Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

A Canadian on the end of the American era

August 12, 2020

Ford’s WIllow Run plant during World War Two

When people are faced with external threats, they need to pull together.   A Canadian anthropologist named Wade Davis pointed out that this once was true of the United States.

In 1940, with Europe already ablaze, the United States had a smaller army than either Portugal or Bulgaria.

Within four years, 18 million men and women would serve in uniform, with millions more working double shifts in mines and factories that made America, as President Roosevelt promised, the arsenal of democracy.

When the Japanese within six weeks of Pearl Harbor took control of 90 percent of the world’s rubber supply, the U.S. dropped the speed limit to 35 mph to protect tires, and then, in three years, invented from scratch a synthetic-rubber industry that allowed Allied armies to roll over the Nazis.

At its peak, Henry Ford’s Willow Run Plant produced a B-24 Liberator every two hours, around the clock.

Shipyards in Long Beach and Sausalito spat out Liberty ships at a rate of two a day for four years; the record was a ship built in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes.

A single American factory, Chrysler’s Detroit Arsenal, built more tanks than the whole of the Third Reich.

That was then.  This is now.

COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken.

As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease.

The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not begin to understand.

As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind.

With less than four percent of the global population, the U.S. soon accounted for more than a fifth of COVID deaths.

The percentage of American victims of the disease who died was six times the global average. Achieving the world’s highest rate of morbidity and mortality provoked not shame, but only further lies, scapegoating, and boasts of miracle cures as dubious as the claims of a carnival barker, a grifter on the make.

Some of these statements need asterisks.  Latin America has overtaken North America as the center of the coronavirus infection, and several advanced countries have higher coronavirus-related deaths per million people than the USA does, at least so far.

Davis, like many Canadian critics of the USA, is somewhat blind to the problems of his own country.  An American who has lived in Davis’s Vancouver pointed out that it is far from being the semi-utopia he claims it is.

But none of this disproves Davis’s general point.  U.S. industrial and governmental capacity has been unraveling for a long time.  This process won’t reverse by itself.  The first steps in change are for us Americans to understand our situation, pull together and stop accepting excuses for failure from our supposed leaders.

LINKS

How Covid-19 Signals the End of the American Era by Wade Davis for Rolling Stone.

The Unraveling of “The Unraveling of America” by Deanna Kreisel for Medium.

‘Cancel’ culture and American politics

July 29, 2020

The following is the the results of a YouGov poll commissioned by the Cato Institute

The Cato Institute is a strongly libertarian organization, but the poll was conducted by YouGov, which is a reputable organization, so I don’t think these results are biased.

Now the poll did not reveal the specific political views that Americans are afraid to express, but if highly-educated Americans are more fearful of expressing their opinions than the rest of us, I don’t think these fears are restricted to neo-Nazis or Klansmen.

I think a lot of the USA’s problem are due to misgovernment by an entrenched elite, and I hope for the kind populist revival that Thomas Frank describes in his new book.

But the Cato poll indicates just how hard it will be to make that happen.  We are too divided among ourselves.

It used to be that most self-described liberals thought of ourselves as defenders of free speech for all.  No longer, apparently.

Donald Trump and the Republican leaders are not friends of free speech.  But the divisions indicated in these polls work to their advantage.

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The way we think now

July 8, 2020

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity  [William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming“]

Statue of George Washington in Portland, Oregon

During my lifetime, I’ve seen the crumbling of elite institutions that once exercised moral authority.

Mainstream churches no longer preach the Christian creed.  Elite universities no longer commit to disinterested scholarship.  Elite newspapers no longer try to present the facts accurately and objectively.

They are being taken over by cultural radicals.  Despite or maybe because of their compromises, mainstream churches and newspapers are rapidly losing public support, and elite universities survive mainly because they are gatekeepers for the top professional and managerial jobs.

The cultural radicals have created their own set of taboos about race and gender, which, in certain sectors of society, you defy at your peril.   You can lose your job for expressing approval of ideas and values that have existed for centuries or maybe millennia.  It is widely considered unacceptable to say that “all lives matter” or that there is a biological difference between men and women.

I’m not surprised or shocked that there are who think this way, which they have every right to do.  I am surprised and shocked that there has been so little pushback against them from the nation’s supposed intellectual and moral leaders.

While there is a revolution in cultural and moral values, the structure of wealth and power stands unchanged.  The CIA, NSA and FBI, the Pentagon and the armaments industry, the Wall Street speculators, Silicon Valley monopolists—all these entities are more powerful than ever.

The power that rests on moral authority has been eclipsed.  The power that rests on money and brute force shines as brightly as ever.

The nation’s elite – the ruling class, the Establishment, call them what you will –  lack moral conviction and moral confidence.  What happened?

Lost Certainties

Someone said that 19th century America was held together by belief in three things – Protestantism, patriotism and progress.

I think this is so.  The old-time USA was much more violent than the USA today, prone to riots, strikes, insurrections and vigilante justice, even apart from the Civil War.  But there was a consensus that lay beneath all this.

Protestants believed that God ruled the world, that salvation came through Jesus, and that God’s justice.  Patriots believed that the USA was the embodiment of democracy and freedom.  Progressives believed that each generation would be better off, materially, than the ones who came before.

I myself, born in 1936, was taught to believe in all three.

This consensus was not necessarily a commitment to the status quo.  People who shared these beliefs brought about the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women and the regulation of monopoly capitalism.

The problem was that these ideas did not stand up to close intellectual scrutiny.  Once people started to question them, they could not go back to believing in the old way..

