Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Let’s talk about race (again)

July 5, 2020

My 2009 “Rational Optimism” book addressed race. Rejecting the trope of America as a fundamentally racist society, I saw a nation “that has made titanic efforts to right these wrongs.” Recapping all the progress in just my own lifetime. Quoting black scholar Shelby Steele that America has achieved the greatest moral evolution in human history.

Obama had just been elected. The symbolic import seemed huge: we were “choosing a civic father, a tribal leader.” And “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and goodwill.”

I wrote that “[t]hose few who still spout white supremacy are mostly disadvantaged, powerless whites,” with “no influence upon the larger society, and scant real impact on blacks.” And “institutional racism . . . is largely a figment of imagination . . . no significant American institution could actually practice it. Indeed, today’s institutional bias is affirmative action . . . favoring blacks.” (Emphases in original.)

My view has since evolved. I obviously did not foresee the racist backlash against Obama’s presidency soon to explode. Nor a successor empowering the racism I’d thought was relegated to America’s dark corners.

What I wrote was colored by my own experience interacting with blacks, in the workplace, in commerce, in society. I understood deeply what cause for resentment they had, yet rarely observed its expression. Instead I was always impressed by the friendly decency of most blacks toward whites. If white society had, as I believed, done much toward reconciliation, blacks had done more. Again I quote Kimberly Jones: we’re lucky they seek only equality, not revenge. Their goodwill has outstripped that of whites.

But that does not mean they’re now okay with how things are, and it’s in that respect that my understanding has grown.

In particular, my words “scant real impact on blacks” overlooked policing. Being white, it just wasn’t on my radar screen then. Even if most cops aren’t consciously racist, nevertheless for a lot of them brown skin is a red flag. And for people having that skin, that’s a very big fact of life. They might shrug off the racism of assholes, but it’s another matter when it’s guys who can commit violence against you with near impunity under color of law. (Of course that’s a threat to us all, but blacks bear its brunt.)

I also didn’t fully grasp then how deeply raced-based concepts are culturally embedded in our heads. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, likened one’s conscious mind to a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks he’s directing the elephant, but he’s really just along for the ride. Whites claiming color-blindness is a cliché. But experiments have shown that most harbor unconscious negativity toward black faces vis-a-vis whites. Even blacks themselves do.

I’m not color-blind. I see blacks as people whose forebears were brought here in chains and who struggle against much adversity to live their lives. I respect their blackness.

And even if today’s society were truly color-blind, also deeply embedded into its fabric are the effects of past racism. Studies have found differences between two populations today are often actually rooted in differing circumstances centuries ago. When slaves were freed in 1865, of course they started out very disadvantaged in relation to whites. That gets passed down through the generations. If your parents are poor and ill-educated, you will likely be too, hence handicapped in rising to betterment. And of course white society made sure that continued, at least for a century — the Jim Crow regime in the South erected to keep blacks “in their place” and, elsewhere, red-lining and a host of other discriminatory practices doing much the same.

Most of that is thankfully a thing of the past, yet all the racial baggage described above got lodged pervasively throughout societal structures and institutions.

We’ve tried to rectify this, with civil rights and voting rights legislation to at least remove barriers, affirmative action to counteract their lingering effects, and anti-poverty programs. But in one crucial respect we’ve singularly failed: education. Schooling could be a powerful force for overcoming the effects of inherited disadvantage. Instead, that disadvantage is mostly aggravated by rotten schooling for blacks.

That’s probably a key reason why, despite the mentioned efforts to close the black-white economic gap, it has actually widened over the past half century. A further reason is the over-incarceration of blacks, mostly thanks to the insanely punitive “war on drugs,” which makes everything worse. And another factor is the disintegration of black family life, at least partly the unintended consequences of anti-poverty programs. Even during the worst of the Depression and Jim Crow, the black family was strong. Today, 70% of black children are born to single mothers. That has an undeniably negative impact on those kids’ life prospects.

The chapter I started out quoting from was titled “America the Beautiful.” It didn’t claim perfection. Rather, what inspires me is the place of humanistic ideals in our society and our striving for progress toward fulfilling them. That’s America’s greatness. In the last few years we’ve had a great lurch backward. But progress never goes in a straight line, and in the long view we do grow better.

Francis Fukuyama wrote, in The End of History, of our craving for thymos — for recognition of one’s legitimate place in society, one’s worth and dignity as a human being. This is what “Black Lives Matter” is all about. It is this dignity, in the eyes of white Americans, that black people don’t feel they’ve yet fully achieved. But we’re getting there.

