Friday, July 20, 2018

#201 / Cities = Civilization

Biological life is one thing. "Human" life is something more. Human beings, uniquely, create the world in which they most immediately live. We do not live in any kind of unmediated relationship with "nature." In fact, we live in structures, and communities, and our "civilization," as a human accomplishment, requires the creation and occupation of cities. 

In an article published in Foreign Policy on July 3, 2018, the magazine warns us that the pandemic of contemporary war is now, more and more, a war fought inside cities: 

Most of the large-scale conflicts of the 20th century were predominantly rural, with urban battles such as Stalingrad being the exception rather than the rule. Mao Zedong called on the guerrilla to move among the people like the fish in the sea, thinking of China’s rural peasantry. But today, nonstate armed groups — such as rebel groups and sectarian militias — more easily find ways to blend in with the population, raise more funds, and hinder government crackdowns in cities.

The cities most involved in contemporary war (like Mosul, pictured above) are destroyed. This is a loss that cannot easily be mitigated. As Foreign Policy so politely puts it:  

Governments and their militaries should be aware of the urgency of rehabilitating urban services and, when possible, leave them intact. The ICRC has advised warring parties, for instance, to avoid the use of explosive weapons in densely inhabited areas and to steer away from infrastructure that will be critical for civilian populations. There are strategic reasons for this, alongside humanitarian ones: The long-term instability and underdevelopment that follows armed conflict can fuel local tensions and increase the risk of relapsing into conflict. As cities expand across the developing world, preventing and de-escalating protracted urban conflict is one of the most critical strategic and humanitarian challenges of our time.

I say that these observations are phrased "politely" because I find the subliminal message, above, to be an acceptance that we will, in fact, continue to do to cities what the picture shows that we have done to Mosul. Sure, it would be "better" if cities were not destroyed. That should be avoided "if possible."  That is what the article seems to say.

Well, the urgency is far greater than that. When we allow war to destroy cities, we are "ending the world" for all those who lived there. We are destroying civilization at its root. 

It is an illusion to think that this is not our problem, we whose cities have not yet been destroyed. 

Putting an end to civilization, anywhere, is a peril to us all.

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

#200 / The Purple Army

In a New Yorker article titled "No More Secrets" (in the hard copy version), Adrian Chen documents the life of "Ice Poseidon," who makes a living as a live streamer. Ice Poseidon's real name is Paul Denino. Chen's article, sailing under the rubric, "Annals of Technology," provides a somewhat sympathetic view of a person whom others call "one of the worst people online."

I have not explored the world of the live streamers (even after reading the Adrian Chen article). I think I might have to sample this online ecosysystem, however, and not only to provide me with examples for the class I teach on "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." Hundreds of thousands of people follow Denino online, in real time. His followers have formed a "Purple Army."

Could the techniques described by Chen, employed by Denino, be turned to some sort of positive, political purpose? That seems to me to be an intriguing possibility. 

Denino builds his following by being outrageous (sexist, racist, and crude). The article that calls him "one of the worst people online" provides examples. As I say, the Chen article is a bit more generous and forgiving, though not uncritical. 

We already have lots of opportunities to witness a politics that is sexist, racist, and crude. I think you know who I am talking about!

Maybe there's another way, though, to build the right kind of "army," by using some of these live streaming approaches. I think it's worth thinking about!

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

#199 / Zinn Talks Trains

Howard Zinn, pictured, was an American historian, playwright, and activist. Among other things, he is the author of A People's History of the United States

Thanks to Jim Weller, who is a resident of Santa Cruz, California and a community minister with Peace United Church of Christ, I am now armed with a Howard Zinn quote that I had never heard before. Writing about rent control, Weller quotes Zinn as follows: 

You can’t be neutral on a moving train.

By this, Weller says, Zinn means that "if you are on the train, you’re going where the train goes, like it or not, unless you can somehow stop the train, and then you’ll still be on it wherever it stops."

Looked at in one way, this observation is profoundly discouraging. We are, indeed, all "on the train," and the train seems to be heading straight to Hell. This would be a fair evaluation of the state of politics, social solidarity, and environmental and economic policy in the United States today. 

I don't remember Zinn's writings, including that People's History, as suggesting that we are doomed and that we must inevitably go where the "train" of history seems to be taking us. 

I seem to recall that Zinn suggested that we could stop the train. And if we found ourselves in a place we didn't like we could then redirect our travels, towards the place we really want to go.

You can't be "neutral" on a moving train. You are going where it goes. That is definitely the truth.  Unless we do something about it, that train is going to continue on down the tracks in the direction it is going now. 

Zinn's "train talk," though, is just the "beginning of wisdom." It is not "the end of the story."

Don't you want to head in a different direction?

Let's get together and stop that train! That's the first step...

