Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Does religion cause violence?

May 28, 2017

A congressional candidate physically assaults a reporter — and gets elected. What the f— is happening to this country? And meantime atrocities are committed with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!”

Once again my wife gifted me with a book to challenge me: Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

The rap is that religion, by instilling a notion of absolute truth and a limitless sense of righteousness, inspires violence. As witness all the persecutions, religious wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, all the way to 9/11 and ISIS. Some say this outweighs any good religion does, and we’d be better without it.

Armstrong, a leading historian of religion, has a different take. She aims to get religion off the hook, with (the back cover says) “a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.”

Well, for a book about “the peaceful nature of faith,” it sure is soaked in blood, amply living up to the title. It is a depressing, horrifying read. Yet, in chronicling one atrocity after another, Armstrong’s basic point is that religious belief per se is not their root cause. Instead, religion has often been cover for what is really more about politics, power, and lucre.

In pursuing those, some actors are more cynical than others. And while, for men at the top (and it’s mostly been men) cynicism may have reigned supreme, for the foot soldiers in the killing fields religious zealotry often provided the indispensable motivator.

Armstrong does repeatedly stress what she considers to be the peaceful teachings of most religions. Yet there can be a cognitive disconnect. She puzzles over how the Crusaders, for example, could reconcile what she calls their psychotic violence with the teachings of the faith they were supposedly fighting for. But she also explains how battle and slaughter themselves can inspire a kind of extremist ecstasy. I would add: especially when coupled with a sense of supreme religious righteousness. So religion is, indeed, very much part of the problem.

It is also important to understand that through most of history, political power was not the thing we know today. The idea of the state serving the needs and interests of the citizenry is quite a modern concept. Previously, the state was essentially a vehicle of predation, with whatever good it did being calculated to keep the populace sufficiently submissive that their pockets could be efficiently picked for the benefit of the rulers.


God was part of the formula by which the powerful ruled, for their self-aggrandizement. Armstrong makes the point that only in modern times has “religion” come to be seen as a thing unto itself. Previously it was integrally bound up with the whole culture, including its political and power structures; “separation of church and state” would have made no sense to those populations. But Martin Luther argued for it, saying that religion should be something private, interior, and that marrying it with state power was an unending source of trouble.


And the philosopher John Locke made a similar case from the standpoint of human liberty – that it was just wrong to try to compel religious belief. But it took some further horrors (like the Thirty Years War, killing 35% of Europe’s population) to convince sensible heads that Luther and Locke were right.

Note too that before modern times there was really no such thing as economic growth. That meant one state (its rulers, really) could get richer only at the expense of another. A further impetus to warfare in which, again, religious pretexts were very useful.

The emergence of the modern state curbed a lot of the violence that was so endemic. Today most governments do at least try to serve their citizenries, and prosper better through trade than war. This is a key reason why violence has in fact so markedly declined (as well explained in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) A noteworthy exception today is Syria – very much an old time predatory state (if at this point you could even call it a state). And then there’s ISIS, whose demented violence is not really attached to any state, in the modern sense, either.

But that religion per se, religion itself, still causes violence is all too evident. Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan, experience intensifying lynchings of accused “blasphemers.” And it’s not the work of just a few extremists, but a widespread cultural pathology. A Pakistani student was recently dragged from his dorm room, by classmates, and brutally killed, on some vague accusation of blasphemy.

Speaking of violence, I was unable to finish the book – it fell victim to the January Fort Lauderdale airport shooter. I went to Fort Laud for a coin show and planned to fly home that Friday evening. Because of the shooting I could not fly till Sunday. I scheduled a cab for 6:00 AM and a 5:45 wake-up call. The call didn’t come, but I awakened at 5:54, and rushed out. In the rush, the book got left behind.


I will end by quoting Reinhold Niebuhr: religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.

The trouble with democracy

May 23, 2017

Democracy has always been central to my political philosophy. For all other modes by which some person or group rules, one must ask: by what right? By what right, for example, does China’s Communist Party reign? “The mandate of Heaven,” China’s ancient concept justifying rulership, is a mystical affront to reason. Citizen acquiescence might be invoked, but what can that mean without real choice? China’s reality — demonstrated in 1989 — is rule at gunpoint.

This is the problem of legitimacy. Another is accountability. Without it, you get the arrogance of power, corruption, oppression. All this undermines societal cohesion. We evolved for social cooperation because that boosted group survival. But communal loyalty is eroded when people are governed without consent.

