Archive for May, 2019

Why would you believe John Brennan or the CIA?

May 31, 2019

The intelligence community – after two solid decades of PR disasters, from 9/11 to Iraq to Abu Ghriab to Gitmo – has rebounded in the public’s eye since 2016, cleverly re-packaging itself as serving on the front lines of the anti-Trump resistance.

It’s even managed to turn the invention of the term “deep state” to its advantage, having media pals use it to make any accusation of investigatory overreach, leaking, and/or meddling in domestic politics sound like Trumpian conspiracy theory.

But these people are not saviors of democracy. They’re the same scoundrels we rightfully learned to despise in the Bush and Obama years for lying about everything from torture to rendition to drone assassination to warrantless surveillance.

LINK

The intelligence community needs a house-cleaning by Matt Taibbi for Untitledgate.

A sand sculpture of Abraham Lincoln today

May 31, 2019

This was the winning individual entry in the 2019 Texas Sand Sculpture Festival.  (Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.)

Why failed Donald Trump may win in 2020

May 30, 2019

Donald Trump has a good chance of being re-elected despite his poor record as President.

If Joe Biden is nominated, Trump will be able to attack him from the left as a defender of the status quo, just as he did Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

If Bernie Sanders is nominated, the Democratic establishment will turn on him, as their predecessors did McGovern.  The Washington press corps already is against him.

There’s a possibility that, because of the large number of Democratic candidates, no candidate will go into the Democratic convention with a majority, in which case the super-delegates will decide.  Their most likely choice would be Biden or, if his candidacy fades, the most conservative Democrat still in the running.

I don’t think impeachment or doubling down on Russiagate will help the Democrats, but they’ll also pay a price by giving up and tacitly admitting they’re wrong.  They lose either way.

Donald Trump has failed to deliver on any of his promises.  He’s started a trade war with China, but this hasn’t helped unemployed factory workers.  He’s done a lot of unnecessarily cruel things to unauthorized immigrants, but he hasn’t addressed the immigration issue.  He hasn’t “cleaned the swamp.” He doesn’t have a plan for replacing Obamacare with something better.  He doesn’t have an infrastructure plan.

All these failures create an opening for Democrats.  But do they have something better to offer?

Bernie Sanders is the only one who can bring about needed social change because he is the only one who has created a campaign organization and source of funds that is independent of big donors and the Democratic Party machinery.  If elected, he would have a power base independent of the big donors and a means of putting pressure on Congress to enact his program.

That’s precisely why the Democratic Party establishment would be against him.  Re-electing Trump would only keep them out of office.  Electing Sanders would threaten their careers and their sources of power.

Joe Biden is their preferred candidate.  Biden is an unapologetic supporter of the financial elite and the warfare state. He takes up for rich people and has “no empathy” for struggling Millennials.  I’ll give him credit for honesty.  He doesn’t pretend to be progressive.

Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard have good ideas, but they would have less power to bring about change than Sanders would.  Neither one is the head of a mass movement as Sanders is.  The Justice Democrats and Our Revolution support Sanders, but their aim is to change American politics as a whole and not just elect one candidate.

I’ve not researched all the other candidates, but at this point, I think of them as like bottles of soda pop in a vending machine.  They’re different flavors, but they’re basically all the same sugar water.

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Will Julian Assange die before he is tried?

May 30, 2019

Julian Assange’s lawyer said that Assange is too sick to carry on a normal conversation, that his health has deteriorated since his arrest, and that he has been transferred to the health ward of Belmarsh prison.

His health had reportedly been failing even before his arrest, as a result of being cooped up in a windowless room for seven years and not being able to get medical care he needed.

There is now no good reason why he shouldn’t receive all the care he needs, and it is possible that he is receiving such care. I hope my suspicions are groundless, and maybe they are.

But the events of the past 15 or 20 years have left me unable to say, “Such and such is impossible because the British (or U.S.) government would never do such a thing.”

It would be much more convenient from the U.S. and British governments if he were to die before being put on trial.  And treating Assange as some sort of super-villain terrorist who requires extra isolation from human contact is one way to accomplish that.

LINKS

Statement of Kristin Hrafnsson, Wikileaks editor-in-chief.

Assange Is Reportedly Gravely Ill And Hardly Anybody’s Talking About It by Caitlin Johnstone.

The UN Torture Report on Assange Is an Indictment of Our Entire Society by Caitlin Johnstone [Added 5/31/2019]

This life is all you’ve got, so make the most of it

May 29, 2019

There are two main arguments about religious beliefs.  One is about whether they are factually true—whether you really will go to Heaven or Hell, or to a reincarnated new life, when you die, for example. The other is about whether religious faith is a good thing regardless of whether it is true.  Many lack religious faith and regret the lack.

THIS LIFE: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund (2019) Is aimed at unhappy disbelievers.  He made the case that you can be a better and happier person without religious belief than with it

Hankering for Heaven or Nirvana won’t free you from the pain and risk of life, Hägglund wrote; it is better to face the fact that this life is all you’ve got, and to make the most of it.

Secular faith is the faith that your finite life really is worthwhile, despite its risk and pain.  Spiritual freedom is the power to choose what makes your life meaningful.

Your life’s meaning can be devotion to your loved ones, to a vocation or avocation or to work to make the world a better place.  It evidently goes without saying, because Hägglund doesn’t explicitly say it, that it does not include devotion to money, power or sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

I sometimes talk to people who tell me they’re spiritual, not religious.  I tell them that I myself am not spiritual at all.  They often tell me that actually I am spiritual, even if I don’t know it or won’t admit it.

Hägglund did the same thing in reverse.  He argued that religious people who try to make the world a better place really are more secular than religious, because they care about this world rather than the hypothetical next world.

He began by writing about the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis and his grief for the death of his wife, Joy Davidian.  Lewis confessed in A Grief Observed that his Christian religious faith did not console him or shield him from the pain of the loss of his beloved.

Friends tried to tell Lewis that he and his beloved would meet again in Heaven, but, as he pointed out, there is no support for this idea in Scripture.  The whole point of Heaven is that it would be qualitatively different from Earthly life, not a continuation of it.

Lewis believed that an endless continuation of earthly life would eventually become unbearable.  As he remarked somewhere, all that is necessary for Hell is eternal life, plus human nature as it is.  He thought Heaven must be some sort of timeless transcendent state of being beyond out comprehension.

Hägglund argued that the desire to exist in a timeless transcendent state makes this life meaningless, because nothing in this life would count compared to that.  He said the same is true of use of Buddhist meditation practice or Stoic philosophy to cultivate a serenity that makes you indifferent to the pain of loss.  Hägglund said the price of that is to never care deeply about anything or commit strongly to anything.  He thinks that is an unworthy way to live.

The conflict between this world and a transcendent hope are shown in the life of Saint Augustine, he wrote.  Augustine’s Confessions show his struggle to free himself from caring about things in this world so that he can devote himself exclusively to God.  Augustine even worried about whether church music would cause people to come to church to enjoy the music rather than pray to God.

Hägglund contrasted Augustine with writers such as Marcel Proust and the contemporary Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, who treasure and lovingly describe the ordinary details of life.

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Nonviolence in the service of imperialism

May 27, 2019

I first learned about Gene Sharp in 2011, when I learned that his writings on nonviolent fighting were used as a tactical handbook by the Arab Spring protesters.

When the Mubarak regime in Egypt and others accused Sharp of being a tool of the Central Intelligence Agency, I dismissed this a typical dictator blaming protests on outside agitators.

Gene Sharp, in 2009

But a writer named Marcie Smith presented evidence that Sharp worked with “defense intellectuals” who used non-violent struggle as one more means of bringing about regime change.

Sharp began his public life as a pacifist.  He went to prison during the Korean Conflict for opposing the draft.  Later he was secretary to A.J. Muste, the leading American pacifist, and supported anti-war protests in Britain.

He conceived the ambition of working out strategy and tactics for non-violence comparable to the thinking of Clausewitz on war and Machiavelli on political power.

He obtained a research appointment in 1965 with the Center for International Affairs, often called the CIA at Harvard, through the influence of Thomas Schelling, noted for his ideas about game theory and nuclear war.

Other members of the Center were cold warriors Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy and future CIA director Robert Bowie.

Later, in 1983, Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution, which was independent of the government, but received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, Ford Foundation and International Republican Institute.

The Albert Einstein Institute, according to Smith, supported non-violent struggles against dictators that the U.S. government was trying to overthrow, while ignoring dictators that were friendly to the U.S.

Sharp is dead, so there’s no way to ask him what he had in mind.  My guess is that he hoped to influence the United States and other governments to substitute non-violent struggle for armed struggle.  If so, this was naive.

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Outdoor cat ladders in Switzerland

May 25, 2019

The Swiss have a nice custom—ladders to allow cats to enter and exit from upper story apartments and rooms.  These photos are from a book, Swiss Cat Ladders, by Brigitte Schuster, focusing on outdoor cat stairways in the city of Berne.  To look at more photos, click on the links.

LINKS

Cat ladders: a creative solution for felines in flats in The Guardian.

Quirky Photos Showcase the Ingenuity of Cat Ladders in Switzerland on My Modern Met.

A new face of organized labor

May 24, 2019

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), is an example of what a labor leader should be—one who is unafraid to use labor’s only power, the strike.

Sara Nelson

During the government shutdown, she talked about a general strike in support of Transportation Security Administration workers, who were being forced to work without pay.  Her voice was one big reason why so many airline employees called in sick in the following days, forcing the Trump administration to step down.

Flight attendants, by the way, do much more than serve soft drinks and snacks and give demonstrations of how to use oxygen masks.  They are responsible for safety and security, and are first responders in case of any emergency, including a forced landing.

I learned about her and the AFA-CWA by reading an article about her in The New Republic and the text of a great speech she gave at an annual dinner of the Democratic Socialists of America in Chicago.  If you care about American labor, I recommend you read the article and the speech.

LINKS

Sara Nelson’s Art of War by Kim Kelly for The New Republic.

People Are Ready to Fight, a speech by Sara Nelson to the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

New jeopardy for Assange and press freedom

May 24, 2019

The U.S. Department of Justice has indicated Julian Assange on new charges—violation of the Espionage Act of 1917—which carry a maximum penalty of 175 years in prison.

What he is accused of is publishing confidential information disclosing American war crimes in Iraq in 2010.

The previous indictment accused him only of aiding and abetting unauthorized access to computer files, which would have meant a maximum penalty of five years.

Violations of some sections of the Espionage Act carry a maximum penalty of death, but these involve giving military secrets to an enemy in time of war, which Assange is not accused of.

He would most likely wind up in the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, and conceivably could spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.

If he can be sent to prison for that, it means that the U.S. government has the power to commit crimes, up to and including murder, classify the evidence of those crimes as secret and send anybody who discloses those crimes to prison.

If he is sent to prison for that, it means that such freedom of the press as exists in the United States exists at the whim of whoever is in charge of the government.

So far as I know, the only prominent politician who has come to the defense of Julian Assange is Tulsi Gabbard.

In other news, Chelsea Manning is back in prison for refusing to testify against Assange.

And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has rejected a resolution demanding that the President ask permission from Congress before attacking Iran.

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Right now reparations is a wedge issue

May 22, 2019

David Brooks wrote a couple of months ago in the New York Times that slavery and racism are America’s original sin and that some form of reparations for that sin is spiritually necessary to heal the nation.

But when you talk what form compensation should take, and who should receive it, reparations ceases to become a means of spiritual healing.  It becomes a wedge issue.

It divides not only whites from blacks, but blacks from other people of color and blacks among themselves.

There is a new organization, American Descendants of Slavery, whose leaders insist that reparations go specifically to black Americans whose ancestors were slaves, and not to minorities in general or black people in general.

They argue that they have benefitted very little from diversity programs, affirmative action hiring, set-asides for minority small business and other such programs.

They point out, correctly, that white women, Hispanics and Asian-Americans benefitted much more than African-Americans and, within the black community, African and West Indian immigrants and their progeny benefitted much more than descendants of enslaved black Americans.

All black immigrant groups on average out-earn blacks of old American stock, and some black immigrant groups do better than the national average.  So they don’t need any special help, according to ADOS advocates.

Some of the things they advocate are:

  • Reinstituting the protections of the Voting Rights Act
  • A multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan targeted to American descendants of slaves (ADOS) communities
  • Legislation to triple the current federal allotment to historically black colleges and universities.
  • A health care credit to pay for medical coverage for all ADOS .

They also favor looking into making direct payments as reparations.

If you accept the argument for reparations for slavery, it is hard to deny the argument for limiting the benefits to those who are actually descended from American slaves.

The problem is that once reparations become large enough to be meaningful, they get in the way of doing what’s needed for

Suppose you enacted a multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan that focused on black communities, but was part of an overall infrastructure plan that benefitted everyone.  Would that be reparations?

Suppose you provided a health care credits that paid for medical coverage of all ADOS and also of everyone else.  Would that be reparations?

Or would reparations have to be something that minorities or black people or ADOS get, and that whites don’t?

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The argument for slavery reparations revisited

May 22, 2019

Ta-Nehisi Coates made the argument back in 2014 that the United States owes reparations to the descendants of American slaves for slavery and for denial of basic rights continuing into the second half of the 20th century.

Since reparations has become an issue in the 2020 Presidential campaign, it’s time to take another look at his argument

Coates pointed out that even after slavery was theoretically ended, the Jim Crow system subjected black people in the South to a system in which their property, their freedom and their lives could be taken from them at any time.

When black people moved to the North, they were still refused jobs and credit based on their race.

This meant that, unlike all other ethnic groups in American history, they were unable to build up through wealth generation by generation.

Coates said reparations is not a claim against individual white people for what their ancestors may or may not have done.  The claim for reparations is against the government of the United States for what the nation has done.

When Union Carbide was sued and forced to pay damages to victims of the Bhopal, India, chemical plant disaster in 1984, the executives, employees and stockholders at the time of payout in 1999 were not all the same individuals as when the disaster occurred.  Claims are still being made, including claims against Dow Chemical, which became a part-owner of the plant in 2001.

The idea is that a corporation is a continuing enterprise, separate from the individuals who own and run it.  The present-day executives and stockholders benefit from the profits earned by those who came before.  They also inherit the claims and liabilities incurred by those who came before.

When nations pay reparations, it is based on the same idea.  A nation is a continuing entity.  All Americans, whether they were naturalized last week or trace American ancestors back to 1776 and before, are heirs of what their nation has done in the past, both good and bad.

Reparations will not get rid of racist thinking, racial prejudice or racial discrimination.  That is not the purpose.  The purpose is compensation for a wrong.

Do people in the present still suffer from the effects of slavery?  Maybe they wouldn’t if African-American slaves had been given full citizenship rights after the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted.  But they weren’t.

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Tales of a dystopian near-future

May 20, 2019

It’s often said that science fiction is not so much a forecast of the future as a mirror of concerns about the times in which it is written.  That is most certainly true of Cory Doctorow’s new book, RADICALIZED: Four tales of our present moment.

The title story is the most powerful and disturbing of the four.  It is about an on-line community of men who’ve been denied, or whose loved-ones have been denied, insurance coverage for treatable cancer, and who, one by one, decide to take revenge.

The first engages in a suicide bombing at a Blue Cross / Blue Shield office to avenge the death of his six-year-old daughter.  The second is a widower who kills a Senator who ran in a platform of health care for all, then voted against Medicare expansion.

The third is the elderly moderator of the forum, who has been subtly encouraging the bombings and killings.  He wheels his wheelchair into the middle of a health insurance conference at a Sheraton before setting off a home-made bomb that blows away himself and a sizable percentage of the guests.

Their objective is not just revenge, but health care reform.  They think that the power of fear may be enough to overcome the power of money.

Joe, the protagonist, joined the on-line forum when he was in despair about his wife not being able to get an “experimental” treatment that would cure her breast cancer.  She turns out to be a lucky one who has a spontaneous remission, but he stays on the forum, arguing against suicide and violence on private lines

He realizes that he is guilty of a crime simply by being aware that crimes are being planned and not reporting it to the police.  But he can’t bring himself to do this.

“Health care terrorism” spreads.  There’s more security at HMO and insurance company offices than at airports.  People who are denied insurance claims are put on terrorist watch lists.  But bombings and killings continue.  And Joe realizes it’s only a matter of time before Homeland Security catches up with him.

The conclusion is that a lot of people, including bystanders, have been killed, but Congress has enacted something called Americare.  Joe’s wife, visiting him in prison, remarks, “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?

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Sign of the times

May 18, 2019

A sign on a tree in Elizabethtown, Pa.  Hat tip to Lambert Strether.

The next ten billion years.

May 17, 2019

The only thing certain about the future is that this, too, shall pass away.  To get an idea of what that may mean, click on The Next Ten Billion Years by John Michael Greer on The Archdruid Report.  It’s not that his specific predictions are sure to come true, although there’s no specific reason why they couldn’t.  It’s that almost everything we think is important is just a blip in the cosmic scheme of things.

Two wolves and a sheep vote on dinner

May 16, 2019

There’s an old saying that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.  For some amusing ideas of what that may mean in practice click on Two Wolves and a Sheep on Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex blog.

The new age of surveillance capitalism

May 13, 2019

There are two categories of Americans who are under constant surveillance.  One consists of paroled convicts and criminal defendants on bail who are under court order to wear electronic ankle bracelets.  The other consists of everybody.

That is what I took away from reading THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff, which came out earlier this year.

It’s about the prevalence of the new business of collecting information about people, usually without their knowledge, and using that information to shape their behavior.

If you have a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, it’s making floor plans of your house.  If you have an OnStar GPS system in your car, it’s taking notes on your driving habits.  If you have a Next thermostat, it’s recording your energy use patterns.  If your children play with Genesis toys, they’re recording your children’s behavior.

Technical experts in Canada, France and the Netherlands found that the Google Street View trucks were not only taking photographs, but using Wi-Fi to collect telephone numbers, credit information, passwords, e-mails, records of on-line dating, pornography, browsing behavior, medical information and video and audio files.

All this information has economic value.  In fact, according to Zuboff, it often has more value to the provider than the fee for the service itself.  What she calls “market capitalism,” where a business makes money by selling a product or a service, is being replaced by what she calls “surveillance capitalism,” where a business makes money by collecting, processing and using data to shape human behavior.

It’s been said that people who use social media and other Internet services, especially free ones, are the product, not the customer.  Zuboff said that, in fact, the users are not even the product; they are the raw material.   The product is the model of their behavior  derived from the data they provide.

Click to enlarge.

The frontier of surveillance capitalism is gathering up seemingly meaningless information—what is called “data exhaust” or “digital breadcrumbs”—and using machine intelligence to correlate this information with human emotion and behavior.

Machine intelligences are not sentient, they have no understanding of the human mind.  They don’t need to. All they need to be able to do is look for correlations, and test them.  They are using the behavioristic psychology developed by B.F. Skinner.  He taught that it isn’t necessary to understand how individual people think and feel.  All that is necessary is to know what stimulus evokes what response.

How often you click on a “like” button on Facebook, how hard you step on the gas when accelerating your car, your willingness to answer questions about your politics and religion—all these things can be used to create a model of your behavior, which then can be tested.

Who would want such a model?  Advertisers,  Insurance companies.  Employers.  Lenders.  Credit rating companies.  Landlords.  And, of course, politicians.

Jaron Lanier wrote about some of these issues in Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,  His explanations were more brief, more readable and more clear than Zuboff’s 525-page tome (plus 124 pages of end notes).

But Lanier thought that the problem is limited to two companies, Google and Facebook, and could be easily fixed by changing their business models from advertising to fee-for-service.  If you read Zuboff’s book, you will understand that Google, Facebook and their imitators can no more give up collecting, processing and selling personal information than Starbucks can give up brewing strong coffee.  It is is not an aberration.  It is the core of their business model.

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The hands are quicker

May 11, 2019

No matter how many books you’ve read, and no matter how many degrees and certificates you have on your wall, never, never, never think that gives you standing to consider yourself better than people who work with their hands.

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The revelations of Wikileaks

May 10, 2019

Consortium News is publishing a series called “The Revelations of Wikileaks,” a reminder of the the vital Wikileaks disclosures.  They’re valuable reading both for their content and as a reminder of the world’s debt to Julian Assange.  I

This post consists of links to these articles.  I will add links to additional articles as they are published/

No. 1.  The Video That Put Assange in US Crosshairs.

No. 2.  The Leak That ‘Exposed the True Afghan War.’

No. 3.  The Most Extensive Classified Leak in History.

America in denial: the psychology of Russiagate

May 9, 2019

I admire the reporting of Aaron Maté, who was one of the few journalists to keep his head about the Russiagate conspiracy theory, but I hadn’t heard of his father, Gabor Maté, a physician, psychologist and author of books on childhood trauma and addiction.

This interview by Aaron Maté of his dad is one of the best things I know about the implications of Russiagate.   If you don’t have time to view the full 27 minutes, I suggest you read these highlights of the interview compiled by Caitlin Johnstone.  Here is the full transcript.

How dangerous is the alt-right?

May 8, 2019

A pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939

****************************************************************************

A left-wing writer who calls himself Jay Firestone wrote an interesting article and gave an interesting interview about his three months’ experience hanging out with the “alt-right” in New York City.

My three takeaways are (1) yes, these guys really are Nazis, even though they don’t say so in public; (2) they have been effectively marginalized for the time being; but (3) they could become a major political force if things go on as they are.

The alt-right … … is a response to decades of decline in standards of living for working people, amid the proliferation of unemployment and meaningless, dead-end jobs.  Moreover, no coherent leftist movement exists through which everyday people can make sense of this world and collaborate across lines of race and gender to build a better one.  As a result, many of those who reject the status quo blame their problems on immigrants, feminism, trans rights, and other bogeymen, rather than the capitalist social relations from which the problems facing working people inevitably proceed.

The real threat today is not that small pockets of white-supremacist ideologues exist.  It’s that their vision of society might become the only one that makes sense to ordinary white people, for whom reality increasingly seems like a battle between racially-defined interest groups for slivers from a shrinking pie.  

From the article in Commune

It’s fashionable to say that the alt-right, and the more mainstream Trump movement, is rooted in white working-class resentment of black and immigrant advancement. This idea gets us absolutely nowhere.  It’s based on the economic fallacy that all the jobs and assets lost by white people in the last four decades have gone to black people and immigrants. That’s totally wrong.  Things are getting worse for just about everyone.  … …

Now you have austerity dressed up in this business-friendly liberalism; you literally have downwardly mobile white people being scolded, being told, “You’re only resentful because black people have a seat at the table,” or “You should be ashamed of yourself, check your privilege.”  

I mean, if your options are very narrow, you are one health emergency away from destitution, and these self-righteous liberals are saying you need to feel bad for how great you have it, you need to give up a little to atone for the sins of the past, the natural response is “fuck that.”  Only very comfortable people would embrace a politics based on giving up what you have so that individual people can succeed in your place.  And I can’t think of an easier politics to organize against.

Thus the big threat that the alt-right poses is the way they can tell white people, especially downwardly mobile white people: You don’t have to feel bad; you don’t have to apologize to anybody. You can actually feel good about yourself, about being white, and turn your back on humanity. 

From the interview in Jewish Currents

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Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and our times

May 7, 2019

Throughout the 20th century, critics regarded Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) as one of his lesser novels.  It didn’t have the huge menagerie of colorful, memorable characters that most of his novels did, nor did it provide much comic relief from its hard tale..

Hard Times is back in vogue because the philosophy of its central character, Thomas Gradgrind, is back in vogue.  Gradgrind is a schoolmaster and later Member of Parliament for Coketown, a stand-in for the gritty industrial city of Manchester.

