Reparations for slavery?

May 27, 2019

Reparations for slavery is becoming part of the “progressive” full Monty that Democratic presidential candidates must endorse. It’s a terrible idea.

Recently The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah acknowledged the issue’s complications, but waved them away, as mere details that can be worked out. An over-used cliché that I really hate is “the devil is in the detail.” But here it’s unavoidable.

Even if reparations for slavery were an appealing idea, it falls apart the moment you consider seriously the problem of who, exactly, to pay. There’s nobody who’s totally descended from slaves. Slavery ended around six or seven generations ago. For any living black American, the direct ancestors from that era would number dozens to hundreds. Surely not all were enslaved. Many came here later from other countries. Many were white. Okay, maybe you could (arbitrarily) draw a line at 50% slave ancestry. Or some other number. But nobody can document their whole family tree that far back anyway. Any such program would be an implementation nightmare.

Or would you propose to sidestep this morass and simply base payments on skin color? The darker, the bigger the payment? Sounds like a great idea, no?

Slavery was a horrible crime (as I’ve written:http://www.fsrcoin.com/Slavery.htm). But history is full of crimes. Look at Native Americans. And how about women, also seriously oppressed and denied rights in past times? Why not reparations for descendants of all those women?

It’s a fundamental precept of justice that wrongs should be redressed among victims and perpetrators — not others. It’s a principle we fallible humans too often violate. As in collective punishments and vengeance. The sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. If a Xendari has committed an atrocity against your people, then by all means punish him — but do not exact revenge by committing a new crime against other, innocent Xendaris. That’s no justice. So too, taxpayers who did no enslaving shouldn’t be made to pay compensation. Let alone to people who were not themselves enslaved.

It is true that slavery has had lasting impacts, a key factor in black Americans’ lower average socio-economic standing. But can one say that any particular person today would be better off had no ancestors been enslaved? Some surely would be worse off. Many U.S. descendants of slaves are doing very well. But had history been different, they would not exist today at all, making any such considerations quintessentially meaningless.

It is also true that many whites take for granted their “white privilege” — exemption from a lot of crap non-whites experience. For this some feel “white guilt.” However, the concept of guilt should require some causal responsibility. Most whites today have done nothing wrong to feel guilty for. Certainly not to be punished for.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. If we really think slavery’s reverberations still cause disadvantage to some Americans, then the proper answer is to create public policies that remove that disadvantage. Basically, to create a more just society overall. Which indeed we’ve been working at (though far from perfecting). “Affirmative action” is a case in point. Never mind all the issues affirmative action raises; but hasn’t this been reparations, by another name?

A better way to make reparation for the disadvantage suffered by many African-Americans would be to at least stop aggravating it with sub-standard education. Public schools in poor/non-white neighborhoods are often disgraceful. Yet Democrats calling for reparations mostly refuse to face up to this huge issue, in hock to teachers’ unions and ideologically opposing school choice to give those kids at least some chance to escape dysfunctional public schools.

It’s argued that reparations would be a way to give recognition to what blacks have suffered. But their feelings are not the beginning and the end of the matter. Indeed, to the contrary, a big part of the problem is what white people feel toward them. If we want whites to stop being racist, is reparations the right answer? If we really want to heal our nation’s wounds from slavery and racism, wouldn’t reparations enflame those wounds? Many would see reparations as an injustice, and for the reasons I’ve suggested, they’d have a plausible argument. The issue would be disastrously divisive. We already have a big problem of white racial antagonism and resentment. Just wait till reparations are enacted.

Furthermore, if Democrats push this issue it would feed every negative stereotype about them. As coddling some interest groups at the expense of others, and even of the nation as a whole. Defying what many people consider common sense. And it would be a huge distraction from what really should be the issues for 2020 – all the ways Trumpism is degrading America. If Democrats truly want to achieve a better, more just nation, the main thing they can do right now is to ensure getting rid of the racist-in-chief.

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Humans becoming gods — or chips in a cosmic computer?

May 23, 2019

Yuval Noah Harari is a thinker of Big Ideas, with a capital B and a capital I. An Israeli historian, he wrote Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, about how we got where we are. Where we’re going is addressed in the sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

The title implies man becoming God. But there’s a catch.

Harari sees us having experienced, in the last few centuries, a humanist revolution. With the ideas of the Enlightenment triumphant — science trumping superstition, and the liberal values of the Declaration of Independence — freedom in both the political and economic spheres — trumping autocracy and feudalism. As the word “humanist” implies, these values exalt the human, the individual human, as the ultimate source of meaning. We find meaning not in some deity or cosmic plan but in ourselves and our efforts to make our lives better. We do that through deploying our will, using our rationality to make choices and decisions — both in politics, through democratic voting, and in economics, through consumer choice.

But Harari plays the skunk at this picnic he’s described. The whole thing, he posits, rests upon the assumption that we do make choices and decisions. But what if we actually don’t? This is the age-old argument about free will. Harari recognizes its long antecedents, but asserts that the question has really, finally, been settled by science, something he discusses at length. The more science probes into our mental processes, there’s no “there” there. That is, the idea that inside you there’s a master controller, a captain at the helm, is a metaphor with no actual reality. We don’t “make” decisions and choices. It’s more like they happen to us.

