Archive for the ‘history’ Category

“Let’s Go Brandon!” and the State of American Political Discourse

December 3, 2021

In case you didn’t know:

“Let’s Go Brandon!” means “Fuck Joe Biden!” The latter phrase was chanted at some NASCAR event and the sportscaster mis-heard it as the former, referring to a race driver named Brandon Brown.

And so a new rallying cry has entered the American lexicon, alongside the likes of “No taxation without representation,” “Fifty-four Forty or Fight,” and “Remember the Maine.”

But notice a difference. Those other slogans each concerned an actual issue. “Let’s Go Brandon!” is, well, something else.

Nevertheless, it has been taken up by Republicans as their great cri de coeur. Flaunted on t-shirts, flags, and bumper strips, even on guns. On “Let’s Go Brandon!” they’re taking their stand. But this is actually something serious. Not merely the reduction of political discourse to a vulgarity.

Democrats do hate Trump for all the very real damage he’s done, though they don’t go around in t-shirts with coded profanity. Republicans may imagine they have corresponding reasons to hate Biden, but by and large those are a witch’s brew of bogus nonsense. Exemplified of course by the great “Stolen Election” lie.

Yet reasons don’t really come into it at all. What “Let’s Go Brandon!” shows is that politics has become — for Republicans at least — wholly tribal. They’re using it as a badge of tribal identity. And the real reason Biden is their bête noire is simply that he’s seen as the avatar of the enemy tribe.

It’s no small irony that for all the passion they invest in the slogan, it actually represents a timidity from openly saying what they really mean. If they’re in favor of a certain procedure being performed on President Biden, fine, it’s their free speech, but why not just say it? What a bunch of pathetic weenies.

Today’s Republican party has dishonesty at its very core. Epitomized by the undisguised disingenuousness of this slogan.

One wonders what Brandon Brown thinks of all this.

Death, Memory, and Meaning

November 29, 2021

The biggest fact of life is death. Life’s purpose is preparing to be dead for a very long time. How do we do that?

Some try to evade the issue by anticipating an afterlife. But one suspects few truly believe it, deep down. Else why such efforts to avoid dying?

An alternate kind of immortality is to be remembered. Israel Bitton has authored Who Will Remember You? A Philosophical Study and Theory of Memory and Will. Its cover art is a view from inside an open grave, with a crowd peering down into it. (And as if pointing up a future-oriented perspective, the copyright date is 2022!)

Bitton, 37, is executive director of Americans Against Antisemitism. He sent me his book after finding mine, The Case for Rational Optimism, relevant. Bitton’s work is very serious; his command of the material impressively prodigious. Indeed, I think he expects a lot of a reader. Doing the book justice is laborious. While mostly in plain English, it’s full of dense complex statements challenging to parse and absorb.

Though Bitton’s Jewish identity looms large, God is perhaps surprisingly (but wisely) left out of his philosophical edifice. He does find examples for his points in the Bible. Pertinent to his memory theme, for instance, he cites God doing various benevolent things because he remembers to. (Kind of odd for a being supposedly omniscient. And much he did was atrocious.)

For Bitton memory means far more than just our everyday understanding. He calls it “actually the core description of what underlies the entire physical universe.” The significance of anything “is dependent entirely on memory.” And central to human psychology is what he calls “the will to memorability.” One’s “essential will is not toward power or pleasure or even life itself but to significance, with all the former serving as means rather than ends.” Desiring “above all else, to be remembered. If people remember us, we feel significant in our lifetime and thereafter. If they forget us, what value does our life have? Thus, although the mind seeks significance and the body immortality, they both manifest as the will to memorability.”

Bitton intensively develops and explores this enlarged concept of memory. For example, he says, a hydrogen molecule has memory in that it knows what it is and what to do. Of course he’s not ascribing consciousness to molecules; rather, using the concept of memory to characterize how existence is put together and operates. For a human individual, the brain doesn’t merely hold memory — it is all memory, at the core of everything the brain does.

Bitton notes the centrality of remembrance for Jews in particular, for obvious historical reasons. Of course other religions too memorialize long-ago events (like the Christ story). And memory is a big issue in today’s America. With fierce arguments over what actually happened last January 6; and how we are to remember our more distant history.

The book points out that Judaism says almost nothing about any afterlife, instead stressing living in the present. For Bitton this underlines the importance of being remembered. We wouldn’t be so concerned with living in memory if expecting to live on in Heaven. But while Bitton focuses on being recalled positively, if mere remembrance were the objective, then evil can confer an immortality at least equally potent. Bitton himself remembers Hitler, almost obsessively.

Bitton invokes Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Finding meaning in their lives motivated some concentration camp inmates to struggle to survive. Frankl’s follow-up was The Will to Meaning. Bitton equates meaning with significance. Which, he says, provides the meaning of meaning — can something insignificant be meaningful?

