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

June 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save America: Boycott Fox advertisers

June 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what can be done?

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

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

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

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

Googling, I found this list:

https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/these-are-fox-news-leading-advertisers

Also at least two online petitions for such a boycott:

https://act.freepress.net/sign/media_drop_fox/?source=web-action

https://action.mediamatters.org/secure/dropfox/thank-you?sid=767868

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

 

Proof of Heaven?

June 5, 2020

Dr. Eben Alexander is a Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon. He’d never been a religious nut. Then in 2008, aged 54, he suddenly had a strange and severe bacterial meningitis infection, putting him in a coma for a week. During which he visited an alternate reality, a full deluxe tour.

This was a 2012 Newsweek cover story, blazoned “Heaven is Real.” I wrote critically about it here. Then Alexander published a book titled Proof of Heaven.

I’ve read it, though not with any afterlife hopes. Instead I was curious why such a man believes his comatose hallucination was real.

He writes that as a neurosurgeon he was familiar with stories of near-death experiences. “But all of it . . . was pure fantasy.” He says he “did know that they were brain-based. All of consciousness is . . . the brain is the machine that produces consciousness in the first place.” He notes the brain is very temperamental. Reduce just slightly its oxygen feed “and the owner of that brain is going to experience an alteration of their reality. Or more precisely, their personal experience of reality.” Should a patient come back with memories, “those memories are going to be pretty unusual. With a brain affected by a deadly bacterial infection and mind-altering medications, (his emphasis) anything could happen.”

Except when it happened to him! That was in, contrast, “ultra-real.”

Attempting to justify this quite remarkable claim that his case differed from all those others he sensibly debunks, Alexander says that during the coma his own brain was not working at all.* Thus, he “was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed (his emphasis) completely free of the limitations of [his] physical brain.”

There’s a problem here. Alexander relates, in great detail, his coma travels, with his tour guide an ineffably beautiful girl, amid millions of butterflies, giving him a look so deep it was beyond indescribable, and on and on. And his memory of it all was recorded where? In the brain he says was out of commission?

You can’t have it both ways. If this trip was in some other reality outside the consciousness in his brain, then that consciousness could not tell us about it. If instead his brain was, on some level, functioning during the coma, it’s far more plausible that what he experienced was (like in all those other cases) just something weird happening in his brain due to the very abnormal coma conditions. It’s to avoid this logic that Alexander posits his experience as entirely outside brain functioning. Yet how can anything be experienced at all, except via the brain?

What, indeed, does it mean to experience something? Who, or what, does the experiencing? This gets back to what consciousness, and the self, are. Descartes suggested they (a “soul”) could somehow exist separate from the brain, but no serious scientist today accepts such “Cartesian dualism.” There’s no rational alternative to consciousness and self emerging out of brain functioning, though we don’t yet know exactly how. Otherwise the very idea of having an experience is incoherent. Alexander claims to have experienced something outside of brain functioning. Even if he somehow did — how would he (the “he” existing within his brain) know it?

And how could a brain in such a compromised state have recorded such a detailed memory as he relates? He himself writes, “The process of memory takes enormous brainpower.” We know how hard it is to remember dreams after waking — even with brains functioning normally.

Interestingly, Alexander says that for several days after his coma, he experienced “paranoid fantasies” that “were extremely intense, and even outright terrifying while happening.” He recognizes they were “something cooked up by my very beleaguered brain as it was trying to recover its bearings.” Yet he insists that was “very very dissimilar” from “the ultra-reality deep in coma.” He says coming out of it he spouted lots of crazy things to his family. But didn’t mention to them the “ultra-reality.” Very strange.

Here’s a clue. Alexander always knew he’d been adopted; his birth parents unwed high schoolers, who he’d assumed had parted ways. But in 2000 he learned they’d actually married and had other kids. And wanted no contact. Suddenly, he says, his view of himself totally changed to “someone cut off from my source.” And “an ocean of sadness opened up within me.” There followed alcohol abuse; a struggle for sobriety; dysfunction in his professional and family life; depression. With his last hope for some force in the universe beyond the scientific “swept away.”

