Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The voting rights fight: Is humanity ready for democracy?

July 19, 2021

I believe in democracy. That might sound platitudinous, but it’s actually a carefully developed philosophical stance, grounded in a utilitarian concept of the greatest good for the greatest number.

America led the way in 1776, with our democratic manifesto. Eventually the idea caught on in many other countries, and for good reason. As Francis Fukuyama explained, it serves a fundamental thirst for recognition of one’s human dignity (which he gave the Greek word thymos).

But America’s own democracy is now in trouble. Almost half our citizens in a movement in effect seeing democracy as an impediment to goals they value more. (Mainly preservation of white Christian cultural domination.)

Thus the battle over voting rights. Republican rhetoric about ballot integrity is simply dishonest. We have no ballot integrity problem. It’s a smokescreen for their real aim, to win by any means necessary. They don’t expect to win fair elections. The larger the vote, the lower their chances, so they want to prevent as many citizens as possible from voting. Especially targeting minorities who overwhelmingly vote against them.

Such voter suppression is nasty enough. But even scarier is the push, in many states, to shift authority over vote counting to Republican-controlled political bodies.

We’ve seen this movie too many times across the world. This is how dictatorships hold onto power. It doesn’t actually matter how people vote, if you control the count. You just make up the results.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad was almost certainly trounced for re-election in 2009, but the regime simply said otherwise, then brutally crushed widespread protests. In Congo’s 2018 presidential election, Fayulu apparently got three times more votes than Tshisekedi, yet Tshisekedi was declared the winner. And in Belarus, reviled dictator Lukashenko surely lost to his challenger, but here again announced the opposite result, and unleashed ultra-violence when the citizenry erupted in protest.*

Can it happen here? January 6 was an effort to overturn the 2020 election result. That violent attempt failed, but now Republicans are laying the groundwork for doing it under color of law. What if Trump loses Georgia in 2024 but the vote counting authority, set up by the Republican-controlled state legislature and staffed with its operatives, simply announces different numbers? If you doubt they could be that dishonest — where have you been for five years?

Yet almost half the country supports this gang. Fervently. That’s the scariest thing of all.

I was thrilled visiting Russia in the ’90s. A democratic Russia! The triumph of my ideals. It seemed democracy was busting out all over. Since then, it’s gone the other way. Autocrats learned to adapt to today’s world — with a lot of help from foolish voters. While finagling elections does help too, unfortunately many people are suckers for political snake oil.

Take Italy. Its electorate is divided among a bunch of parties — one more crackpot than another. Old-fashioned sober serious parties can no longer compete.

India used to be heralded as the world’s biggest democracy. Now Narendra Modi is consolidating the classic authoritarian model, giving democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Press freedom is almost entirely extinguished. A new “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act” empowers the regime to jail anyone it doesn’t like, no specific charges even needed. The law is being utilized with gusto. A recent victim was an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and human rights advocate, Stan Swamy, with no criminal record. Denied bail, and medical care, he died in his cell.

Worse yet, this Hindu nationalist regime seems bent on making non-citizens of India’s hundred million Muslims. An insane folly if there ever was one.

India’s voters might have stepped back from the brink in the last national election. Instead they gave Modi a stonking majority.

So this is the problem of democracy: voters. I still believe a nation is better off with democracy than dictatorship. I do not believe in Plato’s idea of a philosopher king knowing best. But I increasingly worry whether enough people have the mature wisdom to vote sensibly.

Religion is part of the problem, scrambling minds into pathways of irrationalism. India is again a prime exemplar: Hindus actually thinking it’s a good idea to enflame intercommunal conflict. Such irrationalism also characterizes America’s quasi-religious Trump cult. As long as religion continues to mess up so many minds, I question whether humanity is ready for democracy.

* It’s a tribute to the power of the democratic idea that even dictators feel they need to have elections — even if phony ones.

Covid-19: Now the Republican Disease

July 15, 2021

The ultimate political wet dream: a deadly disease that, somehow, selectively targets the other party.

U.S. Covid cases and deaths are climbing back up. Spurred by the especially nasty Delta variant. Deaths are 99.5% unvaccinated people. And most unvaccinated people are Republicans.

