Great News: Sri Lanka Blows Off Authoritarianism

January 15, 2015
Rajapaksa

Rajapaksa

I have written before about Sri Lanka’s vile President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet another example of how power corrupts. Together with his band of brothers he was well along toward thoroughly undoing Sri Lanka’s democracy, and establishing a repressive authoritarian regime. The Rajapaksa boys were using the time-honored method of crushing any opposition or dissent through every means possible ranging from abuse of legal process to outright murder.

Last time, the big hero of Sri Lanka’s recent civil war tried to run against Rajapaksa, but was easily seen off and jailed for his trouble. Rajapaksa must have been pretty cocky because he decided to advance the next election by two years; no credible opponent was on the horizon, and Rajapaksa, controlling the vast resources of the government to propagandize, did seem impregnable.

But then his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected to run against him, on a shoestring. And – despite the incumbent’s overwhelming advantages – a huge shocker, Rajapaksa was beaten by a margin sufficiently decisive that he didn’t even try to tough it out.

Sirisena

Sirisena

Sirisena says that what Sri Lanka needs is “not a king, but a real human being.” Taking office quickly, he’s already dismantling some of Rajapaksa’s instrumentalities of repression, like blocked websites, and surveillance. Rajapaksa looks likely to be prosecuted now for his abuses, and headed for prison.

This is an absolutely thrilling thing. I’m reminded of Lincoln’s famous line that you can’t fool all the people all the time. Despite the intensive propagandizing by the Rajapaksa regime, the Sri Lankans – at least a majority – could see through it, and were smart enough to reject it. So much for the oft-invoked conventional wisdom that Asians are somehow culturally comfortable with authoritarianism.

Of course history never runs neatly, and things may well get messy in Sri Lanka. But the big fact is that its democracy has now been rescued, by its citizens, from a grave threat. People do understand the value of a democratic society, and will act on that understanding. This was a good day for optimists, and a bad one for cynics.

imagesMaybe Francis Fukuyama was right after all.

“Everything is Awesome” – The Lego Movie and Ideology

January 11, 2015

Unknown(Consonant with my ongoing effort to provide readers with insight concerning seminal cultural phenomena, herewith is my meditation on The Lego Movie)

A megalomaniacal corporate villain threatens to end Life As We Know It. A proletarian everyman transcends his limitations to save the world in an unexpected way; and gets the girl.

“We’ve seen this movie before” is the fitting cliché. Indeed, this is the unvarying plot for a certain species of animated epic (Robots was another example).

President Business

President Business

The Lego Movie’s evil entity isn’t exactly corporate – it seems to be governmental –but there’s a melding, with the bad guy named “President Business.”

That name makes a rather unsubtle ideological statement. Of course the creative types behind these films are all lefties, so there’s never a business or businessperson that’s anything but wicked. Yet it always amuses me to remember that these corporation-hating movies are financed, produced, and distributed by . . . corporations . . . to make profits. images-3Well, Lenin did say capitalists will sell the rope to hang them with.

But back to The Lego Movie. Despite my jaundiced remarks thus far, this is a wonderful film which we thoroughly enjoyed. Really. It’s actually not an extended commercial for Lego toys. From start to finish there’s not a dull minute in it. And with much droll humor, it’s not just a kid’s movie. Or maybe one has to be a kid at heart.

I’m not too jaded to appreciate the creativity that goes into something like this. It’s a visual phantasmagoria, that goes by so fast I almost wanted to view it in slo-mo. And having characters that are, well, mere Lego figures, was surely a creative challenge, but at every turn the film actually makes that work for the viewer’s entertainment. Although the characters are, to be sure, given human-like personalities, the ending sequence, in a truly brilliant and unexpected way (which I won’t reveal) plays upon the fact that they are after all in reality Lego toys.

images-1And so, while with evil “President Business” and all that, the film ritualistically carries the baggage of anti-capitalist ideology, on a meta level the fact that it was made by a corporation, for profit, shows us those are not dirty words. This film’s corporate producer profits because people willingly pay it for something they value more than the money spent, in this case, entertainment, amusement, enjoyment. images-2In a market economy the vast bulk of profits earned are likewise garnered by giving people things they value. Creating that value is how we all get richer and live better.