Biblical scholarship made it hard to believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.  Once you studied the topic, your choices were to reject scholarship, reject Christianity or believe in the Christian story in a vague way as an allegory or myth.

Historical scholarship made it hard to believe that the USA is the embodiment of freedom and democracy.  Once you studied the topic, your choices were to reject scholarship, reject patriotism or believe in American ideals as seldom-realized aspirational goals.

There are lots of reasons why it has become hard to believe in progress, which was possibly more foundational than the other two.

Life has been getting worse for the majority of Americans. This is largely because of bad economic policy, but even if this changes, life will still be hard because of climate-related catastrophes, exhaustion of natural resources and new pandemics in the coming bad years.  So progress, too, has become an aspirational goal, not a reality.

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Adolph Reed Jr. on identity politics

July 1, 2020

This Bill Moyers interview with Adolph Reed Jr. was aired in 2014.

Adolph Reed Jr. is a retired professor of political science and a Marxist.  He thinks that what is called identity politics is a way of maintaining structure of inequality.  The purpose of this post is to call attention to his critique of identity politics and provide links to some of this work.

Identity politics is based on an analysis of how dominant groups oppress marginal groups.  Some examples:

  • Whites > Blacks  [racism]
  • Men > Women  [male chauvinism, mysogyny]
  • Native-Born > Immigrants [xenophobia]
  • Anglos > Hispanics [xenophobia]
  • Straights > Gays [homophobia]
  • Cisgendered > Transgendered [transphobia]

These are not made-up problems.  It is a fact that white job applicants or loan applicants get preference over equally-qualified or better-qualified black applicants.  It is a fact that shocking numbers of women are sexually harassed on the job.  No-one should be denied basic rights by reason of race, gender, national origin or LGBTQ identity.

The problem is when disparities between groups are used to distract from the structure of wealth and power in society as a whole.  According to economist Gabriel Zucman, one percent of Americans own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, up from 28 percent in the 1990s.

Reed says that, within the multicultural framework, this would be okay if the upper one percent were 50 percent women, 15 percent black and the appropriate percentages Hispanic, GLBTQ and so on.

Ideas of equity can be used to promote inequality.  Ideas about oppression of minorities can be used to divert attention from exploitation of the majority by the minority.  The ideology of multiculturalism can be used as a technique to divide and rule.

Honoring diversity doesn’t bring about full employment, living wages, debt relief or an end to America’s forever wars

Honoring multiculturalism can leave members of all the different groups divided among themselves and equally exploited, along with straight white cisgender males, by employers, bankers, landlords and corrupt politicians..

LINKS

Public Thinker: Adolph Reed Jr. on Organizing, Race and Bernie Sanders, an interview for Public Books.

An interview with political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. on the New York Times’ 1619 Project on the World Socialist Web Site.

Nothing Left: the long, slow surrender of American liberals by Adolph Reed Jr. for Harper’s Magazine (2014)

Adolph Reed: Identity Politics Exposing Class Division in Democrats, from an interview on the Benjamin Dixon Show (2016)

The Trouble With Uplift by Adolph Reed Jr. for The Baffler (2018)

What Materialist Black Political History Actually Looks Like by Adolph Reed Jr. for nonsite.org.

Social class in a time of pandemic

May 6, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us Americans how we are divided by economic class.  Robert Reich, the well-known labor economist, outlined the four main ones.

Robert Reich

The Remotes: These are professional, managerial, and technical workers – an estimated 35 percent of the workforce – who are putting in long hours at their laptops, Zooming into conferences, scanning electronic documents, and collecting about the same pay as before the crisis.

This group is doing fine.  Their main problems are boredom and not being able to deal with their normal activities.  Yet, interestingly, they get the bulk of the coverage in my local newspapers and in on-line newspapers I follow.

The Essentials: They’re about 30 percent of workers, including nurses, homecare and childcare workers, farm workers, food processors, truck drivers, warehouse and transit workers, drugstore employees, sanitation workers, police officers, firefighters, and the military.

Some of them are well-paid for the important work they do, and also are given what protection is available.  But many aren’t.  In a pandemic, janitors and cleaners are key to stopping the spread of infection.  They ought to get hazard pay and the equivalent of a military medal for their work.  Yet we mainly hear of the essential workers when they strike for better pay or better protection.

The Unpaid: They’re an even larger group than the unemployed – whose ranks could soon reach 25 percent, the same as in the Great Depression. Some of the unpaid are furloughed or have used up their paid leave. So far in this crisis, 43 percent of adults report they or someone in their household has lost jobs or pay, according to the Pew Research Center.

If the United States as a nation requires certain people to stay home in order to protect the rest of us, then we as a nation ought give them the means to stay home and still pay their bills.  If not, they can’t be blamed for defying the lockdowns.  We the public only hear of them when they engage in protest demonstrations.

The Forgotten: This group includes everyone for whom social distancing is nearly impossible because they’re packed tightly into places most Americans don’t see: prisons, jails for undocumented immigrants, camps for migrant farmworkers, Native American reservations, homeless shelters, and nursing homes.

Everybody, including movie stars and prime ministers, is vulnerable to the virus.  But people in jails, nursing homes, meat-packing plants and the like are the ones who are going to die in largest numbers.  When pundits or politicians say a certain number of deaths is acceptable, these are the people who are being written off.

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The coronavirus pandemic in perspective

May 4, 2020

Over the weekend, I read an insightful five-part on-line series of articles on the coronavirus pandemic by Prof. Maximilian C. Forte of Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, on his Zero Anthropology Project web site.

He doesn’t think the pandemic is a temporary emergency that will soon blow over.  He thinks it is a major turning point in history.  So do I.  Of course we both could be wrong, but I don’t think we are.

