Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Cultural lies — or partial truths? David Brooks, individualism, and communitarianism

April 25, 2019

“We’ve created a culture based on lies,” David Brooks says, and they’re the roots of our political problems. Hence we need a cultural revolution more than a political one.

Brooks is the best columnist of our time. Always thoughtful and thought-provoking; not stereotypically “conservative.” A pet theme lately is individualism versus communitarianism. Brooks sees them as oppositional and advocates for the latter over the former. Thus his recent column about cultural “lies.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/opinion/cultural-revolution-meritocracy.html)

Western societies have indeed entered an age of individualism (“hyper-individualism” Brooks says). That was not an option for most people in most times, given social and economic constraints. Conformism reigned. Those bounds were loosened by Enlightenment humanism — recognizing that what life is really about is for each individual to achieve fulfillment in his or her own best way. And giving many at least conditions of life that free us to pursue that happiness.

I celebrate this. I live it. Blessedly enabled to enjoy a good life according to my own conception — idiosyncratic though it may be.

Is individualism at odds with communitarianism, as Brooks keeps arguing? It can be. He’s right that in some ways individualism can go too far and undermine the social foundation for truly living well. Case in point: an anti-vaxxer, privileging her belief of what’s good for her kid over society’s good. Giving us an epidemic of measles, previously thought eradicated.

But the word that keeps coming to my mind — absent from what Brooks says — is balance. Neither individualism nor communitarianism is wrong. Both are good. We must balance the two. Healthy balance is, indeed, itself key to a good life.

Much of my own seems quintessentially solitary. I’m scribbling this essay lounging alone out on my deck, soaking up sunshine. I love this. Likewise, my involvement with coins, also very solitary. But not solipsistic. Most of what I do would be devoid of meaning for me if not embedded in a world of other people. What confers meaning on my numismatic doings is other people ultimately appreciating the coins. I write to communicate ideas to others.

Such balanced perspective is missing from Brooks’s catalog of alleged cultural lies. Here are his headings: career success is fulfilling; I can make myself happy; life is an individual journey; keep your options open; you have to find your own truth; rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

The last is a no-brainer. But none of the others is a lie; rather, they are partial truths. Nuanced by, but not refuted by, what Brooks says about them.

For each he sacralizes the social, with individuation subordinated to it. It reads as though he wants us all to live like bees in a hive. As though the Enlightenment and mass individual empowerment never happened, or were bad things. And we should go back to the conformism imposed by past constraints.

“Find your own truth?” Fine if your name is Aristotle, Brooks dismissively says; we mostly get our values from our societal context. And of course that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Does Brooks seriously suggest thinking for oneself is never good? And “society” is always right? What about all those Germans who swallowed the values of Nazi society?

“Career success is fulfilling?” A lie? Brooks claims his making the best seller list “felt like . . . nothing.” Well — it wouldn’t have, for me, as an author, but maybe he’s a saint without an ego. But such success can admittedly be empty if that’s all there is to your life, with no human connectivity. No one on their deathbed says, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office,” yet most aren’t sorry they ever went. Many of us do get much fulfillment from work, it gives our lives meaning —  in great part precisely because of its larger social context. Utilizing our abilities productively is empowering, but we also feel we earn our pay because the work contributes to some greater good. Isn’t that the very thing Brooks urges on us?

Similar points apply to Brooks’s other “lies.” They’re not lies but partial truths — for each one he ignores something important.

The fact is that social life is integral to human existence. Just like bees evolved for hive life, we evolved for group life. However, there’s a lot more to us than to bees, and while community does fill needs for us, we also have needs as individuals. They’re not incompatible. We can strive to fulfill both.

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Russia & Norway & Trump & Mueller & Truth

April 21, 2019

Russia has invaded Norway. That’s the premise of the Netflix series Occupied, recently reviewed here. Now we’ve started Season 2, eight months have passed and the situation is . . . the same. It does worsen, yet basically it feels like watching the same stuff just repeating.

