Boot has plenty to say about their disgusting justification of Trump’s every atrocity. And Boot was writing before Trump was even halfway through his term. Before the pandemic, before January 6, the attempted coup, the Big Lie.

An epilogue recaps again the policies Boot now embraces: social liberalism (pro-LGBTQ rights and pro-choice); fiscal conservatism; free markets; helping the needy; free trade; environmentalism; gun control; pro-immigration; free speech; strong defense; internationalism. Stances generally favored by most Americans, but no party embraces them all. Thus Boot found himself a man without a party. Unwilling to plump for Democrats, whom he saw as going too far left, in the Sanders-Warren direction. He did not say he’d vote for either against Trump (having voted for Clinton). This was 2018, remember. The name Biden doesn’t appear in this context. I myself did join the Democratic party, precisely to use my vote against the left. In this regard, Boot may have been too pessimistic. While I was too optimistic in hoping a Biden presidency might restore some normality to our politics. I kept saying of Trumpism, “it will get worse,” but didn’t foresee how much worse.

So: what does, after all, explain Trump derangement syndrome? For seven years I’ve busted my head over this; have written much about it. Most Trumpers are — apart from politics — good, sensible, reasonable people. Who, when it comes to politics, go completely off the rails. In the final analysis, I can’t really make sense of it, except to say that human beings and their mental processes are complicated.


Seeing “Hamilton” in London

October 16, 2022

Calling London an international city is inadequate. It’s like a city with no nationality at all; no native tongue, everyone speaking their own.

“Does anyone speak English in this town?” I said to my wife as we made our way through dense throngs at the Portobello street market. Searching for our daughter Elizabeth, now settled down in London, after getting a Masters Degree at University College London, and then a good job in her chosen field. This one week trip was mainly to see her and, for the first time, Sam Brown, her French-English partner of two plus years.

We’d agreed to meet at Portobello at 11:00. But our wakeup call didn’t come and we’d overslept till ten, then found our overnight phone recharge had failed too, so we couldn’t get Elizabeth’s message specifying a meeting point. We decided we’d best head out, not realizing how huge Portobello had grown in the three decades since our last visit. Now an amazing endless array of vendors selling anything and everything. But with our eyes peeled for Elizabeth, we didn’t take in much merch.

Finally got the phone recharged during lunch at a Thai eatery (delicious!) and soon did meet up with our offspring. Meantime we had already met, Sam, who passed inspection with flying colors. They seem well-matched, a great couple.

We’d timed our trip to coincide with one by Harry Lee, the new Executive Director of the Somaliland school project we’ve been involved with, and Board chair Andra Ehrenkranz. Soft-spoken Harry’s been with it from the start and is just terrific.

We had two dinners, one with some past teachers, the other with some student alums. In between, a meeting with Mo (for Mohammad) Ali, a young member of parliament from Wales, born in Somaliland, and still much engaged with that country. He’s a very personable fellow.

We met at the Conservative Party’s campaign HQ, greeted by a bust of Margaret Thatcher; then passed through a boiler room operation with a few dozen desks with screens and staffers; into the Thatcher Conference Room, sporting busts of Churchill and David Cameron, overseen by a giant modernist portrait of a very fierce looking Maggie.

A big quote from her on the wall: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” Ha ha. I thought: is that your best shot? No wonder the party is headed for an historic defeat. (At Westminster we saw huge loud anti-Tory demonstrations.)*

We didn’t discuss any of that with Ali; instead, Somaliland economic and political developments, and their import for the schools project, particularly for raising its profile, and of course funding. Afterward that discussion continued with Harry and Andra at lunch. I had fish-and-chips — but oh what a plate, the fish a foot long, really scrumptious.

I came away with a renewed feeling that Therese and I are actually doing something making a difference for people, and for Somaliland’s future.

London’s Underground system is excellent. Trains long and frequent, thus never overstuffed. On one trip I sat across from a thirtyish gal whose face I studied because it looked so quintessentially British, and I was puzzling over what made it so. She (like most riders) was looking at her phone, with mild pleasure. Then suddenly she displayed intense anguish and started crying, wiping away tears. As we exited, I leaned over and said, “Whatever it was, I feel very sorry for you.” And she gave me a huge smile.

