Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Religion as a source of morality and witch burning

October 16, 2021

[I can hardly believe this piece got published in today’s Albany Times-Union. On the “Faith and Values” page! Especially my final paragraph!]*

Most human societies have believed not just in gods but also devils and demons. A way to explain much evil. Such beliefs were commonplace and powerful in the pre-Enlightenment West. While today witches are Halloween figures of fun, people once were terrified of them, and witch hunts were very real.

That might seem crazy now. But no crazier, really, than some beliefs commonly held today. Polls reveal around 40% of Americans still believe in Satan; we had a Satanic panic as recently as the ’80s. Many people were imprisoned on absurd charges of Devil-worshipping child abuse.

And of course even now millions worship an actual living devil. Trump support does have many faith-like aspects. As does the apocalyptic QAnon cult, full of language and imagery emulating religion. Indeed, a witch hunt, accusing political targets of being Satanic baby eaters (prompting one true believer to shoot up a pizza parlor). The January 6 attack on the Capitol too resembled religious fanaticism. As does the anti-vax, anti-mask hysteria — actually responsible for many thousands of deaths.

The age of literal witch hunting began in 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII promulgated a bull declaring “evil angels” a big problem, doing vast harm, especially connected with procreation. He commissioned a report, titled Malleus Malificarum, the “Hammer of Witches.” A how-to manual for the inquisitions and burnings that now duly exploded.

Under its system of show trials, devoid of due process rights, any accusation of witchery was effectively conclusive, with torture prescribed to confirm it. An open invitation for accusers to manipulate religious rhetoric for typically bad motives: envy, or personal or political vendettas, or getting hold of victims’ property. Or just one’s own power projection.

Inquisitors were incentivized to profit from their prosecutions. “An expense account scam,” Carl Sagan called it. All costs of the proceedings billed to victims’ families, including banquets for her judges, the costs of bringing in a professional torturer, and of course the straw and other supplies needed for the burning. Any remaining property was confiscated for the inquisitors’ benefit. And as if that weren’t enough, they earned a bonus for every witch incinerated.

Not surprisingly, witch burnings spread like, well, wild fire.

Some people, at least, must have realized this was deranged and horrific. But you’d better not voice such thoughts — lest you be grabbed yourself in the jaws of this death machine. Safer to cheer it on, or even participate.

Misogyny and repressed sexuality were big factors. While men and women were believed equally vulnerable to Satan, those burned were predominantly female. Prosecuted mostly by clergymen — notionally celibate, but we’ve come to know the prevalence of misdirected sexuality. The witchery charges often had sexual aspects, requiring careful inspection of private parts, and tortures tailored accordingly.

How many victims were there in all? Hundreds of thousands at least. Maybe millions. [Alas in the published piece this was edited to merely “Thousands at least.”]

This begs comparison with the Holocaust. Given Europe’s much smaller population then, the death toll was comparable, though spread over centuries. In both cases, the perpetrators saw themselves on a kind of purification mission.

Some religionists claim there’s no morality without God. In the witch hunts, clearly the evildoers were the God-besotted burners, not the burned. Did it never occur to them it was they themselves doing the Devil’s work? With all the extravagant belief in Satan’s power to deviously subvert humans to his purposes — the prosecutors didn’t pause to wonder if he was doing it to them? With the mild teachings of Jesus forgotten, did they not realize torturing and burning innocents, even often children, blackening the church with iniquity, was exactly what the Devil would have wanted?

But that might almost have been rational, and reason and religion don’t go together. No morality without God? The witch burnings prove there’s no morality without reason.

* Though their title is not mine.

Analyzing the religious right

October 12, 2021

Katherine Stewart is an investigative reporter and author of the book, The Power Worshippers. I attended her talk titled “The dangerous rise of the religious right.”

“Christian nationalism” she said, would be a better descriptor. Central to the ideology is the (historically false) idea of America founded as a Christian nation. But this is actually more about politics than religion. And it’s a vast powerful force, a defining feature of our political landscape; threatening our democracy. January 6 showed that.

