Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Mychal Denzel Smith’s revolution: radical left magical thinking

September 25, 2020

I was shouting at the TV while watching with my wife The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah interview Mychal Denzel Smith (right), author of Stakes is High.

Smith saw little point in voting for Biden, deeming him just the same-old same-old, whose election would make no real difference. He feels America needs a thorough reinvention to right all its wrongs. While Noah suggested Biden would take us in the right direction, Smith was having none of it, saying Biden, once in office, would merely be a tool of the old establishment. Somewhat ironic given Trumpers painting Biden as a tool of radicals — like Smith himself!

Noah also tried to get Smith to acknowledge how bad, for America (and indeed Smith’s own agenda), another Trump term would be. Smith was having none of that either. Seemed to be saying, let the country be wrecked, then we can build our New Jerusalem on the ruins. Finally, Noah asked him what individuals can actually do. Smith’s wordy response didn’t answer that at all — infuriating my wife.

Afterward, we tried to make sense of this Mychal Denzel Smith. She thought maybe he was fine with Trump’s re-election, anticipating an assassination. I didn’t think so, unable to see that as advancing his radical aims. But then how does he imagine their achievement? Given that almost half the country is gaga Trumpist, while on the Democratic side even a moderately radical candidacy got whomped.

There’s something “radical chic” about people like Smith —thinking it cool — hence a kind of one-upmanship in radicalism — “mine more extreme than yours.” Like Smith thinks his politics is more serious. Yet can it be serious without some roadmap for getting there?

Smith seemed to be on a Yellow Brick Road of magical thinking. Simply ignoring that very few Americans actually want his revolution, with many horrified by it. How to win them over did not appear to be of interest to him. Thus he can’t, indeed, envision some sort of political campaign or action movement. Instead, it would have to be magic — America suddenly waking up and saying, en masse, “You’re right! Why didn’t we see it before?”

My wife poked around online and found that Smith, though unwilling to say so in the interview, does actually advocate violent revolution if needed. (Echoing Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.”)

I said, so does he think they’ll have more guns than the other side?! If violence is to settle our political dispensation, it will be by right-wing gun nuts, not left-wing peaceniks.

Smith reflects a common cynical leftist view of America as irredeemable with racism and social injustice. Epitomized by Noam Chomsky, and by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States — chronicling two centuries of efforts to overcome injustices and achieve progress, yet with nary a word acknowledging that anything was achieved at all. As if America was born in sin because it did not, in 1787, immediately free the slaves, give women the vote, empower labor unions, and right all wrongs. And it’s no better today.

Zinn’s litany might have included gay marriage. Except that no one could even imagine it when he wrote in 1980. Really proving how little he understood this nation’s capacity for progress.

America was not birthed in perfect justice. But into a world where there wasn’t even any such thing as self-government. Our starting it came to serve as a guiding light for much of humankind. What we also created was the kind of society that could progress and improve and right wrongs. And so we have. We did end slavery, did extend voting to the propertyless and then women, did give labor unions rights, constructing a host of other economic rights and protections, did end child labor, establish minimum wages and build social safety nets, did act to curb racial discrimination and segregation and to integrate our society. And much more — yes, even gay marriage.

Are we perfect now? No, we are still a work in progress, continuing inch by inch down that long hard road, not chasing some mirage of overnight revolution. That’s my noble conception of America. Which people like Mychal Denzel Smith tragically refuse to embrace.

More tragically, as his own book title says, the stakes right now are high, with that vision of America threatened as never before. Trump has already battered it. With four more years, it will be destroyed.

You want a revolution, Mr. Smith? Trump will show you a revolution.

John Lewis and the “Beloved Community”

September 22, 2020

One of my book groups read John Lewis’s 1998 autobiography, Walking With the Wind. He’s long been a hero to me.

The subtitle is A Memoir of the Movement, referring to the 1960s civil rights crusade. Lewis was there from the start, when he was twenty, in 1960. From 1963 to his 1966 ouster he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a frontline organization. Those few years were a very intense time for him.

I was reminded that in the same age bracket, I too was involved in an intense battle against an entrenched power structure — Albany’s Democratic political machine. And as with Lewis, it ended with a betrayal. My Republican party, which had been its spearhead, basically turned its back on that fight. At my last countywide party meeting, my speech was booed. But I never risked my life as Lewis did, repeatedly.

He never wavered from the basic principles that motivated him from the start. A Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, which for Lewis was a deeply felt moral commitment. With an ideal of equality, all Americans joining together in what Lewis liked to call a “beloved community.”

Perhaps inevitably, such generosity of spirit ultimately could not stand against other impetuses. The degree of violence encountered made some SNCC members want to fight fire with fire. While Lewis’s “beloved community” idea came under assault from those more militantly seeking not integration but separation. Propelled by Malcolm X’s black nationalist radicalism — of which he actually repented before his assassination. Nevertheless, that new “black power” trope made the old SNCC stance seem too tame for some. Stokely Carmichael was in that camp, maneuvering to wrest the group’s chairmanship from Lewis.

In the climactic vote, amid all this dissension, Lewis actually defeated Carmichael by a wide margin. But that was reversed by what amounted to a late night coup, after most meeting attendees had gone to bed. Reading his account, I was surprised Lewis folded to this. But by then perhaps he was no longer up for fighting against what seemed unstoppable.