Since will is integral to his system, Bitton addresses the perennial conundrum of free will. Particularly slamming Sam Harris’s book arguing against the idea. Harris accordingly held that the only reason to punish crimes is utilitarian protection of society; we shouldn’t “hate” a transgressor. But Bitton thinks Harris “writes as if living in an entirely theoretical world” with scant nexus to our real one. And if free will is an illusion, Bitton says he accepts that, but we still all live our lives with free will as an operative reality, requisite for “personal coherence.” And humans have a clear ability to act contrary to deterministic dictates. (I always point to smokers quitting.)

Let’s unpack Bitton’s philosophy. Start with memory as the essence of the universe. A better rendering might be information as the core of things. Using that word too not in its everyday sense, but referring to all things being describable and definable as information bits. No information, no existence. And, yes, this might be seen as embedding a memory of everything that went before to arrive at what exists now. Yet that’s a pretty esoteric concept whose relevance to the psychology of how any person lives their life is far from clear.

Nevertheless, in that psychology, Bitton is surely right that a thirst for significance is important. I’m reminded of the concept of thymos as elucidated in Fukuyama’s The End of History. Thymos is, more or less, the desire to have one’s human dignity respected; to be somebody rather than nobody. A political force Fukuyama saw as militating toward democracy.

But Bitton goes too far in reducing all human motivations to manifestations of the will to significance. Take power. Sure, it does make you feel important, but has many other attributes pleasurable for their own sakes. The food is good. And we’re programmed by evolution to seek power and status in order to get more mates and sex. Sex too is pleasurable in itself, a key motivator, wholly apart from any others. Bitton clearly errs in positing that we seek such pleasures actually as a means to some other end, significance. No — pleasures are rewarding without that.

He does make a strong case for the importance of memory as instilling meaning into the human project and into one’s individual life. Bitton doesn’t mention the famous case of Henry Molaison; a brain injury left him unable to form new memories, making for a life indeed rather meaningless. But being remembered by others is a different matter. It is fundamentally wrong to elevate that as the be-all and end-all of human psychology. Wrong in two fundamental ways.

First, being remembered is obviously something that happens in the minds of other people. Yes, your construct of their remembrance exists within your own mind, and can be rewarding. Plus their acting on their thoughts can materially benefit you. All true. Yet let’s not forget that your pleasure centers are located in your own brain, and only there; not in the brains of others. While “no man is an island,” in a very real physical sense each of us is marooned within the confines of our own skulls. Only there can our rewards be instantiated — anything happening in other skulls can give us pleasure only at second-hand.

The other and more fundamental problem is Bitton’s casting one’s prime motivation as concerning not just something happening in other minds, but happening there after you’re dead. Here too of course contemplation of posthumous phenomena can be pleasurable; but you won’t be around to witness or experience them.

That’s what death is: nonexistence, an end to all experiencing. It’s this reality you must confront in order to live an authentically meaningful life. Authentically meaningful to you. It all must unfold within the confines of your lifetime.

Yet again, you can take satisfaction from things you envision happening afterward — for example, your contributing to the future world’s betterment. But when you are dead, you yourself gain nothing further from it.

Bitton gives numerous examples of people craving to be remembered. Like Achilles choosing to live on in glory, rather than a long earthly life in obscurity. In my own youth, I too imagined my life would be meaningless without fame (or at least “significance”). The corrective came when I authored a book that did give me my “fifteen minutes” of fame (albeit just locally). I thought it would apotheosize me to a higher plane of existence. It did not. That eventually gave me the understanding I’ve tried to express here. Julius Caesar’s fame has long outlived him, but what good does that do him now?

And how long does remembrance last anyway? In the cosmic scheme of things, only an eyeblink. Will even Caesar be thought about in a million years? A billion? Premising your life on memorability must be in vain because everyone is ultimately forgotten. Immortality is a chimera.

Furthermore, while it’s rational to be concerned with remembrance by people important in your own life, Achillean or Caesarean glory is something in the minds of strangers unconnected to you. Its meaning for you is a false sort of meaning. It literally should not matter to you.

Recall Bitton’s baldly querying, “If [others] forget us, what value does our life have?” And he explicitly says significance is something requiring validation from other people; otherwise, again, one’s life has no meaning. This puts the onus for the value and meaning of your life entirely in the minds of other people. I believe instead that your life’s value is primarily to yourself, your life’s project is to make it rewarding in itself, to you. Because you are, to yourself, the most important person on Earth. It’s how you see yourself that counts most, not the opinion of others. “To thine own self be true.”

Do not live with the goal of being remembered. Live a good and rewarding life for its own sake, in the here and now. That’s all we get. Nothing happening after can tickle your bones crumbling in your grave.

NOTE: The author of the book has responded in depth to this review. I have posted his comments at this link:

The Deep State

November 26, 2021

“The Deep State” refers to a locus of true power, hidden, pulling strings behind the scenes. Journalist David Rohde discussed his 2020 book about this, at the New York State Writers Institute’s 9/25 Albany Book Festival.

