Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor . . .

September 21, 2022

So Governor Abbott grabs human beings — mothers and children, who have already suffered horrific ordeals fleeing nightmares in places like Venezuela — and puts them on a grueling two-day bus trip from Texas to New York. Governor DeSantis uses Florida taxpayer money to fly ones never even in Florida to an isolated island. Both cynically tormenting unfortunate human beings as political pawns. Both luring them with lies.

Like the Nazis did when putting Jews in cattle cars.

But what fools those Republican governors are, seeking brownie points for cruelty when the standard was set by Trump confiscating children from parents at the border. In comparison, the Abbott and DeSantis atrocities are chickenshit.

They thought they’d “own the libs” and show them up as hypocrites. Instead, blessedly, people in the destination places have stepped up and welcomed the refugees with compassion and help. Acting like human beings, toward fellow human beings.

Unlike Republicans who cheer Abbott and DeSantis. Actually not even most Republicans are that callous. Those governors are playing to the worst of the worst. Sad and sick.

And by the way, their victims are not “illegal immigrants.” Under international law, refugees fleeing peril have a right to cross a border to seek asylum. In fact, they can’t request asylum unless they’ve done that. And we have a legal obligation to receive them.

The New York State Writers Institute’s recent Albany book festival featured an immigration panel. One panelist, Jason Riley, a Black “conservative” from the right-wing Manhattan Institute, had written a book shredding every Trumpist anti-immigration trope. Riley virtually quoted my own past blogging, saying that economic migrants are self-selected for enterprise, grit, and gumption: “I want them here.”

The point was driven home by another panelist, Susan Hartman, who studied Utica. A classic rustbelt town, hollowing out, dying. Until Utica made a decision to go big for refugees. And that influx of refugees gave Utica rebirth.

Another panelist was Rosayra Pablo Cruz, whose husband was murdered in Guatemala. With her two children, she fled north and made it to America in 2018 — where her kids were taken away by Trump’s policy. A months-long effort, with activist help, managed to reunite them. Rosy is now a contributing member of American society. Even served as head of her local PTA! And wrote an acclaimed book about it all.

I want Rosy here too.

The right keeps saying they’re all for legal immigration, while bashing the Biden administration for border chaos. The border mess really goes back to Trump — whose policy of deliberate cruelty simply did not work, to keep people away. It’s true the current administration has not got to grips with this; the issue’s political fraughtness, with Republicans screeching “open borders” at them, makes Democrats squeamish. We desperately need Congressional legislation, with no chance of getting it, to sort out this mess.

It’s all well and good to intone about legal immigration, getting in line, doing it the right way, etc. But the reality, as Jason Riley pointed out, is that our legal immigration system pretty much now exists only on paper. With the bureaucracy bogged down, and encrusted with Trump-added restrictions and monkey-wrenches, in practice the legal route to America is almost impossible to travel.

Making that statue in New York harbor look like a fraud.

Faulkner on Race

September 10, 2022

I’ve written about William Faulkner (1897-1962) as my favorite novelist. A Mississippian, his books were all set there, between Civil War times and the early 20th century. The characters and their stories ain’t pretty. Yet the books exuded a love for humanity. I chose a Faulkner quote as the epigraph for my Optimism book.

Though the novels did include Black characters, they never really get into the race issue. Indeed, all the nasty stuff was white-on-white. The situation of Southern Blacks was a background fact, but so unremarked there seemingly might have been no such situation. So much a “given” of Faulkner’s milieu that it required no acknowledgement. Or maybe it just wasn’t what he wanted to write about.

I recently read a Modern Library volume titled William Faulkner – Essays, Speeches & Public Letters. One fairly long piece discusses the American dream, where the individual is “free of that mass into which the hierarchies of church and state had compressed and held him.” But in our sleep “it abandoned us . . . what we hear now is a cacophony . . . babbling only the mouthsounds; the loud and empty words which we have emasculated of all meaning whatever — freedom, democracy, patriotism.” A sickness that “goes back to that moment in our history when we decided that the old simple moral verities over which taste and responsibility were the arbiters and controls, were obsolete and to be discarded.” And “Truth — that long clean clear line . . . has now become an angle, a point of view having nothing to do with truth nor even with fact, but depending solely on where you are standing.”

All cogent about today’s Republicans, I thought. Though written in 1955. And what got Faulkner’s bile boiling? Some magazine had the temerity to run an article about this Nobel laureate against his wishes!