George Floyd’s killing and its aftermath raised the consciousness of millions of Americans, many more whites now able to empathically put themselves in the shoes of blacks, as fellow human beings, seeing the reality that they do, and newly supportive of measures to improve it. Even Mississippi is removing Confederate symbolism from its state flag.

While Trump ramps up his racist divisiveness. Tweeting “thank you” to a video with a man shouting “White power!” Completely insane — such hatefulness is fortunately far outside today’s American mainstream. In November the nation will do the right thing, flush its toilet, and we will move forward.

George Floyd will not have died in vain.

Covid-19: The March of Folly

July 3, 2020

From the start, Trump repeatedly assured us the virus was under control; no big deal; everyone could get tested; it would go away miraculously; and applauded his own performance as “tremendous” and “incredible,” etc. All lies.

Our record on this is in fact the worst of any advanced nation (bar possibly Brazil, with a Trump clone president). Had we acted smartly and swiftly like others, the virus could have been contained without the economic apocalypse that became necessary due to Trump’s dithering. And the economic pain turned out to be for nought, because we were too lax about it, reopening too soon, so the virus is now out of control anyway. Rising in at least 40 states.

We’ve just hit a new one-day record of over 50,000 confirmed cases. So far totaling over 2.7 million. Except that the CDC says that’s an undercount by a factor of ten. Because most cases (lacking sufficient testing) are never properly diagnosed. So it’s really closer to 30 million — increasing fast. Deaths (at least 127,000, but also surely an undercount) are actually falling — for now — apparently due to a learning curve on treatment, and older people being more careful. But coming weeks and months look very dire.

It’s Trump’s fault. A total failure of leadership; indeed, of sanity. Denial of reality. Ignoring science. Promoting harmful quack cures and other misinformation. Continued under-testing. His administration crafted detailed shutdown guidance and then shelved it. The limited suggestions they did provide were neutered by Trump’s encouraging morons to rebel against restrictions. Politicizing it all. Mask wearing became demonized as a badge of wimpy Democrat socialists — virile freedom-loving ‘Murricans don’t wear no frickin’ masks.

We’ve seen the video of the jerk refusing to heed a Costco mask requirement. He said, “I woke up in a free country.” Hello, “freedom” does not mean flouting reasonable public health rules. You can go maskless at home, but have no right to risk other people’s lives. This is called living in society.

Tens of millions have lost jobs, millions sickened or killed — and you’re outraged at having to wear a mask??

Most Americans thankfully have more sense, and have been great about acting responsibly, despite Trump’s irresponsible anti-leadership. But he’s undermined their good efforts by empowering the mask rebels, like that Costco fool, who spread the virus. What is so hard about understanding that even without symptoms you can infect others? Predictably, in states (mostly red) that were late and half-hearted about precautions in the first place, and relaxed them even as Covid cases rose, with Trumpsters heedlessly packing into bars and other gathering places (including his rallies) without masks, the disease is now surging.

And whereas states like New York, the worst hit, got it under control by tremendous efforts, with infection and death rates falling dramatically, that’s likely to be undone because they can’t control traveling anti-mask assholes who will re-spread the infection. Thus Europe has banned travel from the U.S.

And what’s the administration’s posture now, with the disease surging? Trump is hoping his voters can somehow be blinded to the catastrophe, which he himself actually worsens by holding super-spreader campaign events. Mike Pence is meanwhile declaring victory, saying the “panic” about Covid is “overblown,” and we’re in better shape now than at the start. While he (and of course Trump) still refuse to push masks.* In lieu of such precautions, Pence recommends prayer.

Indeed (and unsurprisingly, given the irrationality at religion’s core), the worst of Covid folly is seen in churches. Too many pastors insist on continuing live worship services, usually without masking or distancing. These have repeatedly proven to constitute Covid-19 anti-personnel bombs. Some claim God will protect them. As if he’s ever spared his flocks from the afflictions he’s visited upon humanity. While others never miss an opportunity to say God is punishing us for something (abortion, gays, etc., pick your fetish). Some hold that trying to prevent infection is thwarting God’s will.

A “sacrament” at Florida’s mis-named “Church of Health and Healing” is a bleach solution offered as a miracle cure. And Louisiana’s Rev. Tony Spell has even been bussing in people to attend his Covid-19 spreadathons, so they can carry the virus all over the state. But no worries — Spell (who heads the also misnamed “Life Tabernacle Church”) explains that to a pure religious person, death looks “like a welcomed friend.”

