Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The health care travesty

March 21, 2017

For seven years, Republicans pursued Obamacare with the obsessiveness of Captain Ahab pursuing the white whale. Now they resemble a dog chasing a car, and catching it. Or Captain Ahab tangled up on the whale’s back and going down with it.

What they hated so much about Obamacare was never quite clear, except perhaps for the “Obama” part. It was based, after all, on what was originally a Republican concept, put forward as a market-based alternative to “socialized medicine.” Indeed, to get something done about all the Americans without proper health care, Obama had to give up the politically difficult government option, and to buy off the insurance industry by giving it what seemed a very sweet deal (selling more insurance).

Anyhow, for all their obsessing, Republicans never did have an alternative plan. Now their bluff is called. And, as a genius recently said, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Yet, whereas Obamacare was hammered out through an agonizing months-long process of give-and-take with input by numerous interested parties, Republicans have skipped all that, and whipped up a bill in the dead of night. Do you suppose they’ve really thought through all its consequences?

Trump had been saying his beautiful, tremendous, but unspecified, imaginary health care plan would cover everybody; with better care too, and at lower prices. Ha ha. Don’t we know by now that Trump just says stuff, with no thinking, or regard for truth, reality, or decency? Of course the now-unveiled GOP plan doesn’t cover everybody. In fact it would kick many millions out of the health care system. It replaces direct subsidies with tax credits — mainly so they can call it different from Obamacare. But it will give low income people much less help. While furthermore, removing healthier ones from the insurance pool will inevitably force premiums up. Most Americans will pay more for less coverage and less care. Older citizens will be particularly screwed. While the richest get tax cuts. When will foolish Trump lovers wake up that they’ve been conned?

Obamacare, at its heart, was based on making younger and healthier folks subsidize the old and sick by requiring everyone (on pain of tax penalties) to buy insurance . This is often defended on the basis that that’s how insurance works – like with car insurance, where safe drivers pay into the system, to cover accidents by others, while if you do have an accident, it’s there for you too.

Wellll . . . not so fast. Actually the concept of insurance is to spread a risk that the buyer wouldn’t want to shoulder alone. A house fire has low probability but unacceptable financial consequences, so you insure against it, spreading that risk among many others doing the same. But that’s voluntary, based on your own evaluation of the risk versus the cost of insurance.* You don’t buy fire insurance to help others, but because it’s worth it to you.

This original insurance concept has gotten perverted in the health care sphere. Like fire insurance, health insurance should cover only major episodes one couldn’t otherwise afford, not every routine little outlay. Doing the latter has meant that health care doesn’t act like a market, with consumers shopping among competing providers; a basic reason why prices have gotten so out of line. And it’s not surprising that Obamacare’s forcing people to buy such insurance, that they don’t judge to be a good deal for themselves, meets so much resistance.

But look. We are a very rich society. The basic idea that we, as a society, should take care of the less fortunate, and make sure nobody suffers unnecessarily, is a fundamental moral concept that most Americans would accept. That’s why even so amoral a creature as Trump would blurt it out (however disingenuously).

We have to come up with a way for every American to have at least minimally decent basic health care. The Republicans are not doing this; they are going in the other direction entirely. While the Trump-Putin administration’s proposed budget gives the Pentagon more billions to waste, and billions for the wall boondoggle, paid for by eviscerating everything else, including all kinds of government help for the less fortunate.

2012 Democratic campaign ad

For years, some Democrat partisans caricatured Republicans as heartless toward those less fortunate, as actually desiring to destroy programs like Medicare and Social Security, to keep poor people poor, and even to make middle class people poor, all just to (somehow) benefit the rich. It was a false caricature before. But Trump and today’s Republicans are making it true.

* Though the bank may require it, to give you a mortgage, because otherwise, if the house burns, you wouldn’t be able to meet your obligations.

Post-Truth politics, post-democratic politics

March 17, 2017

(This was published as a commentary in the March 12 Albany Times-Union)

“Post-truth” has been named word of the year. The subject looms large for America’s political future. It’s not just a matter of occasional innocent misstatements, but of politically weaponizing falsehood.

