Category Archives: Politics – 2016Election

How to Cope with Today’s Presidential Inauguration

(This post is dedicated with love to a dedicated reader)

The American Political World Is Bad And Getting Worse 

At the request of a reader depressed by today’s American presidential inauguration, I’m quickly writing this post.  My own views—in more complete form—about the tragedy and danger of electing someone so manifestly unqualified, so psychologically, morally and intellectually unfit, (“An amygdala with a twitter account,” as my son puts it,) have been expressed over and over in previous posts. (For more scroll down on “politics” at the right, top corner of the page.)

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 nuclear codes; Perry in charge of nuclear energy; Tillerson and Exxon in charge of diplomacy; Sessions in charge of the law; Devos in charge of education, Price in charge of health and human services—it would be hard for a dystopian novel to invent all this. 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.

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

Is Trump A Legitimate President?

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

In his blog Erasmatazz, Chris Crawford recently published: “The Crisis of Legitimacy.” His main thesis is that the legitimacy of Trump’s forthcoming presidency is debatable. First of all, Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than Trump  so it is “reasonable to conclude that Trump won on a legal technicality …” In addition, the legitimacy of the election itself  is questionable, as it was affected by Trump’s mendacity, fake news stories, FBI intervention, Russian influence, voter suppression targeting minority voters, flawed vote counting, and more. As Crawford puts it, the election hardly looks“free and fair”.

Moreover, the legitimacy of this election is being further undermined by the Republicans rejection of compromise.

Their attitude is that they have the majority, so they can cram anything they want down the throats of the Democrats. Sure, they have the legal right to do so — but in so doing, they infuriate so many Americans that they only insure that, when the pendulum swings the other way, it will swing even further to the left. The American political pendulum used to swing a little to the left or a little to the right, but now it is swinging wildly to the right — which will only insure that, the next time the pendulum swings, it will swing wildly to the left. That pendulum will tear this country apart.

And there is more. The Trump cabinet is easily “the most radical Administration in American history.” They are mostly military or billionaires, most have huge conflicts of interest, and all are extraordinarily inexperienced. Add to this Trump’s failure “to divest himself of his assets,” and you have a situation in which he will try to use his newfound power to enrich himself, as we have seen by his urging “foreign diplomats to stay at his hotel .” Crawford concludes that such improprieties will slowly undermine his legitimacy and don’t bode well for the future of our republic.

The consequence of that will be that the loss of legitimacy will be transferred from the President to the US government. Why should the blue states submit to a President they opposed? Why should they tolerate the transfer of so much of their tax money to red states? Why should they submit to policies on abortion, gun rights, foreign policy, public spending, and the environment that they find outrageous?

The election of Mr. Trump is the first step in the unravelling of the American republic. The chasm between red and blue is unbridgeable. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

I must say that I completely agree with Mr. Crawford’s analysis. When the will of the people is thwarted in fundamental ways—gerrymandering congressional districts is a fundamental example—the people will slowly lose faith in their government, as has been happening for a number of years. This is not to say that lying, vote stealing, voter suppression, and more haven’t always been a part of America’s flawed democracy, but that corruption has been escalating in the last few decades.

I’d also say our current situation has a lot to do with the increase of the Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth distribution.  What that measures show is that income inequality has steadily increased in America over the last 40 years. But the most complete analysis I’ve seen of the multiple problems in American politics come from two books by the conservative constitutional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein:

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, and

 The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track

In addition, Jonathan Rauch’s short piece in the Atlantic, “How American Politics Went Insane,” is the best short analysis of the fundamental problems with American politics today that I have found.

Michael Brenner’s: “America, The Disgraced Super-power”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 1, 2017.)

