Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Another day, another disgrace

September 7, 2017

Trump has killed the DACA program — “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” — allowing people brought to America before age 16 to stay.

Most of these 800,000 are educated and employed, pay taxes, and contribute to society. They cannot legally work absent DACA. Some have served in our military. A majority have siblings who are U.S. citizens. A quarter have kids who are. They were induced to come forward and register with the government on the promise that the information wouldn’t be used against them. To break that promise, breaking up American families, is indefensibly cruel and base.

Trump claims to love these kids — shedding buckets of crocodile tears for them. He says Congress should fix this. So has he proposed legislation? Of course not. The idea that Congress will, within his 6-month deadline, pass a law it could never pass before (remember the “Dreamer” act?) insults our intelligence. Yet another huge Trump lie.

Trump also claims this is simply about enforcing the law. Obama is condemned for promulgating DACA by executive order. Yet Trump did exactly the same, getting around existing immigration law by executive order, with his Muslim ban. Anyhow his newfound reverence for law is piquant right after he pardoned Joe Arpaio, convicted of defying court orders. But Arpaio was a poster boy for the war on immigrants; especially brown-skinned ones. These actions cater to Trump’s most xenophobic racist fans. America used to be governed toward its highest aspirations; now, the lowest.

I heard Alternative Radio the other night; it’s a left-wing program but helps sharpen my thinking. Thomas Frank was discussing the political landscape. I previously reviewed one of his books quite negatively. But he’s an engaging speaker I enjoyed hearing. And nowadays I’m weirdly sympathetic toward people like him. I particularly relished Frank calling Trump a “mountebank.” A lovely archaic word, and deliciously apt.

My local paper has been filled with anti-Trump reader letters. But one on Tuesday caught my attention — by David Hauber of Troy — who voted for Trump. “I believed that Trump would be good for America,” Hauber writes. “I thought our government needed a shakeup, and that the ‘swamp’ was spiraling out of control. How could we go wrong with a successful businessman* who claimed he would make America great again?”

He found out. “I was wrong,” says Hauber. “Failure to protect Americans, uphold our laws, and understand the difference between facts and lies has made America the laughingstock of the world and endangered us all. This is the opposite of making America great again.”

His final words: “I am sorry.”

It takes a big person to admit they were wrong and apologize (which the mountebank never does). So far it’s been disheartening that so many Trump voters won’t either. But thank you, David Hauber, for a glimmer of hope.

I too regret my last presidential vote (for Libertarian Gary Johnson). I did agonize over it; I didn’t like Clinton’s politics, character, or personality. Yet compared with Trump . . . ! Not a day passes without my reflecting how much better off we’d be if she’d won.

* Successful? At defrauding customers (Trump University) and screwing anyone who invested in, or did work on, his projects.

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The Economist: A love letter

August 31, 2017

On this blog I’ve frequently cited The Economist. It’s a news magazine (though Britishly calling itself a “newspaper”). I’ve subscribed for about thirty years. The Economist is my friend, almost a lover even, integral to my existence.

Maybe because I was a socially awkward youth, wordly clueless, I’ve always had an ache for understanding. To know what’s going on, and why. This The Economist provides. It keeps me informed about every corner of the globe (and in today’s interconnected globalized world, it all matters). And much of it is deeply fascinating, like a great global “Game of Thrones” with hundreds of characters and story lines. Take Venezuela’s for example, a dramatic tale (indeed, a morality tale), unfolding for a quarter century. The Economist provides a ring-side seat. Much of this stuff never makes it into newspapers or other sources.

The Economist doesn’t merely report events, it analyzes them. And furthermore it has a definite point of view, not only expressed in its editorials (called “leaders”) but also infusing its news coverage. It is the stance of classical liberalism, the philosophy of thinkers like John Stuart Mill, aiming to maximize human liberty and flourishing, through limited, democratic, accountable government, and openness to ideas, enterprise, commerce, and human variety. Indeed, it was specifically to oppose Britain’s “corn laws” (restricting free trade) that the publication was launched in 1843.

Did I fall in love with The Economist because its philosophy matched my own, or did the magazine shape my outlook? Probably some of both. Anyhow it’s rare for me to disagree with it. (There were some baffling past presidential election endorsements which seemed at odds with the magazine’s editorial stance.)

So far I may have made it sound dry. It is not. The writing is often a pleasure to read and is full of droll wit. I recall one report, quoting Cuba’s Raul Castro saying Honduras should be sanctioned because its president (arguably) wasn’t seated democratically. “Castro said this,” The Economist wrote, “with a straight face.”

