Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

“Sold on a Monday,” by Kristina McMorris

January 18, 2020

The wooden sign reads “2 Children for Sale,” in 1931 rural Pennsylvania. This propels the novel, Sold on a Monday.

Ellis Reed is a struggling junior Philadelphia newspaper reporter with a photography hobby, who snaps a photo of the sign accompanied by two small kids. This leads to a feature article getting wide attention, advancing Reed’s career. And to two children actually being sold.

Their cash-strapped mother thought she was dying. Turns out she was misdiagnosed. Reed goes on a labyrinthine mission to reunite the family, helped by press room secretary Lily — of course they fall in love.

The tale was inspired by an actual newspaper story, from 1948 Ohio, centered on a photo of a mother and four children with a sign offering their sale. Author McMorris’s afterword notes that that sign was suspiciously well lettered. Yet those kids did get sold. Moving the story to the Depression era enhances verisimilitude. However, the book doesn’t really convey a Depression ambience; doesn’t actually show us the deprivation. Go read instead Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, giving a much grittier picture.

In McMorris’s novel, Reed’s original photo had gotten accidentally spoiled, so he went back for a re-do. But the family was gone. He did manage to find the sign lying in the dirt — and a different pair of kids to photograph with it. But after his article goes “viral,” Reed is haunted by the photo’s journalistic dishonesty — as well as its upshot of those kids’ fate.

I would not have been much troubled by different children illustrating the article, if its substance was true. However, about that crucial text we’re actually told nothing. With Reed having interviewed no one, what exactly did he write? Generalized social commentary would have been fine. But if he made up particulars about a family, then we’re in Janet Cooke – Jayson Blair territory. Seriously unethical. This is left strangely unspecified.

As for the book’s writing, I had a hard time putting my finger on what irked me. It wasn’t bad writing. Even fitting, perhaps, for a ’30s flavor. Indeed, it felt like the text for a movie of the time, not a noirish one, but more like Miracle on 34th Street, exuding a kind of forthright innocence.

With characters not unreal, exactly, yet behaving in such a formulaic way that I couldn’t quite take the story seriously. The nastiness of some characters was almost made to feel endearing. Even the tense conflict between Reed and his father seemed formulaic.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve been spoiled by more searing modern literary realism. For all the iniquity it actually depicts, this novel seemed like a throwback to a more innocent time.

“People of color” versus “colored people” — call in the language police

January 11, 2020

A recent local newspaper story* reports a Schenectady council meeting, where one member touted the election of a nonwhite council president, rejoicing in the body’s diversity, including two “colored — people of color.” He almost said “colored people” before catching himself.

The article reports “an audible gasp,” an “incredulous-looking councilwoman,” another saying she was “offended” (adding “at least try to be politically correct”), another observer saying she was “stunned,” an African-American man who “walked out of the room in apparent disgust,” and the local NAACP head saying he was caught off-guard and the issue will be taken up at the group’s next meeting.

The relevant linguistic background is fraught.** “Colored people” once was a term they themselves preferred, as the polite one. Eventually it acquired a demeaning odor and was supplanted by “Negro.” That word echoes a past paradigm classifying people into three races — “negroid,” “caucasoid,” and “mongoloid.” (It’s not really that simple, nor even is the concept of “race” scientifically coherent.)

And using “Negro” was not new, but repurposed an old word, which originated as the Spanish for “black,” and had actually referred to slaves. The N-word was a more degrading version. Some southerners would later snarkily pronounce “Negro” as “Nigra,” to be just this side of politeness while conveying what was really meant.

Then “Negro” was discarded and “black” became the chosen word. Even though it too had designated slaves. At least “black” is English, rather than Spanish. Though brown might be more apt — as well as unfreighted with historical baggage.

Next it was “African-American.” A bit of a mouthful, but possessing a certain verity, since most people so described do have African ancestry, albeit usually far in the past.

And so we come to “people of color.” I generally believe in calling people what they want to be called. But I’m frankly baffled by this latest rehabilitation of old words once considered derogatory. “People of color” does perhaps entail a nuance of putting “people” first; and whereas “colored people” typically implied just African ancestry, “people of color” today encompasses all non-caucasians. Yet still the words in the two phrases are actually identical in meaning, and both arise from the same linguistic roots, using the same word as a signifier of ethnic difference. If “people of color” is now acceptable, “colored people” should be too. Maintaining a sharp distinction seems absurdist hair-splitting.

True, the two terms can have different meanings depending on who uses them and why. But political correctness tends to put that cart before the horse, with inferences drawn from the bare words alone, regardless of context. What it’s really all about is people setting themselves up as paragons of right-thinking, while wrong-footing others, as offenders against purity, consigning them to outer darkness.

This syndrome was on full display in the Schenectady council episode. A few people quoted did acknowledge that the “offender” was guilty merely of a slip of the tongue, and nothing ought be made of it. That’s just common sense and reasonableness. After all, the fellow was applauding nonwhites. But common sense and reasonableness go out the window in such cases. There are now always people eager to mount high horses, getting out their pitchforks and torches.

The absurdity here rises to dizzying heights, when it’s not even about something the man said, but what he almost said. Nevertheless, that was sufficient pretext for those who relish the deliciousness of taking offense.

