Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Sentinel: The Statue of Liberty

August 17, 2019

In 1986, when the Statue of Liberty was being refurbished, I made a donation. Later, receiving another solicitation in the mail, I said to myself, “No, I already gave.” But I read the thing anyway. And guess what? I wrote another check. Love that gal.

For Christmas I received Francesca Lidia Viano’s book Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty. A 499-page tome delving deeply into the monument’s cultural, historical, mythological, iconographic background. It ominously begins with the story of the Trojan horse!

The statue was a gift from France, though no Trojan horse. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was the sculptor and chief promoter of the project. Less well known was the key role of Edouard de Laboulaye, a political and intellectual activist, collaborating with Bartholdi. Viano explores what they were thinking — and it had nothing to do with welcoming people to America.

They called her “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The torch obviously fit with that. Yet even that name seems to have been something of an afterthought. The book’s title, Sentinel, is more to the point. The lady was really meant to be a guardian. Thus her stern expression. She may even have a concealed weapon.

This has more to do with France’s cultural context than America’s. Her 1789 revolution was more of a societal upheaval than ours. And France had further revolutions, in 1830, 1848, and 1871. They also had Napoleon, long looming over the French psyche. Consequently, for them, Liberty had to be a combative figure. This is epitomized by Delacroix’s painting of the 1830 revolution, Liberty Leading the People. In that uprising by commoners, women were prominent; Viano suggests Delacroix’s Lady Liberty may have been a prostitute. Ours is that same gal (albeit more modestly clothed), with combativeness still part of her essence as originally conceived.

Bartholdi actually started with an idea for an Egyptian monument, but couldn’t sell it as such, so he Americanized it, as embodying friendship between his country and ours. But he soon realized it needed a larger moral meaning. As “Liberty” she has that, but ultimately Bartholdi envisioned even more. The statue may be seen as representing America itself, giving all humanity a new dawn.

Or as a memorial to Revolutionary war dead, both French and American. Celebrating sacrifice and regeneration. A monument to U.S. industrial strength; to maritime commerce; to global free trade. Her spiked crown may have been inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem Stella; it may represent a “morgenstern,” a medieval weapon, a club topped by spikes; or Christ’s crown of thorns. Or she could embody Hermes, messenger of the gods. A torch-bearer was a canonical figure in Masonic ritual. Or the torch could stand for the Promethean gift of fire; or, says Viano, she could represent “An Orpheus shedding light on man’s painful condition.” The lady did appear to have quite the dark side; there was something of the underworld about her.

And meantime, Bartholdi seems to have been much the momma’s boy — with a lot of her in the statue too.

All the foregoing actually doesn’t begin to dissect everything about her mythological, iconographic antecedents, as explored in the book. But all of that became somewhat beside the point, because America embraced the statue differently from what its progenitors imagined.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Emma Lazarus’s poem trumped everything else — imbuing the monument with a new, positive, humanistic, uniquely American meaning. Viano (perhaps too embedded in her Francophone story) gives Lazarus scarcely a page, saying that whereas the French vision was concededly too dark, hers “was much too benign.” She even mocks Lazarus’s reference to the lady’s “mild eyes,” when people at the time actually noted their severity.

But it’s her torch that’s really her essential feature; what she now represents being a synthesis between that physical image and the reflective imagery of the poem. The lamp lighting the way to the golden door.

And today, I see defiance in her pose; and if her eyes are tough, defiance in them too. Steely-eyed, she stands sentinel, more so now than ever. Our still undaunted guardian of what America means.

* * *

Postscript: Trump’s immigration worm, Stephen Miller, in a White House briefing, spat on the Lazarus poem, insisting it “is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.” The other day new strictures on immigrants were announced, denying green cards if they access any public benefits.* I heard on the radio someone said the poem should be changed to read “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” I assumed that was sarcasm from an administration critic. But no, it was said by Ken Cuccinelli — the acting head of ICE. He also said the poem referred only “to people coming from Europe.”

In fact it states, “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.”

This administration’s sadistic treatment of suffering migrants is a crime against humanity.

* To which they’re lawfully entitled. Had Congress, in enacting these programs, meant to limit them just to citizens, it could have so stipulated. It did not.

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Refugees: When the doors flew open

August 15, 2019

My friend Olga arrived here as a Soviet Jewish refugee in 1979; I’ve written about her. She got out just before the door slammed shut. The USSR was one big prison, especially for Jews, victims of severe discrimination.

My humanist group recently viewed a wonderful film about them, Stateless, mostly interview footage with refugees now in America, relating their stories. Seeing it was an emotional experience.

