Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Biden in The Winter of Our Discontent

January 18, 2022

The commentariat’s hair is on fire over the seeming failure of President Biden, his administration, and his Democratic party, with polls showing dismal approval ratings.

What we’re really seeing is the worsening systemic failure of America’s body politic and civic culture, long in the making, but accelerating since 2016.

A former Republican, I strongly supported Biden in 2020, to save the country from Trumpian catastrophe. That by itself was a considerable achievement. Nevertheless, I harshly criticized Biden’s Afghanistan debacle, and not fully unwinding Trump’s reprehensible immigration and refugee policies. But the reality remains that if Trump and Republicans are the alternative, Biden and Democrats are saviors.

We’re told he hasn’t fulfilled his campaign promises; mainly to unite the nation. As if any president actually could. Jesus returning could not. Republicans are so far gone there’s no bringing them back into some kind of common fold. Have you seen the ubiquitous Trumposphere’s deranged demonization of Biden?

But we imagine a president waving some magic wand to make our troubles go away, and sulk if it doesn’t happen. Take inflation. I remember Nixon thinking he could master it, with wage and price controls. What a (predictable) disaster. And Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” buttons. Didn’t work either. Inflation results from deep economic forces generally beyond a president’s powers.

And yes, we’re fed up with Covid. But blaming Biden? It would be much less bad now if we’d had halfway sane competent leadership when it began. Trump’s fecklessness made things so much worse. Biden did yeoman work in overcoming that ghastly legacy. Maybe one can imagine doing even better. In some perfect world. And the main problem now is the idiocy of vaccine refusal — mostly by Republican Trumpers — and their governors like Abbott and DeSantis actually working to undermine vaccination and masking. Yet Biden is blamed?

(While on Saturday, Trump declared whites are being discriminated against for Covid vaccines and treatment. “If you’re white, you go right to the back of the line.” Another vile lie — as if that needs stating.)

Then there’s Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda — more promises deemed unkept. In fact he did get the infrastructure bill passed — a very very big deal. And a huge Covid economic stimulus, greatly reducing U.S. poverty. Both virtually miraculous achievements given the wall of obstructionism by Republicans dead set on making Biden a failure. (They call themselves “patriotic.”)

The “Build Back Better” and voting rights bills are blocked by two nominally Democratic senators whose votes are needed. (Remember that Democrats have the barest Senate majority only thanks to unexpectedly winning both Georgia runoffs last January.) On BBB, why not just tell Manchin: “Okay, YOU write the bill. Whatever you’ll support. Then we’ll all vote for it.” (I doubt Sinema would still refuse.)

Meantime, why must everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink, be in one giant bill? Might have been good political theater — had it passed. But it can’t. So why not break it apart and mount separate legislative efforts for the climate, family leave, child care, college, immigration, health care, and tax proposals, et cetera? Some should be individually popular and achievable. This is a classic case of the perfect as the enemy of the good.

The Republican war on voting rights makes legislation on that front critical, so I share the frustration of many others at the inaction. But the intransigent Republican blockage means nothing can pass without filibuster reform, and Democrats just don’t have the votes for that. End of story.

All these legislative roadblocks make Biden look weak. There’s an idea that a president can overcome them just by pushing really really hard. It isn’t so.

I started out speaking of the body politic and civic culture. We’re losing concepts of ethics, character, community, and responsibility in civic life. The whole system then unsurprisingly undermined by a collapse of trust. American voters are behaving politically like spoiled children, having tantrums; not grown-ups. Making facile superficial judgements, with no understanding of what’s really going on and what’s at stake. Many crippled in their grasp of reality.

And if Biden and Democrats are failing, it’s because of Republicans. The Gordian knot can be slashed only by electing more Democrats to the Senate in particular. Making filibuster reform — and thus all else — possible. But America seems set instead on returning Congress to Republican control.

That’s simply insane, and not just because it will guarantee government paralysis for two years. Republicans are no longer even a legitimate political party (as we used to understand it). They’re a cult gaga for an evil psycho and his highly pernicious big lie that the 2020 election was a fraud. Responsible for the attempted coup of January 6. Making them enemies of democracy and the fundamental ideals that have guided America’s trajectory since its founding. And Republicans controlling Congress will mean their reinstalling that monster as president, regardless of citizen votes.

Biden is imperfect. But the alternative is the abyss.

Supreme Court Follies #2: Guns

December 23, 2021

The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision said no Black person can have any rights. That set a high bar for decisional badness. But today’s court seems determined to clear it, careening toward an unfettered right for anyone to tote guns anywhere, with no regulation or restrictions.

