Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Coming to America

December 9, 2018

Olga Porterfield, a friend of mine, gave a talk to the Capital District Humanist Society, about Jewish refugees exiting the Soviet Union. She was one of them, at age 20, in 1979.

She began with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. — “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Olga Zemitskaya was born in Moscow in 1959. Jewish identity was submerged; in fact, she said, growing up she had no idea what “Jewish” meant. Her Jewish consciousness was awakened when her father brought her to a synagogue for a Simchat Torah celebration. This was actually a subversive thing to do in the atheistic USSR. Also subversive was the family’s “anti-Soviet” attitude; as a teenager she was reading “samizdat” — underground literature passed secretly from hand to hand. Being doubly such a rebel was heady stuff, especially when she fell in love with a boy with the same proclivities. But he was planning to leave for America.

Anti-semitism has a long and dreadful history in that part of the world. Russian anti-semitism went into overdrive in the wake of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory. The situation was aggravated by the 1970 “Airplane affair” when a group of Jews tried to hijack a small plane to escape the USSR.

You couldn’t just pick up and leave. The authorities had to grant permission — and just requesting it marked you as a pariah, you were persecuted for it. Quite a few Jews nevertheless got permission, and went to either the U.S. or Israel. But there were also a great many “refuseniks” — Jews whose exit visas were refused. This became a focus of international condemnation toward the USSR. In 1975, America in response enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, punishing the Soviets on trade terms.

To illustrate the issue’s prominence, Olga showed Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner babbling on about “Saving Soviet Jewelry.” When informed that the issue was actually “jewry,” she responded with her standard line, “Never mind.”

Shcharansky

A leading refusenik agitator was Anatoly Shcharansky. I remember first seeing him, interviewed in Russia around 1976, and being flabbergasted by the courage of his outspoken criticism of the Soviet regime. In 1977, he was arrested, falsely charged as a spy, and sent to a Siberian ordeal. In 1986, finally, America got him out — exchanged for real spies. Today, as Natan Sharansky, he is an Israeli government minister.

Also mentioned by Olga was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who became a vocal dissident, and his Jewish wife, Elena Bonner. Sakharov was immured in internal exile in Gorki.

Sakharov

But as the dictatorship began to crumble, Sakharov actually became a member of parliament, called the nation’s conscience. He died the month after the Berlin Wall fell.

But for Olga her greatest hero was her mother, for whom Olga’s emigration was a deep personal loss; yet she actively supported her daughter in this.

In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, becoming even more of an international pariah. In a piqued response to the criticism, the Russian regime slammed shut the door on emigration. But luckily for Olga, she had rejected her family’s pleas to hold off and wait until they all could go; she had applied for her exit visa; and got it before the door shut. Her parents were subsequently refused. (They finally reached America in the Gorbachev era.)

Soviet exit visa

Olga showed on the screen that most precious document — her official permission to leave the Soviet Union — forever.

She travelled first to Vienna, then to Rome, to wait for documents to come to America. She loved the weeks she spent in Rome. People were all smiling, she said; “nobody smiled in Moscow.” The workers’ paradise.

Olga arrived in the United States of America on June 21, 1979. When we still welcomed immigrants.

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George H. W. Bush

December 3, 2018

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That was a novel’s famous first line. George H.W. Bush was president in just such a foreign country.

It is hard to imagine a major political candidate in today’s America who isn’t some kind of ideological/cultural warrior. That wasn’t Bush. In his foreign country, it was all about just doing the job. You know, “public service,” remember that quaint concept? Bush was a capable man; a serious man; who took his responsibilities seriously. A thoughtful man of honor and integrity, who spoke and acted carefully, and whose word could be trusted. A thoroughly decent human being.

Of course you know where this is going.

Gary Hart

Another candidate in the 1988 election, that Bush won, was Gary Hart, and there’s a new movie out about him, The Front Runner. Hart’s campaign was ended by his adultery. In a different country.

