Trump, Biden, and Ukraine

September 24, 2019

We always knew he’d do this — concoct some phony lie to smear Biden. Reprising his “crooked Hillary” shtick, while Trump himself was the crookedest ever.

Worse yet, his Biden smear is actually of a piece with his own abuse of power. Trying to get a foreign leader to help mess up his political opponent. While $250 million in aid was under suspension — on Trump’s own order, right before his phone call with Ukraine’s president. Even if the aid wasn’t explicitly a quid pro quo for smearing Biden, bringing up the latter (reportedly eight times) in that phone call was still totally improper. Abusing foreign policy like this is arguably treasonous. Compounded by refusing to give Congress the whistleblower’s complaint about it, as the law expressly requires. And of course, while insisting the phone conversation was perfectly fine, Trump refuses to release a transcript.

For the record, there’s not a shred of evidence suggesting Biden or his son did anything corrupt with respect to Ukraine. And notice Trump never actually specifies the supposed misdeed. But that doesn’t stop the Great Liar from spewing out against Biden his usual hyperbolic imprecations — “disgusting,” “disgraceful,” and so forth. While accusing the whistleblower of political bias, and of course the press too, when it won’t swallow his bilge, instead starting another “witch hunt” against him. Trump even said that in a fair system, Biden would get the electric chair. He actually said this.

Enough. I have opposed impeachment because it would politically backfire, allowing Trump to crow vindication when the craven Republican Senate refuses to convict him. But if Trump’s manifest malfeasances don’t incur the Constitution’s impeachment remedy, then that’s a dead letter; our democratic system wrecked by extreme partisanship. Let it be on Republicans’ heads.

Is it possible there are still Americans so blinded by partisan tribalism they cannot distinguish between a thoroughly decent, honest, public-spirited human being like Biden, and the scum of the earth that is Trump?

The vaping panic and the human fear response

September 22, 2019

Eight Americans have died, and over 500 fallen ill, apparently from vaping e-cigarettes. Governmental bodies all over are scrambling to ban this scourge.

This is insane. In fact, it will kill more people than if nothing is done.

I wrote that the illnesses “apparently” were from vaping. Remember the silicone breast implant panic? Hundreds of women with implants started getting sick. We leaped to the obvious conclusion that implants caused it. However, many thousands of women had implants, while in America’s population of 150+ million women, many thousands get sick annually, many with mysterious ailments and unknown causes. Did the percentage of women with implants who got sick exceed the percentage of non-implanted women who got sick? No. It turned out there was actually no link between the illnesses and the implants. It was statistically inevitable that some of the women getting sick would also happen to have implants.

I wonder if the same applies to the vaping deaths. Many thousands annually get various lung problems; millions vape. But let’s just assume vaping did cause the particular illnesses seen. However, the great majority are associated not with commercial vaping products but illicit ones bought on the street. Those often contain toxic substances not in properly manufactured e-cigarettes.

This brings to mind the opioid crisis. Almost nobody dies from the drugs manufactured by the much-maligned pharmaceutical companies. People die because they can’t get those drugs and so buy alternatives like heroin on the street, whose potency is unknown, causing overdosing.

Banning e-cigarettes will reprise that story. If people who want them can’t get properly manufactured ones, they’ll turn to unscrupulous street sellers and products with who-knows-what in them. Deaths will skyrocket.

And it seems particularly insane to ban e-cigarettes, blamed for eight deaths, when ordinary conventional cigarettes remain perfectly legal, and kill 450,000 Americans annually (seven million worldwide).

In fact, vaping was invented to be a safer alternative to regular smoking. And it is — vastly safer. There’s no reason the think vaping might cause the lung cancer that kills smokers by the million. In comparison with that, eight vaping deaths is nothing.

E-cigarettes were also conceived as a halfway house to help wean smokers off deadly regular tobacco products. If vaping is banned, more people will continue smoking — adding to the ban’s death toll.

Use by minors is central in this vaping panic. But there’s scant reason to see vaping as a “gateway drug” leading to smoking (or worse). If anything, it’s likely that the more kids vape, the fewer will smoke. And there’s no evidence of serious health harm from e-cigarettes — properly manufactured ones, that is, bought in stores, not on the streets.

