Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Brimfield’s Great Flea Market, and China’s Great Cultural Revolution

September 18, 2021

Brimfield MA’s antiques flea market, several times yearly, is gigantic. My wife and I hadn’t gone in years, but decided to visit on September 10. About two hours from Albany.

Every kind of collectable imaginable is on offer, and many you wouldn’t imagine. Like one dealer’s display of old band-aid boxes. We were entranced by the varieties of early typewriters. The whole show is a visual feast, full of bon-bons to tickle the eye and mind. You register an object in a nanosecond, then move on to the next. But quite often you stop and think “WTF?” Struck by sheer strangeness. What were they thinking when producing this item? When buying it originally? And who would buy it now?

What a vast human effort to create all these millions of things, every one conceived to somehow be a boon or a source of pleasure. And it is startling to see what people today will buy. At one point, passing a display of what looked like, well, junk, I remarked to my wife, “Don’t people have a concept of throwing away?” While we keep producing new stuff, much old stuff sticks around; so our ratio of stuff to people rises. Imagine how glutted flea markets will be in a century or two.

Ones like this are always windows to my childhood, objects from which are now certifiably antique (as I am). So many things we played with. Lincoln logs, army men, Monopoly, Etch-a-sketch. I noticed a “Colorforms” set. That rang a bell, but I didn’t stop to remind myself what Colorforms were, exactly. I did thumb through a copy of Fun With Dick and Jane, the very book that larned me readin’.

We’re not normally buyers, just lookers — except for my coins. And my wife did acquire several choice jewelry items. A discerning connoisseur; they were all carefully selected from $1 pick trays.

Most coins you see are overpriced junk. From a guy’s binder full, I took out one unpriced item and asked. He said $10. I said $5, and he agreed. An 1852 Canada Penny token, not the common horseman type; quite high grade; once badly cleaned but I can fix that. Another gal had many pages of coins. I pulled out an Italian 1926 Two Lire marked $7. She was tough, wouldn’t budge below $6. But it’s a rare date and EF, very unusual thus (worth more than ten times the price). Then from a tray of miscellany, I held up a lovely EF 1855-B French Ten Centimes. The dealer said a buck. Thank you! Another guy’s tray had a small bronze pinback medal with busts of LaFollette and Wheeler — the 1924 Progressive Party national ticket. After much negotiation, three bucks. I enjoyed this because I have a nice personal letter from Wheeler, who survived into my youth.

My wife was terrific in helping to scout out coins. When she uttered the word at one dealer’s stall, he pointed to huge stacks of modern U.S. coins in “slabs” (plastic encapsulations certifying authenticity and grade). Ordinarily of zero interest to me. Then he said, “$100 for the whole deal.”

Seriously?

I whipped out my wallet. The 519 slabs filled a carton I could just barely lift.

Meantime: during lunch, my wife (typically) asked me the most memorable thing I’d seen. “The Chinese statuette,” I said, having pointed it out to her. “I actually thought of buying it.” The tag price of $65 had seemed awfully reasonable. “Would it be completely crazy?” She encouraged me; we searched and managed to relocate it. My $45 offer was accepted. The guy mentioned it was apparently dated 1966 in Chinese.

So this was no antiquity. However, 1966 was actually perfect, as this was clearly an artifact of Mao’s “Great Cultural Revolution” launched that year. A trio of harsh-faced figures, one brandishing Mao’s “little red book,” abusing a bent-over fourth, with a denunciation placard hanging from his neck. The makers evidently deemed this thing heroic and inspirational. In fact it’s bone-chilling. Many thousands were killed this way.

Multihued porcelain, over a foot high, it’s in perfect condition, and a truly remarkable piece of history. A graphic caution about the dangers of political extremism, and how madness can engulf multitudes. Especially relevant to today’s America. Some googling reveals that such Cultural Revolution propaganda porcelains were a genre, but I couldn’t find a match for mine. I’m thrilled to have gotten it.

Topping off the day, we went looking for a dinner venue and found a Chinese buffet — our first such in at least 18 months. For a while there, I’d feared buffets would be a permanent casualty of Covid. Civilization is a great thing. While eating, I couldn’t help being mindful of the dangers to it, so vividly illustrated by what I’d just bought.

Did 9/11 Change America?

September 14, 2021

September 11 fundamentally changed America — or so we’re told, in a flood of 20th anniversary commentaries. I’m not so sure.

