Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

QAnon and the Republican war on reality

August 5, 2018

QAnon” is the handle of an online person or group claiming access to all kinds of secret information (“Q” refers to a high security clearance) about “deep state” conspiracies against Trump; with Trump actually being the great mastermind behind everything. QAnonism is spreading like wildfire among his Republican fans, especially at his rallies (where big “Q” signs are proliferating).

Included in the deranged QAnon catechism: Kim Jong-Un is actually a CIA puppet; the Democratic National Committee hired Salvadoran Gang MS-13 to murder its staffer Seth Rich; the Mueller probe is actually a counter-coup by Trump himself to expose Democratic wrongdoing; Obama, Hillary, and George Soros are child traffickers, also plotting a coup; that Trump’s enemies like John McCain wear ankle bracelets so he can track them; that J.P. Morgan sank the Titanic; that the Rothschild family heads a satanic cult. That QAnon explains the whole universe and will usher in a Christian “great awakening.”

The clues to all this are labeled “breadcrumbs.” When asked, QAnoners are fuzzy about how the dots actually connect and just say follow the breadcrumbs. But they’re certain it’s all true.

Striking too is the crazed obsession to pin fantastical misdeeds on Hillary — admittedly no paragon of virtue — and Obama, who actually was one, guilty only of officeholding-while-black — while blind to unquestioned facts showing Trump as the filthiest turd in U.S. political history.

In June a guy was arrested on terrorism charges after driving an armored vehicle, wielding an AR-15, and blocking traffic for two hours at Hoover Dam, claiming to be on a QAnon mission demanding release of an FBI report on Hillary (that had actually already been released). Previously another guy shot up a pizza parlor flagged by QAnon for having a Hillary-run pedophile ring headquartered in its basement. (Allegedly.)

Loopy radio conspiracy monger Alex Jones earlier promoted QAnonism, but now it’s too far out even for him. Even for Alex Jones. So now, within the Republican universe, Alex Jones is something of a moderate.

Meantime, at his recent Pennsylvania rally, Trump loudly called Russian election meddling a “hoax,” even while the rest of his government held a top-level meeting sounding the alarm about Russian election meddling. He also said “Russia is very unhappy that Trump won, that I can tell you.” While Putin, standing beside him just weeks earlier in Helsinki, openly said he’d wanted Trump to win.

So Trump lies outrageously to a huge crowd, and they cheer madly. (Literally.) Those waiting for his base to turn against him for something got their final answer in Helsinki where he sold us out to Russia. And 79% of Republicans (in an Axios poll) approved his Helsinki performance.

“Great awakening?” More like a great conking out.

My previous review of a book about conspiracy theories is worth re-reading (click here). It explains the deep evolutionary and psychological reasons why conspiracy theories (like QAnonism) find a ready audience. And we all want to believe what we’d like to be true. Yet most people retain a grip on reality. Except Republicans.

That’s not just a cheap shot but making a serious point. Having been a Republican myself till last year, I am still struggling to understand why most Republicans have totally drunk this Kool-Aid. I keep returning to the point that most of them believe in a supernatural god, Heaven, Hell, and the Bible. Does sustaining such fantasy beliefs compromise the brain’s ability to grasp reality — priming it to accept all the constant massive Trump lies?

Most religious people are able to compartmentalize — keeping their faith delusions in a separate mental folder, while thinking rationally and normally in other spheres. Even Republicans seemed to do this, until Trump came along. I could see through him from the start, as a very bad character in every possible way. I watched with horror as most other Republicans, en masse, dove over the cliff like lemmings. Where were their critical faculties?

This would be sad for them if Republicans were on some island of their own, and the rest of us could move on. But with 40% of our electorate embedded in this meshugas, it infects everything.

