Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

American democracy and the Big Lie

January 28, 2021

In November 1918, Germany’s military situation had become hopeless. Support for the Kaiser collapsed, he fled, and a new democratic government came in and signed the armistice ending the war. There was no alternative. But those democrats — including liberals, socialists, and especially Jews — were demonized for it. Blamed for supposedly somehow stabbing Germany’s army in the back.

That was a lie, cynically and knowingly cooked up to serve a political agenda. But it was widely believed by Germans unwilling to accept the humiliation of military defeat. The “stab in the back” myth loomed over the democratic Weimar Republic and corroded its perceived legitimacy; was exploited by Hitler in his rise to power.

This history was discussed recently on NPR. Why? Today America has the “stolen election” myth. The parallels are obvious and scary.

The January 6 insurrectionists cast themselves as battling for democracy, against an election steal. In fact they were accessories to an attempted one.

Trump had long made clear he’d falsely claim fraud to avoid accepting election defeat. But I didn’t realize what legs that lie would acquire. With most Republicans, a third of Americans, believing it as gospel. Like post-WWI Germans, rather than face up to defeat, they prefer to believe a lie that they were cheated of victory.*

The nativist right — for all its patriotism sanctimony — harbors a deep disaffection from the America they actually inhabit. As distinguished from their fantasy country, that they wanted to “make great again.” Actually, make white again, a key focus of their disaffection. And that disaffection is broadened and intensified by the “stolen election” lie. Convincing them that our government is illegitimate, the whole system rotten.

Trump’s trying to overthrow an election and inciting insurrection were crimes enough. But his greater crime was introducing into our body politic this toxic poison of the “stolen election” myth. It will plague us for years to come. Making it all the harder to restore some semblance of — well, not even unity, but just some comity, so we can at least manage to live together.

*        *        *

The age-old fear was democracy degenerating into mob rule. We got a taste on January 6. The other pitfall, seen in many countries, is one voting mistake giving you dictatorship, hard to undo. We’ve now had our own close shave with that as well.

As President Biden declared, our democracy did prevail. Our constitutional system a bulwark against both mobocracy and tyranny. But I keep saying — that’s not ordained by God. Democracy is not just a system but a culture. It cannot be sustained absent a citizenry with baked in democratic values. Which requires understanding those values, and too few Americans today really do.

Those who stormed the Capitol, invoking “the people’s will,” actually had their own understanding of that concept. What they really meant was their will. It wasn’t about who truly got the most votes. Only theirs were legitimate, others not. Especially Black ones. As Isabel Wilkerson suggested in Caste, many Americans want not a democratic country now so much as a white one.

* One more time: while Trumpers cite a raft of supposed “irregularities,” there’s zero evidence for anything that could have changed the outcome. None of Trump’s 60 lawsuits provided any. Even his toady Attorney General Barr agreed. Many election officials involved were Republicans. It all came from a man whose record of lies, if each were a mile, would circle the Earth. And why refuse to believe so lousy a candidate actually lost?

Wear a mask — please

January 26, 2021

It’s not something being forced on you. It’s being asked of you. For your own health and safety, and everyone around you. Nobody has “freedom” to do as they please if it endangers others. That’s not “freedom,” it’s irresponsibility. Mask wearing is good citizenship. Good humanhood.

Do we really, at this point, still have to persuade anyone covid is no hoax? Where did that idea come from anyway? Over 400,000 American corpses disprove it. Many of them believers in the “hoax” lie, who didn’t wear masks, and paid for that mistake with their lives.

On one recent day I counted nine obituaries in the local paper citing covid as cause of death.

And this is not merely like the flu. I had that wrong idea myself at the beginning, but facts quickly changed my opinion. This is much deadlier than flu — and even many who survive go through hell first. And/or then suffer long term health impairments. Covid is also more contagious. Especially the more virulent British strain that recently evolved.

Developing vaccines so quickly is a fantastic achievement. However, it will take time to manufacture enough vaccine and inject enough people to achieve the “herd immunity” to finally defeat the virus. And that will be impeded, if not derailed, by many people refusing vaccination. Which makes no sense, because whatever you imagine (wrongly) are the vaccine’s risks, covid’s are surely far greater. As evidenced again by that mountain of corpses. No way could a vaccine kill that many people.

So that mountain will grow during the coming months. Probably by a lot. The time ahead could be the deadliest.

Masks can help tremendously. Our 400,000+ death toll would already have been far lower had America been more sensible about masks. They can still save a huge number of lives. One October 2020 study calculated that universal masking would prevent 130,000 U.S. deaths in just the ensuing three months.

It’s true that in the beginning experts gave mixed messages about masking. A big reason was a mask shortage raising concerns that widespread everyday use could cause health workers to go without. That’s no longer an issue. And the benefit of masking isn’t rocket science. We know now that covid is transmitted mainly by droplets coming out of noses and mouths and getting into other noses and mouths through the air. Masks help to block them both ways.

