Facebook: helping to destroy civilization

November 5, 2019

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he won’t stop running political ads — even lying ones. Trump has already run ads falsely smearing Biden. But Zuckerberg says Facebook banning or censoring such ads would violate freedom of speech.

He’s wrong. Freedom of speech (embodied in the First Amendment) means government may not squelch what anyone says. Facebook — big and powerful though it is — ain’t the government (yet). “Freedom of speech” in no way obligates Facebook to make itself a platform for lies. (Twitter’s chief Jack Dorsey, trying to be a more responsible citizen than Zuckerberg, is stopping political ads on Twitter.)

We now know how thoroughly Facebook was manipulated by the Russians in 2016 to get Trump elected. It went way beyond political ads. Among other ploys, they also set up vast numbers of seeming Facebook user groups to spread disinformation and dissension.

Not only does Facebook blow it as a gatekeeper on all that, it even does so on it’s own mis-named “news feed.” More accurately a garbage feed. Because to increase traffic (and hence ad revenue) its algorithms parlay user information to show people stuff calculated to push their buttons — whether true or not. And much is not.

In fact Facebook’s system rewards falsity. I heard a radio interview with one guy who candidly explained how he cooked up a false report about Hillary vote fraud, and made thousands from it. This is called “clickbait” — whenever someone clicks on such a link, not just Facebook, but the link’s creator too, make money from ads.

Some time back, a Trumper I know indignantly distributed a bunch of quotes from leading Democrats slamming the Constitution. Obviously (to me) fake quotes. But instead of ignoring it, I did some googling and quickly found the source, a lying website, and the debunking. This was just one small taste of a monster phenomenon.

Manufacturing phony quotes or vote fraud reports is easy enough, low-tech lying. But now you can create fake video. Like the recent “drunk Pelosi” clip. But worse yet, you can even cook up footage showing someone appearing to say whatever outrageous things you want to put in their mouths. Watch for this in the 2020 campaign. How will the average voter know what to believe?

In the internet’s infancy, we naively imagined it would make people better informed. Instead, it’s a fountain of weaponized lies, and most people (like my Trumper friend above) just don’t have the capability for vetting all the stuff coming at them. This poisons the well of information influencing our voting decisions. Democracy cannot function this way.

It’s exacerbated by having a president who — instead of trying to confront the problem — is himself a big part of the problem.

We are headed toward a world where there’s no such thing as truth or reality. Or so it will seem. But, of course, no matter what rubbish fills minds, there will still actually be a reality out there. And voters with rubbish-filled minds will make for a pretty ugly reality.

Trump is just a harbinger.

Political follies across the river in Rensselaer County: Maddening, wilting, laughable, but real

November 3, 2019

Madden

Patrick Madden is the Democratic mayor of Troy. Last time he won the primary against Rodney Wiltshire, an African-American, by only a handful of votes. This year Wiltshire lost the Democratic mayoral primary again, but is running on the Green and Independence party* lines. Tom Reale, a State Senate staffer, originally wanted to run for city council but Republicans persuaded him to be their candidate for Mayor.

Wiltshire

Then the party’s local bosses, led by Rensselaer County Exec Steve McLaughlin and his henchman Richard Crist, had a meeting with Reale and bullied him to exit the race. Why? They’d decided Wiltshire had a better chance to beat Madden. In fact, they’d already previously connived Wiltshire’s Green party nomination, getting Republicans to register as Greens and write in Wiltshire’s name — not Reale’s. Other local Republicans are getting in line with this Wiltshire ploy.

Not only are these guys making themselves look terrible with these machinations, but for no purpose. Because Madden is sure to beat either challenger anyway, in now solidly Democratic Troy. How idiotic can McLaughlin and company be?

McLaughlin

Just this morning a tape of the meeting came out, in which McLaughlin, preening his power, his every other word an f-bomb, browbeats, belittles, and threatens Reale.

But bullying is McLaughlin’s style. Previously a state legislator, he was then recorded being loudly and vulgarly abominable toward a female staffer. But in the age of Trump, such behavior no longer matters — among “family values” Republicans. So they promoted him to County Exec. He continues to spew out bombastic Trump-like tweets.

Reale

Reale initially bowed to McLaughlin’s pressure and stopped his campaign. But then, with just a week to go, Reale reversed himself, publicly calling out McLaughlin’s bullying tactics, which we already knew about.

Meantime, the state has now instituted early voting. Rensselaer county’s population is concentrated in the city of Troy, which has a lot of non-whites and Democrats. But the county government, thanks to rural votes, is still controlled by Republicans. And, following the Republican playbook of striving to deny minorities the vote, they put the county’s early voting site not in Troy but out in the boondocks, difficult for city dwellers (especially the many without cars) to get to.

