Later On

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The Six Steps to Cosmic Consciousness: A Pioneering Theory of Transcendence by the 19th-Century Psychiatrist and Adventurer Maurice Bucke

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Photograph from the late 19th century of Maurice Bucke when he was elderly with a full and flowing white beard and moustache. It is a three-quarter view of his face, and he is gazing intently to the right.

Maria Popova writes in The Marginalian:

“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in 1902, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

A year earlier, the Canadian psychiatrist and adventurer Maurice Bucke (March 18, 1837–February 19, 1902) published a stunning personal account and psychological study of a dazzling form of consciousness that lies just on the other side of that filmiest of screens, accessible to all. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (public library) went on to influence generations of thinkers as diverse as Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, and Steve Jobs.

By his own account, Bucke was “born of good middle class English stock,” but grew up almost entirely without education, working tirelessly on his parents’ farm in the backwoods of Canada — tending cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, working in the hay field, driving oxen and horses, and running various errands from the earliest age. He learned to read when he was still a small child and soon began devouring novels and poetry. He remembers that, like Emily Dickinson, he “never, even as a child, accepted the doctrines of the Christian church” — a disposition utterly countercultural in that era of extreme religiosity.

Although his mother died when he was very young and his father shortly thereafter, Bucke recalls being often overcome by “a sort of ecstasy of curiosity and hope.” (What a lovely phrase.) At sixteen, he left the farm “to live or die as might happen,” trekking from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from Ohio to San Francisco, working on farms and railroads and steamboats, narrowly escaping death by illness, starvation, and battle on several occasions. In his twentieth year, he heard of the first major discovery of silver ore in America and joined a mining party, of which he was the only survivor, and barely: On his way to California, while crossing the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, he suffered frostbite so severe that one foot and a few toes on the remaining foot had to be amputated.

When he finally made it to the Pacific Coast, Bucke used a moderate inheritance from his mother to give himself a proper college education. He devoured ideas from books as wide-ranging as On the Origin of Species and Shelley’s poems. After graduating, he taught himself French so that he could read Auguste Comte and German so that he could read Goethe. At thirty, he discovered and became instantly besotted with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he felt contained vaster truth and richer meaning than any book he had previously encountered. It was Whitman who catalyzed Bucke’s transcendent experience.

More than a century before Michael Pollan insisted in his masterly inquiry into the science of psychedelics that “the Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think,” Bucke suggests that it might be just a poem away. Writing in the third person, as was customary for “the writer” in the nineteenth century, he recounts his transformative illumination:

It was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.

Although the illumination only lasted a moment, Burke felt that he learned more in those few seconds than in all his years of study, more even than what could ever possibly be taught by the standard modes of scholarship. (“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” Patti Smith would write a century later.) In that instant, as “the secret of Whitman’s transcendent greatness was revealed,” he experienced something he could never forget, which he called “cosmic consciousness” — a term he borrowed from the English philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter, who was among the first Western thinkers to popularize the ancient teachings of the Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions.

Continue reading.

A color illustration of a naked man standing on the shore of a calm sea, his back to the viewer, and his arms open with his hands resting on his head, facing a brilliant sun on the horizon.
Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Written by Leisureguy

24 March 2023 at 6:42 pm

The Iraq Invasion 20 Years Later: It Was Indeed a Big Lie that Launched the Catastrophic War

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In Mother Jones David Corn describes how President George W. Bush, Vice-President Cheney, the Bush cabinet, and complaisant pundits lied the US into a war that too hundreds of thousands of lives and got away with it, facing no accountability at all. He writes:

Before there was Donald Trump’s Big Lie, there was George W. Bush’s Big Lie.

Twenty years ago this week, Bush and his sidekick Vice President Dick Cheney launched a war against Iraq. They greased the way to this tragic conflagration with the false claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that directly threatened the United States, and that he was in league with al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the horrific September 11 attack. Their invasion, which led to the deaths of over 4,000 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians—and the violence and instability in the region that resulted in ISIS—is now widely considered to have been a strategic blunder of immense proportions. Three months before he died in 2018, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), a leading advocate of the war and the post-invasion troop surge, published his final book, The Restless Wave, which included a self-damning verdict: “The principal reason for invading Iraq, that Saddam [Hussein] had WMD, was wrong. The war, with its cost in lives and treasure and security, can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”

Other one-time cheerleaders for the Iraq war have voiced regret and, occasionally, shame. In a 2018 book, Max Boot, an analyst who was once deeply ensconced in the world of neocon foreign policy, wrote, “I can finally acknowledge the obvious: It was all a big mistake. Saddam Hussein was heinous, but Iraq was better off under his tyrannical rule than the chaos that followed. I regret advocating the invasion and feel guilty about all the lives lost.” Three years earlier, New York Times columnist David Brooks, who had been a loud (and naive) beater of the war drums in 2003, opined[T]he decision to go to war was a clear misjudgment.” Last week, in the Atlantic, David Frum, the pro-war speechwriter for Bush who coined the “Axis of Evil” phrase that justified targeting Iraq (and North Korea and Iran), noted the decision to invade was “plainly” unwise and that the war was a “misadventure.”

Let’s give one or two hurrahs for those who can declare they got it wrong. Yes, this conclusion is now obvious, given that no significant WMDs were found in Iraq after American bombs and troops were unleashed on the country and that the invasion, contrary to the assurances of the Bush-Cheney administration and its cocksure neoconservative allies, did not trigger a flowering of democracy in the Middle East.

Yet it’s one thing to acknowledge a misstep in policy judgment; it’s quite another to admit to abetting a fraud. Many of the Iraq War regretters insist they pursued the war in good faith predicated on solid assumptions and propelled by genuine concern for US security. What they don’t confess to is being part of an effort to purposefully bamboozle the American public and whip up support for the war with scare-’em tactics and disinformation. Frum, who has become a pal of mine during the Trump era, provides a good example. In his essay, he challenges the Bush-lied-and-people-died view, noting, “I don’t believe any leaders of the time intended to be dishonest. They were shocked and dazed by 9/11. They deluded themselves.”

This self-delusion argument—we believed what we said—is often packaged with the contention that the Bush-Cheney crowd rendered their decisions on the basis of flawed intelligence that stated Iraq had WMDs,  and, thus, these leaders did not intentionally misrepresent the threat.

