Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

My optimism reality check

May 10, 2021

When I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2008, that case was powerful. My innate optimism intensified by observed reality. The big global story seemed to be progress toward greater human flourishing. Writers like Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, explained it. I was proud of my own contribution, making the case across the whole waterfront of human concerns.

I’ve followed up with my blog. Naturally, bad things have commanded attention, but I’ve tried to highlight good news, countering pessimists and cynics. However, looking back, I must acknowledge that my positive outlook too often proved misplaced. In a spirit of humility, I present a catalog of instances:

Egypt: a very democratic coup” (July 4, 2013). Ouch. Mubarak’s overthrow led to an election producing a Muslim Brotherhood government. It was an undemocratic disaster. I welcomed the coup that ousted it, seeing it as hopefully presaging a “do-over” putting Egypt on a sounder democratic path. I should have been more cynical about coup leader Al-Sisi, who became a more repressive autocrat than Mubarak. 

Democracy wins in Thailand” (July 14, 2011). Well, it did. For a while. Then here too the army ousted the elected government, and has settled in to stay. 

Modi for India” (December 27, 2013). Here I did have misgivings, over Modi’s rotten history on Hindu-Muslim relations. But he seemed to instead stress economic liberalization, which India desperately needed. He has initiated some good reforms. But that’s overshadowed by running a Hindu nationalist regime, enflaming intercommunal antagonisms — and following what has become the standard authoritarian playbook, giving India’s democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Plus now he’s much to blame for India’s Covid disaster.

Great news: Sri Lanka blows off authoritarianism” (January 15, 2015). I was delighted by the unexpected election ouster of another autocratic regime, under the Rajapaksa clan. Unfortunately the new government proved feckless. And guess what? The latest vote produced a Rajapaksa landslide. 

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil” (May 10, 2018). Similar story. The longtime ruling party was so corrupt and awful that extensive election rigging didn’t stave off defeat. But the successor government seems a mess. The tale is still unfolding, but the old lot’s reprise would be no surprise. 

Good news from Kenya” (September 2, 2017). Its highest court overturned President Kenyatta’s dodgy election victory. But guess what? He prevailed anyway in a second go.* In the wings: William Ruto, an even stinkier candidate.

Myanmar — On April 5, 2012, I wrote, with tentative hopes, about President Thein Sein’s democratization moves, after decades of military rule. On October 15, 2012, came my gushing paean to Aung San Suu Kyi. Who subsequently destroyed her heroic aura by making herself complicit in the Rohingya pogrom. And now the army has come back — with a blood-soaked vengeance. 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story” (October 12, 2019). This new prime minister seemed a dream of an African leader, doing so much right. Even got a Nobel Prize. But hardly was the ink dry (so to speak) on my tribute when things went to to hell, the regime prosecuting an internecine war with appalling human rights abuses. 

All this begins to look like a pattern. And then:

America. Just after the 2008 election, I wrote in my book that “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and good will. . . . So we are becoming far more united than divided.” Ouch again. I did not foresee how Obama’s presidency would produce not just a racist backlash, but an intensification of racial disaffection by whites seeing their loss of caste more real. Which led to Trump — an optimist’s ultimate nightmare — America’s collapse as the avatar of Enlightenment values.

Thankfully we’ve reversed that — by a hair’s breadth — and how fully remains to be seen. A Trump return (could America go that insane?) would fit the pattern of cautionary tales I’ve related above.

Before he took office, I wrote (November 16, 2016) that power does not make bad men better. That, at least, proved prescient. And that is also a through-line in my recaps here. Lord Acton’s famous quote was “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You can actually leave off the last five words. Power corrupts. A proposition whose importance grows the more I observe the world. Not only does power not make bad men better; it can turn good men bad. 

But I keep saying that progress does not go in a straight line. For a time, liberal democratic values were on a roll; now, they’re in a bad patch. And China looms as a huge and growing anti-democratic center of gravity. Nevertheless, where the world will be in half a century is hard to foresee. It’s been documented that people are, on average, becoming smarter. I have to hope tolerance for repressive rule will wane. And while the political realm does have much to do with human flourishing, it is far from the whole story. All across the planet, lives continue to improve in countless other very important ways.

Finally — while I’m eating humble pie — on March 9, 2020 I posted:

Coronavirus/Covid 19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

*In 2020, Malawi’s courts similarly ruled the president’s re-election illegitimate; and there, the decision seems to be sticking. So far.

Covid and the social contract

May 6, 2021

Covid will eventually be, more or less, history. Life will renormalize, more or less. But something big has changed in government’s role in people’s economic lives.

For thousands of years it had very little. That really began to change with Bismarckian Germany’s pension scheme, to save the elderly from penury. It expanded greatly in the Depression, developing a broader “social safety net.”

This sparked some pushback from people seeing beneficiaries as coddled moochers — an aggravating factor being racial. On the other hand, there’s been the rise of “social justice” rhetoric targeting inequality.