The plight of Soviet Jews became a big issue in the ’80s. When Gorbachev met with Reagan in Washington, large demonstrations demanded that Soviet Jews be let go. Reagan pressed Gorbachev on the issue (this was back when U.S. presidents still stood for what was right).

And the doors flew open.

But the Soviets made the exit a humiliating ordeal. Emigrants were milked for bribes at every step. Luggage was a particular problem; basically they were allowed to take only what they could carry, and getting the heavy bags from checkpoint to checkpoint was tough. At Sheremetyevo Airport, customs officers would roughly rifle through the suitcases, refusing to permit certain items, again extracting bribes.*

Meantime, the local police would know who was scheduled to leave; they’d break into apartments to steal the packed bags.

One woman said that when she’d handed over the final bribe, with almost her last rouble, she actually felt elated: a price worth paying to escape that prison.

The refugees traveled to Vienna, then to Italy, to await final transit to either Israel or America. Actually having a choice was an intoxicating novelty. That was one shock upon reaching the West. One guy spoke of his amazement to find, in airport bathrooms, free toilet paper! Wouldn’t people steal it? In fact some arrivees, still having that Soviet mentality, did just that. And then the abundance in stores was mind blowing. Some thought at first these must be Potemkin displays, plastic simulacra, not real goods.

People from government and aid agencies met them to help. But they viewed these offers with suspicion; the idea of such assistance seemed alien and implausible. Especially with no bribes even demanded! But on the streets, smiling cheerful people were another surprise. How unlike Moscow. So this was what freedom looked like.

Those opting for America needed refugee visas from consular officials who interviewed them to document their histories of persecution. This was hard; what they’d endured had been so internalized, so integral to seemingly normal life, they didn’t realize there was anything to report. While some, on the other hand, flagrantly embellished. (Lying was also the Soviet normal.)

With the sudden flood of visa applications, a large proportion were denied. This put the migrants in a terrible fix. They didn’t understand the system, had no idea what to do.

The issue came to the attention of Congress (this was back when it could still actually legislate to solve a problem). Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill relieving Soviet Jewish refugees from having to individually prove persecution. The bill swiftly passed.

And the doors flew open.

Hearing these people’s stories made me love it that they’re now my fellow Americans. Anyone with the grit to go through what they did to get here, I want here. This is what America means. This is what made it great.

* I remembered my own Sheremetyevo experience. “Numismatic tours” of Russia in 1993 and 1995, led by Erastus Corning Jr., were a fantastic buying opportunity — on the second trip I bought 92 pounds of coins. Erastus hired a local guy, Misha, to help us at customs. The customs officer was grim faced; examining my stash, he kept repeating, “it’s impossible.” Lengthy discussions in Russian ensued with Misha. Finally Misha left, and then the customs guy waved me through.

I met up with the others. Erastus said, “Give Misha $100.” I instantly understood, and handed over the money, saying “Wasn’t Misha taking a big risk?”

“Misha knows what he’s doing,” Erastus replied. “He was with the KGB.”

BREAKING NEWS: Amid Election Chaos, Trump Urges Shutdown

August 12, 2019

 

NOVEMBER 3, 2020

By James Thornton

and Julie Montalbano

Associated Press

____________________________________

                                       Washington

With today’s U.S. election in Russian-hacked chaos as millions of voters find their registrations seemingly voided, President Trump tweeted that he is “calling for a total and complete shutdown of the election process — until we can figure out what the hell is going on!!”

The extraordinary problems, almost surely from Russian hacking, have been reported in at least 32 states, with the voter registries distributed to local election boards missing many (if not most) entries. Voters affected are generally permitted to file paper provisional ballots, to be adjudicated later. However, the huge number of such time-consuming cases (with paper ballots often running out) has thoroughly snarled voting, causing very long lines — turnout was already breaking modern records — with many would-be voters giving up.

At stake in today’s election are not only the presidency but also all seats in the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, eleven state governorships, and thousands of other local offices.

Elections are supervised by state governments, not the president, and it was not immediately clear what effect, if any, Trump’s tweet would have. Canceling or postponing a national election would be unprecedented and constitutionally impermissible. Nevertheless, several Republican governors have indicated receptiveness to Trump’s call; most are silent; Democrats universally denounce it.

Predictably, Trump blamed Democrats for the voting problems, accusing them of trying to “rig the election” to deny him victory. He offered no basis for his accusation. Actually, it appears that mostly Democratic voter registrations are affected. And recent polls have shown Trump’s Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph Biden, with a consistent lead of landslide proportions in the ten to twelve percentage point range. Biden leads in all the “battleground states” and even in some former Republican bastions, including Texas, as the nation slides into a recession widely blamed on Trump’s trade wars.