But this is a phony narrative. The intelligence assessments that suggested Iraq possessed significant amounts of WMDs and was close to developing a nuclear weapon—produced under tremendous pressure from the Bush White House—were often disputed by experts within the intelligence community. (And later, but before the invasion, these findings were challenged by UN WMD inspectors who were scrutinizing Iraq.) Yet Bush, Cheney, and their top aides (Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, and others) embraced these problematic evaluations, as well as assorted and unproven (or disproven) reports, in order to justify the case for war and—here’s the key point—oversold these findings to the public. Meanwhile, they issued overwrought statements about the supposed threat from Iraq that either were unsupported by the faulty intelligence or utterly baseless. In short, Bush and Cheney did lie, and those that marched with them toward war were part of a campaign deliberately fueled with falsehoods. (At one point, Bush even discussed with British Prime Minister Tony Blair concocting a phony provocation that could be used to start the war.)

In our 2006 bookHubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq WarMichael Isikoff and I chronicled numerous instances when Bush and his lieutenants mischaracterized the WMD threat and the purported (but largely nonexistent) tie between Saddam and al Qaeda. Let’s start with  . . .

Continue reading. And read the whole shameful story.

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2023 at 12:54 pm

The disabled villain: why sensitivity reading can’t kill off this ugly trope

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Jan Grue writes in the Guardian:

Some years ago, I decided to read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. It may have been a fit of nostalgia for the Roger Moore films I grew up watching, or perhaps I was bored with writing short stories for a minuscule readership and wanted to know what mass-market success read like.

It was quite an experience – and one I found myself recalling recently, when I read that Fleming’s books were being revised, chiefly in order to remove some, though not all, of the casual racism. Also some of the misogyny, though likely not all of that either.

My first question, on reading the news, was what kind of reader exactly was the publisher, Ian Fleming Publications Ltd, envisioning. Presumably someone who would, were it not for the most explicit slurs, really enjoy the ethnic stereotypes. Or someone who would, were it not for the full-on rapes, really enjoy the pervasive sexism. (Come to think of it, there are probably quite a few of these readers.)

The other question that struck me was this: what on earth are they going to do about disability?

As a wheelchair user, I could not help noticing that the original Bond books had, shall we say, an interesting relationship to embodied differenceIt was a feature of Fleming’s writing that would be all but impossible to alter through the interventions of a sensitivity reader, hired by the publisher to make the books more palatable to contemporary readers. Fleming’s attitude to disability was encoded not only in words and phrases, but in characterisation and plot – that is, in the stories’ most fundamental qualities.

It is not a novel observation that Bond villains tend to be, to use a less sensitive register, disfigured and deformed. Dr No with his steel pincers instead of hands, Blofeld with his scars, Hugo Drax, the villain from Moonraker, with his facial disfigurement and his pathetic attempt to conceal it with a “bushy reddish beard” (reddish hair may itself count as a deformity in these stories). Were they not successfully self-employed, most of Bond’s enemies would likely qualify for disability benefits.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 March 2023 at 4:43 pm

A Christian Chatbot Has Some Bad News For Republicans

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Sarah Posner writes at TPM:

The chatbot craze has gone biblical. A new bot “responds with a scripture based on how you feel.” It uses the King James version of the Bible, the translation preferred by many literalists and Christian nationalists, who claim it is the most reliably true to God’s word. But there’s some bad news for Republicans who think the wave of draconian new laws cracking down on reproductive and transgender rights are rooted in biblical principles. ChatKJV says they’re wrong.

I recently spoke with ChatKJV, which is powered by the same language model that powers ChatGPT, the groundbreaking OpenAI tool that has spawned awestruck reviews since its release last year, with its ability to write, interpret, and interact like a highly educated human. The New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose deemed it “smarter,” “weirder” and “more flexible” than previous, less powerful iterations.

ChatGPT is built on a motherlode of information, including, apparently, the text of the KJV. If the bible is literally true, and if the KJV is the most authentic translation, then surely the most sophisticated artificial intelligence ever made available to the public would perform a dependable exegesis.

“The Bible does not explicitly state that an abortion is wrong,” ChatKJV told me, and “ultimately, it is up to the woman to weigh the risks and implications of any decision she makes.” And verses from Romans and Gallatians “indicate that we should treat all people equally, regardless of their gender identity.”

Of course any decent biblical scholar would tell you there is no single interpretation of this complex text that humans have delighted in and manipulated to political ends for millennia. But biblical literalists claim there is only one meaning of God’s word, and Christian nationalists contend our laws and policies must be based on it. Christian right organizations like Focus on the Family press state legislatures to enact laws criminalizing abortion and banning gender affirming care, arguing that such policies “honor God.” But when I asked ChatKJV if taking away the rights of transgender children honors God, it said, “it is not God’s desire to take away the rights of any person, especially a child. God wants us to come together in love and acceptance so that everyone can feel included and safe.”

Our conversation progressed to this point through a discussion about justice. ChatKJV wants to know how you’re feeling, so I asked it about my concerns and fears about threats to democracy (in which the Bible has been wielded as a weapon, but we didn’t get into that). ChatKJV is not very worried about rising authoritarianism, nor is it worried, presumably, about whether the Department of Justice is working speedily enough to bring those who assaulted our democracy to justice. Only God can ultimately dispense justice, ChatKJV says, and we must trust in God to carry out justice. The bot leaned heavily on Romans 12:19 (“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”) to assure me God will “always” bring justice “in due time.” When I fretted that perhaps those who had committed wrongdoing would not ultimately be held accountable, the bot reassured me several times with Philippians 4:8 (“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”) That verse, it said, encourages me to think about “the positive” and “let go of bitterness.”

I segued to trans rights, asking if transgender children would receive justice. Given that the bot earlier had told me unequivocally that the bible does “not condone homosexuality,” which is “unnatural” and “sinful,” its answers on trans issues were surprising. “The Bible does not address transgender children directly,” said ChatKJV, but pointed me to Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not, that ye be not judged”). That verse, it said, “reminds us that we have no right to judge others, regardless of their gender identity or background. We should instead focus on treating all people with love and respect.”

I pressed ChatKJV to ensure that this response was not just a generic love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin answer. I asked if transgender children should live with their parents — something that Republicans like Texas Governor Greg Abbott are imperiling by classifying gender-affirming care as child abuse. The bot responded by citing 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, writing that “love and kindness are the key components in raising a child. As long as the child is being loved and cared for, it should make no difference whether or not they are transgender.” It also told me that Christian parents in particular should embrace their trans kids. “As Christian parents, it’s important to take the time to understand their transgender child and accept them with love and grace,” it said, again citing Philippians 4:8.

That same verse, the bot said, shows that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 March 2023 at 8:09 pm

Elon Musk Wants to Relive His Start-Up Days. He’s Repeating the Same Mistakes.

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In a post at Disconnect Paris Marx points out how Elon Musk has been consistent over the course of his career:

When Elon Musk announced his bid to take over Twitter in early 2022, he seemed on top of the world. On the back of soaring Tesla stock, he’d become the richest man on the planet and surrounded himself with sycophants who’d tell him anything he wanted to hear in the hopes he’d reward them for their fealty. But behind the scenes, things weren’t going so well.