America has built up a tremendous reservoir of assets over two centuries. Strong institutions, rule of law, a culture that promotes dynamism, and a wonderful population full of good energetic people. And again, despite religious faith, empiricism was a crucially prevailing ethos. Empiricism means knowledge grounded in reality. Without that, we’re cast adrift. But now America’s leader actively, intentionally, assiduously works to destroy the line between reality and falsehood, and the credibility of real information sources. With too many following him down that road to perdition.

I have on my wall an enlargement of a onetime U.S. postage stamp that proclaimed “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.”

That light is going out.

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Mitch Landrieu and Confederate monuments

August 2, 2018

Mitch Landrieu was mayor of New Orleans, 2010-18. In 2015 he started the process of removing Confederate monuments. Landrieu expected opposition, but its ferocity surprised him. Such was the violence and intimidation that it was a big problem even getting contractors to do the work. Statue removal became something of a military operation.

We saw Landrieu interviewed on The Daily Show and were very impressed. So my wife bought me his book, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.

The book impressed me even more, for its eloquence in expressing fundamental human good will, honesty, and decency; the values that made America great. And I wept anew at the contrast between that virtuous Americanism and Trumpist loathesomeness.

The book isn’t only about the statues. It tells Landrieu’s life story. He became mayor in 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina. His predecessor, Ray (“chocolate city”) Nagin was corrupt and incompetent; the recovery was a shambles. Thus Landrieu came into office with huge challenges. What he’s achieved testifies to the can-do spirit that’s so central to America’s story.

One thing Landrieu talks about is the schools. Even before Katrina they were a disaster area. The storm literally destroyed most of New Orleans’ public schools. But instead of just rebuilding them, the city took a different path, going whole-hog with charter schools. The liberal rap is that they “siphon” resources from public education, cream the best students, and educate them less well. This ignores that our most disadvantaged kids are the worst served by their public schools, and they do better in charters. Landrieu relates that switching his city to mainly a charter school model has produced way better results — especially for black kids.

“Very fine people on both sides”

Landrieu sees the subject of race as central to his whole life story. I used to optimistically believe the bad old days were behind us, with racism confined to dark peripheral corners of American society. That even the South had culturally moved on. We’d elected a black president, after all. But I’ve come to realize those dark corners are larger than I’d thought. (Indeed, Trump has brought racism out of the corners.)

The canard is that statue-removers are trying to “erase history.” But ironically it’s the statue-lovers doing exactly that. Landrieu gives us a history lesson.

After the Civil War, Southern whites created “the Cult of the Lost Cause” — romanticizing it as having been a battle for states’ rights and, mainly, the noble defense of a genteel culture, contrasted against a Northern one dark with factory smoke and industrialist greed.

Truth: The war was about slavery. No slavery, no war. “States’ rights?” It was the right to enslave human beings. The supposedly refined culture being defended had its foundation in the kidnapping, brutalization, torture, and rape of human beings. So much for moral superiority. This was not some noble cause, but among the foulest in history.

Of course, southern whites didn’t see themselves as brutalizing human beings. To anesthetize their consciences they convinced themselves blacks were inferior creatures, made by God to be slaves. Thus the salience of white supremacy thinking. (Today’s white supremacists are self-refuting; their belief, contrary to biological fact, proves it’s they who are the less evolved creatures.)

After the war that freed the slaves, southern whites strove to undo that result to the greatest extent possible through a campaign of violence and terror to beat down black people and eviscerate their human rights.

That is the context for the erection of these “Lost Cause” monuments. They came in two waves: one circa 1900 when Jim Crow was getting established, and later during the civil rights era. In both cases the aim was to strut whites’ unrepentance and rub it especially into black faces, to keep them “in their place.” These were white supremacy monuments. Statues of traitors.

And there were never any memorializing slavery’s victims.

Landrieu’s tale did, again, impress upon me the depth of white racism still persisting. As he chronicles, unreconstructed whites responded regarding the monuments just as they had to emancipation, and the civil rights era, with terroristic violence. A noble cause honoring history? Yeccch.

