Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Mychal Denzel Smith’s revolution: radical left magical thinking

September 25, 2020

I was shouting at the TV while watching with my wife The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah interview Mychal Denzel Smith (right), author of Stakes is High.

Smith saw little point in voting for Biden, deeming him just the same-old same-old, whose election would make no real difference. He feels America needs a thorough reinvention to right all its wrongs. While Noah suggested Biden would take us in the right direction, Smith was having none of it, saying Biden, once in office, would merely be a tool of the old establishment. Somewhat ironic given Trumpers painting Biden as a tool of radicals — like Smith himself!

Noah also tried to get Smith to acknowledge how bad, for America (and indeed Smith’s own agenda), another Trump term would be. Smith was having none of that either. Seemed to be saying, let the country be wrecked, then we can build our New Jerusalem on the ruins. Finally, Noah asked him what individuals can actually do. Smith’s wordy response didn’t answer that at all — infuriating my wife.

Afterward, we tried to make sense of this Mychal Denzel Smith. She thought maybe he was fine with Trump’s re-election, anticipating an assassination. I didn’t think so, unable to see that as advancing his radical aims. But then how does he imagine their achievement? Given that almost half the country is gaga Trumpist, while on the Democratic side even a moderately radical candidacy got whomped.

There’s something “radical chic” about people like Smith —thinking it cool — hence a kind of one-upmanship in radicalism — “mine more extreme than yours.” Like Smith thinks his politics is more serious. Yet can it be serious without some roadmap for getting there?

Smith seemed to be on a Yellow Brick Road of magical thinking. Simply ignoring that very few Americans actually want his revolution, with many horrified by it. How to win them over did not appear to be of interest to him. Thus he can’t, indeed, envision some sort of political campaign or action movement. Instead, it would have to be magic — America suddenly waking up and saying, en masse, “You’re right! Why didn’t we see it before?”

My wife poked around online and found that Smith, though unwilling to say so in the interview, does actually advocate violent revolution if needed. (Echoing Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.”)

I said, so does he think they’ll have more guns than the other side?! If violence is to settle our political dispensation, it will be by right-wing gun nuts, not left-wing peaceniks.

Smith reflects a common cynical leftist view of America as irredeemable with racism and social injustice. Epitomized by Noam Chomsky, and by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States — chronicling two centuries of efforts to overcome injustices and achieve progress, yet with nary a word acknowledging that anything was achieved at all. As if America was born in sin because it did not, in 1787, immediately free the slaves, give women the vote, empower labor unions, and right all wrongs. And it’s no better today.

Zinn’s litany might have included gay marriage. Except that no one could even imagine it when he wrote in 1980. Really proving how little he understood this nation’s capacity for progress.

America was not birthed in perfect justice. But into a world where there wasn’t even any such thing as self-government. Our starting it came to serve as a guiding light for much of humankind. What we also created was the kind of society that could progress and improve and right wrongs. And so we have. We did end slavery, did extend voting to the propertyless and then women, did give labor unions rights, constructing a host of other economic rights and protections, did end child labor, establish minimum wages and build social safety nets, did act to curb racial discrimination and segregation and to integrate our society. And much more — yes, even gay marriage.

Are we perfect now? No, we are still a work in progress, continuing inch by inch down that long hard road, not chasing some mirage of overnight revolution. That’s my noble conception of America. Which people like Mychal Denzel Smith tragically refuse to embrace.

More tragically, as his own book title says, the stakes right now are high, with that vision of America threatened as never before. Trump has already battered it. With four more years, it will be destroyed.

You want a revolution, Mr. Smith? Trump will show you a revolution.

John Lewis and the “Beloved Community”

September 22, 2020

One of my book groups read John Lewis’s 1998 autobiography, Walking With the Wind. He’s long been a hero to me.

The subtitle is A Memoir of the Movement, referring to the 1960s civil rights crusade. Lewis was there from the start, when he was twenty, in 1960. From 1963 to his 1966 ouster he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a frontline organization. Those few years were a very intense time for him.

I was reminded that in the same age bracket, I too was involved in an intense battle against an entrenched power structure — Albany’s Democratic political machine. And as with Lewis, it ended with a betrayal. My Republican party, which had been its spearhead, basically turned its back on that fight. At my last countywide party meeting, my speech was booed. But I never risked my life as Lewis did, repeatedly.

He never wavered from the basic principles that motivated him from the start. A Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, which for Lewis was a deeply felt moral commitment. With an ideal of equality, all Americans joining together in what Lewis liked to call a “beloved community.”

Perhaps inevitably, such generosity of spirit ultimately could not stand against other impetuses. The degree of violence encountered made some SNCC members want to fight fire with fire. While Lewis’s “beloved community” idea came under assault from those more militantly seeking not integration but separation. Propelled by Malcolm X’s black nationalist radicalism — of which he actually repented before his assassination. Nevertheless, that new “black power” trope made the old SNCC stance seem too tame for some. Stokely Carmichael was in that camp, maneuvering to wrest the group’s chairmanship from Lewis.

