Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Fear and loathing in the Sultan’s court: The Mapmaker’s Daughter

June 20, 2018

A twelve year old Venetian girl is grabbed as a slave, from her home island, and carried off to Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, in the 1500s. The Mapmaker’s Daughter is her novelized memoir, by Katherine Nouri Hughes.*

And quite a tale it is — the girl Cecilia, renamed Nurbanu, rises to become a Sultan’s wife, effectively queen. If that sounds implausible, history actually offers other similar cases. Helena, Constantine I’s mother, started as what was perhaps euphemistically called a barmaid. She wound up not only an Augusta but a saint!

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

Cecilia/Nurbanu prospered because she wasn’t just another slave girl, but well educated, with a connection (albeit illegitimate) to Venetian nobility; and she caught the eye of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was Suleiman’s son Selim II (“the Drunk”) she married. Selim was indeed a big drunk. But he’s consistently called a good man. This tells you something about the others. Life in “the good old days” wasn’t pretty.

As in, say, grabbing children as slaves. Nurbanu worried about the fate of the many others taken off that island with her, but it’s left vague. No doubt few of those others enjoyed her good fortune.

Sultan Mehmet II

But one particular bit of nastiness forms the story’s fulcrum. This part of the world had a long history of rulers’ sons contending among themselves for power, with often bloody results. So Sultan Mehmet II (“The Conqueror,” of Constantinople, in 1453) promulgated a law aimed at forestalling such rivalries and thereby protecting civic order. Each wife or concubine of a Sultan would be allowed only one son. And when a Sultan took power, any surplus male siblings would be . . . dispensed with.

The one-son-per-girl rule was hard to enforce. And there was another factor. Life in those times was precarious, even for the healthiest. So to ensure the dynasty’s continuation it was deemed vital for a Sultan to produce extra standby sons.

Sultan Selim II

On that score, Selim the Drunk was slacking off. He didn’t want any woman but Nurbanu and had only one son. So finally his dad Suleiman ordered him to get with the program. Selim then obediently sired a bunch more sons. And soon thereafter died.

Meantime, when he himself was dying, Suleiman had also given Nurbanu a command — to be the enforcer of Mehmet II’s grisly law. For years, while Selim lived, she wrestled with the moral dimensions, seemingly resolved to disobey. But when Selim died, and the time arrived, she wound up giving the order. All Selim’s small sons were killed.

They were half-brothers of Nurbanu’s own son, who became the new Sultan Murad III. He hated what she had done.

While the author had to imagine a lot about Nurbanu, the book appears to stick closely to known historical facts, based on a little checking I did — prompted by one episode I found scarcely believable. Murad III built a very advanced astronomical observatory, aimed at putting Islamic science in the vanguard, outdoing all European efforts. Then, just a few years later, Murad ordered it demolished.

Sultan Murad III

It’s often pointed out that, at one time, Islamic science and scholarship were indeed in the forefront of human progress. And the question is often posed — what happened?

One great thing evolution endowed us with is changeability. It’s often forgotten, or even denied, but societies and cultures can and do change. In 1983, Ireland voted two-to-one to outlaw all abortions. In 2018 they voted two-to-one to repeal that. The Economist commented: “In 35 years, Ireland has changed utterly.”

So too did Muslim society change. But change is not always positive. Demolishing Murad’s observatory may have signaled an epochal inflection point for Muslim society.

America’s culture of democracy, freedom, openness, and tolerance can change too. And we seem to be undertaking our own demolition.

More accurately, a big part of America is doing that. Another part is fighting them, but somewhat ineffectually, with its own head partly up its rear. Right now, the former lot is on top (arguably illegitimately, by dint of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other manipulation). Can this be overcome? America’s soul hangs in the balance.

But back to the book:

Sultan Mehmed III

Nurbanu (in Hughes’s telling at least), after years of defending the executions of Selim’s sons, eventually repented, and on her deathbed seemingly persuaded her son Sultan Murad to change the law. Yet the genealogy helpfully prefacing the story has already informed the reader that after Murad came his son Mehmed III — with “19 sons executed.” The author, in an afterword, says Mehmed’s 19 half-brothers (not sons) were executed. I checked; it is the genealogy that’s incorrect.**

Anyhow, the law was never abolished, but those 19 were the last such killings. Subsequent sultans satisfied themselves with putting half-brothers under confinement.

The Ottoman sultanate itself was abolished in 1923, followed by more or less democratic governance, interspersed by occasional military regimes, until President Erdogan made himself sultan in all but name.

Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan

* Note, there are at least six other books, by six other authors, with the same title!