While the former Confederate states have big black populations, they are minorities, and voting is largely along racial lines. Republicans are the white party. Not all, but a majority of southern whites who vote Republican are voting to express disapproval and hostility toward black citizens. (There’s not a single white Democratic congressman left from the south.)

America has never been a perfect country. But its greatness — exemplified by Mitch Landrieu’s story — has always been its striving toward perfection, through the efforts of people like him, with nobility of spirit. And even despite what I’ve written here, we had indeed been on an upward path, toward a more perfect union. The statues, in New Orleans, and many other southern locales, did come down.

But alas right now we’re on a radical detour from that path of human progress. A sharp lurch downwards.

Landrieu is being touted for president. He’d be the perfect candidate to beat Vile Creep. Would the Democrats have enough sense to nominate him? Would America have enough moral sense to elect him?

The civility issue

July 7, 2018

Actor Robert DeNiro shouts “Fuck Trump!” Comedians Samantha Bee and Kathy Griffin, respectively, call Ivanka a “cunt” and pose with a (fake) severed Trump head. Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen is heckled in a Mexican restaurant; Sarah Sanders is refused service in another eatery. And I’ve labeled Trump a “stinking piece of shit.”

Welcome to American political culture 2018.

Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” A fine sentiment. And indeed the candidate against Trump in 2020 must not join him in the gutter, but should instead embody a contrast against the boorish degradation of Trumpism. (Even if the better angels of our nature are out to lunch.)

It’s Trump we can thank for all this. He’s the one who really has pulled American political culture into the sewer; it’s one of the very things that so outrages opponents and provokes them to obscenities. Political nastiness does have a long history; but as a close student of that history, I can say Trump represents a stark discontinuity. It’s bizarre that Trumpists take offense at incivility toward him and his lackeys, such as I’ve mentioned, and even say it strengthens his support; when he, like, invented horrible behavior.

Jordan Klepper’s Comedy Central show, The Opposition, tried to be an over-the-top parody of Trumpism. But it was ended basically because the parody had a hard time topping the grotesque reality.

I never voted for Obama, and often, as a Republican,  harshly criticized him here. That’s politics in a free country. But never in talking of Obama did I use the kind of language I use for Trump. Obama was an honest, virtuous, dignified man who, even when wrong, was a credit to America’s civic culture. Trump is a stinking piece of shit.

Example of a metaphor

Now, when I say this, it is a metaphor. And I am someone for whom language is very important, and I use it with care. My metaphor reflects careful consideration for its verity.

We are endowed with reasoning minds that make judgments, based on facts and evidence (well, some of us). As a longtime political junkie, faced with a phenomenon so dramatically altering our political landscape, I worked hard to learn the facts about Trump. And even before the election, it was clear that he is a very bad man. Far worse than I could ever have imagined in a president. Bad through and through, in every aspect of character and personality. Columnist Thomas Friedman used the words “disgusting human being.”

I have supported that judgment by marshaling facts, and was ringing the alarm bell before the election. Afterward, I was actually prepared to be surprised — hoping Trump might rise to the magnitude of the responsibility thrust upon him. Yet I also warned that power doesn’t make bad men better. Alas, it’s the latter that has proven true.

In contrast to my own carefully considered judgment, grounded in judicious evaluation of all relevant facts, Trump flings around verbal bombs in utter disregard of them. One of his most odious traits. Like his insulting John McCain’s war hero status. Accusing Obama of bugging him. All that “weak on borders, weak on crime” garbage. Calling numerous honest people “liars,” day in and day out. His “spygate” accusation against the FBI, deliberately and falsely undermining public confidence in our institutions of rule of law. The list goes on and on. Res ipsa loquitur.

So —

Kathy Griffin’s severed head? Tasteful it wasn’t. But she’s a comic, after all. And this was another metaphor, for what would be Trump’s just comeuppance for what he’s done to this country — removal from office in humiliation and disgrace.

