Archive for the ‘history’ Category

What American nationalism should be

November 5, 2018

Trump now, defiantly, calls himself a “nationalist.” For lefties it’s a dirty word. Some dream of “one world” uniting all humanity. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for.” (But imagine what a united world’s politics and governance would be like, dominated by backward ideas of Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Turks.)

Disagreement about nationalism is part of our own cultural divide. Some say Americans have nothing to be proud of; our history a litany of crimes, our present a cesspool of racism, inequality, exploitation, oppression, and corruption. That’s epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. Should have been titled A Cynic’s History. Zinn condemned America because it was not a perfect egalitarian utopia from Day One, flaying every social ill that ever existed here. With nary a word of recognition that any progress was ever achieved on any of it.

Thus some friends questioned why my house flew the flag. But I was indeed proud to be an American — a supportive member of what, despite its flaws, is as good a society as human beings had yet succeeded in creating. I flew the flag to honor the principles, values, and ideals America at its best stood for.

The progress Zinn refused to acknowledge is this nation’s central story. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, but strove “to form a more perfect union.” A society that could and did rise toward its highest ideals.

That is what our nationalism should embody. Not blood-and-soil but goodwill, civility, generosity, courage. Not truculence toward others but truth, reason, progress, and justice under rule of law. All people created equal, endowed with inalienable rights: to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. E pluribus unum — out of many, one.

I once stood on a corner, passed by a Muslim woman in a headscarf, then a black man, a turbaned Sikh, an Hispanic, an Indian lady in a sari, a Chinese girl, and, yes, a Caucasian too. This was in Westchester. Nobody batted an eye. This is America’s greatness. E pluribus unum. A place where all kinds of people can make homes, be welcomed, and thrive. This is humanity transcending its boundaries and limits.

Our Declaration of Independence was truly revolutionary when, as Rousseau put it, mankind was “everywhere in chains.” We lit a beacon light in the darkness, guiding countless millions of others to liberation. And as America grew more prosperous and powerful (thanks to its ideals), we took on an ever greater role as the vanguard of global efforts to expand freedom and prosperity and combat the forces that would hold people down. That U.S. world leadership has been noble. But also, it recognized that other countries becoming more democratic, and richer — and the resulting peace — are good for America itself.

These then are the values and ideals that made America great, and make for an American nationalism worth holding to. A nationalism not of ethnicity but of principles. Alas, Trump’s us-against-them “America First” nationalism is the antithesis of those values and ideals. Their evil twin, throwing them under the bus.

That is why, on November 9, 2016, I furled my flag. I look forward to — I burn for — the day when I can fly it once more.

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Jamal Khashoggi, and murderers we love

October 16, 2018

The rule used to be that you could murder all the people you liked within your own borders, but doing it elsewhere was a no-no.

Or was it?

Trotsky

In 1940, Stalin’s arch-nemesis Trotsky, having been thrown out of Russia, lived in exile in Mexico. But Stalin still wanted him dead, and an agent of the Soviet secret police killed him with an ice axe. Exiled Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed in 1978 in London with a poison-tipped umbrella. Alexander Litvinienko, a defector from Russian Intelligence, was murdered in London in 2006 with radioactive poison. More recently a similar defector, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter survived a nerve agent attack that wound up killing a British woman. Iran’s regime has perpetrated the overseas murder of many opponents including a former prime minister, Shapur Bakhtiar, killed near Paris. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had his half-brother murdered in a foreign airport. Israel has done an overseas job on a Hamas terrorist. China has grabbed an inconvenient person in Thailand to whisk him back.

Khashoggi and fiancee

The latest, of course, is journalist Jamal Khashoggi, critic of the Saudi Arabian regime, who had left the country in 2017, relocating to America and writing for the Washington Post. On October 2, he went to a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey for some routine paperwork relating to his upcoming marriage, while his fiancee waited outside. Apparently knowing of Khashoggi’s plans, the Saudis had flown in 15 operatives, on two private planes, arriving and leaving the same day. Inside the consulate, they tortured Khashoggi to death, chopped up his body, and somehow disposed of it. These facts are pretty much beyond dispute.

Saudi Arabia’s nominal king is Salman (the last of the numerous sons from the harem of the founding King Saud), but the real ruler is Salman’s 33-year-old son and crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”).

MBS

This family’s rule has never been exactly benevolent. But MBS, under the guise of modernizing and reforming the Saudi state, is actually taking it to the next level of viciousness. (Women are now allowed to drive — while advocates for their driving are being locked up.) Apparently MBS’s model for a modern state is Putin’s Russia.

And apparently this young genius MBS either imagined nobody would notice 15 guys flown in and out and Khashoggi missing, or else imagined that the world would simply yawn and move on. As to the latter, he might yet turn out to be right.

With the fact of the murder no longer plausibly deniable — facts do actually still have a toehold in this world, imagine that! So retro!! — now the Plan B is the “rogue elements” line. That is, MBS had no knowledge of those 15 guys and two planes, of course he would never have countenanced such a horrible crime. Of course not. Or maybe they never intended to kill Khashoggi, just a little good-natured horseplay, and it got out of hand. Something like that.

