Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Caste: America’s deep problem

January 14, 2021

Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, about Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South, was inspiring. Her new book Caste is dispiriting.

Wilkerson defines caste as a cognitive system situating people in a social hierarchy, governing who’s on top and what others are deemed allowed to do. Captured in that old locution about Blacks “knowing their place.” She brackets America with the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. Seeing this as the skeleton underlying America’s social architecture, analogized to the unseen programming imprisoning people in The Matrix, with only rare individuals able to realize it and free themselves.

So this isn’t just about race and racism. Nor does the word “class” cover it, referring to economic differences. Caste is a broader concept, concerning social status relationships. The ability of even the most degraded Whites to hold themselves above Blacks has been a crucial fact of American culture. Taking it away feels devastating to many, relegating them to the bottom.

Wilkerson posits “Eight Pillars” for a caste system:

1) Divine sanction. Blacks supposedly descended from Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, cursed by him (unjustly).

2) Heritability — people born unchangeably into their caste.

3) Regulating procreation to preserve caste boundaries.

4) A concept of purity versus pollution. Thus the “one drop of blood” rule concerning ancestry. I recalled Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! — where a plantation owner rejects his daughter’s suitor — not because he was already married — nor even the relationship being incestuous. The real reason: one drop.

5) Occupational segregation, exemplified in India, where caste dictates one’s work.

6) Dehumanization and stigma. Wilkerson details how Nazis and America’s slave system stripped victims of perceived humanity.

7) Terror as enforcement and control. To keep slaves in check, they were brutalized, even though this meant masters damaging their own property. Emancipation removed even that inhibiting factor. Thus lynchings.

8) Concepts of inherent superiority and inferiority. Each caste supposedly deserving its status.

Wilkerson gives a harrowing account of slavery’s U.S. history. While slavery has existed since civilization’s beginnings, in most cases victims bore no physical markers for their status. Thus it was subject to erasure. Even India’s rigid caste system is short on overt physical cues. But in America the visual distinctiveness of Blacks served to exacerbate their perceived low status and perpetuate it across generations.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, the Nigerian protagonist says she never knew she was Black until she came to America. Wilkerson quotes a similar statement, likewise saying no European is “White” before coming here. She makes the familiar argument that these racial categories are not actually biological facts but social constructs. Human DNA is 99.9% identical. The supposed division into three “races” was always junk science, struggling to justify some sort of hierarchy among people based on immaterial variations. It’s nonsense to deem any human subgroup innately superior or inferior. And in any case “racial” characteristics are not distinct but blend into each other in a continuum of gradations. Some “Whites” are darker than some “Blacks.”

Yet these points seem at odds with Wilkerson’s argument about clear visual markers facilitating U.S. caste divisions. Those differences of skin color and other physical attributes are real enough. We know what we mean when saying someone is Black. And that, Wilkerson writes, is “the historic flash card to the public of how [Blacks] are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of position they are expected to hold,” and so forth.

She relates some humiliating personal experiences. In one, as a New York Times reporter, she went to a scheduled interview, and the guy wouldn’t accept who she was. Saying, “I must ask you to leave, I’m awaiting an important interview with the New York Times.”Reading of Wilkerson’s air travel indignities reaffirmed my eschewing First Class and its entitled jerks — but also reminded me of my white privilege. I’ve hated that term; believing it’s just normality; that the issue is really Black dis-privilege. But the book made me think about my running in airports and other public places — very risky if I weren’t white.

There is a large political dimension to all this. Wilkerson describes a film of Germans adulating Hitler. She says the Nazis needed masses falling under the spell, susceptible to propaganda giving them an identity to believe in. Seeing the same dynamic in Jim Crow’s brutalities, reflecting the “weaknesses of the human immune system.” Not speaking biologically, of course. She quotes psychologist Erich Fromm regarding one aspect of dominant caste mentality: “He is nothing, but if he can identify with his nation, or can transfer his personal narcissism to the nation, then he is everything.” And social theorist Takamichi Sakurai: “Group narcissism leads people to fascism . . . a fanatical fascist politics, and extreme racialism.” Fromm too pointed to Nazi Germany and (writing in 1964) the U.S. South. With the working class particularly susceptible — “eager to have a leader with whom it can identify.” And “the narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.” Does this ring a bell?

Many of us imagined Obama’s election signified America finally graduating to post-racial nirvana. But the book discusses how it freaked out many Whites and actually triggered retrogression. Not just a backlash by bitter-enders, but a general heightening of White caste truculence. Before, dominance loss seemed hypothetical and distant. Now it felt real and present. Made worse by Obama being so obviously a superior person, confounding negative stereotypes about Blacks. The old hierarchy (in which Whites knew their place) seemingly turned upside down. Antipathy toward Blacks increased.

While liberals have long bemoaned working class people voting against their economic interests, many actually see their interests differently — putting caste status above other concerns. Viewing undeserving groups as getting ahead at their expense. And Republicans as representing White caste interests, while Democrats represent the groups threatening them.

