Is reality real?

December 10, 2016

Bishop Berkeley, a 1700s philosopher, was the first to question the existence of a material reality outside our minds. unknownIn my 2009 Optimism book, I quoted an article by Professor Robert Lanza similarly arguing that reality is just a figment of mental activity – literally – “the trees and snow evaporate when we’re sleeping. The kitchen disappears when we’re in the bathroom.”

But (I wrote) if our perceptions create reality, then what creates our perceptions? Though you might question a reality that was yours alone, the fact that we all experience essentially the same reality corroborates it. images-1This isn’t a mass delusion. Madonna was right: we are living in a material world.

Lanza has meantime authored, together with astronomy writer Bob Berman, some books on “biocentrism,” carrying the argument further, and even using it to deem death an illusion. My wife and I debated about this, and she smacked me with an article in The Atlantic, (“The Case Against Reality”), interviewing Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science.

Hoffman starts with the idea that our ancestors whose perceptions best matched reality would have had a competitive evolutionary advantage. Very plausible, he says, but “utterly false.” images-2Evolution, according to Hoffman, really hinges instead on “fitness functions” – “an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness.”

Hoffman invokes here as metaphor a computer’s desktop interface. It might show a blue rectangular icon in a lower right screen position – but those characteristics reveal nothing true about that file or anything in the computer. images-3The icon guides our behavior while hiding a complex reality we don’t need to know. Similarly, if I see a snake, it’s “a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions.”

But, like Lanza and Berman, Hoffman goes further, arguing that experienced perceptions are all there is, and what is perceived doesn’t really exist. This, he says, is what quantum mechanics tells us: “there are no physical objects.” So, “[j]ust like you have your own headache, you have your own moon” that you see. Thus, Hoffman derides most neuroscientists for focusing on “a physical brain,” an idea archaically rooted in 300-year-old Newtonian physics, when we’ve learned from more modern quantum physics “that classical objects – including brains – don’t exist.”

Let’s see if I can demystify this.

Hoffman’s perception-versus-fitness argument entails a false dichotomy. Simply put, accurate perception is one element of fitness. All else equal, an organism with better perceptual accuracy is more fit, and has a competitive advantage. images-4Seeing a snake may be like seeing a desktop icon, in guiding behavior, without needing to know anything about the underlying reality. Yet an ability to distinguish snakes from sticks, and some knowledge of a snake’s underlying reality (how it behaves), are important “fitness functions.”

It’s been said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t. This applies to Hoffman, Lanza, Berman, and Deepak Chopra – another philosophical quack who similarly misuses catch phrases from quantum physics to propound nonsensical woo-woo propositions. (I noticed the first blurb for the latest Lanza-Berman book is from Deepak Chopra.)

Specifically, the Hoffman article says experiments have shown “that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get wrong answers.” Hence “[t]here are no public objects sitting out there in some pre-existing space.” But that second sentence simply does not follow from the first; it’s an absurd leap. While quantum physics does tell us some very queer things about particle behavior at the subatomic level, none of that means “classical objects” made up of zillions of particles don’t exist. Nonexistent things can’t have any behavior; you can’t perform experiments on them. imagesFailure to acknowledge that quantum mechanics governs only the subatomic realm, not that of everyday objects, is the fundamental mistake (or flim-flam) here. (And by the other authors mentioned.)

Our scientific understanding of the physics of reality has penetrated very far toward its core. We are not all the way there yet, and the problem gets ever harder because we are trying to see into ever tinier realms. It concerns the deepest structure of the particles at the heart of existence and of the spacetime in which they do their thing. And, true, the deeper we go, the more it’s as if “there’s no there there.” I’m writing this on a desk, seemingly a hard object. But it’s made up of atoms, which are almost entirely empty space, and what’s not empty space consists of particles which don’t seem to be the kind of solid objects we’re familiar with either. Drilling down, we haven’t gotten to where we can put our fingers onto something hard. Yet the desk is hard. How can that be? Or is it really?

images-5And so we have guys like Hoffman telling us “classical objects” like brains don’t exist. But the fact that we don’t yet understand – deeply, at the subatomic level – how their existence works certainly does not mean they don’t exist at all.