Gleb Tsipurski (associate professor of history at Ohio State University) writes in The Humanist magazine that if it works for Trump, other politicians will follow his example; if they too succeed, “we’re headed for a downward spiral“ and “the end of our political order as we know it.” This might sound like hyperbole, but Tsipurski is on to something.

Being caught in a lie used to be deadly for a politician. What is so dangerous with Trump is that his fans don’t care, rationalizing away everything. As he put it, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes. This resembles a religious faith impervious to reason. And removing reasoned discourse from politics is not good for sustaining democracy.

We must understand how we got here. Mainstream media has traditionally served as mediator, part of our whole system of political checks and balances. That media role might even have been over-large. Recall how it brought down 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean for a single utterance (the so-called “scream”).

Dean’s “Scream”

Obviously, the media proved unable to perform such a function with Trump.

Why? Tsipurski says “this system for determining political truths has required an intangible but invaluable resource: the public’s trust.” And that trust has been eroding in the last decade (part of a broader decline in social trust generally).

Past trust in the media was due, in good part, simply to a lack of other information sources. But now alternatives have proliferated, notably on social media and elsewhere on the web. And, crucially, it’s not just the same information differently packaged. To the contrary, it’s often material tailored to flatter the recipient’s pre-existing biases. Or even the now notorious “fake news.” Why listen to neutral NPR (and hear things that challenge your beliefs) when you can get fare that instead bolsters what you already think? And when those “alternative facts” differ from what mainstream media says, it’s the latter that might start seeming problematic. Thus mainstream media loses not only its audience, but its authority and trust.

Further, its effort to maintain an aura of objectivity actually undermines mainstream media’s ability to deal effectively with a politician who lies so shamelessly* – and accuses it of being against him (which of course it is, for excellent reasons). Thus the handwringing over whether to even use the word “lie.” And watch the journalists on a program like PBS’s “Washington Week” struggle to act as though Trump is just another normal political figure. They’ll soberly discuss the putative deep policy implications of a Trump statement (like his one-state-solution line), unable to blurt out that it’s simply ignorance.

So a weakened mainstream media couldn’t do to Trump what it did to Dean. And Tsipurski says Trump has a genius for exploiting such systemic vulnerabilities. Use of alternative and social media, bypassing mainstream media (thereby further enfeebling it), played a big role in his campaign. Exploiting trust-related systemic weaknesses similarly fueled his financial enrichment. The Trump Foundation self-dealing, and Trump University fraud, were prime examples. And trust plays a key role in business and commerce generally: vendors supply goods and services trusting they’ll be paid. That’s how the system works. And Trump exploited it by simply not paying, over and over and over.

Is all this “genius?” Or walking through open doors?

The press’s authority is maimed even more by Trump’s continuing attacks, even turning the “fake news” trope against it. Another of his big lies. Tsipurski likens our unfolding situation to a “tragedy of the commons” – when it’s hard to protect a communal resource against those pillaging it. Here, our shared resource is a political environment where objective facts (disseminated by news media) hold sway, so that rational policy choices can be made. “This intangible yet invaluable resource,” Tsipurski writes, “is being polluted and destroyed by Trump’s post-truth politics.”

He understands his followers prefer to have their opinions uncontaminated by pesky reality. (He himself exhibits that very syndrome.) Better yet to feed them falsehoods tailored to those opinions. But voters need a source for, and to care about, truth and reality, to make rational political choices. Only thusly can their interests truly be served. That’s why Jefferson wrote that democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. But if the public doesn’t get it, why should politicians care either – about facts and about people’s real interests? When they can instead succeed by emotional manipulation and lies?

That’s the road to authoritarianism. It’s the one Putin followed. He destroyed Russia’s independent media, so he could work his “magic” on citizens unfettered by truth or any accountability. And that’s the road Donald Trump openly steers toward.

* Falsely accusing his predecessor of a serious crime is disgusting behavior for a president. A sane adult would simply admit the mistake and move on. Not this stinking turd.