A final irony: the article, again, quoted the local NAACP head. Perhaps in that future meeting he talked of, they can also discuss their own organization’s name: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

 

https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Councilman-s-remarks-rankle-some-members-of-14960079.php

**Here’s a good article discussing it: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/11/07/362273449/why-we-have-so-many-terms-for-people-of-color

Psycho-sociology, politics, and reality lenses

January 5, 2020

“Events, dear boy, events.” That was British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s famous reply, when asked what could shake up the status quo.

We’ve seen a lot of events in the last three years. Government shut-downs. Mueller investigation. Cruelties at the border. Charlottesville. Kavanaugh. Ukraine scandal. Impeachment. Yet nothing moves the political needle. Trump’s poll ratings have stayed stuck at around 40%.

This is actually very strange. If anything, historically, and throughout the world, voters have exhibited not steadfastness but fickleness. France’s President Macron was elected in 2017 with 66% of the vote (unimaginable in America), then his favorability polling plummeted to only 23%. Never mind whether that made sense — at least the French were attuned to events, and changing opinions in response thereto. In almost any country, a leader conducting himself as abominably as Trump, caught in so many lies, etc., would see his support plunge close to zero.

A recent David Brooks column tackles what’s going on. “Events,” he writes, “don’t seem to be driving politics. Increasingly, sociology is.” Who you are as a person tends to be determinative. This by itself is no revelation: a gay urban artist is likely to vote Democrat; a rural churchgoing construction worker Republican. But Brooks goes on to say an event itself is not what’s salient; “it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event.” Each seeing it through our own lens.

And, says Brooks, different segments of American society “now see reality through nonoverlapping lenses. They make meaning in radically different ways. Psychosocial categories have hardened.”

This cultural segmentation has very deep roots. Brooks writes that if a region was settled, in the 17th and 18th centuries, predominantly from East Anglia, it probably votes Democratic; if from the North of England, for Trump. He adds that the 1896 election is also a good predictor of today’s politics — 22 of 23 states voting for Democrat Bryan in 1896 are Republican now.

But if that kind of sorting is not new, it has greatly intensified in recent decades. For reasons Brooks says he doesn’t understand.

Nevertheless, in the rest of the column, Brooks contends that any political analysis must today concern itself not just with the ostensible ramifications of events themselves but with the different ways different groups see them. However, nothing he writes here suggests that those very different lenses are not equally valid. Yet therein lies much of the tale.

I wrote recently of a conversation with some Trumpers which included assertions that Adam Schiff had been outed as a pedophile; that Biden was not a candidate when Trump spoke with Zelensky; that child migrants were caged only during the Obama administration; they weren’t separated from parents, as proven by DNA tests! And so on and so forth. All right-wing fake news. Including saying mainstream media spouts fake news.

This isn’t just seeing reality through a different lens. It’s seeing reality on a different planet.

Can 40% of Americans have succumbed to mass psychosis? If Brooks is baffled by what’s happened, I’ll suggest a theory:

Our reality perception was honed by evolution to promote survival. That makes us very good at seeing reality insofar as that aids coping with all life’s hazards. You won’t mistake a red light for green. But that doesn’t apply to the realm of public affairs; that’s a freebie, where reality perception isn’t life-or-death, giving us the luxury of a different criterion: what makes us feel good.

That’s a perfectly valid human concern. One might even say it’s the very purpose of being alive. Hence feeling good, along with the survival instinct, is a powerful motivator.

Nevertheless, in normal circumstances, we don’t really see it as an option to believe something that’s false just to feel good. However — if it does somehow seem to be an option — if one can rationalize believing it — then heck, let’s go for it!

Trump and his enablers have hypercharged this. Helped by the explosion of garbage on the internet, much put there with cynical intent. They’ve made it seem a valid choice to believe things that actually are, well, lies. Indeed, they’re undermining the whole concept of truth versus lies. Truth is whatever you’d like it to be.

It helps if you’re not alone, if there’s a whole community of others with you. And a major TV network. Even  the President of the United States. 

In this environment, “events” actually don’t matter much at all. It’s not just that you see events through your own sociological lens. Social psychology dictates your politics regardless of events. 

All this plays to people wanting (naturally) to feel good about themselves. Eliminating the cognitive dissonance of trying to reconcile support for Trump with the rotten reality. Without having to give it up and admit to yourself you’ve been conned. Especially with everyone around you staying conned. Far preferable to live in an alternate universe where what you’re supporting is all good (and opponents are all bad). Where DNA tests prove no children were taken from parents.

 

What we eat: The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Part I)

January 2, 2020

Michael Pollan is a food thinker and writer. Not a restaurant reviewer; he looks at the big picture of what we eat in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants; omnivores eat both.)

The book is a smorgasbord of investigative reporting, memoir, analysis, and argument. Pollan does have a strong point of view; cynics, pessimists and misanthropes will find much fodder here. But Pollan is no fanatical purist ideologue. We saw him on a TV piece summing up with this core advice: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” Seems pretty reasonable.

He’s a lovely writer. Here’s a sample, concluding the first of the book’s three parts, talking (perhaps inevitably) about McDonald’s:

“The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. I said before that McDonald’s serves a kind of comfort food, but after a few bites I’m more inclined to think they’re selling something more schematic than that — something more like a signifier of comfort food. So you eat . . . hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger, or French fry, as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably full.”

I might disagree with his evaluation, but man, this guy can write.