Republicanism also reflects evangelicals’ abortion obsession. But that always seemed excessive. Now I wonder whether it’s a kind of displacement for something deeper: racial caste anxiety. I come back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor (in The Righteous Mindof the rider and elephant, representing the conscious and unconscious minds. The rider thinks they’re directing the elephant, but it’s really the other way around. Riders may believe they’re battling abortion — but are their subconscious elephants ruled by caste insecurity?

And Wilkerson says that while most White Americans disavow or even ostensibly oppose racism, so pervasive is Blacks’ stigmatization that 70-80% hold unconscious biases affecting their behavior without their even realizing it. She also thinks this lies behind America’s social ethos being harsher than in other advanced countries where people are more caring toward each other. Whom they see as fellow citizens, like themselves. America has, rather than such social solidarity, a deep resentment by the White dominant caste toward nonwhite others. Thus all the hostility toward social programs, again seen as unduly benefiting those (undeserving) others.

Wilkerson quotes historian Taylor Branch: given a choice between democracy and Whiteness, how many would choose the latter? And she similarly queries whether the U.S. will adhere to the principle of majority rule if the majority looks different. Some at least gave us an answer on January 6 when White supremacists carrying Confederate flags invaded the U.S. Capitol — something they never accomplished in 1863. Their caste defensiveness translating into nihilistic, anti-democratic, anti-rationalist Trumpism.

Wilkerson notes that Germany has no Nazi memorials, they’re ashamed about that history. There are neo-Nazis in America but not Germany. They have memorials to victims, and even pay compensation to them. My mother still gets a monthly check, having escaped the Nazis. But in my childhood, Jews’ own past history as a despised caste engendered no sense of solidarity with Black Americans. They were indeed considered below us in exactly the way Wilkerson describes.

Yet I believe most Americans have now progressed beyond that. Wilkerson’s interview anecdote seemed more bizarre than typical. That guy shamed himself, not her. Only a fool today would be thrown off by seeing a Black in any prestigious role.

Black Americans do still suffer from persistent after-effects of past subordination. America spent almost twice as long with slavery than without, and the societal impacts don’t disappear easily. Particularly fraught are Blacks’ interactions with police and the criminal justice system. But whereas in the past, such disparate treatment was accepted as normal, that is no longer true, with widespread public understanding that it’s wrong and needs fixing.

At one point Wilkerson refers to a coddling of Whites’ self-images “from cereal commercials to sitcoms.” Perhaps she doesn’t watch enough mainstream TV to realize that ads nowadays actually disproportionately feature Blacks. But many Whites have noticed. My 2017 blog post about this got more hits than any other, and way more comments — the vast majority expressing crude racist hatred. But they’re surely no representative sample of American sentiment.

When I see a Black person, I do see a likely descendant of slaves — but as part of recognizing something opposite to Wilkerson’s theme — the remarkable degree to which such people are normalized — integrated — in today’s culture. Increasingly, I see them as the very backbone of America, in job after job, the working folks who make our society function.

A recent David Brooks column observed that “racial sensitivity training” never seems to actually change people’s attitudes. What does, he said, is putting them in extended relationships with different people. They adapt to the new circumstances, developing new conceptions of who is “us” and who is “them.”

Wilkerson writes of a plumber arriving at her house in a MAGA hat. At first he was cold and unhelpful. But then both spoke of recently losing mothers. That human connection overrode the caste hostility. We have similarly seen examples where antipathy toward immigrants melts when people actually interact with them.

White supremacy is a lie, and people believing it prove who’s really inferior. While Blacks who, despite all the crap they have to endure, are decent human beings, prove they’re the superior ones. As activist Kimberly Jones said, Whites are lucky Blacks want only equality — not revenge.

Racial conflict is not inevitable. After the Civil War, with Blacks only just emerged from the most degrading, despised condition, and few Whites truly believing them equal, America nevertheless made them voting citizens. That humanistic generosity of spirit still takes my breath away.

Strangely, Wilkerson says virtually nothing about what I see as the true caste divide in today’s America — not between races but educational levels. Blacks who get well educated basically join the upper caste. That’s not to say they never experience painful slights like those Wilkerson relates. But those are not (or needn’t be) central to their overall life experience.

It is true that race and educational attainment do correlate to an unfortunate degree. This is the biggest continuing after-effect of America’s racialized history. We cannot erase skin color but we can— if we really set our minds to it — ensure equal educational opportunities. It’s long overdue and would solve most of the problem we all live with.

January 6, 2021 — A date which will live in infamy

January 6, 2021

Today, January 6, 2021 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States was attacked — by an insurrectionary mob storming the capitol — and by over 100 Republican senators and representatives preparing to vote to overthrow a free and fair democratic election. In favor of a criminal, incompetent, mendacious monster, literally insane. Who they thusly helped to incite the defilement of our country in the eyes of a shocked world. 

