Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Understanding history’s meaning

February 26, 2021

(My Black History Month essay)

America is a divided country — two sides seeing things very differently. Naturally enough that includes history. Interpreting the past shapes one’s current perspective.

One side focuses on correcting what it considers a sanitizing of American history. Thus “The 1619 Project,” emphasizing the centrality of slavery. There’s also genocidal mistreatment of Native Americans, and much else, to portray a history of infamy. The other side deems this unpatriotic, and seeks to restore a positive narrative, epitomized by Trump’s 1776 Commission and Mount Rushmore hagiology. To defend the “nobility of the American character” (said the most ignoble character in U.S. history). But such voices too often centralize whiteness and Christianity, sacrificing for that all other values — and our history’s true meaning.

The divergent viewpoints were discussed in a Washington Post essay by aptly named history teacher Daniel Immerwahr (German for “always true”). Regarding whether students should learn of America’s virtues or its shortcomings, he ended by saying the aim of teaching history isn’t for them to love or loathe their country, it’s to prepare them to live in it. 

That should include civic engagement, for which an understanding of history is indeed essential. And seeing both virtues and blemishes enables properly grasping the full picture. We cannot know where we’re going without knowing where we’ve been, and how we got where we are now. Thus Immerwahr describes “1619ers” as pushing us to live up to our ideals. Loving or hating America isn’t the issue. It’s how we go forward.

Some do talk as though slavery was our deep dark secret, hidden somehow like Mr. Rochester’s madwoman in the attic. But that history has always been very much in our faces. We fought our bloodiest war over it; and its literal descendants live among us.

So, yes, we did have slavery, and Indian atrocities, and WWII Japanese internment, and more. But are there countries whose histories read like fairy stories? It’s hard to think of any. Maybe Norway? Then again, a million Norwegians fled for the greener pastures of . . . America.

Immerwahr cites Howard Zinn’s infamous book, A People’s History of the United States. Which saw America as conceived in sin because we did not, immediately in 1787, abolish slavery, establish universal suffrage, liberate women, empower labor unions, and so forth. The book chronicled generations of Americans who battled for progress on all such fronts. While studiously omitting mention of any success. (Zinn did acknowledge women finally gained the vote, but dismissed that, saying they just voted like their husbands.) 

But America has indeed progressed tremendously, becoming fairer and better. Look at gay marriage. Something Zinn neglected to gripe about. Because in 1980, when he wrote, nobody imagined it possible.

Such progress is America’s true central story. While much was wrong in the past, we established a system that, not set in stone, was conducive to positive change through citizen action. And it is in our national character to achieve that, with an ethos of democratic openness and dynamism. A character shaped by generations of people uprooting themselves to come here for their own betterment, like those Norwegians, thus infusing positive attitudes into our very DNA.

This is why I love and take pride in America. And America is really the best exemplar of a character imbuing all humanity. Here too cynics and pessimists press their indictments. But talk about sanitizing history — the “good old days” were squalid, even our prehistoric past no Garden of Eden. Ever since, we’ve made epic efforts toward improvement, with a degree of success once unimaginable. While bringing our worst instincts, too, progressively under control. This is history’s central story. Also filling me with love and pride. 

Get your shot — please

February 22, 2021

Millions around the country struggle with non-user-friendly systems, desperately trying to schedule their covid vaccinations. While millions of others refuse the shot.

First, about those scheduling systems. Forcing people to battle for appointments, which are often distant, or unavailable, is simply crazy. Disadvantaging those not computer savvy — and especially, as ever, the poor and minorities. Instead, let’s have everyone just register, with their details. Then let the system dole out appointments, as available, in some rational order, and notify people by phone or email. Problem solved. Why aren’t we doing it that way?

Part of it is that while Trump was all self-praise about the rapid vaccine development, he totally flubbed planning for its distribution. The Biden administration seems to be doing far better getting shots into people. It’s a race against the virus, with new strains more contagious and likely more injurious, thus threatening a lot more carnage before it’s beaten.

The more people who are vaccinated — or immune after infection — the slower the spread will be, because each virus in the air has fewer potential victims. If it doesn’t find one, it dies. At some point available targets become so scarce the disease is stymied. That’s “herd immunity.” The quicker we attain it, by vaccinating enough people, the lower the death toll will be, and the sooner we can renormalize.