Just like America’s political scene. Stuck in this unending psychodrama, each new episode seeming repetitive. Though it too does worsen. A year and a half to go.

This is what we tuned in for, in November 2016, and we can’t change the channel till November 2020. While our screens are filled with ear-splitting static.

Let’s cut through that and be clear about Mueller’s findings.

First, Russia did engage in a massive state-sponsored attack on our democracy. (We already knew this.) Whether it changed the election’s outcome is impossible to prove, but given its extent and the narrowness of Trump’s win, it’s obvious the Kremlin succeeded in putting its man in the White House.

Republicans — traditionally so anti-Russian — just shrug. And basically nothing is being done. Because Trump sees the whole story as a personal affront, undermining the validity of his “triumph.”

But put Russia aside.

The other story is obstruction of justice. Was Trump exonerated? No. Innocent? No. Was it a case of insufficient evidence? No. About this, Attorney General Barr’s summary and press conference were flagrantly misleading.

Mueller — based on sworn evidence and documented facts — proved that Trump, on numerous occasions, did attempt to obstruct justice. Note that the attempt, even if unsuccessful, is still a serious crime. And Trump was unsuccessful only because his orders were disobeyed.

The past two years saw much discussion of whether Trump would really cross the line and fire Mueller. Now we know he did direct his Counsel, Don McGahn to do just that. McGahn refused. (Trump is infuriated with McGahn for telling the truth.)

That’s just one point. There were others. And in addition to thusly abusing his power, to sabotage the Russia investigation, Trump (and Republicans and Foxers) have waged a two year smear campaign against not only the Mueller probe but the FBI, DOJ, and our intelligence services, as well as the press for reporting what turns out (no surprise) to be the truth, as documented in the report. This assault on the foundations of our democracy and rule-of-law continues, indeed grows even more hysterical as the evidence of Trump’s criminality mounts.

The report also makes clear that Trump’s White House is a cesspool of lies. (We already knew this too.)

Yet in spite of it all, 40% of Americans still support him. A profound sickness of our civic soul.

So why didn’t Mueller have Trump indicted for obstruction of justice? Not because the evidence was insufficient. The only reason, the report explains, was the Justice Department’s policy against indicting a sitting president. Nothing in the Constitution requires that policy. But it’s the sole reason Trump wasn’t indicted. So Mueller’s report says the responsibility now falls to Congress to fulfill its duty and act upon these crimes in the way the DOJ could not. Thus in effect Mueller recommends impeachment.

Of course, impeachment is politically impossible absent major Republican support. And Republicans are loyal not to America but only to the criminal in the White House (or are totally cowed by him).

Stay tuned for further episodes. As I keep saying: it will get worse.

Venezuela’s tragedy: lessons for America

April 18, 2019

Javier Corrales is the Dwight Morrow professor of political science at Amherst. I recently heard him give a talk about the situation in Venezuela, divided into three parts: what he called “democratic backsliding;” economic collapse; and lessons for America.

Corrales explained that the democratic decline preceded and led to Venezuela’s economic disaster. And he saw reasons for concern that the story could repeat even in well-established democracies like ours.

Corrales started with “Democracy 101.” America, in the 1700s, basically invented the modern concept of liberal democracy. (Not to be confused with the “liberalism” that’s a political orientation of some Americans.) It’s rooted in the Enlightenment, with government accountable to people, and limited, to prevent tyranny by either a minority or a majority. A key means is to divide power among different government branches to check each other, with constraints upon government as a whole to leash its authority.

For a time, after WWII, and especially after the Cold War, liberal democracy was spreading. But then came a “democratic recession” beginning around 2006. Notable cases are Turkey and Hungary, and of course Venezuela. What we see is not the “old fashioned” putsch, but something that more insidiously starts in ambiguity — what Corrales called “executive aggrandizement,” with other centers of power being neutered or co-opted. The picture may ostensibly seem at first more democratic, with a majority thinking they’re getting what they voted for.

