Thoughts on the impeachment trial?

storm

I find it hard to watch video shot by people who don’t have the sense to turn the phone sideways. You?

Honestly, I haven’t been following it that closely, because I know that no evidence offered, no matter how compelling, is likely to induce enough Republicans to do the right thing.

If they do, I’ll applaud. We’ll finally be fully waked up from the nightmare. Not holding my breath, though. Maybe I should…

But while this process is necessary — Congress has to go through this, in light of the circumstances — I find it depressing to reflect what a firm grip stupidity and shameless evil still have on half the Senate. So I keep it in the background.

That said, what little I’ve read indicates that the Democrats are going about it intelligently, and if the Senate consistently entirely of fair-minded people, conviction would be inevitable. So that’s something.

Beyond that… I just thought I’d put this up for any of y’all who want to comment. Now I’m going to go get some dinner. I’ll check back later…

pence

Minimum wage: Another issue on which I’ve never been able to take a position

There’s a very refreshing Fact Checker piece in the Post today. It’s about whether President Biden (I love typing that) accurately represented the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 when he said “the whole economy rises” if we do that.

They gave him two Pinocchios. I love it. Pinocchios

No, I don’t love that my guy said something that earned two Pinocchios. I love that we’re back to checking a president’s accuracy in speaking about a technical matter of policy, rather than wild, hostile lies arising from his own deeply disturbed, evil personal impulses.

It’s refreshing.

As to the issue… this is one of those issues that people get very excited about, on one side or the other, but I’ve never been able to make up my mind about it. That’s because both sides present pretty compelling arguments.

That, by the way, is what the Fact Checker gave Joe the two Pinocchios for — stressing the upside as though it were settled fact, when there is plenty of reason to believe otherwise. In Joe’s defense, there is a large body of studies and arguments from experts that supports what he says. (And that’s what you do when you’ve decided to pursue a course and you’re trying to get people to go along — you cite the evidence for it.) The problem is that there remains a large body that says the opposite. It’s about the conflicting conclusions drawn by different economists.

The Congressional Budget Office does a pretty good job of summing up the dilemma:

On one hand, the CBO estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 would cost 1.4 million jobs and increase the deficit by $54 billion over 10 years.

But it also estimated the policy would lift 900,000 people out of poverty and raise income for 17 million people — about 1 in 10 workers. Another 10 million who have wages just above that amount could potentially see increases, as well, the CBO reported.

On the one hand, and on the other hand.

It’s a toughie. And I’ve never been able to join enthusiastically with those who take either position: Those who want to lift 900,000 out of poverty, or those who wouldn’t do it because it might put 1,400,000 people out of work completely.

So I don’t know.

You?

 

Open Thread for Thursday, February 4, 2021

Captain Tom

I don’t have time for it today, but dang it, I’m going to post something. And even though it seems my readers are only interested in arguing over whether schools completely reopen or D.C. becomes a state, I’m bringing up other stuff. Here you go:

  1. We lose Captain Tom — He made it through the Burma campaign in WWII, but this hero of the current global struggle against a deadly threat fell in battle this week. God Bless and keep you, Captain Tom.
  2. The Attention Economy — This is a different way of grabbing ahold of the problem I’ve been writing about lately, having to do with the way the internet has done nasty things to our brains for which evolution had not prepared us. It’s about Michael Goldhaber, who in the ’80s predicted “the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture — along with the near destruction of our ability to focus….” And other stuff.
  3. We don’t have enough Walmarts now — This may seem unlikely to you, but I assure you it is a problem now. Remember how, a month ago, they announced the one on Bush River would close (as of tomorrow)? Well, this has messed with my life. That was my Walmart, the one closest to me. And now the next closest one is already overcrowded. I think I’ve been to it four times  since the announcement of the closing (assuming the one they were closing would be even more poorly stocked than usual — which, by the way, is why I suspect it has been less successful), and on two of those occasions, back to back, they were completely out of shopping carts. I did not need this new hassle. I don’t like having to go out for supplies to start with, and now this…
  4. THEN WHY DID YOU VOTE FOR HER? — Sorry about the shouting. I’m just reacting to this NYT story that tells us of the discomfiture of people who voted for Marjorie Taylor Greene. We are told that “Now the revelation of past social media posts has unsettled some who backed her.” Really? REALLY? Sorry. I’m shouting again… Here’s the thing: Even after all these decades of closely following politics, I continue to be amazed and appalled by people who vote for candidates about whom they know basically nothing. It’s one of the greatest flaws in our system, and it keeps getting worse instead of better. By the way, I didn’t finish reading the whole piece. It quotes Real People at some length, you see, and stories that go on like that tend to depress me.
  5. So I guess I’m going to have to deal with this now — SC is now going to let people over 65 get the COVID vaccine. I’m still not through deal with this with my parents — they get their second shots on the 17th — and now you say I’ve got to go through it all again? Never mind the fact that I’ve never really gotten what you’d call 100 percent assurance that I’m not allergic to it. But I suppose I need to get started… although I have no idea how or where…
  6. Frank Bruni makes me almost interested in the Super Bowl — I’ve come to really enjoy Frank Bruni’s columns over the last year or so. So when he wrote something about the Super Bowl — which, as I understand, is coming up soon — I decided to read it anyway. And something surprising happened: He made me slightly interested in his wish that this person named Tom Brady should win. That’s remarkable, Frank, and I congratulate you.

Mr. President, here’s what makes the ‘uncivil war’ so vicious

Guillaume

I wish my headline said, “Here’s how to end the uncivil war, Mr. President.” But I can’t say that, because I don’t know how to undo the damage.

But finally, after more than four years of bewilderment, I finally feel like I have a grip on what has caused the problem, and I’m not letting go. If I keep saying “Here it is!” enough, maybe someone else will see what to do about it, even if I don’t.