Here is an excerpt from the first article.  Links to the full five-part series are below.

Max C. Forte

The plain fact of the matter is that until a vaccine is developed, and everyone on Earth has been vaccinated, the struggle against the virus will not truly be won.

Anything less than that is merely a temporary, selective and fragmentary means of approximating an end—something that is better than nothing, with each decrease in lives lost being something that is heroically gained by front line workers risking their own health.

Otherwise, anything short of total vaccination boils down to a way of indirectly apportioning the virus to some, while managing it for everyone else.

Unnecessary deaths will not be rendered any less unnecessary, they will simply be confined and reduced in number, for a while.  In other words, without vaccination it is absolutely inevitable that what comes next will be worse.

The main issue now for public officials appears to be how to ensure that what comes next will not be as bad as it could be—making worse less worse.

To be clear, the most recent estimates are that a vaccine for COVID-19, which has not yet been invented, would—to be optimistic—become available within the next year to 18 months.

Not only has a vaccine never been invented for any prior coronavirus (with previous research prematurely shut down), even discovering a vaccine before five years would be a record-breaking pace when compared with other vaccines.

Experts think it would be unprecedented.  Plus the coronavirus is apparently mutating profusely, which complicates efforts to develop a vaccine.

Without a vaccine or effective therapy, the assessment from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health is that “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022,” and that there could be a resurgence of the outbreak as late as 2024.

Instead, from the UK to the US and Quebec, an understanding that is prevalent among officials involves foggy, even dangerous ideas about “herd immunity,” which assumes—with little conclusive evidence and despite some contrary evidence—that (a) immunity against COVID-19 can be acquired and (b) that the immunity is permanent or long-term.

To make matters worse, some researchers think a vaccine for COVID-19 may never be found and that the virus is likely not to be containable.

No matter which decisions governments take—whether to continue mass confinement and a closure of most of the economy, or to gradually reopen economic activity (though it was never fully closed) and loosen restrictions—it will seem like the wrong decision will have been taken.

It’s not even a matter of choice between the “economy” versus “health.”  Without health, there can be no economy.  Without production, distribution, and consumption, health may be undermined.

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Are Clinton and Obama to blame for Trump?

February 5, 2020

Secretary of Labor Robert Reich

Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor during the Bill Clinton administration, is an honest man whom I respect.

When he left public service, he went back to his old job as a college professor and author.  He didn’t become a millionaire by joining corporate boards of directors or collecting consultants’ fees.

I also respect Reich, who is 4 feet 11 inches tall, for making his way in a world in which most people unconsciously take tall people more seriously than they take short people.  This is a form of prejudice I seldom think about.

He wrote an interesting article in The Guardian about how working people no longer feel represented by either the Democratic or Republican parties.

In 2015, he interviewed working people for a new book he was working on.  He’d talked to many whom he’d met 20 years before when he was in government, and many of their grown children.

Almost all of them were disillusioned with the “rigged system,” which they thought Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush represented.  The only presidential candidates they were interested in were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  Reich thinks they had a point.

Democrats had occupied the White House for 16 of the 24 years before Trump’s election, and in that time scored some important victories for working families: the Affordable Care Act, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example.  I take pride in being part of a Democratic administration during that time.

But Democrats did nothing to change the vicious cycle of wealth and power that had rigged the economy for the benefit of those at the top and undermined the working class.

As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg concluded after the 2016 election, “Democrats don’t have a ‘white working-class’ problem.  They have a ‘working class problem’ which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly.  

“The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate.”

In the first two years of the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.  Yet both Clinton and Obama advocated free trade agreements without providing millions of blue-collar workers who consequently lost their jobs any means of getting new ones that paid at least as well.  

Clinton pushed for NAFTA and for China joining the World Trade Organization, and Obama sought to restore the “confidence” of Wall Street instead of completely overhauling the banking system.

Both stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class. They failed to reform labor laws to allow workers to form unions with a simple up-or-down majority vote, or even to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violated labor protections.

Clinton deregulated Wall Street before the crash; Obama allowed the Street to water down attempts to re-regulate it after the crash. Obama protected Wall Street from the consequences of its gambling addiction through a giant taxpayer-funded bailout, but allowed millions of underwater homeowners to drown.

Both Clinton and Obama turned their backs on campaign finance reform. In 2008, Obama was the first presidential nominee since Richard Nixon to reject public financing in his primary and general election campaigns, and he never followed up on his re-election promise to pursue a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United vs FEC, the 2010 supreme court opinion opening wider the floodgates to big money in politics.

Although Clinton and Obama faced increasingly hostile Republican congresses, they could have rallied the working class and built a coalition to grab back power from the emerging oligarchy. Yet they chose not to. Why?

Source: The Guardian

Before I respond to Reich’s question, I want to take him to task for saying unions are the backbone of the “white working class.”  All workers, regardless of race, ethnicity or, for that matter, gender, need the protection of labor unions.

Black and Hispanic Americans are a larger percentage of union members than they are of the U.S. population as a whole.  When you use the expression “white working class,” you ignore the existence of a huge number of American wage-earners.

I don’t think Reich had bad intent, but one of the Democratic Party’s big problems is the successful Republican effort to drive a wedge between native-born white Anglo working people and black, Hispanic and immigrant working people.  It’s a mistake to use language that plays into that.

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How educated liberals alienate working people

December 31, 2019

Here’s a little thought experiment: What would happen if, by a snap of the fingers, white racism in America were to disappear?

It might be that the black and Latino working class would be voting for Trump, too. Then we Democrats would have no chance in 2020.