As Schopenhauer said (Harari strangely fails to quote him), “a man can do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

And if we humans are not, in any genuine sense, making choices and decisions through a conscious thinking process — but rather are actuated by deterministic factors we can neither see nor control — in politics, economics, and even in how we live our lives — what does that mean for the humanist construct of valorizing those choices above all else?

There’s a second stink-bomb Harari throws into the humanist picnic. He says humanism valued the individual human because he or she was, in a very tangible way, valuable. Indeed, indispensable. Everything important in society rested on human participation. The economy required people engaged in production. Human agents were required to disseminate the information requisite for progress to occur and spread. A society even needed individual humans to constitute the armies they found so needful.

But what if all that ceases being true? Economic production is increasingly achieved through robots and artificial intelligences. They are also taking care of information dissemination. Even human soldiers are becoming obsolete (as will become true too of the need for them). Thus Harari sees humans becoming useless irrelevancies.

Or at least most of us. Here’s another stink-bomb. Liberal humanist Enlightenment values also rested fundamentally on the idea of human equality. Not literal equality, of course, in the sense of everyone being the same, or even having the same conditions of life. Rather it was equality in the ineffable sense of value and dignity. Spiritual equality, if you will.

And indeed, the Enlightenment/humanist revolution did go a long way toward that ideal, as a philosophical concept that was increasingly powerful, but also as a practical reality. Despite very real wealth inequality, there has (especially in the advanced nations) actually been a great narrowing of the gap between the rich and the rest in terms of quality of life. Earlier times were in contrast generally characterized by a tiny elite living poshly while the great mass of peasants were immured in squalor.

Harari thinks we’re headed back to that, when most people become useless. We may continue to feed them, but the gap between them and the very few superior beings will become a chasm. I’ve previously written about prospects for virtual immortality, which will probably not be available to the mass underclass.

What will that do to the putative ideal of human equality?

Having rejected the notion of human beings as autonomous choice-makers, Harari doesn’t seem to think we do possess any genuine ultimate value along the lines that humanism posits. Instead, we are just biological algorithms. To what purpose?

Evolutionary biology (as made clear in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene) tells us that, at least as far as Nature is concerned, life’s only purpose is the replication of genes. But that’s a tricky concept. It isn’t a purpose in any conscious, intentional sense, of course. Rather, it’s simply a consequence of the brute mathematical fact that if a gene (a set of molecules) is better at replicating than some other gene, the former will proliferate more, and the world will be filled with its progeny. No “meaning” to be seen there.

But Harari takes it one step further back. The whole thing is just a system for processing information (or “data”). As I understand it, that’s his take on what “selfish gene” biology really imports. And he applies the same concept to human societies. The most successful are the ones that are best at information processing. Democracy beats tyranny because democracy is better at information processing. Ditto for free market capitalism versus other economic models. At least till now; Harari thinks these things may well cease being true in the future.

This leads him to postulate what the religion of the future will be: “Dataism.” He sees signs of it emerging already. This religion would recognize that the ultimate cosmic value is not some imagined deity’s imagined agenda, but information processing. Which Harari thinks has the virtue of being true.

So the role of human beings would be to serve that ultimate cosmic value. Chips in the great computer that is existence. Hallelujah! But wait — artificial systems will do that far better than we can. Where will that leave us?

Here’s what I think.

Enlightenment humanist values have had a tremendous positive effect on the human condition. But Harari writes as though this triumph is complete. Maybe so on New York’s Upper East Side, but in the wider world, not so much. Far from being ready to progress from Harari’s Phase II to Phase III (embracing Dataism), much of humanity is still trying to get from Phase I to Phase II. The Enlightenment does not reign everywhere. Anti-scientific, religious, and superstitious beliefs remain powerful. Democracy is under assault in many places, and responsible citizenship is crumbling. Look at the creeps elected in Italy (and America).

Maybe this is indeed a reaction to what Harari is talking about, with humans becoming less valuable, and they feel it, striking out in elections like Italy’s and America’s and the Brexit vote, while autocrats and demagogues like Erdogan and Trump exploit such insecurities. In this respect Harari’s book complements Tom Friedman’s which I’ve reviewed, arguing that the world is now changing faster than people, institutions, and cultures can keep up with and adapt to.

Free will I’ve discussed before too. I fully acknowledge the neuroscience saying the “captain at the helm” self is an illusion, and Schopenhauer was right that our desires are beyond our control. But our actions aren’t. As legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has observed, we may not have free will, exactly, but we do have free won’t. The capability to countermand impulses and control our behavior. Thus, while the behavior of lighting up is, for a smoker, determinism par excellence, smokers can and do quit.

You might reply that quitting too is driven by deterministic factors, but I think this denies the reality of human life. The truth is that our thought and behavior is far too complex to be reduced to simplistic Skinnerian determinism.