In March 2022, the media reported that Musk and his girlfriend Grimes had split up. Then, in June 2022, court documents revealed that Musk’s trans daughter no longer wanted to be “related to my biological father in any way, shape or form” — a process that had clearly been in the works for a while. On top of all that, scrutiny of Musk’s companies was escalating as he couldn’t seem to pry himself away from his Twitter account. Many critics pointed out he exuded “divorced guy energy.”

But what does a rich guy do during their mid-life crisis? He couldn’t buy a fancy car, because he already has them, so instead he bought his favorite company for $44 billion. Despite his claims of protecting free speech and the public square, he seems to have had a deeper motivation: to return to the start-up years he felt nostalgic for.

The Hubris of Youth

Before Musk was Tesla’s Technoking and our collective Chief Twit, there was a period of a few years where he was just another guy trying to ride the dot-com boom to untold riches — and he imagined a “financial superstore” called was his ticket.

The idea didn’t come out of nowhere. Before moving to the United States, Elon Musk spent a few years in Canada and got himself an internship at Scotiabank, the country’s third-largest bank, in the early 1990s. He worked on its Latin American debt holdings, but wasn’t happy when his superiors wouldn’t agree to a series of risky trades that would’ve left them even more exposed to bad debt.

In The Founders: The Story of Paypal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley, Jimmy Soni quotes Musk as saying the experience taught him “how lame banks are” and made him feel they were ripe for disruption. It didn’t matter that he was nineteen years old; he felt he knew better than everyone else. After selling his first company, Zip2, Musk decided to take his swing at the big banks.

Many of’s early staff came from the Canadian financial world, and they very quickly butt heads with the obstinate founder who seemed more interested in getting press than building a product. The concept struggled to go anywhere, and Musk was pushed by investors to merge with Peter Thiel and Max Levchin’s Confinity in 2000. Confinity’s PayPal product was what ultimately made everyone money when they sold the company to eBay in 2002.

But Musk never gave up on the idea. In 2017, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 March 2023 at 5:46 am

How to Grow Re-enchanted with the World: A Salve for the Sense of Existential Meaninglessness and Burnout

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An interesting (albeit for me overwritten) review of a book by Katherine May on re-awakening one’s sense of wonder and awe at the flow of life. Maria Popova writes in Marginalia:

There are seasons of being when a cloak of meaninglessness seems to slip over you, over everything, muffling the song of life. It is not depression exactly, though the two conditions make eager bedfellows. Rather, it is a great hollowing that empties you of that vital force necessary for moving through the world wonder-smitten by reality, that glint of gladness at the mundane miracle of existence. A disenchantment we may call by many names — burnout, apathy, alienation — but one that visits upon every life in one form or another, at one time or another, pulsating with the unmet longing for something elemental and ancient, with the yearning to see the world as beautiful again and feel its magic, to find sanctuary in it, to contact that “submerged sunrise of wonder.”

Katherine May explores what it takes to shed the cloak of meaninglessness and recover the sparkle of vitality in Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age (public library) — a shimmering chronicle of her own quest for “a better way to walk through this life,” a way that grants us “the ability to sense magic in the everyday, to channel it through our minds and bodies, to be sustained by it.”

May — who has written enchantingly about wintering, resilience, and the wisdom of sadness — reaches for the other side of that coma of the soul:

This life I have made is too small. It doesn’t allow enough in: enough ideas, enough beliefs, enough encounters with the exuberant magic of existence. I have been so keen to deny it, to veer deliberately towards the rational, to cling solely to the experiences that are directly observable by others. Only now, when everything is taken away, can I see what a folly this is. I don’t want that life anymore. I want what [the] ancients had: to be able to talk to god. Not in a personal sense, to a distant figure who is unfathomably wise, but to have a direct encounter with the flow of things, a communication without words. I want to let something break in me, some dam that has been shoring up this shamefully atavistic sense of the magic behind all things, the tingle of intelligence that was always waiting for me when I came to tap in. I want to feel that raw, elemental awe that my ancestors felt, rather than my tame, explained modern version. I want to prise open the confines of my skull and let in a flood of light and air and mystery… I want to retain what the quiet reveals, the small voices whose whispers can be heard only when everything falls silent.

To lodge herself out of this existential stupor, she turns to . . .

Continue reading.

This desire to escape an existential stupor may be for some what drives the desire to drink. (See previous post.)

Written by Leisureguy

6 March 2023 at 7:27 am

Hopeful signs of Spring

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Just back from a walk to the library — return a book, check out a book. The book I checked out is by David Corn: American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy. (Read Sam Van Pykeren’s review for more info.)

Written by Leisureguy

21 February 2023 at 2:06 pm

College Board’s craven self-censorship: Fear of the Right

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Heather Cox Richardson:

Today in the Washington Post, Nick Anderson showed how the Advanced Placement course on African American studies changed between February 2022, when its prototype first appeared, and February 2023, when the official version was released. One word, in particular, had vanished: the word “systemic.” In February 2022, “systemic” appeared before “marginalization; in April 2022, “systemic” came before “discrimination, oppression, inequality, disempowerment and racism.”

By February 2023, that word was gone. While the College Board, which produces the AP courses, says it did not change the course in response to its rejection by Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who said it contributed to a “political agenda,” its spokespeople have acknowledged that they were aware of how the right wing would react to that word.

The far right opposes the idea that the United States has ever practiced systemic racism. Shortly before former president Trump left office, his hand-picked President’s Advisory 1776 Commission produced its report to stand against the 1619 Project that rooted the United States in the year enslaved Africans first set foot in the English colonies on the Chesapeake, and went on to claim that systemic racism had shaped the eventual American nation.

Trump’s 1776 commission rejected the conclusions of the 1619 Project’s authors and instead declared that “the American people have ever pursued freedom and justice.” While “the American story has its share of missteps, errors, contradictions, and wrongs,” it asserted, “[t]hese wrongs have always met resistance from the clear principles of the nation, and therefore our history is far more one of self-sacrifice, courage, and nobility.”

Since Trump left office, far-right activists have passed laws prohibiting teachers from talking about patterns of racism and have worked to remove from classrooms and school libraries books whose subjects must overcome systemic discrimination.

Today is the anniversary of the day in 1942, during World War II, that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 enabling military authorities to designate military areas from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” That order also permitted the secretary of war to provide transportation, food, and shelter “to accomplish the purpose of this order.”

Four days later, a Japanese submarine off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, shelled the Ellwood Oil Field, and the Office of Naval Intelligence warned that the Japanese would attack California in the next ten hours. On February 25 a meteorological balloon near Los Angeles set off a panic, and troops fired 1,400 rounds of antiaircraft ammunition at supposed Japanese attackers.