We also walked for miles and miles, with the help of a wonderful map app that guided us like GPS (and Elizabeth who was a terrific tour guide). Saw some great, mind-bending art at the Tate Modern; had an afternoon tea river cruise; toured the Churchill war room and museum; John Keats’s house; Regents Park, including four hours at its zoo; Hampstead Heath with a tour of old master paintings in Kenwood House; Westminster Abbey; and the British Museum, seeing once again some old friends, the colossal pair of Assyrian human-headed winged lions, excavated by Layard, that guarded King Ashurbanipal’s throne room at Nimrud in the Ninth Century BCE, which still take my breath away.

Our last night we had dinner with Elizabeth and Sam at a Japanese restaurant before we all saw “Hamilton.” Probably the last Americans who hadn’t seen it, and doing so in Britain added piquancy. It lived up to the hype. After the opening sequence I asked myself, can that energy level be sustained? It pretty much was. I enjoyed it greatly with the benefit of being deeply versed in the history; but wondered how many American viewers, let alone Brits, could fully follow it.

As usual, what I enjoyed most on this trip was relishing what a terrific wife I’ve got.

* But I’m actually a Thatcher fan:

Bad Parents and Politics

October 14, 2022

Bad parent memoirs are a big literary genre. Recently I read a very different kind of book, about guided psychedelic experiences. Many who undergo them have problems to work through. Most commonly issues relating to their childhoods. So this book too was full of bad parent stories.

Parenting can be hard. You’re thrown into it with no training, normally with a ton of other stuff on your plate. Many are also compromised by the bad parenting they themselves received — often replicating it in their own parenting. Maybe it’s a wonder we don’t raise more monsters.

Yet can so many parents really be so bad? Mine weren’t, and I don’t personally know of any such situations. But then, I have no exposure to Middle American Christian families. Not to say those are necessarily problematic. But it’s easy to understand why many might be. Certainly often repressive. And as that book suggested, harboring childhood resentments does seem disturbingly widespread. This includes familial sex abuse.

Could this be at least a partial factor in America’s toxic politics? People’s childhood traumas and resentments bleeding into their politics? Wouldn’t that seem inevitable?

Of course we’re really talking here about the Trump cult. A study of correlation between it and lingering childhood psychic damage would be interesting. One can readily see how that would manifest in so many aspects of Trump support — the deep distrust and even antagonism toward the conventional institutions of society, drawing tribalistic lines of us-against-them, hating and fearing the “them,” as opposed to communitarian solidarity, empathy, and compassion.

And there is certainly a very great degree of correlation between Trump support and having been parented by Middle American Christians. Especially Evangelicals, 80% of whom idolize Trump. Theirs is the highest octane Christianity, all full of the most repressive moralism — or, at least, what they convince themselves is moral. Making, in turn, for the kinds of repressed childhoods we’ve been talking about. No wonder so many of these people are so screwed up in how they relate to civic culture.

On the other hand, bad parenting certainly existed in all past eras, during which politics was nevertheless normal. If anything, parenting has improved, with more enlightened ideas proliferating. So how can Trumpism be blamed on bad childhoods? Maybe it’s that he opened a Pandora’s box, giving people a newfound opportunity to act out their worst impulses. Trump providing them an outlet that never existed before. Enabling a lot of previously buttoned up social pathologies to surface.

Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, posited that civilization keeps in check the base impulses rooted in our unconscious. Trump has loosed the dogs of Hell.

How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question

October 6, 2022

What does it really mean to be morally good? Michael Schur actually created a TV show exploring this question — a comedy in fact! His personal quest for answers also produced this book.

We watched some episodes of the show, The Good Place. That is, Heaven. Very few people get in. The vast majority go to The Bad Place. Its ambience is hinted by only two seconds of audio — of horrible screaming. Such a concept of the nature of things is kind of disturbing — for a comedy.

Eleanor got into The Good Place only by a bureaucratic screw-up. It is indeed a paradise, and she fears being found out and kicked out. So she sets about trying to change herself to earn her slot.

This immediately introduces one of the Big Three key moral philosophy concepts which the book explores — “virtue ethics” originating with Aristotle. The idea that moral actions are rooted in moral character. Eleanor illustrates this — her bad character shapes her behavior, and overlaying good intentions can’t seem to work. However, she is a nice bad person. And Aristotle also posited that moral character can be developed with practice. Eleanor is trying. (Gradually it does seem to work.)

The other two biggies are utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill) and deontology (Kant). The former, also called consequentialism, holds that it’s the consequences of actions that matter, with the aim being “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Kant’s deontology instead posits that it’s all about following rules — and the criterion for a proper rule (his “categorical imperative”) is that it would work out well if everyone did follow it.