The ICE man cometh

March 4, 2017

unknownThis title was unavoidable. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I have long referred to it as our Gestapo. And that was before Trump. Under Obama, 2.7 million were deported, and horror stories abounded. But at least there were some restraints. Now ICE is totally out of control.

As in the case of law enforcement generally, ICE has an unfortunate tendency to attract the wrong sort — who get their jollies abusing people. And it’s reported that “morale” in ICE ranks has soared under Trump, with the “shackles” now off. When his travel order came out, ICE men were emboldened to enforce it with sickening excess. Many victims legally entitled to be here were treated brutally and denied entry by ICE pricks.* (“And some, I assume, are good people.”)

poster420x415f8f8f8-pad420x460f8f8f8-u1Now the administration has issued new deportation guidelines. The idea of deporting all undocumented residents was always considered, well, crazy, at least if you have brains and human decency. Alas, those are not hallmarks of the Trump administration. The new guidelines target not only those having committed crimes, but even minor traffic offenses. And — get this — people merely “SUSPECTED” of offenses. (By who? On what basis?) How can that square with the 14th amendment, which says all “persons” (not just citizens) are entitled to due process of law. A noble assertion of what used to be America’s fundamental values.

imagesBut in practice, ICE men now seem free to seek out and grab not just “bad hombres” but anybody. Like Ramiro Martinez-Chacon of Hudson, (formerly from violence-wracked El Salvador), in the U.S. since 2002, minding his own business at home on February 7 when some ICE men came, handcuffed him, and dragged him away, in front of his children, who are U.S. citizens. His sole transgression was being here. This story is being repeated all over the country.

unknownI get it that undocumented residents don’t have a legal right to be here. But many of them were brought as children and have lived their whole lives here. And many have minor children who are citizens. Don’t those kids have a basic human right to live with their parents? Deporting those parents is an extremely cruel, stupid, shamefully pointless policy that harms American children!

And the great majority of these people make a positive contribution to our country. It’s actually only thanks to them that our population and workforce isn’t shrinking. Not only do they do a lot of needed jobs, but by spending money in our economy, they actually support a lot of other jobs held by citizens. It’s been estimated that spending by undocumented residents comprises 5% of our economy. They also contribute taxes (while not being entitled to many benefits). Booting them out makes America and its citizens worse off.

But economics or rationality have nothing to do with Trump’s policy. He’s simply pandering to those who just hate living beside people who don’t look or talk like them. And he’s furthermore whipped up those prejudices by harping on crimes by undocumented people. When in fact studies show they commit fewer crimes on average than U.S. citizens. As should be expected, since the potential penalty (deportation) is more severe.

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

It’s also ridiculous to say other countries are exporting undesirables to America. To the contrary, anyone undertaking all the risks, difficulties, and challenges of such migration must possess the kinds of personal qualities that make them an asset to whatever community they join. I want them here.

Better than ignorant, hate-filled Trump supporters.

* And not just Muslims. Click here.

A stroke of insight

February 25, 2017

It’s said that a key to happiness is gratitude for what you have. I am extremely grateful for my brain. Not that mine is so special; all human brains are. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 book, My Stroke of Insight, is a good reminder of this.

Jill and her brain

Jill and her brain

Jill, 37, single, awoke one day with a bad pain in her head. She had trouble with normal morning routines. Something was very wrong. A congenital malformation of blood vessels in her brain had suddenly blown, flooding it with blood, which is toxic to neurons. In short, a stroke.

Jill was a neuroanatomist – a brain scientist. She, if anyone, was capable of understanding what was happening. And she knew well that with a stroke, time is of the essence; the faster treatment begins, the better the outcome. Yet her detailed chronicle of that morning is agonizing to read. It took her quite a long while to connect the dots and decide to get help, because the stroke was wreaking havoc with her mental functioning. And that worsened with every passing minute as the hemorrhaging continued.

