Saturday, March 28, 2020

#88 / "As" and "As If"

Elissa Epel, Ph. D, is pictured above. Epel is a Professor, and Vice Chair, in the Department of Psychiatry, at University of California, San Francisco. "Her research aims to elucidate mechanisms of healthy aging, and to apply this basic science to scalable interventions that can reach vulnerable populations."

On March 18, 2020, a column by Epel appeared on the editorial page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Commenting on the current coronavirus pandemic, Epel says that "Anxiety is helpful, panic is damning." 

Good thought. Good advice. 

Epel also said something that I think warrants a more general consideration. In discussing "just how anxious should we be?" Epel says this:

There is a sweet spot. We need to take social distancing seriously not as if, but truly as our lives ... depend on it.

This was and is very good advice in our current situation, as we consider all the benefits of "social distancing." However, I do think there is a more general applicability in Epel's insight, too. Often, we tell ourselves that we should act, or consider action, "as if" it were very important that we do so. 

Whenever we use that "as if" phrase, we should cross-examine ourselves. Are we trying to avoid an admission that we really do need to act?

Now, and in other situations, we need to act not "as if" it would be important to do that, but because it IS important that we take action. 

Just a thought! I think Epel has put her finger on a turn of phrase that we often use to let ourselves off the hook!

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Friday, March 27, 2020

#87 / Property And The Law

I teach in the Legal Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. During this upcoming Spring Quarter, which begins next Monday, I will be teaching a course entitled, "Property And The Law." 

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1809-1865 (pictured above), is known for his claim that "property is theft." I am going to be sure my students get a chance to think about that!

Students will also be learning about the case that decided "who owns the fox?" The case is Pierson v. Post

Good faith pursuit of the fox will count for nothing. The fox is owned by the person who kills it first!

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

#86 / Capitalism From The Bottom Up

The fact that "capitalism" has been wicking virtually all the wealth produced by our society to the very top of the economic pyramid, leaving most workers behind, has been evident for some time now. This fact has driven the Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign for the presidency, and it may also, oddly enough, have given us the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, in 2016. 

Concerns about the fact that virtually all the benefits of our economy have been appropriated by the ultra-wealthy has also sparked a movement known as "Corporate Social Responsibility," or CSR. Proclamations of great concern for "social responsibility" have now been issued by the "billionaire class," as evidenced in a letter signed by top corporate CEOs. Such expressions of concern have definitely not convinced me (or many other people, I think) that the giant corporations have changed their tune, and that they now realize that workers are, in the end, more important than the corporate elite.

As I read The Wall Street Journal on Friday, March 20, 2020, however, I realized that the coronavirus crisis has cleared everyone's vision, at least to some degree. The Wall Street Journal editorialized about the need to focus on "economic" issues, not simply "health" issues, and Congress, including even the corporate-controlled Senate, understands that this is actually going to require direct payments to ordinary men and women, because (it suddenly appears) our capitalist economy actually works from "the bottom up." 

The corporate CEOs can count on their cash and stocks, but they have been watching their stock values crash as it becomes clear that when taxi drivers, waiters and waitresses, small store owners, barbers and beauticians, and other working people don't have any income, the whole edifice comes tumbling down. 

It is about time we all figured that out! We are all in this together! Let's not forget it when our period of "social distancing" comes to an end!

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

#85 / Perils Of Prediction

I enjoyed a recent article in The New Republic, "The Political Media’s Blurred Reality." The article made (legitimate) fun of the various media pundits who have been covering the current presidential race, specifically including Rachel Maddow, who seems to be a favorite of the liberals and the Democrats. I am, as you might deduce from this somewhat catty remark, not a big fan.

At any rate, The New Republic article points out the hazards of "pack journalism," and I think it is right on target. My point in passing on the article is simply to remind my readers of a point I make quite consistently: it is not our assignment, in life, to "observe," and to "predict." 

There is nothing wrong with informed observation, and with becoming "informed spectators." But if we begin to believe that this is our main assignment, and that this is what we are mainly supposed to do as our democratic homework, we have profoundly mistaken our mission. 

Ours is not the task of good "observation," which is what all those pundits do, to whom (The New Republic says) we all tend to pander. 

No. Our task is to think, talk, and act!

Forget about "prediction." Self-government begins when we begin to get involved in both individual and collective action ourselves.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

#84 / Gaia, Revisited

We are not the world, though we sometimes act as though we think we are. Because we are not, and because we inevitably encounter a real world outside ourselves, we seek to understand the world, and to explain it to ourselves, in various ways. One way is through the "stories" we tell ourselves, the folk wisdom of the past. "Science" and "Religion" are other ways we try to understand. Poetry and literature can also come into play as we try to discern and outline the parameters and reality of our existence. 

One way human beings have tried to understand our place in the world - how we, as humans, relate to what I generally call the World of Nature, the world upon which we ultimately depend - is the so-called "Gaia Hypothesis." Here is what Wikikpedia, a handily-available go-to guide to reality, has to say about this topic: 

The Gaia hypothesis, also known as the Gaia theory or the Gaia principle, proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. 
The hypothesis was formulated by the chemist James Lovelock  and co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. Lovelock named the idea after Gaia, the primordial goddess who personified the Earth in Greek mythology. In 2006, the Geological Society of London awarded Lovelock the Wollaston Medal in part for his work on the Gaia hypothesis.

If there were any truth to the Gaia hypothesis, then we should expect that Gaia, or "Mother Earth," would fight back against any significant threat to the "complex system that helps maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet." 

In case you haven't noticed, global warming does, in fact, pose a significant threat not only to our own human civilization, but also to all life on the planet. We have entered what has been called the time of the "Sixth Mass Extinction," caused by human activity, which means that the greatest danger to the continued existence of life on the planet appears to be us. 