Perhaps those Congressional Republicans, knowing they’d lose, imagined their votes were consequence-free. This afternoon proved otherwise. It all shows how far to the dark side they’ve gone. Nothing is more fundamental to a democratic culture than election losers accepting winners’ legitimacy.

While Trump had long thrown the word “coup” at opponents, THIS was truly part of an attempted coup. Many foreign autocrats have tried similar, too often succeeding. We may have been saved only by Trump’s deranged incompetence.

Congressional Republicans seeking to overthrow the election invoked alleged voting irregularities. Those originated as a pack of lies by Trump, made up out of nothing, because his diseased mind could not take losing. Then right-wing media whipped it up into a frenzy of conspiracy theories. But all Trump’s lawsuits were thrown out, many by Republican judges, some his own appointees. Many election officials attacked are Republicans, as are Georgia’s, who Trump openly browbeat to falsify vote counts. In the end, not a single Biden ballot was proven fraudulent. As if Democrats needed fraud to defeat a monster who horrified a majority of voters. 

Ironically, while Trump insists Democrats cheated, especially in Georgia, it’s actually Republicans who did — especially in Georgia — by blocking many Democrat-leaning voters (particularly Blacks) from casting ballots. And who was pushing state officials to falsify vote counts? This depravity likely contributed to Georgia electing two Democrats — a Black and a Jew! — to the United States Senate. 

Yet Tuesday Trump was idiotically doubling down, tweeting fraud about the Georgia Senate elections too. Demanding Mike Pence throw out electoral votes while presiding over their counting. Publicly calling him a coward for refusing to thusly act unconstitutionally. Then today’s speech by this “law and order” president inciting his mob to attack the capitol. Later calling for peace even while (mostly) hammering the stolen election lie. “A landslide” he dementedly claimed. Actually justifying the insurrection. 

Leaderless, the law enforcement response to it was largely absent. What if it were BLM protesters storming the capitol? 

President-elect Biden pledges efforts to work with Republicans, and heal our partisan divisions. Lord knows that’s desperately needed. But good luck. They’ve long been demonizing Biden as a corrupt fool fronting for socialist radicals and even Satan himself. Now furthermore declaring his election an illegitimate fraud. So far out on a limb they can’t climb down.

The Tea Party savaging Obama was a tempest in a teacup compared to what Biden faces. Thank goodness these criminal seditionists have lost control of the Senate, limiting their mischief-making power. But they’ll still try to sabotage Biden so Republicans can run in 2022 and ’24 calling Democrats do-nothing failures. Contrasting Trump’s “achievements!” (Forget a half million dead and a vandalized capitol itself.) Make America great again again !

And they will insist that sliming Biden, obstructing him, even denouncing his legitimacy, is merely fair turnabout because that’s what Democrats did to Trump. Well, they did resent his winning the presidency while losing the popular vote. But no one denied he was properly elected under our constitutional system. Hillary Clinton graciously conceded right away. Did not falsely cry fraud and launch a blizzard of phony lawsuits. Her supporters did not vilify and even threaten election officials doing their jobs. Democrats did not vote in Congress to overthrow the election. Or refuse transition cooperation, or talk about martial law, while Obama remained president. Nor stormed the capitol! 

They did criticize many Trump actions and policies. That’s normal politics in a democracy. They also did investigate wrongdoing. Such governmental accountability too is part of democracy. Do we want a country without those things? Like China or Russia?

The Russia investigation (launched, don’t forget, by Trump’s own Justice Department) was no “hoax.” Proved Russia did mess with our 2016 election — with the connivance of Trump operatives (like campaign manager Manafort, convicted of a slew of crimes). The impeachment was no hoax. Proved Trump did improperly withhold military aid, trying to extort a bribe from Ukraine’s president in the form of smearing Biden.

The Republican counter-narratives are simply counter-factual. No excuse for yet more denial of reality, regarding Biden’s legitimate election. Taking our political polarization to a new level of crazy; aggravating the pre-existing condition of Trump cultism. Today was its long-feared gotterdammerung. 

Shouldn’t this Republican assault upon democracy itself delegitimize them forever? But their diehard adherents, almost half the electorate, are unfazed. They don’t need to fool many others to win. In 2020 they came frighteningly close to re-electing Trump. While actually increasing their strength in statehouses, gaining yet more control over gerrymandering and ways to make voting harder.

Will today’s historic vandalization of democracy — both by the Trump-incited mob, and the Congressional Republican majority voting with them — prompt any GOP officeholder to cry “Enough!” and leave the party? Probably not. That’s how extreme our partisan division is. There’s no hope of Republican redemption.

Meantime, a future Kamala Harris candidacy — brown-skinned, and female, and more to the left — will unhinge them even more. Trump could conceivably return. Even more dangerous would be a Trump clone without all his ugly baggage and handicaps of incompetence and mental illness.