Okay, masks are no fun. A bit uncomfortable, a bit of a nuisance. But the notion of masks being somehow bad for your health is simply nonsense. To the contrary, they can literally save your life. Hundreds of thousands are walking around now because they did wear masks and thus didn’t get covid. Given that, calling mask wearing an  imposition is pretty silly. Death is a much bigger imposition.

America’s record on covid is much worse than most other rich countries. Of course that’s mainly because our government leadership was so abysmal — indeed, missing entirely for the last months while infection and death rates accelerated. The most obvious avoidable failure was the refusal to push masking — indeed, doing the opposite. Insane, really. The tragic legacy still bedevils us. A New York Times reporter recently wrote of a long road trip, with masks everywhere notable for their absence. Many places having signs up requiring masks, but they’re widely ignored. Violators getting no pushback. In fact there’s still much pushback when people are asked to wear masks. Bleating about their “freedom.” To be covidiots.

The good news is that most Americans — despite Trump — have been masking. But the bad news is that the minority who refuse are the cause of nearly all our covid infections and deaths. President Biden is asking for 100 days of masking. If every American complied, then by the end of that time, the virus would actually have virtually died out, being unable to infect anybody. Every non-masker will make it take longer. Please wear a mask. Please.

January 20: America’s light rekindled

January 20, 2021

The only presidential inauguration I ever got an engraved invitation to was Nixon’s in 1969. I didn’t go. Covid sidelining Biden’s was a big disappointment. I’d considered flying down nevertheless, just to stand witness, but even that was discouraged, for safety’s sake. And then came January 6.

A sea of flags planted on the mall represented the absent crowd. One was mine.

Four years ago the incoming president spoke of forgotten Americans, forgotten no longer. Last night, forgotten no longer were the 400,000 Americans who died on his watch.

The election had palpably lifted my emotional baseline. Though until today I still felt much anxiety, for obvious reasons. Watching the inauguration was a sublime moment of cathartic culmination and deliverance — intensified by mindfulness of my own contribution. This, more than anyone ever, is my president.

Of course, now comes the hard part. President Biden bears a weight of responsibility no human should ever be asked to carry. But we couldn’t have found a better person to lead us. A president we can be proud of, reflecting not America’s worst but its best. Though I don’t expect to approve of everything — after all, I was a conservative Republican for half a century.

So playing defense will be a lot less fun than criticizing. And normalcy and sanity will seem boring after the last four years. I’ll likely, strangely, miss the tumult.

It’s a truism of human psychology that hate can be more powerful than love, indignation stronger than approval, opposition more emotionally satisfying than supportiveness. Trump lovers were defined by their hatreds, which he channels. Writing about politics sure got my juices flowing. But I don’t actually expect that will end.

* * *

Long at the core of my being was belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity, advancing through rationality. With a democratic America standing as the great embodiment of those ideals. We’ve even had a stamp proclaiming, “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.” A picture of it adorns my wall.

But for the last four years, it’s been a painful daily reminder of loss. That light seemed to have failed.

Today, at last, it shines once more with truth and reason.

This is a good day. My heart is full.

The cult of the leader: Khomeini, Hitler, Big Brother, Trump

January 19, 2021

The news photo was unnerving. Trump’s January 6 rally — with three big screens looming over the crowd, imaging the center of his face, colored deep red, eyes glowering. Recalling throngs with giant pictures of a scowling Khomeini in 1979 Iran. Presaging it would not end well.

Such leader worship never does. Another example, Hitler, led his nation to destruction. And those Khomeini faces, and Trump’s, also both recalled 1984’s Big Brother. None of them smiling.

The foundation for humans living together in society is what’s called social capital. Preventing a war of all against all. A key element is trust — trust that societal norms and precepts will prevail. We ordinarily take it for granted. Trust that a stranger on the street won’t bash you and grab your stuff. That when you buy a jar of aspirins, those pills will actually be aspirins. That votes in an election will be properly counted.

Trump’s attack on the latter — based on nothing but lies — is only the latest in his long assault upon our social capital, dissolving the very glue that holds society together. Because he’snot served by it, this predator who thrives by shredding it. As with his tearing down the press, to undermine its holding him accountable.

America’s social capital was, pre-Trump, already stressed, polls showing us viewing each other with declining trust. Trump’s been an accelerant for that. So now, when it comes to the public sphere, a big segment of the U.S. population no longer believes or trusts anybody or anything — except Trump. The least trustworthy of men. The biggest liar.

That bizarrely perverse loyalty has all the earmarks of religious fanaticism. We had supposed evangelical Christians had strong faith, but it turns out their Christianity is trumped by Trumpism. On whose altar, David Brooks writes, they sacrifice every other value: “truth, moral character, the Sermon on the Mount, conservative principles, the Constitution.”