However, what if voters themselves act to undermine society, by making terrible choices? As they have lately done in Britain, Turkey, Poland, and America of course. Philippine voters elected a murderer president, who has sanctioned thousands of extra-judicial killings. In France’s presidential first round, the one sensible choice (my opinion) managed less than 24% of the vote.

Philippine President Duterte

This wasn’t always such a problem. Sure, demagogues and bad ideas are nothing new. But, especially in advanced countries at least, voters used to take their civic responsibilities somewhat seriously. Extremism was shunned. Fringe parties remained on the fringes. And character counted. America’s first 44 presidents were not all great, but number 45 would, in past times, never even have passed the laugh test.

So has something important changed in modern society? We’ve long heard a lot about “anomie,” modern life divorcing people from the wholeness of harmony with nature — or some such folderol. Rubbish, I used to think. But maybe something of the sort does underlie this voting behavior.

“Social capital” refers to the intangible ways people relate to one another that make society work. Trust is a key element. It’s trusting that the stranger on the street won’t pull a knife and rob you. That when you buy something you’ll get what you pay for. That societal institutions, government most importantly, will function more or less as they’re supposed to. Of course none of this can be infallible. However, these are the default assumptions of underlying trust that shape our participation in society.

But surveys show people’s trust toward others is declining. Note that it’s not people being less trustworthy than in the past. It’s just that many of us think they are. Yet this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it makes folks behave in ways that contribute to an overall atmosphere of lesser trust. Meantime, social trust is partly learned. With repeated positive interactions with others, you build up a basic attitude of trustingness. But modern life is reducing face-to-face interactions, with social media, video gaming, and people staring at screens cutting down time spent in the physical company of others.

People also used to be more willing to trust and, frankly, defer to the judgments of those they acknowledged as being their betters, including public officials, experts, business leaders, educators, scientists, and other elites. But that kind of deference has been eroded not only by less trust in general, but also by a reigning ethos of egalitarianism. The idea that every human being has equal dignity and worth is great. Yet it leads many people to imagine their own opinions (no matter how ill-informed) should carry weight equal to anyone else’s. Especially when opportunistic politicians flatter those opinions.

It all comes together. Declining social trust makes people less willing to defer not only toward elites but toward what is seen as the greater communal good. Social solidarity is impaired by an egalitarianism that exalts the individual and validates one’s own needs, desires and, yes, prejudices. Falling trust in institutions extends to sources of information, with society no longer having widely accepted arbiters of truth. Now everybody can have their own truth. No wonder voting behavior has changed.

This includes less voting, too, worldwide — especially by younger people. At fault may be disappearing civics education, and politics turning them off. Polls show declining belief in the value of democracy. Perhaps it’s also growing solipsism. People today expect to be entertained. Voting is not a fun thing, but a communitarian act; you know one vote won’t determine the outcome, but represents participation. Declining participation undermines democratic legitimacy, contributing to a vicious circle of disengagement. Trump’s vote was only 27% of the eligible total. (And he would not have won, nor would Brexit, had younger people voted equally with older ones.)

Churchill famously said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried. This is being tested. But I’m not ready to give up. And Venezuelans today are battling to save their democracy. At least some people still get it. Elected governments, alone, still have a good answer to the “by what right” question.

I renounce my Republicanism

May 14, 2017

I have been a Republican for 53 years. I have served as an elected party official; have run campaigns and run for office as a Republican; was appointed by President Nixon to a federal commission. Republicanism has been part of my personal identity.

I came by it the hard way, not by inheritance. I grew up in a Democratic family, in a Democratic neighborhood, in FDR’s afterglow. The party seemed to represent bland conventional wisdom. Until the 1964 Goldwater campaign gave me something stronger: fierce principles that felt right to me. I became a political activist. And not just a Republican, but a very conservative Republican.

The national and global issues were, of course, important. But Tip O’Neill’s dictum, “all politics is local,” supervened when I came to Albany in 1970. In place of somewhat abstract opposition to distant evils, I imbibed the heady brew of battling evil up close in my new home town, ruled by a corrupt old-time political machine. Here the Republican party was the avatar of civic virtue. This was a moral crusade (more about that here).

My period of intense political involvement ended when that crusade fizzled out. Yet my allegiance to the party’s basic ideals and principles continued.

And then, starting around 1980, the GOP got religion. It’s hard to remember now, but previously religion played very little role in what the party represented. Most Republicans may have been religious, but that was separate from politics. God was rarely mentioned. The Republicanism that originally attracted me was grounded in reason, in the values of the Enlightenment, in a classical philosophical liberalism (a word American “liberals” wrongly co-opted), aimed at making a world in which all people can best thrive.