Still, it seemed puzzling that she didn’t act right away, while she still had most of her wits. I was reminded of Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who got cancer; he too delayed getting help, rationalizing his severe symptoms as just due to the stresses of his intensive medical training. But he should have known better. When he finally got himself checked out, it was too late. He was 37 too, when he died.

imagesBy the time Jill at last grasped the situation, she was so incapacitated that taking action was becoming increasingly difficult. She sat immobilized in front of the phone. The part of her brain responsible for  numbers had been particularly hard hit. In intermittent moments of relative lucidity, she somehow managed to locate a card with her doctor’s number, and even to dial it. But then could not speak.

The doctor figured out who was calling. “Go to Mount Auburn Hospital,” she said. That was all. I was appalled. Jill couldn’t even talk.

Eventually, she also managed to dial her office. A colleague, alarmed, went to her apartment, and got her to a hospital, probably saving her life.

But here is a fascinating point. One reason for Jill’s delay is that she was loving what she was experiencing.

images-1Very generally, our two brain halves differ; the left is considered to be the rational side, housing our cognitive skills, while the right brain is the artistic, creative, intuitive side. Note that while normally, one cannot really separate the two, experiments cutting the connection between them (e.g., to control epilepsy) reveal that in some ways there really are two separate personalities inhabiting the one skull.

The stroke ravaged Jill’s left hemisphere – so, she says, it “no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly” like what Buddhists call nirvana. “I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.” (My emphasis)

unknown-2Buddhist meditation practice also aims for a kind of annihilation of the self, and this too Jill experienced. She even writes of losing proprioception – the brain’s monitoring of the body. The boundary between one’s body and what’s outside it is something second nature to us, but for Jill that melted away. She describes it as feeling fluid rather than solid (a feeling that didn’t go away for years). I was reminded of the Buddhist asking a hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”

Proprioception is only one element of our sense of self. How the self is created is something we don’t yet truly understand. (For an excellent discussion of that problem, click here.) But as a brain scientist, Jill sheds some light by describing how she lost her self. unknown-3She talks of the brain constantly engaged in reminding you who you are, what your life is about, how you fit into the world, etc. – an unremitting effort like that of a performer keeping a row of plates spinning atop sticks. Jill’s brain stopped doing it, and her very selfhood dissolved away.

She recovered, but it was a tough eight-year slog. Much of her mind had to be rebuilt, reprogrammed – she was like an infant needing to learn the most basic things about life and the world. The hardest, she says, was reading: “I had no recollection that reading was something I had ever done before, and I thought the concept was ridiculous. Reading was such an abstract idea that I couldn’t believe anyone had ever thought of it, much less put forth the effort to figure out how to do it.”

images-2Her mother moved in to help her. Another challenge was the total loss of her number sense. When her mother asked her, “What’s one plus one?” Jill pondered before responding: “What’s a one?”

Motivating herself was hard. Nirvana still beckoned. Jill had to constantly consciously decide to exit from the “enticing and wonderful” right hemisphere “la-la land” of “divine bliss,” and engage her recovering analytical left mind. And she says she wondered how much of her “newly found right hemisphere consciousness, set of values, and resultant personality” would have to be sacrificed in order to recover her left-brain skills. In fact, she now recognized aspects of her past personality – egotism, argumentativeness, meanness, and various hang-ups – that she’d rather leave behind.

images-3And the way she saw things now, those characteristics reflected her left brain having exercised dominance over the right brain; but that dominance was not beyond her control. She says her stroke revealed that it was actually up to her to decide the relationship between the two sides of her brain in shaping her personality. This may be easier said than done, but Jill seems to feel she has done it, and that it is possible for anyone to do it.

The key to such control, she says, is to recognize when she’s hooked into a negative thought loop. She lets it run for about 90 seconds, then consciously asks her brain to knock it off. This must be done with intensity, Jill says, and she tries to get her brain onto different, better thoughts. (I believe I myself do a lot of what Jill prescribes; but click here for a counter-story.)

All this is an ultimate argument for free will; and Jill does provide some powerful evidence for it.