But some of these pieces do address race matters Faulkner sidestepped in his novels. For a Mississippian of his era, he was on the enlightened end of the spectrum. But that’s not saying much.

Faulkner truly loved the place, and not just the scenery. He expressed love for its people, culture, and traditions. Now, I believe most people are mostly good. But unfortunately susceptible to shaping by the culture embedding them. I’m sure Faulkner could have expatiated on the virtues in Mississippi’s culture and traditions. But that would omit key realities.

He actually had nothing to say about slavery. Yet did imbibe the South’s “Lost Cause” mythology, that there was something noble in their fight, though what, exactly, is never very clear. He definitely considered the Northerners the bad guys, unjustified invaders. That too elides much historical reality.

Faulkner actually endorsed racial equality. But not right away. Urging the civil rights movement — then just starting — to go slow. He was “strongly against compulsory integration.” Seemingly, he didn’t want Southern racists to gain the sympathy that underdogs accrue. Saying they’d come around eventually. (But after a century . . . )

In 1931, a Memphis newspaper published a Black man’s letter endorsing a Mississippi anti-lynching organization. Noting that there’d never been a lynching before Reconstruction. Faulkner found it needful to reply.

He explained, “there was no need for lynching until after reconstruction days.” (He suggests the influx of Northerners then was responsible for lynchings.) And asserted that “Blacks who get lynched are not representative of the black race, just as the people who lynch them are not representative of the white race.” Indeed, he believed anyone lynched must have done something wrong, to provoke it.

Faulkner did state, “I hold no brief for lynching.” But (my paraphrase) — it’s just one of those things. He said a lynching “requires a certain amount of sentimentality, an escaping from the monotonous facts of day by day.” And if a few Blacks suffer thusly from “white folks’ sentimentality,” he adduced a convoluted scenario of such sentimentality indulging a Black debt cheat. Also mentioning a Black man supposedly living for fifteen years on public charity, impossible in any other country — which he said is why they have no lynchings. Then he made fun of foreign press accounts of U.S. lynchings.

His final paragraph conceded “that mob violence serves nothing.” Yet ended saying, “Some [people] will die rich, and some will die on cross-ties soaked with gasoline, to make a holiday. But there is one curious thing about mobs. Like our juries, they have a way of being right.”

Now, I had to consider the possibility that this ostensibly execrable piece was actually a wicked satire of people who excuse lynchings, to expose their bad thinking.* But no, this was 1931 Mississippi. With its distinctive people, culture, and traditions to which Faulkner was so attached.

What the post-Civil War Reconstruction period introduced was the idea of Black people having rights. Lynchings were one way whites fought that. The point was not to punish Black crimes, but to terrorize any Blacks trying to assert any rights. To keep them “in their place.” Accusations were mere pretexts. A high proportion of lynching victims were completely innocent. There were thousands; more in Mississippi than in any other state.

Yes, lynchings did become festive “holidays.” Revealing they had nothing to do with justice, they were celebrations of white supremacy. And — mostly accompanied by hideous torture — revealing the inhuman cruelty of the perpetrators’ “culture and traditions.”

Mobs “have a way of being right?” How about the one that lynched Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, in Georgia on May 19, 1918. Her husband had been lynched the day before — one of seven innocent Blacks lynched for supposed complicity in the death of a white farm owner who had abused them. Mary Turner’s transgression was to protest against her husband’s murder. For that — to teach a lesson — a mob bound Mary’s feet, hanged her upside down from a tree, threw gasoline on her, and burned her clothes off. Then took a butcher knife to cut her baby from her body; one man crushed the crying baby’s head with his foot. Finally Mary was killed by a fusillade of bullets. No one was ever charged with a crime.

“Sentimentality?” Culture and tradition, Mr. Faulkner?

I can’t say I’ll never read Faulkner again. But it will be with lessened pleasure.

* To be sure here, I did some googling, and turned up a master’s thesis discussing Faulkner’s 1931 letter in depth. There’s no basis for thinking it wasn’t straightforward.

The Metaphysical Club: Religion and Democracy

September 6, 2022

When single, I jumped on a personal ad saying “interested in ideas.” But on our date, the gal seemed no intellectual. I asked what she’d meant by “interested in ideas.” She replied, “Oh, like new ways to cook spaghetti.”

Then married Therese. At a used book sale, she pointed out one I’d ignored: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. About American philosophy from before the Civil War to about a century later. She proposed we read it together.