Brooks quotes a conservative preacher, Jeremiah Johnson who, after the storming of the Capitol, declared that God had unseated Trump because of his pride and arrogance and to humble those who, like Johnson himself, had fervently supported him. Provoking a firestorm of messages from Christians, cursing him out with vile epithets and multiple death threats. Johnson deemed these coreligionists “far SICKER (sic) than I could have ever dreamed.”

Not only can’t they see they’re worshiping a monster, correspondingly deranged is their demonization of his successor, as a corrupt doddering fool who’ll destroy America with socialism, taking away guns and law and order and freedom of religion and speech.

All totally ridiculous. And it’s this delusional foolishness that really does threaten to destroy America.

As seen on January 6. With almost an entire once-respectable political party careening down that rabbit hole. Longtime Republican operative Stuart Stevens had it right titling his book It Was All a LieWell, since Trump’s advent; now all bad faith and disingenuousness. Like when Elise Stefanik and 146 others in Congress claim, with straight faces, that their votes to overturn the election were responsive to Americans doubting its legitimacy — when those Republicans themselves fanned those baseless doubts by pushing Trump’s lies. And like Kevin McCarthy and 196 others opposing impeachment as “divisive” — after their mob attacked the Capitol screaming “Freedom!” in their bid to make Trump dictator — which most of those Congress members thereupon effectively voted to do. Divisive?

For some at least, like that Jeremiah Johnson, January 6 shook them to their senses. Trump’s approval rating fell from around 40% to around 30%. But that’s still a terrifying figure. And many saw January 6 not as a debacle but a clarion call.

How can we cure this madness? I don’t have a good answer. It’s impervious to reason. Brooks calls it “narcissistic self-idolatry to think you can create your own truth based on what you ‘feel.'” It’s not like Trump cultists are just selective about what facts they choose to believe — their basic conception of reality is a total inversion of what actually obtains. The core of their existence is a lie. And nothing will disabuse them.

Hitler, Khomeini, and Big Brother held power — but fortunately an American voting majority (not God!) has rid us of Trump. For now. A bare 51% majority. Too close for comfort.

Free speech and America’s escalating crisis of Trumpist insanity

January 16, 2021

Trump’s 2016 election put America, and what it represents, into a crisis that has only escalated. Every time we think we’ve seen the bottom, we’re proven wrong. Now he’s been impeached for incitement to insurrection, a violent attack on the Capitol demanding overthrow of our presidential election. Which 147 Congressional Republicans then obeyed.

Yet even after this shocking perfidy, Trump’s approval ratings are still between 29% and 39%. For a job he isn’t even doing. While covid rages and the economy craters, he’s been focused on trying to subvert the election and handing out pardons to criminals and medals to sycophants. And a third of Americans approve? Are they insane? 

Many wonder what he was thinking, urging his mob to attack the Capitol. That this might somehow keep him in office? But Trump’s never had a clue how our government and politics actually work. While pundits still talk as if there must be some calculated plan, the truth is simpler: he’s insane.

Many supporters don’t merely “approve” but worship him, as god-emperor — battling a deep state conspiracy of Satanic baby-eating pedophiles, according to Q-Anon, which millions believe. So they storm our sacred Capitol, smearing it with feces, carrying racist flags and weapons and bombs, assaulting policemen, screaming for heads on pikes and for hanging the Vice President, erecting the gallows. It was a close-run thing that no elected officials died. The attackers called themselves “patriots.” And Trump afterward sent them “love.”

We’re told the Republican party is splitting between Trumpism and sanity. But it’s still a very lopsided division; the great majority of GOP voters remain gaga. Just ten in the House backed impeachment. One serious observer suggests some of the rest feared being killed by fanatics in their own voting base. Meantime, now even members of Congress must go through metal detectors after at least one Republican brought a gun into the chamber.

All this might be less insane if centered upon some arguably noble heroic figure, a Pericles, a Napoleon. But this guy?? Vicious, depraved, degraded, a lying con man. Trumpsuckers can’t see the obvious. The word insane hardly suffices.

He rode to power exploiting widespread grievances with at least some tether to reality. Efforts for Black equality are not a figment of Trumpist imagination. Now though, it’s foaming-mouth fury at this “stolen election” idea, totally divorced from Planet Earth. But for them, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

And so they stormed the Capitol. Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

The internet and social media loom large here, spreading the poison. On Thursday I was asked by ex-Gov. Deval Patrick to attend a zoom, with Media Matters for America, discussing Facebook, Twitter, etc., banning Trump, part of a broader crackdown on right-wing extremist content. A video showed some hair-raising examples, including major Fox creeps talking up violence as a somehow legitimate recourse.