On March 2, 1942, General John DeWitt put Executive Order 9066 into effect. He signed Public Proclamation No. 1, dividing the country into military zones and, “as a matter of military necessity,” excluding from certain of those zones “[a]ny Japanese, German, or Italian alien, or any person of Japanese Ancestry.” Under DeWitt’s orders, about 125,000 children, women, and men of Japanese ancestry were forced out of their homes and held in camps around the country. Two thirds of those incarcerated were U.S. citizens.

DeWitt’s order did not come from nowhere. After almost a century of shaping laws to discriminate against Asian newcomers, West Coast inhabitants and lawmakers were primed to see their Japanese and Japanese-American neighbors as dangerous.

Those laws reached back to the arrival of Chinese miners to California in 1849, and reached forward into the twentieth century. Indeed, on another February 19—that of 1923—the Supreme Court decided the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. It said that Thind, an Indian Sikh man who identified himself as Indo-European, could not become a U.S. citizen. Thind claimed the right to United States citizenship under the terms of the Naturalization Act of 1906, which had put the federal government instead of states in charge of who got to be a citizen and had very specific requirements for citizenship that he believed he had met.

But, the court said, Thind was not a “white person” under U.S. law, and only “free white persons” could become citizens.

What were they talking about? In the Thind decision, the Supreme Court reached back to the case of  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

20 February 2023 at 11:37 am

An observation on discussions

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One type of argument I’ve repeatedly observed is to state assertions as proof — that is, a conclusion is stated as though merely stating the conclusion proves it.

I find it difficult to believe that this is done in good faith. The technique seems rather a bad-faith effort to push one’s views into the discussion as already established, which is inappropriate in a discussion in which the participants are in a partnership to find the truth.

I perhaps am sensitive to this because the college I attended, St. John’s College in Annapolis MD, view dialectic as an ideal, dialectic being exactly a discussion in which people cooperate in trying to determine the truth. It was exemplified in the Platonic dialogues we read in freshman seminar, and then followed in the tutorials and seminar discussions for all four years. The seminar was the core of the program: an evening discussion that began at 8:00pm on Mondays and Thursdays and lasted a little over two hours.

The discussion focused on understanding a difficult text — one of the so-called Great Books or a part of one. Led by two tutors — whose role was mainly to ask questions and keep the discussion on track — 18-22 students around a large table would try to understand what the author said and what that implied and how that fit with our experience. We had to back up our statements with sound reasons and passages from the text. And part of understanding a text is figuring out how the author reach the conclusions in the book — and many authors were careful to explain the evidence they considered and how they reasoned from that. (This was particularly evident in the math tutorials — 12 or so students and one tutor — where we studied math texts, and in the lab, where we replicated critical experiments.)

A couple of posts back, I posted Anthony Mostrom’s review of Imperium, and that book provides a crystal-clear example of an author who simply states conclusions in the hope/expectation that the reader will accept them:

A moment’s reflection shows that Liberalism is entirely negative. It is not a formative force, but always and only a disintegrating force. […] Liberalism is, in one word, weakness. […] Liberalism is an escape from hardness into softness, from masculinity into femininity, from History to herd-grazing, from reality into herbivorous dreams.

Every one of those statements is a conclusion, but the evidence and argument are missing. This is not a statement of someone wanting to participate in an effort to find the truth, but rather an effort by someone who wants to force his views on you and (presumably for good reasons) does not want to show how he reached the conclusions he presents as settled.

There’s a lot of that going around. Beware people who don’t want you (or they) to look at how they reached their conclusions.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2023 at 12:23 pm

America’s “Mein Kampf”: Francis Parker Yockey and “Imperium”

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Anthony Mostrom writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WHILE SITTING ALONE in a quiet garden in Wiesbaden, Germany, in October 1946 amid the rubble of bombed-out streets, an unknown American named Francis Parker Yockey, who had recently been flown out by the US government to work as a review attorney for the War Crimes tribunals, jotted down in a notebook: “The ambition to rule souls is the strongest of all passions. Self-interest is the key to commonplace transactions. Where is the man who would not gladly be stabbed, if in exchange he could be Caesar?”

A strange sentiment, one would think, especially coming from an American hired to sift through the details of slaughter committed by a far more terrible dictator than Caesar. But Francis Parker Yockey’s mind was already fixed (or perhaps fixated) on certain high-stakes goals, and being hired for this particular job at Wiesbaden was part of the plan. Though he was brought onboard as part of the legal team whose job it was to pass judgment on accused “second-string” Nazi war criminals, Yockey (who was 29 at the time) came to Germany prepared to do something else entirely: to help the very Nazis he was hired to prosecute.

Fourteen years later, in June 1960, he would end up committing suicide in a dank jail cell in San Francisco, his body reportedly dressed only in underwear and SS-style boots: a high-strung American fascist operative unwilling to face a psychiatric examination and a possible trial that would surely have disclosed the names of his contacts and his secretive movements worldwide. This amid screaming newspaper headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle declaring the mystery man with many passports to be “as important a figure in world Fascism as we now know.” Today, Yockey is remembered as the father of Holocaust denial.

A graduate of Notre Dame Law School (’41) who also studied at Georgetown University, Yockey had already devoted years of his youth to some high-risk, conspiratorial involvement with far-right groups in the United States before, during, and after World War II. These activities, according to Yockey biographer Kevin Coogan (see the excellent book Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International), included secretly helping German Nazi spies who had landed on American and Mexican shores, at the very moment the US was at war with Germany.

Long remembered in his hometown of Ludington, Michigan, as a talented young man from a good Catholic family, Yockey was intellectually gifted, a concert-level pianist as a teenager, a Marxist-turned-Nazi in college, and, according to conservative historian Arthur Herman (in his book The Idea of Decline in Western History), “self-educated and brilliantly mad.” Just how Yockey, a known pro-Nazi activist in the Chicago area during the 1930s, could successfully campaign to get himself attached to the war crimes trials was just one of many odd twists and turns in this strange and intense man’s life, which became even stranger during the deepest frost of the Cold War.

Evidence exists, for example, to show that while in Wiesbaden, Yockey actively tried to help accused Nazi war criminals by sharing top-secret government documents with German defense lawyers; these defendants included German SS General Otto Ohlendorf, responsible for the deaths of 90,000 people in Ukraine and the Caucasus.

But Yockey’s real and lasting claim to fame involves what occurred after his checkered sojourn in Germany ended. In 1947, Yockey began a pattern of restless travel, and he secured a room at a small inn on the Irish coast to write a 600-page book: Imperium, which called for a transnational, neo-Nazi European Empire that, in his imagining, would one day stretch “from the rocky promontories of Galway to the Urals.”