I will end with this quote from the book: “our minds are highly sophisticated ‘seek and ye shall find’ instruments. unknown-4We are designed to focus in on whatever we are looking for. If I seek red in the world then I will find it everywhere. Perhaps just a little in the beginning, but the longer I stay focused on looking for red, then before you know it, I will see red everywhere.”

This is highly relevant to our political lives.

Melania sues a blogger: the Trumps, libel laws, and the media

February 21, 2017

First Lady Melania Trump sued a Maryland blogger for $150 million for libel, and he reportedly settled by paying her a “substantial sum.” Such cases are commonly settled because a court fight is so costly. The blogger had suggested that Mrs. Trump had once been a paid “escort,” which he conceded was unsubstantiated. Other similar suits remain pending.

images(When I looked online for a photo — whoah! More of a first lady than we’re accustomed to seeing. I chose one of more tasteful pictures, at left.)

President Trump, hyper-allergic to criticism, has long called for changing libel laws to make suing easier. He is probably thinking of the British system, where the defendant has the burden of proof. This is a huge scandal, and has made Britain a mecca for shameful libel suits. Like Holocaust denier David Irving suing an author who wrote of his historical distortions, putting her through hell to defend herself in court (depicted in the recent film Denial).

Trump also probably wants to change the Times v. Sullivan doctrine. That was a 1964 Supreme Court decision saying that when someone criticizes a public official in the performance of their duties, a libel suit must prove not just falsity but actual malice and reckless disregard for truth.

images-1This makes it very hard for politicians to sue, and is a major bulwark against their abuse of libel laws.* Which is a very real problem in other countries. Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was notorious for using libel suits to persecute political opponents who criticized him, sometimes bankrupting them in the process.

Donald Trump too is notorious for litigiousness; he’s been involved in at least three thousand lawsuits. He wants looser libel laws so he can sue even more people. But it’s also part of his bigger project to destroy the American news media as an independent information source that holds people like him accountable for lies and misdeeds. He has already succeeded partway, his constant baseless attacks having damaged mainstream media’s credibility in the minds of many people.

images-2It’s sickening when the biggest liar in political history calls the press dishonest, “the enemy of the American people.” To the contrary, it’s Trump’s vile rhetoric that’s dishonest and a real danger to America. This is how dictators start. Democracy needs a robust free media to expose lies, corruption, and bungling. Now more than ever, with this egregious presidency!

Getting back to Melania, her feeling hurt by that blog might be understandable. Except that when you enter the White House, especially in today’s febrile political climate, you have to expect a certain amount of garbage thrown at you. images-3The Obamas certainly endured a lot of that (notably from Mr. Donald J. Trump, loudmouth of lying “birtherism”). But the Obamas didn’t go around suing folks. It’s unbecoming for a first family; and frightening to use that power to intimidate critics. America is not Singapore.

Meantime, remember Trump’s press conference claiming to separate himself from his businesses? With all those piles of suppposed documents? Yet another Trump fraud. I wish someone had had the balls to go up and look inside those folders. unknownBut the performance at least showed recognition that exploiting the oval office for private profit is totally inappropriate (if not criminal).

Mrs. Trump, in contrast however, appears unashamed about aiming to cash in on her public position. Her lawsuit claimed that the blogger damaged her potential for anticipated “multimillion dollar business relationships” and other “major business opportunities” expected from her first ladyship. The breathtaking frankness, at least, is refreshing.

Let them sue me for this blog.

unknown-1* Times v. Sullivan saved the posterior of yours truly, sued for $1.5 million for libel in 1973 when I authored a critical book about Albany’s political machine.

Selling girls in Afghanistan

February 19, 2017

You’re a thirteen year old girl, in Afghanistan, when your father sells you to a warlord as his fourth wife; with two of your sisters thrown into the deal, for his henchmen. (One soon burns herself to death.)

unknownThis is The Pearl That Broke its Shell, a 2014 novel by Nadia Hashimi. I’ve written before about how such “traditional” culture blights male-female relations, reviewing Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. At least the guy in that book was almost a human being, almost trying.