We’d started with Proust’s seven-volume opus; took us over two decades, though in the early years our readings were intermittent. Then we moved on to The Brothers Karamazov, Huckleberry Finn, Adam Grant’s Think Again, and others. Mostly it’s me reading aloud to her. I enjoy the challenge of putting the emphasis on the right words, without necessarily knowing where a sentence is going. It’s an immersive exercise empowering comprehension.

And I love Therese’s astute listenership, engaging with the ideas. If a line is nonsense, Therese is right on it. How delicious having such a partner (who can also cook spaghetti).

William James

The Metaphysical Club’s title nods to a group of intellectuals who’d meet to discuss philosophy in mid-1800s Cambridge, MA. It focuses particularly on William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, and Charles Peirce. The last name less famous, though I’d known it did loom large in American philosophy, without actually knowing anything about Peirce or his thought. The book left me baffled that he’s remembered at all. His life was a mess; didn’t publish much. But William James championed Peirce’s importance, making it so.

Menand devotes much time to pragmatism, a philosophical stance associated most prominently with James and Dewey. Pragmatism valorizes an idea less on its correspondence to factual reality than on how well it works for the believer. This was mainly an effort to justify religious faith.

Which indeed was a dominating factor in 19th century American thought. James in particular, though a penetrating analyst in so many respects, was hung up on his profound yearning to validate the unseen. A similar case, also prominent in the book, was the naturalist Louis Agassiz, whose scientific work was deeply compromised by his insistence on centralizing God.


Of course people like Agassiz and James also desperately wanted to believe death is not final. But the book makes plain how such supernaturalism pervasively mucked up American thought all the way to modern times.

We’ve hosted a Muslim student from Somaliland. She was bugged by the evident irrationalities of her faith, and eager to discuss them.

Our bull sessions on this finally led her to realize that once she stopped trying to hammer the square peg of religion into the round hole of reality, all her conundrums dissolved, and everything made a lot more sense.

Another thread in the book concerned the nature of American society, especially its pluralism and democracy. Like with religion, pragmatism emphasized outcomes — whether or not something is good for the society as a whole — de-emphasizing what’s good for its individual members. But as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society.” That was widely decried; however, what she really meant (I think) was that society is made up of individuals, and at the end of the day, it’s how those individuals fare that really matters.

It’s the difference between viewing humans as akin to members of an ant colony or beehive, where only the society matters, not individuals — and honoring each person’s human dignity as worthy in itself. Recognizing that what’s “good” for society cannot be purchased at the expense of what’s good for the individuals comprising it. A mistake made by various collectivist ideologies.

This doesn’t mean people living (like anti-maskers) in disregard of the societies in which they’re embedded. That embedment gives life much of its meaning. We do have duties to others (mainly avoiding harm). We honor them because that enables individuals, all of us, to thrive best.

John Dewey’s “pragmatism,” in particular, held that democracy is the best system because it optimizes the society’s contours. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse. China’s regime today is battling Dewey, arguing that its regimented top-down dictatorship (which it yet insists is somehow truly democratic!) is best for society’s flourishing.

Both are wrong. Democracy’s virtue is its serving the universal human thirst to matter individually. Not as another faceless ant in the ant-hill. Thus “Democratic participation isn’t the means to an end,” as Menand says on his final page, “it is the end.”

He also quotes Holmes that there’s no point in reading anything over twenty years old. And acknowledges that the thinkers he discusses were operating in a landscape very different from what came later; and while their ideas nevertheless “can seem familiar to us in rather uncanny ways,” they and their world also seem “almost unimaginably strange.”

Therese and I noted that the book was published in 2001 — it’s over twenty years old. And today’s America is a very different country again from the one Menand was writing in. One wonders what it will be like in another two decades.

One of the sad things about finite lives is that I don’t get to know how history comes out.

Goodbye Gorby

September 3, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev was the most consequential personage of the 20th century’s latter half. And in a good way.

Now that is really saying something. The 21st century’s biggest personages (so far) are big not in good ways at all.

Just look at this verbiage from one report of Gorbachev’s death* — “vision of humane communism liberated millions, bridled the global arms race and knocked down walls dividing East and West . . . systematically dismantle[d] the machinery of repression . . . freed political prisoners, lifted the Iron Curtain, liberated the arts and pulled Red Army troops out of foreign conflicts . . . forged disarmament treaties . . . removed the shackles from a society deeply scarred by dictatorships.”

And on the seventh day he rested.

But he was thrown out of power, and when he ran again for president in 1996, he got one percent of the vote. Gosh that tells us something.