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

#198 / Aztec Ethics

"Life on the slippery Earth," an article in Aeon, the online magazine, outlines the difference between "Aztec ethics" and the ethics we have learned from Plato and Aristotle:

While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then "Western" philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence (emphasis added).

The article is worth reading. What it says, above, seems right to me. I'm with the Aztecs!

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Monday, July 16, 2018

#197 / Other People

According to Sartre, "Hell is other people." At least, that is what Sartre had one of his characters assert in his existentialist play, No Exit

Kirk Woodward, quoted in a blog called Rick On Theatre, calls the "Hell is other people" statement "The Most Famous Thing Jean-Paul Sartre Never Said."

Here is what I think. I think that other people (all of them) are what make this life so wonderful, and make our lives worth living. See below, as anecdotal evidence: a picture by the incomparable Shmuel Thaler, a photographer for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, my hometown newspaper.

The photograph shows people celebrating in the streets of Paris, on Bastille Day, July 14, 2018. 

Aren't we lovely?

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Sunday, July 15, 2018

#196 / I Am Going With Dylan And Debs

Chris Hedges, pictured above, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political commentator who warns us on a frequent basis that we are living in "an inverted totalitarian state." Hedges faithfully reminds us that our nation is pursuing a modern variety of imperialism and that we have convinced ourselves that our imperialistic actions are motivated by, and justified by, our self-proclaimed "good guy" status. Hedges routinely, and properly, decries our massive investment in, and our devotion to, war and the military, which are hugely damaging to our democracy. As a contrarian, Hedges is often quite irritable and dyspeptic as he dispenses this invaluable advice.

One of Hedges' recent commentaries in TruthDig was titled, "Et Tu, Bernie?" This opinion piece provides a good example of Hedges' irritability and dyspepsia. In the article, Hedges "goes off" against Bernie Sanders, calling him "a loyal party apparatchik," who has squandered "his legacy and his integrity." 

The article is worth reading, painful as it is to someone like me, who strongly supported Sanders' presidential campaign in 2016. Some might think it a bit overwrought, but there is a point well made, or so I believe. 

What is most worth thinking about in Hedges' article is not the status of Bernie Sanders' integrity. Rather, the article ought to suggest to us that we can never rely on someone else to do our democracy for us, no matter how principled and imbued with integrity she or he might be. Democracy, in other words, is a definite "do it yourself" project. If anyone thought that Bernie Sanders would do it for us, that person will be disappointed. I think Hedges is right about that. 

In the article, Hedges quotes Eugene V. Debs, a democratic socialist political activist and trade unionist: 

"I never had much faith in leaders,” Debs said. “I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses—you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”

Bob Dylan puts it this way: "Don't follow leaders; watch the parkin' meters."

I value Hedges' social and political analyses, but I am not buying into Hedges' dyspepsia in this case. I am not going to question Bernie Sanders' integrity.

There is a problem, in politics, with relying on leaders who will end up disappointing us, in various ways. To insulate ourselves against this experience, I am going with Dylan and Debs!

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Saturday, July 14, 2018

#195 / Let's Hear It For The Fourteenth!

On the Fourth of July, The New York Times ran an editorial titled, "The Promise of the 14th Amendment." I recommend this editorial! Just click this link.

In the online version of the editorial, the headline makes a statement and then asks a question: "America Started Over Once. Can We Do It Again?" Good question!

As The Times points out, our Constitution was fundamentally flawed from the inception. The "more perfect union" promised by the Constitution was a union far from "perfect." Supposedly, the purpose of the Constitution was to constitute a government that would achieve the objectives of the Declaration of Independence. For those who may have forgotten why there was a Revolutionary War in the first place, the Declaration of Independence is definitely the "go to" document: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

As the Times' editorial so properly states: 

The original Constitution of 1787 was, for all its genius, a deeply self-contradictory document — a charter by and for a free people who enslaved hundreds of thousands of others. In 1776, America’s founders declared that human equality was not only a self-evident truth, but a fundamental premise of their new nation; barely a decade later, they officially rejected that premise, writing inequality and subjugation directly into the Constitution.

The 14th Amendment, following the Civil War, made the promise that our nation would be rededicated to the proposition that we are all "created equal," and that we are all endowed with with "unalienable rights," among which are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

That was a great promise, and we have seen at least some, but not enough, follow through.

The Times tells us that America started over once before. It asks us, can we do it again? That is a very good question, and I think it's time to try! As I put it in my own Fourth of July posting, it is time to "Return To The Revolution."

The Fourth of July and the Fourteenth Amendment. Good start!

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Friday, July 13, 2018

#194 / McPolitics

Yascha Mounk writes about the "nationalization" of American politics in the July 2, 2018, edition of The New Yorker. Mounk is a Lecturer on Government at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at New America, and a columnist at Slate. His article in The New Yorker is titled, "McPolitics." His latest book is titled, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is In Danger & How To Save It. Presumably, this book deals with the "crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism," since Mounk's website says that Mounk is "one of the world's leading experts" on that topic. 