**Another error I spotted: Cecilia/Nurbanu keeps in touch with her Venetian grandfather (perhaps implausibly till her death at 58). When her grandson (later Mehmed III) becomes a father, her grandfather writes to ask the name of his great-great-grandson. Of course it would have been a great-great-great-grandson!


Code Red: Guest column by Thomas Friedman

June 5, 2018

I’m not one for reblogging and sharing what others say, preferring my own words. But I’m making an exception for Thomas Friedman’s May 29 column, which expresses so well my thinking. I’ve taken the liberty of shortening it considerably (find the full text here). His title is Sounding Code Red: Electing the Trump Resistance:

This election is not about what you may think. Not a choice between the particular basket of policies offered by candidates for House or Senate in your district or state — policies like gun control, right to choose, free trade or fiscal discipline.

No, what this election is about is your first chance since 2016 to vote against Trump. Or are you in favor of another two years of unfettered control by a man who wants to ignore Russia’s interference in our election; a man whose first thought every morning is, ‘What’s good for me, and can I get away with it?’; a man who shows no compunction about smearing any person or government institution that stands in his way; and a man who is backed by a party where the only members who’ll call him out are those retiring or dying?


The worst Democrat on the ballot for the House or Senate is preferable to the best Republican, because the best Republicans have consistently refused to take a moral stand against Trump’s undermining of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Civil Service, the basic norms of our public life and the integrity of our elections.

It is up to the Democrats to protect America from Trump’s worst impulses. To oust the most corrupt Republican lawmakers who lead key committees, to properly oversee the most reckless cabinet secretaries, like Scott Pruitt, and to protect the F.B.I., the Justice Department and Robert Mueller from Trump’s intimidation.

I don’t write this easily. On many issues, I’m not a card-carrying Democrat. I favor free trade, fiscal discipline, pro-business regulations, a democracy-expanding foreign policy, and I have an aversion to identity politics.

But all of that is on hold for me now, because something more fundamental is at stake: It’s not what we do — it’s who we are, how we talk to one another, what we model to the world, how we respect our institutions and just how warped our society and government can get in only a few years from a president who lies every day, peddles conspiracy theories from the bully pulpit of the White House and dares to call our F.B.I. and Justice Department a “criminal deep state” for doing their job.

So that’s why I have only one thought for this election: Get a lever of power that can curb Trump. Nothing else matters now.

Still, Democrats can’t count on winning by just showing up. They still have to connect with some centrist and conservative voters — and that means understanding that some things are true even if Trump believes them: We do have a trade issue with China that needs addressing; we cannot accept every immigrant, because so many people today want to escape the world of disorder into our world of order; people want a president who is going to grow the pie, not just redivide it; political correctness on some college campuses is out of control; people want to be comfortable expressing patriotism and love of country in an age where globalization can wash out those identities.

Democrats need to connect with some voters on those issues but then take them in a constructive direction, in contrast with Trump’s destructive direction.

I want to see, and I want the world to see, a majority of Americans vote to curtail his power for the next two years — not to push a specific agenda over his but because they want to protect America, its ideals and institutions, from him — until our next presidential election gives us a chance to end this cancer and to birth a new G.O.P. that promotes the best instincts of conservatives, not the worst, so Americans can again have two decent choices.

Again, this is Code Red: American democracy is truly threatened today — by the man sitting in the Oval Office and the lawmakers giving him a free pass.

Are smartphones bad for kids?

June 3, 2018

One of the earliest ancient inscriptions has been translated as reading, “Kids today don’t behave well or respect their elders like they used to.”

This essay may sound like that. And I’m one of those dinosaurs who doesn’t use a smartphone. So either I don’t know what I’m talking about, or can discuss smartphones with detached objectivity.

The word “addiction” often comes up here. And while these devices obviously entail vast benefits, many people feel they’re a curse, enslaving them. Kids’ use is a particular concern.

I’ve seen data showing American children aged 8-12 use their phones, on average, six hours a day. Teenagers: nine hours. Even if these numbers are inflated, clearly the phenomenon is huge. For these kids, school must be a very secondary activity.

What do they actually do, on their phones, for all those hours? I researched this question. (Yes, my blog posts are carefully researched.) Well, research is not what they use their phones for. The main things are gaming and social media; for boys it’s more the former, for girls more the latter. Regarding social media, Facebook is rather passe; the place to be is Instagram (a more simplified alternative that emphasizes photo sharing). Kids also use their phones to watch shows and other video, and listen to music.