Two decades later, Lewis returned to prominence, winning a Georgia congressional seat, by defeating his old close friend and movement “golden boy” Julian Bond.

Lewis’s last chapter laments where the country had gotten to, as of the late 1990s when he wrote. His “beloved community” seemed farther away than ever. It felt oddly disturbing to read this in 2020, when the trends Lewis discussed have grown so much worse.

I have no truck with radicals advocating abrupt revolution. America’s great story, instead, has been gradual progress, through hard work, always climbing a steep hill of resistance. That was the story of John Lewis and the civil rights movement. It was a moral battle, and the nation as a whole did come together on the side of what was right and just.

But today it’s a very different country, as Lewis himself already wrote over twenty years ago. In some ways (notably, gay marriage), progress has continued, yet something is very broken. A 2011 book by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum was titled That Used To Be Us. Referring to how America used to tackle problems and challenges — which in many ways had stopped. And here again, since that was written, it’s gotten even worse.

American democracy was quintessentially a project of Enlightenment rationalism. That’s what is failing. Under sustained assault by almost half the country. We are now in another great moral battle, for truth against lies, hope against fear, love against hate. For right against wrong. But the nation will not come together on the side of right as it did for John Lewis’s 1960s movement. Our “beloved community” is breaking into two irreconcilable warring ones.

The Ginsburg seat: into the abyss

September 19, 2020

We were already at Armageddon. Pandemic and economic collapse, schools closed, racial turmoil, and our political tribalism climaxing with the most divisive and consequential election ever, likely headed for a fought-over result.

And now this. Armageddon squared. Buckle your seatbelts, it will be hellacious.

Weeks ago I wrote a blog post hypothesizing Justice Ginsburg’s death just after a Trump election defeat — and suggesting nonviolent resistance to stop his nominee’s confirmation. But now Republicans can’t be stopped from ramming it through.

The religious right has fought forty years for this, and won’t be deterred from grabbing what’s probably their last nick-of-time opportunity. A Supreme Court majority ending the right to abortion. Which only a narrow minority of Americans actually supports. Such a ruling, in this febrile political climate, would be insanely divisive, shredding the Court’s already frayed legitimacy, and indeed that of our entire civic edifice.

They don’t care, obsessed with this one issue. Willing to burn the house down to get their way on it.

Trump’s likeliest court nominee is Amy Coney Barrett, who seems to feel her religious beliefs supersede the constitution and rule of law. Putting such a person on the Supreme Court is also insane. But why not go for broke?

Only 27 years ago Justice Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3. That was in a very different country. We’ve always had intense political battles, to be sure, but with all sides committed to bedrock democratic values. That meant accepting pluralism, recognizing opponents’ legitimacy. But Republicans have given up on that. Exploiting levers of power to illegitimately manipulate the system. Like trying to win elections by keeping as many citizens as possible from voting.

And seizing a Supreme Court majority to undo Roe v. Wade, likewise contravening the essence of democratic culture. Simply filling a vacancy might have been legitimate — except for their having previously stolen a seat by blocking Obama from filling it. Their dishonest pretext for that should apply equally to the present vacancy, but of course they’ll hypocritically compound the dishonesty by flouting their own precedent.

Pro-lifers rationalize all this as necessary to combat the supervening moral evil of abortion. But such ends-justify-means thinking is always morally fraught. While a rational analysis of the abortion issue makes it far from black-and-white. And ironically, a Guttmacher Institute study found no link between a state’s abortion restrictions and its abortion rate. A new factor here is increasing use of abortion pills, with no office visits. Probably making the anti-abortion crusade doomed anyway.

Meantime pro-lifers’ refusal to consider the consequences of their single-mindedness is itself profoundly immoral. Consequences like degrading our civic culture by putting a sociopath in the White House. Undermining America’s character as a democratic society founded on truth and reason. This has global impacts on human lives. Two hundred thousand of which — not embryos — have been lost so far in America’s Covid-19 disaster, most of them thanks to Trump being president.

Thanks to the so-called “pro-life” movement.

Rhapsody in Blue

September 17, 2020

I’m no music buff. But being human I enjoy music; mainly music inspiring positive emotion. Often supplying my own words to go with it.

I visit New York City for a yearly midtown event (pre-covid). And hurrying through the rumbustious streets of this city of cities, my inner ear always hears Rhapsody in Blue. Setting the experience to music.

What a pleasure to find in The Humanist magazine an article about Rhapsody by arts editor Daniel Thomas Moran. Discussing its 1924 composition by George Gershwin. But also its meaning. Moran beautifully expresses my own feelings evoked by this music.

It was a sound track for New York, but more, for all of America and what it represented. I can’t improve on Moran’s words:

“[I]t embodies all the hope and exuberance of America at its finest. It was the Jazz Age and the Industrial Age, and the time of an American artistic renaissance in culture and literature . . . .

“It was a time when all our best years seemed ahead of us, when the cauldron of culture and national identity and the embrace by all of that thing that we felt was American was at full boil, in full blossom.

“[W]hen we as a nation and a people seemed to be lifted skyward both literally and figuratively. We were strong and sure and passionate, inspiration was abundant, and we were willing to do the work and take all the risks.”