The limits of a deterministic view are spotlighted by an example Harari himself cites: the two Koreas. Their deterministic antecedents were extremely similar, yet today the two societies could not be more different. Accidents of history — perhaps a sort of butterfly effect — made all the difference. Such effects also come into play when one looks at an individual human from the standpoint of determinism.

Harari’s arguments about humans losing value, and that anyway we’re nothing but souped-up information processors, I will take together. Both ideas overlook that the only thing in the cosmos that can matter and have meaning is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. (I keep coming back to that because it’s really so central.) The true essence of humanist philosophy is that individual people matter not because of what we produce but because of what we are: beings capable of feeling. Nothing else matters, or can matter.

The idea of existence as some vast computer-like data processor may be a useful metaphor for understanding its clockwork. But it’s so abstract a concept I’m not really sure. And in any case it isn’t really relevant to human life as it’s actually lived. We most certainly do not live it as akin to chips in a cosmic computer. Instead we live it through feelings experienced individually which, whatever one can say about how the brain works, are very real when felt. Once again, nothing can matter except insofar as it affects such feelings.

I cannot conceive of a future wherein that ceases being true.

Follow-up — Tony Milillo — The pathology of the hard left

May 21, 2019

My last post concerned abortion. I also put it on the Capital District Humanist Society’s Facebook page, where one Tony Milillo entered two comments — highly revealing and instructive. Here they are, in their entirety:

1. Well there you have it, according to Frank S. Robinson anyone who has an abortion from the end of the second trimester forward is killing a human being. And Frank “the expert on everything” also declares Roe v. Wade “a bad decision”. How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long? From what I can see, the best that can be said about this guy is he has far too much time on his hands and far too high an opinion of himself.

2. From bad to worse from Mr. Robinson: “Talk of “women controlling their own bodies” is another big mistake of pro-choicers. If there’s a second human life inside it, it’s not just your own body any more, so the notion is morally shaky. But what the issue really does come down to is women having some control over their LIVES.”

First notice that my essay’s mainly criticizing Republican pro-lifers isn’t good enough for Mr. Milillo; I’m as bad as they are because I’m not an absolutist pro-choice zealot. 

Then notice that, to fit me into his box, Mr. Milillo’s very first sentence grossly misrepresents what I wrote; imputes to me a view my essay explicitly contradicted. 

It set forth the reasons behind my thinking. But notice also that Mr. Milillo’s two comments contain not a single word of actual argument. As though his own rightness and my wrongness is a given. Indeed, his second comment simply quotes me. Case closed! Res ipsa loquitur! It’s self-evident I’m wrong, no need to explain why. 

And what we do get, in place of any reasoned argument, is a lot of insults.

Notice particularly this line: “How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long?” So he’s saying I should be blackballed. For failing a test of political correctness as decreed (though not actually explained) by Mr. Tony Milillo — who, incidentally, has never been seen at a meeting of said organization (in which I happen to fulfill three separate roles). I think the organization, which actually does adhere to the principles of humanism, including reasoned discourse, will not follow Mr. Milillo’s recommendation. 

This is why the left gets a rep for intolerance toward diversity of viewpoints. Believing in freedom of thought and expression, but only for themselves, all others be damned. Almost literally. 

Elsewhere, this same Mr. Milillo calls Joe Biden (another notorious deviant from Mr. Milillo’s catechism) “a fucking liar.” And what is the alleged lie? Biden’s comments to the effect that Republicans are human beings who can be reasoned with and who need to be kept in the fold of American society. Mr. Milillo goes on at great length disagreeing, explaining why Republicans are irredeemable. (Well, at least there’s some actual argument here.) But I’m not sure what Mr. Milillo’s solution is. Shooting them?

I’m a former lifelong Republican who hates what the party has become. But I agree with Biden that we must search for common ground. 

If guys like Mr. Milillo succeed in tearing down every voice that doesn’t gibe with their extremist hard left view, they will get Trump re-elected. Mr. Milillo’s kind of scorched-earth politics is tearing this country apart and will end in its destruction.

The cruel Republican abortion extremists

May 20, 2019

I’m not “pro-abortion.” My humanism valorizes the dignity of human life; and advancing it through reason (rather than religious dogma). My pre-med studies showed me that a one-month embryo is not a human being while a six-month fetus surely is. In between, it’s not clear-cut.

I don’t feel a liberal abortion regime strikes quite the right balance. There should be more recognition that a life growing inside a woman (however conceived) entails a responsibility toward that life, and at some point during gestation society may say it can’t be terminated. However, there can be many circumstances in which abortion is justified, occasionally even a late term abortion, and where prohibiting it wrongs a woman.

Roe v. Wade was a bad decision. The Supreme Court was stretching to make a legal issue of what was really a social one. Far better to have let social forces play out. A consensus was already growing in favor of liberalizing abortion laws. By short-circuiting that process, the Court created a monster, turning abortion into a horribly divisive issue. European nations more wisely resolved it through democratic means, avoiding the acrimony that has afflicted the U.S.