Trump, with his usual eloquence, said what the Saudis did was “not good.” He said there would be “severe punishment” if it were proven true. Of course, in Trumpland, words don’t necessarily mean what you or I might think they mean. Especially the word “true.” But anyhow, the “severe punishment” would not include canceling our arms deal with the Saudi regime, because that might cost us money. So now we know exactly how much, in dollars, America’s morality, principles and ideals are worth. (And never mind that the Saudis use our weapons to commit horrendous atrocities in Yemen.)

But now Trump is himself mouthing the slimy “rogue elements” lie to get MBS off the hook. Trump is not going to smack MBS, because he loves dictators, bad guys, ruthless villains, and killers. Because looking at them is like looking in the mirror. At least he fancies himself in their tough guy image.

This is in fact the Trump who recently stated that he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love. (“No, really!” Trump added; “He wrote me beautiful letters.”) Yes, our president has fallen in love with the blood-soaked North Korean dictator who had his uncle killed with anti-aircraft guns and his half-brother poisoned in a Malaysian airport. Melania, asked recently about Trump’s affairs with porn stars, said that doesn’t faze her. But what about this thing with Kim Jong-un? This is different; Trump never said he’d fallen in love with any porn stars.

Is there a new “first lady” in our future?

(Note to readers: nothing in this blog post, unfortunately, is satire.)

The Anti-Trump Albany Book Festival

October 4, 2018

This event, put on by the wonderful New York State Writers Institute, was not really political. But nobody would read this if I just titled it “Albany Book Festival.” And in fact it says a lot about our times how politics did inevitably color these proceedings. There’s no escaping America’s current crisis of the soul.

The kickoff was a reception installing Colson Whitehead as the New York State Author and Alicia Ostriker as State Poet. Both were introduced by former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who did an admirable job talking about their work.

Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, drolly previewed his plans for his first hundred days as State Author. Ostriker read some of her poems which didn’t seem very poetic to me. But she also read from a great one: Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus. That choice was obviously timely, with the golden door being slammed shut.

As is customary for Writers Institute events, the munchies were superb: little cakes, a chocolate fudge & whipped cream confection, cookies, fruit, etc. (A thankyou to Paul Grondahl, the Institute’s dynamic leader.)

Broderick

A legion of local authors manned individual tables showcasing their work. Noteworthy among them was poet Therese L. Broderick, author of the acclaimed Breath Debt. (My wife.)

And a legion of other great literary luminaries spoke to packed audiences. Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of our leading historians, and talked about her new book, Leadership in Troubled Times. It focuses on the lessons from four presidencies: Lincoln, TR, FDR, and LBJ.

Goodwin

Goodwin’s theme was that character, above all, is what matters. She ticked off a list of key traits: humility, empathy, valuing diverse opinions, ability to connect with all manner of people, controlling negative impulses, and keeping one’s word. In sum, emotional intelligence. Goodwin’s rundown here elicited loud laughter from the audience, for the obvious reason that our current “leader” is so glaringly devoid of all these virtues.

Hegel

I next listened to a panel of four other historians. One noteworthy discussion reminded me of Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis cycling to synthesis. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending legalized racial segregation, produced a big backlash among white southerners, resisting it, sometimes violently. But that in turn energized its own backlash, in the civil rights movement, eventual civil rights and voting rights legislation, and, one might say, the eventual election of an African-American as president. Which in turn generated another big backlash culminating in the election of a very different sort of president. Which in turn has energized civic engagement against what that represents (very much in evidence in the responses of attendees at this book festival).

SPOS

I don’t know that we’re near Hegel’s final synthesis. I’m hopeful that Trumpism is a doomed last gasp, and that America will flush its toilet for good in 2020. But experience with my own bathroom suggests a different outcome is possible.

Next I went to Marion Roach Smith’s talk on memoir writing. The room was not ideal; her husband, Times-Union editor Rex Smith, had to kneel by her side manning the computer with her power-point presentation, advancing the slides every time she signaled.

Smith

Though sometimes he misinterpreted her gesturing. But it was an excellent talk applicable not just to memoirists, but to writing in general. Her key theme: focus on what the piece of writing is really about; what its argument is. A memoir’s reader is not interested in the details of what may have occurred but, rather, in gaining some insight on a human issue.

William Kennedy is Albany’s leading literary light, who founded the Writers Institute, and recently turned 90. He’s a literary energizer bunny who just keeps going, premiering a new book at the festival.

Kennedy

His talk was a meditation on writing and the writing life. I particularly relished his discussion of Faulkner, probably my own favorite. He adverted to the idea that Faulkner’s work is uplifting. “This uplift business baffled me,” Kennedy said. Faulkner certainly depicts the worst human behavior. Yet Kennedy said he was uplifted after all, “exalted,” by writing that reaches into a person’s heart. (I have written about Faulkner on this blog, with a somewhat similar take. In fact, it was a Faulkner quote I used as the epigraph for my Rational Optimism book.)

The final event was a panel titled “The New Americans” — a group of authors born elsewhere. Again, a theme with particular resonance in today’s political environment.

Iftin

One panelist was Abdi Nor Iftin, who I got to meet and chat with at the previous night’s reception. He was the Somali guy whose tribulations getting to America were told on NPR’s This American Life. Hearing that story so moved me that I wrote a poem (previously posted here), and sent him something. He now has a book out, Call Me American. What a thrill it was for me to connect with Abdi in person.