Religion undermines this. One cannot apply reason to the world’s problems while mistaking the fundamental nature of reality. Religion is magical thinking, and that has infected Republican politics. We see this in their comprehensive scientific denialism. But nothing better epitomizes magical thinking, divorced from reason and reality, than putting in the White House a bad man who is the antithesis of everything godly people supposedly honor.

And of course the policies the Republican party now stands for are unrecognizable to this veteran of ’64. It sure isn’t conservatism. (Which, among other things, was strongly anti-communist. Now we’re a veritable Russian satellite.) But actually the old categories of conservative versus liberal, right versus left, have become a muddle. Today’s real political divide is between open and closed orientations. It’s openness to trade, to markets, to immigrants, to human diversity, to change, to ideas, to facts. With an outward-looking America building a world of open societies. Republicans flunk on all counts.

But my disaffection from Republicanism is more a matter of culture and values than policies or ideology. Those are trumped by the principles of rationalism, responsibility, just plain decency, and, in a word, humanism. Republicans and their regime trash all of it. Their xenophobia, ethnic nationalism, fondness for dictators, callousness and moralistic hypocrisy are repellent. They’re drenched in lies. They shred basic American values. They’re a freak show, disgracing the country.

Remember, this is not a Democrat talking, but a lifelong Republican — one not blinded (like most) by partisanship.

I have plenty of ideological problems with today’s Democrats and the Left (as expressed on this blog). But they are more humanistic. Their ideas about economics and social justice are often barmy, but at least they are genuinely concerned with human values, and at least their feet are planted, more or less, on this Earth. At least they mostly respect truth and reason (though freedom of expression not so much). They are serious and responsible. I like them better as people. Republicans’ behavior has become thoroughly hateful to me.

Are they irredeemable? For a long while now, it’s been asked when sane, public-minded Republicans would finally get it together and stand against Trump. Well, forget it, there just aren’t enough John McCains in the GOP. (And even McCain, whose heroism was smeared by Trump, nevertheless endorsed him.) No, Republicans, almost unanimously, have drunk the Kool-Aid.

(And, in their eyes, have been rewarded. The party has more power now than at any time since the 1920s. Even though Democrats actually have more voter support; Republican control is due to the Senate and electoral college math disproportionately empowering smaller and less urban states, and to gerrymandered House districts. But this doesn’t temper Republican triumphalist hubris.)

And so, after much agonizing, in recognition of today’s reality, I can no longer call myself a Republican. It’s not the party I joined. I must cut out that part of my selfhood. But I cannot join the Democrats’ own misguided leftward march.* I am cast out into the political wilderness.

I am not alone there. But most of the country remains stuck in the two hostile partisan camps. It’s a very destructive syndrome, with no cure I can see.

* “Socialism” has been pronounced dead even in France!

Why so many blacks in ads?

May 8, 2017

One morning at breakfast I said to my wife, “Does T.J. Maxx especially cater to blacks?”

“Not that I know of. Why?”

“Well, they have a big ad in the paper showing two black women.”

“That’s not unusual. Lots of ads do that.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m noticing. Why do you suppose they do that?”

We are often told that America is still a fundamentally racist society. Not all, or even most, Trump voters are racist. But his campaign did push racist buttons, and racial resentments and anxieties did play a big role. A lot of less educated working class whites were voting against minorities – with a feeling they’re getting more than their due (to the detriment of those whites), and that a less white America is a worse America.

Yet since I noticed that T.J. Maxx ad, I’ve made a point of tallying blacks in ads and commercials. And in fact they are way overrepresented, relative to their 13+% population share. I even saw one TV ad with a white couple whose child looked kind of black. Of course, if you show a bunch of folks, you want to include some minorities. But what about ads with only one or two people, like T.J. Maxx’s? Let me offer a theory.

If this were indeed a racist society, where white people basically dislike, resent, and shun blacks, presumably no business would want to feature blacks in its ads. The purpose of advertising is to make a brand attractive. Advertisers must calculate that black faces actually do that.

Of course, the blacks shown in (modern) ads are not disadvantaged stereotypes; far from it, they are instead middle class people, speaking plain middle class English (not ethnic dialect), shown in typical middle class activities.