In the climactic vote, amid all this dissension, Lewis actually defeated Carmichael by a wide margin. But that was reversed by what amounted to a late night coup, after most meeting attendees had gone to bed. Reading his account, I was surprised Lewis folded to this. But by then perhaps he was no longer up for fighting against what seemed unstoppable.

Two decades later, Lewis returned to prominence, winning a Georgia congressional seat, by defeating his old close friend and movement “golden boy” Julian Bond.

Lewis’s last chapter laments where the country had gotten to, as of the late 1990s when he wrote. His “beloved community” seemed farther away than ever. It felt oddly disturbing to read this in 2020, when the trends Lewis discussed have grown so much worse.

I have no truck with radicals advocating abrupt revolution. America’s great story, instead, has been gradual progress, through hard work, always climbing a steep hill of resistance. That was the story of John Lewis and the civil rights movement. It was a moral battle, and the nation as a whole did come together on the side of what was right and just.

But today it’s a very different country, as Lewis himself already wrote over twenty years ago. In some ways (notably, gay marriage), progress has continued, yet something is very broken. A 2011 book by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum was titled That Used To Be Us. Referring to how America used to tackle problems and challenges — which in many ways had stopped. And here again, since that was written, it’s gotten even worse.

American democracy was quintessentially a project of Enlightenment rationalism. That’s what is failing. Under sustained assault by almost half the country. We are now in another great moral battle, for truth against lies, hope against fear, love against hate. For right against wrong. But the nation will not come together on the side of right as it did for John Lewis’s 1960s movement. Our “beloved community” is breaking into two irreconcilable warring ones.

The Ginsburg seat: into the abyss

September 19, 2020

We were already at Armageddon. Pandemic and economic collapse, schools closed, racial turmoil, and our political tribalism climaxing with the most divisive and consequential election ever, likely headed for a fought-over result.

And now this. Armageddon squared. Buckle your seatbelts, it will be hellacious.

Weeks ago I wrote a blog post hypothesizing Justice Ginsburg’s death just after a Trump election defeat — and suggesting nonviolent resistance to stop his nominee’s confirmation. But now Republicans can’t be stopped from ramming it through.

The religious right has fought forty years for this, and won’t be deterred from grabbing what’s probably their last nick-of-time opportunity. A Supreme Court majority ending the right to abortion. Which only a narrow minority of Americans actually supports. Such a ruling, in this febrile political climate, would be insanely divisive, shredding the Court’s already frayed legitimacy, and indeed that of our entire civic edifice.

They don’t care, obsessed with this one issue. Willing to burn the house down to get their way on it.

Trump’s likeliest court nominee is Amy Coney Barrett, who seems to feel her religious beliefs supersede the constitution and rule of law. Putting such a person on the Supreme Court is also insane. But why not go for broke?

Only 27 years ago Justice Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3. That was in a very different country. We’ve always had intense political battles, to be sure, but with all sides committed to bedrock democratic values. That meant accepting pluralism, recognizing opponents’ legitimacy. But Republicans have given up on that. Exploiting levers of power to illegitimately manipulate the system. Like trying to win elections by keeping as many citizens as possible from voting.

And seizing a Supreme Court majority to undo Roe v. Wade, likewise contravening the essence of democratic culture. Simply filling a vacancy might have been legitimate — except for their having previously stolen a seat by blocking Obama from filling it. Their dishonest pretext for that should apply equally to the present vacancy, but of course they’ll hypocritically compound the dishonesty by flouting their own precedent.

Pro-lifers rationalize all this as necessary to combat the supervening moral evil of abortion. But such ends-justify-means thinking is always morally fraught. While a rational analysis of the abortion issue makes it far from black-and-white. And ironically, a Guttmacher Institute study found no link between a state’s abortion restrictions and its abortion rate. A new factor here is increasing use of abortion pills, with no office visits. Probably making the anti-abortion crusade doomed anyway.

Meantime pro-lifers’ refusal to consider the consequences of their single-mindedness is itself profoundly immoral. Consequences like degrading our civic culture by putting a sociopath in the White House. Undermining America’s character as a democratic society founded on truth and reason. This has global impacts on human lives. Two hundred thousand of which — not embryos — have been lost so far in America’s Covid-19 disaster, most of them thanks to Trump being president.

Thanks to the so-called “pro-life” movement.

Rhapsody in Blue

September 17, 2020

I’m no music buff. But being human I enjoy music; mainly music inspiring positive emotion. Often supplying my own words to go with it.

I visit New York City for a yearly midtown event (pre-covid). And hurrying through the rumbustious streets of this city of cities, my inner ear always hears Rhapsody in Blue. Setting the experience to music.