I’ve written about this in two posts now, here and here. In the second one, I mentioned having watched part of the documentary “The Social Dilemma,” and indicated I might say more about it when I’d seen it all. I finished watching it about a week ago, and yes, it certainly reinforced the epiphany I’ve been writing about. But I got distracted doing other things, and didn’t get to it.

Today (yesterday now, since I didn’t finish the post until Saturday), I’m reminded of the urgency by a several things I’ve read — items that point to the continued rapid descent of most of the country’s Republicans into madness. There’s the case of that deranged woman from Georgia, and the House GOP’s deep reluctance to deal with her. (The Republican leader is too busy running down to Florida to beg forgiveness of his master.) There are stories about polls, showing how most of that party’s adherents are still shockingly lost in their delusions. There was a Frank Bruni piece about how Marco Rubio — and anyone else with designs on the GOP nomination in 2024 — has utterly degraded himself in the pursuit of the support of his party’s conspiracy wing. And more.

How did close to half the country lose its grip on reality? Well, that’s what I’ve been talking about in those previous posts, and return to today.

There’s a great moment near the start of “The Social Dilemma” when several tech industry veterans who are deeply concerned about what’s going on are asked to answer the question, “What’s the problem?”… and each of these otherwise articulate people stops, and stares vacantly, and for a long moment, fails to come up with an answer.

It made me feel better, because these were expert people who were here to talk about it, and had trouble explaining what the problem was.

As I said in my first post on this subject, I’ve been familiar with the problems for years, and felt stupid speaking of an “epiphany” when the basic facts were so obvious:

I’ve commented on this before. Everyone has. And I was conscious of the cause of the problem. But recently, I came to realize it, to understand it, to grok it, more fully. And it was as though I hadn’t thought about these things before.

It happened first when I listened to a podcast series from several months ago, called “Rabbit Hole.” If you haven’t listened to it, I wish you would…

That podcast helped the points sink in, to where it suddenly hit me that this was the explanation of Trumpism, specifically the explanation of how such a large portion of the country — close to half — had completely lost connection with reality, becoming immune to evidence to an extent far beyond old cliches about “confirmation bias” and such.

It was happening because they inhabited separate realities, which seemed as real to them as any other. And they were prepared to go to pretty much any lengths to defend their delusions, as we saw demonstrated so dramatically on Jan. 6, and in the willingness of so many to ignore the implications of those events. (By the way, these processes don’t just distort the perceptions of Trump supporters. It’s just that with Trump, you had a figure emerge who reinforced the tendencies of Qanon believers, white supremacists, and other whackos by repeatedly telling them it was all true, and that it was not only OK, but virtuous to embraces such insanity. This unprecedented situation caused that particular, easily deluded, segment of the population to go completely off the rails.)

Those experts momentarily lost the ability to address the Problem because it has so many aspects, all interacting with each other. But to simplify, these two factors are generally at the core:

  1. First, the fact that so many people now get all of their information that explains politics and the world to them from, shall we say, “nontraditional sources.” At the same time, part of what those sources have brainwashed them to believe is that the “traditional sources” — ones that operate according to procedures and ethics that require that facts actually check out before being reported — are “fake news,” and not to be trusted. Yes, this is very obvious, and doesn’t really explain things until you get to the second point…
  2. The way the Web works when it is successful. Success depends on keeping your attention, so that attention can be sold to advertisers. Which is the way newspapers, television, radio and other media monetized themselves — except that the Web is astonishingly better at it. And there’s one aspect of the algorithms that make them succeed more than anything: The simple matter of showing you what you like (or tell you what you want to hear), and then showing you more of it, to the point that you never get to anything else.

Ultimately, you end up living in a completely different reality from others whose predilections, in concert with the algorithms, have herded them into their own, distinct — and often diametrically opposed — universes. (Again, this works on MSNBC watchers as well as on the Fox people. But Rachel Maddow isn’t working in tandem with a POTUS who does not give a damn what the truth is. So things don’t get nearly as crazy. But it does mean that as Trump’s base gets crazier, people on the left move farther and farther away from them, and the Trump base sees that disdain, and gets crazier.)

Eventually, the deliberative processes that are essential to our system of representative democracy break down. Representatives who know their constituencies have no points of agreement on facts with people who live in other constituencies cast aside evidence and make themselves immune to persuasion, lest they lose their seats. Debate in legislative bodies is pointless, because it’s not about trying to achieve productive synthesis with the views of members on the other side of the aisle; it’s simply about proving one’s purity in adhering to the “reality” in which most of one’s constituents live.

Back to the movie…

“The Social Dilemma” has a lot of flaws, the most obvious of them being dramatization. When it sticks to tech gurus talking about the problem, it’s great. When it uses actors to act out the problems, it gets kind of cheesy. Perhaps that keeps more people watching (hey, just like YouTube!) but it almost made me turn it off a number of times.

The dramatizations try to capitalize on parents’ concerns about their children’s Web addiction — a very serious problem that all parents should worry about, but not the reason I’m watching. There’s this fictional family of actors, and you watch one teenaged boy who starts out fairly rational gradually get seduced into extreme views, to the exclusion of everything else in his life.

Perhaps the cheesiest thing — but I understand that someone thought this would help us understand better the way the algorithms work — are these fantasy sequences in which you see the algorithms personified. This one actor appears as three different parts of the online code, and his three “characters” have conversations with each other about how they are manipulating the teenager, as they gradually assemble a more and more complete model of the kid as he spends more time online. These scenes are exceedingly creepy — and meant to be — and I finally figured out one reason why. The actor personifying the algorithm is the one who played “Pete” on “Mad Men.” Creepy is what this guy does. (You kind of wonder what happened to him along the way to give him a face like that.)

But eventually the film confronts the issues that interest me, the ones I’ve written about in those preceding posts. This initially happens when, out of the blue, the person being interviewed is Guillaume Chaslot (pictured above), the Frenchman who helped develop YouTube’s “recommendation” software — before he realized with horror what it was doing.