His coma restored it. Though Alexander doesn’t actually say he saw God, God was somehow in the picture. And for all his rapturous description of it, only obliquely does he imply we go there after death. He mentions glimpsing frolicking people but there’s no indication they previously led earthly lives. Still, he writes of “the reality of realities, the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or ever will exist.” Which is: “You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” Boiled down to one word: love.

Dreams are sometimes the brain’s way of chewing on deep anxieties. I am not a trained psychiatrist, but this looks like a person who, in the pit of his being, does have fears; does fear doing wrong; does fear a love deficit. In other words, a man who suffers from the human condition. Which his brain, even in coma, was struggling with.

Before the coma, he’d finally reconciled with his birth family. After it, he got a photo of his sister who’d died. He says he recognized his heavenly tour guide. Studies have shown that memories are not stable, but change every time we revisit them. And again, dreams are particularly hard to recall. When he saw the photo, his memory of his comatose hallucination could have been tweaked to match it.

Alexander’s brain had been rocked by extreme trauma. He just barely survived. Such a trauma might well have lasting effects. Like believing fantastical tales of Heaven. Whether or not his brain was functioning during his coma, it was out to lunch when he wrote the book.

So it’s piffle; but not harmless piffle. Rebellions against truth and reality are buckling our society’s foundations. Anything encouraging people to believe nonsense is pernicious.

Alexander quotes Einstein: “there are only two ways to live. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.” I don’t believe in miracles, in the sense of contravening natural laws. Yet I’m very much in Einstein’s second camp. To me, all of existence — especially my own — is virtually miraculous. I can easily envision the alternative, a cosmos dark, empty, and bleak. Reality is such a gift that I don’t share Alexander’s ache for a better one.

* A neurosurgeon should know that with no brain functioning, he’d be dead. Actually, Alexander later clarifies that it was the “human” part of his brain knocked out, but the deeper parts, that regulate autonomic processes, still functioned.

 

Protests and looting: What’s the difference?

June 3, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Biden speech

June 2, 2020

Read it: www.fsrcoin.com/yy.htm

 

While America burns

May 31, 2020

Nero, according to legend, played his fiddle while Rome burned. At least he didn’t fan the flames.

Trump’s presidency already represented a collapse of civic standards of decency we’d always taken for granted. Exacerbating ruinous divisions. Then came the pandemic. Together with economic meltdown. A hundred thousand dead; forty million out of work; businesses destroyed; trillions in costs; normal life up-ended; a nation traumatized and on edge. Needing just a spark to explode. Then police thugs commit a murder so callous it sears one’s soul.

The virus, and its economic fallout, had already disproportionately hit blacks, worsening our inequality divide. And now this. Reopening a long festering wound of racial injustice, rubbing salt in it. The resulting feelings of rage are entirely justified. The violence is desolating, making everything worse.

If ever we needed a real leader, a human being with a soul and heart, it’s now. Instead we’ve got the heart of darkness.

What is Trump doing while America burns? Not fiddling — pouring gasoline on the flames. Recycling old racist language; attacking “liberal governors and mayors;” threatening to escalate the violence with military intervention; denigrating protesters as having an illegitimate political agenda; threatening those outside the White House with “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen,” relishing the idea of unleashing them, and encouraging his supporters to mount counter-protests. While also still encouraging their onslaughts against his own government’s public health measures. Attacking and pulling out of the World Health Organization. Accusing President Obama and his whole administration of unspecified imaginary crimes. Accusing a critical news commentator (Joe Scarborough) of a murder that never happened. Launching a fight with Twitter for labeling his tweets false and glorifying violence. Threatening to shut down the postal system to stop voting by mail. Retweeting a supporter’s video saying “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” Suggesting CNN had it coming when a crowd attacked its Atlanta headquarters.

Compare Biden’s May 31 statement: www.fsrcoin.com/Biden.html. Trump’s behavior in contrast stirs up the violence he decries.

Calling America a “sick society” was a longtime cynical trope I always used to reject. But today it’s very sick indeed. Sick in the head and heart. The sickness is embodied in Trump and the supporters who enable him. Trump is insane. Electing him was insane. Approving of this depraved monster is insane.

