Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Now it really begins: the end of our democracy

October 14, 2018

The National Park Service is proposing to charge protesters for demonstrating in the nation’s capital.

You read that right: a fee, levied by the government, upon free speech. In the nation formerly known as America.

Recently, here in Albany, there was a demonstration by The Poor People’s Campaign. Which was then handed a $1400+ bill, by the city, for the cost of police keeping order at the event.

I wrote to Mayor Kathy Sheehan, expressing outrage. I am not a supporter of the The Poor People’s Campaign. But the idea of government charging anybody for exercising freedom of speech is an insult to the First Amendment. Free speech is not free if there’s a charge for it! I pointed out that keeping order at public demonstrations is a normal police function, that’s part of why we pay taxes to have a police force.

Sadly, I got no reply.

Now the Trump administration aims to apply the same idea to protests in the capital (for starters). Perhaps predictably, with Trump calling the opposition party an “angry mob.” Demonstrators will now have to pay the cost of police keeping order. The bills will be sizable; the obvious intent is fewer protests. (Maybe people should be charged too for 911 calls, to keep down their numbers also.) And how nice it would be if the regime, I mean the government, could go about its work without pesky citizens getting in the way with annoying protests. How nice if newspapers and screens were not filled with images of “angry mobs” making their opinions known. Criticizing the president and everything.

This is how democracy is snuffed out.

Click here to sign an ACLU petition against the Park Service proposal. And click here to submit a comment directly to the Park Service, until the close of business Monday.

There is no charge for such public comments. Yet.

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Secular Rescue – saving lives, freedom, and open debate

October 10, 2018

Religion can inspire good deeds. Or killing people with machetes.

This is happening today, notably in Bangladesh, where organized vigilantes target and murder dissenters from Muslim religious orthodoxy, particularly secularist and atheist writers, bloggers, and activists. While the government hardly pretends to disapprove.

The West has its own history, of course, of religious intolerance, persecution, and violence. The Inquisition tortured people for God. Untold numbers were burned at the stake (including philosopher Giordano Bruno who, unlike Galileo, refused to recant his ideas contrary to church dogma). The Thirty Years War, a conflict over theology, killed a third of Europe’s population. Even in America, Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston Common for holding the wrong faith.

But in the West, religion finally calmed down, became domesticated, and nobody here any longer imagines burning people alive for God. My local humanist society meets openly, unmolested, even advertising its nonreligious orientation.

That would not be possible in most Muslim countries today. This actually represents retrogression, because in past epochs Muslims were much more tolerant of religious heterodoxy; but they’ve gone in the opposite direction from the Christian West. There’s no church/state separation. In many Muslim nations, “apostasy” carries a death sentence. (In Pakistan “blasphemy” does. Pakistan has not actually executed anyone for blasphemy, but over 60 people accused of it have been murdered.)

If you read the Koran (here’s my review), its number one theme is nonbelievers will be punished. Repeated on almost every page. But some Muslims today can’t wait for God to do the punishing. They think they’re doing his work for him. A small minority of Muslims, actually; but it doesn’t take many to perpetrate an awful lot of violence.

I am a fearless blogger. Not courageous — but literally fearless because I have nothing to fear in America’s paradise of free expression. I wouldn’t have the courage to do this in a place like Bangladesh, risking machetes.

Some show bravery in battle, for their country or comrades; some in defending their families. But the courage we’re talking about here — for an idea — is of a very special sort. I’m in awe of these noble heroes.

And I’m proud to support them, with money at least, by funding Secular Rescue, a program run by the Center for Inquiry (a leading organization promoting secular humanist values). The program assists, defends, and protects writers under threat for expressing viewpoints that challenge local religious orthodoxies, mainly in Muslim countries. It provides tangible help, such as legal services, and even relocating them to safer places — a kind of “underground railroad.” Secular Rescue works very hard to evaluate and verify cases, to make sure the people helped are truly in danger. All that work, and the help itself, costs money.

I will match contributions to Secular Rescue by any of my blog readers (click here).

This is not just a matter of freedom of expression — increasingly important though that is in today’s world. Open debate is crucial for moving any society forward. But it’s especially urgent for the nations in question because they do harbor the kinds of pernicious beliefs that bring forth the sort of violence described. These Muslim societies are in need of an Enlightenment, like the one in the West that ultimately tamed religious persecution, and opened the path for human progress in so many other manifold ways. That sort of progress requires people with the vision and courage to challenge reigning orthodoxies. That sort of progress cannot happen if such people are silenced, intimidated by violence, squelching free debate. Not only the lives of these brave individuals, but these societies’ futures, are at stake. That is the importance of Secular Rescue.

