Sunday, May 21, 2017

On God

Renes Descartes/ Frans Hals portrait
John Searle in an introduction to one of his philosophy of mind courses describes what he considers to be the number one problem in our era: How do we get an account of ourselves as conscious, mindful, free, rational beings, that we can make consistent with our conception of the rest of the universe as consisting entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical, particles, and fields of force? How do we reconcile what we think we know about ourselves (as conscious, thinking minds) with what we know, or think we know, about the rest of the universe?

Searle spends a lot of his time thinking about consciousness: is it different from the physical? What is it? And whatever it is, is it free? We’re not sure—it’s the problem of our time because maybe in this century we will figure out what consciousness is. How does consciousness arise from purely physical and non-mental matter? And how does this process allow for free will—or does it?

Descartes (1596-1650) thought he had the answer. “Cogito ergo sum,” he said. The world is divided into the physical (i.e. bodies) and the mental (or minds). The physical world is wholly determined by the laws of nature—or the laws of classical and quantum physics [See, e.g. Feinman]; by contrast, minds are free. Descartes’ formulation of this mind-body split started with the ancient Greeks, but it is Descartes’ formulation of these ideas that has been our dominant model for three hundred and fifty years.

Descartes accepted the Aristotelian view that the universe is made up of substances that have properties. In the Cartesian vocabulary that we have all internalized, there are two types of substances in the universe: mental substances and physical substances. And each of these substances have an essential trait. Physical substances have extension (they are extended in space); mental substances are characterized by thinking, or consciousness.

What is man? Man’s essence under this Cartesian view is that we are thinking, conscious beings. We also have bodies, but our bodies are independent of mind. Minds are free (we have free will), but bodies are determined (governed by the laws of science), said Descartes. In addition, he thought, minds are indivisible—they cannot be separated into constituent parts—while bodies can be infinitely subdivided. Bodies can be destroyed; minds, by contrast, are indestructible. Our mental essence, our soul, thought Descartes, is immortal.

Descartes’ idea of a body substance and a mind substance fit like a hand in the glove of Christian metaphysics.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Gospel of John 1:1-4.
Descartes’s mind-body split was well suited to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as three aspects of one godly substance/entity. Just like we are mind (conscious, thinking beings with an immortal soul) but have physical bodies, God is a transcendent substance with the manifestations of the Trinity. When we die, our souls join (reunite?) in unknown manner with the transcendent God substance of Logos, Father, and Son.

Four hundred years before Descartes, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) had a similar view. As described by Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the prominent rabbi, teacher, and leader of modern orthodoxy in Judaism, Maimonedes posited that man’s soul is a kind of divine overflow. If we properly tend to this surfeit overflow (that is our soul) by diligently observing God’s law, then our souls will be preserved and rejoin the divine essence after death; if we don’t lead a good life by observing God’s law, then our soul will perish, and we’ll disappear without a trace, like the other (mere mortal) animals. See Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man (1944).

In the traditions of both Judaism and Christianity, therefore, God is a transcendent substance. It's an idea passed down to us from Aristotle, Maimonides, Descartes and Christianity.

When we successfully solve the mystery of consciousness, the Cartesian duality of substance will lose its grip on us. Once science can provide a definitive account of ourselves as conscious, mindful, free, rational beings, even though our brains consist entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical, particles, and fields of force, our duality of substance will be gone. We will stop thinking of mental substances as existing independent of body.

Once Descartes loses his grip on us, the idea of a transcendent God, a divine essence separate from nature, will be hard to sustain in popular culture.


By long force of habit, even scientists who are not in the grip of our Cartesian duality sometimes adopt God language. Stephen Hawking, in his A Brief History of Time said that once scientists succeed in finding a unified theory of everything, surely they will be looking into the mind of God. Einstein, said “I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

But quantum physicists, when they speak on television, have a problem. Their language is mathematics that very few people understand. So they have a problem of translation: how to express their mathematical truths in English. But when they resort to English, it can seem like they are making it up on the fly. When scientists speak of rivers of space-time, curved space, the relativity of time, and split atoms in a box at opposite ends of the earth causally affecting each other, or cats being alive and dead at the same time . . .well, it seems they are attempting to translate mathematical models that only very, very few people understand. And that math does not translate into English in a meaningful way, not even for the scientists who understand the math. The math is real, the linguistic metaphors may not be.

When we listen to the metaphors scientists trot out for us when they are speaking in metaphorical tongues, we fantasize that we have a clue, but I suspect we don’t. Yet I have faith that the math is real; that the math exists. That it makes the world go round.

When rabbis and priests speak to us of religion there is a similar phenomenon going on: they speak in metaphorical tongues about "transcendence,"  except when it comes to transcendence, I’m not sure the math is real.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

The U.S. and Israel: "An Integrated Political System"

Since the end of the Cold War, more than 25 years ago, the United States has undermined the prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians argues Rashid Khalidi in his book Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013). Dahlia Scheindlin interviewed him in New York this week for the Tel Aviv Review. Successive American administrations, says Khalidi, have been unable and unwilling to force Israel to make the concessions necessary to implement the peace proposal on the table: a two state solution.

Menachem Begin laid down the template for Israeli resistance during the Camp David negotiations with Egypt, says Khalidi.  He figured out that the formula for not being forced to make concessions is to defer action forever. The '79 peace treaty with Egypt permitted Israel to continue settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli Sovereignty over the West Bank was not touched.

How much does the Israel lobby, both Jewish and fundamentalist Christian, explain why negotiations have failed to bear fruit for the past 25 years, asked Scheindlin. "It's beyond the Lobby," said Khalidi. Israeli and American politicians get funding from the same people. Important industries, like high tech and defense, are integrated in the U.S. and in Israel at the highest levels. As a result the U.S. and Israeli political systems are on the same page, to the point that it is more accurate to think of them as one integrated political system than in terms of allies, says Kahlidi.

And when he says the U.S. and Israel should be thought of as an integrated political system, he means  Zionist Israel. Zionist Israel is the idea of Israel as the state of the Jews for the Jews of the world. It is the idea that the state belongs to a Jew born in Argentina, or Bolivia, or the United States who has never set foot in Israel; and it belongs to this Jew who has never set foot in Israel somehow more than it does to an Arab Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem but forced out by war in 1948 or 1967; that, in a fundamental way, it belongs to this Argentinian, Bolivian, or U.S. Jew more than it does to a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

Zionism grew organically out of Western culture, says Khalidi. He points to the affinity of Zionists with the West. Zionism was a movement born in Basel and at the Biltmore Hotel. These people were at home in the West. Chaim Waizmann and David Ben-Gurion, were Europeans. Ben-Gurion lived in the United States for two years, organizing. He spoke English fluently and naturally. Golda Meir grew up in the United States, as did Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, Michael Oren (ambassador to U.S. 2009-13), and Ron Dermer (the current ambassador) all had American citizenship.

Since 1967, the American Jewish community (~7 million strong) has embraced Zionist Israel. And this community  has been established for five generations in the U.S. It is hugely influential in politics, law, business, and entertainment. There is a deep affinity between Zionism and the United States through its frontier culture, the idea of exceptionalism, and through the bible, says Khalidi. This affinity, and the Holocaust, have enabled the establishment of a pro-Zionist narrative that has whitewashed what is fundamentally a colonialist enterprise of dispossession. And it has enabled this narrative to be portrayed in an entirely positive context.