No, Rohde’s book did not expose the Deep State. Instead exposing the fevered fantasies about it.

The term actually originated in 1990s Turkey, and then Egypt, where something like a deep state was a reality. The idea being that elected governments were just a veneer, their doings without real consequence, the shots being called elsewhere. Mainly by the military, in concert with powerful economic players. In Turkey, that’s been superseded by Erdogan’s autocracy. Egypt’s deep state was overthrown in 2011 but returned even more powerfully in 2013. Pakistan’s another case, its deep state centered on the military and its associated intelligence outfit, never really out of power.

In America, the basic idea long had resonance on the left. The old term “military-industrial complex” entailed something like that. Rohde also pointed to the 1970s Church Committee, investigating the CIA, with a whiff that it was more malignly powerful than we realized. And there were echoes in the “Occupy” movement.

The far right version of the “deep state” trope, in Rohde’s telling, originated with Peter Dale Scott’s 2007 book, The Road to 9/11. When Scott appeared on Alex Jones’s conspiracy-crazed show, it was off to the races. Not just 9/11, but the Oklahoma City bombing, and Sandy Hook were all staged by the government, for some nefarious reason — like a pretext for confiscating all guns. Which, you know, actually happened.

Then came 2016. Jones and his ilk insanely cast Trump as the hero who’d smash the deep state. But of course it would resist. Steve Bannon’s right-wing Breitbart News, in December, before Trump took office, rang a warning bell that the deep state was bent on thwarting him at every turn and bringing him down.

Many people in government did try to stop things Trump was doing. Considering them wrong and destructive, which was true. But it’s cuckoo to imagine some organized secret conspiracy to illegitimately screw Trump. (Two failed impeachments might at least have proven the “deep state” actually impotent.)

Nevertheless, this notion of a dark plot against Trump was trotted out continually — all the “witch hunt” rhetoric — as a way to revv up his cult followers into even greater frenzy. And it got worse, transmogrifying into QAnon.

“Q” is/was a supposed government insider anonymously ripping off the covers. The “deep state” conspiracy comprises pedophile baby eaters. All the major Democrats are in on it. Trump is waging a secret war against them. On the day of reckoning, “The Storm,” they will all be arrested (executed?) with Trump returned to office in glory. Millions continue to seriously believe this lunacy, despite the march of events since last November (and their putative savior being a mad incompetent fool).

And what does this QAnon story resemble? Obviously the “end of days” and Christ’s second coming. The congruences between Trumpism and religion are indeed striking. For many American “Christians” today, “Christian” is really more a cultural signifier than a true religious faith. For that, they look instead now to Trump. Religion is always a flight from rationality. This Trumpian religion flings reason to the ground and stomps on it.

Two Waitings

November 19, 2021

In 1977, when Avon published my fantasy novel, my middle initial was omitted on the cover. So we got a tart letter from the other Frank Robinson — Frank M. —a more prominent writer. Thought his name was being ripped off.

I’d never read any of his books. Decades later, I chanced on one at a library sale, and stuck it on my shelf. Then I picked up one by Ha Jin only because my wife and I had read aloud together another novel of his.

Those two books sat side-by-side on my shelf for a long while before I suddenly noticed both had the same title! — Waiting. What are the odds? Then I saw both were published in 1999! The coincidences tickled me enough to read them.

Frank’s is no literary masterpiece, but entertaining in its way. As a writer, I liked seeing how he managed to put across what was really a preposterous premise. That when Homo Sapiens supplanted the Neanderthals 35,000 years ago, another different species, resembling us more, managed to survive, living hidden among us. Waiting to consummate some final triumph over us. Mind control helps.

I have little truck with fictional psychic powers. And that those “Old People” could somehow maintain a separate bloodline for over a thousand generations seemed absurd. The novel acknowledges interbreeding, but says with two different species, any offspring were sterile, which nobody noticed. (We’ve since learned many humans have a little Neanderthal DNA, disproving the sterility theory.)

Nor did anyone notice these “Old People” were, well, physiologically not human. Until one doctor stumbles on an autopsy. The doc’s murder, to silence him, launches the book’s plot.

Which got convoluted. And the book seemed padded with much extraneous scene-setting. And what was it with all the coffee? OK, characters would drink some coffee. But this author seemed besotted with coffee shtick.

A line near the end made me laugh out loud: “Back at the house on Noe, he and Mark had taken a nap, then gone out shopping for a Christmas tree.” Mundane normal life. But after the cataclysmic (and bloody) denouement just hours before? “Shopping for a Christmas tree?”

Ha Jin’s novel concerns Lin Kong, whose girlfriend is waiting for him to divorce his wife. Who ever heard of such a story? (Quite a contrast to Robinson’s outrageous premise.)