What made Gorbachev’s story so extraordinary is that it went completely against the grain of the society and system that had produced him. It’s in the nature of human life to travel along the tracks on which you find yourself. Gorbachev had the insight to see where those tracks were leading, and he rerouted the entire railroad.

He was made leader following a succession of wretched characters, because by then the system had so run out of steam that it couldn’t see how to do anything else. With a dead ideology no one any longer believed in. Gorbachev was the one who said the emperor had no clothes. When Ronald Reagan, in Berlin, intoned, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he did (in effect). He went to the UN and said the Cold War was over — and that the West had won.

What a vast blessing for humanity. And it was not inevitable. Nothing ever really is, my own study of history suggests. Individuals and their choices and actions make history, and Gorbachev was a singular exemplar. Absent Gorbachev, a far uglier story would have likely ensued.

But he was a giant among Lilliputians, evidenced by that 1% presidential vote, and his vision was eclipsed with him — a vast tragedy for humanity. What ultimately did follow was a reversion to form; indeed, with a vengeance. His successor Putin restoring, doubling down, the evil Gorbachev tried to end. As though there is some malevolent force operating that not even so protean a figure as he could truly defeat. Yet Russia getting a Putin was not inevitable either. It was a choice.

* By Carol J. Williams in the los Angeles Times.

“Riots in the Streets”

August 31, 2022

Senator Lindsay Graham, the on-again-off-again toady, foresees “riots in the streets” if Trump is prosecuted for stealing classified documents. Graham reflects a Republican party increasingly legitimizing, even romanticizing, political violence. Evoking South Africa 2021 — when corrupt ex-President Zuma was ordered jailed for defying court orders, and resulting riots killed at least 72, with massive property destruction.

We’ve been learning more about the importance of the documents Trump improperly took, how much that endangered national security, and hence the seriousness of his crime. If searching an ex-president’s home was “unprecedented,” so was the reason for it.

Why did he do it? Why not, as soon as an issue was raised, simply hand over everything? In fact he resisted and lied to government officials. It makes no sense. But the explanation has long been evident. Trump is insane. Literally, clinically, insane.

Judging from the crazed outcry at the mere search, Graham may be shamefully right about violence if Trump is actually prosecuted. Making a decision to do so epically fraught. But this criminal case against him would seem open-and-shut; the crimes are very serious; and if he isn’t held accountable, that would be a scandal. Showing Trump is indeed “above the law,” become a Death Star exerting a dark gravity that warps our whole civic justice system.

The Trumpian smear of the FBI includes alleging a “double standard” because Hillary Clinton was not prosecuted for her email issues.* That’s absurd whataboutism. In fact Hillary was thoroughly investigated, and no criminal offenses were found. Her exoneration doesn’t mean a different person, in a different case, should not be charged.

Yet his cultists (calling themselves patriots) will (like South Africa’s Zuma fans) defend him even unto violence. This is the us-against-them tribal war gone berserk. The eternal narrative is Trump as the (heroic) tribune of the people beset by evil elites determined to bring him down, by any means necessary. Graham said, “Most Republicans, including me, believe that when it comes to Trump, there is no law . . . It’s all about getting him.”

How many times have we gone through this? It might indeed seem “there is no law,” given Trump’s consistent history of evading it. How many criminal travesties must he commit before his followers will entertain the thought that maybe — just maybe — he might have actually done something rotten?

But no. That will never happen. Facts and realities and irrelevant. The deranged war must be fought to the bitter end. God help us.

* Double standard? The FBI publicized its investigation of Hillary, hurting her campaign, while keeping mum its investigation of Trump’s for Russia collusion.

Assholes — A Theory

August 28, 2022

“Well, he’s got the asshole vote,” I remarked to my wife early in 2016. “But are there enough assholes?”

Now I’ve read Aaron James’s book, Assholes — A Theory. Trump appears right on page 2. The book was written in 2012. (James has produced a sequel titled Assholes — A Theory of Donald Trump.)

Of course not all Trump voters are assholes. But they deify him regardless. That signals something disturbing in today’s America.

So what exactly is an “asshole?” My 2016 remark entailed a very general concept of obtuseness. James (a philosophy professor) is concerned with something more particular, defining it in terms of interpersonal relations: systematically arrogating special advantages to oneself, from an entrenched sense of entitlement, disregarding complaints of others.

A quintessential asshole utterance is “Do you know who I am?” Asserting status above ordinary peons.

James is talking about an enduring pattern of behavior, recognizing that even normal people lapse into it occasionally. Thus he excludes someone “better classified as a jerk, a boor, a cad, a schmuck, or a mere ass.” Yet he also inexplicably excludes “the ‘royal asshole,’ who is distinguished even among assholes.” These categorizations seem weird.