Khan

Another panelist was Khizr Khan, whom I’ve also written about (here, and here). It was likewise a thrill to shake his hand and tell him what a privilege that was. Khan continues to remind us how our Declaration of Independence and Constitution enshrine human dignity. He said no other country’s constitution rivals ours in that regard — and that he’s actually read them all! He also said that in over 200 appearances, in connection with his book, he has everywhere found Americans wanting to hold onto these values, and hopeful not only for America but for America as “a source of light” for the rest of the world.

We must not allow that light to go out.

White pride and white privilege

September 23, 2018

Omarosa, in her book, tells of asking Steve Bannon whether it’s true that he’s a racist. “No,” he answered. “The same way you are a proud African-American woman, I am a proud white man. What’s the difference between my pride and your pride?”

All the difference in the world.

Pride can have many sources, some appropriate, some not. I’m proud of many things about human culture that I associate myself with. Whiteness isn’t one of them. Talk of white pride (or black pride) makes the racial identification salient, which it can be only in relation to the other race, and relations between them.

The central fact of that relationship is the long past history of blacks, as a people, inferiorized and suffering at the hands of whites. Black pride is an aspect of rising above all that. Like Jewish pride at overcoming all that Jews have suffered. If you’re not Jewish, being proud of your non-Jewishness would equate to anti-semitism. Likewise, white pride can only be understood vis-a-vis non-whites, setting oneself against them rather than for something. It’s negative rather than positive; a rejection of racial amity. It has the odor of burning crosses.

And of Confederate monuments. They’re not about honoring a supposedly noble past history. They were erected to send a message: that blacks are lesser beings. Why else memorialize men who fought to preserve slavery?

White pride, in fact, has the odor of burning flesh. Of the thousands of innocent human beings lynched, often hideously mutilated, burned alive, to keep blacks terrorized “in their place.” I don’t think American white southerners have a noble past history to memorialize and take pride in. It’s a vile history requiring instead atonement.

So white pride cannot be whitewashed as merely some innocent positive feelings about one’s own race. It’s not remotely analogous to black pride.

Yes it is

If blacks take pride in overcoming, can whites take pride in creating the evils blacks overcame? Human beings, acting in their humanity, have achieved great things. White people, when acting in their whiteness, conceiving themselves apart from non-whites, have perpetrated horrors.

White priders take a leaf from the victim playbook, as if merely seeking fairness. This is an Orwellian mockery. For all the affirmative action practiced — at the edges of society, really — the far bigger reality is still that one is better off white. Those who march for white rights are not disadvantaged because they are white. They are disadvantaged because they are the sort of losers for whom “white pride” seems to make sense. That’s what puts them on the outs in today’s America.

No we’re not

At the opposite end from white priders are liberals suffering white privilege guilt. We’ve been hearing an awful lot about white privilege. I’m reminded of the Eddie Murphy SNL skit where he discovers white privilege by masquerading as white. Sitting on a bus, everything is quietly normal . . . until the lone black passenger exits. That frees the rest to break out the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, turn on the music and start dancing in the aisle.

Of course that’s not how things are; “white privilege” is a misnomer. People aren’t favored because they are white (“You’re one of us, so you get special treatment”). That certainly doesn’t apply for the losers described above. Instead, it’s just that whites are not discriminated against on account of race.

No it won’t

Some non-whites may take offense at whiteness being seen as the normal, default condition of a human being, implying that non-whites are something apart, not quite full members of the club, or members on sufferance. But that reads too much into the situation. All it is is that if you pick an American person at random, she’s more likely to be white than black. More likely brunette than a redhead too. That doesn’t mean redheads aren’t part of the club. In fact there is no such club. True, there are some whites who do see there being a club. And for them there is one: a club of losers to which blacks shouldn’t want to belong. It sure isn’t the club of American society.

So white privilege is not a thing. It’s the absence of one. Whites do not get some undeserved benefit as the other side of the coin of non-whites undeservedly disadvantaged. What whites get is nothing more than what everyone should get.

Seriously??

White privilege does not invest Caucasians with the guilt of original sin. Instead we are individual human beings, each of us come fresh into the world, and who we are is defined by what we do.

 

Robert Ingersoll — the greatest man you never heard of

August 28, 2018

We went to a Syracuse shindig celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. Run by the Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist organization, its first day featured presentations, the second a bus tour to Ingersoll’s and other freethought landmarks. About ninety attended.

Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was known as “The Great Agnostic.” A lawyer, he was America’s foremost public speaker in the late 19th century, traveling the country giving lectures, mostly anti-religious. People flocked to hear him. In those times, other kinds of public entertainments were almost nonexistent. And Ingersoll was such an engaging speaker that he always got a respectful hearing.

How different America is today. People were ignorant then, but knew they were. Now Americans are a little less ignorant but a lot more sure they know everything (regardless of empirical truth).

Ingersoll was a great humanist in every sense of the word — refuting the canard that “atheists believe in nothing.” Ingersoll believed in the power of human rationality to give us progress and good lives. That the happiness of sentient beings is the ultimate source of meaning. That the time to be happy is now, and the place is here, on Earth. That one’s happiness is entwined with that of others. And Ingersoll lived these principles, earning the love and admiration of everyone he touched.