And while these ads don’t specifically target black customers, they certainly don’t target less educated working class Trumpites. That’s not at all the consumer demographic advertisers want to reach; those people are just disregarded. Instead, for a lot of ads, the target audience is better educated, more affluent and, especially, younger consumers. (Indeed, the content of some ads today must baffle older Archie Bunker viewers. Some baffle even me.) That yuppie demographic is where the consumer-spending money is. And for them, blackness is actually attractive; connoting coolness, hipness, with-it-ness, knowing what’s going on. Not inferior but superior. And to this demographic, an America fully integrating blacks is a better America. Putting them in ads hence creates a positive buzz.

Yet this is just one more way in which America is dividing into two very different cultures inhabiting the same body politic. How long can this split personality endure?

The decline of Western civilization and its values

May 4, 2017

David Brooks is my favorite commentator writing today. I don’t always agree with him — too much religion — but in most ways his head’s screwed on right and his work repays attention. A recent column crystallizes well my own global perspective.

Brooks starts by citing Will and Ariel Durant’s popular mid-20th century multi-volume opus, The Story of Civilization. It was really the narrative of Western civilization and the values undergirding its flourishing, including reasoned discourse, property rights, and a belief in human progress. I would add accountable democratic government, open markets, and scientific inquiry. It was the emergence of these Enlightenment ideas that propelled the West’s phenomenal achievement in improving people’s quality of life.

But this narrative, especially in universities, has lost its mojo — intellectually speaking. People don’t read the Durants, or their like, any more. Indeed, the construct “Western civilization” has actually fallen into bad odor, as “a history of oppression.” Now we are being educated to distrust, rather than honor, what it means. “The great cultural transmission belt broke.”

This intellectual reversal has had huge real-world impacts. There have always been forces eager to tear down what the West stands for. But now the citadel has few defenders against these onslaughts. So we see the rise of “illiberal” strongmen — Putin, Erdogan, al-Sisi, Xi, Trump — who, unlike previous bad guys, don’t even give lip service to democratic Western values.

Turkey’s recent vote turned its back on them. Democracy is no longer seen as the wave of the future. In “advanced” nations, the center doesn’t hold. In Europe mainstream political parties lose ground to fringe ones with fierce ideologies. In America, where you’d expect universities to be redoubts of intellectual freedom, the opposite is seen — destruction of those values, as nonconforming voices are literally shouted down. America’s president (an historical ignoramus) cozies up to some of the world’s worst thugs.

“The basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals.” The percentage of young Americans polled who say it’s “absolutely important” to live in a democracy has dropped from 91% in the 1930s to only 57% today. In his campaign, “Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries” — and every norm of civic decency — and too few voters seemed to care.

Brooks sadly concludes that defenders of the great tradition of Western values are now down to “a few lonely voices.”

Count me one of them. I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2009 when those Western values — and rationality — still seemed ascendant. Today fools prance triumphant around bonfires of reason. I’ll end with Schiller’s words: “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.”

Telling tough truths: J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”

April 27, 2017

J. D. Vance is a young Yale law graduate, who rose from what he calls Kentucky hillbilly culture. Hillbilly Elegy is memoir-cum-sociology, aptly titled; an elegy expresses sorrow for human loss.

We’re not supposed to blame the poor for their poverty. Yet that’s just what Vance does, more or less. Though sometimes lyrical in his love for his people, he’s scathing in critiquing their social pathology.

That social pathology is often attributed to the rustbelt’s hollowing out of old time manufacturing jobs. Vance doesn’t buy it. True, the jobs picture is a big problem, but he sees it as greatly worsened by how his people have responded to it.

Some studies say less educated men work more than the educated classes. This too is rubbish, according to Vance. Such data is often based on asking people how much they work — but they lie. Too many of “his people” don’t do much work, Vance says, even if they do have jobs.

The introduction discusses an early job Vance had in a tile warehouse. A fellow employee was “Bob,” nineteen, with a pregnant girlfriend, who was also hired, as a clerical worker. These were good jobs, with excellent health benefits. But the two were chronically late or absent, and Bob spent much of the workday in lengthy “bathroom breaks.” Both were eventually fired. Bob was pissed.

So was Vance. For him, this tale exemplifies the fecklessness of such losers, always blaming others for predicaments really of their own making.

I’ve previously reviewed Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids, exploring the socioeconomic divide between better educated and less educated Americans, and the difficulties of moving from one milieu to the other. Vance’s memoir illustrates what Putnam was talking about.

A key factor is the decline of stable two-parent families. In past eras, poverty was much worse (like in the Depression, with far less government help), yet even poor people mostly married and stayed married. No longer. Family life among less educated people has become frequently shambolic, with women cycling through parades of often useless men. Vance’s mom did that. He couldn’t even figure out whom to count as siblings. She abused drugs too.

