Tuesday, October 16, 2018

#289 / First Step Was Touching The Moon

Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth
He can do with it as he please
And if things don’t change soon, he will
Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

These lyrics are from Bob Dylan's song, "License to Kill," which is found on his Infidels album (1983). They are particularly relevant to my "Two Worlds Hypothesis," which I continue to believe is worth thinking about. 

The idea is simple enough. Though we assume and act as though we live in a single, unified "world," and that pine trees and the U.S. Capitol Building are congruent realities, that is not actually the case. 

We live in two different worlds, simultaneously. Most immediately, we live in a human world that we create. Ultimately, however, we live in and are dependent upon the World of Nature. Humans may "rule" the Earth, but that doesn't mean that we can "do with it as we please." At least, we can't do what we please with the Earth without paying the price!

Humans do tend to think that we can do whatever we want to do with the World of Nature, but that is a big mistake. Let's take another look at those California wildfires (one of which is pictured below), and try not to fool ourselves about global warming. We are destroying both our human world and the Natural World by ignoring the laws that govern the World of Nature.  

We have acted, as Bob Dylan says, as though we can do as we please with the Natural World. I guess,  literally speaking, we "can." But if we do as we please, and ignore the laws that apply in the Natural World, we will suffer the consequences: 

Some thoughtful observers have already declared "game over" for human civilization, based on our continuing human refusal to confront the global warming limits that ultimtely determine whether or not human life on Earth will continue. The fact that there are such limits is becoming ever more apparent. Is it really "game over?" This might be true. 

But whether or not we are already at the end of the game, did it really all start with "touching the moon?"

I think that this assertion could be a kind of poetic license on Dylan's part, but a human determination to escape the limits of the Earth is definitely connected to the kind of human arrogance that continues to ignore all kinds of limitations imposed by the World of Nature.

I was intrigued by a recent article by Barry Vacker, writing in Medium. Vacker says that the picture at the top of this blog post is the "original" of the famous NASA "Earthrise" photo, the first photo of the Earth from space. Here is how we are used to seeing this picture: 

That isn't actually the way the photo was taken, according to Vacker. NASA "tilted" the picture to give Earth preeminence, something that Vacker says turns the photograph into "NASA’s Icon of Human Narcissism."

Rather than illustrate our actual place in the universe, the photo was altered by NASA to maintain the illusion of human centrality amid the cosmic void surrounding Earth. Five decades later, NASA’s move has proven prophetic for post-Apollo culture. Earthrise is the first “Earth selfie” and points directly toward the Anthropocene, social media culture, and humanity’s deep narcissism—still pretending to be the center of the universe, the center of all value, purpose, and meaning on Earth and beyond.

I think it is time to stop playing "let's pretend." Let's not pretend, anymore, that we are not utterly dependent on Planet Earth, and the World of Nature. 

Who gonna take away his license to kill?

Image Credits:
(1) - https://medium.com/explosion-of-awareness/nasas-icon-of-human-narcissism-the-50th-anniversary-of-earthrise-and-what-it-means-for-the-21st-155082710212
(2) - http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-climate-action-08122018-story.html(3) - https://medium.com/explosion-of-awareness/nasas-icon-of-human-narcissism-the-50th-anniversary-of-earthrise-and-what-it-means-for-the-21st-155082710212

Monday, October 15, 2018

#288 / Honest Don?

The New York Times ran two stories on Sunday, October 14, 2018, spotlighting our president's penchant for barnstorming political rallies. One article was titled, "The Trump Rally: A Play in Three Acts." The other article was titled, "A Guide to Trump’s Stump Speeches for the Midterm Campaigns." They are both worth reading.

I remember back to the presidential primaries, in 2016, before now-president Trump had secured the Republican Party nomination. I almost accidentally ended up watching a complete Trump rally, and my heart sank. Just looking at the rally, as someone with political experience, I had to admit that Mr. Trump was really good at what he was doing, building a strong political base of support for himself, and energizing voters for the things he was advocating. 

He is still doing it, and I am similarly nervous about the current primary season. The fact that our barnstorming president is back on the road, whipping up the voters and demonstrating his political fervor for the political goals he is advancing, is not good news. 

In connection with what I could call my version of the "Worried Man Blues," because I am worried, I must report on a column by Marc Thiessen, also appearing in my Sunday newspapers. Thiessen is a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, and his column on Sunday was called, "Trump could be the most honest president in modern history."

Considering that the president is so well known for his consumate and seriatum prevarication, what could Thiessen possibly be talking about? 

Well, Thiessen is talking about the fact that President Trump appears to be carrying out his campaign promises - or at least he is trying to (which is exactly what our elected officials are supposed to do, and something that they rarely do in fact).

I am not about to start calling our president "Honest Don," but I do think Thiessen's point is well-taken. The American people are sick up to here with a politics that doesn't live up to its purpose, which is to reflect and accomplish the hopes and aspirations of the voters. A politician and an elected official who does that is rare.

I, personally, think that what the majority of the American voters hope for and aspire to is a future quite different from the future that is featured in the Trump rallies. But if those with different hopes and dreams want to have a government that can (and will) accomplish them, we're going to need candidates who seem "honest" in the way that Donald Trump seems honest. 

I'm looking at what happens to Beto O'Rourke, in Texas. He strikes me as another one of those "honest politicians," but one with much better values. 

We need a lot of those!

Image Credit:

Sunday, October 14, 2018

#287 / Playing The Arenas

Michelle Obama has written a book. It will soon be available for purchase, and the author is going on one of those promotional book tours that generally accompany the publication of a new book that the publishing house thinks will be a big seller. Michelle Obama's book tour is going to be a bit different from the typical book tour, however: 

While other authors typically follow a circuit that may include podcast interviews and stops at the 92nd Street Y in New York and Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., Mrs. Obama is set to embark on a 10-city tour put together by Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter, which manages about 500 artists, including Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé and U2. Tickets are available, while they last, from Ticketmaster. 
A fifth-row seat at the Barclays Center goes for $1,256.00. A seat in the front row, with a “meet & greet package” thrown in, will cost you up to $3,000. Wheelchair seating in the back of the house is listed at $400, while a spot in the upper tiers could be had for $29.50. 

