Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

My optimism reality check

May 10, 2021

When I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2008, that case was powerful. My innate optimism intensified by observed reality. The big global story seemed to be progress toward greater human flourishing. Writers like Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, explained it. I was proud of my own contribution, making the case across the whole waterfront of human concerns.

I’ve followed up with my blog. Naturally, bad things have commanded attention, but I’ve tried to highlight good news, countering pessimists and cynics. However, looking back, I must acknowledge that my positive outlook too often proved misplaced. In a spirit of humility, I present a catalog of instances:

Egypt: a very democratic coup” (July 4, 2013). Ouch. Mubarak’s overthrow led to an election producing a Muslim Brotherhood government. It was an undemocratic disaster. I welcomed the coup that ousted it, seeing it as hopefully presaging a “do-over” putting Egypt on a sounder democratic path. I should have been more cynical about coup leader Al-Sisi, who became a more repressive autocrat than Mubarak. 

Democracy wins in Thailand” (July 14, 2011). Well, it did. For a while. Then here too the army ousted the elected government, and has settled in to stay. 

Modi for India” (December 27, 2013). Here I did have misgivings, over Modi’s rotten history on Hindu-Muslim relations. But he seemed to instead stress economic liberalization, which India desperately needed. He has initiated some good reforms. But that’s overshadowed by running a Hindu nationalist regime, enflaming intercommunal antagonisms — and following what has become the standard authoritarian playbook, giving India’s democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Plus now he’s much to blame for India’s Covid disaster.

Great news: Sri Lanka blows off authoritarianism” (January 15, 2015). I was delighted by the unexpected election ouster of another autocratic regime, under the Rajapaksa clan. Unfortunately the new government proved feckless. And guess what? The latest vote produced a Rajapaksa landslide. 

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil” (May 10, 2018). Similar story. The longtime ruling party was so corrupt and awful that extensive election rigging didn’t stave off defeat. But the successor government seems a mess. The tale is still unfolding, but the old lot’s reprise would be no surprise. 

Good news from Kenya” (September 2, 2017). Its highest court overturned President Kenyatta’s dodgy election victory. But guess what? He prevailed anyway in a second go.* In the wings: William Ruto, an even stinkier candidate.

Myanmar — On April 5, 2012, I wrote, with tentative hopes, about President Thein Sein’s democratization moves, after decades of military rule. On October 15, 2012, came my gushing paean to Aung San Suu Kyi. Who subsequently destroyed her heroic aura by making herself complicit in the Rohingya pogrom. And now the army has come back — with a blood-soaked vengeance. 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story” (October 12, 2019). This new prime minister seemed a dream of an African leader, doing so much right. Even got a Nobel Prize. But hardly was the ink dry (so to speak) on my tribute when things went to to hell, the regime prosecuting an internecine war with appalling human rights abuses. 

All this begins to look like a pattern. And then:

America. Just after the 2008 election, I wrote in my book that “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and good will. . . . So we are becoming far more united than divided.” Ouch again. I did not foresee how Obama’s presidency would produce not just a racist backlash, but an intensification of racial disaffection by whites seeing their loss of caste more real. Which led to Trump — an optimist’s ultimate nightmare — America’s collapse as the avatar of Enlightenment values.

Thankfully we’ve reversed that — by a hair’s breadth — and how fully remains to be seen. A Trump return (could America go that insane?) would fit the pattern of cautionary tales I’ve related above.

Before he took office, I wrote (November 16, 2016) that power does not make bad men better. That, at least, proved prescient. And that is also a through-line in my recaps here. Lord Acton’s famous quote was “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You can actually leave off the last five words. Power corrupts. A proposition whose importance grows the more I observe the world. Not only does power not make bad men better; it can turn good men bad. 

But I keep saying that progress does not go in a straight line. For a time, liberal democratic values were on a roll; now, they’re in a bad patch. And China looms as a huge and growing anti-democratic center of gravity. Nevertheless, where the world will be in half a century is hard to foresee. It’s been documented that people are, on average, becoming smarter. I have to hope tolerance for repressive rule will wane. And while the political realm does have much to do with human flourishing, it is far from the whole story. All across the planet, lives continue to improve in countless other very important ways.

Finally — while I’m eating humble pie — on March 9, 2020 I posted:

Coronavirus/Covid 19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

*In 2020, Malawi’s courts similarly ruled the president’s re-election illegitimate; and there, the decision seems to be sticking. So far.

Covid and the social contract

May 6, 2021

Covid will eventually be, more or less, history. Life will renormalize, more or less. But something big has changed in government’s role in people’s economic lives.

For thousands of years it had very little. That really began to change with Bismarckian Germany’s pension scheme, to save the elderly from penury. It expanded greatly in the Depression, developing a broader “social safety net.”

This sparked some pushback from people seeing beneficiaries as coddled moochers — an aggravating factor being racial. On the other hand, there’s been the rise of “social justice” rhetoric targeting inequality.

Two points. First, inequality is not per se a bad thing; some people being rich is not a problem as long as everyone has enough to live decently. And secondly, “social justice” is a mistaken framing. The word justice entails concepts of deservingness. A polemical can of worms, with some, as noted, deeming safety net beneficiaries undeserving. Better to talk not of “justice” but simple humaneness. Helping people for no other reason than they’re fellow human beings. 