His birthplace museum is in Dresden, NY, a tiny town. We were shown a screenshot from “Tripadvisor” labeling the Ingersoll site “#1 of 1 things to do in Dresden.”

Flynn

Tom Flynn (editor of CFI’s Free Inquiry magazine) placed Ingersoll in the context of what he called “the Braid of Reform” in 19th Century America. The two great causes were abolition and women’s rights (including suffrage). Not all these movements’ adherents were religious freethinkers, but many were; and most freethinkers were abolitionists and suffragists. “Freethought” means thinking outside the box of traditional religious dogmas.

Blumner

Robyn Blumner heads the CFI. She noted that its $5 million budget is the largest for any U.S. secular organization, but is dwarfed by funding for the Christian right. “Campus Crusade for Christ” has a budget a hundred times larger. Blumner said, however, that we have reason, science, and truth on our side. Though truth used to have a bigger constituency.

One CFI program she discussed had particular resonance for me: “Secular Rescue.” I am a fearless blogger — not courageous, but literally fearless because in America there’s nothing to fear over what one writes. Not so in other countries, especially Muslim ones, where “blasphemy” is a crime, sometimes punishable by death; a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes (to be administered in installments). In Bangladesh there’s a vigilante crusade murdering “blaspheming” bloggers. “Secular Rescue” is engaged in protecting such people and even relocating them to safer places.

Smith

Norman Dann spoke about Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), another great figure you never heard of. Extremely rich, all Smith wanted to do with his money was to advance human rights, especially abolition. He freed a lot of slaves by simply buying them. Initially he felt “moral suasion” could end slavery. Then political activism. Finally, a fellow came to him with a different approach: violence and war. That was John Brown, and Smith funded him.

Sue Boland talked about Matilda Joslyn Gage — the third woman’s suffrage triumvir, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though much less famous now.

Gage

Gage was a freethinker whose battle for women’s rights targeted religion, with all its patriarchal ideas. Indeed, Christianity was the most powerful force opposing female suffrage.

Gage’s son-in-law was L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz — which Boland called a freethought fairy tale, telling us that everything we need is already inside us. (No need for that fraud behind the curtain!)

The bus tour included Gage’s house in Fayetteville, as well as, in Peterboro, the Gerrit Smith site and the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

Another program centered on D.M. Bennett, publisher of a freethought periodical, The Truth Seeker, who in 1879 fell victim to “anti-vice” pervert Anthony Comstock, being imprisoned for mailing obscenity — a book of conjugal advice. Whose author President Hayes pardoned. But, bowing to church pressure, he wouldn’t pardon Bennett.

Grube as Stanton

We also had two costumed dramatic impersonations. Melinda Grube channeled Stanton (Gerrit Smith’s cousin). A focus was how her life was shaped by her brother’s death in youth and her father’s inability to take equal pride in her, being the wrong gender. “She couldn’t change her father, or herself, so she’d have to change the world.” Like Gage, Stanton saw women’s oppression rooted in Christianity and the Bible; she authored The Woman’s Bible with plain English explanations of its pernicious passages relating to women.

Margaret Downey gave us Eva Parker Ingersoll, Robert’s wife, focusing on their love story. She quoted from a letter he wrote to Eva: “The world is getting free. I thank God every day that he does not exist.”

After dinner, the keynote speech was by Susan Jacoby, Ingersoll biographer and author of several other books (one of which I recently wrote about). Her theme: what would Ingersoll think of today’s America?

Jacoby

Jacoby stressed Ingersoll’s linking religion’s rejection of reason with the whole spectrum of social issues like women’s rights and immigration. Yes, he was enlightened even on that, battling against the onset of immigration restrictions with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As ever, his argument was moral: Chinese are human beings who should be treated the same as any other. “A great nation,” he said, “should be bound by the highest conception of honor and justice.” (Funny how believers insist morality comes from religion, when so often religious dogmas make them morally blind.)

Jacoby sees increasingly successful efforts by today’s religionists to undermine church-state separation, using protection of religious freedom as a wedge, twisting it into a right to impose their beliefs on others. She said Ingersoll may have been too optimistic about science’s ability to overcome all this.

The word “tribal” has been invoked a lot in analyzing Trump support. Jacoby sees that tribalism as being animated more by religion than anything else (such as economic concerns). It’s a fact that the 40% of Americans who back Trump are largely the same people who are Christian fundamentalists. And just as religious faith works to seal people off from reality checks, the same seems true in the political realm, with Trumpism more like a faith cult than a mere political viewpoint.

This too shall pass

Is there hope? Yes. One writer recently called the religious right’s ascendancy “a cultural stab from the grave,” demographically speaking. Throughout the rest of the developed world, Christian religion is in sharp retreat, with belief and churchgoing collapsing. In America, the younger you are, the less religious you are apt to be. The religious right’s flame will ultimately burn out. In the long run, reason will defeat unreason.

Was America founded as a “Christian nation?”

August 13, 2018

We’re often told that it was. The aim is to cast secularism as somehow un-American, and override the Constitution’s separation of church and state. But it’s the latter idea that’s un-American; and it’s historical nonsense. Just one more way in which the religious right is steeped in lies (forgetting the Ninth Commandment).