Much is made of 9/11’s moment of extraordinary national unity. And how transient it proved. But that shows 9/11 did not, indeed, fundamentally change the country. It was a blip.

I’m reminded of the insight from psychology that individuals have a personality baseline, governing things like happiness levels. A dramatic event can knock you off your baseline, for a while. But eventually that wears off and the baseline reasserts itself.

Of course no historical events are immaterial. To the contrary, everything impacts everything, and there’s the apocryphal butterfly effect; small causes reverberating into big results. September 11 was a big thing. It did cause wars, and give us TSA security theater. It’s impossible to know how different America might look today absent 9/11. Trump’s presidency might well not have happened, and that too was a very big thing.

Nothing is ever inevitable. History is not some implacable force driving toward pre-ordained ends. Instead it’s highly contingent. Everything depends on what individuals do, the choices made. Like James Comey’s in 2016. And imagine if Oswald’s aim had been off by an inch.

As for 9/11 changing the country, I think the real story is that it fed into trends already shaping an America different from its 20th Century incarnation. The moment of unity was a blip, and in the bigger picture 9/11 wound up not ameliorating but aggravating the politico-cultural divisions that had been building up, even giving us yet more things to be divided over. Like the Iraq War.

And it’s not just a matter of issues to argue about. What has taken hold is an ethos of division. The issues themselves being more symptoms than causes. That’s not to say opinions are not deeply felt; people are passionate about, say, the abortion issue. But that’s actually an instructive example, because it originated with religious right leaders casting about for some issue to fire up a flagging movement, and jumping on abortion as the perfect vehicle. The point being, if it weren’t that, it would have been something else. Having the fight mattering more than what the fight is about.

What explains this? There’s a cat’s-cradle of complex factors. Humans evolved in a world where change was slow or nonexistent. Modernity has put it into hyperdrive, discombobulating minds. Triggering a primordial impulse for tribalism as something to cling onto on the roller coaster ride that life has in some ways become. What your tribe stands for is secondary to its being your tribe — standing against enemy tribes.

Propelled by the notion that you’re entitled to believe whatever you want — mainly, what your tribe believes. So if the tribe decides, for example, that the 2020 election was stolen, then that’s what you too believe. The whole traditional information ecosystem, that used to provide a common understanding of reality, has crumbled. Part of an even broader loss of faith in and connection to societal institutions generally, with more people feeling they’re on their own. The old information system has been largely supplanted by an internet free-for-all — an information echo-system.

Nine-eleven exacerbated this. People felt threatened now by another tribe, beyond their understanding. Confidence in institutions fell even more. The world suddenly looked darker.

The pathology afflicts the right far more than the left. The right’s messaging makes clear that what gets them boiling is not issues per se but how they provide reasons to hate the other side. Having people to hate and fear is the core of today’s Republicanism. If Democrats reciprocate it, it’s a reaction to Republicans becoming truly scary. As January 6 showed.

It also manifests in what has become a Republican culture of fundamental dishonesty and bad faith. Here again the parties differ greatly. Say what you will about policies espoused by Democrats, at least they actually believe in them as good for the country (or world). Not so with Republicans. Look at their “ballot integrity” crusade. Exploiting the big lie of a stolen election, their true aim is not, as they claim, to make voting more secure (a non-problem), but harder for their opponents. They’re just dishonest about it.

This is what you get with tribal war when one side feels existentially threatened. No holds barred. We may have reached peak tribalism with the vaccine issue. Republicans’ reasons for vaccine resistance are bogus — their “freedom” cries nonsensical — but they need no reasons other than associating vaccination with Democrats. That’s how bad it is, when tribalism even infects what ought to be a straightforward public health matter. Partisanship so crazed that people literally risk their lives. Refusing vaccines that are proven life savers, while instead taking animal de-worming pills. And they’re dying like flies.

Nine-eleven did change America. But it was not the cause of such insanity. The terrorists could never have harmed the country so much. Our biggest threat is not Russia or China. It’s Republicans.

How Much is a Life Worth? A 9/11 movie

September 10, 2021

It seemed an odd subject for a film: the story of the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund. But Worth explores the issue of how we value a life.