I pointed out that “conservatives” have long alleged silencing by opinion gatekeepers, making free speech an issue. And they certainly have a point regarding academia, punitively enforcing ideological conformity. Yet MMA’s presentation was all about suppressing right-wing content. What about trying to bring these people back to sanity? MMA’s president Angelo Carusone answered that major platforms have actually failed to enforce their own rules, enabling extremist advocates to “cheat,” and that’s what’s being targeted.

I am almost absolutist about freedom of speech. With Jefferson, holding that the answer for bad ideas is not censorship but better ones. Banning anyone — especially the President! — from a public platform is troubling. Ones like Facebook and Twitter do have too much power over the landscape of public debate. However, what the First Amendment bars is government restricting speech, which is not at issue here. And while everyone has a right to speak, nobody is entitled to a megaphone provided by someone else. In this case, banning Trump and other incendiary extremists is the right thing to do.

I began by saying America’s been in crisis. Disinformation is a key aspect, shredding our civic culture. We can’t have rational discourse without some shared reality. Bad enough being polarized over genuine issues; now it’s over what’s simply a lie. Many millions deranged by this pernicious “stolen election” nonsense, stoked to insurrectionary violence. Yes, we must try to coax them to sanity. But first at least turn off the fire-hose fueling the madness.

It won’t end soon. Trumpsters see January 6 not as a climactic disaster, but a galvanizing call to arms. They will be raging again tomorrow, and vow inauguration day trouble in all fifty state capitals. Some say President-elect Biden should avoid danger and forgo an outdoor public ceremony. I strongly disagree. Traditions matter. Normalcy — sanity — must be restored — and seen to be restored.

There will be ample security. Better include anti-aircraft guns. Not a joke.

Caste: America’s deep problem

January 14, 2021

Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, about Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South, was inspiring. Her new book Caste is dispiriting.

Wilkerson defines caste as a cognitive system situating people in a social hierarchy, governing who’s on top and what others are deemed allowed to do. Captured in that old locution about Blacks “knowing their place.” She brackets America with the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. Seeing this as the skeleton underlying America’s social architecture, analogized to the unseen programming imprisoning people in The Matrix, with only rare individuals able to realize it and free themselves.

So this isn’t just about race and racism. Nor does the word “class” cover it, referring to economic differences. Caste is a broader concept, concerning social status relationships. The ability of even the most degraded Whites to hold themselves above Blacks has been a crucial fact of American culture. Taking it away feels devastating to many, relegating them to the bottom.

Wilkerson posits “Eight Pillars” for a caste system:

1) Divine sanction. Blacks supposedly descended from Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, cursed by him (unjustly).

2) Heritability — people born unchangeably into their caste.

3) Regulating procreation to preserve caste boundaries.

4) A concept of purity versus pollution. Thus the “one drop of blood” rule concerning ancestry. I recalled Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! — where a plantation owner rejects his daughter’s suitor — not because he was already married — nor even the relationship being incestuous. The real reason: one drop.

5) Occupational segregation, exemplified in India, where caste dictates one’s work.

6) Dehumanization and stigma. Wilkerson details how Nazis and America’s slave system stripped victims of perceived humanity.

7) Terror as enforcement and control. To keep slaves in check, they were brutalized, even though this meant masters damaging their own property. Emancipation removed even that inhibiting factor. Thus lynchings.

8) Concepts of inherent superiority and inferiority. Each caste supposedly deserving its status.

Wilkerson gives a harrowing account of slavery’s U.S. history. While slavery has existed since civilization’s beginnings, in most cases victims bore no physical markers for their status. Thus it was subject to erasure. Even India’s rigid caste system is short on overt physical cues. But in America the visual distinctiveness of Blacks served to exacerbate their perceived low status and perpetuate it across generations.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, the Nigerian protagonist says she never knew she was Black until she came to America. Wilkerson quotes a similar statement, likewise saying no European is “White” before coming here. She makes the familiar argument that these racial categories are not actually biological facts but social constructs. Human DNA is 99.9% identical. The supposed division into three “races” was always junk science, struggling to justify some sort of hierarchy among people based on immaterial variations. It’s nonsense to deem any human subgroup innately superior or inferior. And in any case “racial” characteristics are not distinct but blend into each other in a continuum of gradations. Some “Whites” are darker than some “Blacks.”

Yet these points seem at odds with Wilkerson’s argument about clear visual markers facilitating U.S. caste divisions. Those differences of skin color and other physical attributes are real enough. We know what we mean when saying someone is Black. And that, Wilkerson writes, is “the historic flash card to the public of how [Blacks] are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of position they are expected to hold,” and so forth.

She relates some humiliating personal experiences. In one, as a New York Times reporter, she went to a scheduled interview, and the guy wouldn’t accept who she was. Saying, “I must ask you to leave, I’m awaiting an important interview with the New York Times.”Reading of Wilkerson’s air travel indignities reaffirmed my eschewing First Class and its entitled jerks — but also reminded me of my white privilege. I’ve hated that term; believing it’s just normality; that the issue is really Black dis-privilege. But the book made me think about my running in airports and other public places — very risky if I weren’t white.