The writing style is matter-of-fact. But not spare in a Hemingway way. Wouldn’t be bad if the story weren’t so enervating. We’re told early that the wait will be eighteen years. Then we’re led through the whole numbing saga.

It takes place in China from the mid-’60s through the ’80s. She’s an army nurse; Lin an army medic, in a loveless arranged marriage with an older woman, back in his home village, which he visits just once annually. Neither relationship entails any sex. Might have enlivened the narrative.

I was struck by just how regimenting, oppressive, inhumane really, Chinese communist society was. That shaped the course of Lin’s life. The contrast with free-wheeling American life was stark. China loosened up somewhat after those times; yet Xi Jinping seems intent on carrying regimentation to new heights. How do the Chinese stand for it? Actually it seems regimentation is in their DNA, very different from ours. Being cogs in a machine suits most of them just fine. And they actually profess revulsion toward America, as no model they’d wish to follow.

Lin’s introspection toward the end was touching. His wife had refused a divorce; but a rule allowed it unilaterally after 18 years of separation, and (contrary to my expectation) Lin actually does it, and marries his girlfriend. She makes up for lost time in the bedroom. Then come twins. But Lin isn’t happy. It all feels like a chore, imposed on him. He doesn’t feel he really loved either wife. Considers himself a useless man, his life wasted; and he’d indeed seemed a passive sort to me. Yet others see him as very fortunate. On that note the book ends.

Xi talks of the “Chinese dream.” It’s no analog to what we call the “American dream.” Xi means China being pre-eminent in the world. If the whole world becomes more like China, I’d call that a nightmare.

“Intelligent Design” — Another View

November 14, 2021

You’re walking in a forest and find a watch on the ground. Seems obviously the intentional creation of an intelligent designer. Applying this analogy to all creation has always been a central argument for creationism or “intelligent design.” Originally introduced by William Paley’s famous 1802 book Natural Theology. Many religious believers do look at nature’s intricate clockwork and cannot see how it could have arisen without an intelligent designer. Just like Paley’s watch.

The fallacy here is that the watch is purpose-built, unlike anything in nature, which never aimed to produce exactly what we see today. Instead it’s an undirected process that could have produced an infinitude of alternative possibilities. All existence is just whatever happened to fall out of that process — very unlike a watch made according to plan by a watchmaker.

Recently I encountered an 1813 essay by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (“A Refutation of Deism“) with a different but compelling answer to Paley’s watch analogy. One assumes the watch was designed “because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind . . . but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had actually found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted.”

Shelley goes on, “The analogy, which you attempt to establish between the contrivances of human art and the various existences of the Universe, is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know before hand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Take away this knowledge,” and the whole idea collapses.

Finding a watch in a forest might again seemingly suggest some non-natural origin. But suppose you find not a watch, but a mouse. You’d have no doubt of its naturalness. Yet if you think about it, the mouse is actually a far more intricate little “contrivance” than a watch. Most people accept that the mouse resulted from a billion year process of natural evolution. As Shelley said, if we knew nothing of watchmakers, we’d assume the watch must have somehow arisen that way too.

Creationists rhapsodize about how perfectly organisms seem fitted for purpose. Shelley refutes this too, with the observation that “if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest,” humans could not exist. Every living thing must of necessity be fitted to its habitat. No fitness, no animal.* So it’s far from miraculous. Shelley realized this even without the benefit of Darwin’s later elucidation of evolution (the real explanation for it all).

Creationists mistakenly characterize the idea of evolution as a random chance process, which of course could not produce anything like a watch or a butterfly. But evolution is in fact the opposite of random. A ruthless process of eliminating what doesn’t work. Actually, evolution operates by serial kludges of modification to what came before, often resulting in very imperfect matches of form to function.* Wouldn’t a really intelligent design for humans include a third eye in the back?

Shelley was, again, not a scientist but a poet. And wrote this when just 21 years old! I was blown away by his essay’s trenchancy, how beautifully he made his points, in plain clean language, not the convoluted prose so typical then. And so iconoclastically outside the mainstream of the time too. (He was expelled from Oxford for his atheist writings.) What an amazing testament to the power of the human mind. One might almost call it a miracle.

* Richard Dawkins has observed that predator animals are well fitted to catch prey; prey animals fitted to escape. So whose side is God on?!


America’s Didius Julianus Moment

November 6, 2021

Didius Julianus was the Roman Emperor who bought his crown at auction.

Here’s the story. The madman Emperor Commodus (the one in Gladiator) was murdered on the last day of AD 192. Succeeded by Pertinax, an upstanding statesman. He tried to discipline the Praetorian Guard, an elite corps of soldiers tasked with protecting the emperor, and grown overly powerful. They killed Pertinax after three months. Now, it had become customary for a new ruler to gift the Praetorians with a cash bonus. So they held an auction to see which aspirant for power would offer the biggest bonus. In effect, auctioning off the rulership itself. The winner was Didius Julianus, bidding an extravagant sum.