Two points. First, inequality is not per se a bad thing; some people being rich is not a problem as long as everyone has enough to live decently. And secondly, “social justice” is a mistaken framing. The word justice entails concepts of deservingness. A polemical can of worms, with some, as noted, deeming safety net beneficiaries undeserving. Better to talk not of “justice” but simple humaneness. Helping people for no other reason than they’re fellow human beings. 

Meantime, inequality is blamed on capitalism. Another mistake. While capitalism does produce disparate results, with some people getting rich, it’s wrong to see their wealth as “taken” from the rest. Steve Jobs got very rich by creating products which delighted customers and improved lives. Thus not a zero-sum game but win-win. That’s not universally the case, yet by and large those who earn riches do so by creating value benefiting others. Wealth is not evil.

And capitalism does not cause poverty. In fact, over the past century, average real dollar worldwide incomes increased something like sixfold. Not thanks to socialism; but masses of people being productively employed in a capitalist system, to make their own contributions to societal wealth, and enabling them to buy the resulting products. Capitalism’s critics never offer an alternative system to achieve that.

However, there are concerns that advancing technology will destroy a lot of jobs. This goes back to the Luddites. In every generation, what has actually happened is technology’s efficiency gains freeing up people to be productive in new and different ways, thus enlarging the overall pie. And despite predictions that Covid would accelerate automation, there’s actually zero evidence so far. But can this go on forever?

Good question, with artificial intelligence ultimately likely to replace human work like never before. A growing population segment already lacks the capability for productive employment. Largely due to what is really the key inequality in modern societies: educational inequality. And even if that could be remedied, it’s still doubtful there’ll be enough productive work for everyone. Perhaps if we can at last produce all we need with little human labor, we should just relax and enjoy it. The question then becomes how to distribute the fruits.

All of which brings us back to the governmental response to Covid’s economic fallout. Previously, social safety net programs tended to be massively encrusted with bureaucracy, means testing, other eligibility requirements, and so forth. Much of that out the window with governments now focused instead on just getting money into people’s hands. Arguably this has gone too far, with a lot of babies thrown out with bath water. But it represents a big paradigm shift in our view of the social safety net — in the direction of a universal basic income. Unemployment benefits have even exceeded what some people earned from jobs, which used to be a caricature lobbed by welfare state critics. Yet most Americans now seem okay with it, shrugging off such concerns. 

A recent David Brooks column reflects this: “Ten years ago, I would have been aghast at this leftward shift. But like everybody else, I’ve seen inequality widen, the social fabric decay, the racial wealth gap increase. Americans are rightly convinced that the country is broken and fear it is in decline. Like a lot of people, I’ve moved left on what I think of the role of government and income redistribution issues. We surely need to invest a lot more in infrastructure and children.”*

So far at least, actual wealth redistribution is limited. President Biden is proposing tax rises only for the richest, and for corporations. But most of the new spending is being financed by borrowing. Cheap to do with interest rates at rock bottom. And our society is, on the whole, plenty rich enough to do what we’re doing. But how long can we do it this way? There have to be limits, though we don’t know where they lie, and hitting them could be a rude shock. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says the lack of fiscal discipline in all this spending is totally unprecedented. In the longer term, we have to face up to paying the bills. (Which Brooks too worries about.)

We could instead inflate away the debt, shrinking the value of the dollar, so the rich would pay through devaluation of their assets. But that would be economic havoc; better to just tax them. But again, it shouldn’t be on some social justice theory, as a punitive equalizer, as if their wealth is undeserved. Rather, it should be a re-envisioning of the human responsibilities of members of society toward one another.

That could be Covid’s most lasting legacy.

*Brooks mirrored my own thinking; similarly pushed leftward; partly by how utterly vile American “conservativism” has managed to make itself. 

Transgender wars

April 29, 2021

Changing gender wasn’t even a thing till the 20th century.* This new concept discombobulated many minds, with hostility toward trans people. But now, happily, they’ve won the argument over their right to be themselves. In fact we seem to have gone to the other extreme. Transgender issues have become a minefield of political correctness, with a pitiless orthodoxy one mustn’t question. 

Here are the biological facts. Standard females — I use “standard” to describe most people, others reflecting naturally occurring differences — have two X chromosomes; males an X and a Y. Those genes guide development of an embryo’s sex characteristics. Male and female anatomies differ, as does the brain software accompanying each. Deploying all this in utero is a complex, tricky process, and glitches can occur. 

Obviously, for reproduction’s sake, standard brain software tells men to mate with women, and vice versa. But sometimes variant software gives you same-sex attraction. It’s not a choice. (Try to imagine yourself choosing it.)