We often tell ourselves: “Oh, we lost the white working class because of race.”  But maybe the truth is something closer to this: “It’s only because of race that we have any part of the working class turning out for us at all.”

This is the beginning of an article by Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan in The New Republic. His point is that that leaders of the Democratic Party and also the Washington press corps are college graduates who have little or nothing to do with mere high school graduates, even though they are the majority of Americans.

The liberal solution to economic inequality in the USA is college education for everybody.  In other words, the message of the liberal elite is: Imitate us.

This is insulting and is felt as an insult, Geoghegan said.  It also tells the majority of Americans over 30 that they are doomed.

And even if college education were universal, it wouldn’t end poverty, raise wages or cure economic inequality.  It would simply be a higher bar you have to reach in order to have any kind of economic future at all.

Geoghegan said that’s why the most astute thing that Donald Trump ever said was, “I love the uneducated.”

It wasn’t always this way.  I am old enough to remember a time when a majority of Senators and Congresspeople, not to mention President Harry Truman, had no education beyond high school.

 I was one of only two college graduates employed by the first newspaper I worked for, in 1959.  The other was the city editor, who had a degree in chemistry.

That era was certainly no utopia, but politicians lived in the same neighborhoods as their constituents and journalists lived in the same neighborhoods as their readers.

Not that education, or liberal education, is useless.  It is just that it is not a solution to problems caused by concentration and abuse of economic and political power.

By the way, exit polls showed that Donald Trump got 8 percent of the African-American vote and 29 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2016.

LINK

Educated Fools: Why Democrats still misunderstand the politics of social class by Thomas Geoghegan for The New Republic.

How harmful is ubiquitous pornograpy?

December 26, 2019

Pornography is as old, or almost as old, as human civilization.  But, thanks to the Internet, it is readily available to anyone in the USA and many other countries who has access to the Internet.

This is something new in the world.  Never before has pornography been so ubiquitous.  By pornography, I mean depiction of sex in a cruel or degrading light.

Scientific studies indicate that prolonged exposure to pornography re-wires certain centers of the brain, much as taking addictive drugs does.

I don’t find this hard to believe.  We know that the human brain changes depending on how it is used.  A famous study of London taxi drivers showed that that process of memorizing the city street grid in order to pass a licensing test resulted in the growth of extra neurons in the memory centers of their brains.

Pornography addiction, which is a something I never heard of until five or so years ago, is so widespread a concern that there are 12-step groups to help fight it.

Some experts say that many adolescent boys and girls are growing up with a distorted view of sex through exposure to pornography.

Erectile disfunction (ED) is an increasing problem among men.  Involuntary celibates, or “incels,” have always existed, but now they constitute an identity group.

There is no proof that Internet pornography, in and of itself, is a cause of either erectile disfunction or involuntary celibacy.  But there are reports of men find who find more pornography more arousing than flesh-and-blood women, and also less trouble than dealing with an actual person.

∞∞∞

Life is harder for young men today than it was when I came of age.  (I’m 83).  It is perfectly understandable that some of them should turn to pornography, drugs or alcohol for solace, even these are false solutions that make their problems worse.

For one thing, young men today face a more uncertain and unforgiving economy than I did.  There is a widespread attitude that lack of success in economic competition defines you as a contemptible loser.

There also is a widespread attitude that postponing sex and marriage, rather than being a rational response to circumstances, also defines you as a loser in the arena of sexual competition.

Young men also are up against a certain hostility to men and masculinity in our culture.  Even qualities such as stoicism and risk-taking that once were honored are considered “toxic masculinity.”

Then there is the sexual revolution, which holds out the promise of unlimited sexual gratification, and the feminist revolution, which requires men to be careful of what they do and say around women.  As a society, we haven’t yet figured out how to strike a balance between the two.

Not all young men experience loneliness, frustration and rejection, not all who do turn to drugs, alcohol or pornography as a response, and not everybody who finds solace in drugs, alcohol or pornography becomes an addict.  I don’t want to make overly sweeping generalizations.

I do think a stagnant economy, current cultural expectations and ubiquitous availability of pornography are bad ingredients that produce a poisonous mix, and there is nothing to stop it from getting worse.

I give Jordan Peterson a lot of credit for helping young men.  I don’t agree with him about everything, but he presents an an ideal of a healthy and even heroic masculinity in opposition to so much of what young men hear today.    His 12 Steps for Life is excellent advice

Of course women also experience loneliness, frustration and rejection, but the topic of this post is Internet pornography, and I don’t think that pornography is a big issue for women, except for its impact on the men in their lives.

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Pornography addiction is a kind of drug addiction

December 19, 2019

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that Internet pornography is a true addiction, like heroin, alcohol or tobacco addiction.

It literally rewires the human brain.  The male human brain is hard-wired to respond to sexual novelty.  It processes Internet pornography as a constant access to new sexual partners engaging in new kinds of sexual activity.

Brutal and kinky is a more powerful stimulus that erotic and gentle, so that would be the bias of any Internet side that wants viewers to keep coming back.

My inclination is to err, if I must, on the side of protection of free speech.  I am suspicious of any form of censorship.  But I have to reconsider after reading an eye-opening article yesterday by a writer named Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry who surveyed the scientific literature on pornography addiction.

Porn is a sexual stimulus, but it is not sex.  Notoriously, heroin addicts eventually lose interest in sex: this is because their brains are rewired so that their sex reward system is reprogrammed to seek out heroin rather than sex.  