But if that doesn’t allay your panic, then simply bar sales to minors. Just like for regular cigarettes. Such a policy is known to be extremely effective.

This e-cigarette health scare is just the latest in a long line of similar ones, going back at least to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. People feared railroad travel would discombobulate internal organs. Most basically, fear is programmed into our psyches by evolution, because given all the real dangers our forebears faced, being fearful rather than carefree helped them survive. We also have a lot of pre-installed cognitive biases that undermine rational comparative evaluation of dangers. Thus many fear flying but think nothing of getting into cars — at least a hundred times riskier. And rush to ban vaping over eight deaths while shrugging at smoking’s millions.

Indeed, many see modernity itself as a veritable death-trap, what with all the chemicals, radiation, pollution, carcinogens, etc. Yet the pre-industrial average lifespan was around 30, while in advanced countries today it’s risen to eighty.

Thinking like a caveman

September 18, 2019

 

What is it like to be a bat? That famous essay by philosopher Thomas Nagel keeps nagging at us. What is it like to be me? Of this I should have some idea. But why is being me like that? — how does it work? — are questions that really bug me.

Science knows a lot about how our neurons work. Those doings of billions of neurons, each with very limited, specific, understandable functions, join to create one’s personhood. A leap we’re only beginning to understand.

Steven Mithen’s book, The Prehistory of the Mind, takes the problem back a step, asking how our minds came to exist in the first place. It’s a highly interesting inquiry.

Of course the simple answer is evolution. Life forms have natural variability, and variations that prove more successful in adapting to changing environments proliferate. This builds over eons. Our minds were a very successful adaptation.

But they could not have sprung up all at once. Doesn’t work that way. So by what steps did they evolve? The question is problematical given our difficulty in reverse-engineering the end product. But Mithen’s analysis actually helps toward such understanding.

He uses two metaphors to describe what our more primitive, precursor minds were like. One is a Swiss Army knife. It’s a tool that’s really a tool kit. Leaving aside for the moment the elusive concept of “mind,” all living things have the equivalent of Swiss Army knives to guide their behavior in various separate domains. A cat, for example, has a program in its brain for jumping up to a ledge; another for catching a mouse; and so forth. The key point is that each is a separate tool, used separately; two or more can’t be combined.

Which brings in Mithen’s other metaphor for the early human mind: a cathedral. Within it, there are various chapels, each containing one of the Swiss Army knife tools, each one a brain program for dealing with a specific type of challenge. The main ones Mithen identifies are a grasp of basic physics in connection with tool-making and the like; a feel for the natural world; one for social interaction; and language arts, related thereto.

This recalls Martin Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences. Departing from an idea that “intelligence” is a single capability that people have more or less of, Gardner posited numerous diverse particularized capabilities, such as interpersonal skills, musical, spatial-visual, etc. A person can be strong in one and weak in another.

Mithen agrees, yet nevertheless also hypothesizes what he calls “general intelligence.” By this he means “a suite of general-purpose learning rules, such as those for learning associations between events.” Here’s where his metaphors bite. The Swiss Army knife doesn’t have a general intelligence tool. That’s why a cat is extremely good at mousing but lacks a comprehensive viewpoint on its situation.

In Mithen’s cathedral, however, there is general intelligence, situated right in the central nave. However, the chapels, each containing their specific tools, are closed off from it and from each other. The toolmaking program doesn’t communicate with the social interaction program; none of them communicates with the general intelligence.

Does this seem weird? Not at all. Mithen invokes an analogy to driving while conversing with a passenger. Two wholly separate competences are operating, but sealed off from each other, neither impinging on the other.

This, Mithen posits, was indeed totally the situation of early humans (like Neanderthals). Our own species arose something like 100,000 years ago, but for around half that time, it seems, we too had minds like Neanderthals, like Mithen’s compartmentalized cathedral, lacking pathways for the various competences to talk to each other. He describes a “rolling” sort of consciousness that could go from one sphere to another, but was in something of a blur about seeing any kind of big picture.

Now, if you were intelligently building this cathedral, you wouldn’t do it this way. But evolution is not “intelligent design.” It has to work with what developed previously. And what it started with was much like the Swiss Army knife, with a bunch of wholly separate competences that each evolved independently.

