Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Richard Wolff in sheep’s clothing, on capitalism versus socialism

September 14, 2018

I heard Richard Wolff again on “Alternative [left-wing] Radio.” He’s the “Marxist” economics professor whose LOL take on first class airplane seats I wrote about. Wolf saw them as though created by God but unfairly handed out by dastardly airlines to rich folks, forcing plebeians to suffer in coach. In actuality, the rich subsidize the rest. That’s how airlines make their money. Without milking richies via vastly overpriced premium seats, they’d have to charge coach travelers far more, which wouldn’t fly — literally.

Wolff couldn’t see that reality. But he is a glib talker. His latest was on capitalism versus socialism. He thinks capitalism’s badness will cause socialism to triumph.

A chief theme was “socialism” getting a bum rap because people don’t understand it. This is part of the effort to sugar-coat socialism, making it seem innocuous — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (We saw this with the Bernie campaign.) It’s the trope that if you like public roads and libraries and fire departments, etc., anything government does, why, that’s socialism!

Except that it isn’t. Providing necessary services that a free market cannot (at least not well) is just any government’s job. Socialism instead is government substituting for (and disallowing) a capable free market.

Now, if you think that’s a good idea, fine, try to persuade us. But socialists must doubt its persuasiveness, else why do they constantly hide what they really advocate, under false camouflage about roads and fire service?

Richard Wolff-in-sheep’s-clothing epitomizes this, again saying people misunderstand “socialism.” He repeatedly mocked the idea of any association with Stalin’s crimes. He stressed that “socialism” is not limited to any single categorical definition. But did he ever actually say what it does mean?

Nope.

But, talking about “capitalism,” Wolff did exactly what he criticized — painting it as one limited thing — which, typically, was a gross caricature.

I was struck by the contrast with a book I happened to be reading, Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, by historian Joyce Appleby.* Indeed, its key theme is that “capitalism” has been not one discrete concept but endlessly flexible, adaptive, and evolving, with vastly varying iterations — its great strength.

This is clear from the first great book on the subject — titled Capital — by Karl Marx. I will not deride Marx as a fool. He was in fact a brilliant thinker, observer, and analyst, who had some important insights. But he was fundamentally wrong in predicting capitalism’s future. Marx saw an “iron law of wages” always pushing them down to bare subsistence, just enabling workers to stay alive to produce the golden eggs for the capitalists, until they’d revolt. Marx did not imagine the mass affluence capitalism (and the associated industrial/technological revolutions) would bring forth. Even amid all today’s lamentations about inequality, and capitalism’s supposed injustice, the fact is that workers in industrialized societies were able to gain a large enough share of the economic pie to give them living standards unimaginably cushier than the bare subsistence Marx posited.

That’s because the pie has grown so spectacularly. And because of democracy. “Democratic socialism” is really a contradiction in terms because the two ideas have proven in practice to be fundamentally incompatible. That’s due to socialist systems concentrating so much power in government, whereas free market societies distribute power widely. Socialism is not the antithesis of fascism or communism. All three have the central idea of valorizing the collective over the individual, thus being inherently coercive and repressive.

No type of society or system will deliver justice and equality free from the depredations of people who will always try to exploit it for their own advantage. That’s certainly been true in all socialist or communist systems, wherein some individuals always amassed great power over others — using the machineries of the state and its monopoly on violence (legitimate in free societies, but not in others). A free enterprise system at least does not allow that. Instead, there you gain advantage by (in the main) creating value others voluntarily pay you for, making society as a whole wealthier. That’s how Steve Jobs, for example, got so rich. It’s how the whole industrialized world — including its workers — got so much richer than Marx foresaw.

Richard Wolff (Yes, socialism IS for dummies)

Such prosperity has never been produced by socialism. China is a very instructive case. It has two economic systems functioning side-by-side: a socialist one of state-owned firms, and another of very free enterprise. The latter runs rings around the former. It is the source of China’s phenomenal economic advancement, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last few decades.

* She’s no right-wing free marketeer; plenty critical of capitalism’s negative aspects, especially environmental. Appleby is often a trenchant observer, but I can’t let pass how many annoying bloopers I noticed. Like, “Ingenuous people found a new way to exploit electromagnetism.” Really? I thought that was disingenuous.