Most Trump voters are good decent people. Except when it comes to politics, not a big part of their lives. People can be 98% rational, but that other 2% is a killer. And when the political insanity bears its ultimate rancid fruit, it will be too late. We’ve seen that befall too many other countries. God does not make America somehow immune.

In two weeks we will have, at long last, a decent, honest, capable, experienced, sensible president, conscientiously public-spirited, who is sane, who will undo much of the damage, especially to our global standing, rescuing our democracy. Yet I am under no illusion that it’s a final victory. The war of reason against unreason continues.

UPDATE: Click here for a list of the 6 Republican Senators and 121 House members who finally did vote to overthrow American democracy.

Crime and punishment in America

January 5, 2021

Cheryl Roberts is an ex-Judge, currently serving as Executive Director of the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, as well as corporation counsel for the City of Hudson. She spoke recently to my humanist society. Her topic was mass incarceration — more specifically, the criminalization of mental illness and substance disorders.

America has the highest incarceration rate of any country. That’s right, of any country. We have less than 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. Our imprisonment rate is five to ten times higher than for other democracies.

Is it because we have that much more crime? Of course not. Though we do have way more gun crime because of our insane gun culture. Roberts noted that U.S. incarceration numbers rose from about 200,000 in 1973 to 2.2 million in 2009. Since then they’ve stayed at about that level. But during that interval crime rates actually fell dramatically. That decline was probably partially attributable to imprisoning dangerous people, though cultural/societal and demographic factors were likely more salient. In any case, an eleven-fold increase in incarceration obviously can’t be justified on the basis of crime rates.

It disproportionately affects mainly minority men under 40, who are already disadvantaged, educationally and economically, etc. For all Americans, the lifetime chance of being imprisoned is 6% [a scary enough figure]; for black men it’s 32%. And meantime, over half of the prisoner population suffers from some kind of mental illness. Such people are ten times likelier to see the inside of a prison than a psychiatric facility.

Also, for those with untreated mental illness, the risk of dying in interactions with police is 16 times greater than for people not so afflicted. And it’s not because the mentally ill are more likely to be engaged in criminality. Actually, according to Roberts, they are more likely to be victims of crime.

And prison, she said, is the last place they should be, suffering horribly there. It’s hard enough even for “normal” people to cope with imprisonment. Roberts cited a Virginia study of 400 prison deaths, finding 41% associated with solitary confinement, 44% were suicides, 18% were tasered, etc.

How did we get here? Roberts quoted John Ehrlichman (a Nixon confidante, speaking decades later) saying that the Nixon administration wanted to hit two “enemies” — blacks and anti-war leftist protesters. Launching a “war on drugs” with harsh penalties was a way to kill those two birds with one stone. It’s the war on drugs that still accounts for the bulk of America’s over-incarceration. Treating drugs, more sensibly, as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one would go far toward addressing both the drug problem and the over-incarceration madness.

While drug use is correlated, to some degree, with mental problems, not all cases where mental problems get people in trouble with the law are drug-related. Mentally ill people used to be put in asylums; one such gave us the word “bedlam.” They were not indeed pleasant places. Thus there was a big societal push to get folks out of them. One impetus was adoption of a Medicaid rule prohibiting payment for most hospital care for the mentally ill.

Roberts noted that in the 1960s we had about 560,000 psychiatric hospital beds; four decades later it was down to about 50,000, for a national population double the size. Those beds came to be used mainly for people coming out of the criminal justice system, deemed incompetent to stand trial. While perhaps incongruously, what was originally the psychiatric hospital population was largely shifted into prisons. (Or into homelessness.)

Roberts said our high incarceration rate reflects a policy choice to use prison as a response to crime; and said it’s that policy that’s criminal. Actually, while certainly some very bad people are sent to prison, that’s not true of most inmates. And for them, incarceration is indeed a very bad, even self-defeating, societal response to whatever they’ve done. Partly that’s because prison is such a blunt tool; we call it the “correctional” system, but actually correcting antisocial behavior doesn’t much enter into it. With a little smartness, we could use prisons to help inmates overcome the personal problems that got them there. But such sensible programs* are very rare in U.S. prison systems.

* I’ve written about them: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/how-to-reduce-crime/

Rick Burns, democracy in action, and my coming of age

January 3, 2021

I saw a January 1 obituary for a Richard “Rick” Burns, and it pricked a distant memory. I wasn’t even sure I had the name correct. But his age seemed about right, as did the photo — insofar as I could recall a face I’d seen just once, half a century ago. Then reading the details did show him active in Republican politics then.

So was I. In 1972, my GOP ward leader in Albany quit, wanting me to succeed him. A meeting of committee members was called. This was when we stood for reform, and our ward was the feistiest, actually having a full committee roster. The county leadership sent some operatives to our meeting, introducing Rick Burns as our next ward leader. We’d never seen him before, but were told we had no choice. Several members got up to argue. Discussion was long and heated. Then we voted, and I was elected unanimously.

A true instance of democracy in action.