But at the pearly gates, will St. Peter say, “No mask, no admittance”?

Hopes are pinned on a vaccine to beat this thing finally. But wait, not so fast. Did you forget the anti-vaxxers? The campaign against Covid vaccination is already underway. We’re told the whole pandemic thing is really a huge plot by Bill Gates to use vaccines to sneak microchips into us.

Religion. Trump. Masklessness. Anti-science. Conspiracy theories. It’s all a package. God save us from this lunacy.

* Some states are only now finally mandating masks. On June 1, Trump himself did finally tell Fox News he’s all for masking, saying it makes him look like the Lone Ranger. (Whose mask didn’t cover his nose and mouth.) But meantime Trump has also said people wear masks just to show disapproval of him, and that masks are ineffective. Science says different. But who cares about science?

Ethics of humanitarian and development efforts: problems versus symptoms

July 1, 2020

My daughter Elizabeth, 27, has worked for five years in the Mid-East for humanitarian organizations, currently for a consultancy much involved in Afghanistan. Wonderful, you might say. She herself is less sure — always engaging in critical self-scrutiny.

There’s much literature criticizing the whole foreign aid and development landscape, the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Much aid has wound up serving to strengthen dictators. Other downsides may be less obvious. Send aid directly to schools and you relieve government of that expense so it can spend more on, say, weapons. Send used clothing and you undermine a nation’s own garment industry. And so forth.

Elizabeth and I have discussed such issues as relating to my own support for a Somaliland education project. Her thing is trying to find what actually works best in the context of a local culture and its idiosyncrasies. She’s troubled that the project was started by a rich white guy who went there with good intentions but scant local knowledge. She pointed me to a sardonic short story in the voice of an African employed by some sappy do-gooder Americans who created a program actually accomplishing nothing. But I was moved by the proven success of the one in Somaliland.

The words “white savior” come up. We’re told to worry instead about problems closer to home. But Africans are no less my fellow humans than those across the street. And their problems tend to be much the greater, with resources to tackle them far smaller. I don’t see myself as a white savior; hopefully, a human contributor.

That makes me feel good. Is my Somaliland involvement really an attempt to buy myself those feelings? We’re actually programmed by evolution to feel good when doing good, it’s a mechanism to promote such behavior, thereby aiding group survival. So is there any such thing as true selfless altruism? But I’d maintain we are what we do. The doer of a good deed doesn’t delude himself believing he’s altruistic — he is in fact behaving altruistically. And his motivation is immaterial to the other beneficiaries of his action.

Elizabeth recently wrote a blog essay concerning the Oscar-winning film Learning to Skateboard in a Warzoneabout an NGO project for Afghan girls — and an Al Jazeera article, Skateboarding Won’t Save Afghan girls. The latter contends the program just covers up the country’s problems, which it blames on “centuries of ruthless Western military and political intervention.” The skateboarding is likened to “palliative care” that makes dying patients feel better without curing them. The article invokes the “white savior” trope, and says the program and film “decontextualize” the girls’ lives, presenting them as “ideal victims for pity.” While making “Westerners feel good about” the Afghan war “which ‘liberated’ girls and women and gave them opportunities their own society would never have afforded them.”

Why put “liberated” in snide quote marks? America’s intervention did liberate them, did give them opportunities the article actually correctly characterizes. Though obviously Afghanistan’s problems were not all solved. Is that really the bar for judging any project’s worth?

Elizabeth says the real question is whether a program like the skateboarding —which does have real benefits — comes at the cost of other initiatives, which might have larger impacts. “Should we address the problems, or the symptoms of the problems — or both?”

She cites a book, Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas, arguing that the business world is too focused on symptoms rather than underlying problems — and indeed those so focused are the very people benefiting from the system that perpetuates the problems. Giridharadas cites the example of a phone app to help people with “unpredictable employment” to even out their incomes. Which he characterizes as a symptom of the real problem, an economic system making unpredictable employment so common — a system he says the app’s developers themselves helped create and benefit from.

Seriously? As if they somehow calculatingly orchestrated the whole global economic structure just so they could profit from the app? And does Giridharadas have a workable solution to the underlying problem he sees? No, he just wants other people to simply forgo their self-interest. Thanks a lot.