So should Roe be reversed? No, it’s far too late to put that toothpaste back in the tube. Indeed, reversing Roe would redouble the issue’s baneful political divisiveness. Vocal as its opponents are, there’s actually a pretty broad consensus in the country for reasonably permitting abortions in certain circumstances. The Court’s defying that public opinion would be seen as an affront to democratic legitimacy, a political minority abusing its power, shredding the Court’s aura of impartiality. Of course it could not actually outlaw abortions; only allow states to do so; many states would not. Nevertheless, such a ruling would be seen as blowing up something that had come to be an integral part of our societal culture.

In the culture wars, pro-lifers bash their opponents as endorsing the killing of fully developed babies. And pro-choice absolutists play into their hands by refusing to agree that late-term abortion shouldn’t generally be permitted. Some even sanction what could indeed amount to baby killing.

Now some Republican controlled states, notably Alabama and Missouri, have gone to the other extreme, virtually banning all abortions. Including even cases of rape or incest. Alabama slates a 99-year prison sentence for doctors!

Note that the party of “law and order,” supposedly worshipping the Constitution, is passing blatantly unconstitutional enactments. Unconstitutional, according to the currently prevailing law of the land, as declared by the Supreme Court. Of course, they’re hoping this will end in the Court changing that prevailing law, reversing Roe. It’s been their political obsession for decades.

To protect the sanctity of life, and unborn children? These Republicans care little for actual, born children. The states passing these laws have the nation’s most dreadful stats on child health, welfare, and poverty. While thousands of children are killed or injured annually thanks to these Republicans’ insane fetishizing of guns. Sanctity of life and protecting children?

They do profess that God inserts a soul into an embryo at conception. Put aside for a moment that God and souls don’t exist. But where in fact does the Bible say embryos are ensouled at conception? Noplace! Its prescientific authors knew nothing of embryology, eggs, sperm, or conception.

So even if you believe in God, this soul-at-conception doctrine is strictly a modern add-on to traditional religion — added just to fit the culture-war abortion issue. If they wanted to, the religious could equally well posit that the soul arises at birth.

Republicans also supposedly believe in freedom — but not the freedom to depart from that weird religious idea of theirs. Abortion differs from other political issues, like immigration, tax or trade policy, etc., which affect everyone. A stranger having an abortion does not. You’re entitled to your own idiosyncratic interpretation of religious doctrine, but what gives you a right to impose it on all women?

So why is this happening? Why, after all, do Republicans so obsess over abortion? I think the true, deep-down, unacknowledged motivator here is hatred for the idea of female autonomy.

Talk of “women controlling their own bodies” is another big mistake of pro-choicers. If there’s a second human life inside it, it’s not just your own body any more, so the notion is morally shaky. But what the issue really does come down to is women having some control over their LIVES.

That’s what it’s truly about. Not “sanctity of life” but sanctity of patriarchy. Women as second class human beings who ought to be under male control. And that control is to be imposed with unflinching cruelty. The extremist idea, in the Alabama and Missouri laws, of making abortions virtually unavailable, virtually regardless of circumstances, evinces a vindictive cruelty toward women uppity enough to think they should have some say about their own lives. Bring on The Handmaid’s Tale.

But I believe these Republican extremists, intoxicated with their power, knowing no bounds, overplay their hands. And it will wind up burning their own house down.

What are we saying when we talk?

May 18, 2019

That was the subject for a fascinating entry by “Johnson” (after Samuel), The Economist’s language columnist.

We typically say language is for communicating and conveying information. But the two are not the same. A study cited in the column found only 36% of utterances purport to be factual statements. The rest instead have social purposes; either as social lubricants or to convey something about the speaker.

Johnson cited for example Christians who might say, “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus.” Maybe not an everyday conversational gambit. Anyhow, I’ve pointed out that what we think we believe and what we truly believe can differ. Johnson posits that a lot of Christians don’t really truly believe in the resurrection; rather they are saying, “I am a Christian and it is important that I say this.” The latter is what they aim to convey — not that the resurrection was real. I’d put it in terms of delineating one’s personal identity.

Then there’s Trump. Johnson notes his telling fans that the Obamas built a wall around their house. Turns out they didn’t. But for Trump and his audience that was irrelevant. He wasn’t actually telling them, “this is a fact.” Instead he was communicating something about himself. Something like, “I share your loathing for Obama, that n_____.”

Yet, with all due respect for Johnson, there’s really more going on with Trump, he’s a special case. Normal people have a filter to vet utterances before they come out. Trump doesn’t. Recently he said his father was born in Germany. Actually it was the Bronx. Why misstate such a thing? He denied having any role concerning Jared Kushner’s security clearance; it turns out he had a very big role. This is not just ordinary lying, but pathological lying. A disturbed relationship with reality. What comes out of his mouth at any given moment is what his brain thinks fits with his narrative of the moment — reality being irrelevant. One very sick puppy here.

And here’s another point Johnson didn’t make. We understand pretty well what the story is when buddies banter in a bar; and it’s fine. However, it’s different when the president of the United States speaks in public. His office invests him with an awesome trust and responsibility, his utterances are highly consequential. Furthermore, people have long believed “all politicians lie,” a vast overstatement, but this basic reflexive distrust makes it all the more incumbent upon a president to use the greatest care when speaking, doing everything possible to avoid misstatements. Trump’s doing the very opposite is corrosive to the relationship between citizens and their government; devastating to our civic discourse and our whole civic culture.