One nonbeliever in a Muslim country was not killed but was actually diagnosed as insane by its medical establishment, forcibly hospitalized and “treated” for his “affliction.” I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode where a gal undergoes surgery for her ugly facial deformity. But when, in the hospital, the bandages come off, it’s a failure — she’s still (in our eyes) beautiful, in contrast to all the “normal” people around, only now revealed as (to us) grotesque.

Atheism is the sane, rational understanding of a cosmos whose observable reality is wholly at odds with religious ideas. Those ideas would be called insane, delusional, if held only by a few; but when held by the many, they are normal. But that nonbeliever may have been the only truly sane person in that Muslim nut house.

Religion, politics, and abortion

October 7, 2018

A piece by “writer and consultant” Jacob Lupfer on my local paper’s “Faith & Values” page talked mainly about political independents. But this got my attention:

“For decades, scholars and practitioners agreed that religion was the causal factor that shaped political behavior. New research upends that assumption: Partisanship affects religiosity. It is a foundational social identity, driving rather than flowing from values and attitudes . . . people bring their religious beliefs in line with their party . . . Instead of assuming that Christianity is their primary loyalty, we should see evangelicals as Republicans first who toss religious values aside to accommodate their Trump support.”

I have previously written of polling research showing that political tribalism has become the salient one in shaping felt personal identity in today’s America, even more powerful than religious tribalism. But that doesn’t mean the former drives the latter. As though being a Republican Trumpeter causes you to be an evangelical Christian. I still think the causation runs the other way, even if the resulting political identity does turn out to be the more powerful.

But that’s not to say, either, that their Republicanism mirrors their religious values. That might have been more true in past times, when what the Republican party represented did align better with what Christianity supposedly stands for. However, Trump has shattered that correspondence, representing, really, the antithesis of traditional Christian values. Yet he retains their allegiance; indeed more strongly than any previous Republican leader.

Why? Because today, again, it’s the political tribal identity that rules as never before. Even superseding the actual content of the beliefs. What Trump and Trumpism actually represent do not, in the final analysis, matter that much. It transcends that sort of rationality. It’s more simply us-against-them.

So how does one get sucked into such a tribe in the first place? I increasingly think it’s more psychological than political or ideological, having a lot to do with self-image. How guys see themselves. In a word, macho. There’s a notion that Democrats are the party of weakness, Republicans the strong party. Democrats the party of snowflakes and pussies; Trump’s the party of pussy grabbing. Even some women voters are susceptible to such attitudes. This partly explains why “grab them by the pussy” didn’t destroy Trump’s candidacy. The macho factor outweighed the ewww factor.

Hillary’s gender didn’t help; it fed into the idea of Democrats as the girlie party. And the Kavanaugh drama was in part about men pushing back against what some of them see as an emasculating war upon them.

And, of course, there’s also the white tribe against the browns.

But religious affiliation does play a big role too. Fundamentalist Christians, by and large, were fundamentalist Christians before they were Republicans; and certainly before they were Trumpers. And if you are deeply embedded in a social milieu full of fellow fundamentalists, most of whom are also Republican tribalists, that will naturally be your tribe too.

In this way, the religious and political tribal identities reinforce each other. They meld together into one overall outlook upon the world. Never mind any internal contradictions (don’t ask WWJD about separating immigrant children from parents). Rationality is again dispensable. It’s the tribe uber alles.

And there is this consistency: the ability to seal oneself off from reality and inhabit instead a make-believe world. One created 6,000 years ago, ruled by a benevolent God, wherein evolution didn’t happen but Noah’s flood did (don’t ask why so many innocent people and animals were drowned), with final justice administered in Heaven and Hell. If you believe all that, it’s but a small further step into the world of Fox News, where Trump is a truth-telling champion of Christian values, making America great again in the face of a deep state conspiracy witch hunt.

Yet the political behavior of fundamentalists might seem rational in relation to one big issue: abortion. Their final line in the sand, after having irretrievably lost on a wide range of social issues, like gay marriage. And on abortion they might actually now be close to a big victory, rolling back Roe v. Wade. But what shall it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his soul?

They see abortion as a key moral issue. But it’s become such an obsession, fogging their minds, that they lose sight of the bigger picture. Even if they were right about abortion (and they do have a point, albeit carried too far) — with everything else going on in today’s huge complex fraught world — is abortion really the number one issue? Many seem more concerned for the potential human life in a fertilized egg than the lives of actual living human beings (like the 30,000+ Americans killed annually by guns). As if “right to life” is only for the unborn.