Casting the problem as the fault of villains is a kind of scapegoating all too prevalent (particularly in the left-wing economic perspective). But those who profit by hiring people for temporary work enable those employees to earn money by creating goods and services whose buyers value them above what they pay. Seems win-win-win to me. Not rendered villainous because Giridharadas imagines some fantasy world in which people’s earnings are divorced from the economic value their work creates. (I suggest the result would actually be a nightmare world.)

Elizabeth too largely disagrees with Al Jazeera and Giridharadas. She sees nothing wrong with addressing “symptoms” — while also working on “problems” — which may take decades if not centuries. These are not mutually exclusive. No reasonable person could view the skateboard film and think all Afghanistan’s problems are solved. Indeed, she considers it important to spotlight such successes. Whereas moralistic symptoms-versus-problems dichotomizing can make doing what’s merely feasible seem pointless.

Elizabeth’s main concern is with the impact one’s actions can achieve, and thus whether to target “problems” or “symptoms” — the “policy level” versus the “personal level.” But as for what any individual can do, she interestingly invokes the concept of “comparative advantage.” That’s an economics doctrine saying a nation gains from trading whatever it’s best at producing, even if other nations can produce that thing better. Applying it here would mean doing what one is best equipped or positioned to do. Better to have a modest success than an over-ambitious failure. But she also suggests a third option: start small and strive to scale up.

I think Al Jazeera’s analogy to palliative care is also fatuous moralizing. One is not usually able to achieve big-picture solutions. But regardless of what level you’re looking at, what matters is quality of life — for the many, or a few, as may be. Every one counts. Every improvement counts. Inability to go big doesn’t negate the value of the small. A cancer patient may not be cured but meantime palliating the pain is worth doing. Likewise for the Afghan skateboarding girls.

No individual can “solve” the kinds of big problems at issue. All one can do is what helps as much as one can. A lot of people doing that helps a lot.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Confederate flags and statues and racism

June 25, 2020

They claim the Confederate flag symbolizes Southern cultural heritage, or independence, or states’ rights — or some such baloney. Who do they think they’re fooling? That flag says “Fuck n—–s.”

People actually often don’t understand what goes on in their own minds, a lot of it being below conscious awareness. It’s themselves they are fooling, telling themselves they are not racist. Those who call the Confederacy a “noble cause” are trying to pretty up in their own heads what is really racial animus.

Yeah, sure, 1861 was all about state rights. What rights specifically? To enslave people. The Civil War was about nothing except slavery. No slavery, no war. Confederates were not heroic warriors. They were traitors to America and to fundamental human morality. Blacks know this flag stands for their enslavement and anyone flying it is giving them the middle finger. It belongs only in textbooks and museums.

And naming military bases after Confederate soldiers? What nation thusly honors men who fought against it? What kind of president defends this?

They say removing Confederate monuments erases history. And indeed today’s Americans lack much sense of history. Otherwise they’d understand why these statues must go. There’s a difference between remembering history and celebrating it. We have a Holocaust Museum to memorialize that part of the world’s history. We don’t put up statues to Hitler and Goering.

And those who understand history know Confederate monuments were not really erected to honor the individuals depicted. It was to send a message: “We’re not sorry we fought for slavery. We’d restore it if we could. So watch out, n—–s.”

White trash who say “go back to Africa” overlook that blacks didn’t choose to come here. Brought in chains on harrowing voyages to be worked to death. But now we’re all stuck here together on this lifeboat, and must live together. As Kimberly Jones said, whites are lucky African-Americans seek only equality — not revenge.

Showing they are better human beings than whites who would deny that equality. Whites who consider blacks inferior prove themselves to be the inferior creatures.

Okay. Let’s take a deep breath.

Like any movement often tends to, our current spate of iconoclasm goes too far, becoming indiscriminate and senseless. Jefferson’s name comes up. Even Washington’s. At least one Washington statue has been toppled. Also a Ulysses Grant.

Talk about erasing history. Grant went because someone said his wife’s family owned slaves. So forget he was the man most responsible for defeating the Confederacy. But that was not all. As president, Grant battled mightily defending the rights of newly freed slaves. When the KKK arose against them, Grant sent troops to suppress Klan terrorism.

On my wall

No human being is ever a perfect angel. Ideally, our statues honor people who have done great and worthy things, inspiring us to emulate their best qualities. That is why we memorialize Washington and Jefferson — and Grant. Their monuments move my own spirit deeply. When I see Washington what I see is a nation founded in the great virtues he exemplified. When I see Jefferson I see the words that gave that nation its sublime ethos.

Words we still must strive to fulfill.

