Trump’s latest criminal pardons

December 24, 2020

In 2007, four Blackwater organization operatives, working on contract for the U.S. military in Iraq, committed what by all accounts was an unprovoked and indefensible massacre, a shooting spree killing 14 innocent Iraqi civilians including women and children, and wounding 17 others. It was called Baghdad’s “Bloody Sunday.” The U.S. government went to great effort and expense to investigate this atrocity, gather evidence, and bring those responsible to trial. In compliance with our obligations under international law, and demonstrating America’s commitment to humanity and justice. The four were found guilty and received prison sentences from 12 years to life.

Trump has now pardoned them. Mumbling something about trial irregularities — dismissed as simply nonsense by people knowledgeable about the case. It was thoroughly investigated by the FBI, and the verdicts were hailed as incontrovertibly proper.

Blackwater is headed by Eric Prince, who just happens to be a big Trump donor and the brother of his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVoss. This week Trump also pardoned several criminals who were prosecuted in connection with the proven 2016 Russian election subversion (which Trump falsely calls a “hoax”), including supreme slimeball Paul Manafort (convicted of illegal lobbying, tax evasion, and multimillion dollar financial fraud connected with his working for foreign dictators). And Trump pardoned two ex-Congressmen, Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins, both convicted of serious financial crimes, who had been among Trump’s earliest Congressional supporters in 2016. And Jared Kushner’s father (prosecuted by Chris Christie), convicted of tax evasion, witness tampering, and campaign finance violations.

Presidents were given pardon power for mercy and to rectify injustices. But one former federal prosecutor likened Trump’s latest pardons as those of a mob boss.

All this comes on top of a long string of other politically smelly and corrupt crony pardons, including racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio; propagandist Dinesh D’Souza; Roger Stone; and Michael Flynn. All convicted of serious crimes. None of these pardons went through the customary Department of Justice review process. They were just Trump’s whims.

And the Blackwater case reprises Trump’s previous pardons for a Navy SEAL court-martialed and convicted by a military jury for war crimes, and other soldiers punished for misconduct. Trump’s actions horrified military brass, who said they represented a crisis in military governance, undermining good order and discipline in the ranks. Which of course rests upon the concept of accountability for transgressions. Trump also fired the Navy Secretary who objected to those pardons. (So much for Trump posturing as a champion of the military.)

The further perversion of justice represented by the Blackwater pardons has been met with widespread shock and dismay by responsible observers. Human Rights Watch calls it contempt for the rule of law. It’s a gut-punch to the people of Iraq, who’d believed justice was being done. It’s a terrible black eye for America’s standing in the world. It will make things harder for U.S. troops everywhere, who will now be looked upon with heightened suspicion.

America’s greatest asset, in its global relationships, has been not its economic or military power, but admiration for this country as being indeed admirable, standing for what’s right, upholding universal values. Putin and China jeer that that’s just bullshit, that we’re hypocrites, as bad as they are. Trump is trying to prove them right after all. Telling the world we don’t give a damn if our soldiers commit atrocities.

Trump did this latest pardon blizzard while completely ignoring covid’s accelerating death toll; except to irresponsibly trash the covid relief bill negotiated without him; and vetoing the military budget for taking Confederate names off bases; while still obsessing about somehow overthrowing the election.

Trump cultists, who call themselves “patriots,” trying to shrug off or defend the pardons (with predictable whataboutism — Marc Rich pardon? — and other lame deflections) will prove their literally insane moral depravity.

Equally insane is their denial that Trump lost a fair election — in part due to his long record of reprehensible conduct like these despicable pardons.

Is this their idea of “draining the swamp?” Of “law and order?” That slogan may still play in Trumpmania. But I wonder how it plays today in Baghdad.

Still four weeks to go. God help us.

Airplane! Don’t call me Shirley

December 23, 2020

Remember when you got a full meal on domestic flights? When you’d board a plane with no security line? When female flight attendants were called “stewardesses” (and they all were female)?

Remember flying?

On Netflix my wife and I stumbled on the 1980 film “Airplane!” Remember when comedies were actually full of laughs?

Of course not all were. But this one sure was. The gags were sometimes lame, yet funny for their very lameness, with puns abounding. This film’s iconic signature piece of dialog:

“Surely you can’t be serious.”

“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

“Airplane!” was, again, very much a time capsule. There was political incorrectness you couldn’t get away with now. Like two Black passengers using dialect so thick it needed subtitles. When a stewardess can’t understand them, a white passenger (played by Barbara Billingsley, who my wife remembered as Beaver’s mom) steps up to interpret, saying, “I speak jive.” Hearing her do so was jarring.