And there really is a much bigger moral issue than abortion. Is winning on abortion worth the price of damaging the Supreme Court as a pillar of our civic life, our bastion of impartial justice, sullying it with a stink of political and religious partiality (not to mention of beer and attempted rape)? Worth handing the leadership of the nation to a monster of depravity? Worth complicity in his assault upon truth, decency, and everything good and great about America? Worth blinding yourself to it all? Worth losing your soul?

(Cartoon by Matson. Pillars labeled “Gorsuch” & “Kavanaugh”

Thomas Friedman’s latest column warns that scorched earth politics is heading us toward literal civil war. He says a Rubicon was crossed when Republicans trashed norms of democratic governance by stealing a Supreme Court seat. Yet that didn’t stop their shamelessly vilifying Democrats for holding up the Kavanaugh nomination. Our tribe’s always right; the other evil.

They vaunt the “right to bear arms,” as supposed protection against tyrannical government. What will unfold in 2020 if they lose power — and believe that somehow illegitimate?

The Anti-Trump Albany Book Festival

October 4, 2018

This event, put on by the wonderful New York State Writers Institute, was not really political. But nobody would read this if I just titled it “Albany Book Festival.” And in fact it says a lot about our times how politics did inevitably color these proceedings. There’s no escaping America’s current crisis of the soul.

The kickoff was a reception installing Colson Whitehead as the New York State Author and Alicia Ostriker as State Poet. Both were introduced by former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who did an admirable job talking about their work.

Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, drolly previewed his plans for his first hundred days as State Author. Ostriker read some of her poems which didn’t seem very poetic to me. But she also read from a great one: Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus. That choice was obviously timely, with the golden door being slammed shut.

As is customary for Writers Institute events, the munchies were superb: little cakes, a chocolate fudge & whipped cream confection, cookies, fruit, etc. (A thankyou to Paul Grondahl, the Institute’s dynamic leader.)

Broderick

A legion of local authors manned individual tables showcasing their work. Noteworthy among them was poet Therese L. Broderick, author of the acclaimed Breath Debt. (My wife.)

And a legion of other great literary luminaries spoke to packed audiences. Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of our leading historians, and talked about her new book, Leadership in Troubled Times. It focuses on the lessons from four presidencies: Lincoln, TR, FDR, and LBJ.

Goodwin

Goodwin’s theme was that character, above all, is what matters. She ticked off a list of key traits: humility, empathy, valuing diverse opinions, ability to connect with all manner of people, controlling negative impulses, and keeping one’s word. In sum, emotional intelligence. Goodwin’s rundown here elicited loud laughter from the audience, for the obvious reason that our current “leader” is so glaringly devoid of all these virtues.

Hegel

I next listened to a panel of four other historians. One noteworthy discussion reminded me of Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis cycling to synthesis. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending legalized racial segregation, produced a big backlash among white southerners, resisting it, sometimes violently. But that in turn energized its own backlash, in the civil rights movement, eventual civil rights and voting rights legislation, and, one might say, the eventual election of an African-American as president. Which in turn generated another big backlash culminating in the election of a very different sort of president. Which in turn has energized civic engagement against what that represents (very much in evidence in the responses of attendees at this book festival).

SPOS

I don’t know that we’re near Hegel’s final synthesis. I’m hopeful that Trumpism is a doomed last gasp, and that America will flush its toilet for good in 2020. But experience with my own bathroom suggests a different outcome is possible.

Next I went to Marion Roach Smith’s talk on memoir writing. The room was not ideal; her husband, Times-Union editor Rex Smith, had to kneel by her side manning the computer with her power-point presentation, advancing the slides every time she signaled.

Smith

Though sometimes he misinterpreted her gesturing. But it was an excellent talk applicable not just to memoirists, but to writing in general. Her key theme: focus on what the piece of writing is really about; what its argument is. A memoir’s reader is not interested in the details of what may have occurred but, rather, in gaining some insight on a human issue.

William Kennedy is Albany’s leading literary light, who founded the Writers Institute, and recently turned 90. He’s a literary energizer bunny who just keeps going, premiering a new book at the festival.

Kennedy

His talk was a meditation on writing and the writing life. I particularly relished his discussion of Faulkner, probably my own favorite. He adverted to the idea that Faulkner’s work is uplifting. “This uplift business baffled me,” Kennedy said. Faulkner certainly depicts the worst human behavior. Yet Kennedy said he was uplifted after all, “exalted,” by writing that reaches into a person’s heart. (I have written about Faulkner on this blog, with a somewhat similar take. In fact, it was a Faulkner quote I used as the epigraph for my Rational Optimism book.)

The final event was a panel titled “The New Americans” — a group of authors born elsewhere. Again, a theme with particular resonance in today’s political environment.