In Troy, in 2016, a black motorist, Edson Thevenin, was killed in a hail of bullets by a white cop, Randall French, under dubious circumstances. The Republican District Attorney, Joel Abelove, quickly brought French before a grand jury with no waiver of immunity, guaranteeing he couldn’t be prosecuted. Abelove was criminally prosecuted himself, by the state attorney general, for his role in this. Meantime the local police department also whitewashed French. But then, due to widespread public outcry, a Troy police captain, Joseph Centanni, was engaged to review the case. He courageously wrote a report concluding that the killing was unjustified, French lied about it, and the Troy police department conspired in a cover-up. (This was also the conclusion of the state attorney general, in prosecuting DA Abelove.) But Mayor Madden didn’t like the Centanni report, so not only did he hide it, even from the city council, but he also hired yet another guy to conduct of a review of it. And guess what? That second report tried to poke holes in the first one. But Mayor Madden refused to release that report too, refusing even to reveal how much the city government spent on it.

I don’t live in Troy, but if I did, I’d vote for Reale.

* There’s nothing “independent” about it, this is a shill party actually cooked up by Republicans.

Two kinds of Trumpers

October 31, 2019

He famously said he’d lose no votes if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Recently one of his lawyers actually argued in court that if he did it, the law could not touch him.

I’ve written a lot about confirmation bias, an aspect of human psychology whose importance seems growing. It’s the proclivity to embrace information agreeing with one’s beliefs, and shun anything contrary. Smarter people are actually more susceptible. Education makes some think they’re know-it-alls. And they’re more skilled at confabulating rationalizations to justify their stances.

We see this in anti-vaxxers. The more science proves them wrong, the more they dig in. And these are not dumb people. Again, smarter than average. Too smart for their own good. “The greatest deception from which men suffer is their own opinions,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci.

Groupthink also operates. You get yourself in a group of like thinkers, and they reinforce each other. In fact, studies have shown a tendency for such groups to be pulled toward the views of their most extreme members.

All this is epidemic among Trump supporters. Like some relentless commenters on my local newspaper blog — fountains of what they think are facts and information, talking points from the right-wing groupthink echo-chamber. These guys are all full of the Steele Dossier*, FISA warrants, spies, Hillary-this and Hillary-that, demonizing Adam Schiff, deep state conspiracy theories, all soon to be proven, dastardly Democrats demolished, Trump totally triumphant.

All foolish fantasy.

Just as they’re blind to Trump’s big con, equally are they impervious to actual facts. Like his disgusting business history of rip-offs, Trump University fraud, inheritance tax fraud, charitable foundation fraud. Everything in the Mueller report proving how Russia subverted our election, and how Trump conspired to obstruct justice. Now the shocking proof about his mis-use of Ukraine aid. Trump’s blatant brobdingnagian record of lies and other swineries. And so on and on and on, it would fill many ghastly pages. All dismissed as “fake news.”

Nothing will break the spell. They’ll go their graves waving their arms still bleating about the Steele Dossier and all, while the rest of the world has moved on. History will look back on them like we look back at flat earthers and The Inquisition.

John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Mindful of that quote, and the phenomena of confirmation bias and groupthink, I strive to avoid those pitfalls. I was a lifelong conservative Republican. But when in 2016 the Republican party, and what went by the name “conservative,” drastically changed, I changed my mind. I don’t laud myself. It was forced upon me, by reality.

So why don’t most Republicans see what was so clear to me? Are confirmation bias and groupthink really that powerful? Apparently so, and it’s extremely disturbing. An unprecedented extreme of political loyalty — to a man of unprecedented vileness. There’s no Trump depravity they won’t defend or excuse, no idiotic attack of his they won’t parrot.

It’s partly explained by that very muscularity of badness, all previous politics seeming weak tea in comparison. Between a strong horse and a weak one, people by nature prefer the strong horse (said Osama bin Laden). Even if the strength is in monstrousness.

Then too, hate is stronger than love. These folks are infused less with Trump love than with hatred for the other side.

And for the people I’ve described, Trumpism has become central to their human identity, their very existence. It’s the reality they’ve constructed for themselves to inhabit. Like the religious beliefs most of them also hold. Oliver Cromwell told an opponent, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” These people cannot think it possible, neither regarding religious faith nor Trump faith.

But such zealots are actually a small minority of Trump voters. Most are just, well, ordinary normal people. For whom politics just isn’t that important. The Steele Dossier? Never heard of it. It’s all just a blurry buzz in the background of their lives. To them, Trump may appear to be doing a good job. Shaking things up like he said he would. The economy is OK. He’s not a politician — a good thing. A “successful businessman” — ditto. All the arguing is just a lot of noise. Democrats are all effete socialists.

