Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Does the Second Amendment cover fake guns?

February 21, 2018

Dodie Horton is a huge Trump fan who felt his election restored America. She’s a pistol-packing gun rights enthusiast, and Louisiana state legislator. Horton was featured on NPR’s program, This American Life.

She’d been approached by some local law enforcement about what they considered a serious problem: fake guns, brought by kids to school, that look like the real thing. So Horton duly introduced legislation criminalizing that. Kids as young as kindergartners could face up to six months in jail for bringing fake guns to school.

There had been the famous case of the seven-year old suspended for chewing a pop-tart into a gun shape. School shootings have made us crazy. What could be crazier than banning pop-tart “guns” — but not military style assault weapons? Well, at least the pop-tart kid wasn’t jailed.

It didn’t seem to Horton that her bill was a crazy overreaction to the fake gun problem (if it is a problem). But she was devastated when her GOP and gun rights pals fiercely turned on her. She pleaded with them: This isn’t gun control! It’s fake gun control! Fake guns aren’t guns!

Nor was she struck by the incongruity of what she was saying. Fake guns? Lock ’em up! Real guns? No problem!

But the gun rights crowd did oppose her bill. Not because it would be loony to jail kids for fake guns — but because of the sacred Second Amendment. They were unmoved by the argument that it refers to “arms” and fake guns aren’t arms.

This American Life interviewed an NRA guy, asking him to explain how Horton’s bill could possibly transgress the “right to keep and bear arms.” After hemming and hawing, he finally said it’s not an actual violation of the Second Amendment, but the “appearance” of one.

In other words, they are so absolutist about gun rights that not even fake guns can be banned from schools — let alone real ones. Maybe I was wrong when I said the Second Amendment obviously doesn’t allow howitzers — or nuclear weapons.

This American Life. You gotta love it.

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Chris Gibson thinks we can put America right

February 11, 2018

He calls himself an optimist. He believes we’re on the wrong track, but can fix it.

After a 29 year military career, Chris Gibson won a New York congressional seat in 2010 as a Republican; then “term limited” himself in 2016, and became a college professor. Too bad, because the GOP sure needs such good guys.

Now he’s authored a book, Rally Point: Five Tasks to Unite the Country and Revitalize the American Dream. Sounds like every politician’s book. Nevertheless, my wife* and I went to a January 24 luncheon, hosted by the Times-Union newspaper, where its editor Rex Smith interviewed Gibson. I read the book.

Gibson feels the Republican party has strayed from its true conservative principles. (Some of his points echoed my own commentary in that morning’s paper.) He starts with the nation’s founding precepts, discussed with rare erudition and depth. For him the key idea is pursuit of happiness. He doesn’t mean hedonism, but invokes the ancient Greeks’ concept of eudaimonia, a life well lived; and psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, culminating with self-actualization. America was founded on the premise that government’s job is to promote such human flourishing. Really a revolutionary idea at the time.

Here Gibson distinguishes between America’s two chief ideological currents. Traditional conservatism saw government as a facilitator and referee, to enable people to thrive in their own individual ways (exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt and his restraints on corporate power). Liberals and progressives, in contrast, want a more activist government, seeking to achieve outcomes, regulating everything in sight.

But obviously that dividing line has become very muddled. Gibson harshly criticizes modern Republican hostility toward equal rights for sexual nonconformists, as violating true conservative principles. And the religious teachings so many Republicans profess to follow. Gibson’s watchword here is “love,” which seems absent from today’s Republicanism.

He worries about the nation’s fiscal future — a subject I’ve harped on for years. In brief, government cannot keep spending way more than it collects in taxes. We borrow the difference, and can borrow a lot, yet the limits will be sorely tested in years ahead as deficits continue growing; while interest costs eat us alive. The recent tax legislation, even if boosting growth, will add to debt. Fiscal responsibility is another bygone traditional Republican conservative principle. The whole nation now ignores the debt issue — sleepwalking over a cliff.