Iftin

One panelist was Abdi Nor Iftin, who I got to meet and chat with at the previous night’s reception. He was the Somali guy whose tribulations getting to America were told on NPR’s This American Life. Hearing that story so moved me that I wrote a poem (previously posted here), and sent him something. He now has a book out, Call Me American. What a thrill it was for me to connect with Abdi in person.

Khan

Another panelist was Khizr Khan, whom I’ve also written about (here, and here). It was likewise a thrill to shake his hand and tell him what a privilege that was. Khan continues to remind us how our Declaration of Independence and Constitution enshrine human dignity. He said no other country’s constitution rivals ours in that regard — and that he’s actually read them all! He also said that in over 200 appearances, in connection with his book, he has everywhere found Americans wanting to hold onto these values, and hopeful not only for America but for America as “a source of light” for the rest of the world.

We must not allow that light to go out.

A non-ugly American in Somaliland: Jonathan Starr’s Abaarso school

September 30, 2018

Bad news abounds. Even efforts to improve the world often do the opposite — that’s the history of foreign aid and development initiatives. “Ugly American” overseas misadventures are legion.

In 1991, Somalia imploded, becoming the textbook “failed state.” But an isolated backwater area broke away, declaring independence as the Republic of Somaliland. It’s not an internationally recognized country, and no halcyon place. But at least (by local standards) relatively stable, peaceful, and even democratic.

Enter Jonathan Starr. Having made some bucks in finance, at 32 he wanted a better life mission. So in 2009 this American went to Somaliland to start a school.

Lousy education is a key factor impeding progress throughout Africa. Even where kids do attend school, teachers often don’t, they’re ill-equipped anyway, and lessons emphasize rote memorization, so little is really learned. Starr’s aim was to create not just a good school but a great one. With high academic standards, nurturing and character building, preparing students to go on to the world’s top universities, and come back to become Somaliland’s leaders.

Was he nuts? Many would have said so. I’d actually entertained African school fantasies myself — until realism dissuaded me. Starr was indeed extremely naive thinking he’d just walk into such a hardscrabble country and do this. It broke all the rules. He had no relevant expertise; didn’t even speak Somali.

Abaarso School

The story is told in his 2016 book, It Takes a School. It actually got built, and Starr got some Americans to come teach there (in English). Along the way, some big mistakes were made, and numerous setbacks and nail-biting crises occurred. The book is candid about this. One section is titled, “The Great Miscalculation.” (A later chapter: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”)

For one thing, the Abaarso School of Science and Technology was named for the locale — Starr didn’t realize “Abaarso” means “drought.” So water was an unforeseen problem. Then a local mover-and-shaker he teamed up with, named Khadar, turned into the partner from hell, exploiting his government and clan connections trying to take over the whole project himself. He even planted fake news stories accusing the school of anti-Islamic activities, and tried to get Starr thrown out of the country.

Starr realized he was up against the way things too often work in Africa — or, more accurately, don’t work, stymying progress. But by now he was far along the learning curve, and had built a network of local relationships enabling him to defeat Khadar’s efforts. Starr got the Somaliland government, finally, squarely in his own corner. A blue-ribbon Muslim religious council was summoned to give the school a stamp of approval. And it helped that Abaarso started showing spectacular results: graduates accepted, with scholarships, to leading U.S. universities. That was something unheard of in Somaliland, where those kids became national heroes.

Mubarik

One was Mubarik, a former nomad goat-herder; the first time he saw a truck he thought it was some kind of animal. Mubarik has now graduated from MIT.

We met Jonathan Starr at the Ingersoll event I wrote about; only because my wife happened to notice “Worcester MA” (where she went to college) on his mother’s name tag. That led to seating ourselves beside them at the dinner, and hearing a little of his story. Which also led to our spending some time with three female Abaarso alums, one of them starting at the nearby Emma Willard School. You couldn’t find more impressive, admirable young women. They rhapsodized about how Abaarso, and its founder, changed their lives.

Unlike many American kids who take for granted what they’re given, these Somalilanders realize they’re escaping what would otherwise be a life without hope (that’s led so many Africans into rickety boats), and they behave accordingly. The Emma Willard gal literally kissed the steps upon arrival. No slackers, these kids work very hard to make the most of their precious opportunities.

Cynics and pessimists always see problems as intractable. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. It’s sometimes true. But Starr was not deterred; was naive enough to make the effort, despite all the obvious handicaps he started with. This is a tremendous lesson for positive thinking. We humans have huge abilities to accomplish things — and often making the effort is the key. As the old line goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Starr, in a speech, said that once he’d started, failure just wasn’t an option. (I was reminded of Susan B. Anthony’s motto, “Failure is Impossible.”)