They’ve needlessly brought this holocaust upon themselves, by politicizing Covid, and vaccines in particular, bathing in a sea of lies, and making vaccine refusal a “freedom” issue. As in freedom to jeopardize not only your own life but your family’s and neighbor’s. (All of ours, actually; failure to end the pandemic allows further variants to emerge, potentially one that defeats the current vaccines.)

Vaccination’s alleged risks are simply lies promoted for various bad motives. Fox News creeps like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are especially culpable. But even if most of the claimed vaccination risks were real, your risk of illness and death from Covid is still vastly greater. The anti-vaxxers can’t do math.

Not only are unvaccinated people now the ones really in danger from Covid, but the risk rises steeply with age too — and Republicans, on average, tend to be older. Furthermore, especially if you’re not vaccinated, mask wearing offers much protection. And who refuses masking? Republicans again.

So Republicanism is becoming a major health risk. Will insurers start asking for party affiliation — and charging Republicans more?

Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a top official of Tennessee’s Health Department, has been fired for promoting vaccination for young people. In today’s political climate, that’s a firing offense. Similar stories proliferate in other states.

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, America’s failure to meet vaccination targets was greeted with raucous applause. These people — who call themselves “pro-life” — were cheering the march of death. “Macabre,” said columnist Michael Gerson, wondering how we got “to such a strange, desperate place.”

Remember Trump actually claiming huge credit for the “warp speed” vaccine development? That was then; now he’s silent. If Trump runs in 2024, you might think he’d want his fans vaccinated so they can live to vote for him. He could put out a video urging that. Why doesn’t he? Because he himself is trapped in the deranged alternate universe that is Trumpism.

Vaccination refusal is the apotheosis of the Republican flight from reason, decency, reality, and sanity. They’ve made war on truth; on voting rights; on immigrants; on the press; and much else. Now their war on vaccination is actually a war upon themselves.

Maybe cosmic justice.

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.

* All quotes are from the essay. (I thank Robyn Blumner of the Center for Inquiry for pointing me to it.)

Let’s talk about climate change (no, really!)

June 23, 2021

My Humanist Group hosted a (pre-pandemic!) presentation by Tim Guinee, promoting the hoax of human-caused global warming. Just kidding; actually, it was a really excellent explanation of the reality, so I’ll recap it. Then offer a few points in response.

Our atmosphere is actually just a very thin sheath around the planet. It traps solar radiation, warming the Earth, and making life possible. But there can be too much of a good thing. Case in point: Venus, warmed to a toasty 867 degrees Fahrenheit. Carbon Dioxide in our own atmosphere increases its heat trapping effect. Today, mainly through fossil fuel burning (and despite the Paris agreement), we continue to increase atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, topping the previous high 3 million years ago — with sea levels 30 meters higher than now.

So 2019 was the 43rd consecutive year with global temperatures above the average. (New York’s rise exceeds our national average.) Guinee showed charts with the temperature bell curve moving toward the right; while the overall shift may seem small, it results in far more episodes at the extreme end. Thus heat waves have killed tens of thousands.

Most excess heat gets sopped up by the oceans. This has caused wobbles in the jet stream current, trapping weather systems like hurricanes and thus intensifying them. Also, warmer air above the seas increases water vapor, making for bigger downpours, now being called “rain bombs.” The Northeast has seen a 71% rise in extreme rainfall events since 1958. Builders of Kentucky’s full-size Noah’s Ark replica sued their insurers because it was damaged by rain!

The added heat also pulls moisture from land, causing droughts, and forest fires. Recent Australian fires are reckoned to have killed a billion critters — not counting insects, frogs, or fish. We’re also losing tree cover, which feeds back to more warming. While more warmth means more disease-carrying insects, like ticks, and additional air pollution, also adding to human death tolls.

And of course melting Greenland and Antarctic ice raises sea levels, endangering coastal habitations.

Guinee noted that the world’s poorest (who benefit least from fossil fuel burning) suffer the most from climate change.

But his message was hopeful. He noted that deployment of solar and wind power and electric cars has vastly exceeded projections from not long ago. These technologies are improving while costs are falling; this can make adoption of new paradigms quite rapid (look at cellphones). While some worry about economic costs of combating climate change, Guinee pointed out that since 2006 Minneapolis reduced emissions by 20% while its economy grew 30%. And in 1860, America’s biggest capital investment was in slaves; yet we successfully transitioned beyond that.