Keaton as Feinberg

I’ve written about that before, in the context of Covid-19, and how much economic pain we should accept per life saved.* In the case of 9/11, the government feared an avalanche of economically ruinous lawsuits, so set up the fund to give survivors taxpayer money if they’d agree not to sue. Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (played by Michael Keaton) was named “Special Master” to run the fund. It would become operative only if 80% of eligibles bought in (within a two-year window).

Feinberg constructed a payment formula, with a floor and a cap, heavily based on lost earnings — a commonly used measure in “wrongful death” lawsuits. The cap immediately incurred pushback from lawyer Lee Quinn, representing families of high earners demanding bigger payments. Feinberg’s other nemesis was Charles Wolf (played by an understated Stanley Tucci), who organized a legion of more plebeian folks.

Feinberg as Feinberg

Wolf insisted Feinberg’s approach was all wrong. But in their interactions, Feinberg never simply asked him, “What do you propose?” Which didn’t seem at all clear. During my own career as an administrative law judge (proceedings often in the World Trade Center), contending parties would always offer different explicit plans for resolving issues. Evaluating those competing plans, I’d reach an answer.

Tucci as Wolf

Nevertheless Feinberg, after a rocky start, in which he seemed pretty clueless toward the complex human feelings at play, gets his consciousness raised, and winds up more or less satisfying Wolf by (my interpretation) junking his formulas and deciding payouts based on impressionistic evaluations of individual circumstances. Also, Feinberg tells Quinn to get lost. And while fund buy-ins lagged ominously until near the deadline, they finally did flood in, blowing past the 80% requirement.

I understood why a formulaic approach was inadequate, with some flexibility imperative. A human individual’s “value” is only tenuously connected to their earnings; indeed, the value of one’s life is mainly to oneself, which counters basing it on income. Which of course leaves the conundrum of how to price that self-value in dollars. Unfortunately the film was fuzzy about how Feinberg’s revised method actually worked, giving no concrete examples. I’m dubious that an impressionistic approach based on someone’s unfettered judgment would produce results fairer than some thoughtfully crafted formula. As Feinberg himself suggested near the film’s beginning, fairness in a situation like this is probably an impossible chimera.

Michael Keaton did a pretty accurate Ken Feinberg, based on my own recollection of my law school classmate. (A reason I wanted to see the film; I can’t recall another portraying someone I personally knew.) Even back then Feinberg was a compelling personage. I particularly recall his announcing to me, in his standard stentorian voice, “I gave you a bullet vote.” It was a Faculty-Student Committee election, at the height of 1960s “student power” agitation. With two seats up for ballot, I ran against a pair of activist types, and my candidate statement said I didn’t believe in student power; that students didn’t know enough to run the university. I surely didn’t. And never imagined winning (especially given my introverted lonerism). Yet oddly enough I was elected — thanks in part to that Feinberg bullet vote.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2020/03/22/covid-19-how-much-is-a-life-worth/

Biden’s Trumpian foreign policy

September 6, 2021

For four Trump years we had a bull-in-a-china-shop foreign policy. An ignoramus thinking himself a genius — a deadly combination. His “America First” policy so idiotically executed it vastly harmed us.

Few Americans paid close enough attention, so he skated through it, like everything, with no comeuppance. Not even his disgraceful Northern Syria betrayal seemed to register.

Then comes President Biden — an experienced, knowledgeable, conscientious, decent, sane man — whom I hugely supported — and he blows it, bigly, regarding Afghanistan. There is no cosmic justice. Life is unfair.

Why couldn’t this debacle have come on Trump’s watch? After all, it was he who “negotiated” the “deal” with the Taliban, for America to leave (in exchange for nothing) even quicker (in May). Hence Republicans’ Biden bashing is really rich. As if the monster they worship would have done things better. The worst epithet for Biden’s Afghan fiasco is Trumpian.

He says it was time to end this war. In fact, it wasn’t even really a war. For Afghans it was, but not for us. We had long since stopped treating it so. We were now merely providing a little help — indeed, utterly piddling compared to other continuing overseas commitments — tens of thousands of troops in Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc. Yet in contrast to those, our cheap little Afghan efforts were paying huge dividends — in quality of life for millions of Afghans (especially females) and, importantly for us, avoiding a humiliating defeat. Pulling that plug made no sense.

So we have unnecessarily incurred that humiliating defeat. And, to boot, with vivid shameful pictures displayed to the world.