Our president now not only had extramarital affairs — with porn actresses no less — but paid them hush money to cover it up — and lied about that. (And smeared his own “fixer” who revealed his lies.) And even bragged about committing sexual assaults, too.

Meantime he paid $25 million to settle the “Trump University” fraud case. And the New York Times ran a huge analysis of how his whole business history was one big lie; built on cheating, fraud, and tax evasion. His “charitable foundation” has been exposed as a fraud too.

None of it seems to matter. But just look at him, listen to him. Anyone with half a brain can see he’s totally full of shit. Is a total piece of shit. Yet we elected him president — and his poll ratings have hardly budged since.

I often talk about human evolutionary history, being shaped by our living in social groups, where cooperation and mutual trust was central. Thus we evolved highly tuned lie detectors, and instincts to punish those who violate behavioral norms. But now we’re a different species, inhabiting a different kind of society.

I heard an interview with one of the makers of The Front Runner. He commented that Trump is not being judged as a politician or public official would once have been (and as Hart was), but instead as a celebrity. And that Trump is not an aberration; rather, the new normal. He doubted we’ll ever go back to the old model, with leaders of the George H. W. Bush type. Now celebrity culture rules.

The President of the United States

The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicted a future where intelligent Americans have few children while nitwits breed like rabbits. Result: a nation of nitwits. Unsurprisingly, its president is a flamboyant performance buffoon. The film was a comedy.

Our reality is a tragedy.

Republicans, and the hole in America’s moral soul

November 27, 2018

“Republicans must stand up to Trump,” declared the heading on a recent Michael Gerson column.

“How fatuous,” I thought.

Gerson

Gerson is a former Bush 43 speechwriter and member of that endangered species, “principled conservative.” Usually clear-eyed about the gulf between those principles and Trumpism.

This column was about prospects for a Republican running against Trump in 2020. Gerson cites a poll saying 16% of Republicans prefer Trump to be a one-term president. “At least a place to start,” he says.

Good luck. The other 84% of Republicans are a red wall for Trump. Undaunted, Gerson muses that could change with “a particularly damaging new administration scandal,” or Mueller developments that “destabilize Trump’s personality in new and disturbing ways.” As if nothing so far has been damaging or disturbing enough. (Here’s a list.)

Yet Gerson does suggest the Trump cesspool is already stinky enough for a Republican challenger to pose the question: “why not conservative policy AND public character?”

Actually, Republicans now get neither; this ain’t “conservative.” But Trumpism is not mainly about ideology anyway. Instead it’s psychology; tribal and personal social identity. I increasingly think that deep down, many Republicans back Trump not in spite of his horribleness but because of it. Like women attracted to “bad boys;” like moths to a flame. It’s a fat middle finger shoved in the eye of a society which, Trumpeters feel, deserves it.

These are the people who spout about America’s “moral decline.” Mainly focused on homosexuality and other sex-related stuff. As though gays marrying, people changing gender, etc., is somehow immoral. They also feel the browning of our population somehow represents moral decline.

Yet it is true we’re in a national moral tailspin. Not because of tolerating gays but tolerating Trump. These people so full of moralistic blather sent to the White House the worst moral creep ever — and continue backing him, and his war against America’s values and ideals. Here we see the real hole that has opened up in our country’s moral soul.

“Republicans must stand up to Trump?” That horse left the barn long ago. What responsible Republicans must do is leave this degraded party (as I have).

I used to call myself, like Gerson, “conservative;” the odd man out in my social milieu full of liberals. My political principles haven’t changed, but have been superseded by more fundamental concerns, about the very character of our society. I and my liberal friends are together in opposing what’s happening. Yet I still feel somewhat alone in my grasp of just how bad it is, and what it portends for the whole world’s future.

I’ve made a lifelong effort to understand the world. It culminated in my 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism, where I tried to bring it all together. A comprehensive global picture, justifying a positive outlook.