That first third of the book is all corn. In fact, if “you are what you eat,” we are all corn (well, mostly). Don’t think you eat much corn? Think again. As Pollan explains, a high proportion of our food is derived from corn; even our meat, the animals being mostly corn-fed. Pollan argues that, rather than humans domesticating corn, corn domesticated us. Viewed biologically, that species exploits us to spread itself and increase its population.

Pollan sees food industry economic logic driving us toward a kind of craziness. When the government started intervening in farm produce markets, the aim was to support prices by preventing overproduction. Remember farmers paid not to grow stuff? But in the 1970s that reversed, with the system now incentivizing ever higher yields, aided by technological advances. The resulting glut, in a free market, should drive prices down, signaling producers to cut back. However, if farm prices fall below a certain floor, the feds give farmers checks to make up the difference. Thus their incentive now is to just grow as much as possible, no matter what.

But, even with that government guarantee, Pollan shows, most farmers can barely eke a living, after costs. The bulk of the profit from corn actually being swallowed by the big middleman corporations like ADM and Cargill.

Meantime it’s a challenge to market all that corn. That’s why so much goes to animal feed. The industry has also cajoled the government to require using some in gasoline (ethanol), which actually makes neither economic, operational, nor environmental sense. But it does eat up surplus corn.

Part of the marketing challenge is that while for most consumer goods you can always (theoretically at least) get people to buy more, there’s a limit to how much a person can eat. So with U.S. population growth only around 1%, it’s hard for the food industry to grow profits by more than that measly percentage. But, in Pollan’s telling, it’s been fairly successful in overcoming that obstacle. This contributes, of course, to an obesity epidemic.

The abundance and consequent (governmentally subsidized) cheapness of corn figures large here. It goes into a lot of foods like soft drinks (yes, full of corn too!) that also attract us by their sweetness. Unsurprisingly, lower income consumers in particular go for such tasty fare that’s also cheap — buying what provides the most calories per budgetary dollar.

But the main driver of obesity is simple biology. We evolved in a world of food scarcity, hence with a propensity to load up when we could, against lean times sure to come. Thus programmed to especially crave calorie-rich sweet stuff. But it being no longer scarce, indeed ubiquitous, no wonder many get fat.

Pollan extensively discusses “organic” food. Largely a victim of its own success. “Organic” is a brilliant marketing ploy, it sounds so good. And farming that conforms to the original purist vision of what “organic” should mean may be environmentally cuddlier than conventional farming (though there are tradeoffs, one being greater acreage required). However, in practice, stuff in stores labeled “organic” is not produced all that differently. A key reason is that once “organic” took off and became big business, producers had to use many of the same large-scale industrial practices of conventional farming. Small operators can’t compete. Another is that the USDA rules for “organic” labeling were lobbied hard by producers to give them more leeway. Pollan cites, for example, a rule saying cows must have “access to pasture.” Sounds nice, but if you think about it, what does it really mean? If anything? Here, and in much of the rulebook, there aren’t real rules.*

Pollan muses that salad might seem our most natural kind of eating. But it gives him cognitive dissonance when considering the complex industrial processes that actually put it on our plates. An organic salad mix takes 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. If grown conventionally, it would be just 4% more. Bottom line: by and large, “organic” is a pretty meaningless label. (Wifey take note.)

However, Pollan chronicles his stint at one actual farm that might be called beyond organic. This read to me like one of those old-time utopia novels. And that farm is actually extremely efficient. But its model doesn’t seem scalable to the industrial level needed to feed us all. Also, it’s extremely labor- and brain-intensive. Few farmers today are up for that.

The farmer profiled there opined that government regulation is the single biggest impediment to spreading his approach. It gives USDA inspectors conniptions. Pollan shows how the whole government regulatory recipe is geared to bigness. One example: a slaughtering facility must have a restroom reserved for the government inspector alone.

The book also delves deeply into the ethics of eating animals, a fraught issue. I will address that separately soon.

* Well, there are some, like no antibiotics. Today’s organic farming is a sort of kludge — Pollan likens it to trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind your back.

Happy — the movie

December 27, 2019

My humanist group recently viewed the 2012 documentary film “Happy.” The pursuit of happiness is a basic American (or human) right. But what is “happiness?” If it’s a feeling, and your pursuit ends in getting it, what then?

This suggests that a sensation at a given moment, necessarily transitory, is not the true aim. The Greeks spoke of eudaimonia, a life well lived. Not the feelings of a moment, but of one’s life in its wholeness.

The film began with an Indian rickshaw driver. Tough way to make a living. But, surrounded by smiling faces, he was smiling too, as happy as the average (far more affluent) American.

Indeed, studies show such life circumstances account for only about 10% of happiness. Fifty percent is genetic, giving each of us a baseline “set point,” to which one’s mood reverts after the impact of some stimulus, good or bad, tails off. And the remaining 40% is a function of what we do.

Dopamine is a chemical, a “neurotransmitter,” produced in the brain, which induces sensations of pleasure and happiness. There’s a “use it or lose it” aspect to dopamine. Thus a key route to feeling happy is to seek out experiences that trigger dopamine release. Physical activity does this; especially when involving novelty.

Appearing in the film was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who gave us the concept of “flow.” This is when one is completely absorbed in an activity, subsuming all quotidian concerns. Good for dopamine.

