Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Biden VP, How to Choose

Governance not politics is the key. Sure, Joe is old even too old but if you surround yourself with the right people then you stave off the exhaustion that let's you deal with the ordinary pressures. Delegation and competence are the keys to this kind of leadership. He's gonna need help. So far, so good.

Since he has already decided that a woman will be the Vice-President that hardly delimits choice. The list of people with extensive experience in governance and executive decision-making will make the choice that much more difficult---there are so many who could or should be President tomorrow. This shifts the matter from who to choose----an impossible task for the good fortune that comes with having these choices---to _how_ to choose.

Putting on my political pundit topee I think there are two strategies.

The first would be more traditionalist insofar as it is a calculation that weighs votes. Do you choose the person who might help you carry a State? Has this in fact happened since, say, LBJ? A region? So a midwesterner? To keep the Senate and not turn it over by "risking" a Blue Senator? This would be the only political calculation I would recommend. Biden is going to need every single vote he can get if McConnell retains his seat and Joe needs 60 votes.

But the wiser strategy is to invite someone who not only has all the requisite gifts and experiences but one who will push back, one willing to be an alternative, a contrarian. If you are looking for someone who will think _with_ you and be _for_ you then you need someone who has the courage, the emotional maturity, and the intellectual audacity to come at you. You need someone who understands how to make an argument and reach into worlds of ideas and experiences that are _not yours_.

Everything about Trump is a nightmare but one of the worst features of his malignant narcissism is that he has no capacity to feel for others, sympathy, or to attempt to feel as others, empathy. Empathy is the most complex experience we can imagine because it is the unreachable state.

We really never have another's experience; that is not possible. But we must try, we must imagine, we must do all we can to rally the resources of feeling and thought to attempt to feel as another. This is audacious and it is humbling. It requires that paradox: to say "I feel you" _and_ to admit "I cannot say I know how that feels." Both are imperatives of empathy.

This paradox is another reason Biden needs someone capable of pushing back, questioning, cajoling, and maneuvering to see other points of view. I think if this is the focus then Joe will choose Kamala Harris. She was the one who forcefully declared first her emotional hurt and her disagreements with Biden over the past. Senator Warren offers many of the same markers.

So this pundit says it will be one of these great women and I would bet on Senator Harris. She has all he needs to make sure governance, competence, compassion, and seriousness are once again American ideals.

The Simple Fox Formula

None of Trump or Republican disinformation can happen without their propaganda machine. Fox plays their dupes like a violin. While the company is telling their employees to shelter in place as far as possible and follow reasonable instructions for personal health, they have rolled the virus into their most familiar narrative.

Let Jeanine Pirro make it clear for you. She said this on Hannity: "They want to keep us away from churches and synagogues. They want to make sure we don't go back to work. They don't get it. The American spirit is too strong, and Americans are not gonna take it."

Watch Fox News just for one day, well, 20 minutes and you'll get the brand that makes for Trump and the "appeal" of the Republican Party. It has three pillars: government is the enemy, education is an elitist conspiracy of falsehoods that undermines faith and the "real" truth, and the media are liberals out to take away "your" life---except Fox and your familiar "conservative" friends. The paranoia, racism, anti-science anti-intellectualism, the fear and anger, blame and identity is baked in to every story.

You are the "they" of Pirro's comment but what black and brown people and other minorities know is that they are the particular object of this otherness. The racism is now utterly shameless with the dogwhistles made the clarion clear.

Why does Fox do this? That is, urge their employees to reduce their exposure to the virus while they tout the current Liberate protests and all the rest of their sham? For money. Fox's audience is enormous because that particular segment of America watches little else. They get rich because the 36% or so think this is the news. Culture war profits. It's as much the money as it is the frightening ideology that propels this dangerous madness.

So too Covid-19 is another media biased conspiracy to take away your freedoms, driven by a pin-head intellectual class that despises you, all of it meant to change "your" way of life and give it to "them." The usual doses of misinformation, fear, anger, and bigotry provide the cocktail now mixed as the Covid tale. There's big money to be made with this captive audience. And as we know, Republicans would rather make money on this disease and, well, anything, than they care about decency, truth, or your health.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

That's the Way They Do It, The Price of an Opinion

"Some people say..." "Many people are saying..." This is how they do it, Trump and Fox. It's a simple formula: reduce all to opinion and then to controversy and then to an us versus them. Voila. You can then sell anything, including reversal, contradiction, or conspiracy. It really matters not what. Just follow the formula.

