Archive for the 'on Society' Category

Nuclear War Made Personal

This happened and it points out quite candidly how small the world is and how nuclear weapons would destroy so much of a world we cherish and places we don’t even know about. I believe this also clearly illustrates how we affect those world, the worlds we don’t know about. At bottom, this short story is about our shared humanity and how the past catches up with us in unexpected ways.

I have mentioned before that I worked in Poland for five years beginning almost immediately after the fall of Communism. I worked as a management consultant to Westernize and computerize a large Polish enterprise that had been bought by a group of American investors. (Which is itself another story for another time.)

< n.b. > I graduated in mathematics from Alliance College in 1960 from which I entered the United States Air Force. Alliance College was a school underwritten by the Polish National Alliance. I took the Polish as my language requirement and I grew up in a community where Polish was spoken by my Mother and in many places and circumstances. In the Air Force, I was assigned to the Strategic Air Command and served as a Launch Control Officer operating an Atlas F – ICBM silo near Salina, Kansas.

On my first trip, I arrived in Warsaw very late and was met at the airport by a driver from the company who spoke no English. My Polish language skills had languished quite a bit but I was able to have a simple conversation as we drove from Warsaw to Torun the site of the factory. I was taken to a hotel and after checking in went to my room, opened the window, and fell into bed having been mostly awake since leaving New Mexico. As I was falling asleep I heard the unmistakable sound of heavy artillery. Looking out the window and to the West, I could see that each “boom” was accompanied by a flash. I eventually fell asleep.

Room service woke me in time for breakfast (sniadanie) in the hotel’s dining room where I was met by a great gentleman, a professor at The University of Torun and a former fellow at the Brookings Institute. After breakfast, we were taken by a company driver along the historic Vistula River to the factory. As we were driving, I asked the Professor why the cannon fire during the night. He explained this is a now Polish military base having formerly been a Soviet medium-range missile facility.

I didn’t say another word because there was only one Soviet medium-range missile facility in Poland, it was in the North West, and this was then, at one time, one of my targets. This beautiful medieval city would not be here had we launched against that Soviet base. It was a chilling experience. I never mentioned this to my hosts, of course, but the thought was always with me – nuclear war made concrete and personal.

Porcupines And The Social Contract

Porcupines and the Social Contract

Sometime back there was an image on the internet of a snake that had swallowed a porcupine. I didn’t click on the image to see the video of the event as the photo was sufficiently vivid. That image came back to me after seeing photos online of Trump and members of Congress beaming into the camera having reached a happy compromise over the debt limit in order to facilitate hurricane aid to the affected states. The Republican Speaker of the House did his best to make it seem like a good time was being had by all. The Republican party, I think, swallowed a porcupine when they climbed onto the Trump bandwagon and they know it. The daily damage and destruction inflicted on the American social contract by the Trump administration has revealed a number of people who are now realizing they too have swallowed a porcupine.

Not long after hurricanes struck Puerto Rico, the President explained that Puerto Rico is an island way out in the ocean, thus making aid difficult. Despite begging from elected officials, prevarication characterized the presidential response to the emergency and attendant tragedy. Puerto Rico was still engaged in an ongoing humanitarian emergency weeks later as well as a verbal duel with the president, who visited the island and demonstrated his concern for the people by throwing packages of paper towels to them. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the government and its partners were providing only 200,000 meals a day to meet the needs of more than 2 million people. As if the Puerto Rico tragedy were not enough, just a week or so later a gunman, firing from a hotel room 39 floors above street level in Las Vegas, shot and killed 59 people and injured more than 500 who were attending an outdoor concert. The President’s response?  It’s “premature” to discuss guns.

In some respects the porcupine seems to be going down easily. The President is eagerly joined by Congressional Republicans on certain issues. Speaker Paul Ryan in discussing the Republican sponsored tax cuts, explained that the middle class would somehow benefit from those cuts that were mainly for the wealthy. Middle class people would pay more to fund the cuts. Oh, yes, of course. So far the proposal has been stalled and new, sweeter proposals offered. This is the same Paul Ryan who led the Republican assault on Social Security and public education which should also give people a clue to just how destructive his party and this President are intending to be to American society and our limping democracy. The assault on public education, by the way, is the same strategy employed by demagogues and dictators throughout history; control education to control the minds of children and young adults so they become easier to manipulate as a general public. Control information with falsehood or distortion to control the public in general. And, let’s privatize public education to make a profit while we are at it.