The world order that Trump’s blowing up is far outside their consciousness. The basic American ideals he’s shredding had become so commonplace, so deep in the background, they’re no longer even visible — hence their destruction doesn’t even register.

So, unlike those who actually refuse to see how horrible this is for America, most Trump voters don’t see it because . . . they simply don’t see it.

The first type are a lost cause. But not so the latter. I continue to believe that the great majority of Americans are (like humans everywhere) good people. While we must, alas, write off the former group, the latter we must embrace, as our neighbors and fellow countrymen, to find commonality, to get us all past this ugly interlude of our history. We need a new president for whom this reconciliation is a top priority. In the words of Lincoln, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . let us strive . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

* For the record: The claim is that a dodgy dossier, paid for by Democrats, was behind the Russia investigation. Steele was a former officer with Britain’s intelligence service who’d previously given ours much useful material. Democrats hiring him in 2016 didn’t taint his work. When he gave it to the FBI, it fit with what they were already seeing. Though allegations of Trump hotel sex hijinks couldn’t be documented, Steele’s detailing how the Russians had long been working Trump certainly merited investigation. It would have been a scandal if the FBI had not followed up. And there was loads of other evidence for Russia’s efforts to manipulate our election, justifying the investigation — which proved it. This was no hoax or witch-hunt. It’s Barr’s investigation of the investigation that’s a hoax and witch-hunt.

What is humanism?

October 28, 2019

Some religious voices assail humanism as a belief in nothing. Thus blamed for (supposed) moral rot; as if morality needs some supernatural basis. While labeling humanism just another religion or faith, no more provable than any other.

Humanism is not a religion or faith, but a philosophy, originating in ancient times with thinkers like Epicurus and Lucretius, with a rebirth in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It’s a way of understanding life and the world, anchored in reason and reality. This does mean eschewing religious superstitions, all the deities, immortality, etc. But humanism is not simply nonbelief; it’s not believing in nothing.

To the contrary, humanists have strong beliefs — strong indeed by virtue of requiring no leap of “faith,” no suspension of disbelief. Humanism’s truths are self-evident:

All of existence comprises natural laws and processes; there’s no such thing as “supernatural.” Nature has no purpose; it just is. We ourselves are products of nature, evolved with minds enabling us to use reason and science to understand it, tackle our problems, aspire to justice, and shape our own destinies. Thus humanism believes in progress, taking pride in what we strive for and have achieved. Humanism is love for humanity.

Our earthly life is the only one we get; and nothing can ultimately matter except the feelings of beings that feel. This tells us our purpose is to make them as good as possible. Which gives our lives ample meaning, as well as providing the bedrock of morality — to enable every person, oneself included, to live fully and attain happiness. This means equality of human dignity, democracy, freedom of thought and expression.

It’s what our Declaration of Independence says. The Constitution’s preamble similarly targets human flourishing, with no deity mentioned. Thus was America founded not as a “Christian nation” but a quintessentially humanist one.

The humanism elucidated here is the essence of rationality and sanity. Most of us, even if professing other creeds, actually live our lives, most of the time, in accordance with these common sense humanistic concepts. And they’re not necessarily incompatible with a religious faith. Believers act humanistically in battling for social justice. Even if you believe in an afterlife, nobody can be sure, and contemplating the possibility of earthly life’s finality spurs one to cherish it and improve it for all of us. Aiming to solve problems ourselves by confronting earthbound realities — rather than putting the whole burden on a deity who, if he does exist, probably has plenty to do.

It’s when we deviate from these humanistic paradigms that trouble brews. Religions, rooted in different cultures, with irreconcilable claims to ultimate truth, are unending sources of conflict. Humanism offers a universal philosophy to unite us.

Death is tragic, but to live at all is a glorious gift. Only by coming to terms with the reality of our existence, as embodied in humanism, can we live authentically and meaningfully. “Being at one with everything” is a cliché of Buddhism; but I get a similar feeling from how my humanism grounds me in my engagement with life, the world, and humankind. It’s better than religion because it’s true.

Trump and Republicans: how vile can it get?

October 25, 2019

Before Trump took office, I wrote that power doesn’t make bad men better. Since, I’ve kept repeating: it will get worse. And so it goes.

Trump’s every word about the Syria situation perverts reality. He now says he’s lifting sanctions on Turkey because they’ve “agreed” to stop their military action. The action Trump green-lighted, and called a great victory for civilization. Actually, Turkey is ending it because it’s achieved its aims. But Trump boasts Turkey’s “agreement” means the picture in the region is now one shaped by America. Actually, it’s a Turkish agreement with Russia, America removed from the picture.

Trump meantime pats himself on the back for “bringing our troops home.” Actually, they’re redeployed elsewhere in the Middle East.