This is why your vaccination is crucial. Not only protecting you personally, but helping our whole country defeat this problem. Masks and social distancing are also very important, likewise blocking covid’s ability to infect people and hastening its end.

We know about the covidiots sabotaging us by refusing to wear masks. Claiming an infringement of their freedom. Like obeying a Stop sign infringes your freedom. You don’t have “freedom” to behave in ways that endanger others.

Now we’re also seeing too many people shunning the vaccine, especially in minority communities. This is a very serious problem that threatens us all — delaying herd immunity and a return to normalish life, it will needlessly kill many thousands.

First of course you’ve got anti-vaxxers who oppose vaccines altogether — their views are scientifically bunk. One corner of the wave of internet craziness that’s so ruinous. But covid vaccine resistance goes far beyond those loopy precincts.

Partly it’s that the messages we get from experts may seem confusing. They’re naturally cautious and try to properly hedge what they tell us, creating an unduly convoluted picture. One key thing is being told that vaccinated people may still be infectious so still must take precautions like masking. Leading some to think (wrongly) there’s no point in getting the vaccine.

Here’s the story. Vaccination won’t completely eliminate your chances of getting infected, or infecting others, but it will drastically reduce them. And when we’re told a vaccine is, like, 90% effective, that’s also easily misinterpreted. It does not mean simply that 90% of people getting the shot are protected, and 10% aren’t. Instead, it means that comparing vaccinated versus unvaccinated people, the latter are about ten times likelier to get infected. But even that understates the benefit, because those few vaccinated people who do get infected have much milder symptoms, compared to the unvaccinated average. Their chance of dying is virtually nil. And furthermore, if you do infect another person, they too would likely suffer much less than otherwise.

Another concern is vaccine safety. Some people distrustful because of the rushed development. It was indeed done remarkably fast — but only because the urgency was so extreme, hence enormous resources were devoted to it. That should instill confidence in the result. And these vaccines have been tested thoroughly — those responsible could not have dared risk the repercussions of cutting corners. Nor could the government authorities approving vaccine use.

So are the risks zero? Of course not, nothing ever has zero risk. But one must rationally weigh risks against benefits. Here, clearly, the chances of a serious adverse reaction to a covid shot are exceedingly small. By now millions have been inoculated and there don’t seem to be any cautionary stories. Surely any dangers from vaccination are vastly smaller than the threat of serious illness or death from covid, against which the vaccine provides much protection.

Don’t be a covidiot. Get your shot. Please.

The Plague

February 17, 2021

It starts with rats, coming out, bloodily dying, all over. Of course it’s the plague. Literally; the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century. In the 20th it hits the French Algerian city of Oran, in the famous Albert Camus 1947 novel, The Plague. Having a new vogue now, and one of my book groups chose it, for obvious reasons.

Camus based his depiction on an actual cholera epidemic striking Oran a century before. Philosophically, Camus has been called an “absurdist,” believing that our lives always ending in death makes them fundamentally absurd; yet it’s up to us to nevertheless make of them what we will. Here, the capriciousness of plague death highlights the absurdity, while the characters do what they can to combat it, imbuing them with a valiant power. 

The main protagonist is a doctor, Bernard Rieux, in the forefront of the struggle, doing his best to cope under terrible strain. As the death toll inexorably rises, the walled city is closed off, no one allowed in or out. Many separated from loved ones. Supplies run short. Naturally it’s hard to maintain a semblance of normal life. (The Covid restrictions we’re enduring seem tame in comparison.)

Rambert is a journalist, caught accidentally in Oran. He deems it unfair, having no real connection to the town but now imprisoned with the rest, aching to get back to his distant beloved. But all his pleas for an exemption fail. Desperation leads him to shady characters to smuggle him out for a price. There follows an opera buffa of missed connections. And when escape at last does seem imminent, so much time has passed that Rambert changes his mind, now feeling he does belong here. He settles in to help fight the plague. 

When it’s finally defeated, Rambert is reunited with his love, embracing on a railway platform. But it’s not so simple a happy ending. Life is a flow, and like a river, is never really the same even from one moment to another. We cannot totally return to what existed before, when it’s interrupted by something like a plague. But even without such a dramatic discontinuity, we never can anyway. Rambert realizes this when hugging his gal. Likewise for us, Covid-19 will prove to have changed everything forever. 

Then there’s old Monsieur Grand. A drone of a clerk in the municipal administration. He’s not good with words, struggling to express himself. That scuppered his long-ago youthful marriage; his wife gave up on his inexpressiveness and left. 