So The Economist has no time for cant or hypocrisy. The magazine tells it like it is – often with delicious zingers.

And not just with words. Its covers too can be a hoot. One gem depicted the European nations, when confronted with a threatening Russia, collectively as a quivering jelly mold, with their cringing faces.

The magazine also covers business, finance, science, and the arts, including excellent book reviews. And the final page always provides a parting treat: an obituary. Yes, its obits too are flavorful reading, often about less famous personages, but always interesting ones. Or at least The Economist seems able to make them so.

Depicting France’s Macron; the feet sticking up are Theresa May’s

I’m pleased to have gotten into its pages a few times myself, with letters-to-the-editor. (The latest responded to an article about violence in Baltimore, pointing to the drug war as a major cause.)

I wish more people read it. Many of the world’s movers and shakers certainly do, but not enough of them. It’s dismaying when folks aspiring to (or exercising) leadership are so ignorant about the world. An Economist reader would never have said, “What’s Aleppo?”

Statues and history

August 26, 2017

Trump has attacked removal of “beautiful” monuments to Confederate icons like Stonewall Jackson, Jeff Davis, and Robert E. Lee. Will Washington and Jefferson be next, he said; our culture and history are being “ripped apart.”

He is, of course, such a deep student of culture and history.

Washington and Jefferson did own slaves. Washington freed them at his death; Jefferson agonized in writing about the moral problem. But we honor them not for their slaveholding history, but in spite of it, because their larger meaning to us dwarfs that one facet. Washington won our independence, then led the new nation so as to consolidate our democracy. Jefferson gave voice to its great principles.

It’s an outrage to compare them with the likes of Davis and Lee. American heroes they were not — traitors in fact, who made war upon the United States.* They might well have been hanged at war’s end, but for our immense magnanimity, “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

And if Trump wants to talk history, here’s some more of it:

Ever since the Civil War, Southerners have tried to whitewash it as battling for “states’ rights.” Rights to do what? To enslave kidnapped people; torture them and steal their labor with whips; to rape them (a bigger aspect of slavery than is commonly realized). That’s what the war was about.

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens candidly said so at the outset, proclaiming the true purpose to be continuing enslavement of people deemed racially inferior.

Should we keep statues honoring warriors for that evil cause? And make no mistake why those statues were erected. Most went up long after the war — indeed, they were really monuments to a new war — against integration and racial equality. For all their blather about “states’ rights” and “history” most who romanticize the Confederacy and venerate its monuments really have (n-word)s on their minds. The “culture” in question is the culture of white supremacy. Those monuments stand to tell African-Americans, “We honor those who fought to enslave you, and would love to do it again. Be intimidated! Whites rule!”

Trump too, with his tweets about “history and culture” is likewise sending a message. A message to those racist Confederacy lovers, that he’s with them.

America is better than that. Better than its president. Better than those statues.

* Lee was in some ways a noble figure. A true military hero, when the war began, he was actually offered command of both armies. Lee agonized between loyalty to state versus nation. I think he chose wrongly.

For women only

August 23, 2017

My wife has attended an annual writers’ retreat in Indiana. Now she’s been invited to a “girls only” gathering of former attendees. She was very critical. I defended the idea.

First, she objected to the word “girls.” I acknowledged it’s a bit politically incorrect. Used by men, it can be demeaning, implying immaturity. But used among females themselves, as a casual way of referencing their gender, I see no problem.

My wife’s bigger objection was the exclusion of men. She has an inclusive philosophy, and accordingly has also spurned a female-only local poetry group, and participation in an anthology of women’s poetry.

I disagreed, seeing all these things as a bit of affirmative action. For most of history, women had a raw deal, unable to join any activity on an equal basis with men. A woman-only poetry collection is not inappropriate given past stifling of their voices. Moreover, it’s justifiable because women’s voices differ from men’s. A women’s poetry book is akin to other themed collections, like humorous poetry or nature poetry.

And sexism is not yet dead. We have the president we have because enough Americans were just unwilling to vote for a woman. Even against a pussy-grabber.

Meantime, I don’t see the male exclusion as violating an equality principle. We’re not talking about government programs, but private activities. Nobody has an absolute right to be included in an event or group or project initiated by others. If a woman feels that a gathering she’s organizing would suit her objectives better without men, that’s reasonable. Gender equality does not mean women are the same as men. It’s natural that they’ll act differently, and feel different, when socializing with other women than in mixed company. And they have a right to do so. It’s still a free country.