In November we’ll have one last chance to restore sanity.

Will Trump go in January? Our civic nightmare

May 30, 2020

Last time he said he’d accept the election result only if he won. This time he wields the power of the presidency to make that threat real.

Trumpsuckers cocksure of defeating a supposedly pathetic Biden look ever more delusional. Biden is a far stronger candidate, with a far more united party, than Hillary. Whom Trump just barely beat. Many more voters have become fed up with Trump’s vileness. His desperation will drive it to new levels. He has led (misled) the nation into catastrophe. Polls consistently show him losing all the swing states.*

In 2018, Floridians passed a referendum restoring the ballot to people who’ve served their time for crimes. The Republican-controlled legislature tried to negate that. Recently a court ruled their effort unconstitutional. Hopefully, that’s the end of it. And of Trump — most newly enfranchised voters being nonwhite. He was already behind in Florida. He cannot win without it.

Now, nationwide, Republicans are in a jihad against voting by mail. Trump, with bizarre candor, said mail voting would mean no Republican ever elected again. So much for their actually persuading voters, to win elections fair and square. Actually, it’s doubtful mail voting hurts Republicans. But they’ve convinced themselves to oppose anything making voting easier.

They’ve used “voter fraud” as a phony pretext to make voting harder — carefully targeting demographics likely to support Democrats. After 2016, stung by losing the popular vote by 3 million, Trump created a commission of flunkies to somehow manufacture a case that it was due to fraud. Too big a lift even for these liars. Now they’re trotting out this “voter fraud” crap again, to fight mail voting. But just as for regular voting, all the evidence shows mail ballot fraud is virtually nonexistent. (The only significant case of it, in a 2018 North Carolina congressional race, was perpetrated by Republicans.)

If the 2020 presidential election is stolen, it won’t be by Democratic voter fraud, but by pervasive Republican vote suppression tactics to deny ballots to as many Democrats as possible. Exploiting coronavirus to come up with new such tricks. In concert with Russian pro-Trump propaganda efforts as well as hacking our voting infrastructure.

But the Republican blitz against mail voting is also a cynical set-up for rejecting their increasingly inevitable 2020 election defeat. (After all their nonsense about Democrats supposedly refusing to accept 2016.)

No losing U.S. presidential candidate has ever failed to graciously concede. Even Al Gore, who many (not me) believed was cheated of victory, did so. This isn’t some mere nicety of etiquette, but goes to the heart of the kind of democratic society we constructed. A democratic culture requires accepting the legitimacy of opposing sides, and even their having power. This must not be taken for granted. It’s why Trump’s 2016 statement that he’d accept the result only if he won was nightmarish.

He actually didn’t think he’d win. But more importantly, had no power to do anything about it if he’d lost. This time is very different.

Trump has become even more insane,** his megalomania now off the charts. Believing cosmic justice demands his victory. His psyche incapable of accepting defeat.

Gracious concession speech? No, we’ll get a deranged tirade lashing out and calling the 2020 election rigged, a gigantic fraud that must not be countenanced. (Trump will already have been singing this song for weeks.)

What will Republicans do? Fall into line of course. When God says jump, you say, “How high?” When Trump cries fraud, his cultists will shout it from the rooftops. The closer the election, the worse it will be. Pray for a landslide.

Electoral votes are transmitted by each state to Congress, which meets in joint session in January and declares the result. Democrats will almost surely have a majority in that joint session.

Trump may meanwhile go to court challenging electoral votes with allegations of fraud. This would probably have to play out state by state. Could get very messy. Note that if any electoral votes for Biden are thrown out (unprecedented and unlikely), they wouldn’t go to Trump. He’d still need 270. If no candidate gets 270, the election is decided by the House of Representatives, with each state having one vote. You’d need a majority of states to win. In the current House, 26 state delegations have Republican majorities (so a single sane Republican could end the madness). The vice president is elected by the Senate. If no president or vice president is elected by inauguration day, the previous president does not stay in office. The Speaker of the House becomes president.

In sum, Trump will have no quasi-legal pretext to stay in the White House as of noon on January 20. In fact he’d be an unauthorized trespasser. It’s the duty of the Secret Service to protect the president. This should certainly include detaining and removing a trespasser.