For many years since, Grand’s had a secret pastime. Turns out to be a literary endeavor. Odd for a man short on words. Yet he’s striving for a work that will be greeted by “Hats off!” Eventually he shares with Rieux and others at least the first sentence, on which he’s been obsessing forever, struggling for perfection, each of its words in turn getting agonizing attention. 

Grand falls ill. Seems dying. Shows Rieux the full manuscript — found to contain nothing but that lone sentence in all its endless permutations. Burn it, Grand commands, so forcefully that Rieux complies. 

But then Grand surprisingly recovers. It’s okay, he assures Rieux — he can remember the line. And later, when the plague is over, amid the rejoicing, he relates that he’s now simply eliminated all the adjectives he’d struggled over. And that he’s written to his ex-wife. 

The character I found most compelling, strangely enough, is the old Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. Struggling to reconcile Oran’s travail with his Christian faith. In a big sermon, he calls the plague “the flail of God” whirling over the city, comeuppance for insufficient faith. Oran now learning the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah. The sermon doesn’t go over well. The citizens really don’t feel like bigtime sinners. 

But as the plague continues ramping up, as do efforts to combat it, with Father Paneloux joining in them, he has a rethink. He preaches another, rather different sermon. Instead of saying “you,” he now says “we.” Acknowledging that his previous scourging words lacked charity. Suggesting that the plague actually cannot be understood at all. In this, Paneloux was bitterly mindful of a child’s agonizing death he’d attended. 

What it all comes to, he says, is their arrival at a time of testing. “We must believe everything or deny everything.” Must accept the plague; accept that child’s torture. It’s not mere resignation, but actually embracing humiliation. Paneloux acknowledged preaching now a kind of fatalism, but an active fatalism. We cannot understand God’s will yet must make it ours. Otherwise we’re rejecting God. 

And Paneloux practiced what he preached. Soon falling sick himself, he refuses any sort of intervention that might have helped him. Without struggle, deeming it God’s will, he goes to his death. If he’s consoled by an expectation of Heaven, the book is conspicuously silent about that. 

Was Camus portraying Paneloux as some kind of saint? Certainly not. The plague does present a time of testing — it tests the idea of a God. For Paneloux, failure on that test is impossible. He’d rather die. But fail God does. Paneloux’s renunciation serves to demonstrate the incoherence of the belief system he struggled to make sense of. Our lives may ultimately be absurd, but less so without God.

Lessons from Myanmar’s coup

February 10, 2021

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History, heralded liberal democracy’s apparent final triumph, fulfilling basic human aspirations. But alas, bad people also have aspirations — and often guns.

Cheerleading for democracy is frustrating. Hopes often raised, then betrayed. Visiting a democratic Russia — shortly after Fukuyama wrote — was thrilling. Then history returned. The story repeats again and again. As in the Arab Spring. In Thailand, and Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. Now Myanmar (formerly Burma).

The problem isn’t just guns. It’s also voters. Too few have read Fukuyama to understand how democracy serves them. Too many foolishly fall for strongmen. (America saved by its would-be strongman being himself a fool.)

Myanmar’s voters, though, understood fully. Overwhelmingly choosing democracy over military rule. Perhaps a no-brainer, given their military’s remarkable vileness. As evidenced by its brazen power grab, claiming “election fraud.” (Sound familiar?) And no one was deluded that the army acted benevolently with the people’s interests at heart. They ruled by the gun, as Al Capone in Chicago, a criminal gang doing it for their own power and (importantly) profit.

The army had ruled since 1962. Democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. She’d been heroic; her book, Freedom From Fear, an inspiration. Then, in 2012, a new military president, Thein Sein, initiated a transition to democracy. It seemed for real, aiming at the nation’s progress. Suu’s party won elections and she became Myanmar’s top leader. But the military still retained much power.

Suu’s luster dimmed when she refused to criticize, and even defended, the army’s savage genocide of rape and murder against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. (Buddhist pacifism?) Admittedly her tense relationship with the army circumscribed Suu’s power and authority; but she had some; and what good are they if you’re afraid to use them? Freedom from fear?

Mao famously said power comes from the barrel of a gun. He knew whereof he spoke. In past epochs it was the “divine right” of kings. Few today (apart from Republicans) can be persuaded that God chose someone to rule. Instead we do it ourselves, by voting. But Mao had a point — bullets can trump ballots.

