Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Khizr Khan — what America means

November 21, 2017

There’s a lot of flag waving these days. Often with no clue what it really means.

Khizr Khan knows what it means. He got it as a law student in Pakistan, in a course on comparative constitutions. There he read America’s, and the Declaration of Independence, and was blown away. He read them as manifestoes of human dignity, a concept alien to his native Pakistan (and many other places).

And human dignity was foremost in Khizr Khan’s mind at that sublime moment when, finally, he stepped into a court room and took the oath as an American citizen.

WAMC radio’s Joe Donahue interviewed him about his book, An American Family. Hearing the interview was deeply moving and inspiring.

What Khizr Khan also considers central to America is human caring. Such ideals were instilled in his son, Humayun; Khan told of Humayun’s standing up for a bullying victim in grade school; assuring safety for female college classmates; and finally sacrificing his life in Iraq to protect fellow soldiers.

When Khizr Khan, his wife beside him, spoke at the Democratic convention about Humayun’s heroism, he offered to share his cherished personal copy of the constitution with Donald Trump. Instead, Trump badmouthed Khan and his family.

That piece of filth is not fit to lick Khizr Khan’s shoes.

Khizr Khan is a great American. He’s also a Muslim and an immigrant — both categories many “Americans” today demonize. But his story testifies to why now, more than ever, America needs immigrants. It’s because, much unlike flag-waving “America Firsters,” immigrants like Khizr Khan have a true appreciation for the ideals and values that made America great. Without a population that understands, and lives, those ideals and values, no amount of flag waving will make it great again.

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Moore, Franken, Trump, sex, and power

November 18, 2017

Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Bill O’Reilly. Bill Clinton. Kevin Spacey. Louis C.K. Michael Oreskes. Roy Moore. Donald J. Trump.

Abusing power to get sexual jollies is as old as humanity. After all, what is power for​?

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” How much Roy Moore smoke must choke Alabama before it sets off a fire alarm?

Of course, this is politics, and as I’ve recently written, for many Americans today, politics trumps everything. And so we come to this: Alabama Republicans sticking behind a sexual predator and molester of underage girls, because it’s their team, their side. They can’t vote for the other guy. Can’t give the other side a win.

One Alabaman I heard interviewed said he believed Moore because Moore has always been an upright man of God. But how does he know that? Well, Moore has always postured as a man of God. I’m reminded of the old Soviet joke: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” Moore pretends to be godly, and Alabama Republicans pretend to believe him.

And now Al Franken. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the photo. It’s obvious he thought he was just being funny (he was a professional comic); not taking sexual advantage, but mocking that. It was stupid and juvenile, but that’s all it was. (There was also a kiss — while rehearsing a script that included a kiss.) Franken has acknowledged behaving badly, and has apologized.

President Trump — while refusing to condemn Moore — tweeted: “The Al Frankenstein picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?”

Really bad? Did Trump forget this little bagatelle: “I moved on her like a bitch. I couldn’t get there and she was married. Then all-of-a-sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything . . . I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything . . . grab them by the pussy.”

(Trump said that was just talk, he’d never actually done it. The number of women saying otherwise has reached 16. Only seven have accused Roy Moore, so far.)

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The pot calling the kettle black.” Trump’s attacking Franken for sexual misbehavior shows, yet again, that he suffers from a severe psychological defect. Self-perception divorced from reality.

Some have seen the Weinstein story as triggering a witch-hunt. Well, some real evil has been exposed, including Roy Moore’s, but when Al Franken gets sucked in, with what is really a very trivial transgression, then it does start to look like a witch-hunt. But meantime, with all the men who have lately been punished and made pariahs for their sexual misdeeds, why not Trump? Former “family values” Republicans continue supporting him. Politics trumps everything.

There is no comparison between Franken’s behavior and Trump’s own. Asked about it, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made this remarkable statement: “Senator Franken has admitted wrongdoing and the President hasn’t. I think that’s a very clear distinction.”

I agree with her.

This is the world we live in.

What should Democrats do?

November 15, 2017

Back-to-back I read columns by Michael Gerson and The Economist’sLexington” discussing the Democrats’ predicament.

Gerson is a Republican horrified by his own party’s dive to the dark side. He sees strong national majorities likewise repelled by Trump. And yet he notes a recent poll showing that a re-run of the last election would produce a tie. That the Democrats cannot clobber even so reviled a creature as Trump tells Gerson that the party is in “profound crisis.”

