Category Archives: Politics – General

Politics and the Movie Fargo: For a Little Bit of Money

Today’s Republican party believes that tax cuts for the wealthy, despoiling of the environment, and the loss of health-care from millions is a sufficient reward for enabling the slow rot of constitutional government. They believe Presidential actions that would cause them to be apoplectic if done by a member of the opposing party–interfering with FBI investigations for example—are fine if done by a member of their clan. After all, tax cuts for the wealthy, incarceration of minorities, media based on conspiracy theories, gangsterism and nepotism at the highest levels, and so much more is profitable.

For modern-day Republicans: wealth is power; power is the bottom line; might makes right; and the ends justify the means—as the Greek Sophists, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche taught long ago. And no New York Times/Washington Post op-eds, or moral arguments will decrease their lust for power. At the moment their opponents aren’t relative power equals, so they will do what they want, however immoral, to impose their will.

All this got me to thinking about one of the final scenes in the Coen brothers movie, Fargo.

In the scene, a simple, kindhearted, woman speaks to a psychopath who has killed multiple people for money. (See video above.)

Now the politicians that undermine our political system do collect vast sums of money, and they increasingly have law enforcement under their control, but I wonder if it’s in their long-term interest to undermine a relatively stable social system in which they are the primary beneficiaries. Mob mentality, which increasingly has become their modus operandi, leaves everyone looking over their shoulder and invites more social unrest. Whose to say that the violence they unleash might not come back to haunt them? In the long run, I doubt this state of nature will be good for anyone. But many might have to suffer, as generations before had to do, before they realize this. On the other hand, we may all be in for immense suffering in the coming decades—even those in the world’s most powerful countries.

(For a bit more I suggest two recent op-eds. “The conservative mind has become diseased” by Michael Gerson of the Washington Post; and “Trump doesn’t understand how to be president. The Comey story shows why“, by E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post.)

Good luck America. And good luck to the rest of the world which lives in the shadow of our neurosis.

“How Trump May Save the Republic,” But Not in the Way Bret Stephens Thinks

I was amused by Bret Stephen’s op-ed in the May 13th edition of The New York Times, “How Trump May Save the Republic.” As Stephen’s puts it: “His views are often malevolent, and his conduct might ultimately prove criminal. But we, too, are protected, for a time, by the enormity of his stupidity.” (Yes, this is the same Bret Stephens who spread his anti-climate change nonsense in a previous op-ed.)

Obviously Trump isn’t an intellectual, but does that make him less dangerous? Trotsky and the intellectuals of the Russian revolution underestimated the mediocre intelligence of Stalin, and paid with their lives. Stalin was brutal and street-smart, two qualities that intellectuals often lack. The mafia kingpin John Gotti was a high school dropout, but street smart enough to have his rival killed and ascend to the top of the Gambino crime family. And that intelligent, Machiavellian Ted Cruz probably still can’t believe he lost the Republican Presidential nomination to the ignorant Donald Trump. In fact I doubt there is a strong connection between education, intelligence and political power—street smarts and ruthlessness probably correlate better. After all, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan, Al Gore and John Kerry to George W. Bush, and Hilary Clinton to Donald Trump.

I will say though that Stephens saved his best insight for last: “Incompetence may protect us—but … only for a while. The blunders may often be self-defeating, but not always. Trump is our president. The enormity of his stupidity, inescapably, is also our own.”

Yet here is another thought—replacing Trump with Pence doesn’t help much, if at all. McConnell and Ryan would push the same no-taxes-on-the-wealthy-no-social-safety-net-theocracy-not-secularism-endless-war-not-diplomacy-force-of-the-law-against-the-unfortunates-legal immunity-for-the plutocrat policies as they do now, but they would look more refined in doing so with Pence in charge. Russia and Saudi Arabia are their models, not the Scandanavian countries.

So even if Trump were impeached or worse, that wouldn’t stop the Republicans from pursuing their current agenda. So we may be better off with Trump as the face of the Republican party. That way he remains the physical manifestation of what has been their somewhat hidden agenda since the early 1980s. Perhaps his threatening tweets, collusion with the Russians, weekly golf course vacations, financial entanglements, nepotism and all the rest will finally put a face on today’s (radical, Confederate) Republican party, which the conservative scholars Mann and Ornstein so aptly describe as:

an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

So Trump’s ignorance may save us, but not in the way that Stephen’s imagines. It’s not that he won’t help them lower taxes on the rich, let millions die from lack of health care, deny women birth control, or imprison minorities for failing to pay parking tickets, he will do all that and more, it’s that he’ll make them look so shameless and uncouth in doing so. Perhaps that will finally open people’s minds.