But people understanding the problem doesn’t mean they’ll act accordingly. Indeed, token actions can induce complacency. And we need big national and international efforts. But small actions can inspire greater ones and create new social norms. Guinee concluded that what we really need is a “mature leap of faith.”

All this overlooks the fact that if God didn’t want temperatures to rise, they wouldn’t.

But back to reality. Climate activists focus almost entirely on curbing carbon emissions. There’s a missionary zeal to this, demonizing humanity as guilty of raping the planet, and prescribing as penitence a hair shirt of dialing back economic activity. However, asking people to accept reduced lifestyles is totally unrealistic. And anyhow, global warming is already baked in, and temperatures will still rise even if we cut carbon emissions to zero. Thus we must give much more attention to investments aimed at preparing for adaptation to higher temperatures. And also more intensively research options for geo-engineering, that is, pro-active measures to reduce global temperatures (like mimicking the effects of volcanic eruptions, which do that). But climate activists resist such efforts as antithetical to their insistence on carbon reduction.

They also tend to resist expansion of nuclear power, which any rational carbon-reduction strategy must prominently include. In terms of climate, nuclear is actually the cleanest possible energy source. I just read a big article in The Economist about renewable power sources, highlighting all the obstacles to their deployment to the extent needed. Astoundingly (to me), the word “nuclear” nowhere occurred in the article.

Further, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to climate warriors, carbon is far from the whole picture. About a quarter of global warming is caused by methane — which, ton for ton, over 20 years from emission, causes 86 times more warming than carbon dioxide. And the good news is that methane could be reduced without incurring the economic damage associated with carbon dioxide. A major methane culprit is the process of extracting and transporting natural gas; with the mundane problem of leaky pipes playing a big role. Reducing these losses could pay for itself because methane, unlike carbon dioxide, is a valuable commodity. Farm animals are another key source of atmospheric methane; that could be meliorated by tweaking their diets.

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.

Kurt Vonnegut’s last and worst novel

June 11, 2021

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was one of my favorite writers. One short story really resonated: Harrison Bergeron, who lives in a society so egalitarian that talented people are assigned (by the nation’s Handicapper-General) literal handicaps to hold them back. Harrison’s is being chained to a mass of heavy junk. Naturally he rebels. Vonnegut was a left-winger, but this parable should be required reading for today’s social justice warriors.

At a yard sale I found Vonnegut’s Timequake. I’d thought I’d read all his novels, but this seemed unfamiliar. Actually written in 1997, subsequent to my Vonnegut phase; his final novel. He should have quit while he was ahead.

Like I did, leaving my professional career at 49. Knowing myself as a loose cannon, I figured something would eventually blow up on me if I continued. I’d already had some close calls. So I bowed out.

Vonnegut actually addresses this himself, introducing Timequake as his last novel. Noting that he’d long been working on one “which did not work, which had no point, which had never wanted to be written in the first place.” Its premise was that in February 2001, Time was reset back to 1991, and everyone had to relive the decade exactly as before. Without free will to do anything differently. (Unlike in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, which Vonnegut doesn’t mention.)

Vonnegut refers to that aborted opus as Timequake One, and the actually published work as Timequake Two, calling the latter a stew made from the best parts salvaged from the former. If these are the best parts, it’s good we’re spared the rest.

He describes at some length the chaos ensuing when the “timequake” ends, and free will “kicks back in,” with people now unused to it. Many transport disasters because they didn’t realize they’d have to actively steer, rather than being on the automatic pilot of repeating the past. Amusing perhaps — but actually illogical. Had the prior decade indeed been a perfect repeat, that would have included people making decisions, like steering, which they’d do again. So nothing would have changed. This might raise the eternal philosophical issue of whether free will ever really obtains, with human actions always having causes outside conscious control. But never mind that.

Meantime I wouldn’t call this a novel at all. The timequake stuff is only part of it. Mostly it’s a pastiche of personal self-indulgences, brief riffs that Vonnegut may have imagined being clever and insightful — actually an insipid mishmash of dyspeptic cynical pessimism. The overall message: “Life is a crock of shit.” That’s a quote. All together, the book amounts to nothing much, not only tendentious but tedious. Painful to read for its being a sad coda to what had been a brilliant oeuvre. (Only fairness made me finish reading it, since I’d decided to write about it.)