Martin Luther King said the moral arc of the Universe is long but bends toward justice. However, there is no force out there, no deity or law of nature, that so bends it. Only we humans, with our actions, can. My book argued that, in the great sweep of history, we’d been doing better and better.

The Enlightenment began three centuries ago, putting us on a path of progress through increasing rationality. Plagued at every step by fools dancing around bonfires of Enlightenment values. Today those flames are getting out of control, threatening to engulf us all.

If Trump is defeated in 2020, maybe the fire can be contained. If he’s re-elected, maybe my book should be thrown into it.

“REALLY SCARY !!!”

November 18, 2018

That was the all-caps heading on a blast email, to me and some others, from a Texan acquaintance. He’s pro-Trump and always saying Democrats are commie criminals. This one had the attached “quotes” from three leading Democratic senators, saying the Constitution is an obstacle to be disregarded. He called this flabbergasting, showing why Democrats opposed Kavanaugh.

THIS IS SATIRE. DO NOT FORWARD

The quotes looked obviously fake. Googling, I quickly traced them to “The Babylon Bee,” which appeared to be a crazy-Christian website. But then I saw at the bottom: “Your trusted source for Christian news satire.” Another article quoted Hillary Clinton saying her only crime was stealing America’s heart! And another reported she’s gotten a large cash advance for What Happened 2, a book to explain her 2020 election loss!

Well, maybe not as funny as The Onion. But my Texas friend was not the only one suckered. I also found this article (from “Punditfact”) reporting how the Babylon Bee satire went viral and spread across the internet as though the quotes were real.

What is really scary is how messed up America’s politics has become, when people can’t tell the difference not just between real and fake news, but between real and joke news. Babylon Bee was trying to make fun of those who believe extreme nonsense. It’s an irony that the joke was on Bablyon Bee, when its satire got recycled as reality. But it’s no joke when this sort of thing warps political ideas and influences votes.

A lot of people are so unsophisticated in their thinking, so lacking in civic education and understanding of our political landscape, and so ready to believe anything bad about the other side, that they didn’t question the authenticity of these preposterous quotes.

Creating what Babylon Bee did is child’s play. Photoshop enables photos to be manipulated. There’s even technology to make fake audio, with people seeming to say things they never said. How are we to navigate through this house-of-mirrors? You have to use your brain — primed with knowledge about the real world. That seems to be a problem for a lot of people, full of beliefs about a god in the sky, life after death, UFOs, ESP, and other such nonsense.

In the halcyon days when the internet was first flourishing, we imagined this would be great for making people better informed. Alas the opposite is happening; the web is poisoning our whole information pool. Incentives go the wrong way. People have found how easy it is to advance their agendas by simply spreading lies. Indeed, it’s even profitable. I recall a radio interview during the 2016 campaign with a guy who made up a phony report about pro-Hillary vote manipulation, tailored to be click-bait for Hillary-haters. And it got clicks galore — netting the guy tens of thousands in profit.

Worse yet when foreign enemies too are in the game. And, in fact, when the President of the United States himself actively promotes this destruction of rational and informed political discourse. How can this be overcome? Will we allow a blizzard of disinformation and lies to decide the next election?

Postscript: A Facebook commenter linked to this Washington Post article that makes what I wrote seem tame. Worth reading!!

What the election means

November 7, 2018

Jones

CNN commentator Van Jones said you’d think America’s “antibodies would kick in,” against the disgusting onslaught of lies, hate, bigotry, divisiveness and fear that was Trump’s campaign. But it worked, at least to a sad degree. This vile virus incurably infects a big chunk of America’s electorate. At best we can hope to quarantine them.

So Trump is undaunted; he’s even claiming victory. And there were a lot of disappointments. But at least there is some limit to the creepiness even Republicans can stomach; as in the case of Roy Moore; this time it was Kris Kobach losing the governorship in deep-red Kansas. (Kobach was the epicenter of the Republican “vote fraud” fraud.) Yet, another major creep, Brian Kemp, probably succeeded in stealing Georgia’s governorship.