The Dred Scott case was soon countered by constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and giving its victims citizenship and equal protection of the law. But in today’s political dysfunction, no amendment on guns is possible. Even though an overwhelming majority of Americans favor limits on gun rights.

Constitutionally, the coming decision will be an extremist and idiotic application of the Second Amendment. It’s a fundamental principle that no rights are ever absolute, they’re always subject to some restriction to protect the public. The classic illustration is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Nor does freedom of speech cover slander or libel, or divulging state secrets. Freedom of religion does not include human sacrifice. And so forth. Yet the Second Amendment is now to be held virtually absolute, allowing no restrictions on carrying guns.

No other civilized nation countenances such gun madness. America, with 4% of the world’s population, has 46% of its privately owned guns. And while gun nuts are often the same people hammering on “law and order,” they themselves make “law and order” a problem, with gun violence killing tens of thousands annually. It’s why most Americans, as noted, favor basic gun regulations.

Yet the Court is about to expand gun rights while curbing women’s reproductive rights — in both cases defying strong public opinion, in service to political agendas. Very destructive for the court’s legitimacy as a bulwark for rule of law and democracy.

Columnist Paul Waldman, in November, pointed out that while a small minority of Americans revel in gun culture, other communities cherish a culture too, one wherein freedom from the gun menace is important. And while the Supreme Court is sanctifying gun lovers’ rights, it’s trampling those of everyone else — saying to every American, “You live in Oklahoma now.”

And what is the psychology behind this gun obsession? A recent survey found pro-gun views correlate most strongly with belief in Satan. As if bullets could be effective against supernatural evil.

Note that this is not about sporting or hunting use of guns, which nobody has a problem with, and which are not affected by the kind of regulation at issue before the Court. Let’s be real. This is about shooting not at targets, animals, or Satanic demons, but at human beings.

That indeed is what captivates the imagination of the gun nuts. They fantasize blasting “bad guys,” manfully protecting themselves and their families, if not at the OK Corral. Never mind that the vast majority of persons actually shot by those guns are not criminals (let alone supernatural foes) but their own family members, their children, and often the gun owners themselves. Such realities are not allowed to intrude upon their gun fantasies, enwrapped in macho ideas of manhood.

Real men don’t need guns.

Another Waldman column ties all this to the Republican party’s growing bedazzlement with violence. With ideations of violently taking down enemies; wearing T-shirts depicting Trump shooting guns. Recall Congressman Gosar’s creepy video showing him killing Biden and AOC. And it’s not just fantasizing, but an all too real danger, as we saw on January 6. Which GOP politicians are increasingly unapologetic about.

For a lot of Republicans, guns have become integral to their personal sense of identity. Thus lionizing Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting three people. With a gun he was not even lawfully carrying. So much for “law and order.” Watch for Rittenhouse in a featured speaking slot at the 2024 GOP National Convention. His inexplicable exoneration can only encourage more vigilante violence.

All this — Republicans abetting their supporters’ “most savage impulses,” Waldman wrote, “is utterly repugnant and a threat to the very idea of a civilized democracy.”

The coming Supreme Court gun decision — frankly an insane decision — plays into this. Playing with fire. The country is cracking up. Future historians, chronicling America’s downfall, will wonder “what were they thinking?”

Supreme Court Follies #1: Abortion

December 19, 2021

I use the word “follies” not in the fun sense, but as the plural of “folly.” The Supreme Court is plunging headlong toward great follies, as if calculated to shred public respect. Part of a broad Republican assault on the integrity of the institutions undergirding our democratic society and rule of law.

There’s been much talk of somehow reforming the Court, like adding justices or term limits. But forget it. No such change can get through Congress.

Several justices last summer toured around insisting the Court is not actually (to quote Justice Barrett) “a bunch of partisan hacks.” Methinks they did protest too much.

The local NPR station head has long said they’re “bought and paid for.” I used to hate that cynicism. Sure, you dance with the one who brung you; but Supreme Court judges have lifetime tenure and, once installed, are free to do the right thing.

Even Bush v. Gore I did not see as partisan. That election was, in effect, a tie; the Court had to resolve it; and with any different decision, it would not have been Gore elected, but chaos, a constitutional crisis. The judges acted wisely.

But their ambit to do the right thing can also allow serving personal agendas. And that’s what most Republican appointees are now doing. Chief Justice Roberts’s efforts to restrain this and save the Court from itself are failing. So it will either overturn Roe v. Wade or else otherwise gut it.