I recognized him when he used the phrase “rabbit hole” — because his was one of the more important voices heard in the podcast series of that name. In the podcast, it was described how two developments on YouTube led to the creation of conditions that lead people to become committed conspiracy adherents — first, the moment when YouTube started allowing long videos, entire talk shows and such, to be posted. Then, the development of the current “recommendation” system, which essentially says, “You liked that? You’ll love this,” which so easily pulls people deeper into the hole as they watch one whack job’s video, then another more extreme one, then one more extreme than that, and on and on…

Mind you, the experts — the elements of the film I prefer — all insist that there are no bad guys (although the environment thus created is a welcome mat to bad guys, such as Vladimir Putin, to step in and use it). The aims of the people making these separate realities possible are fairly innocuous. As one of the main talking heads explains, as we’re watching the creepy Petes manipulate the kid:

At a lot of these technology companies, there’s three main goals.

There’s the engagement goal: to drive up your usage, to keep you scrolling.

There’s the growth goal: to keep you coming back and inviting as many friends and getting them to invite more friends.

And then there’s the advertising goal: to make sure that, as all that’s happening, we’re making as much money as possible from advertising….

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, I can tell you as an old newspaperman (at least, that’s what the people on the business side kept telling me — and of course I noticed that when they stopped making money, everything that was important to me disappeared. Which was bad…). But when Web-based businesses do the same thing, we start seeing processes that humanity has never seen before, and which evolution has not equipped us to handle.

Anyway, I urge you to watch this film as well. Because I think it’s important in the extreme for all of us to understand how people come to accept the most unlikely-seeming propositions, and cling to them with religious fervor — fiercely resisting any attempt to argue them back to reason.

Because it’s tearing us apart.

There are plenty of other ways in which these problems — or at least bits and pieces of them — are being examined. I was listening to a podcast yesterday in which a New York Times reporter who watched Qanon chats happening during the Inauguration on Jan. 20, with the true believers assuring each other that at any second, Trump would declare martial law and stop the “steal.” Did they wake up when it didn’t happen? Some did. Others told themselves they had simply misinterpreted Q’s prophesies. It’s an interesting examination of effects, if not causes.

Or the piece I read in the NYT this morning headlined “The Coup We Are Not Talking About.” The writer approaches the same problems from a different direction, that of the development of “surveillance capitalism.” I think it’s the wrong direction, but perhaps it’s because some of the connections he makes are unconvincing. But maybe he made a better case in his book on the same subject. Anyway, he touches on the problems I’m on about, although in the service of his thesis:

The third stage, which we are living through now, introduces epistemic chaos caused by the profit-driven algorithmic amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information, much of it produced by coordinated schemes of disinformation. Its effects are felt in the real world, where they splinter shared reality, poison social discourse, paralyze democratic politics and sometimes instigate violence and death.

Yeah, he uses the word “epistemic” a lot. And in other ways, he fails to express himself with simple clarity. Kind of made me more sympathetic to the cheesy dramatizations of “The Social Dilemma.” At least they were trying to reach people outside of academia.

But hey, if it leads you to understand it better, try that approach. Because we all need to come to understand it.

And do something about it. Again, I don’t know what to do, what with the toothpaste being fully out of the tube and everyone slathering themselves with it (kind of overdid that metaphor, didn’t I?). But I figure we need a diagnosis before someone comes up with the cure.

By the way, to head off certain obvious objections… before someone cries, “you’re acting like things were fine before this,” allow me to point out the obvious fact that I am not. As I have documented over and over in recent decades, things have been getting nasty in our politics for some time. There have been a number of milestones of our division into tribes that despise each other, and won’t listen to each other, thereby making the function of a deliberative form of government increasingly impossible. You could point to the emergence of negative campaigning in 1982 (which helped to produce the likes of Lee Atwater and his acolyte Karl Rove), or the moment in late 1992 when I first saw a new “Don’t Blame Me; I Voted Republican” sticker on a car before Bill Clinton was even inaugurated. Or Democratic lunacy over Clinton’s impeachment, leading them to defend the indefensible — or, two years later, their claims (very civil, nonviolent and short-lived claims, as opposed to what we’ve seen in recent days) in 2000 that the election was “stolen.” Or for that matter, BDS. Or the rise of the Tea Party or the Freedom Caucus, and the maniacal determination to stop anything Barack Obama tried to do — or, failing that, to undo it. (Remember the bizarre spectacle of all those utterly vain votes to “repeal Obamacare?”)

All before Trump. But not all before this phenomenon that I’m talking about, which certainly played a role in the things we saw in the earlier part of this past decade. In any case, this new problem, or set of problems, landed in a nasty partisan environment, and then exponentially accelerated the sickness, with a twist.

I could say a lot more, but at well over 2,000 words, I’d better stop….

creepy Pete

Creepy Pete in triplicate, manipulating the kid.

 

Bruni on the one word for Biden so far: ‘generous’

Bruni

Just a little something to feel good about…

I enjoyed Frank Bruni’s e-newsletter this week, particularly since I hadn’t seen one lately — he’d been away writing a book or some such. I hope he won’t mind if I quote from it fairly extensively. The email was headlined, “The one word that defines Biden’s presidency so far.”

An excerpt:

How good it feels to write that! President Joe Biden. We needed a change, and now we have it, and the rightness of this particular one was captured not just in his excellent inauguration speech but also in other words and gestures of his in the hours just before and after that address.

I’ll focus on three unscripted sentences shortly after 5 p.m., when a small group of journalists were on hand for his signing of several executive orders in the Oval Office. One of them asked about the content of a letter that President Donald Trump — who actually followed tradition in this instance — left Biden. There’d been doubt that Trump would do so.

“The president wrote a very generous letter,” Biden said. “Because it was private, I will not talk about it until I talk to him. But it was generous.”

Generous. The word grabbed me, and not because Biden used it twice.

For starters, “generous” perfectly describes Biden’s response to the question he was asked.