The discussion with my wife reminded me of recently reading some back issues of Free Inquiry magazine, reporting on a 2012 female humanist convention. There was much concern that even among humanists — as liberal-minded a group as you’ll find — gender equality still doesn’t totally reign, hence the woman-oriented gathering. Men were not excluded, but few chose to attend.

Wafa Sultan

One speaker was Wafa Sultan, a doctor from Syria. She spoke searingly about the situation of women in Muslim societies like her past one. (And that was before Syria’s current unpleasantness got going.) Sultan told of her niece, forced at eleven to marry a 40-year-old cousin, who was horribly abusive. The girl tried several times to escape to her family but was sent back and told to obey her husband. She committed suicide by setting herself on fire.

Another story concerned a widow who got pregnant. She feared her 15-year-old son would feel obliged to kill her to expunge the shame — and she didn’t want her “dirty blood” on his hands! She got an abortion, performed without anesthetic because she couldn’t afford it. She was pregnant because her late husband’s brother was raping her as the price for financial help.

This spotlights how tragically screwed up many Muslim societies are by their warped ideas about male-female relations. And it’s not only women who suffer. Pity that 15-year-old boy acculturated into such attitudes. What kind of family life can it be with females treated like that, with obligatory “honor killings” of daughters and siblings? If a woman is basically a sex slave, how much fun is that really for the man? And I haven’t even yet mentioned female genital mutilation which — aside from the atrocity upon girls — actually impedes sexual pleasure for men as well.

My wife and I are fully equal partners, respecting each other totally. This close loving relationship is the center of my life, incalculably sustaining and rewarding. I weep for those men in Muslim societies whose cultural manacles deny them the opportunity for such marriages.

I’ve also been reading about Japan, where people have largely stopped having sex. Women who increasingly have jobs have little use for the typical Japanese male, forced by social pressure to stay late at the office followed by drinking with colleagues, while marriage turns women into monomaniacal child-coddlers. And the resulting mama’s boys don’t want wives or even girlfriends either. The devoted fans of Japanese teen girl bands (a big thing) are mostly single young and middle-aged men. That’s their substitute. And of course the internet too.

All of this makes me appreciate the goodness of today’s American society, so much better than what most people have had in most times and places. I was deeply moved by Wafa Sultan’s eloquent telling how she felt coming here from Syria. For her it was a liberation, going from darkness to light; from Hell to Paradise. Only a person experiencing such a journey could truly grasp the profound virtue of American society.

One of its great virtues is providing a haven, a welcoming home, for people like Wafa Sultan. But America is turning away from that virtue. The President backs legislation to cut legal immigration in half.

The Bonobo and the Atheist

August 20, 2017

Our closest biological relatives are chimpanzees. They’re not as cute as you might think; often nasty and violent. How nice then to have discovered the bonobo — an equally close cousin, but a much better role model. Anatomically chimplike, bonobos behave very differently, very social, peaceable, and they’re sex fiends. A lot of humans are in love with the idea of the bonobo, seeing them as living in a prelapsarian paradise of free love, undarkened by sin. They’re even matriarchal. How politically correct can an animal get?

This evokes Rousseau’s “noble savage” and Margaret Mead’s idealization of Samoan sexual promiscuity (which turned out to be fake news).

De Waal (at right)

The book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, seems to have been written by the bonobo. Actually by primatologist Frans de Waal, who’s studied them. He likes them. Atheists, not so much. Even though he is one himself.

A self-hating atheist, then? No, he sets himself apart from atheists who make a big deal of it. His own attitude is nonchalant — “I don’t believe that stuff, but if others do, so what?” Too many atheists, he feels, are overly obsessed with the question of truth, which he deems “uninteresting.”

De Waal’s critique of assertive “new atheists” (like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) has become familiar. We’re told they do the cause no favor by insulting religious believers. I’ll make three points.

First, through most of history, religious dissent was not only taboo but cowed into silence by the threat of fire. Subjecting religious ideas to serious intellectual challenge is long overdue.

Second, about those fires: many atheists believe religion has done great harm, being a wellspring of violence, and we’d be better off without it. (I recently reviewed a book arguing the contrary.) This too is a debate we need to have.

