Commercialism: You Don’t Need to Actually PRODUCE Anything…

Warning: you are about to encounter a near-rant, and it may get uncomfortable…

Philosophy,  political science, psychology, and religion are full of –isms.  In this particular usage, and for the duration of this (near) rant, I will use –ism, and commercialism in particular, in the general sense of “a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory,” as taken from Merriam Webster, as opposed to a particular belief or prejudicial manner of thinking.  So, to be clear, commercialism, as I will use it here, refers to the distinctive cause of packaging absolutely anything, any occasion, or any idea as a possible commodity: something that can be sold to other human beings at a profit to the packager.

I am not some doctrinaire socialist or moralizer fastened on the idea that the word profit is an obscenity or that all corporations are evil in all they do and all they propose to do.  Working for a living and profiting from one’s labor are cornerstones of our (American) system of free enterprise, after all, and many other countries operate similar economies, at least in those aspects.  What I like less and less as time goes by is the largely unspoken, though increasingly powerful and omnipresent idea that, if a buck can be made from something, it must be exploited, and those bucks must be extracted from other members of society.  A corollary effect is that once such exploitation has started, those who are unwilling or unable to pay for the thing someone has successfully made into a commodity are frozen out, prevented from enjoying something they might previously have had at lesser expense.

Even more egregious is the idea of making oneself into a distributor or controller of the product of another’s labor, knowledge, or goodwill; the more this sort of thing gets added into the ultimate cost to the ultimate consumer, the more expensive it becomes.

One of the worst examples of this magnification of costs is our American nonsystem of health care delivery.  Health certainly is a basic human need–if you get appendicitis, and it is not taken care of, a ruptured appendix is the likely result, followed by peritonitis and death.  The good news is that a relatively simple surgical procedure and postoperative medication will likely avoid all that.  Are there costs?  Of course.  The surgeon is entitled to be compensated for his skills, any assistants likewise, and the antibiotics the patient consumes after the surgery are not free of cost.  And the hospital that houses all this has an attendant cost, too.

Sound complicated? Of course.  But let’s examine what has evolved in this country in response to such a need.  Some people will never need such medical care and will go to their graves with their appendices intact.  Others will be less fortunate and will need numerous medical interventions during their lives.  As a society, we like to see ourselves as compassionate.  We don’t want to see an inflammation of the appendix become a death sentence.  Barring some system of charity health care or government administration (shudder!) that is exactly what would happen, though.  So the solution here has been the industry of health insurance–more accurately called hospitalization insurance, but I digress.  Each surgical invention results in a bill which is submitted to the patient’s insurance company, which may employ claim adjustors and adjudicators, all to ensure that “the company’s” money is not paid out in spurious or inflated claims, administrative personnel, etc., etc., and a highly-compensated CEO, all of whom are entitled to be compensated for their work, as well.  Costs are spread over a spectrum of users.

Are these intermediaries immoral, thieving wretches?  Of course not.  They are all striving to excel inside the system they were born into.  But consider Canada, our neighbor to the north.  Canadians enjoy a standard of living similar to ours, and their health care is good.  Their life expectancy is better than ours–a recent study (2015) by the World Health Organization puts their life expectancy, on average at 82.2 years, while we Americans are at 79.9.  They have a health care system that covers them all through a government program that pays all medical costs.  Of course, ultimately they all pay for their own health care through taxation or other government funding methods, but still…it works.  Just as an aside, I read an article recently about the auto industry.  It contained an interesting little tidbit: with the US dollar and its Canadian counterpart at par, Ford or GM or Chrysler produce the average car meant for the US market at a cost of $1500 less in Ontario than in Michigan.  Why? Well, you must have guessed.  The US autoworker working under his negotiated contract bargained for (largely) company-paid health insurance, while his counterpart to the north is covered by his national health care plan.

Need another example?  Look at the music industry.  Take a new, young artist who has come up with a style that someone in the established industry finds exciting enough to offer the artist a contract, typically involving the artist’s producing x amount of music in y length of time.  The recording label pays the artist a fixed sum, with (maybe) a fixed commission determined by the sales of the artist’s music.  There is a story about the band Van Halen (which, unfortunately, I can’t confirm, but still…) wherein Eddie Van Halen, the lead guitarist, claimed they recorded one album that sold 2,000,000 copies, and after they had toured in support of that album, were informed by the record label that the band still owed several million dollars to the label.  Incredulous, Eddie said he hoped the album would not sell 2,000,000 more copies or the band would owe twice as much money.  Was the label entitled to recoup its costs for promotion and distribution?  Of course.  How were those costs figured?  Hmmm…

More recently, Taylor Swift had a dispute with Spotify, the popular file-sharing service that lets consumers download and listen to music.  Swift, one of the most popular contemporary artists in the world, was getting less than one cent per play from Spotify, which led her to pull much of her music from the service altogether.  Most of such a service is, of course, automated, with selections made through the consumer’s computer, so there would appear to be little justification for charges by the company of much over one cent!

And finally…this is going to irritate some people, but it is what got me thinking along these lines in the first place.  Today is the eve of Easter, the Christian feast which observes the Resurrection of Christ.  I will not preach to anyone what he or she should believe or practice.  I will admit to being troubled at the number of people who huckster in the name of religion, and I am not, in this instance, talking about those who solicit in the name of a legitimate charity.  Jesus, in His time on Earth, after all, did advise that, to follow him, one should feed the hungry, house the homeless, etc.  He did not advise that one should subsidize TV preachers or the proprietors of distant megachurches.  If you want to do that, I have no business telling you not to.  I will say that these people seem like little more than self-appointed intermediaries–commercial enterprises of something that had no commercial aspect in the beginning.  And it’s available at some location near you at little cost–even if you are a shut-in.

Whatever your beliefs, I wish you Happy Easter, Passover Blessings, or, Eid Mubarak.

A Glossary of Terms and Phrases: 2017

Just in case anyone missed me, I’m sorry–even a retired guy has certain things he (A) needs to do, and others that he (B) wants to do.  So, for the last month, I’ve been busier than usual with things like (from category A) painting the house and repairing various and sundry things around the homestead, and (from Category B) visiting with family and taking a trip or two.  But I’m back.  And I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at some of the language that gets thrown at John Q. Public (you and me) by politicians, the media, and commercial spokespeople in the United States.  The term or phrase will be followed in each case by its real meaning, in some cases the one accepted by the rest of the world.

“Pro-life.”  This term came into common usage, according to the online Merriam Webster Dictionary, only in 1971.  Its definition, according to the same source: “Opposed to abortion.”  That seems so simple I am tempted to leave it there, but as I have mentioned in other places, people who proudly call themselves “pro-life” are often opposed to any public expenditure on health or welfare, enthusiastically support the death penalty, and only too happy to send thousands of young people off to war.  They may not even see the irony.  Recently I saw another writer refer to pro-lifers as “pro-birth.”   However you look at it, this illustrates something politicians have known for a long time: if you are first to use a term and then use it over and over, you’ve won a large battle in the public sphere.  Words or phrases will come to mean (to the public) exactly what you want them to mean–no more and no less.

“Political parties”: This term commonly refers to Democrats and Republicans, and rather expansively, to several other, smaller groupings.  In general, Democrats adhere to some basic tenets, or at least pay lip service to them; these usually include basic human rights, the universal right to vote, the freedom from governmental interference in one’s belief system and/or one’s bedroom, and some form of progressive system of taxation to support infrastructure, education, and other basic universal needs, including aiding the poor to get health care and aiding those same poor to at least a poverty-level wage.  The party also includes numbers of hypocrites, thieves, and self-interested scoundrels, but many Democrats frown on the latter categories.

Again, in general, Republicans adhere, as well,  to a small group of basic tenets.  Among these are that absolutely everything is a commodity to be bought and sold (for example, health, education, water, public safety).  There are still a few who believe that these are basic rights that should not be available only to those who can pay, but these Republicans are now a shrinking minority and will likely soon be extinct.  Another basic belief of the 2017 Republican is that we as a nation should be armed to the teeth, both individually and as a nation, just in case…well, just in case something.  Also, anyone who is not a Republican is probably a secret subversive.  Foreigners are bad, and must be watched at all times.  A dollar spent on the military is by definition. never wasted.

There are other “political parties,” but of little consequence, and whatever they profess to believe, what they really believe is that the two major parties are REALLY BAD and if “we” ever get the power, things are gonna change!