That’s good enough for most living things, able to survive and reproduce without a “general intelligence.” Evolving the latter was something of a fluke for humans. (A few other creatures may have something like it.)

The next step was to integrate the whole tool kit; to open the doors of all the chapels leading into the central nave. The difference was that while a Neanderthal could be extremely skilled at making a stone tool, while he was doing it he really couldn’t ponder about it in the context of his whole life. We can. Mithen calls this “cognitive fluidity.”

The way I like to put it, the essence of our consciousness is that we don’t just have thoughts, we can think about our thoughts. That’s the integration Mithen talks about — a whole added layer of cognition. And it’s that layering, that thinking about our thinking, that gives us a sense of self, more powerfully than any other creature.

I’ve previously written too of how the mind makes sense of incoming information by creating representations. Like pictures in the mind, often using metaphors. And here too there’s layering; we make representations of representations; representations of ourselves perceiving those representations. That indeed is how we do perceive — and think about what we perceive. And we make representations of concepts and beliefs.

All this evolved because it was adaptive — enabling its possessors to better surmount the challenges of their environment. But this cognitive fluidity, Mithen says, is also at the heart of art, religion, science — all of human culture.

Once we achieved this capability, it blew the doors off the cathedral, and it was off to the races.

Dan Rather on “What Unites Us”

September 15, 2019

Dan Rather, at 87, is still actively in the news game, running an outfit called “News and Guts.” He appeared recently in Albany, discussing his 2017 book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, with the NY Writers Institute’s Paul Grondahl. The book doesn’t mention Trump.

Rather said he’s an optimist by nature and experience. This, he averred, is not “fuzzy brained” but rooted in a confidence in the American people doing the right thing (after exhausting all the alternatives, Churchill said). But Rather believes it’s something we must do day in and day out. And we are in very perilous times. With certain persons — for ideology or power — seeking to exploit our divisions. We’ve gone far down the road of enabling them.

Rather was asked about parallels to 1960s societal divisions, and Watergate. I remember them well. This is different. Rather noted that the Watergate crimes involved no foreign enemies. Nixon went down because Republicans then still had the integrity and true patriotism to put country above party. And through all the ’60s social turmoil, I never saw so many Americans so impervious as now to facts and reason. Never so many moved by hate.

Rather’s aim is to give us the strength to overcome our divisions by reminding us of certain core values most Americans share:

Rule of law (applied equally to all); one person one vote; leadership in science and discovery; and empathy and compassion.

But this high-minded litany made me queasy because here in fact is the heart of what ails us.

Rule of law? We’ve seen a direct assault upon our key rule-of-law institutions like the FBI, Justice Department, and Judiciary. Crimes dismissed as “hoaxes;” even unambiguous crimes shrugged off; laws twisted to favor the powerful.

One person one vote? Preventing opponents from voting, and gerrymandering to dilute their votes, are integral to the cynical Republican playbook.

Science and discovery? Trump and Republicans are actively anti-science, not just on climate and environmental matters, but a whole range of others. Now even weather forecasting.

Empathy and compassion? Seriously? Treating suffering refugees, especially innocent children (and indeed other disadvantaged people) with a vicious calculated cruelty. Rather spoke of skeptics doubting a nation with our ethnic and cultural diversity could work. For a while it did. But history shows playing on such divisions is playing with fire.

Rather also talked about a free press, crucial to a democratic society; something every tinpot dictator tries to undermine. They kill many courageous journalists. You might think a free press too would be a shared American value. Today, not so much — “the enemy of the people.”

And how about opposing Russian aggression? Not so much either. Not even Russia’s attack on our own society.

Upholding human rights globally? No again. Instead, standing with murderous tyrants.

Just plain truth as a shared value? Twelve thousand documented lies by Trump and counting. A war on the very concept of truth.

Or how about just plain civility and decency? Nope. “Grab them by the pussy.” Here too the standards and norms that used to prevail in American civic life have been shredded.

Far from uniting us, each and every one of the mentioned values are tossed aside by a sizable part of today’s American population. For what? For the sake of some other enduring values? No, instead it’s just for the sake of their tribe winning. And indeed it’s the trashing of those fundamental values that defines their tribe. Blinded by their partisan tribalism.