And the fundamental contradiction in Hoffman’s idea is that if reality is only a construct of mental activity, where does that mental activity come from, if not the brain? If brains (“classical objects”) don’t actually exist, how can there be any mental activity, any perceptions? It’s a chicken-and-egg tautology.

This is the problem with all philosophies (like Lanza-Berman’s too) that posit some kind of “mind” that somehow exists apart from the physical neurons in the brain. A “soul.” At the end of the day, our minds, our consciousness, our selves, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, all can only be phenomena rooted in the physical functioning of neurons. We don’t yet fully understand how that works either, but it must. There is no other possibility.

When Lanza and Berman tell us death is an illusion, what they’re really saying is that life is an illusion. Our lives – our consciousness, sense of self – may indeed be a kind of illusion generated by the physical interactions of our neurons. And when they die, the illusion dies.

William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!

December 5, 2016

sartorisAsked to name my favorite author, I’d probably say Faulkner. I’m reminded of this by finding, at a recent book sale, his novel Sartoris. I’d always meant to read that one – since I happen to be a three-time recipient of the Sartoris medal.*

Faulkner’s work is not easy reading, but worth the effort. It always packs a wallop, plumbing the greatest intensity of human experience.

Faulkner

Faulkner

Its difficulty is exemplified by The Sound and the Fury, whose beginning seems like gibberish. Once when I took my teenaged daughter to a bookstore, she picked it out and asked me about the title. I replied that it’s from Shakespeare: a human life is like “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Not till I said that did I suddenly grasp the title’s full import. The book is – literally – “a tale told by an idiot.”

In this and other Faulkner books it’s not always obvious what’s being talked about. You have to work at it and keep reading. unknown-3In The Hamlet there’s a lengthy sequence involving another idiot, and a cow. Trying to make sense of it, I’m saying to myself, “Is this really what I think it is?” Well, it was.

Faulkner’s oeuvre is set in his own deep South, from around the mid-1800s to the early 1900s; and focuses on its white society. It’s not a pretty picture. Every negative aspect of the human character is unsparingly portrayed.

Now, I am not a cynical misanthrope, and hate misanthropic books. But Faulkner is no misanthrope either. To the contrary: while he does depict all the awfulness of the human animal, he does it with sympathy. His message is not: despise him, condemn him. Rather it is: understand him. And when I wrote my Optimism book, it was a quote from Faulkner that I chose for its epigraph: I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.

Still, when I read these books, they make me very glad I didn’t have to live in their time and place – even as a white person. The palpable change fuels my optimism. I see the past as dark, and my own time and place as full of light. We have progressed.

Faulkner’s books tend to entail peeling back layers to finally get to the heart of things. This is nowhere truer than in Absalom, Absalom!

imagesThomas Sutpen is a protean character who arrives in antebellum Mississippi from Haiti with a chain-gang of slaves and by sharp dealing with Indians acquires 100 square miles to build his plantation. In time, he marries and has two children: Henry and Judith. At college, Henry meets an older fellow, Charles, who soon courts Judith.

(Spoiler alert: stop here if you want to read the book.)

Thomas opposes the match. He has an excellent reason: it develops that Charles is already married. But, as we eventually learn, that’s not the true reason. It seems the other wife is not an insurmountable obstacle.

However, by and by, a more devastating fact about Charles emerges: he’s actually Thomas’s son, by his own previous Haitian wife.

Incest would seem an amply good reason to oppose the marriage. But, it turns out, that wasn’t the true reason either; for Thomas, a rough character, not even that is an insurmountable obstacle.

unknownNot until near the end do we finally learn the real reason. Can you guess? It’s also the reason why Thomas left behind that first wife in Haiti. A drop of black blood.