The religious right will celebrate their great triumph, decades in the making. How did they achieve this, in the teeth of clear majority public opinion? Undemocratically of course. They illegitimately blocked President Obama from appointing one Supreme Court judge (Merrick Garland) and then rammed through a third Trump appointment in the last days of his doomed administration. Both by an undemocratically structured Senate, with small rural states overrepresented.

And that’s no accident. Do you know why there are two Dakotas? Because Republicans who then controlled Congress divided the sparsely populated Dakota territory into two states just to give them added Senators and electoral votes. That picture is basically repeated throughout the west. And the electoral college gave us three justices appointed by a president who lost the popular vote!

I mentioned public opinion. Most Americans favor allowing at least early-term abortions. Of course the Supreme Court should be guided by the Constitution and law, rather than being a political body swayed by public opinion. Nevertheless, if they do defy it, as here, the judges better have good reasons.

I actually think Roe was bad law and bad politics when decided in 1973. Its critics, arguing before the Court in the current Mississippi case, had a point saying abortion was better left to state legislation than judicial fiat. The latter sparked decades of divisive nastiness, whereas other advanced nations resolved the issue calmly through democratic processes. (Mostly allowing abortion only until 15 weeks or so.)

But in America the toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube. Fact is, for better or worse, for nearly half a century Roe has been part of the fabric of American life. To reverse it now will be incredibly disruptive — indeed redoubling Roe’s politically inflammatory divisive effect. And the societal repercussions will be large. Studies suggest abortion had much to do with falling crime rates over decades, by averting some problem-ridden childhoods that make for potential lawbreakers. Now there will be more unwanted children. And more poverty and other social dysfunction. All imposing greater burdens on taxpayers.

When a fetus becomes a human being, with rights, is a complex debatable issue (though it takes religion to arrive at the extreme answer that it’s the moment of conception). Nevertheless, whatever else might be said of Roe, women able to control their reproductive lives made America a freer, better, more humane country. Part of dismantling an oppressive patriarchal culture that denied women human equality. Now this will actually be the first time the Supreme Court has ever taken away a basic right it previously enshrined.

Of course this reeks of politics and justices masking personal agendas under a guise of legalism. Giving an early fetus not only rights, but rights trumping those of its mother, is not grounded in any traditional legal paradigms, nor science-based, but instead is, again, merely religion-based.

The stance is labeled “pro-life.” But for all the ostensible moralism, there’s no genuine concern for human life. Indeed, fetishizing the unborn is downright weird given the utter disregard for the lives of children once they’ve made the mistake of being born. In states Republicans control, public policies tend to be the worst for child welfare.

And these so-called “pro-life” Republicans are killing many thousands with their Covidiocy — loopy conspiracy theories, anti-science nonsense, and they even actually obstruct public health measures like vaccinations and masking. This is literally, clinically, insane. And shows that Republicans are certainly not “pro-life.” If anything, they’re a death cult.

Their Public Enemy #1 is Doctor Fauci! With Senator Rand Paul in particular on the warpath. If you think Rand is a hero and Fauci a villain, not the reverse, then you are an asshole. But such utter lack of basic human judgment pervades today’s Republican party. Matt Gaetz? Taylor-Greene? McCarthy? Cruz? Gosar? Stefanik? Anyone with sense could see what they are. What Trump is.

Ironically one of their anti-vax slogans is “My body, my choice!” Of course, they don’t apply that to abortion, refusing women any such choice. While pro-choicers refuse to recognize any human life value in fetuses before birth. Alas those two extremist positions shape the debate, while the middle ground, supported by most Americans, gets outshouted.

The Supreme Court is also perverting our legal landscape by refusing to slap down the Texas abortion law vesting its enforcement in vigilante bounty-hunters, a blatant scheme to evade judicial review that could metastasize all over.

And then there are guns. So-called “pro-life” Republicans promote too an insane gun culture that also kills tens of thousands of Americans annually. That’s the subject of another looming Supreme Court folly, which I’ll address soon.

And will the Court, in January 2025, deem perfectly lawful the Republican coup, setting aside popular votes in several states and giving their electoral votes to Trump, returning him to office?

We’re headed off a cliff.

Whoopi Goldberg critiques human behavior

December 15, 2021

Whoopi Goldberg is a comic. Or so I’ve heard. Can’t say I’ve ever actually seen her being funny. Nevertheless, seeking a break from my customary heavy reading, I picked up her 2010 book, Is It Just Me? Or Is It Nuts Out There?