Russia’s hand in today’s voting turmoil seems virtually certain. Knowledgeable observers note the Mueller probe’s irrefutable evidence that the Kremlin tried to similarly hack into state election systems in 2016. It appears that Russia has been more successful this time. In addition, the proven 2016 Russian social media disinformation campaign also escalated in 2020. Most notable, of course, was the purported “Socialist Biden” video, surfacing only Saturday, and quickly spreading as the most viral item in internet history. It appeared to show candidate Biden saying he favors making America “totally socialist;” borders completely open; allowing abortions up to nine months; and confiscating all guns. The video, though skillful, was swiftly exposed as completely fake, and experts pointed to Russia’s clear electronic fingerprints on it.

President Trump (who retweeted the video, and later denied doing so) has steadfastly refused to acknowledge any such Russian transgressions. In 2019, bipartisan legislation to combat anticipated Russian election subversion was blocked from a Senate vote by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky, called “Moscow Mitch” by some), leaving the nation largely defenseless.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a statement saying, “Tales of Russian involvement in America’s election confusion are delusional lies and laughable fabrications. The fact is that democracy is a dead system, and so-called ‘democratic elections’ have always been a sham.” Shortly afterward Trump tweeted that he accepts the Russian statement.

Candidate Biden, in a joint appearance today with running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, called for the election to go forward despite the hacking, and for “all hands on deck” to quickly resolve the problems. Biden said a voting shutdown, and its resulting constitutional chaos, would be exactly what Russia seeks. He urged voters to be patient and to “stand up for democracy — even if it does mean standing in long lines.” And Biden labeled Trump’s call to abort the election “the final illegitimate ploy by a disgraced and discredited president to cling to power, adding yet one more outrage to his endless rap sheet.”

 

(Note: This is not satire, nor fake news, but authentic future news. Remember you first read it here.)

Insanity: a global contagion

August 8, 2019

Hong Kong is China’s richest, most advanced, most economically vibrant part. When Britain agreed to return it in 1997, the deal was “one country, two systems.” China pledged to respect Hong Kong’s liberalism, rule of law, and move toward free elections there. The Chinese regime lied. Making clear by now they’ll never allow democracy anywhere.

They’ve shanghaied Hong Kong political targets back to China for intimidation and torture. More recently, they’ve proposed to legalize such extradition. Hong Kong erupted in massive protests. The extradition bill was shelved (for now). But meantime the regime further antagonized the population by meeting the protests with excessive violence. Even deployed gangs of goons to brutalize people. In response, the civil disobedience is ramping up.

A sane Chinese regime would strive to defuse this through dialog with its critics — encompassing most of Hong Kong’s population — making some concessions to mollify them. Instead the regime simply threatens more violence.

This will end badly. Likely China will send its army into Hong Kong, imposing martial law. Another Tienanmen bloodbath. Destroying the jewel of the nation. The regime acts like it was appointed by Heaven to rule in perpetuity, no matter what. That actually was the traditional Chinese theory of rulership. It has no place in the 21st century. It’s insane.

* * *

I’ve written of how India’s Hindu-nationalist Modi regime is trying to make its large Muslim minority into second-class citizens — or even non-citizens. Insanity, given the long bloody history of communal violence.

Kashmir is India’s lone Muslim-majority state. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have quarreled over it; in effect they’ve split it, amid chronic violence. But India’s half has always had its own local government, and elections, like the rest of the country. But now the Modi regime proposes to revoke that and rule Kashmir from the center. To what end? This will surely enrage the population and make Kashmir an even more contentious and violent trouble spot; while poisoning relations with India’s Muslim neighbors (notably Pakistan). Utterly insane.

* * *

Great Britain, in 2016, voted to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), by a narrow 52% margin. That “will of the people” has been sanctified by Brexiteers as holy writ — never mind that it was based on massive lies and disinformation (Russia had a hand). Brexiteers intone “will of the people” yet refuse to consult them further, ruling out a second referendum, even to vote on the actual Brexit deal — or lack thereof.

The deal negotiated with the EU — belying all Brexiteer promises — was clearly worse than continuing membership. But clearly better than leaving with no deal, which would be economic catastrophe. Brexiteers insist that’s a price worth paying. They’re even willing to see the country literally destroyed, as Brexit could well propel Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the union.

So they’ve made Boris Johnson prime minister. An irresponsible goofball windbag at a moment of gravest crisis. He vows Brexit will happen at the new deadline of October 31, deal or no deal, “do or die.” (Trump cheers him on.) Johnson says the odds against a no-deal Brexit are “a million to one,” yet has no clue how to get a deal that can pass his own red lines — and Parliament, which has thrice rejected the only deal possible.