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Vote for the homo, not for Cuomo

September 12, 2018

In the 1977 New York mayoral primary, Mario Cuomo was running against Ed Koch — unmarried and rumored to be gay. Shortly before the vote, posters appeared saying, “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.”

Cuomo disavowed them, but the culprit was never identified.

Cuomo’s son, Governor Andrew, got the legislature, in the dead of night, to name the new Hudson River bridge the “Cuomo Bridge,” after his father. (His newsman brother Chris Cuomo has said their dad definitely opposed having things named after him.) But Andrew obviously expected reflected glory from having the Cuomo name on the bridge. (And some voters don’t seem to know one Cuomo from another.)

So the other day — just before Thursday’s gubernatorial primary — Cuomo had a Big Deal ceremony opening the new bridge. Except that it turned out the bridge was not yet actually ready for traffic. Cuomo wasn’t going to let a detail like that stop him from preening and taking credit.

Then it was revealed that his campaign had targeted Jewish voters with a mailed flyer all but accusing his opponent, Cynthia Nixon, of anti-semitism. (Nixon is raising her kids Jewish.) The campaign says it will send out a correction mailing. Which will arrive after the vote.

Cuomo insists he had nothing to do with the despicable mailing. If you believe that, there’s a bridge over the Hudson I’d like to sell you. (I’m not the first with that line.) But it’s funny how Cuomo, the great micro-manager, never seems to know anything about any of the nasty stuff in his administration that gets exposed (like bribe-taking by his “third brother” Percoco.)

Cuomo is a dirty man running a dirty campaign.

Cynthia Nixon is gay. Vote for the homo, not for Cuomo.

The New York Times “Anonymous” Op-ed

September 10, 2018

I defer to another guest column, by Francis Wilkinson in Bloomberg Opinion. Every word is on target. Edited by me for brevity:

Some people in the White House think Trump is ignorant, dangerous and unhinged. They told author Bob Woodward that, though not allowing him to use their names. One wrote a New York Times op-ed about Trump’s deranged reign — also anonymously.

Basically, everyone in the political business, including lots of people who collect taxpayer-funded salaries to pretend otherwise, know that Trump is a malicious, incompetent buffoon.

But 63 million voted for him, some venting their resentments and insecurities. Others hoped Trump, upon taking office, would magically rise from the ethical sewer in which he had spent a lifetime.

Nothing in the Times op-ed, or in comments to Woodward, alters GOP political dynamics. Republican insiders tell one another Trump is an abomination doing an abysmal job. What they tell their voters is something else. Eight in 10 — or more — Republicans approve of Trump’s performance. And because Republican leaders have spent years telling their voters to distrust legitimate news media and to believe only loyal partisans such as Fox News, there is no reason to expect the op-ed or the Woodward book or any other manifestation of truth to penetrate the carefully constructed unreality.

The Republican Party had already become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of inherited social and economic policy; scornful of compromise, of conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Now it has embraced Trump’s rampant personal corruption and attacks on blacks and Hispanics and women. The party has escalated bad-faith attacks on news media that accurately chronicle Trump lies, and on institutions that resist the almost daily assaults on the rule of law and public ethics.

A nuclear holocaust has thus far been averted — thanks for that, Anonymous. But other acts of aggression, from the Muslim ban to voter suppression, continue undeterred.

The Trump administration planned and executed a policy of seizing infants from their parents at the U.S. border. It did so with such grotesque callousness that it is thus far unable to reunite hundreds of literally kidnapped children with their parents.

Not one Republican in Congress has held a hearing to find out how this crime occurred, and who is responsible. The corruption of the party is endemic. Anyone who thinks they escape the moral and political taint of this administration by murmuring anonymous misgivings about Trump is a fool as well as a coward.

The dishonest Kavanaugh charade

September 7, 2018

Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh says Roe v. Wade is “settled law.” Well, settled law is what the Supreme Court says. “Separate but (supposedly) equal” was settled law for 57 years until in 1954 the Court said it wasn’t. Kavanaugh refuses to admit that he would (with alacrity) provide the needed fifth vote to overturn Roe.