He says he’s saved thousands of lives. Actually, hundreds have been killed and over 160,000 forced to flee. Trump has oceans of blood on his hands. The atrocities apparently continue despite the supposed cease-fire. It’s a horrific human tragedy. He says it’s a U.S. foreign policy triumph. Actually, it’s a giant foreign policy debacle. Betraying our long time allies*,  rewarding the mass murderer Assad and dictatorial Erdogan. ISIS ranks are replenished. Others in the world will now think twice before trusting America about anything. Trump’s betrayal is explicable, if at all, only as serving the interests of our enemy Russia. It is treason simpliciter, and merits impeachment.

But Trump’s being impeached for a different abuse of power. Though one Trump apologist is quoted saying abuse of power is not a crime.

There’s an old lawyer line: if the facts support you, pound the facts. If the law supports you, pound the law. If neither, pound the table.

With facts and law increasingly leaving Trumpsters with no place to hide, they’re pounding the table, frantically, attacking the legitimacy of the impeachment process. Trump says it’s a lynching. Lynching entailed a mob hanging a usually innocent black person, normally with hideous torture, including cutting off genitals and forcing the victim to eat them.

But speaking of mobs, a mob of Republican congressmen literally stormed a secure room to disrupt for hours a committee hearing therein. The hearing was being conducted behind closed doors in a secure facility to protect sensitive national security information under discussion. That’s standard congressional practice. The Republican mob used actual violence and breached security by bringing in forbidden electronic devices. Their pretext was bogus, as if Republicans were being somehow shut out of the hearing; in fact, of course, Republican members of the committee were always in the room, with full rights to question witnesses and otherwise participate. And open public hearings on everything are scheduled to follow.

The more undeniable Trump’s monstrousness becomes, the more unhinged do Republicans become in their denial. Their mob violence was intended to distract attention from the testimony of Ambassador William Taylor, which was devastating and shocking. Taylor was a professional brought out of retirement by Pompeo to man the Ukraine embassy after our ambassador, Marie Jovanovich, was improperly removed at Trump’s order. Taylor’s testimony detailed how Trump improperly outsourced U.S. Ukraine policy to a rogue actor, Giuliani, because nobody in the proper chain of command would do the slimy stuff Trump wanted. Namely, extorting Ukraine’s complicity in smearing Biden and Democrats as a quid pro quo for releasing $391 million in Congressionally-mandated military aid that Trump was improperly withholding. (Aid to help Ukraine fight  Russia!)

Another effort to distract from Ukraine is Attorney General Barr’s now opening a “criminal investigation” of the Mueller probe’s origin. Trump always called it a hoax and a witch-hunt, based on various absurd conspiracy theories. Now his stooge Barr is resurrecting all that nonsense, launching an investigation of his own Justice Department. This  is a hoax and a witch-hunt. “History repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

If Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine weren’t wrong, then the word has no meaning. No president before ever did anything remotely so malign. The impeachment inquiry is being lawfully conducted by the lawfully elected House of Representatives, pursuant to express constitutional provisions. There are no violations of due process or anyone’s rights. What is being revealed, rather, is destruction by Trump and Republicans of every principle this country used to stand for.

I was a Republican for 53 years. What has become of the party is tragic. It must be defeated.

* Correction: I wrote previously that the Kurds had lost 11,000 men fighting ISIS on our behalf. Should have said “men and women.” Sorry.

 

Impeachment, Nixon, and me

October 22, 2019

I watched Nixon’s 1974 farewell speech live, with tears in my eyes. Not tears of sorrow; it was actually a bizarre speech. But at the moment’s poignancy and historical weight.

I’d been a fervent Nixon supporter in 1968, and he was my friend. A slight exaggeration, but I did feel a personal connection. In my teens I would write to famous people for autographs. This was before celebrity culture; they weren’t inundated and would often reply. I wrote to Nixon several times about politics while he was in New York exile after his dual election defeats. Looking toward a comeback, he was working the Republican vineyards; probably didn’t realize I was a kid. Anyhow, he would respond to me not with form letters but meaty disquisitions that seemed obviously personally dictated.

He was my dream presidential candidate, which seemed a pipe dream at first, given the GOP’s crushing 1964 defeat. I was very active in Republican politics, both on campus and in the real world. I signed up with Nixon’s campaign. A huge Nixon poster adorned my bedroom. On Election Day (my first vote), I was a poll worker, then stayed up through the night watching returns. It was a nail-biter.

I remember my elation the next day, commuting to my law school. My classmates were mostly radical left, with only a handful of “out” Republicans. Sixty-eight was such a tumultuous year. But in the end, it was my guy who’d won. I was over the moon.

Later I was actually appointed by Nixon to a minor federal commission.