The paradigm of an army using its guns to rule is so familiar it seems inevitable, like the weather. How to keep soldiers in their barracks is a perennial conundrum. Yet few question why a country like Myanmar even has an army in the first place.

Armies originated in a world where might made right. Your city-state needed one because others had them and would use them to pillage yours otherwise. Russia’s Ukraine depredation was a throwback to that kind of world, no longer customary. By and large that just doesn’t happen any more. Most national armies, especially for small countries, are anachronistic holdovers from past history. The idea of a country like Myanmar needing to defend against invasion by some neighbor is basically just ridiculous.

Myanmar does have internal conflicts, with regional/ethnic insurgencies, that its army battles. That sort of thing is what mainly occupies modern militaries — to the extent they do any actual military stuff at all. But query what would obtain absent a national army. The aggressiveness of Myanmar’s toward those regional elements is itself a major instigator of bloodshed. Without its army, the country would likely work through such conflicts politically, and peacefully.

What’s suggested here is not some utopian pacifist fantasy. Naturally, disbanding any army faces much opposition, not least from that army itself; which, after all, has guns to back up its resistance. (Myanmar’s proved unwilling even to coexist with a civilian government.) Yet a few countries have succeeded in abolishing national armies. Costa Rica, for example, did so back in 1948, after a civil war. It has not since experienced another, nor an invasion — nor, of course, a military coup. Its democracy thrives unmolested.

And for countries that still feel an itch for military defense, here’s another proposal: the U.S. can sell invasion insurance. For an annual premium payment, we’d promise to defend a nation against foreign invasion. (Russia’s neighbors would pay a surcharge.) But their cost would be far less than for maintaining national armies. This would be good for America; the payments would help defray our own defense budget. Which could be reduced even further because armed conflicts would be fewer, as more nations join the plan. A more orderly world like that would be more prosperous too, further serving our national interests.

This is a practical path toward the pacifist dream of a world without war.

Impeachment: to vote or not to vote

January 30, 2021

Republicans call the impeachment unconstitutional because Trump’s already out of office. They’re wrong. He was impeached while still president; and the Constitution prescribes two penalties: removal from office, and future disqualification from office. The former is now moot but the latter is not. And there is precedent for impeaching an official (William Belknap) who’s left office.

Note also that the 14th Amendment disqualifies from office anyone guilty of insurrection. That was aimed at ex-Confederates but should apply to Trump.

Some Republican senators say he didn’t really incite insurrection. Seriously? Maybe you can parse his words to argue they nuzzled the line without crossing it. Yet his mob was certainly incited. And when it stormed the Capitol — looking to hang his vice president — Trump watched on TV with glee, refusing to lift a finger. It was finally Pence who called in the national guard.

If Trump’s conduct wasn’t an impeachable offense, violating his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” nothing ever could be.

And his insurrection and attempt to overthrow the election, indeed the government itself, even while failing, did lasting damage. His big “stolen election” lie undermines public confidence in our election integrity and our government’s very legitimacy, exacerbating the partisan divisions tearing America apart. Very great crimes.

Yet Republicans denounce the impeachment itself as “partisan” and “divisive.” These dishonest hypocrites throw around such words to shirk responsibility for their own actions. As if it’s “partisan” to prosecute incitement to insurrection. As if their efforts to overturn a legitimate election weren’t the most divisive thing any party’s ever done.

With the first impeachment, I said that if Republican senators were smart, they’d band together and take the opportunity to be rid of Trump. They didn’t. That was, of course, cynicism and cowardice. But worse, most seemed to have actually drunk the Kool-Aid, becoming Trump cult true believers. Now they have a second chance. Will they take it? No.

Some expected, with Trump out of office (and off Twitter), a soul-searching among Republicans, a reckoning, a return to sanity. Especially after the January 6 insurrection, which you’d think finally made Trump insupportable. And that was a tipping point for a few Republicans. Most, however, are actually doubling down, tunneling deeper into their black hole.

If there’s a reckoning, it’s to purge those few (notably Liz Cheney) who aren’t totally gaga Trumpists. And the party is doing nothing to dissociate from its violent element, which the FBI now unsurprisingly warns is our biggest terrorism threat. Most Republicans may give lip service to condemning the January 6 insurrection — while continuing to pump the “stolen election” lie that provoked it. They won’t even dissociate from QAnon lunacy (now spouted by at least two GOP Congress members).