Go see The Lego Movie and do your bit for corporate profit.

Mario Cuomo and Bess Myerson

January 6, 2015

imagesMy view of Mario Cuomo was not colored by his having knocked me publicly.

I was a PSC administrative law judge, presiding over a case involving Long Island’s Shoreham nuclear power plant – at the time, a huge issue. Governor Cuomo was hostile to the plant and its utility builder. One day when I came to work, people made remarks like, “Hey Frank, how are your credentials?” I was mystified, until I saw a news report: asked at a press conference about one of my recommendations (contrary to his position), Cuomo dismissed it, saying, “Well, what are his credentials?”

images-2Shoreham fell victim to a safety hysteria. There was no undue risk, in relation to all the normal risks of modern life. But “nuclear” is a scare word, and opponents thought it reasonable to insist on literally zero risk (even those traveling to hearings by car, a technology with risks far above zero). The Cuomo administration aligned with those opponents and spearheaded a settlement to junk the nearly completed $5 billion project. The PSC had to approve this, and I was again the judge. I recommended against the settlement. At the Commission’s meeting I was given no speaking role – highly unusual. And my report was not made public, also highly unusual. However, one Commissioner cheekily appended it to his dissent. And PSC Chairman Bradford later told me he’d welcomed my recommendation – it gave the proceedings a veneer of objectivity!

images-3Later, one early evening I was driving not far from the Executive Mansion and ahead of me saw a man who seemed to be wandering aimlessly in the middle of the road. I thought he was drunk, and had to slow to avoid hitting him. As I passed, I recognized the Governor.

Recently I had occasion to comment on Cuomo’s most famous speech, the 1984 “tale of two cities.” UnknownI thought it was an unfair attack on President Reagan, as though he, and Republicans in general, were blind to those Americans having a tough time. Admittedly, Republicans do a good job opening themselves up to such jabs. I don’t understand how Democrats get away with posturing as the tribunes of the common man, when their policies are actually ruinous for the country as a whole. (Trade protectionism is a prime example: protecting the few at the expense of the many.)

But Cuomo’s 1984 speech made him a great liberal hero, so that 30 years later, the local paper and NPR station gave his death massive fawning coverage. I wonder whether his successor George Pataki, who served an equal three gubernatorial terms, will get anything remotely comparable.

I will say this about Mario Cuomo: he was an honorable politician, a mensch, a man of true substance, who played it straight. His son, not so much.

images-4Bess Myerson’s link with Cuomo was her being a big pal of Ed Koch, whom Cuomo beat for Governor. She was the first – and so far only – Jewish Miss America – before I was born, in 1945. Her ethnicity was actually very controversial then – how far we’ve come since! Unlike Cuomo, she died in obscurity, so much so that her December 14 death wasn’t even reported till January 5.

Unknown-1I had a Bess Myerson moment too. In the ‘70s she was New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner; I met her when she testified at a PSC hearing. A recess found me in a side-room talking on the telephone. Myerson walked in and said to me, “Is that phone working?”

Has Progress Stalled?

January 3, 2015

UnknownOn December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers achieved a 12-second, 120-foot flight. Within about half a century, we were flying to Europe in eight hours. After a further half century, we’re doing it in . . . eight hours. Meantime, the Concorde, that could do it in three, was abandoned.

So has progress actually juddered to a halt? Michael Hanlon, writing recently in Aeon, says yes. He sees a “Golden Quarter” (GQ) from about 1945 to 1971 as the source of all the innovations defining the modern world, with nothing comparable since. imagesAirplanes are Exhibit A; only marginally improved since the ‘60s, with no quantum leap analogous to that between the Wright Flyer and the Boeing 707. The Jetsons’ flying car never materialized. The Moon hasn’t been visited in 42 years. Similarly, in medicine, Hanlon puts all the world-changing advancements behind us, with continuing longevity gains being merely attributable to building on those past breakthroughs. We still haven’t cured cancer. Even social progress, he says, was great in the GQ, with nothing like it since.