Republicans did gain in the Senate. But that was largely thanks to the happenstance that the great majority of seats coming up this year were defended by Democrats. And the Senate battle took place largely in Trump country. Whereas the battle for the House of Representatives was nationwide.

And there Democrats did do thumpingly well, overcoming the stacked deck of Republican gerrymandering, to gain a substantial majority. That was the one superveningly important thing at stake, to break total Republican control and subject the Trump administration to some accountability. To literally save the country from it. And it shows this is, overall, a Democratic country. They were more than nine percentage points ahead of Republicans nationally. That’s a blue “wave.”

Antonio Delgado, victor over Faso

I pumped my fist last night when hearing of Congressman Faso’s defeat. I used to think so highly of him. But his campaign was a racist disgrace. And Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Russia) lost too.

** MAJOR PROJECTION: Republicans will never again control the House.

Even if Trump wins in 2020, it won’t be by much, and won’t flip the House back. After that, a lot of Republican gerrymandering will be undone. Several states passed referenda doing so, while Democrats gained at least seven governorships, and hundreds of state legislative seats. They will also roll back some Republican vote suppression. Furthermore, demographic trends will inexorably erode white nationalism.

And the Republican party is now basically, totally, just a white nationalist party. It was the least Trumpy Republicans who left the House or were beaten*; while in the Senate, the increased Republican majority renders irrelevant so-called moderates like Susan Collins, their votes no longer needed.

Republicans will also never again control any legislative house in New York. They lost the Senate and will be gerrymandered out of existence. New York is now a one-party state. That’s bad, but Republicans had ceased to be a legitimate opposition.

The Democratic House majority will be heavily flavored by female military vets. Kind of ironic when Trump (who never served) and the Republicans (mostly ditto) are the ones who drool over the military.

Can the House Democrats now, finally, get hold of Trump’s tax returns? Really amazing he’s managed to keep them from scrutiny this long. Not that anything in them, no matter how slimy, will shake the faith of Republicans. The NY Times recently ran a huge in-depth factual report on how Trump totally lied about how he built his business empire, it was really through massive cheating and tax fraud. Did that move any Republicans? Nope. You can’t fight tribal religion with facts.

Trump will spend the next 18 months demonizing Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats. If they were smart they’d ditch her. She’s a great insider operator, but useless at countering Trump’s shitstorm.

A big lesson from the election is that the idea of Democrats going whole-hog “progressive” was a failure. Never mind Ocasio-Cortez in her ethnic New York City enclave. Look at Florida, where the ideological Andrew Gillum unexpectedly won the gubernatorial primary, and then proceeded to lose an election Democrats really ought to have won. It was a similar story elsewhere. There simply is not a majority in this country for hard left ideology. Democrats who won did so by appealing to the mushy middle, where elections are usually decided.

Landrieu

In 2020 the presidency will be decided by whether Democrats take back Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And they can: all three elected Democratic governors. A candidate like Mitch Landrieu, Joe Biden, or Chris Murphy will win. One like Elizabeth Warren will not. Democrats must rein in their leftwing romanticism and pick a nominee pragmatically, to end the Trumpist nightmare before it totally ruins the country.

But there’s a difference between being hard left and hard anti-Trump. Democrats must stand clearly and forthrightly for a return to the fundamental American values Trump trashes. That must be the issue of 2020.

A frequent commenter on the Times-Union version of my blog constantly belabors that my words are just MY opinion, as if I’m smarter than everyone else and even seek to impose my views on them. Well, Albert, I am smarter than you. I can see reality; the difference between truth and lies; and know right from wrong. Unlike Republican Christians.

*UPDATE 12:12 PM — Trump in his “victory” speech named and sneered nastily at Republicans who didn’t “embrace” him and lost. How gracious.