What a pleasure to find in The Humanist magazine an article about Rhapsody by arts editor Daniel Thomas Moran. Discussing its 1924 composition by George Gershwin. But also its meaning. Moran beautifully expresses my own feelings evoked by this music.

It was a sound track for New York, but more, for all of America and what it represented. I can’t improve on Moran’s words:

“[I]t embodies all the hope and exuberance of America at its finest. It was the Jazz Age and the Industrial Age, and the time of an American artistic renaissance in culture and literature . . . .

“It was a time when all our best years seemed ahead of us, when the cauldron of culture and national identity and the embrace by all of that thing that we felt was American was at full boil, in full blossom.

“[W]hen we as a nation and a people seemed to be lifted skyward both literally and figuratively. We were strong and sure and passionate, inspiration was abundant, and we were willing to do the work and take all the risks.”

Yes, this is what I hear in the music. But notice that the foregoing is written in the past tense. That American spirit of Rhapsody in Blue did endure for several decades more — but then lost steam. And in the last few years has fallen off a cliff. Today the country’s psychic ethos is very different. No longer is Rhapsody the anthem of a vibrant American heart and soul. Instead we have the empty, truculent mockery of “Make America Great Again.”

Yet I will end with the words Moran did: “Even in the exuberant echoing vibrato of the opening notes, we can recognize the distant sounds of hope.”

Darwin’s apostles and evolutionary science: fighting “fake news”

September 6, 2020

Dr. Abby Hafer has her doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and currently teaches at Curry College. She has authored the book Unintelligent Design, among others, and claims to be famous for testicles. (Not her own; see below.) I heard her recent talk about what today’s fighters against fake news can learn from Darwin’s apostles.

She started by suggesting that pre-Trump we could not have imagined an American president establishing a bizarre, counter-factual, evidence-free narrative, yet succeeding in gulling much of the population. But “Welcome to my world,” Hafer said — every evolutionary biologist has always had to deal with such an environment of factual denialism. “Objective reality exists!” she insisted, steadfastly disregarding all the evidence to the contrary.

The Darwin apostles Hafer discussed were scientists who fought, against powerful entrenched interests, to gain acceptance for the concept of evolution by natural selection. After a long hard campaign they succeeded to a great degree (despite pockets of resistance, notably including a high proportion of Americans). Hafer cited publication, in 1889, of a book, Lux Mundi, in which notables in the Church of England discussed reconciling their faith with evolution — which they already assumed was true.

John William Draper was a scientist who authored History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874. The lesson Hafer took from his efforts: don’t quail from battling fundamentalist religion, but work with religious people wherever it’s possible.

Alfred Russel Wallace was of course the guy who figured out evolution at about the same time as Darwin. Darwin had long feared publishing would cause a big backlash. But Wallace, Hafer said, struck a different kind of terror into Darwin: not getting credit. So he finally finished up the book he’d been working on for two decades. (He and Wallace actually reached an agreement about public presentation of the theory. In this negotiation Darwin had much back-up from colleagues. I recall one writer saying they “took Wallace to the cleaners.”)

Joseph Hooker was one scientist who had long actually fought against the idea of biological evolution. But ultimately, he said, the conviction was “forced upon an unwilling convert.” He couldn’t fight the facts. That was intellectual integrity.

Darwin’s greatest proponent was Thomas Henry Huxley. Hafer discussed his lengthy battle with Richard Owen, who maintained that brain differences ruled out any close connection between humans and apes. Huxley showed Owen was just wrong on the anatomical facts: “Before I have done with that mendacious humbug I will nail him out like a kite to a barn door, an example to all evil doers.”

Huxley was indefatigable, working the “social media of his day” — newspapers. Letters to the editor, and replies, were a very big thing.

One audience member remarked that many people who most need to hear such messages refuse to listen. Hafer acknowledged this, and how a lot of these issues have become politicized. But she held that persistent efforts to debate such issues, vigorously battling error, in the public square, can have an effect. And Americans are actually leaving evangelical Christianity in droves, indeed angry because they feel they’ve been lied to.

A point she emphasized was that to overcome biases you have to tailor the message to engage people. Mention was made of Galileo’s experiments with the motions of balls, illustrating his ideas in a visually unarguable way. Hafer also pointed to her own work on how the human body actually shows un-intelligent design.* A prime example is testicles, hanging vulnerably outside the body cavity, whereas many other animals have them safely inside. It’s because human testicles have to be kept cooler. (I asked whether there was any connection between testicles and Galileo’s balls and she gave a straight-faced answer.) Anyhow, the point was that when you start talking about testicles, people sit up and listen.

She also said the current pandemic is a golden opportunity to make people grasp the importance of being serious toward science. And the virus, of course, evolved. If it weren’t for evolution, there’d never be any new diseases.