Shocker alert: that’s not her birth name. Whoopi isn’t short for Wupaleena or something. (It was Caryn Johnson.) The name “Whoopi Goldberg” is obviously supposed to be funny. Playing on ethnic incongruity. In fact, there’s traditionally been tension between Black and Jewish communities, with Goldberg a stereotypical Jewish name uttered by Blacks in a hostile way. If Whoopi was trying to satirize that, it seems a bit disturbing.

The book (with no fewer than six two-letter words in its title) is a collection of short peevish essays. A misanthropic self-indulgence. Not funny.

The first chapter hits drunk driving. Not a topic lending itself to hilarity. Whoopi thinks anyone driving drunk should have their cars taken away. Likewise for texting while driving.

Well, okay. And why do we need Whoopi Goldberg’s opinion on this?

Drunk driving is just one of many common behaviors she doesn’t like. Much concerns how people interact with Whoopi herself. Like criticizing her wardrobe choices. Well, okay. But if you put yourself out there as a big celebrity, that kind of comes with the territory. And panning how Whoopi dresses doesn’t seem quite on a par with drunk driving.

She doesn’t mention noise pollution, one of my own peeves. Neighbors running loud mowers, leaf blowers, even chain saws, while I’m trying to enjoy the weather out on my deck.

Several of Whoopi’s chapters address flight etiquette. One earnestly implores readers to turn off computers and phones on a plane when so instructed. A full page lists malodorous foods you shouldn’t bring on a flight. There’s a chapter on how to pack for a plane trip. I’m not kidding. She’s annoyed with people not packing smart. It’s actually pretty sensible advice. But I didn’t buy a book by a comic for that sort of thing.

All the foregoing I scribbled up after a few chapters. But, as with a car wreck, there was a weird fascination that kept me reading. And eventually I began to see the book differently. Shelves are full of self-help advice books, but this one is actually kind of unique. Covering not big philosophical and character matters, but mostly mundane everyday stuff. Expressing things many of us feel. But who would think of writing a book in that vein?

A companion to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice this is not. Yet taken all in all, it does have something significant to say. Running through it is a basic premise that too many people just don’t think enough about how their actions affect others. Whoopi is taking a stand, and it’s one worth taking. Even writing an unfunny book about. Doing so was gutsy.

Human beings operate with what’s really a remarkable degree of rationality, but are imperfect and sadly subject to lapses of rationality. While Whoopi concentrates on personal life, and that’s worthy, what bugs me more are so many people’s larger beliefs that are so divorced from reason.

Beliefs about evolution, the drug war, guns, conspiracy theories, migrants, white supremacy; belief in Trump, belief in religion (connected). A perfect storm of irrationality coming together in vaccine resistance, exactly what Whoopi was talking about — disregard for how one’s actions affect others. In this case, literally killing them.

Like Whoopi, I wonder: Is it just me? Or is it nuts out there?

I think I know the answer.


December 11, 2021

As someone vaunting human reason, the 2006 comedy film Idiocracy haunts me. It starts with an upscale couple — intelligent, educated, thoughtful — agonizing about whether to have a child. Then we see a gaggle of lowlife dumbasses reproducing like rabbits. Repeat for a few generations and you get a dumbass nation. An idiocracy.

The president in this dystopian future is of course a crass buffoon (Black — go figure). Back then we could laugh. But politics is incidental in the film, more concerned with a dumbed-down cultural landscape. Epitomized by its most popular TV show — “Ow! My Balls!” Yucks galore. (As if people would still be watching network TV generations hence.)

The film’s premise of an intelligence collapse was silly. Studies show average human intelligence is actually increasing (the “Flynn Effect”). Yet what’s descending upon us is something darker and scarier than mere innocent dumbness. Imagine another movie:

Though 74 million vote to re-elect a crass buffoon president, he’s unsurprisingly defeated. But his deranged ego can’t accept it. So he makes up a lie that the election was a fraud. Laughed out of court; but instead of hooting him off the stage his cult followers storm the Capitol in support of his attempted coup. After which his hold on his party actually grows, their indignation over the imaginary “election steal” intensifying. And its unprincipled politicians use that as a pretext for every possible underhanded trick to steal the next election themselves and return to power.

Nah, that movie would be too implausible. This is America, not some banana republic (or “shit-hole” country.) Weren’t we made great again?

Meantime, polls show voter support for Biden and Democrats plunging. A lot of the reasons are bogus (“socialism,” “defund the police,” “critical race theory,” “open borders”). Biden is not blameworthy for inflation. And voters are also venting frustrations over the pandemic — perversely, since of course it’s Republicans hugely blameworthy, insanely battling against needed public health measures. Forgotten too is the rest of Trump’s litany of atrocities, even including the January 6 attack upon our democracy itself, and how Republicans have abetted it.