“This was my world,” he writes, “a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poor house . . . . [using] high-interest credit cards and payday loans . . . . Thrift is inimical to our being . . . . no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund . . . . Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other . . . . At least one member of the family uses drugs . . . . we’ll hit and punch each other . . . . We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools — like peace and quiet at home — to succeed . . . . We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness or for stealing . . . . or the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute bathroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves . . . . ”

Vance explains how family dysfunction is handed down from generation to generation. It’s more than just people mirroring their parents’ example. There are adverse developmental effects, impairing kids’ later ability to negotiate all aspects of living, particularly in maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. Violent episodes in childhood trigger classic “fight or flight” responses which, when repeated enough, actually rewire one’s brain, making that stance a default mode — a chronically stressed and prickly mental state with, again, baleful effects on one’s future human relationships.

Vance would have fallen into the syndrome himself, but for “Mamaw” — his grandmother, who pretty much rescued him from life with his mother (her daughter). Mamaw was no paragon of virtue or refinement either, being a foul-mouthed product of the same culture — but of its earlier incarnation. A crucial difference: “I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood, embodied another.” Mamaw gave Vance a stable, peaceful home, and helped him to see clearly a better path. He was able to shun all the kinds of dysfunction he writes about mainly because, with Mamaw, he was happy.

At least partially explaining all the social pathology is what Vance refers to as “learned helplessness.” (A concept developed by psychologist Martin Seligman.) People like “Bob” (of the tile job) act as they do because they don’t really see themselves as making choices. Instead it’s as though what happens to them is fate, beyond their control, so there is no point in making any kind of effort or resisting any inclination. Again, it’s blaming others, or the cosmos, for what befalls them. Overcoming this psychology, and developing a sense of personal agency, was a key element in Vance’s own rise to a better life.

Here’s another factor Vance discusses. Love of country — seriously — loomed large in his people’s lives. But that tie that bound them together as a community, akin to a religion, has been fraying too, succumbing to a deep distrust toward the nation’s institutions. Vance wrote before the 2016 election but these passages have great resonance for understanding today’s political picture. President Obama was seen as an alien; quintessentially the product of a social system that’s not working for Vance’s people. Indeed, Obama’s personal success was a mirror to their own failure. Conspiracy theories about him (like birtherism), and other such nonsense, gain credence when the mainstream media is one more societal institution no longer trusted. Politicians too, of course, are distrusted; while many of them promote the idea that the economy is rigged as well and, on the right, the idea that it’s all the government’s fault. A toxic contrapuntal. “You can’t believe these things,” Vance says, “and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance.” Vance’s people have lost their sense of belonging and loyalty to the American project.

We can yearn for some magic bullet to fix this; some government initiative perhaps. But Vance rejects that fantasy. Indeed, he sees past government efforts as part of the problem, talking about how hard-working people watch their tax dollars go to support, in these communities, an awful lot of others who don’t work, even buying things with food stamps those working folks can’t afford. This too undermines communitarian social solidarity; and Vance cites it as a key factor in his region’s political shift away from Democrats.

It all feeds into a basic attitude of existential pessimism. Most blacks and Hispanics, Vance notes, report optimism about their future; working class whites, not so much. And he sees that as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So this is a tale not of progress but of its opposite, regress. The humanist and optimist in me, looking at the broad global picture, over the centuries, sees a great human capability to progress, and great progress actually achieved. But it’s never locked in. We also have ample capability for squandering it and regressing.

So we come back to the question we started with.  How much, in the end, is people’s own fault? It’s the old question of luck versus pluck. I did a lot right in my own life, and could say it was brains and character, yet realize that having those characteristics was just luck. Vance confronts the issue with particular regard to his mother. He recognizes all the demons to which his mother was exposed. “But at some point . . . you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.” That’s what he did with his own life. His book is powerful testimony to how hard it can be. Yet it also makes clear that Vance is not unique. Not seeing ourselves as hapless victims is the best of being human. We do not succumb; we surmount. 

The Gorsuch hearings: American exceptionalism

March 29, 2017

Amid all the dispiriting news from Washington lately, I listened to much of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch ‘s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Of course this too is a highly controversial political matter, playing out in a country that is politically divided to an extreme degree.