Nielsen (I tried to find the nastiest looking picture)

The Nielsen episode? In this democracy, public officials — especially the highest — are answerable to citizens. That comes with the job. Calling her out in a restaurant may not have been polite and decorous but those citizens had a right to express disapproval of her official conduct when an opportunity arose. A cabinet member cannot expect to leave it all behind at the office at 5 PM. In this case, the irony of her eating in a Mexican restaurant was too rich. And in the moral balance, does Nielsen’s being shouted at compare with taking children away from parents? (And Trump’s falsely blaming Democrats for it?)

Sanders

The Sanders episode? The 1964 Civil Rights Act assures equal access to public venues for racial minorities and the like. Its protections don’t cover public officials who are bathed in lies. That restaurateur had a right to express her political opinion by kicking Sanders out.

DeNiro? When I call Trump what I call him, it’s always in the context of some specific transgression, my disapproval of which is fully explained (as here), with an effort to persuade readers to my point of view. This was not true of DeNiro’s ejaculation, making it kind of pointless.

But finally, once more, if all this rawness is not your cup of tea, you know who’s to blame. The malodorous defecation product.

(Part II) Conservative or Republican?

July 4, 2018

Mill

The political philosophy called “liberal” originated in 19th century Britain, with thinkers like John Stuart Mill; it stood for individual human flourishing free from undue constraints — especially imposed by the state. Then the word “liberal” got hijacked, in America, to mean virtually the opposite — social engineering by big government.

Conservatives opposed this; that’s what the Republican party basically represented. (Indeed, its philosophy was classical liberalism.) But now, just like the word “liberal” got perverted, so too “conservative.” David Brooks says that “Today, you can be a conservative or a Republican, but not both.”

Brooks

In a recent column, he approaches the matter from first principles. Thomas Hobbes posited the idea of the social contract. Free people get together and agree to exchange some of their liberty — basically, the liberty to prey upon others — for freedom from predation. It’s not a literal contract, but an implicit one; it’s why we have governments and obey their laws.

But, says Brooks, individuals do not come to this self-formed. Instead we are shaped by family, religion, local community, local culture, arts, schools, literature, manners, etc. All of which he calls collectively a “sacred space,”  which traditional conservatism venerated (to promote the kind of human flourishing Mill sought). In contrast, ideologies like communism, fascism, socialism, and (American) liberalism all, to a greater or lesser degree, sought to supplant those “sacred space” societal structures with the state.

But today, says Brooks, “the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualism that leads to vicious tribalism.” It’s the “evil twin” of community feeling. Grounded not in the positive, cooperative, humanistic vibe that community feeling should ideally propagate but, rather, in “hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy-mongering and distrust.”

This ain’t your daddy’s conservatism (that I identified with for 50+ years). Brooks calls it “an assault on the sacred order that conservatives hold dear — the habits and institutions that cultivate sympathy, honesty, faithfulness and friendship.”

A previous Brooks column spotlighted just what this means in practice. Conservatives always used to argue that statism tended “to become brutalist and inhumane . . . caus[ing] horrific suffering because in the mind of the statists, the abstract rule is more important than the human in front of them. The person must be crushed for the sake of the abstraction.”

That’s a good description of a communist system. Likewise Trump administration immigration policies. This so-called “conservative” regime has “become exactly the kind of monster that conservatism has always warned against,” writes Brooks.

Separating children from asylum-seeking parents is an inhuman moral obscenity.* Mocking the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty and in the Declaration of Independence. These latter-day “conservatives” have lost the thread of what America means; of what conservatism means; what it’s all about; what it is for.

It goes beyond even what Brooks talked about. It’s across the board — from fiscal irresponsibility to trade war to undermining our institutions of rule of law, cozying up to dictators, excusing personal vileness, and abetting racism. And all of it shot through with pervasive lying. Trumpism is a grotesque perversion of what conservatism used to be.

But in truth philosophy or principles have nothing to do with this. It’s tribal behavior run amok. These Republican so-called “conservatives” back their tribe; nothing else matters. Not truth, not principle, not basic human decency. It’s Lord of the Flies time. “Conservative” is just a word, a label, a tribal signifier like a team name emblazoned on their jerseys.