  

What we have here is an untethered reality, a president who believes whatever he says is real and true. It is true, of course, that people can believe and not believe the same thing simultaneously. It’s a form of solipsism, the idea that anything outside your own mind doesn’t exist so you can inhabit your own reality simultaneously with inhabiting the outside social world shared with others. This self-defined world is fueled by what is sometimes referred to as “existential fatigue” which has been defined as a personal search for meaning and purpose in a world increasingly bankrupt of both. It isn’t a complicated matter for the people who voted for Trump who know his  background of financial cheating, child molestation, self-admitted sexual assault complete with comments on how to approach that. Yes, good church-going, self-defined “Christians” remain supportive of the President and his agenda. What to make of this? A remarkable fluidity of perception, loose commitment to a social contract, and a fungible belief system. Now, while the porcupine is getting a lot of attention it’s the snakes facilitating the porcupine that we have to watch out for. And the snakes had better understand that once swallowed, the Porcupine has only one path out.

Notes On A Foreign Country

I don’t very often publish book reviews but in this case I believe this book to be of great value to anyone trying to make sense of where our country is going.

Review – Notes On A Foreign Country

The sub-title of Suzy Hansen’s “Notes On A Foreign Country” is “An American Abroad in a Post-American World” and that is the story in a nut-shell. Having worked abroad myself for several years I was eager to read what someone else had to say about the experience. What I encountered forced me to look back on my time working in Eastern Europe and I didn’t like what I saw. Ms Hansen is unrelenting in her pursuit of the truth and the clarity of her demeanor and expectations. In short, both she and I and no doubt many others, prima fascia, take American superiority in all matters for granted except perhaps cuisine.

Hansen moved herself to Turkey to experience living full-time in a foreign country following the September 11th attacks. She was then writing for the New York Times Magazine and decided to move to a Muslim populated country to better understand the culture of the Middle East, that country was Turkey. While residing in Turkey she traveled extensively to other countries in that part of the world – Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. She came, by virtue of her travels and unrelenting introspection, to a better understanding of herself and the United States. What she saw clearly were the assumptions many of us make as Americans working and living abroad.

The first challenge that came to mind for this reader is the belief that the United States leads the world in technology, education, military strength, social equity, and in other respects. It came as a great revelation to Ms Hansen that others do not perceive us that way. What she learned is that the influence and reputation of this country is in decline if not bottomed out. One has only to consider the ongoing futility of our military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to appreciate that assessment. And, not only futility but the mind-boggling waste of American lives and national treasure in ventures that have no realistic purpose or definable conclusion. How, for example, can we consider ourselves superior as a society when ours is virtually the only industrialized free market country in the world that does not provide universal free health care?

Hansen’s descriptions of place and people are vivid and intelligent as are her reflections on herself as an actor in a world different from how she was raised and educated. She discovers the disillusionment with the United States of people in the places she visits. She sees how Americans are generally fully convinced of theirs and their country’s superiority as they fail to understand and respect other countries, their people, and their customs. This attitude engenders resentment and a closing down which stands in the way of meeting as equals. We are international missionaries for our life style, our mores, and our technology. We take our values to those whose own values and methodologies are presumed to be inferior to ours.

All of this brought to mind a Polish aphorism, “Koniec nie vidac!” The end is not seen, cannot be seen. We must wonder if perhaps that is the idea, the ultimate purpose, that there be no end to the pursuit of wars around the globe, they are just too profitable to end. And, as we wonder, you may rest assured that others in other countries are thinking the same thoughts.

This is a personal book well written and valuable. This is also an important book with which to disabuse yourself of U.S. Power, popularity, and influence in a world now made crazy and unstable in the “Time of Trump” who himself probably could not find a majority of the involved countries on a map.  I recommend it highly if, for no other reason, than for perspective on this country. My hat is off to Ms Hansen who now makes her home in Turkey.

NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY

An American Abroad in a Post-American World

Farrar, Straus  and Giroux

A Pacifier Nation and Governance by Chaos – or – How To Destroy a Social Contract.

This is the first installment of several on the American Social Contract.