There’s been tons of analysis trying to explain voters. Many just act like bloody-minded nihilists. Maybe it’s idiocracy after all. So as of now, reprobate Republicans (helped too by their gerrymandering) look poised to retake the House of Representatives in 2022.

But if you suppose this would be just another routine swing of the political pendulum, you’re not paying attention. We saw what lengths Trump went to, last time, to overturn the election and keep power. He might have succeeded, if Democrats hadn’t (barely) controlled both House and Senate. Next time, a Republican-led House of Representatives can block certifying electoral votes. Throwing the election to the House itself, where they’ll crown Trump. They’ll have the votes; think they won’t have the balls?

We see country after country where such manipulations prevail. Often just simply fabricating vote counts. Even presidents with real public support skirting zero, like Maduro, Ortega, Assad, and Lukashenko, get “re-elected.”

This is the movie we’re in now. A tragedy, not a comedy. Much darker than Idiocracy, with its mere innocent dumbness.

We won the Cold War, defeating Communism, with democracy ascendant. But now it’s under vicious assault again, as Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlantic, from what has grown into a new alliance of anti-democratic regimes, supporting each other and perfecting the tools of repression. Trump actually aligned with them. If he returns to power, sinking democracy even in America, it’s game over.

I could live in an idiocracy. Not in a trumpocracy.

Two Waitings

November 19, 2021

In 1977, when Avon published my fantasy novel, my middle initial was omitted on the cover. So we got a tart letter from the other Frank Robinson — Frank M. —a more prominent writer. Thought his name was being ripped off.

I’d never read any of his books. Decades later, I chanced on one at a library sale, and stuck it on my shelf. Then I picked up one by Ha Jin only because my wife and I had read aloud together another novel of his.

Those two books sat side-by-side on my shelf for a long while before I suddenly noticed both had the same title! — Waiting. What are the odds? Then I saw both were published in 1999! The coincidences tickled me enough to read them.

Frank’s is no literary masterpiece, but entertaining in its way. As a writer, I liked seeing how he managed to put across what was really a preposterous premise. That when Homo Sapiens supplanted the Neanderthals 35,000 years ago, another different species, resembling us more, managed to survive, living hidden among us. Waiting to consummate some final triumph over us. Mind control helps.

I have little truck with fictional psychic powers. And that those “Old People” could somehow maintain a separate bloodline for over a thousand generations seemed absurd. The novel acknowledges interbreeding, but says with two different species, any offspring were sterile, which nobody noticed. (We’ve since learned many humans have a little Neanderthal DNA, disproving the sterility theory.)

Nor did anyone notice these “Old People” were, well, physiologically not human. Until one doctor stumbles on an autopsy. The doc’s murder, to silence him, launches the book’s plot.

Which got convoluted. And the book seemed padded with much extraneous scene-setting. And what was it with all the coffee? OK, characters would drink some coffee. But this author seemed besotted with coffee shtick.

A line near the end made me laugh out loud: “Back at the house on Noe, he and Mark had taken a nap, then gone out shopping for a Christmas tree.” Mundane normal life. But after the cataclysmic (and bloody) denouement just hours before? “Shopping for a Christmas tree?”

Ha Jin’s novel concerns Lin Kong, whose girlfriend is waiting for him to divorce his wife. Who ever heard of such a story? (Quite a contrast to Robinson’s outrageous premise.)

The writing style is matter-of-fact. But not spare in a Hemingway way. Wouldn’t be bad if the story weren’t so enervating. We’re told early that the wait will be eighteen years. Then we’re led through the whole numbing saga.

It takes place in China from the mid-’60s through the ’80s. She’s an army nurse; Lin an army medic, in a loveless arranged marriage with an older woman, back in his home village, which he visits just once annually. Neither relationship entails any sex. Might have enlivened the narrative.

I was struck by just how regimenting, oppressive, inhumane really, Chinese communist society was. That shaped the course of Lin’s life. The contrast with free-wheeling American life was stark. China loosened up somewhat after those times; yet Xi Jinping seems intent on carrying regimentation to new heights. How do the Chinese stand for it? Actually it seems regimentation is in their DNA, very different from ours. Being cogs in a machine suits most of them just fine. And they actually profess revulsion toward America, as no model they’d wish to follow.