Three months later, he too was murdered. It’s said he hadn’t fully paid up.

In the grand sweep of history, this episode is a small footnote. Yet it’s well remembered, not just for its titillation, but mainly because it signaled something important. The once noble empire being reduced to this sad farce showed it was hollowed out and off the rails. This is where “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is reckoned to have really begun.

Now America is in Didius Julianus time. We just had a madman president. Losing re-election, he conspired mightily to remain in power, culminating in his supporters storming the Capitol. His deranged ego unable to face, like a man, his defeat, he concocted a preposterous lie that the election was a fraud. Thoroughly disproven at every turn. One warped soul creating such a lie is understandable. Less so the millions of his cultists for whom it’s become an article of faith, central to their whole political ethos.

The fools worshipping their false god are sacrificing, on the altar of his ego, their very brains, as devotees of his “stolen election” catechism. But this is not so much about the last election as the next one. Which his party of cynical opportunists assiduously works to steal themselves. Exploiting Trump’s big lie as a pretext for measures to supposedly forestall election theft which actually aim to perpetrate it.

We saw this pathology ascendant even in deep blue Trump-loathing New York State where, on November 2, two ballot propositions to enable election day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting were both defeated. Why would voters reject such options to make it easier for them to vote? Because Republicans campaigned against the proposals as inviting election fraud. Which in reality is virtually nonexistent. Yet voters swallowed this bilge. The real reason Republicans oppose making voting easier is because they think it disadvantages them. Trump himself openly said that if every citizen can vote, you’ll never see Republicans elected again.

Few Americans have ever heard of Didius Julianus. Indeed, few know much history at all. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s not just the race history Republicans are making such an issue of. It’s the larger picture of America’s place in history, its import, what it all means. Too many have no concept of what actually made America great. That’s why they can vote so irresponsibly. The craziness warping our whole body politic into a grotesque zombie of its former self. All because one sicko couldn’t accept losing. It makes the tale of Didius Julianus seem bland in comparison — and shows America is, like Rome in his day, hollowed out and off the rails.

The Roman Empire actually limped onward for centuries after Didius Julianus, but its greatness was now in the rearview mirror. “Make America Great Again?” What a sad ironic joke.

The Threat from the Illiberal Left

November 2, 2021

Robert Boyers’s 2019 book, The Tyranny of Virtue, decried the woke left campus culture’s oppressive censoriousness. My 2020 review* ended by noting that the infection hadn’t much spread beyond academia. But already that needs a revisit.

The Economist recently had a cover story about this. It begins, “Something has gone very wrong with Western liberalism.” Meaning the classical liberal philosophy arising from the Enlightenment, and countering the “confessional state” of the prior millennium, that pervasively enforced religious conformism. Enlightenment liberalism believes free debate is the route to truth and progress, honoring individual human dignity, with all coercive power constrained.

This is widely sneered at today (notably by China’s regime, espousing very different values). In the West, it’s a case of “what have you done for me lately?” short-sightedness. In fact, liberalism’s principles were greatly responsible for stupendous human progress, in so many ways, in the past few centuries. But now those principles are being eroded, and consequently progress is faltering.

The threat from the populist Trumpian right is clear enough. An atavistic tribalist assault on the very concepts of truth, universalism, and a common public interest. January 6 an attempt to achieve by force what debate and democratic processes could not.

You might think the left, being focused on still-persisting injustices, would push back with a redoubled liberalism. But the “woke” left has gone the opposite way, and off the rails. Even indicting “neoliberalism” as a bête noir.

There is a (perverse) logic to it. Classical liberalism wants to remove barriers to individual flourishing. Something the illiberal left actually deems a snare, a way of maintaining illicit hierarchies of power — racial, sexual, class, etc. Which they obsess about — seeing every problem as one of power and privilege. Like having a hammer and seeing every problem as a nail. Hence, ideals of individual human dignity must yield to group empowerment (for favored groups).

Which is the essence of tyranny. Giving us the naked authoritarianism of speech codes, cancel culture, suppression of any ideas contravening a rigid orthodoxy. Literally believing no one has a right to any opinion they deem inimical to their own. Because, of course, they’re right and virtuous. Thus too they feel entitled to impose desired outcomes by fiat rather than discourse. Indeed, deeming the marketplace of ideas itself illegitimate — just another construct of the power dynamics they demonize.

All together reconstituting the old “confessional state;” the Inquisition. The Economist does note that at least nobody today is burned at the stake. Not literally — but many careers have been destroyed.

And not just in academia. It’s moved out to the wider society. The Economist documents how “woke” left thinking has markedly spread, particularly among younger, more educated Americans, especially Democrats. And especially when it comes to race matters.

