Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Airplane! Don’t call me Shirley

December 23, 2020

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

Remember flying?

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

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

“Surely you can’t be serious.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christian asks Christian Trumpers: “What in God’s Name are You Doing?”

December 15, 2020

Kathryn Shihadah wrote this piece (11/15/20) on, a religion site. My humanist society’s newsletter reprinted it. I found it quite powerful too, and have edited it slightly: 

Trump-supporting Christians have abandoned the call to be Christlike, and turned Christianity into something barely recognizable. It’s time to ask ourselves honestly: what are we doing? I’ve been a lifelong Christian, and I intend to remain faithful to God till I die. But I’m no longer sure about wearing the “Christian” label. Why? Trumpism. 

Here’s a quote I saw recently, trying to belittle atheists: “When people choose not to believe in God, they then become capable of believing in anything.” No, the exact opposite is true: When people choose to believe in God, they become capable of believing in anything.

It’s true. We have been guilty of a massive lack of discernment, and the sooner we admit it, the better. First we paired ourselves with a man who . . . well, you know the long list of strikes already against him even before 2016. In spite of his many indiscretions and deep-seated vices, we Christians excused and embraced him. Every time some new trespass came to light, we found a way to brush it off. 

Everyone is a work in progress; everyone deserves forgiveness and a second chance, but we’re not talking about a friend or coworker here. This is the man we put in charge of our country. He showed us he was a fake Christian. Showed us he was self-centered and arrogant. Showed us he was a racist – even as he told us he was “the least racist person in the room.” The opposite of Christlike. We are guilty. We knew all this and we elected him. We looked at him and his Muslim ban, and his Mexico wall, and we said, “yes, this is the man for us.” We completely ignored Jesus’s straightforward words, “whatever you have done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” 

That’s right, we turned away Jesus at every international airport and deported him at our southern border. We ripped babies from Jesus’s arms and put them in cages. Not Obama. Us. Nearly every day for four long years, the president we elected did something obscene, or lied to us or to the world, or bullied the weak, or cozied up with tyrants. For the last ten months, he has ignored hundreds of thousands of Americans as they died. Now, the majority of Americans are done with him. And we can’t handle it. He is probably the most hated man in the world right now, but we think the only way he could lose an election is through some kind of massive conspiracy. 

What have we become, Christians? Do we still believe we have the moral high ground here? Do we even care about integrity? It seems to me (and hundreds of millions of people around the world) that all Christians care about anymore is winning. 

Are our leaders being Christlike? Christian leaders weaponize Christianity, and use it to demonize and/or ridicule every American who didn’t vote for “our man.” Paula White** talks of a “demonic confederacy against the election, against America, against who you have declared to be in the White House.” Kenneth Copeland: “The media said Joe Biden is president. Hahahahahaha. Hahahahahaha.” Michelle Bachmann: “God, take your rod of iron and smash the delusion of Joe Biden as our president – he is not.” 

When the president tear gassed a peaceful protest so he could walk across the street and hold up a Bible for a photo op, that was distasteful. We can say, “Father, forgive him. He knows not what he does.” But Paula and Kenneth are pastors. They know better. Not only are these people’s words offensive and decidedly un-Christlike, they are using God’s name and the Bible as a weapon. In defense of a man who watches TV and plays golf all day while Americans are dying. 

So I ask again, what have we become? Does this in any way resemble Jesus? Are we being Christlike? We’re pretending like we just want a fair election, but won’t consider it fair unless our candidate wins. We’ve suggested that “liberals” must have tampered with vote counts, and implied that “conservatives” would never do such a thing. We cannot accept the fact that it’s over. We are demanding to keep that person in charge of our country. Oh, and many of us are still selfishly refusing to protect our communities by wearing a mask. 

Yeah, I’m still a Christ-follower. But “Christian?” I’ll have to think about it. When people choose to believe in God, they become capable of believing in anything.  What in God’s name is wrong with us? 

* Here’s a link:

** Trump’s so-called “spiritual adviser.”

Understanding Trump voters #386: the personal is political

December 5, 2020

Like half the country, I’ve spent four years struggling to understand how the other half could vote for Trump. It seems insane.

A piece on by Jeff Valdivia has some insight.* He mainly discusses a podcast by Sam Harris (End of Faith author). They see Trump’s unspeakableness as perversely working in his favor. For all his self-praise, one thing he actually never claims is moral virtue. Welcomed by people sick of having their own virtue impugned. At last, someone who’s not a role model they must compare themselves (unfavorably) to. Harris thinks Trump offers a kind of “spiritual balm” of comfort for them.