Another great piece that conveys the severity of our situation is “America, The Disgraced Super-power: The America we have known and imagined is ended. It never will return,” The Huffington Post, November 16, 2016, by Michael Brenner, Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh. Brenner’s thesis is that, although America has always been a seriously flawed nation, the USA has taken a cataclysmic turn, and it is slowly becoming a failed state. Here are a few excerpts:

If truth be told, the America we have known and imagined is ended. It never will return. In terms of relations with others, image is of enormous importance. The United States has gained great advantage from being seen as exceptional. From its earliest days, it fascinated and gave inspiration as the first working democracy, as the embodiment of the hope-filled New World, as the land of the common man and common decency. Later, as it grew into a world power, it held the allure for many as being somehow beyond the world’s pervasive tawdriness. These images held even as contradicted by slavery and racism, by imperial wars of expansion against Mexico and Spain, by signs of hypocrisy …

The resulting “soft power” or “soft influence” has been a unique asset. Already dissipated to a high degree over the decades of the Global War On Terror, it now is destined to fade into a shadow of its former self. A blatantly racist, xenophobic, studiously ignorant, and belligerent country cannot retain the respect of other governments or the high regard of their peoples. A country so feckless as to choose Trump the buffoon as its president is mocking itself. The negative impact will be compounded as the United States is riven by internal conflicts of all kinds, repressive actions and perhaps another serious economic crisis.

The damage to America’s standing in the world should hardly be a surprise; yet many are inclined to underestimate the effect. Walk the streets of cities abroad for unscripted reactions to this historic act of national self-mutilation. We can expect that whoever winds up in senior policy positions in a Trump administration will downplay these intangibles—if they even acknowledge them …

… It is a manifestation of an unwitting coping strategy for coming to terms with the shattering event of his election. Americans in general are pursuing a similar psychological strategy for the sake of preserving the conception of themselves and their country that is a foundation stone of their identity. In this, they will be encouraged by the tradition of self-delusion that has become a feature of American thinking about its place in the world ….

These self-delusional practices have prepared the psychological ground for the grand illusion to come in, assuming that the America of Trump will continue to draw the world’s admiration and its deference to American leadership …

… For the choice of Trump reveals most Americans as immature and prone to juvenile behavior. To vote for Trump is the ultimate act of political immaturity. There are … identifiable reasons why many were drawn to the flamboyant candidate, why his demagoguery resonated, why his exaggerated imagery struck a receptive nerve. However, for that emotional response to translate into the actual selection of this man to be president crosses a critical threshold. Children—at times—let emotion rule their conduct. Children only weakly feel the imperative to impose logic and a modicum reason on their impulses. Children disregard consequences. Children overlook the downside in their implicit weighing of the balance in giving in to those impulses or not. Grown-ups do not.

Immediate satisfaction—at all and any cost—does not eclipse other considerations for adults. Even a child’s tantrum usually lasts no more than ten minutes or so. The tantrum of Trump voters has lasted 18 months. That’s pathological …

The shock waves of that vote are being felt around the globe. A crippled America will change the world.

Prospect Theory & The Election

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. ~ H.L. Mencken

As a follow-up to my recent post, “Education and the Election,” another thing that struck me about the voting was how prospect theory in behavioral economics explains why many gambled on Trump.

Prospect theory helps explain why voters reject safe options—say remain in the EU or elect a well-qualified Democrat candidate—in favor of riskier ones. Here’s the idea. If I offer you a choice between giving you a $50 bill, or flipping a coin and giving you either $100 or nothing, most people take the $50. They accept the sure thing. But when people are already down $50, and they have a choice of either doubling down to get even or lose $100, most will accept the risk. When people are losing, or believe they are, they are less risk averse.

Now it’s pretty straightforward how this applies to a choice like Clinton-Trump or Brexit-NoBrexit. In fact, the behavioral economists Quattrone and Tversky showed how prospect theory rather than rational choice theory generally explains voting. Again, if people believe they are doing poorly, and/or that others are doing better than they are, then they favor riskier candidates. As explained by Christophe Heintz:

Many of the explanations for the Brexit and Trump votes … emphasized how frustrated citizens were with their economic situation, and the effect of fear mongering discourses and appeal to lost grandeur … The political discourses of the Trump and Brexit advocates have framed the stakes in terms of losses rather than gains. The slogans “Make America great again” and “Take back control” clearly refer to the lost grandeur of the past. This sets the reference point as a lost state that was much better than the current one. Also, fear mongering is by definition talking about the frightening (negative) state in which we find ourselves. All this motivates citizens to favor risky options: the gains, even if they are unlikely, are so strongly desired that they induce discounting the very likely losses.

This is the political equivalent of going “all-in” in poker. And, as a former professional poker player, I can assure you this is a dangerous move. Especially when the outcome of putting nuclear codes in the hands of unstable, narcissitic minds is much, much worse than losing all your chips in a poker game. Millions, if not billions of people will die if crazed, fascist leaders with nuclear weapons at their disposal make the wrong move.

And by the way, it is INSANE that there are thousands of nuclear warheads on hair trigger alert in the hands of anyone, even relatively sane people. Pleistocene brains aren’t to be trusted with such power. Oh, how I hope that we use technology to enhance ourselves.

More Devastation About Trump

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

My recent post, “Devastated By The American Presidential Election,” evoked the expression of similar sentiments from friends and readers. Some particularly insightful comments on the topic were shared by my friend Chris Crawford. Chris, who runs the website Erasmatazz, is a highly successful computer game designer, polymath, seer, and overall smart guy—he has a master’s degree in physics and that’s a hard one to earn! I highly encourage you to visit his site for great material about computer game design and politics, and for moving personal blog posts. (The blog is named after Erasmus (1466 – 1536), the Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian. That any non-philosophy major would know of him is itself impressive.)

Here is his correspondence in full:

I too have been struggling with my reaction to the election. My wife’s reaction was the same as mine, with the volume turned way up. She is furious; she is terrified; her attitude is now “America can go to hell!”

So what exactly is it that is so devastating about this election? I see it terms of four factors. In order of increasing importance, they are:

First, the defeat of Ms. Clinton. We were so excited that, at long last, we’d have a woman President. And not just that: probably the best-prepared candidate in a long time. This woman has magnificent credentials for running the country. She would certainly have been one of our finest Presidents.

Second, the idiocy of some in the left for turning their backs on her because she wasn’t liberal enough. Couldn’t those idiots see that she was the only person standing between Mr. Trump and the White House? How could they be so STUPID?!?!

Third is the election of Mr. Trump. If Ms. Clinton had been beaten by, say, Marco Rubio, I would have been intensely disappointed, but I would not have been devastated. The American system could survive another George Bush II, perhaps with an acceptable loss in blood, treasure, and prestige. But Mr. Trump will be a catastrophically bad President. I don’t need to articulate his disastrous lack of knowledge, intelligence, or temperament — we all know that. His Presidency will cement the downward spiral of America, ending all hope of the country maintaining to its position as leader of the free world.

But the fourth, and truly devastating factor for me is what this election reveals about the American voter. I now realize that a controlling portion of the citizenry is racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-rational, intolerant, shamefully naive, gullible, bereft of ethical standards, nationalistic, and antagonistic towards the ideals that have constituted the very soul of the American experiment. The nation that even an globalist like me admired for its ideals has been thrown aside by a wave of ugly, vicious fascists. I recall in my youth reading a pundit who observed that when fascism came to America, it wouldn’t be with swastikas, Brownshirts, and goose-stepping soldiers; it would wrap itself in the flag, mother, and apple pie — which is precisely what has happened. Perhaps we have begun a downward spiral to fascism.

The good news is that I really don’t think we’ll end up with a fascist state. Yes, the people who voted for Trump want that, but remember, they are still a minority; more Americans voted for Ms. Clinton than for Mr. Trump. My expectation is that two personas of America are no longer compatible. The ignorant rubes who hate gays, Mexicans, Muslims, and intellectuals, and who think that a woman’s place is barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen will never go away, but the Americans who still believe in tolerance and justice for all remain a powerful force. The two sides are now too far apart to be able to find any middle ground for compromise. The conflict between them will only grow more intense with the years, until ultimately the hotheads on both sides start the violence, at which point a divorce between the two sides will be the only option. I hope that Americans find the decency to carry out that divorce with a minimum of violence, but I fear that the fascists among us will not readily give up their power over the economically more productive half of the nation. The dissolution of the USA is now inevitable. That is what terrifies me.

I thank the time Chris took to craft these thoughts. Again his is a voice worth listening to. A man with a nimble and analytical mind, unlike so many of the ignorant pundits who occupy the airwaves.