How do we navigate among these three seemingly very divergent paradigms? Start by asking: why be “moral” or “good?” What do those words actually mean? What is the objective to be served? Schur actually addresses that only in a brief footnote, saying that while utilitarianism targets “happiness,” one might also choose “kindness” or “income equality” or “roasted beet consumption.”

The religious would frame the objective in terms of serving God or the like. Forget that, because there is no God. In fact, the cosmos simply is what it is, with no “objective” because there is nothing to impart one. That leaves it entirely up to us to figure out what, despite the cosmic bleakness, works for us.

And the answer is actually clear. You can talk about desiderata like wealth or kindness or roasted beet consumption, but those are proximate rather than ultimate objectives. The only reason to want them is because they lead to something else — happiness. That has to be the ultimate objective.*

Of course “happiness” is itself a tricky, fraught concept. But we needn’t get into that here. The way I always frame it is in terms of the feelings of beings capable of feeling — the only thing that, in an otherwise meaningless cosmos, can matter.

The problem of “virtue ethics” is that problem of what ultimately does matter — why are virtues virtues? Why should we want to have them? The problem with utilitarianism is illustrated by the “runaway trolley” conundrum and its permutations — sacrificing one to save five — or, say, taking organs from one healthy person to save five sick ones. The problem with deontology is illustrated by the Nazis at your door asking about hidden Jews; is it okay to break the rule against lying?

What all of that shows is that while each of the three approaches supplies a method for evaluating moral problems, none is complete in itself. All three come into play on any real moral problem. But to me utilitarianism is closest to the ultimate theory, being clearest about what the true objective is.

Schur suggests the book’s most important point is what he calls moral exhaustion. Introduced by a store’s free sample tray saying “one per customer.” But it’s something very appetizing. If he’s a very moral person who’s done oodles of good deeds, does that entitle him to take three? Schur says that all day long we’re actually confronted with what are micro ethical choices (like in our consumer decisions). Amid a welter of other stuff to deal with (like spouses, work, and kids). Being alive is hard work. Can we cut ourselves some slack? Schur argues that being a moral saint all the time actually violates Aristotle’s “golden mean” idea, that too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.

But he’d allow “moral jaywalking” only with two provisos: one, no one is harmed, and two, we acknowledge to ourselves it’s not ideal. And he invokes too the slippery slope . . . leading to a belief that anything you want to do is okay.

This introduces his condemnation of Ayn Rand as the advocate for selfishness, quoting her that when a beggar approaches you, you owe them nothing. Contrasting with Peter Singer who advocated giving to the poor until you’re equally poor. Neither seems right.

I’ll quote Garrison Keillor saying that if one’s purpose in life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? It’s not a silly question. Can the ultimate goal of human happiness be served if everyone is sacrificing themselves for others? Your first duty is to your own happiness — after all, you’re the one best positioned to understand and serve that — and to the happiness of those dear to you. Any charity to others cannot be an obligation; if it were, Singer would be right. And if you’re somehow obligated to help Stranger A, then what about Strangers B, C, D . . . ? And a billion others. This shows such altruism must be a choice, not a duty.

Recall Schur’s justification for “moral jaywalking” stipulating that no one is harmed. That shows a fundamental confusion. If there is actually no harm, then the act is not wrong. (“No harm, no foul.”) But his example of taking extra free samples does harm the store owner, as well as people who’ll miss out altogether. And this indeed points up again the basic utilitarian, consequentialist insight. The morality of anything depends on balancing its pluses and minuses for happiness.

Taking three samples is a plus for his own happiness. But an objective unbiased evaluator cannot privilege his own interests over those of others when weighing utilitarian pluses and minuses. All people standing equally is another fundamental moral principle.

However: human beings cannot be moral calculating machines. The soldier who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades did refuse to value his life higher than theirs. But valuing one’s own life (and well-being) is integral to our very nature. Evolution programmed a powerful survival instinct into us, for obvious reasons.

I believe people do have a fundamental human right to seek their own good. Harming others is to be avoided to the greatest extent feasible. That’s the best morality we can rationally envision.

Schur adverts to another standpoint from which to view this — what do we owe each other? Singer says “everything.” But excuse me. Where does such an obligation come from? Duties don’t arise from nothing, but from relationships. Ayn Rand was actually correct to say you don’t owe beggars any of your money, which you worked to obtain (and they did not). They have no right to it. What they do, however, have a right to is not being harmed by you.