As Watergate unfolded, I followed events closely. Carefully read the transcripts of White House tapes, and was appalled. The man there revealed was not who we’d thought he was. Most Republicans had the same reaction.

I was as partisan as anyone. Indeed, at the time, deeply engaged in the political wars locally, as a ward leader. But I saw no animus by any Republicans against Democrats over impeachment. It was not a partisan issue, it was about the facts. Nixon resigned because his own party could not condone what he’d done.

Certainly they were not demonizing Democrats as “traitors,” as trying to mount a “coup” to overturn the previous election, or any such nonsense. Even Nixon himself, in that mawkish farewell speech, did not impugn his opponents’ motives.

Trump’s offenses are far worse than Nixon’s. Nixon tried to cover up a “third rate burglary.” Trump, the mis-use of hundreds of millions in U.S. aid, perverting our foreign policy, for his own base political ends. Mulvaney saying this is normal, and we should just “get over it,” insulted our intelligence.

But not only do Republicans defend Trump, their idea of a defense is cooking up false smears against Democrats, like their meritless attack on Adam Schiff for supposedly lying — he didn’t — as if Trump isn’t the biggest liar ever. What a sickening disgrace.

Trump’s behavior shows he’s trying to prove he can get away with absolutely anything. Our president is literally an insane out-of-control monster, a patsy for dictators, yet Republicans still have his back. When Senate Republicans vote to clear him, it will be their final, ultimate degradation. While Democratic presidential canmdidates are off on another planet somewhere fixated on the minutiae of health care plans. If Trump is re-elected, America will need mental health care.

In 1974 we were all Americans, first and foremost. Not blinded by partisan tribalism. We could tell right from wrong. Truth from lies. And true patriots from Russian stooges.

What a different country that was. I mourn for it, with tears of sorrow in my eyes.

DeRay Mckesson and Black Lives Matter

October 20, 2019

DeRay Mckesson is a Baltimorean who got activist during the Ferguson protests and is prominent in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He wrote a book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. I wanted to like it.

The opening chapters reminded me of when an opposing lawyer called my first major brief a “Proustian stream of consciousness.” It wasn’t a compliment. (I was the sidekick on that brief; the next I wrote alone, more coherently.) Mckesson seems to string together a flood of thoughts as they occur to him, with no organization or clear line of argument.

The third chapter is much better, focusing on police vis-a-vis blacks. Mckesson’s basic point is that the police have little accountability. We hire them to uphold our laws but they become a law unto themselves. The book explains this in detail, examining local police contracts, negotiated by their unions, geared toward protecting cops against any misconduct charges, by creating roadblocks for complaints.

But a point strangely missing here is that while many cops are sincere public servants aiming to do good, too often police work attracts the wrong sort. Who see the badge as a license to assert their manhood by swaggering with weapons, to be a bully, to vent what are really antisocial proclivities. Or just plain racist ones. Whites may be oblivious to this police brutality because they don’t bear its brunt.

Which brings us to the chapter on white privilege. Here again, unfortunately, the author throws together a welter of ideas, many really rhetorical non-sequiturs, with no coherent line of argument. The “white privilege” trope is polemical jiu-jitsu. It’s not that whites enjoy some special status. What they get is what everyone should get — human privilege. The problem is blacks not receiving it. A simple concept unspoken in Mckesson’s treatment.

“Black Lives Matter” is not a negation of other lives mattering. It’s black lives mattering as much as others. Recognizing the reality that for most of our history, and even now in many places and many hearts, they matter less. Mckesson never says anything so straightforward. The point, like so much else, gets lost in all his verbal gymnastics.

Nearing the book’s middle, I realized that two words in particular were weirdly absent: slavery and lynching. They finally did get a passing mention. But Mckesson first unfolds a bizarre analogy to a stolen lottery ticket, enriching the thief and his descendants, while the victim’s remain poor. As if losing an unearned lottery windfall is remotely comparable to the suffering of slavery and lynching.

A Martian reading this book would not realize that enslavement was the foundational experience of African-Americans. And that during the Jim Crow century, thousands of blacks, often (or mostly?) innocent, were lynched, often with hideous barbarity, to “keep them in their place” through plain terror. In Georgia in 1918, Haynes Turner, an innocent man, was lynched. His wife protested to authorities. She was then arrested, and turned over to a mob, stripped, hung upside down, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death, her belly slashed open to pull out her unborn child, who they stomped to death.

It’s as though Mckesson can’t bring himself to talk plainly about such things. Odd, considering all his assertions that America isn’t truly confronting its race situation, actually one of his key themes. He ends the chapter saying this: “Whiteness is an idea and a choice. We can choose differently. We can introduce new ideas to replace it.”