What’s happening here is mirrored in Britain, whose society and institutions are being torn apart by partisan antagonisms over Brexit.

Rather seems to believe America will somehow right itself. But both here and in Britain, I think the poison will persist for decades.

Corporate Social Responsibility versus profits

September 12, 2019

For decades it’s been gospel that a corporation’s mission is just to maximize shareholder value. But now a group of over 180 heads of top U.S. companies has met and signed a statement saying they must also serve the interests of employees, customers, suppliers, and the wider society.

Perhaps a response to capitalism being assailed for “putting profits ahead of people,” blamed for growing inequality and environmental problems; some Democratic presidential contenders seem to run more against corporations than Republicans.

“Profit” is a dirty word; often coupled with “obscene.” We’re told X corporation or X industry “sucked” X dollars from the economy, as if the plain numbers bespeak evil. What’s never said is how much (or how little) return on invested capital those profits represent. Who’d invest in a business, with all the risks, without the prospect of a reasonable return?

That’s what creates the cornucopia of goods and services making our lives what they are. And the jobs enabling us to pay for them. Some of my friends fantasize a utopia where we get all that without anyone “sucking” profits. But I don’t see them forgoing earnings on their own industriousness.

Adam Smith made the point in 1776: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” That is, earnings or profits.

Maybe you have a different idea that didn’t occur to Smith — government providing everything. That’s what “socialism” actually means. Like in the USSR — where goods and services were notable for their absence. (People said, “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”)

But do businesses in fact garner “obscene” profits? Well, there’s one salient test. I’ve invested in corporate stocks for three decades, and I’ve done nicely, but certainly not obscenely. If corporations were really “sucking” exorbitant returns, we could all easily get rich by buying their stocks. That’s obviously not so.

Which brings us back to the concept of companies existing basically to benefit shareholders. Here are two key points:

First, corporate managers actually work for shareholders, entrusted with a fiduciary duty to serve shareholder interests. Anything they do that’s inconsistent with shareholder interests is an unethical breach of that fundamental duty, an abuse of their trust. Remember too that shareholderincludes pension funds, retirement accounts, university and charity endowments, etc. Earning them a return on their investments is by itself a social good (with no conceivable substitute).

Second, as Adam Smith again showed, the quest for profit benefits society by incentivizing the supplying of things people need or want. When a corporation takes raw materials costing $10, and pays a worker $10 in wages to assemble them into something it can sell for $25, it creates $5 of added societal value. More in fact if you buy it because its value to you exceeds the $25 you pay. While the worker gains as well. So the $5 profit entails something good happening.

This wealth creation is the fundamental logic of free market capitalist economics. Assail capitalism all you like, but this has raised global average real dollar incomes around sixfold in the last century. It wasn’t socialism.

So where does corporate social responsibility, and the recent declaration by all those CEOs, fit in?

It’s lately fashionable to speak of employees, customers, suppliers, and the broader public as a corporation’s “stakeholders” along with shareholders. But this is not a novel or abstruse concept. Rather, it has always held; simply part of the basic understanding we all share as members of a society.

You don’t need a code of “corporate social responsibility” to know that profit maximization doesn’t allow for ripping off customers with shoddy products or failing to pay workers or contractors what they’re due, like Trump. Et cetera. Profit maximizing is always constrained by the universal rules of societal participation. A corporation is in reciprocal relationships with its stakeholders like workers and customers, and such relationships entail responsibilities. Fulfilling them is the necessary premise for being an enterprise operating in a society.

My own business is selling coins. I try to treat my customers according to the golden rule, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but It’s also good for business. And it enables me to gain satisfaction not just from earning profits, but earning them justly. If I had workers, the same would apply. A recent study showed that a firm’s employee satisfaction correlates with its customer satisfaction.

Economist Milton Friedman was the leading voice who saw profit maximizing and a company’s social responsibility as two sides of the same coin. He argued (like Smith) that a business making money does advance the public interest; and also stipulated the assumption that profits are earned legitimately, that is, by creating customer value (and not, for example, by fraud). And, further, that businesses compete.