Much of this they do while doing other things — like school, or homework, or even several of those phone activities simultaneously. It’s called “multitasking,” and people think it’s an efficient use of time. But studies show we greatly over-rate our multitasking ability. Generally, doing two things at once means doing neither of them efficiently or well. We perform far better when concentrating attention on one thing at a time.

The music, video, and gaming kids enjoy; the social media not so much. Despite its engendering very mixed emotions, kids, especially girls, feel they can’t opt out, that’s social death. But the problem is that social media puts their fragile self-regard on the line pretty much continuously. They live for “likes.” The main reason they post things is to elicit “likes” from their peers; they give “likes” to others to court reciprocity. A posting that doesn’t get enough response signals personal failure. You’re nobody without a lot of Instagram likes.

Neuroscience is relevant here. The amygdala is a primitive part of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety, the flight-or-fight response. The amygdala activates when one feels social exclusion. The prefrontal cortex, a more advanced brain area, responsible for rational thought, talks you down from the amygdala’s going ballistic. That’s how it works for adults. But for teenagers, while the amygdala is fully developed, the prefrontal cortex is not (until the mid-twenties in fact). That makes teenagers’ online social lives a particularly explosive emotional minefield.

At least phones keep kids from ever being bored. Formerly a staple of childhood, the very concept of boredom seems to have disappeared. Not necessarily a good thing. Our brains may need some down time, to just wander. If they’re on and stimulated constantly without let-up, something important, developmentally, could be lost.

Helicopter parenting probably doesn’t help. The obsession to keep kids safe, from the terrors of the outside world, keeps them locked in their homes; they don’t much hang out in the streets, socializing, like we used to in my own Pleistocene childhood. Smartphones at least offer a way to connect to that outside world.

Unfortunately they also make it easier to act badly. The nature of the medium, its impersonalness, where you don’t have to confront someone face-to-face, virtually encourages snarkiness. A lot of bullying and personal destruction results.

Phones are also used a lot for sexting. But hormones and smartphones are not a good fit. While youngsters seem to be sexualizing earlier, actual sex among teenagers is actually trending downward. That might sound like a good thing, but their sexuality may be channeled in less healthy ways that don’t put them on a path toward mature, fulfilling relationships. I think this shows up in the steep decline in marriage rates, and corresponding rise in single parenthood. For kids especially, the whole smartphone thing makes what we used to call “dating” more fraught. I put “dating” in quotes because that whole social construct — where one could gradually get to know a person and develop a bond — is largely a thing of the past.

The bottom line is that, according to (more) research, today’s youngsters seem less happy, lonelier, more anxiety-ridden, more likely to be clinically depressed, and more likely to commit or attempt suicide. Factors other than phone fixation may of course be at work, it’s hard to disentangle all the ways in which modern life is changing, and their effects. The mentioned over-protective parenting is, in many additional ways, counter-productive for kids’ emotional development and true well-being.

However, what really strikes me about the smartphone activity is that so much is just plain trivial. In all those “likes” being bandied back and forth, where is the meaningfulness? In fact, a lot of what kids do they do less for the sake of the activities themselves than to generate photos for Instagram. And never mind the triviality of “liking” a picture of someone doing something that’s basically trivial in itself — it’s not even genuine liking, but just a ploy to elicit reciprocal stroking. What a cat’s cradle of inauthenticity. And for a lot of kids, this is the hollow center of their lives.

Human relationships are a key to life, and much fulfillment comes from interacting with others who mean something to us. But it seems a lot of kids are trapped in cycles of interactions with people with whom they don’t have real relationships or intimacy. I feel fortunate to have realized pretty early that how I am seen in the eyes of people who matter to me is something that should matter to me; but how I’m seen (if at all) in the eyes of people who don’t matter to me is not.

P.S. If you enjoy this blog post, please be sure to click “like!”

Trump’s “spygate” — biggest scandal in political history

May 31, 2018

In a personal conversation, journalist Lesley Stahl asked Trump why he says bad things about the press. He answered candidly: “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Straight out of the would-be dictator’s playbook. Trump can’t (yet) lock up journalists and shut down newspapers and TV stations, like in Turkey, Russia, or Venezuela. But what he can do is neutralize them by undermining their credibility. If the public stops believing them, they might as well be shut down.

That gets rid of one key check upon his power. Another comes from within the government itself. Indeed, that was a foundational concept of our system (remembering King George) — rule of law rather than by men.

Trump wars against that too — our infrastructure of internal accountability — the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Mueller investigation which, recall, was started because Trump fired the FBI director to squelch the Russia investigation. An independent probe was considered needed. Trump’s strategy is not to actually refute any eventual charges but to get them disregarded.