What?? Maybe I’m too dumb to grasp what he’s talking about there. Or maybe it’s just meaningless word spinning.

Mckesson too often gets tangled in such rhetorical knots and convoluted concepts. He says Charleston racist killer Dylann Roof didn’t get called a “terrorist” to somehow avoid holding him accountable and to “preserve this lie” that crimes by blacks reflect racial pathology whereas white people’s crimes are “just the errant actions of individual actors.” What??

The author’s indictment encompasses most whites, few (if any) meeting his stringent wokeness test, hence being part of the problem in his eyes. Too broad a brush, methinks. Meantime, notwithstanding his mention of Dylann Roof, he says little about burgeoning white nationalist ideology, egged on by Trump, which is coming to be recognized as the nation’s number one terrorist threat. Even absent continued shootings, this poison’s spread could tear the country apart. Mckesson has no answer.

The antepenultimate chapter is a breath of fresh air. Starting it, I sat up and realized this immediately. No more cutesie rhetorical pyrotechnics but clear eloquent honesty — about his growing up gay and how he’s come to terms with it.

But thinking about the book as a whole — this may seem strange for me to say now — what it really is is poetry. Poetry isn’t necessarily linear. It’s more about feeling than argument. I can see Mckesson performing a lot of what he wrote in a poetry slam. But as a book trying to actually elucidate a subject, it really didn’t work for me.

Impeachment and the party of rule-breaking

October 17, 2019

Trump’s Northern Syria retreat is shredding U.S. national interests. Our longtime Kurdish allies, thrown to the wolves, are now aligning with the Syrian regime and its Russian backers, empowered together with Iran. Likewise ISIS, with thousands of its fighters, formerly imprisoned by Kurds, back in action. After first greenlighting Turkey’s attack, now Trump seeks to punish it; Europeans too denounce it. This endangers their deal for Turkey’s harboring millions of Syrian refugees. If they’re expelled into Europe, the political fallout there will be ugly. While the newly exploding Syrian humanitarian nightmare is making yet more refugees — 160,000 fleeing at last count. What a stupid unnecessary disaster.*

But Trump is being impeached for a different foreign policy travesty. Unjustifiably withholding vital military aid, voted by Congress, to extort Ukraine’s leader to help Trump’s re-election by concocting smears against an opponent. There’s no question of fact or even interpretation; Trump’s own account of the key phone call amounts to a confession. And that call, we now know, was part of a broader plot to suborn Ukraine. Giuliani played a key role; our Ukraine ambassador was fired for not playing ball.

Not only is seeking foreign help in a U.S. election flatly illegal, the Constitution furthermore specifies bribery as one impeachable offense. Trump clearly solicited a bribe — in the form of election help — in exchange for releasing the aid. Compounded by attempted cover-up, and defiance of Congressional authority. The House of Representatives has no choice about impeaching, it’s a duty. And it’s not a “coup” or attempt to undo the last election. The Constitution prescribes elections; it also prescribes impeachment for serious misconduct.

So will Republican senators vote to convict Trump? No. Over 80% of Republican voters still love him, despite everything. The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist, on U.S. politics, nods to the idea that Republican officeholders actually hate much of what Trump is about, but political cowardice keeps them in line. However, based on his conversations with these folks, it seems they actually don’t object to Trump’s behavior all that much.

Republican senators would actually be smart to unite and take the opportunity of impeachment to rid themselves of this Trump affliction. But they won’t because they’ve drunk his Kool-Aid. Lexington quotes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt that Republicans “have now dug themselves into a position that they can’t leave without admitting that they sold out morally.” A Devil’s bargain.

I used to blame our political divisiveness more on lefty Democrats demonizing Republicans. But now Republicans have proven them right after all, living up to their worst stereotypes, and repaying the demonization with a vengeance. It’s a relatively new and scary feature of America’s political landscape. The idea of politics as blood sport, and anything — anything — is justified for your side to win. Rules shmules. Laws shmaws. Truth shmooth.

This goes with the idea that the other side does the same — no, worse. An idea now implacably embedded in, particularly, Republican heads. Thus every objection to Trump administration misconduct is met with “what about Hillary? What about Bill?” or the like. There’s even a name for this: whataboutism. This kind of thinking defines today’s Republicanism.

Were the Clintons angels? Certainly not; as a Republican myself I criticized them plenty. And one might point out that two wrongs don’t make a right. Yet only a mind pathologically blinded by partisanship could equate Clinton transgressions with Trump’s monstrously greater ones. (Let alone deny the latter altogether.) The Clintons skirted rules — Trump drives a Mack Truck through them.

He’s found he can flout not only our unwritten societal norms of civic conduct, but even actual laws, with impunity. He’s done it throughout his life, and contempt for rules and standards is an organizing principle of his presidency. This does not make him some sort of admirable free spirit like a ’60s counterculture character. It’s deeply corrosive of the glue that holds society together and keeps us from barbarism. No democracy can endure this way.