He could simply have declined to characterize the letter, citing etiquette and discretion. He certainly wasn’t under any obligation to compliment and essentially thank Trump, not after Trump refused to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s election, spread conspiracy theories and fomented violence. Trump was intent on making Biden’s transition into the presidency as rocky as possible and bequeathing him a country almost impossible to govern.

Biden nonetheless went out of his way to be big. To be kind. He placed Trump, of all people, in proximity to “generous,” when our former president (it feels good to write that phrase, too!) is anything but.

Ever since Election Day, Biden hasn’t merely been urging civility. He’s been modeling it, despite a magnitude of ugliness and absurdity from Trump and his Republican enablers that has tested it at every turn. It’s a monumental feat of discipline. It’s the epitome of grace.

And it’s the definition of, well, generosity, which is as good a one-word summary of what America and Americans need right now as any other. We need it from our president. We need it from other political leaders. We need it most of all from ourselves….

It’s small things like that that, if we pay attention, can remind us of how blessed were are in this country now.

Others can talk about policies or programs or whatever interests them. For me, this sort of thing is why I wanted Joe Biden to be our president. Because we really, really need this…

Why do we keep talking about January 6th?

Just don't forget for a moment how he created this situation.

Just don’t forget for a moment how he CREATED this situation….

Yes, I know that sounds like a stupid question, but hear me out.

I keep hearing people talk about Donald John Trump’s culpability — which no rational person can challenge — for what happened that day. I hear clips of what he said. Got it. No question that he incited them to act, on that day.

But what happened that day — his actual appearance before them at that rally — was just the cherry on top.

Why don’t people talk more (and they do some, but not enough) about what he’d been doing every day for more than two months before that? The crime for which he should be convicted by the Senate should be spending all those weeks creating the mob that he was speaking to on Jan. 6 — assembling it, bringing it into being.

If not for that, those people would not have been in Washington on Jan. 6, filled with insane and treasonous delusions, to begin with.

And I’m not hearing enough about that.

If the President of the United States — and that’s what he was at the time, to our nation’s everlasting shame — had not claimed, day after day, that the election had been stolen from him, a complete and obvious lie which he was unable to support with any evidence, that “Stop the Steal” movement would not have existed. Those astoundingly gullible people would all have been far away, in their homes. There would have been no one to stir up and egg on to attack the Capitol.

Of course, in a way, I’m doing what those who make the mistake of concentrating on Jan. 6 do — I’m leaving out a huge chunk of the evidence. I’m not even getting into those months before the election when he was preparing the way for his treasonous lie — telling all those people, over and over, that the vote could not be trusted.

Leave out what happened on Jan. 6, and there is already no question that he is guilty of what the House has impeached him for doing. No honest senator could possibly do anything but vote to convict.

Of course, you can say the same about what he did on the 6th alone. But don’t leave the rest of it out. Consider all the evil he has done — not only grabbing control of the situation for his nefarious ends in the moment, but having created the situation to begin with…

1st Open Thread of the Restoration, Friday, January 22, 2021

Hank_Aaron_1974

So here we go:

  1. Over bourbon, former SC senators launch new political podcast — Hey, that’s great news, Joel and Vincent! Y’all know, don’t you, that I held the record for most times as a guest on Pub Politics, right? But when you have me on, could we make it dark rum instead? I’ve got a great recipe. Bryan helped me name it. It’s called a “Hugo.” It’s like a Dark and Stormy, except you use Blenheim Ginger Ale instead of boring ginger beer. Because South Carolina. Way better than that Kentucky stuff.
  2. Senate confirms Austin as first Black defense secretary — No, actually, if you check, the Senate confirmed him as defense secretary, not “black defense secretary.” The white guys will report to him, too. Anyway, bottom line, this is good news. I’m looking forward to hearing similar news about Anthony Blinken. Things are taking shape.
  3. Hank Aaron, Baseball’s Legendary Slugger, Dies At 86 — Even on a good week, we have sad news. 715, Hank!
  4. Coronavirus: UK variant ‘may be more deadly’ — This is from the Beeb, and we didn’t really need our friends across the pond to tell us this.
  5. Impeachment Article Against Trump to Be Delivered to Senate Monday — No, no, no, WSJ! We’re going to avoid using that name in headlines this year, OK? Banks are avoiding doing business with him; you can avoid using the name, OK?
  6. Columbia lawyer to represent You-Know-Who at impeachment trial — Oh, come on, Butch! Must you? Can’t you leave it to Giuliani or somebody like that?

Bernie’s mittens have more memes than Joe has executive orders

This may be my favorite -- Bernie's mittens discussing Chicken McNuggets with the guys from "The Wire."/@turd_fergusson

This may be my favorite — Bernie’s mittens discussing Chicken McNuggets with the guys from “The Wire.”/@turd_fergusson

You’ve seen the original, which is Bernie sitting at the inauguration using that unmistakable Bernie body language that has charmed so many, seeming to say:

Of course, everybody talks about the mittens — which were apparently made by a Vermont schoolteacher who has now run out of all those she had to sell.

But it’s not the mittens that grab us. It’s the attitude. There was another picture of Bernie apparently arriving at the inauguration, burdened with other stuff he had to do: a manila folder, and what looked like a check he had to take to the bank when this dumb thing was done. One wag tweeted that with the caption, “Bernie has places to be after this.”

You know, that inimitable Bernie charm.

On some of these posts, you’ll see debates as to whether folks are making fun of, or criticizing, Bernie for his lack of social grace, or praising his unaffected naturalness. But the memes seem to have appeal across the spectrum, from people who voted for him to those of us who are amazed that anyone thinks this guy, whatever his virtues, could persuade a majority of voters to make him president.

Anyway, the most popular image is of him sitting crabbily in the chair. Here are some of the alternative images this inspired. I’ve included under each image my best info as to where they came from.