Just one line in the book almost made me laugh: reference to “a birth control pill that takes all the pleasure out of sex, so teenagers won’t copulate.” My amusement lasted the quarter second it took to wonder who would take such a pill. But pondering, I realized some people actually would: those whose attitudes about sex are messed up by religion.

Vonnegut didn’t pursue that thought, but it’s a segue to noting my two degrees of separation: he does mention his honorary presidency of the American Humanist Association and its being headquartered in Amherst, New York. Where there’s also the connected Center for Inquiry, whose Secular Rescue program (an “underground railroad” for persecuted religious dissenters in mostly Muslim countries) I’ve been funding.

Vonnegut’s humanism, though, is less than full-throated. “Humanists,” he says, “by and large educated, comfortably middle class persons with rewarding lives like [his], find rapture enough in secular knowledge and hope. Most people can’t.”

There again is Vonnegut’s cynical pessimism. And it’s insufferably elitist to think humanism is good for elevated people like him but not the benighted masses. In fact, religious faith has collapsed among most European proletarians. And the evil consequences that preachers eternally warned against are conspicuous for their absence. Non-believing Europeans are fine, well-adjusted, basically happy people, with lesser levels of the “immoral” social pathologies that have actually been more prevalent in more religious societies throughout history. That’s because religion actually does mess up one’s head, with false ideas, in relating to the world. Humanists find that an outlook grounded in reality provides a better path to live well, meaningfully, and morally.

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.

Crimes and brains

May 31, 2021

In Maryland, not long ago, a boy of 13 was riding in a car involved in a gang-related shooting. The state is one of many with the “felony murder” doctrine — any role in a felony that results in death can entail a murder charge. Maryland also authorizes judges to send children that young to adult court. The boy got 40 years in prison.

Harsh? Actually, a sentence of life-without-parole has not been uncommon in America even for juveniles under 18 — until in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that out, except in rare cases. But such youngsters are still often treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

Neuroscience has found that the human brain doesn’t develop to maturity until well into one’s twenties. Particularly laggard is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making. We’ve always known teenagers can be irresponsible, and this brain research explains it. They just don’t yet have the mental equipment — we’re not talking about simple stupidity here — to regulate their behavior in a mature adult way. Thus their greater proclivity to act in ways that break the law.

They normally grow out of it, and don’t become hardened criminals. Unless they’re put in prison for years alongside older people who are hardened criminals.

While the mentioned brain maturation is normal, another large segment of our prison population consists of people not psychologically normal, but instead mentally ill. A very different thing. The “insanity defense” in criminal trials is actually very restrictive, rarely invoked. Most people who commit crimes because they’re mentally unbalanced wind up in prison.

That’s no surprise. But I recently learned another aspect of this that I hadn’t realized. Another big part of the prison picture is brain injury. Not psychological, but physical, resulting from a knock on the head. Here again the prefrontal cortex (behind your forehead) is prominent. Damage there can also impair judgment. People who act out violently due to brain injury constitute a major segment of our prison population.

Who are the most likely sufferers? Those living where street violence is common, and where their own parents are more apt to knock them around. Receiving hits on the head damaging the brain — causing behavior that leads to prison.

And of course a great many people are incarcerated in the “war on drugs.” I’ve written before how crazy this is. You might defend it if it actually curbed drug use, but of course it does not, while the drug war itself rampages a path of destruction throughout society, destroying lives not only in prison but in a penumbra of other human impacts. Drug use should be a public health matter, not a criminal justice one. (We are, very slowly, at last moving in that direction.)

I am not a bleeding heart, blaming “society” for crime, nor believing a lack of free will relieves us of responsibility for our actions. Misdeeds merit punishment. But, in all the ways I’ve explained, we go way overboard on that. Thus America has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country on Earth. This wasn’t always true. Our incarceration rate has exploded over the last few decades.Surely not due to way more crime. It’s because our criminal justice system is way out of whack.

Too often failing to give people help instead of prison terms that wantonly destroy lives. Like when a 13 year old is sentenced to 40 years. We should instead treat with human compassion people who are drug addicts, who commit crimes because their brains aren’t fully developed, or were damaged by injury or illness. We as a society have no such excuses for the crime of how we treat them instead.

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.



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.