It’s true that while Republicans imagine Democrats are worse, Democrats see Republicans as worse. Yet in fact there’s no symmetry between the parties here. Because Democrats do not, in their minds, justify any rule-breaking on the basis that Republicans are worse. They don’t justify it at all. But Republicans do justify it, based on that deranged notion of equivalence. They actually do believe two wrongs somehow make a right.

Lexington also cites a poll, shortly after the 2016 vote, wherein two out of three Republicans agreed that America needed a leader “willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes.” An even greater percentage today, he thinks, would say that, based on their total support for the rule breaker in chief.

Lexington furthermore suggests that Republicans, deep down, realize that with their shrinking base of older, whiter, less urban and more religious voters, they cannot maintain power through playing fair. Thus their despicable voter suppression tactics. While Democrats, in contrast, believe that in fair elections with broad voter participation, they’ll prevail.

The column concludes that how Republican senators vote on impeachment “will decide more than the president’s fate. It will decide whether theirs is now the party of rule-breaking.”

* Erdogan would not have invaded without Trump’s assent. As usual with foreign dictators, the Great Dealmaker got nothing in exchange.

 

 

Strangers in Their Own Land: Understanding America’s right

October 14, 2019

Since 2016 I’ve striven especially hard to understand what’s happening in America. Arlie Russell Hochschild is a Berkeley professor who, in the same quest, immersed herself with “Tea Partiers,” as told in her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Every Democrat should read it.

In the Tea Party’s heyday, I was still a Republican and could understand, even sympathize with it. But how did it transmogrify into blind support for a lying con man with ruinous divisive policies? Including a trillion dollar annual federal deficit — blowing off the Tea Party’s ostensible signature issue?

Our most basic ideological divide has long been that Democrats look to government to address societal problems, while Republicans don’t want government meddling in our lives. The Tea Party — a driving force among Republicans — demonized government as an outright enemy. This was a backlash against Obama’s presidency. Yet his administration was hardly radical. His real offense seemed to be governing while black. More broadly, Tea Partiers saw government as working more for non-whites, outsiders, and moochers than for good ole true-blue hard-working Americans.

 

Hochschild went to Louisiana, to dive into the culture she sought to understand. And this is really a matter of culture. Most people tend to situate themselves psychologically within a culture and shape their personal identity from it. Politics is part of this. In fact, as told in Bill Bishop’s book The Great Sort, many Americans gravitate into communities of like-minded people, accentuating the red/blue divide.

Hochschild sought to unravel what she deemed a “Great Paradox.” That people most hostile to government are often the ones most apt to need it. She focused particularly on the environment, especially pollution, Louisiana being one of the worst affected states, with widespread human harm. Yet Louisiana Tea Partiers opposed EPA pollution regulation. Louisiana also ranks at the bottom on measures like poverty, health, education, etc. Federal money helps. This too they oppose.

But this doesn’t seem so paradoxical to me. Hochschild discusses Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas (which I’ve unfavorably reviewed). Frank was exasperated at people voting against their economic interests (as he saw them). But how often are we told (by lefties) that homo economicus is a mythical creature? While people do sometimes pursue perceived self interest, life is more complicated. Voters are often expressing values rather than interests.

So you can oppose big government despite suffering from pollution. Yet Republicans actually favor bossy government when it suits them, like prohibiting abortion. Indeed, Hochschild notes that they’re fine with thusly regulating women’s lives, but not man stuff like motorcycle helmets, liquor, and of course guns. And also keen for regulation when aimed at blacks. A local Louisiana law regulates how they wear their pants. Talk about intrusive government. Louisiana has the nation’s highest percentage of people incarcerated, and those are disproportionately black.

What right-wing Louisianans mainly dislike is the government in Washington. Not only physically distant but, more importantly, culturally distant. There’s a fundamental sense that the elites calling the shots in America lately have not been their kind of people.

Hochschild discusses one big Louisiana environmental disaster, the 2012 Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Locals felt state officials were asleep at the switch and did nothing for them. Feeding their general cynicism about government. But Hochschild sees that attitude itself as the cause of state government being weak in the first place.* They want minimalist government, yet want it doing the job. That may again seem contradictory, but only partly. There’s a sense that government can’t be trusted to do what’s right. Maximalist government that gets the job done is something of a fantasy too. Hochschild herself lists some big ways government has betrayed her liberal values, while saying her “criticisms were based on a faith in the idea of good government.” Talk about paradoxes.