His weapons? Lies, lies, and more lies.

Previously it was alleged political bias. Simply a lie (Mueller is a Republican).

“Spygate” is another lie. Trump says the FBI “implanted, for political reasons, into my campaign” a “spy,” and this is one of the “biggest scandals in history.” (As if he knows any history.)

I know a lot of history, actually. And what is in fact our worst scandal ever is a president assaulting the pillars of our democratic system and rule of law with a shameless campaign of lies.

It wasn’t a “spy” and he wasn’t “implanted” and it wasn’t “for political reasons.” He was someone who spoke with some Trump campaign operatives which he reported to the FBI, which was already investigating the Russia links. Simply routine law enforcement practice.

Think. If the FBI was really out to screw Trump, they could have simply made public the fact that his campaign was under investigation for criminal Russian involvement. Far more explosive than anything in the Hillary/email investigation — which the FBI did make public before the election — probably sinking her candidacy. The scandal, if anything, was publicizing the Hillary probe and not the Trump one.

“Spygate” is just a Trump smokescreen to obfuscate the basic fact that Russia, not the FBI, messed with our election, on Trump’s behalf; and to discredit the Mueller investigation. So (just like he told Lesley Stahl about the press) when something damning comes out, people won’t believe it.

At least those people he counts on as suckers for his con game. His Republican base, for whom tribal solidarity now trumps everything. There’s no lie they won’t embrace if necessary.

This includes many Republicans in Congress (like Devin Nunes). And those who do know better are so cowed by their partisan voters, they dare not whisper such heresy. They betray America and (what used to be) its fundamental values.

How bad is it? Click here for a GOP fundraising email I just got, with the “spygate” party line: it’s the DOJ and FBI (not Trump) lying; the FBI’s conduct (not Trump’s) that “cuts to the very heart of democracy!”

Right now, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray stand as a kind of Maginot Line shielding our democracy against this attack. An ominous metaphor.

Trump’s blitzkrieg of lies is winning. Confidence in the press and in the Mueller investigation erodes, while Trump’s support edges up toward 50%. (In almost any other country, and in our own past, a leader behaving like him would be in single digits.) So what will happen when Mueller delivers his final verdict? Probably nothing. Democrats will scream, while Republicans dismiss it as fake news. Our worst scandal ever, and justice will not triumph.

And by November 2020, it will all have faded into the background. Voting is swayed most by events closest to the polling date. Democrats will likely pitch their campaign to Boston and Berkeley with Bernie. Trump will be re-elected. Then he’ll be really unbound.

Iraq revisited — rising from the ashes?

May 12, 2018

Iraq holds parliamentary elections today.

Conventional wisdom calls the Iraq War an unmitigated disaster rooted in lies about weapons of mass destruction.

I had supported the war. Saddam was no garden variety dictator; his regime ascended heights of monstrousness; it seriously threatened the whole region; severe sanctions were failing, even while further torturing the population.

About the “lies” — all the major intelligence services (even France’s) concluded Iraq had WMDs. Saddam had already used chemical weapons. And was trying to make it look like he had more. But casting that as a certainty was Bush’s mistake. He should have said, “We can’t be sure whether or not Iraq has WMDs, and can’t take the risk that it does.” (But maybe that would have sounded too ambiguous.)

The invasion was badly botched. It spawned much conflict, destruction, and ultimately the horror of ISIS, overrunning half the country including a leading city, Mosul.

A depressing story. But The Economist’s March 31 issue had a fascinating report on today’s Iraq — “Moving forward” — saying the country is now “righting itself.”


ISIS had made monkeys of Iraq’s army under egregious former Prime Minister Maliki. But his successor, Abadi, is far better, and ISIS’s territorial incarnation has been destroyed by Iraq’s soldiers.

The Economist now calls them the region’s “winniest.”

In Mosul

The battle for Mosul seemingly evoked the sardonic Vietnam War line about destroying the city in order to save it. Yet Mosul is recovering with remarkable speed. Shops, hotels, and restaurants bloom; and “[t]there’s not a niqab, or face-veil, in sight.”

The UN says it takes, on average, five years after a conflict for half its displaced people to return. But Iraq’s conditions are so positive it’s taken only three months. They’re rebuilding.

Meantime, Iraq’s Kurdistan had long been a separate country in all but name. Then in September Kurdish President Barzani (no beloved figure) overreached by insisting on an independence vote. The backlash included Iraq’s army retaking some territories the Kurds had occupied, including Kirkuk, a key city. Now Kurdish separatism seems dead, and Iraq is a more united nation than in a long time.