Why? Hanlon proposes various answers. One is . . . wait for it . . . rising inequality. Progressives are obsessed over this, trying to prove inequality causes all manner of ills. Hanlon attributes the GQ innovation to a world getting richer, but says concentrating wealth in few hands somehow stifles innovation and breeds “planned obsolescence” of products instead. Unknown-1That linkage seems obscure; and anyway, while inequality within countries may be rising, worldwide it’s a different story, because the poorer nations – notably India and China, both huge – are experiencing faster economic growth than the advanced ones. Thus, far more people have far more income and wealth today.

More persuasive is Hanlon’s saying we’ve become less trusting of science and more risk-averse. An earlier generation was in love with technological and medical improvements, remembering how bad things were before. Today we forget, and even romanticize “the good old days.” Unknown-2There’s a belief that science and technology are false gods leading us astray, and a frightened focus on risks rather than rewards; thus a “precautionary principle” that rejects anything not proven riskless, an impossible standard. This gives us the misguided anti-immunization movement, opposition to fracking, and to Genetic Modification that could entail huge benefits for billions. Hanlon thinks a manned Moon mission would be considered too dangerous today.*

He also cites a 2011 essay, The Great Stagnation, by economist Tyler Cowen, suggesting that the U.S. in particular has reached a technological plateau. images-2Cowen thought past advances were grabbing “low hanging fruit,” and further progress is simply much harder. But Hanlon actually rejects that idea as “fanciful,” saying that historically, “it has often seemed that a plateau has been reached, only for a new discovery to shatter old paradigms completely.” He cites Kelvin in 1900 declaring physics essentially done – just before Einstein came along. (Perhaps an odd point to make in an article contending progress has stalled.)

I’m no physicist, but I do think we’ve now reached a point where nothing could “shatter old paradigms completely.” images-1The “low hanging fruit” metaphor also seems applicable to Hanlon’s prime exhibit, air travel. Not that jet planes aren’t a technological miracle – but, for moving lots of people long distances, this may be about the best that’s practicable, and any greater speed would entail a host of problems. We gave up on the Concorde for good reasons. And never got flying cars because that’s actually not a very good idea either.**

This perspective prompts a broader response to Hanlon – a la “what more do you want?” We can travel to Europe in eight hours! Moreover, as Hanlon actually acknowledges, that’s become affordable to ordinary people. Unknown-3(Which happened after the GQ.) Similarly, social progress has been enormous – civil rights, women’s liberation, etc. – also mostly subsequent to the GQ – and is still unfolding for gay rights. Violence (as Steven Pinker has persuasively shown), of all sorts, continues to decline. We may not be perfect yet, but surely there’s a lot less work still to do.

But none of this means progress, in all its manifestations, has fizzled out, and Hanlon has to twist things hard to make it seem so. While early on he sneers that progress today “is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements to information technology,” later he allows that “the modern internet is a wonder, more impressive in many ways than Apollo.” The Internet too postdated the GQ.

images-1Hanlon is ultimately a victim of a myopia he himself describes. It is indeed easy to take for granted and belittle modern amenities, forgetting what went before. It’s what Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice, called the adaptation effect – one adapts to the life one has now, which does seem banal, underappreciated as merely what one now expects. Day-to-day, or even year-to-year, progress may not seem evident. But if you compare today with 1971 – the end of Hanlon’s Golden Quarter – the difference is huge on a host of fronts.

And while “what more do you want?” may be a fair perspective on modernity, there are still big things we can yet aim for. We won’t blow ourselves up, or be done in by climate change. For all the fretting over that and rising inequality, I actually foresee steady economic advancement and a global mass affluence that will truly constitute a quantum change in the human condition. Similarly transformative will be further progress on health. Death by old age is a solvable medical problem.