Both pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated by sickness, and stewardess Elaine takes one of their seats. Instructed to press the “automatic pilot” button, it inflates a pilot-shaped balloon into the other seat. The sexual aspects of Elaine’s relationship with the automatic pilot are tastefully explored.

Meantime, Elaine’s (other) boyfriend, Striker, couldn’t get past his WWII fighter pilot tragedy. This couple didn’t seem to have aged in the intervening 35 years, but never mind that detail. Anyhow, Elaine, finally having had enough of Striker’s crippling emotional baggage, left him behind when boarding the plane. He determines to overcome his fear of flying and go after her.

“Smoking or non-smoking?” the ticket agent asks him. (Remember smoking on planes?)

“Smoking,” Striker answers, so he’s handed a ticket that’s literally spewing a plume of smoke.

My wife chimed in, “He’s going to save the plane.”

She’s always right; of course he does. And they live happily ever after. (It helps if you never age beyond twenty.)

The autopilot, it seems, also lives happily ever after, with an inflated female counterpart.

We give this film two thumbs up, four stars, and a partridge in a pear tree.

For Trump disease, there’s no vaccine

December 20, 2020

WAMC, the local NPR station, has a morning “roundtable” of journalists and others discussing the news. In 2015 it became the Trump roundtable; even while his candidacy was still seen as a joke, he was sucking up attention like no other personage ever had. Of course it intensified during his chaotic presidency.

That would cease, columnist David Brooks once predicted, with Trump’s 2020 defeat. Republicans would abjure him as that most despised of beings, a loser. But Trump seems to be pulling off his biggest con of all — convincing them (and probably himself) he actually won the election. Being cheated by a massive conspiracy of fraud.

This delusion piles one more upon a towering edifice of nurtured grievances, and fits right in with fantasizing Trump as some tribune battling a Satanic “deep state” cabal conniving to bring him (and America) down. They’ve long salivated for his final triumph. Seems they’ll have to wait longer. More reason to continue giving him money.

Which of course he’s cynically exploited, with floods of “stop the steal” email appeals. They’re the real 2020 election fraud — because instead of financing Trump’s disgraceful ballot litigation, most of the money goes elsewhere. After the electoral college vote, the “defend the election” theme vanished from emails, perhaps now looking too absurd even for Trump chumps. Yet they’re still being relentlessly squeezed for cash.

And the sore loser assault on democracy is unabated. The messages now label Biden an “illegitimate president,” while Trump refuses to meet with him or otherwise cooperate in the transition, continuing his shredding of civic norms. It’s not merely ugly. All this does great harm to the country.

Key to democratic culture is willingness to amicably accept election outcomes and the legitimacy of the other side’s role. We’ve already long had a real problem here, with such divisiveness that political legitimacy itself had become a sore point. A president explicitly declaring his successor illegitimate carries that to a whole new level. 

One more way in which Trump has been the most destructive single person in America’s history. Being well versed in that history, I say this literally and judiciously.

We did hope to turn the page by voting him out. But this monster will continue sucking up attention, grinding down democratic norms, dividing us, and sabotaging efforts to dig ourselves out of the hole. Making his cult followers even more angry, embittered, and disaffected. Their worship unfazed by his hunkering in the White House dementedly plotting to overthrow an election he lost by seven million votes while he ignores everything else — including three thousand daily U.S. deaths.

For this sickness there’s no vaccine.

Another facet of Trump’s destructiveness is his blowing up our information ecosystem. To discredit any news he doesn’t like and create an alternate reality. Many Americans don’t know what to believe any more when it comes to basic public facts. Many, indeed, so befogged they can’t see through the most blatant disinformation — as with Trump’s “election fraud” scam. 

The internet’s proliferation of infogarbage paved the way. And now we’ve got lies spewed by shameless national propaganda broadcasters masquerading as news sources — Fox, and even more egregious, One America News Network and Newsmax.

The huge irony here is that for all Trump’s “fake news” assaults on mainstream media as his enemy, it’s actually that very media that played his game and gave him power by gifting him with an unprecedented spotlight. And while Trump whines that the media was out to get him, it was a largely uncritical spotlight. (Only lately have they found the guts to speak forthrightly of “baseless fraud claims” and the like in news coverage.) Many in the mainstream media by now seem to recognize how much they themselves foolishly helped create this monster.