But I’m not writing about that; rather, of having been struck by the public-spirited, constructive, intelligent, responsible, and good-humored* tenor of the proceedings. Despite our febrile political climate, civility rather than partisan nastiness largely prevailed. This speaks volumes about the character of this country and its institutions. The positive feeling I got, listening to this, was a very welcome antidote to the last couple of months, in which the character of this country and its institutions have been desecrated by the president.

Leaving the politics aside (is it possible?), Judge Gorsuch seems to be an extremely capable, honest, thoughtful, responsible, intelligent, learned, articulate, reasonable, gracious, humble, decent human being (everything the president is not). That we still do have people like Gorsuch at the pinnacle of public life is a great testament to the character of the America I have so loved.

Senator Ted Cruz has not been one of my favorites. I’ve loathed him, and his political machinations. Yet listening to his colloquy with Judge Gorsuch, I was frankly surprised at how intelligent, erudite, and well-spoken even Cruz was. He was not ranting, nor even making political points so much as philosophical ones, and making them extremely well. One could see the merits that got Ted Cruz as far as he’s come. (Too bad presidential ambition can bring out the worst in people.)

And these earnest discussions, between senators and Gorsuch, of fine points of constitutional law, precedents, interpretations, and philosophies were a good reminder of the depth and richness of the institutional and moral foundations of the society we have built. As a student of history and of the world, I know too well how different things have been through most of the past, in most every country, and indeed in many if not most even today. In few times and places could such elevated public discourse be conceivable. This is America’s exceptionalism: a society, under rule of law, venerating rule of law, truly striving to provide the best possible environment for human beings to flourish. Uniquely, America’s core is not shared ethnicity but shared ideals. America is great because it is good.

I was particularly gratified by Judge Gorsuch’s words about the 14th Amendment, calling its broad guarantee of equality under law one of the most radical enactments in human history. I have written about the beauty of the 14th Amendment (and the shame of those Republicans who today advocate its repeal.)

Listening to these elevated hearings did remind me of the pride I have felt in my country and the values it represented. A feeling I have sorely missed. Yet I am cognizant that these proceedings took place on a sort of Mount Olympus. While down below, in less rarefied precincts, newly empowered fools prance around bonfires of truth, reason, and decency. How many Americans today have a real understanding and appreciation of the country’s foundational ideals? If they did, they would have no use for a creep like Trump. Without that understanding by the citizenry, no matter how fervent their flag waving, America’s greatness is ultimately doomed. God has not ordained it eternal. The Gorsuch hearings deepened my pain over the precious thing fools are witlessly destroying.

* Like Senator Sasse asking Gorsuch how he could go so long without peeing.

The health care travesty

March 21, 2017

For seven years, Republicans pursued Obamacare with the obsessiveness of Captain Ahab pursuing the white whale. Now they resemble a dog chasing a car, and catching it. Or Captain Ahab tangled up on the whale’s back and going down with it.

What they hated so much about Obamacare was never quite clear, except perhaps for the “Obama” part. It was based, after all, on what was originally a Republican concept, put forward as a market-based alternative to “socialized medicine.” Indeed, to get something done about all the Americans without proper health care, Obama had to give up the politically difficult government option, and to buy off the insurance industry by giving it what seemed a very sweet deal (selling more insurance).

Anyhow, for all their obsessing, Republicans never did have an alternative plan. Now their bluff is called. And, as a genius recently said, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Yet, whereas Obamacare was hammered out through an agonizing months-long process of give-and-take with input by numerous interested parties, Republicans have skipped all that, and whipped up a bill in the dead of night. Do you suppose they’ve really thought through all its consequences?

Trump had been saying his beautiful, tremendous, but unspecified, imaginary health care plan would cover everybody; with better care too, and at lower prices. Ha ha. Don’t we know by now that Trump just says stuff, with no thinking, or regard for truth, reality, or decency? Of course the now-unveiled GOP plan doesn’t cover everybody. In fact it would kick many millions out of the health care system. It replaces direct subsidies with tax credits — mainly so they can call it different from Obamacare. But it will give low income people much less help. While furthermore, removing healthier ones from the insurance pool will inevitably force premiums up. Most Americans will pay more for less coverage and less care. Older citizens will be particularly screwed. While the richest get tax cuts. When will foolish Trump lovers wake up that they’ve been conned?

Obamacare, at its heart, was based on making younger and healthier folks subsidize the old and sick by requiring everyone (on pain of tax penalties) to buy insurance . This is often defended on the basis that that’s how insurance works – like with car insurance, where safe drivers pay into the system, to cover accidents by others, while if you do have an accident, it’s there for you too.