Lin’s introspection toward the end was touching. His wife had refused a divorce; but a rule allowed it unilaterally after 18 years of separation, and (contrary to my expectation) Lin actually does it, and marries his girlfriend. She makes up for lost time in the bedroom. Then come twins. But Lin isn’t happy. It all feels like a chore, imposed on him. He doesn’t feel he really loved either wife. Considers himself a useless man, his life wasted; and he’d indeed seemed a passive sort to me. Yet others see him as very fortunate. On that note the book ends.

Xi talks of the “Chinese dream.” It’s no analog to what we call the “American dream.” Xi means China being pre-eminent in the world. If the whole world becomes more like China, I’d call that a nightmare.

America’s Didius Julianus Moment

November 6, 2021

Didius Julianus was the Roman Emperor who bought his crown at auction.

Here’s the story. The madman Emperor Commodus (the one in Gladiator) was murdered on the last day of AD 192. Succeeded by Pertinax, an upstanding statesman. He tried to discipline the Praetorian Guard, an elite corps of soldiers tasked with protecting the emperor, and grown overly powerful. They killed Pertinax after three months. Now, it had become customary for a new ruler to gift the Praetorians with a cash bonus. So they held an auction to see which aspirant for power would offer the biggest bonus. In effect, auctioning off the rulership itself. The winner was Didius Julianus, bidding an extravagant sum.

Three months later, he too was murdered. It’s said he hadn’t fully paid up.

In the grand sweep of history, this episode is a small footnote. Yet it’s well remembered, not just for its titillation, but mainly because it signaled something important. The once noble empire being reduced to this sad farce showed it was hollowed out and off the rails. This is where “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is reckoned to have really begun.

Now America is in Didius Julianus time. We just had a madman president. Losing re-election, he conspired mightily to remain in power, culminating in his supporters storming the Capitol. His deranged ego unable to face, like a man, his defeat, he concocted a preposterous lie that the election was a fraud. Thoroughly disproven at every turn. One warped soul creating such a lie is understandable. Less so the millions of his cultists for whom it’s become an article of faith, central to their whole political ethos.

The fools worshipping their false god are sacrificing, on the altar of his ego, their very brains, as devotees of his “stolen election” catechism. But this is not so much about the last election as the next one. Which his party of cynical opportunists assiduously works to steal themselves. Exploiting Trump’s big lie as a pretext for measures to supposedly forestall election theft which actually aim to perpetrate it.

We saw this pathology ascendant even in deep blue Trump-loathing New York State where, on November 2, two ballot propositions to enable election day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting were both defeated. Why would voters reject such options to make it easier for them to vote? Because Republicans campaigned against the proposals as inviting election fraud. Which in reality is virtually nonexistent. Yet voters swallowed this bilge. The real reason Republicans oppose making voting easier is because they think it disadvantages them. Trump himself openly said that if every citizen can vote, you’ll never see Republicans elected again.

Few Americans have ever heard of Didius Julianus. Indeed, few know much history at all. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s not just the race history Republicans are making such an issue of. It’s the larger picture of America’s place in history, its import, what it all means. Too many have no concept of what actually made America great. That’s why they can vote so irresponsibly. The craziness warping our whole body politic into a grotesque zombie of its former self. All because one sicko couldn’t accept losing. It makes the tale of Didius Julianus seem bland in comparison — and shows America is, like Rome in his day, hollowed out and off the rails.

The Roman Empire actually limped onward for centuries after Didius Julianus, but its greatness was now in the rearview mirror. “Make America Great Again?” What a sad ironic joke.

The Threat from the Illiberal Left

November 2, 2021

Robert Boyers’s 2019 book, The Tyranny of Virtue, decried the woke left campus culture’s oppressive censoriousness. My 2020 review* ended by noting that the infection hadn’t much spread beyond academia. But already that needs a revisit.

The Economist recently had a cover story about this. It begins, “Something has gone very wrong with Western liberalism.” Meaning the classical liberal philosophy arising from the Enlightenment, and countering the “confessional state” of the prior millennium, that pervasively enforced religious conformism. Enlightenment liberalism believes free debate is the route to truth and progress, honoring individual human dignity, with all coercive power constrained.

This is widely sneered at today (notably by China’s regime, espousing very different values). In the West, it’s a case of “what have you done for me lately?” short-sightedness. In fact, liberalism’s principles were greatly responsible for stupendous human progress, in so many ways, in the past few centuries. But now those principles are being eroded, and consequently progress is faltering.

The threat from the populist Trumpian right is clear enough. An atavistic tribalist assault on the very concepts of truth, universalism, and a common public interest. January 6 an attempt to achieve by force what debate and democratic processes could not.