The stupid that follows is not only inevitable, it is incorrigible because they cannot be turned from whatever the next opinion of theirs might be. To maintain that there are facts in the form of a contrary opinion makes you a traitor. To withhold an opinion or state that the facts are ambivalent---as is often the case in real science---is to be a fool, in their opinion. Thus, there can be no serious thinking or honest conversation because the facts might get in the way of a preference or an opinion.

How many times does a conversation you have end with, "That's my opinion." And if facts are involved, especially unpleasant facts, how many times is it, "I just don't want to talk about it." Or---how about this one---"Can we just get a good work out, why do you have to talk about philosophy or deal with _that_?" The powers of bypass cut deeply because life presents all sorts of discomfort we'd rather not face. Why learn when we can just be entertained?

"That's my opinion" or "some people say:" is not only a way of stopping the conversation; it's a way of reducing all evidence to personal meanings. This fails any standard of think critically. Just how it connects to the follies of solipsism and neurosis are another matter. But it's a pretty simple formula: take the best we do know, reduce it to "mere" opinion and then everyone and no one can be "right."

We can walk away from this kind of folly, tell ourselves we won't participate, but Trump and Fox prove such a strategy of manipulation is, in truth, deadly. If we walk away more people get sick and die. Jig's up.

We have to remember that most Americans can't comprehend much more than opinion. That means their own. They were never taught to think and prefer to be told what to think. Religion does this in a particularly effective way. But it's not merely the (mis)information that corrupts, it's the strategy itself. Make everything into a sellable controversy and watch the dupes duke it out because facts, some stalwart, others more fragile, just don't matter.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Religion Again Makes Things Worse, Any Chance We Might Learn from That?

This weekend I can guarantee you that thousands of Americans will go to church on Sunday. That they will defy government mandates and pay the consequences. It's unlikely that they will pay any legal consequences because they are "free" to be religious and government will not prosecute them, I promise you. What will happen is that they will get sick, make others sick, and make matters worse.

Religious "thinking" doesn't have to make things worse if by that "thinking" we mean our human capacities to use symbol and metaphor to instigate a deeper investigation of culture and conscience. Religion having once been the only game in town in most towns creates art and ritual, invests in social and personal identity formation, and otherwise allows us to create investments in coping, in joy, in grief, and meaning. This happens often at the expense of fact but it need not if by religious "thinking" we keep a steady hand on reminding ourselves that we are humans merely inventing ourselves.

As an explanation of the natural world, religions are always wrong. Religions best metaphors aren't in truth talking about the natural world even when they think they are. They are again talking about how humans experience their experiences---again as query, as questions about how we formulate thinking and feeling.

Science succeeds here where religions fails because it begins with the claim that we can create shared methodologies that allow us to experiment, learn, admit and correct mistakes, and so establish provisional truth. If "establishing" "provisional truth" makes for some paradox, even contradiction, that's part of the deal. Truth is always incomplete, provisional, and limited because it is always conjured by humans for human purposes. Science is less capable of meaning because the facts as we understand them don't have any meaning but the next empirical outcome.

To revert to mystery to explain anything is merely to admit that there are matters too complex for our methodologies, that our limitations are real, that our understandings are incomplete. To attribute purpose or agency to such mystery is to revert, once again, to some of the most invidious bypass that religions use to "explain" the world. Humans may be desperate for explanations and need meaning but how we provide it makes all the difference. When we resort to the supernatural we dehumanize the value of meaning. Religions can be humanizing when meaning becomes a resource for living in more humane ways.

Sometimes the meaning lies in the fact that we don't know, even that we can't know. Sometimes the best meaning is that there is no reason, no purpose, no goal, no why---things can happen in a world that self-organizes information because we are forms made of the same complex information. The evolution from simple to complex can be denied but it won't care because there isn't any reason to think it ever has. Darwin made that observation despite the consequences religion would have on his life and his theory. His is, by the way, the only human theory that explains seriously how we became human. It does not explain how to live humanely. For that we need art and symbol, love and grief interpreted. We don't know why we are here but we can appreciate that being alive invites us to understand how we might want to live.