I have always found self-proclaimed statements about one's expertise to be a bit off-putting, but I can vouch for "The Rise of McPolitics," which is the title that was given to The New Yorker article as it was transformed from the hard-copy magazine version ("McPolitics") into the version available on the Internet. 

I think that Mounk's article is worth reading. I recommend it. Among other things, it convinces me that "local" politics is important, perhaps supremely important, as we seek to save our imperiled democratic institutions. 

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

#193 / Won't You Be My Neighbor? Please?

I never watched "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." I don't watch much television, period, and during most of the time my kids were growing up, we didn't even have a television in the house. 

I knew about the program, of course. It was a "nice" show for young children. That's what I knew about it. Had I been asked at the time, I bet I would have said that my impression was that the program was just a little bit too saccharine, and just a little bit too "precious," for my taste. This would have been, as just revealed, a judgment based on no direct familiarity with the facts. I find that making judgments that way can still be a problem!

At any rate, I am reporting today that a new movie about "Mr. Rogers" is now out (click the link to watch the trailer). A review in Entertainment calls the movie "the film we need right now," portraying the film as a "security blanket for our troubled times." 

Here is what film critic Ann Hornaday has to say, writing for the Washington Post:

The unspoken question that animates “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is what Fred Rogers would make of the present day, when the culture seems to have congealed into a permanent state of outrage, vulgarity and mutual intolerance. 
Neville ingeniously constructs his film to tell many stories: the little-engine-that-could tale of how the laughably low-tech “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” became such an unlikely hit; the spiritual biography of a man whose vocation intersected with the most powerful mass medium of the 20th century; the weaponization of that medium on behalf of polemic and consumerism; and the slow, sometimes contradictory path of a man who prized inclusiveness and community, but asked a gay colleague to stay in the closet or risk being fired. 
But to his everlasting credit, Neville doesn’t stop there. Rather than a wistful look back at the way things used to be, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” leaves viewers wrestling with our own collective conscience in the here-and-now, contemplating our own commitment to the unconditional love and acceptance that Rogers championed so passionately.

I am not so sure that I am going to watch this new movie, although I feel certain that it must truly be  "a really good movie," as the review in Entertainment proclaims. That feeling that "Mr. Rogers" is just a bit too "sweet" for my taste persists. I will say this, however; I endorse the idea that we should all be clamoring to get aboard the "neighborhood trolley." 

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a kind of "bittersweet" way of asking us to confront the topics we must confront. Whatever your own tastes might be, King's message, below, and Mr. Rogers' message, are much the same: 

We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

#192 / Exemplary Humanity

Sue Williams did conflict resolution work for Quaker Peace and Service (British and Irish Quakers) in the 1980s and 1990s in Botswana, Uganda, East Africa, and Northern Ireland. She later worked with Responding To Conflict, which describes its organizational purpose this way: 

RTC is a non-governmental organization that works to transform conflict and build peace by working alongside people living in situations of conflict and violence to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence to create and implement strategies for peace. 

Recently, Williams has published a short little pamphlet, one of the Pendle Hill Pamphlet series, titled, "Humanity in the Face of Inhumanity." It tells stories from Williams' experience, and she makes clear that what "humanity" means to her is a personal and "human" reaction in a situation in which parties, politics, positions, family, and religion seem to dictate a less generous, and therefore less "human," response, based on those allegiances. 

Her pamphlet is full of examples, and here is how she concludes:

The people in my collection of stories were quite diverse, with very different lives and motivations. I regret now that I did not begin much earlier in my own life to notice this pattern of exemplary humanity.

There are, in fact, "good people everywhere." And we are among them!

So let's make our bets, and take our risks, with that very much in mind. That is exactly what Sue Williams is advising.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

#191 / Consumption

On June 26, 2018, columnists in both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times commented on President Trump's approach to international trade. Paul Krugman, in a column titled "The Great Soybean Conspiracy," slammed the president for not "getting it" where international trade is concerned. On the more conservative side of the spectrum, Wall Street Journal columnist James Mackintosh said that "We Fight About Trade Because Politics Fails."

I thought that Mackintosh made a point that is worth highlighting. Trade barriers, he says, are imposed to protect jobs. Lowering trade barriers is designed to promote consumption. Overall, economists like free trade, because that means more consumption, and more economic activity. A proper politics, he says, could protect those whose jobs will be eliminated by reducing trade barriers, but since our political system is largely dysfunctional, that really isn't working. Thus, we have the president riding to the rescue of coal miners, to the detriment of everyone else. 

All good points - and of course I completely agree with Krugman's column, which is more personally focused on the president's intellectual and other deficiencies. The question I have though, now that I have read  what I thought was a pretty convincing explanation from Mackintosh, is whether or not there is a way that we can structure our system to reduce consumption, not promote it!

Mother Earth says thank you at the very thought!

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Monday, July 9, 2018

#190 / Moral Injury

A recent article in Consortium News, suggests that "America’s Gun Violence Epidemic May Have Roots in Overseas War Zones." The article advances the theory that those who have fought in wars may, in many cases, have suffered from a "moral injury" that then leads them to commit suicide. According to the article, sixty percent of gun deaths in the United States are suicides, and veterans are disproportionately represented in these statistics. If the article is correct, twenty veterans, on the average, commit suicide every single day. 

If you'd like to think some more about "moral injury," you can click this link for a video that discusses the phenomenon

The title of the article I am referencing here also prompts another thought worth thinking. If we continually see those whom we consider to be "heroes" mowing people down with machine guns (and we pretty much do see that, almost everywhere, in movies and on the evening news), I think that the behavior being modeled gives direction to those who are feeling the need, for whatever reason, to strike out at situations, and people, who aggrieve them. 

In a world in which "anything is possible" (and that is the world in which we live), we pick up ideas about what we, individually, ought to do from reviewing the examples at hand. 

If those whom we admire, and those whom we call "heroes," were showing us something besides gun violence, we might find that those who are seeking examples of how they should conduct themselves would not pick gun violence as a model. 

The "moral injuries" inflicted by our military activities, in other words, affect those who never fought or served in the armed forces. We are all injured by our nation's dedication to the military actions portrayed everywhere, telling us that "service" means killing other people and that violence and death are to be applauded as heroic. 

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

#189 / One World? Or Not?

On June 23, 2018, The New York Times ran an article on immigration, "Migrants Are on the Rise Around the World, and Myths About Them Are Shaping Attitudes." The article is well worth reading.

I found the comparison between various population flows in 1990 and 2017 to be particularly thought-provoking. Do we live in one world, or not? If we do, then it stands to reason that population flows will reflect both human desire and the political, social, and economic conditions (both positive and negative) to which humans respond. 

Considering recent xenophobic tendencies in United States politics, I think we need to find a more "positive lens" to look at international migration coming our way. It is a net gain for us, not a net loss, is what I'm thinking.

For those who come to the opposite conclusion, I'd like to point out that most people do not want to leave their homes to go somewhere they have never been, where different languages are spoken, and where different religious and cultural rules apply. So, if the United States of America were interested in reducing immigration, then it would be to our great advantage to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again, anywhere in the world. In fact, we're doing this:

Kobani is devastated after months of airstrikes by a United States-led coalition.

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Saturday, July 7, 2018

#188 / Privacy? Maybe!

That friendly Amazon superstore you are probably doing business with is now doing business with police agencies, too, selling them software that will allow such law enforcement agencies to track your every movement on a real-time basis. You don't have to log in to your Amazon account to get the benefit of this service. As long as you are using your real face, the monitoring cameras that are showing up just about everywhere will take care of it. Along with that software, of course! The software is kind of like the "secret sauce." If you would like to learn more about this topic, just click this link to be directed to a story that appeared in the Saturday-Sunday, June 23-24, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal

Technology is one thing. Legality is another. Actually, there is probably no provision in the Bill of Rights, or in current law, that prohibits governmental agencies from using facial recognition software to spy on you. If you are walking or driving around in public, then where you are, at any particular time, is actually "public" information. I am not aware of any law or Constitutional provision that would prevent a governmental agency from collecting such public information, and as The Wall Street Journal indicates, some agencies are doing just that, or are preparing to do so.

Here is the more pertinent question. Presuming that it is legal and constitutional for the government to put you under what might be seen as a kind of perpetual surveillance, what may a governmental agency do with the information it gathers? Can a governmental agency, for instance, pull data out of its databanks months or years after the event, to prove that you were in a particular place, at a particular time, and thus quite likely robbed a bank?

A United States Supreme Court decision, Carpenter v. United States, was handed down on June 21, 2018. It was an extremely important decision. Click the link if you'd like to read it. Fair warning: it is 119 pages long. 

In Carpenter, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court seems to say that governmental agencies cannot use their high-tech surveillance capabilities to produce evidence that can be used against a criminal suspect. Not unless they collected that data under the authority of a search warrant!

Facial recognition wasn't the technology in question in Carpenter; the technology involved in that case was cell phone site location data. The principle established by Carpenter, though, seems pretty clear. Police were trying to solve a series of bank robberies. Months after the crimes had occurred, they got a tip that Carpenter was probably involved. Figuring that Carpenter might have been carrying around his cell phone during the time these bank robberies took place, law enforcement officials decided to find out what those records might tell them, and so they asked Carpenter's wireless provider to provide them with the cell site location data it had on Carpenter's wireless use, during the time in question. The police found a pattern of phone use that seemed to tie Carpenter to the robberies (which, in fact, he almost certainly committed), and this evidence was introduced at Carpenter's trial and helped convict him.

Was this alright, constitutionally speaking? No search warrant was obtained; the police just asked the company for the data in its records (data that the company had on all of its customers), and the company provided what was asked for. 

According to the Supreme Court, it was not ok to use that data! People have an expectation of privacy and do not expect to have their every movement monitored. If police agencies think that someone might be a criminal, the proper thing to do is to get a judge to issue a warrant, so that the government can collect the data it wants under judicial supervision. Treating everyone as a potential criminal, all the time and everywhere, which is what the Amazon software would do, and what happened to Carpenter, will not produce results consistent with the Fourth Amendment: 

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

There are different ways to look at the Carpenter decision. My criminal law professor at Stanford, Herbert Packer, used to contrast the "crime control model" with the "due process model."

I, personally, think the Court did the right thing, but I'm a "due process" kind of a guy.

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Friday, July 6, 2018

#187 / Bottoms Up!

The picture above could be of my hometown, Santa Cruz, California. A picture of Santa Cruz can be found at the bottom of this posting, for comparison purposes. In fact, the image at the top is of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Forbes has named Lancaster one of its "coolest cities to visit." Santa Cruz already has plenty of tourists, so my purpose here is definitely not to stimulate more tourism. That said, I do confess that I live in a pretty "cool" city and am proud of it!

Thomas FriedmanThe New York Times' columnist, used Lancaster as an example in a column that ran in The Times' July 4, 2018, edition. The title of Friedman's column in the hard copy was "Where American Politics Can Still Work: From the Bottom Up."

Friedman is right! Local communities may be the only places in our country, at the current time, that a politics of democratic self-government is still functioning. I am not sure whether or not the Fourth of July timing for Friedman's column was deliberate, but it was certainly appropriate, since democratic self-government is what the American Revolution was all about. 

Frankly, I am worried about citizen-based democracy in my own hometown, since elected officials here are more and more turning over key policy decisions to the unelected staff. My list of the "Five Simple Things" that an elected official needs to do includes the following as Rule #2:

Rule #2: “Remember You're In Charge.” There is a bureaucratic momentum present in every institution (certainly including government). An elected official needs to remember that he or she was elected to run the bureaucracy not the other way around.

What I most liked about Friedman's column was that it echoed an observation that I have made pretty regularly in this blog. We can't have "self-government" unless we get involved in government ourselves. Leaving politics and government to elected officials and bureaucrats is a formula for disaster. We are seeing this work itself out at the national level right now. We need to be sure that we engage, as citizens, from the "bottom up," if we want to protect and preserve our democratic heritage. 

The entire Friedman column is worth reading. Here is the paragraph that most caught my attention (emphasis added):

At 7:30 Friday morning in early June, the Hourglass leaders in Lancaster were all sitting around the kitchen table at Art Mann Sr.’s house, as they do every Friday. The seven men and women representing different Lancaster societal and business interests were discussing the region’s shortage of clean water, because of farm runoff, fertilizer and salt on the streets. None is in city government or an elected politician; they’re just respected volunteer community activists who will make a recommendation, based on research, to the city or county to get a problem fixed and help galvanize resources to do it. They all know one another’s party affiliation, but they’ve checked them at Mann’s front door.

As a toast to democratic self-government, "Bottoms Up" is just right!

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Thursday, July 5, 2018

#186 / Public Choice Theory

The sourpuss pictured above is Nobel laureate James Buchanan. According to Nancy MacLean, the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, Buchanan is the intellectual linchpin of a Koch-funded, and rather successful, attack on democratic institutions. This attack is ongoing, and is having great success.

If you would like to know more about what Buchanan proposes, you can read Buchanan's books, listed in Wikipedia. Better, you can read MacLean's latest book, Democracy in Chains. MacLean has subtitled her book, "The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan For America." The Koch Brothers (and Buchanan) are right at the center of this ongoing attack, and MacLean outlines how this attack is being so successfully advanced.

Finally, and most expeditiously, you can read an excellent article by Lynn Parramore, a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Parramore's article is a review of Democracy in Chains, and should help convince you, if convincing were needed, that "theory" and "practice" are definitely related in the real world of politics. "Public choice theory," the economic theory advanced by Buchanan, has inspired real world political actions that have been undeniably successful in undermining democracy in the United States. 

Seriously, I recommend that you click the following link, and read Parramore's review of Democracy in Chains. Those who continue to think that democracy is a pretty good idea need to know what they're up against!

With Koch’s money and enthusiasm, Buchanan’s academic school evolved into something much bigger. By the 1990s, Koch realized that Buchanan’s ideas — transmitted through stealth and deliberate deception, as MacLean amply documents — could help take government down through incremental assaults that the media would hardly notice. The tycoon knew that the project was extremely radical, even a “revolution” in governance, but he talked like a conservative to make his plans sound more palatable.

MacLean details how partnered with Koch, Buchanan’s outpost at George Mason University was able to connect libertarian economists with right-wing political actors and supporters of corporations like Shell Oil, Exxon, Ford, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, and General Motors. Together they could push economic ideas to public through media, promote new curricula for economics education, and court politicians in nearby Washington, D.C.

At the 1997 fiftieth anniversary of the Mont Pelerin Society, MacLean recounts that Buchanan and his associate Henry Manne, a founding theorist of libertarian economic approaches to law, focused on such affronts to capitalists as environmentalism and public health and welfare, expressing eagerness to dismantle Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare as well as kill public education because it tended to foster community values. Feminism had to go, too: the scholars considered it a socialist project.

Democracy, of course, has a "theory," too. It's outlined in the Constitution, which proposes a very specific system to ensure that our government will be "of, by, and for the people." Theory alone, though, is never enough. The Koch Brothers understand that, and have put their significant fortunes to work implementing "public choice theory."

If we want to implement "democratic theory," and want to save democratic self-government, then we need to turn the theories outlined in our Constitution into practical, political action. It's a matter, as a group of fifty-six patriots said, right at the outset, of "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." 

To preserve "self-government," and to put democratic theory into practice, we will need to put our lives on the line. We need to get involved in politics and government ourselves.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

#185 / Return To The Revolution

This Means US
I have been doing a lot of thinking about the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. I think we got it (almost) right the first time. 

In fact, the Constitution, with a few critically important changes related to slavery, and who counts as a "person," could easily serve as an instruction manual for what we need to do now. 

Emphasis on the "we."

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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

#184 / Leaving Labels Behind

I have never much liked those commonly-applied labels, "liberal" and "conservative." When I was a practicing politician, "progressive" was the label I mostly used, to try to make sure that no one ever put me in either one of those "liberal" or "conservative" camps. Some of my political friends were self-identified as "socialist-feminists." I liked their politics a lot!

A book review published in the June 18, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal is pretty confusing, at least to me, as it tries to distinguish between the traditional "liberal" and "conservative" labels. The book reviewed is titled, Conservatism: An Invitation To The Great Tradition, by Roger Scruton

Scruton, as it turns out, is "SIR" Roger Scruton. Wikipedia identifies Scruton as "an English philosopher and writer who specialises in aesthetics and political philosophy, particularly in the furtherance of traditionalist conservative views." If you click that "traditionalist conservative" link, here is what you'll get from Wikipedia

Traditionalist conservatism, also known as classical conservatism and traditional conservatism, is a political philosophy emphasizing the need for the principles of a transcendent moral order, manifested through certain natural laws to which society ought to conform in a prudent manner. Shortened to traditionalism and in the United Kingdom and Canada referred to as Toryism, traditionalist conservatism is a variant of conservatism based on the political philosophies of Aristotle and Edmund Burke. Traditionalists emphasize the bonds of social order and the defense of ancestral institutions over hyper-individualism.

Now, "Toryism" is most certainly not where I am, politically. The Tories were the folks who supported Britain during our Revolutionary War, and I celebrate the fact that they were soundly defeated! Hey, we can all celebrate that tomorrow!

On the other hand, "hyper-individualism" (posited as the opposite of "conservatism") is exactly what is wrong with our politics, society, and economy today. That is my opinion, at least. I am for the "we," not the "me." If "individualism" is the test of who is a "liberal," I would seem to be somewhere towards the "conservative" side of the spectrum.

Richard Aldous, the person who has revieewed Scruton's book for The Journal, also seems a bit discombobulated as he discusses and contrasts the "liberal" versus the "conservative" philosophy. He ends up here: 

It would be a gloomy picture were it not for the glimmer of hope that Mr. Scruton offers. That chink comes through the American “genius for civil association”—something Tocqueville first noticed in the early 19th century. 

Small groups of ordinary women and men made the American Revolution. You can read all about it in On Revolution, by Hannah Arendt. In fact, I hope you will.

You can read the review of Scruton's book in just a few minutes. On Revolution will take you longer. Don't worry; it's worth it.

Setting a new revolution in motion is going to take some time, too! I'd suggest we leave the labels behind and start working on it.

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Monday, July 2, 2018

#183 / Hey Gang, Just Kidding!

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine ran a "First Words" article by Laila Lalami. It was titled, "Our Gang." At least, that is what the article was titled in the hard-copy edition of the magazine. The title given to the online version differs. 