Here is a perfect example of the kind of mentality we are dealing with. This is a quotation from Donald Rumsfeld justifying war in Iraq:

Donald Rumsfeld famously argued with regard to the WMD question in Iraq, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” 

How many times does it have to be said? How much more clearly can it be articulated? But, I’ll  say it once again, this centuries old accumulated wisdom …. – The greatest human problem, the most destructive and most powerful force in the human experiential universe is greed with fear running a close second!  It is fear that is most often exploited by demagogues claiming to speak for the voiceless masses expressing their fears, their anger, and without fail, their prejudices against perceived “enemies” such as all those immigrants “stealing” their good jobs. It would no doubt be sold as “America First”.  … in 1938, a New York Times reporter warned: “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.” No mention will be made, of course, that those stolen good jobs were actually shipped to countries where wages are low and benefits non-existent. No discussion will ensue about how all of this belies the fact that a once believed in social contract has been dismantled and effectively destroyed. The so-called American Dream has fast become the American Nightmare.

What exactly is a Social Contract and how does a society acquire one? All societies including totalitarian states have a social contract both explicit and implicit, written and unwritten, enforced and unenforced. Social contracts cover anything and everything from attire, to diet, to religious practice, to driving on a particular side of the road. In some societies the origins of their contract provisions are lost in time having evolved without record but are manifest in the present.

The social standing of women, castes, races, ethnicities, regional inhabitants are all aspects of social contracts as they occur around the world and within nations. Some are decided by vote others by imposition and carried on by secular or religious tradition or custom. The actors assemble under a variety of banners from Marxism to neoliberalism and always with the same objectives – to limit personal freedom and to delimit individual behavior thus defining a contract.

I have been studying the Social Contract for more 30 years out of an interest that evolved from my teaching a course at Madison titled “Schools and Society”. The motivating question at that time was: Why do societies put so much effort and treasure into teaching the young from kindergarten through university and college? And now, why today, has the United States, a country that has had an enviable system of public education since its founding, why now attack public education from all quarters? I recently saw a Gallup poll that found that more than half of those surveyed were dissatisfied with public schools.

(To be continued.)

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here”

Some time back I wrote a review of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here”. I picked the book up again because, in fact, it is happening here. This essay will use excerpts from that review to illustrate and make what I believe are important points regarding recent political events in which a clearly unqualified and unsuitable individual won the 2016 race for President of the United States and then went on to propose drastic cuts to federal programs so depended upon by people across the United States. Here is a list published by the New York Times and other entities:

  • $5 billion in cuts to public education.
  • $73 billion in cuts to Social Security.
  • $191 billion in cuts to food stamps.
  • $610 billion in cuts to Medicaid (and that’s in addition to the $880 billion the
  • House Republicans are slashing with their Stealth ”health care” bill).
  • $72 billion in cuts to disability benefits.
  • $53 billion in cuts to unemployment benefits.
  • $22 billion cut from low-income family support.
  • $6 billion cut from the National Institutes of Health.
  • $1.2 billion cut to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  • $1 billion cut to National Cancer Institute.
  • $838 million cut to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
  • $776 million cut to National Science Foundation.
  • $575 million cut to National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

(Sources: White House, Washington Post, New York Times)

Of course the President isn’t alone in this savaging of the social contract he is being assisted by Congressional Republicans who are exhibiting  a serious case of sociopathy themselves. The Democratic party contributed its share to the debacle when they conducted what amounted to a rigged convention to nominate a candidate who was not the choice of rank and file Democrats.

We must also include in this the constant undermining of the news media by the president with his mantra of “fake news”. This constant false characterization of the news media is a blatant effort to cause people to not trust what they read in newspapers or watch on television if it contradicts what the Presidential is trying to spin. This is all about social control, this is about being able to lie and to deceive the public. When the public doesn’t have access to the truth, when they are led to believe they cannot trust sources of news even to the extent that crowd sizes at rallies are constantly inflated to cast greater approval than really exists. For example he is touting today that 15 thousand people attended his rally yesterday when, in fact, by official count 4 thousand did.  It is childish propaganda but effective propaganda at that. When the truth cannot be known the effect is devastating and we have a dangerous situation on our hands.

 

In my earlier essay I wrote:

Yes, it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant while others feel their time has come. The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go along to get along” complacent society. This is also what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support.

Sad to say, that opening sentence was prescient and I felt it more than I thought it. There were other reasons of course, including what many of us thought was a dishonest primary with high party officials, including the party chairwoman, colluding to favor one candidate over another a fact later confirmed by ballot counts. Complacency in the form of a great many eligible people simply not voting either in the primary or in the general election added to the debacle. The lack of voter interest and participation is, in and of itself, a terrible commentary on and worrisome omen for the future of politics in the United States, for the future of what is left of democracy. Think for just a moment of those who sacrificed, either with lengthy commitment of time out of their lives or by making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to preserve this so-called Democracy. The depth of tragedy is unavoidably clear.