In this contest of ideas, suggests Khalidi, Palestinians have been hopelessly outmatched. They are monoglot. They speak Arabic. They have no connections to the West. They are not at home with English or French. There is no affinity between Palestinians and the West. The Arab community in the United States (~1.7 million) is much smaller and consists of more recent arrivals.  They are discriminated against in the U.S. today. Meanwhile, their potential patrons, the leaders of the Arab Gulf States, are autocratic powers of reaction. They are repressive, they are exporters of extreme forms of Islam. They have no natural affinity with Western values.

Today, the white nationalist political narratives in the West are aligned with the Zionist idea. Fighting white nationalism in the West, and fighting Jewish nationalism (as opposed to Israeli nationalism), are related. To the extent that Khalidi is right and the U.S. and the Israeli polity are an integrated political system, fighting White nationalism and fighting Zionism are part of the same fight.

Listen to the program HERE.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Trump and the Role of the Press: Two Stories

President Trump and FBI Director James Comey/Getty
"No drama Obama," they called him. Well, Trump is making up for our blessed period of tranquility in the White House with a vengeance. Nearly every day there is more drama. Here are two stories with diametrically opposed implications. . . . 

The First Story: Bad Leaking and a Failure of the Press

Yesterday there were leaks to the Washington Post suggesting that Trump disclosed (and compromised) highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador during a meeting at the White House last Wednesday. Notably the meeting was attended by a Russian photographer, but the American press was kept out. The Washington Post highlighted the story with great fanfare.

The leakers indicated that the president disclosed confidential intelligence sources relating to computer bombs being developed by ISIS in order to attack commercial airplanes. The administration learned about this from Israeli intelligence in March, thanks to an Israeli spy embedded with ISIS.  This led to the much discussed laptop ban on flights from certain Middle Eastern countries. See this Jake Tapper report on CNN. "Don't disclose the name of the city" where the intelligence came from, CNN was instructed. It also appears that the information was shared by the Israelis on the condition that the information be kept confidential. Disclosing this information will "get people killed," the administration informed CNN in March. Yesterday, Trump didn't keep the information confidential; he disclosed the city where the information came from to the Russians. 

But this laptop story is all about the press, and harmful administration leaks, not about Trump. What is the real security concern here?  Even if the name of the city where this Israeli spy is (or was) embedded with ISIS was disclosed to the Russians, it seems a stretch that this would naturally lead to the Russians disclosing this information to ISIS. The Russians may not be our friends, but they have no interest in compromising an Israeli spy embedded with ISIS. So what's the real concern, beyond having to alert the Israelis, and apologize with egg on face. 

The real concern here is that some undisclosed persons in the White House leaked the story to the Washington Post, and the Post saw fit to publish the information. To the extent that Trump's disclosure presents a danger to the Israeli spy, it's not because of what Trump said to the Russians; the danger comes from the fact that the press has obsessed over this for 24 plus hours to the point that every last ISIS mercenary knows the story. So we have to ask ourselves, did the leakers in the White House help or hurt the cause of maintaining this information confidential? Did the press help or hurt the interest of maintaining this information confidential? Did the leakers or the press do any favors to this embedded spy? Did the leaks or the press reports serve the public interest?  I don't think so. 

Some have gushed on Twitter: "great reporting is driving the agenda". But is this story great reporting? Or is it self-serving fomenting, doing what the press does best, appealing to our base emotions to drive clicks? The leakers' motives in this story was not to protect the Israeli spy, or to appease the Israeli intelligence community--so they will continue to cooperate--the motive was to embarrass Trump. Not a laudable goal in and of itself.

You can see why the White House, no matter who the occupant is, dislikes leakers and distrusts the press. Shit happens, and Trump is pretty hard to control. But both the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and the Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, felt that the conversation with the Russians about aviation security was appropriate. We have no real reason to doubt it. To the extent that Trump overstepped by sharing confidential information received from the Israelis, the way to handle this is apparent: inform the relevant agencies, inform the Israelis, and apologize. No big deal.  All the harm in the ISIS spy story was caused by the leakers and the press. 

The Second Story: Great Reporting and a Big Deal

Today. . . more drama.  This afternoon there was a New York times story based on a leaked Comey memo. In the memo, Comey documents an Oval Office private conversation with the president where Trump asked Comey to shut down the ongoing investigation into Michael Flynn's Russia ties. "I hope you can let this go," said the president.  

Michael Flynn, Trump's campaign aide and national security advisor after the inauguration, had been  asked to resign for having lied to the Vice President about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak. 

The day after Flynn's resignation, suggests the Comey memo, Trump asked Comey to shut down the FBI's investigation into Flynn's contacts with the Russian.  Comey did not, and now the president has fired Comey.  

Now that's a big deal. It smells like obstruction of justice. It's great reporting, and it's pursuing leaks that are in the public interest.  This leak is in the public interest because it goes to the heart of an obstruction of justice that we might never find out about without the leak. It's like Watergate . . . we don't want our presidents to break into the offices of political opponents, we don't want them to obstruct justice by shutting down an ongoing FBI investigation; we want them to be accountable to us. Without leakers and a diligent and dogged press, our public officials would be a lot less accountable.  

As these two stories illustrate, it's a complicated business, this leaking of government information and press reporting. . . . 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Friday, May 12, 2017

Can Trump and Livni Create an Opening for Israeli/Palestinian Peace?

Israel will not end its occupation of the West Bank without outside help, said Noam Sheizaf in Oakland recently. Since the Jewish public has the assets, the army, and sovereignty over the West Bank, the key for ending the occupation lies in the Jewish public's hands, he said. And the Jewish public has not been particularly interested in making a change.  For 11 of the past 21 years Netanyahu has skillfully navigated to maintain the status quo. It seems unlikely that the status quo will change until Netanyahu is gone.

Is Trump maneuvering to create a political opening for Tzipi Livni, the head of Hatnua, and might this create an opportunity for movement on the Palestinian/Israel negotiations?

Yossi Vertner has an intriguing article in Haaretz this morning. He reports that New York billionaire (a Trump kind of guy!) and head of the World Jewish Council, Ronald Lauder, "briefed Mahmoud Abbas before the Palestinian leader's successful meeting with the President." According to a senior Israeli official, Abbas succeeded “With a charm offensive (that) persuaded Trump that (the Palestinians are) interested in peace and are willing to pay the price for it, and that the main burden must fall on Israel.” And in the meantime, Tzipi Livni has the ear of Jason Greenblatt--Trump's envoy for the peace negotiations.  "Several times during my conversation with Greenblatt" said the senior Israeli official to Vertner, "he said ‘Livni says,’ ‘Tzipi believes,’ ‘in Tzipi’s opinion.’ It’s like she’s become a quasi-mentor. It appears he appreciates her a lot and is very attentive to her views.” At the end of March, before the AIPAC conference, Greenblatt tweeted that he was hosting Tzipi Livni for Shabat dinner.