This did not originate as some spontaneous movement from the heartland, a reaction to the social changes starting in the ’60s. Instead it was organized from the top down, by people whose real agenda is gaining power for themselves and their ilk. They constructed a huge national advocacy and messaging infrastructure, seeking government support for their movement, through measures that privilege it over other societal actors.

Stewart quoted Supreme Court Justice Scalia (an outspoken Christian), ruling against a religious exemption for peyote use, saying we can’t let everyone decide what laws to obey based on their religious beliefs. Yet, she said, that is actually exactly what the religious right is seeking.

The movement is, again, politically driven. The “culture war” stuff is really secondary; indeed, weaponized tools to serve the political agenda. In particular, the abortion issue did not create the religious right; rather, the issue was created to serve the political aims. When Roe v. Wade was decided, most Christians actually supported abortion law liberalization. But new right leaders nevertheless latched onto abortion as an issue that could be exploited to manipulate a sizable voter base and ignite a hyper-conservative counterrevolution. Stewart argued that these leaders do not actually want to minimize abortions; what they really want is to keep the issue boiling.

It’s a glaring irony that however rabid these people are about protecting human life before birth, they lose all interest in children once they’re born. The states where “right-to-life” is strongest are the states where actual living children are treated worst by public policies.

This movement has always been anti-democratic and authoritarian. Not just another set of voices debating in the public square. Its leaders don’t really imagine they can persuade a voting majority to their point of view. Instead they aim to prevail by flouting democratic processes, having contempt for the idea of the common good. This again was exemplified on January 6. Stewart noted that other authoritarian leaders, like Putin and Erdogan, have similarly exploited religion as a vehicle for political power without democracy.

She also saw the movement as inseparable from racism, though the connection is complex. The voter suppression that is part of its tool-kit for holding power undemocratically targets ethnic minorities. There are notions of “purity” versus impurity, and an emphasis on concepts of identity and appeals to a heritage culture (read: white).

Stewart said that the religious right is far more organized and focused than its opponents. We need a range of voting reforms to stymie undemocratic techniques like gerrymandering and voter suppression. But while the movement fully understands the importance of voting, others are more casual about it. Failing to realize how much is really at stake.

At the end of the day, Stewart opined, the narrow-minded Christian nationalist vision embodies what would be a weak society, not a strong one. I would add that this movement clearly has its head up its butt, all pretense of morality made absurd by their supplanting the worship of Jesus for a cult-like devotion to Trump, the most morally depraved personage in our political history.

Crazies Rule: The State of Play in Congress

October 1, 2021

Republicans have repeatedly cynically harmed America by playing the government shutdown card. Democrats, with narrow Congressional majorities, managed to head off the latest.

But still looming is the debt ceiling. If not raised by mid-October, we’ll default on our financial obligations, an unthinkable economic apocalypse. This too has been cynically exploited continually by Republicans. In the past, they’ve always blinked, if only at the last minute. But now they insist Democrats must do it solely with their own votes. Even threatening to block them with a filibuster.

As ever, the ploy is to paint Democrats as spendthrifts. When in fact raising the debt limit entails no new spending, it pays for past spending. And Republicans under Trump ran up huge deficits. Their hypocritical debt ceiling brinksmanship makes me puke.

But they’re not the only irresponsible Congressional crazies.

Amazingly — amazingly — President Biden had successfully negotiated a desperately needed infrastructure bill (a ball Trump repeatedly dropped, in his standard feckless bullshitfull way.) Biden got enough Republicans on board to win Senate passage (overcoming the filibuster hurdle). Now it only needs passage in the Democrat-controlled House, where Republicans can’t block it.

But “progressive” Democrats can — they’re holding it hostage, refusing to vote for it unless the Senate also passes their giant $3.5 trillion bill for other spending. Which cannot happen. The votes just aren’t there, with several Democratic Senators (and all 50 Republicans) adamantly opposed.

Will House “progressives” (like AOC) really kill the infrastructure bill for the sake of the impossible? Is this what you’d call “progressive?”