The sticking point is to avoid a “hard border” with customs formalities between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, both of which hate the idea. The EU’s deal solves this by keeping Britain in its customs union. (The EU won’t screw Ireland, a member.) Brexit fanatics refuse to accept this. If Johnson caves on it, they’ll immolate him.

Their Conservative party — like our GOP — has gone off the deep end. So has the opposition Labour party, with 1940s hard left Stalinism.

Parliament (having no Conservative majority) has meantime also voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Johnson could get around this by suspending Parliament. Unconstitutional you say? Actually, Britain has no written constitution. This thing is driving the country into very dark waters.

What’s that word again? Insane.

* * *

And what of America? Electing a deranged moral creep, ignoramus, criminal con man, pathological liar, Russian tool, and hate-monger, trashing every ideal America ever stood for. And 40% still support him! While no matter how many mass shootings we have, we still cannot ban military style weapons whose only function is to kill a lot of people fast.

What’s that word again?

Trump and the white trash syndrome

July 31, 2019

Not all antebellum Southern whites owned slaves. Most were much too poor. They lived in squalor. But they had one consolation: holding themselves above blacks.

This actually accentuated after the war, when Southern poverty was ubiquitous. Read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by Evans and Agee, a searing portrait of Depression-era Southern deprivation — among whites. And again there was one thing they could cling to: at least they weren’t black.

It’s the white trash syndrome. Exemplified by the Ewells in To Kill a Mockingbird. In their depth of degradation, it was desperately important to be able to see one group, at least, as even lower.

To be clear, poverty itself is not degradation. Poorer people are not generally less worthy. While some may be responsible for their straits, the bigger factor is mere luck, especially who your parents were. Many poor people live honorable lives. Poverty makes that harder (and so poor people who do live upstanding lives deserve extra credit), but poverty doesn’t make you white trash. It’s what’s in your head and heart that does. And if you do have white trash attitudes, you more likely are responsible for your poverty.

It wasn’t the Southern aristocracy so insistent on keeping blacks “in their place.” Their position was secure and not threatened by blacks. It was instead the white trash feeling imperiled; if blacks prospered as respectable members of society, then the white trash would be on the bottom. So it was they who fought tooth and nail against giving blacks an inch, perpetrating the hideous violence aimed at keeping them down.

We’re seeing a version of this syndrome recrudesce in Trump support. Careful studies of polling data have shown that the one factor most closely correlated with Trump support is racial antagonism. Whites who are doing fine have no cause for animus against other ethnicities flourishing. But a big segment of today’s white population is not doing fine. Especially less educated middle aged men, especially outside major cities. This demographic looms large in the opioid crisis. That’s one way to cope with feeling devalued. Another, as with the old white trash syndrome, is sticking it to a different group they can see as even lower. They need to keep blacks where they were.

But they’re failing. Where non-whites were previously marginalized, they’re now mainstreamed, America becoming less white. This messes with some people’s sense of identity. Today’s America is no longer a collective they really feel tight with. Moreover, some see the change as actually happening at the expense of whites. So compounding the economic malaise is an aggrieved resentment, scapegoating non-whites. All the more potent if you furthermore imagine them inferior.

It’s evident in the flood of comments to a blog post I wrote, titled “Why so many blacks in ads?” One might have expected critiques along lines of “reverse racism” or overdone political correctness. Instead most simply vent hatred toward blacks. A recent one actually said racial divisions are caused by blacks’ violence; you never see whites acting that way! These people are obviously desperate to have a group they can look down on. (Oblivious that they’re actually proving their own inferiority.)

Of course Trump’s never actually said ethnic minorities are inferior — though he’s come close. He did apply the words “very fine people” to the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville. Racists, neo-Nazis, and KKKers cheered this, immensely empowered. Of course his disgusting recent racist tweetstorms play to them. And the cruel war on migrants, racialist at its core, is the core of Trump’s politics: as if he’ll at least keep the country from becoming even browner.

America’s white trash gets the message loud and clear. That’s why they stick with Trump no matter what. Not all Trump supporters are racist. But all racists are Trump supporters. If their hatefulness wins in 2020, America will be a white trash nation.

How to pick up girls in ancient Rome

July 26, 2019

“The past is a different country; they do things differently there.” We often romanticize “the good old days” because we’ve forgotten what they were really like. As a history buff, I don’t. While also being keenly aware that past peoples were not so different from you or me.

These thoughts were evoked in reading Alberto Angela’s book, The Reach of Rome. It was a gift from a coin customer, John Dunn, a history professor. It’s really good (despite a few mistakes*) in depicting the actual lives of people of all classes in Trajan’s time (98-117 AD). The subtitle is A Journey Through the Lands of the Ancient Empire Following a Coin — as it passes from hand to hand.