At the heart of it all is race. The party long exploited white racial anxiety, but under Trump that became its core raison d’etre. That’s what Trump represents, and it explains the fanatical devotion to him. The Capitol rioters weren’t actuated by abstract “conservative” principles. Those, if they even exist any more, are a transparent veneer upon today’s Republican white nationalist heart and soul. That’s also what their flaunted Confederate flag represents. January 6 was an attempted white putsch. And they’re not done; seeing it as the “Lexington and Concord” of their revolution.

THIS  is what’s really tearing the country apart.

In a rational universe a Senate impeachment trial could help lance this boil. But that’s not the world we live in. There won’t be the needed 17 Republican votes to convict. Meantime, the House’s impeachment already gave Trump’s conduct the needed stamp of ignominy. That would only be negated by Senate acquittal. Enabling Trump to again crow vindication, as though wiping the slate clean. Re-empowering him. Bad for the country.

Instead, the Senate should simply not hold a trial and vote. Remember how McConnell specialized in not holding votes? Now Democrats control the Senate and should do likewise on impeachment. Never bring it to conclusion. Let it hang around Trump’s neck, unresolved, forever.

(Senator Kaine has proposed a deal with Republicans to censure Trump rather than vote on impeachment. A censure would need just a simple majority. It would do little or nothing to puncture Trump worship, but if that avoids an impeachment acquittal, then fine.)

American democracy and the Big Lie

January 28, 2021

In November 1918, Germany’s military situation had become hopeless. Support for the Kaiser collapsed, he fled, and a new democratic government came in and signed the armistice ending the war. There was no alternative. But those democrats — including liberals, socialists, and especially Jews — were demonized for it. Blamed for supposedly somehow stabbing Germany’s army in the back.

That was a lie, cynically and knowingly cooked up to serve a political agenda. But it was widely believed by Germans unwilling to accept the humiliation of military defeat. The “stab in the back” myth loomed over the democratic Weimar Republic and corroded its perceived legitimacy; was exploited by Hitler in his rise to power.

This history was discussed recently on NPR. Why? Today America has the “stolen election” myth. The parallels are obvious and scary.

The January 6 insurrectionists cast themselves as battling for democracy, against an election steal. In fact they were accessories to an attempted one.

Trump had long made clear he’d falsely claim fraud to avoid accepting election defeat. But I didn’t realize what legs that lie would acquire. With most Republicans, a third of Americans, believing it as gospel. Like post-WWI Germans, rather than face up to defeat, they prefer to believe a lie that they were cheated of victory.*

The nativist right — for all its patriotism sanctimony — harbors a deep disaffection from the America they actually inhabit. As distinguished from their fantasy country, that they wanted to “make great again.” Actually, make white again, a key focus of their disaffection. And that disaffection is broadened and intensified by the “stolen election” lie. Convincing them that our government is illegitimate, the whole system rotten.

Trump’s trying to overthrow an election and inciting insurrection were crimes enough. But his greater crime was introducing into our body politic this toxic poison of the “stolen election” myth. It will plague us for years to come. Making it all the harder to restore some semblance of — well, not even unity, but just some comity, so we can at least manage to live together.

*        *        *

The age-old fear was democracy degenerating into mob rule. We got a taste on January 6. The other pitfall, seen in many countries, is one voting mistake giving you dictatorship, hard to undo. We’ve now had our own close shave with that as well.

As President Biden declared, our democracy did prevail. Our constitutional system a bulwark against both mobocracy and tyranny. But I keep saying — that’s not ordained by God. Democracy is not just a system but a culture. It cannot be sustained absent a citizenry with baked in democratic values. Which requires understanding those values, and too few Americans today really do.

Those who stormed the Capitol, invoking “the people’s will,” actually had their own understanding of that concept. What they really meant was their will. It wasn’t about who truly got the most votes. Only theirs were legitimate, others not. Especially Black ones. As Isabel Wilkerson suggested in Caste, many Americans want not a democratic country now so much as a white one.

* One more time: while Trumpers cite a raft of supposed “irregularities,” there’s zero evidence for anything that could have changed the outcome. None of Trump’s 60 lawsuits provided any. Even his toady Attorney General Barr agreed. Many election officials involved were Republicans. It all came from a man whose record of lies, if each were a mile, would circle the Earth. And why refuse to believe so lousy a candidate actually lost?