What American nationalism should be

November 5, 2018

Trump now, defiantly, calls himself a “nationalist.” For lefties it’s a dirty word. Some dream of “one world” uniting all humanity. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for.” (But imagine what a united world’s politics and governance would be like, dominated by backward ideas of Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Turks.)

Disagreement about nationalism is part of our own cultural divide. Some say Americans have nothing to be proud of; our history a litany of crimes, our present a cesspool of racism, inequality, exploitation, oppression, and corruption. That’s epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. Should have been titled A Cynic’s History. Zinn condemned America because it was not a perfect egalitarian utopia from Day One, flaying every social ill that ever existed here. With nary a word of recognition that any progress was ever achieved on any of it.

Thus some friends questioned why my house flew the flag. But I was indeed proud to be an American — a supportive member of what, despite its flaws, is as good a society as human beings had yet succeeded in creating. I flew the flag to honor the principles, values, and ideals America at its best stood for.

The progress Zinn refused to acknowledge is this nation’s central story. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, but strove “to form a more perfect union.” A society that could and did rise toward its highest ideals.

That is what our nationalism should embody. Not blood-and-soil but goodwill, civility, generosity, courage. Not truculence toward others but truth, reason, progress, and justice under rule of law. All people created equal, endowed with inalienable rights: to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. E pluribus unum — out of many, one.

I once stood on a corner, passed by a Muslim woman in a headscarf, then a black man, a turbaned Sikh, an Hispanic, an Indian lady in a sari, a Chinese girl, and, yes, a Caucasian too. This was in Westchester. Nobody batted an eye. This is America’s greatness. E pluribus unum. A place where all kinds of people can make homes, be welcomed, and thrive. This is humanity transcending its boundaries and limits.

Our Declaration of Independence was truly revolutionary when, as Rousseau put it, mankind was “everywhere in chains.” We lit a beacon light in the darkness, guiding countless millions of others to liberation. And as America grew more prosperous and powerful (thanks to its ideals), we took on an ever greater role as the vanguard of global efforts to expand freedom and prosperity and combat the forces that would hold people down. That U.S. world leadership has been noble. But also, it recognized that other countries becoming more democratic, and richer — and the resulting peace — are good for America itself.

These then are the values and ideals that made America great, and make for an American nationalism worth holding to. A nationalism not of ethnicity but of principles. Alas, Trump’s us-against-them “America First” nationalism is the antithesis of those values and ideals. Their evil twin, throwing them under the bus.

That is why, on November 9, 2016, I furled my flag. I look forward to — I burn for — the day when I can fly it once more.

Make America America Again

October 29, 2018

When I wrote recently about the coming elections, I didn’t mention “health care.” Which Democrats pitch as their main issue. (Republicans respond by lying about their record.)

Columnist David Brooks thinks Democrats are missing the boat. In the remote past (pre-2016), health care might have been a great issue for them. They continue to think in materialist, transactional terms, trying to offer voters good policy. But Democrats could never fathom why many people voted against (what Dems saw as) their economic interests. And today, more than ever, many are voting not their wallets but their values, their souls.

This election is indeed not about material issues like health care. It’s about America’s soul.

In two ways. First, Trump offers a story: that America has been screwed by foreigners, both immigrants and other nations, and by corrupt elites. He offers an appeal to cultural identity; a raw nationalism, both economic (however misguided) and ethnic. Not all Trump supporters are racists; but all racists are Trump supporters. And now, gender chauvinism is added to the stew, as Trump bangs the Kavanaugh drum.

All this, as Brooks notes, reflects how today’s core ideological divide is no longer between traditional left and right, but between open and closed societal visions. Thus, on the international stage, Trump says he rejects “the ideology of globalism.” This has profound implications; a go-it-alone policy will produce a world America will find much less comfortable to live in. China’s outlook, notably, is the opposite, in terms of global engagement.

Secondly, as Brooks puts it, Trump has “overturned the traditional moral standards for how leaders are supposed to behave. He’s challenged basic norms of honesty, decency, compassion and moral conduct. He unabashedly exploits rifts in American society.”