In 2003, Bush had talked of planting a seed of democracy in the Middle East. Cynics loudly laughed. Yet even while the subsequent “Arab Spring” (partly inspired by Iraq) largely turned to fiasco, the fact is that Iraq did become a functioning democracy — and remains one. Indeed, The Economist’s report is quite upbeat on this score too.

Iraqi democracy had appeared to fall prey to sectarian enmities. Saddam’s minority Sunni regime had oppressed the Shiite majority. After his fall, Shiites sought revenge while Sunnis refused to accept disempowerment. But, in The Economist’s telling, this conflict is finally abating; Iraqis have learned its lessons; having peered into the abyss, they’re drawing back from it.

So secularism is on the rise, with a “striking backlash against organized Islam.” In Fallujah, once the “mother of mosques,” people are rebuilding homes but ignoring wrecked religious sites. “Only old men go to pray,” a 22-year-old says. ISIS’s religion-warped cruelty spoiled the brand. And whereas Iraq’s political parties used to be loudly sectarian, a recent opinion poll showed only 5% of Iraqis would now vote for anyone with a sectarian or religious agenda.

Iraq still has plenty of severe challenges. Governance is still largely shambolic and pervasively corrupt. But the country rebuts cynics who believe people never learn and never change. Progress does happen.

How ironic that while Iraq rises above tribalistic politics, America sinks into it.

Footnote: That photo is of an Iraqi woman after voting in their first post-2003 election. (Fingers are dyed purple to prevent re-voting.) I well remembered seeing the picture at the time; her look of pride and determination moved me deeply. For this blog post I googled “Iraqi woman voting” and happily it came right up. It still thrills me.

The War Between the Scouts

May 9, 2018

Poor Boy Scouts. First they struggled over whether to allow gays in. Now they’re allowing girls too, and changing their name, from Boy Scouts of America to Scouting BSA. (And what, pray tell, does “BSA” stand for?)

Predictably, this has provoked howls of outrage, at what’s seen as yet another too-politically-correct feminist liberal assault upon America’s hallowed traditions. Fox’s Tucker Carlson called it “the criminalization of masculinity!” But commentator Aisha Sultan writes that that anger is misdirected. “Rather than jumping on this as a chance to bash women, girls and political opponents,” Sultan concludes, “‘those so outraged should turn their anger to the men in charge” of the Boy Scouts.

Huh?? Really? What crime, exactly, have those men committed?

As Sultan’s piece explains, no outsiders were pressuring the Boy Scouts to change. What drove them was falling membership — unsurprising in the age of smartphones. How many boys today are into woodsmanship? They want to earn not merit badges but Instagram “likes” and high scores on Castle Crashers. So no longer could the Scouts afford to exclude half the potential membership pool (i.e, girls).

The (former) Boy Scouts plan to still keep genders pretty much separate. But allowing girls to participate seems a no-brainer in this enlightened 21st century. And who is hurt by it?

The Girl Scouts.

Those champions of girls are not applauding the Boy Scouts’ pro-girl initiative. Because, already faced with their own similar existential challenges, the Girl Scouts see the Boy Scouts’ move as a mortal threat, poaching some likely recruits. So the Girl Scouts have declared war, “gearing up an aggressive campaign” to defend their turf, Sultan writes. She quotes Girl Scouts CEO Bonnie Barczynkowski: “No matter how the Boy Scouts may try to restructure their programming to include girls,” the Girl Scouts don’t merely include girls, they’re specifically geared “to meet the unique needs, learning styles and interests of girls.”

Here we see the primordial feminist schizophrenia: arguing that females are no different from males and must be treated the same — and that they’re different and the differences must be honored. (Thus feminists hounded Lawrence Summers out of Harvard’s presidency for suggesting women might be underrepresented in the sciences because their brains work differently, while a group of Harvard feminists published Women’s Ways of Knowing, maintaining that female brains do work differently, hailed as a feminist manifesto.)

Are they really made from Girl Scouts?

Anyway, how far will the war between the scouts go? Will the Boy Scouts carry the battle into enemy territory (like Lee attacking Gettysburg) by inaugurating Boy Scout cookies? And the obvious logical counterpunch for the Girl Scouts would be to admit boys, and change their name too. Then the two organizations can fight it out on equal terms, scrapping over a shrinking pool of potential recruits of whatever gender.

Or . . . why not simply merge?

In any case, let’s hope the cookies do not become casualties of the war.