Pearl tells the stories of Rahima, the thirteen year old, and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba. Here’s something I learned about: Rahima spent some time as “Rahim,” a bacha posh, a girl living as a boy. This is not a transgender thing. Rather, it’s to evade all the societal restrictions on girls, and people wink at it. Thus “Rahim” could go to the market alone and haggle with vendors, thus helping her mother.

As a wife, Rahima was strictly confined in the warlord’s house and her role consisted of household chores, sexual servitude, and taking beatings. The only difference from being in prison was child-bearing. So maybe the better analogy is to slavery.

unknown-1Being a warlord with four wives might sound like a cool gig. Would I want it? No thanks. And a Henny Youngman joke is not coming here. When I compare the deep, warm, human relationship I have with my (one) wife against the cold, harsh, inhumane ones portrayed in these books, I weep with gratitude for our culture and what it gives us – and I weep for people in societies like Afghanistan’s, who don’t even know what they’re missing.

One thing missing is romance and seduction. Being a sexual object is a wife’s duty. Thus, her own sexuality is no part of the equation. It was striking that the lone male character in Pearl portrayed with a modicum of humanity nevertheless, when deflowering his new wife Shekiba, did it with no preliminaries. Not even an explanation to soften what was about to happen (and it didn’t take long). Whatever word Afghans use for this act, it cannot rightly translate as “lovemaking,” and sounds about as much fun as Trump’s pussy grabbing. Again , no thanks.

Hirsi Ali

Hirsi Ali

I think often of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel, talking of her arrival in the Netherlands as a refugee, after life in various Muslim countries. It was like landing on a different planet. Very quickly her eyes were opened to this being a good society, that enables people to live good lives. Much unlike her own past homes.

As for Rahima, her warlord hubby develops buyer’s remorse, and spots another chick he fancies; but a Muslim can’t have more than four wives. images-2Rahima realizes this does not bode well for her. She is disposable, literally; can be simply killed to reopen the fourth-wife slot, and nobody would do a thing. But there’s a happy ending; Rahima manages to escape to a women’s shelter in Kabul.

Unfortunately most Afghanis have no escape route.

Protesting Trump’s assault on American values

January 29, 2017

This morning I heard on the news that there’d be a protest vigil, at the Albany Airport, against Trump’s Muslim travel ban. I told my wife; we quickly found the details; it was starting at 10 AM. We decided to go.

img_20170129_114053I’m not normally an activist demonstrator. But in all my 53 years of political involvement and observation, never before have I experienced such a depth of feeling as my horror at Trump’s un-American actions. We both felt a responsibility to stand up against this.

I whipped up a sign saying, “Trump Disgraces America.” My wife’s said, “I see something, so I’m saying something.” She attached to it an actual copy of the constitution.

As we drove up to the Airport, there was a checkpoint, with a sheriff’s car, and deputy. Wow; never saw that before! I imagined hearing something like, “Only ticketed passengers allowed,” so I got ready to say, “This is still America, you can’t stop us from free speech in a public place!”

The officer pleasantly bade us good morning and asked why we’d come.

My wife pleasantly said, “We’re here for the vigil.”

And the officer pleasantly said, “Excellent. Go right this way to park.”

Well, they were getting a lot of extra parking revenue out of this.

I was surprised at the size of the crowd – which soon grew to several hundred, despite the short notice and ad hoc situation. Many of the signs were better than mine. One, for example, said, “U.S. Visa denied,” with a picture of Anne Frank. Some resembled the lawn sign I’d put up on November 10.

Some participants were mounting a bench to address the gathering. I decided to take a turn. Before I started, a woman shouted something about how even Republicans should oppose what Trump did. I said, in toto:

“I am a Republican – an enrolled Republican. My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, is working, in Iraq, for a refugee relief agency. Yesterday she wrote this on her blog: Trump’s ‘America First’ actually ‘puts America last – last in humanity, last in compassion, last in lifting up the tired, the poor, the huddled masses – which is what made America first, in so many ways, to begin with.’”