Hafer avowed that we are struggling today not only for the soul of this nation — but for its brain. Its integrity. Scientists are on the front lines of this battle.

She channeled Martin Niemoller: First they came for the evolutionary biologists . . . .

* Here’s my earlier discussion of that: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/unintelligent-design-–-why-evolution-explains-the-human-body-and-“intelligent-design”-does-not/

“I’m not making this up” — Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits

September 3, 2020

This book was in my cupboard for years — okay, decades. I noticed it was published during the Reagan administration when I pulled it out and decided to read it, as a counterpoint to having just finished philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s The Power of Ideas. Dave Barry would have titled that book The Power of Boogers.

I say “cupboard” but it’s not a “board,” actually a bunch of boards assembled into what might more correctly be termed a cabinet. Nor has it any hooks to hang cups. What made me call it a “cupboard” in the first place puzzles me now, but never mind. It’s where I put volumes bought at used book sales on the deluded theory that I’ll someday read them. I also intend to sort my drawerful of assorted size screws someday.

Anyhow, the foregoing represents my lame attempt to capture the flavor of Dave Barry’s writing. He’s no Isaiah Berlin. But then, Isaiah Berlin was no Dave Barry either.

My local paper used to carry Barry’s humor column. His accompanying photo, with its ridiculous smirk, looking like he’d just swallowed a mouse and was about to burst out giggling, always said to me, “Seriously?” Regretfully, googling didn’t turn up that picture to show you.

This book, Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, begins with a chapter titled, “Why Humor is Funny.” (Berlin might have seen a tautology there.) The chapter is a probing disquisition exploring humor’s historical antecedents from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Woody Allen. I’m not making this up (as Barry himself would say). And it’s all contained within less than three pages. Of fairly large type, no less.

The best source for jokes, Barry asserts, is the Encyclopedia Britannica. No, really — its article on “Humor and Wit,” which he calls a “regular treasure trove of fun.” To substantiate this — well, actually to assure us he’s kidding — he quotes “a real corker.” Tell this joke at a dull party, Barry says, “and just watch as the other guests suddenly come to life and remember important dental appointments!” (Exclamation point in original.)

Here is the said joke:

“A masochist is a person who likes a cold shower in the morning, so he takes a hot one.”

Far be it from me to dispute Dave Barry on what’s funny or not, but I laughed out loud. In fact, the above is a conceptual mate to what is actually my own favorite joke:

Two guys in a bar start chatting. One confides, “I’m a masochist. I love pain and suffering.”

The other says, “Funny thing. I’m a sadist. I enjoy inflicting pain. In fact, I’ve got my basement all set up as a dungeon, with whips and everything.”

“What are we waiting for?” says the masochist.

So they go, he’s stripped to the waist, chained up to a post, and the other guy gets out this great big whip, and he’s cracking that whip, and cracking it, and cracking it.

“Well?” the masochist says impatiently. “Aren’t you going to whip me?”

And the sadist says, “No.”

We’re told that if you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. Jokes work through ironic confounding of expectations. Here, the sadist actually does inflict pain, by denying the masochist his heart’s desire; in the shower joke, the masochist does it to himself. But both jokes have a further layer. Denial of what the masochist craves makes him suffer. Yet isn’t suffering what he really wants after all? This raises deep philosophical questions about the meaning of suffering, and of happiness, that Isaiah Berlin might address.

But it is, admittedly, a weakness in both jokes that neither involves boogers.

Here is my second most favorite joke:

A bald man [note, this is an important detail; the joke is less funny if you’re not picturing the man as bald] walks into a doctor’s office with a frog atop his head.

“What seems to be the trouble?” the doctor asks.

And the frog says, “I have this man stuck to my ass.”

Do you see what I did there? Once again, jokes are about twisting expectations. Here of course one expected the man, not the frog, to answer. My drawing particular attention to the man’s baldness served to heighten that expectation. This is the difference between mere joke telling and comic genius.

But Dave Barry really is a comic genius. One of his chapters I found especially amusing told about a 452-page document printed under the auspices of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, with every single word crossed out. That by itself was not a laugh riot. We actually expect such absurdities in the realm of government. No, what really tickled my funny bone was that the document was on sale by the Government Printing Office, for $17 — and Barry related that 1800 copies were sold. For the record, that’s more copies than were sold of my book, The Case for Rational Optimism. Perhaps mine was less wonderful. Or perhaps my publisher missed a good thing by printing it with no words crossed out. Live and learn.

Being myself a person who has often written about religion, I thought I’d conclude with this trenchant observation from Dave: “The problem with writing about religion is that you run the risk of offending sincerely religious people, and then they come after you with machetes.”

I’ve indeed experienced this.