Those holdout Democratic Senators seem open to compromise on something less than $3.5 trillion. “Progressives” must also compromise. Otherwise they get nothing. The perfect as the enemy of the good.

Meantime, for all the political jockeying, there has been almost no real public debate about the immense economic and social ramifications of the $3.5 trillion plan. This is sadly typical of today’s America, so full of political intensity, but void of actually coming to grips with actual issues.

And if “progressives” wind up with no infrastructure bill and no omnibus spending bill passed, Biden might seem a failed president. Helping Republicans regain Congressional control, if not also the White House.

Then you fools can kiss goodbye all “progressive” dreams. And America too.

Brimfield’s Great Flea Market, and China’s Great Cultural Revolution

September 18, 2021

Brimfield MA’s antiques flea market, several times yearly, is gigantic. My wife and I hadn’t gone in years, but decided to visit on September 10. About two hours from Albany.

Every kind of collectable imaginable is on offer, and many you wouldn’t imagine. Like one dealer’s display of old band-aid boxes. We were entranced by the varieties of early typewriters. The whole show is a visual feast, full of bon-bons to tickle the eye and mind. You register an object in a nanosecond, then move on to the next. But quite often you stop and think “WTF?” Struck by sheer strangeness. What were they thinking when producing this item? When buying it originally? And who would buy it now?

What a vast human effort to create all these millions of things, every one conceived to somehow be a boon or a source of pleasure. And it is startling to see what people today will buy. At one point, passing a display of what looked like, well, junk, I remarked to my wife, “Don’t people have a concept of throwing away?” While we keep producing new stuff, much old stuff sticks around; so our ratio of stuff to people rises. Imagine how glutted flea markets will be in a century or two.

Ones like this are always windows to my childhood, objects from which are now certifiably antique (as I am). So many things we played with. Lincoln logs, army men, Monopoly, Etch-a-sketch. I noticed a “Colorforms” set. That rang a bell, but I didn’t stop to remind myself what Colorforms were, exactly. I did thumb through a copy of Fun With Dick and Jane, the very book that larned me readin’.

We’re not normally buyers, just lookers — except for my coins. And my wife did acquire several choice jewelry items. A discerning connoisseur; they were all carefully selected from $1 pick trays.

Most coins you see are overpriced junk. From a guy’s binder full, I took out one unpriced item and asked. He said $10. I said $5, and he agreed. An 1852 Canada Penny token, not the common horseman type; quite high grade; once badly cleaned but I can fix that. Another gal had many pages of coins. I pulled out an Italian 1926 Two Lire marked $7. She was tough, wouldn’t budge below $6. But it’s a rare date and EF, very unusual thus (worth more than ten times the price). Then from a tray of miscellany, I held up a lovely EF 1855-B French Ten Centimes. The dealer said a buck. Thank you! Another guy’s tray had a small bronze pinback medal with busts of LaFollette and Wheeler — the 1924 Progressive Party national ticket. After much negotiation, three bucks. I enjoyed this because I have a nice personal letter from Wheeler, who survived into my youth.

My wife was terrific in helping to scout out coins. When she uttered the word at one dealer’s stall, he pointed to huge stacks of modern U.S. coins in “slabs” (plastic encapsulations certifying authenticity and grade). Ordinarily of zero interest to me. Then he said, “$100 for the whole deal.”

Seriously?

I whipped out my wallet. The 519 slabs filled a carton I could just barely lift.

Meantime: during lunch, my wife (typically) asked me the most memorable thing I’d seen. “The Chinese statuette,” I said, having pointed it out to her. “I actually thought of buying it.” The tag price of $65 had seemed awfully reasonable. “Would it be completely crazy?” She encouraged me; we searched and managed to relocate it. My $45 offer was accepted. The guy mentioned it was apparently dated 1966 in Chinese.

So this was no antiquity. However, 1966 was actually perfect, as this was clearly an artifact of Mao’s “Great Cultural Revolution” launched that year. A trio of harsh-faced figures, one brandishing Mao’s “little red book,” abusing a bent-over fourth, with a denunciation placard hanging from his neck. The makers evidently deemed this thing heroic and inspirational. In fact it’s bone-chilling. Many thousands were killed this way.