Will they finally learn the lesson, and dampen Trump’s spotlight once he’s out of office? Or will they, like heedless moths to a flame,  continue giving over-the-top coverage to his every abominable rally and deranged tweet?

A test will come on January 20 when Trump tries to upstage the inauguration.

Can you love multiple partners?

December 17, 2020

Having multiple sex partners is common enough. But what about love?

This was a question discussed at a social gathering; an intellectual group. Earlier we’d discussed whether love is a “choice.” The consensus was pretty much in the negative; that it’s just something that happens, outside of one’s control.

Well, we do make choices. But the real issue is how we make them. A powerful metaphor is Jonathan Haidt’s in his book The Righteous Mind — the conscious mind as the rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks they’re in charge, directing the elephant. But mostly it’s the elephant going where it wants, with the rider making up rationales for why they’re going there.

That applies to falling in love. Yes, it’s a choice, but an elephant choice. Your conscious, thinking, rational mind is along for the ride. You do have reasons for falling in love with someone, maybe even ones you can articulate. Yet the true reasons operate at an unconscious level, deep in your psyche. The two sets of reasons may coincide, to at least some degree. But we shouldn’t imagine really understanding what’s going on.

So what about simultaneously loving more than one person, in that way? (Loving parents or children, etc., is a different thing.) In a romantic love relationship, exclusive fidelity is a cornerstone concept, with infidelity seen as incompatible. This is a sociological, cultural idea, powerful enough to influence our elephants. Yet our elephants may still harbor other ideas too. Judging from how humans actually behave.

This is crucially shaped by evolution. The only thing nature cares about is reproduction — producing offspring, and getting them to adulthood to reproduce again. That accounts for all our sexual feelings. Embedded deep in our genes.

And fidelity is an element here. Women are programmed to want male partners who’ll stick around to protect and help raise the kids. And the male wants the female to be faithful so he knows the kids he’s expending resources on are really his. These imperatives are a very big deal, evolutionarily.

Indeed, our group discussion noted male animals sometimes killing their mates’ offspring sired by a different partner. Even among humans, how often we read of the “boyfriend” mistreating or even killing a woman’s child by a previous guy. That’s evolution driving him. That boyfriend (his genetically shaped elephant) wants to perpetuate his own genes, not to invest work in someone else’s.

All that said, however, it’s far from the whole story. The male is also programmed to spread his sperm around as widely as possible, to increase the chances for his genes to appear in the next generation. Some readers may have noticed how this factor manifests in human behavior.

The calculus for a female differs since she’s strictly limited in numbers of offspring. Thus she must make each one count — birthing the healthiest children, most apt to reach adulthood. That’s why she too has a roving eye. Her mate may be nice enough, but some other male may attract her as likelier to give her a better baby. Also, her mate may be shooting blanks. Sex with additional men makes getting pregnant more likely.

So while we do have some cultural and evolutionary drivers for exclusivity in love, we also have genetic drivers for playing the field. At any rate, certainly our elephants are not programmed to rule out multiple simultaneous loves.

And meantime there’s a lot of psychology in play, wholly apart from our evolutionary and cultural programming. To name just one factor: ego. That’s why we talk of romantic “conquests.” In sum, the elephant may be perfectly capable, even desirous, of multiplicity in love. If one is good, mightn’t two (or more) seem better?

Stated another way: the heart wants what it wants. And it may want more than one.

A Christian asks Christian Trumpers: “What in God’s Name are You Doing?”

December 15, 2020

Kathryn Shihadah wrote this piece (11/15/20) on patheos.com, a religion site. My humanist society’s newsletter reprinted it. I found it quite powerful too, and have edited it slightly: 

Trump-supporting Christians have abandoned the call to be Christlike, and turned Christianity into something barely recognizable. It’s time to ask ourselves honestly: what are we doing? I’ve been a lifelong Christian, and I intend to remain faithful to God till I die. But I’m no longer sure about wearing the “Christian” label. Why? Trumpism. 

Here’s a quote I saw recently, trying to belittle atheists: “When people choose not to believe in God, they then become capable of believing in anything.” No, the exact opposite is true: When people choose to believe in God, they become capable of believing in anything.

It’s true. We have been guilty of a massive lack of discernment, and the sooner we admit it, the better. First we paired ourselves with a man who . . . well, you know the long list of strikes already against him even before 2016. In spite of his many indiscretions and deep-seated vices, we Christians excused and embraced him. Every time some new trespass came to light, we found a way to brush it off. 