Well, Trump, and George Floyd, had much to do with that. Yet it seems ironic that the woke left’s stridency about racial justice probably has worked to aggravate racial tensions and cynicism. As you’d expect when pitting group against group. Is it surprising some whites react with hackles up?

David Brooks, in a recent column, notes how a prominent scientist was disinvited from lecturing at MIT because he’s publicly argued that college admissions should not consider race. That issue is indeed arguable; and a clear majority of Americans agrees with the scientist. Yet their view is treated as a scarlet letter at MIT. Thus does the woke left make itself outrageous to mainstream Americans not only in the ideas it pushes but also its arrant intolerance. Handing a cudgel to the populist right in our culture wars.

Perhaps woke ideology’s spread from campuses was inevitable as they pumped out legions of graduates thusly indoctrinated. Even while most students actually hate the oppressiveness, cowed into silence by those louder voices. With the internet and social media providing newly powerful megaphones, while traditional forms of journalism and public discourse are shouldered aside. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The Economist also sees this as a generational conflict, with Gen Z and young Millennials contending for sway against Boomers and Gen Xers who still largely run things.

One of wokism’s watchwords is a fetish for “safety,” including emotional safety, trumping liberalistic concerns. Thus the overblown snits about “microaggressions,” and hostility to ideas that might create discomfort. With the huge irony that the people made truly unsafe here are the targets of this intellectual pogrom. Their rights — their safety — don’t count. The Economist cites a book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, tracing extremist “safetyism” to America’s wave of overprotective parenting. Creating a sense of entitlement to live in a cocoon undisturbed by life’s rumbustiousness. Including exposure to discordant viewpoints.

And meantime, as the magazine also notes, for all their shrillness attributing group inequalities to entrenched power hierarchies, that need to be smashed, the woke left is remarkably silent about concrete racial inequities that the old left cared about — nonsexy issues like persistent segregation in poor neighborhoods, and especially the concomitant problem of rotten schools in those areas. A gigantic factor perpetuating and even aggravating American inequality. If you seriously want equalization, schools would be a terrific place to start (even if they don’t teach critical race theory).

The Economist casts its discussion as hopefully a rallying cry for true liberals to stand up more forcefully against wokism’s perversion of their philosophy. But while the magazine does (like Boyers did) see some signs of a backlash against the illiberal left, its final line darkly opines that “America has not yet reached peak woke.”

* Here, and in Skeptic Magazine:

The State of the Union: A Republican comeback?

October 20, 2021

Conventional wisdom says a president’s party loses seats in midterm elections. Republicans, needing few gains to control Congress, will benefit from the census shifting seats to red states, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other cheating. But modern American politics confounds conventional wisdom. No longer conforming to a rational paradigm. Many pundits even think Trump may regain the White House. Could voters be so crazy — after January 6 — and with Republicans still steeped in that Kool-Aid?

The “stolen election” story is a pathetic joke. As if the out-party could have pulled that off. Trump (the biggest liar ever) simply made it up because his deranged ego couldn’t accept losing. Any fool could see that. But not his cultists, so unhitched from reality the lie is now literally an article of faith. It was Trump himself who tried to steal the election, culminating on January 6, and the insanity continues to warp our whole body politic. Might voter revulsion at this negate the usual midterm dynamic? Or will Republican distraction efforts succeed? (Despite being undermined by Trump’s obsessive histrionics.)

We’re also being told that if President Biden can’t get his ambitious multi-program bill passed, Democrats will look hapless. While if it does pass, Republicans will have a field day crying “socialism!” So Democrats can’t win. But Republicans will shriek “socialism” no matter what. Now needing, as we’ve learned, no nexus with factual reality for any of their shtick. Screaming that Democrats will destroy America — which Republicans themselves nearly did on January 6.

Meantime, what’s actually in Biden’s legislation is mostly stuff most voters like and want: subsidized day care, family leave, college, etc. Another thing we’re told endlessly is how Democrats don’t connect with the working class economic anxieties Trumpism exploits (without actually doing anything about).

Well, Biden’s big “Build Back Better” bill does tackle those bread-and-butter concerns. But for many voters, it’s “my mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts.” And Republican politics today isn’t about genuine policy issues anyway. Mainly it’s demonizing and hating Democrats. “Owning the libs.”

As a longtime Republican, I have no illusions of Democrat and Biden wonderfulness. I’ve criticized him over Afghanistan, and China policy. His handling of migrants and refugees is disappointing — breaking, I feel, a personal promise. Yet Biden is still a decent, honest, responsible, sane antithesis to Trump who — on top of every other ghastly travesty — tried to overthrow our democracy. And would wreck it forever if, against all reason, returned to power.

I’d like to think it inconceivable. But that’s what I thought in 2016 — before it showed too many U.S. voters gone rogue — against all reason.