In fact that’s precisely his nomination’s raison d’etre. A lot of voters abide a stinking piece of shit as president just to get a Supreme Court that will end abortion rights. Trump is delivering on that devil’s bargain.

Kavanaugh’s record makes it a sure thing that he’d vote to reverse Roe. That was clear from Senator Hirono’s questioning. In one case Kavanaugh ruled that having to file a two-page form was an “undue burden,” while in another it wasn’t an “undue burden” on a woman to be held in involuntary detention — where in both cases the result was to prevent abortions.

Roe was a legal case but abortion is a political issue. If you want to curtail abortion rights, then at least have the honesty to say so — instead of hiding behind this “settled law” crap, which makes the whole process a dishonest charade.

Of course, honesty is the last thing we can expect from the Trump administration. There’s not an honest bone in its body.

For the record, I’m not pro-abortion, and always thought Roe was both badly decided and politically bad. Abortion rights were inexorably progressing through normal democratic processes, until the Court’s action made the issue toxically divisive. But for it to turn things upside down again now, by reversing Roe, would be even worse, unleashing political Armageddon. Saner heads on the Court should recoil from doing that.

But, like honesty, sanity is in short supply among today’s Republicans.

My New York primary endorsements

September 3, 2018

I enrolled last year as a Democrat, to vote in primaries to keep the party from veering too far left. That is complicated in New York because of the Cuomo corruption effect.

For Governor:

Nixon

Actor Cynthia Nixon is challenging Governor Cuomo’s renomination, from the left. I previously criticized her for trying to out-“progressive” Cuomo, when her big issue should be public corruption. In their August 29 TV debate, almost the first word out of her mouth was “LGBT.” It should have been “Moreland.”

That refers to the blue-ribbon commission Cuomo convened, pursuant to the Moreland Act, to investigate Albany corruption. Which was stinking to high heaven. Cuomo meant for the commission to focus on the state legislature. But when it started to look at his own office, Cuomo abruptly shut it down! Declaring it was his commission, and he could do whatever he wanted with it. (Actually, his fig leaf was that the objective had been accomplished with the legislature adopting some ethics reforms. Of course those reforms were a shell game, not even nibbling at the problem.)

Nixon did pronounce the word “Moreland,” just once, later in the debate. She had previously pledged to convene a new Moreland Act commission. But failed even to mention this.

The debate’s headline moment was when Cuomo told Nixon “Can you stop interrupting?” She shot back, “Can you stop lying?” “I will when you do,” he said. So he had been lying. Probably not an admission he intended. But sometimes the tongue is more candid than the brain.

Regarding leftness there really is little to choose between the two. But Cuomo is a repellent person whose corrupt approach to politics defines him (as I’ve detailed). Voting for Nixon is a no-brainer.

The other offices present tougher dilemmas.

For Lieutenant Governor (in primaries we vote for that office separately):

Hochul

Kathy Hochul, the incumbent, was Cuomo’s choice of a running mate. That was before he decided his political bread was buttered on the left side. Hochul was actually a nod to a more conservative upstate sensibility. I’ve heard her speak and have a pretty positive impression of her.

Her challenger is Nixon’s running mate, Jumaane Williams, an African-American NYC Council member. I knew, like Nixon, he stresses “progressive” issues, and has had some financial/business problems. Open-minded, I welcomed seeing a long interview on PBS’s New York Now.

At first I thought there was something wrong with my TV, but then realized it was not the picture twitching, but Williams himself. “He’s got Tourette syndrome,” I said to myself. By and by the interviewer said, “Viewers will notice your twitching.” Williams replied, “I have Tourette syndrome. And ADHD.”

Well, OK. I’m willing to contemplate some affirmative action there. That he’s gotten where has in politics despite his disabilities says something. The guy did speak normally and well, and showed some positive qualities of energy and civic commitment.

But the lieutenant governor has no importance, other than the possibility of becoming governor. So I ask myself, which of the two would I rather have as governor? I can’t see Williams being ready for that. Despite Hochul’s having been picked by Cuomo, she is not actually his creature. She’s the better choice.

