Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Health Care: Let them eat cake

July 18, 2017

Democrats long caricatured Republicans as the party of tax cuts for the rich and callousness toward everyone else. Now Republicans have been working mightily to prove it true.

To quote GOP Rep. Raul Labrador, “Let them eat cake.” Or rather, “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.”

I’m frankly dumbfounded that here in 2017 — after all the attention to rising U.S. inequality, middle and working class struggles, declining economic opportunity, while the rich get richer — in the teeth of all this — Republicans would try to pass a bill so blatantly coddling the richest at the expense of the rest. Could they actually get away with it?

Note that I didn’t call it a “health care” bill. It was a take-away-health-care-to-fund tax-cuts-for-the-rich bill.

Maybe having become a Democrat, I’m beginning to sound like one. But I’m not one of those with a “Tax The Rich” bumper sticker. As if the rich aren’t already taxed, and quite heavily. About 70% of all income tax revenue is paid by the top 10% of earners; about 38% by the top 1%. So are they paying their “fair share?” You might argue otherwise, but it’s far from obvious. Nor do I believe the rich are the problem. It’s a fallacy to think they get their wealth at the expense of the rest. The answer to inequality is not to take down the rich but more economic opportunity for more people.

Furthermore, I happen to be one of those who would have benefitted from the bill (especially the original version repealing the “net investment income” tax). And my wife and I, being very healthy, would have welcomed repeal of the mandate and associated tax penalty.*

But despite all that, I was glad the bill failed, not only for the egg on Trump’s face, but because it was bad public policy. It would have worsened the division in American society. It would have done nothing to fix all that’s wrong with our healthcare-cum-insurance system. I don’t favor tax cuts for anyone given our ticking fiscal time-bomb. And people do die for lack of health care.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this extraordinary legislative project was the complete lack of any public advocacy for it. No effort was made to sell it to voters, who overwhelmingly opposed it.

Of course, Republicans were not promoting the bill on its merits because it had none. For eight years they raved against Obamacare, but never came up with an alternative, leaving it somewhat unclear just what was so awful about it — in truth it was mainly that Obama was a black Democrat. But now they had to come up with something. I’m reminded of how in fourth grade I tried to bluff my way through an oral report on colonial New York without any research.

The bill actually failed because too many GOP lawmakers considered it not cruel enough. Now they propose to just repeal Obamacare and worry about a replacement later. This is even more craven. They’d slate a two-year window to come up with a plan. What are the chances? Most Republicans went along with the now-dead bill only because they knew they’d look like fools if they fluffed their long-headlined pledge to repeal Obamacare. But once it’s repealed, that pressure would be off.

But at the end of the day, Trump’s voters don’t seem to care much about health care, not even their own. What most of them mostly care about is Mexicans, Muslims, and N——.

* I’ve seen mention that the IRS is not actually enforcing it, but an IRS rep I spoke to said otherwise. Does anyone know the facts on this?

My psychology re Trump: Crime and Punishment

July 13, 2017

This blog might seem to show a Trump obsession — “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” But I have explained that this is not normal politics, it’s a discontinuity, with huge long-term ramifications. Attention must be paid.

I acknowledge an emotionality to my blogging.* My love for America, and the values I thought it stood for, are deeply felt. Their being trashed elicits correspondingly strong emotion. I feel as if betrayed by a lifelong beloved — and also as if she’s been raped, defiled, degraded.

Throughout my half century of political engagement, I’ve had strong opinions about issues, candidates, and personages. But nothing like this. There’s an added element operating here.

Evolution endowed human beings with strong justice feelings. This enhanced survival for early people living in close-knit cooperative groups. Rewarding behavior good for the group, and punishing antisocial conduct, made groups work better. That gave us pre-installed bad behavior detectors, and desire for punishment of transgressors.

Knowing myself, my own justice settings are on “high.” (At eleven, as Nigel said of the amplifiers in Spinal Tap.) And Trump triggers them in a way no other American political figure ever has.** My politically opposing them never extended to seeing them as moral violators meriting punishment. In fact I always used to criticize that kind of attitude, and the demonization of political opponents, arguing that we’re all sincere in wanting what’s best for our country.

That was then. This is different. In demonizing Trump it would be hard to overstate the case. And for him I do want not just political defeat but punishment. I want to see him suffer for what he’s done. Cellphone shoved down his throat (or elsewhere). (That’s the self-censored version of what I originally wrote.)