Good and evil — Khizr Khan’s book

May 6, 2018

Good and evil. Such black-and-white Manichaeanism is so unfashionable. Isn’t everything shades of grey — the color of sophisticated thinking?

Not always.

This is prompted by reading Khizr Khan’s book, An American Family. Previously I’d written of a radio interview I’d found deeply moving. Then one of my book groups chose Khan’s book.

Khan was the Muslim-American who spoke at the 2016 Democratic convention. His soldier son Humayun had been killed in Iraq. He spoke of the American values his son had died for — values being trashed by Trump’s campaign. Khan doubted Trump had ever even read the U.S. Constitution — and offered to lend him his own well-thumbed pocket copy, holding it up.

In response, true to form, Trump slimed Khan and his family.

Khan’s book tells his life story. Born in Pakistan (not the best of countries), he was inspired by reading in school America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. “I was like a lonesome islander,” he writes, “who’d found a bottle washed up on the beach, a secret script tucked inside that told of a wonderland, a fantastical place that existed, improbably and perhaps impossibly, far across the ocean.” Yet he actually never dreamed of coming here. A succession of serendipitous jobs (Khan trained as a lawyer) landed him in America. He long imagined he’d return to Pakistan, where he’d be a big man; but finally decided he’d rather be a free man here. By then, he felt he and his family belonged here — a place “more compassionate, more welcoming, more tolerant than the places we had left. Than anywhere else we’d ever been.”


Khan does love the Constitution, that he held up in his speech. Especially the Fourteenth Amendment (my favorite part too, as I’ve written) with its guarantee of equal protection of the law. Khan recognizes we still have far to go to fully realize this ideal. But to him the ideal means everything — coming as he did from a society where such ideals really meant nothing. And having come to America with nothing (except his talents), he really does feel the country lived up to its ideals in his own case, opening its arms in welcome, raising him up in human dignity, at every stage of his life here.

Khan quotes President Reagan’s farewell address, to which he’d listened raptly. Reagan once more invoked the “shining city upon a hill” metaphor, from Pilgrim leader John Winthrop. “I’ve spoken,” Reagan said, “of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw . . . in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than the oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”

Khan remarks: “Such a beautiful vision.” And what a contrast against the blighted vision of Reagan’s current unworthy successor. “Trump’s city,” Khan writes, is “a frightened isolated fortress, walled off from Mexicans and Muslims, from all the others . . . . crumbling and weak, a dreary landscape implicit in his slogan: to make America great again, one had to assume that it was not in fact great now.”

One expects a father to write glowingly of his lost son. But the Humanyun who comes through in these pages was surely a great credit to his adopted homeland. One day in Iraq a cab drove into Humayun’s compound. Likely a suicide bomber; best to assume so and open fire. But Humayun insisted on making sure it wasn’t just innocent people who’d gotten lost. He took ten steps toward the cab. It blew up and killed him.

Those ten steps, Khizr Khan writes, were where all the American values, which had been instilled in Humayun, came together. “Not religious values — human values.”

Have we forgotten them? How could we have elected a vile creep who, Khan writes, is “loosing a wildness upon the land, stirring the worst of human nature.” Eviscerating America’s fundamental values, that Khan so eloquently writes about.

It’s good versus evil. No grey.

China: the dragon breathes fire

April 26, 2018

Diocletian reformed the coinage too

The Roman Empire had a chaotic patch in the Third Century; most reigns were brief and ended violently. Then came Diocletian, introducing an orderly system with responsibility divided among four rulers, two senior and two junior; the latter would duly move up and appoint new juniors. This “tetrarchy” worked for a short while, until some guys were too power-hungry to accept its constraints.

Deng Xiaoping

China had a chaotic patch between 1966 and 1976, when Mao Zedong’s power unleashed great violence. After his death, Deng Xiaoping, who had twice been purged, emerged as leader. Seeking to prevent a repeat of the Mao disaster, Deng, like Diocletian, established an orderly system of divided authority, including term limits. And like Diocletian’s, this system worked for a while, until one guy was too power-hungry to respect its constraints.

Xi Jinping

That would be Xi Jinping. He has consolidated far more power in his own hands than anyone since Mao; today no one in China but Xi really has much power. And it had become increasingly clear that he wasn’t going to bow out gracefully after 10 years as the Deng system would have required. Now, with little fanfare — and all internet discussion ruthlessly scrubbed — the 10-year limit has been formally abolished. Xi is now ruler for life.

It’s so much easier to amend China’s constitution than ours. Theirs being a charade of a constitution. Another advantage of China’s system. None of the messy public debate or legislative bickering that plague democracies.