For Attorney General:

With four candidates, it should be easy to pick one. Barbara Underwood was installed by the legislature to replace Schneiderman, who resigned for beating up women. But Underwood isn’t running. None of the actual candidates wanted to be picked by the legislature, seeing that as the kiss of death. Which tells you the esteem in which our legislature is held.

James

Letitia James is the NYC “Public Advocate” (the #2 elected position), the party’s official candidate, backed by Cuomo. Otherwise she might be an attractive candidate.

Now, James started her political career winning a city council seat running only on the Working Families Party line. (I’ve always thought that party name was great marketing, but really smarmy.) In 2014, Cuomo managed to get the left-leaning WFP to back him over his left-leaning challenger Zephyr Teachout. But this time the WFP went rogue and backs Nixon. Infuriating Cuomo. So he’s insisted that Letitia James turn her back on her WFP roots. This isn’t going down well. I couldn’t vote for her anyway because Cuomo wants her.

Leecia Eve

Sean Patrick Maloney is an “openly gay” Congressman, running for both re-election and Attorney General simultaneously — which isn’t going down well. Leecia Eve is the African-American daughter of Arthur Eve, who was a powerful longtime Buffalo assemblyman. She’s been “mentioned” for practically every big gong that’s come up in modern times. Eve did sound reasonable in the one short clip of her I saw. But in polls she lags far behind the others.

Teachout

Then there’s Zephyr Teachout, white and not actually gay (recently marrying a man, how retro is that?) yet nevertheless still a “progressive” darling, who lost races for governor in 2014 and Congress in 2016. I admit to feeling Teachout fatigue. I didn’t like her blast against charter schools. Her campaign has been boosted by endorsements by Saint Alexandria and the New York Times (neither of which move me).

I originally wrote this thing saying I’d vote for Teachout anyway. Then yesterday’s Albany Times-Union (which interviews the candidates) surprised me, with a strong endorsement for Eve. It was quite persuasive on her relevant broad experience and capabilities. She is independent of Cuomo, and not a “progressive” ranter like the others. So I was persuaded — power of the press!

*    *    *

The November choice will be equally difficult. Cuomo’s Republican opponent is Marc Molinaro, who is actually quite a good candidate, who says he did not support Trump. An absolute must if I’ll consider voting for a Republican. Still, I believe the whole party is so poisoned by Trumpism that it has to be electorally exterminated. Then there’s Stephanie Miner, former Syracuse mayor, another excellent candidate, who should have run in the primary, but instead chose a pointless third party run. And Larry Sharpe, the Libertarian, and also a really excellent, dynamic guy.

We’ll see.

Robert Ingersoll — the greatest man you never heard of

August 28, 2018

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

Ingersoll

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

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

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

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

Flynn

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

Blumner

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

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

Smith

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

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

Gage

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

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

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

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

Grube as Stanton

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

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

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

Jacoby

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

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

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

This too shall pass

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

Was America founded as a “Christian nation?”

August 13, 2018

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

Jacoby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bye Bye Britain

August 11, 2018

A parent’s decline and demise is a sad thing. Britain was our mother country.

The Brits turned a bad corner in voting for Brexit — that is, to leave the European Union. Voters bought a false bill of goods about its supposed benefits, including a much-ballyhooed and wholly bogus claim of gaining hundreds of millions of pounds weekly for the National Health Service. (In fact, Britain will have to pay the EU tens of extra billions.) Russia had a hand in this disinformation campaign (and was cheered on by its tool fool Trump); the aim was to weaken both Britain and Europe.

The Brexit vote did in Prime Minister David Cameron, who was then replaced by Theresa May — a hapless mediocrity devoid of Thatcherite intellectual strength.

Theresa May

She opposed Brexit during the referendum, but upon becoming prime minister decided it was her job to fulfill voters’ wishes. Indeed, her mantra became “Brexit means Brexit.”