More rare is a mismatch between anatomy and brain software. A genetic and anatomical female can get a male brain, and feel male in their heads. This is called gender dysphoria. Not a psychological condition, it’s actually biological. It tends to show up quite early in life (because males and females are raised and acculturated differently), and no psychotherapy can talk it away. Though of course some people try to fight it or deny it, and to live with it.

But now it can be rectified. Such children are typically given puberty blocker medication, to delay sexual maturation until an age when they can make an informed choice to undergo sex change treatment. That at least is the idea. We’ll get back to this.

Previously, gender dysphoria did seem quite rare. Less so now, with all the attention and ready access to treatment. In fact, it’s acquired a kind of cachet, with transitioning not just accepted, but even made attractive.

So we’re seeing an epidemic of “late onset gender dysphoria,” showing up during puberty and adolescence. Mostly girls coming out as trans males. And today’s society is very supportive of their choice — indeed hostile toward any impediments. They’re often moved straightaway to puberty blockers and/or hormone treatments, on a path to surgery. In one Australian case, a child was removed from parents who resisted. 

But hold on. These years are emotionally and psychologically tumultuous even for standard kids. Wrestling with their emerging sexuality and personal identities, especially sensitive to social pressures and their place in a peer group. Now bombard them with positive messages about transsexuality, the internet full of it, trans kids showered with affirmation, making it look hip, cool, chic. While standardhood is so . . . dull. Convincing yourself that your confusing sexual feelings mean you’re trans might seem a great way to get attention, cut through the fog, and assert an edgy personal identity. (We used to have the term “drama queen.”) 

Parents who suspect something like this are dismissed as bigots. But they may be right. Seeing not true biologically based gender dysphoria, but a self-induced simulacrum. Which, with no medical interventions, many youngsters in due course get over. Studies indicate that between 61% and 98% of even early onset cases, once reaching adulthood, with all the life changes that entails, wind up accommodated with their genetic genders after all.

Another aspect is that a disproportionate number of these cases actually involve forms of autism, depression, or other psychological problems. Importantly, many of these kids, once they get a clearer fix on their sexuality, turn out simply to be gay. Which is indeed far more common than true gender dysphoria. And for which sex change is not a good answer. 

But meantime many will already be on a one-way track, thanks to the trans-industrial-complex seizing them in its jaws to execute their previous choice to transition. Backing out can take more guts than coming out. Though blocking puberty is said to be reversible, that’s true only up to a point. It certainly creates a biological platform that’s not natural. And use of hormones and other chemicals, not to mention surgery, has lifelong impacts. Even just hormone treatments, writes The Economist, “cause myriad severe health problems,” including heart problems for trans men on testosterone. And many who undergo such treatments, who later regret it, can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. A gal in Britain had her breasts removed before realizing she’s just a lesbian. Others are unable to orgasm. Or sire children. Some are left incompletely transitioned, in a limbo between genders. The psychological damage can be huge. 

Trans activists refuse to hear any of this. I’m reminded of the Soviet Union’s “Stalin doctrine” — once a country is communist, no reversal could be countenanced. So extreme has the trans ideology become that its advocates often seem to insist this isn’t biological at all, that gender (unlike sexual orientation) is a personal choice. That anyone saying they’re a woman must be accepted as female in all respects. Penises be damned. In some places where “conversion therapy” for gays is (justifiably) outlawed, there are efforts to apply the same policy to gender identity — a very different matter. This could prohibit counseling to explore what’s really going on in a claimed case of late onset gender dysphoria, a sensible go-slow approach before jumping to medical intervention. 

Unsurprisingly, there’s a backlash. Some states are moving toward outlawing transition medicine, an opposite craziness. Particularly fraught is the sports realm. Should trans women be allowed to race against standard ones? Men’s and women’s sports were made separate in the first place because of relevant physical differences. Allowing XY people to compete as women scrambles that. Trans athletes have rights but so do cis-gender women. This is a mess. I would solve it with a simple penis rule.

J.K. Rowling got denounced for insisting cis- and trans-women are not biologically identical. More recently Richard Dawkins (noting Rachel Dolezal condemned for posing as Black) wrote “Some men choose to identify as women and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.” Previously he’d deemed the issue “purely semantic,” saying he calls a trans woman “she” out of courtesy.

The American Humanist Association Board voted to revoke Dawkins’s 1996 “Humanist of the Year” award. Dawkins might really be the humanist of the epoch, having spent a lifetime as a top battler for science and rationalism. But none of that counts, for the trans Torquemadas who make the slightest nuance of deviation from their extremist orthodoxy a capital offense. The AHA has lost its mind and disgraced the humanist cause.

This should be a medical issue, not a political one. (Though in today’s polarized America, everything is political.) I salute the courage of transgender people who, in mature consideration, face up to their personal reality and take on the very great challenge of changing gender. But I also feel sorry for immature youngsters who, during a time of stress and confusion, make a dubious choice and find themselves locked into it by adults who should know better. Who should act with caution and thorough analysis before irrevocable action, violating the most fundamental of medical precepts — first, do no harm. But who are too scared of being pilloried as transphobic bigots.