Wellll . . . not so fast. Actually the concept of insurance is to spread a risk that the buyer wouldn’t want to shoulder alone. A house fire has low probability but unacceptable financial consequences, so you insure against it, spreading that risk among many others doing the same. But that’s voluntary, based on your own evaluation of the risk versus the cost of insurance.* You don’t buy fire insurance to help others, but because it’s worth it to you.

This original insurance concept has gotten perverted in the health care sphere. Like fire insurance, health insurance should cover only major episodes one couldn’t otherwise afford, not every routine little outlay. Doing the latter has meant that health care doesn’t act like a market, with consumers shopping among competing providers; a basic reason why prices have gotten so out of line. And it’s not surprising that Obamacare’s forcing people to buy such insurance, that they don’t judge to be a good deal for themselves, meets so much resistance.

But look. We are a very rich society. The basic idea that we, as a society, should take care of the less fortunate, and make sure nobody suffers unnecessarily, is a fundamental moral concept that most Americans would accept. That’s why even so amoral a creature as Trump would blurt it out (however disingenuously).

We have to come up with a way for every American to have at least minimally decent basic health care. The Republicans are not doing this; they are going in the other direction entirely. While the Trump-Putin administration’s proposed budget gives the Pentagon more billions to waste, and billions for the wall boondoggle, paid for by eviscerating everything else, including all kinds of government help for the less fortunate.

2012 Democratic campaign ad

For years, some Democrat partisans caricatured Republicans as heartless toward those less fortunate, as actually desiring to destroy programs like Medicare and Social Security, to keep poor people poor, and even to make middle class people poor, all just to (somehow) benefit the rich. It was a false caricature before. But Trump and today’s Republicans are making it true.

* Though the bank may require it, to give you a mortgage, because otherwise, if the house burns, you wouldn’t be able to meet your obligations.

Post-Truth politics, post-democratic politics

March 17, 2017

(This was published as a commentary in the March 12 Albany Times-Union)

“Post-truth” has been named word of the year. The subject looms large for America’s political future. It’s not just a matter of occasional innocent misstatements, but of politically weaponizing falsehood.

Gleb Tsipurski (associate professor of history at Ohio State University) writes in The Humanist magazine that if it works for Trump, other politicians will follow his example; if they too succeed, “we’re headed for a downward spiral“ and “the end of our political order as we know it.” This might sound like hyperbole, but Tsipurski is on to something.

Being caught in a lie used to be deadly for a politician. What is so dangerous with Trump is that his fans don’t care, rationalizing away everything. As he put it, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes. This resembles a religious faith impervious to reason. And removing reasoned discourse from politics is not good for sustaining democracy.

We must understand how we got here. Mainstream media has traditionally served as mediator, part of our whole system of political checks and balances. That media role might even have been over-large. Recall how it brought down 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean for a single utterance (the so-called “scream”).

Dean’s “Scream”

Obviously, the media proved unable to perform such a function with Trump.

Why? Tsipurski says “this system for determining political truths has required an intangible but invaluable resource: the public’s trust.” And that trust has been eroding in the last decade (part of a broader decline in social trust generally).

Past trust in the media was due, in good part, simply to a lack of other information sources. But now alternatives have proliferated, notably on social media and elsewhere on the web. And, crucially, it’s not just the same information differently packaged. To the contrary, it’s often material tailored to flatter the recipient’s pre-existing biases. Or even the now notorious “fake news.” Why listen to neutral NPR (and hear things that challenge your beliefs) when you can get fare that instead bolsters what you already think? And when those “alternative facts” differ from what mainstream media says, it’s the latter that might start seeming problematic. Thus mainstream media loses not only its audience, but its authority and trust.

Further, its effort to maintain an aura of objectivity actually undermines mainstream media’s ability to deal effectively with a politician who lies so shamelessly* – and accuses it of being against him (which of course it is, for excellent reasons). Thus the handwringing over whether to even use the word “lie.” And watch the journalists on a program like PBS’s “Washington Week” struggle to act as though Trump is just another normal political figure. They’ll soberly discuss the putative deep policy implications of a Trump statement (like his one-state-solution line), unable to blurt out that it’s simply ignorance.

So a weakened mainstream media couldn’t do to Trump what it did to Dean. And Tsipurski says Trump has a genius for exploiting such systemic vulnerabilities. Use of alternative and social media, bypassing mainstream media (thereby further enfeebling it), played a big role in his campaign. Exploiting trust-related systemic weaknesses similarly fueled his financial enrichment. The Trump Foundation self-dealing, and Trump University fraud, were prime examples. And trust plays a key role in business and commerce generally: vendors supply goods and services trusting they’ll be paid. That’s how the system works. And Trump exploited it by simply not paying, over and over and over.