Those are factual statements.

Plan-free fact-free anal sphincter foreign policy

May 16, 2019

Everyone before was stupid. He knows everything. Intelligence briefings, consulting experts, careful planning — loser stuff. The great deal-maker’s own great instincts alone would make America great again.

Are we there yet?

I’ve written about big-picture foreign policy — how since 1945 America’s painstaking construction of a cooperative global order has served our interests while also making a better world. And how Trump is nihilistically smashing it.

Bob Woodward’s book Fear explains that Trump likes to “fly by the seat of his pants . . . did not want to be derailed by forethought. As if a plan would take away his power, his sixth sense.” It portrays a man ruled by anger and ego, impervious to facts, incapable of focusing. For a time, adults around him struggled to forestall disaster. Now they’re all gone.

Let’s see how plan-free foreign policy is working out:

NORTH KOREA. The great deal-maker imagined just schmoozing his way to triumph. Returned from his first summit with Kim Jong Un declaring victory, problem solved, no more nuke threat. Nobel prize! Turns out (surprise) the “deal” was bullshit. North Korea agreed to nothing and continues testing missiles. Kim harvested valuable prestige at no cost. The great deal-maker has no plan.

IRAN. It took years for the U.S. and five other leading powers to negotiate a deal that would significantly slow Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Trump tore it up to replace it with . . . nothing. He had no plan. Now Iran will get a bomb sooner. While the regime hardliners, who hated the deal, are strengthened. Our allies are antagonized. And now too, with our modus vivendi with Iran shredded, there’s looming military conflict. Not a war we could “win;” almost certain to be a horrible mess and disastrous for American strategic interests.

VENEZUELA. Trump loves dictators. (Just hosted Viktor Orban who’s destroyed Hungary’s democracy.) So why not Maduro? Simple: his regime made the mistake of calling itself “socialist.”

Trump imagined pressure would cause Venezuela’s military to flip and oust Maduro. Didn’t understand the military is the regime, its leaders profiting, and terrorizing lower ranks against defections. And what about our threat of military intervention? Also sure to be a horrible bloody mess and disastrous for our larger interests.

So while loudly proclaiming Maduro must go, Trump has no plan.

SYRIA. What is the plan?

CHINA. Trade wars are easy to win? Tell that to the 1930s. What’s especially stupid is a democracy picking a trade war with a dictatorship that’s much more able to endure economic pain. Trump blundered into this battle with no plan for winning it.

He insists his tariffs on Chinese imports will be paid by China. Just like Mexico would pay for his wall. In fact American consumers will pay, through higher prices at the cash register. Estimates range up into the thousands per family. This will also mean U.S. job losses — estimated up to a million or more.

And this doesn’t count our economic damage from the retaliatory tariffs China is slapping on us.

True, our economy is doing great. No thanks to Trump’s trade war, but in spite of it. Without it we’d be doing even better. (And our prosperity actually owes far more to Obama than to Trump.) A 600 point fall in the Dow shows the market realizes how bad for us the trade war is.

Meantime, we might fare better against China if our allies presented a united front. The TPP deal would have been just that, but Trump ditched it, while further kicking our friends in the teeth, even picking trade fights with some of them too. So we’re now on our own battling China.

We do have real trade issues with China, but tariffs are not the remedy. Trump literally doesn’t understand global economics. He imagines if we buy more from China than we sell them, they’re ripping us off. No economist (except liar Peter Navarro) thinks that. If China can sell us widgets cheaper than we can make them ourselves, it’s to our advantage to buy theirs and make other things. What consumers save on widgets enables them to spend more elsewhere — creating jobs.*

ISRAEL & PALESTINIANS.  For half a century, very smart knowledgeable people couldn’t solve this. So Trump tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner, with zero relevant knowledge and experience, to create a plan. Soon to be unveiled as the greatest thing ever. Apparently it will avoid the issue of a Palestinian state. Why did no one think of that before? But meantime Trump’s pro-Israel actions have already scotched America being seen as an honest broker, so there’s no way Palestinians will buy into whatever fabulous plan Kushner concocts.

I didn’t vote for Obama and heavily criticized his foreign policy. But Obama was a foreign policy genius compared to this anal sphincter.

* Woodward’s book details how economic advisor Gary Cohn failed to make Trump see he’s screwing the 84% of our economy that’s services to benefit (a little of) the 16% that’s manufacturing. Cohn finally resigned. The book shows Trump believes trade is bad, full stop. So willfully stupid it’s insane.

Faking democracy

May 13, 2019

Kings used to rule everywhere by “divine right.” It was unquestioned. “Democracy” wasn’t even a thing. But in modern times it has acquired such universal moral force that even the most tyrannical regimes feel they must give it lip service. As in “The Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea.” It takes no fewer than three liberal-sounding words to lipstick that pig. They even pretend to “vote” in “elections.”

Is this progress of a sort? Well, at least “divine right” rulers were honest about it. Now, dictators are perfecting the art of faking democracy.