You might think the left, being focused on still-persisting injustices, would push back with a redoubled liberalism. But the “woke” left has gone the opposite way, and off the rails. Even indicting “neoliberalism” as a bête noir.

There is a (perverse) logic to it. Classical liberalism wants to remove barriers to individual flourishing. Something the illiberal left actually deems a snare, a way of maintaining illicit hierarchies of power — racial, sexual, class, etc. Which they obsess about — seeing every problem as one of power and privilege. Like having a hammer and seeing every problem as a nail. Hence, ideals of individual human dignity must yield to group empowerment (for favored groups).

Which is the essence of tyranny. Giving us the naked authoritarianism of speech codes, cancel culture, suppression of any ideas contravening a rigid orthodoxy. Literally believing no one has a right to any opinion they deem inimical to their own. Because, of course, they’re right and virtuous. Thus too they feel entitled to impose desired outcomes by fiat rather than discourse. Indeed, deeming the marketplace of ideas itself illegitimate — just another construct of the power dynamics they demonize.

All together reconstituting the old “confessional state;” the Inquisition. The Economist does note that at least nobody today is burned at the stake. Not literally — but many careers have been destroyed.

And not just in academia. It’s moved out to the wider society. The Economist documents how “woke” left thinking has markedly spread, particularly among younger, more educated Americans, especially Democrats. And especially when it comes to race matters.

Well, Trump, and George Floyd, had much to do with that. Yet it seems ironic that the woke left’s stridency about racial justice probably has worked to aggravate racial tensions and cynicism. As you’d expect when pitting group against group. Is it surprising some whites react with hackles up?

David Brooks, in a recent column, notes how a prominent scientist was disinvited from lecturing at MIT because he’s publicly argued that college admissions should not consider race. That issue is indeed arguable; and a clear majority of Americans agrees with the scientist. Yet their view is treated as a scarlet letter at MIT. Thus does the woke left make itself outrageous to mainstream Americans not only in the ideas it pushes but also its arrant intolerance. Handing a cudgel to the populist right in our culture wars.

Perhaps woke ideology’s spread from campuses was inevitable as they pumped out legions of graduates thusly indoctrinated. Even while most students actually hate the oppressiveness, cowed into silence by those louder voices. With the internet and social media providing newly powerful megaphones, while traditional forms of journalism and public discourse are shouldered aside. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The Economist also sees this as a generational conflict, with Gen Z and young Millennials contending for sway against Boomers and Gen Xers who still largely run things.

One of wokism’s watchwords is a fetish for “safety,” including emotional safety, trumping liberalistic concerns. Thus the overblown snits about “microaggressions,” and hostility to ideas that might create discomfort. With the huge irony that the people made truly unsafe here are the targets of this intellectual pogrom. Their rights — their safety — don’t count. The Economist cites a book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, tracing extremist “safetyism” to America’s wave of overprotective parenting. Creating a sense of entitlement to live in a cocoon undisturbed by life’s rumbustiousness. Including exposure to discordant viewpoints.

And meantime, as the magazine also notes, for all their shrillness attributing group inequalities to entrenched power hierarchies, that need to be smashed, the woke left is remarkably silent about concrete racial inequities that the old left cared about — nonsexy issues like persistent segregation in poor neighborhoods, and especially the concomitant problem of rotten schools in those areas. A gigantic factor perpetuating and even aggravating American inequality. If you seriously want equalization, schools would be a terrific place to start (even if they don’t teach critical race theory).

The Economist casts its discussion as hopefully a rallying cry for true liberals to stand up more forcefully against wokism’s perversion of their philosophy. But while the magazine does (like Boyers did) see some signs of a backlash against the illiberal left, its final line darkly opines that “America has not yet reached peak woke.”

* Here, and in Skeptic Magazine:

Robinson’s 2021 Albany Voters Guide

October 30, 2021

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan is running for a third term. Opposing her are Republican candidate Alicia Purdy and independent Greg Aidala; and Valerie Faust as a write-in.

The Republican party, nationally, is a threat to democracy, and insane. Hence I reject all Republican candidates. Purdy has refused to say whether she voted for Trump. That alone disqualifies her.

Aidala is a professional comedian and entertainment promoter. Of his lack of political experience, his basic answer is “look what experience has gotten for us.” A facile posture. It’s easy to take pot-shots. Albany’s problems are complex and difficult.