Or their red hats, displaying just as big a lie.

* Ordered by a court to reunite those families, the administration is charging them for the airfare to do so.

The Grotesque Odious Party (Part I)

July 1, 2018

Recently on the NewsHour it was noted that Trump’s approval percentage among Republicans has reached record highs. “Yeah,” I said to myself, “because people like me have left the party.” Then pollster Stuart Rothenberg came on, making the same point. And when an arch-conservative pundit like George Will declares we must now vote for Democrats — any and all Democrats — you know how out-of-kilter politics has become.

Not just in America. Britain voted for national suicide with Brexit; its Conservative party embraces it totally while being flummoxed over how to limit the damage; and the opposition Labour Party, having failed with a very leftist platform, has gone extreme left/Marxist. Italian voters deserted the center and put in power two parties of crazies at odds with each other. Large votes for German fringe parties made it hell for Angela Merkel to assemble a governing coalition, and now it’s cracking apart over immigration. Mexico is about to elect as president a populist rabble-rouser contemptuous of rule of law. A retrograde populist creep leads the polls in Brazil. I could go on.

Only Canada and France seem redoubts of sanity.

During the 2016 campaign I kept telling my wife, “He’s got the asshole vote but that’s not enough to elect him.” I was wrong. Enough others threw civic responsibility to the winds.

Of course some voters have always been pretty clueless, motivated by base instincts, simultaneously both cynical and credulous, thus manipulable by demagogues. But demagoguery doesn’t begin to describe this; America has plunged into a moral cesspool, of cruel policies saturated in hate and lies.

I have been struggling to understand this tragedy. I’ve written much about tribalism. The “us versus them” factor looms very large and has long been building. But what caused it to become so extreme (mainly on the GOP side)?

Tribalism is part of human nature. This actually helped our early ancestors’ survival. It also provides a sense of belonging, of security, and identity. But in the big sweep of history, casting other tribes as enemies has been diminishing, reducing conflict and violence, as Pinker documented with facts and figures in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

However, is something about modern life making such tribalism recrudesce? The word “alienation” has long been a staple of sociology discourse. Robert Putnam wrote of Bowling Alone. Many aspects of technology fray social ties. Surveys report people saying they have fewer friends nowadays. Many have hundreds of Facebook “friends” but that’s not the same thing, maybe actually undermining genuine friendship.

I have written too about Tom Friedman’s latest book, arguing that technological and societal change is now so fast that people have a hard time keeping up with it, and making sense of the world.

Maybe all these factors drive people to cling more tightly to tribal identity. And that it’s happening more on the right is understandable. Those with traditionalist mindsets see themselves and their social verities under assault — from ethnic minorities, women’s empowerment, irreligion, and what they see as sexual sin. In this whirlwind, tribal identity is a kind of anchor and security blanket.

What’s particularly startling is how this political tribalism even trumps religion. You might have thought religious faith would be the stronger. Yet most fundamentalist Christians back Trump, a man steeped in sin, with policies the very antithesis of “love thy neighbor.” Their political loyalties seem impervious to their supposed religious scruples.

Well, I suppose if you can believe fairy tales like God, Heaven, and Hell, it’s not so hard to believe the liar in the White House. And that you’re somehow still, despite all the hateful cruelty, on the side of the angels.

(To be continued)

Are humans smarter than (other) animals?

June 27, 2018

Around 1900, “Clever Hans” was a famous German horse with seeming mathematical ability. Asked “what is four times three?” Hans would tap his hoof twelve times. He was usually right even when his owner wasn’t present; and even when given the questions in writing!

Animal intelligence — and consciousness — are age old puzzles to us. French philosopher Rene Descartes saw other animals as, in effect, mechanical contrivances. And even today many see all their behaviors as produced not by intelligent consciousness (like ours) but rather by instinct — pre-installed algorithms that dictate responses to stimuli — like computers running programs.