Trump’s order bars not only all Muslim refugees, but even people with valid green cards; even people who’ve resided legally in the U.S. for years, who were travelling from designated countries. It’s insane and criminal. Courts have already ordered this stopped, but Trump, and much of our immigration gestapo, so far refuse to obey.

This is a nation of laws, with its independent judiciary a crucial bulwark against tyranny. If the regime can defy courts with impunity, then we are in really deep trouble.

America’s Shame

January 28, 2017

President Trump’s Muslim travel restrictions are a sickening betrayal of what America stands for. Or used to stand for.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

unknownMy mother came through that golden door in 1938 as a refugee from persecution and violence. But most German Jews were not so lucky. America’s WWII refusal to do more for them remains a stain on our national honor. Today we add a new stain by slamming the golden door against victims of the monstrous horror in Syria, and other Muslim victims.

Another thing this nation used to stand for was religious openness. images-1George Washington wrote that Jews are not merely tolerated in America, they are Americans. Non-discrimination among religions was a bedrock principle on which this nation was built. Yet Trump’s order exempts Christians from the travel ban.

His action caters to the basest, dumbest prejudices of his followers. Make us safe from terrorism? While these people have an insane love affair with guns, that kill hundreds of times more Americans than terrorism? Where is the common sense? The San Bernardino and Orlando shooters killed far fewer people than die every week through gun accidents. But anyhow they were U.S. citizens who would not have been affected by Trump’s stupid action.

Meantime, he has singled out seven Muslim nations for his travel ban. None of the 9/11 terrorists came from those seven. They all came from four nations not on Trump’s list. But those four (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and UAE) are all countries for which a ban would be politically problematic. So instead Trump picks other ones.

But even if the countries were the right ones, this would still be an exceptionally silly action. As if would-be terrorists would go through the vetting process. As if people willing to massacre others, even to blow themselves up, could not find ways to sneak in. images-2Trump’s despicable action will hurt tens of thousands of desperate, suffering people, while inconveniencing bad guys not at all. (How hard is it to masquerade as “Christian?”)

George W. Bush, in launching the war on terror, took great pains to make clear that it was not a war on Muslims. He understood how catastrophic it would be to antagonize all of Islam. Trump does not; he is doing exactly what Bush took pains to avoid. This will only increase conflict and terrorism.

The action is ostensibly temporary, a “pause.” But when, pray tell, do you suppose Trump will feel able to lift the travel ban without enraging the assholes who love it?

images-3The raw truth is that some people just don’t like people who are different from themselves. That’s what this is really all about, at rock bottom.

Well, some Americans at least are still working to uphold true American values. My daughter is employed in Iraq, with the Danish Refugee Council. After I drafted this, I saw that she had written something on her own blog more eloquent. Please read it here.

But let me quote her: Trump’s “America First” actually “puts America last — last in humanity, last in compassion, last in lifting up the tired, the poor, the huddled masses — which is what made America first, in so many ways, to begin with.”

UPDATE: Today two Syrian families arrived in Philadelphia, with valid visas and green cards, having worked for years to get them. They were sent back.

The inaugural address: us against them

January 20, 2017

images-1The President had much to say to “forgotten Americans,” who feel full of resentments. Fair enough. But what about the rest of us?

Trump talked of a Washington political elite that prospers at the expense of everyone else. That’s his division between bad and good, victims and victimizers. (A bit strange to cast Washington politicians as the Enemies of the People – when over 90% get re-elected every time.) Perhaps surprisingly Trump did not mention banks, Wall Street, or corporations. No – it’s just the Washington pols against the entire rest of the country, and the entire rest of the country is suffering.

It’s a country mired in “carnage.” Yes, “carnage!” I thought I was transported in a time machine back to 1933, judging from the grim picture of American society and its economy that he portrayed.

As if Washington predation is actually the cause of our economic challenges. It’s absurd. And meantime, in fact, most Americans are doing quite fine, and do not harbor grievances against some malevolent elite that we imagine is screwing us. But we seem invisible to Trump.

imagesSo his theme was us-against-them. His “us” is the 40% who voted for him and still back him. His words about national unity were cynically empty. This was an atrociously divisive speech, setting part of the population against another. I felt like I’m one of the “them.”