As I will surely be.**

*NOTE: That sentence has been criticized as false. Obviously people were gender-fluid long before the 20th century. The intended reference was to medical/surgical interventions to change gender. If there were any such cases before the 20th century they were vanishingly rare.

** This essay owes much to an in-depth analytical piece, and accompanying editorial, in The Economist: https://www.economist.com/international/2020/12/12/an-english-ruling-on-transgender-teens-could-have-global-repercussions

Vaccination and evangelical Trumpers: The enemy within

April 26, 2021

Since January 20, we finally have a rational national plan for Covid — to vaccinate as fast as possible, to achieve “herd immunity.” That’s when the virus peters out because there aren’t enough susceptible victims. It requires at least 70% immune. Covid won’t disappear entirely, but would be reduced to a minor nuisance. Personal and economic restrictions can end. We all want that, no?

Achieving it is a national effort akin to war. We’re making great progress. Vaccine availability is no longer a problem. Now it’s people refusing the shot.

Many non-whites were mistrustful toward the medical establishment. That has greatly eased. Now, instead, one demographic absolutely dominates in vaccine refusal: evangelical Trumpers.

Why them? In a nutshell, they believe much that isn’t true, and refuse to believe much that is. Also believing we’re ruled by an omnipotent man in the sky; we go to a paradise after death; their deity chose Trump to “make America great again;” and he won in 2020. It all fits together with vaccine resistance.

They are the key obstacle to beating Covid. And, as vaccine resisters go, these are the most immovable. I heard a fascinating radio report about an effort to sway them, enlisting a prominent Republican consultant, Frank Luntz. He convened a zoom focus group of Trumpers, bringing in top-notch medical experts and also Republican icons. 

Nothing would budge them. Many saw the whole thing through a political lens. Deaf to pleas that vaccination is good citizenship. Fearing the vaccine more than Covid. One woman said the body has a natural ability to fend off such infections. This, after her own husband spent three weeks in intensive care and nearly died of Covid!! Another insisted he wanted facts. Odd coming from a believer in Biblical literalism — and Trump.

Finally Luntz brought out his big gun — Chris Christie. Who related his own experience catching Covid — at the White House — where a slew of others, including Trump, did too. The point seemed to register —YOU CAN DIE from this. Whatever the risks the vaccine might hold (truly infinitesimal), the risk of death without it is vastly greater. 

Thus some did soften their anti-vaccine views. A small victory. But Luntz cautioned that this sort of intensive personalized effort can’t feasibly be replicated for millions of people. 

America is, again, at war. But these people — who love calling themselves “patriots” — are on the other side. They are the enemy within. 

Trumpland and America are two different countries. The Trump tribe rejects the most basic values and ideals that used to unify us. Rejects even the concept of democracy, refusing to view themselves as one part of a diverse national patchwork quilt. Unwilling to accept the legitimacy of anyone else’s role. Seen most vividly in refusal to accept losing the last election. 

The only thing about America that really matters to them is maintaining white Christian cultural dominance. Everything else is seen through that prism. Even the “Christian” part is just a cultural signifier rather than truly religious. Surely their political behavior travesties Christianity. 

We used to talk about “culture wars.” Just battles over particular controversies. But now all that’s metastasized into one big over-arching culture war. With even what should be a straightforward public health matter becoming a tribalized political battleground. 

David Brooks writes* that hopes of America calming down without “Trump spewing poison from the Oval Office have been sadly disabused.” It’s gotten worse; even crazier. Trumpers felt some security with him on top. Now that’s gone, and they feel existentially threatened. Many seeing themselves in ultimate combat for cultural survival, in what Brooks calls “an apocalyptic hellscape.” Totally antithetical to being part of a diverse democracy. Brooks ends by envisioning they’ll “eventually turn to the strong man to salve the darkness and chaos inside themselves.” Well, they already did once.

This is horrible for Amerca. God forbid these people regain national power.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/22/opinion/trump-gop.html

Police brutality shocker in Albany, NY

April 24, 2021

Faced with protesters against police brutality, how did the Albany police respond? With brutality.

I supported Mayor Kathy Sheehan when she first ran, against an old-style pol. I wrote about how great it was to attend her inauguration. Even sent her my book about Albany politics. 

Then the city sent a sizable bill to the “Poor People’s campaign,” for policing during a protest. I was no left-wing fan; but wrote Mayor Sheehan objecting to this atrocity against free speech. The kind of thing a Putin regime would do. Pointing out that the city hires police to do, well, police work. 

A delayed reply said a document was enclosed. It wasn’t. My follow-up letter got no reply. When, meeting her, I asked Sheehan about it, she promised to get back to me. Never did. Anyhow, the whole episode showed her mindset about freedom of expression.