The Roman Empire was unique in human annals, stretching from Spain to Syria and Britain to Egypt, for half a millennium. Much of our modern culture is an evolution from our Roman heritage.

The book doesn’t sugarcoat the harsher aspects of Roman life. A battle is shown in quite gory detail. Slavery was a ubiquitous feature, and wasn’t confined to ethnic minorities. Many were taken in war, but that was well short of needs, and ordinary Romans were quite commonly kidnapped and enslaved.

Lives were short, with no consolation of belief in an afterlife. It was easy to die from an illness or injury that would be no big deal today. Medicine operated with a knowledge base approximating zero.

We’re shown a top surgeon operating to relieve a child’s brain tumor; he follows the prescribed procedure beautifully, but it won’t stop the tumor killing the kid.

Women were particularly perishable. Odds of dying in childbirth were one-in-ten. Do the math for having ten kids. (My calculator says a 35% chance of survival, but that ignores all other hazards.) However, the book suggests contraception existed, though giving no details.

And speaking of bad odds, the author says one in five sea voyages ended on the bottom. This may overstate the risk, but embarkation on such a trip was definitely very scary. And there were no lifeboats. Given this picture, you’d think people would at least learn to swim. But few Romans did (perhaps realizing it was pointless).

Mail service did not exist. To send a letter to another town, you’d have to find someone going there. If overseas, you’d go to the docks looking for a ship sailing there, and pay some passenger to take your letter and (hopefully) deliver it. If the ship makes it.

Yet it’s not all bad. These were again human beings, just like us, and one remarkable characteristic of the species is a capacity to cope with adversity and make the best of things. The book shows how Romans enjoyed themselves.

Specifically, there’s a lot of sex in it. While the punishment for adultery was severe (sealed in a sack with a snake, a chicken, and a dog, and thrown in the river), it wasn’t imposed too often, and Romans tended to be pretty easygoing and freewheeling. Prostitution wasn’t illegal and was everywhere. The author seems to skirt the issue of homosexuality, I suspect because the book was originally published in Italy. But homophobia was not a thing, and men were expected to want sex without it mattering much who or what was on the other end.

As to picking up girls, the book quotes at length from the poet Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, which was a pretty detailed instruction manual. Ovid explains where to go (the Circus Maximus was ideal), and how to go about it; where to sit, how to strike up a conversation, how to find excuses for touching. In the guise of helping to keep a gal’s hem undirtied, Ovid says, you could get a look at her legs.

Sure wish I knew about Ovid when I was a lad.

The Romans also had jokes, and the book includes a selection, presumably weeding out those that might baffle modern ears. Here’s one: A guy goes to a doctor and says, “Doc, when I wake up I feel dizzy for half an hour, then it goes away. What’s your advice?” The doctor: “Wake up half an hour later!”

Well, there’s been progress on the humor front over these two millennia.

And progressives will be glad to know that while we think of welfare as a fairly modern concept, the Romans actually had it. In fact, food stamps. Or the near equivalent. When Juvenal spoke of keeping people pacified with bread and circuses, this was literal. Every Roman, bar the wealthiest, was given a card entitling them to a monthly grain distribution. The card even specified the number of the arch where you were to line up. The eligible population was a couple hundred thousand, and the grain ration for each amounted to around half a ton annually; so organizing and administering this dole was a massive undertaking. And remember, computers were very primitive then.

Another thing the Romans had was globalization. Well, hemiglobalization; the Western hemisphere was of course unknown, but there was a vast trade in goods all over the Eastern. Roman coins have been found in Southeast Asia.

And something they did not have was racism and xenophobia. They welcomed immigrants from everywhere, reveling in a diverse society. There was at least one African emperor (very successful), Septimius Severus; a contemporary painting shows him rather dark skinned.

And history records no demands for his birth certificate. Nobody said, “Go back to Africa.”

* Angela talks of sestertii broken in half for change. A smaller coin, the As, worth a quarter sestertius, was often thusly halved. But I don’t recall ever seeing this with a sestertius, a big thick coin.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire

July 3, 2019

(A condensed version of my June 18 book review talk)

In this 2017 book Kurt Andersen is very retro; believes in truth, reason, science, and facts. But he sees today’s Americans losing their grip on those. Andersen traces things back to the Protestant Reformation, preaching that each person decides what to believe.

Religious zealotry has repeatedly afflicted America. But in the early Twentieth Century that, Andersen says, seemed to be fizzling out. Christian fundamentalism was seen as something of a joke, culminating with the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. But evangelicals have made a roaring comeback. In fact, American Christians today are more likely than ever to be fundamentalist, and fundamentalism has become more extreme. Fewer Christians now accept evolution, and more insist on biblical literalism.