I also think about America’s own failing schools. Indeed, it’s been shown again and again that even in the worst circumstances, students can succeed in schools having positive-thinking leadership. No circumstances could be worse than what Starr faced in Somaliland. If his school could succeed there, ours can here.

Starr hasn’t stopped with Abaarso. His “Horn of Africa Education Development Fund” has started a second school, a teachers’ college for girls. The plan is for those girls to teach in a network of dozens of good K-12 schools, to be run by Abaarso grads; the first of those is slated to open in 2019. It would not be hyperbole to say the overall project bodes well to ultimately transform the country.

Click here to donate (I have made a significant contribution).

Starr and Abaarso have been profiled on 60 Minutes. Anderson Cooper ended the report by noting that Trump’s Muslim travel ban applies to Somaliland, making it harder for Abaarso grads to seek higher education in the U.S. So far, they’re still managing to get student visas. But staying after their education is another matter. A great self-inflicted loss for America.

Trump’s cruel war on refugees and immigrants intensifies

September 27, 2018

When, for this post, I googled “U.S. refugee admissions,” the very first thing that came up was this quote on the State Department’s website:

“The United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

I thought this might be old — but no, strangely enough, it’s still on the website today.

U.S. refugee admissions have fallen steadily since 1994. The refugee cap for President Obama’s last year was 110,000. In his first year Trump slashed that to just 45,000 — the lowest ever (since Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act). And the number actually admitted was far lower still — 21,000.

The administration has now announced that the cap will be slashed again, for the coming year, to only 30,000.

This at a time when worldwide refugee numbers are surging. There are now 68 million displaced people, including 25 million classified as refugees. Thus we are taking in about one tenth of one percent of the world’s refugees. One in a thousand. Is this the Trump administration’s idea of “compassion, generosity and leadership?”

In his UN speech (where his lying braggadocio was literally laughed at) Trump said the answer for refugees is for their own countries to be fine to live in. Yeah, right. As if he’s doing anything toward that end.

Trump demonizes refugees and migrants as a safety threat. Another of his big lies. In fact they commit fewer crimes than the average American. No refugee has ever committed an act of domestic terrorism. Nor are they an economic burden. Immigrants strengthen our economy and are net contributors. A recent article in The Economist said that if Silicon Valley fizzles out it will be because we’ve foolishly stopped up the immigration pipeline.

And indeed it’s not just refugees (and their children) Trump is targeting — and illegal immigrants — but legal immigrants too. He’s been pushing a set of proposals that would cut legal immigration by up to half. And as if that weren’t enough, now Trump proposes (Congressional action not needed) that receiving any sort of public benefit will disqualify an immigrant from a green card (which means legal residence).

The range of public benefits, that have become so much a part of American life, is vast, making it hard to imagine how anyone could comply with such an extreme rule. For example, suppose you, like most seniors, receive prescription drugs under Medicare Part D. That’s a “public benefit,” pursuant to Trump’s prospective rule.

Ostensibly the rule would apply only to new green card applicants (in order to reject many of them), but it seems unclear how it could affect people previously approved. Some may be caught out when reapplying or renewing their green cards. Some may feel compelled to stop using “public benefits” to protect their status. Anyhow, when all these benefit programs were enacted, they didn’t say “citizens only.” In some cases there’s a five-year waiting period. But otherwise, legislators knew these benefits would be available to legal residents, and nobody ever imagined it would make any kind of sense to exclude them entirely.

How many more times will I have to use this picture?

Nobody until Trump and his depraved administration. The vicious meanness of this latest atrocity takes away one’s breath and twists one’s stomach.

In a different country — Canada — it’s been reported that citizens brought folding chairs to queue up overnight to apply for the privilege of sponsoring a refugee.

Somebody ought to re-write that State Department website, now a cruel mockery of what America used to stand for.

White pride and white privilege

September 23, 2018

Omarosa, in her book, tells of asking Steve Bannon whether it’s true that he’s a racist. “No,” he answered. “The same way you are a proud African-American woman, I am a proud white man. What’s the difference between my pride and your pride?”

All the difference in the world.

Pride can have many sources, some appropriate, some not. I’m proud of many things about human culture that I associate myself with. Whiteness isn’t one of them. Talk of white pride (or black pride) makes the racial identification salient, which it can be only in relation to the other race, and relations between them.

The central fact of that relationship is the long past history of blacks, as a people, inferiorized and suffering at the hands of whites. Black pride is an aspect of rising above all that. Like Jewish pride at overcoming all that Jews have suffered. If you’re not Jewish, being proud of your non-Jewishness would equate to anti-semitism. Likewise, white pride can only be understood vis-a-vis non-whites, setting oneself against them rather than for something. It’s negative rather than positive; a rejection of racial amity. It has the odor of burning crosses.