This is another key concept. It’s competition that holds companies to account. One free from competitive pressures can do whatever it wants. Such untrammeled power is never a good thing. Moreover, free and open competition among businesses ensures that the lion’s share of the value created is reaped by consumers, with profits being only just enough to sustain their operations. Fierce competition forces supermarkets, for example, to set prices to allow a profit of only a few cents on every dollar of sales. So customers actually gain more from supermarkets than their owners do.

Capitalism’s critics say competition is often far from perfect. A big reason for that is actually government intervention, typically at the behest of some powerful corporate interest, seeking to screw competitors. Call this “corporate socialism.”

I always remember one of my first cases as a government regulatory lawyer. My agency went after a small upstart moving company for breaking the rules. Its crime? Rates too low! Who were we protecting? Certainly not the public. Rather, the established movers who hated competition.

Religion and voting

September 9, 2019

Trump was elected by a minority, with three million fewer votes than Clinton. But hardly over half of those eligible voted; so Trump was elected by only about a quarter. And those who did vote were not even a representative sample of the electorate.

They were older than average (younger people are far less likely to vote). And they were more religious.

America is actually growing less religious, though you wouldn’t know it from politics — because of religious voters’ inflated electoral clout. Those answering “none” when asked their religion now actually outnumber evangelical Christians. The latter have shriveled to just 15% of America’s population. But because they almost all vote, they were 26% of the 2018 electorate. Whereas the nonreligious are now a quarter of the population, but were only 17% of 2018 voters.

And while evangelicals are only 26% of the electorate, they overwhelmingly back Republicans, thus constituting half the Republican vote. So Republicans kowtow to evangelicals.

It’s younger people in particular who are losing religion. Back when practically everybody was a believer, nonconformism didn’t even seem like an option. But once nonbelief reached a certain threshold, then it did begin to look like a real alternative. And a very attractive one given all the ways religious belief defies rationality. Humans aren’t perfectly rational, but nor are they impervious to rationality.

This has played out much more fully in most modern European nations. Once the mystique of religion was pierced, with emergence of a critical mass of nonbelief, the bottom fell out. In America, however, the First Amendment and separation of church and state created a more vibrant religious landscape, attracting congregants in ways that stodgy old European churches failed to do.

But meantime, American religion has actually grown more extreme, with higher proportions of Christians being evangelicals and biblical literalists, thus less credible to thoughtful people. Furthermore, Christianity’s blatant politicization soils its image — especially when mobilized on behalf of policies that make a mockery of Christ’s teachings, and a leader who is a vile creep. Rendering evangelicals’ moralistic posturing a ludicrous travesty.*

For older people, extricating themselves from religion can be a wrenching struggle, shaping their personal identity. Younger people often don’t experience that, because religion never resonated with them to begin with. And just as they increasingly disengage from the whole religion thing, they also often disengage from politics and the public square. It just doesn’t interest them. The disappearance of civics education is likely a factor, but it seems a broader cultural phenomenon. Voting is not something their peer groups do; no cachet of coolness. It’s a form of communal participation that lacks meaning for them. There’s also the nastiness and conflict of today’s politics, which is a turn-off. And nonvoting is easy to rationalize — balancing the time and hassle of voting against the virtual certainty that a single vote won’t change anything.

I vote not because I imagine it will change the outcome, but rather precisely because it does represent civic engagement. It’s the one sacrament I perform.

Not long ago I’d have said the disengagement by others actually reflects something positive — politics seen as not mattering much to people’s lives. A welcome development after centuries in which it mattered too much, with much at stake. Our society having settled down into an equilibrium where political differences fell into what was really, in the big picture, a narrow range, and it didn’t matter that much which party won. “Politicians are all alike” did have a kernel of truth.

Hence many were lulled into a mindset of being freed to ignore politics. Unfortunately that has changed, but many younger people haven’t gotten the memo. Many don’t seem to grasp how profoundly Trump is transforming America, altering the core of what this nation is all about. Then again, too few Americans still understand that story itself any more.

Russia’s factually proven 2016 election subversion included pushing the meme — especially to blacks and younger people — that voting is a sham, a waste of time, meaningless, all politicians are bad, and even that non-voting is somehow the right thing to do, to “protest” a corrupt system. Yet another effort to suppress the Democratic vote.** Russians, and other pro-Trump forces, will surely try this again in 2020, if anything more aggressively. We must not let this insidious ploy succeed.