Other fantasy beliefs have also proliferated. Why? Andersen discusses several factors.

First he casts religion itself as a gateway drug. Such a suspension of critical faculties warps one’s entire relationship with reality. So it’s no coincidence that the strongly religious are often the same people who indulge in a host of other magical beliefs. The correlation is not perfect. Some religious Americans have sensible views about evolution, climate change, even Trump — and some atheists are wacky about vaccination and GM foods. Nevertheless, there’s a basic synergy between religious and other delusions.

Andersen doesn’t really address tribalism, the us-against-them mentality. Partisan beliefs are shaped by one’s chosen team. Climate change denial didn’t become prevalent on the right until Al Gore made climate a left-wing cause. Some on the left imagine Venezuela’s Maduro regime gets a bum rap.

Andersen meantime also says popular culture blurs the line between reality and fantasy, with pervasive entertainment habituating us to a suspension of disbelief. I actually think this point is somewhat overdone. People understand the concept of fiction. The problem is with the concept of reality.

Then there’s conspiracy thinking. Rob Brotherton’s book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories says we’re innately primed for them, because in our evolution, pattern recognition was a key survival skill. That means connecting dots. We tend to do that, even if the connections aren’t real.

Another big factor, Andersen thinks, was the “anything goes” 1960s counterculture, partly a revolt against the confines of rationality. Then there’s post-modernist relativism, considering truth itself an invalid concept. Some even insist that hewing to verifiable facts, the laws of physics, biological science, and rationality in general, is for chumps. Is in fact an impoverished way of thinking, keeping us from seeing some sort of deeper truth. As if these crackpots are the ones who see it.

Then along came the internet. “Before,” writes Andersen, “cockamamie ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail.” Now people slurp up wacky stuff from websites, talk radio, and Facebook’s so-called “News Feed” — really a garbage feed.

Andersen considers “New Age” spirituality a new form of American religion. He calls Oprah its Pope, spreading the screwball messages of a parade of hucksters, like Eckhart Tolle, and the “alternative medicine” promoter Doctor Oz. Among these so-called therapies are homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, reiki, etc. Read Wikipedia’s scathing article about such dangerous foolishness. But many other other mainstream gatekeepers have capitulated. News media report anti-scientific nonsense with a tone of neutrality if not acceptance. Even the U.S. government now has an agency promoting what’s euphemized as “Complementary and Integrative Health;” in other words, quackery.

Guns are a particular focus of fantasy belief. Like the “good guy with a gun.” Who’s actually less a threat to the bad guy than to himself, the police, and innocent bystanders. Guns kept to protect people’s families mostly wind up shooting family members. Then there’s the fantasy of guns to resist government tyranny. As if they’d defeat the U.S. military.

Of course Andersen addresses UFO belief. A surprising number of Americans report being abducted by aliens, taken up into a spaceship to undergo a proctology exam. Considering the nearest star being literally 24 trillion miles away, would aliens travel that far just to study human assholes?

A particularly disturbing chapter concerns the 1980s Satanic panic. It began with so-called “recovered memory syndrome.” Therapists pushing patients to dredge up supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. (Should have been called false memory syndrome.) Meantime child abductions became a vastly overblown fear. Then it all got linked to Satanic cults, with children allegedly subjected to bizarre and gruesome sexual rituals. This new witch hunt culminated with the McMartin Preschool trial. Before the madness passed, scores of innocent people got long prison terms.

A book by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise, showed how increasing formal education doesn’t actually translate into more knowledge (let alone wisdom or critical thinking). Education often leads people to overrate their knowledge, freeing them to reject conventional understandings, like evolution and medical science. Thus the anti-vaccine insanity.

Another book, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, focuses on our culture’s anti-intellectual strain. Too much education, some people think, makes you an egghead. And undermines religious faith. Yet Jacoby also notes how 19th Century Americans would travel long distances to hear lecturers like Robert Ingersoll, the great atheist, and Huxley the evolutionist. Jacoby also vaunts 20th century “Middlebrow” American culture, with “an affinity for books; the desire to understand science; a strong dose of rationalism; above all, a regard for facts.”

Today in contrast there’s an epidemic of confirmation bias: people embracing stuff that supports pre-existing beliefs, and shutting out contrary information. Smarter folks are actually better at confabulating rationalizations for that. And how does one make sense of the world and of new information? Ideally by integrating it with, and testing it against, your body of prior knowledge and understanding. But many Americans come short there — blank slates upon which rubbish sticks equally well as truth.

I also think reality used to be more harsh and unforgiving. To get through life you needed a firm grip on reality. That has loosened. The secure, cushy lives given us by modernity — by, indeed, the deployment of supreme rationality in the age of science — free people to turn their backs on that sort of rationality and indulge in fantasy.