This refers to the debate over “hard” versus “soft” Brexit — basically whether Britain remains in the European free trade system. Now, the raw truth is that Brexit voters were really mainly voting their hostility toward foreigners and immigrants. They were encouraged to imagine they could have their cake and eat it too — close the doors to migrants but not to trade.

May’s “Brexit means Brexit” catered to this fantasy that Britain could, outside the EU, gain trade terms just as advantageous as inside it. But it’s being punctured in actual negotiations with the EU; they insist that if Britain wants favorable access to the European market, it must accept the free movement of people, and other parts of the EU system.*

So May has been forced to backtrack, and her latest iteration of a negotiating plan looks much more like a soft than a hard Brexit. But hardline Brexiteers in her own Conservative party see this as “betraying the Brexit dream;” two top cabinet members have resigned over it. While the Europeans still don’t think it goes far enough.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking down to the March 29, 2019 deadline for Britain’s departure. It was another big mistake for May to have triggered the 2-year countdown in March 2017 before having clarity about the terms. Now there’s a growing possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Another of May’s mantras has been “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Indeed, this slogan has been a rare success for her, with polls showing British voters agree by a two-to-one margin. Unfortunately, that actually makes things worse, because it’s really stupid and restricts May’s bargaining room.

It might sound like a tough negotiating stance, but the Europeans consider it an empty bluff because “no deal” would be disastrous for Britain. This is becoming very clear to people thinking seriously about it. There’s now much chatter about “stockpiling” goods against the prospect of big trade disruptions with a no-deal Brexit. But there’s no way Britain could really get prepared for such a dire eventuality.

So May has painted herself into a corner. Either she does slash Britain’s wrists with a no-deal Brexit, or else swallows a soft Brexit deal that’s bound to be pilloried as betraying both of her own key slogans. One that retains so much of the status quo ante that Britons must wonder what the point of Brexit is.

In June 2017, having insisted she wouldn’t call an early election, May reversed herself, aiming to strengthen her parliamentary majority and thus her Brexit negotiating hand. Instead, running an insipid campaign, she lost her majority and now runs a crippled government. It’s becoming hard to see how any Brexit deal, that May manages to negotiate, could pass parliament (especially if, as is likely, the Labour opposition wants to distance itself from her deal and sabotage May’s government).

Now there’s also talk of a second referendum, either to reverse the 2016 Brexit vote, or else between hard and soft Brexit plans. But there’s no sign that Brexit buyer’s remorse has really set in yet, especially with May still suborning the fantasy; nor that voters will now be equipped to make a responsible choice among options. And approving and organizing another referendum now is probably a non-starter.

Comrade Corbyn

Waiting in the wings is the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. His winning the next election is taken as almost a foregone conclusion. Young voters in particular seem gaga for him as something new, daring, and fresh. In fact he represents something very old and putrid — Stalinism. Literally; no hyperbole. Corbyn is the quintessential old-time morally blind extreme left hypocrite who’s always prating about the rights of downtrodden people while applauding regimes everywhere most guilty of trodding them down. And he wants to undo everything Thatcher achieved in the ’80s that set Britain on a path to prosperity. Coming on top of Brexit’s economic hit, a Corbyn government would be the coup de grace.

Brexit voters imagined they’d “Make Britain Great Again.” That’s working out as great as on the other side of the pond. It’s a sad decline into senescence for a nation that once indeed ruled the greatest empire in the world, and led it in intellectual and industrial advancement. The classically liberal principles that have guided humanity onward and upward originated in Britain. Now the Brits are losing the thread of all that.

Not so long ago, it might have been said that Britain had passed the torch to America. But America itself today is falling into its own similar political cul-de-sac. It seems the flame is flickering out.

* One vexing problem is that Britain has a land border with the E.U. — between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Everyone agrees that a hard customs border there would be highly undesirable. But no one seems able to figure out how to avoid that, if Britain exits the EU’s customs union.

QAnon and the Republican war on reality

August 5, 2018

QAnon” is the handle of an online person or group claiming access to all kinds of secret information (“Q” refers to a high security clearance) about “deep state” conspiracies against Trump; with Trump actually being the great mastermind behind everything. QAnonism is spreading like wildfire among his Republican fans, especially at his rallies (where big “Q” signs are proliferating).