Yes, this is what I hear in the music. But notice that the foregoing is written in the past tense. That American spirit of Rhapsody in Blue did endure for several decades more — but then lost steam. And in the last few years has fallen off a cliff. Today the country’s psychic ethos is very different. No longer is Rhapsody the anthem of a vibrant American heart and soul. Instead we have the empty, truculent mockery of “Make America Great Again.”

Yet I will end with the words Moran did: “Even in the exuberant echoing vibrato of the opening notes, we can recognize the distant sounds of hope.”

Trump’s depravity explained by his psychologist niece

September 13, 2020

There’s been much psychoanalysis of Trump. Though his depravity seems obvious to any objective observer, supporters dismiss that as baseless partisan slander. Mary Trump cannot be so dismissed. A professional clinical PhD psychologist, she also has intimate first hand knowledge of Donald, her uncle, having been quite close to the family for most of her 55 years. So her book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man is absolutely authoritative.

If she were writing to “cash in,” or vent family grudges, she’d have done it years ago, she says. To avoid any such appearance, she refrained during 2016. Now, however, Mary says her speaking out is a matter of “literally life and death” for the country. (Two hundred thousand, at least, have died so far.)

The book is a family saga. There’s a whole genre of “parents from Hell” memoirs. Donald’s mother was missing in action, too fragile and needy to give her five kids any nurturing. But the main character was Donald’s father, Fred Trump, who made a fortune as a property baron. Fred enjoyed only two things in life: money and cruelty. Devoid of human sympathy, his children meant nothing to him except as tools for his ego.

His eldest son was Fred Junior, “Freddy,” Mary’s father. Initially Freddy was tagged as Fred’s successor to run the property empire. He did spend most of his life employed there. Yet Fred himself sabotaged Freddy in that role. His whole existence was a desperate struggle to earn his father’s approval, but he never could; Fred made sure of it. Her father, Mary writes, “withered and died beneath the cruelty and contempt of my grandfather.”

I kept saying to myself, “Freddy, tell your father ‘fuck you,’ walk away, and live your own life.” But Freddy couldn’t. Instead he stuck around and allowed himself to be destroyed. Driven into alcoholism and dying at 42.

Enter Donald, Fred’s younger son. Watching Freddy’s tragic struggle for their father’s respect, Donald went the opposite way. Instead of sucking up to his father and making himself look weak in consequence, Donald acted out as the bad boy and defied his parents at every turn. And not only was he not punished — not only did he escape Freddydom — he quickly found this did perversely gain his father’s approval. Fred saw Donald as his own alter ego. Just as “tough” and ruthless, just as sociopathic. So Donald became the new heir apparent, and soon had the run of the castle.

Some who experience abusive childhoods repeat the syndromes in their own adulthood. Others can overcome that legacy, and, through social interaction with normal people, rebalance their personas into healthier ones. Donald was certainly in the former category. Indeed, the pathologies he developed growing up in that toxic family intensified, to a grotesquely extreme degree.

As Mary writes, throughout his life, Donald “continued to get away with — and even be rewarded for — increasingly crass, irresponsible, and despicable behavior.” At the final capstone — his election as president — she felt “This can’t possibly be happening.” (Her emphasis.)

Mary agrees with the oft-heard diagnosis of malignant narcissism. But it’s much worse than that — she also sees antisocial personality disorder (i.e., sociopathy) — entailing “lack of empathy, a facility for lying, an indifference to right and wrong, abusive behavior, and a lack of interest in the rights of others.” Surely accurate about Donald.

She says that as Donald grew up, “he needed his father to believe he was a better and more confident son than Freddy was . . . he began to believe his own hype, even as he paradoxically suspected on a very deep level that nobody else did.” Thus his insatiable craving for affirmations of his wonderfulness. Which not even becoming president assuages. So he stages cabinet meetings and pandemic briefings, etc., that are really just sycophantic praise-orgies. Foreign leaders quickly learned to play him like a fiddle with flattery. Indeed, Mary says, for all his posturing as the savvy tough “art of the deal” guy, Donald is actually a thoroughly manipulable patsy. As seen endlessly in his presidential performance.

The irony is that his focus on sustaining an image of vast competence has always blocked him from being competent. Like it’s never occurred to him to earn praise by actually being praiseworthy.

But he does have one true talent— for putting across the scam that his whole life constitutes. Fooling people. As Mary shows chronicling his business history: repeatedly leaving others holding the bag when his business disasters have blown up. Trump may be the most successful failure ever.

He’s often reported as enraged — by what is always really insufficient ass-kissing. So huge is his sense of entitlement that he constantly feels he’s being “treated very unfairly,” a phrase that’s virtually a verbal tic. Mary assesses his predominant emotion as fear. Fear of being exposed, finally, as the fraud he, deep down, knows himself to be. Staving that off is his life mission. (This is why he won’t accept, in the most literal sense, election defeat.)

Mary writes that we’ve “been shielded until now from the worst effects of his pathologies by a stable economy and a lack of serious crises.” But the pandemic, the economic collapse, and deepening societal divides “have created a perfect storm of catastrophes that no one is less equipped than my uncle to manage. Doing so would require courage, strength of character, deference to experts, and the confidence to take responsibility and to course correct after admitting mistakes.” Instead, Trump’s toolkit is limited to “lying, spinning, and obfuscating” — now leaving him impotent.