And of Confederate monuments. They’re not about honoring a supposedly noble past history. They were erected to send a message: that blacks are lesser beings. Why else memorialize men who fought to preserve slavery?

White pride, in fact, has the odor of burning flesh. Of the thousands of innocent human beings lynched, often hideously mutilated, burned alive, to keep blacks terrorized “in their place.” I don’t think American white southerners have a noble past history to memorialize and take pride in. It’s a vile history requiring instead atonement.

So white pride cannot be whitewashed as merely some innocent positive feelings about one’s own race. It’s not remotely analogous to black pride.

Yes it is

If blacks take pride in overcoming, can whites take pride in creating the evils blacks overcame? Human beings, acting in their humanity, have achieved great things. White people, when acting in their whiteness, conceiving themselves apart from non-whites, have perpetrated horrors.

White priders take a leaf from the victim playbook, as if merely seeking fairness. This is an Orwellian mockery. For all the affirmative action practiced — at the edges of society, really — the far bigger reality is still that one is better off white. Those who march for white rights are not disadvantaged because they are white. They are disadvantaged because they are the sort of losers for whom “white pride” seems to make sense. That’s what puts them on the outs in today’s America.

No we’re not

At the opposite end from white priders are liberals suffering white privilege guilt. We’ve been hearing an awful lot about white privilege. I’m reminded of the Eddie Murphy SNL skit where he discovers white privilege by masquerading as white. Sitting on a bus, everything is quietly normal . . . until the lone black passenger exits. That frees the rest to break out the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, turn on the music and start dancing in the aisle.

Of course that’s not how things are; “white privilege” is a misnomer. People aren’t favored because they are white (“You’re one of us, so you get special treatment”). That certainly doesn’t apply for the losers described above. Instead, it’s just that whites are not discriminated against on account of race.

No it won’t

Some non-whites may take offense at whiteness being seen as the normal, default condition of a human being, implying that non-whites are something apart, not quite full members of the club, or members on sufferance. But that reads too much into the situation. All it is is that if you pick an American person at random, she’s more likely to be white than black. More likely brunette than a redhead too. That doesn’t mean redheads aren’t part of the club. In fact there is no such club. True, there are some whites who do see there being a club. And for them there is one: a club of losers to which blacks shouldn’t want to belong. It sure isn’t the club of American society.

So white privilege is not a thing. It’s the absence of one. Whites do not get some undeserved benefit as the other side of the coin of non-whites undeservedly disadvantaged. What whites get is nothing more than what everyone should get.

Seriously??

White privilege does not invest Caucasians with the guilt of original sin. Instead we are individual human beings, each of us come fresh into the world, and who we are is defined by what we do.

 

Truth, beauty, and goodness

September 20, 2018

Which among the three would you choose?

I read Howard Gardner’s 2011 book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-first Century. (Frankly I’d picked it up because I confused him with Martin Gardner; but never mind.)

Beauty I won’t discuss. But truth and goodness seem more important topics today than ever.

Many people might feel their heads spin as age-old seeming truths fall. “Eternal verities” and folk wisdom have been progressively undermined by science. Falling hardest, of course, is God, previously the explanation for everything we didn’t understand. He clings on as the “God of the gaps,” the gaps in our knowledge that is, but those continue to shrink.

Darwin was a big gap-filler. One might still imagine a god setting in motion the natural processes Darwin elucidated, but that’s a far cry from his (God’s) former omnicompetence.

While for me such scientific advancements illuminate truth, others are disconcerted by them, often refusing to accept them, thus placing themselves in an intellectually fraught position with respect to the whole concept of truth. If one can eschew so obvious a fact as evolution, then everything stands upon quicksand.

Muddying the waters even more is postmodernist relativism. This is the idea that truth itself is a faulty concept; there really is no such thing as truth; and science is just one way of looking at the world, no better than any other. What nonsense. Astronomy and astrology do not stand equally vis-a-vis truth. (And if all truth is relative, that statement applies to itself.)

Though postmodernism did enjoy a vogue in academic circles, as a provocatively puckish stance against common sense by people who fancied themselves more clever, it never much infected the wider culture, and even its allure in academia deservedly faded. And yet postmodernism did not sink without leaving behind a cultural scum. While it failed to topple the concept of truth, postmodernism did inflict some lasting damage on it, opening the door to abuse it in all sorts of other ways.

All this background helped set the stage for what’s happening in today’s American public square. One might have expected a more gradual pathology until Trump greatly accelerated it by testing the limits and finding they’d fallen away. Once, a clear lie would have been pretty much fatal for a politician. Now one who lies continuously and extravagantly encounters almost no consequences.