The other big thing Deng Xiaoping did was to get China off Maoist-Communist economic madness, opening up to free enterprise. The result has been phenomenal economic advancement, raising hundreds of millions out of poverty. We Westerners had long believed that, as the Chinese gained economic security and affluence, they’d surely demand more say in governance.

That actually seemed to be happening in 1989 — until the regime responded with a bloodbath, showing its adherence to Mao’s dictum that “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Yet still we continued to reason that such a political model was simply incompatible with a modern, educated, wealthy population.

Xi Jinping is determined to prove otherwise. China’s previous baby steps toward democratization, loosening up, and rule of law are being relentlessly rolled back. All green shoots of civil society not under the regime’s thumb are being crushed. Sperm donors are now screened for political loyalty. Lawyers are no longer even allowed to defend regime targets. Xi is building a Big Brother 1984 surveillance state. As The Economist recently noted, technologists used to scoff that controlling the internet would require hiring hundreds of thousands of secret policemen. “Then China did more or less precisely that.”

China is also deploying a pervasive system of social control, a monster Santa Claus naughty-and-nice list, utilizing “Big Data” to assign citizens points for good behavior and black marks for things the regime doesn’t like. High scorers get favored with privileges; low scorers had better watch out. And the government will indeed be watching for them. It is outfitting policemen with facial recognition software to scan crowds seeking targeted individuals.

And not only within China. Thousands in other countries have been grabbed and whisked back for punishment.

There seems to be remarkably little resistance inside China; nothing resembling the dissident movement that harried the USSR’s regime. Of course, with such strong internet and other social controls, there’s very little opportunity for dissidence to surface. China’s Communist Party is actually more fiercely repressive than its Russian counterpart was (at least post-Stalin), and it’s working. But even so, the populace seems weirdly acquiescent to its massive civic emasculation. Were we wrong after all to consider Enlightenment values human universals? Are the Chinese really that different from us?

Another of our hopes was that a more prosperous China would grow to be a more mature and responsible world citizen, playing nice with others in the global sandbox. That’s not happening either; here too China is going the other way, with Xi flexing his muscles not just at home but abroad. A regular bully China has become, brooking no restraints upon its aggressive aims. Even a previously unthinkable seizure of Taiwan by force begins to seem frighteningly thinkable. Wouldn’t that be just the thing to feed Xi’s strutting vainglory. If Putin could get away with it in Crimea, why not Taiwan?

Xi seems intent on proving us Enlightenment suckers wrong not only for China but for the whole world. How much more comfortable the rulers will be in their Beijing palace if the rest of the world looks more like China than its American antithesis. Xi’s touted “Belt and Road Initiative” is an infrastructure development plan aiming to almost literally bind a big part of the world to China. “Confucius Institutes” proliferate around the globe to promote, in reality, not China’s ancient wisdom but its modern outlook. All over, China is buying up media outlets and pliant political stooges, bullying publications, and making its overseas students into an army of nationalistic propagandists.

If Xi wants to Chinify the rest of the world, Trump seems to wish it too. Thus he mused that maybe America should follow China’s lead and abolish presidential term limits.

“Without God everything is permitted”

April 20, 2018

My wife and I have been reading, aloud to each other, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel. A key motif is whether “without God everything is permitted.” That’s become a major talking point against atheism; the notion that atheists have no reason to be moral. Indeed, the idea’s societal reverberations may well be traceable back to Karamazov.

It was written when atheism was beginning to be important. Nietzsche soon declared, “God is dead.” Dostoevsky was himself deeply religious, yet in Karamazov he does not cavalierly dismiss the opposing point of view. Rather, he wrestles with the moral implications.

I have previously discussed morality without God. If we need him for morality, we’d be in trouble, because of course he’s a fiction. But in truth, whatever moral codes religions prescribe, they are merely a reflection of our pre-existing moral intuitions, rooted in evolution. Our ancestors lived in groups wherein cooperation, morality, and even altruism aided survival. People with tendencies toward those virtues lived to pass along their genes. These norms became further embedded through culture; religions are cultural inventions and again merely incorporate the moral ideas already a part of a given culture.

Further, each of us figures out, using common sense and our rational minds, how to live. Most of us do what’s right because it feels right. Our empathy for others dissuades us from actions harming them. And we realize it’s better to live in a society where people treat each other decently than in a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” None of this requires a God.