Here is how Lalami's article begins: 

Early in June, the valedictorian at Bell County High School in southeastern Kentucky delivered a graduation speech filled with inspirational quotations that, he said with a twinkle in his eye, he’d found on Google. One line, in particular, drew wild applause from the crowd in this conservative part of the country: “ ‘Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.’ — Donald J. Trump.” As people cheered, though, the valedictorian issued a correction: “Just kidding, that was Barack Obama.” Right away, the applause died down, and a boo could be heard. The identity of the messenger, it was painfully evident, mattered more than the content of the message.

The point of Lalami's article was to discuss "tribalism" in American politics, and she notes, right off the bat, that "it seems that civility has gone out of fashion."

"Tribalism" and "civility" (or the lack thereof) are very much discussion topics du jour. You might, for instance, want to read Teresa Bejan in The Washington Post. Bejan's column, published on March 8, 2017, calls for Mere Civility, which also happens to be the title of Bejan's book. She comes down squarely in the middle, where civility is concerned: 

Calls for civility can serve as swords as well as shields, and they are often abused to put an end to disagreement rather than enable it. Nevertheless, rejecting the idea of civility altogether would be a serious mistake, because abandoning our co-citizens in favor of the more agreeable company of the like-minded is what got us into this mess in the first place.

Ibram X. Kendi is the Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.  He has a slightly different view. He worries, in an article titled "More Devoted to Order Than to Justice," that "political moderates who counsel against confrontation and warn of incivility would abandon the tools that have changed America for the better." Lalami seems to agree with this observation (and I'm not really sure that Bejan disagrees either): 

Some people think that dialogue and debate can help the United States defeat its current tribalism. If only we could calmly talk about our differences, the argument goes, we would reach some compromise. But not all disagreements are bridgeable. The Union and the Confederacy did not resolve their differences through dialogue; it was a civil war that put an end to slavery. Jim Crow laws were defeated through mass protests and civil disobedience. Schools were desegregated though a Supreme Court decision, which had to be implemented with the help of the National Guard. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed as a political necessity during World War II. Some fights are not talked away; they are, in the end, either won or lost.

To my mind, "mere civility" is a good policy. This is Bejan's view. But I also agree with Kendi and Lalami. Some fights cannot be "talked away." Why can't they? They can't because we must, as a political community, make choices between incompatible objectives. Making those choices is what "politics" is all about, and as the title on this blog advises (with a little assist from Mr. Dylan), "we live in a political world." 

Conflict and controversy go with the territory. We need to be ready for (and even celebrate) disagreements, and passionate disagreements. 

But "tribalism?" That's where I draw the line. "Our Gang" is all of us! It's not just those with whom we agree, or with whom we identify. If it's a good quote, that says something true, it's true no matter whether Donald Trump or Barack Obama said it! As long as we don't forget that (and it is regularly forgotten) we'll be fine. Let those arguments and debates begin!


We have a holiday coming up, as I remember. We are a people who fought for independence and then accepted wave after wave of immigrants into the nation, attracted by what that Declaration of Independence had to say about individual freedom and collective self-government...

That's who we are, folks. That's Our Gang!

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

#182 / Travel Advisory

In May of this year, my wife Marilyn and I went on a Rick Steves' tour of South Italy. We had a wonderful time, with a great guide and a great group. See the picture at the bottom of this posting.

The Best of South Italy Tour began in Rome, and I have a travel advisory for anyone who may be traveling to that city. Here it is:

If you are lucky enough to be visiting Rome, I strongly recommend that you hunt down the Tre Scalini bar, restaraunt, and gelateria. It is pictured above. It is located in the Piazza Navona

Prior to this recent visit to Rome, in 2018, I had been in Rome one time before, when I was eighteen years old, and when I was just beginning my second year of college. My visit to Rome on that occasion was in connection with a trip with my Stanford-in-France group. The Stanford-in-France campus was in Tours, France, but the group did take trips to both Rome and Madrid. That was in 1962, fifty-six years before my most recent visit to Rome.

Candidly, I remember almost nothing from fifty-six years ago. I did remember, however, as I started walking around Rome on my recent visit, that there was some place in Rome (I had no clue where) that had a little bar where I had my first taste of cappucino. Allow me to point out, for those of a younger generation, that there was no such thing as cappucino in the United States in 1962. At least, not that I'd ever heard of. Probably, there was a machine somewhere in New York City, in the neighborhoods where Italian families lived, and maybe something similar in San Francisco, but I had no knowledge of that whatsoever, and I had never even heard the  word "cappucino." 1962 was, in other words, pre-Starbucks.

Very early one morning in Rome, in 1962, I got up and started walking around. The whole area was dead, it being so early, but I saw a small bar that was open for business, and that was literally thronged with workers, who were all drinking something that did not appear to be alcoholic. I don't drink, so I thought I'd investigate. When I did, I found that the patrons were getting small little glasses filled with some sort of coffee drink. They put sugar in it, and it sure looked good. 