And third, when billions do believe in religious dogmas (with vast impacts upon human society), their truth is hardly an “uninteresting” matter. Even leaving aside the violence, such beliefs dominate one’s entire engagement with the world. You cannot have a sound conception about the human condition and the issues facing us while being fundamentally mistaken about the essential nature of reality. That truth matters.*

But back to bonobos. For de Waal, they’re Exhibit A for the book’s main point — that morality and altruism do not come from religion. They long antedate religion’s beginnings and in fact are seen among other animals. The bonobo “too, strives to fit in, obeys social rules, empathizes with others, amends broken relationships, and objects to unfair arrangements.” De Waal relates an observation of two young chimps quarreling over a leafy branch. An older one intervenes, breaks it in two, and hands a piece to each youngster! And in a famous experiment, chimps would happily perform a task for cucumber slices, until seeing other chimps getting grapes, a more coveted reward. Then, offended by the unfairness, they spurn the cucumber and go on strike. (Some grape receivers even joined them in solidarity.) The Occupy movement sprang from the same primordial feelings.

Altruism evolved because it was beneficial within the groups that practiced it. De Waal reminds us that the most conspicuous form of altruism throughout nature is often overlooked: parental nurturing and even self-sacrifice. Not surprisingly, the basic trait extends beyond just one’s own progeny.

Altruism is commonly defined as doing something for another at cost to oneself. Yet if that makes you feel good, is it really costing you? And why are we programmed to feel good when acting altruistically? De Waal points out that, logically enough, nature makes it pleasurable to do things we need to do — like eating and copulating. Altruism falls in the same category.

The idea that humans need religion for morality is actually insulting to us. And ridiculous. While religionists say without God anything goes, we could all rape, steal, and murder, nobody wants to live in such a world, and most of us recognize that that means we don’t rape, steal, and murder. Which we wouldn’t do anyway because of our nature-given moral instincts. God is irrelevant.

De Waal doesn’t join those who wish we could be more like our bonobo cousins about sex. He explains that their promiscuity makes it impossible to know who anyone’s father is. That diffuse paternity creates a certain kind of societal structure. We humans went down a different path, with pair bonding and clear paternity, so fathers are invested in protecting and raising their offspring. Emulating bonobos would wreak havoc in human society. Indeed, to the extent some people do emulate them, it does cause social havoc.

De Waal also discusses the religion-versus-science thing. No contest, really; religion comes much more naturally to us, fulfilling deep needs. Science does not, and is a far more recent and fragile invention. He says a colony of children left alone would not descend into the barbarism of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but would develop a hierarchical society as apes do — and likely some sort of religion — but not science.

De Waal suggests that when humans lived in small bands, moral instincts could serve their function effortlessly because everybody knew what everyone else was doing.** But not when societies grew much larger. Thus were gods invented to keep “sin” (i.e., antisocial behavior) in check.

Religion serves other needs too. Some go to church for the donuts. That’s shorthand for all the social togetherness religion entails. For many it’s a matter of finding meaning in an otherwise cold cosmos, and in their own lives. And of course palliating fear of death.

And what’s truth got to do with it? It turns out truth and reality actually rank pretty low on many people’s priority lists. Indeed, many seem to have a fuzzy grasp on the concept. We see this in the political realm, where tolerance for lies is far greater than I once imagined. In religion, people believe things mainly because they want to; and this extends to other aspects of life.

But I’ll repeat: you cannot live an authentically meaningful life if its foundation is lies. And as de Waal recognizes, humanism does enable us to find meaning in life while embracing its reality rather than cocooning ourselves in fairy tales. The essence of humanism is the recognition that life is intrinsically valuable for its own sake, that our purpose is to live it as well as we can, and to make it as good as we can for everyone.

De Waal argues that religion is deeply embedded because of its roots in our biology. But we have overcome innumerable constraints imposed by nature. He does acknowledge a “giant experiment” in Northern Europe’s recent and really remarkably rapid turning away from conventional religion. And these societies have seen nothing whatsoever of the negative consequences that religious apologists warned about for eons. Those Europeans who have largely freed themselves from religion are not going to Hell — neither figuratively nor literally.

* An example of how this messes up thinking is strong support for a moral creep like Trump among the devout, who forget, among much else, the commandment against lying.

** Note the importance of language. If one chimp mistreats another, no one else may know. But in human society, with talking, word gets around. This raises the stakes for violations of social norms.

White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the president they love

August 17, 2017

When white supremacists march with Nazi swastika flags, and one of them, an avowed Hitler flan, intentionally kills and injures counter-demonstrators, the response of the president of the United States should be a no-brainer.

It does not include saying there are “fine people” among the neo-Nazis, defending what they were marching about, and blaming the victim. In a snarling, belligerent rant no less.

It’s suggested that Trump’s veering back and forth reflected some tug-of-war among his lackeys, and he’s calculatingly pandering to his base — at least that small segment that’s racist neo-Nazi. And those knuckleheads, like David Duke, loved it.