Political violence: thinking about the unthinkable

August 27, 2020

It’s December 13, 2020. Trump’s been crushingly defeated, Democrats have won the Senate — and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

Just three weeks of lame duck Republican control remain. Mitch McConnell, who blocked Supreme Court nominee Garland, calling it wrong to fill a seat during a president’s last year, now plans to rush through a Ginsburg replacement.

What could stop them?

It would be so civically destabilizing, so blatantly illegitimate, that forceful action would be justified. I could see legions of people marching on Washington, possibly to occupy the Senate chamber and physically prevent a vote. Non-violent civil resistance. The regime’s response would probably be very violent.

Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, sets forth in exhaustive factual detail how much human violence, in all its many forms, has declined in modern times. And all the many reasons accounting for that. Cynics and pessimists mocked Pinker, but couldn’t refute him. The decline in violence is one of the things that makes me a believer in progress and an optimist about humanity.

But while opposing violence I am not a pacifist. I’ve always believed an ideology of pacifism fails to confront the true moral choices life sometimes presents. That some things are worth fighting for.

While the Ginsburg scenario is hypothetical, Trump’s defeat is highly probable. And with it, a very real danger of political violence. Trump openly says he will reject the election as fraudulent if he loses; laying the groundwork, by impugning mail voting. Even though it’s long widely been used with great reliability and security. Trump would like to create chaos by delaying the Postal Service’s delivery of ballots, and to delegitimize the whole election. Giving America a big black eye; hardly short of treasonous.

Important: a study by The Economist estimates that 80% of mail ballots could be cast by Democrats. Thus on Election Night, before mail ballots are counted, Trump may seemingly be ahead. He will claim victory and then ferociously insist it’s being stolen by fraudulent mail ballots, whose count he will try to disrupt. He’s intent on retaining power by hook or crook. “Will of the people” be damned.

A poll showed 29% of Republicans would back Trump if he refuses to leave office claiming vote fraud. No matter how big the eventual landslide against him? Does that sound insane? But for anyone to still support Trump at this point — after his disastrous record on covid, economic devastation, divisive racism, mountain of lies and corruption, vicious cruelty, and so much else — including trying to sabotage the postal service and the election — isn’t that already a bit insane?  And given all those powerful reasons why so many people will vote against Trump, can Republicans actually delude themselves that only fraud could defeat him?*

A lie cannot be worth fighting for. Yet not only are Trump diehards crazy enough to swallow all his lies, some are indeed the kind of people crazy enough to fight for them. Many of them are gun nuts — besotted with a fantasy of “defending liberty” against “bad people,” with bullets. Convinced, against all reality, that their führer’s been cheated of re-election. Trump’s last stand could well be, for them, a now-or-never, do-or-die moment.

A particular worry is the frighteningly large “QAnon” conspiracist network. Which Trump praises, having retweeted QAnon content almost 200 times. The FBI considers QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, with its members already responsible for gun violence. In their insane mythology Trump is the god, supposedly battling against a vast “deep state” conspiracy of Satan worshippers, engaged in child sex trafficking and even baby eating. His election defeat, accompanied by his flagrant incitements, will send these already deranged people way over the edge. With a very different sort of March on Washington.

This is our coming Armageddon. Ever since the Civil War the idea of an American political settlement through violence would have seemed inconceivable. No longer. What would this do to our democratic way of life? A democratic culture is one in which issues are decided by debate, with acceptance of pluralism, respecting the legitimate role of people who are different and have divergent opinions. Even accepting political defeat. With rule of law — not guns.

That is something worth fighting for. If attacked by people with guns, it must be defended. One might expect law enforcement and the military to do so. I doubt the military would be party to any sort of coup. But the traitor-in-chief being commander-in-chief is a wild card. We’ve already had a foretaste with his deployment of goon squads in Portland. And Trump is the kind of person who, if he can’t get his way, will try to burn the place down.

How all this will finally play out could be very ugly, leaving deep lasting civic wounds. One might rationally suppose a Trump putsch attempt would shred his last remaining political support. But don’t bet on it; rationality is in short supply in that cult. One report on a Trump rally showed a woman saying she’d welcome him as a dictator.

It’s becoming clear that whatever happens, this is not going to be a normal election with an orderly peaceful transfer of power. We’ve had 232 years of them. One way or another, that sterling American record is about to end, thanks to Trump. It breaks my heart.

I pray we can get past this very dark and dangerous passage in our history, that the plague Trumpism represents will finally dissipate, and America will resume its far longer climb toward building a better society for all.

*The same poll showed Democrats would be reluctant to accept an election outcome they believe was produced by Russian subversion, or another Trump electoral college win despite losing the popular vote. Those views would at least be grounded in rationality. But they’re likely moot because Biden is so far ahead.

American Dirt

August 25, 2020

Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt begins with a bang. Literally. A gunshot. Then a lot more.