James uses male pronouns throughout, on the basis that assholes are generally men. He explores how males in particular are thusly acculturated, from early childhood. Indeed, he considers “asshole” a gendered word (like “bachelor” or “spinster”). With a different word applicable to females: “bitch.”

Yet curiously, the book is short on etymology. I would note that “ass,” importantly, references an animal (donkey) considered to exemplify dumbness, as well as human anatomy, whereas “asshole” refers exclusively to the latter. James does associate it with “a foul stench,” and “a part of the body we hide in public . . . that many people feel alienated from and perhaps wish wasn’t there.”

His take on the subject is fundamentally moralistic. Assholes are morally repugnant, in failure (or refusal) to operate according to the most basic social precept: recognizing everyone’s human equality. That doesn’t mean we’re all alike. But the asshole puts himself before others in a way that doesn’t accept their right to any consideration at all from him. (White supremacist racism is a special subclass of this.)

I’ve written in this vein myself, under the rubric of “arrogance,” deeming that the ultimate sin underlying every moral violation. The unjustified privileging of oneself above others.

A related concept is narcissism. Now, we are all narcissists, to a degree; we all have egos. It’s a fundamental psychological reality that for each individual, the most important person on Earth is themself. And a certain degree of self-love is essential to a healthy psychology. But the degree is crucial. When it trumps other people’s right to recognition of their proper self-concern, that makes an asshole.

James invokes Rousseau’s distinction between a person’s natural sense of self-worth (amour de soi-même) and a “potentially destructive concern for rank or status as compared to others (amour propre).” Rousseau said healthy self-love does not require feeling superior to anyone; we can recognize mutual needs for status recognition while still considering everyone basically equal. But the asshole, says James, “won’t settle for mere equality.”

He posits that unlike “the psychopath, who either lacks or fails to engage moral concepts, and who sees people as so many objects in the world to be manipulated at will,” the asshole is morally motivated, in deeming his behavior justified, and being resentful or indignant when his claimed entitlements are not respected (“treated very very unfairly”). This distinction too eludes me; assholes and psychopaths fall along a spectrum, it’s only a matter of degree in privileging oneself above others (which again every normal human does, to some degree).

And while James works from the standpoint that assholes, believing they’re entitled to behave as they do, are thus acting according to a moral concept, albeit a mistaken one, I think this perspective is itself mistaken. Assholes need notconsider themselves morally entitled. Morality mostly does not enter the picture for them. Rather, it’s solipsism, acting as they do simply because it suits them, serving their own felt needs and wants, which requires no further justification. That is the essence of assholery.

James suggests its proliferation might be explained by “the near plague of narcissism in our culture.” Through most of human history, almost everyone was treated like dirt, making humility the norm; its reversal a largely positive development. But perhaps we’ve overcompensated, giving too many people an exaggerated sense of themselves. It’s one thing to have a world where everyone feels their human dignity respected; another where everyone thinks he’s king. (Trump an extreme case.)

Yet on the other hand, my own positive outlook is grounded in lifelong observation seeing most people as basically virtuous. I’ve actually encountered relatively few proper assholes. Maybe this testifies to my discernment in associations. Or maybe modern life has not corrupted us that much after all.

A chapter titled “Naming Names” does so. Yet much here just vents the author’s personal animus, without in fact fitting his own “asshole” definition. Certainly Richard Dawkins does not (his The God Delusion deemed an “asshole title”). And James blasts French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy for calling the “lynching” of Libya’s Gaddhafi “revolting,” after having advocated his armed ouster. I guess that means I’m no asshole since I wrote a poem celebrating the episode.* But Lévy’s alternate view is defensible. Perhaps James is the asshole here.

Many pages explore whether assholes are blameworthy for their behavior, or it’s outside their control. This is the eternal question of free will. James calls it “freedom of will” and, strangely for a philosophy professor, doesn’t reference much of modern philosophizing (or neuroscience) relevant here. He seems to go around in circles on the subject. Getting tangled in the question of whether an asshole can reform; suggesting that maybe it’s like alcoholism, the person can restrain their behavior, but would still remain an asshole inside. His conclusory line here: “They are to blame simply because they think like an asshole, whether or not they will, or even can, ever change.” Thought crime?!

I’d answer the problem this way: people may not be able to control their personality, but behavior is always within one’s control. Good people squelch their worst impulses. Assholes do not.