          "An Israeli official said Livni was not only briefing Greenblatt about her long talks with the Palestinians, but also refuting Netanyahu’s argument about being unable to reach an agreement because of his government’s makeup. Livni told Greenblatt that the prime minister was assured of the opposition’s votes in the Knesset. As she recently said, if Netanyahu says he can’t, it should be clear to everyone that he won’t. 
          "I called Washington to ask Livni if this was so. She didn’t want to expand on what seemed like the beginning of a wonderful friendship with Greenblatt. She stressed that her meetings with him, including one this week, aren't held underground but with the Israeli Embassy’s knowledge. 
          “We have a huge opportunity,” she said. “The president is talking about his determination to close a deal; that is, to end the conflict. We have a president who thinks big and addresses the hard core. He’s not beating around the bush. I certainly think something dramatic could happen.”
Does Livni smell an opportunity? Does she see political daylight? Could she force a non-confidence vote against the Netanahu coalition and go to the voters as the person able to make a deal with Trump and peace with the Palestinians?

Vertner seems intrigued:
          "Livni isn't some delusional peacenik. Her feet are planted firmly on the ground. She’s a sober realist, familiar with the facts and with the players. I told her I didn’t remember such a burst of optimism from her since the culmination of her talks with the Palestinians in 2013-14 as Netanyahu’s envoy. Come to think of it, she didn’t sound like this even then. 
          “It’s true,” she said. “This time it looks different. The Palestinians’ demands have been reduced. They’re ready to make concessions. President Trump can now succeed with them as well as with the Israelis.”
 Whether this turns out to be more pie in the sky may depend on Trump and Livni. There is reason not to hold one's breath, but if Trump is willing to empower Livni, this might turn out to be a more promising avenue for progress than the one pursued by John Kerry during his frustrating year of banging his head against a wall with Netanyahu and his coalition. Livni would have to sell the Jewish Israeli public that this is the right moment to compromise--a tall order.

President Trump will deliver a speech at Masada, of all places, on May 22, 2017.  Stay tuned . . . .

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

There is Reason to Fire Comey--But that's Not why He was Fired: Trump is Lying (again) and it Matters

So Trump has fired James Comey, the FBI Director who has been heading up the investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign collaborated with Russian attempts to sabotage Hillary Clinton's campaign.

And Trump is lying again, says David Leonhart. He makes a compelling case.

In his letter firing Comey, [available at NYT] Trump disingenuously claims he was acting on the recommendations of the Attorney General and a memorandum from the Deputy Attorney General.   "I have accepted their recommendation," said Trump. But that's clearly not the sequence: the Attorney General's letter and the memo are dated today, May 9, 2017, not enough time for the President to digest the letter, the memo, and make a decision. What's more, the deputy AG who wrote the memo has been on the job for just two weeks. This is not someone whose word you would follow without serious reflection.

Indeed, as Bill Kristol wrote on Twitter: “[T]here was no real recommendation from DOJ. Trump wanted to do it, and they created a paper trail.” In fact, White House sources admitted right after the firing that Trump himself initiated the firing. "The White House charged Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, with coming up with a reason to fire Comey, as The Times and others have reported," says Leonhardt.

As recently as last Tuesday, Trump criticized Comey for having given Clinton "a free pass" and he dismissed the Russian connections investigation as "phony." In other words, Trump has never been concerned about the missteps outlined by the letter and memo; what he's concerned about is the Russia investigation and the fact that Comey is willing to assert strong independence in following through with this investigation.

As Kristol Tweeted, “One can  be at once a critic of Comey and alarmed by what Trump has done and how he has done it.” That seems surely correct.

James Dean, the White House counsel fired by Nixon in the "Saturday Night Massacre" during Watergate, seemed too sanguine tonight when he suggested to Judy Woodruff on the News Hour that Comey had made enough missteps, most recently during his testimony to Congress last Wednesday, that he felt Comey's time might be up. Yes, Comey has made missteps that justify him being fired. . . but those missteps are not why he was fired.

Comey made missteps last July, when he imprudently editorialized about Clinton's email server after deciding charges were not warranted. He made a more serious misstep when he made a public announcement about "reopening" the investigation into Clinton's email server shortly before the election--a misstep which may or may not have tipped the election. The final misstep came during Comey's testimony to Congress last Wednesday.  He was testifying about Clinton emails discovered on the computer of Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin.  Comey testified he felt compelled to reopen the investigation--and to make a public pronouncement about it--in part, because Abedin had forwarded hundreds of thousands of emails, many of which were classified to Weiner. In fact, the FBI had no evidence that these emails were "forwarded" by Abedin. Apparently they ended up on Weiner's computer when Abedin backed up her Blackberry, and the transfer was inadvertent.

All of these missteps seem sufficient ground to dismiss the FBI Director. And those are the reasons the White House has cynically used to justify the firing. It gives a cover story to the firing. But, as Leonhardt says: they lie. That's not why Comey was fired at all.

And the lie matters.

Comey is being fired because Trump wants a loyalist to head the FBI while it is investigating the Trump campaign. A few hours after the firing, White House spokespersons were out arguing on Fox News that the Russia Investigation should now be dropped.

Firing the FBI director because the President wants a loyalist to oversee an investigation into the possible collusion between the President's campaign and Russian operatives is a big deal.

It will be interesting, and important, who gets nominated to replace Comey. Congress must insist that it be someone of great stature, and with a strong commitment to independence: someone just like Comey--but hopefully with better political sense and judgment.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The AHCA as a Betrayal of our Hopes and Aspirations for the Republic

Trump and GOP Leaders after passage of AHCA
Evan Vucci/AP
Sandy Levinson, professor of law at the University of Texas, is a powerful critic of our constitutional disorder. In a blogpost at Balkanization, he laments the manner in which Paul Ryan and the GOP Congress rammed through a bill to undo the Affordable Care Act last week. It's a symptom of our constitutional disorder he suggests.

Our constitutional disorder is built on a gerrymandered, polarized, and unrepresentative House of Representatives, and a Senate where 103 million people living in four states (CA, TX, NY, FL) are represented by 8 senators, while 101 million people living in 35 smaller states are represented by 70 senators. It is a system where our president was elected by a minority of voters, and where that minority holds all the levers of power. And our disorder is presided over by politicians whose loyalty runs to party, not to country; by politicians who don't know how to think about the good of the country.

It was not so at our founding. The 13 original states were unequal in size and population, but the three regions (Atlantic, mid-Atlantic, and South) were relatively equal in political representation, and the discrepancy of voters between the largest state, Virginia, and the smallest, Rhode Island, was not nearly so pronounced. These days, the population ratio between CA and Wyoming--with two senators each--is 66:1; the population ratio between Virginia and Rhode Island in 1790 was just 10:1.

In addition to having more equal representation among the states in Congress at our founding, we had leaders who took process more seriously than what we witnessed last week, says Levinson. We had leaders who took their role seriously, who took arguments seriously, and who took the deliberative process seriously. Levinson points to the Supreme Court's holding in McCulloch v. Maryland, upholding the right of Congress to charter the First Bank of the United States. What justified the decision in part, and what may have tipped the scale for Chief Justice Marshall, suggests Levinson, was that Congress and the President took their deliberation seriously. They fought hard, but they gave a full airing to the issues.

We fancy ourselves a Republic. "Whatever a 'republican form of government' might be said to mean," says Levinson, "it is hard to escape the view that the seriousness of the debate and the conscientiousness displayed by our first President in attempting to understand the deep issues of constitutionality [of charting the First Bank of the U.S] as well as public policy instantiated it."

Process matters, says Levinson. Good will matters. Some knowledge about the details of what you're voting on . . . or, absent that, some trusted intermediaries who have knowledge, matters.  Being able and willing to defend your position with integrity and basic honesty matters.  