So Rick Burns was the only person ever to lose an election to Frank Robinson. And that meeting felt like my coming of age. I’d been active in campus politics, but always as an outsider, playing the quixotic clown figure. But now, at that ward meeting, I was finally the serious man. Those other guys, sent from headquarters, were the clowns.

To see that obituary, of a person whose path crossed with mine, so fleetingly, yet tellingly, so very long ago, gave me a frisson of the strangeness of life. And then I remembered that also at that meeting was a woman who’d later represent my coming of age in a different way.*

*https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/ask-a-very-personal-story/

Farewell 2020

January 1, 2021

(We had a zoomed family holiday poetry slam. Here’s my poem.)

2020 Farewell,

A year from Hell;

A year of years,

Of fears and tears.

A sickness spread across the land,

The president without a plan,

A sickness of our national soul,

Fallen into a deep black hole.

Half the country gone insane,

Backing that evil monster’s reign,

Embracing his every lie;

How many had to die?

With children in cages,

Among countless outrages.

The choice was stark,

Between light and dark.

And when finally voted out,

Reality he did flout,

Trying to overturn the vote,

To cut our democracy’s throat.

And so we’ve been tested,

But were not bested;

Up against a wall,

We’ve come through after all.

And in the end,

We’re on the mend.

We did not fail;

We shall prevail.

George Will: What is conservatism?

December 27, 2020

American “conservatism” has become a perverted travesty of its former self. Writer George Will, in his book, The Conservative Sensibility, offers a bracing corrective. Discussed in a terrific interview with the New York State Writers Institute’s Mark Koplik.

Both Will and I came to conservatism in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. And left with Trump. Mainline “conservatism” is no longer a philosophy, it’s a tribal cult.

Will begins by differentiating between two kinds of sociopolitical divisions. One — the healthy sort — involves ideas. Differing interpretations of history and understandings of the world, leading to differing policy perspectives. Those can be argued, and having such arguments is a very positive American thing. If you don’t like arguments, you’re in the wrong country. And you shouldn’t see a disagreement over ideas as an attack on your personhood.

One thing I’ve noticed is that blog comments by Trump supporters almost never actually advance arguments. Rarely grapple substantively with opposing points or facts. Instead they’re mainly bald (and usually irrelevant) assertions and ad hominem disparagement.

This introduces the second, unhealthy kind of division, tribalism. Where it’s all us-against-them, the individual subsumed into a tribal identity. We are all embedded in social, cultural settings, but a person is much more than that, Will said. He does recognize that attachments to subgroups are a normal part of life. But it’s another thing when that becomes the basis of your personal identity, your tribe. Especially pernicious when it incorporates a set of political stances. Will spoke of “furnishing” one’s mind by swallowing such precepts whole, so you never have to think about things for the rest of your life. American “conservatism” has become that kind of tribal cult (in thrall to a very bad guru).

Yet, says Will, the whole point of modernity is the contrary, to rescue individuality from being a passive plaything of circumstances. That is, to rescue human agency. We have the free will to change our destiny. Will called the opposite view “historicism.” That’s a nod to Karl Popper, whose 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies similarly argued that we are not prisoners of some historical inevitability.

So what are the positive ideas constituting George Will’s conservatism (and my own)?

He saw them as actually America’s foundational ideas, the nation “conceived in liberty” as Lincoln put it. Democracy, Will said, is a process; liberty a condition, which comes first. Government does not give us rights, but is our creation as their guardian. Thus it should be inherently limited — strong enough to protect our rights but not so strong as to threaten them. The Bill of Rights was enacted to put certain things beyond the reach of majorities.

Will strongly distinguished American conservatism from its European antecedents, rooted in Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and defense of hierarchies, in opposition to egalitarianism and the dynamics of change. Thus “conserving” the status quo. This has always been a misnomer as concerns the American version, at least since the 1950s, opposing much of the prevailing dispensation. Will says that what it wants to “conserve” is America’s founding principles, while not otherwise being hostile to change. It celebrates the free market precisely because of the spontaneous “churning” it produces, making for progress and upward mobility. Unlike the stagnation when government controls everything (the extreme example being the old Soviet Union).

Thus Will correctly traces American conservatism not to Burke but rather to the classical European liberalism of thinkers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill.* The aim is to promote individualism while also having a commodious civic life. The drama of modern politics is people disagreeing about “the good;” the challenge is to accommodate such diversity, so we can pursue differing visions but still coexist.

Asked whether his stance is “libertarian,” Will said he’s “libertarian-ish” (the pure doctrine having untenable implications). Will characterized his moderated libertarianism as a common sense approach that practically everyone actually embraces. The key idea being that if government tells us what to do, it ought to have a strong reason (consistent with its remit of protecting us from each other while maximizing freedom).

But none of this has much to do with what calls itself “conservative” in today’s America: an incoherent conceptual mess. Nor of course does it resonate on the big-government censorious left. The sound structure of classically liberal ideas that Will lays out is a homeless vagabond in the nation’s current political landscape.