Everyone is a work in progress; everyone deserves forgiveness and a second chance, but we’re not talking about a friend or coworker here. This is the man we put in charge of our country. He showed us he was a fake Christian. Showed us he was self-centered and arrogant. Showed us he was a racist – even as he told us he was “the least racist person in the room.” The opposite of Christlike. We are guilty. We knew all this and we elected him. We looked at him and his Muslim ban, and his Mexico wall, and we said, “yes, this is the man for us.” We completely ignored Jesus’s straightforward words, “whatever you have done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” 

That’s right, we turned away Jesus at every international airport and deported him at our southern border. We ripped babies from Jesus’s arms and put them in cages. Not Obama. Us. Nearly every day for four long years, the president we elected did something obscene, or lied to us or to the world, or bullied the weak, or cozied up with tyrants. For the last ten months, he has ignored hundreds of thousands of Americans as they died. Now, the majority of Americans are done with him. And we can’t handle it. He is probably the most hated man in the world right now, but we think the only way he could lose an election is through some kind of massive conspiracy. 

What have we become, Christians? Do we still believe we have the moral high ground here? Do we even care about integrity? It seems to me (and hundreds of millions of people around the world) that all Christians care about anymore is winning. 

Are our leaders being Christlike? Christian leaders weaponize Christianity, and use it to demonize and/or ridicule every American who didn’t vote for “our man.” Paula White** talks of a “demonic confederacy against the election, against America, against who you have declared to be in the White House.” Kenneth Copeland: “The media said Joe Biden is president. Hahahahahaha. Hahahahahaha.” Michelle Bachmann: “God, take your rod of iron and smash the delusion of Joe Biden as our president – he is not.” 

When the president tear gassed a peaceful protest so he could walk across the street and hold up a Bible for a photo op, that was distasteful. We can say, “Father, forgive him. He knows not what he does.” But Paula and Kenneth are pastors. They know better. Not only are these people’s words offensive and decidedly un-Christlike, they are using God’s name and the Bible as a weapon. In defense of a man who watches TV and plays golf all day while Americans are dying. 

So I ask again, what have we become? Does this in any way resemble Jesus? Are we being Christlike? We’re pretending like we just want a fair election, but won’t consider it fair unless our candidate wins. We’ve suggested that “liberals” must have tampered with vote counts, and implied that “conservatives” would never do such a thing. We cannot accept the fact that it’s over. We are demanding to keep that person in charge of our country. Oh, and many of us are still selfishly refusing to protect our communities by wearing a mask. 

Yeah, I’m still a Christ-follower. But “Christian?” I’ll have to think about it. When people choose to believe in God, they become capable of believing in anything.  What in God’s name is wrong with us? 

* Here’s a link: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/gracecoloredglasses/2020/11/dear-trump-christians-what-in-gods-name-are-you-doing-christlike/

** Trump’s so-called “spiritual adviser.”

Police reform: a conservative issue

December 12, 2020

A recent local TV discussion included some Black activists and Albany’s police chief and other officials. The big takeaway was insufficient police accountability to the citizens for whom they’re supposed to work. Albany has had several injuries and deaths in recent years resulting from dubious police conduct. Since 2000 we’ve had a “Community Police Review Board,” but the TV discussion made clear its toothlessness. I’m not aware of any officer ever disciplined due to its actions.

Then we watched Aaron Sorkin’s film, The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Including footage of police assaulting protesters during the 1968 Democratic convention. Called a police riot, it was horrific. Were any cops disciplined?

I was active in Republican/conservative politics in New York City in the ’60s. We wore “Support Your Local Police” buttons, opposing a civilian review board. This pro-police “law and order” stance has long been a conservative staple. It was a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign.

But what is “conservatism,” really? If nothing else, belief in limited government, and distrust of its power, especially when it intrudes upon our lives. Now suppose I tell you government will enforce its will by deploying guys with weapons, authorized to use them against citizens, at their own discretion (or lack thereof), with scant accountability? Doesn’t that scare the crap out of you?

That’s my conservatism talking. You might answer, well, I’m white, and law-abiding, so I have nothing to fear. But most demonstrators whose heads police cracked in Chicago were white, and in fact law-abiding. It was lawless police that instigated the violence. Those demonstrators were basically just exercising their American right to free expression — one that I particularly value. I’ve marched in protests too.