There is a large political dimension to all this. Wilkerson describes a film of Germans adulating Hitler. She says the Nazis needed masses falling under the spell, susceptible to propaganda giving them an identity to believe in. Seeing the same dynamic in Jim Crow’s brutalities, reflecting the “weaknesses of the human immune system.” Not speaking biologically, of course. She quotes psychologist Erich Fromm regarding one aspect of dominant caste mentality: “He is nothing, but if he can identify with his nation, or can transfer his personal narcissism to the nation, then he is everything.” And social theorist Takamichi Sakurai: “Group narcissism leads people to fascism . . . a fanatical fascist politics, and extreme racialism.” Fromm too pointed to Nazi Germany and (writing in 1964) the U.S. South. With the working class particularly susceptible — “eager to have a leader with whom it can identify.” And “the narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.” Does this ring a bell?

Many of us imagined Obama’s election signified America finally graduating to post-racial nirvana. But the book discusses how it freaked out many Whites and actually triggered retrogression. Not just a backlash by bitter-enders, but a general heightening of White caste truculence. Before, dominance loss seemed hypothetical and distant. Now it felt real and present. Made worse by Obama being so obviously a superior person, confounding negative stereotypes about Blacks. The old hierarchy (in which Whites knew their place) seemingly turned upside down. Antipathy toward Blacks increased.

While liberals have long bemoaned working class people voting against their economic interests, many actually see their interests differently — putting caste status above other concerns. Viewing undeserving groups as getting ahead at their expense. And Republicans as representing White caste interests, while Democrats represent the groups threatening them.

Republicanism also reflects evangelicals’ abortion obsession. But that always seemed excessive. Now I wonder whether it’s a kind of displacement for something deeper: racial caste anxiety. I come back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor (in The Righteous Mindof the rider and elephant, representing the conscious and unconscious minds. The rider thinks they’re directing the elephant, but it’s really the other way around. Riders may believe they’re battling abortion — but are their subconscious elephants ruled by caste insecurity?

And Wilkerson says that while most White Americans disavow or even ostensibly oppose racism, so pervasive is Blacks’ stigmatization that 70-80% hold unconscious biases affecting their behavior without their even realizing it. She also thinks this lies behind America’s social ethos being harsher than in other advanced countries where people are more caring toward each other. Whom they see as fellow citizens, like themselves. America has, rather than such social solidarity, a deep resentment by the White dominant caste toward nonwhite others. Thus all the hostility toward social programs, again seen as unduly benefiting those (undeserving) others.

Wilkerson quotes historian Taylor Branch: given a choice between democracy and Whiteness, how many would choose the latter? And she similarly queries whether the U.S. will adhere to the principle of majority rule if the majority looks different. Some at least gave us an answer on January 6 when White supremacists carrying Confederate flags invaded the U.S. Capitol — something they never accomplished in 1863. Their caste defensiveness translating into nihilistic, anti-democratic, anti-rationalist Trumpism.

Wilkerson notes that Germany has no Nazi memorials, they’re ashamed about that history. There are neo-Nazis in America but not Germany. They have memorials to victims, and even pay compensation to them. My mother still gets a monthly check, having escaped the Nazis. But in my childhood, Jews’ own past history as a despised caste engendered no sense of solidarity with Black Americans. They were indeed considered below us in exactly the way Wilkerson describes.

Yet I believe most Americans have now progressed beyond that. Wilkerson’s interview anecdote seemed more bizarre than typical. That guy shamed himself, not her. Only a fool today would be thrown off by seeing a Black in any prestigious role.

Black Americans do still suffer from persistent after-effects of past subordination. America spent almost twice as long with slavery than without, and the societal impacts don’t disappear easily. Particularly fraught are Blacks’ interactions with police and the criminal justice system. But whereas in the past, such disparate treatment was accepted as normal, that is no longer true, with widespread public understanding that it’s wrong and needs fixing.

At one point Wilkerson refers to a coddling of Whites’ self-images “from cereal commercials to sitcoms.” Perhaps she doesn’t watch enough mainstream TV to realize that ads nowadays actually disproportionately feature Blacks. But many Whites have noticed. My 2017 blog post about this got more hits than any other, and way more comments — the vast majority expressing crude racist hatred. But they’re surely no representative sample of American sentiment.

When I see a Black person, I do see a likely descendant of slaves — but as part of recognizing something opposite to Wilkerson’s theme — the remarkable degree to which such people are normalized — integrated — in today’s culture. Increasingly, I see them as the very backbone of America, in job after job, the working folks who make our society function.