Where were all those “Freedom Loving” Americans who stand for the national anthem even if they don’t know the words and can’t follow the music? Do they not know, have they not been taught, do they not understand the importance of voting, of informing themselves of what is at stake? What happened? Where did the American socialization process go off the tracks, substituting consumerism for patriotism?

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation …  from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged”. It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something” – a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses crucial to their success.

It is a pathology, a disintegration of a social contract that requires responsibility for the conduct of a society and the outcomes of its governance. It’s a pathology that can become fatal. I have witnessed instances of these kinds of “leaders” asserting control over organizations and social scenes and the pattern is always the same. Favors are given, loyalty replaces thoughtful engagement, “goodies” flow, and promises predicting even more “goodies” or “free” munchies for the faithful. It is, on evidence, an “innate primal instinct”. It is always, I believe, a matter of ambition over integrity, of emotion over reason.

… consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and … ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu.

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs

These specifications describe our 2016 Presidential election and its outcome. The specifications apply to both sides, some elements applying more to one candidate than the other. To these I would add two more. There is a certain kind of ruthlessness that specifically negates civility and exploits weakness in others. If you add together the elements of anomic personality disorder you can come up with a fair and accurate description of the actors in this modern-day drama especially the over-weaning necessity to dominate and to receive submission. Last but not least, in connection with the former, include the need for revenge as punishment for failure of obsequiousness and obedience. 

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself. I vividly remember the turmoil of 1968 and the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read … I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this? Think of “It Can’t Happen Here” as an early warning call to action.

As much as some people seem to be revolted by the notion, our social contract is underwritten by socialistic policies such as Social Security, Health Care, highways and by ways maintained by governments, police departments, fire departments, and a standing military; all of this for the benefit and good of all, even if more for some than others. Will all of this be dismantled in a sociopathic jihad that posits everyone should be on their own in some kind of uncivilized jungle ethos? Are we just going to give this a whirl and see where it ends while the rest of the world watches? Good luck!

Winning and Lying

I recently read a long essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine about a young lady, Noura Jackson, who spent nine years in jail because of prosecutorial bad behavior. In this woman’s case exculpatory evidence was withheld at trial and from the defense. When that evidence was uncovered and revealed the woman was released. Ultimately, the prosecutor and her staff were exonerated. Imagine yourself with nine years of your life unjustly spent behind bars and the people who deliberately perpetrated this outrage got off free. Law and order? Justice? I don’t think so. It is, in fact, more like rewarding pathological lying.

The ethos that caused this young lady to lose those nine years of her life is pervasive in both criminal and civil courts. The base cause of callous disregard for Justice is, as I see it, the national American fixation with winning at all costs and Truth be damned. In fact, the compulsion to win seems to have infected the entirety of our society with damaging effects to trust and civility. In civil cases incentive is provided by insurance companies who pay lawyers to beat back claims to “win” regardless of facts, regardless of damage or injury. It isn’t only a matter of insurance company lawyers pursuing claimants but also plaintiffs’ lawyers who sue businesses for claimed injuries to person or property under questionable circumstances and find sympathetic juries to award damages. In both instances what we have is an assault on truth and the social contract by lawyers. This aberration and negation of justice will continue for as long as lawyers are paid to “win”. They “win” and society loses.

The American ethos of relentless competition and winning is impressed on children practically from the day they are born as parents compare birth weights, the first time on the potty, and cheer passionately at little league ball games. Cooperation is regarded as “Socialist” and it is well on its way to being declared unAmerican. Our reigning president constantly touts himself as a “winner” because he knows the idea resonates with his base. According to him everything he touches “wins” and his fans hang on every utterance basking in his success and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice becoming vicarious “winners” themselves. This “winning” administration is working with the Republicans in Congress to make cuts to education, health care, social security, food stamps, Medicaid,  disability benefits, unemployment benefits, the National Institutes of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the list is long and, if they are successful, the inflicted pain and social disruption will be widespread. Yes, indeed. Step right up folks – everyone’s going to be a “winner”.