Finally, all this improvement will be propelled by advancing artificial intelligence. That looms as a stupendous game-changer – Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” when life becomes altogether different. images-3Stephen Hawking actually worries this threatens humanity (and I recently reviewed a movie with that view). I’m more optimistic, and foresee an eventual convergence between Humanity 1.0, of the flesh, and a cybernetic version 2.0.

I discussed this in my famous 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? And if anyone in that future remembers the Hanlon article, it’ll quaintly sound like Kelvin in 1900.

* He aptly notes that the thalidomide episode was awful, but such occasional screw-ups are the inevitable costs of trying out new things, the benefits of which exceed such downsides. That perspective is being lost, an attitudinal change to which Thalidomide contributed.

** But self-driving cars are coming.

How Big is a Googolplex?

December 30, 2014

K.C. Cole is an award-winning science writer, whose 1998 book The Universe and the Teacup—The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty, I typically found at a used book sale. UnknownMy wife chided me that it could now have only antiquarian interest. But I figured mathematics can’t have changed that much in 16 years. Two and two still make four, no?

The book broadly (and somewhat poetically) talks about the intersection between mathematics and life. It has some good stuff. One chapter discusses how goofy our risk perceptions can be. People worry about pesticide residues on fruit (annual U.S. death toll: zero) but not going for a drive (death toll: 30,000). Similarly, those terrified of child abduction drive kids to school – exposing them to the vastly greater auto accident risk. (All this echoed the “Freedom from Fear” chapter in my own very excellent book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)

However, not only did I also find some things I disagreed with, but some major bloopers.

Unknown-1Cole brings up one of my favorite paradoxes: “This sentence is false.” It contradicts itself. If the sentence is true, that means it’s false, so it can’t be true; but if it’s not, then it is true. However, Cole concludes this is no more paradoxical than the conflict between an American who thinks June is a summer month and an Australian who calls it winter. But that paradox is resolved with just a little more information. No additional information will resolve “this sentence is false.”

imagesAnd how about this: “Those of us reared on Euclid swallowed without thinking all those axioms about the obviousness of such propositions as: two parallel lines never meet. Yet one only needs to look at the lines of longitude – which are parallel at the equator – to see that they do.” Hello? That’s non-Euclidean geometry! Euclid’s geometry applies only to flat surfaces, not curved ones (like the Earth’s).*

Then Cole says a googolplex is “a googol multiplied by itself a hundred times.” I’m no award-winning science writer, but even I knew this is wrong. (To confirm that, I googled it, of course.)

Unknown-2A googol is the number 10 to the hundredth power; i.e., 10 multiplied by itself a hundred times; i.e., 1 followed by 100 zeroes. A googolplex (contrary to Cole) is the number 10 to the googol power; i.e., 1 followed by a googol zeroes.

These are very big numbers. Cole observes that we have trouble grasping how much bigger a billion is than a million, or a trillion than a billion. A billion is 1 followed by nine zeroes; a trillion by 12 zeroes; a quadrillion by 15 zeroes, and so on, for every three zeroes, through quintillion, sextillion, septillion, etc., each a thousand times bigger than the last. But we run out of those “illion” names long before reaching the end of all hundred zeroes in a googol.

Unknown-3(NOTE: The following has been modified, from what I originally posted, based upon helpful comments from my friend Professor Judy Halstead).

Now, I asked myself, might Cole’s definition of a googolplex – a googol to the hundredth power – actually equal (the correct) 10 to the googol power? I didn’t think so, but how can one do this math? Not on a calculator! Too many zeroes. Indeed, there literally would not be enough space in the Universe for all the zeroes. But one can do it using exponents. (Since I don’t know how exponents might be displayed on your screen, I will use the notation “10^100″ to stand for ten to the hundredth power).

Ten to the googol power (a true googolplex) can be written as 10^(10^100). Cole’s false googolplex, a googol to the hundredth power, would be (10^100)^100. images-1To multiply a googol by itself once, you add the superscripts; 100+100=200; that is, you get a number with 200 zeroes. Twice, and it’s 300 zeroes. So a googol to the hundredth power would be 1 followed by 10,000 zeroes. And that, of course, is way less than 1 followed by a googol zeroes!

