Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Trump gets away with it again

July 5, 2021

Refusal to release his tax returns begged the question: what was he hiding? The Manhattan District Attorney finally got the documents after an arduous court battle. Indicted now is Trump’s top financial honcho, Allen Weisselberg — and the Trump organization — but not Trump himself — for tax fraud. This has nothing to do with Trump’s own returns. Rather, paying Weisselberg and others with benefits, like luxury apartments, in lieu of salaries, to avoid income tax.

In the big picture that seems like small beer. The mountain labored and brought forth a mouse. Trump must be laughing. Crowing vindication again.

Actually, the crimes alleged are quite brazen and serious. But why wasn’t Trump himself charged too? He’s the head of the organization. Signed some of the checks in question.

The New York Times, having previously gotten leaked access to Trump’s own returns, had run some exhaustive articles exposing what clearly looked like huge fraud therein. Trump never paid much tax at all. Claiming business losses year after year. Literally the losingest businessman in America, according to his tax returns. So much for “The Art of the Deal.” But it seemed evident all those “losses” were created by phoney accounting. Cooking the books. Yet no indictment (so far?).

It’s Weisselberg the fall guy headed for jail. Like Trump’s “fixer” Michael Cohen, jailed for his role in illegal payoffs to cover up Trump adulteries. Trump signed checks for that too. It came to light while he was president, and that dumb Justice Department memo said a sitting president can’t be indicted. No basis for that in the Constitution, but never mind now, he’s no longer in office and is certainly subject to indictment. Why is he not being charged for the crime Cohen committed at his direction?*

Why, indeed, does this creep manage to skate through his entire life with no comeuppance for all his countless misdeeds? He did pay $25 million to settle the Trump University fraud case. Chump change for him. But that was just a civil matter. I never understood why it didn’t constitute criminal fraud carrying a prison sentence.

* * *

Trump has also escaped the verdict of historians. Recently C-Span asked 142 of them to rank the presidents, and Trump was not rated worst. In fact, only the fourth worst! What were they smoking?

Their top three turkeys were Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson, all Civil War related. In my youth I immersed myself in U.S. political history. Before Trump, I’d rated Johnson (1865-69) worst, a racist blunderer. But Pierce (1853-57) and Buchanan (1857-61) are faulted, basically, for failing to somehow prevent the war. A bum rap — it’s far from clear what if anything they could have done. At that time Congress was the main event, presidents being bystanders with little real authority.

No, Trump runs away with the title of worst president, by a country mile. Off the charts. To begin with, he’s indisputably the most disgusting character ever to hold the office. And his performance certainly reflected that badness. He plunged our whole civic culture into the toilet. A divisive, racist, compulsive liar. An administration stuffed with corrupt lowlife sycophants. Shredding relationships with allies, cozying up to blood-soaked dictators, and blackening America’s moral standing in the world, not least with intentionally cruel inhuman policies separating thousands of children from parents. I could go on. (And have: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2020/10/25/lest-we-forget-the-full-trump-record/)

But even if none of the above were true, he’d still nail the prize for one supreme dereliction: his thoroughly idiotic handling of the pandemic, bearing personal responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

And those historians thought Franklin Pierce was worse? I repeat, what were they smoking? Trump’s is a record of infamy unparalleled in our history.

* A familiar legal principle says any applicable statute of limitations would be tolled — that is, the clock would be stopped — while the culprit is unavailable for prosecution.

The Four Americas: Is there any hope?

June 27, 2021

Some people see America divided in two. George Packer sees four Americas. He’s a leading journalist and author, whose new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, is distilled into an essay in The Atlantic.*

The 2016 election shattered my understanding of this country. I’ve since struggled to rebuild it. Packer offers some good insights. He actually pinpoints 2014 as the year America’s character changed. Though that refers to only one of what he sees as really four stories. Four different mentalities that have evolved, each sparking reverberations in the others. He labels them Free, Smart, Real, and Just America.

Free America originally wove together Enlightenment libertarianism with traditionalist conservatism. Opposing big bossy government; “speak[ing] to the American myth of the self-made man and the lonely pioneer on the plains.” This became the Republican party’s ideology.

Packer says “libertarians made common cause with segregationists, and racism informed their political movement from the beginning,” with the 1964 Goldwater campaign. That raised my hackles. I was active in that effort and didn’t observe racism being part of it. We had other ideological fish to fry. Though we did welcome any support we could get, including from segregationists who had their own reasons.