Multihued porcelain, over a foot high, it’s in perfect condition, and a truly remarkable piece of history. A graphic caution about the dangers of political extremism, and how madness can engulf multitudes. Especially relevant to today’s America. Some googling reveals that such Cultural Revolution propaganda porcelains were a genre, but I couldn’t find a match for mine. I’m thrilled to have gotten it.

Topping off the day, we went looking for a dinner venue and found a Chinese buffet — our first such in at least 18 months. For a while there, I’d feared buffets would be a permanent casualty of Covid. Civilization is a great thing. While eating, I couldn’t help being mindful of the dangers to it, so vividly illustrated by what I’d just bought.

Did 9/11 Change America?

September 14, 2021

September 11 fundamentally changed America — or so we’re told, in a flood of 20th anniversary commentaries. I’m not so sure.

Much is made of 9/11’s moment of extraordinary national unity. And how transient it proved. But that shows 9/11 did not, indeed, fundamentally change the country. It was a blip.

I’m reminded of the insight from psychology that individuals have a personality baseline, governing things like happiness levels. A dramatic event can knock you off your baseline, for a while. But eventually that wears off and the baseline reasserts itself.

Of course no historical events are immaterial. To the contrary, everything impacts everything, and there’s the apocryphal butterfly effect; small causes reverberating into big results. September 11 was a big thing. It did cause wars, and give us TSA security theater. It’s impossible to know how different America might look today absent 9/11. Trump’s presidency might well not have happened, and that too was a very big thing.

Nothing is ever inevitable. History is not some implacable force driving toward pre-ordained ends. Instead it’s highly contingent. Everything depends on what individuals do, the choices made. Like James Comey’s in 2016. And imagine if Oswald’s aim had been off by an inch.

As for 9/11 changing the country, I think the real story is that it fed into trends already shaping an America different from its 20th Century incarnation. The moment of unity was a blip, and in the bigger picture 9/11 wound up not ameliorating but aggravating the politico-cultural divisions that had been building up, even giving us yet more things to be divided over. Like the Iraq War.

And it’s not just a matter of issues to argue about. What has taken hold is an ethos of division. The issues themselves being more symptoms than causes. That’s not to say opinions are not deeply felt; people are passionate about, say, the abortion issue. But that’s actually an instructive example, because it originated with religious right leaders casting about for some issue to fire up a flagging movement, and jumping on abortion as the perfect vehicle. The point being, if it weren’t that, it would have been something else. Having the fight mattering more than what the fight is about.

What explains this? There’s a cat’s-cradle of complex factors. Humans evolved in a world where change was slow or nonexistent. Modernity has put it into hyperdrive, discombobulating minds. Triggering a primordial impulse for tribalism as something to cling onto on the roller coaster ride that life has in some ways become. What your tribe stands for is secondary to its being your tribe — standing against enemy tribes.

Propelled by the notion that you’re entitled to believe whatever you want — mainly, what your tribe believes. So if the tribe decides, for example, that the 2020 election was stolen, then that’s what you too believe. The whole traditional information ecosystem, that used to provide a common understanding of reality, has crumbled. Part of an even broader loss of faith in and connection to societal institutions generally, with more people feeling they’re on their own. The old information system has been largely supplanted by an internet free-for-all — an information echo-system.

Nine-eleven exacerbated this. People felt threatened now by another tribe, beyond their understanding. Confidence in institutions fell even more. The world suddenly looked darker.

The pathology afflicts the right far more than the left. The right’s messaging makes clear that what gets them boiling is not issues per se but how they provide reasons to hate the other side. Having people to hate and fear is the core of today’s Republicanism. If Democrats reciprocate it, it’s a reaction to Republicans becoming truly scary. As January 6 showed.