Also appearing was Daniel Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness showed how poor we are at judging how any future thing will affect our mental state. In particular we overestimate how good an achievement or acquisition will make us feel, in the long term. A related concept is the “hedonic treadmill” or “adaptation effect” (explained in Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice). We adapt to a changed life situation, now taking it for granted as the “new normal,” so its psychological lift dissipates, leaving one no happier than before. And craving the next lift. This “chain wanting” is what Buddhism declares the root of suffering.

Similarly, we over-estimate the impact of bad turns. Illustrative here was Melissa Moody, disfigured in a horrible accident. She not only adapted to her “new normal,” it actually gave her an enhanced perspective on life, and ultimately greater happiness than before.

Schwartz’s book also distinguishes between two personality types: “maximizers” who aim for achieving the best in any situation, and “satisficers” for whom the watchword is “good enough.” It turns out the latter are actually happier with what they get. And another key aspect of happiness is feeling gratitude for what you do have.

The film portrayed Japan as the least happy industrialized nation. Flattened by WWII, Japan emphasized rebuilding, making for an economic miracle of affluence rising from ashes. However, that went to an unhealthy extreme, creating a culture of all work and no play. They even have a word, “karoshi,” for death by overwork — not a metaphor but an all too common reality. Yet the film contrasted one part of Japan, Okinawa, with a very different ethos emphasizing communitarianism: people enjoying each other. And more reach age 100 there than anywhere else.

Bhutan, meanwhile, has sought to de-emphasize Gross National Product in favor of “Gross National Happiness.” That might sound like gooey happy-talk; and while it does make sense to recognize that there’s more to life than wealth production, one film attendee was disturbed at the idea of Bhutan’s government not just pushing happiness but imposing its own prescription for it. Bringing to mind her one-time home — the USSR.

What actually seems to be the happiest country is Denmark (where religion has almost disappeared). But what Denmark does have is, like Okinawa, strong communal feeling. The film showed a “co-housing community,” where a bunch of families live in close proximity, sharing meals and other aspects of life. A big element of human happiness is, again, relationships with other people.

As I keep stressing, social cooperation was a powerful driver in human evolution; we lived in bands where that was essential for group survival. Studies repeatedly show that the healthiest and happiest people are those with the strongest ties to others. Many strive for popularity, attractiveness, and status in the eyes of others. But such superficialties don’t do it for them; they tend to be less happy, and more anxiety-ridden, than those who relate to others with compassion, caring, and love. This was exemplified by the film’s last profile, a man who gave up “normal” life to devote himself to caring for afflicted people in Mother Teresa’s Kolkata sanctuary.

To say one shouldn’t be selfish ultimately misses the mark; “no man is an island” is true but also untrue in the sense that we can only experience anything within the confines of our own skulls — literal islands of experiencing. But the paradox of happiness is that confining one’s concern within that space makes for an unsatisfying life. What happens on other islands is an indispensable source of meaning for us.

Teaching kindergarten in Somaliland

December 23, 2019

When we set out for a humanist event in Syracuse, I didn’t imagine the road would take us to Somaliland.

But at the dinner, sitting beside us was one Jonathan Starr, which led to our involvement in his Somaliland education project. I’ve written about it,* and about the country.** Broken free of Somalia, it’s not internationally recognized. My wife and I traveled there with Jonathan, joined by daughter Elizabeth (resident in Amman).

Took 36 hours to get there; 42 getting home.

The capital, Hargeisa, is a dusty desert town (and I do mean dusty). In 1988, in the civil war, Hargeisa was bombed and 90% destroyed by Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre. It’s risen from the ashes, but the words “ramshackle” and “hardscrabble” come to mind. Most structures are single-storey and wretched, though there are some incongruous first-world-like pockets.

Thomas Friedman writes about “the world of order” versus one of disorder. Somaliland is mostly in the latter category, epitomized by a great trash blight. There’s no public sanitation nor any ethic against littering. We sat in on a student brainstorming session about the issue.

Typical dwelling

But Somaliland is not the heart of darkness; it’s poor, but thriving. Its people have positive attitudes. Women in particular are almost all well dressed (fully covered in this Muslim country). And there are lots of cars. Steering wheels on the right, yet they challengingly drive on the right. Many roads are paved, though often it’s hard to tell. No street signs; indeed, no street names. Terrible traffic. So, unsurprisingly, wrecked cars abound. No way to remove them. Another traffic hazard is zillions of goats wandering everywhere. I asked Jonathan how owners keep tabs on them. “Good question,” he replied.

Restaurant, with goats, we visited

There are myriads of tiny businesses, especially hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and — no surprise — numerous car parts sellers. Hargeisa is one giant bazaar. It was great to see so much enterprise. Government regulation being largely nonexistent, Somaliland might be a model of that bugaboo, “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” Except that government’s absence also means scant rule-of-law protections, so any ambitious business is vulnerable to predation, greatly inhibiting economic development. An important point often lost in arguments over “unfettered capitalism.” Nevertheless, Somaliland’s enterprise culture begs comparison against countries like Cuba or Venezuela whose socialist fetish suppresses businesses. Result: impoverishment.

Me with our team

Was it safe? It’s actually a very peaceable place, with little crime or violence. Nevertheless, as apparently required by law, all our excursions were accompanied by two soldiers carrying AK-47s.

In one respect at least, Somaliland is actually more advanced than America. Most payments are made through a user-friendly system of instant smartphone transfers.