Clever Hans’s story is recapped in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Homo Deus. It was eventually proven that Hans knew no math at all. Instead, he was cued to stop tapping his hoof by onlookers’ body language and facial expressions. But, Harari says, that didn’t debunk Hans’s intelligence, it did the opposite. His performance required far more brain power than simple math! You might have memorized 4×3=12 — but could you have gotten the answer the way Hans did?

This points up the difficulty of inferring animal mentation using human yardsticks. Harari explains Hans’s abilities by noting that horses, unequipped for verbal language, communicate instead through body language — so they get pretty good at it. Much better than us.

So if horses are so smart, why aren’t they sitting in the stands at Saratoga while humans run around the track? Well, for one thing, building that sort of facility would have been a lot harder for horses with hooves rather than our dextrous five-fingered hands. Our tool-making capability is a huge factor. And our intelligence, taken as a whole, probably does outstrip that of any other animal. It had to, because early humans faced far more complex survival challenges. Countless other species failed such tests and went extinct. We did not because an evolutionary fluke gave us, just in time, an extreme adaptation in our brains, unlike any other animal’s. Our equivalent of the narwhal’s huge tusk or the giraffe’s neck.

That happened around a couple of hundred thousand years ago. Yet for around 98% of those years, humans achieved little more than mere survival. Only in the last few thousand have we suddenly exploded into a force dominating the Earth as no creature before.

Why that delay? In fact, Harari notes, our stone age ancestors must have been even smarter than people today. After all, their lives were much tougher. One mistake and you’d be dead; your dumb genes would not make it into the next generation.

Harari thinks — I tend to agree — that cooperation proved to be humanity’s killer app. PBS TV’s recent “Civilizations” series illuminates how things really got going with the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Arguably farmers were actually worse off in many ways; and maybe even humanity as a whole for about 9,800 of those years. But agriculture, and the production of food surpluses, did make possible the rise of cities, where people could specialize in particular enterprises, and interact and exchange ideas with large numbers of other people. That eventually paid off spectacularly, in terms of human material well-being, in modern times.

Harari notes that ants and bees too live in large cooperative communities. So why haven’t they developed computers and spaceships? Our super intelligent consciousness also gave us great flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Insects have a far more limited repertoire of responses. As Harari writes, “If a hive faces a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot, for example, guillotine the queen and establish a republic.”

Modern life: the big challenge we face

June 23, 2018

Tom Friedman’s latest book made my head spin. It’s Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. He’s a bigger optimist than me.

The “accelerations” in question concern technology, globalization, and climate change, all transforming the world at breakneck speed. Faster, indeed, than human psychology and culture can keep up with.

Friedman

What spun my head was Friedman’s rundown of technology’s acceleration. He sees 2007 as an inflection point, with the iPhone and a host of other advances creating a newly powerful platform that he calls not the Cloud but the “Supernova.” For instance there’s Hadoop. Ever heard of it? I hadn’t. It’s a company, that also emerged in 2007, revolutionizing the storage and organization of “Big Data” (as best I understand it), making possible explosions in other technologies. And GitHub — 2007 again — blasting open the ability to create software.*

All this is great — for people able to swim in it. But that’s not everybody. A lot of people are thrown for a loop, disoriented, left behind. Bringing them up to speed is what Friedman says we must do. Otherwise, we’ll need a level of income redistribution that’s politically impossible.

The age-old fear (starting with the Luddites) is “automation” making people obsolete and killing jobs. It’s never happened — yet. Productivity improvements have always made society richer and created more jobs than those lost. But Friedman stresses that the new jobs are of a different sort now. No longer can routine capabilities produce a good income — those capabilities are being roboticized. However, what robots can’t substitute for is human social skills, which are increasingly what jobs require. AI programs can, for example, perform medical diagnoses better than human doctors, so the role of a doctor will become more oriented toward patient relations, where humans will continue to outperform machines.