A good example, says Valdivia, concerns fast food, the obesity epidemic, etc., with many Americans feeling shamed by a scolding commentariat. In this, and many other regards, Trump’s own shamelessness is appealing to his supporters, giving them a kind of personal validation.

But Valdivia, again citing Harris, says Trump’s appeal is best understood vis-a-vis the far left. With their moral censoriousness and virtue shaming on steroids: “a level of sanctimony that defies all reason.” Which normal people rebel against.

I recently reviewed Robert Boyers’s book, whose title fits perfectly here: The Tyranny of Virtue. It’s aimed at academia, where the slightest deviation from the left’s catechism incurs Savonarolan retribution. But such “cancel culture” has spread to the wider society.

Just one example: transgender issues. I fully support people wanting to live as their true selves. But this too has become an all-or-nothing, scorched earth orthodoxy. As with J.K. Rowling called a transphobic monster for making some actually obvious observations distinguishing between cis and trans women. It’s a real issue in sport, where genders have competed separately due to physical differences; a trans woman would have unfair biological advantages. Meantime, we see maladjusted teenagers suddenly deciding to change sex, with lifelong consequences, but no one allowed to caution them. A scientist, Lisa Littman, who dared to study the matter, was fired. If you’re not transfanatic, you’re transphobic!

Such deranged moralistic absolutism is very antagonizing. To the extent Trump is seen as pushing back against it, he mines a rich vein of political gold.

Recall how Hillary’s “deplorables” comment backfired, Trump supporters wearing it as a badge of honor. Refusing to be looked down upon by hoity-toity snot-noses. It’s one thing to disagree about an issue; quite another to call you deplorable. Or racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Especially racist. People’s feelings about race are often complicated. Few see themselves as “racist.”

For this judgmentalism many Republicans hate Democrats. Also because of the hard left, even though most Democrats actually reject it too. But much Republican hatred for Democrats is based on falsehoods. It’s mainly sheer tribalism — my tribe good, other tribe bad. And your tribe is a package deal. If it includes deeming climate change a hoax, or Biden’s election fraudulent, you buy the whole deal. America’s right is now enraged believing the lie that Biden won by fraud. Threatening violence.

Thus Valdivia sees crazy on one side driving crazy on the other; each continually upping the ante of our polarization. How can we break out of this? He reports on an initiative called Braver Angels, getting political opposites together to converse in a “safe space.” To elide the shouting and demonization to arrive at what co-founder Bill Doherty calls accurate disagreement. While seeing more in common than they’d realized. People being “more complicated and less evil” than we think, says Valdivia.

It isn’t rocket science; in fact, earnest initiatives like this are legion. But it requires good will and open mindedness to begin with (certainly scarce on the hard left). And what tiny percentage of the U.S. electorate would participate in such get-togethers?

A recent David Brooks column is also on point. It’s all about epistemology: how we know things. There are basic methods for that. Rejected by today’s Republican Trump cultists. This is part of the obvious growing cultural divide between urban educated people and those who see them as distant, condescending, having it easy, with different values. Causing cynicism and alienation. The “evangelists of distrust, from Trump to Alex Jones to the followers of QAnon” play into that, providing a tribal bonding. Conspiracy theories are effective emotional tools, conferring a perverse kind of power. Believers imagine themselves privy to some hidden truth. In sum, Brooks says today’s Republican identity is defined not by policies but by a paranoid mindset.**

He does believe that honest discourse, like in the Braver Angels thing, can help, narrowing the social/cultural chasm. However, he says, “you can’t argue people out of paranoia;” can’t talk them out of an emotional state. Brooks thinks a lot of it stems from economic anxiety, and we really have to make life more secure for people losing out, mainly those without college degrees. Yet, on the Newshour, he spoke of a neurosurgeon inhabiting the Trump alternate reality.

Brooks, Harris, and Valdivia do help demystify Trumpdom, from a psychological standpoint. However, as voters we really have a responsibility to see past our personal stuff and give thought to the bigger picture. And even from the perspective of raw self-regard and self-interest, does it really make sense to install so vile and feckless a president? Look at the covid disaster. Does this “make America great again?” Is it the role model you want for your children?

Or else you can blind yourself to such realities, which again is indeed a large element of Trumpism. But whatever reasons may lie behind your voting choice, it can’t possibly be a good idea to base it on flouting reality. That can only bite you in the behind.