So what to make of that recorded February 7 interview where Donald said he knew coronavirus was really bad, but was telling the nation the opposite to avoid panic? Some say his only concern is re-election, not lives at stake. Surely true, yet this was no way to gain votes. He could have ensured his re-election with swift and strong covid action. But no — actually, he couldn’t. Was incapable of that.

It was himself he didn’t want to panic. A national catastrophe did not fit with his ideation of personal glory, so he tried to will it away. After all, he’d skated through his whole life on lies. Saying Covid was under control and would magically disappear was just one more. Lying to himself as well as the public. Donald’s biggest sucker is Donald.

Talking heads often discuss his actions as if there’s calculation behind them. Mary Trump makes clear what’s always been obvious — Donald is incapable of real calculation, foresight, or strategy. He’s an unguided missile. True too of his February 7 interview. A considered strategy of avoiding panic? No. That trope came into his head just as the words came out of his mouth.

Mary’s book anatomizes Donald’s depravity, but the picture has long been clear to anyone with open eyes. But too many American eyes were closed in 2016, and far too many still are. While Trump voters are filled with factoids that defy reality,* and too uninterested in learning the real reality. A charitable view is that they just don’t care. Less charitably, they’re so irresponsible it’s insane. No set of political views or supposed values or feelings or resentments can justify it.

Trump is trying to exploit fear of violence in the streets. A poll shows many now fear it more than covid. My own sister shocked me by falling for this. As if Trump isn’t himself greatly responsible for the societal divisions behind these “riots.” And as if they’re harming the country more than the pandemic. What does truly threaten our future is putting it in the hands of this corrupt, incompetent, lying sociopath. Street violence won’t destroy our democracy. Trump will.

*The Economist’s latest issue quotes one who “especially liked Trump’s commitment to reducing the national debt,” and another saying, “He’s made — who is it, China or Japan? — pay our farmers billions of dollars. He got health care done, which the Democrats could never do.”

Economics and sex

September 10, 2020

(NOTE: the following was actually written before the pandemic (I have a backlog). Question for discussion: how is this analysis altered, if at all, by the new economic environment created by the pandemic?)

I heard Professor Paul Hohenberg review Binyamin Applebaum’s book, The Economists’ Hour. That title plays off “The Children’s Hour” with a hint that economists don’t do much better. The book chronicles recent decades when they had much influence on policy. Hohenberg says two things ended that: the 2008 financial crisis, leaving economists with egg on their faces; and Trump’s election, blowing up the whole idea of relying on expertise.

Government used to be dominated by lawyers, Hohenberg noted. But that was when it didn’t do much. That changed with the Depression, WWII, and the rise of the welfare state, with government now seen as managing the economy.

The basic challenge there is stability. Its textbook is John Maynard Keynes’s 1936 opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Positing a tradeoff between unemployment and inflation. If unemployment is low, businesses must compete for staff, driving up wages, which must be recouped through raising prices — inflation. Which tends to feed on itself by shrinking the value of paychecks, driving workers to demand still higher pay. It was thought some optimal unemployment level would keep things in balance.

But the ’70s brought “stagflation,” high unemployment coupled with high inflation, breaking Keynes’s law. The explanation, Hohenberg says, was demographic. Baby Boomers reaching adulthood flooded the workforce. Also women, now much freer to work outside the home. These extra working hands produced much wealth and higher living standards, but the economy couldn’t create new jobs fast enough, hence high unemployment. While higher family incomes boosted consumer demand, pushing up inflation.

It took a serious recession to break stagflation, thanks to Fed Chief Volcker aggressively raising interest rates. Since then, the problem has actually been to get enough inflation to avoid deflation, a different economic curse.

Keynesianism also meant government stabilizing the economy through the stimulus of spending when it’s weak, borrowing the needed money, then reversing course when the economy is strong. Stimulus does seem to work, notably in 2009. But it’s unfortunately addictive, and politicians like to keep the spigot open even when the economy is booming.

Meantime the anti-Keynesian stagflation episode brought to the fore a different economic theory — monetarism, personified by Milton Friedman, arguing that it’s really through regulating the money supply that government controls economic ups and downs. But just as Keynesianism proved oversimplified, monetarism too is not the whole story.

There was also “supply-side” economics, touting tax cuts as stimulus, arguably engendering enough added economic activity that the cuts would actually pay for themselves. This has been widely derided. However, there ought to be some optimal level of taxation, enabling government to collect enough revenue while maximizing the economic activity that produces earnings to be taxed. Whether tax cuts “pay for themselves” probably depends on how they’re structured and who benefits.

With my bodyguards in Somaliland

Hohenberg also discussed free market fundamentalism, trying to limit regulation so that business and industry can just get on with wealth-creation. I have noted, apropos my Somaliland visit, how government’s scant regulation there actually leaves businesses vulnerable to predation and thus inhibits economic activity. Here again the issue really isn’t regulation versus no regulation. It’s having the right kind of regulation that protects the right things, thereby maximizing economic opportunities. But that’s hard to do, and government hasn’t proven very good at it.

Also a butt of ridicule is so-called “trickle down” economics. This relates to the cause du jour, inequality. There’s a notion of equalizing things by just taxing away the wealth of the rich. (Sanders says billionaires should not even exist.) It’s legitimate to have affluent people pay a greater share if government needs the money to fund what it does. Taxing them simply because some envious people feel they just have too much is not any kind of “justice,” social or otherwise.