Anderson’s subtitle is How America Went Haywire. As if that applies to America as a whole. But we are an increasingly divided nation. Riven between those whose faith has become more extreme and those moving in the opposite direction; which also drives political polarization. So it’s not all Americans we’re talking about.

Still, the haywire folks are big shapers of our culture. And there are real costs. Anti-vaccine hysteria undermines public health. The 1980s child threat panic ruined lives. Gun madness kills many thousands. And of course they’ve given us a haywire president.

Yet is it the end of the world? Most Americans go about their daily lives, do their jobs, in a largely rational pragmatic way (utilizing all the technology the Enlightenment has given). Obeying laws, being good neighbors, good members of society. Kind, generous, sincere, ethical people. America is still, in the grand sweep of human history, an oasis of order and reasonableness.

Meantime religious faith is collapsing throughout the advanced world, and even in America religion, for all its seeming ascendancy, is becoming more hysterical because it is losing. The younger you are, the less religious you are likely to be. And there are signs that evangelical Christianity is being hurt by its politicization, especially its support for a major moral monster.

I continue to believe in human progress. That people are capable of rationality, that in the big picture rationality has been advancing, and it must ultimately prevail. That finally we will, in the words of the Bible itself, put childish things away.

Is China our enemy?

June 15, 2019

In 1989, China’s regime followed Mao’s dictum, “power comes from the barrel of a gun,” shooting many hundreds of democracy proponents in Tiananmen Square. (Trump has called this a “strong, powerful government” quelling a “riot.”) Since then, even as China has modernized in many ways, its regime has become increasingly repressive, tolerating not the slightest chink in its absolute power. Its police state in Xinjiang is an Orwellian nightmare. Xi Jinping has made himself president-for-life. China bullies its neighbors, tightening its unlawful grip on a wide swath of the Pacific. It abuses world trade rules, its advance fueled by theft and dishonesty.*

So is China our enemy? Not exactly.

The Communist bloc, during the cold war, was our enemy. Its aim was world domination, ideologically, seeing the U.S. as a bete noir and wanting our failure or destruction. Putin’s Russia today, while non-ideological, has a similar outlook.

This again is not exactly true of China. While some regime elements do see us as conspiring to keep China down, that’s not exactly true of America. Wise heads in both countries understand there’s room in the world for both to prosper; indeed they’re in it together. Not a zero-sum game where one nation’s gain is the other’s loss. China becoming more prosperous and powerful doesn’t necessarily require America becoming less so. To the contrary, trade with a prosperous America is good for China. Thus a win-win mentality.

It’s not Trump’s mentality. This is why he’s a bull in the China shop. A lot of voices say he’s right to confront China on trade, and I actually agree, up to a point. However, Trump sees every thing we buy from China as China raping us; he wants it to stop. That’s idiotic.

The win-win logic is a key concept of economics, called comparative advantage. We buy from China what China is better at producing; China buys from us what we make best. Both countries benefit — even if one buys more than the other.

Do we lose some jobs to China? Sure. But the money U.S. consumers save buying cheaper Chinese goods enables more spending on local products and services, creating jobs. More than are lost. By messing with that dynamic, Tariff Man loses us jobs.

Nations are enemies when their interests clash, in a zero-sum sense. That’s not our situation with China. Again, we have a mutual interest in our bilateral trade. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight China on intellectual property theft, human rights, or territorial aggression. We can have those arguments while still expanding mutually beneficial trade and without being enemies. You have fights with your spouse but you still have intercourse.

The tragic stupidity of Trump’s China stance is that it’s the opposite. He wants no fights with his “great friend” Xi over things like Xinjiang or silencing dissent. Nor is he even really confronting China over intellectual property theft, which is the trade fight we should be having. Instead, it’s the intercourse he wants to curtail.

“Intercourse” doesn’t even begin to cover it, as elucidated in a recent Thomas Friedman column (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/opinion/us-china-trade.html). Our two economies are totally intertwined. We have huge investments in each other. Both economies rely heavily on vast, interlinked supply chains, each supplying to the other things necessary for their productivity. For example, Apple has products assembled in China; Chinese technology firms need U.S.-made chips. If we rip all that apart, Friedman says, “we’ll all end up living in a less secure, less prosperous and less stable world.”

But he fears that’s happening; stumbling into a new cold-war-enemy relationship with China that’s totally unnecessary. “The erecting of an equivalent of the Berlin Wall down the middle of the global technology market,” dividing it into separate and mutually hostile spheres.

Instead we should be working to coax China into full partnership with the rules-based globalist economic order. Which is really in China’s own long-term best interests. In this, a united front with all our allies would help. But Trump has antagonized them, picking trade fights with them too. (Britain, for one, now sees its trade relationship with China as economically central.) So we’re on our own.