In the same way, as we consume more and more porn, which we must since it is addictive and we need more to get the same kick, our brain is rewired so that what triggers the reward system that is supposed to be linked to sex is no longer linked to sex—to a human in the flesh, to touching, to kissing, to caressing—but to porn.

Which is why we are witnessing a phenomenon which, as best as anyone can tell, is totally unprecedented in all of human history: an epidemic of chronic erectile dysfunction (ED) among men under 40.

Pornography, including sado-masochistic pornography, has always been with us.  It is as old as civilization.  But never before has pornography been so universally available.  A 12-year-old boy with a Smartphone has more access to sexual stimulation than the most decadent Roman emperor, Turkish sultan or 1970s rock star.  I’m glad I’m not a parent today.

As Gobry admits, we don’t have conclusive evidence of the effects on society of universal availability of hard-core pornography.

… What we do know is that large numbers of our civilization are hooked on a drug that has profound effects on the brain, which we mostly don’t understand, except that everything we understand is negative and alarming.

And we are just ten years into the process.  If we don’t act, pretty soon the next generation will be a generation that largely got hooked on this brain-eating drug as children, whose brains are uniquely vulnerable. It seems perfectly reasonable and consistent with the evidence as we have it to be deeply alarmed.

Indeed, what seems supremely irrational is our bizarre complacency about something which, at some level, we all know to be happening.

I am in favor of sexual freedom.  Do whatever you like with whatever consenting adult you like in your own space.  This is more than a question of individual behavior.  It is a question of what kind of society we want to make.

LINK

A Science-Based Case for Ending the Porn Epidemic by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry for American Greatness.  Print-Friendly Version.

Is the U.S. educational system failing?

December 11, 2019

My friend James in Texas e-mailed a link to a New York Times article on the latest results of the Program for International Assessment tests, which compare proficiency of students in 79 school systems around the world.

Overall the U.S. results didn’t seem to be that bad.  American children are in the middle of the pack of advanced nations in reading, somewhat below in math, but better overall than in the previous round of tests.  However, as the Times writer pointed out, there are disparities within the averages.

About a fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old, according to Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the exam.

Those students, he said, face “pretty grim prospects” on the job market.

James is an architect.  He worked as a substitute school teacher in the 1980s, taught design and algebra in community colleges in the 2000s and is now working on a certificate to teach in high school.  These are his observations from two decades.

1. Detracking – all kids dumped into same classroom, no honors or remedial grouping, no separate special ed class, teacher now must do 5 or 6 different lessons simultaneously instead of one. Advanced kids are bored and essentially teaching themselves, while slower kids are perpetually lost and have stopped even pretending to care.

2. No enforceable conduct standards – no consequences for anything, 2/3 of kids are basically feral, kids know teachers are powerless, with no administrative support, teachers given all responsibility for “classroom management” with zero actual authority, too busy being social workers and ringleaders instead of teaching.

3. Time theft – minimal lunchtime, no recess, obsessively timing every activity to the minute, weeks stolen for state testing, teachers’ weekends stolen for useless seminars and endless meetings. Kids can’t sustain attention enough to think deeply about anything, and teachers don’t have time to breathe, let alone teach.

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An elite that dare not call themselves elite

August 12, 2019

Natalia Dashan attended Yale University on a scholarship.  She was one of the 2 percent of Yale undergraduates whose parents are in the bottom fifth of American income earners.

She recently wrote an essay about something that struck her about some of her well-to-do classmates..

They lived and acted as if they in fact were poor.   They looked for reasons to think of themselves as oppressed.  They were in a near-constant state of rebellion.

Yale University Shield

But the rebellions were not over anybody’s material interests.  They were over whether how things were named or what someone said was appropriate—for example, whether “master” was an appropriate job title for the head of a college or whether a faculty member was out-of-line for scoffing at worries about racial stereotyping in Hallowe’en costumes.

Dashing also was struck by how quickly the faculty and administrators caved in to student protests, no matter how foolish their demands might have seemed to someone outside the academic environment and even in the absence of evidence that the protestors represented anybody but themselves.

The historic role of Yale, Harvard and other Ivy League universities has been to educate upper-class Americans to take on the responsibility of leadership—that is, for being a member of a ruling class.

Dashan concluded that the elite—defining the elite as those who grow up with the expectation that they and their children will attend Yale, Harvard or the equivalent—no longer want to assume the responsibility of leading and ruling.

So young people born to wealth and power look for ways to define themselves as oppressed, and older people, who should be their mentors, fear to appear in the role of oppressor.

The problem is that it is largely a performance—what I like to call psychodrama, but which more accurately could be called live-action role-playing.  It is tolerated because it is no threat to anybody, except the unlucky individuals who get caught in the crossfire.

Why this loss of confidence?  Dashan thinks it is fear of responsibility.  I think that is a large part of it.  But I think the more important part is a decline in belief in the values that gave confidence to earlier generations of elite Americans.

When I read Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, I was struck by how different the Harvard he attended was from the Harvard of today.

The goal of Harvard University in the 1870s was not only to provide an intellectual education, but to shape students’ character based on ideals of patriotism, Protestantism and manliness.

Young men were expected to participate in footfall and other contact sports to toughen them up, but also to teach ideals of sportsmanship—doing your best, but obeying the rules and not whining if you lose.  Attendance at morning prayers at Appleton Chapel was compulsory.

It is true that these ideals excluded a lot of people—Catholics, Jews, freethinkers and women, not to mention un-athletic men.  I would have felt this morality very restrictive if I had lived then.  Evidently many others over the years felt the same.

The unanswered question was:  What do you put in the place of these ideals?  Young people need to believe in something.

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Why so many suicidal mass gun killings?

