Monday, September 24, 2018

Borscht and Piroshki

I want to try to put my thoughts into words. I never know what I’m thinking until I make that effort. Once I say or write something, I can then say, “Yes. That’s it. That’s what I think.”

I’ve been loosely following two of the leading stories in the news. I say loosely. I haven’t got the strength to sit in front of a computer screen to follow all the shit that comes down as “breaking news.” I watch what I can, and try to keep up. Mostly I say to myself you just have to wait and let the guys in charge make the moves and then you can come in and celebrate or grieve – more grieve these days, of course. And when you think you have something to say, say it. Otherwise, sit still and collect information.

I’m not speaking out so much as trying to think things through. Here are my thoughts in progress on the Supreme Court appointment and on whether Facebook should be censored or otherwise controlled by government.

First, the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is important. So important that I think the country depends on it to keep its search for democracy alive. Note I said search for democracy. I think we need to accept the notion that we are not remotely the kind of democracy we like to tell ourselves we are. We are, in our best moments, a noble effort to form that democracy at some point in the future, and our work as a society should be in moving the marker along the path to that goal. The Supreme Court fails miserably at times, as evidenced by their stepping in to put George W. in office. That decision opened us up to lies from on high which got us into torture as a national policy and a war which resulted in thousands of deaths, and the creation of the Taliban. Also, the decision to give wealthy corporations the right to donate unlimited supplies of money clandestinely, which ultimately buys politicians who vote to reconfigure our tax structures for the benefit of the wealthy and widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But the Supreme Court also gave us civil rights and put the brakes on some of Trump’s worst efforts to paint Muslim refugees as dangerous people. Agree with their decisions or disagree, I doubt anybody in the know can fail to see they are a crucial part of a functioning democracy (and I repeat – “functioning democracy” is in fact a misnomer; it’s a stand-in for “a collective effort to achieve democracy.”)

The democracy project, to put a name to America’s ultimate goal, has had some serious setbacks lately. The two political parties are plagued with a critical mass of self-serving liars and hypocrites, and too many Americans have determined that they are no longer well-represented. They have turned their back on the candidates the parties propose for national office and they take too little interest in local elections. The Electoral College no longer makes sense but we seem to be unable to get rid of it and gerrymandering is a civic crime for which nobody ever gets punished. It leads to further problems with fair representation and both parties are guilty of engaging in it.

The weaknesses in the electoral system have allowed an astonishingly incompetent self-serving fool to take office and turn the executive branch into a tool for destroying government, arguing that “the market” (read: “the rich”) knows better than government, getting support by manipulating Catholics and evangelicals by promising they will eliminate the right to abortion, and white supremacists who fear the “browning” of their country. And, of course, the me-first monied types who don’t want their wealth used for health, education, a clean environment, potholes and the general welfare.

With the executive and legislative branch now firmly in the hands of those who would sabotage government, there is one branch left to gain control of, the one that is supposed to remain above the fray but has been viewed ever since the Bork nomination as a political tool, like the other two branches.

Obama, please note, could have chosen to radicalize the court with a left-winger but continued his naïve practice of aiming for a middle which no longer exists and nominated Merrick Garland, a moderate “centrist” with top-notch credentials, whom even Orrin Hatch was able to describe as “a consensus nominee”. Majority leader Mitch McConnell took it upon himself to prevent the consideration from going forward while the democrats were still in office, quite evidently hoping that if Republicans won in 2016, they could get a more serious right winger into Scalia’s place on the court.

Which brings us up to the present day. Kavanaugh is a living nightmare for those who believe women should have the right to choose an abortion. He has also expressed views suggesting the president should be above the law, leading most people, including the most ardent supporters of Trump, to believe he is Trump’s hand-picked trump card (pun intended) to get-out-of-jail if the need should arise, i.e., if he should be indicted by the Mueller investigation.  

Here, in a nutshell, you see why it has been such a disaster that the likes of Donald Trump should have taken power. You have potentially a man who can use the system to escape a legal finding of guilt. To be sure, nobody can guarantee that this is the only outcome of a Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court. Others would have to become involved. But the potential for one of the most serious setbacks to the democratic project imaginable is a clear and present danger.