But there’s no political calculation here, cunning or otherwise (as if swastikas are a net vote winner in America). Rather, the president is a deranged moral moron without the sense to control his vicious impulses.

Like Trump, white supremacists have no self-awareness. Do they actually somehow imagine that behaving as they do promotes white racial superiority? When instead it screams the opposite: look at this bunch of stupid loser creeps!

And if you really want to advance white superiority, maybe lose the swastikas? Ya think?

Marching with Nazi flags spits on the graves of those who gave their lives fighting the Nazis. So does Trump.

The Nazis too considered themselves a superior race. They showed it by murdering millions they deemed inferior. Is that how superior beings behave? Even if Jews (and blacks) were inferior, even subhuman, shouldn’t superior beings treat them with humane compassion? Even animals deserve as much.

When it’s needful to explain the moral wrong of Nazism it’s a sad day for America.

Postscript, 8/20: Sorrowful as I am at the utter degradation of my beloved country, yet I actually welcome this episode because it is finally, at long last — after the pussygrabbing, Trump University, birtherism, and too many other travesties to count — a moment of moral clarity, drawing a red line between decent people and cretins still sticking with Trump. Between Nazis and anti-Nazis, Trump doesn’t know what side the president of the United States should be on. The Economist has declared Trump unfit to be president (what took them so long?); Republican Sen. Bob Corker said about as much; business leaders are fleeing all association with him. No one with brains and a conscience can defend this vile creep.

Feminist PC Thought Police strikes again: the Damore Memo

August 15, 2017

Google engineer James Damore wrote a memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” criticizing the company for suppressing honest discussion about why women are underrepresented in tech workplaces. As if to prove his point, Google fired him.

The politically correct answer explaining women’s underrepresentation is sexism and discrimination. Any suggestion that innate biological differences have anything to do with it is politically incorrect, and that was Damore’s transgression.

This is deja vu. In 2005 Lawrence Summers was pilloried, and ultimately ousted as Harvard’s president, for a similar offense of querying whether biological differences might partly explain women’s underrepresentation in math and sciences.

Is it really the feminist position that male and female brains work identically? In fact, a 1987 book by four female academics argued exactly the opposite, celebrating the differences. Titled Women’s Ways of Knowing, it was considered a feminist manifesto. And Deborah Tannen’s 1990 book, You Just Don’t Understand explicated (to wide acclaim) differing male and female communication styles. I guess it’s feminist when women say such things, but thought crime if men do.

Actually, the problem with Damore’s memo was that it might be read as suggesting that all women are innately less suited than men for tech work, which of course would be stupid. The reality is distribution of mental functionalities along spectrums for both men and women. While the average woman may be more temperamentally suited for professions like psychotherapy than computer coding, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of women way better at coding than most men are. Each woman must be judged on her own capabilities rather than stereotyped. To the extent women felt Damore’s memo contributed to obstacles they already face, they had a point.

It’s argued that Google had a right to fire Damore because the First Amendment protects only against government restricting free speech. And I don’t defend everything Damore said. But allow me to quote Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Google’s action does indeed prove Damore’s point that there is a culture of enforced political correctness, so that instead of debate and discussion, differing opinions are suppressed and even punished.

This is exactly the sort of McCarthyism the left has always yapped against. Their own zeal to crush dissent is breathtaking hypocrisy.

Another recent case: when the subject of adding more women to Uber’s board arose, one guy quipped that that would just mean more talking. Ha ha. Guess what, he’s off the board.

Well, do women talk more than men? Both men and women actually think so. It’s a cultural stereotype, portraying women as more communicative, more in love with verbalizing, whereas men tend to be more buttoned-up.

But science says otherwise. Yes, we have research on this. A large sample of varied groups of university students, outfitted with devices to record their spoken words, found statistically indistinguishable results between genders.

Perhaps that’s what you’d expect in a university setting where roughly equal male and female populations continuously mix socially. In normal life it might be that women speak more words because they tend to more often put themselves in conversational environments.

But maybe we just think we hear women talk more. Another study had men and women read from a script, with their speaking times perfectly balanced, but hearers on average thought the women spoke 55% of the time. (It didn’t change even when the scripts were swapped.)

That again presumably reflected the unconscious social stereotype. But the stereotype may indeed reflect a kernel of truth. As the mentioned Tannen book illuminated, men tend to be more goal-directed, women more connection-directed. Talking about an issue is more important to women than men; men focus more on resolving it. Male speech tends toward conveying information; female speech is more relationship-oriented. But again, these are generalities that mask broad spectrums of difference within each gender.