Here you have the first solo album Bernie's Mittens put out when the band broke up./@neutral_milk_airbnb

Here you have the first solo album Bernie’s Mittens put out when the band broke up./@neutral_milk_airbnb

@Notorious_ARC_

Remember the mittens from that weird movie Sandra Bullock was in? @Notorious_ARC_

@newyorknico

@newyorknico

@Puptheband

@Puptheband

@djjkim

@djjkim

Found this on the feed of @madeline__carl

Found this on the feed of @madeline__carl

Well, you get the idea. There are loads of them out there. I’d like to credit each and every Photoshop artist whose work I cited, but the best I could do on most was show you where I found it.

Now, go out and find your own…

More friction between the Pope, and American bishops who don’t understand that the Pope is Catholic

Sorry. I couldn’t resist referring to the old joke in the headline. A more straightforward way to say it would be, “don’t understand that the Pope outranks them.”

At moments such as this, it seems they tend to think of him as “just the bishop of Rome,” rather than the Holy Father.

Or maybe they do get it, since it seems they pulled back their harsh statement when the Vatican stepped in.

Anyway, the conflict persists. Following up on my earlier posts on this subject, here are some excerpts from a piece in the Jesuit magazine America, rapidly becoming one of my favorite sources:

In a message of “cordial good wishes” to President Joseph R. Biden Jr. after his installation as the 46th president of the United States, Pope Francis assured him of his prayers “that Almighty God will grant you wisdom and strength in the exercise of your high office.”Pope Francis

He told the president that he prayed that “under your leadership, may the American people continue to draw strength from the lofty political, ethical and religious values that have inspired the nation since its founding.”

“At a time when the grave crises facing our human family call for farsighted and united responses,” the pope wrote, “I pray that your decisions will be guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom, together with unfailing respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice.”

Furthermore, the pope said, “I ask God, the source of all wisdom and truth, to guide your efforts to foster understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States and among the nations of the world in order to advance the universal common good.”…

Pope Francis’ warm message contrasted with the public statement that had been prepared by Archbishop José Gomez in the name of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. While the bishops’ statement included much the pope would agree with, it nevertheless adopted a confrontational tone over the issue of abortion especially, as well as contraception, marriage and gender. The Vatican only learned of the U.S.C.C.B. message hours before it was due to be released, and a senior Vatican official told America that “it was reasonable to say” that it had intervened but did not confirm or deny the details first reported by The Pillar.

There was a negative reaction from Vatican officials contacted by America in Rome to the statement issued by Archbishop Gomez in the name of the U.S.C.C.B. “It is most unfortunate and is likely to create even greater divisions within the church in the United States,” a senior official, who did not wish to be named because of the position he holds at the Vatican, told America….

Amen to that.

Anyway, as I said earlier, I feel blessed that Francis is my pope, and Joe is my president….

Statement on the Inauguration from the McCain Institute

Joe speaking at John McCain's funeral...

Joe speaking at John McCain’s funeral…

I pass this on because amid all the gazillions of stories on the Inauguration, this might not come to the fore.

No, it’s not as good as McCain himself commenting, but it’s the next-best facsimile. It complements the witness of our last three real, normal presidents yesterday, who came and paid their respects the way statesmen do.

Oh, and did you see where W. praised Clyburn, and gave him credit for saving the country by endorsing the only Democrat who could have beaten Trump? Those are obviously true statements, but I thought it good that W. took the time to say them.

Anyway, here’s the statement:

Statement by The McCain Institute on the Inauguration

WASHINGTON, DC (January 20, 2021) The McCain Institute for International Leadership congratulates President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Vice President Kamala Harris on their inauguration. Every four years, our sacred tradition of renewing democracy is a testament to the righteousness of the over 230-year-old experiment in self-determination.

As the Biden-Harris administration assumes office, a tumultuous domestic and global landscape awaits. The American people are resilient, but in order for us to rise to these challenges, a page must be turned and a nation must begin to heal. We must put country over party and end the partisan rancor. These ideals must be reconciled first by our leaders, who must lead by working together in a bipartisan manner to do what is best for Americans, not what is best for either political party.

In 2018, Senator John McCain said in his farewell statement: “We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”

With this vision in mind, today, we honor the bipartisan and civil friendship by pledging to work with President Biden, Vice President Harris and their administration in any way that can improve security, economic opportunity, democracy, human rights, freedom and human dignity around the world.

“On the home front, we have witnessed firsthand the weaponization of misinformation and its negative results. The images of the U.S. Capitol under siege on January 6, 2021 will forever be ingrained in our memories as the day that democracy was threatened at the core of our fundamental freedoms. Those who perpetrated the violence must be held accountable as well as the government leaders who did their part in spreading the misinformation about our elections. On the global front, we must meet the challenges and threats from China and Russia head on,” said McCain Institute Executive Director Mark Green. “The COVID-19 pandemic has, unfortunately, emboldened some of the enemies of freedom across the globe, destroyed economies and livelihoods, and have made life even harder for the most vulnerable among us. These unprecedented times prove that American leadership on the world stage is desperately needed now more than ever.”

About the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University

Inspired by the character-driven leadership of Senator John McCain and his family’s legacy of public service, the McCain Institute implements programs and initiatives to make a difference in people’s lives across a range of critical areas: leadership development, human rights, rule of law, national security, counterterrorism and combatting human trafficking.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Institute is proudly part of ASU, the largest public university in America– ranked #1 in innovation for six years running.

Happy Day, Happy Day, Happy Day!

Joe Inauguration

A little something I saw on my TV just before noon today.

Wasn’t it, though?

Tonight, I particularly enjoyed listening to my NPR One app while belatedly trying to get in my 10,000 steps. On story after story, they kept saying “President Biden!” Bless them.