And this brings me to the question of where I should step in and form an opinion. Should I join those panicking over what has all the makings of a fascist coup? Should I say Kavanaugh should be stopped at all costs? My sympathies clearly lie with the socialist left. I believe capitalism untempered by a socialist mindset leads to imperialism and war for the benefit of the military-industrial complex, destruction of the environment, and an ever greater wealth gap. I’d like to take the high road and argue that if I want to live by the rule of law I can’t give in when it doesn’t serve my purpose. But I’m also strongly tempted to believe we are on the verge of disaster, and too strict a rule-of-law stance just hands power to the power-mongers on a silver platter. They’ve already managed, through astonishing deception, to seize this much power. Do I help give them the rest?
This leads back to the old story of the question of whether a battle between good and evil can ever be fair. After all, “good” has to play by the rules. “Evil” has no such compunctions. Good is often forced to surrender the high ground and “fight fire with fire” to win. Evil cannot be persuaded by moral reasoning; its only goal is winning.

I’m not suggesting the Republicans are “evil” here. I recognize that not all Republicans are evil and in fact most Republicans are not. There is nothing evil about believing that the market place is a better place to make policy than the back rooms of political institutions. But that’s not who Republicans are these days. Most of the media I listen to paints them as Trump toadies, but that opinion is highly contested. The Brookings Institution says that’s not the case. Others say it more or less is.

To repeat, we are in a chaotic situation where if you play by the rules, you’re liable to be little more than an enabler of chaos and the furthering of current Republican goals, the dismantling of public schools, hunting in Yellowstone National Park, denial of global warming and all the rest. Better to fight the nomination of Kavanaugh at all costs.

That’s one of the little voices in my head. Join forces with women coming from all corners to tell their tales of sexual abuse in years gone by – ignoring the fact that they don’t actually shed light on whether Kavanaugh is telling the truth when he says he’s not one of these abusers. Throw your weight behind your causes – Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, women’s struggle for equity and the rest. Get in there and fight and stop thinking so much and turning every piece of evidence over trying to be fair.

I’m glad a second woman has come out and thrown dirt on Kavanaugh’s reputation, someone from his college days. That makes the case for removing him a bit stronger. But still we don’t know how to evaluate these stories. We can only join a side blindly and hope our side wins. And that’s a pretty shitty way to go through life. Tribal. Not something to be proud of on one’s deathbed.

OK, now how about the Facebook situation. Friend Bill asked me this morning whether I thought Facebook should be censored. Actually, his question was whether it – and the browsers and search engines, should take down or otherwise steer clear of holocaust denials. I responded that the first thought that came to mind was how happy I am to know that somewhere out there in the world there is a Germany where you can't deny the Holocaust and can't legally display the swastika. People do it anyway, but they are then classed as criminals and are prosecuted. That leaves us in the rest of the free world with the luxury of feeling superior because we don’t place such restrictions on our freedom of expression.  

I remember struggling in the 60s with the fact that hippies and college students were able to march down the street waving banners of protest because they had parents paying their bills and they lived in a society which valued the First Amendment. We didn’t spend even a fraction of our time criticizing the actions of the Soviet and Chinese totalitarian dictatorships. We justified our angry expressions of protest against American imperialism in Vietnam on the grounds that we were simply Americans dealing with American problems. Pointing out wrongs and making them right.

Now here we are again faced with the possibility we are missing the woods for the trees. Are we getting the whole picture? Is it the principle of free expression we should be supporting? Or is this a brave new world where the realities have changed so much that to support holocaust deniers (take out holocaust denial, if you like, and put in hate speech) is to hand victory to the evil ones. Or at least do their work for them.

John Oliver makes the point beautifully that in much of the world Facebook has become a primary source (sometimes the only source) of news. And as such can influence millions of people in evil ways – like leading the Burmese to believe the Rohingya are trying to destroy the country rather than see that they are victims of a vicious policy of a military government intent on ethnic cleansing.

Uncontrolled freedom is license, and easily abused. Freedom wrongly exercised can be the  mechanism for one group to do harm to another, as when religious groups argue their freedom to express their religion must necessarily require others in the society to follow the laws they make. Don’t we have a right to stop license - and all abuse of freedom - in its tracks?