Wear a mask — please

January 26, 2021

It’s not something being forced on you. It’s being asked of you. For your own health and safety, and everyone around you. Nobody has “freedom” to do as they please if it endangers others. That’s not “freedom,” it’s irresponsibility. Mask wearing is good citizenship. Good humanhood.

Do we really, at this point, still have to persuade anyone covid is no hoax? Where did that idea come from anyway? Over 400,000 American corpses disprove it. Many of them believers in the “hoax” lie, who didn’t wear masks, and paid for that mistake with their lives.

On one recent day I counted nine obituaries in the local paper citing covid as cause of death.

And this is not merely like the flu. I had that wrong idea myself at the beginning, but facts quickly changed my opinion. This is much deadlier than flu — and even many who survive go through hell first. And/or then suffer long term health impairments. Covid is also more contagious. Especially the more virulent British strain that recently evolved.

Developing vaccines so quickly is a fantastic achievement. However, it will take time to manufacture enough vaccine and inject enough people to achieve the “herd immunity” to finally defeat the virus. And that will be impeded, if not derailed, by many people refusing vaccination. Which makes no sense, because whatever you imagine (wrongly) are the vaccine’s risks, covid’s are surely far greater. As evidenced again by that mountain of corpses. No way could a vaccine kill that many people.

So that mountain will grow during the coming months. Probably by a lot. The time ahead could be the deadliest.

Masks can help tremendously. Our 400,000+ death toll would already have been far lower had America been more sensible about masks. They can still save a huge number of lives. One October 2020 study calculated that universal masking would prevent 130,000 U.S. deaths in just the ensuing three months.

It’s true that in the beginning experts gave mixed messages about masking. A big reason was a mask shortage raising concerns that widespread everyday use could cause health workers to go without. That’s no longer an issue. And the benefit of masking isn’t rocket science. We know now that covid is transmitted mainly by droplets coming out of noses and mouths and getting into other noses and mouths through the air. Masks help to block them both ways.

Okay, masks are no fun. A bit uncomfortable, a bit of a nuisance. But the notion of masks being somehow bad for your health is simply nonsense. To the contrary, they can literally save your life. Hundreds of thousands are walking around now because they did wear masks and thus didn’t get covid. Given that, calling mask wearing an  imposition is pretty silly. Death is a much bigger imposition.

America’s record on covid is much worse than most other rich countries. Of course that’s mainly because our government leadership was so abysmal — indeed, missing entirely for the last months while infection and death rates accelerated. The most obvious avoidable failure was the refusal to push masking — indeed, doing the opposite. Insane, really. The tragic legacy still bedevils us. A New York Times reporter recently wrote of a long road trip, with masks everywhere notable for their absence. Many places having signs up requiring masks, but they’re widely ignored. Violators getting no pushback. In fact there’s still much pushback when people are asked to wear masks. Bleating about their “freedom.” To be covidiots.

The good news is that most Americans — despite Trump — have been masking. But the bad news is that the minority who refuse are the cause of nearly all our covid infections and deaths. President Biden is asking for 100 days of masking. If every American complied, then by the end of that time, the virus would actually have virtually died out, being unable to infect anybody. Every non-masker will make it take longer. Please wear a mask. Please.

January 20: America’s light rekindled

January 20, 2021

The only presidential inauguration I ever got an engraved invitation to was Nixon’s in 1969. I didn’t go. Covid sidelining Biden’s was a big disappointment. I’d considered flying down nevertheless, just to stand witness, but even that was discouraged, for safety’s sake. And then came January 6.

A sea of flags planted on the mall represented the absent crowd. One was mine.

Four years ago the incoming president spoke of forgotten Americans, forgotten no longer. Last night, forgotten no longer were the 400,000 Americans who died on his watch.

The election had palpably lifted my emotional baseline. Though until today I still felt much anxiety, for obvious reasons. Watching the inauguration was a sublime moment of cathartic culmination and deliverance — intensified by mindfulness of my own contribution. This, more than anyone ever, is my president.

Of course, now comes the hard part. President Biden bears a weight of responsibility no human should ever be asked to carry. But we couldn’t have found a better person to lead us. A president we can be proud of, reflecting not America’s worst but its best. Though I don’t expect to approve of everything — after all, I was a conservative Republican for half a century.

So playing defense will be a lot less fun than criticizing. And normalcy and sanity will seem boring after the last four years. I’ll likely, strangely, miss the tumult.