* Trump wants to end restrictions on tax-exempt churches endorsing candidates. I say let them shackle themselves to Republican corruption and sink together.

** Blacks were targeted with messages falsely guiding them to vote online — or even the day after the election.

Norman Rockwell’s America

September 6, 2019

On Labor Day we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. Rockwell was an “illustrator” who disclaimed producing “fine art.” And some see his oeuvre as a mythologized, sanitized, saccharine picture of a past America.

Yet what is art if not an image that elicits an emotional response? And Rockwell’s pictures are not false. To the contrary, they show us some truths about human life. While cynicism is fashionable, there is reality in Rockwell’s vision. His work reflects a deep love for his fellow humans. And an emotional response was certainly forthcoming in me.

Rockwell (1894-1978) had a long prolific career, starting professionally in his teens; over nearly half a century he produced around 300 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers. Seeing the entire sequence, all in frames in one room, was almost dumbfounding, considering how much meticulous care went into each. Many were preceded by full charcoal drafts (also displayed), and fastidiously reworked.

Looking closely, I was struck by how insightfully Rockwell captured facial expressions. His pictures were generally set-pieces almost akin to cartoons. Yet the characters portrayed were not caricatures or archetypes; rather, real people, caught in real moments. I soon found myself looking at fellow museum visitors and imagining them as painted by Rockwell.

My all-time favorite painting was not there, traveling temporarily elsewhere: Freedom of Speech, one of his WWII “Four Freedoms” pictures. But the museum did display a large wartime poster of it. It depicts a real episode Rockwell witnessed (he’s in the picture, peeking out in the upper left corner). The main figure, a very ordinary everyman, rose in a town meeting to speak against a measure most others favored. Yet they gave him a respectful hearing. A lesson for today.

There was also Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Not the familiar image; one I’d somehow never seen before. And no typical portrayal of womanhood. This is one tough babe. A real riveter. (The pose is an exact homage to a figure from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. And her foot’s on Mein Kampf.)

And about that idea of a sanitized America: I noticed an explanatory label mentioning that Rockwell was once forced to paint out an African-American on a magazine cover because you could only portray blacks in menial roles. However, later in his career, Rockwell felt free to be forthright in addressing the race issue in his paintings. “New Kids in the Neighborhood” depicts a couple of young black children, just arrived, warily confronting a trio of white kids. The gap between them is wide — literally. But both sides hold baseball gloves, and you have the sense that it’s going to be all right.

One point I noticed is that Rockwell’s black children were always immaculately dressed: painted with respect.

Then there’s his iconic picture, “The Problem We All Live With.” This too was out traveling, but on a large reproduction I noticed a detail I strangely didn’t remember: the word chalked on the wall.

Afterward, in Stockbridge, we stumbled upon the little Schantz Galleries (3 Elm Street, “behind the bank,” the sign says). The ground floor had a display of Chihuly glass art. Nice enough; but upstairs: WOW! Also all glass art, but absolutely amazing. Remarkably too, by a large number of different artists.

Modern art too often actually rejects any ethos of beauty. Not so here. The sheer aesthetic beauty of these pieces was breathtaking. It was hard to believe human beings could create such wondrous things.

Making me feel exalted to be human.

A vision for America

September 2, 2019

Trump has a vision of America. It says the real Americans have been under assault — economically and, mainly, culturally — by “others.” From outside, and from within. That there was some halcyon greatness lost. Mainly, frankly, it was whiteness. It’s white supremacy in all but name.

This vision, David Brooks has written, “contradicts the traditional American idea in every particular. In fact, Trump’s national story is much closer to the Russian national story . . . an alien ideology he’s trying to plant on our soil. Trump’s vision is radically anti-American.”

It opposes a vision rooted in our founding ideals. “American exceptionalism” is a contentious phrase. But America is indeed unique among nations in being constituted on a set of ideals rather than on blood-and-soil.

They’re embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Which, remember, was addressed to the world. Because our founders saw this nation as forging a new path for all humanity into a brighter future. They were looking forward — not backward to make something “great again.”

What were those ideals? Democratic self-government, all people being equal in their freedom to pursue happiness, and in their diversity all coming together to build our city upon a hill. As expressed too in our national motto — e pluribus unum — out of many, one. An ideal of openness and generosity.

The Declaration said “all men,” not all people, but that’s what was meant. And meant fully and sincerely, despite some writers being slaveowners. No humans could have transcended all the bounds of their time and world all in one leap. Yet their leap was great indeed.

It did transcend their consanguinity, in their recognition that the nation they launched would grow beyond it. One of the Declaration’s stated grievances against the British was their impeding the naturalization of newcomers to America!

So theirs was indeed a vision for the future. And the America they set in motion did, through the years, ever more fully come to realize their vision. To realize its motto. Uniquely a magnet for people coming from all over to enrich this nation with all their variety.

Brooks again: “This American idea is not a resentful prejudice; it’s a faith and a dream.” And Trump’s vision, he says, “is an attack on that dream.”

This is our choice, standing at an epochal historical crossroads. Will we follow Trump’s dark path — leading to everything our founders actually rebelled against? Or resume our journey along the brighter path they marked out?

But how many Americans today still see that path? Have that vision in their hearts?

Brooks ends by quoting the black poet Langston Hughes, writing at a time when the Declaration’s equality was much further from fulfillment:

America never was America to me

And yet I swear this oath

America will be!

Is the novel dead (or dying)?

August 31, 2019

(This essay previously appeared in Trolley,  the NYS Writers Institute’s online magazine.)

I was a failed novelist. Good with words, perhaps, but less on human insight. Which points toward the answer to the question.

What are novels for? Telling stories. A love for stories and storytelling is deeply embedded in human nature. And why is that? Because we evolved as exceptionally social creatures. A high level of social cooperation and cohesion was humanity’s “killer app” in the battle for survival. And that requires understanding what makes other people tick. That’s why we’re so big on stories and storytelling. They give us insight into that greatest of mysteries, the inner lives of others.

Cave people sitting around their campfires surely did a lot of storytelling — and listening. Narratives featuring human (or semi-divine) protagonists loomed large in our earliest cultures: Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Bhagavad Gita. It took a long time for the “novel,” per se, as we know it today, to be developed as a vehicle for storytelling. Perhaps that was largely down to technology — before movable type printing, narratives like the Iliad were mainly transmitted orally. Poetry is easier to memorize than prose, and few people had the ability to read anyway. Printing overcame those constraints. With many more books becoming available, many more people found it worthwhile to learn to read — creating the mass audience for novels.

Then it was off to the races. And the novel has never since lost its appeal. Indeed, the expansion of literacy has not come to an end. As world population grows, and the percentage who are literate continues to rise, the global market of book readers increases.

On the other hand, further technological change has gone into overdrive, again altering the world. The written word, and the printing press, might seem like archaic holdovers of an epoch if not bygone, soon doomed to be.

More specifically, our thirst for stories is increasingly slaked by non-print means: ones with pictures. Books long had illustrations. But now the pictures move. Some are even 3-D! And immersive virtual reality will soon be a very big thing. If you can have all that stimulus, why be satisfied with words on a page?

Moving pictures have, of course, been around for over a century now, and while their audiences are immense, they don’t seem to come — at least not substantially — at the expense of book reading. Though watching movies and TV and other video does have to reduce somewhat the hours available for reading, people don’t actually seem to regard the one activity as a substitute for the other. They are indeed different activities.

This is the key point. While both do involve storytelling, seeing a film or video is a different kind of experience from reading a novel. True, in some ways, a film can be a richer, more vivid experience in the moment, and can convey things a novel cannot easily emulate — “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Yet some of the differences are to the novel’s favor.

For one thing, reading a novel is (normally) a much more prolonged activity. Efficient use of time is not the point; we find it pleasurable to become immersed, for a length of time, in a novel’s story, its characters’ lives, and its other world. How often has one felt sorry having to let go of them at novel’s end?

And reading a novel is a more contemplative, reflective experience. While a film or video necessarily goes headlong from one scene to the next — allowing the viewer only seconds, at most, to linger — novel reading facilitates thinking about the content, pondering its meaning to us, savoring it.