Jacoby

They assault what is in fact one of the greatest things about America’s birth. It’s made clear in Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Firstly, it tortures historical truth to paint the founding fathers as devout Christians. They were not; instead men of the Enlightenment. While “atheism” wasn’t even a thing at the time, most of them were as close to it as an Eighteenth Century person could be. Franklin was surely one of the century’s most irreverent. Washington never in his life penned the name “Christ.” Jefferson cut-and-pasted his own New Testament, leaving out everything supernatural and Christ’s divinity. In one letter he called Christian doctrine “metaphysical insanity.”

The secularism issue was arguably joined in 1784 (before the Constitution) when Patrick Henry introduced a bill in Virginia’s legislature to tax all citizens to fund “teachers of the Christian religion.” Most states still routinely had quasi-official established churches. But James Madison and others mobilized public opinion onto an opposite path. The upshot was Virginia passing not Henry’s bill but, instead, one Jefferson had proposed years earlier: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

It was one of three achievements Jefferson had engraved on his tombstone.

The law promulgated total separation of church and state. Nobody could be required to support any religion, nor be penalized or disadvantaged because of religious beliefs or opinions. In the world of the Eighteenth Century, this was revolutionary. News of it spread overseas and created an international sensation. After all, this was a world still bathed in blood from religious believers persecuting other religious believers. It was not so long since people were burned at the stake over religion, and since a third of Europe’s population perished in wars of faith. Enough, cried Virginia, slashing this Gordian knot of embroiling governmental power with religion.

Soon thereafter delegates met in Philadelphia to create our Constitution. It too was revolutionary; in part for what it did not say. The word “God” nowhere appears, let alone the word “Christian.” Instead of starting with a nod to the deity, which would have seemed almost obligatory, the Constitution begins “We the people of the United States . . . .” We people did this, ourselves, with no god in the picture.

This feature did not pass unnoticed at the time; to the contrary, it was widely denounced, as an important argument against ratifying the Constitution. But those views were outvoted, and every state ratified.

It gets better. Article 6, Section 3 says “no religious test shall ever be required” for holding any public office or trust. This too was highly controversial, contradicting what was still the practice in most states, and with opponents warning that it could allow a Muslim (!) president. But the “no religious test” provision shows the Constitution’s framers were rejecting all that, and totally embracing, instead, the religious freedom stance of Virginia’s then-recent enactment. And that too was ratified.

Indeed, it still wasn’t even good enough. In the debates over ratification, many felt the Constitution didn’t sufficiently safeguard freedoms, including religious freedom, and they insisted on amendments, which were duly adopted in 1791. That was the Bill of Rights. And the very first amendment guaranteed freedom of both speech and religion — which go hand-in-hand. This made clear that all Americans have a right to their opinions, and to voice those opinions, including ideas about religion, and that government could not interfere. Thus would Jefferson later write of “the wall of separation” between church and state.

All this was, again, revolutionary. The founders, people of great knowledge and wisdom, understood exactly what they were doing, having well in mind all the harm that had historically been done by government entanglement with religion. What they created was something new in the world, and something very good indeed.

Interestingly, as Jacoby’s book explains, much early U.S. anti-Catholic prejudice stemmed from Protestants’ fear that Catholics, if they got the chance, would undermine our hard-won church-state separation, repeating the horrors Europe had endured.

A final point by Jacoby: the religious attack on science (mainly, evolution science) does not show religion and science are necessarily incompatible. Rather, it shows that a religion claiming “the one true answer to the origins and ultimate purpose of human life” is “incompatible not only with science but with democracy.” Because such a religion really says that issues like abortion, capital punishment, or biomedical research can never be resolved by imperfect human opinion, but only by God’s word. This echoes the view of Islamic fundamentalists that democracy itself, with humans presuming to govern themselves, is offensive to God. What that means in practice, of course, is not rule by (a nonexistent) God but by pious frauds who pretend to speak for him.

I’m proud to be a citizen of a nation founded as a free one* — not a Christian one.

* What about slaves? What about women? Sorry, I have no truck with those who blacken America’s founding because it was not a perfect utopia from Day One. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The degree of democracy and freedom we did establish were virtually without precedent in the world of the time. And the founders were believers in human progress, who created a system open to positive change; and in the centuries since, we have indeed achieved much progress.

Mitch Landrieu and Confederate monuments

August 2, 2018

Mitch Landrieu was mayor of New Orleans, 2010-18. In 2015 he started the process of removing Confederate monuments. Landrieu expected opposition, but its ferocity surprised him. Such was the violence and intimidation that it was a big problem even getting contractors to do the work. Statue removal became something of a military operation.

We saw Landrieu interviewed on The Daily Show and were very impressed. So my wife bought me his book, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.

The book impressed me even more, for its eloquence in expressing fundamental human good will, honesty, and decency; the values that made America great. And I wept anew at the contrast between that virtuous Americanism and Trumpist loathesomeness.

The book isn’t only about the statues. It tells Landrieu’s life story. He became mayor in 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina. His predecessor, Ray (“chocolate city”) Nagin was corrupt and incompetent; the recovery was a shambles. Thus Landrieu came into office with huge challenges. What he’s achieved testifies to the can-do spirit that’s so central to America’s story.