Whatever anyone can say about the merits of the "American Health Care Act" rammed through the House this week, the process was deeply cynical. It completely discounted the role of argument--no hearings were held on the bill, it was rammed through before the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office could "score" it--there was no conscientiousness on display, no desire to meaningfully understand the deep and complicated issues of public policy involved in reordering one-sixth of our economy, and no commitment to basic honesty.

The raw exercise of power exhibited by Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, and their GOP colleagues--to very uncertain ends--has betrayed our hopes and aspirations for the Republic.

Here is Levinson.
     "Although Hanna Volokh, among others, has suggested that legislators must in effect be responsible for actually reading and understanding the laws they vote for, in the modern world that would be a de facto impossible burden. Yet we would like to think that at least a critical mass of legislators are in fact well informed, and, just as importantly, are trustworthy in describing with some degree of accuracy what is in a bill and answering with relative honesty the questions of potential adversaries of the legislation. Similarly, the “authority” of presidents and Supreme Court justices is presumably based on something more than the sheer fact that they inhabit their particular offices. . . . 
     "With the bill just rammed through the House of Representative by Paul Ryan and his minions. . . There were no hearings whatsoever on the bill. There was no willingness to wait a week for the Congressional Budget Office to “score” the bill and provide presumptively accurate predictions about the actual number of people who would lose their insurance coverage, and so on. It is literally incredible to believe that more than a very few members of the Republican majority who voted for the bill could pass an exam on its major features. There were simply no truly trustworthy “briefers” who could possibly have devoted sufficient time to understanding all of the complexities involved in upending what is roughly one-sixth of the US economy—i.e., the medical services industry—not to mention the actual human lives who depend on that industry for their succor. . . . . 
     "So there is a genuine “legitimacy” crisis at the national level of government. We have as President a raving narcissist . . . (whose) election was the result of an indefensible electoral college system. . . . Partisan gerrymandering, though not the only explanation of the virulent polarization of that institution, is surely part of it. The so-called “Freedom Caucus” is the creation of Republican zealots who want to make sure that the November elections are irrelevant. And Paul Ryan has indicated that he has no interest whatsoever in the actual process of legislation. Getting the support of the Freedom Caucus (plus the repeated willingness of vaunted Republican “moderates” to cave and support their “party leaders”) plus supplying gigantic tax cuts for the 1% were the only thing that mattered to this devotee of Ayn Rand. . . . 
     "As always, the key question facing us is “what is to be done” as we realize, more and more, that our political system is a clear and present danger to us all. . . . . We are simply lightyears from the political system that was, more or less accurately, described by John Marshall in McCulloch. Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Washington were indeed giants who took their role as leaders of the fragile new nation with the utmost seriousness, even if one pays full attention to their more human-all-too-human aspects set out in Michael Klarman’s magnificent study. . . .
Legislators need to ask themselves, what are they about?  We voters must demand answers, and pay attention.  Together we can and must do better.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How Does one get from "Trump Voters Registered a Protest against the Hegemony of Liberal Values" to "Liberal Values are the Problem?"

David A. French/from his National Review bio
He looks likable enough! 
David French, a senior writer for National Review, uses liberal criticism of Bret Stephens to illustrate an argument--and he paints with a broad brush indeed. America has a problem, says French: the problem is not Donald Trump and his Fox addled supporters, the problem is smug liberalism.

Yeah, let's try to illustrate that with smug conservatism.

"Liberal dogma is fast becoming a secular religion," says French. It's a curious criticism coming from a man of religion. What, pray tell? It's O.K. for you to be religious but not us liberals?

French, it seems, means to generally impugn everything liberals stand for: equal rights, rule of law, due process, separation of church and state, a tolerant and kind stance towards sexual identity issues, tolerance and caring towards refugees and immigrants, racial equality, universal education, free speech, a minimum wage, progressive taxation, equality between the sexes, equal representation in Congress, public support for the arts, universal health care (not just access to healthcare if you can afford it), security in retirement, and caring about the environment ("Liberal Values"). It's hard to tell what he means exactly. He does not offer up his definition of Liberal Values. But if French wants to carve out some of these Liberal Values from his criticism, I have a comments section and he can clarify. Specifically, though, he means to impugn Samantha Bee and climate change.

French does not practice what he says we should aspire to.

America has a "smug liberal problem," he says.  He means the late night satire shows (Samantha Bee's Full Frontal, Stephen Colbert's Late Show, or John Oliver's Last Week Tonight) and the liberals who watch these shows.  They (these liberals embracing Liberal Values) are shallow because they only have a "quick Wikipedia- and Google-search level of factual understanding," charges French.

His headline is a perversion of the recent Ross Douthat column in the NYT, Clinton's Samantha Bee Problem. Douthat made the interesting, and I think valid, point that late night satire shows reflect the ascendancy of big city culture and that the Trump phenomenon can be viewed, in part, as a reaction by his supporters to what they perceive as the stifling hegemony of big city Liberal Values: from sexual equality, to racial equality, to support for science. "Outside the liberal tent," says Douthat, "the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion."

But there is a gulf of difference between Douthat's headline of "Clinton's Samantha Bee problem" and David French's argument that "America has a Samantha Bee problem."  David French has taken Douthat's electoral politics analysis and turned it into "Liberals are the problem."

French points to liberal criticism (all liberal criticism) of Bret Stephens as a paragon of the "smug liberal problem." "So shallow," as Trump would put it. But French might think about leading more by example. He does not. As is often the case, to find the sinner, look to the one who complains about sin the loudest.

French launches his broadside at the shallowness of the "smug liberal problem" he sees embodied in the criticism of Bret Stephens, while demonstrating no more than a "shallow and quick Google-search level of understanding" of the criticism liberals make of Bret Stephens. If French has a deeper understanding, he avoids going there.

What characterizes Bret Stephens, recently hired to write Op-Ed pieces for the New York Times, is "an irritable callowness that easily flares into prejudice" laments liberal Philip Weiss who has been following Stephens's Mid-East writings carefully.  Weiss cites chapter and verse to make his case.

What characterizes Bret Stephens is that he is "utterly disingenuous," and that he "uses incorrect facts and terrible arguments" in the service of not doing anything about climate change, says liberal Dave Roberts, who writes about energy and climate change at Vox. Roberts cites chapter and verse to make his case.  He makes arguments.  You wouldn't know it from reading David French.

French has a valid point: you can't gain adherents by mocking them. Fair enough.  And, yes, Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver are smug.  So is Paul Ryan.  Paul Ryan's smugness annoys me. The antidote, I find, is to focus on the substance. That's, mostly, what the satirists on late night television are doing.

French can't take it. He doesn't want to deal with the substance, and, as Hasan Minhaj quipped about Donald Trump: he can't take a joke. So he resorts to:

  • "The only people who can't recognize our nation has a smug liberal problem are smug liberals;"
  • "Jake Tapper 'called out' Bee and other late night 'propagandists;'" (Watch, I wouldn't put it that way)
  • "It’s like sitting through an especially ignorant and heavy-handed Ivy League lecture, complete with the sycophantic crowd lapping up every word."
  • French repeats a not funny and somewhat shocking tweet of OMFG from George Takei that Bee re-tweeted (b/c all these shows are just like that all the time); and 
  • "smug liberals were in full melt-down mode over Bret Stephens." 
All the while French is demonstrating smug contempt for liberals while failing to engage substantively in a fair and honest manner with the arguments.  