This ends badly, for everybody. The lone survivor, decades later, is Charles’s black grandchild – another idiot.

Reading Faulkner makes me better appreciate my own life and family.

 

 

* Awarded by the Albany Numismatic Society, named after a different Sartoris.

The sickness of Trump voters

December 3, 2016

images-1The Economist magazine did a statistical analysis of the presidential vote, by county, to find what demographic factor best predicted the swing to Trump (from Romney’s 2012 vote). The percentage of non-college whites was an obvious factor – they went two-to-one for Trump. But The Economist found another factor that correlated even better with Trump’s gains over Romney: health.

They analyzed data for life expectancy, obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking, and exercise (or lack thereof). The worse a county did on these measures, the better Trump fared relative to Romney. Those poor health factors did also correlate with high percentages of non-college whites; but among non-college white populations some did less poorly on health; and there, Trump did less well.

images-2Why? The Economist suggests “that the ill may have been particularly susceptible to Mr. Trump’s message.” They note too a rising death rate among middle-aged less educated white males (bucking the bigger global trend toward longer lives). Drinking, opioid abuse, and suicide are cited as factors; which in turn are linked to deindustrialization and poor job prospects. The Economist deems it unsurprising that people in such circumstances pinned their hopes on Trump (foolish though it may be).

imagesBased on its analysis, the magazine calculates that if diabetes were 7% lower in Michigan, 8% more Pennsylvanians exercised regularly, and heavy drinking in Wisconsin were 5% lower, Clinton would have won.

This might suggest a winning strategy for Democrats would be to focus on public health. But meantime many of them are saying that if only Bernie had been nominated, he’d have won. They still feel he was somehow cheated out of the nomination – even though Clinton got several million more primary votes. Anyhow, the idea that the nation that elected Trump would really have preferred a cheerless 74-year-old socialist Brooklyn Jew is laughable. America is basically a center-right country, not center-left, and certainly not far left. By travelling that route, Democrats will achieve ideological self-satisfaction and electoral irrelevance.

One commenter diagnosed the Democrats’ problem thusly: Kennedy put a man on the Moon. Obama put a man in the women’s room. (At least that’s how some see it.)

I don’t expect another election will somehow snap America back to political sanity. It will most likely be a contest between the White People’s Party of Lies and Nonsense and the Democrats’ Socialist Party of Economic Nonsense.images-1 Can’t we get a third option, a Party of Truth and Reason? Actually, it may not be hopeless. David Brooks writes in a recent column of efforts toward organizing a sensible center alliance in American politics. And as I’ve noted previously, Ross Perot in 1992, running as a third party candidate, albeit very flawed, got 19% of the vote. That’s halfway to winning a three-sided race. If Trump could win the presidency with 46% of Americans voting idiotically, maybe, just maybe, someone could win with 40% voting sensibly.

Death with Dignity*

November 30, 2016

unknownHow would you prefer to die? While having sex, some answer. But most just want to die at home among loved ones. However, most people die in some kind of facility. We also fear pain. But usually pain can be medically managed. The real issue is quality of life at the end. People want to feel they have some control over what’s happening to them.

Our medical and legal systems work against that. Suicide is not allowed, certainly not with medical help. Some get around this by refusing nourishment. Actually a pretty nasty way to go.

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard was a California gal who got brain cancer at 28. Aggressive treatment failed. Maynard’s end-game looked horrible, and doctors couldn’t help her. So she moved to Oregon, which had adopted a “Death With Dignity” law in 1994. This allowed her to get a prescription for 100 Seconal capsules. Maynard enjoyed the time she had left, and when the disease’s depredations duly overcame that enjoyment, she popped the pills. In five minutes she was sleeping peacefully; in an hour or so, an ex-parrot.

unknown-2But before that, Maynard helped campaign for California legislation similar to Oregon’s. Governor Brown signed it in 2015; the fourth state with such a law. Efforts are underway to get one passed in New York.