Alice Green

I’ve also pointed out that Albany’s police review board is a toothless travesty. Lately the city has conducted a rather opaque “reform process.” Dr. Alice Green, Albany’s well-known head of the Center for Law and Justice and longtime advocate on such issues was — incredibly — not included. Not surprisingly, the process seems to have produced . . . nothing much. 

On April 14, a BLM demonstration at an Albany police station might have gotten a bit rowdy. Police broke it up with what seemed to me needless brutality. Afterward, a group of protesters encamped by the station, seeking a dialog with the Mayor about their demands. She did not respond. Barriers were erected in front of the building, and state troopers brought in to guard it.

Chief Hawkins

There’d been no violence. The protesters were doing nothing except keeping vigil. Nevertheless, on Thursday, Police Chief Eric Hawkins, with Mayor Sheehan’s backing, launched an assault to clear the area. Demonstrators were given just 15 minutes warning. The police wore full military gear. At least some had their badges covered by tape. Hiding their identities. You know something real bad is going down when officers do that. 

It was brutal. Some protesters were injured, others carried off to jail. Much property, including chairs and heaters (it was wintry cold), was bulldozed and destroyed.

And why was this violence necessary? Chief Hawkins said, “Protesters may continue to peacefully demonstrate, but they must do so in a space that is safe and lawful.” Excuse me: bullshit. If there was something problematic about what the protesters were doing — and I can certainly believe that — surely there was a better way to handle it. Like, maybe, talking with them? To work something out? Before launching Armageddon.

People living in the neighborhood had complained about the encampment. Sometimes rights clash. But anyhow, again, surely there was a better way to resolve the situation without going straight to ultra-violence.

Right-wingers bleat about “freedom” from over-mighty government. But where are their voices when government sends armed men to brutalize people peacefully exercising free speech? They bleat “law and order” but excuse police violations of law and order. Today’s American right has only prejudices, not principles.

This week’s Minneapolis verdict struck a welcome blow for police accountability. This is what democracy looks like. Justice is never perfect, but in a free society, we try our best, and we showed it in Minneapolis. A real milestone in America’s march toward a more perfect union. How disheartening that only days later my own city became a poster boy for continuing police brutality. 

Tucker Carlson and “replacement” racism

April 20, 2021

United Airlines announced a program to get more diversity in its pilot training. Fox’s Tucker Carlson went on a rant saying all that should matter in the cockpit is competence and safety, not skin color. And if that’s no longer true — planes will crash.

Wait, what?

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah slammed Carlson. My wife objected that all Carlson said was that only competence should matter. What’s wrong with that?

It falsely confuses issues of safety and racial fairness. Did United ever say color would trump competence? That it would accept less capable pilots? Of course not. That would be absurd. So what was Carlson on about?

Nobody can openly say, “We don’t want more Black pilots.” Saying we want capable pilots seems fine. Except for the unstated premise that Blacks will be worse pilots. Carlson was giving his racist fans another way to think they’re not racist. Even while thinking an America with more Blacks in prominent roles is a worse America.

A recent Michael Gerson column also demystifies Carlson, as epitomizing today’s Trumpian Republican right. Big there is “replacement theory.” Remember “Jews will not replace us?” Gerson quotes Carlson: “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate of the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” Carlson denies this is a racial issue, calling it instead “a voting rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?”

As if white voters like him have a birthright entitlement to their political dominance. And in Carlson’s eyes, Western civilization itself is under attack: “rotting from within because the people in charge don’t think it is worth preserving.” Welcoming in people who make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided,” Carlson said in 2018.

There you have it. Dirtier. The ancient racist purity trope. Those other kind are polluting. Darker skin is dirtier.

Oh, but it’s not about race, he still insists. Yeah, as if voting restrictions like Georgia’s are about ballot integrity — not making it harder for Blacks to vote. As if it’s not racist to say that with more nonwhite pilots, planes will crash.

Not only is all this racist, it’s dishonest. And such is the core of today’s Republicanism.

For the record: Democrats do not somehow “import” new voters. That’s not what’s behind people immigrating here. And studies prove that immigrants do not make America “poorer,” but richer, being net contributors to our economy. “Dirtier?” I know of no studies, but strongly suspect they’re actually cleaner on average. And “more divided?” Who’s more divisive than Tucker Carlson, demonizing some of our citizens as civilization destroyers?!

The idea that Carlson and his ilk are just defending lofty civilizational values is very insidious; another way to sugar-coat their racism. And what is it, exactly, about immigrants, that supposedly corrupts our civilization? Trump said other countries don’t send us their best. Like they pick out their dregs to get rid of. Idiotic. Immigrants are not “sent,” they choose to come. And willingness to leave behind everything familiar and battle all the obstacles to immigration takes enterprise, drive, and capabilities far beyond what the average American possesses. They improve our country. 