Many Republicans say they don’t like Trump’s behavior but like his policies. Never mind how wrong they are about much of the policy picture. What they fail to grasp is how Trump’s conduct is of the essence. Especially the war on truth. He is methodically degrading our civic society, not just morally, but really destroying its whole underpinnings. We can’t have a democracy with debate unmoored from factual reality, and refusal to accept each other’s political legitimacy. This matters more than any particular policies.

All of this is why America’s soul really is on the line. As Brooks says, Trump and the Republicans have “thrown down a cultural, moral and ideological gauntlet.”

And Democrats respond with: better health insurance?

That’s not entirely fair. Many Democrats do push back against everything Trumpism represents. But not in a coherent, focused way, that really meets and answers the Trumpist threat with an alternative big-picture story. Part of the problem, according to Brooks, is that Democrats’ moral vision is of the “social justice warrior” sort, targeting how societal structures marginalize certain segments (the poor, women, blacks, gays). But “if your basic logic is that distinct identity groups are under threat from an oppressive society, it’s very hard to then turn around and defend that society from an authoritarian attack, or to articulate any notion of what even unites that society.”

It doesn’t help that Democrats don’t speak with a single voice, but a gaggle of them, that cannot really get heard in answering the huge Trump shout-a-thon. In 2016, the news media (far from working against him as Trump claims) gave him billions in free air time to blast his message. And they’re still doing it, having failed to learn their lesson, continuing to broadcast his every rally and tweet, becoming his enabler in spreading his poison. Indeed, by presenting it as news, they even give it a patina of legitimacy.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate must focus on articulating an American cultural identity different and better than what Trump appeals to. One that re-embraces the principles, ideals, and values that made America great. A vision of this nation as an open, confident and optimistic society, where all people are accorded equal dignity. A nation strengthened by its diversity. A nation that engages in the world to make it a better place, for our own benefit as well as others. In sum, an appeal (like Abraham Lincoln’s) to the better angels of our nature.

And at their convention let them reprise proudly the song they played in 1988 — what a different country it seems! — Neil Diamond’s They’re Coming to America.

Love, sex, and the internet

October 27, 2018

The Economist recently ran a great report on how the internet has changed dating and mating. Mostly for the better.

It has brought much efficiency and rationality to what was a haphazard process of seeking a partner. I know. First single in the early ’70s, I had to get out and beat the bushes. It was hard work. Joining every poetry group in sight. Even spelunking — one of the worst experiences of my life (and no girls showed up).

The internet vastly expands the pool of potential mates, making it easier to find someone. And not just anyone. As The Economist points out, we all have our criteria. Religious compatibility is a big one. People do hook up in church, but online it’s actually easier to zero in on good targets. This is especially true for gays, for whom only a small percentage of the overall population are possible prospects. Now 70% of gays find their partners online. Even for straights, it’s fast becoming the commonest way couples meet.

Some might consider the idea of getting dates online icky. Surely no more so than in bars. (A nondrinker, girl-hunting in bars was not for me. I couldn’t imagine being interested in a girl who’d hang out in bars.) In fact, the internet gives one a better opportunity to vet prospects before meeting in person.

The bottom line is that because this does enable people to hone in on potential partners based on compatibility factors, those who pair up that way have longer and happier marriages, studies have shown.

The article reports some fascinating data about how people rate potential dates. Female desirability starts high at age 18, then descends sharply in an almost straight line. Men, in contrast, start off lower (no sensible gal wants a guy under thirty, my wife remarked), with desirability ratings rising gradually, peaking at 45-50, and falling only gently thereafter.

Ethnically, the highest desirability ratings are garnered by white men and Asian women, whereas Asian men rank in the basement, above only black women, and markedly lower than black men. Why rate Asian females so highly? Methinks a whole lot of stereotyping going on. (Men who imagine Asian women as docile haven’t read the Tiger Mother book.)