Then the regime uses and abuses laws, and creates new ones, to make an uneven political playing field. Elections are still held, but they’re manipulated by a host of measures to produce the desired results. The ruling party becomes a rubber stamp cheering section. The opposition is demonized and delegitimized. Press freedom and public debate are suppressed.

Political scientists use a host of criteria to measure a nation’s degree of democracy. Corrales presented a graphic timeline of Venezuela’s scores. They started low, with a dictatorship until the 1950s, when they jumped to a sustained democratic plateau. Then in 1999 Hugo Chavez (a former would-be putschist) got elected president, and Venezuela’s democratic score fell off a cliff. (Corrales also displayed Cuba’s graph — basically flatlined since the 1959 Castro takeover — and America’s, starting high and rising higher through the period, but with a noticeable drop in the last few years.)

Another set of criteria encompasses all the specific ways in which undemocratic regimes subvert fair elections, and here again a detailed chart was presented for Venezuela. At the start of the Chavez era, voting was still pretty much fair. But then the regime utilized ever more of the measures on the chart, to the point where today, Venezuela’s voting is a cynical charade.

The manipulation became necessary because whereas Chavez was actually popular for a while, the regime’s popularity faded, and nosedived under his successor Maduro. This leads us to the matter of the economic disaster. Venezuela is an oil state; that is, almost all its national earnings are from oil. Chavez was the beneficiary of a big spike in the global oil price, and he used the windfall to buy off political support from the poorer classes. Then the oil price collapsed with the 2008 global financial crisis. As Warren Buffet said, when the tide goes out, you see who’s been swimming naked.

In Venezuela’s case, the regime’s economic mismanagement became tragically evident, plunging the once-rich nation into poverty, with an inflation rate measured in millions of percent, and a tenth of the 30 million population escaping to other countries. Corrales explained that Chavez not only imprudently spent all the oil windfall (saving nothing), but went deep into debt besides. While some of this profligacy did trickle down to the poor, most was frittered away through corruption and incompetence. None was allocated to investment to build the economy.

So Venezuela suffered from an unrestrained state — and that was combined with a restrained private sector. The regime’s “socialism” led it to regulate private business so as to destroy it. Thus food, medicine, and all sorts of other goods (which Venezuela, so oil-concentrated, used to import) have disappeared from the shelves. While the regime’s fiscal indiscipline brought forth hyper-inflation. It made things worse by responding with price controls and even more punitive anti-business measures.

Corrales rejected any idea that America somehow bears responsibility for Venezuela’s travail. To the contrary, he said, the U.S. actually helped finance the regime by buying its oil (now stopped). Meantime its oil income has plunged due to its mismanagement, stuffing the state oil company with political hacks.

We keep hoping Venezuela’s military will oust Maduro. After his talk, I suggested to Corrales it won’t happen because the generals too are profiting from the corrupt system. He agreed. So, I said, the only path is the opposition taking up arms and starting a war. He smiled and nodded (somewhat to my surprise). Then I added, “Some things are worth fighting for.” He smiled and nodded again (ditto).

The lessons here for America should be obvious by now. I have written about the burgeoning phenomenon of political populism (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/what-is-populism/.) Corrales said the world’s democratic backsliding is driven by populism, defined by its perceived political betes-noires. On the left (epitomized by Venezuela) it’s anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism. Bernie-style populism inveighs against “neoliberalism,” corporations, and the rich. Right-wing populism typically demonizes the intelligentsia, elites, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and crime. For both right and left, the stomping on hated enemies can excuse the stomping on democratic norms. (Many Western lefties still defend Maduro.)

Also obvious is Trump’s following the playbook Corrales outlined: executive aggrandizement, undermining governmental checks and balances, demonizing and delegitimizing opponents and the free press. We even see election manipulation, with voter suppression. All this is how it starts. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Notre Dame and humanism

April 16, 2019

I was surprised at my depth of emotion at the news about Notre Dame (initially it sounded like total destruction).