But I too believe America, and Western civilization itself, are under assault — from the likes of Carlson and his sick fans. Their “replacement” by an electorate less white, with more newcomers who understand what America is really about, cannot come soon enough.

And if I see a Black pilot on my flight, I’ll risk it. 

Our Gal in the New York Times

April 18, 2021

My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, has made her debut in the august pages of The New York Times. A letter to the editor, signifying serious chops. And it’s in her chosen field of professional endeavor — educational development in disadvantaged spheres. 

Furthermore, happily, I agree with her (not always true). The article she was answering I found basically naive. (Here is a link to it: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/opinion/stanford-admissions-campus.html.) The writer suggests that higher education opportunities for non-rich people could be expanded by simply “cloning” schools like Harvard. Here’s Elizabeth’s trenchant response:

Mr. Kirp suggests that elite universities should “clone” themselves, opening second branches around the country to allow more students to enroll and access their high-quality education. “It’s not hard,” Mr. Kirp writes, “to contemplate a Bill Gates or Laurene Powell Jobs writing an eight-figure check to help underwrite the venture.”

This is one of those shiny ideas whose sparkle far exceeds any potential impact. Allowing another 6,700 students to enroll in Harvard’s undergrad program every year would do little to address the systemic issues that make it so difficult for so many students to get into — not to mention pay for — elite universities in the first place.

Why not use that eight-figure check to help pay off student loans nationwide, or increase access to high-quality preschools, or set up tutoring programs for high-potential but struggling teenagers, or provide scholarships for the many low-income students who, as Mr. Kirp notes, have already demonstrated they can succeed at elite universities?

Dedicated efforts to mitigate income and educational inequalities across the country would do more to help these universities realize their mission than simply duplicating the same restrictive admissions dynamics in another city. And Harvard already has not an eight but an 11-figure check at the ready: its endowment.*

Note that Elizabeth has her own blog too (https://lizrobinson.squarespace.com/blog/) Mostly discussing issues in the realm of humanitarian work. (The latest post suggests aid agencies competing for the “custom” of aid recipients — a fascinating concept. But she also tackles personal life issues.) 

Elizabeth noted that writing letters-to-the-editor is something she got from me. I had one in the Times over 50 years ago. It defended Vietnam “draft dodgers” — while noting that if drafted I myself would serve. Frankly somewhat disingenuous, as I was trying hard to medically disqualify. 

My picture was once in The Times too. Because I was, indeed, a poor physical specimen, to fill my college’s phys ed requirement I looked for something non-athletic — and hit upon “outdoor education and camping.” Not foreseeing an actual camping trip. Oddly enough, a Times reporter covered it. He wrote that everyone showed enthusiasm — except for “one grim youth who carried his gear in a red plaid suitcase.” There was a photo (from the back).

I used that suitcase for years afterward. 

But my Times record is not all bad. Just as I started dating my now-wife, she, a librarian, stumbled upon an article there about a regulatory decision of mine. Nice way to impress a girl! 

* As it happens, Elizabeth just got accepted by Harvard for graduate school, but she hasn’t decided. 

Guns and Republicans: soft on crime

April 12, 2021

“House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Biden is ‘soft on crime’ but tramples Second Amendment rights.”

Reading that line in the paper turned my stomach.

Republicans shriek hysterically about Democrats taking away your guns. Like just about everything in today’s Republican universe, it’s simply a lie. I’m (now) a Democrat, and would actually favor taking away many guns; and repealing the Second Amendment. But the great majority of Democrats would not, even if they thought it feasible, which they (and I) do not. What most Democrats do favor, instead, is some reasonable regulations to keep guns from the hands of the most dangerous people, and curb the availability of military-style assault weapons whose only function is to kill many people fast.

This doesn’t “trample” the Second Amendment. No freedom is ever so absolute that it trumps all other societal concerns. Freedom of speech does not extend to perjury or libel. And “the right to bear arms” does not include howitzers, or nuclear weapons. Nor should it cover mass murder assault weapons, or allowing lunatics and criminals to buy guns. That’s all Democrats say.

President Biden’s measures are actually extremely modest steps that just nibble at the edges of the problem. That doesn’t keep Republicans, like the morally collapsed local Congresswoman Stefanik, calling them a “gun grab.”

A great majority of Americans — even of Republicans — agree with the Democratic proposals. So why does the GOP make opposition a centerpiece of their propaganda? 

Because the NRA is opposed. It’s an extremist organization, whose stance is as extreme as it could be. Second Amendment absolutism, as if even the most sensible, reasonable regulation of guns must lead to confiscating all of them. (Automobile regulations, including driver licenses, required annual inspections, speed limits, etc., do not curb “freedom” or lead to car confiscations.) Someone should introduce legislation to outlaw private ownership of howitzers — they’re guns, after all — just to test if the NRA will stay consistent and oppose that. 