August 11, 2019

Vigil for mass shooting victims in Las Vegas in 2017. Source: VOA.

The mass shootings that regularly occur in the United States are mostly also suicides.

Click to enlarge

They are the ultimate “deaths of despair.”

The killers do their shooting in public places and are almost guaranteed to be gunned down in their turn, if they don’t kill themselves first.

They are comparable to the suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere, except that the jihadist killers are sometimes trying to achieve a specific military objective, like the Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War Two.

Among all the rich Western nations, the United States is the only one in which mass shootings occur on a regular basis.

That is not to say that ordinary Americans, and visitors to the United States, are in grave danger.  As a risk factor, mass shootings rank far below traffic accidents.

Click to enlarge

But the fact that they occur says something about our society.  For every man (the shooters are almost all men) who kills others and then himself out of rage and despair, there must be a hundred others who feel the same rage and despair and don’t act it out.

Some people blame availability of guns, and I agree it would be better if the government restricted sales of rapid-firing firearms with large ammunition clips and magazines.  Casualties from mass killings were fewer during the assault weapons ban, but they still occurred.

Click to enlarge

Some people blame ideologies based on hatred of black people or hatred of immigrants or hatred of women.  But the mass shooters can be of any race, and the percentage of white mass shooters is slightly less than the percentage of whites in the general population.

The killers profess all kinds of professed political and social motives and some profess no motives at all.  The only common denominator is that the killers are almost all suicidal men.

Hatred and bigotry have long been motives for killing.  The new thing is that the killers are suicidal.

There are ways to commit murder without sacrificing your life in the process.  (The methods are obvious, but if you can’t think of them, I see no benefit to society in helping you out.)

I think the root cause of mass killings are feelings of powerlessness and feelings of meaninglessness.  Your life is meaningless, so you give it up.  But you take others with you, so you do have some power after all.

I don’t have a good answer for this.  Calling for a greater sense of community or a stronger sense of values isn’t going to bring these things about.  Greater availability of mental health counseling probably would help some, but it won’t in itself empower people or make their lives meaningful.

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White nationalists aren’t the only mass shooters

August 8, 2019

I deplore the way President Trump inflames racial antagonism, and I think it would be a good idea to restrict the sale of rapid-firing rifles that use large ammunition clips and magazines.  But I don’t think either of these things is a root cause of the mass shootings that plague the U.S.A.

The root cause of mass shootings is deeper than any particular ideology, whether that be white nationalism, Islamic jihadism or something else.  The fact that it is not just due to white nationalism is shown by the racial diversity of the shooters.

And no, we don’t need a renewed “war on terror,” this one aimed at white nationalists.   [Added 8/9/2019]

LINKS

The War on White Supremacist Terror by C.J. Hopkins for The Consent Factory.  [Added 8/9/2019]  Good article.

Mass shootings aren’t growing more common—and evidence contradicts common stereotypes about the killers by Charles J. Ferguson for The Conversation.

Five things to know about mass shootings in America by Frederic Lemieux for The Conversation.

Why Do We Have Mass Killers? by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative [Added 8/9/2019]

A handy list of black mass murderers who were taken alive (for people who think that being taken alive for mass murder is a ‘white privilege’) by Will Shetterly for it’s all one thing.  [Added 8/11/2019]

I added the text, changed the headline and added links the morning after I posted the chart.

War, power and the clothing of men

June 12, 2019

These drawings are copied from About Face by Nate Powell for Popula.

Click on About Face to see the rest of the sequence.

War, power and the clothing of men (2)

June 12, 2019

Click on About Face for the previous part of this sequence.

LINKS

 About Face by Nate Powell for Popula.

A veteran and historian responds to Nate Powell’s “About Face” by Sam Duncan for Popula.

The Sum of All Beards by Adrian Boneberger and Adam Weinstein for The New Republic.

The facts behind the black-white IQ gap

June 10, 2019

In case this ever comes up in conversation.

Here’s Why the Black-White IQ Gap Is Almost Certainly Environmental by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones

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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Matthew Crawford on cultural “jigs”

December 7, 2018

I’m currently re-reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, this time as part of a reading group.  In the following passage, Crawford compares “jigs” used by skilled craft workers to simplify their tasks to cultural constraints that simplify moral choices.

In the boom after World War II, the [American] left lost interest in economics and shifted its focus from labor issues to a more wide-ranging project of liberation, to be achieved by unmasking and discrediting various forms of cultural authority.

In retrospect, this seems to have prepared the way for a new right, no less committed to the ideal of the unencumbered self (that ideal actor of the free market), whose freedom could be realized only in a public space cleared of distorting influence—through deregulation.

Few institutions or sites of cultural authority were left untouched by the left’s critiques.  Parents, teachers, priests, elected officials—there was little that seemed defensible.

Looking around in stunned silence, left and right eventually discovered common ground: a neoliberal consensus in which we have agreed to let the market quietly work its solvent action on all impediments to the natural chooser within.

Another way to put this is that the left’s project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better or worse) on individual lives.  [snip]

The combined effects of these liberating and deregulating effects of the right and left has been to ratchet up the burden of self-regulation.

Some indication of how well we are bearing this burden can be found in the fact that we [Americans] are now very fat, very much in debt and very prone to divorce.

What’s so great about freedom?

October 24, 2018

Liberalism is the belief that human rights are the most important value.  I have believed this for most of my life..

I just got finishing reading a book, WHY LIBERALISM FAILED by Patrick J. Deneen (2018) that says it is impossible to build a nation or a society on this basis.

And that most of the troubles of the United States today are the result of trying to build a society on this false basis.