A recent David Brooks column observed that “racial sensitivity training” never seems to actually change people’s attitudes. What does, he said, is putting them in extended relationships with different people. They adapt to the new circumstances, developing new conceptions of who is “us” and who is “them.”

Wilkerson writes of a plumber arriving at her house in a MAGA hat. At first he was cold and unhelpful. But then both spoke of recently losing mothers. That human connection overrode the caste hostility. We have similarly seen examples where antipathy toward immigrants melts when people actually interact with them.

White supremacy is a lie, and people believing it prove who’s really inferior. While Blacks who, despite all the crap they have to endure, are decent human beings, prove they’re the superior ones. As activist Kimberly Jones said, Whites are lucky Blacks want only equality — not revenge.

Racial conflict is not inevitable. After the Civil War, with Blacks only just emerged from the most degrading, despised condition, and few Whites truly believing them equal, America nevertheless made them voting citizens. That humanistic generosity of spirit still takes my breath away.

Strangely, Wilkerson says virtually nothing about what I see as the true caste divide in today’s America — not between races but educational levels. Blacks who get well educated basically join the upper caste. That’s not to say they never experience painful slights like those Wilkerson relates. But those are not (or needn’t be) central to their overall life experience.

It is true that race and educational attainment do correlate to an unfortunate degree. This is the biggest continuing after-effect of America’s racialized history. We cannot erase skin color but we can— if we really set our minds to it — ensure equal educational opportunities. It’s long overdue and would solve most of the problem we all live with.

Crime and punishment in America

January 5, 2021

Cheryl Roberts is an ex-Judge, currently serving as Executive Director of the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, as well as corporation counsel for the City of Hudson. She spoke recently to my humanist society. Her topic was mass incarceration — more specifically, the criminalization of mental illness and substance disorders.

America has the highest incarceration rate of any country. That’s right, of any country. We have less than 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. Our imprisonment rate is five to ten times higher than for other democracies.

Is it because we have that much more crime? Of course not. Though we do have way more gun crime because of our insane gun culture. Roberts noted that U.S. incarceration numbers rose from about 200,000 in 1973 to 2.2 million in 2009. Since then they’ve stayed at about that level. But during that interval crime rates actually fell dramatically. That decline was probably partially attributable to imprisoning dangerous people, though cultural/societal and demographic factors were likely more salient. In any case, an eleven-fold increase in incarceration obviously can’t be justified on the basis of crime rates.

It disproportionately affects mainly minority men under 40, who are already disadvantaged, educationally and economically, etc. For all Americans, the lifetime chance of being imprisoned is 6% [a scary enough figure]; for black men it’s 32%. And meantime, over half of the prisoner population suffers from some kind of mental illness. Such people are ten times likelier to see the inside of a prison than a psychiatric facility.

Also, for those with untreated mental illness, the risk of dying in interactions with police is 16 times greater than for people not so afflicted. And it’s not because the mentally ill are more likely to be engaged in criminality. Actually, according to Roberts, they are more likely to be victims of crime.

And prison, she said, is the last place they should be, suffering horribly there. It’s hard enough even for “normal” people to cope with imprisonment. Roberts cited a Virginia study of 400 prison deaths, finding 41% associated with solitary confinement, 44% were suicides, 18% were tasered, etc.

How did we get here? Roberts quoted John Ehrlichman (a Nixon confidante, speaking decades later) saying that the Nixon administration wanted to hit two “enemies” — blacks and anti-war leftist protesters. Launching a “war on drugs” with harsh penalties was a way to kill those two birds with one stone. It’s the war on drugs that still accounts for the bulk of America’s over-incarceration. Treating drugs, more sensibly, as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one would go far toward addressing both the drug problem and the over-incarceration madness.

While drug use is correlated, to some degree, with mental problems, not all cases where mental problems get people in trouble with the law are drug-related. Mentally ill people used to be put in asylums; one such gave us the word “bedlam.” They were not indeed pleasant places. Thus there was a big societal push to get folks out of them. One impetus was adoption of a Medicaid rule prohibiting payment for most hospital care for the mentally ill.

Roberts noted that in the 1960s we had about 560,000 psychiatric hospital beds; four decades later it was down to about 50,000, for a national population double the size. Those beds came to be used mainly for people coming out of the criminal justice system, deemed incompetent to stand trial. While perhaps incongruously, what was originally the psychiatric hospital population was largely shifted into prisons. (Or into homelessness.)

Roberts said our high incarceration rate reflects a policy choice to use prison as a response to crime; and said it’s that policy that’s criminal. Actually, while certainly some very bad people are sent to prison, that’s not true of most inmates. And for them, incarceration is indeed a very bad, even self-defeating, societal response to whatever they’ve done. Partly that’s because prison is such a blunt tool; we call it the “correctional” system, but actually correcting antisocial behavior doesn’t much enter into it. With a little smartness, we could use prisons to help inmates overcome the personal problems that got them there. But such sensible programs* are very rare in U.S. prison systems.