In Karamazov, Ivan hallucinates a conversation with the Devil. And in it, the Devil makes this remarkable speech — imagining what he thinks Ivan himself would say:

“Once every member of the human race discards the idea of God (and I believe that such an era will come, like some new geological age), the old world-view will collapse by itself without recourse to cannibalism . . . . Men will unite in their efforts to get everything out of life that it can offer them, but only for joy and happiness in this world. Man will be exalted spiritually with a divine, titanic pride and the man-god will come into being. Extending his conquest over nature beyond all bounds through his will and his science, man will constantly experience such great joy that it will replace for him his former anticipation of the pleasures that await him in heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal, and will accept his death with calm and dignity, like a god. He will understand, out of sheer pride, that there is no point in protesting that life lasts only a fleeting moment, and he will love his brother man without expecting any reward for it. Love will satisfy only a moment in life, but the very awareness of its momentary nature will concentrate its flames, which before were diffused and made pale by the anticipation of eternal life beyond the grave . . . And so on and so forth. Very sweet!”

The Devil is being sardonic, as the final words show. He’s mocking Ivan. And yet this speech — put in the Devil’s mouth by the very religious author — actually expresses pretty well my own humanist ethos.

In the next passage the Devil invokes twice the “everything is permitted” trope — the new “man-god” can “jump without scruple over every barrier of the old moral code devised for the man-slave.”

Yet scruples are integral to our essential human nature. Our morality, which is self-built, does not enslave us, but liberates us, to live good lives, despite lacking ennoblement conferred by a god.

America’s war on refugees

April 5, 2018

Way back in 2015 (a different epoch), when I wrote here comparing America unfavorably with Germany regarding refugees, my daughter (working in the Middle East for a refugee aid organization) chided me that we’ve actually taken in more refugees than any other Western nation.

That was then.

My lawn sign

Our annual refugee quota had averaged 95,000. Now it’s been slashed to 45,000, and actual admissions will likely be far lower. Our infrastructure of charities helping refugees is crumbling because the pipeline is running dry. Partly it’s because Trump has put additional restrictions on intake from 11 countries on a secret list, said to include South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq. In other words, many of the people most desperately in need of refuge.

This panders to Trump’s most rabid nativist fans, and reflects his own personal vileness.

He’s also trying to build a wall, impose a Muslim travel ban, kick out dreamers and millions of other undocumented residents, and even to cut traditional legal immigration almost in half. He’s already ordered out tens of thousands of Haitian, Salvadoran, Liberian, and other refugees, many of whom have lived here legally for decades under a special program.

A lot of them are now heading north to Canada: refugees FROM America!

All these policies are not only cruel, but harm our own country. We should welcome immigrants and refugees not just because it’s the right thing to do, the humane thing, but because they’re good for America, making it stronger and better. (As it does for Canada.)

Trump’s saying other countries “send” us their worst people is a moronic lie. Migrants are not sent, they’re self-selected, and those with the courage and grit to leave behind everything familiar and start fresh in a new country are the best people. Certainly better than those creeps who revile them.

It’s a lie that migrants cost us money. To the contrary, their productive efforts and talents add to our national prosperity. In fact, with an aging population (collecting ever more benefits) and declining workforce participation rates, we desperately need the new blood of immigrants to refresh our employment pool. It’s a major reason why America’s economy is fizzier than in other countries even less receptive to immigration.

And it’s a lie that immigrants and refugees cause crime or threaten terrorism. In fact their crime rate is lower than for the native-born. None of the three million refugees we accepted since 1980 has ever been involved in a fatal terrorist attack.

All these lying arguments against immigrants and refugees are fig leaves to cover up the naked truth. This is racism. The people being kept out and kicked out mainly have brown skins. That, plain and simple, is the animus behind Trump’s actions.

He also lies in blaming Democrats for lack of a DACA solution. He himself was responsible for creating the problem in the first place; he lied when he said he wanted a legislative fix; he did his utmost to torpedo every effort. And he blames Democrats. What a sicko.

From The Economist

The Economist’s Lexington columnist (who covers America) wrote recently about a South Sudanese teenager he’d met in an African refugee camp in 2000. Read his great article. That refugee now lives in Michigan in a four bedroom house with two cars; he’s so far contributed over $100,000 in taxes. Lexington tells this success story not because it’s exceptional but because it’s typical. And the goodness doesn’t shine just in America. Most migrants doing well here send money back to home-country relatives, uplifting those people and places too.*

Finally, immigrants and refugees understand and uphold, far better than most natives, what America is all about, the ideals and values it stands for (or used to). Everything Trump turns his back on. He’s un-American.

America was great because it was good. Now it’s breaking my heart.

* I wrote here a poem in 2016 inspired by a Somali refugee. I sent him a check; he told me he sent the money to his mother in Africa.