* Read it here:

“Evil Geniuses – The Unmaking of America – A Recent History”

August 24, 2022

Kurt Andersen’s 2020 book is about “political economy.” He argues that ours went from being basically fair to unfair, the turning point around 1980. Achieved by his title’s “evil geniuses,” the rich and corporations working with right-wing political forces.

I previously reviewed Andersen’s excellent 2017 book, Fantasyland,* chronicling America’s descent out of reality-based epistemology. His new book is a polemic, history with attitude. For most of the time in question, I was politically on the side he castigates. Yet I actually agree with much in this book — today’s “conservatism” having betrayed the principles I’d embraced. However, I think Andersen’s argument goes way overboard. And the book is maddeningly tendentious and bloated. I got tired of shameless brazen repetition of words like “shameless brazen greed.”

Andersen’s tale really starts in the 1960s, with the counterculture abhorred and producing a backlash, which right-wing politicians and ideologues, in cahoots with business interests and the rich, exploited to get their hands on levers of power, which they utilized to pick apart the old New Deal political economy. The details of the culture clash have metamorphosed over time, but the basic story continues — if it’s not anti-war hippie drugheads demonized, it’s welfare moochers, or sexual deviants, or non-whites, or immigrants, and so on.

The “evil geniuses” pursued their agenda in three key ways: gutting labor union power; reducing regulation; and cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. Andersen sees this as wrecking our past social contract with a rising tide lifting all boats — now most boats are stuck in the mud while the yachts of the rich speed ahead. Inequality widens. Andersen thinks we’ve actually turned the clock back, beyond the New Deal, to the “Gilded Age” of “robber barons.”

A key villain of his is economist Milton Friedman, who posited that a corporation’s sole obligation is to seek profits for its shareholder owners, which Anderson says green-lighted that “shameless brazen greed.” I understand Friedman to have been arguing that society is actually best served when businesses stick to their knitting, producing what people want to buy, while leaving other concerns more properly to the political sphere.

More generally I’m dubious of Andersen’s notion that there were villains and villainies behind everything that happened. Some of it, yes, but far from all. It’s an ancient human proclivity to see all phenomena as caused by conscious agents — that’s how we got cosmologies populated by gods. Yet much of the time, it’s instead that “stuff happens,” for reasons other than intentional calculated action. For example, a big part of Andersen’s story concerns globalization and the “hollowing out” of America’s industrial job picture. As if his “evil geniuses” contrived that just to enrich themselves. Instead it happened inexorably due to fundamental tectonic economic and geopolitical forces, as well as technological developments.

Which Andersen worries will continue gathering force, with AI and robots eliminating more and more jobs for humans. That actually makes us collectively richer. Our key challenge, as Keynes foresaw back in 1930, is how to enable the mass of people to enjoy the fruits of that wealth. And for all Andersen’s lamentations, the fact is — as he acknowledges, sort of — we haven’t done badly on that score. While the rich have gotten a lot richer, the poor have not gotten poorer (globally they’ve advanced tremendously). And if the middle class has been shrinking, it’s a case of more people rising into the ranks of the reasonably affluent than falling into penury.

I was reminded of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas — which I read while on a cruise filled with very average Americans — and reviewed critically in 2010.** Frank was suffering from the frustration of liberals baffled by what they saw as so many people voting against their economic interests (that is, for Republicans). I saw it as people understandably voting their values rather than their mercenary interests. (Ironically, it’s Democrats who decry “money being everything.”)

But then the “values” actually represented by the GOP went haywire. Andersen’s book details much polling data suggesting that when it comes to specific questions, both the values and economic concerns of strong U.S. voting majorities now align more with Democrats. We saw this vividly when 60% voted this year to safeguard abortion rights — in Kansas, of all places.

Yet Kansans also keep voting for Republican politicians who oppose abortion rights and a lot of other things those voters actually favor. Why? The ensorcelment Republicans managed to put across in past decades, with cultural tribalism and demonizing Democrats, is still working. So those voters have their heads up their behinds.

Andersen professes some hope those heads can be extricated. Well, it wouldn’t do to have a completely dark book. Whereas he thinks Democrats have played patsy to his “evil geniuses,” he does consider it possible they’ll get their act together to capitalize on all the ways Republicans are actually screwing most voters and what those voters truly want. Especially as older ones die off.

This assumes evil genius Republicans don’t succeed in their effort to overthrow democracy.