My libertarianism says you should be free to do what you want, as long as no one else is harmed. Nothing is more fundamental than your right to control your own passing.

The proposed law has many safeguards. It would only apply after a terminal diagnosis (death expected within six months) confirmed by two doctors; and a written request with two witnesses. The patient must be mentally capable, and while there can be help, the fatal dose must be self-administered.images-1 The patient must also receive counseling on other options. And must wear green shoes.

Some opposition comes from religious quarters – the idea of taking things out of God’s hands. Of course all medical interventions do that. There is also the allied “sanctity of life” argument. But if life is sacred, it is sacred first and foremost to the individual living it. Whatever meaning it has is primarily its meaning to him or her; and they should have the freedom to choose the right time to end it. Denying that autonomy seems indeed antithetical to the concept of life as sacred.

Also, some believers maintain that suffering is redemptive. Fine if the suffering is your own choice. But to demand it for another is not redemptive, it’s just cruel.

Medical organizations have also traditionally opposed these laws. Some doctors see them as fundamentally contrary to the Hippocratic oath (“First, do no harm”), and don’t want to be put in morally ambiguous situations. However, some organizations are moderating that stance; in California, the local one opted for neutrality. In Oregon, under the new regime, end-of-life care has improved, and doctors wound up feeling better about things.

Opposition has also come from advocates for the disabled, who fear such laws could put vulnerable people at risk. That’s a paternalistic attitude – most disabled people themselves actually want to have the choices the law would allow. In polls, they are as much in favor as the general population – which supports such legislation, by large majorities. And while many opponents cite potential abuses, Oregon’s experience fails to reveal a single such case.

unknown-1Then there’s the “slippery slope” argument – if euthanasia is permitted, it could evolve into being required, or people pressured into it. Again, Oregon’s experience rebuts this; after twenty years it hasn’t happened, and the numbers utilizing Oregon’s law haven’t risen over time. But meanwhile all of public policy is a slippery slope. At every point on the slope, we must make choices and decisions. As rational creatures, we can do this.

Little by little, step by step, human beings gradually have been getting better at how to do things, improving our quality of life. “Death with Dignity,” giving us more and better options for controlling our own circumstances, is one example. This is progress. It’s why I’m an optimist.

* Note, this post is based on a talk by Corinne Carey of “Compassion and Choices New York,” a nonprofit working to improve care and expand choices at the end of life.

Trump: Making China great again

November 27, 2016

unknownThanks to president-elect Trump’s opposition, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is dead. And considering all his China-bashing in the campaign, it’s a supreme irony that they’re high-fiving each other in Beijing – because Trump has handed China one gigantic geopolitical triumph.

This is America forfeiting – to China – Pacific region trade leadership. The TPP, painstakingly negotiated over many years, was our way to unite the other regional nations with us to resist Chinese bullying. unknown-2With America pulling back, now they’re left to fend for themselves, which will mean accommodating to China as the region’s big Kahuna.

But the words “trade deal” have become so politically toxic here. Shame on Democrats for their cowardly unwillingness to defend one of President Obama’s key initiatives. He himself was forced to give up on it. Not to mention Republicans, who until recently knew better on this issue too.

America’s share of global manufacturing has not been falling. Manufacturing jobs have been disappearing — but due more to technological advancement than trade. And trade-related job losses are overwhelmed by the benefits to U.S. consumers when prices we pay are lower. That savings translates into more consumer spending, which creates jobs, making up for any lost. Furthermore, if trade makes countries like China and Mexico richer, that’s good for us — they can buy more from us. And anyhow, the TPP would not actually have given other countries much added ability to sell us stuff – our tariffs were already quite low. unknown-1But it would have required those other nations to reduce their trade barriers, enabling U.S. businesses to sell more to them. For us, it was a no-brainer. But I guess we have no brains now.