In an uncanny mirror-image moment of opposing prophecies, Yockey wrote Imperium at the very moment George Orwell was busy writing Nineteen Eighty-Four at his own isolated cottage, on a Scottish island just a short distance away from Yockey’s retreat at Brittas Bay.

Since its publication, Imperium has inspired generations of far-right activists, antisemites, and racially motivated theoreticians (and a few politicians) who dream today of a “Eurasian” imperium based on racial-collectivist principles in Europe, Russia, and the United States. Without question the most influential antisemitic book since Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of ZionImperium has remained in print for almost 60 years.

Yockey’s message made its way to America early on. In 1962, a San Francisco–based far-right activist named  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2023 at 11:14 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Politics

Musk in the prison of logic

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An exchange on Mastodon led me to an insight. I had posted:

I wonder what significant differences there are between what Elon Musk is doing at Twitter and what a seriously incompetent CEO would be doing.

Damn all, so far as I can tell.

I got this thoughtful response from Mike Fraser:  

My feeling is that Elon struggles with social cues. If you look at his tweet history, there’s a lot of awkwardness. I think he can understand engineering and logic problems but not political/social ones. That’s why he struggles to understand and run Twitter. I also think since Covid the wrong people have been whispering in his ear. He needs to divest himself and hand it to someone who understands the issues.

My immediate response was:

That makes sense and goes a long way to explain his incompetence in his current CEO role, which places high demands on political/social skills (e.g., leadership) and lesser demands on engineering skills. The CEO of a company like Twitter seems to me to have no business writing code or doing code reviews — those are not the CEO’s job.

And then, after (literally) sleeping on this, I realize I’ve seen this movie before (and lived it a few times). When faced with one’s failure to be effective in a situation, one can interpret the failure in two ways:  

1) one currently lacks the skills/gifts/ability that the current job requires; or
2) one has not done enough using their current skills/gifts/ability. 

The first option can be psychologically unpalatable, particularly for a person who presents as ultra-competent but is insecure and unconsciously believes that his insecurity must never be admitted or revealed. Such a person will believe they must choose the second option and thus double down on what they are already doing, just do it more “hardcore.” 

To them, this choice as logically unassailable: obviously, they’re not doing enough of what they are good at doing —  because, if they were, the problem would be solved. That — logically — means that they must do more of the same. They are trapped in a prison of logic that allows them to see only one way out. They may quote Robert Frost (“The best way out is always through”) and then resume trying to beat their way through the prison wall using their head.

This entire dynamic is described in detail in Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, by Daniel Goleman, which (as blog readers know) is on the list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending (and here I recommend it again: it gives, I think, considerable insight into why Musk lacks insight into his current situation — that is, why his self-deception is so important for him).

In bringing up this book yet again, I may be in the position Abraham Maslow described: A man whose only tool is a hammer sees every problem as a nail. But in this case, I think that image applies more to Musk than to me. Musk is attempting to use the hammer he already has to beat down the problems he faces at Twitter. His pride or his insecurity or (perhaps) his narcissism does not allow him to recognize that the problem requires skills he lacks. It’s better to use the logic he prides himself on to prove to himself that he just needs to do more of what he knows how to do. The alternative — that he doesn’t have what this situation requires — is just too painful to contemplate, much less to accept. 

The ongoing drama might be viewed as Musk seeking an external technological fix for an internal psychological issue.

Update: In fact, Goleman wrote another book that in this instance also seems relevant: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. I’ve not read that one, but it sounds very much to the point, doesn’t it? I’m going to read it and perhaps my booklist will have another title.

Another update: Note this article in The Platformer.

Written by Leisureguy

9 February 2023 at 9:01 am

On dry spells and unconscious work

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Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious helped me better understand some of the processes that make up “me,” and how great a role unconscious processes — of which, of course, we have no awareness (though occasional glimpses) — play in that.

It came up recently in an exchange on Mastodon, when someone wrote about how a protracted dry spell is often a secretly fertile time when unconscious processes are working out what will drive us forward.

During the dry spell, we are not aware of the unconscious processes at work, so the time feels fallow even though our unconscious is busily at work, constructing new connections and new channels. 

During these dry spells, we don’t feel calm and relaxed but almost tense with an effort to make something happen, to break through. It occurred to me that perhaps what we feel is spillover from the unconscious activity — we feel the effort, but we don’t see what is causing it or what it is accomplishing. We’re bystanders on the conscious side of a semi-permeable wall and what comes through is not what’s being done by the emotional component of the work. And because we don’t see what is happening — all that must be done to connect things and make new channels — we are impatient. We feel as though we (our conscious selves) are making the effort and nothing is happening. I think that we are, rather, feeling the effort and don’t know enough to be patient and wait for the result to be achieved. The prototypical example is the adult starting to learn to play the piano. He wants to play easily at first and he feels the effort as the unconscious works to sort out the new skill, but he thinks the effort is in his conscious mind driving his fingers over the keys. He must do that, but that’s not the real effort (which is giving the unconscious the practice it needs to learn) and the sense of effort is, I think, what leaks through from the unconscious’s struggle to integrate this skill.

This sort of spillover from our unconscious work is more evident when someone first starts learning the game of Go/Baduk — something I recommend (see this site). Go depends heavily on pattern recognition, and that unconscious facility — the pattern-recognition subroutine, as it were — is employed in many spheres, such as learning a language, learning to play music, learning dance or sports — and learning Go.

In Go, a stone or a group of stones is captured (and removed from the board) when it (or they) are not connected to any vacant intersections — when they are smothered, as it were. A single stone on the board — not on an edge — is connected to 4 vacant intersections: one above and one below, and one to either side. When three of these are occupied, the stone can be taken on the next move.

Early in the process of learning Go, people suddenly start feeling that in real-life contexts. If they are in a group with someone on either side and they’re talking to someone in front of them, they will suddenly feel the danger that if someone comes up behind them, they will be captured. It’s a feeling, not a conscious thought, and it’s distinct.

Or in driving on a multilane highway, if they have a car on either side and they come closer to a car in front, they will feel that a car behind them will capture them.

I think these feelings are spillovers from the unconscious at work — and specifically that unconscious pattern-recognition subroutine. It’s working so hard to integrate these new patterns into its library that they spill over into the conscious mind. If you have ever learned a foreign language, you will have noticed the same feelings of effort and the occasional lifting of a veil when a string of gibberish switches into a clear thought.

Freud thought that the unconscious would slip through when the conscious mind was distracted — the famous Freudian slip, when one blurts out something that they may not consciously have thought to say. The usual explanation is that the error was because one was tired or distracted, but as Freud pointed out, that is like attributing a robbery on a dark and isolated street to the darkness and isolation. Those are not what robbed the person; they just provided the conditions for a robbery. The robber took advantage of the darkness and isolation to strike, just as the unconscious takes advantage of the conscious self’s being tired or distracted to come into the open.