Will’s conservatism entails an ethos of carefulness, with respect for facts and reality, also obviously gone out the window under Trump. In favor of “alternative facts” one prefers to believe. Of course that’s not exclusive to the right; Will speaks of a left-wing academic culture with a “high ratio of certainty to information.” But a salient example on the right is the trope of America founded as a “Christian nation.” That’s not just historically false, here again it’s today’s conservatives turning upside down what our founding principles actually were.*

Will in contrast forthrightly calls himself an atheist. And morality, he says, comes from philosophy, not religion. I would add that it’s actually encoded in our biology; and philosophy explicates moral principles we already feel in our bones. We don’t, says Will, need anything from the supernatural (which doesn’t exist anyway).

Indeed, that can only be a source of moral confusion. American conservatives are steeped in religion, and religion’s divorcement from rationality and reality set the stage for their going off the rails morally with Trumpism. That’s how we got children ripped from mothers’ arms and put in cages. 

* “Liberalism” still has that meaning in Europe, different from what Americans call “liberal” politics. In fact, the U.S. left opposes that kind of classical liberalism, labeling it “neo-liberal” as a pejorative.

** I’ve discussed the history here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/was-america-founded-as-a-christian-nation/

Trump’s latest criminal pardons

December 24, 2020

In 2007, four Blackwater organization operatives, working on contract for the U.S. military in Iraq, committed what by all accounts was an unprovoked and indefensible massacre, a shooting spree killing 14 innocent Iraqi civilians including women and children, and wounding 17 others. It was called Baghdad’s “Bloody Sunday.” The U.S. government went to great effort and expense to investigate this atrocity, gather evidence, and bring those responsible to trial. In compliance with our obligations under international law, and demonstrating America’s commitment to humanity and justice. The four were found guilty and received prison sentences from 12 years to life.

Trump has now pardoned them. Mumbling something about trial irregularities — dismissed as simply nonsense by people knowledgeable about the case. It was thoroughly investigated by the FBI, and the verdicts were hailed as incontrovertibly proper.

Blackwater is headed by Eric Prince, who just happens to be a big Trump donor and the brother of his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVoss. This week Trump also pardoned several criminals who were prosecuted in connection with the proven 2016 Russian election subversion (which Trump falsely calls a “hoax”), including supreme slimeball Paul Manafort (convicted of illegal lobbying, tax evasion, and multimillion dollar financial fraud connected with his working for foreign dictators). And Trump pardoned two ex-Congressmen, Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins, both convicted of serious financial crimes, who had been among Trump’s earliest Congressional supporters in 2016. And Jared Kushner’s father (prosecuted by Chris Christie), convicted of tax evasion, witness tampering, and campaign finance violations.

Presidents were given pardon power for mercy and to rectify injustices. But one former federal prosecutor likened Trump’s latest pardons as those of a mob boss.

All this comes on top of a long string of other politically smelly and corrupt crony pardons, including racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio; propagandist Dinesh D’Souza; Roger Stone; and Michael Flynn. All convicted of serious crimes. None of these pardons went through the customary Department of Justice review process. They were just Trump’s whims.

And the Blackwater case reprises Trump’s previous pardons for a Navy SEAL court-martialed and convicted by a military jury for war crimes, and other soldiers punished for misconduct. Trump’s actions horrified military brass, who said they represented a crisis in military governance, undermining good order and discipline in the ranks. Which of course rests upon the concept of accountability for transgressions. Trump also fired the Navy Secretary who objected to those pardons. (So much for Trump posturing as a champion of the military.)

The further perversion of justice represented by the Blackwater pardons has been met with widespread shock and dismay by responsible observers. Human Rights Watch calls it contempt for the rule of law. It’s a gut-punch to the people of Iraq, who’d believed justice was being done. It’s a terrible black eye for America’s standing in the world. It will make things harder for U.S. troops everywhere, who will now be looked upon with heightened suspicion.

America’s greatest asset, in its global relationships, has been not its economic or military power, but admiration for this country as being indeed admirable, standing for what’s right, upholding universal values. Putin and China jeer that that’s just bullshit, that we’re hypocrites, as bad as they are. Trump is trying to prove them right after all. Telling the world we don’t give a damn if our soldiers commit atrocities.

Trump did this latest pardon blizzard while completely ignoring covid’s accelerating death toll; except to irresponsibly trash the covid relief bill negotiated without him; and vetoing the military budget for taking Confederate names off bases; while still obsessing about somehow overthrowing the election.

Trump cultists, who call themselves “patriots,” trying to shrug off or defend the pardons (with predictable whataboutism — Marc Rich pardon? — and other lame deflections) will prove their literally insane moral depravity.

Equally insane is their denial that Trump lost a fair election — in part due to his long record of reprehensible conduct like these despicable pardons.