Meantime, inequality is blamed on capitalism. Another mistake. While capitalism does produce disparate results, with some people getting rich, it’s wrong to see their wealth as “taken” from the rest. Steve Jobs got very rich by creating products which delighted customers and improved lives. Thus not a zero-sum game but win-win. That’s not universally the case, yet by and large those who earn riches do so by creating value benefiting others. Wealth is not evil.

And capitalism does not cause poverty. In fact, over the past century, average real dollar worldwide incomes increased something like sixfold. Not thanks to socialism; but masses of people being productively employed in a capitalist system, to make their own contributions to societal wealth, and enabling them to buy the resulting products. Capitalism’s critics never offer an alternative system to achieve that.

However, there are concerns that advancing technology will destroy a lot of jobs. This goes back to the Luddites. In every generation, what has actually happened is technology’s efficiency gains freeing up people to be productive in new and different ways, thus enlarging the overall pie. And despite predictions that Covid would accelerate automation, there’s actually zero evidence so far. But can this go on forever?

Good question, with artificial intelligence ultimately likely to replace human work like never before. A growing population segment already lacks the capability for productive employment. Largely due to what is really the key inequality in modern societies: educational inequality. And even if that could be remedied, it’s still doubtful there’ll be enough productive work for everyone. Perhaps if we can at last produce all we need with little human labor, we should just relax and enjoy it. The question then becomes how to distribute the fruits.

All of which brings us back to the governmental response to Covid’s economic fallout. Previously, social safety net programs tended to be massively encrusted with bureaucracy, means testing, other eligibility requirements, and so forth. Much of that out the window with governments now focused instead on just getting money into people’s hands. Arguably this has gone too far, with a lot of babies thrown out with bath water. But it represents a big paradigm shift in our view of the social safety net — in the direction of a universal basic income. Unemployment benefits have even exceeded what some people earned from jobs, which used to be a caricature lobbed by welfare state critics. Yet most Americans now seem okay with it, shrugging off such concerns. 

A recent David Brooks column reflects this: “Ten years ago, I would have been aghast at this leftward shift. But like everybody else, I’ve seen inequality widen, the social fabric decay, the racial wealth gap increase. Americans are rightly convinced that the country is broken and fear it is in decline. Like a lot of people, I’ve moved left on what I think of the role of government and income redistribution issues. We surely need to invest a lot more in infrastructure and children.”*

So far at least, actual wealth redistribution is limited. President Biden is proposing tax rises only for the richest, and for corporations. But most of the new spending is being financed by borrowing. Cheap to do with interest rates at rock bottom. And our society is, on the whole, plenty rich enough to do what we’re doing. But how long can we do it this way? There have to be limits, though we don’t know where they lie, and hitting them could be a rude shock. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says the lack of fiscal discipline in all this spending is totally unprecedented. In the longer term, we have to face up to paying the bills. (Which Brooks too worries about.)

We could instead inflate away the debt, shrinking the value of the dollar, so the rich would pay through devaluation of their assets. But that would be economic havoc; better to just tax them. But again, it shouldn’t be on some social justice theory, as a punitive equalizer, as if their wealth is undeserved. Rather, it should be a re-envisioning of the human responsibilities of members of society toward one another.

That could be Covid’s most lasting legacy.

*Brooks mirrored my own thinking; similarly pushed leftward; partly by how utterly vile American “conservativism” has managed to make itself. 

Vaccination and evangelical Trumpers: The enemy within

April 26, 2021

Since January 20, we finally have a rational national plan for Covid — to vaccinate as fast as possible, to achieve “herd immunity.” That’s when the virus peters out because there aren’t enough susceptible victims. It requires at least 70% immune. Covid won’t disappear entirely, but would be reduced to a minor nuisance. Personal and economic restrictions can end. We all want that, no?

Achieving it is a national effort akin to war. We’re making great progress. Vaccine availability is no longer a problem. Now it’s people refusing the shot.

Many non-whites were mistrustful toward the medical establishment. That has greatly eased. Now, instead, one demographic absolutely dominates in vaccine refusal: evangelical Trumpers.

Why them? In a nutshell, they believe much that isn’t true, and refuse to believe much that is. Also believing we’re ruled by an omnipotent man in the sky; we go to a paradise after death; their deity chose Trump to “make America great again;” and he won in 2020. It all fits together with vaccine resistance.

They are the key obstacle to beating Covid. And, as vaccine resisters go, these are the most immovable. I heard a fascinating radio report about an effort to sway them, enlisting a prominent Republican consultant, Frank Luntz. He convened a zoom focus group of Trumpers, bringing in top-notch medical experts and also Republican icons. 

Nothing would budge them. Many saw the whole thing through a political lens. Deaf to pleas that vaccination is good citizenship. Fearing the vaccine more than Covid. One woman said the body has a natural ability to fend off such infections. This, after her own husband spent three weeks in intensive care and nearly died of Covid!! Another insisted he wanted facts. Odd coming from a believer in Biblical literalism — and Trump.