I’m a humanist, for whom churches are monuments to unreason. When I heard it mentioned that de Gaulle, after liberation in 1945, went to Notre Dame to thank God, I said he should have thanked America.

Yet Notre Dame is for me very much a humanist monument. A monument to Man the doer, and his soaring ambition. The builders may have been moved by a concept of the sublime that was mistaken; but created something nevertheless sublime itself.

A great monument of human civilization. That was what hit me so hard. More than tragedies with lives lost. Lives come and go, and all must end some time. But Notre Dame is unique and seemed eternal. So integral to the Human story, to lose it is unimaginable.

Part of Notre Dame’s heritage, and part of that story, is Victor Hugo’s great 1831 novel — always conjured for me by the cathedral’s image. Conjuring up the world of its construction, and the world of the 1400s that Hugo depicted — worlds so remote from ours, so benighted and cruel, yet way stations on the road to our better, more humanistic one. Reading such a book makes me grateful for modernity. Soberly mindful of how perilously small is the distance between that past darkness and the brightness we inhabit now.

I was an innocent child when I saw on TV the 1939 Charles Laughton film. Its beginning, that is; I couldn’t watch more, so freaked out by Quasimodo’s deformity. I’d known nothing of such things. I was repulsed, but in turmoil over what it might be like to bear such affliction. The image, and how I experienced it, remain with me six decades later.

As an adult I read the book. What Hugo did was quite extraordinary: portraying so outwardly grotesque a creature as nonetheless truly human. With feelings we can all relate to, if anything heightened by his deficits. How profoundly this broadens one’s take on what it means to be human, upon the human condition. How it moves one to grasp some kinship to even the most alien-seeming people. Whenever I think about the world’s unfortunates, I think of Quasimodo. If he could feel as he felt, what must they feel? No less than what I do; probably more.

The novel’s final chapter — with its searingly ironic title, “The Marriage of Quasimodo” — is indelibly inscribed in my soul. Lincoln spoke of “the last full measure of devotion.” That’s what Hugo illustrated here, with an image whose piteous power may be unsurpassed in all of human art.

This is why Notre Dame in flames brought tears to my eyes.

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Pete Buttigieg — Are we ready for a gay president?

April 14, 2019

Pete Buttigieg (pronounced Buddha-judge) is the young (37) mayor of an Indiana town (South Bend), running for president. Well, why not? Everybody else is.

There’s always an array of “dark horse” candidates, some in for the fun of it, the exposure, or delusional hopes. Buttigieg initially seemed to be such a case. But now he’s getting serious traction, because it turns out he’s actually a terrific guy.

 

You might think an unknown like him would try to break through by flame-throwing stridency. Buttigieg is doing the opposite. He’s been described as slightly left of Biden and right of all the other candidates trying to outbid each other for the zealot vote. Interviewed on the New Yorker Radio Hour, I was really impressed by Buttigieg’s calm, intelligent reasonableness. That itself is actually a shocker in today’s political environment.

Radical reasonableness — isn’t that exactly what we need, after a generation of howling scorched-earth partisanship?

Buttigieg does suffer from a weird name (sure to be the butt of jokes). Also, he’s married to a man. The American mainstream did come around to accept gay marriage. So how about a gay president?

Many thought we weren’t ready for a black one, but when it came down to it, the country in 2008 (enough voters at least) saw more important qualities in Obama than his color. It actually seemed almost immaterial; maybe even a plus (with some people seeing an Obama vote as proving they’re not racist). Would Buttigieg’s gayness fare similarly?

Obama did not run as “the black candidate” and tried to be reassuring to race-anxious whites. Similarly Buttigieg is not running as the gay guy. It may be politically incorrect to say this, but he’s not in-your-face gay, having no stereotyped gay mannerisms. He exudes normality. So perhaps, in light of the five-alarm dumpster fire of depravity that is Trump, Buttigieg’s gayness would look like a minor detail.