Biden says quitting Afghanistan lets us focus on the bigger China problem. Couldn’t we do both? Actually, our Afghan debacle worsens the China problem. Now China is on a soapbox, jeering, “See? We told you America is a feckless declining nation.” While European allies, who worked with us in Afghanistan, feel betrayed. Biden had proclaimed, “America is back.” He might as well have said, “Trump is back.”

In today’s world, everything is connected to everything. We should not imagine the Afghan denouement will have no effects beyond its borders. That’s a dicey neighborhood. All the fallout from this disaster cannot yet be foreseen, but it isn’t likely to be good.

Already in one way the world has been made more dangerous. Islamic extremists everywhere are thrilled and energized by what they deem their triumph. Defeating an infidel superpower. Thinking, “if the Taliban can do it, why not us?”

Biden vaunts the achievement of evacuating 124,000 from Afghanistan in just a few weeks. Those who did it, despite the chaos, do deserve kudos. But the time constraint was Biden’s own doing. Even if you think leaving Afghanistan was right, surely doing it in such a rush was not. And once the Taliban takeover changed the picture, why no course correction?

Left behind are hundreds of U.S. citizens, an untold number of green card holders (legal permanent U.S. residents) — and tens of thousands of Afghans, many of whom should have qualified for special expedited visas, for people who worked with us and are now consequently in the Taliban’s gunsights. Bureaucratic obstacles kept myriads from completing that paperwork. A sadly familiar story. But Biden should have knocked some heads together, to get these people out before his self-imposed deadline. Now it’s too late.

This unfortunately reprises our shabby abandonment of legions of Iraqis, in similar circumstances, not so long ago. Such callous irresponsibility, toward people who trusted in us, is a profound moral stain. I believe in an America better than that. But that faith is faltering.

Lessons of Afghanistan: cynicism versus humanism

August 29, 2021

“Hubris” is the word of choice to sneer at America’s global engagement. Now we’re scolded that we arrogantly deluded ourselves we could do good in Afghanistan. When a hard-nosed realism should have told us to forget it. And so we wasted 20 years, trillions of dollars, and many lives. With, in the end, nothing to show for it.

But 20 years in which millions of Afghans — especially women — could live decent fulfilling lives is not nothing. Legions of girls getting education was not nothing. Which could have continued, for what would really have been very modest cost to us. Quitting was penny wise and pound foolish. Any savings surely outweighed by the damage to America’s global standing. Just in casualties, the 13 soldiers killed in the Kabul airport bombing (a consequence of our leaving) exceeded those lost in Afghanistan since the start of 2020. And never mind the immense damage to Afghan people.

A New York Times essay by Ezra Klein* casts as a failure not the Afghan outcome, but the entire effort. Indicting our whole foreign policy mindset. It’s the “hubris” argument again. The problem with our Afghan venture, Klein argues — as with Iraq — was not merely flubbed execution, but “overreach.” He quotes scholar Emma Ashford: “we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.” Klein thinks focusing on botched implementation just obscures the deeper problem.

He sees it too as “not just the illusion of our control, but the illusion of our knowledge.” Again, Iraq — all the smart people were sure Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. When in fact he was bluffing. (I felt we couldn’t take the risk that he wasn’t.) Anyhow, Klein says, “we do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.”

And, he writes, “to many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop.” And so forth. You know the cynic’s tropes. And, says Klein, binding humanitarian ambitions with “delusions of military mastery” too often end badly — and bloodily.

Klein’s critique itself overreaches. Nobody imagines America is omniscient and omnipotent. If that were the requisite for action, we’d be paralyzed. Sometimes action can make sense even knowing the outcome is uncertain. Indeed, it’s rarely otherwise.

This all recalls Andrew Bacevich’s 2008 book, The Limits of Power. Arguing that because historical processes are too vast and messy for anyone to really grasp, let alone control, and given the law of unintended consequences, trying to remake the world is futile. Reprising Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History, similarly disparaging what he deemed a misguided “messianic” effort to manage history. Writing at a time when the U.S. had adopted an over-arching foreign policy vision to help rebuild nations walloped by WWII, including our former foes; to support democracy; and contain Communism. All rather successful.

Bacevich would have said: don’t even try.