Yet I’m not optimistic that anything can save us from our forthcoming troubles. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the non-stop propaganda of fox news, infowars, and brietbart might leave the fascists with near total control. And there is a good chance many of us won’t make it out alive. Good night and good luck.

How To Cope With This Stressful Presidency

What prepares men for the totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness  … has become an everyday experience of the ever growing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality. ~ Hannah Arendt

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 6, 2017.)

The American Political World Is Bad And Getting Worse 

At the request of a reader depressed by today’s American political situation, I’ve updated a previous post from about a month ago, as things keep getting progressively worse.  My own views—in more complete form—about the tragedy and danger of electing someone so manifestly unqualified, so psychologically, morally and intellectually unfit, have been expressed over and over in previous posts.  Trump is essential an amygdala with a twitter account.

My readers’ pain about our current state of affairs results from being more educated than most about the issues, political climate, new president, recent history, and the corruption, shenanigans, lies, and bs that surround us. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. And, as we have seen in a previous post, less education, even accounting for all other factors, was the biggest predictor of Trump support. It also evokes sadness to think of all the people who will suffer and die if some of the promises of the Republicans come true—the loss of health care for millions, increased economic inequality, deportations, expediting environmental degradation and climate change, increased likelihood of war, etc.

Plato told us more than 2,000 years ago that you can’t have a good life without a good government, and you can’t have a good government without morally and intellectually virtuous leaders. He told us that democracy is one of the worst kinds of government—it’s the blind leading the blind—and that it inevitably leads to tyranny where power joins with vice. Trump in charge of the nuclear arsenal; Perry running the department of energy; Tillerson and Exxon managing diplomacy; Sessions the chief law enforcement officer; Devos in charge of the education department, Price the secretary of health and human services—it would be hard for a dystopian novel to invent all this. Executive officers of departments they either know nothing about, open dispise, or both. Its 2017, but we live in 1984. The ministry of truth tells lie; the ministry of peace fights war; ignorance is strength and no lie is too bold.

If only the masses truly understood what they did. They thought their TV was broke so they decided to try something new. Call knowledgeable people? No! Instead they banged on their TV with a hammer. Might work. Probably will make things worse.

And let me add—a society that has no respect for truth will make bad decisions. Replacing the rule of law and the pre-eminence of reason with the rule of the passions is a prescription for tyranny and anarchy, as Aristotle told us long ago. 

Sure one can wonder how we got from Nixon’s southern strategy, to Reagan saying government was the problem, to Delay’s and Gingrich’s moral corruption, to Republican obstructionism and disdain for truth, to the Tea Party, to the freedom caucus, to nearly one-party fascist rule. But this is the job of historians and political scientists to unpack. The past is closed, and we must move forward. It is a dark time.

How To Cope 

My reader doesn’t want more gloom and doom or historical analysis—she wants advice about coping. Lacking any special insights, I’ll just try to think the problem out as I write.

It seems there are at least two things you’re coping with today if you are relatively conscious of what’s going on politically. First, the bad things that have already happened, and second, the bad things that might happen as a result of this past.

As for what has already happened, you can’t do anything about it, so it is pointless to waste time thinking about it—to worry is an exercise in mindlessness. As for what might happen, we must remember that we don’t know the future. Many things we worry about never happen, so many of our worries waste our energy. I know this is easier said than done, but realizing the pointlessness of worry is a start.

What is not pointless is doing something to make the dystopian future less likely. This may include writing, marching, creating beauty, getting politically active, or simply helping those few that you can help. It might mean being a good parent, so that we less psychologically damaged individuals running the government; it might mean learning more about marital conflict resolution; it might mean meditating to achieve greater mind control; it might be all of these things and more. But it definitely means doing something as opposed to ruminating about all the bad things that are happening.

Yet here we must also remember the sage advice of the Stoics, Buddhists, and Hindus. As they long ago discovered, you can’t control the world, you can only influence it. You shouldn’t be indifferent, passive, or apathetic; rather, you should discharge your duties to help the world, remembering that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. Thus, as long as you do what you can, you shouldn’t feel shame or guilt.