Underlying everything is what Hochschild calls “the deep story” — the “feels as if” story — embodying these Louisianans’ “hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment, and anxiety.” Valorizing work as a source of personal honor. The grit of enduring — including enduring the pollution harms discussed. Religion is a big factor, their endurance strengthened by believing God has their backs. This is part of the cultural divide too, vis-a-vis secular coastal liberals.

And key to the “deep story” is the idea of “line cutting.” People see themselves lined up for the American dream by working hard and playing by the rules. It’s very tough and many feel stuck; maybe even slipping back in the line. And then others are allowed to cut ahead of them. Often by government, taking from good hardworking people and giving it to less worthy ones. Especially ones “not like us.” Blacks especially, but also immigrants, and women, even animals (endangered species). Obama was seen, and the Democratic party in general is seen, as on the side of those line cutters.

While the left resents the rich, the right resents government beneficiaries. And rubbing salt in the wound is disrespect, offending their sense of honor, cultural marginalization, being called backward, racist, etc. They don’t consider themselves racist; don’t use the N-word or hate blacks. Hochschild says it’s more like belief in a natural hierarchy, with blacks at the bottom, and whites’ self-worth based on distance from that bottom.

She notes half of all government benefits actually go to the richest 20%. And blacks have not in fact jumped the queue — in recent decades, statistics show, if anything they’ve fallen further behind whites economically. Women have moved up but still lag behind males. So who are the real line cutters? Robots. (Automation and technological change, that is.)

Democrats need to make clear they’re for fairness for everyone. Not just ethnic minorities, women, LGBTs. But especially hard working Americans. Should explicitly disavow condoning “line cutting.”

Having written in 2016, Hochschild tacks on a section about Trump — who exploited the “deep story.” With Trump, they no longer feel like strangers in their own land. This is not about issues or policies so much as feelings. (Thus the deficit is forgotten.) It’s the music, not the lyrics. Trump does seem to speak their language, yet it’s less about Trump himself than the solidarity they feel with fellow Trumpers. He is a totem, a symbol. It’s really a battle of their culture against the other one they consider degenerate. “Send her back!” served as a battle cry, intensifying their sense of unity in moral superiority.

All this Hochschild likens to an anti-depressant drug, even a drug giving them a high. Which they don’t want to lose.

They’re (mostly) not bad people. Reading this book made me feel a lot of empathy for them. I can understand why they feel the way they do about Trump, and refuse to let go. Yet it’s a national tragedy that they’ve so blinded themselves to fall for so wicked a man, so bad for the country they so love. Who’s in many ways the biggest line-cutter of them all.

*She cites data showing red states generally, due to weaker regulation, tend to have worse pollution problems than blue states.

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story

October 12, 2019

Ethiopia’s leader Abiy Ahmed has received the Nobel Peace Prize. Those prize choices sometimes seem strange, but not this one, it’s a bull’s eye. I’d been meaning to write about Abiy, as a rare good news story among national leaders; but attention gets monopolized by our own vile one.

Ethiopia’s longtime Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 by a brutal Communist gang (“The Derg”). They were overthrown in 1991, by less brutal rebels. Meantime, after a long insurgency, Eritrea broke away; though the Eritreans had fought together with the new Ethiopian leaders against the Communists, they soon feel out. Eritrea’s boss, Isaias Afwerki, instituted one of the world’s worst tyrannies and fought a pointlessly bloody border war with Ethiopia. Whose own regime then faced enormous protests, and responded with much repression.

Enter Abiy Ahmed, becoming Ethiopia’s prime minister in April 2018. He swiftly made peace with Eritrea, even went to meet with Isaias; this is what he got the Nobel for. But Abiy’s done far more, transforming the Ethiopian regime’s ugly repressive character, making it more open and democratic, freeing the press, and thousands of political prisoners, some of these former dissidents now even brought into government.

Why do this — unlike so many African leaders? Most humans act, one way or another, to serve their own well-being. Dictators dictate because they can; power and wealth and all it can buy, a fleet of Rolls-Royces (and women), people licking your boots, provide undoubted satisfactions. But, for a different sort of person, there can be different and actually greater satisfactions. Like actually doing good. This can serve one’s psychological needs better than power, wealth, and sycophancy. An Abiy can enjoy a more rewarding life than a Mobutu or a Mugabe. Maybe it’s surprising more leaders don’t see this.

I am realist enough to know how often good news goes bad. A former Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, was a hero of mine, until she wasn’t. But I’ll take good news where I can and root for Abiy to keep up the good work.

Not everything in Ethiopia is now perfect, nothing ever can be. And with Abiy doing so much so fast, inevitably there’s pushback; a lot of people who had power are losing it. There’s a lot of ethnic tension and violence. Recently there was an episode of armed revolt. But Abiy seems to be riding the storm, continuing to make Ethiopia a better place.

Can America follow its example?