I’ve written recently how Venezuela’s regime practices democratic theater to create a potemkin fiction of popular sovereignty.

Then there’s Turkey. I’d warned that by electing Erdogan president, and then voting him untrammeled powers, they’d politically disembowel themselves. They did it anyway (probably helped by regime ballot rigging).

Yet in March elections, an opposition candidate somehow managed to narrowly win Istanbul’s mayoralty. Erdogan cried foul, claiming vote fraud — with a straight face. Then the regime-controlled electoral authority simply annulled the result, scheduling a revote (whose outcome, observers say, Erdogan will not leave to chance). The legal pretext for this usurpation was transparently phony. Meantime, in numerous other cities, elected opposition mayors have simply been kicked out, and the runners-up installed.

All this Erdogan — still with a straight face — calls a triumph of democracy.

Then there’s Thailand. In 2011, I wrote a post titled “Democracy wins in Thailand.” It was a resounding vote against anti-democratic pro-royalty, pro-military forces. But in 2014 the army stomped in and seized power. Then came the obligatory charade of a “transition” back to “democracy,” with a new constitution blatantly stacked to keep the military chief in power. The army would even appoint the entire upper house of parliament.

The Thai king since 1946, Bhumibol, was revered to excess, supposedly above politics but giving free reign to anti-democratic palace and military intriguers, including 2014’s putschists. But he was literally uncriticizable by grace of a draconian “lese majeste” law, useful for jailing anyone, for any words construable as unflattering toward the monarchy. Bhumibol died in 2018, succeeded by Vajiralongkorn, a vile arrogant self-indulgent creep even more in bed with the military rulers.*

They’ve finally held an “election” under the new constitution, and despite every possible trick to hamstring opponents and rig the result, the military still failed to gin up a parliamentary majority. Or so it seemed — until the electoral authority simply changed the opaque formula for allocating seats, and hence the outcome. For good measure, the leader of one of the biggest opposition parties has been thrown in jail on ludicrous charges.

Then there’s America. Trump has shown his contempt for democracy. In 2016 he said he’d accept the election result only if he won. Now he thinks Congress’s subpoenas for documents and for testimony by administration officials can be simply ignored. If this is rewarded with his re-election, that will be a big step down the road toward joining Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand, in their sham of “democracy.”

* My setting foot in Thailand would risk imprisonment for those words. Seriously. An Australian writer made that mistake. (His book had reportedly sold one copy.)

Abdi Nor Iftin: American

May 11, 2019

I was only half listening when the story began on NPR. But soon it was riveting. Abdi, a Somali refugee barely surviving in Kenya, struggling to reach America. Didn’t sound like he’d make it. Incredibly, he did.

I was moved to write a poem. And to find Abdi to send him a gift. Then he authored a book and I was able to connect personally with him at a book fair. It was like meeting an alien from another planet.

The book is Call me American. It begins on what does seem another planet, another epoch, with Abdi’s 1985 birth into a Somali nomad herder tribe. Drought forces the family into the city, Mogadishu. Abdi is six when it becomes Hell. The word seems inadequate. Thomas Hobbes wrote of the social compact forestalling the “war of all against all.” In Somalia in 1991 that social compact broke down, and that war exploded.

The family tries to escape Mogadishu, but ultimately winds up back there. Along the way Abdi’s father is taken by gunmen. They eventually meet up again; he’s a shell of his former self. His mother is pregnant. No way that baby will survive.

Abdi’s sole education is Koran memorization, in a Madrassa run by a sadistic fanatic. But meantime he learns English by careful watching of American films; starts teaching English; becomes known as “Abdi American.”

Then the actual Americans arrive. “Ugly Americans?” Not to Abdi. But soon they’re gone, and Somalia goes from horrible to worse. The murderous warlord militias are supplanted by murderous hardline Islamists; and being “Abdi American” is no longer a good thing. Caught swimming with a girl at a beach, he’s sentenced to twenty lashes. Eventually he escapes to Kenya, where Somalis are hated and persecuted; it was jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Thomas Friedman writes of the “world of order” versus the “world of disorder.” And how the latter’s inhabitants are desperate to reach the former. Pessimists view civilization as a thin veneer upon underlying human beastliness, but it does enable “the better angels of our nature” to flourish. We take this too much for granted, and Abdi searingly depicts for us the other side of the coin.

He’s an excellent writer, his seemingly matter-of-fact tone effectively conveying the horror. Death is so constant and routinized, you have to remind yourself it’s actual people dying. Reading the account, in my comfortable chair in my comfortable American home, brought to mind philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” Its point was that we can’t really know. What was it like to be Abdi?

English was his salvation. Brazenly accosting a western journalist leads to his supplying stories to BBC radio, and then “Team Abdi,” a network of Brits and Americans helping him. That, plus extreme effort, and huge luck, does finally get him to America. Most in his situation would have failed.

Abdi writes that exiting the plane in Boston felt like an historic moment. “Like when the first man walked on the moon.” Airport TV screens were showing news of the Ferguson protests. To Americans this signaled something bad. To Abdi it showed a freedom to challenge police unimaginable where he’d come from. Then, in a car, instructed to buckle his seatbelt: “I couldn’t believe I was in a place where people actually obey laws.” From the world of disorder to the world of order.