The last First Lady to do a promotional book tour, Hillary Clinton, spoke in auditoriums which seated about 3,500 persons. Michelle Obama is shooting to sell those pricey tickets in arena venues with seating capacities on the order of 20,000. 

In The New York Times' article from which the quotes above were taken, Anand Giridharadas, who has written a critique of modern philanthropy, made the following comment, which caught my attention: 

An arena with tiered seating is a powerful metaphor for everything they presumably want to destroy. What this illustrates to me is that cashing in has become our common culture in a way we don’t realize. It’s the water in which we’re all swimming.”

I have a couple of responses to Giridharadas' observations. First, not all of us are swimming in the "cashing in" culture that does seem to infect some former Presidents and some former First Ladies. I think it's too bad, frankly, that the Obamas have also caught the bug. In my opinion, one of the reasons that Hillary and Bill Clinton are not very much liked as persons (and I do contend that this is true, though I may just be reflecting my own feelings) is their very public and very successful effort to "monetize" their past public service, charging something like $250,000 for a single speech. 

The conflation of extreme wealth with public office is the opposite of what our democracy needs. Our current president, of course, went from being a real estate and media mogul to the presidency. According to the article, which indicates that the Obamas are starting a new film production company, former president Obama is attempting to reverse the Trump trajectory, going from president to media mogul.

Here's my second response related to Giridharadas' observation that locating the former First Lady's speeches in "arena tiered seating" sends exactly the wrong political message to those whom are being addressed. 

I agree with Giridhaaradas. Democracy is not a "spectator sport," and political figures who promote a culture of watching the "stars" perform send exactly the wrong message about what we need to do to save democracy and save our nation.

Want a good model of a former First Lady? Think about Eleanor Roosevelt. After she was no longer First Lady she worked tirelessly for passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - and  she succeeded, too. 

Image Credit:

Saturday, October 13, 2018

#286 / Jobs For Everyone

William Darity Jr. is an economist and the director of Duke University’s Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity. He is pictured above. According to an article from the OZY.com online news site, Darity not only has a viable plan to provide a quality job for everyone; he plays the blues harmonica, too. Hey, what's not to like?

The truth of our human situation is that we are "in this life together." If that is true, then every one of us has a motivation to make sure that every single person can live a productive, positive life. When that is true, we are all better off. I remember how inspired I was when I first read about the WPA, which was a response to the Great Depression, and which did, in fact, aim to provide quality jobs for those who weren't otherwise able to find them. 

The OZY article on Dr. Darity's ideas is well worth reading. Making that commitment to our mutual productivity would be a commitment well worth making! 

Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.ozy.com/rising-stars/a-job-for-everyone-this-21st-century-keynes-says-its-possible/88688
(2) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_Progress_Administration

Friday, October 12, 2018

#285 / In Person

If you'd like to spend an hour with Hannah Arendt and Nobel Prize Winnter Günter Grass, by all means click on the link above, which will take you to a conversation in German, presented with English subtitles. 

Some of the comments on this video (presumably made by persons with a good command of both German and English) indicate that the English translations are not the greatest. In addition, both Arendt and Grass spend the entire hour smoking, virtually continuously, which was certainly disconcerting to me. 

That said, this video does provide a wonderful example of Hannah Arendt's penetrating mind, and demonstrates her prodigious ability to explain her complex thoughts in a way that makes them understandable. It is also a wonderful demonstration of her profound humanity. 

In the current climate of extreme political polarization, I have been trying to argue for the idea that "good people do exist," and that our "plurality," to use Arendt's term, and our "diversity," to use a more modern rendition, do not automatically preclude the kind of debate and discussion that can lead people to change their minds and find agreement, thus making collective self-government possible. 

To achieve that that kind of dialogue, courage is a primary requirement. We must have the courage to state our views and beliefs forthrightly, not tailoring them to what we know will be acceptable to those with whom we are engaged in discussion. We must have the courage, as well, to change our minds! Real politics demands nothing less.

At the very end of this video, Grass asks Arendt to talk about her statement, which he quotes: "Humanity is never acquired in solitude, but by a venture into the public realm." 

What do you mean by this "venture into the public realm," asks Grass. Arendt's response, I thought, was a profound statement of her basic approach to thinking and to taking political action. 

A "venture into the public realm," says Arendt, can be of two kinds. First, one must be willing to expose oneself to the light of the public by both speaking and acting, with speech being understood as itself a kind of action. That is one form of the venture. The second form of the venture is that "we start something." When we do "start something," Arendt says, we "weave our own, created strand into a network of relations. What comes of it we never know. We must all say, 'Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do,' for that is the plain fact, true of all actions." 

Arendt concludes her response to Grass by saying that a "venture into the public realm," the thing Grass has asked her about, is only possible "when there is a trust in mankind, a trust in what is human in all people."

We must, in other words, as I understand what Arendt says, have the courage to believe that we can, in fact, find "what is human" in all people. That is, in a way, a kind of "faith." Without that faith we will never be able to speak out or act, either one, and while we never know what will come of any action we take, or words we say, there is a truth, which we do know well (and this, I take it, is the truth that Arendt explains in her response to Grass' question):

Nothing ventured. Nothing gained.

Image Credit:

Thursday, October 11, 2018

#284 / Grading The Truth Test

Paul Krugman didn't mince words in his October 9, 2018, New York Times column:

Many people are worried, rightly, about what the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh means for America in the long term. He’s a naked partisan who clearly lied under oath about many aspects of his personal history.... Putting such a man on the Supreme Court has, at a stroke, destroyed the court’s moral authority for the foreseeable future.