* I’ve written about them: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/how-to-reduce-crime/

Farewell 2020

January 1, 2021

(We had a zoomed family holiday poetry slam. Here’s my poem.)

2020 Farewell,

A year from Hell;

A year of years,

Of fears and tears.

A sickness spread across the land,

The president without a plan,

A sickness of our national soul,

Fallen into a deep black hole.

Half the country gone insane,

Backing that evil monster’s reign,

Embracing his every lie;

How many had to die?

With children in cages,

Among countless outrages.

The choice was stark,

Between light and dark.

And when finally voted out,

Reality he did flout,

Trying to overturn the vote,

To cut our democracy’s throat.

And so we’ve been tested,

But were not bested;

Up against a wall,

We’ve come through after all.

And in the end,

We’re on the mend.

We did not fail;

We shall prevail.

Covid relief: can we get our heads straight?

December 30, 2020

Besides killing a third of a million Americans, sickening many millions, and disrupting our lives and metal health, the pandemic has been economically devastating. Something like 100,000 businesses have cut back or shut down, many permanently, hitting lower wage earners especially hard. On the other side of the tracks, anyone owning stocks has done very well. Thus further widening economic inequality.

I’m no left-wing social justice warrior, blaming economic disadvantage on the successful, considering their wealth morally “obscene.” But the question is what kind of society we want to live in. I want one that’s humane. With ameliorating human suffering a primary raison d’être.

Covid relief efforts have reflected such an ethos; sort of; up to a point. But, as seems endemic in human affairs, we don’t act with direct clarity, being waylaid by other interests and concerns.

Last spring’s initiative entailed $1200 checks. The latest, $600 checks (with efforts to increase them). But most Americans get them, instead of specifically targeting the neediest. Maybe figuring out who’s really needy would have been a fraught hassle. Or maybe too many would resent checks given to other people. Many Americans hate “welfare” but don’t put in that category any goodies they get from government. Anyhow, while the checks cost the nation hugely, the effect is diluted by spreading it so widely; the help to the neediest is piddling; and the aim of economic stimulus is also blunted, most recipients just holding onto the money rather than spending it.

The spring legislation also splashed out money supposedly to help businesses survive the pandemic. But this too was like an indiscriminate shotgun blast rather than laser-focused on where there was real need. The program wasn’t user-friendly, thus favoring big firms over the small ones that were actually hurting the most. Moreover, surprise, politically connected businesses somehow made off with bundles. Indeed, not just actual businesses. Joel Osteen’s cash-rich Texas megachurch got millions.

There’s also been an eviction moratorium, and New York State is enacting a more muscular version. Here again, instead of targeting the help where it’s most needed, it seems likely to benefit many better-off people. Supposedly, you’ll have to do paperwork showing hardship. The non-poor are better at working the system like that.

The eviction protection schemes point up a further problem. Keeping people from being thrown out on the streets is certainly a good intention, but there’s no free lunch, and legislators aren’t oriented at thinking about who pays. Here, we’re told that rent obligations are not being waived, that back rents will ultimately have to be paid. Oh, really? By tenants living from hand to mouth? In fact, is this eviction protection — or postponement? Kicking the can down the road (while making it heavier).

Of course nobody loves landlords. The word conjures fat aristocrats eating oysters in mansions while their peasant tenants starve. But actually, today we’re talking about businesses — supplying customers with a “good” in the truest sense, a roof over their heads — and rather than being a lucrative game, it’s actually a very tough business. And many are indeed the kinds of small businesses, hurt by the pandemic (often unable to collect rent), that other programs are supposedly aimed at helping — even while eviction moratoria screw them.

If low income tenants need help, how about government just manning up and paying their rent, instead of shoving the burden off on landlords?

Then there’s the student debt monster awaiting the Biden administration. With similar issues arising. How to help those truly in need, without most of the benefit going to people who are actually better off. College grads do tend to economically outpace the degreeless. Their student debt may seem onerous, but they made a calculated investment that should pay off handsomely over their working lives. On the other hand you have poorer students — poor in both senses — who gained little from their studies and now owe crippling debts. And where will the cost of debt relief really fall? Meantime, the whole student loan program was a big factor making colleges so expensive — knowing there was money there, they boosted tuition to soak it up. Forgiving loans will feed that syndrome.

The bottom line on all these issues is that we should just make a societal decision to help people truly in need (including for health care), as a basic principle. Not because that fits with some political ideology, but simply because it is humane and reflects our best selves. And we, as a society, should simply pay for it. Which we are amply rich enough to do. The costs of raising everyone to what we should all agree is a minimally decent living standard are actually dwarfed by benefits handed out to the better off without our batting an eyelash.

George Will: What is conservatism?

