Monday, October 19, 2020

#293 / A Little Morality On A Monday


The picture above, of New York Times' columnist David Brooks (a somewhat younger Brooks, I believe), accompanied a brief article that took Brooks to task for trying to be too nice to gun owners. Brooks, who is considered to be a conservative, is not my favorite pundit, but his instincts are not always wrong, either. He is, oftentimes, trying to appeal to our better natures, and that's not such a bad idea.

Here is an excerpt from what Brooks said in a column that appeared on Sunday, October 18, 2020, in the San Jose Mercury News. The headline of the column (in the hard copy edition) was, "Making America great requires moral vision that puts an end to division." That translated, online, to "How to actually make America great." I don't much like that split infinitive, but I do think that these observations from Brooks' column are worth passing along:

“The Upswing,” a remarkable new book by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett [is] a careful work of social science; the book looks at American life from about 1870 to today across a range of sectors that are usually analyzed in separate academic silos.

The first important finding is that between the 1870s and the late 1960s a broad range of American social trends improved: Community activism surged, cross party collaboration increased, income inequality fell, social mobility rose, church attendance rose, union membership rose, federal income taxes became more progressive and social spending on the poor rose.

Many of us think that the gains for African Americans only happened after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Putnam and Garrett show that the fastest improvements actually happened in the decades before. Black school attendance, income gains, homeownership rates, voter registration rates started rapidly improving in the 1940s and then started slowing in the 1970s and 1980s.

The American century was built during these decades of social progress. And then, around the late 1960s, it all turned south.

Over the past 50 years, the positive trends have reversed: membership in civic organizations has collapsed, political polarization has worsened, income inequality has widened, social trust has cratered, religious attendance is down, social mobility has decreased, deaths of despair have skyrocketed and on and on.

The crucial change was in mindset and culture. As Putnam and Garrett write: “The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back again to ‘I’.”

The frequency of the word “I” in American books, according to Putnam and Garrett, doubled between 1965 and 2008. The authors are careful not to put it into moralistic terms, but I’d say that, starting in the late 1960s, there was left wing self-centeredness in the social and lifestyle sphere and right wing self-centeredness in the economic sphere, with a lack of support for common-good public policies. But it was socially celebrated self-centeredness all the way across. It was based on a fallacy: If we all do our own thing, everything will work out well for everybody (emphasis added).

I think there was more going on than both "leftwing" and "rightwing" self-centeredness in the decades following the 1960's. You might want to review my blog posting on the recent book, Evil Geniuses, to see what I'm talking about. Nonetheless, things will always get worse - as Brooks is arguing - to the degree that we don't understand, at the deepest level of our politics and personal lives, that we are "all in this together."

Bottom line, it's "we" not "I."

It is definitely time to start remembering that, so we can get back on the "upswing."

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Sunday, October 18, 2020

#292 / Kiss The Ground


That's Woody Harrelson, the actor, pictured as he is narrating Kiss The Ground, a brand new documentary movie that is very likely to blow you away. I urge you to see it. 

If you care about finding real solutions to our global warming crisis, and I feel certain you do - and that you do know that the global warming crisis isn't a "maybe" crisis, but that it is, in fact, a real crisis that puts the future of our human civilization in peril - then you should see this movie. 

Here, once again, is the link to the movie's website. The movie is streaming on Netflix, which is how I saw it, but that link I have provided will give you some other options, too.

After you watch the movie, get ready to pitch in, and to get involved yourself, because we can and must insist that we take action, both individually and collectively, and that we do it now. 

Ok! Let me cut you some slack. AFTER November 3rd. January next year at the latest. We have to start doing things, individually and collectively, that make real change, and that will make a real difference. This movie will give you some ideas.

So, (1) watch the trailer. Then (2) watch the movie. Then (3) get ready to make some personal changes, both individual and political. 

We have about ten years to make the changes we need to make - and we can do it, too. Doom, destruction, and death is only one of the options. Let's shoot for something better.

Here's that trailer: 

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Saturday, October 17, 2020

#291 / Against Economics

The New York Review of Books sends out a periodic email newsletter. A recent edition of the newsletter referenced an article in the NYR Daily that celebrated the life of David Graeber

Graeber, who was an American anthropologist, anarchist activist, and author, was born in 1961 (the year I graduated from high school). He died on September 2, 2020 (way too young).  The NYR Daily article provided a long set of tributes to him, published online. These are personal stories, and will be of particular interest to anyone who closely followed his career. 

Graeber was a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and is sometimes credited with having coined the slogan "we are the 99%." I was most struck by what the NYR email newsletter had to say about Graeber: 

Last December, Graeber first contributed to the Review with “Against Economics,” in which he argued that the basic assumptions on which the discipline of economics is understood and taught are false, “designed to solve another century’s problems."
  • Mainstream economists nowadays might not be particularly good at predicting financial crashes, facilitating general prosperity, or coming up with models for preventing climate change, but when it comes to establishing themselves in positions of intellectual authority, unaffected by such failings, their success is unparalleled. One would have to look at the history of religions to find anything like it.
This understanding of economics as a social science, not a law of physics, and one subject to the manipulations of power, was central to Graeber’s work, exemplified in his 2011, best-selling Debt: The First 5,000 Years, which exposed the historical contingency—and false morality—of debt (emphasis added).

Economists do seem to wield immense "intellectual authority" - and without any particular justification.  If economists receive way too much deference fromt the rest of us, I think it is because they are implicitly claiming that economists have access to knowledge that is akin to the "laws of physics." The laws of physics, as we all know, describe what must and will happen in the world, but such laws apply only to the physical universe, the World of Nature, and not to anything within our own human world.

Economics, in fact, is a  "social science," not some species of "natural science." That means that there are no inevitabilities. 