Maybe you welcome police brutalizing people you disapprove of. But if they can do it to them, they can do it to you. “First they came for the Jews . . . .” A nation where a Breonna Taylor or a George Floyd can be wantonly killed by “law officers” is not safe for any of us. That’s not “law and order.”

Yes, we do need police. Thusly giving government a monopoly on legitimate use of force is essential to our social compact. As explained by Thomas Hobbes, the answer for the “war of all against all” we’d have without it. We give up our freedom to prey upon others in exchange for protection from their predation. Thus we establish rule of law and a government to literally police it. But that use of force must be accountable to us.

Accountability is a central problem of government. That’s why conservatives cast a wary eye on bureaucrats in distant offices whose actions can affect our lives. But the more immediate concern — its real ground zero — is the cop on the beat, right there among us, armed not with a pen but with a gun, which government says he can use on us if he so decides. Often indeed police are armed like an invading army. That’s where accountability is needed most.

And it’s sorely lacking. Police are powers in their own right, unto themselves. Unlike politicians, they don’t have to earn our votes. They’re further insulated from citizen accountability through powerful unions and contracts that stymie discipline and even hide such matters from public view. George Floyd’s killer had 17 prior transgressions on his record and still remained on the force.

How is defending this unfettered and indeed violent governmental power “conservative?” Working to constrain it isn’t just a left-wing issue. Conservatives — those who actually understand conservative principles — should join with them.

America’s sanity crisis

December 9, 2020

Though just 51% voted for Biden, I’d hoped his election might dispel the fog of insanity gripping most of the rest. But so far if anything it’s deepening.

Deepening too is America’s worst crisis of my lifetime. A 9/11’s worth of deaths every day, 15 million sickened, hospitals overwhelmed, psychological trauma, economic devastation widening. And where the fuck is the President??

If ever there was a time crying out for real national leadership, this is it. But Trump has been MIA for months about the pandemic. Except to claim credit for vaccines, even while he disregards the daunting challenge of administering them. Instead of working on that, or to curb covid’s spread, or with Congress on stalled relief legislation, instead of rallying the nation’s resolve or comforting the suffering — a deranged president in his bunker fixates on trying to undo the reality of his amply deserved election defeat. Spewing lies about nonexistent fraud. When the real fraud is scamming his suckers to donate to a phony “election defense fund” ($200 million and counting).

Peter Baker’s Sunday analysis in The New York Times* — “Trump’s final days full of rage and denial” — reads like literature. Full of Shakespearean references. Trump as some mad medieval monarch careening toward the implosive last act. Even after four appalling years, the picture now is yet more extraordinary and unnerving.

And astoundingly, 47% voted for this guy! One of the vilest men on Earth. Still swallow his lies, still worship him. Only 27 of 249 Republican members of Congress recognize Biden’s election; many say Trump won. In Pennsylvania, 75 GOP state legislators have called on Congress to reject the state’s Biden electors. Almost the whole party is complicit in what truly amounts to Trump’s (fortunately shambolic) coup attempt.

This is insane.

And it has grave consequences. It sets a terrible precedent for a future bad guy slicker than Trump. It will hobble the Biden administration’s ability to function in this time of crisis. While trust in the integrity of elections is a key pillar of our democracy. Now almost half the country thinks the whole system is illegitimate. Indeed, millions of Christians believe Trump was installed by God, with Biden a Satanic usurper. Literally! This is part of the crisis we’re in. It’s a sanity crisis.

A Staten Island bar owner was cheered by “supporters” after being busted for violating covid restrictions and then attacking a cop with his car. Last Friday, the New York Young Republican Club held a big gala in a New Jersey restaurant — none in New York would host such a prohibited event. The revelers, including Matt Gaetz, a Trump-crazed Florida Congressman, posed pressed together with big smiles — and no masks.

Local officials harshly condemned this irresponsibility. But club president Gavin Wax responded, “We embrace life and living while you all cower in your pods worried about a disease with a 99%+ survivability rate. The left wants you to live in a world where socializing and being with friends and loved ones is a crime and a sin. It’s sick.”

I too embrace life and living; I want to continue it. The 99% number is Trump’s, false of course, the true figure being somewhat lower. Yet even for survivors the illness is often a horrible ordeal, and a great many suffer lasting health problems. It’s the mindset represented by that club president that’s sick. Responsible for most of our quarter million deaths.