That might seem a minimalist sort of ethics. But if we have a world in which that prevailed, and nobody did any more or less, that would be a vast improvement.

* Schur quotes Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh that some things we seek — wealth, fame, possessions — are often actually obstacles to our happiness. That can certainly be true of the quest for them, but can even be true of getting them.

Crime and Policing

October 3, 2022

Crime is rising! People always think this. But in fact crime rates hit a peak in the early ’90s (though nowhere near earlier epochs), and then fell inexorably and dramatically. But in the last couple of years have rebounded (though nowhere near early ’90s levels).

Whites, hearing the word “crime,” typically picture a Black criminal and white victim. But in fact crime is concentrated in Black communities; while they’re around 13% of the population, nearly half of all homicide victims are Black.

Why? Some whites think Blacks are by nature more crime prone. That’s nonsense. The answer is that they more likely live in poorer, disadvantaged neighborhoods, with paltry job prospects; perpetuated and aggravated by crappy schools. And where policing is much less effective.

A recent analysis in The Economist, by Daniel Knowles, spotlights this. Noting that, even after the big three-decade drop, America’s violent crime rate was still many times higher than in all other advanced countries. This has a host of diverse harmful effects on society, calculated to be costing us around $10 million per murder, totaling hundreds of billions annually. Against which police spending is a pittance.

Democrats never wanted to “defund the police” — that was just a dumb label for proposing to shift resources from armed officers to other kinds of interventions to curtail violence, like deploying mental health specialists. And anyway, the recent crime spike has put paid to the “defund” trope; President Biden aims for a big rise in police staffing and funding.

Knowles looks carefully at what drives violent crime. The reality bears little resemblance to TV crime dramas. It’s very disproportionately a scourge of the most economically blighted urban areas, where a culture of violence has taken hold among a segment of young Black males. Without other ways to assert manhood and command respect, they feel compelled to act as tough as possible. And with most guys carrying a gun, you’d better have one too. Thus any little argument can easily escalate to bullets. In fact, stupid little quarrels are the number one cause of U.S. homicides.

And they occur almost with impunity. Seemingly aggressive law enforcement actually undermines police effectiveness in these kinds of neighborhoods. What aggressive policing there usually means is stopping a lot of young men, on small pretexts, to search them for guns or drugs. Such police hassling has scant correlation to serious criminality; thus “police are seen as a malign and arbitrary power in people’s lives, not as enforcers of just laws.” Compounded by criminal justice bureaucracies being often dysfunctional, opaque, and callous. All making citizens unwilling to cooperate with authorities when it comes to actual shootings. And so “the vast majority of violent crimes go unpunished, even as trivial offenses are treated harshly.” A big vicious spiral.

The poster city for this has been Baltimore., where the 2015 Freddie Gray death from rough police treatment sparked riots. Knowles observes that even before, Baltimore police pursued a particularly assertive brute force approach. That did suppress violence in the short term, but with a cost of destroying relations between residents and law enforcement. Which in turn led to soaring violent crime.

To explain the recent nationwide crime spike, Knowles suggests the pandemic may have pushed more young men onto the street, as social services shut down, and their lives became more stressed, leading to more arguments. While the number of guns in circulation continues to rise. And the spotlight on police abuses, following the 2020 George Floyd murder, seems to have inhibited some cops.

So what’s the remedy? Knowles does talk about alternatives to conventional policing, like those “defunders” were seeking. Particularly “violence interruption” initiatives, often deploying streetwise reformed miscreants to defuse conflicts and help the next generation calm down and wise up.

He also says “America’s poorest people need more investment in their neighborhoods, better education and greater access to jobs.” And more motherhood and apple pie.

Knowles adds that “hostile police unions also need to be defanged, and the worst cops fired and prosecuted. Only greater accountability can rebuild shattered trust.” While most police officers serve nobly, it’s an ugly reality that that career too often attracts the wrong sort, macho guys who fancy swaggering with weapons and beating on people.

And overly powerful police unions do invariably protect them, battling against accountability. Data shows that in a typical police force, the bulk of abuses are committed, over and over, by the same few officers.

But one thing Knowles does not mention at all is ending the insane drug war. The pointless illegality of drugs lies at the heart of much that’s wrong with policing, and indeed, much of what we call crime. Any benefits from this policy are overwhelmed by its negative societal impacts. Ending this would free cops to really go after truly harmful crimes. It would be, all in all, a stupendous improvement in all our lives.