One thing Landrieu talks about is the schools. Even before Katrina they were a disaster area. The storm literally destroyed most of New Orleans’ public schools. But instead of just rebuilding them, the city took a different path, going whole-hog with charter schools. The liberal rap is that they “siphon” resources from public education, cream the best students, and educate them less well. This ignores that our most disadvantaged kids are the worst served by their public schools, and they do better in charters. Landrieu relates that switching his city to mainly a charter school model has produced way better results — especially for black kids.

“Very fine people on both sides”

Landrieu sees the subject of race as central to his whole life story. I used to optimistically believe the bad old days were behind us, with racism confined to dark peripheral corners of American society. That even the South had culturally moved on. We’d elected a black president, after all. But I’ve come to realize those dark corners are larger than I’d thought. (Indeed, Trump has brought racism out of the corners.)

The canard is that statue-removers are trying to “erase history.” But ironically it’s the statue-lovers doing exactly that. Landrieu gives us a history lesson.

After the Civil War, Southern whites created “the Cult of the Lost Cause” — romanticizing it as having been a battle for states’ rights and, mainly, the noble defense of a genteel culture, contrasted against a Northern one dark with factory smoke and industrialist greed.

Truth: The war was about slavery. No slavery, no war. “States’ rights?” It was the right to enslave human beings. The supposedly refined culture being defended had its foundation in the kidnapping, brutalization, torture, and rape of human beings. So much for moral superiority. This was not some noble cause, but among the foulest in history.

Of course, southern whites didn’t see themselves as brutalizing human beings. To anesthetize their consciences they convinced themselves blacks were inferior creatures, made by God to be slaves. Thus the salience of white supremacy thinking. (Today’s white supremacists are self-refuting; their belief, contrary to biological fact, proves it’s they who are the less evolved creatures.)

After the war that freed the slaves, southern whites strove to undo that result to the greatest extent possible through a campaign of violence and terror to beat down black people and eviscerate their human rights.

That is the context for the erection of these “Lost Cause” monuments. They came in two waves: one circa 1900 when Jim Crow was getting established, and later during the civil rights era. In both cases the aim was to strut whites’ unrepentance and rub it especially into black faces, to keep them “in their place.” These were white supremacy monuments. Statues of traitors.

And there were never any memorializing slavery’s victims.

Landrieu’s tale did, again, impress upon me the depth of white racism still persisting. As he chronicles, unreconstructed whites responded regarding the monuments just as they had to emancipation, and the civil rights era, with terroristic violence. A noble cause honoring history? Yeccch.

While the former Confederate states have big black populations, they are minorities, and voting is largely along racial lines. Republicans are the white party. Not all, but a majority of southern whites who vote Republican are voting to express disapproval and hostility toward black citizens. (There’s not a single white Democratic congressman left from the south.)

America has never been a perfect country. But its greatness — exemplified by Mitch Landrieu’s story — has always been its striving toward perfection, through the efforts of people like him, with nobility of spirit. And even despite what I’ve written here, we had indeed been on an upward path, toward a more perfect union. The statues, in New Orleans, and many other southern locales, did come down.

But alas right now we’re on a radical detour from that path of human progress. A sharp lurch downwards.

Landrieu is being touted for president. He’d be the perfect candidate to beat Vile Creep. Would the Democrats have enough sense to nominate him? Would America have enough moral sense to elect him?

King Zog

July 15, 2018

Knowing nothing about the story, except vaguely its strangeness, out of simple curiosity I picked up this biography, King Zog, by Jason Tomes.

Albania was an outlying part of the Ottoman Empire. A most backward, primitive, impoverished land (which it still is). A century ago it had no railroads, hardly even any roads, and three automobiles. Scant literacy or intelligentsia. No law, apart from a tribal vengeance code.

The tale begins with the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912, a confusion of would-be states scrambling in a war of all against all.

Enter Ahmed Zogolli. Just turning seventeen.

His early life is murky. The bio is full of “might haves” and “perhapses.” He apparently had some schooling in Constantinople (Istanbul). But in 1912 he didn’t come out of nowhere — not quite exactly. He’d inherited the chiefdom of a small Albanian backwoods clan, the Mati, with a ragtag army of maybe a few hundred men.

Albania was actually full of petty chiefs like him. But Zogolli, despite his extreme youth, excelled them all in intelligence, self-possession, self-discipline, guile — and in his vision for nation-building. Already he was a player when a statelet of Albania emerged out of the war in 1912. The European powers put a minor German prince on the throne; Zogolli backed him; he didn’t last. When WWI soon erupted, the Austrians came in, and he aligned with them too.

They gave Zogolli, now 21, a rank of Colonel, and even brought him to Vienna to receive a medal and an audience with the new Emperor Karl. All very nice. But then he was told it would be best to just remain in Vienna.

So he sat out the rest of the war, nightclubbing — and studying history. At war’s end he finally returned to Albania where, Austrian rule having disintegrated, a provisional government emerged. Within months Zogolli was minister of the interior, and soon thereafter calling all the shots. By 1922 (now all of 27), he was also prime minister.