There is no tourism and white faces are novelties. I enjoyed waving to people, especially kids, out of our vehicle window, and getting waves and smiles back. Though once, walking in the street, a passing man said, “Fuck your mother.”

Yes, English is widely spoken. Education is highly valued here, and many little enterprises are schools. Though quality may be doubtful. I saw one sign for a “secendary” school offering English language instruction!

Partial view of Kaabe construction

Which brings me to Jonathan’s schools, with contrastingly high standards. Our first stop was the Kaabe School, which we helped finance, nearing completion as the prototype for an eventual national chain of primary schools. It’s an expansive complex, far better built than Somaliland’s norm, ultimately to educate around 700 students. Project leader Harry Lee does a fantastic job.

Next day we proceeded to the original flagship Abaarso School of Science and Technology, a high school, nearly an hour’s drive outside Hargeisa. (Why that location? Jonathan explained that when he’d started in Somaliland, naive, he’d been tricked.) Abaarso too is quite an extensive campus. Its new head is Trudy Hall, formerly leading Troy’s elite Emma Willard School. I was extremely impressed by what she’s doing here. We stayed in a little guest house; a plaque said it was funded by the generosity of the American people through USAID.

Saturday was “project day.” Wife Therese led an intensive poetry workshop. I delivered a powerpoint lecture on the Enlightenment (view it at www.fsrcoin.com/3.html). Trudy was great in stimulating discussion in the Q&A. A topic arose that’s central to daughter Elizabeth’s current work — using communication to change mindsets.

Elizabeth leading discussion

She had a relevant powerpoint on her laptop, so later gave an impromptu presentation and led a discussion. It was wonderful seeing her masterful performance.

Sunday we visited a sanctuary for cheetahs, rescued from poachers; then Hargeisa’s art and cultural center, modest but quite nice.

Photo by Harry Lee

On Monday we could now see Kaabe’s first classes, of kindergartners, in session. I didn’t really teach, but did help out, assisting one boy making English words with plastic letters, and some girls with block puzzles. The children seemed to have progressed amazingly in just a few months. This school is clearly a great thing, and to have helped bring it about was extremely gratifying.

On Tuesday I set out alone — well, with a driver and the obligatory soldiers — back to Hargeisa to get a microwave for the Abaarso teacher’s mess. I wasn’t sure this could be accomplished, but after a tortuous peregrination, including a change of car and escorts, I finally managed it, returning just in time for an important event:

Trudy. Jonathan, & DPW honcho

A visit to Abaarso by a top level delegation from Dubai Ports World, preparatory to announcing a swathe of scholarships and funding another school on the Kaabe model in Berbera.

On Wednesday, Jonathan, Therese and I had a 45-minute private meeting in the Presidential Palace with Somaliland’s President Musa Bihi Abdi. Democratically elected in 2017, Bihi, 71, was a Somali air force pilot who became a top commander in the civil war against Siad Barre. A soft-spoken man, dignified without pomposity, a wise and decent human being (unlike certain presidents I could name).

With President Bihi (photo by J. Starr)

He spoke of the desirability of cooperation among different religious groups — a real issue for Jonathan’s project, still facing attacks on this score. And he was very strong about educating girls, understanding its importance for a country like his. During the meeting we were served delicious lemonades.

I’ve done a lot of foreign travel, but this was — like much else on this trip — a unique and thrilling experience.

Then we travelled an hour north on a “road” (hardly deserving the name) through a fairly desolate scrubland typical of the country. Passing many goats, camels, and giant termite mounds. With passengers squeezed in tight on this very bumpy ride, one of the soldiers volunteered to travel on the vehicle’s roof.

Barwaaqo

The destination was the other anchor in the schema, Barwaaqo University, a teachers college for girls, to eventually staff the Kaabe schools. Another impressive large campus; looked like a military base. A highlight was the debate club where Therese and I joined one of the teams. The question, chosen by the girls, was whether snacks in the school store should be free. Those girls were feisty debaters.

Somaliland certainly — like every society — has challenges. But its people have what it takes to overcome them. My lecture there ended by expressing the belief that Somaliland can rise to become a “developed” country, and that my student hearers can make it happen in their lifetimes.

Finally: how many wives would (while suffering from an illness no less) enthusiastically join in an intrepid expedition like this? (Jonathan’s soon-to-be-ex-wife never did.) Therese and I have a true marriage in that word’s deepest sense. A blessing for which I’m boundlessly grateful.

* Here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2018/09/30/a-non-ugly-american-in-somaliland-jonathan-starrs-abaarso-school/

**Here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2019/06/11/somaliland-the-country-that-was-left-for-dead-a-country-doing-everything-right/

America’s reality problem

December 19, 2019

Reality. We have to live in it. Humanity may one day escape the confines of Earth, but we cannot escape reality.

America was the one nation actually founded on the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment. Such rationality is grounded in reality. It’s also the substrate for reasoned discourse, another element of the Enlightenment. Reasoned discourse means opinions can differ; indeed, it is through such argument, as opposed to everyone thinking alike, that we work toward truth and wisdom. But argument must be rational — grounded, once more, in reality.

And America, we have a problem.

It’s not news that we’re polarized into two mutually antagonistic tribes, each inhabiting a very different reality. Political opinions can, again, differ, but each must be reality-based. The two contradictory realities can’t both be true.