But history is not some ineluctable force impervious to human effort. America is not on some “messianic” mission to democratize the world or “manage history;” rather, we merely believe the world can improve if certain countries can be helped to progress, and some problems can be ameliorated. True, we’re not always consistent, and as Klein notes, we tolerate some bad situations. But is inability to do everything a reason to do nothing?

The whole human story is unwillingness to accept things as they are, trying to do all we can to better our situation. In that, humanity has spectacularly succeeded. And U.S. foreign policy has not been a total failure either.

Some see the Afghan denouement as proving that nothing ever changes; that people never change. It’s certainly disheartening that Afghanistan’s rise from barbarism could not be sustained. Yet people do change. Societies progress. Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature documents how we’ve literally become better people over time. What Afghanistan really proves is that hard men with guns (especially with religion) can defeat such progress, and how to fight them remains a tremendous challenge.

But Klein concludes thus: “if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees . . . Only 1% of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that too.”

We have learned that trying to solve problems by military means often turns out more problematic than we imagined. Of course the whole realm of nonmilitary global engagement — foreign aid and all that — also tends to be pitfall-ridden. The law of unintended consequences is powerful indeed. But throwing up our hands and doing nothing is again not the answer. We do the best we can. And Klein is right that we err in over-reliance on military efforts. Those resources are much better devoted to non-military initiatives:

“We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.”

* https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/26/opinion/afghanistan-us-withdrawal.html

Afghanistan disaster

August 17, 2021

President Biden decided that 20 years of commitment to Afghanistan was enough, so he’d pull out our few thousand troops. Never mind that we’ve had tens of thousands in Germany, in South Korea, in Japan, for over 70 years — with far less compelling rationales.

We had invested vastly in Afghanistan. But at this point the mission’s cost there — in manpower, money, and casualties — was comparatively small. Yet had a big payoff. While we weren’t winning the war, we were managing to sustain a status quo with the Taliban contained, thus enabling millions of Afghans to live decently. Pulling out gained very little, with huge risks of the horrible outcome now unfolding.

Even politically it made no sense. American voters were not clamoring for an Afghan pullout. But the result is egg all over Biden’s face. Deservedly.

He blew off the consensus of military and intelligence experts who warned of dire consequences. Which came even faster than foreseen.

Thanks also to the bungled execution. This was no well-planned withdrawal. While only weeks ago Biden swore we’d never see people airlifted from the embassy roof like in Saigon in 1975, that’s exactly what happened in Kabul. Ghastly airport scenes of people frantically trying to get out, some killed in the chaos.

The Afghan army melted away, after all the billions we’d invested in it. Notably in their air force, a key factor against the Taliban. But with us gone, those planes could no longer be maintained and kept flying. Afghan soldiers had already made tremendous sacrifices battling the Taliban, taking huge casualties. With very little in pay and back-up. Then we completely abandon our partnership. Yet Biden cravenly slams them for not throwing away their lives to continue a fight we’d now made futile.

Our rush to the exit is supremely callous toward the whole Afghan people, left to a grim fate. Especially women. The Taliban has long mounted a campaign of targeted assassinations of the intelligentsia — government officials, judges, journalists, etc. Especially women, who had ascended to such roles. Now they won’t even be allowed in school. Nor, apparently, will unmarried females be allowed. Holdouts to be forcibly married to Taliban fighters.

What perverted humanity. I can never fathom vast numbers of people lining up behind such evil. Fighting it was a noble endeavor.

For another perspective on our responsibility to Afghanistan, I highly recommend an essay (https://lizrobinson.squarespace.com/blog/) by my daughter Elizabeth, who has lived there, working in the international engagement.

The Biden administration is trying to blame this disaster on Trump. Who’d negotiated a deal with the Taliban, for a cease-fire and anti-terrorism promise, in exchange for our withdrawal. (They also got 5,000 prisoners released.) Those Taliban pledges were always worthless and immediately violated. Biden had no reason to stick with our side of that phony Trump deal. It’s no excuse for his actions.

This is one more damning signal to the world that today’s America is a weak feckless country that cannot be relied upon. China is laughing at us. After Trump’s brainless shredding of our international credibility, I expected better from Biden. But in every aspect of this Afghan fiasco, he bears an unnerving resemblance to Trump at his worst. Even down to falsely blaming his predecessor.