French accuses David Roberts, who wrote a serious and lengthy piece at Vox as "bizarrely" and "inadvertently" admitting that science isn't, by definition, 100% certain.  But there is nothing "bizarre" or "inadvertent" about this: read Roberts. Disagree if you will, but engage. 

"Liberal dogma" (read liberal drivel) "conspicuously omits any requirement that one love his enemies," French continues.  "Post-Christian countries eschew Christian values, including the very values that can and should prevent even the most ardent activists from becoming arrogant . . . and intolerant."  Does that sound arrogant and intolerant? To my ears it does. 

"The unbelievers deserve their pain," French concludes.  With Christians like that, who needs to worry about post-Christian countries? 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Studying for our political economic literacy test: would your Representative in Congress pass?

HERE at Brad DeLong's site, Grasping Reality With All Tentacles, is a transcript of a very interesting recent talk by four economists moderated by Eduardo Porter (who writes for the NYT):   David Autor (Economist at MIT specializing on the economic impact of technological change and the global economy), Ann Harrison (professor of management, business economics, and public policy at Wharton), Brad DeLong (a political economist at Berkeley), and Paul Krugman.

The entire discussion is worth reading.  They cover the reasons behind the reduction of manufacturing in the U.S. from a high of 38% of the economy during World War Two, to 8.6% today.  They look at technological change, our strange and dysfunctional macroeconomic policies since the 1980's, the effect of trade deals, and the effect of China's rise.  

They touch on tariffs and free trade, educational policy, unionization, the role of the social safety net, minimum wage legislation, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.  

It's a lot to chew off. It's like a mini-seminar to prepare you for a political economics literacy test! 

Brad DeLong ends with a pitch for the idea of Universal Basic Income. We should not think of this as a "handout," he says: we should think about it more like Mitt Romney thinks about his inheritance.  
Let me make a plea for UBI. The argument against Universal Basic Income is always that it is a "handout", and people don't want handouts. You would have to sell it as something that is not "welfare". 
After my grandfather Bill Lord moved to Florida and became a construction company boss and real estate speculator, he did well: he was briefly the richest man between Tampa and Orlando. Ever since the money from the Lord trusts has boosted my consumption by about $10,000 a year. That has been my UBI. It has been quite welcome at times, and always convenient.

I don't see this as "welfare", as making me a "loser," as offending my "dignity"—even though I had nothing to do with the invention of the Wellman-Lord desulfurization process or any other value created by his accomplishments, and I would accept the argument that he was overcompensated for them. Similarly, Mitt and Ann Romney do not think in any way that they are loochers—losers and moochers—from their UBI, which came from the stock American Motors had given Mitt's father George to incentivize him, which stock they could sell to boost their standard of living when they went to BYU. 
The problem with UBI and with the welfare state is one of perception and of perception of who is deserving and undeserving. Inheritance in America today is not tainted. I think UBI should not be tainted either—and I think Mitt and Ann Romney would agree, if only they would step back and think a little...
This UBI observation here is the bonus. Read the whole article: can you pass the literacy test?

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Et tu, Obama?

Obama at University of Chicago, 4/24/17 (Getty photo)
The Washington Examiner has reported that Obama will earn $400,000 for what may be the first paid speech of his post-presidency, a keynote address at the Cantor Fitzgerald Healthcare Conference this September. Cantor Fitzgerald is a private partnership engaged in investment banking and trading; they have a strong presence in health care.

Obama's main legacy is arguably the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which is hanging on by a thread in light of seven years of scorched earth opposition by Republicans. Unable to muster a vote to repeal, the Republican Congress and the Trump White House seem determined to let it whither on the vine.

A key ingredient, if the ACA is to survive, is for insurers and their investors to compete in the insurance exchanges. This means insurers need to be willing to play ball. Many insurers, however, have stopped participating in the ACA exchanges in many states. In 2017, five states (Alabama, Alaska, Oaklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming) have no competition with only one company participating in the exchange; in 12 states (AZ, Conn, Del, DC, HI, Miss., Neb, NJ, RI, SD, Vt, WV) there are just two companies participating.

What the ACA needs is pretty clear: more people enrolled, more government subsidies, and more insurance companies competing. Making progress on these fronts will be difficult with Republicans in charge of government hell bent on sabotaging the ACA.

For these reasons, the Cantor Fitzgerald health care conference is important for the ACA. It's important for insurers and investors who may be thinking about participating in the ACA exchanges in 2018 and beyond, and so it's important to get a dynamic keynote speaker. There could not be a more dynamic speaker to address this conference than Obama.

We know what Obama will say at this conference: he will defend the ACA, and he will promote ideas that will help it survive. We know what he will say there whether he is paid, or whether he appears pro bono. Obama needs to be at that conference; and the conference needs him.

Should Obama be Paid?

Obama will be paid a hefty fee, in line with speaking fees president Clinton commanded shortly after he left office. 

I was critical of Hillary Clinton's speaking circuit tour in the years leading up to her presidential campaign. But I drew a distinction between current office holders, or politicians known to be running (or planning to run) for public office, and past office holders. I continue to think that's a valid distinction. 

President Obama is done with political office. For him to be paid a substantial sum to make a keynote address to defend his signature accomplishment to hedge fund mangers is not corrupt. I don't begrudge him the money. 

Matt Yglesias at VOX disagrees, and Henry Farell at Crooked Timber piles on. And so do the commenters there. Yglesias points out that Harry Truman, who left office in January 1953, left with just his army pension of $112.56/month and retired to his modest home in Independence Missouri. Truman turned down a lucrative board position in a real estate company in Florida; he refused to make commercial endorsements, accept consulting fees, or engage in lobbying. "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency," said Truman.

Now there is an example for an ex-president to follow, suggests Yglesias. Truman, however, did sell the rights to his memoirs to Life Magazine for "well over $500,000" (~$4.5 million today).  But the game of politics is expensive and the salary is not much. So Truman's is an unrealistic example. In 1958, responding in part to Truman's financial difficulties, Congress passed the Former President's Act in order to “maintain the dignity” of the office of the President. The Act provides former Presidents with a pension, funds for travel, office space, support staff, and mailing privileges. Obama will receive a life-time pension of $207,800. 

Shouldn't that be sufficient? asks Yglesias. 
In order to beat the populist demagogues of today, argues Yglesias, mainstream politicians should show some self-sacrificing spirit and moral leadership, like Truman did. Obama should make an ostentatious show of living off his government issued pensions (and his $60 million book contract), and otherwise refrain from leveraging his former office for personal gain. No paid speechifying! Embarrass those "other" ex-office holders (read Hillary and Bill). 

Everybody does it is no excuse, says Yglesias. And that's surely true, but when I look at former President George W. Bush, I don't see a problem. Per Politico, Bush delivered more than 200 paid speeches between 2009 and 2015, collecting up to $175,000 per speech. These speeches were given to an eclectic conglomeration of groups, mostly in private, below the radar screen. Bush made speeches to the National Grocers Association, the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. He spoke to global wealth management firms and multinational energy companies. He delivered speeches at motivational seminars, to boat builders, and for the Work Truck Show. He has given speeches to the chambers of commerce in San Diego and Wichita. He spoke for an event put on by a homeless shelter in McKinney, Texas. "We paid his normal fee," said Lynne Sipiora to Politico, "which is $100,000."  