It also manifests in what has become a Republican culture of fundamental dishonesty and bad faith. Here again the parties differ greatly. Say what you will about policies espoused by Democrats, at least they actually believe in them as good for the country (or world). Not so with Republicans. Look at their “ballot integrity” crusade. Exploiting the big lie of a stolen election, their true aim is not, as they claim, to make voting more secure (a non-problem), but harder for their opponents. They’re just dishonest about it.

This is what you get with tribal war when one side feels existentially threatened. No holds barred. We may have reached peak tribalism with the vaccine issue. Republicans’ reasons for vaccine resistance are bogus — their “freedom” cries nonsensical — but they need no reasons other than associating vaccination with Democrats. That’s how bad it is, when tribalism even infects what ought to be a straightforward public health matter. Partisanship so crazed that people literally risk their lives. Refusing vaccines that are proven life savers, while instead taking animal de-worming pills. And they’re dying like flies.

Nine-eleven did change America. But it was not the cause of such insanity. The terrorists could never have harmed the country so much. Our biggest threat is not Russia or China. It’s Republicans.

If civilization goes out

August 26, 2021

I’m not one of those pessimists believing humanity is riding for a fall. We’ve proven remarkably good at overcoming challenges and improving our condition. Climate change is a very big deal, but I believe we are capable of coping with its gradual unfolding. However, more sudden calamities, out of the blue, are possible. A recent PBS drama, “COBRA,” depicted a solar flare event knocking out Britain’s power supply. (Cyber-hacking could do likewise.) In COBRA, the problem wasn’t quickly fixable. Things got ugly.

Apparently such solar flares do happen periodically. An 1859 occurrence wasn’t catastrophic only because there was no power grid then; it did damage the telegraph system.

Imagine waking up one morning and everything is out. Electricity. Phones. TV and radio. No internet or newspapers, no access to news. No water. What is going on? No way for you to know! You might assume a quick return to normal. But nothing happens.

So: what do you do? Since watching “COBRA,” I’ve been pondering this.

I’ve felt I have enough money to protect against adversity. But it’s practically all in one electronic form or another. In this scenario I couldn’t access it. It may even be just gone. And what would “money” mean now anyway? As a coin dealer, I do have a lot of those metal disks on hand, but will someone trade food for them?

I would go through the neighborhood and put up notices calling a community meeting. First, to find out if anyone has any information. Is this a localized situation? If so, presumably government would eventually show up. But with no sign of that yet, it could be a national problem, even global. We’d better assume the worst, that we’re on our own, and act accordingly.

Are we in “Mad Max” territory now? Returned to a Hobbesian state of nature? Where everyone is vulnerable to predation by others. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined people getting together to resolve such a predicament by agreeing to give up their freedom to prey upon others in exchange for mutual protection from predation. That’s the social contract; a system of laws, enforced by a government. Of course that story wasn’t intended as literal; instead Hobbes saw it as embodying the logic underlying our submission to laws and government.

But my neighborhood meeting should do something just like Hobbes hypothesized. I haven’t previously had much interaction with neighbors. However, now we’d want to set up a system to look after and take care of one another, cooperating to protect against possible bad actors who would privilege their self-interest over the common good.

We’d want to stockpile some gasoline as cars (still working!) could come in very handy. But the pumps in gas stations probably won’t work. Does someone know how to access their tanks? Food and water are of course critical concerns. Local stores will presumably be shut. We’d have to break in. Likewise at the mall for other necessities. Our social compact should encompass organized commandeering of necessities. Organized, not violent free-for-alls.

Normally such thefts would of course be wrong. But all ethics are situational; and this is not a normal situation. Store owners have a right not to be robbed, but that is trumped by people’s right to self-preservation. The owners are probably unavailable for consent. Perhaps we could leave IOUs.

Thinking ahead to winter, we’d want some axes, to lay in lots of wood (in my area trees abound); also plenty of matches, and candles. Also, I’d raid the library.

Maybe it would all be kind of fun. No, actually; maybe we could manage to just survive for a few wretched years. But I believe that no matter the nature and extent of the catastrophe, there will be enough people with the capabilities, ingenuity, and will, to restore what was lost. I do not believe civilization would collapse into permanent Mad Maxness.