You can see what I had to say during the inauguration earlier today on my Twitter feed. I didn’t have time to write a blog post, but I wrote a few items in real time, such as:

Then, before Joe et al. had even left the Capitol steps, I had to run out to the Publix on Broad River Road (before yesterday, I hadn’t even known there was a Publix on Broad River Road) to take my parents to get their COVID vaccine shots. This took awhile, since their appointments were an hour and 36 minutes apart. (I tried to get them closer, but it took about 15 minutes to sign up for each appointment. I did my Mom’s first, and by the time I got back to the appointments on my Dad’s, there were no close appointment times left.)

Aside from that, it went well. Both claim it didn’t hurt a bit. Which is surprising, since that needle looked pretty long to me.

Anyway, I’m glad we got that done. Second shot is in four weeks — same bat-time, same bat-channel.

So things are good today. You saw the part about President Biden, right?

The pope needs to have a chat with some of his clergy

America

Rereading (as I do, obsessively) one of my Patrick O’Brian books the other day, I ran across a passage in which Diana Villiers expresses surprise at Stephen Maturin’s lack of enthusiasm over the fact that a certain French cardinal is to appear at an event. She says, “I thought you would be pleased. Surely a cardinal is next door to the pope; and you are a Catholic, my dear.”

Stephen responds, “There are cardinals and cardinals; and even some Popes have not always been exactly what one might wish…”

Indeed, if one has a sense of history. But that got me to thinking, as I too seldom do, about how blessed I am to be living at this particular moment: I’m very pleased with the current pope, as I am often reminded. And not only that, but Joe Biden is about to be my president. The rest of the world might be going mad, but at least these good men will be in charge of my church and my country. And Joe being a devout Catholic, the two things are tied together

But that hardly means everything is wonderful. After all, as my fellow (but fictional, alas) Papist Stephen would say, there are cardinals and cardinals.

This was documented with stark clarity by this piece a few days ago in the Jesuit magazine, America. The piece was headlined, “How Catholic Leaders Helped Give Rise to Violence at the U.S. Capitol.” It spelled out how, among other things, “an alarming number of Catholic clergy contributed to an environment that led to the fatal riots at the U.S. Capitol.”

Which these “leaders” unquestionably did. And have been doing for some time. I had seen plenty of things to worry about over the past year (which was why I wrote this), but I was startled by how extreme their rhetoric was — how anti-Christian it was, not to mention anti-intellectual. Because God had been merciful to me, and had not exposed me to these specific examples. As the piece leads off:

At the end of last August, the Rev. James Altman, the pastor of St. James the Less Parish in La Crosse, Wis., uploaded a video to YouTube that has been viewed over 1.2 million times. The video’s title voiced what an increasing number of Catholic bishops and priests were saying in the run-up to the presidential election: “You Cannot be a Catholic and a Democrat.”

“Their party platform absolutely is against everything the Catholic Church teaches,” said Father Altman, as music from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 swelled in the background. “So just quit pretending that you’re Catholic and vote Democrat. Repent of your support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell.”…

There’s more — quite a lot more. Another example:

A few weeks later, the Rev. Ed Meeks, the pastor of Christ the King Church in Towson, Md., preached a homily, also uploaded to YouTube, under the title “Staring into the Abyss,” in which he declared the Democratic Party the “party of death.”

Father Meeks’s video, which has received over two million views, was warmly commended by Bishop Joseph Strickland, of Tyler, Tex., who tweeted it out to his 40,000 followers with the message “Every Catholic should listen to this wise and faithful priest.” Earlier, Bishop Strickland had endorsed Father Altman’s video as well, tweeting, “As the Bishop of Tyler I endorse Fr Altman’s statement in this video. My shame is that it has taken me so long. Thank you Fr Altman for your COURAGE. If you love Jesus & His Church & this nation…pleases [sic] HEED THIS MESSAGE.” Father Altman later appeared as a guest on the premiere episode of “The Bishop Strickland Show” on LifeSite News….

The things they say, and the language they use, is amazingly startling — again, both on the grounds of being unChristian, and that of being amazingly stupid-sounding. You might imagine something like this coming from one of the very least educated of the “poorly educated” Trump so loves — assuming he’d had a few too many beers sitting on that stool at the end of the bar:

“Why is it that the supporters of this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God-hating Democrat party can’t say a goddamn thing in support of their loser candidate without using the word Trump? What the hell do you have to say for yourselves losers?” the Rev. Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, wrote in a tweet that has since been deleted….

But it’s impossible to imagine it coming from someone who has graduated from a seminary, even if you can somehow explain the irrational hatred.

Especially telling, as much as the profanity, is that “Democrat party” bit. That sort of disregard for the difference between adjectives and nouns is typical among the less-thoughtful staffers at your state Republican Party (somehow, they all forgot the name of the opposition party back in the ’70s, and haven’t had it come back to them yet), but it’s extremely jarring coming from a man of the cloth. It’s an unmistakable sign of someone who is incapable of thinking outside the framework of Republican jargon.

Anyway, all this extreme stuff was news to me. I had been responding to more subtle stuff when I wrote the “Let’s talk about ‘real Catholics” piece back in October. I was concerned about the voting pattern in 2016 — which showed almost half of Catholic voters voting for Trump — and the possibility of its repetition.

I was also motivated by nods and winks I was seeing from some Catholics — including some clergy — here in South Carolina. What I was hearing personally was of course far more subtle and polite than the fulminations Father James Martin writes about in America  — this is, after all, South Carolina. But I had been disturbed by it nonetheless. And I felt it was important for me to say, as a Catholic, that real Catholics would never vote for Trump, and should certainly vote for fellow Catholic Joe Biden. Maybe in writing her brilliant piece — which helped inspire my own, more pedestrian one — Jeannie Gaffigan was motivated by some of the horrible stuff in the America piece. But I think it was mostly milder stuff than that, as I recall.

Back to what I had been hearing here at home… First, I’m not going to share it with you. Why? Because it’s close to home and personal, and I’m going to speak personally to the people responsible before I share it with the world. And I haven’t seen those people in awhile — I haven’t been physically to my church since March; we’ve been streaming Mass every week.