This does not seem like corrupt activity to me. These events are enhanced by having a star politician make remarks. In the position of past president, there is not much in terms of political power to sell. Ex-presidents are paid for speeches because they are stars, like actors. They are not paid because anybody thinks they are purchasing political advantage in Washington DC. 

The Obama speech to the Cantor Fitzgerald Health Care conference will be helpful to the cause of having the ACA survive. Obama should give this speech. To jump up and down about how Obama should demonstrate a self-sacrificing spirit and do this speech for free, seems pointless.  To expect that such abnegation by Obama would be the key to get voters to reject a nationalist demagogue like Trump in the next election, seems naive. And why should Obama speak for free? This group of wealthy investors can afford to pay, more so than a homeless shelter, for example. Cantor Fitzgerald is marketing to wealthy investors and hedge fund managers out to make money. If you're ever going to charge for a speech--this would be it. 

On the other hand, insofar as Obama wants to be influential in setting and example for the next generation of politicians, Yglesias is surely correct that he will need to be sensitive to the optics of leveraging his status for personal gain. For him to find a way to set an example with some self-sacrifice and moral leadership is a worthy goal, and good advice. 

But charging a fee to hedge fund managers to promote the ACA? I'm fine with that.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Dreaming of Tuscany and Aspen in a World of Robots

And then they came for our hobbies!

A friend sent me another article sounding the alarm about how robots will put us all out of work: Times Higher Education,  The Robots are Coming for the Professionals  (July 2016).

We know, of course, robots, machines, and artificial intelligence are out to replace Uber drivers and long haul truck drivers . .  .  .  They've already replaced assembly line workers. Financial reporting analysts, lawyers, scientists, academics doing literature reviews for basic science are next to receive pink slips because we are being replaced by robots, suggests the article.

What's to become of us?

Does a tree falling in the forest make a noise when there's no one there to hear it? Does a robot on the ski slopes have any fun?  

When we're all out of work because machines are doing everything, where will we get the money to have our fun?  

Fun is not the problem.  We can make a robot that skis, and perhaps we can make one that skis better than we can.  We have machines now that can move faster than we can, that can fly better than we can, perhaps play banjo better than we can; we can have machines  that consume more cannoli without getting fat than we can. But the machines won't ever stop us from skiing, playing banjo, or eating cannoli. 

Where to get the money?

I’m waiting for the “Entrepreneur TM” app: it will crunch data to figure out the best business to go into right now and where the cheapest source of money is. "Entrepreneur TM" will talk to other machines that lend money—they’ll like my "Entrepreneur TM" App’s idea—and then my "Entrepreneur TM" App  will hire other machines to implement the idea. . . . I will collect profits at the end of this process and go out skiing; I will play my banjo and eat cannoli. Oh, and I will ask my "Wine App TM" to select the best wine at the best price for this season. Amazon will deliver it all via drone.

And, of course, everyone will have their own "Entrepreneur TM" App to make this economy go round and round.  It will be a big seller, this "Entrepeneur TM" App. 

How will we make it all run?  We’ll depend on the "Best Congress  TM" App to work with the "Best Statutes TM" and the "Best President TM" App to keep it all running optimally.  As a back up--because we like belts and suspenders--we'll also have a paid subscription with "Supreme Court TM" App. 

Tuscany and Aspen will never have looked better! 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions from Yom HaShoa

Today at sundown, and again tomorrow at 11:00 a.m., horns will blare all over Israel and traffic will come to a stop. Places of public entertainment will be closed by law and all news will focus on commemorating the Holocaust, Yom HaShoa.

In 2014 we spent Yom HaShoa on Kibbutz Ya'acov Ashdot on the Jordan river, just below the Sea of Galilee. We halted our gait out in the banana groves as the horns sounded. Afterwards kibbutz members put on a play in the community center. We didn't understand a word, but the evening was quietly respectful for those who were lost.

Out on the freeways it's less private. Out on the freeways, in the cities, at the airport, it's a celebration that gets in the face of Arab citizens (20 percent of the population) and tourists like us. There is tension and defiance in the lone truck rumbling down the less traveled portion of the road in the video above.

For Jews around the world it's a time to somberly reflect on the enormity of the loss suffered by European Jewry in World War Two, even as the Holocaust is slipping from living memory. Eighty percent of Jews world-wide were born after 1957; in Israel 89 percent of the Jewish population was born after 1953. A few have parents who remember. Everyone has grandparents, great uncles, and great aunts who were touched by the tragedy. There are known names.

At Yad Vashem they try to gather the names and stories of all six million who perished. It's a worthy project to commemorate this lost world, to try and understand what went wrong, to teach lessons about how we might prevent future inhumanity of such magnitude. It may be a futile task.

At the United Nations they observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 each year, marking the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. They designate specific themes, attempting to focus on collective experiences and to draw lessons about universal human rights.

In England, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (1991-2013), Lord Jonathan Sacks, draws all the wrong conclusions. He equates talk of universal human rights with anti-Semitism. In his view, we recall the Holocaust because anti-Semitism is eternal and to remind us that the Jews will always be the scapegoat of the world. Rabbi Sacks sees no universal lessons for humanity in the Holocaust other than "don't criticize Israel."

"When bad things happen to a group," says Sacks, "its members can ask one of two questions: 'What did we do wrong?' or 'Who did this to us?' The entire fate of the group will depend on which it chooses," he says.  If it asks, "What did we do wrong?" he correctly observes, "it has begun the process of healing the harm. If instead it asks, 'Who did this to us?' it has defined itself as a victim. It will then seek a scapegoat to blame for all its problems."

The irony, of course, is that Israel very much defines itself as a victim. It defined itself as victim in 1947-48, it defined itself as victim in 1967 and 1973, and it has done so throughout 50 years of occupation. The irony seems to be lost on Rabbi Sacks. Instead of asking the question and looking inward Rabbi Sacks looks for a scapegoat: talk of universal human rights is anti-Semitism he says.

The reason Israel is criticized, he asserts, is anti-Semitism is timeless.  For a thousand years Jews have been the most conspicuous non-Christian minority in Europe and so suffered from anti-Semitism, and today, because Israel is the most conspicuous non-Muslim country in the Middle East, it suffers from anti-Semitism. "The argument is always the same," says Sacks. "We are innocent; therefore they are guilty. Therefore if we are to be free, they – the Jews or the state of Israel – must be destroyed. That is how the great evils begin."

But Israel is rightly criticized for 50 years of occupation: for 50 years of keeping most of the Palestinian people under military jurisdiction, without civil or political rights, without access to civilian courts; for 50 years of demolishing homes without due process of law, destroying olive groves, appropriating water, and land; for 50 years of killing Palestinians at a rate of 6:1. 

We can be critical of Israel, says Rabbi Sacks, but we can't use talk of science, religion, or human rights to do it--because that's anti-Semitism. It's the wrong lesson to draw from Yom HaShoa. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Using Participles to Get at Religious Truths

As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” – Matthew 20:17-19.

Now after the Sabbath, ... Mary Mag’dalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightening, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. . . . So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. – Matthew 28:1-7.