It’s a quinceañera party, in Acapulco. The massacre’s cause: a newspaper reporter who wrote about a drug cartel boss. Eighteen die. Only his wife Lydia, and her heroic eight-year-old son Luca, escape. Knowing they’re hunted, they become migrants, heading for “El Norte” (America).

Lydia had owned a bookstore; formed a deep bond with a customer who’s a real book lover and (bad) poet. He was in love with her. He’s the cartel boss.

This was one of those books I had to put down every so often, to hold my head in my hands. Sometimes I had a hard time resuming. Had to remind myself, this is fiction. Yet knew, too, its reality.

Literature is about the human heart and soul. This book exemplifies it. From the first words, the reader confronts two human beings in extraordinary trauma, knowing they face a terrible ordeal ahead. Does it matter they’re Mexican?

For some it does. The book prompted a firestorm of criticism for “cultural appropriation.” How dare a white American write a novel depicting Mexicans? This doctrine of the politically correct woke left elevates identity politics to a new height. As if a violator steals something from whom they portray.

It first came to the fore with a painting in the Guggenheim Museum based on the famous Emmett Till open-casket photo, showing his mutilation. The artist’s intent was to spotlight the injustice. But she was white. Oops. Horrors. Not only were there demands for the painting’s removal. They wanted it destroyed.

There’s a spate of polemics calling upon whites to get past their whiteness, or some such incoherent notion. Demanding wokeness. What could be more woke than trying to evoke tears for Emmett Till? You’d think. But no. Destroy that painting.

I’ve discussed this before; also in reviewing Robert Boyers’s book The Tyranny of Virtue. The watchword is “stay in your lane.” Of course that doesn’t apply to non-white artists or writers portraying whites. But otherwise, Boyers points out, “stay in your lane” applied strictly would mean white writers limited to memoir only.

This is why I make a point of literature being about the human heart and soul. That’s what Cummins is engaged in — very powerfully. Had the “cultural appropriation” cops been always with us, we’d have scant literature altogether.

Stating the obvious, the novel’s characters are human beings. Just like you and me, with joys and sufferings just like ours — no, of course not, far deeper. Even reading this with stomach clenched, it wasn’t possible for me to get my head around their extreme experience.

These are the migrants Trump and his minions so despise. Dehumanizing those whose humanness far excels their own. Any one of those migrants, with the capabilities and grit to surmount all the horrible pitfalls, and actually make it to our border, puts to shame the Americans who hate them. Those migrants have qualities that make our country great. I wish we could swap out the one group for the other.

Of course this is the import of the book’s title. Many Americans call these people “dirt.” I thought it could also mean “American soil” — something confirmed near the end.

The book does spotlight that migrants entering America, instead of receiving Good Samaritan treatment, succor and sanctuary, are today met with yet more vicious cruelty. Their children confiscated — many toddlers, even babies — many likely never to be reunited with parents. Being thusly separated from Luca is a big fear for Lydia, once they do get across the border. I used to be so proud of my country. I look forward to that pride’s restoration. Though our humane new president will have his work cut out to unwind the vile policies put in by his predecessor — American Dirt.

No — not American. Just plain Dirt.

Also as shown in this book, what ruined Acapulco, and so much else in the world, is the insane war on drugs. Doing vastly more harm than it could ever prevent, even if it did stop drug use, which it cannot. When will this madness end?

Yet I am an optimist, a believer in progress. Grounded in most people being good. It’s not a faith; it’s empirical, based on an understanding of the scientific evolutionary reasons why it’s so, as well as a lifetime of experience. Some actors in this book are very bad indeed. But most are good. Throughout Lydia’s and Lucas’s ordeal, made gut-wrenching by those bad people, they encounter far more who are good. But for whom they’d be dead. It could almost be a fairy story.

On a lighter note — I visited Acapulco once. In 1973, when the very name connoted carefree tourism. Before the criminality that has almost destroyed the place. I went there with a girl on what was literally a blind date. But one crime did take place.

The much tonier hotel next to ours was the Club de Pesca. On a lark we snuck in there just to sit by the pool. A waiter came by; we ordered a little something. Later, bringing the bill, he said to just sign with our room number. So I did.

Ah, youth.

One country, two planets

August 21, 2020

For half a century I would watch Republican conventions and feel reminded of what my Republicanism meant.

This week’s Democratic convention reminded me of everything my Americanism means. And how Republicans endanger it. What a contrast with them was Biden’s superb, uplifting speech.

During President Obama’s searing evisceration of Trump’s unfitness, Trump was busily at work corroborating the indictment with a disgorgement of disgraceful deranged tweets.* All this made me wonder what next week’s Republican convention will be like. How can they defend this monster and his vile record?