He’s the poster boy for the ancient conundrum — why does evil prosper? A man who’s done nothing but evil, cheating and lying his way through life, screwing people, leaving a scorched earth of injured victims (yes, that’s his business history), and reaping nothing but rewards. Indeed, what this narcissist craves most is attention, and has anyone ever gotten more?

I was brought up to believe lies and cheating should be punished. But never mind all his business victims. Of course Trump’s damage to our country is the really grievous crime. His getting away with it all, being rewarded, flouts my sense of justice. Remember too why we have one — to keep society working properly. People seen to get away with crime undermines the very basis on which we all live together. This is a cancer on our body politic. Unlike with normal political to-and-fro, I feel things are now cosmically out-of-whack, as though what I understood to be the laws of nature are scrambled. Trump’s comeuppance would restore the order of the Universe.

The religious might say that evildoers get their punishment in Hell. It was exactly to assuage justice cravings like mine that Hell was invented. But of course that’s as big a lie as any Trump tells.

And most religious Americans actually think he’s doing God’s work. And that God imparts morality!

* But emotion is never actually disconnected from reason. I have written about this.

** Though many in other countries deserve the Ceausescu-Qadafy treatment.

July 4, Part 2: An Americanism booster shot

July 6, 2017

Every July 4 there’s a ceremony swearing in new citizens at Saratoga National Historical Park. Seeing one was kind of on my bucket list, and I decided this was finally the year for it. Frankly, I felt in need of a patriotic “booster shot.”

I’ve always gotten goosebumps from the National Anthem, and other symbols of the America that has meant so much to me. But nowadays they inspire unsettlingly mixed emotions, an elegiac feeling, because I see America going off the rails. A great sorrow at what’s slipping away. Yet an intensified determination to stand by it.

Hence this booster shot, a living manifestation of those cherished and embattled ideals. A gratifyingly huge crowd turned out. The oratory (seemingly in conscious challenge to contrary sentiment) emphasized how immigrants renew America. Nineteen new citizens, from fourteen countries, raised their hands and took the oath. I stood close enough to one (the guy on the right) to be the first to shake his hand, congratulate him, and welcome him to the fold.

Shortly after, at a table with voter registration forms, I saw another (the guy on the left) sitting and filling one out. “You’re not wasting any time,” I remarked.

“This is what it’s all about,” he replied.

I got my booster shot.

The park is the site of the 1777 Battle of Saratoga. My own iconic one is Trenton — Christmas 1776, when the Americans, beaten repeatedly and chased across the Delaware, defied fate by getting back in their boats, recrossing the river, and surprising the British at Trenton. It was America’s near-death experience. But it was Saratoga that really sealed the deal, with the Brits effectively done for. Here America won freedom.

At the Humanist party (photo by Wolfgang Kurth)

The ceremony began at ten, perfect for us to make the noon start of the Capital District Humanist Society’s Independence Day party. Another booster shot reminder that America is a wonderful country full of wonderful people.

And the eats were great too.

Our Gal in Amman (a continuing series)

June 28, 2017

Our daughter Elizabeth soon starts (another) new job, in Amman, Jordan, as project development officer with Right to Play, a Canada-based organization. She’s 24 and this will be her fourth gig already. Kids today — can’t they stick with anything?

She’ll now have worked in three different countries, for organizations headquartered in four other different countries.

She was in Jordan before, then Afghanistan, then Iraq; working for refugee-oriented outfits. Right to Play is different, focusing on giving disadvantaged kids educational opportunities emphasizing play and fun.

That might sound sappy in today’s troubled world. Not so. A lot of our pathologies, particularly terrorism and conflict, are rooted in people who are troubled. Maladjusted for productive societal life. And a couple of books I’ve happened to read lately* drive home how much that’s a product of adverse childhood experience. Children in difficult, dysfunctional, stressful circumstances are often doomed to grow into troubled adults; the kind who strap on suicide vests. Countering that syndrome by exposing kids to positive, life-affirming experiences is a very good idea indeed.

You save the world one person at a time.

* J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, showing how dysfunction is transmitted from generation to generation, by altering brain structure in childhood; and Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (a gift from Elizabeth) about the drug war, explaining how addiction correlates with childhood trauma.