Well, I’m lucky I can’t be fired for anything I write. This is a free speech zone.

Jefferson had it right two centuries ago. The remedy for bad ideas is not banning them, but answering them with better ideas.

Groupthink in the Divided States of America

August 12, 2017

I remember, on Election Night 2008, when the result was declared, a middle-aged black woman in Chicago jumping up and down crying, “God bless America! God bless America!”

Though I didn’t vote for Obama, I was deeply moved by her. Just seeing black Americans then made me empathize with how it must feel – after centuries of abuse, now one of theirs was president.

But the coin had another side, which only gradually grew visible. While blacks could now feel more at home in America, some whites felt less so. While blacks saw the president as kindred, some whites saw him as wholly alien. This metastasized into the “Birther” and Obama-as-Muslim nonsense, embraced by surprisingly large numbers, really as badges of their active dissociation from what Obama represented. J. D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy depicts how large this cultural factor loomed among the working class whites he wrote about.

Now the worm has turned. The alien black president has been replaced by one those same whites see as theirs. Never mind that he’s a New York billionaire. After their eight-year Obama-trauma, they’ve latched onto Trump as their guy, seeing him as speaking for them, and they ain’t gonna let go of that. Even if he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue.

A recent “special report” in The Economist, “The Power of Groupthink,” analyzes the phenomenon. Trump’s first months in office have been such a travesty that many are puzzled why his support has not eroded all that much. It’s partly down to what I’ve written already. His supporters’ emotive commitment lets Trump get away with a lot, to change his mind, lie outrageously, behave boorishly, and even to promote policies that actually harm them.

As The Economist elucidates, their stance is not tied to specific policies, nor even realities. Again, it’s mainly cultural, the sense that they, through him, are back on top, or at least no longer being thrown under the bus (even if they are). It’s the old line: “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”

And it’s important to understand that facts are not much in the picture. The Economist estimates that only about a fifth of Americans are politically engaged and paying close attention; about equally split between pro-Democrat and pro-Republican partisan zealots. “For the rest, political issues are little more than ‘a sideshow in the great circus of life,’” says The Economist, quoting Robert Dahl in 1961.

It’s still true. Most people see political issues “through a glass darkly.” Of course they often have bedrock viewpoints on issues like abortion, guns, gays, and God. But the day-to-day chatter of news reports is just a blurry background buzz.

That applies to the Russia stuff. Most voters just don’t seem to care, failing to understand the powerful reasons why they should. And if Trump says it’s fake news, many accept that, taking his word over that of the news media. Not because he’s actually more credible; they just choose to.

It’s very different now than in the past when so many Americans sat down en masse to watch the evening news. When LBJ lost Walter Cronkhite on Vietnam, he lost America. And I remember seeing John Chancellor open with, “President Nixon stunned the nation today . . . .” Within weeks, Nixon was gone. Now those days are gone.

No such voices of authority today can nail Trump on his lies and make it stick.* And Chancellor’s assumption of “the nation” reacting collectively, as one, also has become quaint. Now everyone can choose their own truth. And as for what I called bedrock views, voters don’t act like calculating machines. Most, The Economist says, have only hazy ideas of what candidates and even parties really stand for. Rather than picking those “that best fit their own political views, they are deciding on some other criteria.” Some actually first pick the candidate they feel most comfortable with, and then associate that candidate (often incorrectly) with policies they notionally favor. And even bedrock can shift. The Economist notes that in 2011, white evangelicals were the most likely group to say personal morality is important in a president. Along comes Trump, and they’re the least likely to say that now. Similar political expedience has reversed past Republican antipathy toward Russia.

The Economist used the word “groupthink” and this too is a key factor. Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, The Big Sort, showed how America is becoming increasingly segregated politically, with people clustering in like-minded communities. Of course, political dividing lines are to a considerable extent socio-economic (and thusly geographic), with upscale urban professionals seeing things very differently from Vance’s rural working class. And there is some tendency, at least among those who take their politics seriously, to gravitate to locales where they feel at home. But for the less engaged majority, The Economist sees a different factor operating: “Most voters make political choices based largely on what people like them are doing.” If most guys in your local bar are talking Trump, you ain’t gonna be for Hillary. Many voters are political Zeligs who, chameleonlike, take on the prevailing political colors of their surrounding communities, fitting in with their peers.