Hohenberg observed that, ironically, economists get attention when there’s debate but not when there’s consensus. They almost unanimously support a carbon tax; politicians almost unanimously demur. And while practically all economists say trade is beneficial, few politicians have the courage to argue this, and so the public increasingly rejects it.

One audience questioner posited we should just seal America off from global trade and meet all our needs domestically. At least we’d all have jobs. Whereas trade leaves too many without — increasing our impoverishment, ever more Americans unable to afford all the goods being imported.

This idea is indeed commonly believed. But it’s quite false. As Hohenberg explained, the autarky envisioned by the questioner would send consumer prices through the roof; buying stuff cheaper from China than we can make it ourselves saves us money and thus enriches us. The savings we can spend buying other stuff we do make ourselves. It’s also untrue that the average American has been growing poorer. Average incomes have been rising, and trade plays a role in that.

And it’s also untrue that “we don’t make anything anymore.” We manufacture as much as ever, but can do so with ever less labor; it’s advancing technology and automation, far more than trade, that’s responsible for reduced manufacturing employment. But that increased productivity also makes us richer. It frees up labor to do other things, particularly in services, which consumers increasingly spend money on. There’s a notion that producing intangible services is somehow less real than manufactured goods. That’s yet another fallacy; people’s willingness to pay money for something decides its value.

And finally, what about the “sex” promised in my heading? This illustrates another concept of economics. Called “bait and switch.”

The Schizophrenic Anti-reality Convention

August 31, 2020

Schizophrenia is characterized by disconnect between aspects of one’s personality; between reality and what’s in one’s brain.

Today’s Republican party, the Trump cult, is centered on white nationalism and nativism, on full display at its convention. Yet part of its brain knows how nasty this is. Dissonant to its desire to present a more positive image.

So they put on the screen just about every black face they could muster, telling us — with straight faces — how they’re all about equal opportunity for all, racial reconciliation, and suchlike warm and fuzzy bilge. Enabling Trumpsters to feel they’re not racist. While schizophrenically contradicting it with the symbolism of presenting the St. Louis couple arrested for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter marchers. Not a racist dog whistle, but a bullhorn. Honoring these lawbreakers while schizophrenically posturing as the law-and-order party.

Meantime Nikki Haley spoke proudly of how, as South Carolina’s governor, she had removed from its capitol a “divisive symbol.” A good courageous thing. But her courage didn’t extend to actually naming that “divisive symbol” — the Confederate flag. Knowing Republicans love it, precisely because of its symbolism that made her remove it in South Carolina. Thus in a single sentence Haley was totally schizophrenic.

While Donald Junior had no compunction endorsing retention of “Confederate” monuments. He and Nikki ought to have a debate.

They kept saying fetuses have a right-to-life. But not, apparently, the thousands of actually living children ripped from mothers’ arms and put in cages, many never to be reunited.

The most bizarre schizophrenic moment was Trump’s swearing in new citizens. As if he and his cult love immigration. As if hatred for immigrants and refugees, wanting to keep them out, were not a key Republican raison d’être. Trump’s citizenship ceremony sure was feel-good imagery. As long as you overlook his administration’s having virtually shut down the entire immigration system and slammed the door on refugees and asylum seekers. In fact it has even halted citizenship ceremonies — like the one he held — for immigrants who’ve already completed the whole rest of the process. Thus denying hundreds of thousands the right to vote in November.

Meantime Melania told us, again with a straight face, of her efforts against bullying, while one egregious bully looked on grinning. She also said we deserve honesty from a president! Well, many love that Trump “speaks his mind.” Unfortunately his mind is a cesspit of vile lies.

They even had the brass to throw the word “nepotism” against Democrats — in this convention where practically every other speaker was named Trump, and his son-in-law is his minister-for-everything.

The Democratic convention wasn’t perfect, but I was uplifted and inspired because its uplifting and inspirational quality was fundamentally authentic. It accorded with reality. You know, actual reality, out there, in the real world. (Or maybe you watch Fox.)

In contrast the Trump convention’s attempt at uplift and inspiration was a fraud. Because it flouted reality — the reality of this president, what he’s done, and what his administration truly represents. They solemnly invoke the American ideals and values they actually trample, making a mockery of them.

The relentless bogeyman portrayal of Biden was just preposterous. As if this most moderate of centrists is somehow fronting for wild-eyed socialists and aims to end freedom of speech. How many times did they say he wants to “defund the police?” Which he has repeatedly and explicitly made clear he opposes. (While in fact the Trump administration has cut money for policing.)

And how often did they say Biden wants to end the Second Amendment? That would require ratification by 38 states — impossible. Of course Biden doesn’t propose it. Nor “taking away guns.” What he does favor are reasonable measures like background checks and controls on the most murderous people-killing weapons, no-brainer reforms which are compatible with the Second Amendment, and which most Americans endorse. If Republicans want to debate these things, fine. But they don’t. They just want to scare people with lies.

Their main scare is saying America is “engulfed” in out-of-control “mob” (read: black) violence. Promising “we will have law and order.” You might think Trump is running against the administration responsible for what he attacks. Saying “this will be Biden’s America” as if Trump is not in charge right now.