December 27, 2020

American “conservatism” has become a perverted travesty of its former self. Writer George Will, in his book, The Conservative Sensibility, offers a bracing corrective. Discussed in a terrific interview with the New York State Writers Institute’s Mark Koplik.

Both Will and I came to conservatism in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. And left with Trump. Mainline “conservatism” is no longer a philosophy, it’s a tribal cult.

Will begins by differentiating between two kinds of sociopolitical divisions. One — the healthy sort — involves ideas. Differing interpretations of history and understandings of the world, leading to differing policy perspectives. Those can be argued, and having such arguments is a very positive American thing. If you don’t like arguments, you’re in the wrong country. And you shouldn’t see a disagreement over ideas as an attack on your personhood.

One thing I’ve noticed is that blog comments by Trump supporters almost never actually advance arguments. Rarely grapple substantively with opposing points or facts. Instead they’re mainly bald (and usually irrelevant) assertions and ad hominem disparagement.

This introduces the second, unhealthy kind of division, tribalism. Where it’s all us-against-them, the individual subsumed into a tribal identity. We are all embedded in social, cultural settings, but a person is much more than that, Will said. He does recognize that attachments to subgroups are a normal part of life. But it’s another thing when that becomes the basis of your personal identity, your tribe. Especially pernicious when it incorporates a set of political stances. Will spoke of “furnishing” one’s mind by swallowing such precepts whole, so you never have to think about things for the rest of your life. American “conservatism” has become that kind of tribal cult (in thrall to a very bad guru).

Yet, says Will, the whole point of modernity is the contrary, to rescue individuality from being a passive plaything of circumstances. That is, to rescue human agency. We have the free will to change our destiny. Will called the opposite view “historicism.” That’s a nod to Karl Popper, whose 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies similarly argued that we are not prisoners of some historical inevitability.

So what are the positive ideas constituting George Will’s conservatism (and my own)?

He saw them as actually America’s foundational ideas, the nation “conceived in liberty” as Lincoln put it. Democracy, Will said, is a process; liberty a condition, which comes first. Government does not give us rights, but is our creation as their guardian. Thus it should be inherently limited — strong enough to protect our rights but not so strong as to threaten them. The Bill of Rights was enacted to put certain things beyond the reach of majorities.

Will strongly distinguished American conservatism from its European antecedents, rooted in Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and defense of hierarchies, in opposition to egalitarianism and the dynamics of change. Thus “conserving” the status quo. This has always been a misnomer as concerns the American version, at least since the 1950s, opposing much of the prevailing dispensation. Will says that what it wants to “conserve” is America’s founding principles, while not otherwise being hostile to change. It celebrates the free market precisely because of the spontaneous “churning” it produces, making for progress and upward mobility. Unlike the stagnation when government controls everything (the extreme example being the old Soviet Union).

Thus Will correctly traces American conservatism not to Burke but rather to the classical European liberalism of thinkers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill.* The aim is to promote individualism while also having a commodious civic life. The drama of modern politics is people disagreeing about “the good;” the challenge is to accommodate such diversity, so we can pursue differing visions but still coexist.

Asked whether his stance is “libertarian,” Will said he’s “libertarian-ish” (the pure doctrine having untenable implications). Will characterized his moderated libertarianism as a common sense approach that practically everyone actually embraces. The key idea being that if government tells us what to do, it ought to have a strong reason (consistent with its remit of protecting us from each other while maximizing freedom).

But none of this has much to do with what calls itself “conservative” in today’s America: an incoherent conceptual mess. Nor of course does it resonate on the big-government censorious left. The sound structure of classically liberal ideas that Will lays out is a homeless vagabond in the nation’s current political landscape.

Will’s conservatism entails an ethos of carefulness, with respect for facts and reality, also obviously gone out the window under Trump. In favor of “alternative facts” one prefers to believe. Of course that’s not exclusive to the right; Will speaks of a left-wing academic culture with a “high ratio of certainty to information.” But a salient example on the right is the trope of America founded as a “Christian nation.” That’s not just historically false, here again it’s today’s conservatives turning upside down what our founding principles actually were.*

Will in contrast forthrightly calls himself an atheist. And morality, he says, comes from philosophy, not religion. I would add that it’s actually encoded in our biology; and philosophy explicates moral principles we already feel in our bones. We don’t, says Will, need anything from the supernatural (which doesn’t exist anyway).

Indeed, that can only be a source of moral confusion. American conservatives are steeped in religion, and religion’s divorcement from rationality and reality set the stage for their going off the rails morally with Trumpism. That’s how we got children ripped from mothers’ arms and put in cages. 

* “Liberalism” still has that meaning in Europe, different from what Americans call “liberal” politics. In fact, the U.S. left opposes that kind of classical liberalism, labeling it “neo-liberal” as a pejorative.

** I’ve discussed the history here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/was-america-founded-as-a-christian-nation/