Democrats (being human) certainly have their biases, blind spots, even irrationalities. But their big picture perception of today’s political reality is basically grounded in fact. While Republicans’ picture is a false one self-servingly painted by a monstrous liar, Trump. I say this as a Republican myself, for half a century, until I saw the party plunge down that rabbit hole.

The other night I attended a dinner, with a couple of Trumper friends (I do have some). They are not (otherwise) stupid or crazy; one has a Masters in History. One mentioned “Shifty Schiff” unmasked as a sex criminal. They avowed lack of surprise, wondering only how such a scumbag got away with it so long.

Amid all the despicable Trumpist smears against Schiff, I’d never heard this one. I held my tongue, but googling at home, immediately found (as expected) reports debunking this totally false garbage sloshing around the internet.

I did suggest my friends take care about their information sources; and was told I should stop listening to the fake news on lying mainstream media.

As talk inevitably turned to impeachment, trying to swat down, with facts, all the Trumpist spin, was a waste of breath. The History guy even insisted Trump couldn’t have been trying to smear an opponent because Biden wasn’t even a candidate at the time. (He was.)

To change the subject I mentioned thousands of children snatched from parents at the border — including toddlers, most of whom will be never be reunited — a Trump atrocity I thought no decent human being could defend. But I was told that every picture of children in cages was taken during the Obama administration. And that those adults were not their parents! DNA tests proved it.

DNA tests? They weren’t even properly recording children’s names. Good God.

After this alternate reality bath, at home on TV I then caught a clip of Trump reacting to the DOJ Inspector General’s report. Trumpists have long been salivating for this to prove the whole Russian meddling investigation was a “deep state” plot to take Trump down. Inspector General Horowitz found nothing of the kind (of course). While faulting the FBI for some irregularities and mistakes, he concluded that its investigating Trump’s campaign was wholly justified based on actual evidence, with no political bias.

The idea of the FBI nefariously plotting against Trump in 2016 is obviously absurd because they publicly revealed their investigating Hillary’s e-mails, and a reopened investigation right before the election, almost surely sinking her; but didn’t reveal investigating Trump’s campaign! If they were biased against anyone, it was Hillary.

That’s factual reality. But your reality may differ.

As does Trump’s. Concerning the Horowitz report, he said it’s “far worse than expected. This was an overthrow of the government . . . a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught, they got caught red-handed.” He called the FBI officers “scum.”

This was an overthrow of the government?!

Trump’s reality is just exactly what he wants it to be. Nothing he says need have any resemblance to actual reality. If this were not so cynically calculated, by a president, in anyone else it would be seen as severe mental illness. Yet his fans march in lockstep to his tune. This is destroying the basis for reasoned discourse upon which a democracy depends.

Factual reality: Trump tried to extort a bribe (smearing an opponent) from Ukraine’s president, in exchange for releasing congressionally-mandated aid. Compromising national security. The aid was only released because the scheme was blown by the whistleblower. Who got it totally right, as confirmed by mountains of hearing testimony. Trump doesn’t even deny what he did. The idea that he was concerned about “corruption” is ludicrous. He wasn’t even asking Ukraine to actually investigate — merely to announce an investigation, to besmirch Biden. And trying to pin 2016 election meddling on Ukraine, not Russia, makes a mockery of what America’s intelligence services determined, confirmed by tons of evidence in the Mueller probe. While Trump ordered the entire executive branch to defy lawful Congressional subpoenas for testimony and documents.

These charges are extremely grave, and indisputable.

Republicans’ devotion to Trump has an intensity without parallel in U.S. history. It might be comprehensible if he were some paragon of virtue; a Nelson Mandela. Yet we’ve also never seen a political figure so obviously corrupt, selfish, lying, divisive, irresponsible, and immoral. A reality to which Republicans blind themselves.

Lincoln said this nation cannot endure half slave and half free. Nor can it endure half in reality and half in a corrupted alternate reality.

Everybody’s Fool, and capital punishment

December 17, 2019

My humanist group had an outing to the wonderful Miss Lodema’s Tea Room, in Sharon Springs. I recognized it as “North Bath,” the (barely) fictionalized town in Richard Russo’s novel, Nobody’s Fool, which I’d just read. So then I read the sequel, Everybody’s Fool.

I previously reviewed Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere — a more accurate title would have been Momma’s Boy.

Nobody’s Fool was Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a decent everyman who does some foolish things. He reappears in the sequel, but the title character is Douglas Raymer, North Bath’s police chief. His wife died a year before, falling down stairs en route to leaving him for her lover. A “MacGuffin” in the book is a garage door opener Raymer finds, believing it will reveal that lover’s identity. (Some big spoilers ahead.)

This combines with an elaborate story about Raymer injuring his hand and obsessively scratching at the itchy wound — with the garage door opener becoming the perfect hand-scratcher. With a predictable denouement in someone’s garage. But by then, by process of elimination, the reader could already guess who that unmasked adulterer is.

All this may seem hokey. But this novel doesn’t aspire to be Crime and Punishment, it’s more like a comic book, and reasonably succeeds as such. Indeed, despite the obviously contrived action, it did succeed in engaging my emotions. I was even saying to myself, why is my heart pounding in response to this?

But speaking of crime and punishment, what I really want to discuss is the role in the book of the death penalty.