Once those cuts to government programs are in place and the savings awarded to billionaires as tax breaks what will be left for those social programs the general public depends on so much? People will be “great” and simultaneously diminished. The winners will be losers. The cutting sword cuts both ways. There is a pathology to this. In fact this pathology is the working definition of sociopathy: “… a disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” The populist “will of the people” has become the 21st century equivalent of phlogiston, the 17th Century magical ingredient, making everything add up regardless of “facts”. Who needs facts, who needs truth if you’re a “winner”?

In the face of what is being said and promised by our new president and what is actually taking place we must wonder about pathological lying and why people who are most injured by those lies vote for the liars. These people are voting against their own best interests, they are living in some kind of alternate universe fueled by resentment and anger. I read an interview recorded at a rally with an enthusiastic Trump supporter and it went as follows: I’m distrustful of most politicians, usually. They say almost anything. At least this administration is doing something. Whether it’s too fast, or outside of already in-place procedures, I really don’t know.” When asked to name an example of something that is “being done” the happy voter was at a loss, he couldn’t name one thing. In spite of or maybe because of, all this America is, at last, “winning” and on its way to regaining its lost “greatness”. Winning in this society has become a meta-political illusion, a dream world, that rationalizes political and lawyerly anti-social behavior as “greatness”. It’s a head scratcher all right. It’s a con game and our tattered social contract is being taken to the cleaners.

“Enemies Foreign And Domestic” 

  

Jean Piaget, one of the foremost experts in the field of children’s learning explained that in some “there is an absence of the desire to find logical justification for one’s statements, and … an excess of subjective and affective relations at the expense of genuine logical implications.” This describes the stage of development of children from roughly the age of 2 to 8 which seems to perfectly fit the mentality of Donald Trump. There are people who have been deemed “anti-Copernicans”, people who believe that humans continually create the universe via their own consciousness of it. We are now being hustled into the alternative universe of Trump who creates new realities and new universes on the fly as they suit his purposes. The venom of his ambition pulls on the loose threads of the body politic capitalizing on fear and uncertainty, exploiting ignorance. No matter what Trump says, lost jobs are not coming back to the United States but only the products of those absent industries make overseas where there is cheaper labor to exploit.

The Trump assault on health care, for example, is an attempt to drag life as it is lived by many people into a “new world”, a dystopian world of alternatives to the truth and reality as lived by millions of people who cannot otherwise afford health care — a “Let them take aspirin.” version of health insurance to which some are now belatedly awakening. What we are watching unfold with this administration is a total reversal of social gains made over many years for affordable and universal health care, a better and cleaner environment, and better educational opportunities for all children across the population — in short, a more humane society. It now seems the entire social contract so hard-won since the Great Depression and the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt is under assault. We have gone from the keen intellect of Jack Kennedy to an incurious narcissistic individual who can barely articulate two consecutive logically related sentences.

In these intervening years since Jack Kennedy, we have not evolved so much as we have begun to devolve politically and morally. We are engaged in unnecessary warfare in countries around the world where there is no demonstrable threat to this country but where there are lucrative opportunities to use and sell advanced weaponry or to provide access to petroleum resources. We have forgotten President Eisenhower’s warnings about the powerful military industrial complex. We are subject to what Francis Fukuyama characterizes as “a rent-seeking elite, who make use of their political connections to capture the state and use state power to enrich themselves.” The Trump cabinet is populated almost exclusively with such types and they are using state power to their own advantage. 

As a nation, as a people, Americans must come to grips with what is underway and decide what kind of country this is and what it is going to become before the dystopian tide overwhelms us. Are the American people ready to surrender their constitutional rights to an authoritarian government just to get even with people they don’t like? Does the public understand what kinds of people the president has surrounded himself with? Do they comprehend the consequences of appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court for the rest of his life? Do people understand the monstrous conceit and sociopathy of this president and how vulnerable that renders him to the manipulation and machinations of his motley crew and others, perhaps not only Americans but foreign actors who would like to control American policy abroad? What do we as a nation stand for?

When I was commissioned as an Air Force officer I swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic” for life. I never thought then I would live to see the day when the “domestic” part of that oath would loom in my consciousness. With revelations of Trump’s dealings and behavior in Russia lurking and ready to be disclosed I wonder where it will lead us. With politicians, national and state, assaulting the Constitution daily looking for means to subvert, undermine, or outright override its provisions  we cannot pretend that this is a benign moment in our history. It has been reported that the Koch brothers have commissioned a rewrite of the constitution even as they are meeting with Trump.  The time to stand up and be counted is now lest those who are on a mission to create a different country succeed.


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