Thankfulness

November 24, 2016

unknownMany of us feel our world has been shattered, and we’re hurled into an alternate reality – like one of those dystopian future movies where the president is a bizarre mutant. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

But that makes thankfulness all the more important. I wrote recently how one’s temperament is largely inborn; happiness or misery more a personality trait than a consequence of one’s circumstances. And a psychology of thankfulness and appreciation is a big part of it. Being thankful for what you have is a foundation for happiness; coveting what you don’t have, misery. And pity the cynic who sees everything as rotten.

Being thankful is indeed integral to my own personality. And that inborn temperament is greatly reinforced intellectually, because I am so keenly aware of how other people – and creatures – have lived, throughout history, and in so many places today. I am grateful to be human; to live in this time; in this society; and for the mind that gives me that positive perspective. This is what I focus on.

images-2Even beyond what I’ve mentioned, I’ve been exceptionally lucky. To explain more would be bragging, so I’ll limit myself to just one particular: the most perfect wife. Not that she is a perfect human being of course. But she is perfect for me.

Having each other, we can endure whatever happens in the larger world.

On to Mars

November 21, 2016

unknownI was 21. And I vividly remember newscaster David Brinkley, with his distinctive twang, calling July 20, 1969 “a date that will be remembered as long as people remember anything.”

We have always been a race of explorers. Hillary said he climbed Everest “because it is there.” We recently saw a NOVA program about how humans spread to every corner of the Earth. How did early peoples conquer the Pacific? We were shown their boat-making and navigational prowess, that got them all the way to remote Hawaii and Easter Island – tiny specks in a vast nothingness. images-1But how did they know those islands were even there? Someone had to set out first, without knowing, to find them. Imagine getting in that boat.

Setting foot on the Moon took it to another level. Brinkley was right, and so was Armstrong: a giant leap, yet only a first step on a new and monumental journey. This was a rite of passage.

Since then, the journey seems stalled, if not exactly abandoned. Half a century ago, it was spearheaded by government, necessarily so in light of the cost. Since then, governments don’t really have time for the vaulting ambition of space travel, having become mired instead in a more mundane concern trying to reconcile somehow the contradictions of welfare state politics.

But of course human beings are not just creatures of politics and government, and the same impetus that propelled ancient Polynesians across the Pacific still pushes us toward more distant destinations.

unknown-1The Economist recently profiled the Mars project of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a private company. The aim is to make available, in coming decades, $200,000 Mars tickets. This would be cheaper than the Apollo program’s cost to get men to the Moon – 50,000 times cheaper in fact. But SpaceX is developing serious plans for actually accomplishing its goal. They entail a BFR – a technical term, it stands for “Big Fucking Rocket” – dwarfing previous rockets, and reusable besides – to boost on its way a smaller vehicle carrying 100 passengers, which could double as temporary housing once they reach Mars. Necessary supplies and equipment would already have been dropped by previous missions. Thus would begin the human occupation of Mars.

Musk sees this as a much-needed “Plan B” for humankind, lest Earth become uninhabitable for one reason or another – as Cassandras keep warning. But The Economist says it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which making Mars livable isn’t much harder than making Earth livable. (Though that was before Trump’s election.)

Anyhow, “Plan B” isn’t the real reason to go to Mars. It is, after all, there. What more reason do we need? We will go there just as the Polynesians went to Easter Island.

images-2The Economist also says that while some adventurous souls undoubtedly would undertake the huge sacrifice such colonization would entail, to become truly self-sustaining Mars would need a population of around a million, and that would be a heavier lift. And, for all Musk’s hubris, the challenge of getting even one person to Mars does remain enormous.

unknown-2But again I quote our species motto: the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer. And I remember that some individuals who once deemed powered flight impossible lived to see men fly to the Moon.