Ecce Homo

June 19, 2020

At a Buffalo NY Floyd protest, Martin Gugino, 75, longtime Catholic peace activist, was shoved backward by two policemen in full military gear. His head cracked on the pavement, spurting blood. The squad marched over him. One cop momentarily bent toward Gugino but another urged him forward. We all saw this sickening video.

Gugino was eventually taken to a hospital, listed in critical condition. The officers were disciplined. Their entire squad resigned in protest — from the squad, not the department — not against Gugino’s mistreatment but against the disciplining.

Five days later — with the nation in turmoil over repeated police brutality — Trump tweeted that Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” was somehow trying to “black out” police equipment, and his fall may have been a “set up.”

Trump dredged this nonsense out of the sewer — from “One America News Network,” an extreme right broadcaster that, to quote columnist Michael Gerson (a Republican), makes “Fox News look like a model of journalistic integrity by comparison.” Trump apparently spends time viewing OAN.

Gerson says that if Trump believed OAN’s crap, he’s “a credulous simpleton.” If he didn’t, he’s “a cynical weasel.” But Gerson concludes he’s both.

I think it’s worse. What Trump tweeted was insane. And, even if he believed it, to imagine it was somehow a good idea to tweet it was doubly insane.

Gerson adds that for a president to single out a private citizen with such slander is “a serious abuse of power.” An “act of malice” that borders on inhumanity.”

Borders on?? It blows past the border. Trump is a full sociopath. Gerson does say: “If what you see doesn’t revolt you, you have lost the capacity for revulsion.”

Yet still some Trumpsters snidely attack Biden’s mental fitness!

Note to readers: this may feel wearying. I am weary. When Trumpery began, I resolved to let no travesty pass unremarked. Chronicling the tragic defilement of a nation that had been a great human achievement. But the task has proven impossible. I feel like a battlefield triage medic, forced to choose subjects for attention. Things that in a sane era would have been shocking monstrosities now seem pinpricks. (Like, the other day, the Treasury Secretary professing no need to reveal where hundreds of billions in covid relief actually went. And Bolton’s revelations.)

During my 53 Republican years, I could always understand the minds on the other side. Even now, much as I oppose the hard left, I can comprehend the thinking. But my bafflement over Trumpism grows. Assholes of course support one of their own. But how can so many others put their brains, their morality, and their humanity in deep freeze?

Margaret Atwood: The Testaments

June 13, 2020

The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in Gilead, a near-future theocratic dictatorship, in lands between Canada and Mexico.

Gilead is a classic dystopia, whose societal raison d’etre is baby production. Apparently there’s been some kind of infertility epidemic. Many wives are barren; their husbands assigned concubines who aren’t. Those are the handmaids. But all women are medievally subordinated to men. Their schooling limited to things like embroidery; no reading or writing. The system enforced with ruthless brutality. All, supposedly, to serve God.

The Handmaid’s Tale struck a chord at a time when America’s religious right was flexing its political muscles. The book enjoyed a second coming when it seemed they were gaining yet more ground in the Trump era. So the sequel is timely.

For all the fears about America becoming a Gilead, actually no Christian fundamentalists advocate anything like such extremism. And for all their seeming political mojo, they’re doomed. Religious belief correlates inversely with age. In past conformist times, faith was an unquestioned default, but now that people can see an alternative path, more are taking it. Fundamentalists are already only a small minority, though their power is outsized because they vote so assiduously. But their credibility is undermined by hitching themselves to the most morally corrupt gang in our political history. (In that sense, perhaps, today’s America foreshadows Gilead.)

So I don’t see a Gilead coming through conventional politics. The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t explain how it did come about. The Testaments fills in that story, though not in any detail. Gilead’s founders long plotted their coup, then just used guns, slaughtering Congress. No mention is made of, like, the U.S. Army. To impose their rule would have required really an awful lot of men with guns. Texas, California, and maybe some other states seem to have fought them off. I find the takeover rather implausible. But in a novel one must suspend disbelief.

The “testaments” of the title are first-person accounts, unearthed long after, written by three female participants in the book’s action. One had been a 53-year-old unmarried judge, minding her own business, when the coup brings gunmen to her office building to take all the women away. To a stadium, where they’re segregated by profession and held in sadistic humiliating conditions. Groups of blindfolded women are marched onto the field and shot. This is just the start of her ordeal. Which she surmounts — emerging as “Aunt Lydia,” the new regime’s head enforcer of all things female.