The next year Zogolli organized elections — the only free election Albania ever had until the 1990s. His own party didn’t do too well. In 1924, on his way to Parliament, he took three bullets from a would-be assassin but persevered to deliver his speech. Nevertheless, things were falling apart, and Zogolli was soon ousted and exiled. However, his successor was such a crackpot that by year’s end Zogolli managed to return again, raise a new army, and seize control. He rode at the head of his tribal warriors wearing a pressed business suit.

Now, he made himself president, restyled as Ahmed Zogu; and in 1928 as King Zog I.

It was not a cushy billet. Albanian politics (if it could be called such) was a morass of tribal blood feuds; and in consolidating power, Zog had stepped on many toes. He managed to hold things together, just, but foresaw an almost inevitable violent end.

A certain fearlessness had vaulted him to power, yet he lived in constant fear now, and it kept him virtually imprisoned in the palaces he built.

In these circumstances, a benevolent monarchy was not in the cards. Some repression was required. Some inconvenient characters did die violently. At least the word “torture” does not appear in the book.

However, it was not solely self-aggrandizement. As mentioned, Zog did see himself on a nation-building mission, little though he had to work with. Albania was still a collection of feuding clans with no national consciousness. Zog did do some things of a liberal, progressive nature, trying to drag the country out of the Dark Ages. But a key hindrance was simple lack of money. Obviously, these grizzled tribesmen would not submit to taxation. Indeed, what funds Zog did manage to scrape together went largely to buying off warlords.

He did not get a queen until 1938: Geraldine. He couldn’t marry any Albanian gal because of the clan rivalry factor, and mainline European royalty shunned him as an upstart adventurer. Geraldine was of minor Hungarian nobility and half American. It actually seems to have been something of a love match.

Zog’s challenge was not just to play off rival warlords but (to keep Albania in existence) also Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. He made Albania virtually an Italian client state. Though accused of selling the country out to Mussolini, the riposte was that he’d never actually delivered it. But finally, in April 1939 — Mussolini, to keep up with the Joneses — that is, the Germans, who rolled up Czechoslovakia — invaded Albania, after an ultimatum that Zog refused.

Albania would have been totally outclassed militarily, even had anyone been willing to fight. But no one was. Zog fled into exile, yet again.

For the next 22 years he and his court flitted among various countries, financed by quite a bit of loot he’d managed to accumulate and abscond with. Unsurprisingly, Zog intrigued relentlessly for a return. During WWII, various partisan armies — none supporting him — fought over Albania. The eventual victor was Enver Hoxha’s Communists, who installed a brutal Stalinist regime, that lasted until 1991.

Zog had meantime ruined his health in numerous ways, including smoking more cigarettes than was humanly possible. He was 65 when he died in 1961.

He did not come back again.

Geraldine lived until 2002.

How to become a Nazi

July 9, 2018

You’re a nurse, and a doctor instructs you, by phone, to give his patient 20 Mg of a certain drug. The bottle clearly says 10 Mg is the maximum allowable daily dose. Would you administer the 20 Mg? Asked this hypothetical question, nearly all nurses say no. But when the experiment was actually run, 21 out of 22 nurses followed the doctor’s orders, despite knowing it was wrong.

Then there was the famous Milgram experiment. Participants were directed to administer escalating electric shocks to other test subjects for incorrect answers. Most people did as instructed, even when the shocks elicited screams of pain; even when the victims apparently lost consciousness. (They were actors and not actually shocked.)

These experiments are noted in Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc, in a chapter about the Nazis. Shermer argues that in the big picture we are morally progressing. But here he examines how it can go wrong, trying to understand how people became Nazis.

Normal people have strong, deeply embedded moral scruples. But they are very situation-oriented. Look at the famous “runaway trolley” hypothetical. Most people express willingness to pull a switch to detour the trolley to kill one person to prevent its killing five. But if you have to physically push the one to his death — even though the moral calculus would seem equivalent — most people balk.

So it always depends on the circumstances. In the nurse experiment, when it came down to it, the nurses were unwilling to go against the doctor. Likewise in Milgram’s experiment, it was the authority of the white-coated supervisor that made people obey his order to give shocks, even while most felt very queasy about it.

Nazis too often explained themselves saying, “I was only following orders.” And, to be fair, the penalty for disobeying was often severe. But that was hardly the whole story. In fact, the main thing was the societal normalization of Nazism. When your entire community, from top to bottom, is besotted with an idea, it’s very hard not to be sucked in.

Even if it is, well, crazy. Nazi swaggering might actually not have been delusional if confined to the European theatre. They overran a lot of countries. But then unbridled megalomania led them to take on, as well, Russia — and America. This doomed insanity they pursued to the bitter end.

Yet they didn’t see it that way. The power of groupthink.

And what about the idea of exterminating Jews? They didn’t come to it all at once, but in incremental steps. They actually started with killing “substandard” Germans — mentally or physically handicapped, the blind, the deaf — tens of thousands. With the Jews they began with social ostracizing and increasing curtailment of rights.

This was accompanied by dehumanization and demonization. Jews were not just called inferior, genetically and morally, but blamed for a host of ills, including causing WWI, and causing Germany’s defeat. Thusly Germans convinced themselves the Jews deserved whatever they got, had “brought it on themselves.” These ideas were in the very air Germans breathed.