Liberalism has failed because it has triumphed, Deneen writes.  Its triumph makes manifest the flaws that were there all along.

He has strong arguments for this (even though, in the last chapter, he halfway takes them back – I will get to this is due course).

He explores the same territory as Chris Arnade, Zygmunt Bauman, Matthew CrawfordRod Dreher and Pankaj Mishra. There’s a lot to think about.

Deneen defines liberalism as the philosophy that says the most important thing is freedom to choose.   One version is classic liberalism, which in the USA is called conservatism, that says freedom means government should not restrict individual freedom of choice.

Another version is progressive liberalism, that says government can and should empower individual choice by promoting education, public health, retirement security and the like.

Classic liberals have not succeeded in freeing individuals from control by a powerful government; progressive liberals have not succeeded in freeing individuals from control by powerful private organizations.  Deneen believes there are systemic reasons for his.

He says both forms of liberalism differ from the older conception of liberty as self-government.  In the older conception, free individuals were those who were in control of their passions, greed, anger and fears, and did not need external control, and a free community was likewise keeping itself in order without external control.

As a wise friend of mine, Michael Brown, once remarked, individualism used to mean self-reliance, and now means self-expression.

Liberal ideas originated in Western culture about 500 years ago with Francis Bacon, according to Deneen; he  thought that the advance of science and knowledge would enable humanity to control nature rather than being subject to it.  Individual people were separate and independent of nature, not part of a great chain of being.

 

 

These ideas began to be put into practice about 250 years ago, by thinkers who believed it would be more realistic to found society on the basis of rational self-interest rather than on ideals that were often ignored.

Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” was an economic system in which entrepreneurs acting out of self-interest competed to serve the common good.  James Madison’s idea of constitutional government was to set up checks and balances so that the conflicting ambitions of politicians resulted in a balance that served the common good.

When Smith, Madison and other early liberals wrote of people acting out of self-interest, they weren’t thinking of sociopaths.  They were thinking of the normal level of selfishness of respectable middle-class British subjects and American citizens.  But the British and American liberals of that day were the heirs of an older moral culture that they took for granted.

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Pro-family vs. anti-family conservatives

October 18, 2018

The conservative blogger Rod Dreher put up an interesting post this morning quoting an evangelical Christian man who says he and his wife can’t afford to have children because of corporate business practices and neoliberal economic policies supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

He and his wife are both employed in STEM fields and earn six-figure incomes, but their employers constantly remind them that they can be replaced at any time by immigrants from India willing to work at one-third their salaries.  Losing a job would mean losing health insurance, which might mean bankruptcy.

A cousin actually went bankrupt because his newborn had a rare disease, and his insurance company decided that the medical staff on duty that day were not in its network, even though the hospital itself was in-network.  Then there is the cost of education, which can bankrupt even an affluent family.

The most interesting part was his contrast of European and American conservatives.

Europe’s conservatives actually are pro-family there and support pro-natalist policies. The US media as usual is embarrassingly confused about populists like Matteo Salvini, Victor Orban, the AfD in Germany, the NF in France, Vox in Spain, the Sweden Democrats and the conservatives in Denmark, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands.

These aren’t racists like the media claims, in fact quite the opposite, they are not the ones calling for invasion of foreign countries, but rather for the preservation of their own native European Christian cultures, Christian values and distinctive identities within their ancient homelands. And above all for supporting the family unit. [snip].

Europe’s populist conservatives all favor universal healthcare, low-cost childcare, free or low-cost tuition for colleges, 6 weeks of vacation (great for bonding with the family) and protection of the local labor market and wages. When I worked in Europe all Americans and other foreigners (including many tech workers from India) were paid the same or higher wages than locals, and if any employer tried to undermine the local labor market and wages, he’d be greeted with a prison term.

Source: Rod Dreher | The American Conservative

If somebody like that doesn’t think he can afford to live what used to be considered a normal life, what about the rest of us?

I’m reminded of Chris Arnade and his contrast of the “front-row kids” and “back-row kids”—the ones who get ahead because they value education, adaptability and individual success most, and the ones who are left behind because they value family, tradition and community more.

This is a good example of the coming together of the cultural conservative critique and economic radical critique of our current political economy.

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Learning to live in ‘liquid modernity’

September 27, 2018

“Liquid modernity” is a phrase I came across a couple of months ago.   It is an expression that makes a lot of things fall into place.   It expresses how things that once seemed solid and changeless are now fluid and ever-changing.

The expression was coined by a Polish philosopher named Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017).    My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a copy of LIQUID TIMES: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2007), one of Bauman’s many books on the topic.   A 2016 interview with Bauman is shown in the video above.

I came of age in the 1950s in a world dominated by big organizations that offered security in exchange for conformity.   Social roles, including sex roles, were well-defined, although starting to change.  Science was regarded as the source of true knowledge.

Today’s world offers no security.  Social roles, including the biological distinction between male and female, are in a state of flux.  Post-modern philosophers tell us that nobody knows anything, and you have to figure things out as you go along.  We are at the mercy of economic forces that we don’t understand.

We are free of many of the constraints that hemmed us in back then.   Instead we constantly have to make choices without having any way to know the consequences of these choices.

Our great fear back then was of totalitarianism.  Now our great fear is of terrorism and the collapse of social order.

Bauman wrote that the great dissolving force is globalization—the ending of  restrictions on international movement of goods, services, information and money. along with unsuccessful attempts to restrict the international movement of people.

Politics becomes divorced from power, he wrote.  Politics is national and local, while the power lies with international corporations and organizations not subject to political control.