We have lately experienced a different kind of global catastrophe, that disrupted our lives, in many cases dramatically. Most of us are coping. And in my rather more grim scenario here, one day the lights will come back on. What a triumphant day that will be.

When Politics Gets Bloody

August 15, 2021

Isabel Allende’s Long Petal of the Sea is a meaty, old-style novel, centered around historical events. It begins with Spain’s 1936-39 civil war. Shortly before, they’d seen off their monarchy and gotten a democratic government, dominated by the left. Francisco Franco was an opportunistic general who led his troops to overthrow the Republic. Hitler and Mussolini backed him militarily. Stalin supported the Republicans, many being Communists, joined by a lot of American volunteers. When Franco’s fascists won the war, thousands of opponents fled for their lives, into France, and squalid concentration camps. Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda arranged for a ship, the Winnipeg, to carry some of the refugees to new lives in Chile.

Among them Victor and Roser. He’d spent the war as a medic; she had a baby fathered by Victor’s brother before his battle death. They marry just to qualify for the ship. They spend 34 good years in Chile and their relationship evolves into love.

And then it happens again — Victor in a horrible concentration camp, after Chile’s 1973 coup, overthrowing left-wing President Salvador Allende (Victor’s friend), accompanied by ghastly brutality. History records that Allende committed suicide. That always seemed fishy to me. The novel says the military killed him.

Its author was his cousin and became a refugee herself after the coup, winding up a U.S. citizen.

Victor manages to get out alive, and he and Roser flee to Venezuela — then an oasis of democracy, prosperity, and the good life. Later, its voters would throw all that away, seduced by “socialism.”

Back to Spain’s civil war, the novel shows just how vicious it was, with gross brutality on both sides (but worse by the fascists). Reading the account, what struck me was that many wars entail nationalistic jingoism — bad enough — but this was somewhat different, a war over political ideology. That seems to be what made so many so willing to go so far, losing all human moral restraint. That’s what can happen when political differences get out of hand.

The story repeated with Chile’s coup, preceded by escalating political extremism, each side developing an apocalyptic hostility toward the other. But again more so on the right, viewing the left as threatening everything good and holy. And in its crusade to stamp that out, the right shredded everything good and holy. Thus the inhuman atrocities.

Reading about both the Spanish and Chilean stories was chilling because it could happen here. In fact America has already gone quite far down that road. We no longer have just normal type political disagreements. One side has fallen into a very dark place of lies and conspiracism. January 6 was a fire bell in the night, showing how such political craziness can become violent, justified in the eyes of people willing to do literally anything to crush opponents. They hate what they see as America becoming, want its institutions burned down, and fetishize guns. Clear echoes of 1930s Spain and 1973 Chile. We’ve avoided wider actual bloodshed — so far. But it’s all too easy to envision.

Studying history shows there are always men just itching for the chance to unleash their inner swaggering storm trooper. Like cockroaches they come out of the woodwork when the occasion arises. We must ensure it does not.

Particularly heart-rending was Allende’s depiction of the Spanish refugees, desperate to escape Franco’s cruel extermination, fleeing under horrendous conditions. I could see myself, someday, in their shoes. If lucky enough to have shoes.

At least the Canadian border is not too far.

Meeting the Second Gentleman

August 12, 2021

Doug Emhoff is America’s first second gentleman — spouse of our first female vice president. I recently attended a reception with him in New York.

I walked the couple of miles to and from the bus station — I love soaking up New York’s vibrant ambience. Hadn’t been there in 18 months. This time the soaking was literal, in the rain, but I enjoyed it.

Before, one of the organizers phoned me, requesting removal of a somewhat risque photo in a past blog post. I complied; but at the reception told her I was flabbergasted to have been vetted with such thoroughness. She said it was the Secret Service. (Their presence at the event was low-key.)

I’m the short one

Emhoff is a lawyer, who married Kamala Harris in 2014. He seems to be a lovely human being, sweet, warm, funny, with no grandiosity. Somewhat flabbergasted himself at the role suddenly thrust upon him. Going around the country, to events like this, and many others. He said he’d led an insular sort of life before, and his eyes have been opened to an American panorama he’d never known.