Or Trump might hold an alternative inauguration. Would he find a judge foolish enough to officiate? But remember that Napoleon, at his coronation, grabbed the crown from the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head.

This story may seem to be descending into opera buffa. But the threat of violence looms. Many Trump supporters are not just deranged, but deranged with guns, which are integral to their cult. Trump has previously darkly tweeted encouragement at the idea of such people not accepting a political outcome. Election defeat will destroy what vestiges of sanity he still retains. There will be blood.

The optimist view? Better this than four more Trump years. If this is what we must go through to be rid of this curse, so be it. Perhaps this gotterdammerung will be the final coda lancing the political boil that led to it.

* Polls in 2016 were actually very accurate in projecting Hillary about 3 points ahead of Trump.

** Look at his recent Joe Scarborough tweets.

Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

May 29, 2020

That’s the title of a book in the Edge series edited by John Brockman, each containing short essays by a wide range of leading intellects answering a question.

The internet clearly changes how we behave, and live. But think? A much harder question because how we think is not, to begin with, well understood. But the answer is probably closer to no than yes, because our brain function is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. And it’s increasingly clear that much if not most of what we think of as thinking takes place on a level below conscious awareness. What you think you think and what you really think can differ.

Humans have developed ever more sophisticated tools to facilitate thought. First, language; then writing; both really huge add-ons to our pre-installed neuronal thinking apparatus. Then disseminating written language via printing. The internet, important though it is, must be seen as yet one more such tool, like an external hard-drive appended to our basic thinking machine. Which still remains basically unchanged.

But it bears noting that Edge asked a cultural elite about their thinking. Not “the man in the street.” Naturally many Edge responders emphasized benefits in terms of pursuing their intellectual, research, collaborative, scientific endeavors, etc. I was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s saying religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. Smarter people aren’t necessarily better people. But in some ways the internet is a good thing for very smart people and a bad thing for the rest.

Those writing Edge essays can use it very advantageously. Some did bemoan being distracted by extraneous stuff. Cat videos? But cat videos are harmless. What very smart people don’t get waylaid by is all the internet’s toxic crap, all the stuff reinforcing pre-existing misconceptions, the political craziness, all the conspiracy theories. They’re too smart for that.

Notice I’m saying very smart people. Unfortunately being just “smart” isn’t enough. The anti-vax hysteria shows this. Anti-vaxxers are actually, on average, smarter than average. But not as smart as Edge contributors, who would never fall for such harmful nonsense — spread mainly by the internet.

The difference is that Edge writers and their sort tend to have a deep grounding of knowledge and understanding about the world, to vet things like anti-vaxx, creationism, new age fads, Trumpism. Too many others lack that: blank slates onto which rubbish sticks as well as truth. Suckers for hucksters, charlatans, and demogogues.

Roger Schank’s essay put it thus: “The intelligentsia may well be getting smarter because they have easy access to a wider range of good thinking, but the rest of the world may be getting dumber because they have easy access to nonsense.”

Or Mark Twain (supposedly) said: a lie can run around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. That was before the internet really got going. And the book was published in 2011, before a lot of the worst net-instigated problems became evident — before anti-vaxx really exploded, and of course before we became aware of the pernicious aspects of social media, especially in relation to the 2016 election.

Changing topics, I’ll quote Alun Anderson’s essay: on the net, “[i]n a few hours, an innocent can see more of the pleasures and perversions of sex . . . than an eighteenth century roué could experience in a lifetime devoted to illicit encounters.” It really was so challenging back then. I’ve written previously about online porn’s ubiquity profoundly affecting this most elemental aspect of human life. In advanced Western societies, at least, sex has become a lot more open than it used to be, for a long time already, and we’ve grown somewhat jaded. This moderates the impact of widely available porn. But consider societies that remain more traditional. Anderson, with some experience of them, does so. He believes this aspect of the internet (a very big aspect indeed) will ultimately shake their foundations.

Stay tuned.

Zoom event with Biden — is he up for the job?