Is this their idea of “draining the swamp?” Of “law and order?” That slogan may still play in Trumpmania. But I wonder how it plays today in Baghdad.

Still four weeks to go. God help us.

Airplane! Don’t call me Shirley

December 23, 2020

Remember when you got a full meal on domestic flights? When you’d board a plane with no security line? When female flight attendants were called “stewardesses” (and they all were female)?

Remember flying?

On Netflix my wife and I stumbled on the 1980 film “Airplane!” Remember when comedies were actually full of laughs?

Of course not all were. But this one sure was. The gags were sometimes lame, yet funny for their very lameness, with puns abounding. This film’s iconic signature piece of dialog:

“Surely you can’t be serious.”

“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

“Airplane!” was, again, very much a time capsule. There was political incorrectness you couldn’t get away with now. Like two Black passengers using dialect so thick it needed subtitles. When a stewardess can’t understand them, a white passenger (played by Barbara Billingsley, who my wife remembered as Beaver’s mom) steps up to interpret, saying, “I speak jive.” Hearing her do so was jarring.

Both pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated by sickness, and stewardess Elaine takes one of their seats. Instructed to press the “automatic pilot” button, it inflates a pilot-shaped balloon into the other seat. The sexual aspects of Elaine’s relationship with the automatic pilot are tastefully explored.

Meantime, Elaine’s (other) boyfriend, Striker, couldn’t get past his WWII fighter pilot tragedy. This couple didn’t seem to have aged in the intervening 35 years, but never mind that detail. Anyhow, Elaine, finally having had enough of Striker’s crippling emotional baggage, left him behind when boarding the plane. He determines to overcome his fear of flying and go after her.

“Smoking or non-smoking?” the ticket agent asks him. (Remember smoking on planes?)

“Smoking,” Striker answers, so he’s handed a ticket that’s literally spewing a plume of smoke.

My wife chimed in, “He’s going to save the plane.”

She’s always right; of course he does. And they live happily ever after. (It helps if you never age beyond twenty.)

The autopilot, it seems, also lives happily ever after, with an inflated female counterpart.

We give this film two thumbs up, four stars, and a partridge in a pear tree.

For Trump disease, there’s no vaccine

December 20, 2020

WAMC, the local NPR station, has a morning “roundtable” of journalists and others discussing the news. In 2015 it became the Trump roundtable; even while his candidacy was still seen as a joke, he was sucking up attention like no other personage ever had. Of course it intensified during his chaotic presidency.

That would cease, columnist David Brooks once predicted, with Trump’s 2020 defeat. Republicans would abjure him as that most despised of beings, a loser. But Trump seems to be pulling off his biggest con of all — convincing them (and probably himself) he actually won the election. Being cheated by a massive conspiracy of fraud.

This delusion piles one more upon a towering edifice of nurtured grievances, and fits right in with fantasizing Trump as some tribune battling a Satanic “deep state” cabal conniving to bring him (and America) down. They’ve long salivated for his final triumph. Seems they’ll have to wait longer. More reason to continue giving him money.

Which of course he’s cynically exploited, with floods of “stop the steal” email appeals. They’re the real 2020 election fraud — because instead of financing Trump’s disgraceful ballot litigation, most of the money goes elsewhere. After the electoral college vote, the “defend the election” theme vanished from emails, perhaps now looking too absurd even for Trump chumps. Yet they’re still being relentlessly squeezed for cash.

And the sore loser assault on democracy is unabated. The messages now label Biden an “illegitimate president,” while Trump refuses to meet with him or otherwise cooperate in the transition, continuing his shredding of civic norms. It’s not merely ugly. All this does great harm to the country.

Key to democratic culture is willingness to amicably accept election outcomes and the legitimacy of the other side’s role. We’ve already long had a real problem here, with such divisiveness that political legitimacy itself had become a sore point. A president explicitly declaring his successor illegitimate carries that to a whole new level. 

One more way in which Trump has been the most destructive single person in America’s history. Being well versed in that history, I say this literally and judiciously.

We did hope to turn the page by voting him out. But this monster will continue sucking up attention, grinding down democratic norms, dividing us, and sabotaging efforts to dig ourselves out of the hole. Making his cult followers even more angry, embittered, and disaffected. Their worship unfazed by his hunkering in the White House dementedly plotting to overthrow an election he lost by seven million votes while he ignores everything else — including three thousand daily U.S. deaths.

For this sickness there’s no vaccine.

Another facet of Trump’s destructiveness is his blowing up our information ecosystem. To discredit any news he doesn’t like and create an alternate reality. Many Americans don’t know what to believe any more when it comes to basic public facts. Many, indeed, so befogged they can’t see through the most blatant disinformation — as with Trump’s “election fraud” scam. 

The internet’s proliferation of infogarbage paved the way. And now we’ve got lies spewed by shameless national propaganda broadcasters masquerading as news sources — Fox, and even more egregious, One America News Network and Newsmax.