So, keeping this thought in mind, might I commend to you an article recently appearing in Scientfic American: "Destroyed Habitat Creates the Perfect Conditions for Coronavirus to Emerge: COVID-19 may be just the beginning of mass pandemics."

We had better get it together, folks! It could well be true that we will either change our ways, and recognize and submit to the demands of Gaia, or, in that phrase from Abraham Lincoln that I quoted in a recent blog post, we will "perish from this Earth." 

Considering how sad it would be to lose, forever, the "glory that was Greece," the splendor and the glory of Rome, all that human history, and the glory of our own, contemporary accomplishments - and considering the glory and the promise that shines forth in the face of every newborn human being - we had better start paying attention. 


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Monday, March 23, 2020

#83 / Monday Morning

The "Monday Morning Quarterback" phenomenon is quite well known. The practice is not only found in post-game sports analysis, either. It is observed, at least as much, in political commentary.

On this past Sunday (not even waiting for Monday), The New York Times ran a couple of "Monday Morning Quarterback" type analyses of the Democratic Party Presidential Primary. 

In fact, of course, the state primary elections that will - if the normal course of things prevails - determine who the Democratic Party candidate for president will be are not yet complete, and the coronavirus pandemic has injected even more uncertainty into these elections than would normally be the case. Nonetheless, The Times' middle of the fourth quarter review has pretty much proclaimed Joe Biden as the winner of the Democratic Party nomination for president, which then allows The Times to provide its "Monday Morning" analysis of how Bernie Sanders ran his (presumptively losing) campaign. 

The two articles in The New York Times to which I refer will not necessarily be accessible to those without a subscription to The Times. As someone who does have such a subscription, let me at least provide links to the two articles I am talking about. They are, unfortunately, way too lengthy to incorporate into this posting.

Did America Misjudge Bernie Sanders? Or Did He Misjudge America? (Robert Draper)
Mistakes and Internal Strife Hobbled Sanders Campaign (Aldexander Burns and Jonathan Martin) 

The Times focuses, as the titles of these articles signal, on what The Times believes are the failures of Bernie Sanders and the Sanders' campaign. The failures named by The Times (and by some of Sanders' advisors and others quoted by The Times) were campaign choices that The Times (writing on "Monday Morning") says "hobbled" the campaign. 

Not mentioned as "hobbling" the campaign is the kind of coverage of the Sanders' campaign provided by The Times during the entirety of the primary season (to date and continuing). The Times thinks Sanders should have tried to present himself in a more "moderate" light. Maybe he should have, but The Times, which would probably want to claim that its approach to political reporting emphasizes "moderation," has been ruthlessly negative about Sanders (at least in my opinion) throughout the entirety of the primary campaign season. Immoderately so.

I particularly laughed at the reporting in the Draper article, that showed how Sanders was an effective political leader, working with those who had different views, pretty much throughout the entirety of Sanders' career as an elected official. Bernie really should have emphasized that more, says Draper! 

Well, that record of political compromise and effectiveness was well-known to The Times, and to anyone who follows politics closely. But there was no such story up till now, and now it's Bernie's fault that he didn't go out of his way to emphasize this! In trying to provide balanced and "moderate" coverage of the campaign earlier, The Times could have done an investigative piece that told Wall Stret and Main Street that Sanders had strongly progressive views, but that he had always had those views, and that when he acted as an elected official he was both willing and able to work well with others, and to try to move the ball up the field as he kept trying to reach the goals he consistently proclaimed.

No such story ever appeared in The Times - at least, not that I remember. It's really a shame that Bernie Sanders didn't make his effective record clear, earlier! That's probably why he's out of the race right now!! He just really "misjudged America." That's what America wanted to hear; why didn't he tell us?

As you can tell, my respect for this kind of political reporting by The Times is not very great! I do, however, have great respect for Bernie Sanders. As the Monday Morning Quarterback crowd begins to circle, and the political vultures start swooping low over the body of one not yet actually dead, I think it is important to say this, too:

Thank You, Bernie Sanders!

I have been, and continue to be, a Bernie Sanders' supporter. I believe, based on what I know, that he would not only continue to push for the kind of real changes needed to address income inequality and our global warming crisis, but that he has a demonstrated ability actually to get some things done. 

Probably, The Times is right that we are not going to get a chance to vote for Bernie Sanders in November (presuming that we do get a chance to vote at all, which I highlight as another thing to worry about as we confront the coronavirus pandemic). If we don't get to vote for Bernie, I am sorry for that, because I believe the challenges that confront this country (and the world) require dramatically different approaches from the approaches that our politics has produced from past Democratic administrations. 

I am not a big "sports fan," so I am not really tempted to do the "Monday Morning Quarterback" thing very much where sports are concerned. I just don't have the necessay experience even to be tempted to do that. I do, though, know enough about sports deeply to respect those who go out on the field on behalf of the many who watch them from the stands, or from the couch in front of their televisions at home, playing the role of spectators to the arduous contests that they then feel free to criticize later. 

I have no critiques, Bernie. I am not going to tell you why you did it wrong (and particularly not unless and until you have actually lost or conceded). 

What I am going to tell you, Bernie, is how much I appreciated your willingness to enter the contest, to play the game, to get out on the field, to take the tackles, and to keep on pushing.

Your campaign has convinced me, Bernie - and I think hundreds of thousands of others - that we can't be political spectators any longer. 

We, too, need to suit up.

We, too, need to get out on the field and to take some tackles that hurt us to our own aching bones!

WE need to do that. WE / US!

Thank you, Bernie Sanders. Thank you for that!

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Sunday, March 22, 2020

#82 / Heaven And Hell

Sartre wrote that "Hell is other people."

So, here's what I say (a lesson from the coronavirus lockdown): 

Heaven is, too!

(Here are just a few of those now sheltering in place (elsewhere)

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(2) - Shmuel-Thaler 
(3) - Other photographs Gary Patton personal photos (a very partial list)

Saturday, March 21, 2020

#81 / Dear Judge: Please Quit

Mitch McConnell, pictured above, is a member of the Republican Party, and is a United States Senator for the State of Kentucky. He is currently serving as the Majority Leader of the United States Senate. McConnell is asking veteran federal judges to quit. If they do, the President and the Senate can then appoint and confirm, respectively, some younger and potentially more ideological judges, to serve in the place of the judges who resign, and by this means can preserve a rightwing stranglehold on the law.

Great idea, Mitch!

Here's the problem: When the public understands that what the law says isn't really important, and that the only thing that actually counts is who says what the law says, then respect for "the law" goes out the window. Mitch's idea, in other words, is just one more step towards an authoritarian state. Any decent judge, Republican or Democrat, will certainly repudiate McConnell's suggestion. Judges want people to believe that "the law" is important, not which politician appointed the judge.

To some degree, of course, it is a fiction that the laws exist independently of our political life. They certainly don't. In fact, my "equation," or "formula," outlining the way I think government works (and should work), makes this absolutely clear: 

Politics > Law > Government

We are supposed to be trying to create a government of "laws not men." That's our idea of how things are supposed to work. Generally, this idea of government is called "the rule of law." When we no longer believe that there is any such thing as the "rule of law," we are admitting that we live in a government of "men not laws," and this means that we are giving the all-clear sign to an authoritarian state, and even to dictatorship. 

Let's explore this, just a little bit. If "Politics" does come before "Law" in the process that I contend determines how our "Government" works (and how it should work), then how is my idea any different from Mitch McConnell's?

Here's how: 

Politics is the process that includes debate and discussion, conversation, controversy, and compromise. There are supposed to be different views (there are different views, and different interests), and the debate and the discussion is ultimately supposed to lead to a determination of which view or interest should prevail, and exactly how (to a vote, in other words), and a vote taken according to the rules established by the Constitution. It is "Politics," in other words, that ultimately results in the enactment of the "Law." 
Law is a set of those written-down statements by which we tell ourselves what we think we should do. When we follow our own prescriptions (our own "laws," enacted as just described), we arrive at "self-government."
Government is the name we give to the way we have determined to arrange our affairs (determined, as stated above, by a political process that results in the enactment of our governing laws).

This process, as just described, presumes that "the law," the product of our political/legislative efforts, will be sufficient to define both rights and responsibilities with enough clarity that there is no question about what everyone is supposed to do. Of course, sometimes, the "laws" are not perfectly clear. As specific cases arise, and as people suggest that a particular "law" might contradict the fundamental constraints on government contained in the Constitution, it is necessary for there to be a process to determine what, in fact, "the law" actually requires, and whether "the law," in fact, is consistent with the Constitutional limits placed upon government. 

That's where judges come in. Note, however, that judges are supposed to interpret "the law" as established by the political process that resulted in the law's enactment. Judges are not supposed to "make" the law. They're not elected. They are not part of the political process that led up to the writing down of the instructions that are supposed to guide our individual and governmental actions.

McConnell's proposition assumes that the younger judges he wants appointed to replace existing judges will make different determinations about "the law" from the determinations now being made by the judges currently in place, and/or that it is important to maintain a particular ideological slant on the law into the future, even if the political process results in a new president making future judicial nominations. McConnell is basically telling everyone that the "letter of the law" is not what will determine how our government operates. To the contrary, McConnell is saying that what counts is who the judges are.

If we come to believe that "the law" really has no independent existence, separate from what judges say, and if we are willing to agree that the "law" isn't really what the legislative branch does, but that the only thing that counts in the final analysis is what non-elected judges decide the law should be, then we have admitted that we have a government of "men not laws."

I would like to make something very clear:

This is NOT a good idea!

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Friday, March 20, 2020

#80 / Almost Chosen

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik has written a very nice article for The Wall Street Journal. His title? "What the Bible Taught Lincoln About America." 

Soloveichik demonstrates that the political language used by Lincoln, throughout his presidency, relied heavily on Lincoln's knowledge of the Hebrew Bible - the "Old Testament." 

As hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the Civil War, the 16th president evolved into a theologian of the American idea, using the language and concepts of the Bible to reflect on the war’s larger meaning.

Reporting on Lincoln's travels from Springfield, Illinois to the nation's capital, after his election in 1860, Soloveichik provides this description of one speech Lincoln made along the way: 

In Trenton, N.J., he gave a speech to the state senate in which he recalled reading as a child about George Washington’s battle for the city. “I recollect thinking then,” he reflected, “boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.” It was his intention, Lincoln concluded, “to serve as a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people."

I like the idea that Lincoln was, as president, a "theologian of the American idea." I also like that phrase, "almost chosen." 

That "almost chosen" phrase, I think, provides a good perspective for those who are skeptical (as I am) about the claims that flow from a notion of "American exceptionalism," but who do believe (as I do) that there is something truly unique about this nation, at least in its possibilities. 

"Exceptionalism" proclaims that America IS "chosen," and that the United States has both the right and the obligation to bring order to and regulate the world."

"No way," I say. 

But.... Isn't there, actually, something that we have been called upon to do, not only individually but collectively? Isn't there something that we, as Americans, as citizens of the United States, should acknowledge as our national obligation?

I think that's true. 

What is it, then, that was recognized (and perhaps even "revealed") in that "sacred hall" in which the Declaration of Independence was signed? Here is what Soloveichik says about Lincoln's answer to that question: 

Lincoln traveled on to Philadelphia, where on Washington’s birthday he visited Independence Hall. While bidding good night to a crowd, Lincoln offered another impromptu biblical reflection: “All my political warfare has been in favor of the teachings coming forth from that sacred hall,” where the Declaration of Independence was signed. “May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I prove false to those teachings.”
The audience would have recognized Lincoln’s allusion to Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” In the Bible, Jerusalem was the home of the Ark of the Covenant, the reminder of God’s promise to the Israelites. Independence Hall, Lincoln implied, was the American Jerusalem, and the doctrine that “all men are created equal” was the covenant of the “almost chosen people.” In the impending civil war, Americans’ dedication to that covenant would be tested.

That unfulfilled promise to the world, and to ourselves, the promise that all persons are "created equal," is the message that Americans are called upon not only to proclaim, but to achieve. We are, and I think correctly, described as an "almost chosen" people, because it is possible, for each one of us, individually, and for all of us, collectively, to choose whether to fulfill that promise, or not. The choice is not "of" us, as a people, but is "by" us as both individually and collectively.

And let us not forget that this "national purpose" is as much a challenge to us today as it was in 1776, or as it was in 1860. Actually, it is even a greater challenge, today.

In a time in which the continued existence of the whole world is in question, it is our calling to proclaim, and to achieve, the teaching that came from that "sacred hall" visited by Lincoln after his election. We are all together in this life, all the peoples of this Earth, and it is together, as human equals, that we will either gather our common strength and prevail against the forces of disintegration and destruction that we have launched against ourselves, or will do the opposite. 

We are no "chosen people." It will be for us to choose, rather, whether we will succumb to the forces of division and disintegration that we ourselves have created, or whether we will come together, making real the mutual covenant made in our Declaration.

Let's not forget, we almost chosen ones:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all persons are created equal...

These words are still revolutionary, today. We will either heed them, and make them real, or we will "perish from this Earth."

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

#79 / Two Deaths

Roger Cohen, pictured above, is a columnist for The New York Times. I was struck by one of his columns, published in the January 11, 2020, edition of the newspaper. Cohen called the column "the memento mori of two friends." The column seems particularly appropriate right now, as we all lock down, shelter in place, and confront the coronavirus, and what it may portend.

Since I subscribe to The Times, a click on the link above will take me right to Cohen's column. Given the presence of The Times' paywall, though, I am not sure that others reading this blog posting will necessarily have the same experience. Thus, I am reproducing the column, in its entirety, below. The column is worth reading, and particularly, I think, if you know something about the two friends that Cohen memorializes: Sonny Mehta and Ward Just

In fact, however, I am mentioning Cohen's column only to direct your attention to one specific statement, appearing in the second paragraph of the column. This is a lesson that we might all take to heart. The benefit of the words I cite do not depend on whether you subscribe to The New York Times, know anything about Cohen's two friends, or even whether you have read the column from which the following words are taken. There is much wisdom in these two sentences. If we can figure this out, we won't need much more:

Life is what we have. To give less than everything to it is dereliction.


Two Deaths and My Life
By Roger Cohen

Samuel Beckett, when asked one beautiful spring morning whether such a day did not make him glad to be alive, responded, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.” Life is a predicament, death the elephant at the horizon that looms larger as the years pass.

Still, life is what we have. To give less than everything to it is dereliction. In the end its wonder is unimaginable without the presence of death. As the dew dispels, the mist dissolves, and the sap rises on a morning such as the one that did not quite win over Beckett, the force of life is unmistakable. That is what put us here in the first place.

Great souls resemble the elements in their immensity. They absorb everything — pain, injustice, insult, folly — and give back decency and kindness. They are not born of a piece. They come into being through unflinching confrontation with life’s spears. They reach quiet. Discipline is the backbone of graciousness. Stoicism is the other face of wounds. In the most beautiful smile, painful knowledge hovers.

Midwinter is not what prompted these reflections, although when a freezing wind whips off the East River all thoughts turn to refuge. No, the death in quick succession of two friends was the catalyst. They were older than me. But they were not old enough and not so distant in age that their memento mori feel less than urgent.

Sonny Mehta, who died last month at the age of 77, would caress the books he loved. For them he lived. He guided Alfred A. Knopf through more than three decades of rapid change. He was a complete publisher, eclectic in his tastes, ferocious in his will, guided by a mission to bring the finest books to Knopf and publish them only once editing had honed them to irreproachable form. Yet he wanted to be remembered above all as a reader.

I knew Sonny for three decades. He published my last two books. His civility never wavered. The twinkle in his eye never faded. His friendship was constant. Whisky and a cigarette and the meandering conversation that went with them were more his thing than the treadmill. He was a beautiful man.

How so? In his gentleness that contained wisdom, in his diffidence that contained enthusiasm, in his discretion that contained curiosity. You had to listen carefully, for he spoke softly, to the clues he offered. His long marriage to his wife, Gita, brought to my mind, in its respectfulness and vitality, Rilke’s phrase about love as protecting the solitude of the other.

A child of India, brown-skinned in what was when he started the white preserve of British publishing, once asked if he was perhaps seeking a job in the stockroom, Mehta never stooped to unkindness. His writers knew they had come home. He commanded the unswerving loyalty of the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro, Germaine Greer and Julian Barnes. “I feel that my heart has been ripped out,” Jon Segal, his longtime colleague at Knopf, told me.

When Mehta’s father, a diplomat, died in Vienna, Mehta found in his desk a folder with every article ever published about him. The pride of his father, who had never complimented his son, was evident. Remote fathers: vast subject. Hearing this story, I understood more of my friend’s elegant stoicism.

Earlier in December, Ward Just, a journalist who turned to fiction, a great Washington Post correspondent in Vietnam who became a great novelist, died at the age of 84. Like Mehta, he was a lover of Scotch. I had not seen much of Just since we became friends in Berlin 20 years ago, but his death hit me hard. I recalled him saying to me back then: “I was useless for journalism after Vietnam. I knew I was not going to do any better work.”

Truth, he decided, must be pursued elsewhere. “Many of the things that make you a good journalist have to be discarded to make you a good writer,” he said. “In a novel, every fact is a rock thrown in the hull, and the boat sinks a bit.”

Just probed the delusions of people and nations, and the damage they suffer. His prose was understated. In “A Dangerous Friend,” one character observes, “I have always believed that a mountainous ego resulted from an absence of conscience.” And that was before His Neediness seized the Oval Office.

As with Mehta, Just’s prodding was subtle, his smile contained sorrows, his wisdom was hard-earned, his constant humor wry. Wounded by a grenade blast in 1966, winched to safety by a chopper, he later wrote, as quoted in his Washington Post obituary: “When you got there, you said instinctively, I made it. And over and over again, Jesus Christ.”

I can hear my friend saying that, stress on the Christ. Life hangs by a thread. Pay attention to its ephemeral gifts. Of Truman Schockley, dead at 19 in Vietnam, Just wrote in 1967:

“Smoking a Lucky Strike and staring off into the mountains, Schockley died with a sniper’s bullet through the heart and stopped breathing before the cigarette stopped burning.”

Now there’s a perfect sentence that might even have persuaded Beckett. Spring passes. Truth distilled does not.


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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

#78 / Never?

I don't much cotton to someone telling me that something can "never" happen. I continue to be committed to "possibility" as our most important and defining human category. Possibility is the category that best describes the nature of our human world. In the Natural World, the laws that govern how things work are perfectly descriptive of what must happen. The "Law of Gravity" brooks no contradiction. That's not the way our own world works.

In our own world, in the human world we construct by our choices and our actions, the "law" is not descriptive, but prescriptive. We tell ourselves what we think we should do. Then, we can either do that, or not. It's up to us. The choice about how to act is always ours. The "possibility" that we can do something new, and different, something we have never done before, is always before us.

Because of my commitment to "possibility," and because of my rejection of statements about what can "never" happen, I was automatically in opposition mode when I came upon Eduardo Porter's column in the March 15, 2020, edition of The New York Times. Here is the title on Porter's column, as it appeared in the hard copy version of the newspaper: "Why America Will Never Get Medicare for All." 

Never? Really?

Besides insisting on "possibility" as the defining category of our human condition, I bridle at the idea that our role in life is simply to "observe." While paying attention to current realities is obviously very important, "action," not "observation," is the task to which we are called. Karl Marx got it right. I never tire of quoting him: 

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

All this said, what Porter is talking about is "racism." That is the obstacle that Porter identifies as an absolute bar to "Medicare for All." Like any other human reality (this one having been all too "real" on this continent for over three hundred years), racism is not "inevitable." Maybe, just maybe, the current coronavirus pandemic, and our absolute need to confront the fact of global warming and climate change, will finally convince us that we are, truly, together in this life. 

Maybe we will finally open our eyes, and understand that there is only one "race" we need to acknowledge: the human race.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

#77 / #Winning Isn't Everything (IRL)

The March 9, 2020, edition of The New Yorker came with a great cover, featured above. That edition of the magazine also included an important article, for those who care about the state of our nation's political life. In the hard copy version of the magazine, the article was called, "#Winning." 

If you search for the article online, you'll find that the title has changed, and it is now quite a bit longer: "The Man Behind Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut." That "Man" has a name, Brad Parscale, who is pictured below: 

The article on Parscale, which was written by Andrew Marantz, is worth reading in its entirety. In fact, the next time I teach my UCSC class on "Privacy, Technology And Freedom," I think I will make this article part of the assigned reading. Parscale is no "genius," at least according to one of the people quoted in the article, but he did convince the Trump campaign to use Facebook to its fullest. That decision by the campaign probably gave Trump the presidency. The techniques used by the campaign, outlined in the article, tell a cautionary tale about what is ahead for what Alexis de Tocqueville once called "Democracy in America."

Facebook has amalgamated an incredible dossier of information on virtually everyone in the country - and this appears to include non-Facebook users, too. The platform has been incredibly successful in parlaying this proprietary information into success in the advertising world, and it turns out that political advertising isn't all that different from the commercial variety. This is one of the insights for which Parscale claims credit. Selling Trump? That's just another brand of soap!

Right after the Trump victory in 2016, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, downplayed the idea that Facebook played any truly significant role in the Trump victory. According to Zuckerberg, "the idea that fake news on Facebook, of which it's a very small amount of the content, influcenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea ... Voters make decisions based on their lived experience."

As one Facebook employee put it, quoted in The New Yorker article, that's just "bullshit." 

"Facebook's business model is premised on the assumption that there is no solid boundary between social media and 'lived experience' ... For a decade, our pitch to everyone, especially advertisers, was 'We can target the exact people you want and make them behave in the exact ways you want.'" That is a "non-bullshit" statement by the Facebook employee who called his boss out for providing a bullshit statement about Facebook's influence in the last presidential election.

Facebook, and other Internet platforms, will continue to be successful in influencing political behavior, as long as we are all beguiled into the idea that what we encounter on social media is equivalent to our "lived experience." 

The "realities" we find online aren't, quite often, any kind of "reality" at all, and our experiences on social media aren't just another variety of our "lived experience." If we want to preserve a democratic politics, we will have to find ways to shift our significant political conversations from "social media" to an "unmediated" reality in which we rely on conversations, and debates, and discussions with those flesh and blood characters with whom we have personal contact, in real life (IRL).

If we can't figure that one out, the Brad Parscales of the world will continue to be effective in targeting their messages to "the exact people" that a politician wants to contact, and with every expectation that the messages that the politician sends will then make those people "behave in the exact ways" that the politician wants. 

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Monday, March 16, 2020

#76 / Expat Warning

Meet San Franciscan Nichole Callahan and her Italian husband, Nicola Laruccia. And their cat. 

Nichole, Nicola, and the cat are "holed up" at home in Italy, and by way of an article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, Expat Nichole is sending us a warning: 

PLEASE take seriously the need to stay away from others!

I was not very much sold on the idea that we should all be practicing "social distancing." I didn't like the decision of UCSC to make me teach my class online. I resented the fact that the plays and musical events I had paid for were suddenly cancelled. I was not delighted that the City of Santa Cruz decided to shut down its offices - though, frankly, that wasn't a big imposition on my normal life. But not visiting my friends? Not getting together to work on some of the political projects with which I am involved? Not going to visit my daughter and her kids? They're family, for heaven's sake!

Right from the get-go, I have been willing to wash my hands. Many, many times! I have been really trying hard not to touch my face. But.... all this isolation? I did not receive this news well. 

Then, my son Philips, an acupuncturist, provided me with an article that explained why social distancing is so important. The article is titled, "Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now." Click the link to read it. It changed my mind. 

Nichole Callahan, in the pages of the Chronicle, is validating the need to take these warnings seriously.

If you prefer to read about it in The New York Times, here's a link to a column in yesterday's paper by Nicholas Kristof and Stuart A. ThompsonThe Wall Street Journal is sending the same message; The Journal is telling us, "Please Stay Home. Talk To Your Pets." If you can slip by the paywall imposed by any of these newspapers, you will find an explanation of how that "flattening the curve" thing works, and why it's so important.

And here is one more article on the same topic. This one is from The Washington Post. The Post has removed its paywall for all articles dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, and there is no paywall on this humorous video from Juice Media, either. The advice being provided to us by all of these sources of information is identical:

PLEASE take seriously the need to stay away from others!

One of the biggest obstacles to following this good advice may be the fact that the people with whom you live don't have the same view. It's nice that Nichole and Nicola are of a like mind. But since they are in Italy, you can see why they are believers. 

Right now, our local communities don't seem to have much in common with Italy, but if your partner or roommate insists on being "out and about," they are putting YOUR life in danger. And their own! Not to mention the lives of lots of other people.

Wait it out. Don't go to church. Don't go to school. Don't go out to eat with your friends. Don't go to visit your children living separately. Don't go to the movies. Take it from Nichole. 

Lots of people will thank you. 

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Sunday, March 15, 2020

#75 / Cut Left

The lovely knives shown above range in price from $185 to $1,850. The image comes from an article in the March 7-8, 2020, edition of The Wall Street Journal. The article I am talking about is titled, "Why pay $24,000 For a Kitchen Knife?

Why, indeed, when you can get a perfectly servicable knife for $1,850?

"Income and wealth inequality," as a political issue, revolves around the fact that there are a very small number of people in the United States who actually don't have to think twice about spending $24,000 for a really nice kitchen knife, at the same time that 500,000 Americans are sleeping out on the street every night, and while millions more are in a state of "precarity," in which they are right on the borderline of losing everything they have (which is not very much). 

I have just told you where I got my information about the price of high-end kitchen knives. I got the 500,000 "sleeping out on the streets" figure from listening to Bernie Sanders.

CNN says Bernie Sanders' figures check out.

The disparities just mentioned only make sense if we truly believe that the only unit of analysis that counts is the "individual." If we believe that we are "together in this life," as I contend (and you know I am right), then we must find ways, collectively, to get people off the streets, make health care and educational opportunities more available to everyone, repair damage to the natural environment (including dealing with global warming), and fix the infrastructure that supports our community life. 

The money to do what we absolutely need to do, collectively, has to come from somewhere. Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber, may or may not have actually said that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is," but the principle is indisputable. A proper politics would respond to the inevitability of the formula that "them that has, gets" with what might be thought of as a political corollary, an "equal and opposite" political reaction:

Them That Has, Gives!

If we want to respond to the imperatives listed briefly above, then we need to make some political and policy changes. To continue with a further reference to knives, since a knife-based sports term does seem appropriate, it's time (and I do mean this November) for our politics to "cut left."

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Saturday, March 14, 2020

#74 / It Is The Time To Put Away Childish Things

Lisa Pryor* has written a thoughtful column for The New York Times. Her article is titled, "Has Australia Reached a Climate Tipping Point?" Knowing that The Times can sometimes block access to non-subscribers, I am providing a few excerpts from her column, to give the flavor of what Pryor wants us to think about:

Sydney, Australia
Only a few months ago, I joked with friends who had just returned from life in the Northern Hemisphere that, with the state of the world at that moment, our distance from the rest of the world felt more like comfort than tyranny. Australia felt like a prosperous and benign island. 
Life comes at you fast. We Australians found ourselves at the center of global events when our land erupted in flames. In recent months, fires have burned millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 30 people. More than a billion animals perished. 
In Sydney, it started long before summer with drought creeping up slowly, leaving scraps of yellow grass and dirt where lawns used to be. The government tightened water restrictions, and in my household we shaved our showers down to three minutes. We collected the tepid shower water in buckets, then hauled it out to the garden, trying to keep our sad plants alive. 
Then came the fires. Smoke drifted across the city and refused to leave. At first, it was so strong and new that it woke me from sleep, and I wandered the house thinking it was coming from somewhere inside. On my morning walk, the bridges and high-rises in the distance almost disappeared, mere shapes in a fog. 
The summer barbecue talk was all cognitive dissonance. “Aren’t the fires terrible? And so many animals lost; it’s heartbreaking. We need to do more about climate change. But anyway, how was your trip to Japan? We are thinking of taking the kids next year — was the snow OK?” Conversations of a country driven off a cliff, suspended in the air for one moment before the fall.
By late January, the smoke cleared a little. It was replaced by what my daughter calls “sky dirt,” blown in from inland dust storms. Sky dirt coated all the cars and houses in a fine, brown layer. Soon after, we swam in the surf and the sky was clear again, but the saltwater was flecked with tiny fragments of burned leaves. 
Then came the floods and the heaviest rainfall in 30 years. Rain blew sideways, and the house creaked. We carted buckets in the opposite direction, bailing out our small lawn as it drowned in several inches of water. And it struck me that this — a sudden and opposite problem after months of drought — illustrated the impossibility of simply “adapting” to climate change. 
How do you adapt when the changes coming are not simply new patterns but the very loss of a predictable pattern?  
The time has come for us to put away childish things and reckon with climate change, to do what we can to prevent a future in which extreme weather is more intense and more frequent. This time around, it was Australia that suffered, that served as a warning of our planet’s climate change future. Many other places will follow in the coming years. 
The question I have been asking myself is, what does it matter that I accept the science of climate change if I continue to live my life as if climate change were a hoax? 

As Pryor so accurately reports, one of the consequences of the firestorms in Australia was that "more than a billion animals perished." That is "billion" with a "B." The horror of the times in which we live (while we still do live) has had a tendency to immobilize us. 

Pryor captures this phenomenon well, as she describes life as experienced by middle-class persons who are employed, have housing, and food, and meaningful work. After discussions about the fires have reached their natural ending point, when nobody has anything much left to say, the next topic to be addressed is those foreign vacations planned for future years. 

Isn't Pryor's question to herself the question we all should be asking: 

What does it matter that I accept the science of climate change if I continue to live my life as if climate change were a hoax? 

These are, truly, horrible times, but interesting and exciting times, too, We are going to learn whether we can rise to the occasion, and whether we will make the changes we need to make, both individually and collectively, that will allow our human civilization to continue. 

As I think I have reported in my blog postings before, one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs is "Mississippi." You can click that link to listen to it, if you are not familiar with the song. Here's a link to the lyrics

My favorite lines (the first ones I have quoted, below) are immediately followed by some other ones, which I remembered when I read Pryor's column:

Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me

Everybody movin’ if they ain’t already there
Everybody got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

This is not a time to pretend that things are fine, or to avoid the difficulties in which we find ourselves. Our ship has been well and truly stove, all "split to splinters." 

But this is also not a time to capitulate to the perceived inevitabilities that immobilize us, either, and that conspire to make us believe that our self-created disaster is inescapable. We need to "move!"

Pryor's reference to the Bible seems right on target to me. It is time to put away childish things, to face the facts of our situation, and to take action appropriately. 

We all need to realize, along with Lisa Pryor, that if we know what climate change and global warming are doing; if we know what they portend (and we all do), then it is time to start making those changes we can. As we contemplate those changes we need to make, we must inevitably conclude, with Lisa Pryor, that we need to "move," that we "ain't already there." 

A massive challenge confronts us. It is a challenge so great that we sometimes tell ourselves, to find relief, that there is nothing we can do. That thought, if we allow it, leaves us immobilized, and that is not a helpful reaction. We need to "move," and to make changes, and to be able to do that, we need to keep our spirits up, despite our splintered ship. 

So, to keep our spirits up, let's remember that if we will just stick to it, "things should start to get interesting right about now!"

*Lisa Pryor, a medical doctor, is the author, most recently, of A Small Book About Drugs.

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Friday, March 13, 2020

#73 / Lessons From Coronavirus: After Isolation

The N.B.A. has cancelled the rest of its season.
I am ever more convinced that a strategy of "social distancing," however frustrating it may be, is in fact the correct response to the coronavirus pandemic. Click here for an article that I think makes the case for "social distancing" quite well.

This said, as I noted yesterday, any strategy that isolates and distances individuals from one another is exactly opposite to the strategy we need to employ to combat the loneliness and alienation that has helped create what has been called a "colossal health crisis." I am speaking of the epidemic of suicides, alcohol-related deaths, and drug overdoses that claim roughly 190,000 American lives each year. 

Isolation, in general, is not our friend!

Social media, while extending our range of contact and communication, is already a force for "isolation," and our modern technologies often serve to distance us from real contact with real human beings. This is, emphatically, not helpful in fighting alientation and loneliness. It is not helpful in general, either! If we "live in a political world," and if we build that world together (and that is the case), social isolation is antithetical to any genuine politics. To the degree that our experience with the coronavirus teaches us that a strategy of "isolation" is a good way to deal with real problems, we are learning the wrong lesson. 

Yesterday, The New York Times ran an editorial commentary by Farhad Manjoo. I am presenting it in its entirety, below, since many will not be able to read it online. I want to highlight just one sentence, which I think speaks to our genuine political situation:

There may be a silver lining here: What if the virus forces Americans and their elected representatives to recognize the strength of a collectivist ethos?

What indeed might be the outcome, if we realized, at last, that we are "all in this together," and that we are not just a basket of individuals, but are inevitably and inextricably part of a community, a greater whole.

Read the whole editorial by Farhad Manjoo, and click the next link, too, for an article that addresses this pertinent question: "What Would Happen If The World Reacted To Climate Change Like It's Reacting To The Coronavirus?"

We could be on the brink of a "learning" moment!


Republicans Want Medicare for All, but Just for This One Disease

Everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic.

Opinion Columnist
March 11, 2020

All it took was a pandemic of potentially unprecedented scale and severity and suddenly it’s like we’re turning into Denmark over here.

In the last few days, a parade of American companies that had long resisted providing humane and necessary benefits to their workers abruptly changed their minds, announcing plans to pay and protect even their lowest-rung employees harmed by the ravages of the coronavirus.

Uber and Lyft — which are currently fighting state efforts to force them to pay benefits to drivers and other “gig” workers — announced that, actually, a form of paid sick leave wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Drivers who contract the new virus or who are placed in quarantine will get paid for up to two weeks, Uber said. Lyft offered a similar promise of compensation.

Trader Joe’s also says it will cover for time off for the virus. Several tech giants said they would continue to pay their hourly employeeswho cannot work during the outbreak, and Amazon said it won’t dock warehouse workers for missing shifts.

And after the journalist Judd Legum pointed out its long history of fighting sick-leave policies, Darden Restaurants, which runs several restaurant chains, including Olive Garden, said that its 170,000 hourly workers would now get paid sick leave.

It wasn’t just sick leave. Overnight, workplaces across the country were transformed into Scandinavian Edens of flexibility. Can’t make it to the office because your kid has to unexpectedly stay home from school? Last week, it sucked to be you. This week: What are you even doing asking? Go home, be with your kid!

Then politicians got into the act. The Trump administration — last seen proposing to slash a pay raise for federal workers and endorsing a family leave policy that doesn’t actually pay for family leave — is now singing the praises of universal sick pay. “When we tell people, ‘If you’re sick, stay home,’ the president has tasked the team with developing economic policies that will make it very, very clear that we’re going to stand by those hard-working Americans,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday, offering the sort of rhetoric that wouldn’t be out of place on the pages of Jacobin.

And wasn’t it almost funny how everyone and their doctor was suddenly extolling the benefits of government-funded health care for all? When the Trump administration told Congress that it was considering reimbursing hospitals for treating uninsured Americans who contracted Covid-19, Republicans who had long opposed this sort of “socialized medicine” were now conceding that, well, of course, they didn’t mean it quite so absolutely.

“You can look at it as socialized medicine,” Representative Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, told HuffPost. “But in the face of an outbreak, a pandemic, what’s your options?”

As I said, it’s almost funny: Everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic. But the laugh catches in your throat, because the only joke here is the sick one American society plays on workers every day.

The truth is that we’re nowhere near turning into Denmark. Many of the newly announced worker-protection policies, like sick leave and flexibility, are limited, applying only to the effects of this coronavirus (the exception is Darden’s new sick-leave plan, which the company says is permanent). The administration’s proposed relief plan could well be vaporware. And Republicans’ interest in universal health care is ephemeral. Call it Medicare For All But Just For This One Disease.

But there’s an even deeper tragedy at play, beyond the meagerness of the new benefits. The true embarrassment is that it took a pandemic for leaders to realize that the health of the American work force is important to the strength of the nation.

As the coronavirus spiders across the planet, I’ve been thinking about the illness as a very expensive stress test for the global order — an acute, out-of-nowhere shock that is putting pressure on societies at their weakest points. Some nations, like Iran and perhaps Italy, are teetering under the threat; others, like South Korea, are showing remarkable resilience. The best ones will greet the crisis as an opportunity to build a more robust society, even better prepared for a future unseen danger. The worst will treat it as a temporary annoyance, refusing to consider deeper fixes even if they somehow stagger through this crisis.

It is not yet clear how well the American system will respond, but the early signs are far from encouraging. What we’re learning is that our society might be far more brittle than we had once imagined. The virus has laid bare our greatest vulnerability: We’ve got the world’s biggest economy and the world’s strongest military, but it turns out we might have built the entire edifice upon layers and layers of unaccounted-for risk, because we forgot to assign a value to the true measure of a nation’s success — the well-being of its population.

Much of the danger we face now grows out of America’s tattered social safety net — the biting cost and outright lack of health careand child care and elder care, the corporate war on paid leave, and the plagues of homelessness and hunger. As the virus gains a foothold on our shores, many Americans are only now waking up to the ways these flaws in the safety net cascade into one another. If companies don’t pay workers when they’re off sick, they’ll have an incentive to work while ill, endangering everyone. If you don’t cover people’s medical bills, they may not seek medical help, endangering everyone.

There may be a silver lining here: What if the virus forces Americans and their elected representatives to recognize the strength of a collectivist ethos? The coronavirus, in fact, offers something like a preview of many of the threats we might face from the worst effects of climate change. Because the virus is coldly indiscriminate and nearly inescapable, it leaves us all, rich and poor, in the same boat: The only way any of us is truly protected is if the least among us is protected (emphasis added).

So what if we used this illness as an excuse to really, permanently protect the least among us?

I would like to imagine this bright future. But I’ll confess I’m not optimistic. More than a decade ago, America stumbled through the Great Recession without imposing many significant fixes for the excesses of our financial system. The titans of Wall Street were protected and working people were left with scraps.

The coronavirus might teach us all to value a robust safety net — but there’s a good chance we’ll forget the lesson, because this is America, and forgetting working people is just what we do.

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