They can. They have their story to tell. A false one, but it will be told very slickly, and with the fervent conviction of true believers. How Trump is making America great again after all the Democratic failure, how he stands up for the little guy, for law and order, stands up to China, strengthens our military and border to protect us, rebuilds our international standing. Doing a great job battling Covid-19. While Slow Joe and Phony Kamala and the corrupt Democrats, tools of socialist radicals, want open borders, a weak America, abolishing the police, want our cities destroyed. They hate America, hate God, will take away your guns, and kill babies. (Maybe eat them, as QAnon conspiracists — lauded by Trump — now literally assert.)

A total inversion of reality. The whole Trump project a tower of lies. The mind reels at their ability to convince themselves.

One commentator on PBS, Sarah Smarsh, said that such people can actually be “psychologically rational.” What they see as true is a matter of what information they’re exposed to. They are outside the ambit of genuine information.

Another commentator, Gary Abernathy, disagreed. He said Trump supporters get access to the full spectrum of news sources out there, and take it all in, but they just evaluate it differently from others, and reach differing conclusions.

Smarsh wasn’t buying it. She responded that a person’s outlook is powerfully shaped by how they’re raised and acculturated. Citing a telling example: herself. Brought up in a conservative milieu, and accepting all the intellectual software thusly installed into her brain. Until she left that environment and was exposed to a whole new universe of information, changing her perspective entirely.

Hers is not an unusual case. Look how so many people just run their culturally pre-installed religious software. Oblivious that if they’d been born into a different culture, their faith would be radically different. Christians believe Christianity is true, with one god. A billion Hindus believe Hinduism is true, with 33 million gods. They can’t both be right. But that gives neither side pause.

I often discuss confirmation bias — the proclivity to embrace information confirming pre-existing beliefs, while creating rationalizations to dismiss dissonant information. Smarter people are indeed more adept at this. Abernathy’s picture of Trump supporters scrolling through all sorts of news sources, as though with pristine objectivity, ignored the huge impact of confirmation bias, and pre-installed cultural software filtering the information they see. It’s not a search for truth, but for comfort.

Meantime they’re actually bombarded with a blitz of seeming “information,” much of it Foxian, manipulative or bogus. Sipping news from a firehose; many aren’t fastidious about what gets through. Often it’s a witch’s brew that fails to include some of the most basic facts about what’s actually going on in the world (let alone what they might mean). How many people have a grounding understanding of such realities. equipping them to sensibly evaluate the “news” they see?

This is how people can live in one country but on two different planets. But both are not equally “psychologically rational.”

*Michelle Obama’s speech, taped early, mentioned 150,000 covid deaths. Insane Trump mockingly tweeted that it’s actually 170,000!

“10 Books That Screwed Up The World” — Make that 11

August 9, 2020

It sounded like my kind of read, found at a used book sale — Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books That Screwed Up The World.  I’d say make it 11, though that would give Wiker’s book undeserved importance. (He actually covers 15; a subtitle refers to five more.)

Reading a few pages pegged the author as religious. So I looked at his bio. Yup — big time. He’s taught at various Christian-sounding venues and is “a senior fellow with Discovery Institute.” Which, Wikipedia’s article forthrightly states, “advocates the pseudoscientific concept of intelligent design.”

Wiker begins with Macchiavelli’s The Prince. A “target-rich environment” for easy moralizing. Of course no modern leader should follow Macchiavelli’s advice. But Wiker seems to forget he wrote in 1513, when there was no concept of rulers serving, or accountable to, citizens.

Eventually Wiker gets to his real beef: “Christianity, Macchiavelli contends, focuses our energies on an imaginary kingdom in the sky and thereby turns us away from making the real world a peaceful, comfortable, even pleasurable home.”

This Wiker denounces but doesn’t actually try to refute. Doesn’t defend the idea of Heaven, nor deny its detracting from efforts to make good lives on Earth. But he does say Macchiavelli there “initiates the great conflict between modern secularism and Christianity that largely defines the next five hundred years of Western history.”

Wrong. Macchiavelli’s disparagement of religious delusions was not (alas) even a blip on the intellectual horizon. Most of those five centuries were consumed not by battles between faith and secularism but among differing Christian theologies — with the slaughter of great parts of Europe’s population. Kind of validating Macchiavelli’s point. Only quite lately has secularism, thank God, finally arisen to curb such horrors.

Next, Descartes. Responsible for “Cartesian dualism,” positing (contrary to science) something in mind or consciousness existing separately from our physical bodies. But even though some such dualism might seem necessary if our “souls” are to go to Heaven — which Wiker mocked Macchiavelli for rejecting — Wiker also mocks Descartes. For propounding “a ghostly soul banging around in a ghastly machine . . . A walking philosophical bipolar disorder.” Descartes’ idea was indeed crazyBut has Wiker got a better one to explain going to Heaven after our bodies rot?* Thus his attack on Cartesian dualism seems baffling.