At what point do you finally say, “Enough; this is insane?”

* Read it here:

** This partly explains polls underestimating Republican votes. They didn’t lie to pollsters; instead many wouldn’t answer at all, seeing polling firms as part of the elitist establishment they despise.

The Supreme Court’s religious crusade

December 3, 2020

Robyn Blumner is a lawyer, CEO of the Center for Inquiry, and head of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. I recently heard her speak about the assault on church-state separation, focusing on the Supreme Court, which has a majority now on this mission (thanks to Trump’s three appointments).

The First Amendment decrees “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Blumner said the two clauses must be read in tandem and in light of the history behind them. That included a Puritan colony where religious dissenters were hanged. The issue came to a head in Virginia in 1784 with proposed legislation for taxpayer funding of religious teaching. James Madison successfully fought it, arguing that state entanglement would corrupt religion. This idea of what Jefferson later called a “wall of separation” between church and state led to the First Amendment.

Thus Blumner contended that when they seek to give religion a governmentally privileged status, the Supreme Court’s so-called constitutional “originalists” are actually disingenuously ignoring those ideals and values that were originally baked into the document, as intended by the founders they supposedly venerate. She quoted the late Justice Scalia (who said the Devil is real and is mainly into promoting atheism) that the First Amendment does not bar the government from preferring religion over irreligion.

The Court was not always like this. Blumner referred to the 1965 Griswold decision holding that Connecticut’s (religion-inspired) law banning contraception violates an inherent constitutional right to privacy. (She didn’t mention 1963’s Abington Township v. Schempp, outlawing school prayer. I met Schempp. In a men’s room.) Blumner noted that Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in her recent confirmation hearings, refused to endorse the Griswold decision.

More recently the Court has been dominated by Scalia disciples. Thus the recent case of the (giant) Bladensburg cross, a WWI memorial maintained with taxpayer money. Only two justices (Sotomayor and Ginsberg) had a problem with this; common among the others was the idea that historical meaning gives the cross a constitutional pass. Blumner said this dooms efforts to remove monuments with religious symbolism from public property.

Other pertinent cases include:

• Espinosa, where the Court voided “Blaine Amendments” in most states barring state aid to religious institutions, holding that they can’t be excluded from programs of general public applicability;

• Our Lady of Guadalupe, barring Catholic School teachers from suing for employment discrimination, extending a “ministerial exception” allowing congregations to hire whoever they want as clergy;

• Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, holding that a private business can invoke religious beliefs to escape the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for contraception coverage in employer-provided health insurance; and

• Masterpiece Cake Shop, holding the baker was a victim of religious hostility when his state’s equal rights agency ruled his religious beliefs could not justify refusal to provide a cake for a gay wedding.

And coming up: the Fulton case, concerning a Philadelphia Catholic foster parenthood outfit, which claims a right to taxpayer funding while invoking religious doctrines to bar same-sex applicants. Blumner thinks they’ll win.

The result of all this: religious institutions can’t be excluded from public funding available to others; they’re held to lower standards of accountability; and religious beliefs exempt them from anti-discrimination strictures otherwise applicable. Blumner called this a recipe for ending the religious peace that America has enjoyed for two centuries thanks to the “wall of separation.”

She concluded by discussing Attorney General Barr’s Notre Dame speech deeming secularists’ “unremitting assault” on religion responsible for all the nation’s putative moral decline. Blumner called this delusional — indeed, having it backward. Because on basic measures of societal well-being, more secular nations (and within America, more secularized states) do better. And “if he wants to see moral depravity,” she said, Barr “should look at the guy he’s working for.”

Weeks after Blumner spoke, the Supreme Court voided New York’s covid-related restrictions as applied to religious gatherings. Admittedly the state’s rationale for how it came up with its seemingly inconsistent restrictions was unclear. Yet one would expect the Supreme Court to give a lot of deference, and the benefit of the doubt, to something so important as a state’s regulations aimed at protecting public health and safety — from which churches should not be exempt. Instead, the Court’s decision here yet again smacks of a principle privileging religion. Indeed, it now seems the Court’s true principle is simply that, in any case involving religion, religion always wins.

Very backward, when religion is inexorably losing ground to rationalism. That’s ultimately irreversible by the Court’s coddling of religion.

Russell Baker: “There’s a Country in My Cellar”

December 1, 2020

Russell Baker (1925-2019) was a New York Times reporter and then columnist. His book about growing up — titled, oddly enough, Growing Up— was a wonderful read. This 1990 selection of his columns was — pretty good. Mostly.