My wife and I watch some detective/crime shows. Now, the folks who write and produce them, and most novelists too, are presumably good intellectual liberals morally opposed to capital punishment. Yet normal humans are biologically programmed to crave justice and punishment for crimes. This plays out in their shows and books.

I’ve written about this before, in connection with a sci-fi novel: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/why-liberal-intellectuals-love-the-death-penalty/  Its author entered a comment saying he really does favors capital punishment!

While watching those mystery shows, my wife and I will debate whether capital punishment is coming: whether the murderer will be merely apprehended, or will die. The rule seems to be that run-of-the-mill baddies get caught while particularly heinous ones get killed.

Roy is a character in both Russo’s Fool novels, looming larger in the second. At first he seemed just a pathetic dumb loser. But gradually he’s revealed as a really nasty piece of work, a sociopath. And the reader’s thirst for punishment grows.

However, Roy hasn’t actually killed anyone. Yet. And capital punishment can be meted out only to killers. Then Roy spitefully almost kills his mother-in-law (a good person, who’d been much nicer to him than he deserved). She survives only because Sully shows up to whack Roy with a skillet. One aches for a second whack to finish the job, but Roy too survives and manages to slink away before the police arrive.

He’s been shacked up with an overweight sad sack, Cora, only because he’s got nothing else. She drives the getaway car. Roy treats her horribly and she takes it. You want him dead. But remember the rule: killers only.

Then he whacks Cora. Apparently only aiming to knock her out while he absconds with her car. But it seems Cora is dead. At least we’re not told otherwise in the remaining pages.

That sealed Roy’s fate, I felt sure. And my confidence was vindicated.

Meantime, though, Russo actually violates the rule of capital punishment for killers only. Well, technically. Another bad guy was in a hit-and-run, and tries to hide the body, but the victim actually recovers. There’s a long set-up to culminate in cosmic justice for this villain, by snakebite. Even though he didn’t totally kill anyone (that we know of); but I guess an author has the freedom to make any character die, if he wants.

America’s coming redemption — or its demise?

December 13, 2019

I never expected Communism’s collapse. Still less America’s — in terms of what it stood for.

I awakened in 1964. Living near the World’s Fair, one day at West Germany’s pavilion I saw a film about the Berlin Wall. I started to understand.

For the next quarter century the Cold War was a defining political reality. A dark one. Around the late ’70s, it seemed the world was going headlong in the wrong direction. I felt despair. But then things turned around. Like Hemingway’s line, gradually, then suddenly. And the Wall came down.

When 1989 closed, watching new year fireworks (with my new wife — another seeming miracle), I saluted it aloud as a blessed golden year. In 1993 I visited Russia — now a free country. Seemed a miracle. Walking up St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, the grim grey Soviet facades were interspersed with occasional flashes of color — new stores! I returned in 1995 and now the Nevsky was all color. I was elated at this total triumph of my deepest ideals.

It wasn’t “the end of history.” But it appeared humanity had turned a corner, into a new dawn, finally putting behind us so much that had hobbled and afflicted us.

The “Flynn Effect” is named for a researcher who revealed a perhaps surprising global trend: people getting smarter. IQs literally rising over a long time span. More education and more exposure to different kinds of people are partial explanations. And if we were putting a lot of bad stuff behind us, better thinking played a role.

But now we see bad thinking is more tenacious than we may have realized. Especially when, as always, some people can benefit from exploiting it.

Of course I’m talking about today’s America. In the great moral triumph that was the fall of Communism, America had a leading role. We won the Cold War not because we were more bad-ass than the Communists, but because we won the war of ideas. Because our kind of society, the values we reflected, were more attractive to human beings. As a deep student of history, I’d always loved my country as (for all its human imperfections) a uniquely good creation in humanity’s story. Those triumphant American values were key positive components of my own personal identity.

Now that’s been betrayed. How could America have gone so far off the rails? I could never before have imagined a regime here that so travesties everything the U.S. once stood for. With four in ten Americans idiotically cheering it on. Defying the Flynn effect. Seems you can fool enough of the people all the time.

Because I’m no cynic, an idealist really, the country’s disgrace, by a regime behaving so contemptibly, lacerates my soul. My shock and pain have continued to intensify, and will not abate until this evil is purged.

This has re-energized, in the past three years, my political engagement (mainly through blogging). People find meaning in life through concerns larger than themselves. Seeing my country’s fate at stake is certainly such a cause, and my advocacy has been a source of meaning in my life, a deep part of my very personhood.

I have no illusions about what Trump’s 2020 defeat would portend. I have seen too many hopeful developments in the world turn sour. Trump and his minions will not disappear,* their poison will long continue to infect American politics. Their reality denial extends to believing victory is certain; losing will unhinge them even more. I worry about his gun nuts. He’s already darkly tweeted about civil war. At a minimum, thirsting for revenge, Republicans will wage partisan war against a Democratic administration with an intensified deranged ferocity. Untethered from truth and reality, with morality askew, there are no limits.

Yet nevertheless, their 2020 defeat will, for me, feel like a great moral triumph, on a par with the fall of Communism.

Maybe it could even be a turning point for the whole world, bending back a trend of brainless voting for authoritarian populists. And even while the infection will persist here, demography would militate against its recrudescence. That whole nasty strain in American politics will inexorably die off along with the older religious white voters upon whom it depends.