On average, both men and women concentrate on prospects who are rated (by others) 25% more attractive than themselves.

On China’s leading dating app, Tantan, men tend to like 60% of all female profiles they see, whereas women like just 6% of the male ones. Thus the least attractive women do as well as the most desirable men; while the men rated least attractive are lost causes. (Realize that Chinese gals are in a seller’s market, due to the past one-child policy, and sex-selective abortion, resulting in an excess of men.)

*   *   *

There’s one big facet of the internet The Economist didn’t mention, with huge implications for male-female relations, that are not good: pornography. I am no censorious prude; my libertarianism is okay with folks getting jollies from porn if they like. And it’s not the case that people are growing raunchier — rather, it’s that we have far wider opportunities now to gratify our proclivities, which by itself is a positive for human happiness.

But pornography has to skew how men see and relate to women. In past times social constraints made women terra incognita to men; closed books they had no way to read. Most marriage partners being thusly aliens to each other didn’t serve connubial bliss. Opening the book is a good thing, but there can be too much of a good thing. Putting it differently: women (and their bodies) used to be mysterious to men; but no longer. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was something shocking” — now naked women are everywhere.

Often more attractive than the one in your bedroom. And they don’t talk back or nag, too. Some men today find they’d rather relate to available fantasy women than real ones. (Especially in Japan, where many men shy away from flesh-and-blood women, while women don’t see this as much of a loss.)*

The lure of screens draws men away not only from wives and lovers, but also from work. The phenomenon of young males dropping out of the workforce to hole up in their parents’ basements playing video games has become a real thing. I haven’t seen any actual studies, but suspect gaming isn’t the sole attraction. This cannot be good for economic productivity.

Heaven help us when online porn gets to the next level, jazzed up with virtual reality and beyond. Who’s going to be doing any work? Well, actually, women, who tend to be much less susceptible to such stuff than men. Here’s a nice sci-fi concept: our future society with all the men whacked out with porn, leaving women to run everything.

A program on The New Yorker Radio Hour cued me to another point I hadn’t considered. As a longtime political observer, I’d felt sure “grab them by the pussy” would kill Trump’s candidacy. That it didn’t shocked me, and I’ve struggled to understand the societal change this signals. New Yorker suggested porn as an explanatory factor. Porn has a long history of course but until lately it lurked in the shadows, not visible in our everyday cultural landscape. That has changed. It’s not the whole explanation, but perhaps a significant part of it. In a society where sexuality in the crude form of porn is now ubiquitous and taken for granted, “grab them by the pussy” mightn’t seem nearly as big a violation of norms as it once would have. And, alas, this coarsening effect is larger — Trump has pornographized our whole civic culture.

* At dinner, I blew my nose; and while I had the tissue in my hand, I unthinkingly used it to wipe off a spot of sauce that had dripped on the table. “Did you just wipe snot on the table?” my wife asked. “Men!”

Our coming immortality

October 19, 2018

Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to live on in my films. I want to live on in my apartment.”

Humanity has always battled nature’s limitations — including bodily frailty. For most of our history lifespans averaged around thirty. Now in the developed world they’re above eighty. This reflects elimination of many causes of premature death, especially rampant child deaths. Modern medicine enables many more of us to realize the biological natural maximum lifespan (around 100+ years).

But raising that natural limit is next. That too is a medical problem, and there’s no law of nature barring its solution. Indeed, the same is true of death itself.

telomeres (in red)

You probably won’t turn on the radio and hear, “Scientists today announced a cure for death.” Though lifelong shortening of telomeres (a part of our chromosomes) seems somehow critical — when you’re out of telomeres, you’re out. And there actually is a pill to halt their shortening. Unfortunately it gives you cancer. But maybe, if that can be solved . . . .