That was then. Packer says that after Reagan, “Free America’s” leadership went downhill. Gingrich being the key political figure of the era, turning politics into scorched-earth war. Then from Gingrich to Cruz to Hannity, “with no bottom.” Government was still the bête noire, but this was no longer a matter of Enlightenment philosophy, but rather of tribal blood-and-soil white caste assertiveness. Republicans “mobilized anger and despair while [only] offering up scapegoats. The party thought it could control these dark energies . . . instead they would consume it.” Culminating in January 6.

Smart America —a core of today’s Democratic party — refers to a relatively new elite class of educated professionals, whose cosmopolitanism somewhat overlaps with Free America’s libertarian streak. Both have a meritocratic ethos, believing talent and effort should determine reward, thus both having limited sympathy for the underclass. Packer says meritocrats no longer feel part of the same country — Smart America having withdrawn, as it were, into its gated communities, disengaged from some larger national project. Seeing patriotism as vulgar, thus leaving it the province of yahoos.

Sarah Palin embodied what Packer labels Real America (which is how it sees itself). Its anti-intellectualism has deep antecedents, standing in opposition to the elites of Smart America. Which, Packer says, discredited themselves with the Iraq mess and then the 2008 financial crisis. “Real America” also reviles “other” people it sees as both alien and unworthy. Its heart is white Christian nationalism (with Christianity more salient as a tribal cultural signifier than as a religious creed).

Those “Real Americans” seized upon Trump as their voice, which he channeled with (I’d say unwitting) “reptilian genius.” If the elites considered them ignorant, crass, and bigoted, “then Trump was going to shove it in [their] smug faces.” Thus did his vileness actually, perversely, work for him.

Free and Real America seem hard to disentangle today; the latter having really subsumed the former. Smothering its principled antecedents, now confined to an impotent rump of Republicanism.

Packer fingers 2014, the year of Ferguson, as a hinge point, a sort of coming-out party for his fourth cohort — Just America — as in “social justice,” with its abiding idea really being Unjust America. Upending universal Enlightenment values of rationalism in favor of a subjectivity seeing everything in terms of power relationships and modalities of oppression (gosh, I’m starting to sound like them). We know by now how insufferably intolerant these “woke” people can be, trolling everywhere for pretexts to assert putative moral superiority over others. (An analog of sorts to white supremacism.) Which, Packer says, does nothing to actually address the kinds of societal problems they spout about.

While Packer divides us into the four groups, the fourth doesn’t seem on a par with the rest, which comprise big population segments. Just America, for all its shrillness and undeniable cultural intimidation, is actually only a small minority. Meantime Packer ultimately sees a dichotomy, putting Free and Real America together in one bucket, Smart and Just America in another. That latter linkage is dubious.

I see the real divide as between, on one hand, Trump cultists in an ugly alternate reality together with the hard left “woke” totalitarians — Crazed America — and, on the other hand, contrastingly reasonable and rational folks of good will. Sane America. Among whom differences of opinion are comparatively benign.

Anyhow, Packer says the societal division “emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years.” (Actually the picture is much more complex than the conventional wisdom of a “disappearing middle class” would have it.) Packer holds that each of his four groups “offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have. Free America celebrates the energy of the unencumbered individual. Smart America respects intelligence and welcomes change. Real America commits itself to a place and has a sense of limits. Just America demands a confrontation with what the others want to avoid.”

I found that too a bit forced. However, says Packer, they all impinge upon each other, pitting tribe against tribe vying for status, pushing each into ever more extreme versions of themselves.

But he says America isn’t dying. We have no choice but living together. And a “way forward that tries to make us Equal Americans, all with the same rights and opportunities — the only basis for shared citizenship and self-government — is a road that connects our past and our future.”

Those words sound like platitudinous moonshine. And his concluding ones contradict them: “we remain trapped in two countries . . . the tensions within each country will persist even as the cold civil war between them rages on.”

That’s closer to reality. The “crisis” of Packer’s book title is clear enough; the “renewal” part much less so.

* https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/07/george-packer-four-americas/619012/. All quotes are from the essay. (I thank Robyn Blumner of the Center for Inquiry for pointing me to it.)

What does “systemic racism” mean?