As is his inspiration: the U.S. President. Who could so easily have been a hero in this crisis. If only he’d taken it seriously, and especially, pushed masking and social distancing. They became anathema on the right only because of him. It made no sense. For all Trump’s obsession with re-election, by inviting the covid catastrophe he screwed himself (and us). But it’s not inexplicable. He’s clinically insane.

The six more weeks before sanity is restored in the presidency is way too long. During that interval covid’s ravages will be devastating. And so sadly preventable. President-elect Biden talks of asking Americans to mask for 100 days. Asking— not curtailing “freedom” but begging us to be good citizens, to protect the lives of others as well as our own. And while Trump has assailed Biden as threatening an economic lockdown, we already had that — under Trump — so mismanaged it didn’t work. We don’t need to repeat that disaster. We could keep most of the economy (and, especially, schools) open as long as we do so smartly, with ramped up testing and tracing, and observing the other kinds of sensible precautions, mainly masking and social distancing.

But too many Trumpsuckers, like those New York Republican clubbers, won’t comply. Half of people polled say they’ll even refuse vaccination. Theyll listen to a low-down lying lunatic of a president — but not Biden.

I’ve quoted Lincoln saying America cannot endure half slave and half free. Nor can we endure half sane and half nuts.

* Here’s a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/05/us/politics/trump-presidency-election-loss.html

Where the Crawdads Sing (Big spoiler alert)

December 7, 2020

My local paper publishes the NY Times bestseller list weekly, which I glance at. Where the Crawdads Sing, a novel by Delia Owens, topped it forever. Owens is a zoologist and wildlife writer; this is her first novel. I’m not normally into popular novels, but then my book group chose it.

Its appeal is understandable. It’s set in the marshes of North Carolina’s outer banks, leading to the ocean. Kya, known as “the Marsh Girl,” lives there in a shack. By the time she was six, her abusive drunk of a father had driven away the rest of the family; often absent himself, he disappeared for good a few years later. Leaving Kya to survive alone. Which she does admirably.

This story is joined with a murder mystery.

Teenaged Kya, much the loner, nevertheless develops a diffident romance with Tate, a slightly older youngster encountered exploring the marshlands. When he goes off to college, he promises to return. But guess what?

Kya feels really burned. Yet she falls for the next fella to penetrate the marsh and earn her trust: Chase, a “golden boy” in the nearby town of Barkley Cove. He penetrates her too, with promises of marriage. Guess what?

After Chase marries someone else — Kya, devastated, only learns of it in a newspaper she buys on a fluke — he returns and brutally tries to rape her.

Subsequently he’s found dead at the foot of a tower.

Kya fortunately has a good alibi. You see, Tate had meanwhile come back too after all, earned her trust again, sort of, and now a biologist, he gets Kya’s marsh expertise on shells, birds, etc., embodied into beautifully published books. So she makes the only bus trip of her life, to Greenville, to meet with her publisher, for dinner and then breakfast. Just happened to be the night of Chase’s death.

But Kya is arrested anyway and charged with murder. The prosecutor’s theory is that she could have bussed back and forth to Barkley Cove during the night. The bus schedules allowed for that — with just barely enough time to do the deed — if you assume a lot. The bus drivers testified they didn’t see her. But the prosecution suggested she traveled in disguise. All seemingly far fetched!

Kya is acquitted.

A few things struck me. Why would buses run between these small towns in the middle of the night? Seemed a blatant authorial contrivance. And never mentioned is a gaping hole in the case. Assuming Kya did meticulously plot this caper, how did she know she’d find Chase at the tower? On the other hand, she never actually professes innocence.

Anyway, she returns to her marsh life, spending the next forty years lovingly together with Tate in the shack. The murder — if it wasn’t just an accidental fall — is never solved.

But there was one loose end. Missing from Chase’s body was the shell necklace he’d worn for years, a gift from Kya. It whispered to me throughout the aftermath. I knew it would resurface — else why was it there in the first place? Like Chekov’s proverbial gun. And when, on the final page, after Kya’s death, Tate stumbles upon her hidden cache, I knew what he’d find.

P.S. “Crawdads” are fresh water crayfish.

Understanding Trump voters #386: the personal is political

December 5, 2020

Like half the country, I’ve spent four years struggling to understand how the other half could vote for Trump. It seems insane.

A piece on medium.com by Jeff Valdivia has some insight.* He mainly discusses a podcast by Sam Harris (End of Faith author). They see Trump’s unspeakableness as perversely working in his favor. For all his self-praise, one thing he actually never claims is moral virtue. Welcomed by people sick of having their own virtue impugned. At last, someone who’s not a role model they must compare themselves (unfavorably) to. Harris thinks Trump offers a kind of “spiritual balm” of comfort for them.