“The Left”: A mostly meaningless term in today’s US usage.  Most US political thought branded as from “the left” is pretty bland stuff on a world scale.  For example, the US lurched to a small FIRST STEP toward expanding availability of health care seven years ago, and this is still being condemned by Republicans and others as “a government takeover of health care.”  Senator Bernie Sanders won a couple of Democratic primaries last year, and Donald Trump rushed to say that he never thought he would see a “Communist” in such position.  Sanders describes himself as a “European-style socialist” and wants to see state-financed higher education, universal health care, and restrictions on certain banking practices.  Oh, the horror…  There is simply no genuine, viable “leftist” movement in the United States.

“The right” or, sometimes “right-wing”: The way-out, neo-fascist, often racialist, often religious supremacist groupings that have come to the fore in the 1990’s and since.  They are enjoying unprecedented prominence since one of their own, Steve Bannon, sits at the right hand of the current president.  They often work to abolish certain rights for whole classes of people–non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and the underprivileged.  This work may be overt or covert, as when they try to orchestrate some rightward drift in legal terms; such proposals are clothed in high-sounding legal concepts.  Thus, keeping minorities from voting is presented as the prevention of “voter fraud,” a problem which has been shown to be almost non-existent.  (You see, minorities and such are much too likely to vote the wrong way, and this had to be handled delicately, as it was in several southern states, which closed many offices which issued government ID cards of various types, IF those offices were located in jurisdictions with high concentrations of minorities.  Problem solved!)

The right is also philosophically opposed to government-imposed minimum wages,  marriage between homosexuals, and almost any form of taxation, except of course, the wages of those in the bottom 90% of the economic spectrum.  In another example of winning the semantic war, they began to use the term “death tax” in reference to a federal estate tax.  Most people are not aware that the estate tax applies only to those who leave behind estates worth a rather high figure; in a recent year, that figure was over $5,000,000.  Thus, the fight is over making the world safe for Paris Hilton and her peers.

The media: this is the PLURAL form of “medium.” Some method of conveying news or opinion to others is a medium.  More than one medium, then, become media–e.g., newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and yes, the internet.  “Media,” then, in political talk, is a group of lying, scheming evildoers–if they report something bad (even if it’s 100% true) about you or your side in a political discussion.  There is no common term for media who report such news favorably.  Those media are never mentioned, except to praise them for “doing their job.”  “The right” (see above)  is especially fond of condemning the media, with the notable exception of Fox News (“We report, you decide…”) which is praised by “the right” for being apologists for figures on the right, recently and notably trying to defend, for example, the thoroughly-debunked Trump claim that President Obama wire-tapped Trump during the 2016 election campaign.

“Freedom of religion”  This is one of “the right’s” favorite phrases to justify otherwise unlawful discrimination.  Numerous examples exist currently, but the one that drew the most national and international attention was the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to non-heterosexuals recently.  She was defended by many on the right, and vociferously by both Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz (then both Republican Presidential candidates) as they tried to gain followers among like-minded voters. They held her up as  a courageous defender of freedom of religion for refusing to do her job if she found the people who wanted her services to be less “Christian” than she.  I wonder, did it ever occur to anyone to say that if the law required her to do something that was odious to her, she should just have resigned?

“Liberal”: In 2017 parlance,  a person of dubious patriotism and morals.  It once meant broadly a person who believed that government power could be used for the common good.

“Conservative”: In 2017-speak, the opposite of a liberal.  Usually, a pro-life, hawkish, hater of taxation and lover of religious freedom, as those terms are defined above.

What am I?  Liberal?  Conservative?  I really don’t know.  I pick my positions as items come up for discussion.  Good night!


Opinions from Some Retired Guy (me) with No Politics!

Now that I’m retired and in the “Golden Years” I can have opinions (and express them) about a lot of things.  You’re welcome.

  1. I Love Lucy was not that funny.  I watched those old shows in the 50’s, when I was a kid (really young kid) and I have watched them more recently.  I thought they were contrived even before I knew that word, and I still do.  I thought maybe my perception would change with age.  It didn’t.  And just in case you thought that I did not like female comics, I give you Carol Burnett.  Now there was a funny lady.
  2. The Three Stooges were funny.  That should not need any defense, but I know they have their detractors, so listen carefully–the visual schtick was played for humor, and so was the cartoonish violence.
  3. Television today typically consists of some 200-400 channels per household.  Before cable, each household got 3 or 5 channels, maybe 10 or 12 if it was in an urban area.  BUT…many of those 200-400 channels today are showing old shows from the earlier era.  There has to be some humor in there somewhere…
  4. I have a Facebook account.   I share certain things on it from time to time.  Since I have a variety of Facebook friends from different countries, I am used to seeing posts on my page in a couple of foreign languages, and I can read them.  I am also used to seeing posts from younger (these days, most people are younger than I am) people, Americans, in such debased English that they are more difficult to decipher than the foreign ones.
  5. Further to #4 above, it appears that quite a few people rush into writing words/expressions either before having ever seen them in print, or without regard to English spelling or usage.  Gems like “Your a jerk” and “You was to late” are just a couple that I’ve seen lately.  OK, OK, I know, don’t criticize.  But why not?
  6. Golf is the most frustrating, boring sport there is.
  7. Tee time at 8:30?  Sure, I’ll be there.  Can’t wait to try this new driver!
  8. Modern cars are so technically superior to their counterparts from a few decades ago that any comparison is plain silly.  When I traded my last car, a 2013 model Ford, on a 2016 model, I had driven it 40,000 miles.  I had spent nothing at all on repairs for it, and though it was a “midsize” SUV (an Edge) it often got 30 MPG with the cruise control set on 65 and the A/C on full.  My 2016 Edge  is a little better on gas at 32 MPG on a trip.  A car of comparable size and capacity in 1980 would have been a marvel if it got 24.  And it would have had to have frequent replacements of parts.
  9. TV fathers have gone from the 50’s model (Jim Anderson of  Father Knows Best or Ward Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver): the taciturn but wise and gentle type, through the “Dad is a dummy” phase (Al Bundy on Married with Children) to a broad caricature of how dads really think.  Think Red Forman (That 70’s Show) or Murray Goldberg (The Goldbergs) or even Jay Pritchett (Modern Family).  Isn’t it fitting, by the way, that Ed O’Neill got to play one of the dunce variety and one of the modern, wisecracking types?  “OK, we’re done here.”
  10. PS: Kevin James, also a TV dad (Kevin Can Wait) who has now played two chunky, clueless oafs married to women too attractive and smart to give him the time of day in reality, was not funny in the first one and is equally unfunny in the new one.
  11. A second view department: when I was young, I really did not care about Westerns, either on TV or at the movies.  Recently, I saw about 20 episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel with Richard Boone as the cultured gunslinger based in San Francisco, post-Civil War.  I was off base.  This was great TV, with a tense morality play in each 26 minutes.  I may have to look at some others again.
  12. A second view department, part II: Clint Eastwood movies.  Though I did like those spaghetti westerns when they showed on the old drive-in screens in the 60’s, it was an immature admiration for a hero with an exaggerated alpha male persona.  Now I watch them and marvel at the subtleties apparent in Eastwood’s squinty, hard-bitten portrayals (often almost without dialogue) of men in the days of the (romanticized) Old West.  This turns out to be a man wounded by life and determined to wound life in return.  And the Dirty Harry series deserves to be revisited, too.
  13. 20 years ago, I couldn’t stand either hip-hip or country music.  Now I…nah, I still can’t stand either one.
  14. 39 years ago, I went to see a movie that promised to be a bit of entertaining what we called “space opera.”  (I was a reader of serious science fiction, after all, thank you very much.)  Two hours later, at the end of the very first Star Wars film, I was part of a whole theater audience who stood and cheered as the Death Star exploded.  Who would have thought it would grow into one of the biggest movie franchises ever?
  15. I love Canada.  I have heard from some sage that Canadians are less like us (Americans), and like us less, than we might suppose.  Having lived for a time in Canada and visited many times, I would guess that the saying is true (to a degree) but for reasons many Americans will not embrace: Canada as a country is not afraid of self-criticism, and not afraid of self-correction if that self-criticism shows a flaw.  They have the best of the North American experience without much of the worst.  Of course, it’s still too cold, for the most part.  Nowhere is perfect.
  16. I was somewhat in dread of retirement before I transitioned into it, not least because so many told me so many times that I would be bored without a job to go to each day, and I would have nothing important or interesting to do, and the time would just drag on and on.  Four years in, I have to say: ha ha ha.  I do not miss work, though I do miss the travel that resulted from it.  Playing golf a couple of times a week, tending to some fruit trees, and undertaking an occasional wood working project will not change the world, but as I recall, I did not have much success at changing the world from work, either.
  17. There is something transcendent about watching the sun set into the sea.  It seemingly grows bigger and redder until it just disappears.  People tend to forget that Florida has a West Coast–you don’t have to be in California to observe this wonder of nature.  And sitting next to the shore with one arm around your wife (or husband, if that’s the case) is the best way to do it.
  18. I hate cell phones.  Really hate them.  No, that’s all.  I really hate cell phones.  I’m ready to concede, they can save lives, but…no, still find them a bother.
  19. Being this age (talking to all you millennials out there) means I got to see all the good bands in their heyday, some of them live.  I still remember seeing the Who in performance in 1979.  Keith Moon, to my immense regret, was already gone, but the show was still unbelievable.
  20. And finally, one bit of advice: if you are making no progress with someone you are trying to convince, move on.  There are others.  Oh, wait…that’s in the New Testament.  Jesus Himself advised the apostles to “Shake the dust from your Feet.”  Good advice then, and just as good now.

It’s About Who’s the Boss

No, I’m not going to talk about a sitcom from a couple of decades ago.

I have to talk about US politics again.  I really do have to; it’s not a desire.  I’m relentlessly drawn to the topic because it is so fascinating–in a morbid sort of way, of course, somewhat like the witness who is asked over and over again to describe the Hindenburg disaster or a 25-car pile-up on an interstate highway.

Hundreds of professional journalists as well as editorialists, spinmeisters, and comedians are busy in this 24/7 “news” cycle describing the latest mental and verbal gyrations from the White House.  President Trump one day issues an impossibly broad and vague Executive Order, and the nation watches, fascinated, as chaos ensues.  Within a day or so, a federal judge stays the Executive Order.  Trump then issues a “tweet” on his Twitter account in which he demeans the judge, a respected jurist who had been confirmed by the Senate a few years before in a 98-0 vote, as a “so-called judge,” says the decision will be overturned and promises to see the judge “in court.”  (Where else?  In the judge’s living room?)

Or the National Security Advisor, retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, who needed no confirmation from any other part of the government, and thus began in his new position at the beginning of the Trump administration, found himself out of that job within three weeks, after having had contact with the Russian embassy early and often, both during the campaign and during the transition from the Obama administration to that of Trump, then lying about it, including to the Vice-President, then claiming he had less-than-perfect recall of the contact, and then…well, who knows.  First, he was said to have been forced to resign.  Then Trump said that his lying to the Vice-President was the last straw.  Then Trump (sort of) praised Flynn after the fact.

There are a lot of other examples, but it all adds up to one thing: chaos.  It’s not exactly the “inmates running the asylum” scenario, but one could be pardoned for wondering exactly who is in charge here.  It does seem evident that Trump himself is not, except in a figurehead sort of way; this is not a surprise, since he had no government experience before January 20, 2017.  And despite the opinion of many in the public that “government should be run like a business,” that’s way too simplistic.

Business has one overriding responsibility–to make profits, and its shareholders are its constituency.  Those who administer businesses rise or fall based on how well they comply with that responsibility.  Besides, Trump’s experience is not even mostly along the lines of that business model.  He has mainly been in charge of enterprises with his name splashed all over them, privately held, and with no oversight but his.  So it should not come as a surprise to see the new president flail, at least at first.

The US Federal Government has a plethora of responsibilities: national defense, collection and disbursement of funds to various programs meant to encourage economic growth or public health or diplomatic readiness, etc, etc., etc.  And none of it designed to make a profit.  The average Joe despairs at times to describe or even understand what the Government does.  He notices, though, if Social Security is disrupted, or if tainted food products slip by the FDA, or if a military officer’s (or the civilian overseer of that officer’s) poor judgment results in the loss of life.

BUT…all of this is not why Trump ran for president and not at all why he was elected.  And here is where the morbid fascination comes in.  The true Trump supporter did not have any of the ordinary workings of government in mind when voting for the Donald, as it becomes increasingly evident each day.  In fact, I would be willing to wager that, even, as many of the executive departments of the Federal Government become dysfunctional to the point of failure, Trump voters will not waver in their continuing support.

Look at the posts of your friends on their Facebook pages.  If you have no or not many Trump supporters among your friends, then look at the letters to the editor page in any small-town newspaper, and even in some papers from  larger cities.  Trump is doing a great job, these folks are saying.  If they are not saying it themselves, they are copying or parroting copy from such sources as Breitbart or Conservative Tribune or dozens of others, all of which are steady in blaming all the country’s ills on “libtards” or “the left.”  These raw emotional outbursts are just what many Trump supporters want to hear.

Lately those who identify themselves as “conservatives” have been on a kick where they insist that most or all of the people who show up at Congressional Town Halls to protest current doings in Washington are “paid agitators” or “professional protestors.”  I have seen (as I assume you have) wild-eyed stories asserting that the crowds who dare confront their Congressmen are all being paid on the order of $70,000 yearly to protest, all, of course, by some shadowy leftist conspiracy to bring down the current president.  The NRA’s CEO, Wayne LaPierre,  recently denounced such dissent as the work of “..anarchists, Marxists, Communists…” who “…”hate everything America stands for.”  This at CPAC, the gathering of “conservative” activists just outside Washington.

So don’t expect Trump supporters to turn on their hero anytime soon.  The love they profess for him is not for him at all–it is for this worldview that things were just great in the USA until these troublemakers were let get too strong.  Many of these same people were shocked to the core of their being in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, and one Donald J. Trump was in the forefront of this wave, insisting that Obama was not American at all–his birth certificate was a fraud, according to a trusted (but anonymous) source.  And when Obama released his long-form birth certificate, Trump said that wasn’t enough: Trump had to see Obama’s college transcripts.

Obama bailed out GM and Chrysler.  Never mind the Federal Government eventually sold off its share of both companies at a profit, which went right back into the Treasury.  He didn’t wear a flag pin in his lapel!  His transgressions were legion, in these eyes.

“Libtards,” “leftists,”  even atheists and Muslims were emboldened to speak their minds.  Gays asked for (and got) the right to marry each other.  “True Americans” like Wayne LaPierre could not be expected to stand for these abominations!  So, in mid 2016, when it was apparent that Trump would be the Republican nominee for president, but was running behind that dreaded socialist/libtard bitch Hilary Clinton, Steve Bannon, James Comey, and Vladimir Putin all got behind the Donald.  The media (the same media DJT now demeans as “fake news”), in their true capitalist motivation to sell TV ads and newspapers, fixated on Trump 24/7, and let him say absolutely anything he wanted without fear of contradiction.  And he said, over, and over, that Hilary was a crook, that she should be in jail, blah, blah, etc., and I’m the law and order candidate, and our military will be yuuuuge…

And evangelicals were persuaded that Trump would be better than that Godless Methodist, and the job was done.  A few thousand in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were persuaded to switch in the hopes of returning to a more black and white time.

People do not give up their hopes easily.  They are holding out, waiting for Trump to bring back their manufacturing jobs.  They are listening to corporate CEO’s who say that regulations that stopped the corporations from polluting air and water are what killed jobs in West Virginia and Kentucky.  Others are sure that Trump will restore prayer in the public schools, and everything will just get better after that.  Or that gays will get back into the closet.

So this is what brought us Trump.  He is going to be the boss that will put everything “right.”  Only when nothing is “left” will all be right.  The Trump/Bannon reign will not last forever.  It only feels like it.

What Is Truth and How Do We Know?

Did that get your attention?  Better yet, did it make you ponder either part of the two-part question?

If you are like me, and have been on Earth several decades, you have seen the world change in ways that would have been unthinkable in the mid-to-late 20th century.  Withdraw money from your bank account in another city with just a plastic card?  Get an accredited college degree without setting foot in a classroom?  Book a flight, pay for the ticket and check in for the flight without ever leaving your desk or talking with another human being?  Well, things change.  And not always for the best.

Of course, the age of the computer ushered in the changes that touch all of us, as in the three examples in the last paragraph.  The computer age means that information is available at the touch of a keyboard–available to anyone with access to a computer which in turn has access to the internet.  We all became very accustomed to that years, even decades ago.  But some things do not change.  It was once said that a lie could run around the world before the truth could lace up its shoes.  That old saying has never been more relevant, because of the same internet.  I have said many times in the last 20 years that with the internet, millions with nothing of value to say now have a platform to say it all, and to a worldwide audience.  We are all left to hope that internet consumers are a discerning group, able to tell fact from fiction.  Alas, we are all to be disappointed.  Many readers are the willing consumers of the most vile falsehoods, and they take in these falsehoods uncritically and repeat them, thus spreading them, and becoming part of the problem. often while congratulating themselves on being “in the know,” and not being “taken in by the mainstream media,” they do the work of propagandists.

Now it is true that misinformation has always spread not only by means of people with an interest in spreading it, for whatever reason, but also by means of people who spread it without knowingly meaning to spread falsehood; they may, as they always have, ask someone, “Did you hear that…” or “Did you know that…”  These people are not part of some grand conspiracy, but they are useful to that conspiracy when they propagate something untrue, even if they do not know it.

Today, such misinformation is so rife, so widespread, that much is “common knowledge” without being true.  And I do not mean shading of facts.  I am talking of outright falsehood, placed in the internet stream initially by someone with an interest in shaping public opinion toward some end.  When this method of spreading false information is successful, it can become almost impossible to eradicate it from the public mind.  I have heard or read several such items in recent months, such as…

Kids are not allowed to pray in school.”  This is similar to the truth–just similar enough to cause even some well-meaning people to be taken in by it.  There was a lot of commotion over lawsuits brought by atheists over compulsory prayers in public schools when I was in public school.  The rub was the “establishment of religion” clause of the Constitution.  Some did not want their children to be required to utter prayers chosen for them by school boards.  A 1962 Supreme Court decision held that such a requirement violated the establishment clause.  However, other decisions have permitted prayer groups, etc., on school grounds, provided there is no coercion of students to participate.  (These decisions are available through Google, quoted verbatim.  And yes, I accept Google information as to historical fact.)

I taught in a public secondary school from the mid-70’s to the late 80’s.  During some discussion of the history of the English language, I often passed out a version of the Lord’s Prayer in Modern English alongside an Old English version, to illustrate the changes in diction and word order over 1200 years of history, without incident.  I did so because most kids would have been familiar with the words in Modern English.  I could not, did not, and did not want to, command them that they had to pray it.  And finally, on test days, I witnessed many instances of students praying silently, crossing themselves, or showing in other ways that they were praying.  But no one did it out loud and no one compelled anyone else to take part.  And anyway, if there were to be prayer involving every student, whose prayer would it be?  Non-denominational?  Please.  There is something in every prayer that would not accord with someone’s belief system.

“Right now, in  (city), (state), Sharia law has been established!”  This one made the rounds a few years ago, and has started to gain strength once again recently.  The cited city is usually Dearborn, Michigan, probably because of the size of the Arab immigrant population.  This has been debunked before, and surprisingly easily, because the hysterics have one source: an online satire/humor site called the National Report, which includes the following disclaimer:

National Report is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news. Any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental.

The above paragraph is available through Google at Snopes’ webpage.

In late 2013, the National Report ran a fake news story to the effect that Dearborn City Council had established Sharia Law by a 4-3 vote.  Predictably, a lot of gullible people and those who prey on them (for votes, fund-raising, etc.) latched onto it as an alarming sign of the approaching apocalypse or something, and it acquired a life of its own.  And yes, I have been in Dearborn, and it looks a lot like the rest of semi-urban Michigan except with better Arab restaurants.  Shawarma, anyone?

Students no longer recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, because SOME PEOPLE would be offended by it.”

Again, this claim somewhat alludes to something like the truth, and thus encourages those inclined to hyperventilate to start on cue.  It may come as a surprise to learn that a Federal Court decision in 1943, yes, 1943, held that no school could force a student to recite the pledge or even to stand for it.  (A Jehovah’s Witness had sued: in that sect, no one is supposed to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything but God.)  There have been suits in many Courts of Appeal since then, most centered on the phrase “under God,” which was not part of the original pledge; it was added in 1954.  Nonetheless, the pledge continues to be recited in classrooms at the beginning of the school day just about from coast to coast.  Students may be informed of a right to abstain from pledging or even standing either verbally, or in a student handbook, or in any other suitable method.  It is a quirk of this whole ordeal that the exemption itself allows an individual student with religious objections to opt out and thus preserves the possibility of participation by the others.

“Schools prohibit students from saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other.  They are required to say “Happy Holidays’ or some other secular greeting.”

I will include a quote from Valerie Straus in the Washington Post of December 24, 2016:

As for celebrating Christmas, students are free to say “Merry Christmas,” give Christmas messages to others, and organize Christmas devotionals in student Christian clubs.

It’s true that some public school officials still misunderstand (or ignore) the First Amendment by censoring student religious expression that is protected under current law. But when challenged in court, they invariably lose.”

The claim is undoubtedly part of a “War on Christmas” narrative often used (you guessed it) for fundraising or for political rallying purposes.

There are dozens more provably false claims made every day to whip up one constituency or another.  The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, is particularly fond of using claims like these.  One reason for his proclivity in these affairs may be that they are commonly used in “alt-right” “news” sources, of which he would seem to be an admirer.  The claim that the murder rate in the US is its highest in 45 years may be such an example, or it may be just a symptom of someone with a notoriously short attention span.  Again, from Snopes:

 According to the most recent FBI data available, an estimated 15,696 murders occurred in the United States in 2015, or 4.9 murders per 100,000 people. And while this was the highest murder rate in six years (compared to a range of 4.4 to 4.8 murders per 100,000 each year since 2009, when the figure was 5 per 100,000), it’s less than half the historical high of 10.2 in 1980.

Sigh. Yes, I know he has the most responsible job in the world.  But voters have a pretty responsible job, too, that is, to be on the alert for people who preach fear when asking for their votes–or their money.  This administration has been shown to operate in a realm of their own facts, and to double down on them when confronted.  If anything is ever retracted, it’s by a lower-level official, rather than by the President or by such notorious alt-fact purveyors as Kellyanne Conway, whose word I would not take if she said, “It’s a nice day out.”

The internet has a lot of good information.  It just takes a little searching and a bit of confirmation.  We used to say, in my youth, in the New Stone Age, that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t.  The reverse also holds–if it seems too bad or evil to be true, do some verification–it may not be true, either.

The 40-Year-Old Issue That Won’t Go Away

I have thought for many years about trying to set forth a logical, dispassionate analysis about the one issue in U. S. public debate that has refused to yield to any such discussion in any forum.  I don’t think I can do it. I am not sure anyone can do it.  Any mention of the topic brings forth the crowds of marchers, both those passionately committed to unyielding opposition and those equally committed to stopping those opposed from toppling the uneasy, fragile status quo.  No end is in sight to the squabbling; nor is there evident a long-term peaceful co-existence between the two factions.  The issue?  Legal therapeutic abortion.

After hours of thinking, writing, amending, and restarting, I will tell you at the start that if you’re expecting a smashing conclusion, don’t, because there really isn’t one.  I also admit in the very beginning that I feel somewhat like a trespasser even discussing this issue, since, as a man, I will never face the decision whether to undergo such a procedure.  Nonetheless. state or federal legislators who regularly propose laws regulating or attempting to outlaw abortion, as well as judges who must weigh the legalities of such regulation are, in the majority, men, and they exhibit little or no hesitancy to advocate one position or another.  What results is the incongruity of one half of Americans deciding what, if any, limits must be placed on the other half as to the immorality, criminality, or lack of either inherent in the act of abortion.  Also, an ugly, unspoken truth is that men sometimes force such a decision on women by backing out of promised emotional and financial support.

Former President Bill Clinton, as you may remember, offered his opinion that  population will assert that the very act is so abhorrent that it should be absolutely and always illegal.  For this group no consideration of patient safety is necessary, with a zero occurrence rate the ultimate goal.  I don’t think, however, that most Americans are quite so dogmatic.  A more common current of thought seems to be that Clinton’s formula should add “with some restrictions.”  More on that a bit below.

The opponents of abortion in any and all instances and situations, it seems, fall into two broad categories (and a number of small ones).  The first of these categories are those who object on moral grounds: a prohibition on the taking of (human) life, to these people, is or should be absolute, extending even into the womb to cover embryos and fetuses with the protection from harm by the state that the state offers to all of its citizens from birth.  This is a rather appealing stance for anyone who likes his/her positions to reflect certainty, with an internal logical consistency–there is no gray, only black or white, and all questioning is eliminated.

Another segment of the “total prohibition” part of the population arises from religious belief and practice.  The Roman Catholic Church, through its supreme spokesman, the Pope, has been consistent in its condemnation of willful abortion at any stage of embryonic or fetal development (the dictionary distinction between “fetus” and “embryo,” has the latter meaning very early stages of development, and the former referring to later stages, where a form resembling   human has begun to be apparent), without exception that I can recall.  Other Christian confessions, as well as Jews, Muslims, and other groups,  range in their official positions from a near-total condemnation (with most carving out an exception for cases where continuing a pregnancy would endanger the life of the pregnant woman) to general disapproval, but including the proviso that a decision in any case of a potential abortion should be made primarily by the woman usually after prayers and examination of one’s motives.  Some Christian and other sects differentiate between cases of earlier or later development of the fetus.

In truth, keeping in mind that I lack standing (in legal terms) to weigh in on any individual decision, I think that the moral absolutists need to take a step back and allow all, including themselves, to weigh more than just an abstract position in the debate.  The old hypothetical question of what a husband would do if advised that his helpless, voiceless wife or an equally helpless and voiceless unborn child could survive some calamity, but not both, is illustrative.  To say that he would have to let his wife die in favor of the unborn is not realistic.  (Of course, neither is such a scenario, but still…)

The religious guidance can be binding only on the adherents of that particular religion, unless the law of the land is in harmony with whatever it states. This is part of the American DNA.  No believer of any stripe can force anyone else to observe what his own religion dictates–and no religion can force a legislative branch to adopt its own teachings as law simply based on its belief.  The law may be similar or even identical to a sectarian belief, but that is basically coincidence.

I mentioned a third tendency toward prohibition above when I said “…a number of small ones…” and this is where reasoning becomes a minefield.  There is, among Americans, a substantial group which appears to believe that babies are the logical consequence of engaging in a proscribed act–that is, premarital or extramarital sex or even rape.  Those who take this point of view will almost always divert all discussions of the availability of therapeutic abortion into some blind alley by saying some variation on the theme that “…well, they should have thought of that before they decided to lie around and …”  You finish the sentence; the gist of it is that (1) any type of sex may result in pregnancy;  (2) that such pregnancies are the penalty that is brought on by the act; and (3) crudely stated, those who engage in the act are revealed to society be the resultant pregnancy, either as a warning to others or as an example to all.  Some or all of the foregoing is probably implied rather than fully stated, but that is the thrust of it.

Reasoning with a person who embraces this “just desserts” theory is likely futile.  Like the parishioners in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, they seek reminders each day that some others are less morally evolved than they are.  Why employ such pejorative terms as “bastard” or “baby daddy” except to debase those to whom such language is applied?

With all this as background, we see constant efforts by absolutists to reinstate the total ban many think existed in the US before 1973 and Roe v. Wade.  In reality, states had different regulations before then and after; some prohibited the procedure altogether, and some restricted it according to one standard or another.  What Roe did was to attempt to standardize this patchwork to some extent, essentially by laying out a right to privacy that supposedly let a woman make the decision to terminate a pregnancy or continue it to term in consultation with her doctor.  Religious considerations were left to her; nonbelievers and believers alike set the standards in their own cases.

The law of unintended consequences set in.  At some point, those who were strictly anti- on the issue began to refer to themselves as “pro-life.”  Those who thought the issue settled gradually became known as “pro-choice.” Neither title tells us much about the group it is applied to.  Today, some 44 years after Roe, the pro-life faction is often aligned as well with those in favor of such government actions as elimination of welfare benefits and broad application of the death penalty in criminal cases, leading wags to call them “pro-birth.”  The “pro-choice” title seems to imply that choice is all its adherents favor, even though many who would be labeled as such favor restrictions such as a time/developmental limitation during which a pregnant woman could seek an abortion.  Similarly, most who speak publicly do not advocate this as a form of birth control.

In recent years, the issue has been further exploited for political gain.  The “pro-life” faction is one of the largest groups of so-called “single-issue” voters, i. e.. people who will reliably vote in favor of a candidate who takes the same stand as they do on this single issue, regardless of where he/she stands on any other issue.  Some states have imposed new requirements meant to restrict the availability of abortion, and many private, loosely organized groups have resorted to violence up to and including killing doctors who perform abortions.  There is considerable overlap of the “pro-lifers” with groups who advocate omission of contraceptives from health insurance plans–which would lead to more unplanned pregnancies, which probably would lead to more women seeking abortions…

The issue gives no indication of yielding to civility or logic.  The state impositions I mention above have included, among others, a requirement that those women who seek abortion be advised that there exists a link between abortion and breast cancer, even though medical experts have debunked this and other bits of magical thinking.

One positive fact is that statistics on abortion in the US appear to indicate that, after a peak in the early 1980’s, their numbers have declined (with a slight hiccup or two) almost yearly.  I believe this is due to the gradual spread of contraceptive information and means rather than to sanctions revived in some localities.

Will this be less of an issue with time?  Maybe.  I would like to think so. But it may require a cooling off on all sides, and there is very little “cool” in US politics today.








Inauguration Day. Please Do Not Ask Me to “Get Over It.”

This morning, with absolutely no enthusiasm, I watched Donald Trump take the oath of office as the new President of the United States.  In the run-up to this occasion, from last Election Day until today, I have read all sorts of Facebook posts and seen all sorts of talking heads on TV who keep telling me (and more than 60,000,000 other Americans) that we should just “get over it” and that we now owe our support to President Trump.  I think that is oversimplified (like one of DJT’s speeches) and of little use to anyone.  I intend to tell you, in just a few words, why that is the case.

First off, this is, as they say, not my first rodeo.  I have closely followed elections since 1960, when I was 12 years old.  Though all my 12-year-old mind really understood about that contest was that I found Kennedy rather uplifting, inspiring, and vigorous, all qualities I admired, and that Nixon struck me as someone who was deeply uncomfortable in his psyche–too fidgety, too nervous, and above all, too evasive.  I will not defend or attack any of that more than 50 years after the fact; I only offer it as an indication of how I have always taken all this to a very personal level.  This person who wants support, if he is elected, will then claim he has it from all Americans, whatever he does.  In retrospect, it seems to me that all those youthful thoughts were somewhat on the mark, but Kennedy was not an unmixed blessing in the White House.  The Bay of Pigs fiasco set us on a course for more than half a century of antagonism with Cuba, a small, poor island nation off our southern flank, and helped drive it into a Soviet orbit for a long time.

On the other hand, Kennedy’s surprising devotion to civil rights was a higher calling that did lift millions out of a twilight status they had been in since the Lincoln administration.  His legacy in this area will shine for a long time to come.

1964: Johnson-Goldwater was an uninspiring choice, though I was still not old enough to vote.

1968 brought back Nixon, like some Frankenstein’s monster, with Hubert Humphrey as his opposition.  Still only 20 (the voting age then was 21), I watched in horror as Nixon was elected narrowly.  All my initial impressions about Nixon were confirmed over the course of the next five or so years.  He was a petty, vindictive,  “little” man, given to the lust for power for its own sake.  He did create the EPA, which meant that there was now some check on those who thought polluted air and water were a price all of us should pay so that they could profit.  He was re-elected in 1972 over the doomed George McGovern, for whom I did vote in my first-ever ballot.  Nixon’s campaign did its best to make us all feel un-American if we did not support the President.

1976 meant Ford and Carter, the accidental President and the peanut farmer.  Another yawn-inducing choice.  Both were fundamentally decent men.  Neither was particularly inspiring.  Ford suffered for his quick blanket pardon of Nixon, his disgraced predecessor.  Carter served four undistinguished years, marred by sniping inside his own party from Senator Edward Kennedy, the younger brother of the assassinated President from that earlier time.  I voted for Carter, but was a bit tormented by it in later years–though not too badly, since I had no better choice.

In 1980 and 1984, I was in a minority that did not see Ronald Reagan as some national savior, and I began to see a drift on the part of the Republican party to a louder and more vocal advocate of what is known today as white privilege, sometimes dressed up as “states’ rights” or some other formulation.  I think his presidency was destructive of labor rights, incomes of working people, and government advocacy of equal rights for all.  Many of his policies were slanted in favor of the wealthy, and his administration started the slide to “trickle-down” theories in economics.

Bush, Sr., was probably the last Republican President I have seen who was squarely in the old guard Republican tradition, with actual principles. I thought Bush was principled in the first Gulf war, and supported that.  Clinton succeeded Bush for two terms.  Twelve years, no real enthusiasm–and Clinton, I thought, had begun to show a tendency to pander for votes at the expense of formulating principled policy and then running on it.

I liked Obama.  I voted for him twice.   I used to have some admiration for his first opponent, John McCain.  It went away when he foisted Sarah Palin (Caribou Barbie) on the American public.  Obama was far from a perfect President, but his tendencies were mostly, I thought, on the money.  I did not and do not agree with those who see any rapprochement with countries like Iran and Cuba as some sort of betrayal of American values.  Hostility is not a value.  I like his metaphor of the open hand of friendship extended that could become a closed fist if rebuffed.

And so came 2016.  As I have explained many times, I was again unenthusiastic about both candidates.  Really unenthusiastic.  But Trump was such a turn-off that I voted for Ms. Clinton.

I have observed a pattern over the years: if someone looks dangerous or unbalanced or unprepared, I go with my instincts; they’re usually good.  I could not vote for Trump, and that doesn’t make me a “libtard” or even a firm Democrat.  I see four years ahead of steadfastness in favor of fancy.  Trump doesn’t like climate change, so he can ignore the scientific consensus in its favor.  He says companies should not move jobs overseas, so he can stop them from doing so with a firm upraised hand.  He loves “winning,” so we are all going to get a lot of winning.  Whatever that is.  Putin/Russia are admirable to him, so we should all like them.

Anyone who disagrees with him–on anything–is a “loser,” “sad,” or an “enemy” or maybe all of the above.  The Affordable Care Act will be replaced with “something wonderful” with lower premiums, no requests for specifics, please.

I listened to the inaugural speech with hopes that there would be some note of reconciliation, of trying to do an ingathering of the people.  No such luck.  What we got was the same campaign speech written in an eighth-grade vocabulary.  No call to a higher vision, only a smear of everyone in Washington, and a vague promise that “the American people” would have their voices heard starting tomorrow.

Yet, during this whole transition, none other than Mitch McConnell has constantly and consistently harangued us to “grow up; you lost.”  After eight years of naked opposition to anything Obama proposed, and after an unprecedented refusal (because he could, as Majority leader of the Senate) to hear anything about any proposal to fill a Supreme Court vacancy until after Barack Obama was out of office, Mitch wants us to grow up.  Well, it’s not as if I never saw a hypocrite before; I just never saw the hypocrisy on a scale comparable to this before.

So, if his Trumpness was speaking truth at points during the campaign (I know, a highly debatable condition), Trump himself and Congress will swiftly act to repeal the ACA and throw 20 to 30 million Americans off their current health care insurance; de-emphasize NATO; return to a policy that says Benjamin Netanyahu is always right, and can never be contradicted; and install cabinet secretaries who a) cozy up to Russia, no matter that they hack into our election campaigns, b) insist that climate change is a hoax, c) want guns in schools, just to ward off attacks by grizzly bears, d) advocate to abolish the minimum wage, and e) profit off a foreclosure crisis to a degree never before seen.  Do I need to go on?  There is always the national security adviser who has been associated with so many right-wing conspiracy theories that he reminds me of the guy in the 1950’s Steve Allen TV sketch, who, being informed that Genghis Khan is dead, exclaims, “You mean the commies got him, too!?”

Yes, he is now the President of all Americans, rich, poor, majority, minority, straight, gay, whatever.  If we go to war at some point, he is the commander-in-chief, for better or worse.  That makes him my president.  But just because he beat the other party’s candidate (and don’t say “my” candidate) doesn’t mean I need to be happy about it.  By a long shot, it doesn’t mean I think the country at large will be a better place.  I do think the regular crowd of wealthy donors will do very well.  That’s just too small a percentage of the population to be a good thing.  His lack of understanding of government (note to DJT: it won’t be like running a Manhattan real estate and hotel empire.  You’re welcome.) and his obstinate refusal to perceive the tiniest fault or simple error of thought in himself do not bode well.  And it’s not for myself I fear.  More of my days are behind me than ahead, after all.  It’s for the current younger generation I fear.  If he proves to be as bad in office as I fear he could be, those are the people who will pay for decades to come.  Grow up, indeed.  Get over it, but then, maybe, but then…there is much water to go under the bridge.  Prayers, yes.  Wishes, yes.  Support?  Earn it first, and I will.

Assange and Snowden: Whose Heroes Are They?

Sorry, I’ve been away from the old keyboard a while.  The holidays can take up pretty big chunks of time for everybody, and in truth, need no preparation time or spell checks, so they can be pretty pleasant.  Since all good things must come to an end, though, here is my first new post of the year.

I have been puzzled for some time as I observe the continuing sagas of Messrs. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.  If you have been in a subterranean cave for the last few years, cut off from all sources of light or news, you could look the two of them up.  If that seems too much work or too unrewarding, then here is the short version.  Assange is the head of WikiLeaks, an organization dedicated to unearthing government secrets and then splashing them all over the internet for anyone at all to read and interpret as he/she pleases.  His principal “contributor” in this enterprise (so far) has been Bradley/Chelsea Manning, the former US Army Intelligence Analyst, who passed hundreds of thousands of classified or “sensitive” documents to Assange’s organization.  Snowden is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency who then became a contract employee of a firm (Booz Allen Hamilton) which had access to highly-classified US government proprietary information.   Snowden, claiming he did not want to live in a society that conducted mass surveillance on its citizens, gave foreign journalists classified documents while in flight from the US.

The paragraph above contains, in essence, all of the information on these two that is generally conceded to be accurate by all parties.  Almost anything else said or written about them is subject to claims by supporters or detractors that one is trying to influence the discussion on them, whether for good or for ill.   On the occasions I have spoken with other people about the pair, I have heard them both described as “whistleblowers” by those with positive opinions of the pair.  Those who do not share that inclination often use terms such as “guilty of espionage” or “thieves of government property.”  Although it is difficult to categorize these responses precisely, it has struck me (and remember, you may feel free to dispute it–this is only presented as my point of view) that the more idealistic the observer, the more likely he/she is to view Assange and Snowden as having altruistic, positive motives.

I am neither young nor particularly altruistic anymore, so, as you might surmise, I am not very sympathetic to either Assange or Snowden.  Objectively speaking, each knowingly disseminated into the public domain information he knew to be property of the US government.  Equally, they disseminated that information with the knowledge that there were legal penalties for doing so.  (Manning, meanwhile, was caught several years ago and identified as the source of some of Assange’s revelations, and indeed, is serving a 35-year sentence for various acts of espionage and theft of government property–which may give you some idea of the degree of sympathy Assange enjoys from US law enforcement.)

As a former US government employee who handled classified information from time to time, the need for care and nondisclosure is imprinted on me–and I never was in a position to have to work with much such material.  Revelation of information protected by a US government classification was something that every official knew, every day, was something to be avoided.  Meetings of embassy officials were often held in secure areas to guard against the accidental case of revealing such information.  Thus I start from the premise that guarding such information from unauthorized persons is inimical to the cause of good security.  A purposeful disclosure can only be from bad intent.

But wait, the idealists protest: Assange and Snowden (Snowden particularly) were serving the greater good by informing people of the evil actions performed under the cover of secrecy by their government.  This argument, I will concede, has a sliver of appeal.  At times, they are compared to Daniel Ellsberg, who, during the Viet Nam war, found and leaked documents to US newspapers, showing, in summary, that the war in Viet Nam had been evaluated by the Pentagon at an earlier date as unwinnable; the rage of the Nixon administration at the time was that this was embarrassing to the US government–and not only the Nixon administration, but the Johnson and Kennedy administrations that had gone before it.

Not usually mentioned is the fact that anyone who might be sent off by his government to fight in a war that that government already knew was unwinnable might well try to avoid such service.

The Snowden-as-Ellsberg or Assange-as-Ellsberg comparisons, though, seem weak to me for several reasons.  For one, Ellsberg’s revelations pointed only to a general conclusion, the unwinnability of the war.   And for a second, Ellsberg did not flee the jurisdiction of his own government.  He surrendered to federal authorities and stood trial for his violations (demonstrating the courage of his convictions), categorized as theft and conspiracy.  He was eventually acquitted.

Assange has revealed many details from classified reports, cables, and memos. some of which are harmless enough in the objective sense (a profile of Icelandic politicians, for example), if momentarily embarrassing to the government.  On the other hand, some of the documents may have revealed sources for intelligence, which could have exposed those sources to harm or even death.  Some also revealed to Al-Qaeda some of the methods used to gather the intelligence; like a mutating disease microbe, that organization adapted and changed their modes of operation, setting back the efforts of US intelligence operations until new methods of penetration could be devised.  These are concrete, malignant effects of public disclosure of guarded information.

Snowden, for his revealing of mass surveillance of US citizens (and permanent residents) is revered in some circles.  I can understand how this is regarded as meritorious, since it may involve illegal activity by the government itself.  (This is by no means an open-and-shut argument, by the way.)  But I believe Snowden himself forfeited any “high ground” by stealing the documents (said to be more than a million of them) and fleeing to first China and later Russia,  rather than attempting to find a sympathetic ear within the government\.  Snowden claims his intention was to go to Venezuela or Ecuador, both Latin American countries in the throes of leftist governance which would have been happy to give shelter to an American fleeing from his own government.  He lives today in Russia, seemingly unbothered by the amount of surveillance of its own citizens that country does.

Assange may or may not have cooperated with recent Russian hacking activities connected to the recent US presidential election.  I can discern no higher motive in his conduct than narcissistic self-aggrandizement.

React as you will.  Disagree if you are so inclined.  I think the final chapter of these two’s story has yet to be written, and it probably will not be a happy ending.

They “Saw” the Future and Were Not Impressed

Long ago in a galaxy far away…well, not really, but more than 50 years ago in a small high school in a tiny town not unlike thousands of other small high schools in other tiny towns all across these United States, a young lad with an active mind read his way through much of the library of that school.  Yes, I’m talking about myself, but the “me” of the here and now seems so far removed from that lad that an editorial distance seems appropriate.  That said, the active mind continues to survive and make itself felt even half a century later.

I was particularly fond, even then, of books, stories, movies, and TV shows that tried to answer the question “what if…”  Some small departure from the world and the thinking of the here and now, some twist, some miniscule shift in the order of things: any or all of these could cause changes and changes would, of course, cause other changes, and so on, until the reader (or viewer) would find himself in some setting that, though clearly similar to his own world, incorporated enough differences to make it subtly, or sometimes terrifyingly, different.  “Different” was usually thought-provoking.  Much of the era’s fiction was clearly post-war; whether specifically laid out or implicit, most of the characters showed the influence of having lived though a terrible, widespread war.  That mindset often caused them to work, if not for peace, at least for the avoidance of war.  Changes in the social structure often flowed from that avoidance.

Young readers today often are targeted by authors who write from the point of view of a hero(ine) in late adolescence or early adulthood, a time when everyone questions everything and wants answers that are not always available.  The Hunger Games series and the Divergent series are commercially successful examples.  Their central characters find themselves in situations that are manifestly unfair and cruel, and they struggle to overcome them from within.  In the middle 60’s, I didn’t find a lot of that.  The only writer of prominence who wrote to the so-called “juvenile” audience was Robert Heinlein, who aimed several novels at this audience during the 1950’s.

I was most struck, however, by works that were decidedly not juvenile, and not really “science fiction,” but dystopic, i.e., the opposite of utopian.  They depicted miserable places and miserable people, but such people as one might have met in every-day life–just that something “twisted” reality out of its familiar shape and into something that thwarted the desire of people to live a better life and pass on that better life to their children–and I won’t belabor the point to show how all these commonly-known dystopias are relevant today.  Three of them in particular bear mentioning–and reading or rereading.

In 1948, WWII was a not-very-distant memory for the British author and essayist George Orwell (yes, I know, Eric Blair).  He actually had already written one broadly satiric novella, Animal Farm, which took as its subject the Russian Revolution that established the Leninist regime.  It was successful, but Orwell wanted to show how the ordinary Brit could be led down a path to horrible repression and authoritarianism.  His masterpiece, 1984, is well-known.  Legend has it that Orwell himself wanted to call the book “1948,” the time in which he was writing, but the publisher would not agree, and supposedly suggested transposing the eight and the four; the reading public, the story goes , would not like to see Britain or London portrayed so negatively.

In the world of 1984, the world has devolved into three huge nation-states, Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.  Oceania comprises the Americas and the British Isles; Eurasia is Europe and the old Soviet Union; and Eastasia is principally China and Southeast Asia.  Most of Africa as well as some of South Asia and some other areas, are the resource and labor-rich prize over which the three superstates fight–eternally,  with Oceania in an uneasy “alliance” with one of the other two, until a betrayal changes the ally to the enemy and vice-versa.  Thus, the economy, such as it is, of Oceania is always on a war footing, and the needs of the population are largely ignored.

The social system is known as “Ingsoc,” an abbreviated term for “English Socialism,” and society is divided into the Inner Party, the Outer Party, and “the proles,” the vast underbelly of the society, kept alive by state charity and amused by “illegal” lotteries and other such pedestrian pursuits.  Its hero is Winston Smith (gotta love that name…), an Outer Party functionary who dreams of rebellion, while the police state is waaaay ahead of him.  An illicit love affair (since the Party controls all “normal” sexual relations) gives the state the proximal cause to arrest, imprison, torture, and brainwash both Winston and his paramour, Julia; in the end, each betrays the other, and news of a military advance gives poor Winston cause to love Big Brother, the representation of the totalitarian government.

1984 is a fascinating peek into Orwell’s nightmare.  Such terms as doublespeak (convincingly lying while one knows the truth), thoughtcrime (committing the crime of thinking something contrary to the Party’s teachings), and the government’s Ministries, all ironically named for the opposite of of what they practiced–i.e., the  Ministry of Love, which tortured, that of Truth, which disseminated only propaganda, and that of Plenty, which distributed goods to the people, making sure that only the favored classes were, well…favored.  All of it was what Orwell feared England could become in a return to a WWII scenario.  If you ever see someone watch a bit of news come out of Washington or London or Beijing, etc., and he nods and says “We have always been at war with Eastasia,” he’s quoting from the Ministry of Truth shortly after a switch in alliances.

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, named for the supposedly precise temperature that book paper catches fire.  Its principal character, Guy Montag, is a “fireman,” but in this novel, firemen are book-burners.  The fire truck has a tank full of kerosene.  Books are banned, and I mean, seriously BANNED.  If you are hiding books at your house, and you are found out, you’ll get a visit from the firemen.  They pull up out front, douse the house in flammable liquid, and torch the whole thing.

Bradbury doesn’t devote a lot of exposition to the why of things.  It’s Montag’s world, and he really doesn’t question it much, at least not for a while.  He lives a pretty sterile life with his wife Mildred, who questions even less than he does, spending her time in mass entertainment, while indulging her addiction to sleeping pills.  Montag is put seriously off his path by the arrival of a neighbor girl who does things like “drinking” rain water by tilting her head back during a shower, and of course, asking questions.  Mildred eventually reports Montag for hoarded books, and then abandons him.

I never counted Fahrenheit 451 as one of Bradbury’s finest novels, but it does illustrate in a kind of clumsy way the lengths some will go to defend censorship and anti-intellectualism.  It came out in the area of McCarthyism, with its dark insinuations of dangerous “otherism.”  In most of the book’s setting exposition, it appears it could be set in small-town America, circa 1953.  It sets forth a small gathering of people who commit themselves to memorizing entire books, one to a person, in anticipation of another time when the world would be ready for books again.

In an abrupt ending, Mildred, who, after leaving Montag and going off to live in the nearest large city, dies in a nuclear attack, while Montag survives in the woods to become a member of the book people.  Heavy stuff.  In my own opinion, it suffered from being made into an unwatchable film in the mid-60’s.  The movie version featured Oskar Werner and Julie Christie (who was hot as pistol at the time, in box-office terms), but just did not really hang together as a story.

My last entry here among the dystopias of my youth is a sort of under-the-radar classic: Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut.  Vonnegut has seemed to have an up-and-down reputation as an author, but at the time of publication of Player Piano, he had no reputation to speak of, since it was his first novel.  It did not enjoy much commercial success, but did win some critical praise plus an unintended and unwelcome side effect.  Critics referred to it as science fiction, but Vonnegut wanted it to be received as satire or social criticism.  It became more widely read some years later, as the author gained fame with other works like Slaughterhouse Five.

Player Piano tells the story of a society substantially like ours today, except that the labor shortage caused by World War II is an important plot device.  In the book, it has caused more and more of heretofore human labor to be obsolete because of automation.  This factor alone may make it more relevant to the present day.

Imagine a society made up of a small number of engineers, some managerial types, and a lot of underemployed people.  The engineers and managers live in a comfortable, spacious area with ample houses, while the underclass huddle in small apartments in a city setting.  The protagonist, Paul Proteus, though a part of the engineer/manager class, begins to feel uneasy and joins an embryonic rebellion.  One thing leads to another, and a rebellion does break out, though it is quickly crushed.

The remarkable thing is that in the crowded towns, as order breaks down, individuals attempt to rebuild machinery for their own purposes, thus recreating (on a personal scale) the automation Armageddon to which they have lost their way of life.  Though it’s been 50 years, I still recall some guy wandering the chaos, muttering that if he could find a particular part, he could build a machine that would play the drums.  Would I surprise you if I told you that I am reminded of this nearly every day?  People who have been put out of work by computers working, dreaming of creating the next popular “app” that will put others out of work?

Sometimes it’s scary how authors predict elements of the future.  On the other hand, to give credit where credit is due, these authors were visionaries, each in his own way.  Want to know what’s to come?  Someone in the here and now is writing it.

It Seems to Me…

OK, here I am, returning to the blogscape after the severe shock of Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election.  I was genuinely flattened (in an emotional sense) in the immediate aftermath, and I did not feel like writing any more because I had been so wrong (like so many others) in my writing leading up to the event.

With a little “reflection” time, though, I can feel a little better about my own prognostication.  The postmortems keep coming in, and they generally take the form of “Hillary lost because…” and then the writer goes off on his/her take on what went wrong, why everyone was wrong in pre-election predictions, and some, though not all, then attempt to find a scapegoat or scapegoats.  I read them all.  I think some are insightful, and a few are clueless.  Let’s look at a few interesting  tidbits that bear some further reflection.

The popular vote total was not so different from what I had expected.  My last post before the election hinted at a Clinton popular vote victory in the range of three percent.  I am not an expert in polling: three percent just seemed like a reasonable guess at the total after digesting all the so-called “expert polls.”  Current totals show about a 1.5 % Clinton advantage (more than 2,000,000 votes), which is likely to inch toward the 2% mark.  So what’s a lousy 1% difference?  As it turns out this time, it’s everything.  In a twist that political science professors will chew over with eager undergraduates for decades, the Clinton advantage was too concentrated in a few big states to translate to an Electoral College victory, the only one that matters in reality.  Trump won three states, in particular, that were complete surprises to everyone, including the Trump camp, if they are honest, in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  The total advantage to Trump in those three states came in at about 80,000 votes, a paper thin margin of about 1% in all of them together.  Clinton won New York and California by an aggregate total of over 4,000,000.  Of course, bragging rights mean nothing, but I had mentioned that Republicans would call Clinton a “minority President” if her vote total came to under 50%.  She will finish with around 47%, and he will finish with about 45.  She will be called a loser while he will be called “Mr. President.”  Weird.

The Trump camp’s claims of victory are becoming more disconnected from reality every day.  This President-elect’s relation with the truth has been tenuous, at best, for the duration of his campaign, with outrageous claims (40% unemployment, millions of illegal votes,  President Obama as a secret foreigner, etc.), and now he and his surrogates have begun to claim that his loss in the popular vote was really a massive victory because (voter fraud, illegals voting, etc.) and that his Electoral College margin is a “landslide.”  The situation calls for maybe…say, an ounce of humility and calls for unity and cooperation, not boastful, playground-style taunts toward the other party.  But that presupposes a sincere desire to govern and succeed on the part of Trump.  Needless to say, I don’t see that.

What is clearly visible is a campaign to delegitimize any sort of alternative opinion.  While many see an inclination toward authoritarianism, it is just as likely to show a drift toward to a sort of dissociation from reality in general.  Has anyone else been struck by the sheer silliness of a President-elect tweeting that Saturday Night Live is “biased?”  Does he not get that SNL is not a news program and pokes fun at virtually everything and everybody?  He shows a tendency to believe that now that he has won his “landslide” victory, no one should be critical of him, even hinting at lawsuits against various media outlets.  I await the first insult from some foreign leader with some trepidation…

I called for a somewhat “bluer” Texas.  That did happen, but not at the rate I had thought it would.  Comparing vote totals in 2016 with those of 2012, you can see that Mitt Romney took Texas by a 16% margin over President Obama; 2016 was a Trump win in Texas by roughly 10%.  Is 10% a close margin?  No, not by any account.  10% is still a wide margin, but much less comfortable than 16%, and keep in mind how weak a candidate Hilary Clinton would be in Texas.  “Blue” momentum there still does not threaten Republican governance and domination, but the day is approaching still.  Within a generation, I would still expect Texas to be a “purple” state, in play each presidential cycle.

The Comey factor: we could chew this over until 2020, and the result would be the same.  Nobody really knows.  There has been a lot of speculation as to how much effect the FBI’s director’s decision to announce a new investigation into HRC’s e-mails based on…well, somehow something or other that was found on a computer belonging to the pathetic Anthony Weiner.  Joyous Trump partisans pounced on this one to insist that here finally was the smoking gun that would prove that…um…something something Huma Abedin something Muslim Brotherhood could be maybe…Yes!

Adding more confusion to the whole sordid mess was the subsequent second announcement that most of the messages on that computer were copies of messages that the FBI had already seen, so, well, never mind.  Effect on the electorate?  I don’t know, but I have no trouble believing that it could have been a final tilt in the minds of a few voters in such states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  And remember, these on-the-fence voters would not have been required to vote for Trump to tilt the margin; if they were Democrat-inclined voters who simply became too disillusioned in the end to get out and vote for Hillary (or against Trump) that would do for the Trump camp.

Voter suppression.  Did that get your attention?  I will not attempt to “prove” that obvious Republican attempts to suppress turnout of normally Democratic constituencies (minorities, targets of “gender minority politics,” and others) were probably successful, at least to some degree.  Someone more willing to invest enormous amounts of time and analysis than I am will no doubt attempt to quantify this in the coming months or years, but I will merely say this:  suppressing opposition in an election does not have to take the form of convoluted sabotage of people’s ability to vote.  Merely discouraging them can do the trick, and the uniquely negative Trump campaign did much of this, from constantly asserting that his opponent was, in fact, a criminal, and actually ineligible even to run for President to inciting his partisans to chant “Lock her up!” at rallies.  Pure demagoguery.  I was not happy to see this taking place in a campaign for such a serious office as the Presidency, and I  was a lukewarm supporter, at best, of HRC.

The “suppression” angle will, I think, turn out to be a continuing story in efforts to analyze the results of the 2016 election on the Presidential level, and it will be studied by some future candidates as they seek any advantage to elevate themselves to higher office.  A thread of analysis has emerged that shows overall turnout in 2016 was slightly lower than the 2012 figures. Clinton suffered from the failure to turn out her natural base in numbers similar to those of Barack Obama in the two previous elections.

The idea that this was a victory for “flyover America” or rural America is, I think, just silly.  Both phrases have been conflated lately to subsume a group of disaffected Caucasian, less-than-fully employed voters who long for simpler times when a guy could graduate from high school and go down to the local plant (or whatever was the local equivalent of the local plant–it could be the local feed mill or meat packer, or whatever), put in his name, and be called for an interview, followed by placement in a job with some security, allowing him to become the breadwinner of his family, own a house, and some day, retire with a pension.  I lament the passing from the national scene of this scenario as much as anyone.

Low-skill, non-technical jobs are not coming back to the US.  They have even begun to move on from China to lower-paying countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam.  The response on the part of the American worker has been predictable.  Some move to where what small number of such jobs remain in play.  Some resolve to retrain and be able to be competitive in other areas.  Some remain where they are in hopes the situation will return to status quo ante.  Trump’s bellows that he could stop the cycle and return to something that began to slide away about 1970 excited many of these.  I am not optimistic he can do much, notwithstanding his recent touting of “victory” in getting Carrier to stay in Indianapolis.  The fine print in that “victory” shows $7,000,000 in tax reduction to Carrier and several hundred other jobs leaving for Mexico, anyway.  As the reality sinks in that Trump is no more a savior in this battle than anyone else (and that he, in fact, is an outsourcer himself), it remains to be seen what will be the effect among his blue collar supporters.  And the $7,000,000 in lost taxes, of course, will be made up by shifting the burden to some other source of revenue.  Whether a policy is good or not still depends for many people on whether or not their own ox is being gored.

I look for much scapegoating in the near term: the “war on Christmas (or Christians)”, drug testing for welfare recipients, Planned   Parenthood, etc.  All of these things can be expected to play prominent parts in the national discourse, along with GUNS.  Hidden (imaginary) conspiracies by Democrats will be found and exposed whereby “they want to come for your guns!”  The NRA and its one-trick pony leader, Wayne LaPierrre, will continue to thunder that your Second Amendment rights are under assault, even though there has been no attempt to restrict gun ownership other than an attempt to close a couple of loopholes in namechecking, hopefully to keep people who can’t board a commercial airplane from buying a (legal) gun (which polls show a majority of Americans support).  And LaPierre will slip in a request for your cash, too.  Gotta keep those lobbyists’ palms greased, folks!

So, in the end, what long-term lessons will be learned from this fever swamp of an election campaign?  Sadly, it appears that one lesson is being reinforced.  Everybody claims to hate “lying politicians,” but one of the greatest unrepentant  liars on the political scene has just been elected President.  Another longstanding feature of politics is that everybody likes government services but no one likes to pay taxes.  This is understandable, of course, but not realistic.  That same disaffected group of voters the 2016 economy has left behind (as mentioned above) is absolutely convinced that the country has been reshaped for the benefit of an army of people who don’t want to work and “our tax dollars” go to support these freeloaders.  There are, no doubt, some who “play the system.”  But most welfare recipients are children.  Yes, children.  It seems the electorate is coming around to wanting the same thing from its candidates that it gradually selected in its choice of news.  Tell me what I want to hear.  Confirm my opinions.

Buckle up, folks.  It may be an odd four years.