Still, with America’s very soul at stake in 2020, I’m concerned that Democrats cannot afford to lose any potential votes. That includes racists, misogynists, and homophobes. True, they’re nearly all Trumpers anyway. But maybe some can be persuaded to vote for a candidate who at least doesn’t wave a red flag in their faces. Running a gay one in 2020 would be a big gamble I’m not sure is prudent.

And if Buttigieg is elected, then what? With Obama, we first thought we’d entered a post-racial nirvana; but how wrong that was. There were plenty of legitimate policy reasons to oppose Obama, but in a lot of people’s hearts his true sin was governing-while-black. Those people went nuts. This intensified what was already bitter partisan division. With a Buttigieg presidency, the god-hates-fags folks won’t slink away under a rock. They too will go nuts.

It will be bad enough even with a plain vanilla president. For many people now just the label “Democrat” is virtually equivalent to “Satanic.” That alone will put them on the warpath. Trump won’t slink away either, he’ll keep tweeting, and the media won’t be able to take their eyes off the disaster scene.

So maybe this infection is really incurable after all, and we must live with it. Keeping it under control with medication — by, year after year, beating it down with our votes. Votes for what is good, decent, honest, and reflective of this country’s highest ideals and values. Making America great again.

Witch Hunt Politics II: “Tom Brokaw’s Racist Comments”

April 3, 2019

Recently I wrote of “Witch Hunt Politics.” And Joe Biden pilloried for a head kiss. Now, “Latinx Humanists Call for Action after Tom Brokaw’s Racist Comments” is a headline in Free Mind, published by the American Humanist Association.

First, “Latinx” is apparently a new politically correct gender-neutral replacement for “Latina” or “Latino.” I recall how first you were supposed to say not “colored people” but “Negro.” Then “black,” then “African-American,” then “people of color” (a strange throwback to “colored people”). It’s hard to stay correct. But isn’t that precisely the point? To wrongfoot as many people as possible.

So what were Tom Brokaw’s “racist comments?” Here’s the full quote (during a Meet the Press panel discussion): “Hispanics should work harder at assimilation” and “make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in their communities.”

That’s it — called “racist” and “unacceptable.” One advocate is quoted saying it reflects “ignorance of the struggles and accomplishments of the Latinx community.” The article goes on, “Brokaw’s inaccurate comments come despite the fact that for generations there have been aggressive efforts by both educators and parents to ensure more and more of the next generation are English speakers . . . Brokaw’s comments are indicative of xenophobia at play when immigration is only seen as valuable if immigrants ‘assimilate’ and speak English. English is no more American than other languages.”

Wait, what? How does this gibe? First they condemn Brokaw for urging that all Hispanic kids learn English. Then they indignantly insist they’re already doing that. Then they deplore the idea of it.

And Brokaw nowhere implied that immigration is only “valuable” if people assimilate. To the contrary, his comment bespeaks supportiveness for immigrants. This “xenophobia” charge says more about the mind of the article’s (unnamed) author than Brokaw’s.

The piece ends by quoting a Latinx advocate that Brokaw’s apology (itself never quoted in the article!) “was shallow and failed to acknowledge the inappropriate content and inherent racism of his remarks . . . his statements were factually incorrect and unsupported by data.”

Wait, what? Where did Brokaw make factual claims? The article asserts over 80% of Latinx students are proficient in English. Brokaw urged ensuring “that all their kids” learn English. All. No child left behind. Eighty percent is not all. What here is “factually incorrect and unsupported by data?”

It is indeed the attack on Brokaw that is factually incorrect. Throwing around words like “racism” and “xenophobia” like this is disgraceful. It’s the culture of Taking Offense, torturing someone’s words to somehow squeeze from them something to exploit for high dudgeon. Political correctness run amok. Many on the left talk universalism and brotherhood yet quickly demonize people for any deviation from their purity code. It’s really the age-old “us-against-them” syndrome; a tool for people to indulge in sanctimonious smugness, demonizing as many others as possible, to make the virtue zone they imagine themselves inhabiting as rarefied and exclusive as possible.