 

By the way, yes, Google was named for googol, to evoke the vastness of the information accessible. But they inadvertently (?) got the spelling wrong!

images-2When my daughter Elizabeth was eight, I explained googol to her. She was fascinated. Then she asked if the Universe would last a googol years.

Not a simple question. So I answered, “possibly.”

“Well,” she said, “if I’m eight now, then I’ll be a googol and eight.”

Now there’s an optimist for you.

* In fairness, Cole later does discuss non-Euclidean geometry.

 

 

 

The Big Picture

December 26, 2014

imagesFor all America’s partisan divisions, we’re in remarkable agreement on one thing: the country is on the “wrong track,” the American dream is struggling, and our children will have trouble equaling, let alone surpassing, today’s living standard.

Each side blames the other. The right sees the left as buying votes with government handouts, fostering a feckless paternalistic culture, while killing businesses and jobs with over-regulation, and out-of-control spending presages financial ruin. The left sees rising inequality, with a corporate conspiracy to control government for its own greedy ends, heartless toward victims and their economic plight.

Both views reflect a generalized loss of trust in the institutions of society, which is not unique to America, but is mirrored all across the developed world – whether countries are governed by the left or right. In truth the difference is mere nuance on the edges of policy.

UnknownTake France (please). Sarkozy (on the right) was elected promising a “rupture” with past complacency. In office he could manage only minimal tweaks, but even that was too much for the French, who chucked him out for an assertively lefty Hollande – who promised they could have their cake and eat it too. Now he’s even more unpopular than Sarkozy, who is attempting a comeback.

Such serial disillusionment stokes the rise of populist third parties like France’s National Front and the United Kingdom Independence Party. This hasn’t happened in America mainly because our two-party system is more entrenched with structural roadblocks for third parties.

images-1But behind it all, what is really happening is that globalization is a hugely disruptive force, breaking down economic barriers and putting everybody in competition with everybody else. For the world as a whole, this is hugely positive, enlarging the economic pie by making stuff less costly, opening opportunities for billions more people to productively participate, and creating a burgeoning middle class in countries where there was none before. Of course there are losers as well as winners, and that’s why the political climate has become so febrile.

images-2But the remedy is not in trying to make globalization go away, demonizing businesses that strive to stay competitive via taking advantage of overseas opportunities; nor by decreeing higher wages or benefits as though the money comes from the sky (or from businesses being less “greedy”); or uselessly whining about inequality. Instead, the only thing that can actually save us is to raise our own competitive game: better products at better prices.

images-3Along similar lines, Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean, reminds us of the “seven pillars of wisdom” that our Asian competitors have imported from the West, in their “March to Modernity” —

  • Free market economics and capitalism (large-scale investment). Sorry, lefties: not by socialism did worldwide average real dollar incomes grow five-fold in the last century – a giant fact that makes pining for an alternative economic system simply silly.
  • Science and technology. The central human story has always been our use technology to overcome nature’s impersonal forces. (Listening to all the anti-frackers you wouldn’t know that fracking has been massively underway worldwide for decades with only minimal problems; it has revolutionized America’s energy picture and overall economic strength.)
  • Meritocracy. China actually pioneered the idea yet pervasively violates it. One facet of a profoundly corrupt social system that bodes ill for realizing China’s full economic potential.
  • Culture of Peace. Russian military adventurism is a grave threat to the world system.
  • Pragmatism.
  • Unknown-2Rule of law (including secure property rights, contract enforceability, judicial transparency, etc.) China’s regime lately has been talking “rule of law,” but that’s a mistranslation. It’s really rule by law – a tool for maintaining control. Not the same thing. Here again, China actually fails to follow Mahbubani’s program.
  • Education – empowering more people to participate more productively in the global economy.

Unknown-1Now you have the full big picture.*

*Someone will say, “climate change.” Not insignificant – but actually a lesser factor in shaping the human future.