Its national establishment, he says, is “arrogant, complacent, and corrupt” (as highlighted by Donna Brazile’s memoir). But that establishment is besieged by an army of zealots for identity politics and utopian socialism.

So we are left with “two very sick political parties that have a monopoly on political power and little prospect for reform and recovery,” and hence for dealing with the nation’s true problems. Gerson doubts that moderate conservatism and moderate liberalism can rally to the rescue. And if we are really stuck between Republican ethno-nationalism and Democrats’ identity-socialism, we are a nation in decline, likely to forfeit global leadership, which would undermine the whole world’s outlook.

Lexington meanwhile focuses particularly on former Obama voters who switched to Trump — only about 4% of the electorate, but enough to tip the outcome. Democrats seem obsessed with getting back these mostly rust-belt working class voters. Thus they aim to stress their economic issues. And, indeed, we’ve heard endlessly how economic anxieties caused Trump’s win.

But Lexington sees some bad news for Democrats in an analysis by the bipartisan Voter Studies Group, finding no unified attitude among Trump voters on any economic issue. This, and other careful analyses, reveal that actually Trump voting correlated most with cultural rather than economic preoccupations. The ugly reality is that Trump won by running against Mexicans, Muslims, and blacks. Hence, says Lexington, to win Democrats must show that they are at least in touch with those voters’ cultural anxieties. However, he thinks this will be a heavy lift because simultaneously Democrats must call out Trumpian bigotry; and economic arguments are doomed to lose to cultural ones.

The Democrat brand was made toxic to part of America by Obama, seen as culturally an alien interloper, not only (though mainly) because of his color, but also by his intellectually elitist manner and aggravated by his seeming, in some important ways, weak. Hillary Clinton was no antidote; embodying a discredited establishment; misogyny did play a role; and her ethical challenges, though nowhere near as bad as Trump’s, enabled him to demonize her preposterously. It was said during the campaign that she was the only Democrat Trump could beat*, so it’s not too surprising that even today she’d still only get a tie.

Yet, for all this, are Democrats in fact the less popular party? Polls actually show the opposite. Clinton did win the popular vote, and Democrats also won more Congressional votes, losing the House only because of Republican gerrymandering. Only 29% of Americans now favorably view the Republican party, and a majority strongly disapproves of Trump’s presidency. In the Virginia governor’s race, Republican Ed Gillespie ran a Trumpian ethno-nationalist campaign; Democrat Northam was an anodyne plain-vanilla candidate. And Northam won big.

So I don’t even think Democrats need to run campaigns venting about the Trumpist horrorshow. The country can see perfectly well why it stinks and doesn’t need Democrats to bang on about it. Instead, on the theory that a majority of Americans haven’t actually lost their civic minds, Democrats should be positive, mainly positioning themselves as the (contrastingly) sound, sober, serious, sane, truthful, decent, responsible party.

Not another party of shouting extremists — as many of its left-wing socialist Bernie-loving Torquemadas would make it. (To oppose them is why I switched my enrollment to Democrat.) But Gerson, echoing Yeats, may be right that they can’t be stopped by more moderate voices: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” And if we indeed have two parties each going off its own deep end, then America itself is sunk.

* Though it’s nonsense to think Sanders would have won. Not with the word “socialist” hung around his neck.

Roy Moore and Christian hypocrisy

November 11, 2017

Alabama has a special Senate election in December for the Jeff Sessions seat. Governor Robert Bentley had appointed Luther Strange to the seat. Strange was the state attorney general who just happened to have been investigating one Robert Bentley for misusing state resources to cover up an illicit sexual affair. A cynic might have thought Bentley was trying to rid himself of Strange. The Bible-thumping governor was soon forced to resign anyway.

Also a gun thumper

Roy Moore is a former Alabama chief justice. A bigger Bible-thumper. He was removed from the bench, twice. First for installing and then refusing to remove a huge monument of the Ten Commandments. Elected again, he was removed again, this time for instructing state judges to defy the law of the land on gay marriage.

Moore challenged Strange in the primary for the Senate nomination. Trump endorsed Strange. But Moore campaigned on the idea that Strange was not pro-Trump enough. Alabama is big-time Trump country (well, the white parts). Moore won the primary. Now his main campaign theme is that America isn’t godly enough.

And now it turns out that this Ten Commandments lover also loves molesting underage girls. The woman’s account of what he did when she was 14 and he was 32 is both disgusting and thoroughly credible. It has been corroborated by testimonies from several others about their encounters with Moore in their teens. Everyone who has actually looked at the evidence finds it highly persuasive.