June 15, 2021

Black Republican Senator Tim Scott said America is not a racist country. I used to agree, seeing our few remaining racists as backward people who didn’t count for much. If anything, anti-racist affirmative action now held sway. And then we elected a nonwhite president.

However, that actually intensified racial antagonism, by newly threatening the caste dominance some whites saw as their birthright. And the next president played those racial anxieties like a fiddle. Now Republicans harp on academic “critical race theory” as a bugbear somehow threatening whites; and even “replacement theory,” a supposed conspiracy to swap them out for nonwhites.

Yet most Americans are not actually racist. It’s still only a small minority, and they’re still not our society’s movers and shakers. They’re losers. That itself partly accounts for their attitudes.

So why all the talk of “systemic racism?” Can you have systemic racism without (many) racists?

The answer is yes. “Systemic racism” does not mean whites are systematically racist. Instead it refers to societal structures that incorporate the lasting effects of ancient discrimination.

Our local Times-Union recently reported on past “redlining” in Albany. A 1938 Map with literal red lines around areas warned banks that mortgage loans there would be risky. Not necessarily targeting Black neighborhoods as such — rather, economically problematic ones. In fact, that map’s redlined zones were populated mostly by poor white immigrants. Only later did Blacks move in; mainly because of affordability, while being unwelcome in most white neighborhoods. And redlining did deny mortgages to Blacks. Such maps have been gone for decades, but their effects on where people live persist.

Then take education. For a long time “separate but equal” really meant separate and very unequal, by design. The Supreme Court outlawed that in 1954, yet separate and unequal is still widely the reality. The separateness is partly due to factors explained above. That’s hard to undo. The inequality manifests in rotten schools compared to white neighborhoods.

That should be more fixable. Yet the system is very resistant to such reform. So instead of ameliorating the disadvantage with which many minority kids start life, the education system actually worsens it, perpetuating the impact of past bias.

All this exemplifies what is meant by “systemic racism.” It doesn’t require anyone today actually being racist. It’s in the system.

Then there’s policing and criminal justice. Some say Blacks on average just get in trouble more. That has to be acknowledged. But (contrary to racist stereotypes) trouble is not in their biological DNA. Instead it comes with their social and cultural territory — not dictated by DNA either. It’s left behind when Blacks live in better neighborhoods. But for those who don’t, their environment is another lasting reverberation of a past landscape full of disadvantage.

And they get treated even worse by police and the criminal justice system than the foregoing might predict. Can’t say there’s no outright racism at play, but it’s more a matter of unconscious assumptions about people. Without being consciously racist, many have negative gut reactions toward Black faces, culturally implanted in ways often too subtle even to pinpoint. But when tested for it in the lab, even many Blacks themselves show it.

It’s very hard to overcome. I don’t consider myself some enlightened higher being, but nowadays, in most contexts, encountering Blackness gives me a positive rather than a negative vibe. Partly this is a reaction against their nemeses on the racist right. And I admire most Blacks for being good people despite all they’ve endured. Yet occasionally an opposite unconscious response is detectable.

I keep coming back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of one’s conscious mind as a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. We think the rider is steering, but it’s really the elephant in charge. Our challenge is to get control of that beast.

Republicans’ deranged war on Fauci

June 8, 2021

Just when you thought Republicans could not get more insane . . . .

Now they’re rabidly focused on demonizing, of all people, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of America’s disease control agency since 1984. They hate Fauci for being the pandemic’s antithesis to Trump.

How crazy is it to intentionally spotlight the difference between the two? Trump fumbled for two crucial months while the virus spread; admitted downplaying the danger; his briefings were orgies of self-praise, misinformation, and divisive insults; pushing conspiracy theories, quack cures, and injecting bleach; encouraging resistance against his own shut-down guidelines, masking, and social distancing. All this utter idiocy surely caused most of our 600,000 deaths. While Trump disparaged and tried to sideline scientists like Fauci — a contrasting voice of reason and responsibility.

So what’s their beef against Fauci now? A trove of emails from early in the pandemic they say show he misled the public about its origins, to protect the Chinese government. Of course that’s a ridiculous lie. Of course. Republicans no longer even remember how not to lie.

Scientists, in the pandemic’s early days, scrambled to get information, so naturally their messages evolved as knowledge increased. To concoct from that a case that Fauci lied is itself despicably dishonest.