On the first day of the week (after the crucifixion) at early dawn, they (the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee) went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them . . . “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” . . . [And the women spent the day with Jesus, broke bread with him, and ‘he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.’] And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. . . . And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” --Luke 24:1-34

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. –Luke 28:50-53.
Matthew and Luke had their grammatical verb tenses straight. They were telling a chronological tale of physical resurrection witnessed by the two Marys (Matthew), or the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee (Luke). “He will be raised” predicted Jesus, referring to himself in the third person; “he has risen” said the angels to the two Marys staring at the empty tomb, “go quickly and tell the disciples that he has risen;” and “the Lord has risen” said the disciples.

So what’s up with “He is risen?”

This weekend my Facebook feed was full of the celebratory greeting “He is risen.” “He is risen, indeed,” is the expected response. My daughter noticed the phrase  "The Lord is risen" on a church marquee and asked about the odd sentence structure. She is studying to become a teacher, and all of a sudden she worried about having this question pop up on her grammar exam. 

What is the grammatical form of "risen" here, and what is being said?

It's like "Eureka, the dough is risen" I offered unhelpfully. Is that really likely to be a multiple choice option on the exam? 

In thinking about dough, I suggested, “It is risen” does not seem to refer to a chronological event in the sequence of baking bread, but to a metaphysical state of the dough as risen, or not risen. It's like a mother (sarcastically) saying to her teenage son: "he is risen." The mother is not referring to the act of her son getting his butt out of bed, but to his metaphysical state of "sleepy head vs. up and active." 

“You are on the right track” suggested one of my Christian friends. “Risen is His state of being.”  My sister, who knows about these things agreed. “Keep in mind that ‘risen’ can be used both as a verb and an adjective,” she said.

“Risen” as Adjective

Participle we call it. “Risen” in “He is risen” is used as a participle. A "participle", says Websters is: "a word having the characteristics of both verb and adjective; especially an English verbal form that has the function of an adjective and at the same time shows such verbal features as tense and voice and capacity to take an object."

"Risen" modifies "He." It's a past participle in this case because it uses the past tense of "rise."

Not a Verb Form: perfect tense and continuous (imperfect) tense

The passages from Matthew and Luke, above, are using “risen” in its verb form. “(I) will be raised on the third day”  predicts Jesus in Matthew 20.  “He has risen from the dead” confirm the angels in Matthew 28. “The Lord has risen” agrees Luke 24. They are all telling a literal, chronological tale. They are referring to the action of rising from the grave.  They are using the perfect tense--signifying this rising was completed at a definite time (three days after Jesus died on the cross). The perfect tenses of "to rise" are: a) he arose, b) he arises, or c) he will arise (past, present, future). Those are the tenses being used by Matthew and Luke.

The continuous (imperfect) tense of the verb form "to rise" is used to speak of actions that continue for a period of time. If we use the progressive form for the verb, we get: "He was rising," "He is rising," or "He will be rising."

The church marquee “The Lord is risen” is not using a verb tense of rising: it's all participle.

So what’s in a Participle?

Because the marquee’s "risen" is used as a participle, the sentence is not speaking about the act of rising at all. The marquee is not telling the literal, chronological tale that Matthew and Luke tell. The marquee is using the present "is," so the sentence suggests we are dealing with Jesus's present state of being. And what is that state?  He is in a state of "being risen." The marquee suggests that Jesus is not dirt in the ground like all those other folks who lived ~1987 years ago. He is part of the godhead. 

It's 2000 years later later and we are no longer using verbs to tell literal tales of resurrection.  We are using participles to communicate more ephemeral religious ideas. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cabo Dreamin'

Cabo/Dorothy Connelly
My friend, Dorothy Connelly, drew this on a recent visit to Cabo San Lucas.  The Los Cabos area, I read, has recovered since it took a direct hit from hurricane Odile in September 2014. With winds of 125 mph, the hurricane demolished hotels and houses, forced the evacuation of 30,000 and killed five. There was widespread looting for days. It has also grown since I last visited. The southern tip of the Baja peninsula now boasts a population of 238,000 (2010 census).

We last visited there in 1986, arriving the old fashioned way, by sailboat, an outmoded form of transportation as Ted Turner has pointed out. Today the thought of flying there seems to me like taking the gondola up a mountain you once climbed. It's just not the same thing, and I'm not tempted.

As we rounded the corner from the open  Pacific in 1986, Humpback whales were breaching off the beach, magnificent frigate birds soared over the arch outside the harbor, and Pelicans frolicked around the returning Marlin sport-fishing boats. The harbor was still a relatively sleepy place. It was a time when elite sailors and Sea of Cortez cruisers shared a recognizably common world. The population of Cabo San Lucas was less than 20,000; today it tops 90,000.  Like parents dying, grandkids being born, and retirement parties, these are signs of time marching on.

Our boat, a 35 foot Wauqiez Pretorien, was a solid craft. It shared approximately everything, except size, number of crew, and expertise, with Ted Turner's Tenacious, the boat that won the tragic 1979 Fastnet race. Today, the world of Sea of Cortez cruising shares approximately nothing with the world of elite sailing.

Here is some interesting footage from Turner's Fastnet adventure. It's closer to my Cabo dreams than tequila and cerveza at poolside . . . .

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Dreaming about more civilized Domestic Travel

Matt Yglesias has a very good primer on why air travel is so miserable these days. The key is cost: airline travel per mile has gotten very cheap, and when faced with a choice of paying for better service, most of us opt for cheap and uncomfortable.

Take a look at this chart of airline cost/mile since 1979:

Today we pay less than half what we paid in 1979. And we get less: no meals, narrower seats, less seat angle, less reclining, less leg-room, oversold flights, less overhead storage.

We are more stressed than we were in 1978: we are exposed to jostling, coughing, and germs being spread in tighter and tighter spaces. Is this any way to live?

There are only two ways of improving the situation: paying more, or finding a source to subsidize air-travel.

Even many of us who could afford to pay more, opt for price over quality. We do it despite ourselves. I sometimes purchase Economy Plus on my United flights to Vancouver, but usually I don't. I can stand the cramped seating for the two and one half hour flight up the coast, even as I grit my teeth. It's like a crowded Muni ride to downtown. Unpleasant, but it moves a lot of people for cheap.

The airline deregulation act of 1978 (signed by President Carter) freed carriers to choose which markets to serve and what to charge on routes. It also permitted new carriers to enter the market more freely. The result has been the race to the bottom--in terms of service and price--reflected in the graph above. We've put up with it because there are more flights, travel is safe, . . . and it's cheap.

The government (USDOT) currently subsidizes approximately 175 routes to underserved locations (to the tune of $200/ticket), that would otherwise be unprofitable and underserved by the airline industry.

Cheap flying has opened airline travel to the masses. To be crudely classist and rude, it has made our airlines to resemble third world chicken buses.  That's a good thing because the masses have travel needs and they should be able to vacation and visit family across the country. In this modern, interconnected world, we need inexpensive ways to move people long distances efficiently.

But it raises the question whether airplane travel is the best way to do this? I took the train from San Francisco to Glenwood Springs this winter.  The price for a sleeper room was the same as flying, but the trip was a much more civilized way to travel. There was lots of leg-room, you make real connection and friendship with fellow passengers, there's decent food, and a sleeper car.  It was not very efficient.  The nominally 25 hour trip took more than 30 hours each way. If you want to take four days off work to go skiing in Aspen, it won't be how you travel. But if we decided to invest in connecting our cities with modern, high-speed train service, it would be a different story.  Imagine . . .