* * *

After long observing the world I’ve learned to expect disillusionment. I’d hugely supported Biden’s campaign. But what I’ve also come to understand is the world’s complexity. A vast machine with myriads of moving parts, and no master control. Thus bad stuff is inevitable. Yet I remain an optimist because in the (very) big picture, far more is going right than wrong. I supported Biden, most fundamentally, because he is a good person. Far from perfect, but good. I think that’s still true. Whereas Trump was wicked through and through. Good people don’t always do what’s good. But better than bad people.

* * *

Hakainde Hichilema, a businessman, lost five Zambian presidential elections; surely cheated out of victory, and persecuted and imprisoned, by the ruling party. In this sixth try, against President Edgar Lungu, The Economist said Hichilema would win a free and fair election — but saw no chance of that. Lungu, whose corrupt misrule has been wrecking Zambia, did everything possible to rig the poll. When Hichilema nevertheless clearly won, Lungu tried to pull a Trump, claiming the election was not free and fair (!). We’ve seen this movie too often, especially in Africa. But now — surprisingly — Lungu has relented and conceded defeat.

Some optimist sugar for me on the bitter pill of Afghanistan.

When Politics Gets Bloody

August 15, 2021

Isabel Allende’s Long Petal of the Sea is a meaty, old-style novel, centered around historical events. It begins with Spain’s 1936-39 civil war. Shortly before, they’d seen off their monarchy and gotten a democratic government, dominated by the left. Francisco Franco was an opportunistic general who led his troops to overthrow the Republic. Hitler and Mussolini backed him militarily. Stalin supported the Republicans, many being Communists, joined by a lot of American volunteers. When Franco’s fascists won the war, thousands of opponents fled for their lives, into France, and squalid concentration camps. Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda arranged for a ship, the Winnipeg, to carry some of the refugees to new lives in Chile.

Among them Victor and Roser. He’d spent the war as a medic; she had a baby fathered by Victor’s brother before his battle death. They marry just to qualify for the ship. They spend 34 good years in Chile and their relationship evolves into love.

And then it happens again — Victor in a horrible concentration camp, after Chile’s 1973 coup, overthrowing left-wing President Salvador Allende (Victor’s friend), accompanied by ghastly brutality. History records that Allende committed suicide. That always seemed fishy to me. The novel says the military killed him.

Its author was his cousin and became a refugee herself after the coup, winding up a U.S. citizen.

Victor manages to get out alive, and he and Roser flee to Venezuela — then an oasis of democracy, prosperity, and the good life. Later, its voters would throw all that away, seduced by “socialism.”

Back to Spain’s civil war, the novel shows just how vicious it was, with gross brutality on both sides (but worse by the fascists). Reading the account, what struck me was that many wars entail nationalistic jingoism — bad enough — but this was somewhat different, a war over political ideology. That seems to be what made so many so willing to go so far, losing all human moral restraint. That’s what can happen when political differences get out of hand.

The story repeated with Chile’s coup, preceded by escalating political extremism, each side developing an apocalyptic hostility toward the other. But again more so on the right, viewing the left as threatening everything good and holy. And in its crusade to stamp that out, the right shredded everything good and holy. Thus the inhuman atrocities.

Reading about both the Spanish and Chilean stories was chilling because it could happen here. In fact America has already gone quite far down that road. We no longer have just normal type political disagreements. One side has fallen into a very dark place of lies and conspiracism. January 6 was a fire bell in the night, showing how such political craziness can become violent, justified in the eyes of people willing to do literally anything to crush opponents. They hate what they see as America becoming, want its institutions burned down, and fetishize guns. Clear echoes of 1930s Spain and 1973 Chile. We’ve avoided wider actual bloodshed — so far. But it’s all too easy to envision.

Studying history shows there are always men just itching for the chance to unleash their inner swaggering storm trooper. Like cockroaches they come out of the woodwork when the occasion arises. We must ensure it does not.

Particularly heart-rending was Allende’s depiction of the Spanish refugees, desperate to escape Franco’s cruel extermination, fleeing under horrendous conditions. I could see myself, someday, in their shoes. If lucky enough to have shoes.

At least the Canadian border is not too far.

God’s Holy Apostolic Church of sex criminals

August 9, 2021

As an atheist I have little use for clergy. But I recall a positive vibe when Howard Hubbard, then just 38, became Albany’s Bishop in 1977. A “street priest,” he seemed a good guy, with his head on straight (for a priest). When, after he retired in 2014, allegations of sexual abuse of youngsters began dribbling out, I was actually skeptical. Howard Hubbard? Even Hubbard too? Then the drips became a flood. (He denies abuse.)