But of course he takes no responsibility; while enflaming the animosities we’re seeing, throwing divisive racist bombs. He obviously wants more violence, to help him politically. Certainly threw fuel on the fire in Portland. So is Trump suddenly the right guy to calm things down and bring peace to our polarized society? And listening to Republicans you’d never guess that blacks’ treatment by police has anything to do with the unrest. No mention of cops who murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others. How about some law and order there?

Meantime, does the Republicans’ dystopian picture bear any resemblance to reality? We’ve had overwhelmingly peaceful protests. True, with a few isolated instances of unjustifiable violence. But at least 99.9% of Americans have experienced nothing of the kind. The “American carnage” picture Trump so darkly paints is absurd. And to claim Biden sanctions or encourages violence? “No one will be safe in Joe Biden’s America?” This nonsense insults our intelligence.

During the convention, protests in Kenosha followed police shooting an unarmed black man seven times in the back. Then two protesters were killed by a 17-year-old white Trump fan with a huge gun. When he tried to surrender to police, they passed him by — to go after protesters. Trump has defended him. “Law and order” Republican style? In that America no one is safe.

And Trump’s whole show was itself a flagrant violation of law: the federal Hatch Act prohibiting use of government property and personnel for partisan political purposes. Turning “the people’s house” into the Republicans’ house. Even literally putting Trump’s name in fireworks above the Washington Monument. He desecrates everything. I’ll never be able to look at that monument again with the same reverence.

No previous president has come close to so blatantly flouting the law, and basic ethics, with an extravaganza so expressly partisan on federal property. Such ruler glorification is what dictatorships do.*

And while Republicans hammer about violence in the streets, which has actually killed very few, Trump blew it in protecting us against the virus that has killed 183,000 so far. The convention’s biggest lie was a lie of omission — almost total refusal to acknowledge this gravest crisis facing America in modern times. The convention took place mostly in an alternate universe where time stopped in February. The keynote events, packing in people closely together with no masks, were saying, “Virus? What virus?” Some attendees will likely die (like Herman Cain after attending, maskless, Trump’s Tulsa super spreader).

While, on those rare occasions where the pandemic was mentioned, it was to tell us Trump did a tremendous job. Lying about numbers to deny that America’s are among the world’s worst. In the real world, the one we actually inhabit, the consequences of Trump’s deranged incompetence every one of us confronts every day.

Trump said Biden’s covid plan would crush our economy. As if it wasn’t in fact already crushed by Trump’s own covid response. So brainless that despite the economic pain it didn’t get the virus under control. Biden recognizes that as long as covid isn’t seriously tackled, our economy will stay crippled.

Listening to Trump’s speech, as a lifelong Republican, at many points I’d have applauded — if I didn’t know the reality. Republicans wouldn’t need to lie so much if they had a halfway plausible story to tell. But bankrupt of true achievement, and of morality, the only story they can tell is fake.

America is broken in many ways. Last time Trump said “Only I can fix it.” It should be glaringly obvious by now that he’s totally the wrong man for the job, making things much much worse. Especially deepening our divisions. Only we can fix it.

If you still support Trump, it’s your right. But at least be honest about why. Face up to the reality. Don’t hide behind a wall of lies.

Trump’s often called a “reality TV star.” But his real talent is in the unreality department. I am proud to support a true reality star — a man of decency, dignity, integrity, truthfulness, human feeling, caring about people other than himself, a genuine public-spirited patriot who really wants the best for this country rather than just to gratify a sick ego. That’s Joe Biden’s reality. Real reality.

* Making a citizenship ceremony a partisan show was an especially egregious violation of legal and ethical norms. Republicans don’t care.

Political violence: thinking about the unthinkable

August 27, 2020

It’s December 13, 2020. Trump’s been crushingly defeated, Democrats have won the Senate — and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

Just three weeks of lame duck Republican control remain. Mitch McConnell, who blocked Supreme Court nominee Garland, calling it wrong to fill a seat during a president’s last year, now plans to rush through a Ginsburg replacement.

What could stop them?

It would be so civically destabilizing, so blatantly illegitimate, that forceful action would be justified. I could see legions of people marching on Washington, possibly to occupy the Senate chamber and physically prevent a vote. Non-violent civil resistance. The regime’s response would probably be very violent.

Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, sets forth in exhaustive factual detail how much human violence, in all its many forms, has declined in modern times. And all the many reasons accounting for that. Cynics and pessimists mocked Pinker, but couldn’t refute him. The decline in violence is one of the things that makes me a believer in progress and an optimist about humanity.

But while opposing violence I am not a pacifist. I’ve always believed an ideology of pacifism fails to confront the true moral choices life sometimes presents. That some things are worth fighting for.

While the Ginsburg scenario is hypothetical, Trump’s defeat is highly probable. And with it, a very real danger of political violence. Trump openly says he will reject the election as fraudulent if he loses; laying the groundwork, by impugning mail voting. Even though it’s long widely been used with great reliability and security. Trump would like to create chaos by delaying the Postal Service’s delivery of ballots, and to delegitimize the whole election. Giving America a big black eye; hardly short of treasonous.

Important: a study by The Economist estimates that 80% of mail ballots could be cast by Democrats. Thus on Election Night, before mail ballots are counted, Trump may seemingly be ahead. He will claim victory and then ferociously insist it’s being stolen by fraudulent mail ballots, whose count he will try to disrupt. He’s intent on retaining power by hook or crook. “Will of the people” be damned.