Baker starts off saying that when he first moved from news reporting to writing columns thrice weekly, he was exultant. Now “at last free to disgorge the entire content of my brain.”

However, he writes, “having written fewer than a dozen columns, I made a terrifying discovery: I had now disgorged the entire content of my brain, yet another column was due at once.”

Actually, he exaggerates. The book is full of exaggeration. It’s what he’s good at.

One piece, for example, “The Incredible Shrinking Life,”* chronicles the tribulations occasioned by rising New York City rents, forcing repeated moves to ever smaller apartments, and the painful sacrifices this entailed. The repeated refrain: it was like “being whittled away.” First to go, unable to fit them in a reduced space, were the children. It proceeds from there. Ending with accommodations too small for anyone over four feet tall. “A touch of sadness is only to be expected,” says the surgeon, “after you’ve been whittled away.”

Speaking of surgery, Baker presciently anticipates today’s trans phenomenon, with a very practical suggestion for men who’d prefer to have female bodies, and women who want men’s. They should just trade heads. If the experience fails to fulfill their expectations, they can simply switch back. Problem solved.

“The Excellence of Welby Stitch, Jr.,” purports to be a Harvard recommendation letter for the named young scholar. Whose record and personal qualities are glaringly rotten in every salient respect. All of which the letter gamely endeavors to spin in a derangedly positive light, as if to make a silk purse of the proverbial sow’s ear, turning standards on their heads. The letter ends with the signature: “Welby Stitch, Sr.”

“Boneless Sunday” sets forth a rather elaborate narrative set-up to enable Baker to finally pen the words, “Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone, but when she got there, the cupboard was bare.”** But that wasn’t the ending. The tale continues, “and so the poor dog left home to go to Acapulco with a Texas bone millionaire who loved the idea of a dog who could say, ‘Nuts to the King.'” Yes, the story had previously introduced a king, set before whom now is a pie. When told blackbirds had been baked into it, he says, “The cook must be losing his mind.” And “then the pie was opened and the birds began to sing.” The king was revolted, whispering “Ugh!” to the Queen.

“Shut up and eat a slice,” she says, lest he hurt the cook’s feelings.

But the king does more than hurt his feelings. The cook’s body is found in a ravine.

However, that still is not the end of this jam-packed story. Jack and Jill, and Little Miss Muffett, duly put in appearances. All in all, quite the literary tour-de-force.

Eating, being a major human activity, receives attention in other pieces. Baker’s gourmandizing is not too refined. He rhapsodizes about one of his favorites, the fried seafood platter, even telling of a 250 mile road trip just to hit one of the few restaurants that still serves it — at least in conformity with his exacting standards. But much as he describes relishing the dish, he actually makes it sound highly unappetizing. It seems it’s really the experience of the meal — you had to be there — not the flavor.

Money is a frequent preoccupation. No, make that obsession. Baker is always expostulating about how much things cost. One piece satirizes itemized hospital bills by chronicling his visit to a sick friend, being billed every step of the way, from the elevator ride to partaking of the illumination supplied in the corridors. A big point for him is people on expense accounts not paying with their own money. A lengthy commentary about the gravity-defying figure on a hotel bill (including an “occupancy” tax as if one might rent a room but not occupy it) concludes with the desk clerk fainting on hearing that Baker must pay with his own cash. Likewise, first class air travelers are shown laughing at the economy class peons because, “except for Rothschilds and madmen,” the former are never paying out of their pockets. And Baker notes that with business expenses tax deductible for companies, those first class tickets are actually paid for, in the end, by the taxpayers in economy class.

Speaking of taxpayers, there is “A Taxpayer’s Prayer,” couched in stentorian Biblical cadences. One line intones, “Yea, though we falter in meeting thy wishes,” it’s due to “our poor want of appreciation of thy marvelous law [i.e., the Internal Revenue Code] which surpasseth all understanding.”

So, yes, Baker is a humorist. Yet his temperament is curmudgeonly in a way I didn’t find endearing. A lot of this book is a howl against modernity, deeply felt. His modernity, of course, now decades past, which in today’s hindsight seems imbued with quaintness. I cringe to think what Baker would make of our current American culture.

I myself have written some pretty acerbic things on that subject. There’s always plenty to criticize and cluck one’s tongue at. But I come to it with a sensibility completely different from Baker’s. He seems to be one of those people who romanticize the “good old days,” forgetting what they were really like. Look at the opening scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which, though hilarious, quite accurately depicted a time when life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” That continued being largely true until not very long ago. My immersion in history makes me never forget it; makes me profoundly grateful for modernity, with all its faults.