Might we not better connect those marginal, out of the way places that are currently subsidized by "Essential Air Services Program," by connecting them to a modern high-speed rail system that truly connects the country. Trump has talked about taking on an infrastructure program to stamp his presidency. Why not a new high speed rail network on the scale of what we did with interstate highways in the 50's and 60's?

Imagine this:

Imagine regular train service connecting Louisville Kentucky and New York in seven hours--in comfort. No taking off your shoes, no getting dragged down the aisle by police goons because seats are oversold? Good food, service with a smile, time to interact, and space to work.

It would require prioritizing a large portion of government expenditures for such a project. Is it beyond us?  Ask John Culbertson (R-Texas), he wants to put people back on the moon and explore Jupiter's moon Europa. If we can dream about space missions to Europa, if we can afford to spend $4-6 trillion on Mideast adventures (The Hill reports a study on the cumulative cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), why can't we dream about a more civilized way to move lots of people around the country?

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Martin Scorcese's "Silence:" A Meditation on the Mysteries of the Human Spirit

a film by Martin Scorsese
starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver,
Tadanobu Asana, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata, and Liam Neeson.
(rel. in U.S. 12/23/16)(avail. Netflix streaming)
running time: 2hrs 41 minutes

Inigo Lopez de Loyola (1491-1556) was a courtier, a soldier, and a dandy, before devoting his life to asceticism and God. At age 30 a cannon ball ended his military career and Loyola embarked on a religious education. He began with an ascetic regimen in a cave in Catalan that later formed the fundamentals of his Spiritual Exercises. After a brief visit to the Holy Land, Loyola completed a course of primary studies in Barcelona, followed by 10 years of latin and theological studies in Madrid. He received a Masters Degree from the University of Paris in 1534, and there, with a group of six companions, he founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit order). At Montmartre they took a vow of poverty and chastity and promised obedience to the pope. Two of these co-founding Jesuits in Paris were Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and Simao Rodriquez (1510-1579).

The Jesuits tried to convert Japan to Christianity, but they failed utterly. In 1549 Francis Xavier was the first missionary on the islands and he could not have had much of an impact. Xavier and his three companion missionaries, arriving with Portuguese merchants, did not speak the language. They and their lone Japanese guide (Anjiro) were granted only limited access to the population, and by 1551 Xavier departed. He made a last voyage from Gao (India) to Shangchuan Island (SE China), accompanied by a young Jesuit student, Alvara Ferreira. And there he died.

Shusaku Endo's novel of historical fiction (publ. 1966) is set nearly a century after Francis Xavier's initial visit. Martin Scorcese's film adaptation is populated by characters whose names evoke this founding Jesuit generation.

The film opens in 1639, at St. Paul's college in Macao, where an Italian Jesuit priest receives word that a missionary in Japan, father Cristovao Ferreira, had publicly abandoned and renounced his faith under torture. Two former pupils of Ferreira, Sebastian Rodriguez and Francisco Garupe, are shocked and set off to find him.

Nagasaki harbor
It was a dangerous mission. A lot had changed since Francis Xavier initiated missionary work in Japan 90 years before. The missionaries found brief success. In 1562 they succeeded in converting a feudal lord, Omura Sumitada, whose domain included the harbor at Nagasaki. With Portuguese guns and support Sumitada grew powerful and helped to destroy Buddhist shrines and nominally convert much of the population of western Kyushu to Catholicism. By 1570 there were 20 Catholic missionaries in Japan. By 1580, they say, there were 200 churches serving 150,000 Catholics. But success was short-lived. By 1587 Sumitada was dead of tuberculosis, Japan was being consolidated under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1591), and Christian missionaries were banished from Kyushu. In Nagasaki, on February 5, 1597, 25 Christians were publicly crucified, including five Franciscan missionaries and three Japanese priests. By 1620 the Tokugawa Shogunate banned Christianity from the Islands altogether, and persecutions continued. 205 Christian missionaries and converts were executed for their faith between 1617 and 1632. The remnant of Christianity went underground.
"Martyrs of Nagasaki" (1628 engraving/artist unknown)
In the film, fathers Rodriguez and Garupe are guided by Kichijro, an alcoholic exiled Japanese fisherman whom they find in a Macao back alley. Kichjiro secures passage on a merchant ship heading to, perhaps Nagasaki, and he leads the priests to a desolate seaside village. There they find an underground Christian community that welcomes them like they are fresh from an audience with the Messiah. 

The villagers, as well as Rodriguez and Garupe, endure increasing hardships as the Shogunate closes in on them. There is torture, anxiety, fear, crucifixions in the ocean, hanging upside down over a pit of excrement with a small incision in your neck, drownings, and through it all a great stubbornness not to renounce faith. It's an entirely unreasonable stubbornness; like those early Christians were stubborn in the Forum. It's a mystery of faith why these simple seaside villagers would endure such tortures and pressures rather than abjure. But it's a recognizable stubbornness. "No one should interfere with another man's spirit," says one. 

The demand of the state, led by a wise and majesterial inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata, is so simple: step on the fumie, a copper plate with an image of Christ engraved on it. The Inquisitor went out of his way to make it easy for them: they did not have to say anything. A mere formality, suggests the Inquisitor; it doesn't have to mean anything.  The Inquisitor did not seek to humiliate, he only sought the simple act of stepping on the fumie. Why does it mean so much? 

Kichjiro guides the priests, he orients them in the land, keeps them hidden, translates for them, and ultimately betrays them. He is the Judas figure in the story. He is tormented by guilt. He stepped on the fumi, and he did so repeatedly. His weakness in accepting the gesture of stepping on the fumi, racks his conscience. The stubbornness and resolve of his family who did not haunts him. He paid the price of recanting in remorse, guilt, and shame--and yet he, more than perhaps anyone--never lost faith. He stepped on the fumi, he renounced but he never could shake his faith. 

And there is a mystery of what that faith is that makes Kichjiro suffer so. What does Kichjiro believe? What did these simple villagers taught by priests who did not share their language believe? What did they grasp about Christian culture, much less dogma? What was this "faith" to which they clung so fiercely? As Paul Elie points out in a fine essay in the New York Times, when Rodrigues finally meets Ferreira, he says: "The converts? . . .  "They are breakaway Buddhists; . . . they worship the 'Sun of God,' not the Son of God. Those martyrs, dying upside down in the pit? They didn’t die for Christ, he tells Rodrigues, they died for you."

But I'm not so sure. They died for the human spirit, a mysterious thing. 

Ferreira went native. He renounced under torture and made his peace with it. He took on a Japanese wife and children. He continued to study and contribute to Japanese culture by translating scientific tests (am I remembering that right?) Rodrigues, too, finally succumbs to the Inquisitor. He makes his peace and becomes an administrator for the Shogunate, inspecting trade items from the Dutch East India Company for Christian iconography. Yet, there is doubt, the suspicion that both Ferreira and Rodriguez continue to adhere to their faith. 

Silence cost $40 million to produce. Through mid March 2017 it has earned just $16 million. Like Scorcese's 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, the investors of this film will have a hard time recouping their investment. It's an ill deserved fate for this beautiful and thoughtful film.  

So stream it, buy it, get it from your library, or catch in a theater if you can, but take a look at Silence. 

St. Pierre de Montmartre, Paris
where Jesuit order began