Central here is the “lab leak” theory for Covid’s origin. Originally dismissed because the virus fit a familiar well-understood pattern of jumping from animals to humans. The “lab leak” theory is lately getting a second look, even while the scientific consensus still deems it highly improbable.

Republicans now accuse Fauci of deliberately downplaying it. Why would he? A Chinese shill? But anyhow the emails actually show the exact opposite of what Republicans claim. In fact, as scientists go, Fauci was unusually open-minded toward the “lab leak” idea, refusing to join others in dismissing it.

Yet undaunted by truth and reality, Republican “stars” like Rand Paul, Josh Hawley, Steve Scalise and Elise Stefanik are thundering for a full-blown investigation of Fauci and his emails. (While opposing a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 violence against the very institution they (supposedly) serve in.)

They seem desperate to find some way to undermine the Biden administration’s credibility and support. The broad American public is comparing Biden’s honesty, decency, competence and leadership against his predecessor’s total shit-storm. Guess which they prefer? No matter how often Republicans screech the word “Socialist!” Yet instead of trying to run away from their shit-storm, they somehow imagine winning the next election by mythologizing it.

Note: this piece practically wrote itself. So clear is the reality. Long accustomed to genuine political debates about genuine issues, I can’t help despairing that so many Americans fail to see what are so obviously lies and nonsense from what are so obviously bad people. Fauci versus Trump on Covid? Are you fucking kidding me?

The Republican party is insane. Supporting (almost) any Republican is insane. Returning them to power would be insane.

Manifesto for a new political party

June 4, 2021

We have a two-party system. Except that one is no longer a responsible legitimate party. After 53 years as a Republican, I became a Democrat as the only sane option. But I still hanker for a good second party, and I’ve thought about what it might stand for. I have no illusions that it could spring forth in today’s America. But, as an exercise in political imagination, here is the platform:

1. Truth and honesty. This even being on the list — let alone as #1 — is a sad commentary on today’s Republicans. Inhabiting an alternate reality of lies. Many Republicans know it. Bad faith pervades the party.

2. Civic virtues — democracy, decency, civility, tolerance, fairness, compassion. Sad too that this requires stating. We’d thought our democracy was secure. Now we know it needs defending. This includes the right to vote itself.

3. Science acceptance — this goes with #1. Science is not just another viewpoint, it’s how we know things. Republican rejection of science — on evolution, climate change, covid, you name it — makes it a party of fools.

4. Racial comity. Our history of slavery still afflicts us, its legacy a factor in Black Americans, on average, living less well than whites. Most fundamentally, many still feel they’re not accepted or treated as fully equal. Simply put, we must ensure such treatment. This certainly means no tolerance for racist or white supremacist views. Or police abuse. It’s not “law and order” (and not “freedom”) when police — armed government enforcers — overstep their authority.

5. Freedom of speech. Democrats are too tolerant of intolerance. True, some viewpoints can be deemed beyond the pale (See #4). But most such issues concern what should be matters of legitimate debate. We must end the McCarthyism of punishing people for their opinions. Republicans do it too, persecuting apostates from Trump worship.

6. Free market capitalism. It’s not some system thought up by ideologues, it’s how people interact economically absent interference. And businesses trying to make a buck by selling stuff gives us the goods and services underpinning our advanced living standard. Of course there must be laws and regulations to prevent abuse (we have laws against jaywalking) and there are some functions the market cannot fulfill. Otherwise, consumers and society reap the bulk of the wealth created, when markets are competitive. Anti-competitive government actions and regulatory capture are key problems.

Many Democrats romanticize government running everything. Such a concentration of power would be the antithesis of democracy.

7. A caring society. America is a very rich country. We can amply ensure every citizen has at least minimally decent health care, shelter, nutrition, etc. Don’t call it socialism or “social justice,” it’s simply recognition of our common humanity.

8. Equal education opportunity. Its lack is central to inequality. People born in disadvantaged circumstances are put further behind by rotten schools, that tend to go with the territory. Democrats have a poor record here. School choice would help. By failing to invest in all our children, we make adults who are burdens rather than productive citizens.

9. Global human rights. Remember George W. Bush’s second inaugural, casting America as the global promoter of democracy and human rights — widely mocked by cynics? But being seen as standing for what’s right, and for humanity’s highest aspirations, is key to America’s own global standing. And a more democratic and thus more peaceful and prosperous world benefits America.