* For those too young to remember, there was a 1957 sci-fi film, The Incredible Shrinking Man. 

** Reminding me of a joke with a couple discussing the weather, and also an acquaintance who’s a Communist spy, to set up the punchline, “Rudolph the red knows rain, dear.”

The GOP: The Grievance Obsessed Party

November 28, 2020

I left the Republican party when it stopped being a party of principles and ideals. Becoming instead a party of grievance.

The grievances have been economic, cultural, and ethnic, all mashed together. Rustbelt working class resentments about an economy leaving them behind; a culture that seemingly doesn’t care, and disrespects them; displacing them with people who don’t resemble them, whose preferment feels undeserved.

Throw into the mix yet another kind of grievance, over abortion. It’s a legitimate (and difficult) moral issue. But it’s become an obsession out of all proportion to its real societal import. Pro-lifers throw every other moral concern under the bus in pursuing this one White Whale.

President Obama was a vessel for all these grievances — a perfect storm, whipping them up into a toxic stew. Out of which popped another perfect storm: Trump. Whose whole personhood is a grievance machine. He gave voice and vent to the grievances, while doing nothing to resolve them. Instead cynically ratcheting them up.

But at least all those grievances have some tether to reality. Rustbelt economic malaise is real. The nation’s cultural divide is real. Likewise its changing population mix. And abortions actually occur. All complex issues. However, today a new and different kind of grievance beast is rising up, one unique to Republicans, and one divorced from the real world: the mythos of The Stolen Election. Taking hold like the South’s post-Civil War “lost cause” mythologization.

We always knew Trump’s psyche could not accept losing. Crying fraud in advance was his preparatory defense mechanism. Probably his diseased mind actually believes he “won.” But now most of the Republican party seems to be following him down that rabbit hole. Obsessing over this new grievance which, unlike those others discussed, is quite simply a lie.

Polls show 77% to 86% of Trump voters embrace the election theft lie, whose stridency rises even as its credibility collapses. Republican officialdom goes along, afraid to antagonize their base. This rejection of our government’s very legitimacy is deeply poisonous for us as a nation going forward.

And it’s crazy on multiple levels. In the first place, there’s simply no actual evidence for the vast multi-state conspiracy theorized. Secondly, thinking Trump could only have lost by fraud makes no sense. I can understand (sort of) why people voted for him. Can his supporters really not understand so many voting against him? And — if Democrats so easily stole votes, wouldn’t Republicans (surely more unscrupulous) have stolen at least as many? After all, they control more election infrastructure than do Dems. And if Democrats stole the presidency, how come they neglected to steal the Senate and other downballot races?

But a popular trope goes, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” A similar epistemology seems operative for Trump cultists. He’s their god, he says “massive fraud,” so they believe it. Never mind his consistently blatant pathological lying. In for a penny, in for a pound.

America was already suffering an epistemological crisis. Epistemology refers to how we know things. For matters of public concern, we cannot obtain information directly, but must rely on trusted sources. And how do we know which to trust? In such judgments too many people discard plain common sense, often rejecting responsible mainstream sources with proven track records while instead putting faith in obvious fraudsters (like Trump). And with today’s proliferation of sources, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re getting information from a broad variety of them while actually still inhabiting a partisan bubble. With a picture of the world that’s just fundamentally false. Frankly this now afflicts the right far more than the left. I say that objectively, as someone who always considered himself conservative.

America has long been undergoing a schism into two different nations, with two different realities. The disaffection between them aggravated by this toxic new Stolen Election myth. It’s not the only Trumpland lie, just another piled on top of a mountain of them. And without a common understanding of factual reality, the kinds of reasoned public debates that are essential for democracy to function are impossible. Lincoln said America could not endure half slave and half free. We cannot endure half in reality and half outside it.

Memo re: inaugural speech

November 27, 2020

To: Greg Schultz, senior strategist, Biden campaign

From: Frank S. Robinson

Re: Inaugural address

Nov. 9, 2020

Hi Greg,

Don’t know if you’ll have any input on the inaugural speech, but here are two suggestions perhaps you could pass along.