Christmas in July: An Economic Program

December 23, 2014

UnknownIt’s fashionable to decry the commercialism and materialism of Christmas. And I recently reviewed Naomi Klein’s book saying we must cut back our consumer society, preaching asceticism as virtue. The problem is, if A doesn’t buy what B is employed to produce, B loses his job, and can’t buy what A is employed to produce, so A loses his job too. Pretty soon nobody has jobs. A fine virtuous society we’d have then.

 

imagesI thought about this, passing by a mall thronged with Christmas shoppers. Indeed, imagine where our economy would be without that. A whole lot of people are employed producing and selling all the stuff that’s gifted; absent Xmas, they’d be out of work. Sneer as you will at the crass commercialism, but without it our economy would be in deep doo-doo. If Christmas didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it (like FDR invented the WPA).

Unknown-1This got me thinking that if Christmas is such an economic boon, why not have two Christmases? We can invent a second one. Of course, they’d have to be spaced well apart, so by the time the next one rolls around folks can have recovered financially from the prior one. About mid-year would be ideal. And in fact, what luck, we wouldn’t have to create a new holiday from scratch – we can simply re-tool an old one – July 4.

So all we need do is make Independence Day into a gifting occasion. We can give it many Xmas-like accoutrements. For example, instead of Christmas trees, people can put up Liberty poles, and decorate them with little continental soldiers, drummer boys, flags, etc. images-3In place of crèches, we can have dioramas of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Instead of carols we can sing Yankee Doodle and other stirring patriotic songs. Houses would be festooned with red, white, and blue lights. TV would endlessly re-broadcast “1776” rather than “It’s a Wonderful Life” and mawkish Peanuts cartoons. In the role of the Grinch, you’ve got your King George III. And sending another round of greeting cards would help keep the struggling Postal Service in business. Fireworks would be an added bonus for which I can’t think of a Christmas analog.

images-4Of course, to promote the all-important gifting element, we’d need a Santa-equivalent. For this I’d propose Jefferson. We can overlook that he had slaves rather than elves (I’m not sure there’s much difference, actually). He’d keep a list of which children are naughty or nice – that is, patriots versus tory sympathizers. Happily, few of the latter will be found nowadays. And, to deliver the presents, perhaps he could borrow Santa’s sleigh and reindeer; as Santa’s summer replacement, so to speak.

images-1Christmas originated to celebrate the birth of Christ. July 4 celebrates the birth of our country. At least we can be sure that really happened. Thus this would be a holiday for everyone (with no nonsense about a “War on July 4;” though we’d probably get some griping about its commercialization).

So to help our economy by turning The Fourth into another gift-giving festival, images-5please spread the word, by reblogging this, or re-tweeting it, or snapchatting or instagramming it, or whatever people do nowadays who are more tech-savvy than me. If this goes viral, the economic benefits could be huge.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all my blog readers!

My So-Called Political Career – Rage Against the Machine

December 20, 2014

UnknownWhen young, I was mad for politics; active in both campus and local Republican politics in Queens, NY – generally playing the outsider-provocateur-clown. Yet I dreamed of a serious political career.

Arriving in Albany in 1970, I became a committeeman and ward leader’s sidekick. Albany was ruled by the famous old O’Connell Machine (in ’73 I authored a book about it). No city Republican had won an election since 1921; but a newly combative county chairman, Joe Frangella, was trying. My own ward, full of students, state workers, and yuppies, was the hotbed of machine opposition. This wasn’t just politics, but a moral crusade.

Unknown-1In 1972 our ward leader quit and wanted me as successor. The county chiefs had their own candidate, and sent three stooges to our meeting to browbeat us. Bridling against this, the committeemen unanimously elected me. No longer the clown – now the other guys were.

But my initiation was harrowing. First walking the circuit of my eight polling stations was to go from one fight to another. Each had two election inspectors from each party, yet the Democrats hogged all the chairmanships (which should have been decided by coin tosses). These intimidating tyrants let their committeemen get away with nonsense like “assisting” voters inside the booth.Unknown

I needed better election workers – and set about recruiting anti-machine reform Democrats. Yes, they could legally serve as Republican inspectors. I drilled them to be more assertive, especially about those chairmanships. And when next I walked that circuit, all was calm – with Republican chairmen in seven of eight districts! We might not win elections, but we’d won a big battle over their conduct.