Trumpers’ Heroic Persecution Fantasy

August 16, 2022

Trump cultists’ rabid reaction to the FBI search warrant is revealing. They don’t just see him under threat; they see themselves under threat. Columnist Paul Waldman quotes a tweet by House Judiciary Committee Republicans:

“The IRS is coming for you. The DOJ is coming for you. The FBI is coming for you. No one is safe from political punishment in Joe Biden’s America.”

But if this scares them,”They glory in it,” writes Waldman. Fancying themselves “sympathetic victims, the encircled defenders of justice, oppressed but unbowed. This fantasy of persecution is so powerful because it turns [their Trump fixation] into something dramatic, even heroic . . . You’re a freedom fighter waging war against forces of darkness to secure liberty’s future.” And every rotten thing Trump did, he did for you.

How did we get here? Waldman details how, for example, Trump promised relief for coal country’s economic collapse, but never delivered (natch). Yet still the victims latched onto him as speaking for them like no one ever had. And mainly against those Americans viewed as disdaining them, and despised by them. These feelings of cultural alienation and grievance propelled Trumpism into becoming essential to their sense of identity — to the point where he’s a Jesus-like personal savior.

They fetishize the word “freedom.” The right to own guns become a central totem of this religion. And the nonsense that Biden and Democrats are installing a Marxist tyranny, “destroying America and its liberty.”* Of course what’s really central to American freedom is democracy — which it’s Magadom that truly threatens. Yet they hallucinate that an attempted coup based on lies and fraud (like fake electors), to overthrow a legitimate election, with a violent assault on the Capitol, was somehow a defense of liberty.

The FBI’s own past was not unblemished; but it (and the DOJ) surely knew what intense blowback the search would trigger, and would not have proceeded absent very firm grounds. Trump has lied that he declassified the documents at issue; that Obama committed the same crime; and even that the FBI planted evidence. The fury-fit unleashed against the FBI feeds right-wing paranoia seeing our basic societal institutions as one big nefarious conspiracy. Trump, who’s corrupted everything he’s ever touched, has systematically blown up trust in those institutions: the news media, the intelligence services, the Supreme Court, our election systems. And now law enforcement. All just terrible for America.

Any whiff of criminality would be terrible for a candidate, in normal sane politics. Yet David Brooks thinks the FBI search may boost Trump’s 2024 chances. Whereas there’d been signs of GOP readiness to move on, now the party’s rallied around him. He is, The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist writes, “the black hole at the center of [our] politics” — indeed, his “power to warp reality is so great that enforcing the law against him may actually help wreck the republic.”

Given the firestorm at the mere evidence search, imagine if Trump, while running for president or already nominated, is actually charged with crimes and put on trial. Even without that element, his losing in 2024 would send millions of his backers into deranged fury. Can American democracy, and rule of law, survive it?

* Remember, I’m an old Goldwater conservative saying it’s nonsense.

The Last Rose of Shanghai

August 13, 2022

Shanghai, 1940. The Japanese have ravaged through much of China; they’re in Shanghai, but don’t (yet) control its international settlement. Wherein a top nightclub is owned and operated by Aiyi — a 20-year-old girl — of course impossibly beautiful too.


This is Weina Dai Randel’s 2021 novel, The Last Rose of Shanghai.

Aiyi, we learn, is a daughter of one of China’s richest and most powerful families. They were, at least, until the Japs arrived, confiscating most of their assets. (We’re not supposed to say “Japs,” but in this context that’s being if anything gentle.)

Somehow Aiyi scraped together the financing to buy the club. For a teenaged girl doing that, I suspended disbelief. Not for the first time in this tumultuous melodrama.

Comes now Ernest Reismann, a 19-year-old Jewish refugee from Berlin. (Should be “Ernst?” But never mind.) Also impossibly handsome; arriving in Shanghai penniless. Desperately seeking a job, any job, without success; Shanghai is awash with refugees. But a sequence of chance encounters finally lands him a gig playing piano in Aiyi’s club. Turns out he’s fantastic — soon famous. Why hadn’t he looked for a pianist job in the first place? Well, never mind.

Of course Ernest and Aiyi fall in love. But she’s engaged to her cousin Cheng, a long-arranged family match. She doesn’t exactly hate Cheng, who isn’t exactly hateful — but never mind.

Meantime, the Japs are an increasingly looming menace. Shanghai’s elites party on regardless. I’m saying to myself: Aiyi, blow off your stifling insufferable family, blow off Cheng, sell the club for what you can still get (a goodly sum, apparently) and skedaddle with Ernest.