1) Freedom of speech, and religious freedom, have become fraught issues. I propose something like this:

In the Holocaust, millions were put in concentration camps, and killed, because they were Jews. Others too. The world said “never again.” Yet such atrocities still happen. In China, a million Muslim Uighurs are in concentration camps for trying to practice their religion. Elsewhere, people are persecuted for not accepting the dominant religion. In some nations it’s a crime punishable by death. These countries are not our enemies, but we will work to end such assaults on human rights.

Our own Bill of Rights enshrines freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. This is central to our democracy, America’s heart and soul. In America, nobody can stop you from following your faith — or make you bend to someone else’s. But in a democracy, your rights are always balanced against the rights of others. Religious freedom does not mean you can impose your beliefs on other people, nor can it mean exemption from laws and norms that apply to everybody. In our system, government stays out of matters of faith. That’s how we’ve avoided the religious conflicts that have plagued other nations throughout history.

Likewise, freedom of speech means no one can stop you from expressing your opinion; and you cannot stop others from voicing theirs. No matter if you consider their viewpoints unacceptable or pernicious. As Jefferson said, the remedy for bad opinions is not to silence them, not to censor them, but to answer them, with better ones. That discourse and debate, in a free and open democratic society, is how we get to the truth, and progress.

2) The opening line, “My fellow Americans . . . ” I’d love to see end with, “. . . and our brothers and sisters throughout the world.”

Thanks for your consideration,


Thanksgiving during a plague

November 25, 2020

Perhaps typically, the Thanksgiving holiday’s meaning has gotten somewhat lost. It’s mainly now just an occasion for family gathering and feasting. Actually a fine thing, worthy in itself. But those who celebrated the first one really did have reason for thanks: survival. After so many of their number had perished.

Now we gather for Thanksgiving amid a plague ravaging humanity. In fact under consequent strictures that limit our gathering. Yet we can, like those forebears, give thanks that we are after all alive. And that we will prevail.

We are fortunate to inhabit a uniquely hospitable planet. Well, we wouldn’t exist otherwise. And yet, while we romanticize nature, it’s also harsh and unforgiving, and the essence of the human story is our struggle in the face of that, to overcome and to thrive. So too with this pandemic we rise to the challenge. Our battle against it epitomizes our best selves. And we will prevail.

Among all the human communities that ever were, our America shines with special light. And it has been beset by a plague of another sort these past four years. Putting in grave doubt the survival of its best self. But now we have come through, if only by the skin of our teeth. The better angels of our nature have prevailed.

Indeed, in just recent weeks our democracy endured a severe test. Many feared it could buckle under the assault of a very bad man who would stop at nothing, to keep hold of his power, by abusing it. And so he did try; but he has failed, our institutions proved equal to the challenge.

I know the evil is far from fully crushed. The “stolen election” lie is a long-lasting poison injected into our body politic. But as an optimist I believe truth and reason must ultimately prevail. And meantime, the Augean stables are being cleaned out. With a new administration of experienced public-spirited professionals, grown-ups who actually understand the world, and what truly serves this nation. Who can make America great again.

Most fundamentally, a psychology of gratitude is key to a good life. I am lucky to have that; something I’m grateful for. I always count my blessings, and in this November of 2020, there’s a grand new one. This Thanksgiving is for me especially profound.

The Nordic Theory of Everything: Lessons for America

November 23, 2020

America is a great country. Not perfect, but striving to improve — its best characteristic.

Anu Partanen was a young Finnish reporter, who moved here and was surprised by unfavorable comparisons with the Nordic countries — Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. Her book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, published in 2016 — pre-Trump — explains ways those nations promote human flourishing, which we can learn from.

American lefties see them as model socialist utopias; those on the right as cautionary tales of nannying welfare socialism. Both are wrong, Partanen shows. They’re not “socialist” at all, actually more free-market capitalist than America. That generates wealth, which they use not for “welfare states” so much as well-being states.

It’s what Partanen calls the “Nordic theory of love.” Creating social structures that free people from stresses and constraints, so they can live the best lives possible.

Partanen cites American principles of freedom, individualism, and opportunity, but came to see them as more theoretical than real, with the exigencies of American life actually forcing people into greater dependency, constraining their choices and freedom of action. Reading this, I wondered whether anti-mask fervor with all its misplaced “freedom” talk is a kind of transference, a cri de coeur over complex feelings of lost true personal freedom in today’s U.S. society. Going maskless is a simplistic counter.

Nordic family and parental leave, pensions, and other financial support policies tend to be far more generous than America’s. A main concern is child development, making an investment in the next generation. It’s recouped many times over when they grow into well-adjusted, productive, self-sufficient individuals. Family-friendly policies also make having children more attractive — combating low birth rates and boosting economies to the extent those children do become productive adults.