The problem (nothing new here) is the line between freedom and license. Getting that line right is a never-ending challenge.

The short answer, I think, is for there to be a number of institutions to oversee all sources of information, some kind of expansion of Snopes and other fact-checking concerns, organizations that might post warnings about gross misinformation. I'd personally like to have them actually censor Facebook and the browsers, but I realize that could lead to overreach. Just as we live by the imperfect rule of assumption of innocence until guilt is proven, I think we have to live with the presence of error and count on all of us to point it out when we see it.

We once had such a system. We called it the "free press." But that sounds more and more like a naive notion that we live in a world where everybody pays their taxes and sweeps the sidewalk in front of their houses. That world is no more. When things moved more slowly, a newspaper or magazine could print a story. Another newspaper or magazine could print another story contradicting the first one, and over time people could dig for facts and check sources and come to a conclusion over which version to believe. These days fewer and fewer people get their information from print sources. We listen to online sources which claim to offer us “Breaking News” and get our news from the entertainment media, where the top priority is not accuracy but profit, through ability to keep an audience glued to the tube.  The responsibility of the citizen remains the same. It’s just that the task has gotten harder since every jack and jill (including yours truly) can play the role of information provider, can blog and comment till the cows come home, no expertise needed.  Our failure to learn critical thinking in school has come home to bite us in the ass. We have this wonderful new world, this explosion of information, but we haven't learned to manage it properly.

And that brings us to what may be the biggest problem of all in the modern age, especially (but not uniquely) in America: the willingness to believe things that cannot be verified. Check out Kurt Andersen’s marvelous book, Fantasy: How America Went Haywire – a 500-year history.”   One of my earliest attempts to shake off the religious indoctrinations of my youth came with the realization that the particular fantasies of my church history were quite different from the fantasies that other church groups had come up with and they couldn't all be right. That led to the idea that maybe the best course of action was not deciding which one to believe, not to convert to another church, shed one fantasy tale for another, but to cut out fantasy altogether. To recognize that once you were convinced you should believe in fantasy at all, you were ripe for any smooth talker to persuade you to take another fantasy as gospel truth (pun intended).  Like the Pied Piper in the White House, for example, now on record for crossing the 5000-lies mark recently. 

In the end, I have to recognize my own limitations. I’m getting old and it’s all I can do to walk my girls around the block so they can sniff every blade of grass, growl at every passing dog, and swallow things that make them throw up on my wall-to-wall carpeting once we get home. Getting out in the streets to scream my ideas about how the world should be run is not in the cards anymore. Kavanaugh will be appointed to the Supreme Court or not. If he is appointed he may help persuade the other conservatives on the bench to vote with him to take women back to the days of coat hangers. Even after all that has happened, all the daily outrages of lies and deceit, I still believe that’s an unlikely possibility. But we’ll see. Blacks will lose the right to vote, of course, and the democrats will have less say in how the country is run.

But the world, I suspect, will right itself after a time, possibly sooner rather than later if democrats get out the vote in November. And if you keep focused on the larger trajectory you can find some reason for hope. I grew up in a world in which blacks couldn’t go to school with whites. Today blacks and whites marry. I grew up in a world where the Catholic Church made many expressions of lust and love into something dirty. Today they are a sick
institution indeed, with their right wing eating the pope alive, or trying to. They are trying to put the blame for child abuse on the homosexual members of their organization, oblivious to the fact that the world has long since left them and their world-is-flat knowledge level in the dust with that cowardly and impotent attempt at scapegoating.

But not everything follows the law of entropy. Not everything turns to shit.

Shit for a time, maybe. But that’s why god made soap and water.

My conclusion, in case you missed it, is no to fighting dirty to keep Kavanaugh off the court, no to censoring Facebook, yes to sticking with the goals of the enlightenment, calling the shots as you see them and never telling a lie or punishing an innocent for a greater purpose, keeping up the effort to keep the democracy project on track – or get it back on track, and finding ways to stay in the swim.

For me, at the moment, that means alternating among listening to piano concertos on YouTube, which provides you with the scores to follow, and to practically anything Stephen Fry has to say, reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and looking forward to tonight’s dinner: borscht and piroshki.

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