The human tendency to fall in line with what others around you say is well documented. In experiments (e.g., featuring a “which line is longer?” question), people will even give what they know is a wrong answer if surrounded by others giving that answer.

Remember the “culture wars?” They never ended; indeed intensified. Today’s bitter divisions are as much cultural as political, between two worlds that see each other in apocalyptic terms and don’t even agree on what reality is. One can even imagine the country splitting up. Yet, once more, only about a fifth of Americans take things so seriously, and the rest go about their lives as normal human beings. That would be reassuring, except for this: it’s because America is the kind of country it is that most people can live their lives as normal humans without having to concern themselves greatly about politics. Yet that very character of America is itself a product of our political ethos (somewhat unique in global history), and it’s actually endangered. Maybe we can no longer indulge in the luxury of political disengagement.

*Perhaps they’ve given up. Last night discussants on “Washington Week” mentioned Trump’s claim to have refurbished the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and its being untrue, but without further comment. Previously such a presidential whopper would have been a Big Deal. Now it’s the New Normal.

 

Police State

August 3, 2017

I’d love to get back to non-political topics. But some things demand comment. By now it’s hard to be shocked by anything Trump. His Boy Scout speech was an utter disgrace. But the police speech was worse. Imagine: the President of the United States literally encouraged police brutality. Literally.

Some typically dismissed it as joking. I saw no humor. Trump himself later said he was not joking.

Police chiefs throughout the country have condemned the speech, as urging them to break the laws they are sworn to uphold.

Trump was addressing police in Suffolk County — whose own police chief was recently sent to federal prison for personally beating up a suspect (accused of stealing, from the chief’s car, a bag containing pornography and sex toys).

Police brutality against African-Americans in particular (not fake news) is a major societal sore point. The Trump administration is already thoroughly contaminated with links to white supremacists. And he speaks out for more brutal police behavior? Just what we need.

I sincerely hope that when men in blue finally come to escort him from the White House, they will ignore that speech and treat him with utmost gentleness.

The obviousness of the police brutality problem in some cities had prompted the Justice Department to enter into agreements with their police departments aiming at ameliorating matters. Attorney General Sessions has been working to undo these agreements.

Another major police scandal is the Fourth Amendment, against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” becoming virtually a dead letter with rampant police confiscations of money and property from citizens without needing proof of crime. Here again, the Justice Department, recognizing the abuse, had previously promulgated some rules to curb it. And here again Trump’s administration is rolling back those rules.

Say what you will about Obama (I criticized him plenty), he consistently maintained the dignity of his office, respected the law, and consistently invoked the high ideals and fundamental values that America stood for and which made it great. Trump’s values are of the sewer, smearing America in filth.

The drug war, mass incarceration, and insanity

July 29, 2017

Ours may be the only society ever with more rapes of males than females.

It’s due to prison rapes (with most victims raped repeatedly). This, in practice, is part of the punishment of prison. And America’s incarceration rate is far the world’s highest — largely due to the drug war.

The insanity is clear from Johann Hari’s powerful 2015 book, Chasing the Scream. One of those books I had to put down at times, to hold my head in my hands.

Its villain is Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962. Building his bureaucratic fiefdom required manufacturing a problem for it to combat. Drugs weren’t much of a problem until he came along. Most were obtainable legally and cheaply at the corner pharmacy, and were widely used, mostly in moderation, with little harm. The 1914 Harrison Act had outlawed narcotics, but with a big loophole: doctors could still prescribe them. But in 1931 Anslinger slammed that loophole shut by simply ignoring it and prosecuting 20,000 doctors. That handed criminals sole control of the drugs trade. Which of course made it a big problem.

Anslinger ramped it up further with “alternative facts,” like marijuana causing madness, and also stirred up a race panic. And after launching the drug war, we spread it around the world, pressuring other nations to join it. Mexico is being eaten alive by the drug war because America insists on it.

Hari goes inside drug gangs to understand what’s happening. Because milking captive addicts is so incredibly profitable, sellers strive to hold their turf by scaring off rivals with their ferocity. Street “respect” means others are afraid of you. Otherwise you lose not only your territory, but probably your life.

This puts the violence on a one-way upward ratchet. When one gang takes it to a new level, the rest must follow suit, and it becomes the norm. At least in America it’s somewhat contained by a strong rule-of-law culture. Mexico lacks that, its drug gangs control police forces and governments through bribery and terror, and so run unchecked. In a recent five year span, they murdered 60,000 — often in ways you don’t want to know.

The criminality and violence are multiplied because when gangsters monopolize the supply of drugs, their inflated prices drive users to crime too, to finance their habits.