Moore denies it, calling it a politically motivated attack. (The woman is actually a Republican Trump voter.) In other words, the fake “fake news” defense. Anything that’s reported that you don’t like is “fake news.”

Religion’s defenders claim that it’s the basis for morality. Yet so often it’s a cloak for immorality. How often the biggest Bible thumpers are secretly sex perverts. The pedophile Roy Moore is but the latest in a long disgraceful parade.

I’ve written recently how political partisanship has come to trump all other tribalisms in America. It even trumps religion. In polls, evangelical Christians used to be the most likely to say personal morality is important in a public office-holder. Now they’re the least likely! How else can they reconcile voting for an admitted sexual predator, who boasted he could “grab them by the pussy”?

State Auditor Jim Ziegler says what Moore did with that 14-year-old was actually okay because similar stories are found in the Bible, like that of Joseph and Mary. And I have said that religion warps the brain.

The Democratic Senate candidate in Alabama, Doug Jones, seems to be an excellent man. Certainly not a vile reptile like Roy Moore. Has America really sunk so low that Moore wins?

Magical thinking in America

November 7, 2017

Mass shootings keep us revisiting the gun issue. Many Americans want guns for self-protection in the home. But guns in homes overwhelmingly shoot family members. They kill or maim about 7,000 children every year. Intruders stopped: practically none.

Another fantasy is guns protecting our liberties against the government. If the constitution and courts fail, will these gun-toting clowns do the trick? As if the Feds’ firepower wouldn’t obliterate them!

These gun ideas constitute magical thinking. Believing something because you wish to, even if actually — even if manifestly — untrue. We obsess over “keeping us safe” from terrorism, while shrugging off the firearm death toll, 30,000 Americans annually — a hundred times greater. “Right-to-life” is for the unborn, not for gun victims.

Now, it happens that many of these same magical thinkers about guns also believe evolution and climate change (and the human role in it) are lies; that mainstream media disseminate fake news; while Trump tells it like it is. That immigrants are bad for the economy. That corporate tax cuts will create jobs. That the Bible is the inerrant word of a benevolent god watching over us, good people go to Heaven, and bad ones to Hell. Some of these same people also believe whites are a superior race (and victims of discrimination); that confederate statues honor history, not racism; and millions vote illegally.

Is there a pattern here?

The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist recently examined this, citing a forthcoming book by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, Enchanted America. The Trump phenomenon may be rooted not so much in conservative ideology as superstition. (Indeed, traditional conservative ideology has been turned on its head.) People holding some or all of the beliefs I mentioned are called “intuitionists,” understanding the world on the basis of feelings and gut instincts, not principles, values, or empirical facts (to which they’re impervious).

Fear plays a role, tending to warp rational thought. Oliver quotes his five-year-old son: “If there’s no monster in the closet, then why am I scared?” Clinging to guns for supposed safety is similar thinking.

“How,” asks Lexington, “has such a rich, well-governed place come to this?” He invokes Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” — a tendency which may be triggered by being on the losing side of cultural conflicts. This applies to religious fundamentalists and rural and rustbelt whites. Their gravitating toward the political right makes the right particularly “the domain of unreason.” (Though there’s plenty of irrationality on the left too.)

Kurt Anderson’s recent book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, finds magical thinking pervades our history. After all, the country began with religious fanatics (the Puritans). Anderson cites, inter alia, Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, quack medicines, Esalen, and P. T. Barnum (“the first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe, the founder of infotainment”) as well as, of course, the long-running story of protestant fundamentalism. Today, magical thinking is pitched into yet higher gear by economic insecurity, racial resentment, demonization of immigrants, and the psychic discombobulation of social and cultural change. All this turned the GOP into “the Fantasy Party,” imagining they’ll “make America great again” with a creep who’s actually making America rancid.

People with a grip on reality no longer even have a place in the Republican party. Truth-telling Senators Corker and Flake concluded they could not win renomination. Party loyalty is now defined as believing the naked emperor is resplendently clothed. (I quit in May.)

Of course Americans are not alone in magical thinking. It’s common everywhere. Yet today’s America is striking for the broad range of delusions many people hold. The book I recently reviewed about conspiracy theories shows those who swallow one are likelier to swallow others. It’s the way they see the world.