But conquering death will likely be more gradual. And not all medical. We fret about intelligent machines supplanting us, but as suggested in my seminal 2013 Humanist magazine essay, “The Human Future — Upgrade or Replacement?I foresee instead a convergence between biological humans and artificial systems. Humanity version 2.0 will benefit from a host of technological advancements and improvements. Anyhow, one way or another, we’ll stop dying.

And nothing could more dramatically change the human condition. Knowledge of mortality has always shaped how we live our lives, so integral to our psychology it’s actually hard to imagine its absence.

Take risk. In many of our activities, risk of death is not zero. While it’s not as though we don’t highly value our lives, knowing we’ll die in the end makes such risks psychologically tolerable. Lack of a clear “term limit” will surely change that. Will people cocoon themselves in fetishing safety?

But immortality may not be for everyone — actually unaffordable to many. Talk about inequality! I recall one of those dystopian-future sci-fi flicks where the monetary unit (registered and transferrable on personal devices) is time — time left to live, that is. The rich of course have plenty and keep getting more. The poor struggle just to “make ends meet” — i.e., not to meet their ends.

Remember Methuselah living 969 years? His kids and grandkids lived to similar ages. The Bible doesn’t mention this, but all those generations would have been hanging around together (at least until finally wiped out by the flood). What will our families be like when you have hundreds of living forebears and descendants? (Maybe invest in Hallmark stock.) Or perhaps — able to achieve immortality through other means — will we stop having children?

Meantime, people who basically don’t age or die probably wouldn’t “retire.” Their continuing economic productivity will sustain and extend global prosperity. Maybe sufficient to obviate the mentioned inequality issue.

And what about religion? Evolution seems to have somehow made our minds susceptible to mystical religious ideas. Rationality enables us to move past them, as science progressively answers the world’s mysteries. Yet still, many people fend off science (evolution for example) in order to hold onto religion’s promise of an afterlife, its “killer app.” Even while having their doubts. What people think they believe may differ from what they truly believe. Those professing belief in Heaven struggle hard to postpone going. Because the promise is inherently unbelievable (and deep down we know it).

But what if fear of death ends? When, as against religion’s dubious promise of eternal life, science offers one that’s pretty darn real? Will that finally be science’s “killer app” against religion? Will all those who’d held science at arm’s length, because it threatened religion, now discard the faith that stands against immortality-giving science?

Well — I’m 71, and immortality probably won’t come soon enough to save me. But my daughter is 25, and I tell her that if she makes it to 100 — highly likely — by then she’ll be home free.

Now it really begins: the end of our democracy

October 14, 2018

The National Park Service is proposing to charge protesters for demonstrating in the nation’s capital.

You read that right: a fee, levied by the government, upon free speech. In the nation formerly known as America.

Recently, here in Albany, there was a demonstration by The Poor People’s Campaign. Which was then handed a $1400+ bill, by the city, for the cost of police keeping order at the event.

I wrote to Mayor Kathy Sheehan, expressing outrage. I am not a supporter of the The Poor People’s Campaign. But the idea of government charging anybody for exercising freedom of speech is an insult to the First Amendment. Free speech is not free if there’s a charge for it! I pointed out that keeping order at public demonstrations is a normal police function, that’s part of why we pay taxes to have a police force.

Sadly, I got no reply.

Now the Trump administration aims to apply the same idea to protests in the capital (for starters). Perhaps predictably, with Trump calling the opposition party an “angry mob.” Demonstrators will now have to pay the cost of police keeping order. The bills will be sizable; the obvious intent is fewer protests. (Maybe people should be charged too for 911 calls, to keep down their numbers also.) And how nice it would be if the regime, I mean the government, could go about its work without pesky citizens getting in the way with annoying protests. How nice if newspapers and screens were not filled with images of “angry mobs” making their opinions known. Criticizing the president and everything.

This is how democracy is snuffed out.

Click here to sign an ACLU petition against the Park Service proposal. And click here to submit a comment directly to the Park Service, until the close of business Monday.

There is no charge for such public comments. Yet.