That’s all fine, but I felt Partanen was comparing Nordic societies mainly to America’s middle class with too little attention to less-than-affluent Americans, who seemed largely invisible to her. Yet that’s where our failure to invest in all youngsters really bites, getting us legions of poorly educated, poorly adjusted people, with problems of unemployability, crime, homelessness, addiction, etc. — ultimately costing society far more than it would have taken to make them contributing members in the first place.

Schooling is critical. Partanen writes about relatively well-off American parents struggling to advance their kids’ educational prospects, whereas Nordic parents don’t have to, feeling sure of good schooling. Again she doesn’t really discuss economically disadvantaged American kids, who are basically written off altogether. A key reason is U.S. schools funded mainly through local property taxes, inevitably magnifying the disadvantages of the poor. We give lip service to equal quality education for all children but accept falling woefully short. The Nordics really do it.

Turning to health care, our problems are familiar. It started because employee health insurance payments are tax-deductible by businesses and are tax-free income to workers. Making such insurance, tied to employment, ubiquitous. This structure adds huge administrative complexity and costs. And insurers’ economic incentive is not to serve customers but to deny coverage. While hospitals can get away with billing outrageous amounts, often not covered by insurance. Result: costs way higher than in other advanced nations, financially ruinous for many people, without buying us better health.

In Nordic nations health care is pretty much simply taken care of by government, so there’s no financial worry for citizens, nor wrestling with bureaucracies. Partanen respects Americans’ concern about freedom to choose one’s own doctor, etc., but concludes that real freedom is assurance of good care without hassles or money stress. This does entail higher taxes, but the bottom line is lower costs overall.

Tax comparisons are complicated (especially given America’s convoluted system) but broadly speaking most people actually pay similarly in both places. However, Americans must pay heavily for things, like health care, child care, elder care, and college tuition, that Nordics get from government for their taxes. Those countries seem to operate a lot leaner, so all those goodies don’t break the bank. And a big difference is the richest Americans paying lower effective rates than average people. Partanen wrote of that growing gap before Trump’s tax legislation made it even wider. Of course under-taxing the richest makes taxes higher for the rest. And Partanen writes that the Nordics prove how taxing the rich at fair (though not exorbitant or punitive) rates does not impair entrepreneurialism or economic prosperity.

Indeed, freeing businesses of obligations for employee health care and pensions enables them to be more dynamic and competitive. In global “ease of doing business” rankings, Nordics score higher than America. And they’ve cultivated the most valuable economic resource: human capital.

Not only have most Americans become dependent on employers for health care, Partanen observed another kind of dependency here — children all but smothered by helicopter parenting, while the elderly rely on their children for care. It all costs time, effort, and money. Making the financial aspects of marriage more salient while transforming it “into an unappealing morass of squandered careers, insane schedules, and lost personal liberty.” Becoming impossible for the less affluent, for whom marriage is falling by the wayside. That in turn stunts their children’s opportunities. Partanen concludes that American society just isn’t structured to support families. Unlike the Nordics and, indeed, just about every other modern wealthy country.*

It all comes down again to the “Nordic Theory of Love.” Making individuals independent and equal. This applies not only to married couples, but between parents and children, and vice versa. Hence the goal is really the opposite of “socialist dependency” — to remove all forms of dependency, within both the family and the larger society. To allow “all human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

Some might say Nordic citizens are dependent too — upon government. But actually, what they get from government is just taken for granted, in the background of their lives. Very different from the personal dynamics made fraught by intra-family dependencies.

Partanen admires Americans’ positive attitude in spite of all the ways our society makes things hard, while Nordics tend to be morose despite societal structures more conducive to happiness. This seeming paradox reflects humans having well-being set-points independent of life circumstances. Thus the Nordic approach aims to enable people to be as happy as their innate personalities allow. And Americans could be even happier by emulating them.

I consider myself conservative, hating a nanny state telling people what to do; believing government should restrict us only as necessary to prevent harm to others. But rather than regimenting people, the Nordics aim to remove impediments and create the conditions for them to live the best lives possible according to their own proclivities.

America does do this, to a degree, through a complex web of social safety nets. But without any over-arching philosophy akin to a “theory of love.” And public support for such programs is weak, often seen as government giving undeserved handouts to moochers and “line cutters” at the expense of hard-working people. Racial antagonism is a factor, with the benefits being associated with minorities. While in fact such welfare payouts are modest in comparison to the government benefits middle class people receive, often without realizing it, as with tax breaks. The biggest “moochers” are corporations and the wealthy.