“Cultural appropriation” (A Trump-free blog post)

June 17, 2017

A white author can’t write about a character who’s black.* A white artist cannot depict a black civil rights victim. And nobody’s allowed to argue otherwise.

It’s called “cultural appropriation” and it’s the newest gambit of politically correct grievance agitprop, sticking its finger in the eye of freedom of expression. As usual, it’s not enough for these totalitarians to argue their position. No, contrary opinions must be silenced and even punished.

Hal Niedzviecki was forced out as editor of the Canadian Writers’ Union magazine after defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds.

Protest against “Scaffold”

New York’s Whitney Museum created a storm for exhibiting Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, murdered by Mississippi racists in 1955, an image that propelled the civil rights movement. British artist Hannah Black** organized a petition for the painting’s destruction. And sculptor Sam Durant was browbeaten into destroying his own piece, “Scaffold,” honoring some Native Americans unjustly executed in 1862.

Is book burning next? At least they can’t burn my blog. (Maybe they’ll attack it with malware.)

The idea is that such “cultural appropriation” is racist. It’s no defense that the white artist was actually memorializing a victim of racism. Nobody can, from the standpoint of white privilege.

And “cultural appropriation” connotes theft. They’re saying Emmett Till belongs to blacks alone; no one else is entitled to him. As if a painting of him deprives blacks of something. As if a black character in a novel somehow robs black culture, pillages it. It’s akin to the belief, encouraged by certain religions, that being photographed steals one’s soul.

At one time, we had minstrel shows, Jemimas, and Sambos. Maybe that was “cultural appropriation,” mocking, demeaning, dehumanizing people. And maybe if that Emmett Till picture was painted by a Klansman, that would be different. But surely we’re not talking about anything of that kind now.

At one time, when segregation reigned, and black culture was walled off from white society, the cry was for integration, to break down those ugly barriers. Now they’re being rebuilt, from the other side. And students whose grandparents marched for the right to join whites in schools now demand to segregate themselves.

Yes, the issue is racism. That’s what the cry of “cultural appropriation” is.

In fact, “cultural appropriation” is a good thing. It breaks down barriers and opens doors. Cross-fertilization among cultures makes all of them richer and better. And it’s harder to have racist feelings against someone if they’re seen as part of your own culture rather than as “the other.” Pogroms, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, genocides, all result from people being otherized.

* I use this word as the best among bad choices. “African-American” doesn’t apply to all “people of color.” And the latter, besides being linguistically clumsy, is hardly removed from “colored people,” which those so described once found quite offensive. “Brown” might be more descriptively accurate but no doubt some would profess to find that somehow offensive too.

** Apparently her actual name.

America’s degradation

June 14, 2017

It always made me sick when anti-Americans (like Noam Chomsky) would smear the U.S. on human rights. Perfect we’ve never been. But compared to all other nations throughout history, none more nobly upheld fundamental human values. And our light grew ever brighter.

But now it’s dimming. This, today, is what makes me sick.

Marco Coello was a high schooler who joined a 2014 demonstration protesting Venezuela’s vile regime. Its President Maduro strives to crush democratic opposition while his insane policies make life a cruel misery for most Venezuelans. This is what Marco protested. Regime thugs seized him, jailed him, put a gun to his head, doused him with gasoline, beat him with various implements including a fire extinguisher, and tortured him with electric shocks.

After several months he was released pending trial, and with his father, somehow managed to flee to America. He got a job and started studying English. And he scheduled an appointment with Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) to begin the process of applying for political asylum.

The U.S. is obligated to recognize valid claims for asylum under a 1951 international protocol, as codified and expanded by the 1980 Refugee Act passed by Congress, which established procedures and set up what is now the CIS to administer them.

Asylum is to be granted when someone legitimately fears persecution in their home country, for race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group, and its government won’t protect them. In such circumstances the 1951 protocol obliges a nation to not return them to the place where they’d face persecution.

But never mind legal requirements. The U.S. being a haven for oppressed people is, well, who we are.

Correction: were.

Marco’s case, his lawyer thought, would be a slam-dunk. After all, his story was extensively documented in a Human Rights Watch report, and in one by the U.S. State Department itself, on Venezuela’s human rights violations.

Yet when he and his lawyer showed up for the scheduled CIS asylum interview, instead of being told “It’s an honor to meet you,” this torture victim was unceremoniously handed over to the ICE gestapo, who arrested him, handcuffed him, and threw him into a detention facility awaiting deportation.