But legions of gun lovers look to the NRA to call their tune. They’re still only a small minority of American voters. So how does that minority manage to call the nation’s tune?

Many think it’s that Congressional Republicans are beholden to NRA campaign money. Not so. Such contributions are paltry. What keeps Republicans in line is not NRA support but the threat of NRA opposition. A kiss of death.

Why, if most voters actually hate the NRA? Because gun lovers are one-issue voters. Others may care a lot about gun control, but only as one issue among many. They won’t vote against a candidate on that issue alone. Gun nuts will.

It’s a basic problem in democracy. Any issue may be of modest concern to the mass of voters, affecting them only marginally — but of intense concern to a few, who are greatly affected. That concentrated concern will outgun the others, and prevail against the greater good.

Then there’s “soft on crime.” Another in the Republican spit-bag of epithets mindlessly thrown at opponents. Just tossing words, because they can; no need for substance or explanation. Trump specialized in this. “Weak on crime, weak on borders, weak on the military.” (He preferred the word “weak,” as if to contrast his own phony posture of strength.) Republican voters —especially those high on guns — eat up this pap. 

Even generally sane voters can fall for it. “Soft on crime” is an insidious meme that warps minds, so all politicians fear the label, and strive hard to avoid it.

“Soft on crime.” But — what is a key element in crime? GUNS!!!

Morons can’t even spell

Involved in a very high proportion of serious violent crimes. America has vastly more guns, in relation to population, than any other country. We have 4% of the world’s population and 40% of its guns. And — surprise — way more gun crime than any other country. The NRA and gun nuts actually try to tell us the answer for too many guns is — wait for it — even more guns. Literally insane.

Meantime, most Republican “tough on crime” policies actually do little or nothing to reduce crime. What would have a big impact would be stricter gun regulation and diminishing the vast number of guns in circulation, responsible for so much crime. 

By opposing this, it’s Republicans who are the ones truly soft on crime

The Minneapolis trial — what kind of nation are we?

April 8, 2021

“All men are created equal.” The Supreme Court pediment proclaims “Equal Justice Under Law.” The Constitution begins, “We the people.”

We’ve had four years of trauma, testing this country’s heart and soul. The Minneapolis trial is another test.

Cops have long gotten away with brutality and crime. The Rodney King trial a prime example. Our society cloaks police officers with a powerful mystique and deference. Many idealize them as our bulwark against the abyss. There’s also the traditional “blue wall” of cops circling wagons to protect their own.

The Minneapolis trial presents a supremely important counterstory. Here the blue wall has resoundingly fallen, with officer after officer taking the stand to denounce what their man did. A virtually unprecedented blow against police impunity.

A guilty verdict would cement the trial’s positive societal import. The evidence seems damning. The parade of police witnesses blew away the defense that Chauvin was following his training. And to claim Floyd died from other causes is ridiculous. Chauvin seemed to want him dead; or else simply didn’t care; and shows no remorse.

But juries can be unpredictable.* As salutary as a conviction would be, a failure to convict would be a devastating setback to our collective progress.

I do not want to see people having to take to the streets, yet another time, to protest yet another such outrage. Which can begin to feel pointless and futile. There must come a time when the hammer of justice finally prevails. If it does not prevail here, in this most extreme of cases, when could we ever hope for it?

The right keeps bleating “Freedom!” and about government overreach. But no threat from government is more immediate than its armed representatives who can kill you. No freedom more important than the freedom to go about your life in peace and security. Why isn’t police accountability a conservative rallying cry? (Well, America’s “conservative” movement has simply lost its mind.)

They also bleat about law and order. Floyd’s killing was the antithesis of law and order. If you want law and order, start with the people we hire to enforce it. What does it say if a society condones those very people themselves violating law and order?

That’s not my America. In my America, those people — even those people — especially those people — are accountable to the rule of law and to the citizenry they are entrusted with protecting.

Too often we have failed at that. And, yes, at many other aspects of our foundational ideals. Humans are imperfect. But America’s great virtue is constant improvement. The last four years were a ghastly swerve from that trajectory. The Minneapolis trial can help us return to it, can be a key milestone in our larger story of progress toward a “more perfect union.”

** In the one trial where I sat as an alternate juror, the verdict shocked me. 

GOP online fundraising reveals a dishonest, depraved and dangerous party

April 5, 2021

In 2016 I gave Marco Rubio a small donation. Last year, far more to Democrats. Yet it’s Republican fundraising emails that continue to flood my inbox. On one recent day I counted 99. It’s a window into the party. The messages are hysterical — in both senses of the word.

Trump used them to personally extract huge sums from his suckers with the lie that it would combat the “election steal,” itself a lie. Always promising donation matches up to 900%, yet another lie. AND — we now learn that people who thought they were making one-time campaign donations were automatically enrolled for weekly charges! The opt-outs for this were hidden in fine print on the Trump “Winred” websites. His organization itself smirkingly called this a “money bomb.” Millions of unwitting donors were shocked to find their accounts unexpectedly drained. Many had to battle for refunds. But despite such clawbacks, this massive monstrous scam still added hundreds of millions to Trump’s fraudulent take. Perhaps the Great Con Man’s greatest con.