Finally Luntz brought out his big gun — Chris Christie. Who related his own experience catching Covid — at the White House — where a slew of others, including Trump, did too. The point seemed to register —YOU CAN DIE from this. Whatever the risks the vaccine might hold (truly infinitesimal), the risk of death without it is vastly greater. 

Thus some did soften their anti-vaccine views. A small victory. But Luntz cautioned that this sort of intensive personalized effort can’t feasibly be replicated for millions of people. 

America is, again, at war. But these people — who love calling themselves “patriots” — are on the other side. They are the enemy within. 

Trumpland and America are two different countries. The Trump tribe rejects the most basic values and ideals that used to unify us. Rejects even the concept of democracy, refusing to view themselves as one part of a diverse national patchwork quilt. Unwilling to accept the legitimacy of anyone else’s role. Seen most vividly in refusal to accept losing the last election. 

The only thing about America that really matters to them is maintaining white Christian cultural dominance. Everything else is seen through that prism. Even the “Christian” part is just a cultural signifier rather than truly religious. Surely their political behavior travesties Christianity. 

We used to talk about “culture wars.” Just battles over particular controversies. But now all that’s metastasized into one big over-arching culture war. With even what should be a straightforward public health matter becoming a tribalized political battleground. 

David Brooks writes* that hopes of America calming down without “Trump spewing poison from the Oval Office have been sadly disabused.” It’s gotten worse; even crazier. Trumpers felt some security with him on top. Now that’s gone, and they feel existentially threatened. Many seeing themselves in ultimate combat for cultural survival, in what Brooks calls “an apocalyptic hellscape.” Totally antithetical to being part of a diverse democracy. Brooks ends by envisioning they’ll “eventually turn to the strong man to salve the darkness and chaos inside themselves.” Well, they already did once.

This is horrible for Amerca. God forbid these people regain national power.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/22/opinion/trump-gop.html

Tucker Carlson and “replacement” racism

April 20, 2021

United Airlines announced a program to get more diversity in its pilot training. Fox’s Tucker Carlson went on a rant saying all that should matter in the cockpit is competence and safety, not skin color. And if that’s no longer true — planes will crash.

Wait, what?

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah slammed Carlson. My wife objected that all Carlson said was that only competence should matter. What’s wrong with that?

It falsely confuses issues of safety and racial fairness. Did United ever say color would trump competence? That it would accept less capable pilots? Of course not. That would be absurd. So what was Carlson on about?

Nobody can openly say, “We don’t want more Black pilots.” Saying we want capable pilots seems fine. Except for the unstated premise that Blacks will be worse pilots. Carlson was giving his racist fans another way to think they’re not racist. Even while thinking an America with more Blacks in prominent roles is a worse America.

A recent Michael Gerson column also demystifies Carlson, as epitomizing today’s Trumpian Republican right. Big there is “replacement theory.” Remember “Jews will not replace us?” Gerson quotes Carlson: “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate of the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” Carlson denies this is a racial issue, calling it instead “a voting rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?”

As if white voters like him have a birthright entitlement to their political dominance. And in Carlson’s eyes, Western civilization itself is under attack: “rotting from within because the people in charge don’t think it is worth preserving.” Welcoming in people who make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided,” Carlson said in 2018.

There you have it. Dirtier. The ancient racist purity trope. Those other kind are polluting. Darker skin is dirtier.

Oh, but it’s not about race, he still insists. Yeah, as if voting restrictions like Georgia’s are about ballot integrity — not making it harder for Blacks to vote. As if it’s not racist to say that with more nonwhite pilots, planes will crash.

Not only is all this racist, it’s dishonest. And such is the core of today’s Republicanism.

For the record: Democrats do not somehow “import” new voters. That’s not what’s behind people immigrating here. And studies prove that immigrants do not make America “poorer,” but richer, being net contributors to our economy. “Dirtier?” I know of no studies, but strongly suspect they’re actually cleaner on average. And “more divided?” Who’s more divisive than Tucker Carlson, demonizing some of our citizens as civilization destroyers?!

The idea that Carlson and his ilk are just defending lofty civilizational values is very insidious; another way to sugar-coat their racism. And what is it, exactly, about immigrants, that supposedly corrupts our civilization? Trump said other countries don’t send us their best. Like they pick out their dregs to get rid of. Idiotic. Immigrants are not “sent,” they choose to come. And willingness to leave behind everything familiar and battle all the obstacles to immigration takes enterprise, drive, and capabilities far beyond what the average American possesses. They improve our country. 

But I too believe America, and Western civilization itself, are under assault — from the likes of Carlson and his sick fans. Their “replacement” by an electorate less white, with more newcomers who understand what America is really about, cannot come soon enough.

And if I see a Black pilot on my flight, I’ll risk it. 

Guns and Republicans: soft on crime

April 12, 2021

“House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Biden is ‘soft on crime’ but tramples Second Amendment rights.”

Reading that line in the paper turned my stomach.

Republicans shriek hysterically about Democrats taking away your guns. Like just about everything in today’s Republican universe, it’s simply a lie. I’m (now) a Democrat, and would actually favor taking away many guns; and repealing the Second Amendment. But the great majority of Democrats would not, even if they thought it feasible, which they (and I) do not. What most Democrats do favor, instead, is some reasonable regulations to keep guns from the hands of the most dangerous people, and curb the availability of military-style assault weapons whose only function is to kill many people fast.