Graeber thought that the massive income inequality that has so poisoned our politics, and that has so diminished the ability of disadvanted men and women to contribute their talents to the common world, was something we could change. Income inequality, in other words, is not some inevitable fact of life, stemming from the "laws" of economics. Like everything else within our human world, economic inequality is the product of political choices and political actions. 

If Graeber was "against economics," what that means is that he was against any claim that "economics" charts inevitabilities, and that our current realities are beyond human decision. 

Graeber was absolutely right to reject any such claim. Let's not be bemused by so-called "economic laws." Let's create a world that will support and reward us all. 

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Friday, October 16, 2020

#290 / By All Means

The image above appeared on my Facebook Timeline on September 10, 2020. The image accompanied an article published on Heated, a blog that addresses our worldwide, global warming emergency. The article from the Heated blog was titled, "Fire, fire, everywhere."

Several Facebook Friends commented on this posting of the article from Heated. One said, "Climate comeuppance." Another said, "Time for drastic action!" 

In response to that "time for drastic action" comment, another Facebook Friend said something that I believe is exactly correct. This friend is an activist who spends a very significant part of her time working to organize at the local level, seeking to move our local community towards a more active and effective response to the global warming crisis that is affecting everyone in the world.

My friend's response to that "time for drastic action" plea was this: 

Yes, every action possible!

We have, as we are hopefully beginning truly to realize, created accelerating conditions of global warming that are going to consume and destroy the entire human world. Fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, derechos, species extinctions, and crop failures are already outpacing our ability to maintain a stable human world. And things are going to get worse, not better. This is only a "partial list." Faced with this global emergency, we do need to take "every action possible," but we are not even coming close. 

California government pats itself on the back for its "leadership role" in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Local communities, like my own, have adopted "Climate Action Plans," and the fact that such "plans" have been ratified by local elected leaders is treated as if the plans, themselves, were actions. Of course, they're not!

On the statewide level, California's elected officials celebrate the state's so-called "Cap and Trade" program. This is a program that is supposed to be mobilizing the "magic of the market" to reduce global warming emissions in the most "efficient" way possible. 

Here is how that "Cap and Trade" program is (supposed) to work: Knowing that we must reduce global warming emissions, the State sets, each year, a "cap" on the total amount of global warming emissions that will be allowed, and this "cap" is supposed to be tightened up each year. Each year, the state government is then supposed to make sure that greenhouse gas emitters, collectively, stay below the cap. Industries that emit greenhouse gases can purchase emission credits, which allow such industries to continue to release greenhouse gases that could otherwise be controlled. Instead of reducing their emissions, which they could do, the industries simply buy emission credits, with the state then (supposedly) using the monies to reduce emissions some other way. 

That's it! That's the "magic of the market." Here's what younger activists might say to that: "I call BS!"

The state's largest single use of "Cap and Trade" monies in California is to fund construction of the state's proposed High-Speed Rail system. Supposedly (when completed), high-speed rail will reduce vehicle emissions. However, producing the cement used in construction, and other construction activities, create huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, so that it would take seventy years before there started to be a net positive impact. And that presumes that the system is actually completed and put into operation. Unfortunately, that's not likely! The proposed high-speed rail system is a complete boondoggle, as is now commonly admitted, and it will almost certainly never be completed, with high-speed train operation as initially proposed. The San Jose Mercury has called the project a "fraud."

Another great idea is that the state should use "Cap and Trade" monies (generated when they let industry off the hook, and don't make them reduce their emissions) to purchase forest lands, permanently to protect them as carbon sinks, and oxygen generators. 

They're doing that, but then (oh dang it), massive wildfires wipe out those gains. 

The fact is, we should, individually and collectively, do exactly what my Facebook Friend says: take "every action possible" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

We should be telling industries that if it is possible to reduce emissions, they must reduce emissions! Period. No excuses. No delays. You shouldn't be able to continue to put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere if it is technologically possible to reduce them. No buying yourself an exemption!

On a more local level, PV solar collectors should be installed everywhere they can be installed. Find the way to make it possible. Take EVERY action. 

There are many, many more ways we could reduce global warming emissions if we took the "every action possible" approach. 

So, here's the real question: Are we actually willing to change what we are doing now to prevent the ultimate destruction of our human world? My personal response is clear: 

By All Means!

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Thursday, October 15, 2020

#289 / Dignity

Here is the headline from an online article that demonstrates how a "politics of dignity" can transform social realities: 

An Ohio county had the second-highest infant mortality rate in the nation. Then they started listening to Black moms.

I think this article is worth reading, in its entirety. Treating Black mothers with respect and dignity made all the difference! What do you think? How about we start doing that for everyone!

The key, as the article demonstrates, is direct participation by those whom governmental efforts are intended to help. One more proof that "participatory democracy" works!

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

#288 / Is Humiliation The Key To Our Politics?

Thomas L.Friedman, New York Times pundit, suggests that feelings of "humiliation" are playing a huge role in our contemporary politics. In fact, says Friedman, the role that such feelings of humiliation play in our politics is the key to the political success of Donald J. Trump. 

Friedman's column was carried in the September 9, 2020, edition of The Times. It was titled, "Who Can Win America’s Politics of Humiliation?"  I think Friedman's thesis is worth taking seriously:

It had become ... obvious to me that so much of what I’d been doing since I became a journalist in 1978 was reporting or opining about people, leaders, refugees, terrorists and nation-states acting out on their feelings of humiliation and questing for dignity — the two most powerful human emotions. 
I raise this now because the success of Joe Biden’s campaign against Donald Trump may ride on his ability to speak to the sense of humiliation and quest for dignity of many Trump supporters, which Hillary Clinton failed to do. 
It has been obvious ever since Trump first ran for president that many of his core supporters actually hate the people who hate Trump, more than they care about Trump or any particular action he takes, no matter how awful. 
The media feed Trump’s supporters a daily diet of how outrageous this or that Trump action is — but none of it diminishes their support. Because many Trump supporters are not attracted to his policies. They’re attracted to his attitude — his willingness and evident delight in skewering the people they hate and who they feel look down on them. 
Humiliation, in my view, is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations. The poverty of dignity explains so much more behavior than the poverty of money. 
People will absorb hardship, hunger and pain. They will be grateful for jobs, cars and benefits. But if you make people feel humiliated, they will respond with a ferocity unlike any other emotion, or just refuse to lift a finger for you. As Nelson Mandela once observed, “There is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated. 
By contrast, if you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them. Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening — not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words (emphasis added).

If "identity politics" seems to define our current political moment, and this is what I suggested in my blog posting on September 9th (the same day, incidentally, that Friedman's column appeared), the direct tie of "identity politics" to what Friedman is talking about should be obvious. A "politics of dignity" is the required antidote to "identity politics" and to the "politics of humiliation."

As I said in my earlier blog posting, the essential "truth" of our human situation is that each one of us, individually, is "unique and precious, defined by no category at all." Our politics must reflect this. We certainly must not allow our politics to tolerate a systematic tendency to put people in catagories that downrate their value, that humiliate them. The exact opposite, as Friedman so correctly says, is what is required. 

My blog posting on "identity politics" ended with a reference to a Bob Dylan song, "Mother of Muses." Maybe this blog post should also end with a reference to a Bob Dylan song - "Dignity." You can hear Dylan sing it by clicking that arrow.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

#287 / Monsters In Us (And Another Choice)


Louise Glück, pictured above, is an American poet who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her name rhymes with "click." The picture comes from the October 10, 2020, edition of The New York Times, accompanying an article that reported on a conversation between Glück and Times' reporter Alexandra Alter

Another article in the hard copy version of the same edition of The Times was titled, "A Poet Who Confronts the Monsters in Us." That article was written by Dwight Garner, book critic for The Times. As is so often the case, the headline you see if you click the link to Garner's article is not the same headline that appeared in the newsprint version. In Garner's article, Garner made a connection between Glück and Bob Dylan, the last American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unacquainted with Glück, but definitely acquainted with Dylan, that comparison drew my attention: 

I have argued, in these pages, that her 1990 book, “Ararat,” is the most brutal and sorrow-filled book of poetry published in the last 30 years. (It’s contained in her collection “Poems: 1962-2012.”) It’s confessional and a bit wild, I wrote, comparing it to Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”

Garner did not extend the comparison, as he wrote about Glück's poetry, so let me do so here, and with particular reference to Garner's thought that Glück is confronting our internal "monsters" in her writing. Here is how Garner puts it in his article: 

One of the things to love about Glück’s poetry is that, while her work contains many emotional registers, she is not afraid to be cruel — she confronts the monsters in herself, and in others, not with resignation and therapeutic digression but with artery-nicking knives
The poet Kay Ryan, in her terrific new book of essays, “Synthesizing Gravity,” writes: “I think it’s good to admit what a wolfish thing art is; I trust writers who know they aren’t nice.” Glück’s work is replete with not-niceness. You would not, you sense, want her as an enemy.

I think that Dylan, too, is not always "nice" (and in this he and Glück are apparently similar). But... Dylan is always aiming to speak (and to confront) the truth, a predisposition quite properly associated with greatness in both literature and life. 

Reading what Garner said, quoted above, I was immediately reminded of a line from "I Contain Multitudes," one of the songs on Bob Dylan's latest album, Rough And Rowdy Ways:

Greedy old wolf - I’ll show you my heart 
But not all of it - only the hateful part
I’ll sell you down the river - I’ll put a price on your head
What more can I tell ya - I sleep with life and death in the same bed

I take these lyrics to be a claim that we must, if we are honest, all admit to the "wolf within us." Let us never forget, though, as Bob Dylan says, that this is just one thing about who we are. We have that "greedy old wolf" within, and we feed it, too. From time to time we feed its hate. We do have "monsters" inside. Yet... Dylan is telling us, when we look into our hearts, that there is something else present, too, something more than just "the hateful part." That, also, is what we know about ourselves.

We mix, within our souls, in the depths of our very being, both life and death. So, taking a hint from an early Bob Dylan song, let's remember "what the Bible told" (Deuteronomy 30:19):

I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.

In politics, in every way.... This is our possibility. Before us (and inside us) we find both life and death.  We sleep with life and death in the same bed. And we can choose. 



Choose life!

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Monday, October 12, 2020

#286 / Cassandra And Her Prophecy


A story by David Rabe appeared in the October 12, 2020, edition of The New Yorker. Rabe is an American playwright and screenwriter, and The New Yorker suggests that Rabe's story, "Suffocation Theory," should perhaps be considered from the perspective of "nightmares in daily life." 

The story Rabe tells is very strange. It does have many of the characteristics of a dream - a bad dream,  as you will immediately suppose from what I have told you already. The dream is incoherent, unpleasant; it's a nightmare. For all that, it is the kind of dream that ends up enfolding you, carrying you along, conjuring up an apparent reality from which one doesn't even try to escape, a dream that is not quite recognizable as something other than reality itself. 

One of the characters in Rabe's story, who precipitates from the dreamy mists of the narrator's confusion, is Cassandra, the priestess of the Greek God Apollo. Cassandra, we are reminded, is condemned always to utter true prophecies of the future which are never to be believed. 

Cassandra's prophecy, recounted below, was chilling. It stopped me in my tracks. I dropped the magazine. I don't want to believe it. I refuse. 

Read the prophecy and know: it is time for us to disengage ourselves. We are little nightingales, caught in the twisted talons of a nightmare bird. We must find a way to get free. It is time to wake up!



Are you Cassandra? Are you really?” I wanted to hear her say it again, but I couldn’t wait for her to respond. “I like to think that people are good at heart, Cassandra.”

“We all do, but unfortunately they’re not anything at heart.” She closed her eyes and chanted, “Thus said the hawk to the nightingale with speckled neck, while he carried her high up among the clouds, gripped fast in his crooked talons, and she cried pitifully. To her, he spoke disdainfully: ‘Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, Songstress. And, if I please, I will make my meal of you, or let you go. He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he does not gain mastery and suffers pain in addition to his shame.’ So said Hesiod, the Greek, of the fast-flying hawk, the long-winged bird.”

I groped to keep my hands on her waist. “Doesn’t it make you sad?”

“That people are not good at heart? Of course it does.”

“No, no. That no one believes you.”

“It’s a curse.” Again, she closed her eyes. “We possess in full bounty all that animals need to live, any animal, all animals. Of which man is one. Except he has decided that he isn’t.”

“Because mankind has a spirit,” shouted one of the partygoers celebrating the end of everything. Amanda handed him a megaphone, as if she were dissatisfied with how loud he’d been so far.

“Mankind may or may not have a spirit,” Cassandra roared. “But, either way, our bodies are animals and that’s true of me, you, Amanda, and the hawk.”

“Oh, Cassandra,” I said. “Why are you doing this?”

“Bodies,” she sighed, and shivered. “They want things. We’re so ignorant, and we hate being ignorant, and we hate being told we are ignorant. But we hate most of all being told we are animals. Especially when we are tall men, or short men, or fat men, or balding men, or gray-haired men in suits who believe that we eat, shit, and breathe money, and so we don’t need food, water, or air. 

"Here is my prophecy: Breath after breath, the air insults us by saving us, by letting us live a few seconds more. But only a few, before another breath is needed. Twenty-three thousand and forty times a day.” Her lips exhaled her vision: 

“I am Cassandra and this is my prophecy. To prove that we are not animals, that we are above and superior to animals, we will destroy everything that an animal needs to live, and thus obliterate our world and ourselves.”

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Sunday, October 11, 2020

#285 / People Versus Percentages

Heather Cox Richardson, pictured above, writes a daily bulletin, distributed widely under the title, "Letters From An American." If you click the link, you can sign up to get her daily bulletins sent to you by email. I, personally, think that they are both informative and motivating!

In her September 1, 2020 letter, Richardson says this: 

I try to write these Letters as if they are sort of a flowing report on the news. But I just can’t flow over this number once again. We have lost almost 185,000 people to Covid-19. That number is a 9-11 attack every day for two months. It is flying a full 737 airplane into a mountain every single day for more than two years. I cannot fathom why combatting this disease is not an all-hands-on-deck national emergency.

On September 1, 2020, the population of the United States of America was over 331,347,000. As of September 1st, in other words, speaking in terms of percentages, we have lost 185,000 / 331,347,000 people to Covid-19.

When you do the division, this is the number you get: .000558327071016. I am not good enough at math to know exactly how to express this percentage in words. Clearly, though, 185,000 people is not a very big percentage of our total population. The number of those who have died from Covid-19 is much, much, much less than 1%. This may be the reason that the national government is not treating the pandemic as an "all-hands-on-deck" emergency. "All hands" don't seem to be threatened. The fact that the government has not developed a clear and effective response to the pandemic, and to its manifold health, social, and economic impacts, may also be attributed to the fact that the percentage of people actually dying from Covid-19 is small. Thinking in percentage terms, the pandemic is just not that big a deal. Lots of people do make that argument. 

Of course, this approach raises a question. Should we really be using the percentage of the population affected by something to decide what the government should do? I believe that this specific example - the pandemic, and the government's response to it - illuminates a fundamental question about what sort of role we should expect the government to play in our lives. 

One approach, founded on the undeniable fact that we are all "individuals," is to decide that we should all deal individually with our own problems and possibilities, to the greatest extent possible. The basic idea is that people need to work things out on their own. Government doen't need to get involved, really, unless the issues start affecting a large percentage of the population.

The other approach to government is much more "personal." That view of government is premised on the idea that "we're all in this together." That approach means that we should always be thinking about whether or not we, collectively, might be able to do something to be of assistance to those who have individual problems. This way of thinking about things suggests that the government should take action when "persons" start getting impacted, whatever percentage of the total population those persons may be. "Their" problems - the problems of individual persons in trouble - are actually "our" problems, if we genuinely consider ourselves to be "in this together."

Under its current management, the national government is not really that interested in assisting individuals with their problems - and when you start looking at it in terms of percentages, you can come to the conclusion that the pandemic really isn't that important. Clearly, our current president seems to take that approach. He keeps insinuating that the pandemic really doesn't exist, and I get the impression that he is quite irritated by those, like Richardson, who seem to think that the government should be doing far more than it is doing, and responding much better than it has responded so far. 

As far as the president is concerned, the pandemic isn't that big a deal. To quote him: "it is what it is."

Billionaires, of course, can generally take care of themselves, so they don't usually think too much about what "their country can do for them." They don't need to! Similarly, those with a narcissistic personality disorder are, by virtue of their narcissism, particularly immune to thinking much about anyone but themselves. The kind of empathy that leads directly to a concern for other people can go missing in action when someone is ultra-rich, or when someone is a pathological narcissist. I would say that both those factors are currently in play at the highest levels of the national government. I think they help explain what has happened, as we ponder Richardson's question about why the government has not responded to the Covid-19 pandemic in an all-hands-on-deck manner. 

More than anything else, this pandemic demonstrates, at least to my mind, that we have not, as yet - and speaking collectively - really mastered what it means to think of the government as "our" government, instead of "the" government. 

When we have a government that is actually "our" government, and not just "the" government, then we will expect the government to respond positively and helpfully to each and every one of us. After all, it belongs to "us." It is "ours." When that understanding truly prevails, "empathy" will be the government's middle name. 

But to make "the" government become "our" government, let's not forget that we need to be involved ourselves. To the degree we think "the government" is someone else, so that we don't take personal responsibility for the government on an individual basis, we won't see much need to get personally involved. If that is how we structure our relationship to government, we leave ourselves open to the situation we have today. The pandemic shows us what that is like. 

In November, we are going to be making a major decision on how we proceed from here. Are we "all in this together," or not? 

I would like to think we are. That is my view. I think "empathy" does need to be our government's middle name.

Do I need to remind everyone that the very minimum way we get personally and individually involved in "our" government is by keeping ourselves fully informed and voting? 

No? I don't need to remind you? Great! But voting is just a first step; do let me remind you of that!

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Saturday, October 10, 2020

#284 / The Crisis Of American Democracy

I was quite impressed when I received the most recent edition of American Educator, which is a publication of the American Federation of Teachers. I am an AFT member, so I got the magazine in the mail. It appears to me, though, that the AFT would like non-members to read the magazine, too. Just click the link I have provided above; all the articles from the Fall issue will then be at your command. As I say, I think the entire issue is impressive. And it is not just for teachers! 

The article that most impressed me was entitled, "The Crisis of American Democracy," by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They are both professors at Harvard, and this article follows up on their book, How Democracies Die, which was published in 2018.

The article in American Educator is a thorough analysis of what has happened, and is happening, to democracy in America. After outlining how we got to our current situation, Levitsky and Ziblatt then pose this question: 
Why Is This Happening?

The driving force behind democratic norm erosion is polarization. Over the last 25 years, Republicans and Democrats have come to fear and loathe one another. In a 1960 survey, 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans said they would be displeased if their child married someone from the other party. Fifty years later, a survey found those numbers to be 33 percent and 49 percent, respectively. According to a 2016 Pew Survey, 49 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats said the other party makes them “afraid.” And a recent study by political scientists Danny Hayes and Liliana Mason shows that about 60 percent of both Democrats and Republicans said they believed the other party was a “serious threat to the United States.” We have not seen this kind of partisan hatred since the late 19th century.

Some polarization is normal—even healthy—for democracy. But extreme polarization can kill it. As recent research by political scientist Milan W. Svolik shows, when societies are highly polarized, we become more willing to tolerate undemocratic behavior by our own side. When politics is so polarized that we view a victory by our partisan rivals as something that is catastrophic or beyond the pale, we begin to justify using extraordinary means—such as violence, election fraud, and coups—to prevent it. Nearly all the most prominent democratic breakdowns across history (from Spain and Germany in the 1930s to Chile in the 1970s to Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela in the early 2000s) have occurred amid extreme polarization. Partisan rivals came to view one another as such an existential threat that they chose to subvert democracy rather than accept victory by the other side. 

Now, Levitsky and Ziblatt leave no doubt that the Republican Party has been a prime mover in causing a dangerous deterioration of our democracy. I certainly don't dispute what they say, but do let me recommend another reading, Evil Geniuses, a book I wrote about in late September. That book is pretty convincing that the Republican Party is operating according to a plan that was not necessarily dreamed up by the Republican Party itself, but is rather a plan that was produced by the corporate and business elites that have used the Party as their tool. 

Evil Geniuses is another recommended reading, and since I seem to be in a recommending frame of mine, you might also want to sample, "Do You Speak Fox," from The Atlantic magazine, which documents how the Fox "news network" has actively and consistently supported and promoted the kind of polarization that Levitsky and Ziblatt identify as the "driving force" in the erosion of our democratic norms.

Here's what is worrying me. It takes two to polarize! Democracy demands "unwritten norms of mutual toleration and forbearance." That is what Levitsky and Ziblatt say. Mutual tolerance and forebearance is not the same thing as "tit for tat, but more so," which is a prescription now being suggested as a proper course for the Democrats, should the Democrats win the presidency and the Senate in November. Here is how one friend put it: 

First dems have to get the WH, Senate and House. With all three in their control, I'll bet you my left lung that, yes, they will indeed get rid of the filibuster, electoral college, pack the supreme court, and add statehood to Puerto Rico and DC. Then the US will officially be ruled by one party, pretty much for generations to come.

Is that going to resolve the "Crisis of American Democracy?" Let me, please, express some doubts. If the nation were truly "ruled by one party," the word "democracy" is not the word that springs to mind. If polarization is the identified problem - as Levitsky and Ziblatt say - then making either of our political parties all-powerful does not solve our democratic dilemma. 


As a final recommended reading, let me direct you to another article from The Atlantic: "A Pro-Trump Militant Group Has Recruited Thousands of Police, Soldiers, and Veterans." As we talk about the crisis of American democracy, a lot of people are picking up guns. I don't think that's a good direction, either! 

I have made this point before: civil war is no solution!

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Friday, October 9, 2020

#283 / Malice Toward All, And Charity For None

Abraham Lincoln, pictured above, is remembered for many things, including for his Second Inaugural Address, given on March 4, 1865. Lincoln's Second Inaugural was given just as the Civil War was coming to an end, and among Lincoln's pronouncements as president, this address is given almost equal status with Lincoln's deservedly famous Gettysburg Address.

For those who have never read it, or who have forgottten, I commend the Second Inaugural to you in its entirety. Just click that link. The most famous part of the speech came near its end. Lincoln spoke to the country at the conclusion of one of the most horrible conflicts in human history, and here is what Lincoln said: 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations (emphasis added).

Heather MacDonald, pictured below, is no Abraham Lincoln. 

MacDonald is an attorney and a conservative political commentator. Recently, she wrote an essay for the May/June 2020 edition of Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College. Her essay is titled, "Four Months of Unprecedented Government Malfeasance."

"Charity" is not a prevailing sentiment in what MacDonald wrote. She inveighs at length against the "lockdowns" that were imposed by government to combat the coronavirus epidemic. She also holds "the media" to be at fault for continuing to perpetuate the idea that closing places where the public congretates is an essential public health measure. She then roundly denounces protesters who took to the streets after the callous killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

While I did not agree with MacDonald's arguments, it was the "tone" of MacDonald's article that struck me most forcefully. MacDonald expresses bitter hostility to those with whom she disagrees, and her uunmitigated malice towards such persons, I felt, was the most salient characteristic of the MacDonald essay. 

Economic, social, and political conflict can't get much worse than what happened in the Civil War. Brothers literally killed brothers. Whole regions of the nation despised and deplored each other. And in the midst of this division, our most beloved president urged "charity for all, and malice toward none."

MacDonald suggests, it seems to me, that we should reverse this formulation, uncharitably denouncing those with whom she disagrees, and attributing their positions, and their actions, to a willful malfeasance that she suggests cannot be tolerated.

Modern political discourse (from all sides) is largely reflective of the spirit in which MacDonald writes, and we all need to guard against this type of infectious malice. In an article in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf warns us against using "Words Which by Their Very Utterance Inflict Injury," and Friedersdorf cites, as an example of what he warns against, words used against MacDonald by college students who have sought to prevent her from speaking. 

Our conflicts are real. They are not to be minimized. But we need, I think, to approach our political, social, and economic conflicts in the spirit of Lincoln, not in the spirit of MacDonald. 

Malice toward all, and charity for none, will never be able to bind us together in a common purpose. And bound together, in such purpose, is what we need to be.

Image Credits:
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(2) - 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

#282 / Life Tributes

In my blog post on Monday, "The Revelation of Marilynne Robinson," I made an assertion that I thought might not find immediate acceptance by many of those who read that blog posting. Specifically, I said that there is "goodness found in each of us." It was my claim that if we look for it "we can and will find goodness in other people."

Because there is plenty of evil to be found within us, and among us, and because we are all deep-dyed with selfishness, arroganace, narcissism and unconcern - all the bad things - I have to admit that it is pretty hard, sometimes, to believe that despite all those bad things, there is goodness within each one of us, too. 

The snarling racist, the antisemite, the unempathetic employer, store clerks who can't be bothered, the people who throw their trash in the streets, or who cut into the front of the line, the parents who abuse their children, the sexual predators - there are many examples of how evil invades us, in greater and lesser degrees. We see it in politics, and we see it everywhere, and all the time, and sometimes the examples are as bad as that racist William Zanzinger, portrayed by Bob Dylan, who "killed for no reason, who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning." If you have heard the song, you know what I'm talkin' about. 

The presence of evil within our world - and in each one of us - is so evident that it is difficult, sometimes, to maintain a belief that there is also a deep goodness within us all, which is what that review of Marilynne Robinson's latest book contends. If there is such a goodness - a goodness not only in ourselves, but in others - that is a goodness to which we can appeal.

One way to help strengthen our belief that we can, and should, rely on our ability to find goodness within other people is to read the obituaries. Mostly, judging from my own habits, we may scan the obituary pages to see if anyone we know has died - or if anyone famous has died. Older people - again, judging from my own habits - are inclined to check the birth year of the persons who have died. Were they born before I was? Great; I've still got some years to go. Were they born after I was? Watch out! Caution! Will I be next?

What I am suggesting is that reading the obituaries - "Life Tributes," as the San Francisco Chronicle calls them - can serve another purpose, too. These brief reports on the lives of those who are no longer alive are almost always revealing of the depths of goodness that reside within our human community. These are persons you don't know. If you passed them on the street, you might not attribute any goodness to them at all. They might well not agree with you on politics or anything else. In fact, one of them might have done something selfish, inconsiderate, or rude right in front of your very eyes. But.... if we learn just a bit about their lives, and compare their lives to our own, that can help us appreciate that there are many, many good people in the world. 

I had that feeling when I read the "Life Tribute" to Ellen Sorah Horwitz Harris, who is pictured above. I didn't know her, but now I have read about her life, as you can, too (at the end of this blog posting). 

In politics, which at base is a kind of community conversation between ALL of us, leading to decisions that will then guide our collective actions, it is hard to make the process work if we can't talk to everyone. To make politics work, we must not only recognize our differences, but also our commonalities. If we can assume that everyone has some goodness, deep inside, to which we can appeal, it will be a lot easier to work together to confront our challenges and to realize our possibilities. When we no longer believe that such appeals are possible as to those of a different party, race, ethnicity, gender - when we have lost faith in the essential human goodness of those with whom we are in disagreement - our common life together becomes at first difficult, and then impossible. 

We are pushing the limits of impossible right now. So, I am reading the obituaries more and more, realizing how people I didn't know are a lot like me: filled with flaws and imperfections, undoubtedly (like I am), but decent and good, persons to whom I can appeal. 

If this realization is true for those who have died, it must also be true for those still living, those with whom we share this world. It is worth my time to get to know other people better, as a reminder that we must never give up on our human connections, and that despite all our differences, which certainly exist, which are often profound, and serious, there is always a possibility for us to cooperate, and collaborate, find common ground.


Ellen Sorah Horwitz Harris
December 3, 1922 - September 28, 2020
Ellen Sorah Horwitz Harris born December 3, 1922 (Minneapolis, MN) to Bertha and Aaron Horwitz, Eastern European immigrants, passed away on September 28, 2020 in her home of 70 years in San Francisco's Noe Valley. 

Listening to her own drummer and not overly concerned with convention, Ellen lived an adventurous and full life. She took a high school journalism class from Ellis Harris and it seems it was love at first sight. After graduating from the University of Minnesota she received her MSW from Smith College. In 1944 Ellen accepted a job in Hawaii (her choices were Hawaii or Alaska and having been raised in Duluth, Hawaii sounded good). During WWll, travel out of San Francisco required a convoy, and while waiting for her ship to depart, she and Ellis, who was stationed in Dallas with the army air corps decided to get married over the phone. The presiding rabbi was a "little deaf" and the phone connection was weak, but the marriage was declared legal and they remained partners in love for 70 plus years. 

Upon Ellis's discharge, he joined her and a second wedding in Hawaii followed for friends and family. Ellen's first job was at Children and Families Service in Honolulu. Their years in Hawaii were magical, full of remote hiking adventures, close friends and causes including support of the sugar cane workers and the creation of the state of Israel. In 1950 they moved to San Francisco where they raised three children. Not wanting the confines of a single job Ellen had many: private practice therapist, school counselor, social worker at Family Service and Mt Zion Hospital, and teacher. Ellen kept a psychotherapy practice well into her 90's. She championed civil rights, social justice, world peace, protecting the environment, and improving education, both on local and international levels and often incorporating these causes into her work. 

The Harris house was open to all, hosting a wide variety of people and events. In the City Ellen and Ellis enjoyed art, ballet, theater and playing tennis, and at their beloved second home on the Russian River there was more tennis and the peace and beauty of nature. As a mother she provided both a rich environment to play and learn and freedom to explore. As a grandmother she delighted in her four granddaughters, and took pleasure in watching many soccer, basketball and ballet performances over the years and took great pride as a fourth generation of women obtained their college degrees. Ellen was proud of her mother Bertha who was the first in her family to graduate from college.

Always fully engaged, Ellen's intellect and passion for life kept her involved in many activities and projects. She was a constant reader. She loved her plants, and nurtured multiple gardens. She and Ellis traveled the world, she taking movies and he editing and narrating them to share with friends and family. 

She is survived by her three children, Michael Harris (Becca) daughter Zoe, Deborah Harris (Don) daughter Jennifer and Peter Harris (Sheri), Erin and Toby, and many, many books and plants.

Image Credit:

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

#281 / Looting

Vicky Osterweil, pictured above, is advancing a controversial thesis. She contends that looting is not, really, all that bad. In fact, Osterweil thinks it is a positive thing, and she outlines this thesis in her recent book, In Defense of Looting.

To find out how Osterweil justifies looting, you could, of course, buy a copy of her book. Before you do that, you might want to read a conversation between Osterweil and Issac Chotiner, published in The New Yorker magazine. By reading that article, you could save yourself some money.*

Chotiner'a article, published by The New Yorker online on September 3, 2020, is titled, "Examining Vicky Osterweil’s Case for Looting." Just click that link to be directed to the Chotiner-Osterweil conversation. The New Yorker article seems to give a pretty good overview of Osterweil's argument. Osterweil says, for instance: 

  • I don’t believe that we will be able to find justice in the voting booth. We face ecological and social crises right now, like horrible police violence and killing that is unending, and the rise of a far right.
  • I think that any real social change has come from people moving in the streets, has come from people fighting outside of elections and outside of the parliamentary method that we’re taught in a civics class, if people still have those.
  • One of the criticisms of looters comes from within the movement, and it’s often people who are sympathetic but relatively new to thinking about these things, and they have a reflexive anti-looting position that has to do with the fact that it’s a very radical and frightening tactic. The book is written, in part, to those people, not to critique them but to help them see the ways in which, in fact, it is a powerful tactic that goes back to our whole history of liberation struggles.
  • I don’t think [looters] are necessarily revolutionary activists acting with political consciousness. I think a lot of people think that, in order for something to be political, people have to be yelling a slogan as they do it or something, that there’s a standard at which something becomes political that’s based in the intentions of what the person is doing. And I don’t subscribe to that belief in political action. I think that actions have their own effects and logics and that we are in a moment during those riots that is a generalized moment of anti-police action. People are in the streets. They’re chanting, “Black lives matter.”
  • I think there’s also a liberatory political character to people just getting what they want for free ... Rich people get it from the exploitation of people working for them and through their generation of rents and profits, through labor and through ownership of factories and stores. I think that when people loot during a riot, they are solving a lot of the immediate problems that make their lives very, very hard, and they may also take the opportunity to make their lives more pleasurable. Liquor is also really expensive, and it’s often one of the only pleasures people who live in those neighborhoods can actually afford, but it’s still expensive on their terms. And being able to have that stuff for free allows you to have more communal pleasure, pleasures that are totally normal. 
  • I certainly don’t think that any ends justify any means, or that any action is acceptable. I think that revolutionaries have made a tremendous number of mistakes, going in authoritarian directions with terrors and violence that I think have been ill placed, but I think it is really about centering and understanding the fact that Black oppression in this country, and the class and colonial oppression has gone alongside that, is an ongoing travesty, a total tragedy, and most of the things that happen during looting and rioting are happening in self-defense against those systems, as an attempt to break away from that form of oppression.

I think it is always worthwhile to try to understand things - really understand them. The more we understand things, the more power we will have to act in new, and courageous, and positive ways. It is particularly true that we should try to understand the things that we find offensive, that we find threatening, and that we almost immediately reject. It is good to learn more about whatever those things are, and to think about them, as a way to understand them better. 

I instinctively reject looting. I don't like it. I do find it threatening. I don't think it's "right." All the more reason, then, for me to listen to what Osterweil has to say. Osterweil's analysis can help inform our understanding of looting, and if we force ourselves to think about looting, and try to understand it, that is both important and worthwhile. 

But "understanding" something, and "defending" it, are not quite the same. It may well be appropriate to think about what Osterweil says, but that is not a claim that her points are valid. The article by Matt Taibbi, referenced earlier, definitely presents the "other side."


On Tuesday, June 20, 2020, I wrote a blog post titled, "Ending The War." It was prompted by the civil disturbances then occurring in connection with the protests that immediately followed the callous killing of George Floyd. I included a video of Kimberly Jones, talking about looting.

I invite you to click that link and to listen to Kimberly Jones. Jones is a Black woman, speaking with passionate anger. When she talks about looting, as she does near the end of the video clip, she speaks out of that anger, and not in the cold and anlytical style of Osterweil. To my mind, this makes Jones' comments more worthy of attention than what Osterweil has to say, and I actually think that Kimberly Jones ended her angry justification of looting by showing us a way forward.

Let's try to understand - really understand - what's going on. Listen to Kimberly Jones, and think about this picture, taken from my June 20, 2020, blog post. I think it points us in the right direction: 

*You might also read this article by Matt Taibbi, who (properly, in my view) denounces the Osterweil thesis.

Image Credits:
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(2) - Ted Smith Facebook Page, June 15, 2020

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

#280 / Tapping The Brakes

When it's time to slow down, when we suddenly realize that we are going WAY too fast, that would be the time that we would like to be able to "tap the brakes." 

Slamming on the brakes, if you have to do that, usually means that you haven't been paying enough attention, and that you're trying, too late, to avoid a disastrous collision. Lets just hope that isn't the situation. 

You are driving along, let's say, sort of paying attention, but maybe you are talking to a friend on your cellphone. You are a bit distracted. You are driving along, distracted - but just a little bit, maybe - and then you notice that you are going WAY too fast for current conditions. 

The last time you remember noticing, the road was smooth. Now, you notice that the road ahead is filled with potholes. It could be that it's starting to rain. Maybe you see a few snowflakes on the windshield. Maybe there is a burning car in one of the lanes ahead. The cars in front of you are starting to look like boulders in the road, instead of fellow travelers, all heading, along with you, in the same direction. 

If you're lucky, you'll have time to "tap the breaks," and to slow down, and to regain full control of your vehicle. You'll have an ability to ease ahead without running into that big tractor trailer in your lane, that HUGE tractor trailer that you now realize has come to a complete stop. 

Hopefully, you won't have to try any last minute, dangerous swerves, seeking room, somewhere, to avoid the immovable obstacle in front of you, an obstacle even bigger than that proverbial elephant in the room. Swinging onto the shoulder on the right, for instance, is always really dangerous. So is crossing into the oncoming lanes, as some sort of a last resort strategy.

When you are heading into a potentially dangerous situation, it's always best if you can "tap the brakes." Slow down, gradually, maybe even stop for a while; take a detour if you must. Anything to avoid running, full speed, into what amounts to a solid brick wall that you are approaching WAY too fast. 


This realistic description of what a driving emergency might feel like is intended to conjure up, in your mind, the possibility that our current social, political, and economic situation is pretty much just like that. 

If you don't think so, that means that you haven't been paying enough attention. 

Let's just hope that we have enough time, and the presence of mind, to start "tapping the brakes" before we run, full speed, into that brick wall coming up ahead.

Image Credit:

Monday, October 5, 2020

#279 / The Revelation Of Marilynne Robinson

That is Marilynne Robinson, pictured above. The image has been captured from an article published in the October 5, 2020 edition of The New Yorker

Online, the title of The New Yorker article is: "Marilynne Robinson’s Essential American Stories." I much prefer the title provided in the hard copy version of the magazine: 

Book Of Revelation

Robinson is both an essayist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of fiction. She is also a Congregationalist preacher. Her most recent book is Jack, the latest in a series of novels, the first in the series being titled, Gilead. The quotation below is the last two paragraphs in The New Yorker article, and they did strike me as providing a kind of "revelation," though I don't know whether they will seem like a revelation to you - to whomever may be reading this. 

"Jack" is the fictional character that Robinson is writing about in her latest book. He is white, the son of a preacher, and he is more or less a good-for-nothing, having an alcohol problem, and having been in and out of jail. Della is a black school teacher, and the two have most inexplicably met and fallen in love. The real purpose of this blog posting, pretty much, is to share the two paragraphs below, with the hope that readers may be as moved and impressed as I was by the following observation: 

The final scene of “Jack” is set in one of the most famously contested spaces of the civil-rights movement. In the hands of a lesser novelist it would seem unconvincing or contrived, but in Robinson’s hands it is revelatory. Jack and Della are together yet necessarily apart, seated on a segregated bus. They have decided against their families and in favor of each other, and Della is pregnant with their child, who everyone worries will have a more difficult life than either of his parents. We know from “Gilead” that, in eight years, Jack will find the courage to return home to Iowa, after a two-decade absence, and will appeal to his namesake for help convincing his father and the rest of the town to accept his wife and son. And we know that there will be another twinned generation of these two families, in the form of two boys named Robbie: Robert Ames, the son of the elderly John Ames, and Robert Boughton Miles, Jack and Della’s little boy. But, for now, Robinson leaves the lovers in motion, in the middle of their own lives, in the middle of history.

It is in this moment that we realize that Marilynne Robinson’s grand restoration project includes one of the oldest but most misunderstood stories we tell about ourselves. Like Adam and Eve, Jack and Della are banished, but they are banished together, and that is enough of a miracle that Jack reconsiders what he has always thought about Genesis: that the fallenness it describes is his lot in life, and our lot in the universe. Too often, he now thinks, we attend to only “half of the primal catastrophe,” focussing on what was lost in the garden while forgetting what was gained. But, Robinson insists, “guilt and grace met together,” for in eating from the tree of knowledge we did not only learn about evil. We also learned about goodness (emphasis added).

All of us, right now, in whatever condition we find ourselves, are likely thinking about the fallenness of our nation, about what we have lost, about everything that we have let slip away. Different varieties of evil consume our thoughts, from racial injustice, to the climate crisis, to the global pandemic that has brought death to so many, to the unfairness and inequality of our economic system, to the dangers that threaten our attenuated democracy. These evils are so obvious and so threatening that we can hardly think of anything else. 

But is there, perhaps, something that we have forgotten, that we have overlooked? Is there not a profound and saving goodness, to which we all have access, and to which we can all repair?

The goodness found in each one of us is what I mean, the goodness we can find in one another. Of course, we do need to look for it; we need to have to have the faith that if we do look for it, we both can and will find goodness in other people. 

Of course, we do have to look. But when we do that, when we look, don't we see that goodness there?

I think we do.

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