Then Wiker derides Descartes’ “absolutely awful proof of the existence of God.” (Not that Wiker has a better one here either.) Basically, Descartes said that any idea in his head was presumably put there by God; so if he (Descartes) can conceptualize a being more perfect than himself, that being must exist. Though that was a glaringly poor excuse for an “argument,” Wiker goes to the trouble of explicating why. But what really irks him is Descartes’ implying God is what one conceives him to be. Wiker’s paraphrase: “we fashion God after our own hearts, rather than our own hearts and religion after God.” Causing “confusion of true wisdom about God.”

And where, pray tell, do we get that “true wisdom?” Wiker, typically, fails to say. But he presumes the conception of God that, by whatever means, got into in his own brain, was somehow the correct one — unlike the one in Descartes’ brain.

Reeling from so much foolishness, I skipped ahead to the Darwin chapter. Frankly expecting some good laughs, and I wasn’t disappointed. Wiker denies that Darwin actually originated the concept of biological evolution: “for some fifty years or more, it had been associated with political radicals . . . and gutter atheists;” it’s even traceable back to Epicurus. That’s flattering to Epicurus, a great thinker way ahead of his time. But as history these passages are bunk.** Before Darwin, some other people may have nibbled vaguely at the idea, but never had the Eureka moment, putting it together.*** Darwin’s doing so stands as one of humanity’s greatest intellectual triumphs.

But, creationist though he is, Wiker isn’t brave enough to frontally take on evolutionary biology, nor the Origin of Species. Instead he mounts a flank attack, on Darwin’s later book, The Descent of Man, trying to tar him with the “deep-down nastiness” of eugenics.Which, Wiker claims, Darwin was guilty of originating.

Eugenics is the idea of improving the species by keeping supposedly less fit members from reproducing. In early 20th century America this was sometimes done by sterilizing them. The Nazis simply killed them.

Wiker quotes Darwin suggesting that unrestrained reproduction could lead to “degeneration.” Had Wiker stopped there, it might have seemed damning. However, he goes on to quote further words from Darwin, ones that (strangely enough) he actually calls “inspiring.” There Darwin said the human being had progressed, so that their “sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, so as to extend to the men of all races, to the imbecile, the maimed . . . and finally to the lower animals, so would the standard of his morality rise higher and higher.”****

So where’s the problem? Wiker latches onto the word “sympathies.” This, finally, is his chosen line of attack: “[T]here are few moral concepts as slippery as sympathy. At best it substitutes indiscriminate niceness for goodness in human affairs . . . At worst, it . . . erases all boundaries between human beings and every other living thing.” From this claptrap Wiker goes on to deride the idea of animal rights. But that’s not all. He says that pursuant to Darwin’s own schema, “sympathy” was a trait imparted to humans by evolution. Then: “Here comes the nasty part. Evolution [which Wiker rejects, remember] is driven by competition, and competition brings extinction.” From that he leaps to asserting Darwin’s invocation of sympathy does not “extricate him from blame for the harsh racial eugenics practiced by the harder-reasoning Nazis.”

Huh? That’s it? How stupid does he think readers are? And meantime, for all Wiker’s anti-eugenics ranting, it’s never even clear why he’s against it — given his own attack on “sympathy” and expressed indifference to animal suffering.

His final chapter is modestly titled “A Conclusive Outline of Sanity.” Wiker says the problem with all 15 authors he discussed is their all positing that people have to be saved from something. As if salvation were not a fundamental concept of his Christianity. And how it could apply to Darwin is a mystery, but never mind. Anyhow, Wiker gives this example: “To save the world from male oppression, Betty Friedan would have women kill their offspring.” (Somehow I missed that bit in reading The Feminine Mystique.) Thus, Wiker maintains, all those books (including ones by Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill) are literally insane! And yet Wiker’s own final line says humanity does need saving— from that “madness of our own making.” And the savior is — guess who — the Man in the Sky.

I drew a different conclusion. That nonsensical religious beliefs like Wiker’s mess up one’s capability for rational thought. It’s his book that’s literally insane. Is this disgraceful screed what passes for intellectual work at faith-oriented institutions of “higher learning?” And what’s really scary is the parade of reviews on Amazon gushing favorably about it.

* I recently saw one Christian protesting that most of his co-religionists’ ideas of Heaven contradict the Bible. We do not go there after death, he said. Instead, we get resurrected at Jesus’s second coming. Or something like that. (Don’t look for me to make sense of this.)

** Wiker repeatedly misstates scientific history. For example, saying the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli claimed to see canals on Mars. Actually, Schiaparelli merely reported channels— “canali” in Italian, which got mistranslated as “canals,” notably by the American Percival Lowell.

*** Wallace did, around the time of Darwin’s book, but Darwin had been working on it for decades.

**** Darwin’s “bulldog” T.H. Huxley similarly said that evolutionary biology does not oblige us to play out “survival of the fittest” in our society — our aim instead should be to fit more of us for survival.