Us-against-them is likewise his global stance. For the better part of a century, America has seen its role as being bound into a world community, wherein promotion of our interests is served by promotion of our values. Those values have included democracy, openness, nations solving their problems peaceably, and trading with each other for mutual benefit. America has shouldered the lead and responsibility in building and sustaining this global order. The logic is that we are better off in a world where other countries are democratic and hence do not create causes of war and turmoil, and in which other countries grow more prosperous, and hence more secure, and better able to buy what we produce.

images-2Forget all that, Trump says. His global vision is very different: it’s us against them. Our policy now will simply be America First; and other countries should likewise mind their own self-interest. Nothing about having any interests in common. (He’s even cheered on the unraveling of the European Union.) And we won’t try to “impose” our values on anyone. Values are irrelevant in this dark vision. Trump sees other countries only as “ravaging” us; the world as a zero-sum game where one nation’s gain is another’s loss.

This insanity is the whole world’s loss. Our own most of all.

 

My credo

January 18, 2017

 

unknownAs our political transition unfolds, I find myself caught between the Scylla of a Democratic party increasingly romanticizing socialist economics hostile to enterprise and trade, and a Republican Charybdis fallen into a dark hole of nativism romanticizing a past that won’t return and shouldn’t. Today’s real divide is between mindsets of openness and closedness. With irresponsible foolishness of every sort running rampant, trampling sound classically liberal principles, I will not give up on them, but will continue to defend them in the years ahead. Here I recap those core principles.

 

  • Democracy and rule of law, so government is accountable to citizens, its powers over them restricted.

 

  • Freedom of speech, expression, and argument. images-1No idea immune from critical examination – even if that offends or discomfits some. This is not only integral to personal freedom, it is also crucial for society to evaluate ideas and progress thereby.

 

  • Limited government, filling only roles that individuals cannot. People able to choose for themselves how to live and act, with society dictating only when its reasons are compelling; basically, only to protect others from harm.

 

  • Free market economics is the best way to grow the pie so all can prosper. images-2Profit-seeking business is how people’s needs and desires get satisfied. That is best promoted when businesses are forced to compete openly and fairly with each other, none gaining advantage through government intervention. Instead government should function to remove barriers to competition and business enterprise.

 

  • This does not mean businesses unregulated. They too are subject to laws to protect others from harm.

 

  • Inequality is the inevitable result of people striving to better themselves, and is not unjust or an evil. Successful people are not the enemy, nor the cause of want. But a market economy generates enough wealth that we can afford to give everyone a decent living standard, out of simple humanity.

 

  • When another country can sell us something cheaper than we can produce it ourselves, we benefit as well as they. images-3Impeding such trade only impoverishes both nations. The gains from freer global trade, through lower consumer prices, vastly exceed the costs in any jobs lost.

 

  • America prospers best in a world wherein democracy, free trade, and peaceful development prevail among other countries, making them too more prosperous; so promoting those values must be the core of our foreign policy. Forces in the world threatening those values must be actively combated.

 

  • Government spending and taxation must be brought into a sustainable balance. Heedlessly piling up excessive debt will not end well.

 

  • Truth and facts should be sought objectively, and should shape our beliefs, rather than our beliefs shaping what we think are facts. unknown-1Confirmation bias is the enemy of reason. We acquire truth through science, a method of rational inquiry which progresses by self-correction as more facts become known and understood.

 

  • No religion is better or truer than any other. All are equally false; and that false consciousness can only impede people in grappling with challenges all too real.

 

  • Human beings are natural animals, resulting from Darwinian evolution. Ultimately the only thing that matters in the Universe is the well being of creatures capable of feeling. All people have equal dignity and worth (except for those who imagine their kind is superior, thereby proving they are inferior).

 

  • Over the centuries, the increasing application of all these principles has made for enormous global progress, with ever more people able to live ever better lives. unknown-2Abandoning these principles endangers that progress.