This doesn’t “trample” the Second Amendment. No freedom is ever so absolute that it trumps all other societal concerns. Freedom of speech does not extend to perjury or libel. And “the right to bear arms” does not include howitzers, or nuclear weapons. Nor should it cover mass murder assault weapons, or allowing lunatics and criminals to buy guns. That’s all Democrats say.

President Biden’s measures are actually extremely modest steps that just nibble at the edges of the problem. That doesn’t keep Republicans, like the morally collapsed local Congresswoman Stefanik, calling them a “gun grab.”

A great majority of Americans — even of Republicans — agree with the Democratic proposals. So why does the GOP make opposition a centerpiece of their propaganda? 

Because the NRA is opposed. It’s an extremist organization, whose stance is as extreme as it could be. Second Amendment absolutism, as if even the most sensible, reasonable regulation of guns must lead to confiscating all of them. (Automobile regulations, including driver licenses, required annual inspections, speed limits, etc., do not curb “freedom” or lead to car confiscations.) Someone should introduce legislation to outlaw private ownership of howitzers — they’re guns, after all — just to test if the NRA will stay consistent and oppose that. 

But legions of gun lovers look to the NRA to call their tune. They’re still only a small minority of American voters. So how does that minority manage to call the nation’s tune?

Many think it’s that Congressional Republicans are beholden to NRA campaign money. Not so. Such contributions are paltry. What keeps Republicans in line is not NRA support but the threat of NRA opposition. A kiss of death.

Why, if most voters actually hate the NRA? Because gun lovers are one-issue voters. Others may care a lot about gun control, but only as one issue among many. They won’t vote against a candidate on that issue alone. Gun nuts will.

It’s a basic problem in democracy. Any issue may be of modest concern to the mass of voters, affecting them only marginally — but of intense concern to a few, who are greatly affected. That concentrated concern will outgun the others, and prevail against the greater good.

Then there’s “soft on crime.” Another in the Republican spit-bag of epithets mindlessly thrown at opponents. Just tossing words, because they can; no need for substance or explanation. Trump specialized in this. “Weak on crime, weak on borders, weak on the military.” (He preferred the word “weak,” as if to contrast his own phony posture of strength.) Republican voters —especially those high on guns — eat up this pap. 

Even generally sane voters can fall for it. “Soft on crime” is an insidious meme that warps minds, so all politicians fear the label, and strive hard to avoid it.

“Soft on crime.” But — what is a key element in crime? GUNS!!!

Morons can’t even spell

Involved in a very high proportion of serious violent crimes. America has vastly more guns, in relation to population, than any other country. We have 4% of the world’s population and 40% of its guns. And — surprise — way more gun crime than any other country. The NRA and gun nuts actually try to tell us the answer for too many guns is — wait for it — even more guns. Literally insane.

Meantime, most Republican “tough on crime” policies actually do little or nothing to reduce crime. What would have a big impact would be stricter gun regulation and diminishing the vast number of guns in circulation, responsible for so much crime. 

By opposing this, it’s Republicans who are the ones truly soft on crime

GOP online fundraising reveals a dishonest, depraved and dangerous party

April 5, 2021

In 2016 I gave Marco Rubio a small donation. Last year, far more to Democrats. Yet it’s Republican fundraising emails that continue to flood my inbox. On one recent day I counted 99. It’s a window into the party. The messages are hysterical — in both senses of the word.

Trump used them to personally extract huge sums from his suckers with the lie that it would combat the “election steal,” itself a lie. Always promising donation matches up to 900%, yet another lie. AND — we now learn that people who thought they were making one-time campaign donations were automatically enrolled for weekly charges! The opt-outs for this were hidden in fine print on the Trump “Winred” websites. His organization itself smirkingly called this a “money bomb.” Millions of unwitting donors were shocked to find their accounts unexpectedly drained. Many had to battle for refunds. But despite such clawbacks, this massive monstrous scam still added hundreds of millions to Trump’s fraudulent take. Perhaps the Great Con Man’s greatest con.

The fundraising emails continue, ostensibly now from diverse organizations and personages, but actually most originate with the same “Winred” outfit. Those named as senders are the likes of Donald Junior, Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan, Devin Nunes, even Matt Gaetz (sent from Central Casting for the “slimeball” role). A rogues gallery of the Trumpiest trolls. Prominently including the two QAnon congresswomen — Lauren Boebert, who brought a Glock into the House chamber, and quite often Marjorie Taylor Greene. The QAnon conspiracy theory, recall, holds that Trump is secretly battling to save America from a Satanic cabal of pedophile cannibals. Meantime Greene also blamed California wildfires on Jews using space lasers.

This is the face of Republicanism the party itself chooses to showcase!

The messages’ content is likewise extremist. A serious “loyal opposition” might develop some well-considered critiques of the administration. Instead the attacks are ridiculous and demented. Banging on the word “socialism.” Misogynistically demonizing Nancy Pelosi and AOC. Wild lies about President Biden. Often invoking stuff where Trump was the really egregious transgressor — can you believe, slamming Biden’s treatment of underage migrants?

They scream about border wall construction being stopped. Greene demands Biden’s impeachment for this, as supposedly violating Congress’s constitutional “power of the purse.” Forgetting that Congress refused to authorize wall spending in the first place. Thus in fact it was Trump who violated Congressional authority, by raiding the military budget for his wall.

So that rap on Biden is laughable. Likewise the wall itself — a series of disconnected sections with wide gaps anyone can waltz through. A monument to stupidity. Billions wasted (Mexico did not pay).

Republicans fetishize the word “freedom.” I consider myself basically libertarian. But today’s Republicans are highly selective about what freedoms they cherish. Certainly not freedom to have an abortion; gays’ marital freedom; freedom to protest; press freedom; freedom to vote; etc., etc., etc. (In a 2017 poll, on a whole range of issues, Republicans were actually more likely than Democrats to say freedoms had gone too far.) 

Their emails show there are just two freedoms Republicans love. One is the freedom to kill people with military style weapons. Of course they fantasize owning guns to protect against such killers. Reality is the opposite. Compared to other countries, America has way more gun deaths because we have way more guns. Nevertheless, Republican messages aim to scare gullible recipients with the bogeyman of Democrats coming to confiscate their guns. (They’re not. They favor reasonable regulations supported by the vast majority of Americans.)

The other freedom Republicans love is the freedom to contract covid and infect others by flouting public health measures like masks and social distancing. One of their emails heralds a “Million Maskless March” and mask burning planned in (where else?) Florida. They attack any idea of “vaccine passports” as an assault on freedom and some kind of Orwellian control measure akin to implanting brain chips. In many states they’re even pushing legislation to ban vaccine passports. And a rising Republican star is South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, lionized at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee conference for boasting that hers was the only state never mandating lockdowns, social distancing, or masking.

It also, not coincidentally, had one of America’s highest covid death rates. While America itself had one of the world’s highest. Recently Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s own covid coordinator, said his conduct was directly culpable for the bulk of our half-million-plus death toll. (He responded, true to form, by sliming her as a “liar.”)

I mentioned freedom to vote. Government accountability to citizens, through the ballot box, is the essence of a free and democratic society. This Republicans work against. With their onslaught to enact wide-ranging voting restrictions, lying that this is to combat election fraud (proven virtually nonexistent). With a majority of GOP lawmakers voting on January 6 to overturn our presidential election. And with devotion to a man who would have made himself king in all but name. All this makes Republicans’ “freedom!” cries ring hollow. They believe in democracy only insofar as it can be manipulated to give them power.

It’s a global phenomenon. After the cold war, it almost looked like democracy was unstoppable. Then bad guys learned how to stop it — or twist it, by manipulating processes and mainly by manipulating voters. Seen in country after country — voters suckered into effectively voting themselves out of power. Blind to a leader’s badness even when it virtually smacks them in the face. We had a close shave in America, and we’re not out of the woods yet. Half a million deaths didn’t dissuade 47% from voting for Trump. 

Philippine voters have similarly fallen for a vile vulgar strongman, Rodrigo Duterte, whose “war on drugs” consists of literally murdering tens of thousands. A recent documentary film profiled journalist Maria Ressa, struggling to hold the regime to account as it crushes press freedom. She herself being targeted with numerous trumped-up criminal charges that have been called “Kafkaesque.” 

At a public forum, Ressa was challenged by an elderly woman, saying she personally felt no threat from the Duterte murder regime. Ressa said she’d respond with a poem. I knew which one:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a socialist . . . ” *

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_…

Freedom of speech and lies

March 28, 2021

“Are Jews hidden in your attic?” You answer with a lie.

Kant had a categorical take on morality, with lying considered always wrong. John Stuart Mill’s view was consequentialist — lying is wrong only when someone is harmed unjustly. You don’t owe the Nazi officer the truth. But a public official owes citizens the truth.

Does freedom of speech include lying? Republican have been turning freedom of speech into a political bludgeon. The puritanical “woke” left enables this by persecuting the slightest verbal boo-boo, letting the right posture as though they’re defenders of free speech under dire threat.

Recently a Republican congressman said anyone criticizing racist comments violates freedom of speech. And Trump’s defenders in his second impeachment argued that he was merely exercising his free speech rights when he lied about the election being “stolen” and encouraged insurrection.

Our constitution protects free expression more strongly than in any other country. Yet no right is ever so absolute that it overrides all other societal considerations. The Second Amendment doesn’t allow nuclear weapons. And Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said the First Amendment doesn’t cover falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Yet in 2012 the Court ruled quite differently in U.S. v. Alvarez. Striking down the “Stolen Valor Act,” which criminalized lying about military awards, saying that if Congress could outlaw one sort of statement, it could outlaw any.

A strange anti-Holmesian rationale. Nobody imagines the First Amendment protects lying in all contexts — we punish perjury. Because we consider that inimical to important societal values. Why couldn’t Congress, for similar reasons, punish lies about military medals? 