 

President Trump, of the Nation Formerly Known as America

November 16, 2016

Give him a chance. He can’t be so bad. He’s our president now. Let’s hope he succeeds. You’re just a bunch of political sore losers, get over it. This is what we’re hearing.

unknownThere’s an idea that his critics have been refuted, that being elected somehow laundered him – proving all the negative stuff about him during the campaign was untrue or irrelevant. That the media misrepresented him. Sorry, not so. Things said don’t become unsaid; facts don’t become non-facts. He’s still Donald “Grab them by the pussy” Trump.

But America does love redemption stories, and it’s hoped the presidency’s awesomeness will reform him. He did seem subdued in his post-election appearances. However, so many times I’ve seen some foreign leader elected, thinking what a great opportunity he has to prove the doubters wrong. They never do. Look at South Africa’s Zuma. A creep before. A bigger creep after.

Power does corrupt. It doesn’t make bad men better, it makes them worse. As a student of history and world affairs, I know this story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

It’s also hoped that a “successful businessman” will naturally surround himself with the best people. What a joke. He was a failure at actually building businesses, making his fortune by looting them and leaving others holding the bag; then marketing his celebrity name. And the best people? Steve Bannon? Reince Priebus? Rudy Giuliani? Newt Gingrich?

Send in the clowns.

In hindsight, Trump won the election on his campaign’s first day, with two words: “They’re rapists.” Not that it was believed literally, but it set the tone. Enough voters instantly latched onto him as their personal avatar, and nothing could budge them. “He tells it like it is.” Another sick joke – the biggest liar in our political history.

His voters feel America has been going downhill, and Trump will turn it around. They’re right about the former, in some ways, but not the latter. unknown-2Our politics has certainly been going downhill, with divisions hardening, and truth, reason and decency among the casualties. Trump is the culmination; not a national renewal, but a national degradation; the bottom falling out.

This is not being a sore loser about an election, it’s the loss of our country. Not about politics or ideology, but culture and values. I keep hearing, “This is not who we are.” And I say to myself: “Well, it is now.”

Of course this is all hyperbole. Life will go on much as before; America is still a great place to live. Unlike in many others, I can still freely write this blog. For now; Donald Trump truly does not like that, nor do a lot of his followers. That’s just one way they trash the principles that actually made America great. unknown-3When will we see the Trump neighborhood brigades to “defend the revolution,” like in Cuba and Venezuela? (And in Sinclair Lewis’s now uncanny 1935 book, It Can’t Happen Here.)

This American travesty reflects an unfortunate worldwide trend of short-sighted voters brainlessly demolishing what was so painstakingly built. Like in the Brexit vote. The democratic, genuinely liberal and humanistic lights are also going out in Turkey (a huge tragedy), the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Thailand; France and Italy could well be next. The EU’s continuation is doubtful. While Russia and China get more repressive and emboldened; look for a Baltic invasion, putting NATO to the test. And America’s steady leadership is a bygone. A tough time for optimists.

I am politically homeless today. The name “Republican” is ashes in my mouth. I find myself in some sympathy with “progressive” Trump opponents; however, they’re wrong on so many issues, and often just as bad on the fundamental ideal of freedom of thought and expression. The alternative in the next election will likely be far left.

unknown-4But no matter how lonely, I will continue speaking out for the humanistic values I hold dear, and that have given us so much progress. I will continue — until that brigade comes for me.

Our new lawn sign

November 14, 2016

Rational optimist – or pessimist?

November 12, 2016

On Wednesday morning I changed this blog’s title from “The Rational Optimist” to “The Rational Pessimist.”

unknown-1Psychology research shows that optimism-versus-pessimism, happiness-versus-unhappiness, is largely inborn, and largely impervious to life’s vicissitudes. That we have a set-point of temperament, to which one’s mood reverts, after the immediate impact of some positive or negative event dissipates. I have been blessed with a setting at the far end of the range. It was no coincidence that I literally wrote the book on optimism.