May 25, 2020

I participated in a May 21 Q&A with Biden via zoom. It’s been called, in the press, an event for “Wall Street donors.” I’m no Wall Streeter, nor did some other attendees look to me like Wall Street types. (Though two ex Treasury secretaries were there.) And an issue has been made of reporters being barred.

So here you get my exclusive insider’s report.

Dillon

Campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon started it off recapping the election landscape. The campaign seems to be doing things right. Targeting, of course, swing states, especially the key three Trump unexpectedly won in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. He’s losing those now, and several others he’d carried. Remember that his “great victory” was actually a squeaker. Dillon referenced polling data showing falling support among, notably, older voters and less educated whites. But she was mindful that Republicans will try to block as many opposition citizens as possible from casting ballots. (Like cutting Milwaukee’s 80 polling sites to five in the recent voting.)

Biden spoke briefly, mostly detailing Trump’s terrible Covid-19 performance, then answered questions for about an hour.

Hartley

The moderator was Jane Hartley, former ambassador to France. Overall, the Q&A spotlighted the daunting immensity of the task facing Biden come January 20. Putting right all the fundamental damage done, with a pandemic likely still raging, and a shattered economy. All together, worse than what FDR confronted in 1933.

Is Biden up for it? Yes, if any human ever could be. This event showed the ridiculousness of all the “sleepy Joe” nonsense, impugning Biden’s mental acuity.

He is known to have overcome stuttering, with vestiges in just occasional speech hesitancies. But Biden cogently answered questions at length and in depth, with intelligence, energy, and passion. Having to do this constantly must get wearying. But Biden didn’t show it.

His answers demonstrated the benefit of long decades of experience with policy issues. Biden knows what he’s talking about, and has clear informed ideas about what he wants to accomplish. All contrasting with the know-nothing “genius” in the White House whose mind is a cesspit of depravity.

One subject that came up several times was the shambolic mishandling of the Covid-19 rescue program. It’s so screwed up that very little help is going where it’s really needed, most scarfed up instead by big corporations. (Trump swiftly fired the Inspector General tasked with overseeing where the money went.) Biden stressed the importance of people having a sense of dignity about their work.

A key point was healing the nation’s divisions. That must sound like empty verbiage now. But I keep returning to it because tribal hatreds really impede tackling all our other problems. We even see it in politicization of pandemic measures. America may indeed be too far gone to heal, but gosh we must try. I supported Biden from the start as the candidate best suited for that. However, he warned that the coming campaign will be nasty — surely an understatement. I fear he’ll come to office so demonized by Republicans that they’ll continue warring against him with rabid derangement.

I didn’t love all his answers. Asked about returning to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Biden was strong criticizing Trump’s blundering trade war, but actually sidestepped TPP. Well, too many voters are allergic now to “trade deals.” Then there was stale blather about reviving America’s manufacturing and stopping “shipping jobs overseas.” So twentieth century.

But as I always say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I support Biden enthusiastically. I don’t expect perfection.

One subject not coming up was immigration, and the abominable cruelty of Trump’s policies. We’ve just learned of this administration deporting children unaccompanied by parents or relatives. Just imagine being a child dropped alone in some crime-ridden foreign land. This is America? Made great again?

We are in deep shit. Pray for Biden.

Harvey Havel: Dealing with rejection

May 23, 2020

This big fat book showed up unexpected in my mailbox. Harvey Havel is a fixture in the local literary scene. Chatting with him at a recent author talk, it had emerged that we’d both published blog essay collections. So he sent me his. He’s a sweet person. Also tormented.

The book starts with political essays (a decade and more old). Perhaps unusual for a professional writer of color, his viewpoint is determinedly centrist. And Olympian, looking past the issues of the day, in a larger perspective, trying to see the tectonic forces shaping our politics. As a professional writer, Havel has a glib command of the relevant lingo. Yet I found his analyses somewhat oversimplified, falling short of profundity. (Sorry, Harvey.)

So after reading some of this I decided to skip ahead to the later sections dealing with more personal matters, and stuff like sexual politics. This was much more engaging. Havel speaks from the heart with unsparing candor.

Like about his alcoholism. It nearly destroyed him; he believes it’s actually necessary to sink that low before one can overcome. He’s apparently been off the stuff for a good long time now, but alcoholism still looms as a big presence in his life.