The huge irony here is that for all Trump’s “fake news” assaults on mainstream media as his enemy, it’s actually that very media that played his game and gave him power by gifting him with an unprecedented spotlight. And while Trump whines that the media was out to get him, it was a largely uncritical spotlight. (Only lately have they found the guts to speak forthrightly of “baseless fraud claims” and the like in news coverage.) Many in the mainstream media by now seem to recognize how much they themselves foolishly helped create this monster.

Will they finally learn the lesson, and dampen Trump’s spotlight once he’s out of office? Or will they, like heedless moths to a flame,  continue giving over-the-top coverage to his every abominable rally and deranged tweet?

A test will come on January 20 when Trump tries to upstage the inauguration.

America’s sanity crisis

December 9, 2020

Though just 51% voted for Biden, I’d hoped his election might dispel the fog of insanity gripping most of the rest. But so far if anything it’s deepening.

Deepening too is America’s worst crisis of my lifetime. A 9/11’s worth of deaths every day, 15 million sickened, hospitals overwhelmed, psychological trauma, economic devastation widening. And where the fuck is the President??

If ever there was a time crying out for real national leadership, this is it. But Trump has been MIA for months about the pandemic. Except to claim credit for vaccines, even while he disregards the daunting challenge of administering them. Instead of working on that, or to curb covid’s spread, or with Congress on stalled relief legislation, instead of rallying the nation’s resolve or comforting the suffering — a deranged president in his bunker fixates on trying to undo the reality of his amply deserved election defeat. Spewing lies about nonexistent fraud. When the real fraud is scamming his suckers to donate to a phony “election defense fund” ($200 million and counting).

Peter Baker’s Sunday analysis in The New York Times* — “Trump’s final days full of rage and denial” — reads like literature. Full of Shakespearean references. Trump as some mad medieval monarch careening toward the implosive last act. Even after four appalling years, the picture now is yet more extraordinary and unnerving.

And astoundingly, 47% voted for this guy! One of the vilest men on Earth. Still swallow his lies, still worship him. Only 27 of 249 Republican members of Congress recognize Biden’s election; many say Trump won. In Pennsylvania, 75 GOP state legislators have called on Congress to reject the state’s Biden electors. Almost the whole party is complicit in what truly amounts to Trump’s (fortunately shambolic) coup attempt.

This is insane.

And it has grave consequences. It sets a terrible precedent for a future bad guy slicker than Trump. It will hobble the Biden administration’s ability to function in this time of crisis. While trust in the integrity of elections is a key pillar of our democracy. Now almost half the country thinks the whole system is illegitimate. Indeed, millions of Christians believe Trump was installed by God, with Biden a Satanic usurper. Literally! This is part of the crisis we’re in. It’s a sanity crisis.

A Staten Island bar owner was cheered by “supporters” after being busted for violating covid restrictions and then attacking a cop with his car. Last Friday, the New York Young Republican Club held a big gala in a New Jersey restaurant — none in New York would host such a prohibited event. The revelers, including Matt Gaetz, a Trump-crazed Florida Congressman, posed pressed together with big smiles — and no masks.

Local officials harshly condemned this irresponsibility. But club president Gavin Wax responded, “We embrace life and living while you all cower in your pods worried about a disease with a 99%+ survivability rate. The left wants you to live in a world where socializing and being with friends and loved ones is a crime and a sin. It’s sick.”

I too embrace life and living; I want to continue it. The 99% number is Trump’s, false of course, the true figure being somewhat lower. Yet even for survivors the illness is often a horrible ordeal, and a great many suffer lasting health problems. It’s the mindset represented by that club president that’s sick. Responsible for most of our quarter million deaths.

As is his inspiration: the U.S. President. Who could so easily have been a hero in this crisis. If only he’d taken it seriously, and especially, pushed masking and social distancing. They became anathema on the right only because of him. It made no sense. For all Trump’s obsession with re-election, by inviting the covid catastrophe he screwed himself (and us). But it’s not inexplicable. He’s clinically insane.

The six more weeks before sanity is restored in the presidency is way too long. During that interval covid’s ravages will be devastating. And so sadly preventable. President-elect Biden talks of asking Americans to mask for 100 days. Asking— not curtailing “freedom” but begging us to be good citizens, to protect the lives of others as well as our own. And while Trump has assailed Biden as threatening an economic lockdown, we already had that — under Trump — so mismanaged it didn’t work. We don’t need to repeat that disaster. We could keep most of the economy (and, especially, schools) open as long as we do so smartly, with ramped up testing and tracing, and observing the other kinds of sensible precautions, mainly masking and social distancing.

But too many Trumpsuckers, like those New York Republican clubbers, won’t comply. Half of people polled say they’ll even refuse vaccination. Theyll listen to a low-down lying lunatic of a president — but not Biden.

I’ve quoted Lincoln saying America cannot endure half slave and half free. Nor can we endure half sane and half nuts.

* Here’s a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/05/us/politics/trump-presidency-election-loss.html