The fundraising emails continue, ostensibly now from diverse organizations and personages, but actually most originate with the same “Winred” outfit. Those named as senders are the likes of Donald Junior, Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan, Devin Nunes, even Matt Gaetz (sent from Central Casting for the “slimeball” role). A rogues gallery of the Trumpiest trolls. Prominently including the two QAnon congresswomen — Lauren Boebert, who brought a Glock into the House chamber, and quite often Marjorie Taylor Greene. The QAnon conspiracy theory, recall, holds that Trump is secretly battling to save America from a Satanic cabal of pedophile cannibals. Meantime Greene also blamed California wildfires on Jews using space lasers.

This is the face of Republicanism the party itself chooses to showcase!

The messages’ content is likewise extremist. A serious “loyal opposition” might develop some well-considered critiques of the administration. Instead the attacks are ridiculous and demented. Banging on the word “socialism.” Misogynistically demonizing Nancy Pelosi and AOC. Wild lies about President Biden. Often invoking stuff where Trump was the really egregious transgressor — can you believe, slamming Biden’s treatment of underage migrants?

They scream about border wall construction being stopped. Greene demands Biden’s impeachment for this, as supposedly violating Congress’s constitutional “power of the purse.” Forgetting that Congress refused to authorize wall spending in the first place. Thus in fact it was Trump who violated Congressional authority, by raiding the military budget for his wall.

So that rap on Biden is laughable. Likewise the wall itself — a series of disconnected sections with wide gaps anyone can waltz through. A monument to stupidity. Billions wasted (Mexico did not pay).

Republicans fetishize the word “freedom.” I consider myself basically libertarian. But today’s Republicans are highly selective about what freedoms they cherish. Certainly not freedom to have an abortion; gays’ marital freedom; freedom to protest; press freedom; freedom to vote; etc., etc., etc. (In a 2017 poll, on a whole range of issues, Republicans were actually more likely than Democrats to say freedoms had gone too far.) 

Their emails show there are just two freedoms Republicans love. One is the freedom to kill people with military style weapons. Of course they fantasize owning guns to protect against such killers. Reality is the opposite. Compared to other countries, America has way more gun deaths because we have way more guns. Nevertheless, Republican messages aim to scare gullible recipients with the bogeyman of Democrats coming to confiscate their guns. (They’re not. They favor reasonable regulations supported by the vast majority of Americans.)

The other freedom Republicans love is the freedom to contract covid and infect others by flouting public health measures like masks and social distancing. One of their emails heralds a “Million Maskless March” and mask burning planned in (where else?) Florida. They attack any idea of “vaccine passports” as an assault on freedom and some kind of Orwellian control measure akin to implanting brain chips. In many states they’re even pushing legislation to ban vaccine passports. And a rising Republican star is South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, lionized at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee conference for boasting that hers was the only state never mandating lockdowns, social distancing, or masking.

It also, not coincidentally, had one of America’s highest covid death rates. While America itself had one of the world’s highest. Recently Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s own covid coordinator, said his conduct was directly culpable for the bulk of our half-million-plus death toll. (He responded, true to form, by sliming her as a “liar.”)

I mentioned freedom to vote. Government accountability to citizens, through the ballot box, is the essence of a free and democratic society. This Republicans work against. With their onslaught to enact wide-ranging voting restrictions, lying that this is to combat election fraud (proven virtually nonexistent). With a majority of GOP lawmakers voting on January 6 to overturn our presidential election. And with devotion to a man who would have made himself king in all but name. All this makes Republicans’ “freedom!” cries ring hollow. They believe in democracy only insofar as it can be manipulated to give them power.

It’s a global phenomenon. After the cold war, it almost looked like democracy was unstoppable. Then bad guys learned how to stop it — or twist it, by manipulating processes and mainly by manipulating voters. Seen in country after country — voters suckered into effectively voting themselves out of power. Blind to a leader’s badness even when it virtually smacks them in the face. We had a close shave in America, and we’re not out of the woods yet. Half a million deaths didn’t dissuade 47% from voting for Trump. 

Philippine voters have similarly fallen for a vile vulgar strongman, Rodrigo Duterte, whose “war on drugs” consists of literally murdering tens of thousands. A recent documentary film profiled journalist Maria Ressa, struggling to hold the regime to account as it crushes press freedom. She herself being targeted with numerous trumped-up criminal charges that have been called “Kafkaesque.” 

At a public forum, Ressa was challenged by an elderly woman, saying she personally felt no threat from the Duterte murder regime. Ressa said she’d respond with a poem. I knew which one:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a socialist . . . ” *

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_…