Such is not what the First Amendment mainly aims to protect. Rather, it’s expressions of opinion, especially political opinion. It’s really about free public debate. And it only bars government restraints. Not public criticism of your racist talk, Congressman. (To the contrary, it’s that criticism that’s protected.)

Inciting violence has always been considered another appropriate exception to free expression rights. Like perjury, another example where those rights bow to valid broader societal concerns. Thus Trump’s pre-January 6 incitements were not protected free speech.

That includes the “stolen election” claim, the biggest and most harmful lie in U.S. history. It’s at the center of a larger phenomenon, the corruption of American civic discourse by severing it from truth and reality. This Republican onslaught undermines the very thing — public debate — the First Amendment aims to protect. Thus their invoking freedom of speech is itself dishonest.

So what is to be done?

One obvious response is to vigorously counter lies. Well, many have been trying. It’s not working. As Mark Twain said, a lie can run around the world while the truth is getting its shoes on. Especially when it seems weak tea as against a lie’s bracing brew. And when the latter is what some people relish swallowing.

In past times, responsible gatekeepers kept the infosphere reality-based. Of course those news media had their own interests — making money — but that actually required maintaining public trust by reporting accurately. It worked pretty well. The public knew to trust the likes of Walter Cronkhite. Debates were about interpretations and consequences of facts, not facts themselves.

Today too many get “informed” by sources having very different incentives, flourishing by catering to discrete niche audiences wanting their opinions and prejudices flattered. The more a factoid does that, the better. Truth being irrelevant.

Twitter and Facebook have justifiably banned Trump. Violating his free speech? No. They are not the government. He can still say what he likes, on his own dime — with no constitutional right to use a platform provided by someone else. Last year, Facebook’s Zuckerberg said his site wouldn’t vet for truthfulness; but it has gotten intense criticism for all the garbage it disseminates. Now Facebook has started blocking anti-vaccine lies and some QAnon lunacy. But purveyors of such bilge just go elsewhere. And as a society we cannot look to private actors like Facebook to solve the bigger problem for us.

So should government step in and outlaw political lying after all? Ohio actually tried, with a law against campaign untruths. That was struck down — it surely did tread the slippery slope the Supreme Court feared in Alvarez. So lies in political advocacy do get some First Amendment protection. And what public officials should be entrusted with deciding truthfulness in political discourse? Laws like that have been introduced by several authoritarian regimes, as handy tools for stomping on pesky critics. Social media sites can block you but not jail you. 

There was actually a time, believe it or not, when being caught in a lie was fatal to a politician’s career. Trump glided through 30,000. This tells us America has changed in a very important way. Political tribalism now pre-empts everything — at least on the right. Among Democrats a major lie would still likely be devastating. But Trump famously said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes. Thus a little peccadillo like lying doesn’t matter. Because his voters have other fish to fry. For some evangelicals, it’s the abortion obsession; but for most Trump voters it’s defending their tribal turf of white nationalism. And for them, literally, nothing else matters

Their amoral scorched earth politics jar against the Christianity they also purport to defend in this culture war. But for many, that Christianity is just an identifier, no longer truly a belief system. Such conventional religious belief is crumbling, and to feed their thirst for religious fervor, a lot of people now instead look to politics. It’s mirrored too in the left’s sanctimonious intolerance. When politics takes the place of religion, no wonder resolving issues through compromise becomes impossible.

Europe’s covidiocy

March 23, 2021

During 2020, Europe put America to shame regarding Covid, as our president willfully refused to treat it seriously, even encouraging flouting precautions, surely responsible for our outsized half million death toll. Now the tables have turned. 

The European Union is botching vaccination, epitomizing all the EU’s weaknesses. It is overly bureaucratized and rule-obsessed, gumming things up. Aggravated by a need to coordinate all 27 member countries, and prioritizing nitpicking about fairness over speed. Worse yet, the EU wasted precious months dickering with vaccine makers on price. Well, they did finally win lower prices than America. But those savings were surely swamped by the vast costs associated with more people hospitalized and dying — preventable by quicker vaccination. It was penny wise and pound foolish.

The Biden administration, in contrast, is acting aggressively to get shots into as many arms as possible, as fast as possible. Realizing this is a race against the virus, especially with new and more dangerous variants proliferating.

We’re undermined by some states prematurely lifting restrictions aimed at curbing the spread, giving us Spring Break crowding sure to cause innumerable infections and deaths. President Biden caught hell for calling that “Neanderthal thinking.” Horrors, a president using strong language! “The former guy” never did. But of course Biden was right. “Neanderthal” was actually mild. It was reckless disregard for human life.

Still, America is way ahead of Europe in vaccination rates and thus in ultimately beating Covid. Thank you, President Biden (and the 81 million with the sense to vote for him).

And meantime, already way behind, Europe has compounded its misfeasance with its AstraZeneca stupidity. It seems that out of five million receiving the AZ shot, 30 reported blood clots. So in what they described as “an abundance of caution,” at least 16 European countries suspended AZ jabs.

The blood clot rate is less than 0.001% of vaccinations. Five million of which surely saved thousands of lives. For that, 30 blood clots would have been a minuscule price to pay. Vaccines always have occasional side effects. But again Europe is being penny wise and pound foolish.