David Brooks’s latest column laments our era of “culture war, class warfare and identity politics;” of “call-out culture” and “tribal grandstanding.” That exactly characterizes this Free Mind article.

It’s especially absurdist to gin up such a contorted attack on a person like Brokaw when Nazis march with torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” and the president sees “very fine people on both sides.” Absurdist to tear down a decent man like Biden for gestures of support and encouragement to women when Pussygrabber sits with impunity in the White House.

I call myself a humanist. Free Mind’s article is a travesty of those rationalist values. When even a humanist publication betrays them like this, the country has gone nuts.

Biden, Lucy Flores, and “MeToo”

April 1, 2019

It started with Harvey Weinstein. Actually, no, it started a million years ago. Disgusting behavior by men toward women. The reckoning was long overdue.

Lucy Flores says Joe Biden, in 2014, touched her shoulder and kissed the back of her head.

Flores and Biden

Flores was running (unsuccessfully) for Nevada Lieutenant Governor. Biden had come out there to help her. His actions — in public, at a campaign event — were obviously intended as gestures of support and encouragement. A lot of thanks he’s gotten from Lucy Flores (now a Sanders enthusiast). She says Biden made her uncomfortable.

Too many women have suffered real ghastliness from men, abusive behavior, intimidation, outright sexual assault. Literal rape in Weinstein’s case. True victims. Those perpetrators deserve punishment and pariahdom.

Flores claims Biden’s touch made her uncomfortable? Know what I’d say to this lady? Boo hoo. Grow up. If this was a big deal for you, you’ve led a charmed life.

Flores & Sanders. Umm . . . what is wrong with this picture?

You want a perfect presidential candidate? Who’s never done anything anyone could question? Then find a hermit who’s lived in a cave his whole life. Biden’s lived in public, interacting with people day in and day out, by the thousands. Sometimes people can take things wrong.

The other day I e-mailed my daughter about a draft report she wrote. I was mostly laudatory (ending with “Bravo!”) but included a couple of language corrections. Focusing on the latter she angrily accused me of belittling her work. I was mortified.

That’s what can happen with interactions among imperfect fallible humans. Long ago I was on track to marry a woman — until I sent her something meant as a joke. She read it literally and freaked out. End of relationship.

Maybe that disqualifies me from the presidency. But if the Flores thing is Biden’s worst sin, he’s a goddamn saint.

Compare this: “I did try and fuck her. She was married . . . I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there . . . She’s now got the big phony tits . . . I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it . . . Grab them by the pussy.”

The contrast with Biden could not be more stark. He is about as good and decent a human being as you can find. May be the nation’s best hope for redemption from the depraved monster in the White House. For Democrats themselves to destroy him, over Lucy Flores, would be tragically insane. How ironic if “MeToo” winds up the cause of Pussygrabber’s re-election.

Witch hunt politics

March 28, 2019

Now the backlash. Accusing the accusers. Trump calling them “evil” and “treasonous.” Retribution time. A real witch-hunt. David Brooks says Adam Schiff, John Brennan, and other Democrats should apologize for “grievous accusations against the President that are not supported by the evidence.” (He also says Trumpeters should apologize for undermining America’s institutions. Fat chance; they’re drunk with triumph, which Brooks feeds.)

His headline is “We’ve all made fools of ourselves.” Not so. Trump makes fools of us (especially of his supporters).

I’m not apologizing. He has not been “exonerated.” If Trump and company did not “collude” they certainly connived with Russia’s attack on our democracy. And lied about it. If Trump can’t quite be nailed for obstruction of justice, he certainly tried hard to wreck the investigation; smearing the investigators with lies; firing the FBI Director and Attorney General in that effort. His tearing down our intelligence and law enforcement institutions did immense harm. And he refused to stand up for America against Russia’s attack, kissing Putin’s posterior in Helsinki. None of this was a “hoax;” its stench not washed off by Mueller.