In this time of world-changing disease I have little hope that our paradigms or investments in human collectivity will change somehow for the better. The temptations of the usual kinds of religious thinking run too deeply. Humans want things to be easy, meaningful, and explainable without all that much effort. We want someone or something, like God, to know. But these religious beliefs and practices will once again largely make matters worse.

Until we decide that religion's proper purview is to decide for an honest appreciation of our wholly human nature the path of folly leads it forward. If religious "thinking" invites us to more compassion and candor about what we can and cannot do and know, if it leads us more honestly into the power of metaphor to feel and think more humanely, we will gather its better angels to our tasks.

These comments were prompted by reading a thoughtful piece from Michael Gerson, a Never Trumper, who regards himself to be both "conservative" and an "evangelical Christian." That piece in the Washington Post is cited in the first comment below. Gerson is not wrong: conservatives are at the heart of the problem of addressing this pandemic because they deny expertise and facts. But he misses the heart of the matter. "Conservatives" don't want a humanism where facts actually matter more than their ideologies because underneath their packages of respectability are religious delusions.

"Faith" just won't allow our souls to be simply human---that is human with all of the meaninglessness that invites us to remember that meaning is only another kind of important human invention. Meaning isn't there to be had, it doesn't exist but for the ways we conjure it to tell us the stories that suggest we can flourish, we can live lives from within our boundaries and limitations. Human achievements are remarkable, worthy of our admirations. Human folly is likely unavoidable. But when it is perhaps it is the wiser achievement to do what we can to do better.

Here is the link to the Gerson piece that prompted these comments and below that my glib reply in the comments section of the Washington Post:

My reply:
Isn't God supposed to save you? Doesn't your God have some mysterious Plan that we should trust gives meaning and reason for this human suffering? You see, the core of this problem isn't just that conservatives can't wrap their heads around science. Much less the scientists who understand that empirical learning might be provisional but is, in fact, based on fact. It's that conservatives have deeper delusions that lead them to astonishing feats of folly, misinterpretation, and poor judgment. Let me help you out here with your own words, Gerson: "Sometimes the interpretation of a crisis is so dramatically mistaken, so ludicrous and imprudent, that it can worsen the crisis itself." Crisis: a putative Savior is crucified for sedition in conspiracy with his detractors. He might be innocent but wasn't the first guy to get on the wrong side of his local politics and get killed for it. Dramatically mistaken interpretation: you think it's God's mysterious plan to redeem humanity. He rose from the dead. Ludicrous. You think you should tell people this nonsense. Not only imprudent but worsening the crisis itself: the dupes you tell this nonsense to create a ridiculous religion that ends up informing 40% of America, elects a failed con man----no less a con man then any of your apostles----and science doesn't get off the ground for centuries. I appreciate your assessment, Mr Gerson. But like all Republicans and "evangelicals" it's impossible to deny that you are part of the problem and that your soulmates are the cause of more unnecessary death.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Judge Because You Must, When Facts Ask Us More of Us

I never quite imagined I would find myself citing George W. Bush in any pursuit of wisdom. His vacuous intellect and dangerous judgments seemed at the time to express fully America's own incapacities to choose wisely. But at least he could read and chose to delegate the bullying to Cheney. At least we could anticipate the failure of the guiding ideology and foresee the poor quality of judgements. Some of us really did know what would happen if we went along with such tragic failures.

When we elected Obama he encouraged our complaisance because the majority felt safe with his abilities to judge, even when we deeply disagreed with policies. We could have at least sufficient confidence in his genuine Intelligence. The majority, that is. What the minority of Americans were thinking we need not discuss further at the moment. Bigotry is too banal and too All-American to warrant digression. Disease has its own politics since it invariably comes hardest to those most systemically oppressed.

The need for informed judgment has never been more evident no matter how choices look in retrospect. We are, of course, always making judgments because there is no way to choose without them. But it is possible to understand how poor judgments are made when facts demand only to be acknowledged rather than derived. If we need only acknowledge what is fact then foreseeable consequences invite further judgment about the quality of judgments made.

To say that we could have foreseen a pandemic is too much. To say that we could have done more to stave off the consequences of pandemic needs to be said again again. That we were bound to meet with real crisis during the Trump era requires no degree in history. Trump did not cause the disease but Trump and his supporters endanger us further.