He was also ruined, he says, by money. Given a big lump sum by his father upon college graduation, he lived the high life, as though it would never run out. Of course it did, while turning him into “a man of low morals and character,” blocking his capacity to grow. Thus he says he remained a child (as of 2005 anyway). He had to learn the meaningfulness of earning what one has. He feels his “relationship with money now is the happiness and satisfaction that I have somehow rid myself of it.”

Here, and elsewhere, he brings in belief in God, crediting that for positive change in his life. I know many people feel the same. But Havel never really analyzes this (as he analyzes so much else). I have no such belief. For me, divorcement from reality cannot be the basis for an authentically meaningful life.

One 2009 piece starts off, “read this poem and then we’ll have a discussion about it.” Titled “Qualm” it ostensibly debates pushing an airplane alarm button, and Havel does discuss it at length. Finding this in the book was a nice surprise, as the poet is Therese L. Broderick (my wife).

Havel is not one of those many people who write as a sideline or hobby. Instead, he decided out of college to make this his career. Now approaching 50, he’s been at it for decades. With little reward. He has self-published many books (including this one), but his indefatigable efforts with established presses have met with constant rejection. Publishers tend to be very picky; selling printed books that make money is extremely hard; so a stream of rejection letters is inevitably part of any writer’s life.

But, having indeed devoted his life to this, Havel cannot just shrug off the disappointment. He has quite a lot to say about it. Mostly he discusses this as a sociological/cultural phenomenon. But one essay tells of his reading a terrific short story. Bringing on an attack of FAS — “Failed Author Syndrome” — and its corrosive resentment of others’ literary success. (He doesn’t mention dissecting that story to tease out what made it so good.)

I am no stranger to literary rejection myself. I spent years struggling to get my magnum opus (The Case for Rational Optimism) published. UntiI finally remembering the press that, over 30 years prior, had reissued my Albany political book. I’ve had ten book publications and made money on all but one. But the loss on that one exceeded all the gains. So I guess I’m no literary success either.

Havel also writes about rejection by women. This too resonated with my own history.

He has a “thing” for white women. Who, he says, generally refuse to view him romantically because of his color. For me it was height (or its lack). One guy’s recent radio essay related how he’d meet women for dates and see their “libido drain away” when he’d stand up, revealing his shortness. I was clueless in my own younger days (part of my problem), but in hindsight being 5’4″ explains a lot.

Back to Havel and his attraction to white women. One entry in the book is actually titled “In Defense of White People.” I was expecting something sardonic. But no. Havel explains that at one time he did share the stew of negative feelings toward whites that some non-whites hold. However, he says, he joined a white family for a time — what he means by this wasn’t clear to me — but anyway, he received acceptance and love, leading him to reject, as simply incorrect, the standard indictment of whiteness.

Of course that doesn’t mean all whites are good. But white people are, mainly, just people, and most people are good. Yet it almost seems as though Havel puts whites on a pedestal.

Perhaps this partly explains his attraction to white women. Then again, a majority of American women are white, so Havel may actually be conflating an attraction to women with one for white women. But he does feel his color is a barrier with white women in particular.

I found this odd. No doubt some racist women would manifest this, but in my observation, many if not most females are sexually receptive to nonwhites, many indeed positively attracted to them. Secondly, while Havel is slightly brownish, his ethnicity is far from evident visually. In fact, being of Indian ancestry, he is caucasian. Also, while I’m no great judge of this, I would rate him pretty good looking.

So what, really, was the trouble? Relating an actual romantic debacle might have helped elucidate this, but Havel includes none. The book makes it sound as though he never actually had a relationship (despite a lot of sex). However, there are some clues in the book regarding his mindset about women. It smacks of that old stereotype, “objectifying” women. He wants one not just white, but beautiful, well-educated, and affluent; it’s very much a package. He seems to believe the ideal way to get such a woman is to fight for her — literally. Physically fighting other men. His writing so often of “winning” women does make it sound like a competition. And he posits that what a woman most wants from a man is to be protected by him.

How about just relating to a woman as a fellow human being?