This is Trump’s unspeakable degradation of our country. Hearing “Make America great again” makes me want to vomit.

(ICE’s pretext in Marco’s case was a misdemeanor on his record for parking on private property — seriously. He’s been released from detention after intercession by Senator Rubio, but still faces deportation. The story is detailed in the New York Times.)

Michael Gerson on Trumpian moral obscenity

June 6, 2017

Michael Gerson was George W. Bush’s chief speech writer and now writes for the Washington Post. A conservative Republican, he has unrelentingly called out Trump’s awfulness. Trump is a black hole of moral obscenity that sucks in and perverts everything and everyone around him. The Republican party has fallen into that black hole. A recent Gerson column (see below) shows this.

Trump says the press is against him. Yes, there’s a liberal media bias. But more fundamentally it’s biased in favor of truth, decency, and sanity. Trump assaults all three. So is the press against him? Not strongly enough, in my view. Mainstream media still employs a basically temperate tone, almost as though he’s just another president, as though “President Trump repeated his lie . . . ” is a more or less normal news story. It is not. It is the crash-and-burn of American civic culture.

Trump telephoned Philippine President Duterte to congratulate him for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” What is unbelievable about it is literally thousands of murders, outside the law; and that Trump would praise such moral obscenity.

We’re not supposed to blame his supporters. But I’ve had enough about how their feelings must be understood. They are ignorant fools conned by a con man. That was obvious long before November to anyone with open eyes. But Trumpites blind theirs with partisan paranoia. Voting for that vile creep was stupid irresponsibility that greatly damaged America. It is not being made “great again” but sunk in a sewer.

Here is Gerson’s column (my shortened version):

To many on the left, the embrace of Seth Rich conspiracy theories by conservative media figures was merely a confirmation of the right’s deformed soul.

Seth Rich and Hannity

But for those of us who remember that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were once relatively mainstream Reaganites, their extended vacation in the fever swamps is even more disturbing.

The cruel exploitation of the memory of Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was shot dead last summer, was horrifying and clarifying. The Hannity right, without evidence, accused Rich rather than the Russians of leaking damaging DNC emails. In doing so, it has proved its willingness to credit anything — no matter how obviously deceptive or toxic — to defend President Trump and harm his opponents — becoming a megaphone for Russian influence.

How could conservative media figures not have felt — in their hearts and bones — the God-awful ickiness of it? How did simple humanity get turned off? Is this insensibility the risk of prolonged exposure to our radioactive political culture?

But this failure of decency is also politically symbolic. Who legitimized conspiracy thinking at the highest level? Who raised the possibility that Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Who hinted that Hillary Clinton might have been involved in the death of Vince Foster, or that unnamed liberals might have killed Justice Antonin Scalia? Who not only questioned President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, but raised the prospect of the murder of a Hawaiian state official in a coverup? [Gerson failed to mention the wiretapping lie.]

We have a president charged with maintaining public health who asserts that vaccination is a dangerous scam of greedy doctors. We have a president who falsely accused thousands of Muslims of celebrating in the streets following the 9/11 attacks.

In this mental environment, alleging a Rich-related conspiracy was predictable. This is the mainstreaming of destructive craziness.

Those conservatives who believe that the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch is sufficient justification for the Trump presidency are ignoring Trump’s psychic and moral destruction of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Trump is doing harm beyond anything Clinton could have done, changing the party’s most basic moral and political orientations. He is shaping conservatism in his image and ensuring an eventual defeat more complete, and an eventual exile more prolonged, than Democrats could have dreamed.

The conservative mind has become diseased. The movement has been seized by a kind of discrediting madness, in which conspiracy delusions figure prominently. With the blessings of a president, they have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion. They have allowed political polarization to reach their hearts, and harden them. They have allowed polarization to dominate their minds, and empty them.

Conspiracy theories often involve a kind of dehumanization. The narrative of conspiracy takes precedence over the meaning of a life and the suffering of a family. A human being is made into an ideological prop on someone else’s stage — fully consistent with other forms of dehumanization — of migrants, refugees and “the other” more generally. This also involves callousness, cruelty and conspiracy thinking.

In Trump’s political world, this project of dehumanization is far along. The future of conservatism now depends on its capacity for revulsion. And it is not at all clear whether this capacity still exists.