Most Americans today have no notion of this. For all their flag-waving, no grasp, indeed, of what this country is really all about. People like Abdi keep that idea alive. They make America great.

It’s fortunate he got here before Trump’s Muslim ban.

Steven Pinker: rational optimist

May 6, 2019

Steven Pinker is one of my intellectual heroes. Probably the closest to my own thinking. His new book is among the finest I’ve ever read.

In 2012 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has DeclinedSome thought this premise was nuts. Now he’s doubled down with Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Those four are indeed touchstones of the Enlightenment, a revolution in human thought beginning in the 1700s, immensely improving our quality of life. You might think this needs no defense. But howling fools today dance around bonfires of Enlightenment ideals. And as Pinker points out, intellectuals often actually hate the idea of progress (especially those calling themselves “progressive”). He explains how his optimistic message rankles both ends of the political spectrum.*

Some lefties say the Enlightenment gave us slavery, colonialism, imperialism, eugenics, and so forth; its misguided hyper-rationalism led straight to Auschwitz. Pinker says this has it backwards. All sorts of modes for exploitation and repression long predated the Enlightenment; its humanism led us to overcome them. Nazism was the antithesis of Enlightenment values.

There’s also cultural pessimism, “our sick society” a favorite phrase; a rat race of “consumerism” (which, Pinker trenchantly says, “often means consumption by the other guy”).

Meantime, the right sees the Enlightenment as vaunting individualism, unmooring people from past certainties, time-tested values, and close-knit communities. The result is supposedly a fragmented, dissolute culture, with epidemics of anomie, depression, and suicide. We were better off with reverence for thrones and altars.

But Pinker counters all this by documenting increased well-being and happiness levels for the great mass of humanity. He has no time for Nietzschean philosophy extolling the “great man” who stomps on peons. The Enlightenment also puts individuals above the tribe, race, nation, or faith; it’s average ordinary people (after all, that’s most of us) whose flourishing should be the focus. That’s humanism.

Militating against optimism and perceptions of progress are some human cognitive biases. A pessimistic cynic might seem more morally serious than a naive “Pollyanna” wearing “rose colored glasses.”

In fact, evolution hard-wired us to look on the dark side, attuned to threats. If that might be a lion lurking, best assume the worst and run. The optimist could get eaten (and wouldn’t pass on his genes). Modern life plays to this, inundating us with bad news — which tends to be more newsworthy than good news. A plane crash makes headlines; 100,000 daily safe landings are ignored. The news is full of crime too. And another cognitive bias is the “availability heuristic” — something seems prevalent if examples readily come to mind. So most people always believe crime is increasing, when in fact it’s dramatically fallen over decades. Similarly, pessimism’s putative moral seriousness makes them always say world poverty is rising. Again, it’s actually been plunging.

Enlightenment Now clobbers the reader with facts about these and other positive trends. I tried in my own book, The Case for Rational OptimismPinker’s is better. He does, in it, call mine “beautifully written” (thank you), and I’ll return the compliment. Pinker takes the writing craft seriously, working to make his points as cogently as possible, a pleasure to read. Enhanced by a droll wit. (He quotes Dorothy Parker, supposedly challenged to use “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”)

The book is chock full of thought-provoking insightful analyses and good sense. But here’s the big picture. “The good old days” look good only thanks to amnesia. I’ve mentioned falling crime; it’s not just recent, but a huge fall over the centuries. In fact every kind of violence, including war, has plummeted. We are much safer, better fed, and healthier than our forbears, hence live much longer. We suffer less pain, work less hard and enjoy more leisure; and earn far more to enjoy it with. Globally, incomes are way up and poverty, as noted, is on the run. There is more democracy, freedom, and human rights, less oppression and discrimination. All these improvements — unsurprisingly — translate into more people feeling more happiness and fulfillment.

But are the benefits going disproportionately to the rich? Pinker calls inequality the left’s “theory of everything.” His clear-eyed perspective on this topic alone is worth the price of the book. Upper incomes have indeed skyrocketed, but it’s a basic fallacy that that’s achieved by picking the pockets of the poor. Steve Jobs got rich by providing products millions are thrilled to buy, improving their lives. An economic environment that doesn’t create such opportunities would keep everyone poor. And globally, the gap between the rich and the rest is actually narrowing, especially inasmuch as most people (including those lowest on America’s income scale) now enjoy amenities of life that used to be the exclusive province of the wealthiest (if available at all; many were not).

But is all our progress ruining the planet? Well, there is an unavoidable trade-off, and no free lunch. We could never have risen from the stone age without exploiting environmental resources. Pinker makes a good case that the benefits are well worth the cost. And it’s proven that we can have economic growth while actually improving the environment; prosperity gives us both the means and the desire. This applies to climate change (though we’re impeded not just by denialists and the fossil fuel industry, but also hostility among greens toward nuclear power and geo-engineering).