Americans are mostly admirable, pragmatic, down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth people. But even before 2016 I warned that our being, in the global/historical scheme of things, a peaceable oasis of democracy and freedom, was not somehow ordained by God. And would not endure without citizens understanding and internalizing the principles undergirding it. Heedless ignorance, flouting those principles, metastasizes. As on January 6. And millions actually believe Trump was “making America great again.” Another pathetic joke.

I fear the power of the strongman syndrome. Bin Laden said, “if people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they will prefer the strong horse.” Even if, as with Trump, it’s strength of badness. Those still gaga for him are psychologically attracted by the illusion of strength. Imagining only a tough character can solve tough problems. And voters in many other countries have made that same mistake again and again, falling for the primitivist, misconceived macho allure of a “strongman.” Like moths to a flame.

I love America. Trump’s presidency felt like watching her raped. Re-electing him would be like infidelity.

Religion as a source of morality and witch burning

October 16, 2021

[I can hardly believe this piece got published in today’s Albany Times-Union. On the “Faith and Values” page! Especially my final paragraph!]*

Most human societies have believed not just in gods but also devils and demons. A way to explain much evil. Such beliefs were commonplace and powerful in the pre-Enlightenment West. While today witches are Halloween figures of fun, people once were terrified of them, and witch hunts were very real.

That might seem crazy now. But no crazier, really, than some beliefs commonly held today. Polls reveal around 40% of Americans still believe in Satan; we had a Satanic panic as recently as the ’80s. Many people were imprisoned on absurd charges of Devil-worshipping child abuse.

And of course even now millions worship an actual living devil. Trump support does have many faith-like aspects. As does the apocalyptic QAnon cult, full of language and imagery emulating religion. Indeed, a witch hunt, accusing political targets of being Satanic baby eaters (prompting one true believer to shoot up a pizza parlor). The January 6 attack on the Capitol too resembled religious fanaticism. As does the anti-vax, anti-mask hysteria — actually responsible for many thousands of deaths.

The age of literal witch hunting began in 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII promulgated a bull declaring “evil angels” a big problem, doing vast harm, especially connected with procreation. He commissioned a report, titled Malleus Malificarum, the “Hammer of Witches.” A how-to manual for the inquisitions and burnings that now duly exploded.

Under its system of show trials, devoid of due process rights, any accusation of witchery was effectively conclusive, with torture prescribed to confirm it. An open invitation for accusers to manipulate religious rhetoric for typically bad motives: envy, or personal or political vendettas, or getting hold of victims’ property. Or just one’s own power projection.

Inquisitors were incentivized to profit from their prosecutions. “An expense account scam,” Carl Sagan called it. All costs of the proceedings billed to victims’ families, including banquets for her judges, the costs of bringing in a professional torturer, and of course the straw and other supplies needed for the burning. Any remaining property was confiscated for the inquisitors’ benefit. And as if that weren’t enough, they earned a bonus for every witch incinerated.

Not surprisingly, witch burnings spread like, well, wild fire.

Some people, at least, must have realized this was deranged and horrific. But you’d better not voice such thoughts — lest you be grabbed yourself in the jaws of this death machine. Safer to cheer it on, or even participate.

Misogyny and repressed sexuality were big factors. While men and women were believed equally vulnerable to Satan, those burned were predominantly female. Prosecuted mostly by clergymen — notionally celibate, but we’ve come to know the prevalence of misdirected sexuality. The witchery charges often had sexual aspects, requiring careful inspection of private parts, and tortures tailored accordingly.

How many victims were there in all? Hundreds of thousands at least. Maybe millions. [Alas in the published piece this was edited to merely “Thousands at least.”]

This begs comparison with the Holocaust. Given Europe’s much smaller population then, the death toll was comparable, though spread over centuries. In both cases, the perpetrators saw themselves on a kind of purification mission.

Some religionists claim there’s no morality without God. In the witch hunts, clearly the evildoers were the God-besotted burners, not the burned. Did it never occur to them it was they themselves doing the Devil’s work? With all the extravagant belief in Satan’s power to deviously subvert humans to his purposes — the prosecutors didn’t pause to wonder if he was doing it to them? With the mild teachings of Jesus forgotten, did they not realize torturing and burning innocents, even often children, blackening the church with iniquity, was exactly what the Devil would have wanted?

But that might almost have been rational, and reason and religion don’t go together. No morality without God? The witch burnings prove there’s no morality without reason.

* Though their title is not mine.

Afghanistan’s Bitter Lessons

October 4, 2021

Craig Whitlock’s book, The Afghan Papers: A Secret History of the War, is a depressing litany of what went wrong — reading as if everything did. Is this a balanced picture? In any giant enterprise, involving human beings, horror stories will abound. Afghanistan had more than its share. And things did end badly. But is that the whole story? Did no American do anything right in Afghanistan?

The 2021 book is based on government documents, mainly reports of interviews with frontline personnel, in a “Lessons Learned” exercise. Echoing the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers. Despite the ostensible remit of subjecting the Afghan story to public accountability, the Washington Post had to battle for access to the documents.