In 1973, I was responsible for my ward’s candidates for alderman and county legislator. For the latter I recruited a presentable-seeming preppy fellow. A reform Democrat was running for alderman, a woman I knew; I made a deal to back her while she’d back my legislature candidate. Which she didn’t really do; she was a flake; and relations with my own guy soured when he bizarrely accused me of touching his repellent wife. Anyhow, both lost. So did our mayoral candidate, in a close race.

Rezsin Adams (2007)

Rezsin Adams (2007)

In 1975, another county legislator election. The machine put up a nothingburger. I found a great candidate: community activist Rezsin Adams. But most of her left-wing Dem pals wanted nothing to do with Republicans, while the GOP hierarchy gave me hell over allying with any Democrats. However, I had the backing of City Chairman Fred Hershey, and we did finally manage to maneuver Rezsin onto the ballot as a Republican. I worked my heart out to get her elected.

Meantime, city Republicans were chafing under feudal treatment by the county leadership. At a ward leader meeting, I mused that we could ignore the nominating petitions sent from the county and put up our own slate of party functionaries.

images-2So we did – a primary fight. Tense negotiations ensued; I and others met with Frangella, and got agreement for more city autonomy, including choosing our own city chairman. But I couldn’t persuade my colleagues to withdraw the primary slate, so I actually wound up voting against the candidates whose run I myself had instigated.

Also in 1975, Albany’s first county executive was elected. We had another great candidate, Theresa Cooke, an intrepid crusader, our Joan of Arc, who’d just been elected county treasurer. Unknown-3But due to some petty spat about her running mate, Republicans stupidly put up a third candidate instead. That killed the GOP as an effective force in Albany county. With the anti-machine vote split, the Democrat won. (He later went to prison.)

Rezsin Adams lost too. And so did I, as a sacrificial candidate for city court judge.

Then to replace Fred Hershey as city chairman, the county sachems decided on Andy Capoccia, a reptilian opportunist. Frangella was also now gone, along with his pledge about picking our own chairman. At the big 1976 county meeting, Capoccia’s annointment should have been a formality, but I got up and cheekily nominated someone else. Unknown-4When, in my speech, I mentioned Theresa Cooke, her name was booed. Ouch. Of course Capoccia won. (He later went to prison.)

So I was back to being the outsider provocateur. I was disillusioned that the Republican party didn’t appreciate me. In truth, while my academic knowledge of politics was legion, I had no aptitude for its human relations aspect. I resigned, my political career over at age 28. It had been quite a ride. (At least I didn’t go to prison.)

A few years later, I moved to a different ward, and some GOP leading lights actually begged me to run there against one of the machine’s major slimeballs. Winning might not have been impossible. But after careful thought, I declined. I guess I was now cured.

The political machine eventually faded away. But to this day, no Republican has won any election in the city.

Ebola: God’s Punishment for Homosexuality?

December 16, 2014

Unknown-1Recently the Liberian Council of Churches met, with over 100 participants, to discuss Ebola. They unanimously resolved “That God is angry with Liberia, and that Ebola is a plague. Liberians have to pray and seek God’s forgiveness over the corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexualism [sic], etc.) that continue to penetrate our society.”

The “God is angry” trope, punishing nations with otherwise seemingly natural phenomena, is very common. UnknownPat Robertson similarly declared that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment of America for abortion, and Haiti’s earthquake for Satanism. But homosexuality is the “sin” of choice for such pronouncements. Is God really as obsessed with such matters as the preachers are?

It’s silly in so many ways it might seem gratuitous to enumerate them. But I will. How can any earthlings (let alone Pat Robertson) presume to read God’s mind? Who’s to say that a natural disaster isn’t, well, natural? If God so hates gays, why make so many of them?* Why are these punishments for “sins” so poorly targeted (like crushing just New Orleans), rarely singling out the individual “sinners?” (AIDS might be the lone exception.) In fact, it isn’t homosexuality or abortion per se that’s supposedly being punished but, rather, the country’s toleration of them. America today might be “guilty” of tolerating gays. But Liberia? I don’t think so.