It’s no coincidence that many climate change deniers and believers in Biblical inerrancy, young Earth creationism, Heaven, and Hell, are similarly vulnerable to Trump’s whoppers. Their mental lie detector fails here because it’s already so compromised by the mind contortions needed to sustain those other counter-factual beliefs.

But of course there’s also simple mental laziness — people believing things with no attempt at critical evaluation.

A long-ago episode in my legal career sticks with me. I was counsel for the staff experts in PSC regulatory proceedings. We had submitted some prepared testimony; the utility filed its rebuttal. I read their document with a horrible sinking feeling. They’d demolished our case! But then we went to work carefully analyzing their submittal, its chains of logic, evidence, and inferences. In the end, we shot it as full of holes as they had initially seemed to do to ours.

The point is that the truth can take work. Mark Twain supposedly said a lie can race around the globe while the truth is putting its shoes on. Anyone reading that utility rebuttal, and stopping there, would likely have fallen for it. And indeed, that’s how things usually do go. Worse yet, polemical assertions are often met with not critical thinking but, on the contrary, receptivity. That’s the “confirmation bias” I keep stressing. People tend to believe things that fit with their preconceived opinions — seeking them out, and saying, “Yeah, that’s right” — while closing eyes and ears to anything at odds with those beliefs.

A further aspect of postmodernism was moral relativism. Rejection of empirical truth as a concept was extended to questions of right and wrong — if there’s no such thing as truth, neither are right and wrong valid concepts. The upshot is nonjudgmentalism.

Here we see a divergence between young and old. Nonjudgmentalism is a modern tendency. Insofar as it engenders an ethos of tolerance toward human differences, that’s a good thing. It has certainly hastened the decline of prejudice toward LGBTQs.

Yet tolerance and nonjudgmentalism are not the same. Tolerance reflects the fundamental idea of libertarianism/classical liberalism — that your right to swing your fist stops at my nose — but otherwise I have no right to stop your swinging it. Nor to stop, for example, sticking your penis in a willing orifice. Nonjudgmentalism is, however, a much broader concept, embodying again the postmodernist rejection of any moral truths. Thus applied in full force it would wipe out even the fist/nose rule.

That is not as absurd a concern as it might seem. Howard Gardner’s book speaks to it. He teaches at Harvard and expresses surprise at the extent to which full-bore nonjudgmentalism reigns among students. They are very reluctant to judge anything wrong. Such as cheating on exams, shoplifting, and other such behaviors all too common among students. A situational ethic of sorts is invoked to excuse and exculpate, and thereby avoid the shibboleth of judgment.

Presumably they’d still recognize the clearest moral lines, such as the one about murder? Not so fast. Gardner reports on conducting “numerous informal ‘reflection’ sessions with young people at various secondary schools and colleges in the United States.” Asked to list people they admire, students tend to demur, or confine themselves only to ones they know personally. And they’re “strangely reluctant” to identify anyone they don’t admire. “Indeed,” Gardner writes, “in one session [he] could not even get students to state that Hitler should be featured on a ‘not-to-be-admired’ list.”

Well, ignorance about history also seems lamentably endemic today. But what Gardner reports is actually stranger than might first appear. As I have argued, we evolved in groups wherein social cooperation was vital to survival, hence we developed a harsh inborn judgmentalism against anything appearing to be anti-social behavior. That (not religion) is the bedrock of human morality. And if that deep biological impulse is being overridden and neutered by a postmodernist ethos of nonjudgmentalism, that is a new day indeed for humankind, with the profoundest implications.

Richard Wolff in sheep’s clothing, on capitalism versus socialism

September 14, 2018

I heard Richard Wolff again on “Alternative [left-wing] Radio.” He’s the “Marxist” economics professor whose LOL take on first class airplane seats I wrote about. Wolf saw them as though created by God but unfairly handed out by dastardly airlines to rich folks, forcing plebeians to suffer in coach. In actuality, the rich subsidize the rest. That’s how airlines make their money. Without milking richies via vastly overpriced premium seats, they’d have to charge coach travelers far more, which wouldn’t fly — literally.

Wolff couldn’t see that reality. But he is a glib talker. His latest was on capitalism versus socialism. He thinks capitalism’s badness will cause socialism to triumph.

A chief theme was “socialism” getting a bum rap because people don’t understand it. This is part of the effort to sugar-coat socialism, making it seem innocuous — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (We saw this with the Bernie campaign.) It’s the trope that if you like public roads and libraries and fire departments, etc., anything government does, why, that’s socialism!

Except that it isn’t. Providing necessary services that a free market cannot (at least not well) is just any government’s job. Socialism instead is government substituting for (and disallowing) a capable free market.