But Brooks does make a trenchant point. Stepping back for a larger perspective, he says, “Watergate introduced a poison into the American body politic” — what Bill Clinton called “the politics of personal destruction” — rather than principled discourse. Now “you don’t need to do the hard work of persuading people to join your side.” You just aim to bring them down with scandal. (Republicans also try to block them from voting.)

While “[t]he nation’s underlying divides are still ideological,” Brooks writes, “we rarely fight them honestly as philosophical differences.” Instead of seriously debating opponents we demonize them as evil. They counter with, “No, you’re evil.”

So Hillary in 2016 was not attacked for her policy positions; Republicans smeared her character. Now we have a president whose character flaws and record of corruption are so incandescent they define our political situation. And how do many Republicans respond? “Hillary, Hillary, Hillary!”

In comparison it makes Animal House’s food fight seem like the Oxford Union debating society. But this is understandable. So much easier to convince yourself you’re up against rotten people than to grapple with the difficult complexities of actual economic, social, or international policy issues.

Am I guilty myself? Actually, I’ve devoted thousands of words to analyzing and critiquing the nitty gritty of Trump administration policies. Explaining my substantive disagreements, like with trade policy, tax policy, immigration, etc. True, I have also shredded his character and behavior (and that of his Republican handmaids). Because that goes to the heart of America’s Trumpian degradation — with huge repercussions for the quality of life of people worldwide.

Even Trump supporters ought to see how awful it is that, just when America was already mired in bitter partisan divisiveness, along comes a president whose actual unarguable moral delinquencies are off the charts. Considering how bad things were already, electing such a man was just asking for it. I was no fan of Obama, but given the venom heaped upon someone of such great personal integrity, what could we expect with a president of zero personal integrity?

And Brooks says “[t]he scandal culture hasn’t ultimately helped one party over the other. It’s just spread a corrosive cynicism that has disabled government altogether.” Recriminations over the Mueller/Russia story will afflict us for a very long time. Another rallying cry for each side. Each will think the other despicable. More poison making American politics — our civic culture — even more badly broken.

How to fix this brokenness should be the key issue for 2020. Fat chance.

A modest proposal: microchipping children

March 22, 2019

During our recent Iceland trip we learned they keep track of sheep using implanted microchips. We were familiar with this idea, since our cats have microchips in case they go missing.

Parents nowadays keep track of children using smartphones. But this is a very imperfect method, especially if kids don’t want to be kept track of.

Child abduction creates a big problem in today’s America. Not that abductions are common; to the contrary, abductions by strangers are so rare as to be virtually nonexistent. Instead, it’s the fear that’s the problem.

Human beings, even (otherwise) very intelligent ones, have a hard time evaluating dangers in proper perspective. Many of the biggest threats we scarcely even think about while obsessing over ones that are literally rarer than being struck by lightning. We have tied ourselves in knots in terror over terrorism (just look at airports) while every day we get in our cars and drive without a thought that highway death is at least a hundred times more likely.

Child abduction by strangers is even rarer than terrorism. It’s been calculated that, statistically speaking, you’d have to leave a kid out on a street corner for 750,000 years before it would happen. Yet it’s warped our whole style of child-rearing. When I was a little tyke, I walked to school, a goodly distance, through city streets, alone. No one thought this was crazy. Today a parent can be jailed for it. Some localities have found it necessary (and desirable) to pass “free range child” laws specifically to permit it.

But the great majority of American parents are still trapped in abduction phobia. The effect upon children is terrible. Over-protective helicopter parenting stifles a child’s development toward independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and a sense of capability. Children accustomed to living in cocoons of protection against an outside world seen as hostile and threatening cannot be expected to make their way in the world in a psychologically healthy way.

“Social trust” is the glue that holds society together. It’s the default assumption that people are likely to be trustworthy (and in fact the vast majority actually are). But we’re instilling kids with an opposite default assumption — to look upon everyone with suspicion. Polls unsurprisingly show that belief in the trustworthiness of people in general is declining. This is bad for the future of our society.