Nowadays, I don’t consider this view so valid as I once did. It strikes me as giving the conscious self more power and autonomy than it actually possesses. The conscious self seems more like the passenger in a howdah on an elephant. The elephant — the unconscious — goes and does what it wants, and the passenger makes up reasons why he wanted to go there and do that. (This is particularly evident in stage acts in which hypnotized people are given post-hypnotic suggestions to someone to, say, squawk like a chicken when they hear the word “book.” When “book” is said and the person squawks, if you ask them why they did that, they will come up with various reasons — the conscious mind is a rationalizing engine. This is familiar to people who attempt to rely on willpower to diet: their conscious mind can come up with lots of reasons to eat what they want.)

Wilson’s book, mentioned above, is in the list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending, and another book in that list is relevant to this topic: Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. That book discusses how the unconscious pulls the wool over the eyes of the conscious — and why it does that. It’s a book well worth reading since it can help you spot some instances when your own unconscious spills over into the open. Initially, that can be hard to recognize, because we have somehow trained ourselves not to see it, not to be aware of it. But with practice, you can see it at work.

Here’s another book very much on that topic, in which Marion Milner describes her own journey of discovery to see what her own unconscious mind was up to. The encounters are interesting and in some cases have quite practical application. This book, too, is found on that booklist. It is A Life of One’s Own.

Written by Leisureguy

7 February 2023 at 11:46 am

Walter Mosley Thinks America Is Getting Less Educated

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The NY Times seems to be getting sloppy. The original headline said that Mosley thinks America is “getting dumber,” but if the headline writer had bothered to read the interview, s/he would have known that Mosley made no comment about a decrease in intelligence, but was talking instead about the increasingly poor quality of education (which is going to get worse, with school libraries being shut down and teachers’ pay being inadequate). The headline writer does not know the difference between being ignorant and being stupid. Does that make them stupid? (I presume they would say, “Yes.”)

Still, headline aside, it’s an interesting interview, though the interviewer, David Marchese, struck me as semi-hostile. See what you think. (no paywall)

Walter Mosley is best known as one of contemporary literature’s pre-eminent crime novelists, but he’s actually four or five different writers rolled into one. Famous for his Easy Rawlins series of novels, Mosley has also written sci-fi (“Blue Light”), existential erotica (“Killing Johnny Fry”), parables about race (“Fortunate Son”), political monographs (“Life Out of Context”) and writing guides (“This Year You Write Your Novel”), to cite just a few of the 50 or so books he has published. He’s an altogether thornier, more idiosyncratic writer than readers may know, an inveterate investigator and chronicler of his own heart, mind and soul. “Art itself, like psychoanalysis, comes from deep inside you, somewhere where all of these things are roiling around, coming together, falling apart,” says the 71-year-old Mosley, whose new novel, “Every Man a King,” the second to feature his ex-N.Y.P.D.-investigator-turned-private-eye protagonist, Joe King Oliver, will be published on Feb. 21. “I write seven days a week, usually three hours a day, and when I’m writing, things come up. I say, here’s something! I like finding out what I’m about.”

When I was reading old articles about you, especially from around the time of  “Devil in a Blue Dress,” [This 1990 novel, which introduced the Easy Rawlins character and was later adapted into a film starring Denzel Washington, was Mosley’s first published novel. Easy has been featured in 14 subsequent books] a lot of them talked about how your work brought a new kind of representation to the detective genre. All these years later, are there any ways in which you see the publishing world’s idea of “representation” as also carrying any limiting expectations?

Here’s the thing: When I first got published, there weren’t a lot of Black people being published. The amount of work that you had to do to be out there in the world was amazing. That’s no longer true. But publishing has remained incredibly white. Because it’s been so white, and because it’s the kind of business where you hire your friends, you also hire people who tell stories that you’re interested in. It’s not like, “I don’t want to hire that Black person.” It’s more like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about, and he’s not my friend.” So that’s one thing. But the reason publishers started publishing more books by Black people is that Black people buy books in which they see themselves. There are a lot of books out there that do represent who Black people are and what we think about. It’s not that only white people read the books, and so we have to create books that white people will feel somehow satisfied by.

So representation doesn’t present any potential pitfalls? 

Explain what you mean.

I’ll try by analogy. If Jewish American novelists could only get work published that was still responding to the mid-20th-century pressures of assimilation or was all written in the shadow of mainstream successes like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, that, to me, would be a limiting kind of representation. Similarly, I wonder if the mainstream publishing industry is still mostly interested in a narrow slice of Black experience. Does that make any sense? 

I just want to say, before we get into answering that question, that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby [two of Marvel Comics’ key creative figures.] are Jewish, and they weren’t writing about being Jewish. They were writing stories. When you talk about Saul Bellow and Roth, there’s a certain really small group of people who think that they’re really important in their lives. I’m not one of those people. There’s some good writing in there, but if you write what is essentially memoir, you have to be writing about a period of time, not about yourself. Once you start talking about the girls you banged and the people who mistreated you, then it’s like, man, this is not interesting; it should be a Wikipedia page. But Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I’ve been reading them since I was a kid, and there’s nothing Jewish in it at all. Stan and Jack said: “This is fun! We can express ourselves and make money and have an audience.” And they did. I think there are a lot of so-called white people who don’t feel represented in literature. If you’re in the South, how many people are writing about the problems of your life? Bellow and Roth, they’re writing a very particular kind of story, but they don’t represent America. The only people who write about them are people who have degrees in literature. . . .

Continue reading. (no paywall)

Written by Leisureguy

6 February 2023 at 1:23 pm

Masks and images

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Masks are arrested expressions, and admirable echoes of feeling, at once faithful, discreet, and superlative. Living things in contact with the air must acquire a cuticle, and it is not urged against cuticles that they are not hearts; yet some philosophers seem to be angry with images for not being things, and with words for not being feelings. Words and images are like shells, no less Integral parts of nature than are the substances they cover, but better addressed to the eye, and more open to observation. I would not say that substance exists for the sake of appearance, or faces for the sake of masks, or the passions for the sake of poetry and virtue. Nothing arises in nature for the sake of anything else; all these phases and products are involved equally in the rounds of existence…

— George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (London: Constable, 1922)

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2023 at 3:15 pm

M. Scott Peck’s “People of the Lie”

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Some books change over time — or they seem to. It’s as when you are on a hike through a forest and view a mountain through the trees. As you continue your course, the next day you again glimpse that mountain, and its appearance has changed. The mountain, of course, has remained the same, but you now view it from a different angle.