Further, while a picture can be worth a thousand words, words nonetheless pack a lot of power. And while visual beauty is one kind of experience, there can be beauty in language too, which is again a different kind of experience. Words can embody a complexity and subtlety of ideas that visual images cannot. Especially when a novel has a lot more than a thousand words to develop them.

I’m thinking, for example, of Jonathan Franzen’s work. This essay began by talking of human insight. I recall reading Franzen’s first novel,The Twenty-Seventh City, and marveling at the depth of human understanding in it (far exceeding my own); and that Franzen achieved this while only in his twenties. More recently I read his Freedom. It showcases Franzen as an artist with words, each of them a small brick, built into a cathedral of plot, character, and ideas, a deeply satisfying immersive experience, helping a reader to better understand life.

Novels have been written for half a millennium now. Google has told us that precisely 129,864,880 books have been published. That was back in 2010; no doubt that number is rather larger today; they’re being churned out at an ever faster rate. Most of them are novels. Yet we’re also told that there are really only seven basic plots. So the question arises: can there be anything new to say? When a would-be novelist sits down to begin, doesn’t she realize it’s all been done already, in all those tens of millions of previous novels?

But of course it hasn’t been, and never will be. That is the vastness of the human imagination. Writers are forever coming up with new ways of seeing and expressing things. People are still writing novels that surprise us; and delight us.

I was not a great novelist, but as long as there are people like Franzen to write them — and the pool of potential novelists is growing, because human beings, in general, are getting better and smarter — there will always be readers for them.

Reading Tony Judt on people telling themselves stories

August 28, 2019

Tony Judt was a lefty intellectual historian who died at 62 of ALS in 2010. When I was writing The Case for Rational Optimism,  he wrote Ill Fares the Land, his title a seeming rebuttal. Indeed, it was a lament that his leftist politics was losing. Still considering myself a “conservative,” I didn’t read it, put off by the tendentious title.

That was then.

Recently I stumbled upon Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Judt with Timothy Snyder, published in 2012; transcribing conversations the two had while Judt neared death. Much is rather abstruse intellectualizing about the interplay among the century’s big “isms” — Communism, Marxism, Socialism, Fascism, Nazism. In that landscape, classical liberalism may be likened those little proto-mammals eking out existence amidst dinosaurs.

That past world might seem remote to us now. But the world of 2010-12, when the book was compiled, already feels similarly remote. In hindsight an interlude of comparative calm and sanity. The 20th century turmoil analyzed in the book has many current parallels. It’s a pity the authors didn’t get to discuss them.

Many other writers and thinkers are mentioned, including some clear-sighted ones, like Orwell, able to penetrate the fog of the sturm und drang around them. But mostly one is driven to scream, “Was everyone nuts?” One line, mid-book, jumped out at me: ” . . . the biggest story of the twentieth century: how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories with all the terrible consequences that ensued.”

How that resonates in our current moment! Britain is literally destroying itself in a manic Brexit seizure. Italy and Brazil elect clowns and knaves. Others throw democracy away. And in America a big population segment tells itself a story grotesquely at odds with truth.* Whose terrible consequences I’m still hoping can be stanched.

Part of the explanation is fingered by Judt the historian. People fall for false stories because they don’t know true ones, ignorant about facts shaping their cultures.**

It’s an odd feeling reading this book’s discussion of a past time with so many disturbing echos to my own. Today any sane person knows Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were monsters.*** But back then an awful lot of people were telling themselves different stories. Just like today with Trump.

I believe future generations will look back on ours with restored clarity. They too will wonder “how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories.” Unless Trump and his ilk succeed where those earlier monsters failed, and finally do create the world Orwell warned about.

* Watch for their snarky comments on this blog post! But it’s not just the political right. Judt was sympathetic to socialism, but the book shows how that faith failed. Yet now America’s left is telling itself a false story about it. Or trying to sell one. (No, socialism is not merely government building schools and roads.)

** Unfortunately when they move on to more current affairs, the authors go down a rabbit hole. Smugly dismissing the thinking of almost everyone else (like “the egregious Thomas Friedman”) not conforming to their rarefied ideas. Actually a distorting left-wing lens, full of notions I found cockeyed and just plain wrong.

*** Notably, the authors avoid any mention of Mao. Is that monster (unlike Stalin) still an icon a true-blue left-winger refuses to criticize?