On the other hand, the left talks of inequality and “social justice.” I think that’s the wrong framing. “Justice” entails concepts of deservingness, which are arguable here. But unarguably, helping all our citizens to live good decent lives is simply humane. We should do it because they are our fellow human beings, and differing life circumstances are often due just to luck rather than merit or its lack. It would make this a better country for all of us. We are a very rich society that can amply afford it.

* Ironically, it’s “family values” conservatives most opposing policies to do that.

The Million Moron March, and political tribalism

November 13, 2020

There were fears of a violent insurrectionary “March on Washington” by gun nuts to keep Trump in office. Violence may yet occur. But what we’ll mainly see at tomorrow’s march is a sad sick freak show. (Hopefully way less than a million.)

Featuring “Proud Boys” and other white nationalists, the deranged Alex Jones and other conspiracist cuckoos, you get the picture. The worst of the worst, all marching for a loony lie — that Trump actually won the election. The march endorsed by his campaign, and Fox’s national joke Sean Hannity.

Its marquee is “Stop the Steal.” More accurately “Start the Steal,” because the real aim is to somehow steal the election Biden won fair and square, by a pretty strong margin at that.

Calling it stolen from Trump is not just a lie (backed by no substantive facts), it’s an extremely harmful lie, because it tears apart the nation’s fabric, by undermining trust and respect for its key institutions and democracy itself. Exactly what Putin and China want. And these people have the brass to wave the flag and call themselves “patriots.”

Trumpism has always been an edifice of lies. Starting with “birtherism” and building from there. Lie upon lie upon lie, making war on the concept of truth itself. So people won’t know anymore that there’s even such a thing as truth (the ultimate triumph of postmodernism).

Look, I get it that people have political opinions different from mine. That’s fine. But it’s unnerving to see how people’s political views can override what should be normal resistance to being manipulated by a blatantly self-interested fraudster. How blind can you make yourself?

It’s political tribalism carried to its farthest extreme. An ethos of us-against-them, with winning becoming all, no matter the cost. That’s bad enough. But now it’s even sustaining a fiction of winning despite actually losing.

The New York State Writers Institute hosted a talk by Yale Law Professor Amy (“Tiger Mother”) Chua, whose latest book concerns political tribalism.* She sees America as a “supergroup” nation. Nationalism is a kind of group identity. But what sets us apart is the degree to which subgroup identity also thrives. Referring to ethnicities, religions, cultural affinities, and of course politics. She contrasts this with other countries like France, for example, with nationalistic feeling, but limited opportunity for expression of subgroup identities. It’s the interplay between the broad nationalism and the strong subgroup factor that makes America distinctive, Chua argues.

It can be a great thing. My town has had an annual Greek festival, where Greek-Americans celebrate their heritage — with no insularity, but the wider community welcomed to participate; I’ve attended myself. Exemplifying our apt national motto, e pluribus unum. 

But such subgroup identity can be toxic, Chua says, when it infects politics. There’s nothing zero-sum about the Greek festival, but politics always entails winners and losers. Okay when it’s just your candidate losing. But when it’s your tribe, that’s something else.

And worse yet, for too many people, political tribalism has gotten entwined with another sort. Mainly white identity.

As Chua notes, this is a relatively new development. Indeed, white identity didn’t even seem to be a thing so long as whiteness was unassailably dominant as the cultural standard. There was nothing for whites to think about.

Exemplar of white racial superiority

But now there is, for some, seeing that white dominance eroding. “White supremacy” is a quite accurate term — it’s not just the idea of racial superiority, it’s also white cultural and political supremacy.

To be clear, it’s only a minority of whites feeling this way. But it’s a significant minority. And while not all Trump fans buy into it, it’s nevertheless at the heart of Trumpism.

For those people, it’s not just Trump losing. It’s whiteness. That’s what many are really marching about tomorrow.

Chua quoted Nietzsche, that mental illness is rare in individuals, but less so in groups. We sure see it in the Trump world’s willingness to disengage the normal human lie detector. That’s where political commitment transmutes into mental illness. Exemplified by the “Stop the Steal” movement.

But Chua concluded on a positive note, saying that what should be the core of American nationalist identity, holding all our subgroups together, are the values embodied in the Constitution. Thus a nation founded not on blood and soil, but on ideas and ideals.

* Here’s a link to view it: