Thursday, March 30, 2017

#89 / Presentism

In an essay titled, "The Illiberal Imagination," Adam Gopnik asks, "are liberals on the wrong side of history?"

That's a good question, which I am not going to address in this blog posting. Gopnik does address the question, and in trying to get to an answer, Gopnik reviews three different books, Age of Anger, by Pankaj Mishra, Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari, and A Culture of Growth, by Joel Mokyr.

As is sometimes the case with book reviews, the excellence of the review managed to convince me that I didn't actually need to read the books. If you click the link to Gopnik's essay, in the first paragraph of this posting, you can read what Gopnik has to say about these books, and then you can come to your own conclusion about whether you either need or want to move on to the books themselves. If you do want to read the books, I have linked them for you in the second paragraph, above. 

My commentary, here, is not about the books, but about what Gopnik says right at the start of his review, before he gets into talking about the books: 

Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned.

Surely, we all know about the gravitational pull that "presentism" exerts on our intellect and understanding. And surely many of us can well understand the disparaging reference that Gopnik makes to one of our more pretentious pundits, Thomas Friedman, so often afflicted by the  kind of "presentism" that Gopnik deplores. 

As Gopnik immediately goes on to say:

You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place; a baby who is crying now will stop crying sooner or later. Exhaustion, or a change of mood, or a passing sound, or a bright light, something, always happens next. But for the parents the wait can feel the same as forever, and for many pundits, too, now is the only time worth knowing, for now is when the baby is crying and now is when they’re selling your books.

Here is the point that I liked so much: "whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place."

I think Gopnik is right about that! Furthermore, when what is happening is not at all good (take our contemporary politics as an example, as Gopnik does), then it is very comforting to know that "something else" is probably going to be happening soon. Or, if not soon, that something new and different will at least happen sometime. 

I want to add on a thought to Gopnik's observation, though - and to note, preliminarily, that "observation" is exactly the right word to describe Gopnik's review. Gopnik is writing as an "observer," just as Friedman and all those similar pundits are "observers." 

"Presentism" is a disease to which "observers" are particularly prone. To avoid "presentism," and particularly in its most debilitating form, which is despair, we must realize that we, and all other persons, are not, at bottom, observers at all. We can, and do "act." We are, in the final analysis, "actors," or at least we can be, and when "whatever is happening" is not what we wish were happening, that is exactly the time to remind ourselves of that fact.

Like right now, for instance. This is a reminder. "Whatever is happening" will, as Gopnik notes "stop happening," and "something else" will happen in its place. 

And what will cause that change to occur? Actions by men and women who wish not simply to observe history, but to make it. 

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

#88 / Field Guide

The Nation has published what the magazine calls a "Field Guide To The Resistance." Pictured above is Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, speaking at a February 4, 2017, town-hall meeting in Albany, Oregon. Getting voters to participate in such town-hall gatherings is one of the activities spotlighted in the "Field Guide."

There are lots of other good suggestions in the "Field Guide," too. Click right here for online links to organizations working at both the national and community level. There are lots of ideas in the "Field Guide" about what you can do to counteract our dangerously demagogic and anti-democratic politics. 

"Resistance," says the "Field Guide," is necessary but not sufficient. What we really need to do is to take back control over our own government, working from the bottom up!

My prescription, too!

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

#87 / Make America Great Again

I think it is time for Democrats and progressives to admit the truth. The good guys lost the 2016 presidential election because Donald Trump had a better slogan.

I mean it!

Who could be against making American great again? What's the comeback? Does anyone want seriously to argue that we should NOT attempt to make America great? Even if you think that America is already pretty great (and a lot of Americans aren't feeling this is particularly true, right at the moment) who would want to be running against making America even greater?

The answer is that no one in their right mind would want to take that on. Nobody could win a campaign by arguing against making America great, or great again, or greater in the future, so the Democrats' campaign comeback was just to ignore the issue of whether America is great, or great enough, and to attack Donald Trump as an unworthy candidate. 

However unworthy he might have been (and he was certainly an unworthy candidate), that left Mr. Trump with all the high ground. In a campaign, arguments based on the personal unworthiness of the opposing candidate are steeply discounted. Just how steeply can be seen from the fact that Mr. Trump won the election.

Furthermore, as this clip from the HBO series The Newsroom notes, and as everyone in the country is pretty much aware, America is not really "the greatest country in the world," by lots of measures. Donald Trump's slogan was actually speaking to what many, if not most, Americans actually believe. America might have been "great" in the past, but it's not so great at the moment. Donald Trump had a better slogan because it spoke directly to the most central concern of the voters: What can we do to make our country better, as we either remember it having been, or as we suppose it must have been, in the past?

If the Democratic Party doesn't want to ending up playing the part of that blonde high school student, to the Jeff Daniels' character in Newsroom, then the Democrats had better start campaigning to make America great again. 

That's not just a good slogan. It's what we need to do.  

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Monday, March 27, 2017

#86 / Why Not Take Him Up On It?

After the failure of the joint Ryan/Trump effort to decimate the Affordable Care Act, which is sometimes called "Obamacare," who do you think the President blamed for the failure? Well, that's not really much of a stumper, of course.  The President blamed the Democrats!

For Democrats, the temptation is to gloat.* There is a different strategy, though, that the Democratic leadership in Congress might want to consider. 

What if the Democrats in Congress selected out those "progressive" statements made by candidate Trump, as he sought, during the 2016 campaign, to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans? The long list of Trump promises is mostly dreadful, but there are some positive promises there, too, including some relating to health care, new jobs, making America energy self-reliant, and restoring our aging infrastructure. 

What if the Democrats went to the President with widely-advertised, public proposals (full-scale Twitter assault included) to achieve specific promises that the President made? These would be absolutely specific bill proposals, with near-total backing by the Democrats in Congress, dealing with issues that most ordinary Americans would like to see addressed. The Democrats, in other words, would advance a positive program for the American future, instead of just opposing all the initiatives coming from the President and the Republicans. The Democrats could promise Trump something close to a majority in both Houses of Congress, and all the President would have to do would be to pick up ten, or twenty, or some other small number of Republicans.

Energy independence and jobs? How about massive, subsidized program to result in solar installations everywhere in the United States, wherever photovoltaics are cost effective? What about regulatory relief? How about legislation that would cut through the "red tape" approach to environmental protection by the enactment of hard and fast rules on endangered species, toxic pollution, wetlands protection, and other such things, rules that would operate statutorily, not through long, involved, and costly regulatory and administrative rulemaking procedures?

You get the idea. Health care reform proposals could also be included!

Here is what the President said, after the failure of the Ryan/Trump health care reform proposal. What the President said, taking him at his word, is an appeal to the Democrats:

I believe Democrats will come to us and say, "Look let's get together and get a great health care bill or plan that's really great for the people of our country, and I think that's gonna happen." 

If the Democrats could publicly present the President with a way to achieve some of his promises, including improvements in our health care system, maybe voters would be convinced that the Democratic Party is actually trying to accomplish something positive for the country, instead of just "playing politics," which the public hates. 

This would mean that the Democrats would have to stop going around calling Republicans "hateful"* and "deplorable." It would mean Democrats would have to appeal to the "best" in the President, and to the "best" in the opposition party, instead of highlighting and denouncing all the bad parts.

Such an approach would probably not work, but why not give it a try? Why not, in other words, take the President up on his offer to work with the Democrats? Let the Democrats provide the leadership for the nation, since the Republicans in Congress are clearly unable to do so. Let's illuminate that failure, but without personal attack, by just focusing on the actual ways that the federal government could help "make America great again." That's what the voters asked for, after all.

What's wrong with that picture?

* After the failure of the Ryan/Trump healthcare bill, I received a fundraising letter from Nancy Pelosi that said this:

Thanks to you and your energy: The Republicans’ bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed! And that’s not all... President Trump and Speaker Ryan both just said this failure could cost them the Republican House. Trump’s ability to pass his agenda would be completely destroyed! I need 13,873 gifts before midnight tomorrow to kick every single one of these hateful Republicans out of office  (emphasis added).

Do we ever want a functional Congress? If we do, then we need to realize that there are lots of Republicans in Congress who are there with the strong support of their local constituents. Calling them "hateful" will not endear us to the constituents. At least, that would be my guess. If we want to have a functional Congress, it's pretty unlikely that we are going to get there by this kind "Pelosi appeal."

I'm a lifelong Democrat, and I am done with this kind of politics, myself. I think lots of other Americans are, too.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

#85 / My Book Report (The End Of Liberalism)

Theodore J. Lowi, pictured, died on February 17, 2017. He was eighty-five years old and had been the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions at Cornell University since 1972

The New York Times' obituary described Lowi as "a venerated political scientist who challenged conventional scholarship on presidential power, and identified the emergence of what he called “interest-group liberalism.” 

If you are, by chance, going to be anywhere near Bard College tomorrow, Monday, March 27th, you might want to attend a commemoration of Lowi's work, hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center and the Bard College Political Studies Program. Click this link for details. The event is titled, "Lowi's 'The End of the Republican Era' and the Beginning of What? Reflections on The Rise of Trump."

I found out about Lowi, as I reported on March 5th, through my participation in a "virtual reading group," focused on Arendt's seminal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. That reading group is also hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center. 

As I said in my March 5th posting, a comment printed in the Arendt Center's weekly blog, Amor Mundi, convinced me that Lowi's book, The End of Liberalism / The Second Republic of the United States was now "one more book to read."

I have, in fact, been reading that book, and I have mentioned the book in a couple of my blog commentaries, too. One reference was on Monday, March 6th, and one reference was on Sunday, March 12th. As of today, I have finished Lowi's book, and so I can now provide a more complete report. I am ready to recommend it!

If you have always thought that "liberalism" is generally a good thing (certainly better than that "conservative" alternative we know about), Lowi will challenge your understanding. His book was originally titled The End of Liberalism, and was first published in 1969 (just as Richard Nixon assumed the presidency). A second edition was published in 1979 (near the end of the Jimmy Carter presidency). That second edition was titled, The End of Liberalism / The Second Republic of the United States

The edition I read, pictured above, is designated as the 40th Anniversary Edition. It was published in 2009 (just as President Barack Obama assumed office). This latest version is just the same as the 1979 second edition, but with a new Preface. In this edition, Lowi is now suggesting that the United States is really up to its "Fifth Republic." As he says in the Preface, "This 40th Anniversary Edition could well be subtitled 'Five Republics, and Counting.'" 

By enumerating successive "Republics," Lowi is seeking to chart sequential, fundamental restructurings of the United States Government. In 1979, in the second edition of the book, he was advancing the idea that our original political system, based on the Constitution, had been fundamentally changed, and so he added that  reference to a "Second Republic" to the initial, 1969 title. 

By 2009, having thought more about it, Lowi was charting at least five different fundamental transformations since 1776, but he didn't want to rewrite the book in its entirety. Instead of providing an extensive explanation of each of these transformations in the book itself, which would have required a complete rewrite, he outlined the transformations in a very summary fashion, in the Preface. What Lowi had thought of as a "Second Republic," in 1979, is now denominated as the "Fifth Republic" in the latest, 40th Anniversary edition.

Here is how Lowi now outlines the successive "Republics" he identifies. The "First" Republic, in Lowi's schema, was the product of the American Revolution, in 1776, as formed under the Articles of Confederation. The "Second" Republic, formed in 1789, was the government established by the United States Constitution. While that "Second" Republic ended with the Civil War, Lowi says a "Third" Republic only really came into existence in 1868, with the addition of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The "Fourth" Republic, which Lowi dates to 1937, was the "Roosevelt Revolution" and the New Deal. The "Fifth" Republic (called the "Second Republic" in the 1979 edition) is essentially our current system, coming into existence, as Lowi now sees it, with Ronald Reagan. Here is how Lowi describes this latest transformation:

Although the Democratic presidents during the end of the Fourth Republic fully embraced presidential government, the true Founders of the Fifth Republic were Republicans, a movement committed to a new state theory of "absolute power" ...  Edwin Meese III, who had been promoted in 1985 from Reagan's White House counsel to attorney general [advanced an] interpretation of the "unitary executive." Meese even contended that the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution did not necessarily bind the chief executive.

In short, Lowi says our current government is structured around a "personal presidency," which asserts an absolute power for the president, and which has two faces:

Not the tears and laughter of the tragedy and comedy of the theatre, but two frowns of consternation. The two faces are not the two parties, Democratic versus Republican. Not two ideologies, liberal versus conservative. The two faces are the splitting of the atom of American sovereignty into two states-within-the state: the Garrison State and the Corporate State. These two spontaneous energies could put an end to the liberal state and to liberalism itself. 

President Eisenhower (still operating within that "Fourth" Republic, in Lowi's listing) warned of the "military-industrial complex." Lowi validates the warning, and brings us to the Age of Trump, who fully realizes the horrible potential (and now, in fact, reality) that Lowi describes in his book.

One final thing should be said about what Lowi means by "interest group liberalism," which is the approach to government that facilitates the "unitary presidency" and the claim of the federal government to "absolute power." This "liberalism" is defined as the abdication by the Legislative Branch of government of actual "legislation." 

In the Constitution, which the people believe still exists as the definition of our government, the policy decisions about what our nation should do are to be made by Congress. And yet, as Lowi shows in this book (his analysis of this phenomenon being what the book is all about), Congress has given away actual authority to the Executive. The "laws" passed by Congress do not actually determine anything; they just delegate the power to decide what should happen to the Executive, and to the Executive Branch agencies. 

The "Rule of Law" is lost if the "law" is what presidentially-directed administrative agencies decide it should be, instead of what the people's elected representatives determine. And that is exactly what has happened. 

Let us take a timely example in the area of immigration. What should the rules be? Here is what Congress has said (and this is the authority which Donald J. Trump now wields):

Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate. [8 U.S.C. § 1182(f)] 
Total decision making power to the President. This is NOT an exception, but is characteristic of how our government is now structured.

Lowi's book analyzes exactly this phenomenon in all the major areas of federal government involvement in our lives. He calls it "liberalism," on the basis that it provides "liberal" grants of power to the federal government, as the Executive Branch agencies may determine the rules, letting various interest groups "bargain" with the agencies to try to get the results they desire. The idea of the Congress enacting laws, based on debate and deliberation carried out by elected representatives, has been totally abandoned, and what is left, says Lowi, is the Military/Corporate state, which does what a "personal president" decides it should do.

This is compelling book.

This book documents a distressingly dangerous situation for a nation which still believes, against analysis, that "democracy" is the name of what we do, and how we want our government to be structured.


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Saturday, March 25, 2017

#84 / You Who Philosophize Disgrace...

Bob Dylan's song, The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll is a searing indictment of justice in the United States. Click here for a live performance. The song tells "a true story," a story that was "taken out of a newspaper," as Dylan reports in his introduction to the performance linked above. 

This blog posting is also about "justice" in the United States. It is also "taken out of a newspaper." I am hoping that readers will click this link, to read a newspaper article from the San Jose Mercury News, published on March 16, 2017. That article documents what happened to about 2,000 Latin Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

Most of us know that this action was based on an Executive Order issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

Most of us know that the United States Supreme Court approved this action by the President, in a court decision (Korematsu v. U.S.) that has never been reversed, and that was, in fact, mentioned as a possible precedent for the recent Executive Orders of President Donald J. Trump, who is seeking to ban travel to the United States for anyone coming from certain designated countries where the majority of the population is Muslim.

Most Americans probably know about what our government did to persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States after the Pearl Harbor attack. And let's be clear, when the "government" did it, "we" did it. 

Most Americans almost certainly also know what we did to the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring an end to World War II. 

Most Americans probably want to forget about these things, because they are really too horrible to keep front and center in our consciousness. 

But do most Americans know anything about the story that the Mercury article tells? Have we ever heard about what happened to Art Shibayama, pictured above? Do we know what the United States government did, beyond the internment of persons of Japanese ancestry living in the U.S.?

I didn't. I didn't know Art Shibayama's story until I read about it last Sunday:

The U.S, government ... coordinated with 13 other governments to round up Japanese throughout Latin America, essentially kidnapping them and detaining them in a country where they had never set foot. And to this day the U.S. government has refused to grant the former Latin American internees equal compensation for their suffering. 
“This was an American war crime, but nobody ever calls it that,” said Roger Daniels, a retired history professor at the University of Cincinnati who has studied the detentions.

Now that I do know this story, I have a reaction. Apologies and reparations are required, of course. But more than that:


And please make no mistake. This is not some kind of "theoretical" proposition. 

We know this question is going to be "on the test" that we are just getting ready to take. 

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Friday, March 24, 2017

#83 / Metaphor And Obligation

John Herrman has written a thoughtful article in the March 19, 2017, edition of The New York Times Magazine. Titled "Up in Arms" (at least in the print edition), Herrman issues a warning about the increasing use of military metaphor and the use of the "language of war" as a way for journalists to describe for the public what is happening in the world of politics. 

Herrman's point is well-taken, and I agree that "when just about anything, from tweets to drones, can be 'weaponized,' we risk obscuring real sources of violence." I definitely recommend his essay.

What most struck me, when I read the essay, though, was Herrman's very first line: 

Politics is something like an art, if you ask those who practice it, and it’s something like a science, if you ask those who study it. But to the journalists who cover it, it has always been something like ... a sport.

Seeing politics as a "sport" is, indeed, a journalistic tradition. We commonly read about political  campaigns as "horse races," in fact, as candidates compete to be winners. Herrman goes on to talk about how journalists have now seized upon the "language of war" as a chosen metaphor, when they discuss political topics. I had another thought, though, upon reading Herrman's first sentence. 

Those who "study" politics are observers. So are the journalists who "cover" politics, whatever metaphors they use to describe their observations. Those who Herrman says "practice" politics, are not observers, but actors, but Herrman is clearly talking about "politicians," when he lists those who "practice" politics. Left out of the list are citizens, and citizens, in a democracy, must also "practice" politics; citizens must "act," not just "observe," if politics is to be "democratic."

I would add a listing to Herrman's first sentence, including "citizens" in the list. How should their relationship to politics be described? Here is the addition I suggest: 

For citizens, politics is both an opportunity and an obligation

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

#82 / Handmaid

Margaret Atwood, pictured, has written a New York Times Book Review article, discussing what her book, The Handmaid's Tale, means in the age of Trump. 

Discussing her thinking at the time she wrote the book, Atwood says that she had a great deal of trepidation that she would be able to "persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship." Accordingly, one of the rules she followed in writing The Handmaid's Tale was that she would "not put  any events into the book that had not already happened ... No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities..."

Atwood's article is very much worth reading (presuming that you have already read The Handmaid's Tale). If you haven't, you should read the book first. Despite my appreciation for the article, I do want to make one critical comment, which might be thought of as a suggestion that nothing "imaginary" should appear in her discussion about the origins of the book, any more than "imaginary" topics should have been inserted in her story. 

Atwood ends the article this way: 

In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can. 
Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall? 
Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.

A minor quibble. Or maybe not. I think Atwood should have dispensed with that very last, very short, sentence. 

"Trusting" that we are not on the way to a totalitarian society might be disempowering. Suggesting that "trust" is the support on which we should rely might be read as a counsel that things will probably turn out alright. 

That is a happy imagining. 

Our need to take action to ensure that democracy is not swallowed up, not a suggestion that some kind of "trust" is warranted, is what I think might be the better lesson from The Handmaid's Tale.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

#81 / Enough Said

Jim Wallis, writing in the April 2017 edition of Sojourners, provides his readers with the following information. I am passing this information along, just in case you haven't heard this before:

The richest EIGHT people in the world, according to an Oxfam report this January, own more wealth between them than the poorest 50 percent of humanity—3.6 billion people. Let’s make that clear: Eight people own more wealth than 3.6 billion people.

I think this qualifies as "enough said" for today's blog post. You can read Wallis' whole article, titled "Robin Hood in Reverse," by clicking that link. 

You can subscribe to Sojourners by clicking right here. If you do subscribe, you'll get this poster, suitable for framing.

Just so you don't forget: 

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

#80 / Daniel Dennett Does Disenchantment

Thomas Nagel is a Professor Emeritus at NYU. He is the author of The View from Nowhere and Mind and Cosmos, among other books. That is not Nagel, by the way, who is pictured above. The picture above is of Daniel Dennett.

Dennett has a brand new book out, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. Since I have already read some Dennett, and think I understand his major point, I greatly doubt that I need to read any more. I am not putting Dennett's new book on my "have to read" list, but  I did appreciate Nagel's excellent review, and I commend that to you

Nagel makes clear in his review, right from the start, that Dennett has not changed his basic position about the nature of our human existence. Dennett has made his life's objective, as Nagel says, the "disenchantment of the human world," and here is how Nagel describes Dennett's consistent argument, through all of Dennett's very considerable writings:

Dennett holds fast to the assumption that we are just physical objects and that any appearance to the contrary must be accounted for in a way that is consistent with this truth (emphasis added).

For me (and for Nagel, as it turns out), the reality of our human existence goes beyond our undeniable material qualities. I refuse to think that I am only an "object," and demand to be recognized as a "subject," too. And saying that we are "just" physical objects? That's a disenchanting claim, indeed, and it doesn't ring true to me. 

I have been quoting a favorite line from Bob Dylan recently in these blog postings (I think this is about the third time in the last several weeks, as a matter of fact). Dylan's observation certainly fits here, as I contemplate the materialist vision that Dennett always presents us, in everything he writes. 

Dennett says we are "just" physical objects. Dylan says that, "Something is happening here, but [we] don't know what it is...."

As it turns out, in discussing Dennett's latest book, Nagel makes this same point in a rather more scholarly way:

The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgment that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain. It should not disturb us that this may have radical consequences, especially for Dennett’s favorite natural science, biology: the theory of evolution, which in its current form is a purely physical theory, may have to incorporate nonphysical factors to account for consciousness, if consciousness is not, as he thinks, an illusion. Materialism remains a widespread view, but science does not progress by tailoring the data to fit a prevailing theory (emphasis added).

What Nagel is telling us is that Dennett has his mind made up. Unlike a true scientist, Dennett doesn't want to consider evidence that doesn't conform to the theory he has developed. This makes whatever Dennett says suspect. 

To repeat what Nagel said in the first quote I cited, after Dennett outlines his materialist explanation of our human reality, Dennett then claims, "any appearance to the contrary must be accounted for in a way that is consistent with [the] truth" as Dennett asserts it to be.

I come down on the same side as Nagel: when we say that there is "more to reality than physics can account for" that is not "a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgment that we are nowhere near a theory of everything." Something IS happening here, and we DON'T know what it is. 

If it gets your juices flowing to think of yourself as "just" a physical object, you might want to get down to the Bookshop, or fire up Amazon, to acquire the latest dose of Dennett's distinctive brand of disenchantment. Otherwise, Nagel's review will give you all you need to know about Dennett.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

#79 / Obamacare

Alan Blinder has been called "one of the great economic minds of his generation." Here's the headline on Blinder's column in the March 13, 2017, edition of The Wall Street Journal

Blinder's comments (and that headline) seem totally on target to me, but reading the headline makes me realize, not for the first time, how much the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," which certainly has its flaws, has suffered from its inception by its close identification with former President Obama. The above graphic is a vivid illustration of what I'm saying.

The fact is, contrary to what the graphic implies, the Affordable Care Act is not "socialistic." It was designed, above all, to protect the private insurance industry, and was not (and is not) a radical enactment. David Leonhardt's column in last Tuesday's New York Times lays this out quite clearly. A truly responsible health care system would be "Medicare For All," which would, indeed, "socialize" our nation's commitment to health care. That "Medicare For All" approach is a true plan for national "self-insurance." It's what we really ought to be doing.

I guess, as we watch the Republicans in power destroy legislation that did make many positive gains for ordinary people, despite its flaws, that we can at least have the benefit of reminding ourselves of a political principle that is ever-enduring: trying to "take personal credit" for political accomplishments is almost always a mistake. 

Governmental actions are what "we" do, together. They are collective, not individual, accomplishments.

So, whether President Obama solicited the identification of the Affordable Care Act with him personally (or whether that was done by his opponents, as a tactic - which is what Leonhardt thinks, and what I think), the deep, racist hatred that pursued President Obama during the entirety of his two terms in office is resulting in a kind of political "auto-immune" reaction that is almost certainly going to undermine the health of the body politic. That's the point that both Blinder and Leonhardt are making.

As our current President would say: 


I'd say: 


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Sunday, March 19, 2017

#78 / The Rule Of Law

Martin Krygier is the Gordon Samuels Professor of Law and Social Theory at the Law School of the University of New South Wales, Australia. He made an appearance on the UCSC campus on Thursday, March 16th, and talked about "The Rule of Law: Why It Matters, What Threatens It, and What It Is."

As you will note, the "What It Is" question comes last for Krygier, who says that efforts to "define" all the elements of The Rule of Law really shouldn't be the main inquiry. There are lots of ways to define the constituent parts of The Rule of Law, but what we really need to understand is "Why it Matters." 

So, why does it matter?

Krygier says we need The Rule of Law to constrain arbitrary power. Power itself is not a problem. A deficiency of power, actually, is usually more of a problem, both for individuals and for governments, than too much power. Whether individually or collectively, we definitely need access to power to be able to be successful in whatever we try to do. The reason that The Rule of Law is so important to us, as we consider power in its collective context, is that it is The Rule of Law that helps us make sure that the governmental power to which we are subject is not  deployed against us in an arbitrary way.

Krygier has a very clear idea of what "arbitrary" power is. Arbitrary power is power that is "uncontrolled," "unpredictable," and "unrespectful." Focusing on the last two items in this list, our current President seems to score high for both "unpredictable" and "unrespectful" actions and statements. What about that "uncontrolled" part?

This is where Krygier pretty much said, "it remains to be seen." That is also, pretty much, the message recently delivered by Roger Berkowitz, the Academic Director of The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. 

In an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Berkowitz reviews Arendt's first major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and outlines the lessons that The Origins has for us in our contemporary situation, now that the "unpredictable" and "unrespectful" Donald J. Trump is wielding the powers of the presidency.

The bottom line warning from Krygier and Berkowitz? Here it is in the words of Berkowitz:

If it is too early to judge, it is not too early to be wary.

Read that Berkowitz essay! Berkowitz ends up by concluding that one of our best ways to make sure that the president's obvious fascination with power doesn't become "uncontrolled," and tip over into genuine totalitarianism, is by a strong and sustained commitment to local self-government.

Hey, I couldn't have said it any better!

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

#77 / Denying To The Grave

Elizabeth Kolbert has recently written an informative article for The New Yorker. Kolbert's article is titled, "Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds." 

In her article, Kolbert reviews three different books. One of the books she reviews is Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us. Kolbert synopsizes Denying to the Grave as follows: 

Jack Gorman, a psychiatrist, and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public-health specialist, probe the gap between what science tells us and what we tell ourselves. Their concern is with those persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous. Of course, what’s hazardous is not being vaccinated; that’s why vaccines were created in the first place. “Immunization is one of the triumphs of modern medicine,” the Gormans note. But no matter how many scientific studies conclude that vaccines are safe, and that there’s no link between immunizations and autism, anti-vaxxers remain unmoved. (They can now count on their side—sort of—Donald Trump ...)

All three of the books Kolbert reviews are showing us, she says, that "human reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight."

How on earth could that possibly be? Most of us assume that our ability to reason (greater than the ability possessed by other species) is what has helped us survive in a dangerous world.

In fact, Kolbert tells us, citing to the second book she reviews, The Enigma of Reason, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber:

Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

In short, gaining group acceptance for what could be called a "political solution" to a challenge or an opportunity is what has made it possible for human beings to prosper and survive, in evolutionary terms. By mobilizing a collective response to danger or opportunity, humans have been able to be more successful than they ever could have been had they only  been able to act individually.

"Reason," thus, turns out not to be some abstract ability to find out the "real truth" about the world, but is more like the ability to provide others with a "reason" for working together to accomplish some particular goal. 

The third book mentioned in Kolbert's article is The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think AloneAuthors Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, are cognitive scientists. They, too, believe that "sociability is the key to how the human mind functions or, perhaps more pertinently, malfunctions." Naturally, since our "reason" is not really based in our objective examination of the "facts," on a scientific basis, the fact that other people seem to agree with us confirms our understanding. Our "wrong" understanding, in many cases: 

As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding ... And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration. 
This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous, Sloman and Fernbach observe. In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? ... Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently. 
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

What Sloman and Fernbach are calling for, in fact, is the kind of "political" debate and discussion that will ultimately lead to a "political" solution. We need a solution that is based not on what one side or the other believes is "right," or "true," but on what we find, after discussion and debate, will be collectively accepted, thus allowing us to mobilize cooperative action going forward. The scientists are telling us that the human species has prospered and survived based on that ability to cooperate. 

The way I read the Kolbert article, it confirms that we do live, most immediately, in a "political" world, and that our survival in the World of Nature, upon which we ultimately depend, will itself depend on our ability to sustain a "political world" in which we can act cooperatively to meet our common challenges. Time presses on us now, and with great urgency. 

Right now, in the United States, genuine political discussion and debate has virtually ceased. Everyone is trying to "prove" the other side wrong, marshaling their arguments, and basing those arguments on what often turn out to be "alternative facts" (and this is true on both sides; let's admit it).

"Forget the facts," is what I think Kolbert's article is saying. The idea that we must use our human reason to find the "right" answer is precisely the "wrong" thing to do.

There are at least two varieties of "right," with respect to every argument, and the "confirmation bias" Kolbert discusses in her article will operate to keep it that way. If we keep on denying each other's arguments, instead of finding out how to "reason together," as the Prophet Isaiah advises, all sides are going to go down, "denying to the grave." 

The cracks in the ice at the poles are obvious enough. The World of Nature is being transformed, and not to the benefit of our human civilization. 

What is not so clear is whether our human history of collective cooperation can once again prevail, in the face of everything that the Natural World throws at us. It is that cooperation that keeps us safe. It is that cooperation that will allow us to survive. 

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Friday, March 17, 2017

#80 / Chevron Deference Meets Judge Gorsuch

Pictured above is Neil M. Gorsuch. He is a Judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and there is a pretty good chance that he will soon be sitting on the United States Supreme Court. 

If that's where Gorsuch ends up, what will become of Chevron deference? That may not be an issue upon which many people (including you) are focusing much attention, but it may turn out, in fact, that what happens with Chevron deference will have a major impact on the future of our democratic system. What Steven Davidoff Solomon calls an "arcane legal doctrine" may turn out to be very important, indeed. 

By the way, "Chevron deference" does NOT mean that judges should always defer to the arguments made in court by the Chevron corporation. Click right here for a Wikipedia explanation

If you'd like to read the actual case that gave "Chevron deference" its name, you can use the following link: Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. 

The Chevron case was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1984, and according to Solomon, the decision has been cited more than 81,000 times since then. The case stands for the proposition that when an administrative agency interprets the law that governs its operations, the courts should "defer" to the agency's interpretation of the law, unless it is absolutely clear that the agency is wrong. If there is any question about what a law means, in other words, the agency that administers the law gets the right to interpret it, and the courts are not supposed to substitute their own judgment.

Solomon, mentioned a couple of times above, is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. He suggests, in a New York Times article published on March 15, 2017, that the fate of Chevron deference may well be "crucial to the Trump Administration's plans to tame the regulatory state." Steven Bannon, remember, the President's "Chief Strategist," has recently said that he and the President are out to "deconstruct the administrative state." Whether they will be able to do that, and how that "deconstruction" might be effected, will very much depend on what happens with Chevron deference.

CNN has also decided that the Chevron deference issue is key, and has published the views of Professor Jeffrey Pojanowski. Pojanowski has been written up as an "expert" on the website of The Federalist Society. This is a rather right-wing think tank, and Pojanowski, presumably, is reflecting this right-wing perspective when he tells CNN that the Gorsuch nomination throws a "curveball" to the Trump Administration, because Gorsuch doesn't seem to be very much in favor of Chevron deference. 

Here is how Pojanowski puts it:  

Gorsuch's nomination comes with a curveball -- namely his skepticism of the longstanding doctrine that courts should defer to the executive branch's interpretations of law. Gorsuch has favored an approach to administrative law that would limit President Donald Trump's discretion and power. 
Let me explain. Officials who answer to the president, such as the attorney general or the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, have to interpret law all the time. When agencies issue regulations or decide whether parties have violated federal regulatory law, they often must decide what federal statutes have to say on the matter. And when parties disagree with these agencies' decisions, they can challenge them in court.  
A judicial doctrine known as Chevron deference, named after a 1984 Supreme Court case on the matter, governs how strictly a court should review an agency's interpretation of law ... If the court finds the statute unclear, it must defer to the agency's interpretation so long as it as a reasonable one -- even if that reading is not what the court would have adopted on its own ... As a practical matter, Chevron deference can shift substantial power to the executive branch, and therefore [to] the president. 

Pojanowski lays it all right out there. If the President wants to be able to make the "law" be whatever he wakes up in the morning and decides it ought to be, then President Trump ought to want to preserve, not undermine, Chevron deference. As Pojanowski makes clear, Chevron deference can be used to negate the independence of the courts, so there is no "check and balance" coming from that quarter. 

Think about the President's "Muslim Ban." If he had rolled it out right, making use of the doctrine of Chevron deference, he might have been able to have the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement "interpret" the existing law to make it say what the President wants it to say. Instead, we saw the courts actually check the president's assertion of arbitrary power.

Here's what I think is the main question: Does Steve Bannon (and/or the President) really want to "deconstruct," i.e., destroy, the "administrative state?" If that objective were a real one, Bannon and the president would not be friendly towards Professor Pojanowski's views, since the only way to prevent the kind of administrative arbitrariness that Bannon seems to be complaining about is to eliminate, or vastly restrict, Chevron deference. And maybe Judge Gorsuch is willing to go there.

Pojanowski appears to assume (along with most of the country) that Trump wants to be able to act unilaterally, and arbitrarily, with his power unchecked. Pojanowski proposes that the president should use the "administrative state" as a mechanism for arbitrary rule. 

Is that where Bannon and/or the President really want to go? That doesn't sound like "deconstructing" the administrative state. 

What happens to the doctrine of Chevron deference, after Judge Gorsuch gets to the Supreme Court, presuming that he does, may well provide some guidance on this question. If Chevron deference is reigned in, giving the courts more power to check arbitrary administrative actions, that could be good for our democracy, since such a check on arbitrary executive powers is what the Constitution demands. 

On the other hand, if the Pojanowski principle comes out on top....

Well, that's what most Americans seem to be expecting from President Trump. No surprises there!

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

#75 / You Got Lots Of Money?

My grandparents (on my mother's side) were knocked out by the Great Depression. They were both Democrats. My mother was a Democrat, too, and after she married my father, my mother converted my father into a Democrat. It was pretty clear that my father was allowed to make up his own mind. He could either become a Democrat or get divorced. I am happy my father made the right choice. I am around to talk about it because he did. 

I have been a Democrat for my entire life, and I would hate to have to quit now. While I have been a lifelong Democrat, and active in politics, I must confess that Democratic Party politics was never a main attraction for me. I served for twenty years as an elected official at the local level, in Santa Cruz County, California, but that County Supervisor post is a "non-partisan" office. Everyone knew I was a Democrat, and I was always supported by the local Democratic Party Clubs, but I didn't run as a Democrat, and wasn't elected as a Democrat.

In 1993, as I was getting ready to complete twenty years as a County Supervisor, I decided that I would not run again (although I didn't really tell anyone that), and I was thinking about what to do next. That is when a special election came along, and I tried to get elected to the State Assembly. Running for a State Assembly seat definitely meant running as a Democrat, in what is absolutely a "partisan" office.

I had high hopes about going to the State Assembly, but I wasn't very popular with the Party leaders, and was made to travel to Sacramento to meet with Willie Brown and John Burton, to defend my decision to reject Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions. They were outraged by that decision, but were mollified when I told them that I thought that this position would actually help my campaign, in view of the politics of the District. They did a high-five together, in the Speaker's Office, when they concluded that my decision about PAC contributions could be seen as a decision based on a political calculation, and not on some kind of "principle."

I didn't win that 1993, off-year, special election, and so I never joined the ranks of the partisan Democrats in the State Legislature, and it was only in 2016 that I next ventured into Democratic Party politics by becoming an Alternate Delegate for Bernie Sanders. I traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last year, and it became abundantly clear to me that Party leaders at the national level didn't like Bernie Sanders in 2016 any more than Party leaders at the state level had liked me in 1993. Same result, too, I am sorry to say.

At any rate, as I said in my blog posting on Monday, I think the future of the Democratic Party is very much open to question. Former Bernie delegates are sorting themselves into two groups: DemEnter and DemExit,  which isn't a comforting sign of the kind of "unity" that current Party leaders are calling for. The future of the Party is very much in a "wheel's still in spin" mode, as Bob Dylan might put it.

As the Democratic Party sorts itself out (at every level), and decides what sort of Party it should be, I think that this true story, from my own experience, might be of help to those who are thinking about the Party. I think it shows what ordinary people expect from the Party, and paying attention to that makes sense to me, since the stakes are so high.

Proposition 70 qualified for the statewide ballot in June 1988. This was an initiative measure, sponsored by the Planning and Conservation League, and provided bond funding for various conservation purchases around the state, including money for the acquisition of Pogonip. I sat on the PCL Board of Directors, and wanted to preserve Pogonip as part of a Santa Cruz City Greenbelt, and so I went to campus to gather signatures for the initiative campaign, trying to help qualify the measure for the ballot. 
I was in the Crown College Courtyard, accosting students, and asking them to sign the petition. Obviously, you had to be registered to vote to have your signature count, so I not only had various initiative petitions, I also had voter registration application forms. If I ran into a student who wanted to sign the petition, but who was not registered to vote (or not registered in Santa Cruz), I could register that student first, and then have the student sign the petition. 
One male student was filling out the voter registration form, and reached the place where it called for the prospective voter to state a party affiliation. Those doing the registering are not, really, supposed to try to influence that choice, so when the student asked me, "What am I, a Republican or a Democrat?" I hesitated.
Another student, a young black woman, was passing by, and she obviously overheard this question. Before I could respond, she whipped around and came right up to the student who had asked how he should register.
"You got lots of money?" the woman student asked.
"No," the male student replied.
"Ok, then," she said, "you're a Democrat."

What struck me was the vehemence of the woman student, and her automatic association of the Democratic Party with those who are not the economic winners in our society. If the Democratic Party is going to be the "Party of the people," then it's got to keep this story in mind.

Unless it's obvious to everyone that those who don't "got lots of money" should be registered as Democrats, and should vote as Democrats (because those are the people to whom the Democratic Party is dedicated and devoted), the Democratic Party won't be around for very long.

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