A further problem Gibson sees is legislative abdication in favor of executive and bureaucratic fiat. Successive Republican and Democratic administrations are each denounced by their opponents as abusing power in imposing policies undemocratically. Gibson says this undermines legitimacy and divides the country; whereas issues being instead resolved through legislative give-and-take stitches the country together.

Gibson is pretty good on diagnosis; less so on remedies. It’s the usual wish list: campaign finance, gerrymandering and lobbying reform; term limits; motherhood; and apple-pie. And a balanced budget amendment — oh, please. As if the nation could, like Ulysses, chain itself to the mast to resist the siren song of spending. (The latest congressional budget (busting) deal shows the two parties can happily work together to waive such limits and raid the Treasury.)

Gibson also feels the Republican party is redeemable, and can be hauled back to its traditional principles — which he even imagines can unite the country. More fantasy. My old GOP is now the White People’s Party; a zombie that’s undergone demonic possession. There’s no exorcist in sight. (Gibson never even mentions race or immigration.)

And Gibson stresses that citizens must insist that their elected officials act responsibly. When 38% back Trump no matter what, and American political life has become a partisan tribal bash-fest. How do we cure this? Nobody has a good answer.

It’s often lamented that only half of Americans vote; even less in non-presidential elections. Republicans cynically work to make voting harder (mainly for Democrats). That truly stinks. But will more people voting cure our political ills? Non-voters tend to be the least informed and engaged citizens. Their participation will not elevate our politics.

Gibson also decries moral decay — too much materialism; not enough communitarianism and religious faith; with reinvigorating the institution of marriage being vital for raising the kind of good citizens he envisions. He wants to reverse our sociological history. (And strengthen untrue beliefs.)

Further, he sees a need for real leadership (his emphasis) that can rally the nation to do what’s needed. Yet elsewhere he says a strong man is not the answer. “The man on horseback” myth I’ve written about. Trump said, “I alone can fix it,” and Gibson thinks Americans are wrongly attracted to such authoritarianism because we’ve lost confidence in our ability to tackle problems democratically.

But the book’s conclusion says that “historically the American people follow leaders who inspire the best in us and who treat people with dignity and respect. Americans believe in founding principles and our own exceptional way of life and ultimately will not give that up for authoritarian approaches.”

I would have said exactly the same thing myself . . . until “grab them by the pussy.” Too many Americans no longer seem to understand, let alone honor, the nation’s founding principles, ideals, and values, that Gibson is so eloquent about. Without a populace being invested in those ideas, they cannot endure.

Am I too cynically harsh? As I said at the start, the GOP desperately needs people like Gibson. If the party had more of them, I would not have left it.

* When I asked her about coming, her “yes” actually surprised me; but she’s a remarkable person full of surprises.

 

Upgrading to Humanity 2.0

February 4, 2018

Tech guru Ray Kurzweil called it “The Singularity” – when artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence – and starts operating on its own. Then everything changes. Some, like Stephen Hawking, fear those super-intelligent machines could enslave or even dispense with us.

But in my famous 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement, I foresaw a different trajectory – not conflict between people and machines, or human versus artificial intelligence, but rather convergence, as we increasingly replace our biological systems with technologically better ones. The end result may resemble those cyborg superbeings that some fear will supplant us. Yet they will be us. The new version, Humanity 2.0.

I call this debiologizing, not roboticizing. We may be made mostly if not wholly of artificial parts, but won’t be “robots,” which connotes acting mechanically. Humanity 2.0 will be no less conscious, thinking, and feeling than the current version. Indeed, the whole point is to upgrade the species. Two-point-zero will think and feel more deeply than we can. Or, perhaps, can even imagine.

This transformation’s early stages fall under the rubric of “enhancement,” referring, generally, to improving individual capabilities, via pharmacology, hardware, or genetic tinkering. This gives some people the heebie-jeebies. But every technological advancement always evokes dystopian fears. The first railroads were denounced as inhuman and dangerously messing with the natural order of things. A more pertinent example was organ transplants, seen as crossing a line, somehow profoundly wrong. Likewise in-vitro fertilization. The old “playing god” thing.

The fact is that we have always messed with the natural order, in countless ways, to improve our lives. It’s the very essence of humanity. And the “enhancement” concept is not new. It began with Erg, the first human who made a crutch so he could walk. (No doubt Glorg scolded, “if God meant you to walk . . . .”) Today people have prosthetics controlled by brain signaling.

A lot of it is to counter aging. Euphemisms like “golden years” can’t hide the reality of decline, always physical, and usually (to some degree) mental. We’ve already extended life far longer than nature intended, and make people healthier longer too. If all that’s good, why not strive to delay decrepitude further still – or reverse it?

And why not other interventions to improve human functionality? If we can enable the disabled, why not super-able others? If we use medicines like Ritalin to improve mental function for people with problems, why not extend the concept to improving everyone’s abilities? Through all the mentioned means – pharmacology, hardware, genetics – we can make people stronger, healthier, and smarter.

Yet some viscerally oppose all this, as a corruption of our (god-given?) human nature. Paradoxically, some of the same people are cynical pessimists about that human nature, vilifying it as a fount of evil. Is it nevertheless sacred, that we shouldn’t tamper with it? Steven Pinker argued persuasively, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, that humanity has in fact progressed, gotten better, and better behaved, mainly because in many ways we’ve gotten smarter. If we can make people smarter still, through all those kinds of technological enhancements, won’t that likely make us better yet, kissing off the ugliest parts of our (god-given) nature?

The idea of people being able to choose enhancements for themselves also irks misanthropes who see in it everything they dislike about their fellow humans. It’s the ultimate in sinful consumerism. An illegitimate “shortcut” to self-improvement without the hard work that it should rightly entail, thus cheapening and trivializing achievement. Life, these critics seem to say, should be hard. By this logic, we should give up washing machines, microwaves, airplanes, all those “shortcuts” we’ve invented to make life easier. And go back to living in caves.

A perhaps more serious version of their argument is that enhancement, taken sufficiently far, would strip human life of much of what gives it meaning. Much as we’ve progressed, with washing machines and microwaves, etc., and with health and longevity, still a great deal of what invests life with meaning and purpose is the struggle against the limitations and frailties and challenges we continue to face. Remove those and would we become a race of lotus-eaters, with an empty existence?

But consider that early peoples faced challenges of a wholly different order from ours. Getting food was critical, so they sacralized the hunt, and the animals hunted, which loomed large in their systems of meaning. Now we just saunter to the grocery, and that ancient source of meaning is gone. Does that make us shallower? Hardly. Instead it liberates us to focus upon other things. Maybe higher things.

The fundamental mistake of enhancement’s critics is to imagine life for a Human 2.0 by reference to life for a Human 1.0, when they will be as different as we are from our stone age ancestors. Or more so. Our future descendants, relieved of so many concerns that preoccupy us (and not detoured by supernatural beliefs), will find life richer than we can dream.

Of course there will be profound impacts – economic, environmental, cultural, social. Not only will 2.0 be very different, their world itself will be transformed by that difference. But with greater smarts and wisdom they should be able to deal with the challenges.

Our species is only a couple hundred thousand years old; civilization, ten thousand. Billions of years lie ahead. Thus we are humanity’s infancy. Adulthood will be really something.

 

 

Trump’s wall of caca, and DACA

January 30, 2018

First he lied that Mexico would pay for it. Now he wants $25 billion from U.S. taxpayers as a down-payment on his border wall.

The other night on TV I saw a row of different prototype wall segments. Here’s my sequence of thoughts:

While some Mexicans may try it unaided, illicit border crossing is not generally a DIY project. Most utilize “coyotes” who guide them, charging thousands of dollars. Making it a serious business. If you were in that business, how would you overcome a wall?

Forget tunneling — too big a project. But how about a cherrypicker — like power companies use to hoist up workers for tree-trimming? Could easily be modified to also lower migrants down on the other side. Of course this would be done under cover of darkness. How hard would it be? (A high-tech wall might have sensors to detect such activity; but birds would probably screw them up.)

Or how about a mini-helicopter — or simple small airplane? Flights would take only minutes; landing in the desert, and taking off again, would be a snap.

Or how about this cheap low-tech solution: a ladder. Lightweight, foldable, re-usable. How hard would that be?

That was about twelve seconds of thought. Is Trump capable of twelve consecutive seconds of thought? Will we spend $25 billion for something that can be foiled by a ladder? Or is this all just a cynical pander to his racist supporters for whom a wall is a powerful symbol — but who haven’t the brains to think of a ladder? (Itself a powerful symbol.)

DACA is the program allowing people brought here as children, unlawfully — the “dreamers” — to stay. Most are students or employed, contributing members of society. Polls show overwhelming majorities (even among Trump voters) think it would be cruel and dumb to end DACA.

In September, when Trump cancelled DACA and said he hoped Congress would restore it, I called that a lie* — the 1,578th of the 2,140 in his first presidential year (literally, according to a Washington Post compilation). Trump and the Grand Old White Folks Party are holding the dreamers as hostages. Democrats should not have played their game by linking DACA to the government shutdown. In the end they were forced to vote to end the shutdown merely in exchange for a worthless promise of DACA action, on which Trump predictably reneged. Now he offers DACA only for a further price: $25 billion for his wall, and a huge change in immigration policy, limiting family reunification only to spouses and underage children, which would ultimately cut legal immigration almost in half. This is the aim of racist Republican immigrant-haters.

These are terrible ideas; our economy actually needs more immigrants. These Trump immigration proposals should not, and never could, pass on their own. Democrats should refuse bundling them with DACA, and answer: if you’re sincere about DACA, then let’s vote on a DACA bill alone, which would pass; otherwise, DACA’s demise will be your criminal responsibility.

I believe in legislative compromise, and Heaven knows we suffer from a dearth of it. But Trump’s proposal isn’t honorable compromise, it’s extortion and blackmail. The ransom demanded for release of the dreamer hostages is way too high.

* Trump hates DACA for two reasons. First, it was Obama’s doing, and spite against Obama is a chief animus of his presidency. Second, most beneficiaries are (like Obama) brown-skinned.

China’s culture of corruption

January 25, 2018

We keep hearing how corrupt the U.S. political system is; this fueled the Sanders and Trump revolts. And the problem is real. It’s mainly that political campaigns are costly, and to get the money politicians sell themselves to special interests. (Yet it’s not true that money buys elections. Many well-funded candidates lose.)

China’s system is corrupt on a much deeper level. I say this not to dismiss our problem, nor out of anti-Chinese prejudice. But China looms increasingly large on the world stage – so we’d better understand it.

The Economist recently had an incisive review of Minxin Pei’s book, China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay. China’s government still owns around half the economy. And while government and party officials generally cannot actually steal these assets, they exploit control over them to enrich themselves. This is exacerbated by decentralization, giving local powers wide-ranging authority.

Government in America at all levels, while not owning assets, nevertheless does impact private financial interests – hence the “pay to play” culture mentioned earlier. But not only does China’s government ownership of commercial assets offer greater scope for chicanery by officials, it’s compounded by China’s very different culture.

Corruption, deceit, and bribery are endemic in every sphere of Chinese life. Getting anywhere is based not on what you know, but who you know – and who you pay off. Combining that culture with a decentralized system wherein officials control commercial assets is a toxic recipe for misfeasance on a grand scale. And worse yet, such exercise of power is not subject to liberal democracy’s checks and balances.

Thus, for example, public contracts in China don’t tend to get awarded without kickbacks. America awards lots of public contracts, but normally through transparent bidding, so Chinese-style bribery seems quite the rarity here. That reflects the profound differences in culture and checks-and-balances. We’ve recently seen just this kind of contracting scandal in New York State. What surprised me was that the culprits imagined they could get away with it. They were nailed by a federal prosecutor (Preet Bharara) who could not be bought off or politically manipulated. Nothing like that exists in China to deter similar misfeasance. And so, as Pei’s book documents, it flourishes there on a monumental scale.

It’s true that President Xi Jinping has mounted an anti-corruption drive, and some big fish have been caught, along with vast schools of smaller fry. Xi seems to realize that public resentment at the depth of corruption threatens regime and party survival. Yet his effort has actually targeted only a small proportion of officials, and its true thrust seems to be more a purge of ones not under his thumb, thus aggrandizing his personal power.*

Xi Jinping

The Economist says Xi’s crusade cannot reach the problem’s roots, which lie in the system itself. China needs democratic checks and balances, such as an independent judiciary, a free press, and political competition. (One should add rule of law.) Xi is going in the opposite direction.

Author Pei is pessimistic. Even a revolutionary overthrow of the regime won’t likely usher a dawn of liberal democracy, he says. Those who acquired inordinate power and illicit wealth will find ways to continue that. Russia and Ukraine are case studies.

America’s better system and culture should not be taken for granted. It’s worrying that ever fewer Americans understand it.

* In China’s system, the leader is supposed to have two five-year terms, then go. It now appears that Xi will ignore that limitation.

Why we need a free press

January 23, 2018

My local paper, the Times-Union, has a terrific columnist, Chris Churchill. Recently he wrote about the Edson Thevenin case.

Thevenin was driving drunk and recklessly in nearby Troy, winding up killed by eight police bullets through his windshield. A quick police investigation exonerated the shooter. Before that was even done, the local DA, Joel Abelove, also engineered grand jury non-indictment. Abelove’s actions resulted in his own indictment for official misconduct and perjury. All this was the subject of an investigation and report by the State Attorney General.

All duly reported in the news. But while news reports must relate facts dispassionately — and that’s certainly vital — a columnist can put facts in perspective. This Churchill did — devastatingly. It’s not just that the officers on the scene did bad, and lied. The whole department covered itself with shame. (Churchill’s column focuses only on the police. Maybe he’ll do Abelove later. Meantime, after I drafted this post, the paper also published a scathing editorial about the case.)

But my point is not about the Thevenin case per se. It’s how important it is to have the press, and guys like Chris Churchill, doing what they do. Local government tried to whitewash this case and cover up misconduct. The Times-Union and Churchill make sure the public understands. This is essential for government being accountable to the citizens it’s supposed to serve.

Hobbes

That is the nub of our social contract. As Thomas Hobbes elucidated, we establish government in order to make a good society. But that requires government having a lot of power, and it’s a constant struggle to keep that power from being abused, contrary to the reason we have government in the first place.

That’s not hypothetical. Indeed, throughout history and throughout the world, governments being so constrained are not the rule but the exception. The prime instance is America, but even here, it’s still a constant struggle — as epitomized by the police shooting problem. We give policemen guns to protect us, but too often people are shot who shouldn’t be. And, as the Thevenin case illustrates, a free press is critical for exposing, and thereby controlling, the problem.

Chris Churchill’s columns would, in many places — Russia, China, Venezuela, Turkey, and too many others — get him jailed (and likely tortured), if not killed. Though in such countries they wouldn’t be published at all. Those regimes don’t want to be accountable in the way that guys like Churchill make governments accountable. And America’s current president doesn’t want it either.

The press is not “the enemy of the people.” It’s the enemy of power abuse. The enemy of lies.

 

Albany Women’s March against Trump

January 21, 2018

I went to the local women’s march, at the state capitol. Didn’t relish standing in the cold for two hours during speeches (note to self: next time, double socks). But some things one must do. Of course, I’m not actually a woman; it was an expression of solidarity. There were many other males. I was stunned by the hugeness of the crowd (way bigger than the April March for Science). The speeches were actually pretty rousing; and while there was much to be angry about, a positive spirit prevailed. Everyone felt good being there. How much good it will do is something else. Hopefully, it will carry over to where it really counts, in this democracy: voting.

I noted that behind the speakers stood a statue of our first president, George Washington. What a wise and noble man, who did so much to truly make America great. The contrast against the current president was striking; a tangible symbol of how far the institution has fallen.

I got out the “Trump Disgraces America” sign I’d made for last January’s airport protest. There were many hundreds of home-made signs, many very clever, fun to see. The words “shit hole” duly appeared. And the prize goes to . . . a cartoon of Trump and “Does this ass make my country look small?”

A nation of losers

January 18, 2018

America has long been embroiled in cultural and ideological wars, which if anything are intensifying. So — who’s winning? Nobody, if you listen to either side.

The left’s social justice warriors see the system as rigged by retrograde forces and for the rich against the rest; controlled by corporations and fatcats whose money buys politicians and power. They see an incorrigibly racist and homophobic nation too.

The right inhabits a mirror-image country: seen as coddling ethnic minorities, foreigners, and sexual deviants, controlled by a corrupt establishment selling out the nation’s interests and traditional values.

In other words, both sides see themselves as losing. Victimhood becomes an increasingly popular mindset. Columnist David Brooks notes a poll showing 64% of Americans see their group as losing most of the time. He calls it a “siege mentality” — which can actually feel kind of good. Like you’re a noble warrior making a stand against evil. Us against the world!

This actually explains a lot, especially about the right, which might otherwise seem puzzling. How could fundamentalist Christians countenance Trump’s lies, grotesqueries, and even “grab them by the pussy?” Or Roy Moore’s pedophilia? Brooks’s take: “When our very existence is on the line, we can’t be worrying about things like humility, sexual morality, honesty and basic decency. In times of war, all is permissible. Even molesting teenagers . . . .”

It helps if you can close your eyes to reality, telling yourself Trump doesn’t lie, it’s the news media (part of the establishment conspiracy) trying to do him down. And that even Roy Moore was a good, godly man, victimized by fake news.

Brooks laments that such attitudes only serve to marginalize their holders even more; so they don’t merely imagine themselves as losing, they really are losers. He adds that contempt for such people (“basket of deplorables”) also feels good — “But contempt only breeds contempt.” We should instead give each other the benefit of the doubt, he concludes.

I admit to the kind of contempt Brooks describes. Indeed, schadenfreude about Moore, pumping my fist when learning of another accuser, and of course when he lost. Yet I am deeply saddened and disturbed that so many of my fellow citizens’ heads are so far up their rears. Brooks calls for meeting them “with confident pluralism.” And after all, I did write a book touting “rational optimism.” But it’s hard to see how America rises out of this swamp. A nation full of people seeing themselves as losing is a nation of losers.

Idiocracy: The Death of Expertise

January 9, 2018

Our pockets hold a device to access all the information in the world. We use it to view cat videos. And while the sum of human knowledge grows hyperbolically, and we’re getting more education than ever, the average American’s ignorance is rising.

This is the nub of Tom Nichols’s 2017 book, The Death of Expertise. (Nichols is a professor and foreign affairs wonk.) Expertise itself isn’t dying — it’s being rejected.

Take vaccination. Expert, knowledgeable, responsible opinion is clear about its benefits, and the baselessness of fears about it. They began with a fraudulent “study” by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, that was authoritatively debunked. Wakefield’s medical license was even revoked. That hasn’t stopped the nonsense, still spewed by irresponsible people like former Playboy pin-up Jenny McCarthy. Too many listen to her rather than the medical establishment, and refuse vaccination. Result: children dying of illnesses previously almost eliminated. (See my commentary on a previous book, Denialism; it also discusses the similarly misguided (and likewise deadly) campaign against GM foods.)

Civilization is grounded upon division of labor and specialization of function. We have doctors who doctor and plumbers who plumb, with arcane expertise not possessed by the mass of others. This is how airplanes are engineered and flown. We trust such experts to do these things. Nobody would imagine they could build and fly a plane equally well. Yet plenty do somehow imagine they know better about vaccination than the experts.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” That old saw is weaponized by the internet, spreading what might appear to be “knowledge” but actually isn’t. While previously, discourse about matters like science or public policy was largely confined within intellectual ghettoes, those walls have been blown down.

Anti-intellectualism and magical thinking have long afflicted American culture. Worse now, many people, fortified by a college degree, deem themselves their own intellectual experts. But Nichols, who delves deeply into the subject, says going to college is not the same as getting a college education. Students arrive there already spoiled by the coddling of helicopter parents, giving them an arrogant attitude of entitlement. (I can’t count how often I’ve heard that word, “entitlement,” spoken by professionals discussing interactions with young people.)

Schools find themselves forced to surrender to this ethos, with fluff courses, “safe spaces” against intellectual challenge, feelings allowed to trump facts, and gradeflation to flatter fragile egos. “When college is a business, you can’t flunk the customers,” Nichols says. Critical thinking? Rational discourse? Forget it.

The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Thusly stepping back to see oneself objectively is metacognition. Such humility is fading from America’s narcissistic culture, where college makes people imagine they’re smart without giving them the tools to recognize their own deficiencies (or deficiencies in the “information” they imbibe). Anti-vaccine madness is more rampant among the college-educated than the uneducated.

Social science actually has a name for this phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger effect. Most people think they are (like all Lake Wobegone children) above average. Those who don’t understand logic don’t recognize their own illogicality. They don’t actually understand the concepts of knowledge and expertise.

It’s an irony that in the past, with far fewer people “educated,” there was more respect for education, expertise, seriousness, and indeed facts. A less educated past America would never have tolerated the lies and vulgarities of a Trump.

But there’s also the cynical feeling that experts and elites have their own self-serving agendas and have led us astray. Look at the Vietnam War; the 2008 financial crisis. Nichols addresses at length the problem of expert error. But he invokes the old conundrum of a plane crash getting headlines while thousands of daily safe flights are just taken for granted. In fact, everything about modernity and its benefits — medical science, air travel, and so much else — is the work of experts. If they weren’t generally very good at it, planes wouldn’t fly. You would not board one staffed by a bunch of Joe Sixpacks. Experts can be wrong, but is it likelier that Jenny McCarthy is right about vaccines?

“Rocket science” is used as a metaphor for extreme expertise. I recently saw a TV documentary about the Hubble Space Telescope* — which, after launch, didn’t work, a huge bungle by experts. But even more striking was how, against all odds, NASA people managed to figure out, and execute, a fix. Expertise more than redeemed itself.

Another factor in the shunning of expertise is a rising ethos of individualism and egalitarianism. It’s the idea that you — and your opinions (however derived) — are as good as anyone else and their opinions (expertise be damned). Nichols thinks Americans misunderstand democracy, confusing the concept of equality of rights with actual equality, and equal validity of all opinions. Yet at the same time there’s a refusal to engage in a serious way with the public sphere — “a collapse of functional citizenship.” Democracy is corrupted if voting isn’t based on a grasp of facts that are actually facts.

I keep mentioning confirmation bias because it’s such a big factor. We welcome information that seemingly validates our pre-existing beliefs, and insulate ourselves against anything contrary. Smarter, educated people are actually better at constructing such rationalizations. And modern media facilitates this cherry-picking; we embed ourselves in comfortable cocoons of confirmation.

Declining trust in experts is part of a larger trend of declining social trust generally. Polls show a belief that other people are getting less trustworthy (for which there’s no evidence). Mainstream news has been a victim of this. Many Americans don’t know who to believe. Or, worse, their cynical lapse of confidence, in conventional repositories of trust, paradoxically leads them to swallow what should be trusted least. Like all that garbage from the internet — and the White House.

So rejecting input from real experts opens a field day for phony ones. The Jenny McCarthys, conspiracy freaks like Alex Jones, not to mention legions of religious and spiritualist frauds. Nichols cites Sturgeon’s law (Theodore Sturgeon was a sci-fi writer): 90% of everything is crap.

The ironies multiply. Trump’s election, and the Brexit vote too, were revolts against experts and elites, seen as lording over common folk. Yet those voters have delivered themselves, gift-wrapped, to the not-so-tender mercies of a different gang that exploits their ignorance and credulity for its own bad ends.

Americans are losing their grasp of the nation’s founding ideals and values (no longer taught in schools). Without such understanding, those principles cannot be sustained. Nichols sees a “toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism, and cynicism that Americans now wear like [a] full suit of armor against . . . experts and professionals.” This, he says, puts democracy in a “death spiral” as disregard for informed expert viewpoints (and, one might add, just plain reality) produces ever worse results in the public sphere. This embitters citizens even more.

I’ve always seen a dichotomy between the smartest people, who really understand and know things, and the rest of humanity. And it’s only the former — maybe 1% of the species — at the far end of the bell curve of cognitive ability — who actually run things. Who are indeed responsible for all we’ve achieved. Literally all. Without that 1%, we’d still be in caves.

* A picture in that documentary included someone who was at my last birthday party!

What is populism?

December 28, 2017

“Populism” is the political word du jour. America has its first president so labeled, and “populist” parties are thriving throughout Europe. What exactly does “populism” mean?

It (like the word “popular”) comes from the Latin “populus,” meaning “people.” During the Roman Republic, politics was divided between “Populares” and “Optimates;” not organized parties as we know them, but factions. The Optimates (“best ones”) represented the elites and the status quo; the Populares, as the name implies, aimed to represent the interests of the common folk.

“Populism” connotes the people ruling and getting what they want. Of course, all democratic politics is supposed to entail the people (a majority) having their way, that’s what voting is all about. But today’s populism reflects a notion that somehow “the people” have not been getting what they want, because the system is rigged against them by elites, who have to be pulled down. A theme of both the right and left.

America had a “People’s Party” in the late 1800s, also called “Populist,” whence we get the modern usage. Those Populists too stood against the elites, representing mainly farmers. One of their key policies was free silver coinage, championed by William Jennings Bryan (“you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”). This might seem an arcane issue, but it was really about “easy money” and favoring debtors (mostly farmers) against creditors. It was at least a coherent and basically rational program which, if enacted, would have achieved its stated aims.

Sigmund Freud divided the mind among the super-ego, the rational moral cogitator; the id, the primal instinctual unconscious; and the ego which pragmatically mediates between them. Modern populism is id-based politics — the politics of the gut, not the brain. Emotion does have a legitimate role, of course, indeed it’s an inextricable part of our functioning. But it has to be moderated by our higher executive intellect. Otherwise the result is policies which are not coherent and rational, often actually running counter to the ostensible objectives.

This is epitomized by modern populism’s xenophobia, racialism, and economic nationalism. They manifest in hostility toward immigrants, toward ethnic and cultural diversity, and toward free trade. And in favor of misguided and counterproductive policies that will not “make America great again,” but worse. Likewise Britain’s vote to leave the European Union — quintessential populism. This is the id, not reason, in charge.

“Optimates” versus “populares” type class conflict is actually an eternal political phenomenon. But in America, until recently at least, the elites were seen to have a certain moral authority, were accorded a certain deference, were looked to for guidance. The nation had a sense of common purpose. However, all that has been eroded by a populist ethos of egalitarianism and individualism, with Joe Sixpack deeming himself equal, and maybe even in a down-to-earth way superior, to the “optimates.” And woe betide any “leader” who tells him nay. Politicians are cowed from making the case for anti-populist policies like liberal immigration and free trade.

But true leaders like Lincoln, FDR, and JFK summoned Americans to their highest values, ideals, and aspirations. “The better angels of our nature.” In contrast, today’s populism — Trump’s populism — panders to and enflames our baser nature. Appealing to the id, our primal engine of raw instinct, rather than our rational moral minds. Trump’s America is not a shining city on a hill, but a squalid slum in a swamp.