Elucidated are two early, crucial, and very contradictory mistakes. First, at Tora Bora, we muffed a chance to get Bin Laden, and to deal the Taliban a death blow. Easier said than done? Monday morning quarterbacking? Actually, Whitlock details how that critical moment cried out for throwing in more assets, but higher-ups nixed it, in order to sustain the picture of a “light touch” military involvement. Thus setting the stage for one anything but light.

Our other, contradictory error: the Taliban expected to be treated as a vanquished foe, and might well have been open to negotiating peace on that basis. Instead they were treated as pariahs to be hunted down and exterminated. Excluded when we organized negotiations among numerous Afghan players, to set up a new political dispensation. This, failing the Taliban’s destruction, ensured prolonged conflict.

George W. Bush campaigned as an opponent of “nation building,” his own ironic terminology. “But we got there and realized we couldn’t walk away,” one U.S. official is quoted. Whitlock says no nation ever needed more building. His picture of Afghanistan’s dysfunction is pretty grim. And we ultimately spent more on it than on the post-WWII Marshall plan to rebuild Europe (adjusted for inflation).

Whitlock says the basic problem was lack of a coherent vision for how to remake Afghanistan, in light of its reality. We tried to build a strong central government, when the nation’s whole history was power dispersion. Few Afghans actually understood the concept of government, in terms we’d recognize. Whitlock cites a Monty Python film where the King on horseback, passing a peasant in the dirt, declares, “I’m the King!” The peasant looks up and says, “What’s a king?”

It didn’t help that the president we installed, Hamid Karzai, was a very flawed and problematic figure. He actually doesn’t come off too badly in the book. Whitlock seems to suggest we didn’t listen to him enough.

The U.S. war strategy appears to have been simply to kill Taliban. Or presumed Taliban — we never had a good handle on exactly who we were fighting. Anyhow, nor was it clear what this would actually achieve. The more we killed, the more Taliban popped up.

“No military solution” is a catch-phrase heard constantly, as though no problem ever does have a military solution. I think there sometimes are military solutions. But there seems a universal tendency to botch them. Certainly true in Iraq (disbanding its army was idiotic). Likewise in Afghanistan we made one big glaring misjudgment after another. For example, in 2009, President Obama announced sending 30,000 more troops — but only for 18 months. Practically telling the Taliban to just wait us out. And certainly our exit was botched.

When it comes to modern wars like in Afghanistan, there’s a fundamental problem. Our military is vastly sophisticated, and undoubtedly very good at fighting a conventional army like itself. As in WWII. But its fighting in a place like Afghanistan is like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. Our capabilities had no nexus to the actual mission challenge. We never got a grip on the nature of the fight we were in.

One chapter concerns the recurring U.S. effort to destroy Afghanistan’s opium farms. Actually the country’s biggest industry! Any fool should have seen how counterproductive this was, creating more enemies for us. For Whitlock it exemplifies that we just didn’t know what the heck we were doing. For me it also exemplifies the insanity of our whole “war on drugs” mentality, that fucks up everything everywhere.*

Meantime we flooded the country with billions splashed out on do-good schemes so ill-conceived that most of it was pissed away. What those billions really bought was a monster that swallowed Afghanistan, plunging this land without rule of law into a black hole of corruption. Destroying the legitimacy of the government we tried to prop up. While even helping to finance the Taliban.

Dishonesty is a pervasive theme of the book. Nobody ever wanted to say the emperor was naked. “Making progress” was the constant refrain as things went from bad to worse. But it wasn’t just misleading the public. You cannot grapple successfully with a complex situation absent a clear-eyed grasp of its parameters. That, in every aspect of our Afghan involvement, was lacking.

The whole sorry tale reinforces the old-time conservative skepticism of government doing anything right. Even with the best of intentions. Throwing money around without discipline. Even ultimate democratic accountability is too distant to matter. And the law of unintended consequences is very powerful.

Many voices now chide that we should have realized the whole Afghan effort was hopeless. That even if we had done everything right, Afghanistan’s culture was impervious to modernization. Which might actually have been said of many countries before they did modernize their cultures. No nation is born modern.

A recent global analysis by The Economist is relevant here.** Dividing the world between countries that are peaceful and prosperous, and those that aren’t. And what makes the difference? Female empowerment. Patriarchal cultures, where women are repressed, are poorer and violence-prone. Especially where men can have multiple wives; the rich and powerful hog women, leaving legions of men without, a huge source of societal instability. Thus countries with primitive male-female dynamics — like Afghanistan — are the world’s poorest and bloodiest. The road to progress runs through vaginas.

* Like in Colombia. Phil Klay’s novel, Missionaries depicts sickening violence involving police, army, paramilitaries, insurgents, and drug gangs. Drugs really the root cause of it all. More specifically, drugs’ illegality.

** I wrote about this subject myself, in 2018: