Archive for August, 2021

A flotilla of origami

August 29, 2021

These watercraft are about an inch or so in size, activated by capillary action and surface tension.  They were created by Etienne Cliquet in 2011.  I found the video on The Kids Should See This via kottke.org.

The forward march of artificial intelligence

August 28, 2021

OpenAI is an artificial intelligence research company.  Its Open AI Codex is an artificial intelligence that translates natural language into code.  That is, you can use plain language to tell it what to do.  The video is a demonstration of what can be done with it. 

This is really something, but I imagine I’d have to be a programmer to appreciate how great an accomplishment this is.

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution calls it “the most impressive AI demonstration I have ever seen,”  while Ben Dickson of VentureBeat pointed out its limitations.

For what it’s worth, I think the world is light-years away from the strong AI that some people fear.  I think the danger of AI is not that machines will become intelligent, but that people will rely on them as if they really were intelligent.

Derrick Bell and the problem with desegregation

August 26, 2021

SILENT COVENANTS: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform by Derrick Bell (2004)

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears college liberal, I thought the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation meant the slow-but-sure end of racism in the USA.

I thought then that simply getting black-and-white children together in the same room day after day would make them recognize their common humanity and bring an end to racial prejudice.

In hindsight, I see how naive that was.  But I wasn’t alone.  The late Derrick Bell, who later became one of the founders of critical race studies, thought the same thing at the time.

His book, Silent Covenants, is about why he changed his mind.  I read it as part of a personal project to understand critical race theory from the viewpoint of its proponents.

As a lawyer for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he pursued many lawsuits based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional.  

But later, after he joined the Harvard Law School faculty, he came to believe he was pursuing a false goal.

He said the desegregation decision was based on a false choice between, on the one hand, sending black children to schools that were separate and inferior and, on the other, on the other, sending them to schools where they were unwanted and in the minority.

Desegregation, when it was implemented, was typically carried out by closing black schools, some of which provided excellent educations and were greatly beloved by students and graduates. 

Desegregation resulted in job losses by black teachers and principals, many of them outstanding educators.

Some 50 years later, Bell wrote, American public schools are still segregated, in practice if not by law, and the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites is as great as it ever was. 

The great mistake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision decision, he wrote, was to pretend that the Constitution is color-blind.

Racism is baked into the structure of American society and the consciousness of white Americans, he wrote; this will never change.

Any apparent progress made by black Americans is the result of a temporary convergence of their needs and the agenda of some group of white people. 

Slavery was abolished in Northern states because white workers there did not want to complete with slave labor.  Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a last-ditch effort to preserve the Union.  The 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were intended to foster Republican political dominance of the South.

When limited civil rights for black people ceased to serve the interests of powerful white people, those rights were wiped off the backboard, Bell wrote.

Judges in the 19th and early 20th centuries held that racism was a fact, which was not created by law and could not be abolished by law, but which the law had to accommodate.

Why, then, did the Supreme Court in 1954 suddenly decide that the Constitution was colorblind?

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Derrick Bell and one little black girl

August 26, 2021

Derrick Bell Jr., a civil rights lawyer and one of the seminal thinkers in critical race theory, wrote a book, Silent Covenants, about the  U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools and why it failed to achieve its purpose.

In 1961, he was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, filing lawsuits calling for desegregation

He was called upon for help by two sisters, Winson and Dovie Hudson, pillars of the community in the all-black town of Harmony, Mississippi. 

Their town’s school, built by the residents themselves in the 1920s with help from Northern philanthropists, had been closed in retaliation for their civil rights activism.

He told them that he would not file a lawsuit to reopen a segregated school, but he would represent them if they were willing to sue to desegregate the county school district.

They agreed.  Several families signed onto the suit.

A bitter struggle followed.  Night-riders fired guns into private homes.  Many of those who signed on to the lawsuit lost their jobs or credit.

But they won.  A federal judge ordered desegregation of Harmony’s schools, starting with the first grade in the fall of 1964.

Just one couple, A.J. Lewis and his wife, Minnie, sent their little daughter, Debra, to the all-white school.  She was accompanied by federal marshals armed with shotguns, who escorted her through a large, hostile crowd.

The next day Mr. Lewis was fired from his job and whites tried to burn down his house.

But the American Friends Service Committee provided some financial aid.  Debra eventually graduated from the local high school, left the area and “held several interesting positions.”  When she died of pneumonia in 2001, the Harmony community erected a memorial in her honor.

Was it worth it?  All this struggle and suffering for just one person?

Years later, Bell met with the Hudson sisters, and said he wondered if he shouldn’t have helped them reopen their school instead of what he did.

“Well, Derrick, I also wondered if that was the best way to go about it,” Winson replied.  “It’s done now.  We made it and we are still moving.”

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Public schools can be petri dishes for coronavirus

August 25, 2021

Back during the George W. Bush administration, Carter Mecher was head of a White House task force charged with making a plan to prevent pandemics.  He was contacted by Robert Glass, a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, who’d been running computer simulations of pandemics.

Glass’s models indicated that kindergartens and schools were potential petri dishes for the spread of contagious disease.  I don’t think this would have been surprising to most parents and teachers.

At that time, there were more than 100,000 K-12 schools in the U.S., with 50 million children in them.  There were 500,000 school buses in operation, compared to 70,000 in the regular U.S. transportation system.  On an average day, school buses carried twice as many passengers as the entire public transportation system.

Michael Lewis, author of The Premonition, told what happened next.  Becher decided to visit schools. He found school classrooms were more crowded than any other public space.  Chlldren sat, on average, three and a half feet apart; they could touch each other.

In hallways and at bus stops, young children crowded together.  They lacked the adult idea of personal space.  School bus seats were on average 40 inches wide, just wide enough for three children close packed together.

School bus aisles were narrower than aisles of regular buses. Paramedics used special stretchers for school buses because regular stretchers wouldn’t fit.

Becher made videos of homes where the ratio of children to floor space was the same as in public schools.  They looked like refugee prisons, Lewis wrote.

Glass had concluded that closing schools and reducing contacts among children were the key to controlling pandemics.

That doesn’t necessarily apply to the present situation, because teachers and children over 12 can get vaccinated.  Many schools try to practice social distancing, although this doesn’t protect from an airborne virus in an enclosed space.  Glass’s model assumed no vaccines and no treatments.

But vaccines don’t eliminate the danger.  They suppress the symptoms of the disease, but they don’t necessarily kill the virus.  Vaccinated people can still be spreaders of the disease.  And vaccines may not be 100 percent effective.

I don’t know what I’d do if I were a parent, except listen to the teachers rather than the politicians or the CDC.

Children in families with a lot of books in the home, who watch educational programs on TV and talk about current events and books around the supper table—the education of these children would not suffer all that much from school lockdowns.

But children in families without books in the home, children with parents who work multiple jobs and don’t have time for suppertime conversations, children who depend on school lunches for their main nourishing meal of the day—these children would be hurt a lot by long-term school closing.

Wearing masks can help some.  Good ventilation can help a lot.  Vaccine mandates for teachers and staff might help, but regular tests for the virus would help more.

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Do UUs need a new principle?

August 24, 2021

I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist almost all my adult life.  For me, it is a moral community to which I can look for inspiration and help, and a safe space where I can express my thoughts freely.

UUs are often caricatured as eccentrics who like endless discussion.  Since I myself am an eccentric who likes discussion, I am right at home.

The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961 from the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America, two religious sects whose distinguishing feature was that they never could agree on a binding creed.

In lieu of a creed, the UUA adopted six principles to live by, which pretty much express what I believe in.  In 1985, a seventh principle was adopted. 

Now an eighth principle is being proposed, with which I disagree.

Here are the first six principles.

1.  The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

2.  Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

3.  Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

4.  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

5.  The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

6.  The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

And the seventh.

7.  Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Here’s the proposed eighth.

8.  Journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

The eighth one is not like the others.  It is a program, not a principle to live by.  Unlike the others, it contains jargon words that have different meanings for insiders than for the general public.

These include “journeying toward … wholeness,” “accountably,” “dismantle,” “racism” and “oppressions.”

For example, I see oppression mainly in the USA’s forever wars, its big brother state and its hunger games economy.  Others see it mainly in Whiteness, masculinity and heteronormativity.

Racism, to me, is an ideology that says humanity can be subdivided into groups based on skin color and ranked as superior or inferior.  For others, being colorblind as to race is a form of racism.

Of course I could be wrong.  If I am, make the case.

The new principle is part of a movement within the UUA, going back decades, arising from the fact that many black and other minority ministers, staff and members don’t feel at home in a denomination whose history is largely the history of white native-born Protestants.

This is not my top priority concern, but it is indeed a problem, which needs to be solved through give-and-take, but not necessarily by redefining Unitarian Universalism and casting out those who disagree.

I expect the new principle will be adopted.  It has a lot of momentum.  As one who has never participated in denominational affairs, I don’t intend to shift gears and devote myself to any kind of resistance movement. 

I accept majority rule, provided I can freely express my own opinion.  But I don’t want to be part of an institution where minority views are driven out.

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What the Afghan failure reveals about the U.S.

August 23, 2021

In and of itself, the collapse in Afghanistan, in and of itself, is not a total disaster for the United States.  Our government, our economy, our military forces are still intact.

True, we Americans as a nation sacrificed the lives of thousands of patriotic young men, took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan people who did not threaten us and spent trillions of dollars (we’re not sure of how many trillions) only to suffer defeat by an enemy most of us think of as primitive.

But we are still rich and powerful enough to absorb the cost in blood and treasure, just as we did after the collapse in Vietnam.

The significance of the defeat is that shows us something about ourselves that is hard to face.  After all the lies, graft and incompetence, continuing over decades, how can we have any confidence in any of our institutions.

When I was growing up, the one thing the overwhelming majority of Americans believed in was America itself.  I don’t think the majority believe that anymore. 

We have a Constitution, which is supposed to be a check on unaccountable power.  We have a democratic form of government, which is supposed to reflect the will of the people. 

We have a free enterprise economy, which is supposed to make competition serve the common good.  We have military officers, civil servants, judges, intellectuals, physicians, lawyers and journalists, all with traditions and codes of conduct that are supposed to guarantee integrity.

All of these things really exist, at least in weak or latent form.

None of these things has been strong enough to save us from crime, failure and humiliation.  Unless things change, we’re on track for more crime, failure and humiliation.

The Afghanistan failure was a case study in failure to deal with reality.  Will we do better in dealing with the coming climate-related crises? pandemics? the breakdown of globalization? China?

As the saying goes, if something cannot go on forever, someday it will stop.  The USA cannot go on forever as it is, under the leadership it has.  So it won’t. 

I have long felt that something new is coming.  I don’t know what it will be.  It may be better; it likely would be worse.  I both hope and fear I will live long enough to see it.

LINKS

Assabiya Wins Every Time by Lee Smith for The Tablet. 

Assabiya is an Arab word, used by the historian Ibn Khaldun, which means bravery and patriotism.  He wrote that nations and peoples rise when they have it and decline when they lose it.  The Taliban have it; the U.S ruling elite lacks it.  Unless we Americans as a people have it, our future is dim.

Farewell to Bourgeois Kings by Malcom Kyeyune for Power & Politics. 

Kings claimed a divine right to rule, based on lineage and ideals of honor.  Our meritocratic elite claims a pragmatic right to rule, based on their mastery of reason, science and modern technique.  What happens to their legitimacy when their supposed mastery is shown to be fake?

Post-mortems on the Afghanistan invasion

August 23, 2021

Hat tip for the video to Alex Page.  Lowkey is the stage name of a British rapper, blogger and activist named Kareem Dennis.

The collapse in Afghanistan is no surprise.  It’s been obvious for years that it had to come someday, and the only question was when.  But I can’t stop reading and thinking about it.  Below are links to some of what I’ve been reading.

Observations on Afghanistan by Noah Carl on Noah’s Newsletter.

Celebrate the Heroes Who Warned Us That Afghanistan Would Be a Disaster by Ted Rall.  Rep. Barbara Lee was the one person in either the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives to vote against going to war in Afghanistan.  Where is she now?  Why isn’t she being interviewed?

Debacle in Afghanistan by Tariq Ali for New Left Review.  Someone else who was right.

The Taliban may pretend to show moderation—but the murderous reality is far different by Patrick Cockburn for The Independent.  Maybe so.  Maybe not.  The fact that one side is bad doesn’t make the other side good.  Whatever the situation, it wouldn’t have been improved by having American troops in Afghanistan stay one more year.

The Taliban’s Rise to Power: As the U.S. Prepared for Peace, the Taliban Prepared for War by Kate Clark for Afghan Analysts Network.   Eric Berne wrote in Games People Play that winners aim to win, and usually succeed in the end, while losers merely aim to  avoid or postpone losing, and always fail.

Taliban Rule Is the Democratic Will of 13% of Afghans by Anatoly Karlin.  This public opinion poll surprised me.

Despair in the Empire of Graveyards by Fred Reed.  Recollections of the fall of Saigon by a former U.S. Marine who was there.

America Lies, Destroys, Breaks Promises, Then Runs by Linh Dinh.  Recollections of the fall of Saigon by a Vietnamese man who was there.

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The three-or-four-hours rule

August 22, 2021

Oliver Burkeman, a writer of self-help and time management books, says that most people are not capable of devoting more than three or four hours a day to intense mental or creative work.

The way to be more productive, he writes, is to fence off three or four hours a day for your high-priority work and deal with the routine work and busywork later.

If you’re a creative worker, you don’t become more productive by working longer hours.  You become more productive by finding a few hours each day to focus on your most important (not most urgent) work.

This is true of me, and I think it is true of a lot of people.  It explains people like the SF writer Gene Wolfe who had a time-consuming job as a trade-magazine editor, and did his writing only in bits and snatches of time, but still did outstanding work.

Of course not everybody has a work schedule or a life in which they can set aside even a few hours for creative work.  But for those who do, the following is good advice.

It pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to “maximize your time” or “optimize your day,” in some vague way, but specifically to ring-fence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest).

Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer. And drop the perfectionistic notion that emails, meetings, digital distractions and other interruptions ought ideally to be whittled away to practically nothing.

Just focus on protecting four hours – and don’t worry if the rest of the day is characterized by the usual scattered chaos. ​

The other, arguably more important lesson isn’t so much a time management tactic as an internal psychological move: to give up demanding more of yourself than three or four hours of daily high-quality mental work.

That’s an emphasis that gets missed, I think, in the current conversation about overwork and post-pandemic burnout.

Yes, it’s true we live in a system that demands too much of us, leaves no time for rest, and makes many feel as though their survival depends on working impossible hours.

But it’s also true that we’re increasingly the kind of people who don’t want to rest – who get antsy and anxious if we don’t feel we’re being productive.

The usual result is that we push ourselves beyond the sane limits of daily activity, when doing less would have been more productive in the long run.

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Boston Dynamics’ robots Atlas and Handle

August 21, 2021

I find these robots’ antics highly impressive, sort-of amusing and vaguely ominous.  How long until such machines will be directing traffic, waiting on tables in restaurants or leading high school students in calisthenics?

Leaps, Bounds and Backflips by Calvin Hennick for Boston Dynamics.  Hat tip to kottke.org.

China and Russia are the real winners

August 19, 2021

The real winners in Afghanistan were Russia and China.   The intrepid foreign correspondent Pepe Escobar of Asia Times reported on how the Russians and Chinese have advised the Taliban on how to put their best foot forward.  He went on to write:

What matters is that Russia-China are way ahead of the curve, cultivating parallel inside tracks of diplomatic dialogue with the Taliban. 

It’s always crucial to remember that Russia harbors 20 million Muslims, and China at least 35 million.  These will be called to support the immense project of Afghan reconstruction – and full Eurasia reintegration.

Source: BBC

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi saw it coming weeks ago.  And that explains the meeting in Tianjin in late July, when he hosted a high-level Taliban delegation, led by Mullah Baradar, de facto conferring them total political legitimacy.

Beijing already knew the Saigon moment was inevitable. Thus the statement stressing China expected to “play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan”.

What this means in practice is China will be a partner of Afghanistan on infrastructure investment, via Pakistan, incorporating it into an expanded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) bound to diversify connectivity channels with Central Asia.

The New Silk Road corridor from Xinjiang to the port of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea will branch out: the first graphic illustration is Chinese construction of the ultra-strategic Peshawar-Kabul highway.

The Chinese are also building a major road across the geologically spectacular, deserted Wakhan corridor from western Xinjiang all the way to Badakhshan province, which incidentally, is now under total Taliban control.

The trade off is quite straightforward: the Taliban should allow no safe haven for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and no interference in Xinjiang.

The overall trade/security combo looks like a certified win-win.  And we’re not even talking about future deals allowing China to exploit Afghanistan’s immense mineral wealth.

LINK

How Russia-China are stage-managing the Taliban by Pepe Escobar for The Vineyard of the Saker.

Reality catches up with U.S. in Afghanistan

August 17, 2021

Updated 8/18/2021, 8/19/2021.

I think President Biden, despite his embarrassing press conference on July 7, made the right decision about Afghanistan. 

The war was unwinnable.  The military establishment has known this for at least 10 years. 

President Obama knew this, but did not have the moral courage to take the final step.  President Trump understood this, and scheduled a troop withdrawal to be completed after the 2020 elections.  It was left to Joe Biden to take the final step.

Saying the U.S. should have stayed longer in Afghanistan is like saying the Wile E. Coyote character in the Road Runner cartoons should not have looked down after he ran off the edge of the cliff.

Back during the George W. Bush administration, Karl Rove told a reporter that the U.S. was an empire that could afford to ignore the “reality-based community” because it had the power to create its own reality.  We now see where arrogance and willful ignorance lead.

As someone said, it is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.

Below are some links to reality-based comments.  I may add more if I come across them.

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Afghanistan Meant Nothing. A Veteran Reflects on 20 Wasted Years| by Laura Jedeed for Medium

I remember Afghanistan well. I deployed there twice — once in 2008, and again in 2009–2010. It was already obvious that the Taliban would sweep through the very instant we left. And here we are today.

I know how bad the Taliban is. I know what they do to women and little boys. I know what they’re going to do to the interpreters and the people who cooperated with us, it’s awful, it’s bad, but we are leaving, and all I feel is grim relief. [snip]

I remember Afghanistan as a dusty beige nightmare of a place full of proud, brave people who did not fucking want us there.  We called them Hajjis and worse and they were better than we were, braver and stronger and smarter.

I remember going through the phones of the people we detained and finding clip after clip of Bollywood musicals, women singing in fields of flowers. Rarely did I find anything incriminating. [snip]

I remember how every year the US would have to decide how to deal with the opium fields. There were a few options.

You could leave the fields alone, and then the Taliban would shake the farmers down and use the money to buy weapons.

Or, you could carpet bomb the fields, and then the farmers would join the Taliban for reasons that, to me, seem obvious.

The third option, and the one we went for while I was there, was to give the farmers fertilizer as an incentive to grow wheat instead of opium poppy.

The farmers then sold the fertilizer to the Taliban, who used it to make explosives for IEDs that could destroy a million dollar MRAP and maim everyone inside.

I remember we weren’t allowed to throw batteries away because people who worked on base would go through the trash and collect hundreds of dead batteries, wire them together so they had just enough juice for one charge, and use that charge to detonate an IED.

I remember the look on my roommate’s face after she got back from cutting the dead bodies of two soldiers out of an HMMWV that got blown up by an IED that I have always imagined was made with fertilizer from an opium farmer and detonated with a hundred thrown-out batteries.  [snip]

And now, finally, we are leaving and the predictable thing is happening. The Taliban is surging in and taking it all back.

They were always going to do this, because they have a thing you cannot buy or train, they have patience and a bloody-mindedness that warrants more respect than we ever gave them.

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The U.S. leaving behind those who helped us

August 17, 2021

The least that we Americans as a nation can do is to offer refuge to those Afghans who trusted us and helped our misguided military effort.

But Reuters reported last Friday that the U.S. evacuation efforts are stalled because the government can’t speed up the process of approving their visas.  So foreign governments were being asked to take in refugees while the U.S. bureaucracy did its paperwork.

Meanwhile people who put their trust in the United States are going to die because our government prioritizes filling out paperwork correctly over saving their lives.

President Joe Biden’s administration has been holding secret talks with more countries than previously known in a desperate attempt to secure deals to temporarily house at-risk Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, four U.S. officials told Reuters.

The previously unreported discussions with such countries as Kosovo and Albania underscore the administration’s desire to protect U.S.-affiliated Afghans from Taliban reprisals while safely completing the process of approving their U.S. visas.

About 21,000 Afghans have applied for refuge under a special program.

With the Taliban tightening their grip on Afghanistan at a shockingly swift pace, the United States on Thursday announced it would send 1,000 personnel to Qatar to accelerate the processing of applications for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). Afghans who served as interpreters for the U.S. government and in other jobs are entitled to apply for the SIV program.

So far, about 1,200 Afghans have been evacuated to the United States and that number is set to rise to 3,500 in the coming weeks under “Operation Allies Refuge,” with some going to a U.S. military base in Virginia to finalize their paperwork and others directly to U.S. hosts.

Fearful the Taliban’s advances are raising the threat to SIV applicants still awaiting processing, Washington is seeking third countries to host them until their paperwork is done and they can fly to the United States.

“It is deeply troubling that there is no concrete plan in place to evacuate allies who are clearly in harm’s way,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service resettlement organization.

“It is baffling why the administration has been taking so long in order to secure these agreements,” she said.

In short, the U.S. government cannot change its procedures to do what is necessary in an emergency, so it asks foreign governments that have no responsibility for Afghanistan to do what it cannot.

Taliban spokesmen say they have no interest in reprisals.  Let’s hope they mean it.  But the history of such statements by victors in revolutions and civil war indicates otherwise.

LINKS

Shame, Shame, Shame by Alex Tabarrok for Marginal Revolution.

In desperation, U.S. scours for countries willing to house Afghan refugees by Idrees Ali, Humeyra Pamuk and James Lindsay for Reuters.

Barack Obama’s 60th birthday extravaganza

August 13, 2021

Here’s how Matt Taibbi saw it:

“Even Scaled Back,” wrote Vanity Fair, “Barack Obama’s Birthday Bash Is the Event of the Season.”

Not even the famed glossy Bible of the unapologetic rich seemed sure of whether to write Obama’s Birthday bash straight or as an Onion headline: what did the “Event of the Season” mean during a pandemic?

A former president flying half the world’s celebrities to spend three days in a mask-less ring-kissing romp at a $12 million Martha’s Vineyard mansion, at a moment when only a federal eviction ban prevented the outbreak of a national homelessness crisis, was already an all-time “Fuck the Optics” news event, and that was before the curve ball.

Because of what even the New York Times called “growing concerns” over how gross the mega-party looked, not least for the Joe Biden administration burdened with asking the nation for sober sacrifice while his ex-boss raised the roof with movie stars in tropical shirts, advisers prevailed upon the 44th president to reconsider the bacchanal.

But characteristically, hilariously, Obama didn’t cancel his party, he merely uninvited those he considered less important, who happened to be almost entirely his most trusted former aides.

Cast out, the Times said, were “the majority of former Obama administration officials… who generally credit themselves with helping create the Obama legacy,” including former top aide David Axelrod, who’d just called Obama an “apostle of hope” in the Washington Post and sat for a three-hour HBO documentary deep-throat of his ex-boss.

Remaining on the list were celeb couples Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, as well as Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union, along with Steven Spielberg, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Questlove, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Don Cheadle, and other Fabulous People, who drank “top shelf liquor,” puffed stogies, and hit the links at the Vineyard Golf Club (membership fee: $350,000). 

[snip]

There’s a glorious moment in the life of a certain kind of politician, when either because their careers are over, or because they’re so untouchable politically that it doesn’t matter anymore, that they finally get to remove the public mask, no pun intended.

This Covid bash was Barack Obama’s “Fuck it!” moment.

He extended middle fingers in all directions: to his Vineyard neighbors, the rest of America, Biden, the hanger-on ex-staffers who’d stacked years of hundred-hour work weeks to build his ballyhooed career, the not quite A-listers bounced at the last minute for being not famous enough (sorry, Larry David and Conan O’Brien!), and so on.

It’d be hard not to laugh imagining Axelrod reading that even “Real Housewife of Atlanta” Kim Fields got on the party list over him, except that Obama giving the shove-off to his most devoted (if also scummy and greedy) aides is also such a perfect metaphor for the way he slammed the door in the faces of the millions of ordinary voters who once so desperately believed in him.

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U.S. census shows a blurring of racial lines

August 13, 2021

At a time of increasing talk about race and racial distinctions, the U.S. Census reports the lines dividing traces are becoming more blurred.

It noted that almost all the U.S. population increase from 2010 to 2020 consisted of Americans with two or more racial identities.

Whites remained in the majority. 

In 2020, there were 204.3 million Americans who called themselves white, down 8.6 percent from the previous census.  The non-Hispanic “white alone” U.S. population was 60.1 percent of the total in 2020, down from 63.7 percent in 2010.  But there were an additional 23.3 million who considered themselves white plus something else—boosting the white population to 235.4 million.

Hispanics can be of any race.  There were 62.1 million of them in the U.S. in 2020.  They comprised 18.5 percent of the U.S. population in 2020, up from 16 percent in 2010.

Americans of “some other race” were the second largest racial category, after whites.

Double click to enlarge

Some 49.9 million Americans called themselves “some other race,” meaning something other than white, black, Asian, native American or some other recognized racial category.

“Some other race” can include national identities, including Mexican, Cuban or the like, so growth in this category probably included a lot of Hispanics. 

The 48.9 million African-Americans were the third largest category.  The “black alone” U.S. population was 12.4 percent in 2020, virtually unchanged from 13 percent in 2010.

Some 33.8 million Americans called themselves multi-racial in 2020, up from 9 million in 2010.

One report indicates that 10 percent of all American married couples, and 17 percent of new marriages, are of individuals of different races or ethnicities.

I’m old enough to remember when this would have been considered shocking.  Back in the 1960s, when I attended the wedding of my friend Jim Yeatts, who was white, to Georgianna Bell, who was black, the Chief of Police of my home town reported this fact to my employer.  Now it would be taken in stride.

Double click to enlarge

There are two ways to interpret current population changes.  One is that American society is becoming more inclusive.  The other is that it is the dominant group that is becoming more inclusive.

Originally the dominant group consisted of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, the descendants of the original English settlers.  My German immigrant ancestors were excluded. 

Later the top group expanded to include all white Protestants, then all white people of “Judeo-Christian” heritage and now all non-Hispanic whites.

I predicted years ago that the dominant group would expand itself to include white Hispanics and persons of mixed race who consider themselves white.  If you count the Hispanic whites, whites were 76.3 percent of the 2020 population.

The bad thing about this is that African-Americans would still be a minority and still excluded from the dominant group.

I hope the blurring of racial distinctions in the U.S. continues.  This is the only hope for the survival and flourishing of the United States as a nation. 

LINKS

U.S. Census Bureau Quick Facts.

Local Population Changes and Nation’s Racial and Ethnic Diversity by the U.S. Census Bureau.

2020 U.S. Population More Racially and Ethnically Diverse Than Measured in 2010 by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Number of interracial marriages increasing in the United States by Brian Lowe for the Global Times.

The fall of Andrew Cuomo

August 12, 2021

Gov. Cuomo

As with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and many another public figure, the things NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo was most attacked for were not the worst things that he did.

Cuomo probably deserved to be impeached for corruption.  I don’t know whether the sex scandal was grounds for impeachment.  Of course impeachment on charges of corruption might have led to disclosures that would have embarrassed a whole lot of people.

By resigning, he avoids impeachment and preserves the option of a political comeback.

LINKS

The Real Question Is Why Andrew Cuomo Took So Long to Fall by Zephyr Teachout for The Nation.

Andrew Cuomo’s Legacy: Normalizing Corruption and Lawlessness by David Sirota for Jacobin.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Resigns in Sex Scandal by David Walsh for the World Socialist Web Site.

Nine other scandals surrounding the New York governor by Robert Gavin for the Albany Times-Union.

How culture wars have replaced class conflict

August 11, 2021

Note: I made several last-minute revisions and additions to this post the evening and following morning after I put it up.

Source: Mother Jones

American politics nowadays is extremely bitter.  Many Democrats and Republicans literally hate the opposing party.  In some circles, there’s talk of a new civil war.

Yet the leaders of the two parties differ but little on fundamental political and economic issues.  None of them questions the goal of global military supremacy.  Neither is facing up to the pandemic or the impending climate-related disasters.  Neither questions the existing structure of wealth and power.

But our politics is not about economic and political change.  It is about cultural change.

One party is pushing the ongoing revolution in how we think about race, religion, the family and sexual morality; the other is resisting it.  These issues are important, but they don’t have political answers.  But here we are.  They are on the political agenda, whether I like it or not.

Some friends of mine pointed me to an important article by David Brooks in The Atlantic about the background to all this.  He said that we are in the unusual position of having an elite of income and wealth who think of themselves as progressive, and push for change they think is progressive, while remaining blind to their own privilege.

The late Saul Alinsky said politics is a conflict between the haves, the have-nots and the have-a-littles.  As Brooks points out, this is not politics in today’s USA.  He describes a blue hierarchy and a red hierarchy, and points out that political antagonism is mostly between groups at the same levels in the opposing hierarchies (Koch brothers vs. Bill Gates, social workers vs. cops).

Brooks’ blue hierarchy consists of:

  • The bohemian bourgeoisie: Technology and media corporate CEOs, university and foundation presidents, high-level bankers, highly-successful physicians and CEOs.  Many are graduates of elite universities.  They think they owe their success to their superior intelligence and understanding.
  • The creative class: Tenured professors, successful journalists, employees of non-profit and cultural institutions.
  • Children of the elite: Younger people with elite educations, but without elite incomes, working in the lower rungs of education, the mass media, technology and the non-profit sector.
  • The caring class: Health care workers, and also restaurant servers, store clerks and hotel employees.  They tend to be racially diverse, and poor.

His red hierarchy consists of:

  • The philistine one-percenters:  Corporate executives, entrepreneurs, top-level professionals.  Few are graduates of top universities.  They think they owe their success to their superior common sense and grit.
  • The regional gentry: Families in small cities and towns who’ve owned businesses and properties for generations, and identify with their communities.
  • The proletarian aristocracy (aka the petit bourgeoisie): Small-business owners, independent craft workers (electricians, plumbers), salaried middle managers.
  • The rural working class.  Wage-earners with highly-supervised jobs in manufacturing, construction and transportation.  They tend to be poor, and racially homogeneous, living among family and friends they’ve known all their lives.

I would mention another key group in the red coalition.

  • The guardian class.  State and local police, private security and the career military.  They are important not only because of their numbers, but because of the respect the enjoy and because of the key role they would play in any breakdown in social order.  Counteracting this is the new wokeness at the top levels of the Pentagon and FBI.

What unites the blue and red hierarchies?  Not material interests.  Values.  What are they fighting over?  Validation of their values.  Validation of their ways of living and ways of thinking, and repudiation of those of their enemies.  Also higher status, but mainly validation.

What Brooks doesn’t get into is the large number of Americans who don’t feel represented by either the blue or the red hierarchy  They either see no material benefit in voting or they reluctantly vote for what they see as a lesser evil.

Not everybody is enlisting to fight in the culture wars.  Some care more secure jobs, or secure retirements, or an end to useless, unwinnable wars, or protection from pandemic disease, or something else that’s tangible and real and not a matter of attitude.

LINKS

How the bohemian bourgeoisie broke America by David Brooks for The Atlantic.  “The creative class was supposed to foster progressive values and economic growth.  Instead we got resentment, alienation and endless political dysfunction.”  Yep!

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Thomas Frank on anti-Trump authoritarians

August 8, 2021

AFP via Getty Images

Thomas Frank, writing in Le Monde diplomatique, points out that the hard core Trump haters are just as authoritarian as President Trump himself.

I remember, back in the 1950s, that the conventional wisdom among college-educated liberals was that if you wanted to fight Communism, you had to understand and address the reasons why poor and down-trodden people saw Communism as an answer.

Those liberals also perceived that threats to liberty could come in many forms: not just fascism, but Communism; not just Communism, but the followers of Joe McCarthy and the Ku Klux Klan.

In the era of Donald Trump, establishment liberals lack this insight.  They do not look at the reasons why ordinary people might turn to someone like Donald Trump, and they fight dissent by trying to silence dissenters.

Here’s how Thomas Frank puts it—

….. Millions of ordinary Americans despise the well educated elite. Why?

Look at the opioid epidemic that raged through middle America in the years before 2016 — a gift of Big Pharma and the medical profession.

Look at the de-industrialization that afflicted the same geographic areas — a product of our brilliant free trade deals.

Look at the global financial crisis and the bailouts — the deeds of America’s greatest math and financial geniuses, who faced almost no consequences for their actions.

Look at the Iraq War — the toast of the foreign policy establishment.

Look at the incredible fact that American life expectancy was actually declining in the years before 2017 rather than increasing.

Trump did nothing to solve any of these problems.  But everyone knows they exist.

One side talks, lectures, scolds and instructs, and the other side — silent by definition these days — seethes with resentment.

Everyone knows this awful dynamic had a role in elevating the racist demagogue Trump to the presidency.  Everyone also knows this country is primed to explode.  [snip]

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Juggling from above

August 7, 2021

Juggling, from the usual angle, looks like a very hectic endeavor — balls and clubs and hands flying everywhere. But if you get an overhead view, as in this video from Taylor Glenn, you can see that often there’s very little movement in two of the three dimensions. The mastery of these small movements combined with the sweeping up-and-down motions creates a compelling illusion for ground-based viewers. The power of a different perspective.

Source: kottke.org.

For background, click on Taylor Tries Juggling From Above on The Kids Should See This.

The U.S. eviction crisis is (nearly) upon us

August 4, 2021

The eviction moratorium was a short-range solution to a long-range problem.  

The problem arose from income and wealth inequality, acquisition of housing property by speculatprs, and building and zoning regulations intended to keep the riff-raff out.  If the Covid-19 crisis hadn’t brought it to a head, some other crisis would have.

The eviction moratorium cannot continue forever.  Therefore, someday it has to stop.

LINKS

Evictions and the U.S. Supreme Court by Dr. Jack Rasmus

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Truthteller Craig Murray goes to jail

August 4, 2021

We live in a world in which is you are more likely to be punished for exposing certain kinds of crimes than for committing those crimes.

LINKS

Keeping Freedom Alive by Craig Murray.

Craig Murray’s jailing is the latest move to snuff out independent journalism by Jonathan Cook.

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Baldwin debates Buckley (1965)

August 4, 2021

James Baldwin begins speaking at the 14-minute mark; William F. Buckley Jr., at the 39-minute mark.