Also, since a lot of it was indirect and polite, I’m not always entirely sure of what I’m hearing. I have reached out (via email) a couple of times to fellow parishioners (also Biden supporters) to see if they were hearing it the way I was. And they generally were, more or less. But before I put my objections in writing, I want the parties involved to have a chance to explain their views — in person, not via email.

But to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a video of our bishop, posted on YouTube before the election:

As you can see, what the bishop says — to a less critical person than myself — is kindly, shepherdly, and very carefully non-partisan. And of course, you know me. I wholeheartedly applaud when he says:

What is important for all of us is to recognize we’re not Republicans, we’re not Democrats. We’re Catholics.

From that alone, you see that there’s a wide ocean of difference between him and the hateful people the piece in America deals with. They are ardent, committed (and sometimes profane) partisans, twisted by their fury at the “other side.”

I don’t know the bishop well. I’ve only met him a time or two, and my view of him is positive and respectful — which is the way you want to feel about a shepherd placed over you. And I think the video bears this out.

Which is not to say I didn’t have problems with it — rather obvious problems, if you know me.

But thank the Lord that here in South Carolina, I haven’t been directly exposed to the kind of overt, hostile stuff Fr. Martin writes about in America.

Back to that stuff…

Let’s look again at this part of the first passage I quote above, speaking of the Democratic Party: “Their party platform absolutely is against everything the Catholic Church teaches.”

Of course, that is utterly absurd and utterly false, and the words “absolutely” and “everything” would render it laughable — if it weren’t so tragic.

Compare the Trump position on a host of issues to that embraced by Joe Biden. Trump is the guy who got elected telling us that people coming into this country illegally was a national emergency — nay, the national emergency — and he planned to build a “beautiful wall” to keep them out, and make Mexico pay for it. He’s the guy who failed to do that, but did succeed in separating children from their parents and putting them in cages. He’s the one who described countries other than white ones like Norway as “shithole countries.” He incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, and has not once spoken a word of remorse for his own actions. (A Catholic like Joe Biden is accustomed to doing penance for his sins. You won’t ever see Donald Trump do that, because he’ll never get as far as the “heartily sorry” part.)

He is a man who considers his every action (and everything else) — in office and out of office — in terms of how it benefits or fails to benefit Donald J. Trump. If you think he is a person who puts others first, or even on the same level as himself, as a Christian should do, I’d love to hear your arguments on that point, and be persuaded.

I could go on all night, listing the ways in which Trump grossly violates Catholic teaching, and Biden would not. But let’s just cite one more issue, one that bears on the Church’s pro-life teachings: “Trump administration carries out 13th and final execution.

Before last year, the U.S. Justice Department hadn’t executed anyone in 17 years. Trump put three to death in the last week at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Under Trump, there have been more federal executions in the past year than in the previous 56 years combined. More to consider:

Not since the waning days of Grover Cleveland’s presidency in the late 1800s has the U.S. government executed federal inmates during a presidential transition, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Cleveland’s was also the last presidency during which the number of civilians executed federally was in the double digits in one year, 1896….

Trump was in a hurry, you see, with Joe Biden about to take over. Joe, the story tells us, is “an opponent of the federal death penalty,” and may actual bring it to an end.

Joe Biden, you see, is a Catholic.

But some Catholics have gotten twisted around. They’re just talking about abortion, you see. When they say “pro-life,” they’re not talking about Cardinal Bernardin’s Consistent Ethic of Life. Nor are they including the rest of the many, many Catholic teachings beyond cherishing life when they refer to “everything the Catholic Church teaches.”

Abortion is a profoundly important moral issue, but it is one important part of a range of important issues that fall under the description “pro-life.” And then of course, there are all the other things that would fall under Catholic social teaching. Take “solidarity,” for instance, which means “We are one  human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological  differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be.” Can you picture Donald “America First” Trump agreeing with that? Maybe, but only if you add, “except those from shithole countries.”

Folks, I don’t think I know anyone who is more opposed to abortion than I am. And if you asked me to cite the one thing Joe Biden did during the campaign that most disappointed me, it would be his abandonment of support for the Hyde Amendment. I know why he did it. This was at a time when he was one of a crowd of 20 or so vying for the nomination, and the vast number of Democrats who wanted to find a way, any way, to dismiss him completely (thereby insuring the re-election of Donald Trump) saw Hyde as a great gift. I can’t tell myself with any certainty that he’d be the president-elect if he hadn’t done it. But I still believe it was wrong.

But talking about that reminds me of something remarkable: That is the only thing I can think of that he has done wrong over the last two years, in terms that might violate Catholic teaching or offend my own standards. Whereas Donald Trump can hardly get through a day without doing that. Joe is so dramatically more in keeping with advocating the moral, Catholic position on issue after issue that it’s absurd even to make a comparison.

Also, as fervently as I oppose abortion — which we’ve argued about many times here — I differ from these angry priests on a couple of points: First, I don’t believe jamming through justices who agree with me on the issue is the way to solve the abortion problem. (And I find it profoundly wrong for either side to do it — which both do.) I’d like to see Roe v. Wade disappear, but aside from the fact that I don’t think it will, there’s the problem that if it did, it would simply kick the issue to the place where it should be — state legislatures. Those legislatures would be at war over the issue for the rest of my life, and probably my grandchildren’s lives, and I believe legal abortion would still be widely available across much of the country. It’s not a prospect that fills me with optimism.

Secondly, to get to that point requires something that I believe to be immoral in another way, although a secular one: I believe it is critically important for the United States to have an independent judiciary. Therefore it is wrong for me to demand that judicial candidates agree with me on any issue, even one as morally compelling as abortion. Otherwise we can’t have the blessing of living in a country of laws and not of men. And that is crucial to our freedom of religion and everything else that matters. Start applying an issue litmus test on judges, and you will get a country in which law is whatever is embraced by the majority — 50 percent plus one — voting in the last election. We must somehow get past this business of trying to elect presidents who agree with us on abortion, and expecting those presidents to nominate justices who agree with both, and stacking the Senate to confirm them — until the majority shifts again.