Gradgrind’s philosophy is based on the famous fact-value distinction—the idea that facts are objective because they can be proved or disproved, but that values are subjective because they arise from personal feeling.

He operates a school devoted to rote memorization of facts—no games, no art or literature, no appeals to the imagination—and to a philosophy based on the ethic of rational self-interest.

It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for.  Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything or render anybody help without purchase.  Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be.  Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter.  And if we didn’t get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.

This was a living philosophy then, and it is a living philosophy still.  We now call it neoliberalism, and its adherents are to be found throughout Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the economics departments of great universities.

Gradgrind practices what he preaches.  He stifles sentiment and emotion in himself.  He denies himself the emotional intelligence to see through the boastful, hypocritical self-made industrialist, Josiah Bounderby.

He encourages his daughter, Louisa, to marry Bounderby, and his son, Tom, to go to work for him, as does his star pupil, Bitzer.

Louisa has a good heart, but she is morally adrift because she never is given any justification for the promptings of her heart.  Tom, on the other hand, lacks moral intuition, and is not taught anything to make up for the lack.  He is a self-destructive fool because his extreme self-absorption makes him unaware of the possible consequences of his actions until it is too late.

But it was Bitzer who is the most perfect representation of Gradgrind’s teachings.  He is diligent at his job, saves his money, doesn’t drink, smoke or gamble and guides his life by cost-benefit analysis.  When in the end he turns against Gradgrind in order to advance his career, he calmly justifies his decision by citing his old schoolmaster’s “excellent teaching” about self-interest.

∞∞∞

I read Hard Times as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  It was published the same year as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which was our group’s previous book.  Although there is no reason to think the two writers influenced each other, there are remarkable similarities.

Both have morally sensitive heroines with inadequate fathers.  Both depict self-made industrialists in conflict with labor unions.  Both make their noble worker character speak in a hard-to-understand dialect that sets him apart from all the others.  Both have their worker character ask the industrialist for help, and be rebuffed.

But the two novels are very different in both style and viewpoint.  North and South is an effort to give a fair and balanced account of conditions in 1850s Manchester.  Hard Times burns with indignation.

Gaskell’s Margaret Hale has a Christian faith that not only gives her a moral compass, but is a magnetic field that draws others into her influence.  Dickens’ Louisa has the same moral impulses as Margaret, but she has no philosophy or faith that would give her the confidence to act on them.
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What’s at stake in Venezuela

May 6, 2019

The unlabeled country at the bottom center is Nigeria; the one at the upper right is Kazakhstan.  Click to enlarge.

What’s at stake in Venezuela is which oil companies get to control the world’s largest national oil reserve.

LINKS

Venezuela and Binary Choice by Craig Murray.

Venezuela: Forensics of a Clownish Coup by Moon of Alabama.

The Making of Juan Guaidó: U.S. Regime-Change Laboratory Created Venezuela’s Coup Leader by Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal for Consortium News.

Synchronized precision walking as a sport

May 4, 2019

The videos show students at the Nippon Sport Science University demonstrating “shuudan koudou,” which translates as “collective action.”

If you don’t have time to watch the entire videos, go to 1.35 minutes in the top video to see two columns of students quick-march backwards through each other.

Despite everything, it’s an amazing world we live in.

Hat tip to kottke.org.

Decline of the United States by the numbers

May 2, 2019

Historically, the American dream was that each generation would be better off that the generation that came before.  By many measurements, this is no longer true.  Click on any of the charts to enlarge them.

More American women are dying in childbirth.  This is not the mark of an advanced nation..

More Americans are dying of drug overdoses.  This is not a characteristic of a nation that is hopeful about the future.


More Americans are committing suicide.  Neither is this the characteristic of a hopeful nation.

Labor’s share of the American economy is falling.

U.S. student loan debt

Young people are told they cannot advance without college degrees, but they risk being crushed by student debt.

The gains in the economy are going to the top 1 percent of income earners.

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Ten things the world knows due to Wikileaks

May 1, 2019

Click on any of the images to enlarge them..

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