But schools aren’t teaching that. Our education system is totally mismatched to the needs of the Twenty-first Century. And I can’t see it undergoing the kind of radical overhaul required.

I’ve often written how America’s true inequality is between the better educated and the less educated, which have become two separate cultures. Friedman says a college degree is now an almost indispensable requirement for the prosperous class, but it’s something children of the other class find ever harder to obtain. All the affirmative action to help them barely nibbles at the problem.

On NPR’s This American Life I heard a revealing profile of an apparently bright African-American kid who did make it into a good college, with a scholarship no less. But he had no idea how to navigate in that unfamiliar environment, and got no help there, left to sink or swim on his own. He sank.

Friedman talks up various exciting innovative tools available to such people not born into the privileged class, to close the gap. But to take advantage of them you have to be pretty smart and clued in. I keep thinking about all the people who aren’t, with no idea how they might thrive, or even just get by, in the new world whooshing up around them. I’ve written about them in discussing books like The End of Men and Hillbilly Elegy. It wasn’t just “hillbillies” Vance was talking about there, but a big swath of the U.S. population. A harsh observer might call them losers; throw-away people.

I’m enraged when charter schools are demonized as a threat to public education. That’s a Democrat/liberal counterpart to Republican magical thinking. These liberals who spout about inequality and concern for the disadvantaged are in denial about how the education system is part of the problem. Public schools do fine in leafy white suburbs; schools full of poor and minority kids do not. For those kids, charter school lotteries offer virtually the only hope.

Of course, the problem of people unfitted for modernity isn’t unique to America. There are billions more in other countries. Yet most of us don’t realize how fast an awful lot of those people are actually coming up to speed. But there’s still going to be a hard core who just cannot do it, and no conceivable government initiatives or other innovations will be a magic wand turning them into fairies. Instead it seems we’re headed toward one of those future-dystopia sci-fi films where humanity is riven between two virtually distinct species — the golden ones who live beautiful lives, forever, and the rest who sink into immiseration. I do think most people can be in the former group. And I hope they’ll be generous enough to carry the others at least partway to the Eden.

But what Friedman keeps stressing is the need for culture, especially in politics, to change along with the landscape. He applies what he says is the real lesson of biological evolution: it’s not the strongest that thrive, but the most adaptable. In many ways America does fulfill this criterion. Yet in other ways we’re doing the opposite, especially in the political realm where so much of the problem needs to be addressed. The mentioned need for radical education reform is just one example. Our constitution worked great for two centuries; now, not so much. Our political life has become sclerotic, frozen. Add to that our inhabiting a post-truth world where facts don’t matter. Can’t really address any problems that way.

Friedman enumerates an 18-point to-do list for American public policy. Mostly no-brainers. But almost none of it looks remotely do-able today. In fact, on a lot of the points — like opening up more to globalized trade — we’re going the wrong way.

He concludes with an extended look at the Minnesota community where he grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. It echoed Robert Putnam’s describing his own childhood community in Our Kids. Both were indeed communities, full of broad-based community spirit. Friedman contrasts the poisonously fractious Middle East where he spent much of his reporting career. He also reported a lot about Washington — and sees U.S. politics increasingly resembling the Middle East with its intractable tribal conflicts.

I’ve seen this change too in my lifetime — remembering when, for all our serious political disagreements, adversaries respected each other and strove to solve problems in a spirit of goodwill. Most politicians (and their supporters) embodied civic-mindedness, sincerity, and a basic honesty. No longer. Especially, sadly, on the Republican side, which for decades I strongly supported. Now it’s dived to the dark side, the road to perdition.

Friedman wrote before the 2016 election — where America turned its back on all he’s saying. Can we repent, and veer toward a better road, before it’s too late?

*Microsoft has just bought GitHub.

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. (The book implies this was to spite Nurbanu, over the killings; but it seems the quest to penetrate God’s secrets was ultimately deemed un-Islamic.)

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?

Friedman

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.

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