But on the other hand — if they cannot be defeated in 2020 even with a candidate so blatantly vile as Trump, then what hope would there be for the American ideal? How much more will that monster, drunk with triumph and unconstrained by any further need for votes, crush that ideal? His second term would be the end of America.

That would crush me; it would be existentially demoralizing.

I’d have to figure out a different way of being in the world. Deploying the serenity prayer. Perhaps going into exile — if not literally to Canada, then mentally. Disengaging, tuning out — at my age leaving it for another generation to deal with. For them to re-achieve, finally, the human revolution that I’d once thought had been achieved.

* Or maybe, given his off-the-charts narcissistic personality disorder, unable to handle the humiliation of defeat, he’ll kill himself. It wouldn’t surprise me. How would his supporters react? Would it break the spell — or martyrize him?

How conservatives and liberals both miss the boat on poverty

December 3, 2019

Ask Americans about “poor people” and they’re generally sympathetic. About “people on welfare?” Not so much.

Those on the right tend to see social spending as basically taking from deserving people and giving to the less deserving. Who are thought mainly responsible for their poverty. It doesn’t help if they’re less white.

For the left “inequality” is a cri de couer. But while “poverty” used to be one too, that’s actually largely forgotten. They seem obsessed not about the poor but the rich, and how much they have (with big dollops of resentment and envy). That’s their inequality concern. And also their focus is less on the poor than the middle class. Where their own bread happens to be buttered; but it makes political sense too because that’s where the votes are. Poor people are smaller in numbers and they don’t vote much.

We could argue over how the middle class is actually doing. But, even with admitted challenges, they’re able to live a life that’s, well, middle class. Which in a rich 21st century country, historically speaking, is quite decent. It’s the poor — around 15% of the population, depending how you measure — anyway, those on the bottom — who are obviously in tougher shape. Tougher, indeed, than the corresponding population slice in other advanced countries. This is a special American problem. Concerning our fellow human beings.

“Inner city poverty” was long seen as a thing. But as a recent report in The Economist highlights, “outer-city poverty” has become a bigger thing. Poverty too has been moving to the suburbs. While a lot of the non-white poor do remain urban, the suburban poor includes more whites and Hispanics. And it’s harder to deal with, because while big cities can deploy resources, smaller non-urban jurisdictions tend to be cash-strapped and lacking the necessary public infrastructure.

Sneering at poor people as responsible for their plight is easy when you’ve been handed all the advantages. Mostly, people are poor because they’ve been dealt lousy cards. Poverty is heritable: growing up in a poor family, especially in a poor neighborhood, messes you up in a thousand ways that make it much much harder to achieve the American dream. One pilot study showed that just moving a family from a poor neighborhood into a more affluent one results in 31% higher income for their kids in adulthood.

So let’s focus on children. You cannot argue that children, at least, who are in poverty are somehow personally responsible for that. And even put altruism aside. The fact is that a person who grows up into lifelong poverty costs us all a huge amount — for all the welfare, social services, health services, and don’t forget the cost to society of the crime that goes with the territory. Compared against one who becomes a contributing member of the community, holding a job that grows societal wealth, and pays taxes.

So doesn’t it make sense to invest in kids, so they’ll grow into the latter, not the former? The payoffs would vastly exceed the costs. One California study calculated that the cost to end deep child poverty by simply handing out enough cash would be a quarter of what the state spends on prisons. Not doing this was deemed “insane” by the study’s author.

Education looms large here. America’s poverty scandal is mainly an education scandal. Rather than investing to lift children out of the poverty trap, we disinvest, actually giving poor children inferior education.

Liberals won’t face up to this. They assail charter schools for “draining” money from public schools, which they idealize — as though public schools were providing decent service to underprivileged kids. They are not. Many parents in poor neighborhoods see charter schools as their only hope of escaping the school-to-prison pipeline.

School segregation is a big factor. Poor minority children do poorly when ghettoed in their own schools; better when educated with middle-class kids, whose schools tend to be fine. It’s because those, their own schools, are fine that liberals battle for public schools and against charters. And while liberals notionally endorse integration, they seem oblivious to the reality that America’s schools in recent decades have grown ever more segregated.

That segregation is partly a consequence of high rents in better areas with better schools. “Affordable housing” is another liberal cry. Yet their prescription for it is snake oil: rent control. Sure, it’s tempting to regulate rents to prevent gouging by greedy landlords. But it doesn’t take an economic genius to realize rent control disincentivizes landlords from maintaining apartments and building new ones. This results in housing supply shortages which of course actually drive up rents. Keeping poor people poor — and out of decent schools.

Conservatives meanwhile say all this talk about education is futile because the real problem is families. A kid won’t do well in school if his family situation is dysfunctional. And conservatives blame parents for that, being again averse to helping people whose problems are perceived as their own fault. So for the kids: tough luck. While liberals, for their part, are unwilling to see anything to criticize concerning single motherhood.

So what’s the answer? We have to get past our ideologies and do what it takes to get kids born into poverty onto a better track. This does mean attention both to schools and to family. But that’s not some utopian fantasy. An excellent model for it is Harlem Children’s Zone, a private effort spearheaded by Geoffrey Canada, which has produced great results.

America is a very rich country and can amply afford to do this. We really can’t afford not to; it would actually make us even richer, with every dollar spent coming back many times over. And anyhow, the cost would be far less than what we spend on welfare for the rich.