It was! 

This was my introduction to cappucino. That drink was so good that I could still remember it fifty-plus years later. I didn't remember much about my 1962 visit to Rome, but I did remember that.

I also had one other memory of the earlier visit, and actually a somewhat similar memory. The hotel where our Stanford-in-France group stayed was on a large plaza, with a huge fountain in the center. I remember that some of the other students came from across the plaza, to where I was on the side where the hotel was located, and reported that there was this fantastic "chalate tartuffo" ice cream confection being sold at a restaurant on the other side of the plaza. I decided I would try it, and I did. As great as the cappucino was, this was even better! Literally, I never forgot that ice cream dessert. I even remembered the (somewhat mangled) name it went by: "chalate tartuffo." I was kind of hoping that I'd be able to find it, this time around. 

Amazingly enough, I did find it. Literally by chance, I ventured into the Piazza Navona, and immediately recognized the place where my Stanford-in-France group had stayed those fifty-plus years ago. I found the little bar where I first drank cappucino. It is, today, just as I so vividly remembered it:

I also found, across the Piazza Navona from the little bar, which was located near to where our hotel must have been, the restaurant where they sell that dessert. What I had remembered as "chalate tartuffo" is actually a "gelato tartuffo." My memory had mangled the spelling somewhat, but my recollection about the dessert itself was completely accurate. 

I believe that the dessert shown below, sold at the Tre Scalini restaurant, is the best dessert in the world. The restaurant has been selling it there, on the Piazza Navona, since 1946. 

If you are lucky enough to be visiting Rome, I strongly recommend that you hunt down the Tre Scalini bar, restaraunt, and gelateria, and that you order the Tre Scalini gelato tartuffo: 

I am not kidding about how good this is! If you have one, I think you're good for a memory that will last at least fifty-six years. You can take a Rick Steves' tour, if you want to visit Rome that way. Or, you can figure out how to get there on your own. 

Rome. Piazza Navona. Tre Scalini. Gelato Tartuffo! That's my travel advisory.

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) - Gary Patton personal photo
(3) -
(4) - John Gafford

Saturday, June 30, 2018

#181 / Are You Exasperated Yet?

I have never been ashamed to comment on a book I haven't read. Not as long as I can rely on a good review, at least!

In this case, I found out about Steven Brill's newest book, Tailspin, by reading a review by Jennifer Szalai published in The New York Times on June 7th. In the hard copy edition, Szalai's review was titled, "Woe America, The Polarized." If you click this link, you can read the online version of her review. You can also read the entire book, of course. Seems like that might be a good idea!

According to Szalai, Brill's book "bemoans a polarized America," and his "exasperation" is "not the fury of the stymied leftist but the frustration of the disappointed centrist." 

Brill's is an exasperation I share, even though I'd ally myself more with the "leftist" group than with the "centrist" party. People of all political persuasions have a very good reason to be exasperated by the current state of our political life.

My main comment about Brill's thesis goes back to Szalai's initial introduction, telling us how Brill came to write his book:

Brill says the idea for his book came before the November 2016 election, when he landed at a “grimy terminal” at Kennedy Airport and got stuck in traffic on the “dirty, pothole-filled” Van Wyck Expressway. The bumpy road jolted him into thinking about everything from politics “to economic opportunity to health care to simple civility.” “How had things deteriorated so badly?” he wondered. He spent the next two years combing the country to find out.

Not to denigrate Brill's argument that political "polarization" has brought America into a bad time, the deterioration of America's infrastructure should be given a bigger role, as we consider what has led to our "exasperation," and to our political malaise and dysfunction. 

It is the sophisticated citizen who can see our woes as the result of ignoring the phenomenon of "opportunity cost," but that's where I suggest we look. Even when the nation is willing to run itself on debt (as it seems to be willing to do), it remains true that there is a limited amount of money to be spent. If we spend our money one way, we lose the opportunity to spend it some other way. 

Our nation's leaders have chosen to spend a huge fraction of the wealth generated by our economy on the military. On killing people. On destroying cities and countrysides around the world. 

Not only has this choice plunged the entire world into a refugee crisis, it has led to those deteriorating conditions on the Van Wyck Expressway (not to mention the deteriorating conditions found everywhere in our contemporary United States). Our commitment to military spending has led to less money for education and health care. We're spending our money on bombs and drones, and we are exhausting our wealth on destructive, not constructive projects. 

Is there a simple way to break free from the paralyzing malaise that is exasperating so many?

I suggest there is: let's stop throwing away our money on military adventurism, sophisticated new weapons of death, and efforts to bomb other peoples into submission to our will. 

Let's try that for awhile. My prediction is that the nation will become a lot less "exasperated."

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