It’s hard to be shocked any longer at how pervasive sexual criminality is among Catholic clergy — and how reprehensibly the Church’s highest echelons have handled it. Recently the Albany Times-Union reported that Hubbard acknowledges that (its words) the “Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany engaged in a decades-long cover-up of chronic child sexual abuse committed by its priests.” Via the now familiar paradigm of handling such cases not as crimes for law enforcement but, rather, as personal peccadillos, sending priests for counseling and treatment, and often transferring them to other parishes with fresh victims to abuse. The harm to those innocents engendered scant concern.

The paper reports that one teenaged boy molested by a priest, Gerald Miller, was so traumatized he killed himself. His aunt phoned Bishop Hubbard, who said he knew about the situation. She was so shaken by his next words that she recalled them exactly: “Father Gerry is being sent to New Mexico [a treatment site] where they have more respect for priests.”

Religion is a suspension of rationality. Were such beliefs not widespread, anyone espousing them would be diagnosed as insane.

Sex in particular turns inside out the brains of the religious. Nothing is more fundamental and natural to a human being than sexual feelings. Simply because that’s how nature ensures reproduction. Which is literally all that nature “cares” about; otherwise there is no nature. Thus powerful sexuality was built into us by evolution.

To be human is to go with the flow of that. To fight it is a denial of our essential humanity. Yet that’s exactly what Catholicism in particular seeks to do, making sexual feelings seem dirty and wicked, piling guilt and shame on believers, with terrorizing threats of eternal torture.

Wrestling with their messed up take on sexuality has long plagued Christians. Exemplified by Saint Augustine begging God to make him chaste — but not yet. And it’s also exemplified by Catholicism’s priestly celibacy rule. Surely a very misguided solution to the “problem” of the human sex drive. Asking priests to suppress it completely is asking for trouble. Especially when that’s bound to attract to the priesthood men whose relationship with their sexuality is already troubled.

And they’re guilty not only of crimes harming innocent victims. They are also frauds. Preaching what they cannot possibly believe. How could anyone actually believe sinners burn in hell while committing monstrous sins like raping children? But maybe that’s too harsh. They may be so morally mixed up that they’re blind to the cognitive dissonance, or else somehow convince themselves God condones their crimes. Religion does tend to scramble ethical instincts in that way, as evidenced by the parade of faith-inspired horrors throughout history.

The deepening Republican menace

August 5, 2021

During Trump’s term, I’d periodically write, “It will get worse.” It always did. And it hasn’t stopped.

Some thought Trump’s election defeat might bring Republicans to their senses. Then they rallied behind his “stolen election” lie. His biggest ever. Now we’re now learning more details about how it was Trump himself who tried to steal the election. Finally sending a violent mob to the Capitol on January 6, aiming to wreck the process and retain power.

But not even that sick, bloody, treasonous travesty brought Republicans to their senses. At a July 27 news conference their House leaders responded to the searing testimony of four Capitol Police officers about the horror they experienced on January 6. Elise Stefanik, now Number Three in the leadership, said the American people deserve to know the truth: it was Nancy Pelosi’s fault.

Suggesting that as House Speaker, she controlled the Capitol Police. Not so. And any such responsibility would have been shared with Mitch McConnell, then running the Senate. Blaming Pelosi alone — and not Trump at all! — for January 6 is either deranged lunacy or the most cynical dishonesty. Prior to that news conference shocker, I’d thought Republicans had hit a moral rock bottom. I was wrong.

This is the party that bleats “law and order,” vaunting support for police officers — especially as against violent protests. What was January 6 if not an unlawful violent protest, physically attacking the police? And where does the GOP stand? With the treasonous lawbreakers, actually belittling or even mocking the testimony of the savaged police officers. A moral rock bottom?

Then too it’s mainly Republicans refusing vaccination, masks, or social distancing. They’re the cause of Covid resurging. Republican areas most resistant to sensible health measures have (surprise) the highest illness and death rates. Some GOP governors not only refuse to push vaccination and masking, but actually try to block localities from doing so. Florida’s DeSantis the worst example. With his state consequently breaking hospitalization records, having a fifth of all U.S. Covid cases.