10. Free trade. Both parties have lost their way, succumbing to narrow interests at cost to our national interest. Free trade does hurt some people, but makes us collectively richer. If other countries harm themselves with protectionism, we shouldn’t respond by doing likewise. It’s not a zero-sum world; freer trade globally makes all countries richer — again good for America.

11. Global engagement. In both the above respects, “America First” should not mean America alone, retreating behind walls. Since 1945, we led the way building a rules-based world order aided by a network of alliances with nations sharing our values and aspirations for human betterment. We have benefited hugely, yet again making a world in which America itself can best flourish.

12. Church-state separation. One of America’s greatest blessings. Freedom of religion shouldn’t mean government favoritism toward religion — a source of woe throughout history. Church-state separation has benefited religions, it’s a key reason why they remain so strong in America compared to Europe. Those trying to tear it down play with fire.

13. Gun control. All rights are subject to reasonable regulation to protect the public, and that includes gun rights.* America’s unique proliferation of guns is a major contributor to violent crime. We must act to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and ban military style assault weapons.

14. End the “War on Drugs.” Drug use should be a medical matter, not a criminal one. The drug war itself harms society vastly more than drug use ever could. While achieving almost nothing. (Psst Republicans: this is another “freedom” issue.)

15. A welcoming country. America, uniquely among nations, is blessed by the diversity of enterprising people who chose to live here. They enrich us, culturally, economically, and spiritually. As Ronald Reagan said, America is a shining city upon a hill — whose wall has a great big door.

This platform distills a lifetime of thinking and political engagement. Is it so radical? Radically reasonable and rational perhaps. Yet can we imagine an American political party with such a program — and winning elections?

*The Supreme Court seems headed for an insane contrary ruling.

Transgender wars: revisited

May 27, 2021

My 4/29 essay, “Transgender Wars”* basically said transgendering is right and good for many people, while caution is needed when pre-teen and teen kids suddenly decide they’re trans. I criticized trans activists who brook no discussion of that; and criticized the American Humanist Association’s revoking an award to Richard Dawkins for writing that trans and non-trans people differ. Dawkins retweeted my piece. A firestorm of comments venomously attacked my essay, and Dawkins for retweeting it.

I was assailed for calling out extremist trans activists as, well, extremist. The ferocity of many comments proved it. Demonizing anyone not in lockstep with every detail of their catechism, to cast themselves as more enlightened and morally superior. Intolerant “woke” cancel culture in all its censorious Savonarolan glory.

Start with my first sentence: “Changing gender wasn’t even a thing until the 20th Century.” Many commenters deemed this factually false, discrediting all that followed. When obviously the reference was to medical procedures, not gender fluidity. Only by ridiculously assuming it meant the latter could the line be faulted. Showing these commenters are just spoiling for a fight, keen to manufacture heresies to condemn.

Many savaged my effort to explain what’s going on with transgender people. Often fiercely nitpicking the words I used — which aimed for understandability by average readers. Such semantic onslaughts too are unfortunately characteristic of “woke” intolerance. With a canonical vocabulary, those failing to ape it placing themselves beyond the pale. Like insistence on “cis-” language, arch and baffling to ordinary folks. (See my essay about “people of color” versus “colored people.” Someone who almost uttered the latter excoriated by, among others, the National Association for the Advancement of — um — Colored People.**)

I was trying to enlighten those who think wanting to change sex is merely some kind of perverted whim. Males and females differ genetically and anatomically. I said male and female brains differ too, and that “gender dysphoria” entails a mismatch between brain and body. Perhaps an oversimplification — yet a useful conceptualization. Thus I said gender dysphoria is biological, not just psychological, so cannot be resolved by talk therapy.

Trans advocate commenters pounced, vehemently rejecting this. Denying brains differ vis-a-vis sexuality, and the idea of a mismatch. Indeed disagreeing that this is a matter of biology and not just psychology. Again it seems they just want to have a fight. But how does their stance here (nonsensical to me) serve their cause? If they’re right and I’m wrong, and it’s not biological, then those who are hostile to the whole transgender thing might have a point after all. That it’s all just some weird whim of transgender people.