Yet it’s even dumber than that suggests. Because out of any five million people, how many normally get blood clots? The answer, it turns out: more than 30! If anything, the AZ vaccine may somehow prevent blood clots.

How many times must we repeat so elementary a mistake? Confusing correlation with causation. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Assuming that if one thing follows another, the former caused the latter. When they may be unrelated. Remember the huge ruckus over women getting sick after silicone breast implants? Well, hello, people get sick all the time, for a million reasons. It was finally proven that implanted women’s ailments occurred at a rate no greater than for women generally. 

The Europeans say they’ll research the blood clot issue and then maybe re-authorize AZ use. They say this will help instill public confidence in vaccine safety. Excuse me, on what planet? The bare fact of the suspension needlessly gives credence to irrational fears about all covid vaccines (not to mention all others). If authorities originally authorized AZ, then changed their minds, and then change their minds again, that will hardly promote confidence among millions of people inclined to be skeptical toward both those Eurocrats and vaccines. And what of the legions of people who will suffer and die for lack of vaccination while authorities dither? 

I hate to say this: Brexit, otherwise disastrous, has been fortunate for Britain in at least this one way, removing it from the EU’s covidiocy. Britain’s vaccination rate is far higher. 

The British royals: Netflix’s “The Crown”

March 11, 2021

“The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them.”

Jefferson wrote that in his last letter. Perhaps strange, inasmuch as he owned slaves. However, he was writing there about hereditary privilege and power. With that understanding I’ve always loved the quote.

So it may seem odd that my wife and I have been captivated by the Netflix series “The Crown,” chronicling the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (now in its 70th year). But this is no hagiography. Indeed, a pretty good indictment of hereditary monarchy, an absurd anachronism in today’s world.

The series is beautifully done, compelling to watch. The producers present it as drama rather than history, and so take liberties with the facts. Sometimes that’s annoying, but in the big picture the show tries to show truth. It depicts real human beings, imprisoned in circumstances that pervert their humanity. Themselves, in a sense, victims of the social paradigm Jefferson decried. Not to be envied.

This is no comedy, yet I find myself laughing out loud a lot. At the sheer bizarreness of the deadpan drama, and gobsmacking words coming out of the characters’ mouths. Irony abounds.

Do they themselves watch it? Curiosity reportedly does draw their eyeballs. How must it feel? Their feelings cannot be what yours or mine might be. It’s been reported that Elizabeth actually likes it, though her portrait hardly seems flattering. Yet as the drama itself shows, the criteria by which she judges her own behavior are not those you or I would apply to ours either.

I take issue with Margaret Thatcher’s depiction as an affected woman with silly hair, an arrogant ideologue whose cruel policies caused much suffering. I know she’s still hate figure for the left. But the nation was sinking into what was being called “British Disease” and she administered some needed medicine, putting the country on a path to prosperity.

Prince Charles, on the other hand, I’ve always considered a supreme ass. His portrayal here (by Josh O’Connor) in no way redeems him. Not even by way of complexity. But here too, assuming Charles has viewed this, one can easily suppose him actually seeing it as a vindication, imagining that anyone watching would assess his conduct exactly as he himself did. Saying to himself, when he’s shown crazily denouncing Diana, “Yes, that’s right!”

He seems to have suffered from a lifelong identity crisis. His major complaint against Diana was her being more glamorous and popular than him.

One laugh line (for me) occurred when Charles, first pondering dating Diana, vets her by phoning her sister. “Is she fun?” he asks. It didn’t sound like code for sex, rather being asked straightforwardly. As such, a pretty weird thing to ask about a potential future queen. But the really striking thing was its coming from the least “fun” person on Earth. 

Indeed, watching this portrayal, the word “hangdog” kept coming to mind, his very posture conveying lugubriousness. He’s almost like a hunchback, evoking Richard III. You want to shout, “For God’s sake, man, straighten up!” In more ways than one. His mother pretty much does tell him that.

Diana once complained there were three in the marriage. Charles still stuck on Camilla, who’d married Parker-Bowles years earlier. This infatuation reprising that of Charles’s great uncle (Edward VIII) for Wallis Simpson — in both cases the men so hopelessly besotted it emasculates them.

In one scene, Charles and Camilla sit talking in a car. Prodded, she assures him of the strength of her love. I expressed bafflement, Camilla herself being long besotted with Parker-Bowles. But my astute wife observed that she was careful not to say she loved Charles more than him.

Nevertheless, in some presumed future episodes, they will each eventually divorce, and eight years after Diana dies (no seat-belt), Charles and Camilla will finally marry, and live happily ever after. One hopes ; -)

At least, thank goodness, these absurd people no longer have any actual power. In fact, while Elizabeth is often shown berating prime ministers over political issues, I doubt this could occur, so circumscribed is her role.

But in 1826 Jefferson’s quote did not reflect reality and does not fully yet today. It’s aspirational. Looking toward a world in which nobody is born saddled, with others to ride them. Slowly we are getting there. One hopes.