A good example, says Valdivia, concerns fast food, the obesity epidemic, etc., with many Americans feeling shamed by a scolding commentariat. In this, and many other regards, Trump’s own shamelessness is appealing to his supporters, giving them a kind of personal validation.

But Valdivia, again citing Harris, says Trump’s appeal is best understood vis-a-vis the far left. With their moral censoriousness and virtue shaming on steroids: “a level of sanctimony that defies all reason.” Which normal people rebel against.

I recently reviewed Robert Boyers’s book, whose title fits perfectly here: The Tyranny of Virtue. It’s aimed at academia, where the slightest deviation from the left’s catechism incurs Savonarolan retribution. But such “cancel culture” has spread to the wider society.

Just one example: transgender issues. I fully support people wanting to live as their true selves. But this too has become an all-or-nothing, scorched earth orthodoxy. As with J.K. Rowling called a transphobic monster for making some actually obvious observations distinguishing between cis and trans women. It’s a real issue in sport, where genders have competed separately due to physical differences; a trans woman would have unfair biological advantages. Meantime, we see maladjusted teenagers suddenly deciding to change sex, with lifelong consequences, but no one allowed to caution them. A scientist, Lisa Littman, who dared to study the matter, was fired. If you’re not transfanatic, you’re transphobic!

Such deranged moralistic absolutism is very antagonizing. To the extent Trump is seen as pushing back against it, he mines a rich vein of political gold.

Recall how Hillary’s “deplorables” comment backfired, Trump supporters wearing it as a badge of honor. Refusing to be looked down upon by hoity-toity snot-noses. It’s one thing to disagree about an issue; quite another to call you deplorable. Or racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Especially racist. People’s feelings about race are often complicated. Few see themselves as “racist.”

For this judgmentalism many Republicans hate Democrats. Also because of the hard left, even though most Democrats actually reject it too. But much Republican hatred for Democrats is based on falsehoods. It’s mainly sheer tribalism — my tribe good, other tribe bad. And your tribe is a package deal. If it includes deeming climate change a hoax, or Biden’s election fraudulent, you buy the whole deal. America’s right is now enraged believing the lie that Biden won by fraud. Threatening violence.

Thus Valdivia sees crazy on one side driving crazy on the other; each continually upping the ante of our polarization. How can we break out of this? He reports on an initiative called Braver Angels, getting political opposites together to converse in a “safe space.” To elide the shouting and demonization to arrive at what co-founder Bill Doherty calls accurate disagreement. While seeing more in common than they’d realized. People being “more complicated and less evil” than we think, says Valdivia.

It isn’t rocket science; in fact, earnest initiatives like this are legion. But it requires good will and open mindedness to begin with (certainly scarce on the hard left). And what tiny percentage of the U.S. electorate would participate in such get-togethers?

A recent David Brooks column is also on point. It’s all about epistemology: how we know things. There are basic methods for that. Rejected by today’s Republican Trump cultists. This is part of the obvious growing cultural divide between urban educated people and those who see them as distant, condescending, having it easy, with different values. Causing cynicism and alienation. The “evangelists of distrust, from Trump to Alex Jones to the followers of QAnon” play into that, providing a tribal bonding. Conspiracy theories are effective emotional tools, conferring a perverse kind of power. Believers imagine themselves privy to some hidden truth. In sum, Brooks says today’s Republican identity is defined not by policies but by a paranoid mindset.**

He does believe that honest discourse, like in the Braver Angels thing, can help, narrowing the social/cultural chasm. However, he says, “you can’t argue people out of paranoia;” can’t talk them out of an emotional state. Brooks thinks a lot of it stems from economic anxiety, and we really have to make life more secure for people losing out, mainly those without college degrees. Yet, on the Newshour, he spoke of a neurosurgeon inhabiting the Trump alternate reality.

Brooks, Harris, and Valdivia do help demystify Trumpdom, from a psychological standpoint. However, as voters we really have a responsibility to see past our personal stuff and give thought to the bigger picture. And even from the perspective of raw self-regard and self-interest, does it really make sense to install so vile and feckless a president? Look at the covid disaster. Does this “make America great again?” Is it the role model you want for your children?

Or else you can blind yourself to such realities, which again is indeed a large element of Trumpism. But whatever reasons may lie behind your voting choice, it can’t possibly be a good idea to base it on flouting reality. That can only bite you in the behind.