Prison subjects victims to yet more violence (like rape), as Hari sickeningly illustrates. We’re so fixated on punishment we seem to forget most inmates will be released at some point, back into society. But having exposed them to hardened criminals inside doesn’t make them nicer people. And a prison record makes them largely unemployable. Thus our prisons are factories for human, economic, and social destruction. Black communities in particular are devastated. And children of prisoners are far likelier to get in trouble themselves. This is insane.

Yet recently Attorney General Sessions, reversing the prior policy, directed federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible sentences in all drug cases!

We’re told the harm of drugs justifies such extreme measures: the many billions spent, police resources consumed, millions jailed, lives ruined. Yet it’s all for nought, because it doesn’t curtail drug use at all.

It has been widespread in every society because it’s pleasurable.* Alcohol and tobacco are the commonest, paradoxically accepted and legal despite their great harms. A careful analysis by Professor David Nutt in The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, finds alcohol’s harm score (including collateral damage to others) the highest for any drug. Marijuana’s is far lower. Allowing the choice of pot over booze would reduce harm. But even for harder drugs, those really harmed are a small minority. Rather than punish all users (creating Hell on Earth), wouldn’t it be better to focus on those few harmed, and devote to compassionately helping them a tiny fraction of the billions we waste in the futile drug war?

Medicines like buprenorphine have been proven effective in treating addiction, enabling users to lead normal lives while eventually weaning them off addiction. Yet most addicts get punishment instead of treatment. One reason is because prescriptions for medicines to treat addiction are, perversely, even more restrictively regulated than those for addiction-inducing opioids!

The common theory of addiction is that drugs rewire the brain to now require them. Yet most people using opiates for pain actually don’t get addicted. Some do. Why? Hari finds it’s because the brain was already rewired, by traumatic experience, mostly in childhood. I recalled J. D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy, showing how a messed up childhood primes one for later substance abuse. It creates lasting emotional lesions, and a craving for something to palliate the hurt.**

There’s often an impaired ability to relate to and bond with others, a psychological hole which some fill with drugs. Hari quotes one user: “Addiction is a disease of loneliness.”

That addiction is more psychological and behavioral than chemical is proven by the fact that only 18% of those using nicotine patches — which provide 100% of the chemical — quit smoking. It was also proven by an unintended experiment where, for a while, Vancouver cops actually succeeded in keeping all heroin out. Drug dealers started selling fake heroin. Zero percent pure. And what was the effect on users? Zero. They behaved exactly as before. (Another stunning confirmation of the placebo effect.)

Punishing addiction only compounds people’s misfortune. Most use drugs because they’re already in psychological pain. And we act as though more pain is the remedy.

America’s opiate crisis is often ascribed to greedy pharmaceutical companies and over-prescription. But in fact, the problems begin not when drugs are prescribed but when they are cut off. Doctors are barred (with severe penalties) from continuing to prescribe opiates when someone’s become addicted. So then they must turn to the street.

And why do so many move on to heroin? Because it’s cheaper and easier to get. Hari explains an “iron law” of prohibition. Before alcohol prohibition, Americans drank mostly beer. After, it was 90% hard liquor. Because beer was bulky to transport, hence riskier; more inebriation (and profit) could be moved in the form of whiskey. Thusly does prohibition drive the market toward products with greater potency.

Many worry that legalizing drugs would increase usage. The evidence is actually mixed; but in at least one way legalization reduces usage. Addicts generally finance their costly habits through crime. What’s one very lucrative crime? Selling drugs! Addicts often become pushers, working to hook others. Lower the price, eliminating those salesmen, and drug use goes down.

In the end, the legitimate concern is with the harm of drug use, not its level. Legalization would eliminate all the criminality and violence of an illegal drug trade, the crimes by users, and the cost of battling them. All the social destruction of mass incarceration. And virtually all overdose deaths. They happen because street-bought drugs can vary wildly in potency, and are often adulterated and contaminated; and because clandestine usage impedes timely help. In those European countries where drugs are regulated, with safe injection places, overdose deaths are zero. In America: over 50,000 annually.

Yet more victims of the insane drug war.

* Confession: Though I turned 21 in 1968 — “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” — I’ve never been high.

** Not only does childhood stress affect brain wiring, maternal stress does too. Genes provide our blueprints, but “epigenetics” refers to how genes can operate differently depending on external cues. Exceptional stress during pregnancy causes epigenetic effects on fetuses — as if Nature knows that a child coming into a rough environment must be built differently than for a calm world.