Part of this was what Shermer calls “pluralistic ignorance” — taking on false beliefs because you imagine everyone holds them. Like college students who’ve been shown to have very exaggerated ideas of their peers’ sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse, causing them to conform to those supposed norms. Germans similarly believed negative stereotypes about Jews because they thought most fellow Germans held such views. Actually many did not, but kept that hidden, for obvious reasons. There was no debate about it.

Of course it was all factually nonsense. An insult to intelligence, to anyone who knew anything about anything. Yet Germany — seemingly the most culturally advanced society on Earth, the epicenter of learning, philosophy, the arts — fell completely for this nonsense and wound up murdering six million in its name.*

Which brings me to Trumpism. (You knew it would.) Am I equating it with Nazism? No. Not yet. But the pathology has disturbing parallels. The tribalism, the groupthink, the us-versus-them, nationalism, racism, and contempt for other peoples. The demonization of immigrants, falsely blaming them for all sorts of ills, to justify horrible mistreatment like taking children from parents — even saying, “they brought it on themselves.” And especially the suspension of critical faculties to follow blindly a very bad leader and swallow bushels of lies.

I might once have said “it can’t happen here” because of our strong democratic culture. Today I’m not so sure. Culture can change. That within the Republican party certainly has. Not so long ago the prevailing national attitude toward politicians was “I’m from Missouri,” and “they’re all crooks and liars.” Too cynical perhaps but the skepticism was healthy, and it meant that being caught in a lie (or even flip-flopping) was devastating for a politician. Contrast Republicans’ attitude toward Trump (a politician after all). Not only a real crook and constant flip-flopper, but a Brobdingnagian liar. That 40% of Americans line up in lockstep behind this is frightening. And as for our democratic culture, the sad truth is that too few still understand its principles and values. Germans in their time were the apogee of civilization, and then they became Nazis.

Shermer quotes Hitler saying, “Give me five years and you will not recognize Germany again.” Fortunately Trump will have only four — let’s hope. But America is already becoming unrecognizable.

* My grandfather was a good patriotic German who’d even taken a bullet for his country in WWI. But that didn’t matter; he was Jewish. Fortunately he, with wife and daughter, got out alive. His mother did not.

Are humans smarter than (other) animals?

June 27, 2018

Around 1900, “Clever Hans” was a famous German horse with seeming mathematical ability. Asked “what is four times three?” Hans would tap his hoof twelve times. He was usually right even when his owner wasn’t present; and even when given the questions in writing!

Animal intelligence — and consciousness — are age old puzzles to us. French philosopher Rene Descartes saw other animals as, in effect, mechanical contrivances. And even today many see all their behaviors as produced not by intelligent consciousness (like ours) but rather by instinct — pre-installed algorithms that dictate responses to stimuli — like computers running programs.

Clever Hans’s story is recapped in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Homo Deus. It was eventually proven that Hans knew no math at all. Instead, he was cued to stop tapping his hoof by onlookers’ body language and facial expressions. But, Harari says, that didn’t debunk Hans’s intelligence, it did the opposite. His performance required far more brain power than simple math! You might have memorized 4×3=12 — but could you have gotten the answer the way Hans did?

This points up the difficulty of inferring animal mentation using human yardsticks. Harari explains Hans’s abilities by noting that horses, unequipped for verbal language, communicate instead through body language — so they get pretty good at it. Much better than us.

So if horses are so smart, why aren’t they sitting in the stands at Saratoga while humans run around the track? Well, for one thing, building that sort of facility would have been a lot harder for horses with hooves rather than our dextrous five-fingered hands. Our tool-making capability is a huge factor. And our intelligence, taken as a whole, probably does outstrip that of any other animal. It had to, because early humans faced far more complex survival challenges. Countless other species failed such tests and went extinct. We did not because an evolutionary fluke gave us, just in time, an extreme adaptation in our brains, unlike any other animal’s. Our equivalent of the narwhal’s huge tusk or the giraffe’s neck.

That happened around a couple of hundred thousand years ago. Yet for around 98% of those years, humans achieved little more than mere survival. Only in the last few thousand have we suddenly exploded into a force dominating the Earth as no creature before.

Why that delay? In fact, Harari notes, our stone age ancestors must have been even smarter than people today. After all, their lives were much tougher. One mistake and you’d be dead; your dumb genes would not make it into the next generation.

Harari thinks — I tend to agree — that cooperation proved to be humanity’s killer app. PBS TV’s recent “Civilizations” series illuminates how things really got going with the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Arguably farmers were actually worse off in many ways; and maybe even humanity as a whole for about 9,800 of those years. But agriculture, and the production of food surpluses, did make possible the rise of cities, where people could specialize in particular enterprises, and interact and exchange ideas with large numbers of other people. That eventually paid off spectacularly, in terms of human material well-being, in modern times.

Harari notes that ants and bees too live in large cooperative communities. So why haven’t they developed computers and spaceships? Our super intelligent consciousness also gave us great flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Insects have a far more limited repertoire of responses. As Harari writes, “If a hive faces a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot, for example, guillotine the queen and establish a republic.”