Bad enough that Russia is a big enemy. China would be far bigger. Its economy is already as large as America’s and will soon outstrip it. Its population is more than thrice ours. China’s increasing global importance is an inevitability we must live with; making the best of it. And we can. If instead we opt for all-out battle, we will lose.

* Counterfeiting is a big industry — a major problem in my own business field, rare coins. Maybe bigger than we even know.

Fantasyland — My talk Tuesday, June 18

June 10, 2019

Next Tuesday, June 18, at noon, I will give a talk at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue, focused on Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. It’s about the whole phenomenon of false and wacky beliefs. This will be fun, I promise!

I’ve been told the free cookies and brownies should be better than usual this time too.

Reparations for slavery?

May 27, 2019

Reparations for slavery is becoming part of the “progressive” full Monty that Democratic presidential candidates must endorse. It’s a terrible idea.

Recently The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah acknowledged the issue’s complications, but waved them away, as mere details that can be worked out. An over-used cliché that I really hate is “the devil is in the detail.” But here it’s unavoidable.

Even if reparations for slavery were an appealing idea, it falls apart the moment you consider seriously the problem of who, exactly, to pay. There’s nobody who’s totally descended from slaves. Slavery ended around six or seven generations ago. For any living black American, the direct ancestors from that era would number dozens to hundreds. Surely not all were enslaved. Many came here later from other countries. Many were white. Okay, maybe you could (arbitrarily) draw a line at 50% slave ancestry. Or some other number. But nobody can document their whole family tree that far back anyway. Any such program would be an implementation nightmare.

Or would you propose to sidestep this morass and simply base payments on skin color? The darker, the bigger the payment? Sounds like a great idea, no?

Slavery was a horrible crime (as I’ve written:http://www.fsrcoin.com/Slavery.htm). But history is full of crimes. Look at Native Americans. And how about women, also seriously oppressed and denied rights in past times? Why not reparations for descendants of all those women?

It’s a fundamental precept of justice that wrongs should be redressed among victims and perpetrators — not others. It’s a principle we fallible humans too often violate. As in collective punishments and vengeance. The sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. If a Xendari has committed an atrocity against your people, then by all means punish him — but do not exact revenge by committing a new crime against other, innocent Xendaris. That’s no justice. So too, taxpayers who did no enslaving shouldn’t be made to pay compensation. Let alone to people who were not themselves enslaved.

It is true that slavery has had lasting impacts, a key factor in black Americans’ lower average socio-economic standing. But can one say that any particular person today would be better off had no ancestors been enslaved? Some surely would be worse off. Many U.S. descendants of slaves are doing very well. But had history been different, they would not exist today at all, making any such considerations quintessentially meaningless.

It is also true that many whites take for granted their “white privilege” — exemption from a lot of crap non-whites experience. For this some feel “white guilt.” However, the concept of guilt should require some causal responsibility. Most whites today have done nothing wrong to feel guilty for. Certainly not to be punished for.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. If we really think slavery’s reverberations still cause disadvantage to some Americans, then the proper answer is to create public policies that remove that disadvantage. Basically, to create a more just society overall. Which indeed we’ve been working at (though far from perfecting). “Affirmative action” is a case in point. Never mind all the issues affirmative action raises; but hasn’t this been reparations, by another name?

A better way to make reparation for the disadvantage suffered by many African-Americans would be to at least stop aggravating it with sub-standard education. Public schools in poor/non-white neighborhoods are often disgraceful. Yet Democrats calling for reparations mostly refuse to face up to this huge issue, in hock to teachers’ unions and ideologically opposing school choice to give those kids at least some chance to escape dysfunctional public schools.

It’s argued that reparations would be a way to give recognition to what blacks have suffered. But their feelings are not the beginning and the end of the matter. Indeed, to the contrary, a big part of the problem is what white people feel toward them. If we want whites to stop being racist, is reparations the right answer? If we really want to heal our nation’s wounds from slavery and racism, wouldn’t reparations enflame those wounds? Many would see reparations as an injustice, and for the reasons I’ve suggested, they’d have a plausible argument. The issue would be disastrously divisive. We already have a big problem of white racial antagonism and resentment. Just wait till reparations are enacted.

Furthermore, if Democrats push this issue it would feed every negative stereotype about them. As coddling some interest groups at the expense of others, and even of the nation as a whole. Defying what many people consider common sense. And it would be a huge distraction from what really should be the issues for 2020 – all the ways Trumpism is degrading America. If Democrats truly want to achieve a better, more just nation, the main thing they can do right now is to ensure getting rid of the racist-in-chief.