Progress does create losers as well as winners, and some resentments (especially ethnic). Pinker acknowledges the threat from anti-Enlightenment populist politics, of both right and left. Too many issues get viewed through a distorting lens of political tribalism. In particular Pinker details how Trump endangers what’s been achieved (quite a list). But he thinks those achievements happened for strong reasons which will not disappear. Indeed, what will disappear is older people hostile to Enlightenment humanism. Rising generations are increasingly on board with it.

So what does make progress happen? Not some mystical force. Rather, it’s using our brains to solve problems. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and science gives us the needed knowledge. Pinker defends the concept of reason. It’s not a matter of “believing” in it; we just use it. Any argument to the contrary defeats itself, because it is an argument — and what is any argument if not an exercise of reason? Of course humans aren’t always rational. But we’re capable of rationality, and its greater use underlies all our advancements.

He also defends science too, against the sneering so unfortunately prevalent among humanities scholars. They condemn so-called “scientism” that holds science should dictate everything, including morality. Nobody believes that. But Pinker insists science does give us the understanding of reality that enables us to approach such issues rationally. In contrast, religion-based moralizing rests on underlying assumptions about reality that are fundamentally false.

One of modernity’s advancements is more widespread education — which creates a virtuous circle. Giving more of us more problem-solving ability. People have literally, on average, grown smarter. Pinker explains what education does: you’re less superstitious, less in thrall to leaders, more understanding of differences among people, and able to resolve conflicts peacefully. Studies confirm, he says, “that educated people really are more enlightened.” Less racist and authoritarian. More imaginative and independent, but more community minded too. And more likely to trust other people — a crucial ingredient in creating the social capital that makes us work together.

This is why education is the main focus of my own philanthropic efforts.**

* I’ve experienced this myself; in one talk to a group of Jewish seniors, I hardly spoke ten words before the cynical brickbats started flying.

** Through the Frank S. Robinson Enlightenment Fund (Steven Pinker, honorary chairman).

The answer to the opioid crisis

May 3, 2019

Drugs now kill around 70,000 Americans annually. More than AIDS at the height of the epidemic; more than the entire Vietnam war. Most are opioid deaths.

More specifically, most are overdose deaths. They can be largely prevented by making safe doses available. Not doing so is insane public health policy.

Blame is heaped on pharmaceutical companies. But let’s remember that opioid drugs like oxycontin are not evil; to the contrary, they relieve pain experienced by millions. However, many who start taking them for pain get addicted. And doctors are allowed to prescribe opioids for pain only—not for addiction. So when people get addicted, their legal supply ends, and they turn to unregulated illegal supplies. Mostly not prescription pills like oxycontin, but drugs like heroin and fentanyl. Whose street prices are much lower. But their doses can’t be properly calibrated, and users commonly overdose. Naloxone can save them, but because people usually shoot up in hiding, they often can’t receive it in time.

The “war on drugs” logic is that we’d be better off if nobody abused drugs. True enough; yet the main harm, overdose deaths, is not prevented by, but actually caused by, drugs’ illegality. This is a holdover from the misguided mentality that gave us alcohol prohibition. In that case we soon realized the harm from prohibition was worse than what it aimed to stop, which, in fact, it didn’t stop anyway. People still drank, while the alcohol supply got worse and more dangerous, and criminality exploded. Thankfully, we ended that folly. Opioids present the same situation—only worse, given the death rate.

As with alcohol prohibition, there’s also a moralistic element in drug prohibition. I prefer the libertarian principle of barring only behavior that harms others. But if you want to talk morality, most drug users are more victims than villains. The real immorality is society letting them die from overdoses.

The drastic policy reversal suggested here is not utopian. Several other countries, notably Portugal and Switzerland, follow such a harm-reduction plan, enabling users to get their fixes safely under government supervision, avoiding overdose deaths.

Some fear that legalizing drugs would increase their use. Yet illegality stops hardly anyone from using; and few people not tempted now would become tempted if drugs were legal. Even if drug prices plummeted, which legalization would cause. But meantime that price decrease would eliminate most crime by addicts to finance their costly habits. Indeed, the entire societal cost of waging the “war on drugs” — crime, mass incarceration, corruption, destruction of neighborhoods and families, the costs for the criminal justice system, police forces, etc., is beyond colossal. Meantime too, with programs like Switzerland’s, giving addicts other kinds of helpful support, most eventually wean themselves off drugs and get their lives back on track.

But any American locality wanting to provide a safe injection facility like that would be violating federal law.

However, there are other ways to reduce harm. A recent article in The Economist says the “gold standard” for combating opioid addiction is medication-assisted treatment. The major medicine is buprenorphine, which reduces drug cravings. But the government restricts doctors from prescribing it even more stringently than it restricts opioid prescriptions!

Buprenorphine is not even commonly used in U.S. hospitals to treat addicts who come in due to a crisis. Mostly they’re sent on their way with no treatment at all.

The government has estimated the cost of the opioid disaster at around $500 billion annually, or around 3% of GDP (equivalent to the entirety of our economy’s growth, or more). Bipartisan legislation enacted last year allocates to this problem just $1 billion over two years. While Trump has declared the border to be a “national emergency” supposedly requiring a $5.7 billion expenditure on a wall.