Tuesday night was the worst thing ever in my life. Worse than 9/11. Worse even than when my longtime girlfriend left me. Someone has said that “Never Trump” Republicans (like me) are now the loneliest people in the world. I have agonized about changing my enrollment; but the Democrats will likely continue their leftward march. images-1I’m the man without a party; I feel like the man without a country.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a local gathering (celebrating an election upset 50 years earlier). I wore black. However, as I ran toward the entrance, in the rain, I realized I was already actually feeling cheerful – confirming all that set-point psychology research! (A nod here to my wife and marriage, which have been my rock.)

But my book and blog referenced rational optimism – not a Pollyanna attitude with rose-colored glasses. Another strong personality trait of mine is realism. I see no benefit in deluding myself about things I wish were true. Thus I’ve also written of my “ideology of reality.”

One of the realities I accept is that the cosmos is purposeless, undirected, and our existence is an evolutionary accident. But that means it’s entirely up to us to make the best of our situation; and, unlike every other creature that ever existed, we have great tools for it. Mainly, our incredibly powerful brains. And, using those tools, we have actually done fantastically at making for ourselves lives worth living. unknown-2Especially in modern times, since the Enlightenment, humanity has achieved incredible progress. (Once again I reference Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) This is the heart of my rational optimism.

In that march of progress, building the means for people to live good lives, one of our greatest creations has been the United States of America.

But the realist in me knows that we are not perfect beings, and for all the reasoning power of our brains, we are subject to rampaging emotions and irrationality. What people build people can also destroy – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly. America is not immune. No God protects her from human folly.

unknownAn enterprise like America can only be sustained if the people in it actually understand what it’s all about. Tuesday showed that America – well, half at least – has lost the thread. It’s freedom and democracy, yes, but also rule of law; pluralism; human dignity; tolerance; openness; generosity; fair play; civility; responsibility; community spirit; and, not least, devotion to truth and reason. What Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (inspiring Pinker’s title).

Those establishment “elites” whom Trump voters so resent have upheld those values quite well, indeed kept up the momentum of progress (for example with gay marriage). But meantime, lamentably, the rest of America has undergone a long process of civic decline – decline in genuine devotion to its ideals and values, because too few people are educated and acculturated nowadays in what those precepts mean. Too many have reduced Americanism to flag waving and snarling empty slogans.

There are a lot of reasons, a lot of culprits, it’s not a simple story, and a lot of it is actually fallout from some aspects of our progress (like greater racial equality) – but the bottom line is that too few Americans still understand what actually made America great. unknown-4This is why the “Make America Great Again” slogan was so painfully ironic. I wish we could make America great again – like it was before Tuesday.

We heard much talk of voters expressing their pain. I won’t belittle what anyone feels; but surely conditions of life in today’s America are not historically bad. Things in the Depression, for example, were much, much worse. However, voters in the Depression did not fall for such a blatant, un-American demagogue. Nor would have tolerated a candidate with such grotesque defects of character.* That all this was accepted in 2016 bespeaks a sad corrosion of America’s character.

This is why I am so heartbroken. Hearing the national anthem has always teared me up. Now it will be for what’s been lost.

And yet there may be hope, because perhaps strangely, it is older people who most embody the decline, while younger people – more shaped by the trends of modernity I mentioned – seem to better embrace those Enlightenment civic values their elders have forgotten. unknown-5It’s true too of the new arrivals – that’s why I so welcome immigration – people come here because they do crave America’s true meaning, and their coming is a national renewal.

Well, our new first lady is an immigrant.** That’s one thing at least to celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” images-2Seeing that great trend of history made me an optimist. But it’s never a smooth curve, and America has just bent sharply the other way. But I’m not ready to believe humanity’s whole arc has changed. Nor am I ready to give up on what America used to stand for. I have tried to promote those values on this blog. Now, I will have to work harder at it.

I have restored this blog’s title.

* Please, stuff the spluttering about Clinton. There’s no comparison. Indeed, the very fact that so many failed to see this shows how messed up the country has become.

** Though not the first; that was Louisa Adams. However, also ironically, the first family will include its first Jew.