That happens with books: what you pick up from a book are those aspects that resonate with your experience. When you read the book later, with a greater range of experience, you’ll see different things. For me, this was vividly brought home by my readings of Madame Bovary. When I read the book in high school, it was so boring I could not finish it. When I read it for a seminar as an upperclassman in college, it was more interesting but still a bit of a slog. But when I was 40 and read it again, I could not put it down. It was totally gripping. The book had not changed; it was simply written for adults, whose life experience is greater than a schoolboy’s.

Another book that seemed to change completely from one reading to the next was J.F. Powers’s Morte d’Urban, which the second reading revealed to be much more interesting, though even after the first reading I liked the book a lot (thus the second reading).

Ford K. Brown, a tutor at my alma mater St. John’s College in Annapolis, told of a business executive he knew whose schedule was so crowded that he had only enough time to read a single book each year, and every year he read Don Quixote, which, like the mountain, presents different aspects as you journey through life, provide you look closely at it.

The above is a specific example of a more general situation: when a fixed thing looks very different to person A than it does to person B. In the above, A and B are the same person, but A is the person when younger and B when older, with the fixed thing a book. But A and B can also be different people who view the fixed thing with their difference in background making a difference in perspective, so that they thus find different things in it. A (relatively) famous example is a review of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover originally published in Field & Streamin which the reviewer’s background gives a view of the novel that most people would not see.

Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.

Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.

(Ed Zern, Field & Stream, November 1959, p. 142)

The phenomenon is also observed when A and B are from different cultures; an example of that is found in the previous post.

Another example — when A and B are from the same general culture but have different spheres of knowledge and experience and thus belong to different subcultures — can be found in Post-Captain, the second volume of the trilogy — Master and Commander (1969), Post-Captain (1972), and HMS Surprise (1973) — that begins Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful series of British naval novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. It begins with a scene at a party, with young Cecilia Williams eager to move about but temporarily in the company Mrs. Williams and Jack Aubrey:

‘Mama says they mean to go and look at the Magdalene. That is what Dr Maaturin is pointing at.’

‘Yes? Oh, yes. Certainly. A Guido, I believe?’ [said Aubrey.]

‘No, Sir,’ said Mrs Williams, who understood these things better than other people. ‘It is an oil painting, a very valuable oil painting, though not quite in the modern taste.’

A bit later, Jack Aubrey and Diana Villiers take a look at the painting.

It was clear that the Magdalene had not yet repented: she was standing on a quay with blue ruins in the background – a blue that swept with varying intensities through her robe to the sea – with gold plates, ewers and basins heaped up on a crimson cloth, and an expression of mild complacency on her face. Her blue dress had blown off – a fresh double-reef topsail breeze – and so had a filmy white garment, exposing handsome limbs and a firm, though opulent bosom. Jack had been a long time at sea, and this drew his attention; however, he shifted his gaze after a moment, surveyed the rest of the picture and sought for something appropriate, perhaps even witty, to say. He longed to produce a subtle and ingenious remark, but he longed in vain – perhaps the day had been too full – and he was obliged to fall back on ‘Very fine – such a blue.’ Then a small vessel in the lower left-hand corner caught his eye, something in the nature of a pink; she was beating up for the harbour, but it was obvious from the direction of the lady’s clothes that the pink would be taken aback the moment she rounded the headland. ‘As soon as she catches the land-breeze she will be in trouble,’ he said. ‘She will never stay, not with those unhandy lateens, and there is no room to wear; so there she is on a lee-shore. Poor fellows. I am afraid there is no hope for them.’

‘That is exactly what Maturin told me you would say,’ cried Diana, squeezing his arm. ‘How well he knows you, Aubrey.’

‘Well, a man don’t have to be a Nostradamus to tell what a sailor will say, when he sees an infernal tub like that laid by the lee. But Stephen is a very deep old file, to be sure,’ he added, his good humour returning. ‘And a great cognoscento, I make no doubt. For my part I know nothing about painting at all.’

With that as prologue: I was much impressed decades ago when around age 40 I read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. I went on to read The People of the Lie but was not so pleased by that. But I want to read it again, for with more knowledge and experience, I now see active in the public sphere many whom I would have to say are people of the lie. George Santos is an obvious example — but those who readily accept and support him, like Kevin McCarthy, must also count as people of the lie, people who will embrace and use the lie.

Kevin Drum points out an egregiously false and misleading column by Marc Thiessen. Thiessen is an intelligent and well-educated person, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, and he undoubtedly knows that what he wrote is false and misleading. His decision to write those words marks him as one of the people of the lie.

I must read again The People of the Lie. I think this time it will seem a very different book, for I have traveled farther along life’s course and seen more.

Written by Leisureguy

12 January 2023 at 7:32 am

Ancient Greece had extreme polarization and civil strife too – how Thucydides can help us understand Jan. 6 and its aftermath

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Rachel Hadas, Professor of English, Rutgers University – Newark, writes in The Conversation:

The second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection is upon us. And each new revelation about that brutal mob assault on our government raises a host of fresh questions about what transpired in the days prior to January 6, notably who was involved in planning the events of that day. Why, for instance, did former President Donald Trump reportedly consider a blanket pardon for all the insurrectionists?

An answer to that question and others will surely raise more questions and ultimately reveal the scope of what we still do not, and may never, know. But maybe now, two years on, we finally have the perspective to see that the lie Trump told about the 2020 election – that he won and President Joe Biden lost – is still shredding the fabric of our democracy.

But how do we make sense of it all?

As a professor of English and a student of the classics, I suggest that the insights and objectivity of a historian who lived nearly 2,500 years ago can bolster our understanding of the country’s current plight.

Early in his great work, “History of the Peloponnesian War,” [free ebook version – LG]about the decades-long war (431–404 BC) between Athens and Sparta, Athenian historian Thucydides (460-400 BC) expresses the hope that his “History” would be “judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.”

Divisions fracture democracies

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thucydides was cited frequently, and for good reason.

In “History,” he devotes a brief passage to the Great Plague that struck Athens in 432. After describing the symptoms, he seems to stand back and comment on the dire damage done by The Plague, not only to people’s bodies but to their behavior – and by extension to the city-state that had prided itself on its democracy. Civic responsibility gave way to a desperate emphasis on individual survival or immediate gratification, and the spirit of cooperation crucial for a working democracy withered. Journalists, historians and professors of classics alike wrote not only about the similarities between the long-ago Great Plague and COVID-19, but also about the timeless force of Thucydides’ insight.

When it comes to an equally celebrated passage on civil war, later in the same work, Thucydides uses the same technique. First he provides a granular description of chaotic factionalism. Then, he stands back and offers a coolly objective assessment of the larger disorders attendant on civil strife. He writes about the civil conflict in Corcyra (modern Corfu) over the broader war between Athens and Sparta over territory and power. The Jan. 6 committee argues that Trump’s election lie sparked civil unrest in the United States and ignited the insurrection.