I was a Republican for 53 years. Today’s Republican party threatens not only our democracy but literally all our lives.

Yet dare I say, even now: it will get worse.

Columnist David Brooks offers an interesting perspective. Observing growing family estrangement in America. Mostly children distancing from parents over sometimes real but often exaggerated or imagined childhood grievances, leaving parents, who’d thought they’d given their kids everything, hurt and bewildered. Brooks suggests a cause is “a more individualistic culture” — the family, once “seen as a bond of mutual duty and obligation,” now “as a launchpad for personal fulfillment.” Making people feel freer to sever bonds deemed problematic. I would add that over-indulgent parenting may actually contribute, giving children a sense of entitlement so strong they feel justified in chucking a relationship that doesn’t fully suit them — even with those indulgent parents.

What does all this have to do with today’s Republicans? Brooks sees family estrangement as part of a broader phenomenon of fraying human ties. Remember Putnam’s Bowling Alone? Americans report diminishing close friendships, and growing feelings of aloneness. Brooks says this social fragmentation has wide repercussions, including in politics. Which “has begun to feel like an arena where many people can process and regulate their emotional turmoil indirectly.” Difficult “within the tangled intimacy of family life. But political tribalism becomes a mechanism with which people can shore themselves up, vanquish shame, fight for righteousness and find a sense of belonging.”

Republicans do imagine they fight for righteousness, with moralistic fervor. The psychology is understandable. But not the flight from rationality, the failure to distinguish reality from fantasy and virtue from evil. That is insane.

Investigating January 6: Republicans compound the crime

July 25, 2021

January 6 was a bloody attack upon the heart of American democracy. Initially the two parties negotiated what seemed to be a very fair deal for a bipartisan Congressional investigation, modeled on the 9/11 Commission. But 9/11 occurred in a different nation. No chance today’s Republican lawmakers would honestly cooperate to investigate even an attack on Congress that threatened their own lives.* And so they duly killed the bipartisan agreement.

House Speaker Pelosi nevertheless went ahead with a Congressional investigating committee — as bipartisan as possible under the circumstances. She actually made a Republican (Liz Cheney) one of her own appointees to the panel. And invited GOP leader McCarthy to name five further members.

Once upon a time we might have imagined his choosing upstanding, judicious people whose reputations would call forth widespread trust. But this is 2021.

So instead McCarthy’s picks included Jim Banks and Jim Jordan. Jordan is a rabid Trump bulldog, his considerable verbal talents perverted to making absurdities sound plausible. David Brooks called both men “stinkbombs,” lobbed by McCarthy to make a farce of the investigation.

Hence Pelosi rejected the pair. Commentator Jonathan Capehart saw this as reflecting true dedication to her constitutional responsibilities. This investigation is extremely serious public business, and she wanted to include Republicans, but was not going to let them make a circus of it.

Now McCarthy indignantly says if Banks and Jordan are excluded, then no Republicans will join the committee at all (apart from Cheney, who he does not control).

What is really going on here? The Republican party has become a deranged bunch of nihilistic bomb throwers with, for all their “patriot” prattling, zero loyalty to America’s democratic fundamentals and institutions. Comprehensively irresponsible. Desperate to avoid all serious probing of January 6, knowing their god-king has its blood all over his hands. And that the continuing threat to our democracy comes from within their own ranks. While some are so divorced from reality they actually blame others, or even deny it happened at all.

Trump himself, interviewed for a recent book, described January 6 as a love fest, with police welcoming folks into the Capitol. He also believes he won the election. And in the tooth fairy.

But here’s something I actually don’t understand. Why this has to be a congressional investigation in the first place. True, the attack targeted Congress. But really our whole constitutional system. The 9/11 Commission included members from outside Congress, as did the Warren Commission, investigating JFK’s assassination. Why can’t an investigation, along similar lines, be organized under the auspices of, say, the Justice Department? Or, better yet, by presidential executive order, convening a bipartisan blue ribbon panel of widely respected personages. Like, for instance, John Roberts and Mitt Romney. Wouldn’t that end-run around Republican insanity** garner far more public credibility?

* Being himself a mass shooting victim didn’t change GOP Congressman Steve Scalise’s opposition to gun sanity.

** Herschel Walker plans to run as a Republican for a Georgia Senate seat despite a history of battling mental illness. His slogan could be, “Probably less nuts than your average Republican.”