Is all this “genius?” Or walking through open doors?

The press’s authority is maimed even more by Trump’s continuing attacks, even turning the “fake news” trope against it. Another of his big lies. Tsipurski likens our unfolding situation to a “tragedy of the commons” – when it’s hard to protect a communal resource against those pillaging it. Here, our shared resource is a political environment where objective facts (disseminated by news media) hold sway, so that rational policy choices can be made. “This intangible yet invaluable resource,” Tsipurski writes, “is being polluted and destroyed by Trump’s post-truth politics.”

He understands his followers prefer to have their opinions uncontaminated by pesky reality. (He himself exhibits that very syndrome.) Better yet to feed them falsehoods tailored to those opinions. But voters need a source for, and to care about, truth and reality, to make rational political choices. Only thusly can their interests truly be served. That’s why Jefferson wrote that democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. But if the public doesn’t get it, why should politicians care either – about facts and about people’s real interests? When they can instead succeed by emotional manipulation and lies?

That’s the road to authoritarianism. It’s the one Putin followed. He destroyed Russia’s independent media, so he could work his “magic” on citizens unfettered by truth or any accountability. And that’s the road Donald Trump openly steers toward.

* Falsely accusing his predecessor of a serious crime is disgusting behavior for a president. A sane adult would simply admit the mistake and move on. Not this stinking turd.

The ICE man cometh

March 4, 2017

unknownThis title was unavoidable. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I have long referred to it as our Gestapo. And that was before Trump. Under Obama, 2.7 million were deported, and horror stories abounded. But at least there were some restraints. Now ICE is totally out of control.

As in the case of law enforcement generally, ICE has an unfortunate tendency to attract the wrong sort — who get their jollies abusing people. And it’s reported that “morale” in ICE ranks has soared under Trump, with the “shackles” now off. When his travel order came out, ICE men were emboldened to enforce it with sickening excess. Many victims legally entitled to be here were treated brutally and denied entry by ICE pricks.* (“And some, I assume, are good people.”)

poster420x415f8f8f8-pad420x460f8f8f8-u1Now the administration has issued new deportation guidelines. The idea of deporting all undocumented residents was always considered, well, crazy, at least if you have brains and human decency. Alas, those are not hallmarks of the Trump administration. The new guidelines target not only those having committed crimes, but even minor traffic offenses. And — get this — people merely “SUSPECTED” of offenses. (By who? On what basis?) How can that square with the 14th amendment, which says all “persons” (not just citizens) are entitled to due process of law. A noble assertion of what used to be America’s fundamental values.

imagesBut in practice, ICE men now seem free to seek out and grab not just “bad hombres” but anybody. Like Ramiro Martinez-Chacon of Hudson, (formerly from violence-wracked El Salvador), in the U.S. since 2002, minding his own business at home on February 7 when some ICE men came, handcuffed him, and dragged him away, in front of his children, who are U.S. citizens. His sole transgression was being here. This story is being repeated all over the country.

unknownI get it that undocumented residents don’t have a legal right to be here. But many of them were brought as children and have lived their whole lives here. And many have minor children who are citizens. Don’t those kids have a basic human right to live with their parents? Deporting those parents is an extremely cruel, stupid, shamefully pointless policy that harms American children!

And the great majority of these people make a positive contribution to our country. It’s actually only thanks to them that our population and workforce isn’t shrinking. Not only do they do a lot of needed jobs, but by spending money in our economy, they actually support a lot of other jobs held by citizens. It’s been estimated that spending by undocumented residents comprises 5% of our economy. They also contribute taxes (while not being entitled to many benefits). Booting them out makes America and its citizens worse off.

But economics or rationality have nothing to do with Trump’s policy. He’s simply pandering to those who just hate living beside people who don’t look or talk like them. And he’s furthermore whipped up those prejudices by harping on crimes by undocumented people. When in fact studies show they commit fewer crimes on average than U.S. citizens. As should be expected, since the potential penalty (deportation) is more severe.

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

It’s also ridiculous to say other countries are exporting undesirables to America. To the contrary, anyone undertaking all the risks, difficulties, and challenges of such migration must possess the kinds of personal qualities that make them an asset to whatever community they join. I want them here.

Better than ignorant, hate-filled Trump supporters.

* And not just Muslims. Click here.