Category Archives: Politics – General

PBS Frontline “Trump’s Showdown”

Last night I watched the new PBS Frontline “Trump’s Showdown.” It was the sixth film in this anthology from Frontline” filmmaker Michael Kirk. Other films include Trump’s strategy for wresting power from the Republican establishment (“Divided States of America“) and muscling his way into the Oval Office (“Trump’s Takeover”), to what his surrogate represents (“Bannon’s War”) to our susceptibility to Russian influence (“Putin’s Revenge”), and more.

It is difficult to verbalize how well-researched and powerful the 2-hour documentary is. If watching this series were a prerequisite to voting in this country Trump couldn’t possibly have been elected. I doubt that any reasonably intelligent, impartial person could watch it and still be a Trump supporter. Unfortunately, there are many misinformed and/or bad people in the country. I encourage my readers to take a look.

In the meantime let’s hope for the success of the many forces allied against this attempted coup by Trump and his Republican sycophants. We should remember that civilization is a high achievement that is founded on the rule of law, as Aristotle noted long ago, and that it rests on very shaky foundations. It doesn’t take much for warlike words to turn in to warlike action. We tread a path that may lead to a dissolution of the social order. And if we ever get there we will regret our lack of self-control.

For a more in-depth discussion of the documentary see: “Decoding Trump’s “Showdown” strategy, from Roy Cohn to Michael Cohen” in Salon.

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(Note – The political situation in the USA is so depressing that I’m not going to write about it for a while. Over the next few weeks I’ll return to philosophical topics. )

Kavanaugh is Obviously Guilty of Sexual Assault

Tizian 094.jpgTarquin and Lucretia by Titian

I hesitate to comment on the current spectacle surrounding the nomination of Bret Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court since my words are unlikely to sway anyone’s mind. Still, let me state how a non-partisan juror or good critical thinker might consider the problem.

Point 1 – Your intuition about who is or isn’t lying is worthless. It has been well-demonstrated that humans are very bad at detecting lying. Instead, they simply superimpose what they want to believe or disbelieve onto whoever they are listening to. So don’t tell me someone seems credible or not. Your intuition here is worthless.

Point 2 – Dr. Ford has little incentive to lie and had a lot of incentive to remain quiet. Mr. Kavanaugh has every incentive to lie.

Point 3 – There is a lot of circumstantial evidence against Kavanaugh. People who knew him as a teenager say he was a frequent drunk; his friend and fellow alleged assaulter Mark Judge wrote a book Wasted: Tales of a Genx Drunk (which is now almost impossible to buy); there are other allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh; etc. (A Yale classmate has also accused him of being a drunk.)

Point 4 – Kavanaugh is a liar. He gave misleading testimony about his knowledge of stolen documents when he was in the Bush White House and about his involvement in judicial nominations. In addition, when asked about his yearbook claim to be a “Renate Alumnius,” he pretended that there was no sexual insinuation. This was almost certainly a lie. And he lied when he said that references in his yearbook were about a flatulence and drinking game when they are both sexual references. He also lied by saying that it was legal for him to drink as a high school senior. He was then 17 and in his state, the drinking age was 21. And he lied about having no connections to Yale when he was a legacy student.

(I would add that the legal principle “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” applies here. This Latin phrase means “false in one thing, false in everything.” In common law, it is the legal principle that a witness who testifies falsely about one matter is not credible to testify about any matter.)

Point 5 – False accusations of sexual assault and/or rape are the exception, not the rule. This is well-established in the scientific literature. The bottom line is that false allegations are probably somewhere between 2% and 10%. For more see:

a) Wikipedia  – False accusations of rape
b) National Sexual Violence Resource Center – False Reporting
c) Stanford University – Myths About False Accusations

Based on this fact alone Kavanaugh is very likely guilty.

Conclusion

If I were a betting man I’d say the chances he assaulted Dr. Ford are about 100 to 1. It’s possible he’s innocent but very unlikely. This may or may not disqualify him from a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, but the fact that he is probably a liar should.