This advice may seem trite, but I don’t know what else to say. Change what you can; ignore what you can’t, and recognize the difference between the two, to paraphrase Niebuhr’s serenity prayer. Reflecting on this, it isn’t surprising that we can’t say much more than has been said in the 10,000 years of human culture. It isn’t likely that we would discover something that all the sages and seers missed. Perhaps then trite isn’t the right word for our advice. Our advice may lack originality, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

In short my advice is: 1) learn to control the mental disturbance caused by obsession over a past that you can’t change, or a future that may not come to be; and 2) act now to better the world and ourselves based on the best knowledge available, with the recognition that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. We are suggesting a middle way between the helplessness and impotence that accompanies worry, and the hubris of thinking we can perfect the world, and are responsible that perfection.

Note – For more on this topic see yesterday’s excellent article in Salon “Beware the Trump brain rot: The cognitive effects of this administration’s actions could be disastrous.”)

These Two Pieces of Advice in World Literature 

The most profound statement of these points—that we try to control our minds and fight to better the world—that I’m aware of come from French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, who wrote about the peace that accompanies the stoical mind, and the Greek novelist and essayist Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote deeper than anyone I’ve ever encountered about fighting the battle of life, and taking pride in our efforts.

Here is Descartes:

My third maxim was to endeavour always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in respect of things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico; and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with. But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied. For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favours heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

And here is Kazantzakis (with my commentary):

Kazantzakis believed that the meaning of our lives is to find our place in a chain that links us to the more subtle and advanced forms of life that will, hopefully, arise in the future.

We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope.[i]

I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines. I had rejected my religious upbringing, but why couldn’t I at least hope that life was meaningful? Why was Kazantzakis taking that from me too? His point was that the honest and brave struggle without hope or expectation that they will ever arrive, ever be anchored, ever be at home. Like Ulysses, the only home Kazantzakis found was in the search itself. The meaning of life, he thought, is found in the search and the struggle, not in any hope of success.

In the prologue of his autobiography, Report to Greco, Kazantzakis claims that we need to go beyond both hope and despair. Both expectation of paradise and fear of hell prevent us from focusing on what is in front of us, our heart’s true homeland … the search for meaning itself. We ought to be warriors struggling bravely to create meaning without expecting anything in return. Unafraid of the abyss, we should face it courageously and run toward it. Ultimately we find joy by taking full responsibility for our lives—joyous in the face of tragedy. Life is essentially struggle, and if in the end it judges us we should bravely reply, like Kazantzakis did:

General, the battle draws to a close and I make my report. This is where and how I fought. I fell wounded, lost heart, but did not desert. Though my teeth clattered from fear, I bound my forehead tightly with a red handkerchief to hide the blood, and ran to the assault.”[ii]

Surely that is as courageous a sentiment in response to the ordeal of human life as has been offered in world literature. It is a bold rejoinder to the awareness of the inevitable decline of our minds and bodies, as well as to the existential agonies that permeate life. It finds the meaning of life in our actions, our struggles, our battles, our roaming, our wandering, and our journeying. It appeals to nothing other than what we know and experience—and yet finds meaning and contentment there.

Just outside the city walls of Heraklion Crete one can visit Kazantzakis’ gravesite, located there as the Orthodox Church denied his being buried in a Christian cemetery. On the jagged, cracked, unpolished Cretan marble you will find no name to designate who lies there, no dates of birth or death, only an epitaph in Greek carved in the stone. It translates: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

The gravesite of Kazantzakis.

____________________________________________________________________

[i] James Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 11th ed. (Belmont CA.: Wadsworth, 2012), 656.
[ii] Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (New York: Touchstone, 1975), 23

Trump’s Lying Reveals That He Is Empty Inside

Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas detail.jpg

Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late. ~ Jonathan Swift

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 19, 2017.)

In response to my recent post “Why Truth Matters,Chris Crawford provided a biological explanation for Trump’s lying. (I am no expert about this biological explanation, and would want to do more research before endorsing it.) Crawford then connects lying in general to something that I don’t know, but strongly believe—Trump is not only intellectually and morally vacuous, he is also an unhappy man. No wonder he almost never smiles.

Here is Crawford’s biological explanation of lying in general:

Our biological nature includes a capacity for falsehood arising from optimal sexual strategies. The most successful male (in terms of his influence on the gene pool) was the one who could convince the most women that, if they would permit him to impregnate them, he would in turn provide for the resulting children—and then renege on the deal … but only if you can get away with it. In the small hunter-gatherer groups of the Pleistocene, this was impossible, but with civilization came the ability to keep moving on to new groups …

Meanwhile, the optimal female sexual strategy is to nail down a good provider of nutrition for the kids while obtaining genes from the most genetically desirable male.

Both of these strategies require a talent for successful lying, and an equal talent for successfully detecting lying. They are summarized in the two definitive questions for sexual relationships between males and females: “Will you still love me in the morning?” and “Is it really my child?” The difficulty of the latter has led to a great deal of infanticide by males, which in turn has induced newborns to look more like their fathers than their mothers — a good survival strategy.

And here is how he connects this with Trump:

Homo Sapiens have developed the ability to lie more effectively by inculcating the ability to actually believe its own lies—that’s the best way to evade lie detection. Thus, Mr. Trump honestly, sincerely believes that millions of illegal aliens voted against him. He is especially good at believing whatever he perceives is most beneficial for other people to believe about him—which is why he has so successfully hoodwinked millions of voters. It is unlikely that Mr. Trump has any actual political beliefs of his own; he simply wraps himself in whatever beliefs he thinks will most endear him to voters. Like the chameleon Martian in Ray Bradbury’s, The Martian Chronicles, he has no identity of his own.

And therein lies the penalty for deception: by believing his own lies, Mr. Trump has long since destroyed Donald Trump. There is no longer a genuine human being inside that body. It is just a doll dressed up to look impressive to others. Having reached the pinnacle of society, Mr. Trump finds it hollow, for there is simply nobody inside that body to truly appreciate the achievement.

In one of my favorite movies, Excalibur , directed by John Boorman, Merlin at one point says: “When a man lies, he murders a part of the world.” It’s a great line—Merlin gets a ton of great lines in that movie. But I would alter it to be: “When a man lies, he murders a part of himself.”

This line of thinking suggests that Mr. Trump is long since dead, a walking husk of a human being, bereft of human existence …

Needless to say I don’t live inside Trump’s mind, but I’d guess it’s disharmonious. His constant anger and insatiable desire for retaliation, as well as his maniacal obsession with fame, power and wealth are hallmarks of psychological dysfunction. While skeptics may believe my statements reek of envy, I can only state assure my readers that I am, as Dostoevsky puts it, one of those “who don’t want millions but an answer to their questions.” I assume this may be an obsession too, but as obsession go it’s not a bad one.

Telling the truth about ourselves and the world is difficult and ego-threatening. Most of the time I can’t do it myself. But surely the sages and seers were right when they advised that we transcend the ego and the pursuit of knowledge is one means of doing this. As Crawford puts its:  “… each honest step forward brings me to closer union with a reality so much grander than my own petty existence. It is worth struggling for.” Or, as Bertrand Russell put it:

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Review of Michael Moore’s: Where To Invade Next

Last night I watched, Where to Invade Next, a 2015 American documentary film written and directed by Michael Moore.[3][4] The film can be watched free with an amazon prime account, or rented for a few dollars here: Where to Invade Next; or purchased for a few more dollars here: Where To Invade Next.

The film received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 78% of 169 reviews are positive, with an average rating of 6.7/10. The site’s consensus states: “Where to Invade Next finds documentarian Michael Moore approaching progressive politics with renewed — albeit unabashedly one-sided — vigor”.[15] On Metacritic, the film holds a 63/100 rating, based on 33 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.[16]

I think it is Moore’s best film, managing to be solemn and humorous at the same time. My reaction was more somber. For me the film reveals, without explicitly saying it, how the toxic masculinity of American society, especially our propensity for violence and domination, leaves us bereft of community, compassion, and respect for human dignity. Social harmony and caring, juxtaposed with social dysfunction and aggressive competition, make the USA look horrific by comparison. Our cruelty and brutality are on full display and, compared with more civilized countries, American social policies are revealed for what they are—sheer madness.

In the film Moore visits (invades) various countries and claims some of their most successful ideas for the US. The idea is that rather than invade to destroy, we invade to learn how we could have a better and more just society.

Here are the countries he visits, and topics he considers, in order of appearance:

No one could watch the film objectively, assuming they realized that everything Moore is saying is true, and restate that stale line “America is the greatest country.” In fact, one should draw nearly the opposite conclusion. I highly recommend the film.