Governments are helpless before global economic forces, and turn over their historic functions to private organizations.   Individuals find less support either from government or from communities.  Instead of communities, there are networks.

Responsibility for coping with change is solely up to the individual, Bauman wrote.  But change is unpredictable.   Long-range planning is impossible.

∞∞∞

In an age of liquid modernity, you can be affected by events that happen anywhere in the world.  There are no safe havens.

The present era is not more dangerous than earlier eras—at least not for middle-class property owners in North America and Europe.  The difference is that today’s dangers are unknown and unknowable.

If there are wolves in the forest, you can stay out of the forest or be on guard against wolves when you go in.  But there is no way to guard against disruptive economic change that may wipe out your livelihood, or terrorist attacks or mass shootings.

Bauman said liquid modernity gives rise to free-floating fear, which politicians and demagogues can direct at any plausible object.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the war on terror would end when Americans feel safe.  That means it will never end.  Each U.S. attack on foreign countries increases the chances of a blowback terrorist attack on Americans.

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The changing meaning of ‘privilege’

September 13, 2018

The following is from an exchange of e-mails with a friend of mine about an essay by Matthew Crawford, a writer I admire, on the topic of “Privilege.” 

Hello, [Friend]:

    “Privilege” has always been a fraught word for me.  I was brought up to believe that I was a privileged person, and that I had obligations beyond the ordinary to “give back” to society.

    In the high school I attended, a large fraction of students dropped out when they reached the age of 16 because their families wanted them to get jobs.

     In those days, graduation from college was not a universal ambition.  Staying in high school long enough to graduate was considered an achievement.  Very few of us went on to college.

     I was one of the few—predestinated because of the choices of my parents—and therefore in those days (the 1950s) assured of a comfortable middle-class life.  I have been aware throughout my life that I did nothing to deserve having a better fate than my classmates who dropped out of school.

     I was taught from a young age by my parents, teachers and Sunday School teachers that prejudice and discrimination against Negroes (as they were called then), Jews and Catholics was morally wrong.  I came to understand the evils of male chauvinism, homophobia and prejudice against transgendered people about the same time as most liberal education straight white men did.

     I never thought of immunity from prejudice and discrimination as a “privilege.”  I thought of it as something that everyone should enjoy.  The fact that I can drive at night through [a certain suburb] without fear of police harassment does not necessarily mean that some black person has to suffer police harassment in my place.

     It is true that what you call “presumption of competence” is a kind of privilege.  I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that phrase.  But, yes, it true, in competition for scarce resources, such as jobs, I as a straight white Anglo cisgendered male enjoy an unearned advantage over someone who is  gay, black, Hispanic, transgendered, female or some combination.

    Of course such privilege I enjoy is much less than the privilege the privilege of those born to inherited wealth and legacy admissions to elite universities – people such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Donald J. Trump.   They begin life from a position of wealth and power that was out of reach for most people after a lifetime of effort.    The chief means by which people are sorted into social and economic classes are (1) inherited wealth and (2) educational credentials.

     For at least 40 years, a tiny minority of people at the top of the economic and social pyramid have been leveraging their advantages to amass wealth and power at the expense of everybody else.  Most (not all] members of this group are white males, but the vast majority of people, including white males, do not benefit from this group’s privileges.

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Is Arthur C. Clarke’s Babylon our destiny?

August 1, 2018

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story, published in 1960, about how a Communist dropped by his home in Ceylon to thank him for us idea of television broadcasting from earth satellites positioned over fixed points of the earth’s surface.

He said the Chinese planned to use this idea to saturate the United States with pornography and turn Americans into a nation of brainwashed pornography addicts.

They would start with broadcasts of images of erotic art on Hindu temples, but then produced specialized programming aimed at every sexual taste identified in the Kinsey Report.  They would also have a sideline of sadistic violence, starting with bullfights and working up to every torture and atrocity documented in the Nazi archives.

All this was fiction, of course.

My old friend Steve, who called my attention to this story, said that we Americans are now doing to ourselves what Clarke envisioned our enemies doing to us.  As conservative Christian journalist Rod Dreher writes:

We are conducting a radical experiment that has never before in history been tried, because it has never been possible. What happens to individuals and societies when images — moving images — of the most bizarre and violent sex acts imaginable can be instantly accessed by anyone, anywhere, at any time? What does that do to our brains, our minds, and our hearts? What does it to do us as a people?

Source: The American Conservative

The American Psychological Association is undecided whether to call excessive porn watching an addiction, a compulsion or just a bad habit, but, in layman’s terms and for all practical purposes, it is an addiction.

Of course, some people enjoy pornography with no obvious ill effects.  I have a friend who has read every issue of Playboy since it began its publication in 1953, and he scoffs at my concern.

But compared to what’s out there today, looking at Playboy’s centerfolds is more like looking at the lingerie ads in the old Sears Roebuck catalogs than it is like looking at the porn of today.

And he started at age 18, not age 13.  The effect of pornography on young children is different.

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What will come next?

July 30, 2018

Centrally planned economies didn’t work.

Unbridled neoliberal capitalism isn’t working.

Blood-and-soil nationalism won’t work.

What will come next?  My candidate for the next big thing is some form of radical localism.

Small communities would push back against the power of multinational corporations and big government bureaucracies.

Ideally their civic and economic life would be based on a mixture of town-meeting democracy, volunteer groups, civic associations, producer cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, individually-owned  businesses and large numbers of self-employed workers.

A society based on radical localism wouldn’t be capable of building mega-projects or projecting world-wide military power.

But it might be more resilient when catastrophic global climate change kicks in, the global supply chains cease to work and dysfunctional national governments lose their legitimacy.