And is homosexuality – or, rather, merely tolerating it – such a great sin that it incurs God’s special wrath? I mean, come on. images-1Even if you really really hate homosexuality, surely there are worse crimes. Would God punish Liberians over gay sex – but not over Charles Taylor‘s horrors? And you didn’t see him punishing Germany for Nazism. (True, some cities were incinerated, but that wasn’t God’s doing, it was allied bombing.)

Anyway, why punish nations with hurricanes or diseases when God still wields the ultimate stick: eternal damnation? People who really piss him off burn in Hell forever. You’d think that would fill the bill. What’s the point of gilding the lily with plagues or bad weather?

Enough. Obviously, all the babble about Godly punishment reveals more about the babblers than about God. So blinded are those babblers by their obsessions with their favorite “sins,” they can’t see the looniness of their pronouncements. If there were a God he’d be, like, LOL.

Or maybe he’d afflict them with plagues. Now that would truly be divine punishment.images

* Yes, they are made that way, and (except perhaps for certain lesbians) it’s not a choice. Homophobes might say that even so, the behavior is a choice. But what heterosexual would accept a need to abstain from heterosexual behavior? The only moral objection to gay sex is the Bible’s condemnation. The Bible also warmly endorses slavery.

Torturing America

December 12, 2014

Some things are just wrong. Absolutely, and always. Surely torture is one of them. That it’s even necessary to say this, in America, in the 21st century, seems bizarre.

Torture not only damages the victims, but also the perpetrators, and the societies that tolerate it.

images“Enhanced interrogation” was torture. Even if it did produce helpful information, it was still wrong, and should never have been done. Ends don’t justify means.

But the Senate report refutes every claim that helpful information was garnered. All the pushback to that conclusion is nothing but bald assertions, “yes it did,” without specifying exactly when and how. And meantime, as the report also documents, the CIA has lied pervasively about this subject.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also revealed that the CIA paid $81 million in taxpayer money, to a couple of bozos, for the precious advice to copy Chinese Communist torture techniques.

And even if the torture had produced good information, it would not have been worth the price paid, in shredded American moral credibility. UnknownWhen China, and Iran can, with straight faces, shake their scolding fingers at America on human rights, we know we’re off the rails. Now, when we criticize them, many will think we’re the moral hypocrites. America’s thusly squandering its role as the world’s conscience will make it all the easier for the worst human rights abusers to act with impunity. It’s a big setback to the global moral progress so painstakingly achieved. Altogether a prohibitively huge cost for whatever information (if any) we got through torture.

But 9/11 blinded us to our true national interests, making us so hysterically fearful of terrorism as to pay almost any price to thwart it. Horrible as it was, 9/11 did not harm America, or undermine what we cherish about our society, nearly as much as what we’ve done in response to it. th-2Like all the surveillance, TSA madness, hostility toward foreign visitors, curtailment of civil liberties, and distortions to our foreign policy. And torture, giving ourselves one heck of a black eye. That self-inflicted damage to America, and to human values globally, is greater than a dozen 9/11s would have done.

Legacy_of_AshesI am not of the Andrew Bacevich school, holding that anything we try to do to make the world better is futile, and we shouldn’t even try. Being proactive to improve things is the essence of the human character. But Tim Weiner’s aptly titled history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, shows that the CIA has never gotten anything right, never done anything that truly served America’s interests, while doing things, again and again and again, that disserved them. We’d be better off had the CIA never existed.

Nor am I of the Noam Chomsky school, seeing nothing good about America. images-1Yes, our country has blemishes, this is Earth, not Heaven, populated by humans, not angels. But the Chomskys are morally blind to the bigger picture. And part of what is truly great about America is the spirit of openness, self-criticism, and self-correction exemplified by the Senate report. You will see nothing like that in China or Iran (or Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, or Egypt).*

*China has just awarded its annual Peace Prize to Fidel Castro. Last year’s winner was Putin.


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