In a comparison worth considering, we should have seen 9/11 coming because many did and raised the specter before that fateful day. I remember vividly saying to myself that the only thing worse will be the judgments made by our government, particularly Bush's government. Tragic stupidity notwithstanding, we did indeed see pandemic coming, raised alarms, and knew we'd elected a government in which all facts were going to be dismissed or ignored. We knew he wasn't up to it, not just that he would make calamitous errors of judgment. He is not capable of judgment.

W. said he was going to insure the 9/11 terrorists would end up in “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies,” beside “fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism.” Now we must again discard lies in favor of facts because without a factual baseline we will only become more sick and many more will die. But we must also not forget the consequences of judgments, those not even attempted and the eventual judgments so inept and dangerous we must consider further perils.

The very source of the next judgment is as much the danger as the disease.

Trump has lived a life of bluff and bullying, which we have to admit has served him well. People are as gullible as they are culpable for willing complicities and indulgences. Some will say they took a gamble, that they were bluffing too. Now we see how pathetic and fateful such a standard of judgment can be.

Assessing terrorists we can conjure motives and be wrong. We can reduce them to caricatures and feel better about ourselves. But the pandemic's facts refuse any bluff and cannot be bullied, which means that Trump simply has nothing left. He will only hold the next rally using the pretext of information. He will bluff again figuring it has always worked to his advantage. Will it?

When we bluff we mean to deceive for benefit---our own or another's. When we bully we mean to use coercion to induce change and invariably fail the future for perceived short term gain. When these are the criteria for choosing what comes next we forsake not only the facts but even the semblance of decency. This failure falls as much on his Fox Nation as it does on him.

We must endure the bluff and the bully for now because we have no other choice. Be assured that his sycophants and stooges, those who would profit on our pain and take advantage without any conscience, want there to be no other choice ahead. But this we must not permit.

We may not have gotten the alternative we might have preferred to thwart the imbecilic anarchy that is before us. But the greater danger is to fail to rise to the occasion in which judgment demands we consider again how judgments are made. The value of the bluff has at last shown its truest limitations. The depravity of the bully has never been clearer. The bluffing and the bullying cannot be allowed to continue. We will have one more chance to save ourselves from our own fakery and complacencies. What will we do with the facts?

Monday, March 23, 2020

What Will We the People Do? Understanding the Spring Break Pandemic Party

It's always problematic to take on a sweeping generalization and emerge with anything like facts or the truth. The scenes of Florida and California beaches, Mardi Gras, and other Spring Break revelry are pretty darn disturbing.

The pressure on politicians to keep business going has apparently outweighed public health concerns in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Profit before people is capitalism without conscience or care. We have had advisories or abdication, not government directives. And where too is individual responsibility?

We like to think that we all make personal and individual choices but this explanation also allows us to dismiss or abdicate. People are moved by leadership and by social directives, implicit or otherwise. We move not only as individuals but in groups and tribes and communities. We have survived and flourished because we are socialized and it's simply too reductive (and oh so American) to suggest that individual liberty and choice directs our actions.

To put this in the modern meme, "influencers" influence. And the most powerful influence is one's peers, that inchoate but real force that forms our proximate social identity. We feel that ethos, we share worldviews or, at the very least, we contend within that kind of group as we formulate our individuality. I think there are plenty of reasons why in the "OK Boomer" world wonder why college age students, those under 30 are acting so...let's put it plainly: recklessly. May I remind my fellow Boomers that we came to distrust our elders too, coming as we did on the heels or even from within the era of Vietnam and the civil rights movement. We pushed back too. We distrusted and estranged ourselves. Our parents thought us reckless too.

We did, however, have our generational leaders: JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm and McCarthy. All flawed but standing for something else and against the worst of it. In contrast, and let's be frank, Senator Sanders could not muster that youth, could not get them to the polls. That is plain for everyone to see. That Democrats are terrified that young people will not vote in November is a well-founded fear. Any equivalence with Trumpism I will simply reject outright. This emergency could not be more of an emergency. We are told that leaders are not providing what they want or offer a world in which they aspire to participate. Then we see them on the beaches and in the bars during a pandemic. The mistrust is mutual.

As loathe as I am to say this, nothing is going to change the behavior of the beach going Spring Break generation but rules enforced by grown ups. The problem is that leadership at the top, at the Federal level, has proven so desperately incompetent. We all knew Donald Trump was unfit and that the worst was yet to come. And what's really scary is that the worst has NOT yet come. Governors have stepped in, like Cuomo and Newsom but not all. Wait until Florida really starts getting sick. Does anyone think that isn't going to happen?

I write this morning because I need some perspective. We knew about war and political corruption but then let the planet burn for profit. We protested for peace and a Great Society and then let jobs and poverty and opportunity fail the majority. These kids (<---yeah, I just said that...) may not consider our failures because they, in truth, don't remember and were never taught those lessons. The things they don't know are legion. Trust me on that, I teach college. But what they have that is all their own is a toxic blend: their own certainties and a frightening kind of nihilism.

Some push back, like the Parkland kids. But they all see a burning planet, a gig economy that promises the majority less than their parents prosperities, debt, and, for most, politics as nothing but failure. They have reasons to take nihilism seriously. Their certainty may be a very different vaguery of youth but mix it into a cocktail of "well, I'm just going to do what I want because there's really no future anyway...", that is the danger we must consider.

We who protested war and poverty in the 60s and 70s may have sold out to profit and bourgeois prosperities but that may be because we imagined that there would be a future. I fear that what we are seeing in the Spring Break Pandemic Party is a generation that believes there is no future but to party, and party together. Who do they trust but each other? Not us. And that portends a very dangerous immediate future.

This virus won't care how old you are once enough people are sick. The misinformation train, especially from the right wing media, will only further divide as McConnell and his lot see another chance to line the pockets of their corporate donors. We're going to need leadership and sanity. They are in short supply but not completely absent. Let us hope more people, especially young people who are the future, are willing to listen to more than each other.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Semiotics of Identity & Working at Home

Most of you know I have a thing about pink scarves from India, heavy duty blue jeans from Japan, and rock'n'roll boots. I can get away with that now that I'm an old professor and they just laugh at me. I was joking with my University colleagues that now we are going to be teaching at home, we'll never have to get out of our pajamas. But lemme say, this is a terrible idea.

When we are in India we go as pilgrims and we dress the part. To the nines. This makes all the difference and the local people are deeply appreciative. Even as a college professor I come looking like, well, something of the same. It makes a difference because we don't dress merely because of the weather.

I'm not merely suggesting a fashion update. I am saying that locked up at home as we are all going to be, it will become important to nurture your identity. How you are on the outside really does affect how you feel on the inside.  (Be as elegantly yourself as the dog in this picture---and as comfortable.)

When we put on our "work uniform" we step into an essential asepct of professional identity. We have multiple selves---personal, professional, creative---and all of them play a part in holding together the world. 

When Krsna in the Gita is asked why he does what he does, he says loka-samgraha, which means "holding the world together." But literally this phrase means something like "grasping light." What Krsna is pointing towards is the fact that our identities are formed both inside and out; how we present ourselves informs our inner state. We are the light we offer, we are the shadow we create. To become whole we must care for the whole of our human self and that means our social self even when we are being asocial.

India taught me to care about these things because everything about learning depended on finding a way to hold myself together and immerse in a different world. The same thing happened when at only 28 years old I was a college professor not much older than my students but closer to their age than I was to my colleagues. The way we look really does root in how we relate to others, how we situate ourselves in social complexities. Tribe is recognized, a narrative is being put forward, and if we put those stories on mute---if we never get out of our pajamas---we will be dismissing, even losing important features of identity.

When I thought about what I'd said to my colleagues the other day about not getting out of our pj's, I almost immediately realized how wrong I was. So everyday since events turned me into the college-professor-now-teaching-from-home I've gotten myself together every morning.

Now all this may just be me but I doubt that. I think that we're in a time when it will be too easy to become unmoored, afloat in a world in which few things are familiar. When that happens we must re-root and find ways to tell our inner story. It's important to remember that our story entails all aspects of self, inside out and outside in. Putting yourself together, just a little bit, everyday can make an important difference.

You might at first feel liberated by days that require nothing more than jammies. But think Ganesha here: these routines and changes, these habits of personal and professional identity create meaningful boundaries. With boundaries we know who we are and what we need to remember, who we are and who want to be. So enjoy your personal revolution for awhile, 'cause why not? But then even if you are home all day, put yourself through your changes, step into your conditionality and stay a player in creating your boundaries.

I think in the long run you will find yourself more emotionally grounded, with a clearer sense of self. You are communicating with yourself when you step into those forms that help you tell your story. You will feel more connected to yourself and when the time comes again, you will re-connect because you never forgot who you are.