Is liberal democracy really no better than communism?

June 1, 2017

Naturally I endeavored to impart my worldview to my daughter. Most of my lifetime was dominated by the struggle between communism, which I considered a great evil, and the West, whose fundamental values I have sacralized. This she knows well. And so it was as a kind of intellectual provocation that she gifted me with a 2016 book arguing that the system of liberal democracy is really, after all, not so different from communism.

It’s by Ryszard Legutko, titled The Demon in Democracy – Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. That sounded intriguingly timely when, as I have recently written, democracy seems to be going off the rails, with voters making all kinds of bad choices. Though “totalitarian” may be too strong a word; “authoritarian” is more apt. Such a temptation has indeed seduced Turkey; the author’s own Poland; Russia (albeit never a free society) seems drunk with authoritarianism (as well as vodka); and of course America’s electorate has pulled a monumental boner.

But the book does not try to explain these trends; its author has other fish to fry. Legutko is a Polish philosophy professor and former Minister of Education. He was a longtime opponent of the communist regime. But its fall leaves him sourly disillusioned. He hates the new “liberal-democratic” (his usage) dispensation as much as the communist one.*

Both he sees as more or less similarly ideologically oppressive. To his eye, liberal-democratic culture apes communism in ruthless enforcement of ideological orthodoxy — “political correctness.” I myself have written critically in this vein. But as a philosopher Legutko maddeningly writes in abstract generalities, virtually eschewing concrete illustrative facts. For example, one of his pet targets is feminism in all its manifestations. Yet for all his inveighing against feminist political correctness, he never mentions how Lawrence Summers fell victim to it. Nor any other such actual evidence to corroborate his jeremiad.

Legutko

Homosexuality is another of his pet peeves. The remarkably rapid evolution in societal mores vis-a-vis homosexuality has thrown a lot of traditionalists for a loop, and Legutko is one of them. He deems it shameful that what he considers good arguments against gay marriage (though he doesn’t actually recite them) no longer get a fair hearing. (I don’t think they’re good arguments, but thinly veiled prejudice.) But here too Legutko inexplicably fails to mention a perfect example supporting his case, that of Brendan Eich, ousted from a corporate leadership post for backing a California referendum against gay marriage.

Eventually, the author’s principal animus becomes clear. It’s what he sees as the “war on Christianity.” He actually uses those words, likening it, in “liberal-democracy,” to what he says were communism’s horrifying atrocities trying to exterminate religion. Legutko writes that “Christians are — and it must be repeated over and over — the most persecuted religious group in the world.” Seriously?

He calls separation of church and state an American peculiarity that shouldn’t apply to Europe. In a rare instance of concreteness, he cites the Lautsi case, where a European court ruled that Italy’s public schools can’t display crucifixes. Legutko decries the refusal of many governments, including his own, to join in an appeal (but fails to note that the ruling was in fact reversed on appeal).

Nevertheless, he says the case reflected “coldness to the plight of Christians and Christianity,” which he believes merit a privileged public position: “the religion that has been of paramount importance is being equalized with the religions that had no importance at all.” Legutko says Christianity is “not just a religion, but a vital spiritual element of Western identity.” It’s “the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology.” By rejecting Christianity, “Europe, and indeed, the entire West not only slides into cultural aridity . . . but also falls under the smothering monopoly of one ideology.”

Perhaps Legutko, in his fixation on Christian religion, has failed to notice that Europe and the West today, far from being ideologically monolithic, are in fact politically riven, polarized between radically different ideologies. As witness the French runoff between Le Pen and Macron, who agreed on almost nothing. This highlights too a crucial difference, that Legutko studiously avoids talking about, between communism and “liberal-democracy” — that is, the democracy part. Communist regimes, of course, conducted no such elections. That was true ideological monopolization. Legutko’s effort to equate the two systems is ultimately just ridiculous.

As for religion, he likewise fails to see a crucial difference. Whereas communism sought to defeat religion by force, Europe’s collapse of faith is traceable to a very different cause: the falsity of doctrines which people simply no longer believe. That waning of superstition is a good thing.

* Never mentioned in the book is Legutko’s affiliation with Poland’s reigning “Law and Justice” party — assiduously undermining Poland’s democracy and rule of law. It seems Legutko himself suffers from the temptation of his book’s title.

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.

Luther

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.

Locke

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.

Niebuhr

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.