When it comes to religion, I’ve always thought beliefs that would be deemed insane if held by only a few have to be considered normal when held by the many. People compartmentalize, and can be perfectly rational on the whole while their minds harbor ghettoes wherein reason’s writ does not run.

Yet what is insanity if not divorcement from reality? Religious faith may get a pass; but when the magical thinking extends to many additional realms, the compartmentalization concept breaks down, and the inmates have taken over the asylum.

The Republican tax plan: “A big beautiful Christmas present” or coal in our stockings?

November 4, 2017

The real question: why?

Why this Republican tax proposal? Well, it’s billed as “reform,” and God knows our federal tax system is an ungodly mess crying out for reform. But this bill isn’t it. Fewer brackets means nothing. Admittedly, eliminating some deductions and, particularly, the Alternative Minimum Tax would be significant simplifications. Yet in other ways, new complications are actually added. Trump’s saying nine out of ten would be able to file on a postcard is a lie even biglier than usual for him.

It’s also a lie to call it the biggest tax cut in our history. It would be true if Trump had added the words for corporations.

And why cut taxes? Because they’re too high? When for decades government spending has exceeded taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars yearly? When the federal debt now tops twenty trillion?

Republicans — supposedly the party of fiscal conservatism — originally were supposedly aiming for a revenue-neutral reform — that is, making up the cuts by getting revenue elsewhere, like capping 401Ks. But of course taking any benefit away from anyone is political poison. So predictably, they jettisoned any notion of paying for the cuts. The budget they passed recently (with virtually no debate) permits them (due to arcane rules) to now enact a tax cut costing a whopping $1.5 trillion, over 10 years, with only 50 Senate votes, rather than an impossible 60.

But even with that giant window, making the math work is very hard. Especially with corporations getting most of the $1.5 trillion available. Additional fat cuts for fat cats necessitate compensatory tax increases for many middle and upper middle class folks. At best, some less affluent people will get peanuts, while caviar is served to the richest and, especially, corporations.

After decades of Democrats caricaturing Republicans as caring only for the rich, the GOP is now shamelessly proving it. When economic inequality has been a growing concern, to propose a tax bill that will significantly aggravate that inequality is disgraceful.

But they say the aim is to stimulate the economy, spur growth, and create jobs. Producing so much more income, and thus more tax revenue, that the cuts will pay for themselves. They’ve been making this argument for forty years. It has never proven true. A tax cut might be stimulative if it put money in the pockets of Joe Sixpack who’ll spend it. But not when most goes to the rich who’ll just save it. And corporate hiring simply has nothing to do with how much tax they pay on profits.

Meantime, the whole growth stimulation idea ignores the impact on deficits and debt. Which are set to explode in years ahead as ever more older people collect pensions and benefits while ever fewer work and pay taxes. We can finance the gap by borrowing, as long as interest rates remain at historic lows. But if ballooning debt spooks the financial markets, interest rates will spike up, and we won’t be able to afford much except interest payments. That makes cutting taxes suicidal economic insanity.

And snuck into the bill is this hidden stinker: repealing the Johnson Amendment, which bars churches from partisan politics. A terrible idea. (Read about it here.)

No wonder they want to ram this through quickly, without any pesky hearings or debate. Before anybody can really figure out what’s happening. Just like they tried to do with health care. Rushing such a hugely complex and consequential plan is also disgraceful and crazy.

But finally, for Republicans, the real reason behind all this is not economic policy. It’s more like religious belief. Tax cuts are a matter of faith, comparable to belief in God for Christians. Never mind economics, reality, or sanity.

Will it pass? Very doubtful. Likely it will get watered down into something insignificant — which Trump will nevertheless call a “big, big win.”

Huuuge!”

(Note, my family would benefit significantly from the GOP plan. And I was a Republican myself until recently. This tax plan epitomizes why I quit.)

 

Embezzlement mysteries

November 2, 2017

Our local paper reported a 54-year-old woman bookkeeper busted for stealing over $800,000 from her employer, between 2009 and 2016, by writing over 1,000 unauthorized checks.

What makes this story noteworthy? Nothing! In fact, it’s ridiculously common, the paper is always full of similar embezzling bookkeeper stories. That’s what puzzles me.

How can they expect to get away with it? After all, these stories don’t report people getting away with it, they report people caught. All the time.

I do understand temptation and greed. I suppose it doesn’t take a criminal genius of a bookkeeper to see an opportunity. But, leaving aside concerns of morality and conscience, isn’t it recklessly risky? Don’t they read the papers and see how many are caught?