I strongly supported Sheehan the first time. But her insistence on billing a protest group for police costs during a demonstration was a Russia-like outrage against freedom of speech. I’ve also lambasted her more recent handling of a protest at a police station. I considered voting for Faust in the primary until I heard her on the radio full of God-talk. I actually skipped the mayoral line in the primary. But will vote for Sheehan Tuesday as the only responsible option.

There are 7 propositions (on the back of the ballot). Number 1 concerns legislative redistricting. Here’s the story:

In 2014 Governor Cuomo promoted a supposedly non-partisan redistricting reform. It was a standard Cuomo sham. The “independent” redistricting commission was structured to guarantee its deadlock and failure, so redistricting would revert to the legislature after all. And the commission has duly failed. Tuesday’s Prop 1 is complicated but, long story short, would ensure a Democrat gerrymander.

“Gerrymandering” is when one party controls the legislative maps and can engineer, like, winning 70% of seats with 50% of votes.* It’s a bane of our politics, driving parties to extremes and promoting polarization. Nationwide, it threatens to give the Trumpist party control of the House of Representatives. A Democratic gerrymander in New York would help prevent that. Hence I’m voting for Prop 1. (Also, it seems if it doesn’t pass, New York’s redistricting would be thrown into chaos.)

Proposition 2 is the fake environmental rights amendment, which I’ve previously addressed.

Numbers 3 and 4 would allow voter registration at the polls on election day, and no-excuse absentee voting. We need this. (Number 5 is just technical.) Number 6 would create a residency requirement for Albany’s city council. I don’t see why we need this. Voters should be left free to vote for anyone.

Proposition 7 is very important, giving Albany’s Civilian Police Review Board some teeth. I’ve written about this problem before too. Lookit, we give cops weapons and empower their use against citizens. There has to be oversight and accountability, but heretofore it’s been sorely lacking. Police organizations are mounting a disgraceful campaign against this reform, trying to scare people that it will somehow make the city less safe. In fact it will make us more safe — from police misconduct. They also say it would put police oversight in the hands of “politicians” (who appoint the review board). Well, who should have oversight of the police? Their answer seems to be: themselves alone. Politicians are elected by citizens to perform such functions. The police — hired by us — should be answerable to us, through the political system. That’s how democracy works. Passing this reform is imperative.

* By cramming as many other-party voters as possible into a few districts, which they win overwhelmingly, so your party wins all other seats by just decent margins.

The Phony Environmental Rights Amendment

October 23, 2021

This election day, New Yorkers have the opportunity to vote for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing us the right to clean air and water and to enjoy a healthy environment. All that in just 15 simple words!

And after we’ve passed this amendment, the Tooth Fairy will leave money under our pillows.

Dominick Calsolaro’s Oct. 22 Albany Times-Union commentary rhapsodizes about the amendment. Saying it will prevent “government agencies and departments approving corporate projects over the health and safety of citizens.” They’d be “obligated to minimize pollution, degradation, and environmental harms . . . to put people first.”

So “no more Hoosick Falls, where residents have used water contaminated for decades.” No more public housing complexes, like Albany’s Ezra Prentice Homes, built in an industrial-zoned area. No more landfills, like the one in Rensselaer, next to a school. No more incinerators like Norlite’s operating within city limits.

It sounds like passing this simple amendment will be like waving a magic wand, all our environmental problems will be solved, and we can march forward into the bright sunshine of a new day.

If only it were that easy. But this is just a feel-good measure, nothing more. Its fifteen simple words are so general they mean nothing, requiring nothing of anyone. Applying its lofty language to nitty-gritty situations like those Calsolaro enumerates would be very arguable. There are always trade-offs. Indeed, if his expansive reading were actually correct, the amendment would be a strait-jacket, barring sensible consideration of such trade-offs. “Putting people first” can conflict with environmental concerns.

Meantime, state agencies will likely spend extra time and money giving lip service to the amendment. Needing more state workers to crank out more empty verbiage.

And, as Calsolaro himself points out, the amendment will invite more litigation, giving people more legal tools for nimbyism and obstructionism. As if we don’t already have enough of that. As if New York’s economy is not already hamstrung by a welter of business-stifling measures. The amendment could actually be exploited to stymie clean-energy projects like wind farms.

Then of course there’s the law of unintended consequences. It’s hard to say what those unintended consequences will be. But unintended consequences don’t tend to be good.

I’m all in favor of clean air and water and a healthy environment. But that requires hard work, facing painful trade-offs. This amendment is a cynical excuse for not actually doing anything. It sounds high-minded to say we have a “human right” to a healthy environment, but it has to be paid for.

There’s no free lunch. Dressing up a nothingburger as a free lunch is a bad thing.

I’m voting no.