Finally, Kavanaugh wants our sympathy for bad deeds committed as a teenager—which he may deserve—but you can bet he won’t show any mercy to non-white teenagers who plead before him in his court. At them, he will throw the full weight of the law.

Poor Kavanaugh. If denied this seat he will likely go back to sitting on the nation’s highest appeals court or accept a multimillion-dollar salary as a partner in a law firm. Like most entitled rich, white frat boys the law doesn’t apply to him—he only wants to apply it to the rest of us.

Finally, for a persuasive case against Kavanaugh by a conservative, see Jennifer Rubin’s great piece in today’s Washington Post “If we want to protect the Supreme Court’s legitimacy, Kavanaugh should not be on it.”

For more see also:

Kavanaugh is Lying: His Upbringing Explains Why
Here’s Where Kavanaugh’s Sworn Testimony Was Misleading or Wrong
At times Kavanaugh’s Defense Misleads or Veers Off Point

Review of Richard J. Bernstein’s, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now


© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission) http://darrellarnold.com/2018/07/08/why-read-hannah-arendt-now/

Freedom—as Hannah Arendt understands it—is only possible in a participatory political life. Such a form of life, which cultivates individuality and spontaneity, can be contrasted with totalitarianism, which ultimately aims at the total domination of the individual. Our responsibility is to ensure our own freedom—that is, to ensure collective, participatory forms of political life under which such freedom is possible.

Richard J. Bernstein explores these and other of Arendt’s ideas with clarity and brevity in Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? His focus is on central themes in her work that are relevant to issues we are facing today (8). Though he mentions international issues of importance, with the exception of the question of Israel, his contemporary focus is on life in America under the Trump administration. The topics he covers in Arendt include her views on refugees, states and statelessness, Israeli politics, race, the banality of evil, truth and lying in politics, the American revolution, and personal and political responsibility.

Arendt’s view of politics is normative. When she describes politics, as well as key concepts like “power” and “freedom” she does not merely describe the way politics is understood to work in the real world or offer views of “power” or “freedom” that are generally accepted. She makes distinctions necessary to understand a political realm that we might strive for, freedom that we might hope to achieve and power the way it would be justly wielded. Her discussions of these issues—the premise of Bernstein’s book—are worth serious consideration in our present context, as they provide intellectual tools for countering tendencies toward authoritarianism that we can see emerging in various places throughout the world.

While humans have free-will, [according to Arendt] Arendt does not identify this with freedom. Human freedom, which she characterizes as “public freedom,” is a social and political achievement. It requires the development of human freedom of thought and individuality. An expression of human free will is the ability to form one’s own judgments and develop one’s own opinions and perspectives.

It is the making up one’s own minds in the public sphere that characterizes public freedom that she thinks we are to strive for. Arendt’s focus in her discussion of the public sphere is on how perspectives are formed under conditions of dialogue and exchange. While this was part of life in the ancient Athenian polis, it was also an emphasis and achievement of the eighteenth-century philosophes, who exchanged views in salons. It is in the give and take with others that individuals achieve better judgment. Judgment, she emphasizes in a text that sounds more than a bit like Habermas’ later thought, “rests on potential agreement with others…and the thinking process…finds itself always and primarily, even when I am quite alone in making up my mind, in an anticipated communication with others with whom I know I must finally come to agreement.” (101-02).

Arendt’s writing on the American revolution drives home her view of the importance of the public sphere. The American, as opposed to the French, Revolution delivered not just on “liberty” (as Arendt defines this, the ending of their own domination by a political authority). The American Revolution also delivered on “freedom”—and for Arendt this entails “constitution-making.” The context of the American revolution, where the colonies had already been much involved in the daily tasks of self-government created conditions for a successful revolution: “the fight for independence … was the condition for freedom, and the constitution of the new states” (qtd. 106).