Another character is “Commander Judd,” a top leader with a penchant for barely pubescent wives. One after another. Somehow they keep dying. It’s very typical for men posturing as god’s mouthpieces to be doing it for sex, especially with younger females. (Like Joseph Smith.)

I wondered about Gilead’s economy. It seemed to have none, apart from vague references to “econopeople,” never actually shown in productive work. And it gradually emerges that even the big shots live in very straitened circumstances, with even mundane consumables in short supply. That’s what you get when everything’s about God. God does not provide.

The book has some nice writerly touches. Here’s Aunt Lydia talking about her statue: “At least I look sane. . . . . the elderly sculptress . . . had a tendency to confer bulging eyes on her subjects as a sign of pious fervor. Her bust of Aunt Helena looks rabid, that of Aunt Vidala is hyperthyroid, and that of Aunt Elizabeth appears ready to explode.”

But my enjoyment waned as Lydia’s plot to avenge her torture and bring down Gilead unfolded with tedious convolutions that didn’t make much sense to me. A cache of devastating documents (including about Commander Judd’s crimes) is smuggled into Canada on a “microdot” implanted into the arm of a girl likewise perilously smuggled into Canada (on the “Underground Femaleroad”).

I’d have just mailed the microdot to Canada inside an ordinary letter. But such prosaic thinking doesn’t make for a literary thriller.

The stadium scene too might have seemed ridiculously over the top. Atwood making Gilead’s regime an epitome of evil, with no nuances or shades of grey. But the stadium episode actually reprised quite faithfully what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban seized power. And while such horrors might seem implausible in America, we are too often reminded that human brutality can have no limits when the guardrails are removed.

I keep saying: America represents the culmination of long human efforts to build societal institutions protecting against such horrors. But their perpetuity is not decreed by God. We kick them down at our peril.

“Defund the Police”? Or law and order for police?

June 11, 2020

Why do liberals try so hard to appear crazy? Could have said “All Lives Matter” or “Black Lives Matter Too.” But making it just “Black Lives Matter” invites the pushback it gets from the right, an unnecessary argument. “Abolish ICE” invites accusations of wanting “open borders.” Now it’s “Defund the Police.” Inviting Trump’s saying: See how crazy these people are? Like, we don’t need police? He’d love for the election to be a referendum on that. Ammunition for his “law and order” shtick.

Let’s be clear. Ill-conceived slogans notwithstanding, nobody advocates eliminating policing. And those protesting police excesses do not oppose or threaten law and order. In fact we want more of it. George Floyd’s murder was a breach of law and order.

Looting and burning must not be justified as some sort of legitimate expression of rage against injustice. More stupid rhetoric. Nobody who smashed a window to steal stuff was doing it for George Floyd. Linking the looting with the protests is just what Trump wants.

Law and order is a two way street. It does apply to citizens; but also to cops (as in Minneapolis) and other public authorities. Last week Trump ordered a violent militarized assault on peaceful protesters and journalists near the White House, including  helicopters intentionally flying so low the impact of the whirling rotors injured people and damaged property. The kind of thing authoritarian rulers do — as in Tiananmen Square. Trump endorsed that Chinese bloodbath, with the same “law and order” rhetoric he aims against George Floyd protests. But his own actions in Lafayette Square were probably a breach of law — and certainly of order.

Lafayette Square was not a one-off. Recent days have seen repeated videos of protests against police brutality being met with — vicious police brutality. (Like the old guy knocked to the pavement in Buffalo, which Trump defended with some deranged conspiracy theory.) It’s again not protesters violating law and order, it’s out-of-control violent police.

Rather than the (really dumb) slogan “Defund the Police,” it should be something like “Re-set the Police.” Or even “Law and order for police.” Recognizing there’s much wrong with our policing that needs change.

We keep talking about “rotten apples” like Floyd’s killer, versus all the good cops. But while police work does attract many good recruits for the right reasons, it also does attract the wrong sort for the wrong reasons. Antisocial bullies with chips on their shoulders looking to swagger and assert their manhood.

And we’ve aggravated that problem by militarizing the police. There’s even a Defense Department program to give them military kit. (Obama cut it back; Trump reversed that.) Now police commonly have stuff like armored personnel carriers and grenade launchers. Too many policemen see themselves as occupying forces rather than community servants. Minneapolis actually had “warrior-style training” for cops (which its mayor tried to end). This fits with Trump’s call for police to “dominate” protesters like on a battlefield. When forces trained and equipped like this are deployed into our streets, it’s no surprise the result does look like a war zone. And that civilians see them not as public servants but public threats.