A poll showed 29% of Republicans would back Trump if he refuses to leave office claiming vote fraud. No matter how big the eventual landslide against him? Does that sound insane? But for anyone to still support Trump at this point — after his disastrous record on covid, economic devastation, divisive racism, mountain of lies and corruption, vicious cruelty, and so much else — including trying to sabotage the postal service and the election — isn’t that already a bit insane?  And given all those powerful reasons why so many people will vote against Trump, can Republicans actually delude themselves that only fraud could defeat him?*

A lie cannot be worth fighting for. Yet not only are Trump diehards crazy enough to swallow all his lies, some are indeed the kind of people crazy enough to fight for them. Many of them are gun nuts — besotted with a fantasy of “defending liberty” against “bad people,” with bullets. Convinced, against all reality, that their führer’s been cheated of re-election. Trump’s last stand could well be, for them, a now-or-never, do-or-die moment.

A particular worry is the frighteningly large “QAnon” conspiracist network. Which Trump praises, having retweeted QAnon content almost 200 times. The FBI considers QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, with its members already responsible for gun violence. In their insane mythology Trump is the god, supposedly battling against a vast “deep state” conspiracy of Satan worshippers, engaged in child sex trafficking and even baby eating. His election defeat, accompanied by his flagrant incitements, will send these already deranged people way over the edge. With a very different sort of March on Washington.

This is our coming Armageddon. Ever since the Civil War the idea of an American political settlement through violence would have seemed inconceivable. No longer. What would this do to our democratic way of life? A democratic culture is one in which issues are decided by debate, with acceptance of pluralism, respecting the legitimate role of people who are different and have divergent opinions. Even accepting political defeat. With rule of law — not guns.

That is something worth fighting for. If attacked by people with guns, it must be defended. One might expect law enforcement and the military to do so. I doubt the military would be party to any sort of coup. But the traitor-in-chief being commander-in-chief is a wild card. We’ve already had a foretaste with his deployment of goon squads in Portland. And Trump is the kind of person who, if he can’t get his way, will try to burn the place down.

How all this will finally play out could be very ugly, leaving deep lasting civic wounds. One might rationally suppose a Trump putsch attempt would shred his last remaining political support. But don’t bet on it; rationality is in short supply in that cult. One report on a Trump rally showed a woman saying she’d welcome him as a dictator.

It’s becoming clear that whatever happens, this is not going to be a normal election with an orderly peaceful transfer of power. We’ve had 232 years of them. One way or another, that sterling American record is about to end, thanks to Trump. It breaks my heart.

I pray we can get past this very dark and dangerous passage in our history, that the plague Trumpism represents will finally dissipate, and America will resume its far longer climb toward building a better society for all.

*The same poll showed Democrats would be reluctant to accept an election outcome they believe was produced by Russian subversion, or another Trump electoral college win despite losing the popular vote. Those views would at least be grounded in rationality. But they’re likely moot because Biden is so far ahead.

American Dirt

August 25, 2020

Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt begins with a bang. Literally. A gunshot. Then a lot more.

It’s a quinceañera party, in Acapulco. The massacre’s cause: a newspaper reporter who wrote about a drug cartel boss. Eighteen die. Only his wife Lydia, and her heroic eight-year-old son Luca, escape. Knowing they’re hunted, they become migrants, heading for “El Norte” (America).

Lydia had owned a bookstore; formed a deep bond with a customer who’s a real book lover and (bad) poet. He was in love with her. He’s the cartel boss.

This was one of those books I had to put down every so often, to hold my head in my hands. Sometimes I had a hard time resuming. Had to remind myself, this is fiction. Yet knew, too, its reality.

Literature is about the human heart and soul. This book exemplifies it. From the first words, the reader confronts two human beings in extraordinary trauma, knowing they face a terrible ordeal ahead. Does it matter they’re Mexican?

For some it does. The book prompted a firestorm of criticism for “cultural appropriation.” How dare a white American write a novel depicting Mexicans? This doctrine of the politically correct woke left elevates identity politics to a new height. As if a violator steals something from whom they portray.

It first came to the fore with a painting in the Guggenheim Museum based on the famous Emmett Till open-casket photo, showing his mutilation. The artist’s intent was to spotlight the injustice. But she was white. Oops. Horrors. Not only were there demands for the painting’s removal. They wanted it destroyed.

There’s a spate of polemics calling upon whites to get past their whiteness, or some such incoherent notion. Demanding wokeness. What could be more woke than trying to evoke tears for Emmett Till? You’d think. But no. Destroy that painting.

I’ve discussed this before; also in reviewing Robert Boyers’s book The Tyranny of Virtue. The watchword is “stay in your lane.” Of course that doesn’t apply to non-white artists or writers portraying whites. But otherwise, Boyers points out, “stay in your lane” applied strictly would mean white writers limited to memoir only.

This is why I make a point of literature being about the human heart and soul. That’s what Cummins is engaged in — very powerfully. Had the “cultural appropriation” cops been always with us, we’d have scant literature altogether.

Stating the obvious, the novel’s characters are human beings. Just like you and me, with joys and sufferings just like ours — no, of course not, far deeper. Even reading this with stomach clenched, it wasn’t possible for me to get my head around their extreme experience.