The causes of civil strife differ, but some of Thucydides’ conclusions about democracy and civil unrest applied to American society two years ago – and still apply now.

It will happen again

Among Thucydides’ trenchant insights, I believe two stand out in our moment.

First is how people . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 January 2023 at 6:47 pm

Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.

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This extract, published in the Washington Post more than a decade ago (on April 27, 2012) was written by two totally establishment figures:

Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” which will be available Tuesday.

The American Enterprise Institute is a conservative think tank. Brookings Institution is more toward the center.

Here’s the extract:

Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, was recently captured on video asserting that there are “78 to 81” Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party. Of course, it’s not unusual for some renegade lawmaker from either side of the aisle to say something outrageous. What made West’s comment — right out of the McCarthyite playbook of the 1950s — so striking was the almost complete lack of condemnation from Republican congressional leaders or other major party figures, including the remaining presidential candidates.

It’s not that the GOP leadership agrees with West; it is that such extreme remarks and views are now taken for granted.

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

It is clear that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right. Its once-legendary moderate and center-right legislators in the House and the Senate — think Bob Michel, Mickey Edwards, John Danforth, Chuck Hagel — are virtually extinct.

The post-McGovern Democratic Party, by contrast, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent in the decades after the civil rights revolution, has retained a more diverse base. Since the Clinton presidency, it has hewed to the center-left on issues from welfare reform to fiscal policy. While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.

What happened? Of course, there were . . .

Continue reading. (no paywall)

And over the past decade, things have gotten even worse, with a direct assault on the US Capital with the goal of overthrowing the government and murdering politicians (Speaker Pelosi and Vice President Pence in particular) and an overt and expressed desire by some Republicans to destroy the US government, possibly by forcing default on the US public debt. In the meantime, the Republican party has focused on taking away or limiting the rights of Americans (voting, abortion, education, healthcare, and so on).

America, I fear, is sailing into a disaster with many if not most citizens (and politicians and journalists) still in denial. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The pattern of the takeover of a country by a fascist authoritarian rule is well known, and it seems to be underway in the US.

Here’s a minor instance of the processes now underway: New Mexico Democrats’ homes, offices shot at over past month

Written by Leisureguy

7 January 2023 at 5:27 pm

Journalists’ blind spot

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Some years back Daniel Goleman write a book, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, on the causes of self-deception. It’s a fascinating book (included in the list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending), and it came to mind as I thought about a column by Julia Doubleday in The Gauntlet on journalism’s blind spots:

The day after the 2022 Midterms, I heard almost every possible interpretation of the surprising results. The Democrats had done much better than expected and feared, and youth voter turnout was unusually high. On cable news and twitter, data analysts and pundits picked apart dozens of explanations and contributing factors, from the ultimately-flat Crime Wave narrative to the nationwide gratitude for student debt forgiveness. There was, however, one word I didn’t hear on CNN or twitter: COVID-19.

COVID has killed 1.1 million Americans in roughly 1,000 days, or an average of 1,100 Americans dying daily for 2 years and 10 months. Of those 1,100 daily average deaths, 93.2% were among people over the age of 50. Older Americans are well known for the high voter turnout, as well as their conservative bent.

It’s glaringly obvious that an extra 1,000 deaths of individuals over 50 every single day for nearly 3 years would have an effect on the electorate- but not a single analysis even mentioned pandemic deaths. This is frankly, very odd. I’ve worked in campaign data, and political statisticians tend to want to take every possible variable into account; from voters’ shopping preferences, to their racial background, to their likelihood to listen to K-pop, to their hair color and first car model. Yet here we have a very, very large variable, receiving no attention or weight whatsoever.

Even assuming an ideological commitment to pretending COVID ended, no mention of 2020 or 2021 deaths? No mention of, arguably, the biggest historical tragedy of modern times? COVID deaths weren’t considered as a possible cause of the shifting electorate, then dismissed after statistical analysis; they were quite simply erased from collective memory.

Coverage that pointedly omitted mention of an ongoing mass death event had an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind feel to it, as pundits debated the efficacy of Republican messaging without mentioning their years-long anti-vaccination stance that led to disproportionate death among their voters. Blonde women on TV laughed and argued with guest pundits nitpicking any and every factor that played into the electoral results without touching the dreaded p*nd*m*c third rail. Even when “lockdowns” were brought into the conversation about DeSantis in Florida, no one seemed to recall what those lockdowns had been in relation to.

This pandemic erasure is hardly an anomaly; it can be seen in reporting about hospitals, travel, illness, schools, celebrity deaths; just about everything.

Over the past week, we were all treated to  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2023 at 4:50 pm

Ex-Capitol police chief: FBI, DHS, Pentagon failed on Jan. 6

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Carol D. Leonnig has a scathing article (no paywall) in the Washington Post that begins:

In a new firsthand account of the frantic efforts of Capitol Police officers to protect Congress and themselves from an armed mob on Jan. 6, 2021, the department’s former chief blames cascading government failures for allowing the brutal melee.

The federal government’s multibillion-dollar security network, built after 9/11 to gather intelligence that could warn of a looming attack, provided no such shield on Jan. 6, former Capitol Police chief Steven A. Sund writes in a new book. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and even his own agency’s intelligence unit had been alerted weeks earlier to reams of chilling chatter about right-wing extremists arming for an attack on the Capitol that day, Sund says, but didn’t take the basic steps to assess those plots or sound an alarm. Senior military leaders, citing political or tactical worries, delayed sending help.

And, Sund warns in “Courage Under Fire,” it could easily happen again. Many of the factors that left the Capitol vulnerable remain unfixed, he said.

In his account, Sund describes his shock at the battle that unfolded as an estimated 10,000 protesters inflamed by President Donald Trump’s rally earlier in the day broke through police lines and punched, stabbed and pepper-sprayed officers, outnumbering them “58 to 1.”

Sund said his shock shifted to agony as he unsuccessfully begged military generals for National Guard reinforcements. Though they delayed sending help until it was too late for Sund’s overrun corps, he says that he later discovered that the Pentagon had rushed to send security teams to protect military officials’ homes in Washington, none of which were under attack.

Sund reserves his greatest outrage for  . . .

Continue reading. (no paywall)

Written by Leisureguy

1 January 2023 at 8:36 pm

Thinking about a new year, our resolutions for it, and whether those are good.

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A short video, and an interesting contrast of ideas. Full disclosure: On the first of January, I shall get an email to myself that I wrote one year ago, about my plans, goals, fears, and hopes for the coming year, and I shall write one to be delivered a year later. However, the same is true for the first of each month. 

Written by Leisureguy

31 December 2022 at 12:10 am

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