It may often start innocuously. “I’ll just borrow fifty bucks this way, I’ll put it back next week.” But next week comes and she doesn’t. And nothing happens. Soon it’s off to the races. Till she’s inevitably busted.

Yet, on the other hand, it’s also puzzling how long it often takes. Over seven years, this gal stole $800,000. With a thousand checks. Didn’t anyone notice? It’s a local business I’d never even heard of, so how big could it be, that $800,000 was overlooked for so long? But this too seems to be a strangely common pattern in all these embezzlement cases.

I don’t get it. More of life’s mysteries.

My 11/7 talk on the drug war

October 31, 2017

At noon Tuesday, November 7 (Election Day) I will talk about the drug war, reviewing Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream, at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue. This will be a wide-ranging discussion of the whole addiction problem, its history,  and the public policy response.

(I previously posted a brief review of the book, click here.)

Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World: a symposium

October 21, 2017

          “The press is not the enemy of the people. It’s the enemy of liars.”

                            — Frank S. Robinson

This was a program of the New York State Writers Institute, founded by the great writer William Kennedy (with his MacArthur grant money); its director is Paul Grondahl. The Oct. 13-14 symposium entailed six panels, totaling nine hours, star-studded with luminous names. Many important topics were discussed, and some great points were made.

I will recap each panel’s highlights in separate blog posts (mostly without detailing who said what; and with a touch of my own spin).

Grondahl

But first an aside. I don’t consider my social skills strong. However, I’ve learned that compliments always go down well. And here I gave out a lot of them — all well deserved. I complimented Paul Grondahl three times (for masterminding this wonderful event; for deftly handling a loquacious questioner; and for his graciousness in honoring a longtime staffer). I complimented Rex Smith (editor of the Albany Times-Union) for the excellence of his weekly column; and several of the panelists for what they said. I lauded Floyd Abrams for his longtime purist First Amendment advocacy.

Kennedy

I remarked to Bill Kennedy how great he looks (I might have guessed his age at 65; it’s actually 89).

When I found Russell Banks sitting quietly alone, I told him how much I’d liked his book Continental Drift. I said, “People read novels basically to help them understand other people. And that book helped me a lot in that way.” I could see Banks deeply appreciated this; he just lit up on hearing it.

It all left me with a glow of positive feeling myself: that there’s so much good and right in the world. (But read on, about some panelists I did not compliment!)

“Media in the Age of New Technology: Fake News, Information Overload & Media Literacy”

October 21, 2017

Schieffer

(Panelists Tim Wu (originator of “net neutrality”); Franklin Foer; Maria Hinojosa; David Goodman. Moderator: news legend Bob Schieffer)

“Satan has come back to Earth disguised as a smart phone.” The communications revolution has profoundly affected our culture, especially how we get our news. Most now get some or all from social media — but it’s not vetted.

Facebook and Google until recently saw themselves as tech companies, but they’ve really become media gatekeepers (the most powerful in history). They profit from attracting eyeballs. And having a ton of data which clues them in to what’s in your head, their algorithms try to show you things you’re apt to click on.

In the 2016 campaign, Trump seemed to understand it was similarly a battle for attention. His campaign was tailored to getting it, and the media played along, giving him around $5 billion worth of free air time, far more than other candidates. It made the election into a circus; but people like circuses. (Clinton in contrast didn’t even try playing that game, instead being wary of any unscripted TV moments.)

In the past, mainstream TV and print media spoke with authority, but the internet has “democratized” the news landscape, and sources of news no longer seem to matter much. Thus we now lack a common basis of facts in our political discourse.

Indeed, it’s a golden age of propaganda, whose essence is the “big lie” and creating a seamless version of truth. Facebook is a hothouse where such own-realities can flourish. Its content, moreover, is vulnerable to cynical manipulation, as the Russians apparently exploited. But the problem is how to combat that without a kind of censorship that impedes political discourse and violates our norms of free expression.

David Goodman is the brother of Amy Goodman (of Radio’s Democracy Now), who was on the next panel. Both trotted out the old canard that the Iraq war was based on lies, and whined that the anti-war side wasn’t given enough press coverage. Amy Goodman harped on the same claim regarding the Bernie Sanders campaign; climate change; and the Dakota pipeline protests. Such complaints are a staple of lefty grievance polemics. In fact all four stories received ample coverage. And the “Bush lied” trope is itself a lie; almost everyone believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.