I asked a question in the Q&A. “That’s a great question,” Emhoff said. (I’d recently heard a radio commentary about how ubiquitous that’s become in answering questions; since then I’ve noticed it myself.) I asked how, in his travels, as a non-politician, he communicates with Republicans, not political people either, but everyday folks. He answered that listening is very important — to understand where people are coming from — meeting them where they are at.

I knew nobody at the event, said little to anyone, enjoyed the food, and mostly felt like Oliver Sacks’s Anthropologist on Mars. All attendees (except for one gentleman of Indian heritage) were white. And upper echelon white* (big donors). I was treated very graciously.

On the bus trip (in contrast, the lone white passenger), I’d been reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, relating how in her early life, she experienced the other side of that coin. Such disparities in how people are seen and treated persist. But Michelle Obama did wind up living in the White House, and Doug Emhoff’s non-white wife is vice president. Social progress is too slow and fitful for many of us, but it’s happening.

*One other seeming exception was a scruffy looking long-bearded fellow in shorts and sneakers. He asked an interesting question. Just shows you can’t judge people by appearances.

The deepening Republican menace

August 5, 2021

During Trump’s term, I’d periodically write, “It will get worse.” It always did. And it hasn’t stopped.

Some thought Trump’s election defeat might bring Republicans to their senses. Then they rallied behind his “stolen election” lie. His biggest ever. Now we’re now learning more details about how it was Trump himself who tried to steal the election. Finally sending a violent mob to the Capitol on January 6, aiming to wreck the process and retain power.

But not even that sick, bloody, treasonous travesty brought Republicans to their senses. At a July 27 news conference their House leaders responded to the searing testimony of four Capitol Police officers about the horror they experienced on January 6. Elise Stefanik, now Number Three in the leadership, said the American people deserve to know the truth: it was Nancy Pelosi’s fault.

Suggesting that as House Speaker, she controlled the Capitol Police. Not so. And any such responsibility would have been shared with Mitch McConnell, then running the Senate. Blaming Pelosi alone — and not Trump at all! — for January 6 is either deranged lunacy or the most cynical dishonesty. Prior to that news conference shocker, I’d thought Republicans had hit a moral rock bottom. I was wrong.

This is the party that bleats “law and order,” vaunting support for police officers — especially as against violent protests. What was January 6 if not an unlawful violent protest, physically attacking the police? And where does the GOP stand? With the treasonous lawbreakers, actually belittling or even mocking the testimony of the savaged police officers. A moral rock bottom?

Then too it’s mainly Republicans refusing vaccination, masks, or social distancing. They’re the cause of Covid resurging. Republican areas most resistant to sensible health measures have (surprise) the highest illness and death rates. Some GOP governors not only refuse to push vaccination and masking, but actually try to block localities from doing so. Florida’s DeSantis the worst example. With his state consequently breaking hospitalization records, having a fifth of all U.S. Covid cases.

I was a Republican for 53 years. Today’s Republican party threatens not only our democracy but literally all our lives.

Yet dare I say, even now: it will get worse.

Columnist David Brooks offers an interesting perspective. Observing growing family estrangement in America. Mostly children distancing from parents over sometimes real but often exaggerated or imagined childhood grievances, leaving parents, who’d thought they’d given their kids everything, hurt and bewildered. Brooks suggests a cause is “a more individualistic culture” — the family, once “seen as a bond of mutual duty and obligation,” now “as a launchpad for personal fulfillment.” Making people feel freer to sever bonds deemed problematic. I would add that over-indulgent parenting may actually contribute, giving children a sense of entitlement so strong they feel justified in chucking a relationship that doesn’t fully suit them — even with those indulgent parents.