But the independence was not enough to guarantee freedom. In the constitution, the Founding Fathers, set up conditions for continued self-government that makes freedom possible. Among the important conditions for this were, of course, the balance of powers, states rights, and limited government. But also key was the creation of public spaces for public discussion, for opinion formation (107). Jefferson, she highlights, had even set up local wards or “elementary republics” for self-government. His fear was that without them, in Bernstein’s words, “public freedom would wither away” (109).

In various of Arendt’s work, she emphasizes the importance of such local wards—in contexts as varying as the American Revolution and modern political uprisings. In writing on the Budapest uprising of 1956, she noted their emergence, even in a short period: “The neighborhood councils emerged from sheer living together and grew into country and other territorial councils, evolutionary councils grew out of fighting together; councils of writers and artists, one is tempted to thinker, were born in cafes, students’ and youths’ councils at the university, military councils in the army, councils of civil servants in ministries, workers’ councils in factories, and so on. The formation of a council in each disparate group turned a merely haphazard togetherness into a political institution” (qtd. 113-4).

In Arendt’s view such community building impulses, while again and again being forgotten, can re-emerge. They provide one of the best hopes against the totalitarian temptations, which also remain present in modern societies. In Bernstein’s words: “Arendt expresses what was always fundamental to her and should be fundamental for us—the desire of people to have their voices heard in public, to become genuine participants in shaping their political life” (115).

One of Arendt’s most famous works, The Origins of Totalitarianism, offers a penetrating analysis of the emergence of political forms that run antithetical to the participatory forms that Arendt thinks provide our opportunity for realizing human freedom. Totalitarian regimes move to destroy freedom and institute “total domination.”  “The logic of total domination” characteristic of such totalitarian regimes involves three steps.

First, totalitarians eliminate judicial protections of the person, stripping people of their legal rights. Second, they move to impinge even on moral acts of conscience. This can happen, for example, when individuals are forced to choose between various morally objectionable choices. As Arendt noted “When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or sending his wife and children…to their death…The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder” (qtd. 30). Third, they move toward the destruction of individuality. In Arendt’s words “For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and events” (31). Arendt views the final aim of such totalitarian regimes as the transformation of human being into “living corpses” (31). Individual no longer express their own lives and make decisions for themselves. They are totally dominated.

In Arendt’s discussion of totalitarianism and in other work, she also makes important points about refugees and the denial even of “the right to have rights.”  Arendt is perhaps most famous for her comments on the banality of evil in her evaluation of the Eichmann case. Her main point, whatever one’s assessment of how appropriate her analysis was for Eichmann himself, is that the great evils of the Third Reich, monstrous as they were, did not generally occur because the people carrying out these deeds were monstrous. Though we may want to think of evil in mythological terms, Arendt suggests that we rethink this. As she noted in a later assessment of the Eichmann trial: “However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think” (qtd. 63). The evil of totalitarianism in the Third Reich occurred as people moved on with their normal everyday lives, following orders and climbing career ladders with a lack of much concern for those around them.

Some of Arendt’s deepest insights concern truth, lying, manipulation and self-deception in totalitarian regimes. Though there may be new elements to our “post-truth” culture, totalitarian regimes had long ago mastered propaganda that played on a willingness of people to suspend disbelief. In Between Past and Future Arendt had noted: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and truth defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearing in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed” (qtd. 75).

In other work, she notes similarly important points about the erosion of truth in totalitarian societies: “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part” (qtd. 77). In Bernstein’s prescient discussion of her views: “People who feel that they have been neglected and forgotten yearn for a narrative that will make sense of the anxiety and the misery they are experiencing — one that promises redemption from their troubles. In such a situation, an authoritarian leader can exploit the anxieties that people are experiencing and successfully blur the distinction between lies and reality. Argument and appeal to facts are not really important for such propaganda. An appealing fictional story can be foolproof against factual truth, reality, or argument.” (77)

The use of appealing fiction for purposes of manipulation occurs in what Arendt calls “image making.” In image making, facts are dismissed that do not line up with the cultivated image of a political movement. As Bernstein notes, “the image becomes a substitute for reality” (77). Clearly, those with despotic tendencies can play on that, encouraging individuals to dismiss as “fake news” or as a conspiracy from elites anything that conflicts with a cultivated political image. Arendt’s words on this are still pertinent. “Contemporary history,” she notes, “is full of instance in which tellers of factual truth were felt to be more dangerous, and even more hostile than the real opponents” (qtd. 79). On the same topic, she notes “Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing than reason, than reality, because the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear” (qtd. 80).