Now, if you think that’s a good idea, fine, try to persuade us. But socialists must doubt its persuasiveness, else why do they constantly hide what they really advocate, under false camouflage about roads and fire service?

Richard Wolff-in-sheep’s-clothing epitomizes this, again saying people misunderstand “socialism.” He repeatedly mocked the idea of any association with Stalin’s crimes. He stressed that “socialism” is not limited to any single categorical definition. But did he ever actually say what it does mean?

Nope.

But, talking about “capitalism,” Wolff did exactly what he criticized — painting it as one limited thing — which, typically, was a gross caricature.

I was struck by the contrast with a book I happened to be reading, Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, by historian Joyce Appleby.* Indeed, its key theme is that “capitalism” has been not one discrete concept but endlessly flexible, adaptive, and evolving, with vastly varying iterations — its great strength.

This is clear from the first great book on the subject — titled Capital — by Karl Marx. I will not deride Marx as a fool. He was in fact a brilliant thinker, observer, and analyst, who had some important insights. But he was fundamentally wrong in predicting capitalism’s future. Marx saw an “iron law of wages” always pushing them down to bare subsistence, just enabling workers to stay alive to produce the golden eggs for the capitalists, until they’d revolt. Marx did not imagine the mass affluence capitalism (and the associated industrial/technological revolutions) would bring forth. Even amid all today’s lamentations about inequality, and capitalism’s supposed injustice, the fact is that workers in industrialized societies were able to gain a large enough share of the economic pie to give them living standards unimaginably cushier than the bare subsistence Marx posited.

That’s because the pie has grown so spectacularly. And because of democracy. “Democratic socialism” is really a contradiction in terms because the two ideas have proven in practice to be fundamentally incompatible. That’s due to socialist systems concentrating so much power in government, whereas free market societies distribute power widely. Socialism is not the antithesis of fascism or communism. All three have the central idea of valorizing the collective over the individual, thus being inherently coercive and repressive.

No type of society or system will deliver justice and equality free from the depredations of people who will always try to exploit it for their own advantage. That’s certainly been true in all socialist or communist systems, wherein some individuals always amassed great power over others — using the machineries of the state and its monopoly on violence (legitimate in free societies, but not in others). A free enterprise system at least does not allow that. Instead, there you gain advantage by (in the main) creating value others voluntarily pay you for, making society as a whole wealthier. That’s how Steve Jobs, for example, got so rich. It’s how the whole industrialized world — including its workers — got so much richer than Marx foresaw.

Richard Wolff (Yes, socialism IS for dummies)

Such prosperity has never been produced by socialism. China is a very instructive case. It has two economic systems functioning side-by-side: a socialist one of state-owned firms, and another of very free enterprise. The latter runs rings around the former. It is the source of China’s phenomenal economic advancement, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last few decades.

* She’s no right-wing free marketeer; plenty critical of capitalism’s negative aspects, especially environmental. Appleby is often a trenchant observer, but I can’t let pass how many annoying bloopers I noticed. Like, “Ingenuous people found a new way to exploit electromagnetism.” Really? I thought that was disingenuous.

The dishonest Kavanaugh charade

September 7, 2018

Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh says Roe v. Wade is “settled law.” Well, settled law is what the Supreme Court says. “Separate but (supposedly) equal” was settled law for 57 years until in 1954 the Court said it wasn’t. Kavanaugh refuses to admit that he would (with alacrity) provide the needed fifth vote to overturn Roe.

In fact that’s precisely his nomination’s raison d’etre. A lot of voters abide a stinking piece of shit as president just to get a Supreme Court that will end abortion rights. Trump is delivering on that devil’s bargain.

Kavanaugh’s record makes it a sure thing that he’d vote to reverse Roe. That was clear from Senator Hirono’s questioning. In one case Kavanaugh ruled that having to file a two-page form was an “undue burden,” while in another it wasn’t an “undue burden” on a woman to be held in involuntary detention — where in both cases the result was to prevent abortions.

Roe was a legal case but abortion is a political issue. If you want to curtail abortion rights, then at least have the honesty to say so — instead of hiding behind this “settled law” crap, which makes the whole process a dishonest charade.

Of course, honesty is the last thing we can expect from the Trump administration. There’s not an honest bone in its body.

For the record, I’m not pro-abortion, and always thought Roe was both badly decided and politically bad. Abortion rights were inexorably progressing through normal democratic processes, until the Court’s action made the issue toxically divisive. But for it to turn things upside down again now, by reversing Roe, would be even worse, unleashing political Armageddon. Saner heads on the Court should recoil from doing that.

But, like honesty, sanity is in short supply among today’s Republicans.