It’s a truism of human psychology that hate can be more powerful than love, indignation stronger than approval, opposition more emotionally satisfying than supportiveness. Trump lovers were defined by their hatreds, which he channels. Writing about politics sure got my juices flowing. But I don’t actually expect that will end.

* * *

Long at the core of my being was belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity, advancing through rationality. With a democratic America standing as the great embodiment of those ideals. We’ve even had a stamp proclaiming, “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.” A picture of it adorns my wall.

But for the last four years, it’s been a painful daily reminder of loss. That light seemed to have failed.

Today, at last, it shines once more with truth and reason.

This is a good day. My heart is full.

The cult of the leader: Khomeini, Hitler, Big Brother, Trump

January 19, 2021

The news photo was unnerving. Trump’s January 6 rally — with three big screens looming over the crowd, imaging the center of his face, colored deep red, eyes glowering. Recalling throngs with giant pictures of a scowling Khomeini in 1979 Iran. Presaging it would not end well.

Such leader worship never does. Another example, Hitler, led his nation to destruction. And those Khomeini faces, and Trump’s, also both recalled 1984’s Big Brother. None of them smiling.

The foundation for humans living together in society is what’s called social capital. Preventing a war of all against all. A key element is trust — trust that societal norms and precepts will prevail. We ordinarily take it for granted. Trust that a stranger on the street won’t bash you and grab your stuff. That when you buy a jar of aspirins, those pills will actually be aspirins. That votes in an election will be properly counted.

Trump’s attack on the latter — based on nothing but lies — is only the latest in his long assault upon our social capital, dissolving the very glue that holds society together. Because he’snot served by it, this predator who thrives by shredding it. As with his tearing down the press, to undermine its holding him accountable.

America’s social capital was, pre-Trump, already stressed, polls showing us viewing each other with declining trust. Trump’s been an accelerant for that. So now, when it comes to the public sphere, a big segment of the U.S. population no longer believes or trusts anybody or anything — except Trump. The least trustworthy of men. The biggest liar.

That bizarrely perverse loyalty has all the earmarks of religious fanaticism. We had supposed evangelical Christians had strong faith, but it turns out their Christianity is trumped by Trumpism. On whose altar, David Brooks writes, they sacrifice every other value: “truth, moral character, the Sermon on the Mount, conservative principles, the Constitution.”

Brooks quotes a conservative preacher, Jeremiah Johnson who, after the storming of the Capitol, declared that God had unseated Trump because of his pride and arrogance and to humble those who, like Johnson himself, had fervently supported him. Provoking a firestorm of messages from Christians, cursing him out with vile epithets and multiple death threats. Johnson deemed these coreligionists “far SICKER (sic) than I could have ever dreamed.”

Not only can’t they see they’re worshiping a monster, correspondingly deranged is their demonization of his successor, as a corrupt doddering fool who’ll destroy America with socialism, taking away guns and law and order and freedom of religion and speech.

All totally ridiculous. And it’s this delusional foolishness that really does threaten to destroy America.

As seen on January 6. With almost an entire once-respectable political party careening down that rabbit hole. Longtime Republican operative Stuart Stevens had it right titling his book It Was All a LieWell, since Trump’s advent; now all bad faith and disingenuousness. Like when Elise Stefanik and 146 others in Congress claim, with straight faces, that their votes to overturn the election were responsive to Americans doubting its legitimacy — when those Republicans themselves fanned those baseless doubts by pushing Trump’s lies. And like Kevin McCarthy and 196 others opposing impeachment as “divisive” — after their mob attacked the Capitol screaming “Freedom!” in their bid to make Trump dictator — which most of those Congress members thereupon effectively voted to do. Divisive?

For some at least, like that Jeremiah Johnson, January 6 shook them to their senses. Trump’s approval rating fell from around 40% to around 30%. But that’s still a terrifying figure. And many saw January 6 not as a debacle but a clarion call.

How can we cure this madness? I don’t have a good answer. It’s impervious to reason. Brooks calls it “narcissistic self-idolatry to think you can create your own truth based on what you ‘feel.'” It’s not like Trump cultists are just selective about what facts they choose to believe — their basic conception of reality is a total inversion of what actually obtains. The core of their existence is a lie. And nothing will disabuse them.