As Hobbes elucidated, we have government most basically to protect us from harm. But that takes governmental power, from which we also need protection. By making that power accountable to us. And there’s no more immediate a need for such accountability than when it comes to the police — whose power over us is exemplified by George Floyd’s story. But such accountability is distinctly lacking. Floyd’s killer stared calmly into the camera recording him, hand in his pocket, as if to say, “What’s anyone gonna do about it?” His being called to account was indeed almost as rare as a snowstorm in July.

The lack of police accountability is very much institutionalized. Many police unions have negotiated contracts that stymie any citizen complaints and keep cases hidden. Floyd’s killer had skated through seventeen previous charges of misconduct. New York is currently wrestling over a section of law, 50-a, that’s been read to bar public disclosure of police disciplinary proceedings.

Of course we still have constitutional rights. Like the Fourth Amendment’s prohibiting “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But courts have made this virtually a dead letter, allowing police to confiscate property on mere suspicion of criminality, no proof needed. Police departments have exploited this, using such confiscations to pad their budgets — helping to acquire the military style equipment mentioned.

Indeed,The Economist recently quoted an appellate court decision dismissing a lawsuit against cops accused of simply stealing hundreds of thousands in cash and rare coins while enforcing a search warrant — because “there was no clearly established law holding that officers violate the Fourth or 14th Amendment when they [thusly] steal property [!]” (My exclamation point.) Law and order??

Yes, we need police to deal with lawbreaking (other than their own). But we give policemen a far larger societal role than that, making them ubiquitous trouble-shooters. Providing security in schools, monitoring the polls in elections, directing traffic, dealing with accidents, with the homeless, responding to people’s mental health crises, domestic disputes, drug problems, etc. The Economist quotes Alex Vitale, a professor and “defunding” advocate: “Policing is about use of force. It should be a last resort . . . We don’t want another meeting with police. We want them out of our lives.”

A lot of those functions we give police would be better assigned to non-uniformed — and non-armed — specialist civil servants, trained for all those tasks (which the police in fact mostly are not). Such mission reconfiguration is what “defund” really seeks. And Camden, NJ, is an example showing how to do it. They abolished their police department and built a new and different one from scratch. In a radio interview, their former police chief explained that Camden had one of the nation’s worst crime problems. Cops were doing the standard things, and it wasn’t working. Lots of arrests only made way for more crime while exacerbating the victimization of local residents. He said the police were operating like an alien force with no legitimacy, lacking the people’s consent. The new and different approach proved far more effective. Crimes dropped dramatically, and a far higher percentage were solved, because the population started cooperating with the police instead of seeing them as enemies.

The Economist also points out that while so many aspects of American society are pervasively regulated by laws and rules, this is not generally true of police forces, who are mostly left to regulate themselves. Really not a good idea when we’ve given them weapons. States and localities must grapple with this and legislate clear rules governing police activities. That is, subject the police to law and order.

Such rules might include, say, do not keep your knee on the neck of a man in handcuffs on the ground until he’s dead.

Save America: Boycott Fox advertisers

June 8, 2020

America is in deep trouble. The glue holding it together is dissolving. To say we’re divided into mutually hostile tribes is stating the obvious. But it’s not just differences of opinion. That you’ll always have in a vibrant democracy. What we’ve got are two tribes inhabiting very different realities.

I’ve written (in 2013) of my “ideology of reality.” That means one’s opinions being shaped by reality — as opposed to letting your opinions shape the reality you see. Applying that, I can see one of our conflicting tribal realities is basically true and the other is false. Tellingly, the latter is that embraced by what was previously my own tribe. The reality I saw changed my opinion. That’s objectivity.

It helps to have a deep grounding of knowledge about history, the world, how institutions work, science, etc. Not false “knowledge” from conspiracy theorists. The background knowledge I’m talking about equips one to properly judge what’s believable or not. Unfortunately such a knowledge base is rare.

Still, people ask me how Republicans can blind themselves to a reality so obvious as the Trump administration’s vileness. Trashing every value they supposedly once held dear. A key factor is today’s internet and social media echo chamber culture. I recall a study showing that with a group of generally like-minded people convened in a room, their average viewpoint tends to shift toward that of the most extreme among them. The internet and social media propel this.