The Republican war on voting rights

March 7, 2021

Republicans are a minority party. Winning the presidential popular vote only once (and then barely) since 1988. Their weakness masked by the electoral college overweighting small rural states; and by a 2010 high water mark showing, which gave them control of many state legislatures, enabling their perpetuating it via gerrymandering in that census/redistricting year. While their voting base, centered upon older rural religious white males, inexorably shrinks. 

You’d think they’d strive to broaden their appeal among other, hostile demographics. An internal party post-mortem after their 2012 loss urged just that. But they went the exact opposite way, doubling down on their pitch to their base to the exclusion of courting others, by nominating Trump. This might have seemed vindicated by his squeaking to victory despite losing the popular vote. But then in 2020 he lost pretty decisively.

So are they retooling their appeal now? No. Instead Republicans are tripling down, going yet more totally Trump, even trying to purge any dissenters. Blind to rational people hating Trump for lies, divisiveness, half a million covid deaths — and the violent attempt to overthrow the government!

So how pray tell do Republicans, waving this rancid flag, envision winning elections? Here’s how: by preventing opposition voters from casting ballots.

Voter suppression has been a central Republican strategy ever since their 2010 state legislative wins enabled it. They figure to do better if fewer people vote. Now they’re on a tear, with literally hundreds of bills introduced across 40 states, to make voting harder.

Their pretense is election integrity and fraud prevention. It’s a total lie. Vote fraud has been proven virtually nonexistent. Trump in 2017 set up a commission to investigate it — galled that he lost the popular vote by three million — but it disbanded after being unable to find even a single improper Clinton ballot.

But now they say the 2020 election raised widespread concerns about vote fraud. This is like the classic illustration of chutzpah, someone murdering his parents and pleading for mercy as an orphan. It’s of course these Republicans themselves who spread Trump’s vote fraud lies. When none of his 60+ lawsuits could prove Biden got even one fraudulent ballot. While responsible authorities attested that the 2020 election was among the most impeccably conducted ever. 

And, if anyone, it was Republicans who cheated in that election — through all their voter suppression.

What does that actually mean? Making it harder to register, eliminating automatic registration. Cancelling registrations of people who don’t vote often enough, or on minor technicalities. Obstructing mail voting, by limiting when it’s allowed, making it more complicated and cumbersome, eliminating drop-off options, etc. Curtailing early voting, closing polling stations, and making them less accessible. Requiring particular forms of ID to vote.

All carefully targeting poor and minority voters, less likely to support Republicans. It’s become common in Black neighborhoods to wait hours on line to vote. Very rare in white areas. Proposed legislation in Georgia would even criminalize giving water or food to anyone waiting to vote!

The Jim Crow South used poll taxes and literacy tests to keep Blacks from voting. They might be asked to explicate an obscure section of the state constitution. If that didn’t work, a beating probably would. Blacks knew enough not to try. So until the 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed these sorts of things, very few Southern Blacks could vote. Then in 2013 the Republican-majority Supreme Court eviscerated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and Republican-dominated state legislatures rushed to enact new restrictions aimed at impeding Black voting. And those the court has consistently upheld.

Bad enough for America if one party thusly perverts the system to illegitimately hold power. Worse yet: while at one time I saw the two parties as each merely representing differing but sincere visions for the common good, that’s no longer true. Say what you will about Democrats’ policies, they are advocated honestly and sincerely. Not so for today’s Republicans. Bad faith pervades their entire enterprise.

Epitomized by their “stolen election” lie. That’s the huge fraud. They know it, but use it to serve their partisan purposes — notably, their voter suppression onslaught. Which — together with a majority of GOP lawmakers voting on January 6 to overturn the election — proves they just don’t believe in democracy. They are no longer legitimate actors upon the nation’s political stage. 

And what further delegitimizes the GOP is its having become, most fundamentally, the white supremacy party. Their trying to prevent Black voting is thus really a twofer — not only aimed at unfairly winning elections, but furthermore reflecting their deep-down feeling that Blacks shouldn’t be allowed to vote anyway.

This is ghastly for the country. After all we’ve been through. The horror of slavery, and the bloody Civil War over it. Followed by a century of Jim Crow crushing the rights that war had seemingly assured. Then, the great civil rights battle to finally make those rights a reality. To fulfill at last America’s promise as a democratic society with liberty and justice for all. Will we now let all this be set back by a dishonest white supremacist minority?

Voting is sacred. Republicans bleat about “freedom” — especially to own guns (giving us an epidemic of gun violence). They’d never accept gun restrictions equivalent to what they impose on voting. They fantasize guns as a bulwark against tyranny; but the primary bulwark is voting, essential to freedom. For most of human history, ordinary people were powerless. Voting gives us the power to shape our collective destinies. Thank God for Black Americans, who in their millions defied Republican efforts to hinder their voting and thus saved the country in 2020. Public servants should be working to expand opportunities for citizens to exercise their voting rights — not to curtail them, as Republicans strive to do.

To combat that we need a new national voting rights law. A good one’s been passed by the House of Representatives. It cannot pass the Senate with the filibuster rule still in force, enabling Republicans to block it. Democrats must bite that bullet, end the filibuster once and for all, and then enact the voting rights bill, while they still have the capability to do so. Otherwise, Republican voter suppression may well enable them to illegitimately regain power — and make America stink again.