Happily ever after? Would have been a different (less interesting) book. We do know Aiyi will survive and prosper; we actually first meet her in 1980 as a billionaire, in Shanghai. Albeit missing a foot.

But back to 1940 . . . now 1941 . . . things get darker. A monster Jap officer (wrongly) thinks Ernest shot a soldier and threatens to seize Aiyi’s club if she doesn’t turn him in. He’s now tinkling the keys in a different club (as if the Japs couldn’t find him there).

At last he asks her to flee with him to Hong Kong three days hence. And she agrees! But meantime the Japs return to her club and shoot it up. She barely escapes unhurt. The club is closed by Jap order. Get the frick outta there NOW, I’m saying.

But Aiyi tells herself her involvement with “the foreigner” is the source of all her troubles. She changes her mind about leaving with him.

Aiiiyiiii . . . .

This is not even halfway through the novel. I’m shaking my head trying to imagine the next half. Well, I’ve written enough spoilers already.

But the book does conform to Robinson’s Iron Law of Capital Punishment in fiction and other arts. Writers and artistes may hold right-thinking enlightened views opposing the death penalty. Yet something deep in the human psyche insists that sometimes justice demands the ultimate punishment. And when fictional villains cross a certain line of heinousness, capital punishment becomes mandatory. So too here, with that nasty Jap officer. Once he’d wantonly killed a second major character, I knew he wouldn’t get out of the novel alive.

Alas, his comeuppance was not especially gruesome — just shooting. Though the novel does note his face blown off.

The Ignorance Epidemic

August 6, 2022

Keenya Oliver Bemis, who teaches high school biology in Schenectady, gave a talk to my local humanist group based on Natalie Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap – The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – And How to Fix It. The main idea is that kids don’t know nothin’.

For a long time it was thought that education shouldn’t be about stuffing them with facts, but rather instilling thinking and comprehension skills. Which does sound good. So we get reading lessons presenting some text and asking students to identify its main idea. But the problem is that that requires a certain amount of foundational background knowledge. Which a lot of kids today woefully lack. So the thinking and comprehension lessons fail.

Bemis illustrated the problem by presenting some verbiage about baseball that most Americans would grasp, but not Brits. In contrast, a passage about cricket would baffle most Americans.

She invoked the “Matthew Effect” named for the Biblical snippet saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In education, this means that kids coming in with a good stock of basic knowledge find it easier to absorb further knowledge; whereas those starting out behind fall further behind.

Another concept here is “chunking,” which refers to seeing information in a meaningful context, fitting bits and pieces into a whole picture. That puts less strain on working memory, thus again freeing up brain resources to absorb additional knowledge. But “chunking” requires some knowledge in the first place.

In all these regards, it’s disadvantaged kids whose disadvantage is compounded. They tend to get a lot less basic knowledge in the home environment than do more affluent brats; they rely more on school for it. But (in addition to all the many ways schools don’t serve disadvantaged kids well) they don’t get it in school either, with prevailing educational theories again focusing on trying to develop broad skills like critical thinking and comprehension rather than factual knowledge. Indeed, pedagogy in subjects like social studies and science is being cut back in favor of more reading instruction. Which is nevertheless failing — because the kids lack necessary foundational knowledge. A chicken and egg thing.

Of course this begs the question of what’s to be considered foundational knowledge — and how that gets decided.

But Bemis repeatedly expressed shock and dismay at what very basic stuff her own high schoolers don’t know. Like geography — understanding a map. Is Australia a “city?” How to use a ruler. How to round numbers and use decimals. What an atom is. What the heart does. What gas we breathe.

She posited that kids actually do better, and engage more, with content-rich lessons, as opposed to abstraction-filled ones of the “what is the main idea” sort. And writing is a useful tool, forcing the recollection of information, to help retain knowledge and build long term memory. I think there must actually be a “happy medium” wherein raw factual injections are balanced with at least some attention to more abstract realms of critical thinking and comprehension.

This is part of a larger problem. We’re becoming a nation of ignorami. It’s long been clear we’re in an epistemology crisis — too many people just don’t even understand what makes information information, as to opposed to being crap. When someone says they’re doing their own “research,” it often means shunning sound information in favor of crap. Indeed, in today’s world, getting the straight dope is not actually hard, if you have a minimum of common sense about it. You really have to go out of your way to get the nonsense. Yet that’s what many people do.

This — and the kind of basic ignorance Bemis observed — makes it impossible to sustain our civic culture of pluralistic democracy. When people don’t know what Australia, or an atom is, it’s not surprising they don’t know Trump is a monster.