These are the migrants Trump and his minions so despise. Dehumanizing those whose humanness far excels their own. Any one of those migrants, with the capabilities and grit to surmount all the horrible pitfalls, and actually make it to our border, puts to shame the Americans who hate them. Those migrants have qualities that make our country great. I wish we could swap out the one group for the other.

Of course this is the import of the book’s title. Many Americans call these people “dirt.” I thought it could also mean “American soil” — something confirmed near the end.

The book does spotlight that migrants entering America, instead of receiving Good Samaritan treatment, succor and sanctuary, are today met with yet more vicious cruelty. Their children confiscated — many toddlers, even babies — many likely never to be reunited with parents. Being thusly separated from Luca is a big fear for Lydia, once they do get across the border. I used to be so proud of my country. I look forward to that pride’s restoration. Though our humane new president will have his work cut out to unwind the vile policies put in by his predecessor — American Dirt.

No — not American. Just plain Dirt.

Also as shown in this book, what ruined Acapulco, and so much else in the world, is the insane war on drugs. Doing vastly more harm than it could ever prevent, even if it did stop drug use, which it cannot. When will this madness end?

Yet I am an optimist, a believer in progress. Grounded in most people being good. It’s not a faith; it’s empirical, based on an understanding of the scientific evolutionary reasons why it’s so, as well as a lifetime of experience. Some actors in this book are very bad indeed. But most are good. Throughout Lydia’s and Lucas’s ordeal, made gut-wrenching by those bad people, they encounter far more who are good. But for whom they’d be dead. It could almost be a fairy story.

On a lighter note — I visited Acapulco once. In 1973, when the very name connoted carefree tourism. Before the criminality that has almost destroyed the place. I went there with a girl on what was literally a blind date. But one crime did take place.

The much tonier hotel next to ours was the Club de Pesca. On a lark we snuck in there just to sit by the pool. A waiter came by; we ordered a little something. Later, bringing the bill, he said to just sign with our room number. So I did.

Ah, youth.

Political insanity round up

August 23, 2020

While several commentators on a CNN panel lauded Biden’s superb speech Thursday night, stressing the character chasm between the candidates, the Republican Scott Jennings was burbling, “The policies! The policies!” About where Democrats would take the country. As a former Republican I wanted to grab him and shake him. Policies? Where Democrats will take us? As if Trump hasn’t taken America down the toilet. If you really cared so much about your precious “policies,” why did you put their fate in the hands of a man no responsible person could vote for? Taking down with him your beloved “policies,” whatever shreds they might still possess.

Friday I received a Trump-Pence e-mail headed, “The Biden Campaign is unhinged.” It said:

“No one is safe in Joe Biden’s America. Not only is he encouraging the lawlessness in Democrat cities, but his campaign donated money to BAIL OUT DANGEROUS criminals, including a serial rapist, from jail. Disgusting. Can you believe it, Frank?”

Actually, I could not. So, curious, I googled a bit and found that some Biden campaign people — not the campaign — made private donations to a fund bailing out folks arrested in George Floyd protests. No one charged with crimes like rape. So on the truth-o-meter, Trump’s message rates a solid PANTS ON FIRE.

Yes — “disgusting” indeed. Talk about a campaign being “unhinged.” Every Trump accusation or insult is always uncannily more descriptive of him than his target.

And talking about “lawlessness in cities,” the St. Louis couple arrested for unlawful firearms use, for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter marchers, has been slotted to speak at the Republican convention. A really smart move to dispel any stink of racism in Trump and his party, and spotlight their “law and order” bona fides. Reaching out to voters not already crazy enough to support him.

Then there’s Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson. Answering President Obama’s speech ringing the alarm about Trump’s threat to democracy, Pierson tweeted: “We are NOT a Democracy!! Not understanding this simple, yet critical fact, is likely the root cause of Trump Derangement Syndrome!”

I think a symptom of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is imagining somehow that “We are NOT a Democracy” is a killer defense of Trump, a stirring campaign rallying cry.

The syndrome is contagious. When Michelle Obama’s speech, taped in advance, mentioned 150,000 U.S. covid deaths, Trump mocked her, tweeting, Wrong! It’s 170,000! What a brilliant riposte, sure to win him votes.

Trump meanwhile accuses the FDA of deliberately “slow walking” vaccine development until the election; part of a “deep state” conspiracy against him. While we have the “QAnon” network, seeing that conspiracy (inevitably involving Jewish George Soros) working to destroy Trump and America while engaging in child sex trafficking and even baby eating. The FBI considers QAnon a domestic terrorism threat. But Trump has now publicly endorsed QAnon, saying its devotees love their country (and him).

Then there’s messing with mail service. One analyst said this could finally be Trump’s undoing. No, wait, seriously! Worse than shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Because so many people depend on timely delivery of checks and medications, etc. Trump does everything for political advantage. Yet is too insane to know what actually helps or hurts.

But alas political insanity is nonpartisan. A survey of 510 Sanders delegates to the Democratic Convention found 33% “strongly disapprove” of the Biden-Harris ticket. A further 19% “somewhat disapprove.” Just 17% “somewhat approve,” and a mere 7% “strongly approve.” Fortunately those hard core Sanders fanatics are —as the primary voting showed — actually only a fringe minority among Democrats. The great mass of the party has its head firmly on straight, not up its ass.

American ideals cannot survive four more years of government by lunatics.