Such incredibly insightful observations on truth and lies in politics are just some of the many ideas of relevance to us today that Bernstein highlights. Bernstein succinctly presents Arendt’s views on these varying issues. And he makes appropriate bridges to present policies and dynamics in U.S. and international relations. If the book has a flaw it is that the various ideas are not presented systemically. Some might also regret what the book doesn’t do. It doesn’t speak of Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger, for example. But none of that is precisely the point of this publication. In the main, the book does very well what it sets out to do, which is to describe why we should read Hannah Arendt now.

We will benefit indeed from taking earnestly Arendt’s warning that “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up wherever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social and economic misery in a manner worth of man.” (qtd. 34).

Faced with a world in which such temptations are attractive to many, our best antidote may be to cultivate the forms of participatory democratic form that Arendt argues can allow the development of greater human freedom. Arendt—skeptical as she was of narratives of inevitable progress or inevitable decline—would emphasize that our freedom is key, as is our understanding of responsibility.

Ignoring Politics

The political situation in the US is so depressing I often have to focus on something else. Were I to absorb all the dishonesty, hypocrisy, ignorance and cruelty that permeates the current administration and the Republican party … I would be consumed in misery. Were I to swallow all the psychic waste they flush into the world whenever they speak and act, my being would be contaminated. And that helps no one.

So I shop for groceries, exercise and enjoy my family. I’m more of a spectator than a participant in politics. I do what I can; I try to inform people on my blog. But an individual’s efforts are minuscule in the big scheme of things.

And I really don’t see the political situation ending well—the civil war will increase and may lead to substantial violence. The fascism I warned of is here. (Still, by many measures, the world is better than ever: see for example Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, and The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).

But there are so many existential risks that past progress may not be predictive of the future. I’m not sure we’ll survive the Anthropocene. I’m not sure we’ll survive Trump. Hopefully, I’m wrong.

And now I’m going for a walk during which I’ll meditate on Descartes 3rd maxim:

My third maxim was to endeavor 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 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 favors heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

From Rene Descartes The Discourse of Method, Chapter 3

Summary of “It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics”


Political science professor David Faris has just published a new book: It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. The author begins by noting the many problems plaguing American politics today: we live in an era in which a tiny majority of folks in sparsely populated states have a wildly disproportionate impact on policy, when supreme court seats are stolen, when voting is suppressed, when a constitution built for the 18th century is considered sacred for the 21st, etc. It is an ugly time and Democrats must remain united until they can regain power. Then they must fight dirty as the Republicans have been doing for the last twenty years to avoid a total takeover of society by the plutocrats.

Here are a few of the perfectly legal steps that Faris suggests Democrats could take if they win Congress and the Presidency in 2020. They would require only that Congress pass laws and wouldn’t need any constitutional amendments.

  • Abolish the filibuster so any bill can pass the Senate with 50 votes and the veep
  • Make D.C. a state, which would add two black Democratic senators to the Senate
  • Make Puerto Rico a state, which would add two Latino Democrats to the Senate
  • Break California into multiple states to add yet more Democrats to the Senate
  • Expand the Supreme Court to 11 (or more) justices, and have the president appoint 40-year-olds

They could then reform voting rights by:

  • requiring a 2-week period of early voting from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day
  • making make pre-registration of 17-year-olds legal nationwide
  • forbidding states from passing voter-ID laws or imposing other non-Constitutional voting requirements
  • making it a federal crime to intimidate voters
  • making Election Day a national holiday for federal employees (and others)
  • fighting gerrymandering by doubling the size of the House (and having multimember districts with proportional representation.)

While there is much to be said about this great new book let me bring my own background in game theory to the issue. For our purposes, we need only a brief understanding of the prisoner’s dilemma. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do. (I’ve explained this in detail below.)

What this means in layperson’s terms is that if your opponent plays dirty and you play nice you get steamrolled, you become a sucker. In this case, you have no choice but to fight fire with fire or you will be dominated. Ideally, you would all cooperate with each other. (You allow each other a Supreme Court seat when the President is of your party; you don’t threaten the world economy by not raising the debt ceiling, you don’t abuse the filibuster, etc.) But if the other side violates the norms of governing you either fight back or you will be dominated.

Of course the bad thing about all this is that it will lead to retailation from your opponents. You will then be in a state of war with each other and everyone will do worse, unless one side wins and dominates the other. This is how I see it all unfolding.

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Addendum – I did graduate work and published multiple peer-reviewed articles on game theory. Here is a more detailed summary of game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma.

 Game Theory

For our purposes, a game is an interactive situation in which individuals, called players, choose strategies to deal with each other in attempting to maximize their individual utility. There are several ways of distinguishing games including: 1) in respect to the number of players involved; 2) in respect to the number of repetitions of play; 3) in respect of the order of the various player’s preferences over the same outcomes. On the one extreme are games of pure conflict, so-called zero-sum games, in which players have completely opposing interests over possible outcomes. On the other extreme are games of pure harmony, so-called games of coordination. In the middle are games involving both conflict and harmony in respect of others. It is one particular game that interests us most, since it describes the situation in Hobbes’ state of nature, and is the central problem in contractarian moral theory.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the most widely debated situations in game theory. The story has implications for a variety of human interactive situations. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do.

In the classic story, two prisoners have committed a serious crime but all of the evidence necessary to convict them is not admissible in court. Both prisoners are held separately and are unable to communicate. The prisoners are called separately by the authorities and each offered the same proposition. Confess and if your partner does not, you will be convicted of a lesser crime and serve one year in jail while the unrepentant prisoner will be convicted of a more serious crime and serve ten years. If you do not confess and your partner does, then it is you who will be convicted of the more serious crime and your partner of the lesser crime. Should neither of you confess the penalty will be two years for each of you, but should both of you confess the penalty will be five years. In the following matrix, you are the row chooser and your partner the column chooser. The first number in each parenthesis represents the “payoff” for you in years in prison, the second number your partner’s years. Let us assume each player prefers the least number of years in prison possible. In matrix form, the situation looks like this:

                                                                                                                                Prisoner 2

    Confess  Don’t Confess
 Prisoner 1 Confess (5, 5) (1, 10)
Don’t Confess (10, 1) (2, 2)

So you reason as follows: If your partner confesses, you had better confess because if you don’t you will get 10 years rather than 5. If your partner doesn’t confess, again you should confess because you will only get 1 year rather than 2 for not confessing. So no matter what your partner does, you ought to confess. The reasoning is the same for your partner. The problem is that when both confess the outcome is worse for both than if neither confessed. You both could have done better, and neither of you worse, if you had not confessed! You might have made an agreement not to confess but this would not solve the problem. The reason is this: although agreeing not to confess is rational, compliance is surely not rational!

The prisoner’s dilemma describes the situation that humans found themselves in in Hobbes’ state of nature. If the prisoners cooperate, they both do better; if they do not cooperate, they both do worse. But both have a good reason not to cooperate; they are not sure the other will! We can only escape this dilemma, Hobbes maintained, by installing a coercive power that makes us comply with our agreements (contracts). Others, like the contemporary philosopher David Gauthier, argue for the rationality of voluntary non-coerced cooperation and compliance with agreements given the costs to each of us of enforcement agencies. Gauthier advocates that we accept “morals by agreement.”