Hitler, Khomeini, and Big Brother held power — but fortunately an American voting majority (not God!) has rid us of Trump. For now. A bare 51% majority. Too close for comfort.

Free speech and America’s escalating crisis of Trumpist insanity

January 16, 2021

Trump’s 2016 election put America, and what it represents, into a crisis that has only escalated. Every time we think we’ve seen the bottom, we’re proven wrong. Now he’s been impeached for incitement to insurrection, a violent attack on the Capitol demanding overthrow of our presidential election. Which 147 Congressional Republicans then obeyed.

Yet even after this shocking perfidy, Trump’s approval ratings are still between 29% and 39%. For a job he isn’t even doing. While covid rages and the economy craters, he’s been focused on trying to subvert the election and handing out pardons to criminals and medals to sycophants. And a third of Americans approve? Are they insane? 

Many wonder what he was thinking, urging his mob to attack the Capitol. That this might somehow keep him in office? But Trump’s never had a clue how our government and politics actually work. While pundits still talk as if there must be some calculated plan, the truth is simpler: he’s insane.

Many supporters don’t merely “approve” but worship him, as god-emperor — battling a deep state conspiracy of Satanic baby-eating pedophiles, according to Q-Anon, which millions believe. So they storm our sacred Capitol, smearing it with feces, carrying racist flags and weapons and bombs, assaulting policemen, screaming for heads on pikes and for hanging the Vice President, erecting the gallows. It was a close-run thing that no elected officials died. The attackers called themselves “patriots.” And Trump afterward sent them “love.”

We’re told the Republican party is splitting between Trumpism and sanity. But it’s still a very lopsided division; the great majority of GOP voters remain gaga. Just ten in the House backed impeachment. One serious observer suggests some of the rest feared being killed by fanatics in their own voting base. Meantime, now even members of Congress must go through metal detectors after at least one Republican brought a gun into the chamber.

All this might be less insane if centered upon some arguably noble heroic figure, a Pericles, a Napoleon. But this guy?? Vicious, depraved, degraded, a lying con man. Trumpsuckers can’t see the obvious. The word insane hardly suffices.

He rode to power exploiting widespread grievances with at least some tether to reality. Efforts for Black equality are not a figment of Trumpist imagination. Now though, it’s foaming-mouth fury at this “stolen election” idea, totally divorced from Planet Earth. But for them, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

And so they stormed the Capitol. Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

The internet and social media loom large here, spreading the poison. On Thursday I was asked by ex-Gov. Deval Patrick to attend a zoom, with Media Matters for America, discussing Facebook, Twitter, etc., banning Trump, part of a broader crackdown on right-wing extremist content. A video showed some hair-raising examples, including major Fox creeps talking up violence as a somehow legitimate recourse.

I pointed out that “conservatives” have long alleged silencing by opinion gatekeepers, making free speech an issue. And they certainly have a point regarding academia, punitively enforcing ideological conformity. Yet MMA’s presentation was all about suppressing right-wing content. What about trying to bring these people back to sanity? MMA’s president Angelo Carusone answered that major platforms have actually failed to enforce their own rules, enabling extremist advocates to “cheat,” and that’s what’s being targeted.

I am almost absolutist about freedom of speech. With Jefferson, holding that the answer for bad ideas is not censorship but better ones. Banning anyone — especially the President! — from a public platform is troubling. Ones like Facebook and Twitter do have too much power over the landscape of public debate. However, what the First Amendment bars is government restricting speech, which is not at issue here. And while everyone has a right to speak, nobody is entitled to a megaphone provided by someone else. In this case, banning Trump and other incendiary extremists is the right thing to do.

I began by saying America’s been in crisis. Disinformation is a key aspect, shredding our civic culture. We can’t have rational discourse without some shared reality. Bad enough being polarized over genuine issues; now it’s over what’s simply a lie. Many millions deranged by this pernicious “stolen election” nonsense, stoked to insurrectionary violence. Yes, we must try to coax them to sanity. But first at least turn off the fire-hose fueling the madness.

It won’t end soon. Trumpsters see January 6 not as a climactic disaster, but a galvanizing call to arms. They will be raging again tomorrow, and vow inauguration day trouble in all fifty state capitals. Some say President-elect Biden should avoid danger and forgo an outdoor public ceremony. I strongly disagree. Traditions matter. Normalcy — sanity — must be restored — and seen to be restored.

There will be ample security. Better include anti-aircraft guns. Not a joke.