But it’s increasingly clear the single biggest cause is Fox News. That about 40% of Americans still — still!— approve of Trump is largely thanks to the Fox alternative reality machine. People imagine there are two sides to every question, so you’re free to believe the one you like. And Fox, if nothing else, gives seeming legitimacy to its false reality, enabling people to feel okay believing it.

Fox was originally conceived as a counter to mainstream media’s liberal slant. Not an unreasonable concept. Mainstream media’s people do tend to share the generally liberal viewpoint typical among America’s educated intelligentsia. However, mainstream media nevertheless strives hard to play it straight. Take PBS’s “Washington Week,” with reporters discussing the news. Watching them, it’s always hard — maddeningly hard — to discern their personal opinions.

Not so with Fox. “Fair and balanced?” Well, they’ve dropped that slogan. Real news outlets draw a bright line between news reporting and opinion. On Fox, it’s all spin. Full of nonsense to boot. Fox people don’t go on “Washington Week.”

Still, if you want a broadcaster providing right-wing opinion, even right-wing nonsense and lies, it’s a free country. But Fox is not merely that either. It’s the regime’s propaganda mouthpiece. As in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and today’s North Korea and Russia. We’ve never before had such a thing in America.

Scary enough if there were a normal presidential administration. But, worse yet, ours is not, with its war on democratic institutions, on truth, and on truthful media. Melded with a broadcaster accomplice, that’s a deadly combination.

So Fox is a central culprit in creating the false alternate reality its viewers inhabit. Where Trump is the good guy full of accomplishment making America great again, while his critics are the corrupt wicked traitorous lying criminals. A total black-is-white bizarro reality. Just look at Fox’s promotion of Trump’s vicious “Obamagate” hoax.

That’s not just my opinion. Most sensible people understand what Fox is doing, it’s such a blatant disgrace. And it won’t stop with Trump’s defeat. Expect Fox to mount a guerrilla war of lies against the Biden administration.

Fox corrodes the very fabric of our democratic society. When a future Gibbon chronicles America’s decline and fall, Fox News will be front and center, and readers will shake their heads in bafflement that we let this happen.

So what can be done?

Fox News could be bombed. Maybe catching Hannity, Carlson, Ingraham, Pirro, Dobbs all present. You could do that. “But it would be wrong.”

Or a Biden administration could investigate Fox to death, killing it with criminal prosecutions and fines. Or even just yank its broadcasting license. But that too would be wrong. (Very Trumpian.) Our First Amendment gives even the Fox creeps the right to spew their disgusting bilge.

My better answer: boycott Fox’s advertisers. That’s its lifeblood. They buy ads to make money, and if they’ll lose more business than they gain, they’ll quit. Tell them enabling Fox’s lies will tarnish their brands.

Small quiet acts of conscience by decent-thinking Americans aren’t enough. Make it loud and public to get advertisers’ attention. “Boycott Fox Advertisers” — BFA— has to go viral.

Googling, I found this list:

Also at least two online petitions for such a boycott:

And, of course, please share widely what I’ve written here.


Protests and looting: What’s the difference?

June 3, 2020

George Floyd was callously murdered by a police thug. People have risen up in protest. Others took the opportunity for violence and looting. And others took advantage of the latter to score political points and aggravate societal divisions.

In a radio discussion, some talkers, addressing the protests and the looting together, said it’s wrong to see this as about “property” when it’s really all about everything non-whites suffer, and justified rage against it. Former TV reporter Linda Ellerbee said the burning and looting are just like the Boston Tea Party, an act of rebellion we now celebrate, asking “What’s the difference?”

No. Protest marches are about justified rage. Opportunistic looting has nothing to do with that. Nobody who smashed a store window to steal stuff did it for George Floyd. We must stand up against the violence he suffered — and against the violence suffered by victims of looting and burning, numerous honest businesses (many minority owned). Putting the protests and the looting in the same frame is morally wrong and just plays into the hands of the Trumps of the world, all too eager to do exactly that, to delegitimize the protests.

Trump spouts about violence and “law and order.” Then, right outside the White House, he has peaceful demonstrators attacked with horses, tear gas, and clubbing. To clear the way for his walk to a church whose doors he never otherwise darkens, to pose holding a book he’s never read. Who’s guilty of violence? Who’s breaching law and order?

Meantime yesterday, in stark contrast, Joe Biden delivered a speech demonstrating the kind of decency, vision, and leadership America so desperately needs, now more than ever. Please read it:

If you somehow still imagine America a better country with Trump than Biden, I beseech you to shine a searchlight into your heart and soul.

Today’s Biden speech

June 2, 2020

Read it: