The Casual Blog

Category: politics

Happy No Thanks Day

I like Thanksgiving as a holiday, because it celebrates things that really matter, like loving families, without too much rampant materialism. But this year the timing was unfortunate, so close to the Presidential election, which has left us feeling shaken. It seemed like time for a different holiday — a Day of No Thanks. Rather than celebrating gratitude, No Thanks Day would be about regret, worry, and resistance.

On Thursday, we had a bit of both Thanks and No Thanks Day. Sally made a delicious Mexican-themed all veggie Thanksgiving meal for our extended family, and we caught up on family news. But we also talked about some of the frightening things happening in our country, including the sudden emergence from the sludge of the so-called alt right.

Until recently, unabashed white supremacists seemed to be so far out on the lunatic fringe that they could safely be ignored. But now they’ve gone mainstream, and their preferred candidate just got elected President of the United States.

So what are these people? There was a fascinating and chilling interview this week with Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader, by Kelly McEvers on NPR, which is transcribed here. Spencer is poised and well spoken, and his ideas are absolutely poisonous. His animating political vision seemed to be apartheid — a country just for white people. He saw no problem with swastikas and Ku Klux Klan costumes.

The NY Times had a piece on the alt right this week, and tried to explain the difference between white nationalists and white supremacists. According to Eric Kaufmann, a UK scholar, “White nationalism … is the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.

So, like white supremacy, white nationalism places the interests of white people over those of other racial groups. White supremacists and white nationalists both believe that racial discrimination should be incorporated into law and policy. . . .
Professor Kaufmann says the terms are not synonyms: White supremacy is based on a racist belief that white people are innately superior to people of other races; white nationalism is about maintaining political and economic dominance, not just a numerical majority or cultural hegemony.


Is the “nationalist” label something more than a thin veneer for putrid racism and neo-Nazism? I doubt it. The Times reported that this week Spencer gave a speech attacking Jews and immigrants. He quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German and led cries of “Hail Trump” and “Hail Victory” (German: “Seig Heil”).

What’s this have to do with the President-elect? Well, he’s picked as his senior counselor and chief strategist Steve Bannon, who runs what he proudly claims is the leading communications outlet for the alt-right. Bannon is sly about expressing his personal views, but there is no subtlety about his Breitbart News: it’s unabashedly devoted to racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, bizarre conspiracy theories, and fear mongering.
Bannon seems to have engineered the press campaign that ultimately resulted in the “Crooked Hillary” meme of the Republican campaign. This is laid out in an interview on Fresh Air of journalist Joshua Green. Using a “research” entity called the Government Accountability Institute, Bannon directed the collection of innuendo about the Clinton Foundation, which was then pitched to investigative journalists of the mainstream press. In effect, he hacked into the NY Times and other traditional media and planted an anti-Clinton virus. The non-stop drumbeat by Bannon and Breitbart — Benghazi! The emails! Lock her up! — unquestionably drove up Hillary’s unfavorable ratings, and arguably caused her defeat. Green’s 2015 piece on Bannon and Breitbart News is worth reading.

Coming back to Richard Spencer, at the end of the interview with Kelly McEvers, he said this: “If I had told you in 1985 that we should have gay marriage in this country, you probably would have laughed at me. And I think most people would have. Or at least – at the very least, you would have been a bit confused, and you would have told me, oh that’s ridiculous. The fact is, opinions do change. People’s consciousness does change. Paradigms are meant to be broken. That’s what the alt-right is doing.”
Well, he’s right about one thing: people’s ideas change. They can change for the worse, but also, as his example on gay marriage shows, for the better. A lot of white people, and other people, have put behind them the worst kind of racism and are trying to be conscious of and root out the more subtle kinds. The ascendency of the alt right may just be the death throes of an old sad culture that will soon be gone. But I’m not sure. Their combination of blazing ignorance and brilliance in media manipulation is new in our country. We need to keep watch.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to stay calm. I’m doing deep breathing, and taking walks in the woods. Trees, which can live a very long time, have a kind of wisdom. Being with them is peaceful. These new pictures are from Umstead State Park.

What just happened? My working theory


Up until recently, I woke up every morning with a sense of pleasant anticipation. Chances were good that in the course of the day the Republican candidate for President would speak, act or Tweet so as to further demonstrate his ignorance, poor judgment, lack of impulse control, racism, or dishonesty. And I was seldom disappointed!

Sure, it was disturbing that there were hollering crowds enthused by his racist taunts and taken in by his ridiculous lies. But coming down to election day, I was confident they were in the minority. I still think that. Now I’m struggling to understand how a lot of others, including people whom I know to be decent and upstanding, people who are neither racists nor ignorant, saw their way clear to vote for him.

My working theory is that there were three main justifications. 1. Tribalism (such as, I’m a Republican, and he’s a Republican). 2. Optimism (his extreme and off-the-wall statements can’t be serious). 3. It’s a package deal (like with the cable company, to get the channels you like, you’ve got to take on board some channels you don’t care for).

Last week I was called for jury duty in N.C. state court. The case was an ordinary criminal one — a DWI charge. It took the lawyers about three hours to pick a jury. They settled on twelve before my number came up, so I was never called up to the box for questioning. As a former litigator, I enjoyed watching the lawyers trying to ferret out the jurors’ biases and other proclivities. But with limited time and the limits of language, they weren’t able to get very deep. Watching them and thinking of my own experience in front of juries reminded me of how hard it is to understand or predict the thinking of others.

Anyhow, whatever the reasoning, I continue to think voting for the President-elect was a terrible mistake. But it happened, and we need to carry on with our lives.

I’ve almost finished Level 2 of the Rosetta Stone course in German, which I like. In preparation for our ski trip in February, I’ve been refreshing my French by listening to the news podcasts from Radio France Internationale, and continuing with the news in Spanish from Voz de America. On the piano, I’m practicing new pieces by Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy. Their music is transporting.

I’ve seen struggling, though, with pain in my right hand, and finally went to see my hand doctor this week. According to his reading of the X-rays, the arthritis in the area of my middle finger had gotten worse, and he recommended surgery to replace the knuckle joint. Surgery! This shook me, since cutting there could end badly, such as, no more piano. I declined the surgery, and asked for a Plan B. He recommended Aleve. It does help.

It’s especially good for jangled nerves in these parlous times to spend some time walking in the woods. On Saturday I took a hike in Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, which is near Hillsborough. There was a bit of smoke in the air from the big forest fires in the western part of North Carolina, but it was mild and sunny. I took the Mountain Loop trail, which went up for a while and then down to the Eno River. The leaves were mostly yellow, with bits of orange and red, and some were falling.

It could be worse

On Saturday, still in shock from the election, I took a longish drive over to Hanging Rock State Park. It was sunny and brisk, and the last leg of the drive was hilly and twisty. At the park, the trail went upwards quickly. The trees were getting ready for winter. There were sweet waterfalls and cliffs, and sweeping vistas.

On the drive back, I listened to some Liszt, and continued to mull. How much should we be worried that the President-elect will keep his campaign promises?  Americans of color, immigrants, and Muslims are understandably uneasy, as are transgender people, gays, and women. Indeed, anyone with an interest in avoiding devastating climate change and nuclear catastrophe should be concerned. 

But with all those risks, there’s a strong mitigator. The President-elect is a man who has based his career on deceiving people and who is indifferent to ordinary standards of truth and honesty. There’s a long list of his victims – investors in his projects, ordinary contractors, students hoping to learn the secrets of his supposed success.

As despicable as his dishonesty is, we can now see an upside to it: his campaign promises can be significantly discounted.  For him, promises are simply words that are useful in manipulating people. He is unlikely to view any recent promises as binding. 

As to his deplorable racist language, as best we can tell, he is no ideologue. His primary driver is to be admired. He probably has no other agenda. Thus he is probably not determined to stop and frisk minorities, deport immigrants, and bar Muslims. He will probably not actively promote torturing those suspected of terrorism or killing their families. He doesn’t actually hate minorities, or care much about them one way or the other.

Of course, there are some of his supporters who are driven by hate. They are angry people. They’ll probably get angrier still when they realize that those promises that inspired them –- bringing back the good manufacturing jobs, more steel, more coal, and so forth – were just empty words, and he won’t be bringing back the jobs. His supporters could turn on him.

Same with the promises of populist change. Most likely, he’ll find the actual business of understanding government and making policy intolerably boring, and leave the real work to the traditional power elite — that is, establishment “conservatives” primarily concerned with not paying taxes and otherwise feathering their own nests, while hoping the base will be distracted by symbolic “conservative” social policies. In other words, the usual Republican playbook.

This is, to be sure, all very bad. Our structural economic problems, including inequality of opportunity, will not be addressed. Our systemic health care problems will probably get worse. Our education system problems will not be fixed. Our environmental problems will probably get worse. The threat of war, including cyber war, will increase. The existential threats from global warming – hurricanes, draughts, floods – will get worse, as will the existential threat of the nuclear holocaust hair-trigger – if we’re lucky.

But it could be worse. At the moment, the plumbing and electricity still work. There’s food in the stores and medicine in the hospitals. We’re not in a state of war, or a condition of near anarchy.

I don’t rule out the possibility that our traditional protections for free expression and limits on state power could go by the wayside. Thug paramilitaries could be unleashed, with dissidents disappearing, and ever more intrusive state surveillance.  We could become a kleptocratic thugocracy, like Russia, or some new species of fascism.  And then you and I would find out how much courage we really have.
But we’re not there yet, and we may not get there. In his latest NY Times column, David Brooks predicted that the President-elect would “probably resign or be impeached within a year.”

Anyhow, we survived the Reagan years (though we wreaked considerable havoc). We survived the George W. Bush years (though wreaking more havoc). We will probably survive the years (or months) of the Orange One.  

Tree behavior, Hitler, conspiracy theories, and the truth about Hillary’s email

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Saturday morning was brisk, sunny, and clear. I drove Clara out to Jordan Lake, where I put her in sport mode and enjoyed the winding country roads. We drove up one of my favorites, Big Woods Road, and stopped at various spots to look for birds and colorful trees.

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben. Wolleben has spent his life as a forester closely observing trees, and has also assimilated a great deal of research into their biology and behavior. As the title indicates, he contends that trees are social plants that cooperate with sophisticated systems for communication, including underground connections of roots and fungi and various airborne chemicals. They work together to ward off predators, withstand weather, and take care of the young. It’s amazing! There’s a nice overview of the book at Maria Popova’s wonderful blog, Brainpickings.
Jordan Lake

On a more somber note, I’ve been reading the new biography of Hitler by Ullrich Volker. It covers H’s birth to the start of WWII. It’s a good read, and offers insights into (though no definitive solution to) the great mystery: how could an intellectually mediocre charlatan maniac seize and hold dictatorial power, with such dire consequences? At the end of WWI, Hitler quickly rose in political life as a popular speaker on the theme that there was a vast, powerful Jewish conspiracy that accounted for Germany’s problems.

This bizarre conspiracy theory was widespread at the time, and of course has never disappeared. How do such crazy ideas take root and propagate? There seem to be a lot of them flying around these days. A case in point: militiamen who believe the Second Amendment is under siege. The NY Times had a fascinating piece yesterday on these folks by David Zucchino, with good pics by Kevin Lyles.

They are mostly white, rural, and working class, and they like to get together on weekends to shoot their weapons. Zucchino got them to talk. They are passionately convinced of many nutty ideas: Hillary is coming to get their guns, ISIS is invading the country, the Democrats are rigging voting machines. Also, they want to make America great again. All I can say is, Yikes!
Jordan Lake

Only slightly less bizarre is the meme, now rampant, that Hillary’s email handling shows that she is unusually dishonest and corrupt. Matthew Yglesias of Vox did a good piece unpacking this tale and showing it to be based on nothing. Hillary’s handling of email was not illegal, and there’s no basis for accusing her of dishonesty. And yet the networks have devoted more air time to this non-story than every other policy issue combined.

Yglesias concludes as follows:

One malign result of obsessive email coverage is that the public is left totally unaware of the policy stakes in the election. Another is that the constant vague recitations of the phrase ‘‘Clinton email scandal’’ have firmly implanted the notion that there is something scandalous about anything involving Hillary Clinton and email, including her campaign manager getting hacked or the revelation that one of her aides sometimes checked mail on her husband’s computer.

But none of this is true. Clinton broke no laws according to the FBI itself. Her setup gave her no power to evade federal transparency laws beyond what anyone who has a personal email account of any kind has. Her stated explanation for her conduct is entirely believable, fits the facts perfectly, and is entirely plausible to anyone who doesn’t simply start with the assumption that she’s guilty of something.

P.S. On Monday morning at the gym I listened to the podcast version of the latest This American Life, which included a segment on Hillary and the emails. Garrett Graff, a veteran reporter, came to pretty much the same conclusion as Yglesias: there’s no actual scandal. Graff noted that he, like other reporters, always hopes investigations will lead to titillating revelations of misconduct. We often see what we want to see, whether it’s there or not, which may account for some of the press’s egregiously biased “scandal” reporting of the email story. Those reports started a feedback loop that has grown very loud and shrill and overwhelmed our ability to consider the facts.

Construction continues, an early voting tip, and election butterflies


Here are some pictures from the last few days of construction at the old Greyhound bus station site, as viewed from our balcony. After several weeks of grading at the site, things are moving along quickly. These were all taken at sunrise. Every sunrise was a little different.

I did early voting on Monday, when there was no line at all. I liked the convenience, but worried a little that there weren’t more people (i.e. Democrats) queued up. It’s looking now like this is going to be a close finish, and I’ve got some butterflies.

The ballots in North Carolina are like bubble tests, and the instructions warn you to fill in each bubble completely. I very much wanted to do an adequate job, since I wanted that vote to count. It’s not that easy! After experimenting on the first few, I found that the best technique is to start in the middle with a doodle and work out toward the edges of the bubble.

When in doubt and it’s at all possible, I try to look on the bright side of things, as I’ve done in this election season. The Republican candidate has definitely raised the profile of some problematic issues, like racial discrimination, religious discrimination, and abuse of women. True, he seems to be in favor of all those, but his radical ideas, like banning Muslims, illuminate a part of the national id. And boy, did he ever get us talking!

Still, it boggles my mind that a significant number of well-educated, mentally stable, and otherwise decent people are voting for the Orange One. At this late date, it does not seem possible that any person otherwise equipped to fill out a ballot could not have heard about his lifelong record of dishonesty, deceit, and moral turpitude, not to mention his fathomless ignorance.

It’s unsettled some of my assumptions about how people think. That is, I’ve understood that we are not completely rational creatures, and that we’re governed in large part by emotions. But I had not processed that there are no apparent limits on the human ability to withstand reason and evidence. So the Orange One has at least taught us something. That could help explain other hard-to-understand things, like anti-science crusaders and conspiracy theorists.

Going to a new gym, the battle for truth in Trumpworld, and intelligent animals

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Last week I got a new gym membership at Lifetime Fitness at Six Forks. Why? I needed to get out of a workout rut and push forward. The cardio and weight equipment at Lifetime is more plentiful than at O2, and the space is larger. It also has a pool. It’s a little farther, but still easy to get to. I think I will like it.

My usual early morning workout starts with 10 minutes on the stairs machine, then 10 on the treadmill. Then I do core work (planks, leg lifts, etc.), balance, and flexion for 10-15. The next 25 is for resistance training, doing upper body and lower body on alternating days. Then 10 intense minutes of intervals on the elliptical or bike. At the end I stretch for 5-10 minutes. The numbers don’t quite add up, but it covers a lot of systems, and takes about an hour and a half.

Speaking of exercise, I want to give a little shout out to my new heart rate monitor, the Polar M400. Keeping track of my cardio effort level when exercising sometimes inspires me to work harder, and at least shows something is happening. The new device has a chest strap with a small snap-on Blue Tooth transmitter that signals a wrist monitor. In addition to showing current heart rate, it calculates average and maximum heart rate, steps, calories burned, and (with GPS) speed and distance traveled. It comes with some easy-to-use software for saving results on a smart phone or a laptop. There’s a little stick figure salutes you and congratulates you enthusiastically. My former device, a low-end Garmin, was less reliable, less entertaining, and more costly, so in hindsight I’m glad it finally broke down and needed replacing.

Waiging for sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Before sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

While working out, I’ve been listening to various podcasts, including the latest This American Life. This show just keeps getting better – taking on some big subjects, with insight and dark humor. This week Ira Glass looked at Trumpworld, where lying is non-stop and shameless. We know this now, but we’re still struggling with something even more disturbing than pathological lying: that in Trumpworld, truth has no force.

It doesn’t matter that clearly indisputable facts show that crime is down, immigration is under control, our military is by far the strongest in the world, election fraud is incredibly rare, and the President is not a Muslim who founded ISIS – the true believers will not believe it. Until recently, I thought that these bad ideas were a problem of ignorance – just not having the right facts – but it turns out that that’s not it. For these folks, if evidence contradicts their beliefs, the evidence must be disregarded. We know that some of these people are intelligent, generous, and well-meaning, but they live in an alternative reality.

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Speaking of unconventional psychology, I finished reading Jonathan Balcombe’s recent book What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. I liked it. Balcombe challenges the conventional wisdom regarding fish intelligence, which has it that their lives are largely automatic and instinctual, without consciousness or creativity. There’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. Some species have astonishing memories, the ability to plan, and to use tools. They experience fear and pain, and also pleasure. They have complex social relationships, and form groups both for hunting and protection. And they have an incredible range of skills in sensing and responding to their environment.

I also recommend Frans de Waal’s new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? De Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, debunks with overwhelming evidence the old chestnuts that only humans use tools, cooperate in social groups, and recognize individual identity. He presents an array of fascinating examples of non-human cognition, and invites us to use our imaginations to enter those other worlds. After reading De Waal, it is hard to view humans as entirely distinct from other animals and inherently privileged to exploit them. The gifts of other creatures are awe-inspiring.

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah

Trump and Hitler

Lake Lynn, October 1, 2016

Lake Lynn, October 1, 2016

When I left work on Friday, the weather was pleasant, and I was thinking of hitting a few golf balls on the practice range, but I had an almost flat tire. Fortunately, Murray’s Tires was still open. I love those guys! As soon as I parked, before I could get out of the car, one of them was beside me asking if he could help. He had in stock a sporty used Continental Extreme Contact for a very reasonable price, and 20 minutes later I was back in business.

On Saturday evening, Sally and I walked over to Fayetteville Street, which was closed to traffic and lined with craft stands and food trucks, and sampled the free performances at the IBMA bluegrass festival. There were many talented fiddlers, banjo pickers, mandolin strummers, dobro sliders etc. making bouncy music. At The Haymaker, a new cocktail bar, I tried the Fabuloso, with vodka, mezcal, and lavender syrup, which was profoundly flavorful. For dinner we did The Remedy Diner, a casual veggie-friendly spot with a rock-and-roll vibe, where I had the tasty Tempeh Tantrum sandwich. We discussed the difficult question of how a lot of otherwise normal people can support Donald Trump.

Godwin’s Law has it that the longer and more vigorously an internet dispute continues, the likelier it is that one of the arguing parties will compare another to Hitler. This is a clever reminder of the evils of emotional hyperbole and the value of civility. The comparison is almost always over the top.

There was, however, a review by Michiko Kakutani of a new Hitler biography by Volker Ullrich in the NY Times that seemed startlingly relevant to our present moment. I was struck enough to pay for the ebook, which is now waiting on my iPad to be read when I do my trip to southern Utah next week. Check out these excerpts, and see if you too think that Hitler’s personality and methods sound disturbingly like someone we all have been watching with stunned amazement:

Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity.
. . . .

Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” . . . . A former finance minister wrote that Hitler “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” . . . .
. . . .

Hitler was an effective orator and actor, Mr. Ullrich reminds readers, adept at assuming various masks and feeding off the energy of his audiences. . . . “Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners,” Mr. Ullrich writes. He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order.
. . . .

He often harked back to a golden age for the country, Mr. Ullrich says, the better “to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay.”
. . . .

Hitler’s repertoire of topics, Mr. Ullrich notes, was limited, and reading his speeches in retrospect, “it seems amazing that he attracted larger and larger audiences” with “repeated mantralike phrases” consisting largely of “accusations, vows of revenge and promises for the future.”
. . . .
He benefited from a “constellation of crises that he was able to exploit cleverly and unscrupulously” — in addition to economic woes and unemployment, there was an “erosion of the political center” and a growing resentment of the elites. The unwillingness of Germany’s political parties to compromise had contributed to a perception of government dysfunction, Mr. Ullrich suggests, and the belief of Hitler supporters that the country needed “a man of iron” who could shake things up. “Why not give the National Socialists a chance?” a prominent banker said of the Nazis. “They seem pretty gutsy to me.”
. . . .
Hitler’s ascension was aided and abetted by the naïveté of domestic adversaries who failed to appreciate his ruthlessness and tenacity . . . . Early on, revulsion at Hitler’s style and appearance, Mr. Ullrich writes, led some critics to underestimate the man and his popularity, while others dismissed him as a celebrity, a repellent but fascinating “evening’s entertainment.”

It’s nice to think that if you and I had been Germans in 1933, we would not have been among those who were seduced by him. Also, it may be we wouldn’t have been among those who dismissed him as merely a pathetic clown and ignored him. Perhaps we’d have been very brave, even when things started to get dangerous.

With reasonable luck, we won’t have to put ourselves to that dire test. That fellow whose personality defects and rabid style might remind you of Hitler continues to shoot himself first in one foot, and then the other, and the mainstream press is finally treating him less as a joke and more as a menace.

The WSJ had a good piece about his Atlantic City casino business that pretty well put stake through the heart of the fable that he was a brilliant business success. The story compared his casinos to others there, and found that they earned much less and fired many more employees, while going through multiple bankruptcies. The only person who made money out of the financial debacle was – guess who?

Bye bye Trump, races against racialism, grasping science, and connecting with the Middle East

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Lately I’m feeling way more cheerful about the presidential election, with many indications that Trumpism is headed straight off the cliff. Every morning I hum a little with pleasant anticipation, looking forward to a new campaign mini-disaster, whether another preposterous pronouncement, another astonishing display of ignorance, or another scandal. Worries that it all might be just a clever act, and that he actually is only pretending to be impulse-control-impaired and dim, are going by the boards. It’s finally sinking in that his vulgar loathsomeness is historic.
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It’s been fun this week watching the Olympics, despite so many ads and so much blather. And despite the embarrassing naive jingoism. Here in the US, we see mainly the events the US athletes are good at, and almost nothing of events they aren’t. But even allowing for all that, there have been plenty of exciting and inspiring moments.

For example, this week we’ve seen some fantastic short and medium-distance running by the US women, who are most or all at least partially of African descent. Seeing all these beautiful, accomplished young women, I felt proud and also hopeful that we may still be making progress on our racial problem. The champions are, inarguably, our very best, and whatever our individual histories of race, it’s hard not to adore them.
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Meanwhile, I’ve been listening to an engaging and challenging series of lectures from the Great Courses called Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It, by Steven L. Goldman. This is basically a short history of the philosophy of science. But Professor Goldman does not shy away from difficult issues.

It turns out that there is good ground for maintaining that the scientific method, which I at least thought was thoroughly settled and definitively established as a methodology, is nothing of the sort. There is good reason for doubt as to whether scientific knowledge that is necessary, universal, and certain is achievable. While scientists make undeniable progress in penetrating mysteries of the universe and facilitating amazing technologies, there is a sense in which they don’t know what they’re doing. The relation between science and the natural world is still uncertain. For those of us who are fascinated by science, it’s bracing and thought-provoking.
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Also bracing is Fractured Lands, a long piece on the Middle East by Scott Anderson, with photographs by Paolo Pellegrin, in last week’s NY Times Sunday Magazine. The subject is the catastrophe following the US-led invasion of Iraq 13 years ago which led to the rise of ISIS and the refugee crisis. Anderson presents episodes in the lives of six individuals from various walks of life from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya. It is an extraordinarily powerful piece. The leading characters come to life, and we care about them – even the poor, uneducated young man who joined ISIS. Caring alone won’t solve this complex crisis, but it’s a necessary first step.

An open letter to my Republican friend about Donald Trump

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My dear Republican friend,

As we both know, we often do not agree on political matters. This is no big deal, since we connect in other ways that are important. We have an unspoken understanding that we usually don’t talk about politics, so as not to stress our friendship. And so it is with some hesitation that I now ask you, with all respect, to please not vote for Donald Trump.

First, a point we can surely agree on: Trump is no ordinary politician. He is unfiltered. He says whatever he wants to say. He’s got a definite point of view. And he’s right about a few things, which of course just means I occasionally agree with him. He’s wrong, in my view, on a lot of things, but that’s not why I believe you should oppose him. You should oppose him because he’s a person completely lacking in every quality that could make a human worthy of trust or respect.
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If you haven’t seen it yet, please read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece, Trump’s Boswell Speaks. It’s about Tony Schwartz, who ghost wrote The Art of the Deal. The book presented an idealized version of Trump as a brilliant dealmaker. Asked what he would title a book about Trump today, Schwartz said, “The Sociopath.” Over 18 months of working with Trump, Schwartz discovered a man who has no apparent interests other than himself – what excites him, what stuff he has, how much attention he can get. He apparently has never read an entire book.

Observing such a deficit of normal human curiosity and engagement, we can almost feel sorry for Trump. Almost, but not quite. His arrogance, his braggadocio, his hair-trigger temper, and his crudeness are legend. Even those we might forgive, if he had at least some capacity for caring. But Trump’s only interest in other humans is as objects to be exploited.
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You should read a fascinating piece on the extraordinary number of lawsuits against Trump by people who made the mistake of trusting him. As shown by hundreds of court cases, Trump refused to pay what he’d promised for people who worked for him as plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and on and on. He seems to find it fun to take small business people to court and ruin them, even when his lawyers cost him more than just paying what he agreed. I can tell you, as a person who spent many years as a commercial litigator, that most people do not find litigation fun. This is not the behavior of a normal person.

An important part of Trump’s career has been as a snake oil salesman. You’ve probably read about Trump University, where he was in the business of defrauding people and taking their money in exchange for empty promises. There’s a good account here. He tried to franchise this concept with Trump Institute, described here. Check out this NY Times piece on how, for Trump, lying is not so much a shameful little secret as an addictive lifestyle.
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He lies compulsively, outlandishly, non-stop, seemingly just for the thrill. Indeed, his central narrative – that he is an amazingly successful businessman, a master of the deal – is a huge lie. Check out these accounts of the spectacular failure of his attempt to make money in the casino business from the NY Times and this one from Newsweek.

Trump’s real talent is misleading, manipulating, and exploiting people. But, you say, isn’t that what all politicians do? A fair point, if a bit harsh, but Trump is off the charts. He presses people’s buttons in a way that causes them not only to stop thinking straight, but to start thinking badly. He inflames crowds and brings out latent strains of racism and misogyny. His followers, otherwise normal people, get his permission and encouragement to say and do ugly things. Have a look at this little video and see if you disagree.

So why might a thoughtful, well-informed person who cares about the future of this country and the world vote for him for president of the United States? I can think of only one reason that I can kind of understand – loyalty to the Republican party. Though not a Republican, I understand that political affiliations are deep-rooted, and I respect loyalty. But I’d point out that Trump has not been a Republican for much of his life, and many of his positions are at odds with Republican orthodoxy. Quite a few leading Republicans have already publicly declared their refusal to support him. There will be more.

I hope you will join them. Although I feel confident that Trump will be defeated in November, I think it is important that that defeat be crushing, and leave no doubt that the hate and violence that are central to his appeal have no place in mainstream American political life. Whatever you decide, thanks for considering these ideas, and for the good times we’ve shared and will share.

Your friend always,
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A flooring experience, kind Canadians, and one good thing about Donald Trump

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This week while the flooring guys installed our new red oak floor, we stayed at the Hyatt Place, an increasingly uncharming unvacation, with nothing excitingly foreign and lacking the sweet comforts of home. With many years of marriage under our belt, Sally and I are good at comfortably sharing space, and we had no worrying collisions or conflicts, but also no room to spread out in the usual way.

We ate lots of local ethnic food (Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Ethiopian, Italian), which was fun, though I regretted eating so much, which is so easy to do in restaurants. I stuck with my resolution of using the hotel gym early every morning, but missed the machines and equipment at my usual gym. I missed making healthy green smoothies for breakfast. I missed my piano and exploring the intoxicating music of Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy.

But enough kvetching. On Friday evening, we moved back in to our condo, and found that our Latino flooring guys had done good work. We quickly hooked up the lamps and unpacked some essentials, and walked over to Pho Pho Pho for some good Vietnamese food. The dust gradually settled over the next couple of days – really, a lot of dust.
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It was a big week for ISIS mayhem in Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad, which got lots of news coverage, and the epic humanitarian disaster of 65 million refugees and displaced persons continued, with little news coverage. There was one happy NY Times story about Syrian refugees being welcomed by Canadians. Ordinary folk have volunteered by the thousands to help unfortunates get resettled. Those Canadians are especially gifted in the way of kindness and generosity. Too bad they have such cold winters.

We could be moving there anyway if Donald Trump is elected. But happily that’s looking less and less likely, as more of his cons, schemes, and frauds come to light. Also, more and more, it looks as though he isn’t seriously working to win the election, but is primarily running to gratify his vanity and improve his personal bottom line.
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Now that he looks less like a serious threat to the Republic, it’s easier to admit that Trump has done something important and good. He brought attention to an enormous problem, which for many educated, well-off people was almost invisible before. I’m speaking of the distress, fear, and anger of millions of white working class males. It’s now clear that we ignore their welfare at our peril.

The anger and fear aren’t hard to understand. It wasn’t so long ago that these folks could play by the rules and pay a mortgage, go out to eat, go on vacations, and otherwise support their families and have a materially comfortable life. But complex forces, including globalization, automation, and institutionalized corruption have led to job losses, employment insecurity, and wage stagnation. These forces have been well described by Robert Reich (for example, here) and Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book Winner-Take-All Politics (summarized here).

As the working class lost ground over the last few years, I’ve puzzled over why they increasingly voted Republican, while Republican policies were increasingly skewed toward the wealthy and against them. They didn’t seem to notice that Republican tax breaks were mostly going to the super rich, and changes in labor law enforcement and other areas were to their disadvantage. It seemed that they were attracted and distracted by various social issues, such as abortion, affirmative action, guns, gays, and the “War on Christmas.”

Trump has shown that white working class males weren’t so concerned about the conservative social agenda, and weren’t really buying trickle down economics. He has ditched trickle down and generally steered clear of the social agenda issues (except for guns). This demographic may have noted that the Democrats quit doing much to help labor or otherwise serve their interests, and also noted that Democratic elites viewed them mostly with indifference, if not disdain. Most likely they identified with Republicans’ emphasis on rugged individualism, and therefore viewed Republicans as the lesser of the evils.
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In Trump, this population has found an outlet for their boiling frustration and anger. They like his commitment to change. Unfortunately, they are also well pleased and energized by his fantasizing, conspiracy theorizing, and demonizing. But most important, Trump has acknowledged that they exist, and their problems are real. For the first time in a generation, a politician has put their concerns and values front and center.

Like it or not, angry, frightened, downwardly mobile voters aren’t going to go away. In fact, absent major changes, there are going to be millions more of them, as political, corporate, and technological forces continue to take away jobs and the social safety net continues to fray. Democrats need to reconfigure to acknowledge and address their grievances. Bernie made a good start, but we better keep moving forward. If Democrats don’t offer real solutions, someone else will offer imaginary ones. It is all too possible that a future Trump, smarter, better looking, and even more cynical than the Donald, could mobilize their anger into a true nightmare. Think Germany in the 1930s.