At what point do you finally say, “Enough; this is insane?”

* Read it here: https://jeff-valdivia.medium.com/finally-an-answer-to-why-so-many-people-voted-for-trump-34106d896bec

** This partly explains polls underestimating Republican votes. They didn’t lie to pollsters; instead many wouldn’t answer at all, seeing polling firms as part of the elitist establishment they despise.

The Supreme Court’s religious crusade

December 3, 2020

Robyn Blumner is a lawyer, CEO of the Center for Inquiry, and head of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. I recently heard her speak about the assault on church-state separation, focusing on the Supreme Court, which has a majority now on this mission (thanks to Trump’s three appointments).

The First Amendment decrees “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Blumner said the two clauses must be read in tandem and in light of the history behind them. That included a Puritan colony where religious dissenters were hanged. The issue came to a head in Virginia in 1784 with proposed legislation for taxpayer funding of religious teaching. James Madison successfully fought it, arguing that state entanglement would corrupt religion. This idea of what Jefferson later called a “wall of separation” between church and state led to the First Amendment.

Thus Blumner contended that when they seek to give religion a governmentally privileged status, the Supreme Court’s so-called constitutional “originalists” are actually disingenuously ignoring those ideals and values that were originally baked into the document, as intended by the founders they supposedly venerate. She quoted the late Justice Scalia (who said the Devil is real and is mainly into promoting atheism) that the First Amendment does not bar the government from preferring religion over irreligion.

The Court was not always like this. Blumner referred to the 1965 Griswold decision holding that Connecticut’s (religion-inspired) law banning contraception violates an inherent constitutional right to privacy. (She didn’t mention 1963’s Abington Township v. Schempp, outlawing school prayer. I met Schempp. In a men’s room.) Blumner noted that Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in her recent confirmation hearings, refused to endorse the Griswold decision.

More recently the Court has been dominated by Scalia disciples. Thus the recent case of the (giant) Bladensburg cross, a WWI memorial maintained with taxpayer money. Only two justices (Sotomayor and Ginsberg) had a problem with this; common among the others was the idea that historical meaning gives the cross a constitutional pass. Blumner said this dooms efforts to remove monuments with religious symbolism from public property.

Other pertinent cases include:

• Espinosa, where the Court voided “Blaine Amendments” in most states barring state aid to religious institutions, holding that they can’t be excluded from programs of general public applicability;

• Our Lady of Guadalupe, barring Catholic School teachers from suing for employment discrimination, extending a “ministerial exception” allowing congregations to hire whoever they want as clergy;

• Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, holding that a private business can invoke religious beliefs to escape the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for contraception coverage in employer-provided health insurance; and

• Masterpiece Cake Shop, holding the baker was a victim of religious hostility when his state’s equal rights agency ruled his religious beliefs could not justify refusal to provide a cake for a gay wedding.

And coming up: the Fulton case, concerning a Philadelphia Catholic foster parenthood outfit, which claims a right to taxpayer funding while invoking religious doctrines to bar same-sex applicants. Blumner thinks they’ll win.

The result of all this: religious institutions can’t be excluded from public funding available to others; they’re held to lower standards of accountability; and religious beliefs exempt them from anti-discrimination strictures otherwise applicable. Blumner called this a recipe for ending the religious peace that America has enjoyed for two centuries thanks to the “wall of separation.”

She concluded by discussing Attorney General Barr’s Notre Dame speech deeming secularists’ “unremitting assault” on religion responsible for all the nation’s putative moral decline. Blumner called this delusional — indeed, having it backward. Because on basic measures of societal well-being, more secular nations (and within America, more secularized states) do better. And “if he wants to see moral depravity,” she said, Barr “should look at the guy he’s working for.”

Weeks after Blumner spoke, the Supreme Court voided New York’s covid-related restrictions as applied to religious gatherings. Admittedly the state’s rationale for how it came up with its seemingly inconsistent restrictions was unclear. Yet one would expect the Supreme Court to give a lot of deference, and the benefit of the doubt, to something so important as a state’s regulations aimed at protecting public health and safety — from which churches should not be exempt. Instead, the Court’s decision here yet again smacks of a principle privileging religion. Indeed, it now seems the Court’s true principle is simply that, in any case involving religion, religion always wins.

Very backward, when religion is inexorably losing ground to rationalism. That’s ultimately irreversible by the Court’s coddling of religion.