Included in the deranged QAnon catechism: Kim Jong-Un is actually a CIA puppet; the Democratic National Committee hired Salvadoran Gang MS-13 to murder its staffer Seth Rich; the Mueller probe is actually a counter-coup by Trump himself to expose Democratic wrongdoing; Obama, Hillary, and George Soros are child traffickers, also plotting a coup; that Trump’s enemies like John McCain wear ankle bracelets so he can track them; that J.P. Morgan sank the Titanic; that the Rothschild family heads a satanic cult. That QAnon explains the whole universe and will usher in a Christian “great awakening.”

The clues to all this are labeled “breadcrumbs.” When asked, QAnoners are fuzzy about how the dots actually connect and just say follow the breadcrumbs. But they’re certain it’s all true.

Striking too is the crazed obsession to pin fantastical misdeeds on Hillary — admittedly no paragon of virtue — and Obama, who actually was one, guilty only of officeholding-while-black — while blind to unquestioned facts showing Trump as the filthiest turd in U.S. political history.

In June a guy was arrested on terrorism charges after driving an armored vehicle, wielding an AR-15, and blocking traffic for two hours at Hoover Dam, claiming to be on a QAnon mission demanding release of an FBI report on Hillary (that had actually already been released). Previously another guy shot up a pizza parlor flagged by QAnon for having a Hillary-run pedophile ring headquartered in its basement. (Allegedly.)

Loopy radio conspiracy monger Alex Jones earlier promoted QAnonism, but now it’s too far out even for him. Even for Alex Jones. So now, within the Republican universe, Alex Jones is something of a moderate.

Meantime, at his recent Pennsylvania rally, Trump loudly called Russian election meddling a “hoax,” even while the rest of his government held a top-level meeting sounding the alarm about Russian election meddling. He also said “Russia is very unhappy that Trump won, that I can tell you.” While Putin, standing beside him just weeks earlier in Helsinki, openly said he’d wanted Trump to win.

So Trump lies outrageously to a huge crowd, and they cheer madly. (Literally.) Those waiting for his base to turn against him for something got their final answer in Helsinki where he sold us out to Russia. And 79% of Republicans (in an Axios poll) approved his Helsinki performance.

“Great awakening?” More like a great conking out.

My previous review of a book about conspiracy theories is worth re-reading (click here). It explains the deep evolutionary and psychological reasons why conspiracy theories (like QAnonism) find a ready audience. And we all want to believe what we’d like to be true. Yet most people retain a grip on reality. Except Republicans.

That’s not just a cheap shot but making a serious point. Having been a Republican myself till last year, I am still struggling to understand why most Republicans have totally drunk this Kool-Aid. I keep returning to the point that most of them believe in a supernatural god, Heaven, Hell, and the Bible. Does sustaining such fantasy beliefs compromise the brain’s ability to grasp reality — priming it to accept all the constant massive Trump lies?

Most religious people are able to compartmentalize — keeping their faith delusions in a separate mental folder, while thinking rationally and normally in other spheres. Even Republicans seemed to do this, until Trump came along. I could see through him from the start, as a very bad character in every possible way. I watched with horror as most other Republicans, en masse, dove over the cliff like lemmings. Where were their critical faculties?

This would be sad for them if Republicans were on some island of their own, and the rest of us could move on. But with 40% of our electorate embedded in this meshugas, it infects everything.

America has built up a tremendous reservoir of assets over two centuries. Strong institutions, rule of law, a culture that promotes dynamism, and a wonderful population full of good energetic people. And again, despite religious faith, empiricism was a crucially prevailing ethos. Empiricism means knowledge grounded in reality. Without that, we’re cast adrift. But now America’s leader actively, intentionally, assiduously works to destroy the line between reality and falsehood, and the credibility of real information sources. With too many following him down that road to perdition.

I have on my wall an enlargement of a onetime U.S. postage stamp that proclaimed “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.”

That light is going out.

Mitch Landrieu and Confederate monuments

August 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

“Very fine people on both sides”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there were never any memorializing slavery’s victims.

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

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

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

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

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