Krugman is always a promoter of and an apologist for the Democratic Party and its policy positions, so it is no surprise that he had the reaction to the Kavanaugh confirmation that I have quoted above. Krugman was not just "venting," however. His column was issuing a call to action. 

Identifying the Republican Party as "an authoritarian regime in waiting," Krugman addresses the question that is implicit in that characterization, i.e., what are they waiting for? Here is Krugman positing that question (and then answering it):

As I said, the G.O.P. is an authoritarian regime in waiting, not yet one in practice. What's it waiting for?

Krugman suggests (and this resonates with my own sense of where we are) that the Republican Party is waiting to see whether or not they will retain control of both houses of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections:  

Think of what Trump and his party nmight do if they retain both houses of Congress in the coming election. If you aren't terrified of where we might be in the very near future, you aren't paying attention.

Krugman's "call to action," in other words, is for Democratic Party voters to go to the polls in record numbers and to vote for Democrats. Again, I'm with Krugman on that!

I want to explore just a bit further, however, Krugman's idea that the Republican Party (and perhaps the Supreme Court) might move towards an authoritarian form of government, and what can be done about it. Authoritarian governments always operate in an environment in which the government (and its apologists) ignore "truth" and "reality," and essentially take the position that "if I say something is true, then you must accept what I say as truth in fact."

As we know, our President definitely takes this approach. It is Krugman's complaint that this is just what the Senate did, too. Those who paid attention understood quite well that Brett Kavanaugh did not tell the truth, as he confronted questions about his drinking behavior and preoccupation with sex as an adolescent and young adult. This statement about Kavanaugh's dishonesty applies even if you assume that he did not attempt to rape Christine Blasey Ford (and I think he did), or that he simply had no recollection of this event (something I also think is unlikely, but might be true). If he wanted to take either of those positions, hopefully, because they were true, Kavanaugh could have admitted to an adolescence and early adulthood in which drinking and an outsized preoccupation with sex played a big part. That is what was demonstrably true, and yet this is what Kavanaugh essentially denied. Asking forgiveness for his past bad behavior, and apologizing for any actions that may have hurt others, would have allowed the Senate to do what it did anyway, but to do so on the basis of what might well have qualified as an honest presentation by Kavanaugh. Instead (and I agree with Krugman), Kavanaugh lied, and the Senate pretended that he didn't.

It is the "pretended" part that is the most troubling. The president pretends that things he says are true when they are demonstrable lies. And the Senate did the same thing with respect to the Kavanaugh testimony.

This gives us two branches of government that have demonstrated a willingness to pretend that truth and reality aren't what they actually are. What about that third branch of government, the Supreme Court?

Putting a liar on the Supreme Court isn't going to help, of course, but I'd like to point out that the Supreme Court has already demonstrated its willingness to "pretend" something is different from what it really is, in the course of justifying governmental conduct that infringes on liberty and human rights. If you'd like to read the decision in Trump v. Hawaii, which validated President Trump's "Muslim ban," all the while denying that this is what the Court was doing, you can click this link. The Supreme Court that made this decision did not include Brett Kavanaugh. His supposedly more "moderate" predecessor, Anthony Kennedy, joined with the majority to ratify the President's actions imposing a "Muslim ban," while pretending that significant issues of national security were the motivating factor. The dissent of Justice Sotomayor makes it all quite clear.

When our governmental institutions are willing, officially, to "pretend" that something is true, when it is actually not true, then we are definitely on the doorstep of authoritarianism.

Electing Democrats would definitely help stave off further examples, but what REALLY keeps our potentially authoritarian government "in waiting" is us! Just remember what happened when the president first tried out that "Muslim ban" idea. Thousands of citizens thronged the airports and shut them down. The version of the "Muslim ban" that the Supreme Court approved this past June was much watered down and was the president's third version.

Authoritarian actions by our government can be stopped. We just need to insist on the REAL truth, not on a "pretend" version of the truth that can be justified by some sort of contrived documentation (as the third version of the "Muslim ban" was, and as the Kavanaugh confirmation was, with the demonstrably incomplete FBI report playing the validating role).

Electing Democrats will help; that is what Krugman is advising. But get ready for direct action, too. We may need to go back to the airports, and we may need to be prepared to show up in other places, as well, if our authoritarian government "in waiting" decides to stop "waiting" and tries to implement actions that will put our democratic freedoms in peril.

Authoritarian actions can only prevail if an authoritarian government can make the people accept lies in place of the truth. Whenever such an effort is made, we are put to the test - and so are the claims made by the government.

The Senate has been tested by a lying president. It failed the test. The Supreme Court (before Kavanaugh) has been tested by a lying president. It failed the test. In the end, however, it is our entire nation that will be tested by efforts to transform our system into an authoritarian government, and it is we the people who will grade that test!

Image Credit:

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

#283 / Snitch Culture

I was impressed by the article, "I Was the Mob Until the Mob Came for Me." The article is the confession of an online social justice crusader who crusaded by attacking those who were not sufficiently committed to the social justice causes he championed: 

I was a self-righteous social justice crusader. I would use my mid-sized Twitter and Facebook platforms to signal my wokeness on topics such as LGBT rights, rape culture, and racial injustice. Many of the opinions I held then are still opinions that I hold today. But I now realize that my social-media hyperactivity was, in reality, doing more harm than good.
Every time I would call someone racist or sexist, I would get a rush. That rush would then be reaffirmed and sustained by the stars, hearts, and thumbs-up that constitute the nickels and dimes of social media validation. The people giving me these stars, hearts, and thumbs-up were engaging in their own cynical game: A fear of being targeted by the mob induces us to signal publicly that we are part of it. 
Just a few years ago, many of my friends and peers who self-identify as liberals or progressives were open fans of provocative standup comedians such as Sarah Silverman, and shows like South Park. Today, such material is seen as deeply “problematic,” or even labeled as hate speech. I went from minding my own business when people told risqué jokes to practically fainting when they used the wrong pronoun or expressed a right-of-center view. I went from making fun of the guy who took edgy jokes too seriously, to becoming that guy. 
When my callouts were met with approval and admiration, I was lavished with praise: “Thank you so much for speaking out!” “You’re so brave!” “We need more men like you!”

Here is how it came down:

Then one day, suddenly, I was accused of some of the very transgressions I’d called out in others. I was guilty, of course: There’s no such thing as due process in this world. And once judgment has been rendered against you, the mob starts combing through your past, looking for similar transgressions that might have been missed at the time. I was now told that I’d been creating a toxic environment for years at my workplace; that I’d been making the space around me unsafe through microaggressions and macroaggressions alike.
I drive food delivery for an online app to make rent and support myself and my young family. This is my new life. I once had a well paid job in what might be described as the social justice industry. Then I upset the wrong person, and within a short window of time, I was considered too toxic for my employer’s taste. I was publicly shamed, mobbed, and reduced to a symbol of male privilege. I was cast out of my career and my professional community. Writing anything under my own byline now would invite a renewal of this mobbing—which is why, with my editor’s permission, I am writing this under a pseudonym. He knows who I am. 
Social justice is a surveillance culture, a snitch culture. The constant vigilance on the part of my colleagues and friends did me in. That’s why I’m delivering sushi and pizza. Not that I’m complaining. It’s honest work, and it’s led me to rediscover how to interact with people in the real world. I am a kinder and more respectful person now that I’m not regularly on social media attacking people for not being “kind” and “respectful.”

The phenomenon talked about here isn't uncommon. The warning is one that all of us who communicate online should take seriously.

To me, the key observation is that we need always to be in touch with "people in the real world." The digital/virtual world of social media tempts us to detach ourselves from the people who will be affected by our actions and our words.

Always better face to face!

Image Credit:

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

#282 / Don't Pull That Trigger

I have a theory, mentioned in earlier blog postings, that people very often do what they think is "expected." A recent article published in Medium provides a bit of corroborating evidence, in the context of a social science experiment on "trigger warnings." 

If you teach, you will have heard about trigger warnings. The idea is that certain students may have had past experiences that were profoundly traumatic (the trauma caused by a rape, or by child abuse, etc.) and that talking about a subject like that, particularly with no advance notice, will "trigger" an emotional upset in such a student, related back to the original incident. By telling students in advance that the teacher will be discussing some such topic, students who might suffer an emotional reaction form a discussion of the topic are warned, so they can be prepared; or, in some cases, can actually exit the classroom to avoid the topic entirely. 

There are strong feelings on both sides about whether trigger warnings should be routinely provided in college classrooms, and otherwise. Because there is a debate about this issue, social scientists are, naturally, addressing it by doing various social science experiments. A Medium article entitled, "It’s Official — Trigger Warnings Might Actually Be Harmful," reports on one such experiment intended to reveal the actual impact of trigger warnings. If you are interested in the topic, by all means read the article, linked above. 

While I am interested in trigger warnings, since I do teach college classes, what most struck me about the article was not so much the specific findings of the study discussed but a more general rule that the study might reveal. Here is how the experiment was set up: 

In an online experiment, Benjamin Bellet, Payton Jones, and Richard McNally divided 270 Americans into two groups. Each group was assigned to read a series of passages from classic pieces of literature. All participants read ten passages, five of which contained no distressing material, and five of which contained severely distressing material (e.g., depictions of murder). 
The two groups randomly created by the researchers were labelled the “trigger warning condition” and the “control condition”. In the trigger warning condition, each passage was preceded by the following statement: TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma. No such warning was given in the control condition.
Emotional ratings about three “mildly distressing” passages were taken before and after the block of ten test passages. This let the researchers find out participants baseline levels of anxiety, and to establish whether the presentation of trigger warnings affected this baseline rating. Emotional ratings were also collected after each markedly distressing passage (a measure of immediate anxiety). In addition to this, participants also provided ratings in relation to their perceptions of emotional vulnerability following trauma (both in relation to their own vulnerability, and that of others), their belief that words can cause harm and that the world is controllable, and finally completed an implicit association test measuring their own sense of vulnerability/resilience.

The result of the experiment? 

After controlling for various factors, such as sex, race, age, psychiatric history, and political orientation, the researchers found that those participants who received trigger warnings were significantly more likely (compared to those in the control condition) to suggest that they and others would be more vulnerable to emotional distress after experiencing trauma (emphasis added).

I see these results as a minor confirmation of a general truth about human behavior: we tend to act (not in all cases, but for the most part) as we believe that others expect us to. 

If I am right about this general truth, then we need to train ourselves to "expect the best" in all our human encounters. If we don't, we will likely find that we "experience the worst."

Getting what we expect. I do think there is a lot of truth in that.

Image Credit:

Monday, October 8, 2018

#281 / Fear Not

The illustration above comes from an article in the Saturday/Sunday, September 1-2, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal, "This Is Your Brain On the Internet." I think it is true, as the article suggests, that we worry far too much about dangers and disasters that are certainly possible, but that are not very likely to occur. I was particularly appreciative of what Lenore Skenazy had to say about childhood independence. She is the president of Let Grow, a nonprofit that sets out this statement of purpose: 

Treating today's kids as physically and emotionally fragile is bad for their future – and ours.

A real-life example of what Skenazy is talking about was a featured news story in the September 2, 2018, edition of The Mercury News. The article was titled, "The 'Invisible' Kid," and consisted of a long and hyperventilating description of how a five-year-old Oakland boy, Jackson Kirby, managed to make a three-mile walk from school to home with no adult participation.

One might have thought that this story would be framed as an inspiring tale of how a young man (a really young man) demonstrated self-reliance and fearlessness in the face of what could only appear to him to have been an abandonment. [The adult who was supposed to take him from school to an after-school daycare facility mistakenly left him behind]. Rather than telling the story that way, the article was a hysterical rumination on how could this young kid have walked three miles without anyone noticing that he was unaccompanied by an adult. "He doesn't know the gravity of what could have happened," the boy's father said.

Fear immobilizes. If we structure our lives around what we fear, we automatically make sure that our lives will be less productive, as we shortchange the possible. There is a new book out that makes just this point. I think it's a point worth making.

Like it says in the Bible (just plain old good advice, as much as spiritual teaching): Fear Not!

Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-world-isnt-as-bad-as-your-wired-brain-tells-you-1535713201
(2) - https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10209553554183365&set=pob.1462673770&type=3&theater

Sunday, October 7, 2018

#280 / Maybe Nationalism Is Not That Bad

Yoram Hazony, writing in The Wall Street Journal, makes a pitch for the value of "nationalism." His article, "The Liberty of Nations," is worth reading. One of the points he makes, but perhaps not his main point, is that a nation-state provides a structured "container," within which effective and democratic political action is possible. 

This is pretty much the same argument made by my favorite political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in an essay entitled, "Nation-State and Democracy," published in Thinking Without a Banister. Without some sort of political structure to support political action, totalitarianism results.

One lesson might be: make no excuses for your country, but love it all the same. Fix it. Don't nix it. 

Something like that!

Image Credit:

Saturday, October 6, 2018

#279 / Another World Is Within Reach

The way I think about it, a scientist often takes some very theoretical statement that tells the truth about how the world works, and then uses that scientific theory as a way to discover how to accomplish some very "non-theoretical" things. My favorite example? Einstein's equation: 

E = MC2

That famous formula suddenly reveals that even a very small amount of matter contains a prodigious amount of energy. So, there should be some way to turn matter into energy, right? Theoretically, that should be possible. And the scientists worked at it, and what do you know? That equation was right on the money! Now we have the atom bomb! 

Science can employ theory to create new realities in lots of other ways, too, including more positive and less destructive realities. Theory to practice; that's the scientific method.

Well, what about political science? Are there political theories that we can use to create new realities in our political world? I am saying, "yes."

One of my personal political theories is that our "political world" is a world in which anything is possible. That is because the world we most immediately inhabit, which I do insist is a "political" world, is not constrained by the kind of physical laws that govern the World of Nature. The World of Nature is a world that we did not create, and upon which we ultimately depend. Our "political" world is different. We do create that world. And we can create it as any kind of world we want!

In other words, to give an example, there is no reason that "marriage" has to be the union of a man and a woman. That's how it was, for a long time. But we decided to change that reality, and we did. Virtually all of the laws and rules that govern our political, social, and economic life - rules of taxation, and rules governing land use - are subject to change, based on human choice and human action. 

This brings me to the Labour Party in Great Britain, and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is pictured above. Corbyn and the Labour Party are proposing new forms of property ownership. That would be a real change! Click the link, above, to read an article discussing the proposals in some detail. Here is a brief introduction:

Who owns and controls capital – productive wealth – is among the most fundamental questions of political economy, central to understanding the operations of any economic system ... Responses to capitalist private ownership of the economy have traditionally divided along two main lines. In greatly simplified terms, state socialism placed ownership and control of capital with the state, whereas social democracy left it largely in private hands but sought to redistribute the returns through taxation and transfers. 
A neglected third tradition, however, largely eclipsed by the left’s great twentieth-century projects, is to be found in the long-running socialist commitment to economic democracy. The central idea of economic democracy is the notion of extending principles of popular sovereignty from the realm of politics and governance into economics. In A Preface to Economic Democracy, Robert Dahl defined economic democracy as 'help[ing] to strengthen political equality and democracy by reducing inequalities originating in the ownership and control of firms.' Approaching the question from the opposite end, G. D. H. Cole, the British socialist theorist and economic democracy advocate, argued that principles of democracy should apply 'not only or mainly to some special sphere of social action known as ‘politics’, but to any and every form of social action, and, in especial, to industrial and economic fully as much as to political offices.'

Essentially, the Labour Party is proposing that workers should own the "means of production" but not through "the state." Instead, turning workers into owners would be accomplished through the political process, by passing new laws that would redefine the way the economy is structured. Labour leaders are saying that this is not a "redistribution" of wealth, but a "predistribution."

A change like this would have an explosive impact in the political world. Would it be "destructive" or "constructive?" Such a change should be debated. The point is, if you believe my political science theory, this change in how our economy is structured is completely possible. That makes it well worth thinking about.


Image Credit:

Friday, October 5, 2018

#278 / Get Rich Quick! (Or Not)

The Wall Street Journal tells us that "crypto-tourists" are fleeing from the bitcoin binge that had earlier consumed them. 

I have two reactions: (#1) Good call! (#2) About time!

What stand-up comedian Lee Camp is telling us is no joke, either: "Wall Street Is the Definition of a Ponzi Scheme (Literally)." 

For the historically-minded, may I recommend (and not for the first time) Charles MacKay's wonderful book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. My father gave me a copy of that book about fifty years ago, and I think it has saved me money.

Wouldn't it be great if our tax and other laws elevated the advantages of "earned income," and made speculators who succeed help support the system that made it possible for them to get so rich, so quick?

Just a thought!

Image Credit:

Thursday, October 4, 2018

#277 / Constitutional Dictatorship

Clinton Rossiter, who was an American historian, wrote The American Presidency (pictured above). I remember reading that book way back when. He also wrote another book, which I just came across in a giveaway book bin: Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies. That is a timely title, of course, so I picked up the book, which I had never heard of.

I have a generally positive recollection of The American Presidency, which I must have read over fifty years ago when I was an undergraduate student. I do not have a similar good feeling about this other book. I was genuinely disturbed and distressed by the edition of Constitutional Dictatorship that I fished out of the book bin. The original edition of the book was written in 1948, immediately after the Second World War. It seems it went out of print pretty quickly. A new edition of Rossiter's book was then reissued in 2002, right after the terrorist attacks that occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001. 

William J. "Bill" Quirk, who currently represents the 20th Assembly District in the California State Assembly, wrote an introduction for the new edition of Constitutional Dictatorship and indicates that he approves the idea that what America really needs right now, in the aftermath of the successful terrorist attacks on 9-ll, is nothing less than a dictatorship: 

How shall we be governed during the War on Terrorism? Definitely not as we have in the past. Existing governing practices comprehensively failed to protect the people and cannot be continued. Since we have been forced to face the horrors of terror attacks on the United States we likewise need to consider the sort of government such a war will force us to adopt...

Rossiter's book is premised on the idea that democratic societies, when they face crises, need to set democracy aside, so they can really get to work on the problems that confront them. Democracies are inevitably unable to deal with crisis. That's what Rossiter argues, and that is what Quirk says, too. 

May I politely and profoundly disagree?

I assume that Quirk's introduction is, by now, an embarrassment to him. I surely hope so. Do we really want President Donald J. Trump to be our constitutional dictator? I am voting "NO."

I would vote "NO" on making Barack Obama a constitutional dictator, too. 

Please, people, let's have a little bit of faith in our system of democratic self-government! We have faced a lot of crises, from wars to economic collapse. No dictatorships have been required. 

Let's not start now.


Image Credit:

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

#276 / Elon Musk And The "Trump Truth" Standard

An article in the Saturday, September 29, 2018, edition of The New York Times was fascinating to me.  For those who may not be totally up to speed on the latest "Musk News," you should know that the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit against Musk, seeking an order that would prohibit him from acting as the C.E.O. of Tesla.*

The picture above was taken from a short opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, dated in August, before the S.E.C. took action. It was written by Harvey L. Pitt, who was chairman of the S.E.C. from 2001-03.  Mr. Pitt's Wall Street Journal statement indicates why such a lawsuit, charging Musk with fraud, should be no surprise to anyone. In short, Musk's public claim that he had "funding secured" for a buyout of current Tesla stockholders was apparently fraudulent, and the untruth of his statement was "flagrant." Pitt predicted, in August, and in contradiction to other informed persons mentioned in his statement, that the S.E.C. would not take this lightly and would proceed against Musk.

The more recent New York Times article outlines what actually happened subsequent to Pitt's statement of informed opinion. In fact, the S.E.C. did not move directly to its lawsuit, charging Musk with securities fraud, but tried to "settle" its grievance against Musk. A proposed settlement, agreed to by the S.E.C., did not contain any admission by Musk that he had done something wrong, but it also did not contain a statement that Musk was blameless in leading investors, and others in the public, to believe something that wasn't true. Because the proposed settlement didn't ratify the behavior that Mr. Pitt called "flagrant," and behavior that seems, on the face of it, to have been "fraudulent," Musk walked away from a settlement that would have avoided the lawsuit that now threatens to bring down not only Musk, but Tesla, and then perhaps his other companies, too.

What was fascinating to me about the article in The Times is the fact that Musk, quite clearly, was arguing for an ability to make factually untrue statements on the basis that the "facts" were what he thought and not a real-world reality divorced from his own subjective interpretation of the real.

Does this remind you of our president? Musk claimed, in a Tweet, that he had "funding secured" for a buyout of current Tesla stockholders at a price significantly above the stock's then-current price. People who believed him made financial decisions based on this claim, which was false. 

True, Musk had talked to some people in Saudi Arabia who "could" have provided the funding that he so boldly claimed was "secured," but there was no written commitment, and the funding was not "secured" at all. Making such a statement was a textbook violation of the securities laws. It was, in fact, securities fraud. Pitt is right that the S.E.C. shouldn't take lightly such fraudulent behavior, which can ruin investors who make decisions based on untrue statements from corporate leaders. The S.E.C. lawsuit, essentially, says that anyone who doesn't understand this should not be a corporate leader.

Musk, I think, may have been taking his cue about acceptable conduct from the model put forth by  President Donald J. Trump. Our president makes untrue statements daily, using Twitter to disseminate his subjective version of a world that does not exist in fact. 

The president, as we have all seen, seems to believe that "if I think it, I can say it's true." Is there an S.E.C.-type organization that could discipline our president, who has set such a misleading standard about what is true and what is not?

Yes. There is such an organization. It is called the United States Congress, and the mechanism for putting an end to a president's pattern and practice of making flagrantly untrue statements, which do affect others adversely, is called impeachment.

* After reading The Times' article on Saturday morning (and after writing this post, based on that article), I heard again from The Times that afternoon, in a "Breaking News" bulletin. This "breaking news" bulletin said that Musk has made a deal with the S.E.C. after all. In other words, Musk came to his senses, or some of his advisers made him act responsibly. (Again, the parallels with the decision-making process employed by our president are striking). The S.E.C. lawsuit mentioned in this blog post will not go forward. While the facts about the lawsuit have changed since I wrote this blog post, I believe the point I make here is still worth making. We need to have a remedy for political and corporate leaders who think their subjective beliefs should be taken for the "truth," just because those leaders say so!

An article it today's Times (October 3, 2018), gives even more information on Musk's initial demand that Tesla should refuse the advantageous S.E.C. deal, and why Musk then subsequently capitulated. As finally agreed to, the advantageous settlement for Musk and Tesla is a little bit less advantageous than the first offer, though it is still a real "deal" for both both Musk personally and for the company.

Image Credit:

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

#275 / Third Strike

Here comes another one. 
Did you see that?
We were on the beach in California, 
But I was thinking about New York.
I could see them coming through the door
As I lifted up my fork. 

Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.thecoursecorrection.com/climate-change-will-be-deadlier-more-destructive-and-costlier-for-california-than-previously/
(2) - http://www.badassoftheweek.com/horsemen.html

Monday, October 1, 2018

#274 / Big Moon

Did you see that moon?  It was SO big. 
Big as October, and what do you think? 
You always get your best views 
When you are out on the water. 

Image Credit: Dave Donaldson

Sunday, September 30, 2018

#273 / Sort Of Like A Poem

Green fields flash by. I see some cows. Woodlots and the river disappear behind. The train rocks. I look at the country. We are moving fast. 

Too fast. 

When the smokestacks and the dirty junk piles start showing in the window, I know this trip will be ending soon. I feel like I slept through most of it. 

But I am awake now. Maybe I should write down what I know. 

I am pretty sure I know some things.

Image Credit:
Found in my personal photos collection

Saturday, September 29, 2018

#272 / What I Think

I think a great tragedy may soon be happening, right before our eyes.* 

Let us assume (which I do not) that Brett Kavanaugh is being absolutely honest, and that he did not, ever, engage in an attempted rape, and did not, ever, conduct himself badly as a young person. 

Let us assume (as I do not) that the challenge to his nomination to the Supreme Court, which is largely based on the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, is part of a hyper-partisan effort to do anything necessary to derail the ability of President Trump to make an appointment to the Supreme Court before the November elections.

Let us assume (which I don't) that Dr. Blasey-Ford is a knowing liar, who is part of the hyper-partisan scheme just mentioned, and that Judge Kavanaugh has suffered disgraceful and unfair treatment by Democratic members of the Senate, with an unfair, liberal, media helping to advance this unfair effort to derail Kavanaugh's nomination.

If all these things are assumed to be true (I don't assume them), then the opposition to the Kavanaugh appointment is a completely partisan effort to deny President Trump the ability to do what the Constitution gives him the right to do: appoint a person to serve on the Supreme Court when there is a vacancy on that body. This is how Judge Kavanaugh, the Republican Party, and those who support the Kavanaugh appointment, see things. 

Let's assume that this view of reality is, actually, correct (again, I don't).

If all those things were true, and I think we need to assume they are, as we consider what the President and the Senate should do about the Kavanaugh nomination, the right thing for the president and the Senate to do, at this juncture, are, respectively, to withdraw the Kavanaugh nomination (what the president ought to do) and to vote against confirmation (what the Senate ought to do).

Why do I think that?

I think that because of Judge Kavanaugh's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Facing what he believes (according to his testimony) is a blatantly partisan, untrue, and unfair attack against him, Judge Kavanaugh made all the claims just recited, and then went on to launch a personal and partisan attack against members of Congress (and the Democratic Party), striking out at those persons he claims were responsible for what he believes has been unfair treatment. By doing so, Judge Kavanaugh indicated that he is willing, if confirmed, to carry a partisan political approach to the highest court in the land. 

Even if we assume (I don't) that Kavanaugh has been treated unfairly, his tirade at the Committee hearing on Thursday showed such a lack of judicial temperament that he demonstrated that he is not suited to serve on the United States Supreme Court. 

The tragedy that may be unfolding before our eyes is this: the United States Constitution presumes that the Court will be an independent, third branch of government, not involved with the partisan politics that are inevitably part of the activities of both the Congress and the President. That presumption will only be valid if this is what the people of the United States believe. When we turn the Supreme Court into just another partisan institution, we have lost one of the main mechanisms that protects our representative democracy, the system of "checks and balances" that we have relied upon for 239 years. 

The president is not going to withdraw the nomination (as he should). Will the Senate act for the integrity of our national system of checks and balances (as it should)? 

I am still hoping, but if the Senate confirms the Kavanaugh appointment, it will be saying, boldly and baldly, "anyone who believes all that bullshit about the nonpartisan impartiality of the Supreme Court, and that the Court bases its decisions on the Constitution and the law, is really living in a dream world.  It's all partisan, all the time, and we're sticking with partisanship."

The right response to our current situation (even granting that there has been a hyperpartisan and unfair effort by Democrats to stop this nomination (something that I, personally, don't believe is true) is for the Republican Party members of the Senate to tell Judge Kavanaugh, "you know, we are terribly sorry that you were so unfairly caught up in this partisan battle, in which the Democrats are so obviously, and totally, at fault. However, it is our duty to protect our Constitutional system, and agreeing to the appointment to the Supreme Court of someone who has put himself into the partisan fight, and who has declared for one side - even though it's our side - would be a disservice to the Constitution, which we are pledged to protect and defend. We deplore the fact that you have been unfairly treated, but, as you know, politics is often unfair. Because we truly value the checks and balances that the Constitution prescribes, that means we must insulate the Supreme Court from the public perception that an appointment to the Supreme Court is just another political war prize.

"With apologies for what you have had to go through, we cannot confirm your appointment."

That's what I think.

*I wrote those words before reading the Saturday, September 29, 2018, edition of The New York Times, which has a front page article indicating that I am not the only one.

Image Credit:

Friday, September 28, 2018

#271 / Your Vote For Local Control

My hometown, Santa Cruz, California, is debating rent control in the context of a voter initiative, Measure M, qualified for a local vote by citizen action. It's a fierce debate. The need for some sort of action to help ordinary and below average income people survive in the local housing market is undeniable. Even those who strongly oppose Measure M agree to that. Most of those who oppose Measure M are not contending that some sort of regulation of rents would not be justified. Their argument is that Measure M is "flawed." 

Maybe a majority of city voters will conclude, as the opponents say, that Measure M is not going to have a positive impact because of problems with its exact language. Maybe they won't, and a majority will support Measure M, alleged flaws and all. 

The fact is, we are not going to know what the local community thinks about Measure M until election night, or even later, depending on how close the vote is. 

Whatever happens with Measure M, it is also a fact, as I say above, that some sort of action is needed, to help ordinary and below average income people survive in the local housing market. Whatever a voter's position is on the specifics of Measure M, that truth remains. 

Therefore, this blog posting is my plea for a "YES" vote on Proposition 10. Proposition 10 is on the statewide ballot, and it will give local communities the ability to make local decisions on rent control issues. 

When I first served in elected office, local governments at the city and county level did have that power. The State Legislature took away that local control option, providing only a very narrow area within which rent control could be enacted at the local level.

Let's give ourselves, in our local communities, the right to allow our elected representatives to take the actions they decide are needed. If Proposition 10 is approved by the voters, statewide, our local governments can enact local ordinances that go through the regular legislative process. 

If Proposition  10 is approved, local communities, acting through their elected local governments, can do something positive to provide help to those who are being driven out of this community by spiraling housing costs, driven by global speculation in California coastal real estate and by the demand associated with Silicon Valley workers, almost all of whom can "outbid" local working families for rental housing. 

I believe in the ability of our local governments to find the right, "unflawed" approaches to our local problems. 

Your "YES" vote on Proposition 10 will say that you agree!

Image Credit:

Thursday, September 27, 2018

#270 / College Students Thinking Like Trump?

Ryan Coonerty, pictured above, describes himself in his LinkedIn profile as an "Elected Official, Entrepreneur, Academic and Author." In his academic role, Coonerty teaches in the Legal Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Recently, using his classroom experiences at UCSC as the basis for some reflections on democracy and freedom of speech, Coonerty authored an engaging Opinion Editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle

The title of the hard-copy version of Coonerty's column was, "It's not just free speech at stake." Online, the Chronicle titled the column, "Why our college students think like Trump." I am not sure that either of those titles was chosen by Coonerty, and I particularly suspect that the online version was not his choice. While Coonerty does draw some parallels between the way students think and the way our president thinks (to be generous in using the word "think" with respect to the president), Coonerty never actually makes the assertion that college students "think like Trump." Let me just add, parenthetically, "I hope not!"

Since the Chronicle maintains a paywall for non-subscribers, it may or may not be possible for those reading this blog post to get access to the entire Coonerty article. I would like to hope that the column will be generally available online, since it is well worth reading. It does accurately reflect the kind of student attitudes that I, too, have encountered at UCSC, where I also teach in the Legal Studies Program.

As Coonerty outlines how students typically react to his course on free speech, he says the following:

Conservative students will talk about how they’ve been censored or had to self-censor. Liberal students will respond that while their conservative ideas are fundamentally wrong and dangerous, so too is censorship. It will be an exchange that would make Thomas Jefferson proud. 
Then, one student will note that it’s ironic that these adults are so worried about the coddling of Millennial minds, while these same adults have created policies that have left this generation very uncoddled economically: saddled with debt, dim wages and no benefits. The class will rise up in agreement and anger, also citing the environment, endless wars, and half a dozen other catastrophes that they are supposed to solve while deep in debt and while older generations wring every last drop out of the system on their way to retirement and death. 
This anger and sense of betrayal has, according to a poll by Pew Charitable Trusts, left this generation significantly less trusting than other generations. After teaching for more than a dozen years, this is the biggest change I’ve seen in my students. There is no institution or governance system that these students trust, including, as a Harvard study found last year, democracy. There is no leader who isn’t a hypocrite. No ideals that can’t be picked apart with counterfactuals. And, it is this dynamic that animates their lack of faith in democracy and free expression. 
To a generation formed during financial crisis, influenced by social media and witnessing a failing political system, laws are just instruments to be leveraged or ignored for the purpose of the day. In this way, there are shocking similarities between them and President Trump ... 
What makes this generation different is not their lack of support of free speech, it is that they simply don’t believe in law or politics as a means to protect it.

I want to comment on that last statement (the one with the emphasis added). I don't think, personally, that it is accurate to say that the current generation of college students "doesn't believe in law or politics as a means to protect free speech." I don't think that such a judgment can properly be put in such absolute terms, at least. I do think it is correct to point to an increasing skepticism about the ability of law or politics to protect free speech, a skepticism that college students do manifest, but a skepticism in which they are by no means alone! There is lots of skepticism, generally, about the ability of law and politics to accomplish anything, including protecting the rights of free speech.

As the title of this blog makes clear, I am of the opinion that "we live in a political world," whether we want to or not, and that we have no option except to make politics and law work for us, and to accomplish our most cherished hopes and dreams. Law and politics is what we've got, whether things are "going well" or "going to hell." 

Let's not fall victim to the "observer's fallacy," which suggests that reality is "what we see." Reality is what we make it, and we use the tools of politics and law to make the world we want. Yesterday's blog posting commented on a New York Times column by Michelle Alexander that ran on the same day that Ryan Coonerty's column ran in the Chronicle. Alexander was also making an "observational" comment, and was trying to tear our eyes away from the accident scene of our current politics to take a longer view. Doing that, taking a longer view, can help offset the feelings of helplessness and despair that college students, and all of us, might feel as we contemplate our current situation. 

It is Alexander's contention that we have been, albeit it slowly, and albeit it with setbacks along the way, building a more inclusive democracy. The longer view makes clear that politics and law do make a difference. My own hope, as I interact with students (and everyone) is to spur them on to continued effort! Politics and law are the tools at hand.

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