What does all this have to do with today’s Republicans? Brooks sees family estrangement as part of a broader phenomenon of fraying human ties. Remember Putnam’s Bowling Alone? Americans report diminishing close friendships, and growing feelings of aloneness. Brooks says this social fragmentation has wide repercussions, including in politics. Which “has begun to feel like an arena where many people can process and regulate their emotional turmoil indirectly.” Difficult “within the tangled intimacy of family life. But political tribalism becomes a mechanism with which people can shore themselves up, vanquish shame, fight for righteousness and find a sense of belonging.”

Republicans do imagine they fight for righteousness, with moralistic fervor. The psychology is understandable. But not the flight from rationality, the failure to distinguish reality from fantasy and virtue from evil. That is insane.

Snobs

August 1, 2021

Someone was leaving books in the post office with cheery stick-on notes saying “Free Book!” They’d often languish forlornly. I’d give them a glance, but I’m not inclined for random novels. However, Julian Fellowes sounded like a sophisticated British writer (creator of Downton Abbey). The title, Snobs, fit with that. So I took it.

Edith is an upper middle class working girl, at 27, in the mid-’90s, beginning to foresee a potentially dreary future. Then, a fluke: accidentally encountering Charles, from one of those moneyed, landed, noble houses. An Earl. She’s got enough native assets, mainly looks, that he marries her.

I expected their sexual relations would be only circumspectly described. But Fellowes mans up and gives us the wedding night in quite graphic detail. Neither disaster nor triumph; and important for what’s to come.

Charles is not a bad human being. Nor is his aristocratic mother, despite being sort of the villain. Initially, Edith revels in her status elevation; servants calling her “milady” and all. But there’s soon a growing sense of “is that all there is?”

The book is less about plot than about the kind of people in its cast of characters. And the title, Snobs, says it all. It’s not heavy-handed, but it is merciless.

One gets the picture very quickly. I asked myself, can I take 250 more pages of this? And, indeed, the rest is filled with embellishments upon the theme. Yet Fellowes is a good enough writer that it’s never a bore. (I often felt I could be reading Henry James.) You wouldn’t think there are so many ways of portraying a subspecies of people whose principal characteristic is how limited they are.

They form a web whose principal characteristic is its being a web. Fellowes calls it the “Name Game,” social interactions centered largely upon reaffirming one’s place in the web. “We don’t know them” is the ultimate and irreversible judgment. Someone outside the web cannot be “known” — not in the way that counts. Edith’s breaking through was, again, a definite fluke.

We read novels to understand people, and society; and ourselves. This book’s characters were about as alien from me as possible. Their lives being utterly defined in relation to other people, I was struck by how untrue that is for me.

I’m not an antisocial hermit. Have numerous acquaintances. But intimate friends? If honest, I must say none — apart from my wife. The difference between me and those populating the book is that I feel pretty much sufficient unto myself. I do my coin business; I read; I write. Mostly I write for my own amusement. My life’s meaning, as I go through the day, is based within me, not other people. Only my wife really exists for me. (And maybe my daughter.)

But let me add this. The older I get the more I value society. In the senses both of the milieu in which we live our lives, and of the great human enterprise. Being part of that is, perhaps contradictorily, a very big aspect of my inner life. The last five years heightened this, forcing us to face fundamental issues about our society. And I understand thoroughly how that society makes it blessedly possible for me to live a rewarding life not centered upon other people.

Fellowes says he tried to convey some aspects of the depicted type that are actually creditable, which is fair enough. He also says Snobs is not really about class but about choice; and that does come to take center stage. Edith’s choice to marry for reasons other than love was for her a largely unexamined one. Then she makes another choice — running off with a ridiculously handsome actor. Sure, people have affairs, but you can try to manage it discreetly. Edith does not. What could she be thinking?

The rest of the book is about her coming to terms with these choices — and whether she can make a further one. I give myself points for anticipating Edith’s wanting to go back, after all, to the husband who’d seemingly so bored her. Just arranging a tete-a-tete with him was a challenge, the rest of the family conspiring to be truly rid of her. I mentally scripted her speech to Charles, all that I felt ought to be said. What I, in her place, would have said. But in the end it all resolved into a single word reply.

Of just two letters.