I’m basically libertarian, holding that everyone should be free to live as they please (barring harm to others). If a man wants to live as a woman, fine by me. But not everyone is so broadminded. It needs explaining that there’s more to it than transgender people making some off-the-wall personal choice. That’s what I tried to do. Earning attacks from transgender zealots, arguing it is all about choice. Go figure.

My chief crime was, despite strongly supporting the reality of most trans people, criticizing the insistence that anyone declaring themselves trans must be supported in physical transitioning. My point was again confirmed by commenters’ expressed absolutism. Refusing to acknowledge there’s any sort of problem involving kids suddenly coming out as trans, who may be mixed up (often simply gay, it turns out). A cautious go-slow approach by adults is not tolerated. With denial that medical interventions in such cases are frequently irreversible and can entail serious health and psychological harm. One size does not fit all.

Dawkins’s “offense” was, again, pointing to the undeniable fact that trans- and non-trans-women (or men) differ. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated the same (for most purposes). But trans extremists act as though the latter proposition somehow demands denial of the former. As if we don’t treat men and women the same (for most purposes) even while recognizing the differences. Insistence on an obviously false absolutism of non-difference makes for an ideology flouting reason. Not a good way to persuade anyone.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2021/04/29/transgender-wars-2/

** https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2020/01/11/people-of-color-versus-colored-people-call-in-the-language-police/

The power imbalance between good and evil

May 21, 2021

I literally wrote the book on optimism. Seeing people, and the world, improving over time. But that seems to have gone into reverse.

The power of good is considerable. Most people are better served when good prevails over evil, so work to achieve it. But the power of evil is stronger.

How so? Good is inherently self-limiting, ultimately bound by the golden rule, an iron law for people who do truly strive for goodness. The wicked are not so bound. The good have scruples and restrain themselves; the wicked do not, that’s their wickedness.

Thus the power imbalance between good and evil, recalling Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis. Humans, in mass, have indeed grown better, but it’s an ironic consequence that this means more moral restraint, and hence more vulnerability to the depredations of those without restraint.

We see this playing out all over. Some capable of anything to gain their aims, while resistance is handicapped by inhibitions on fighting fire with fire. Erdogan, Putin, Xi, Maduro, Lukashenko, Orban, Ortega, Assad. India’s Modi headed that way. El Salvador’s Bukele newly in the club. Trump tried. Myanmar’s generals willing to slaughter as many as necessary to keep power.

Willingness to kill is the top rung of the ladder that starts with flouting democratic norms, rule of law, and people’s rights. Killing is the ultimate denial of rights.

If any country ever embodied the principles of rule of law, democracy, and human rights, it was America. Don’t start in about our crimes. We’re not perfect — nothing human ever is — but we strove toward living up to those ideals, and progressed.

Until 2016. Then the power imbalance between good and evil hit. A president without restraints, compunctions, or scruples. Good did manage to prevail, but only just barely, and without finality.

America’s crisis has deep antecedents and is continuing. It was brutally exposed when Republicans blocked the Garland Supreme Court nomination, because they could. A classic instance of lack of restraint, defying democratic norms to get their way.

Behind it all lay the Obama-inspired crisis of white identity. Fears of losing demographic dominance were suddenly brought to a boil by a non-white president. Rather than Obama signaling a post-racial America, now many whites felt besieged, and that they had to make a stand. This is the elephant in the room of American political culture.

Successfully blowing through rule of law, democratic norms, and others’ rights requires the support of a critical mass of people willing to junk those principles for the sake of something that feels (to them) bigger. Such ideals once loomed large in the American imagination. But now, for many, they’re trumped by white tribalism. It’s a more primordial impulse. Democracy and rule of law are not instinctual ideas. If it’s a choice between them and white dominance, many pick the latter. They’re a minority, but a big enough one that they don’t need many additional dupes to win. Especially if unhampered by scruples.

Few of them consciously confront the reality. But white revanchism über alles is what today’s Republican party really represents. Making it an existential threat to American democracy. As seen in cultish devotion to a malign monster; propagating his big “stolen election” lie; excusing the January 6 insurrection; voting in Congress to overturn the election; and working everywhere to make voting harder. Far from being chastened by defeat, they’ve since actually gotten worse, more willing to shred democratic principles. All in service to their larger (albeit rancid and usually unspoken) tribalist cause. They’ve passed the ladder’s first rung. And their very lack of restraint confers a power advantage.

Trump finally lost because he was an incompetent fool. We may not be so lucky next time.

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