It’s no surprise too that we’ve seen this unfortunate mentality metastasize onto the nation’s campuses where, instead of exposing students to a diversity of ideas to broaden their intellectual development, we have a world of speech codes, “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings” aimed at shutting all that out. Treating kids as fragile flowers who can’t survive contact with reality.

But what if there’s a way to neutralize the mindset of fear that’s behind all this?

Microchips.

Implant all kids with microchips, just like Iceland’s sheep, and our cats. Then parents can keep track of them — really keep track, 24/7. Remember those ancient ads, “It’s 10:00 PM — do you know where your children are?” Now the question would be moot.

The great thing is that this would become part of the background operating system of life — unobtrusive, taken for granted, never even thought about. Quite different from the helicopter parenting that’s always in children’s faces. And parents would not be staring constantly at screens to track their kids either. Knowing that they could would make it unnecessary to actually do so.

And obviously, in the (extremely) rare event that the bogeyman does strike, this system for tracking children would make resolving such situations vastly easier and quicker. A “missing” child would be a virtual impossibility. And abductions by strangers would become even rarer than they are already — likewise virtually impossible to perpetrate successfully. Why even bother trying?

And so at last the bogeyman would come to be seen as just that; not something to be feared in actuality. And maybe kids could once again walk to school by themselves like I did.

Comments reflecting racism and partisan blindness

March 15, 2019

Two years ago, my blog post titled “Why so many blacks in ads?” discussed this as a cultural phenomenon. It became my most visited post ever, with over 27,000 views, and far the most comments, over 250 and counting. Practically all are overtly racist; many in the crudest terms.

I was frankly shocked. I suspect Trump has opened a door for this. You can see those comments here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/why-so-many-blacks-in-ads/

More recently I posted an analysis about the 2020 Democratic presidential field. Some comments (on my blog’s Times-Union page) are similarly revealing, about the tribalistic partisan blindness which also sorely afflicts today’s America.

One prolific commenter (“Albert”) predictably dredged up old crap about Obama and, especially, Hillary (not a 2020 candidate). A constant theme for these people is how Democrat “sore losers” supposedly can’t get over 2016; yet it’s they themselves who can’t stop obsessing about Hillary. Albert starts with Benghazi (!) and proceeds to a lengthy hyperbolic rant scorching Hillary’s “character, or lack thereof.”

In reply I asked his take on Trump’s character. He responded with 366 weasel words, all excuses to avoid any negative judgment of Trump and to wave away his misdeeds. What a stunning disconnect in Albert’s brain functioning between Trump and Hillary.

Then someone mentioned Charlottesville, and Albert spun another 356 words saying the problem was not with Trump’s “very fine people” statement, but his critics (“mind reading idiots competing to out-stupid and exaggerate”). And when another commenter simply listed other Trump travesties, Albert went to town witheringly mocking at length his “righteous moral authority to judge everyone else’s behavior.”

I’ve copied those four Albert comments here: www.fsrcoin.com/7.html. A window into how people can twist their brains, blind themselves to reality, and demonize anyone saying the Emperor has no clothes. What’s especially disturbing is that Albert is obviously not unintelligent; indeed, quite a glib (if overly verbose) word slinger. When it comes to confirmation bias, smarter people are actually better at confabulating rationales to convince themselves of what they want to believe, and to dismiss any conflicting information. Albert’s case is sufficiently extreme that it’s literal insanity. If he were a one-off, I’d ignore him. But this frightening pathology is a raging epidemic in Trumpland. It’s wrecking our civic culture.

I was a Republican for 53 years; considered myself very conservative; highly critical of Hillary on my blog. As 2016 began, I hoped for her defeat, and even contributed to one Republican candidate. Trump changed everything, and the party of my lifelong allegiance destroyed its legitimacy. His totally depraved character, amply documented by a mountain of facts in the public record, makes Hillary a saint in comparison.

John Maynard Keynes reportedly said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” In googling to verify the quote, I found this labeled “a rather minimal standard of intellectual honesty.”