I could go on and on on both those points (arguments on the last two points could fill books), but since I’m nearing 2,500 words (not counting the thousand or so I cut out), you’ve probably stopped reading already.

But to go back to where we started: There is something horrific going on among some priests, and even some bishops, in the Church. And I think the pope, who knows better, should have a chat with some of them. Because things have gotten out of hand, and these words (and sometimes actions) have been a great disservice to the country, and to the Church.

A continuation of the pattern

social madness

Here’s a follow-up to my previous post, “Millions of separate realities, destroying our common world.

I’m reading more and more of this stuff about how the way TOO many people consume the internet, and get consumed by it. Specifically, how they get their minds hopelessly warped by a couple of the standard features of social media and other web sites and services — the way these media keep showing you more stuff like what you seem to like, and — in this piece — the way the reinforcement of others (likes, retweets, shares, etc.) seduces people into insane new “realities.”

Here’s another item: A piece from the NYT headlined, “They Used to Post Selfies. Now They’re Trying to Reverse the Election.” The subhed says, “Right-wing influencers embraced extremist views, and Facebook rewarded them.”

This piece doesn’t make many broad observations about these phenomena; it mostly simply tells the story of how several individuals got sucked in. You’ll note the commonalities. The one place where the item touches upon the consistent themes is here:

He’s not alone. Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many people into sharing more extreme views on the platform — rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric. We reviewed the public post histories for dozens of active Facebook users in these spaces. Many, like Mr. McGee, transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today.

A journey through their feeds offers a glimpse of how Facebook rewards exaggerations and lies.

But the rewards are trivial compared with the costs: The influencers amass followers, enhance their reputations, solicit occasional donations and maybe sell a few T-shirts. The rest of us are left with democracy buckling under the weight of citizens living an alternate reality….

Yeah, as I said the other day, I know this stuff isn’t new. We knew how the Web worked. You knew it; I knew it. But as I also said before, something just finally clicked recently when I was listening to “Rabbit Hole,” and for the first time in these last few years, I got Trumpism. I finally really saw how these people had become so warped, and so immune to facts and reason. What we’re seeing couldn’t have happened this way in any other time.

And frankly, I don’t know how we’re going to reverse this problem — a problem affecting people’s perception across the political spectrum (as I say, I know I’m vulnerable to it, too), but manifesting itself most threateningly among Trump followers. They’re the big problem now. (As I type this, I keep getting indications that there are people walking about downtown Columbia with semiautomatic weapons. There have been arrests. I might be writing more about it later, but I hope not. I hope the problem fades away…)

I don’t see how the toothpaste gets back in the tube, and people get sane again.

But I’m going to keep pointing out these glimpses of the problem as I encounter them. As I think I mentioned, I watched part of “The Social Dilemma” the other night. When I finish it, I’ll probably post about that, too. It starts from a perspective different from mine (such as worrying about addiction to social media, particularly among kids), but also gets into the problems I’m talking about…

Did anyone pay attention to the State of the State?

Henry 2021

I sort of forgot about it, what with a POTUS getting impeached for the second time and all. And other stuff.

Normally, I’d want to watch and see what sort of excuses Henry is offering for his stewardship of our state, but I was busy and to the extent that I was aware of news, other things were shouting louder.

Once, those were Big Wednesdays for me. They took up a lot of my day and night. My colleagues and I would go to lunch at the governor’s house to be briefed on the speech and receive our copies, and then we’d go back to the office and read the copies and argue over it, then one of us would write the editorial, and the writer and I would stay at work through the speech that night to see if we needed to amend the edit before letting the page go. Which we sometimes did.

All this effort was fitting, since the overwhelming majority of what we wrote was about South Carolina and the issues before it.

But now… I’ve done what I could to help South Carolina get committed, rational leadership that actually cares about said issues — all those years on the editorial board, and those few months in 2018 more directly — and just kept running into the same brick walls. It’s hard even to get people to pay the slightest attention. And now I don’t have the soapbox I once did, so… I don’t follow every word said in SC politics the way I used to.

Especially not yesterday.

What about you? Tell me you hung on every word, and offer some cogent thoughts about what was said, and make me feel guilty for having missed it. Beyond that, I’m just curious: Was anyone paying attention?

Unprecedented, again: The second impeachment

again

It’s after 10 and I haven’t stopped to rest a moment today. But I can’t go sit, watch a bit of telly and hit the sack without saying something about the fact that Trump was impeached today, for the second time.

Which, of course, is as we know the first time that has happened. Yet another way in which Donald J. Trump is unique in our history.

Strange, isn’t it? That someone so dumb, so incapable, so sub-par, so contemptible should be, in so many ways, so extraordinary. Of course, the only reason he is “extraordinary” is that before 2016, not only had no one so very dumb, incapable, sub-par, and contemptible ever come close to being president of the United States, but it had been unthinkable — something we didn’t even have to bother worrying about. It’s not that he’s extraordinary, but that the situation of someone so lamentably low being in such a high office is extraordinary.

Of course, extraordinary sounds vaguely laudatory, so we usually say “unprecedented.” It’s a somewhat more neutral, even soporific, word, compared to “extraordinary.”

Obviously, I’m tired. Why am I sitting here? Oh, yes — because I have to say something about the unprecedented second impeachment.

Or do I? I mean, we knew it was going to happen. The House had to do something. You don’t just sit there passively and wait for his term to end, when the president of the United States has incited a mob and sent it to physically attack a coequal branch in the very seat of our government. Just saying “Oh, he’ll be gone in a few days” seems too much like a dereliction of duty.

And that’s what they did: something. It wasn’t much, in light of the treasonous (and, here it comes again, unprecedented) course of action taken by the POTUS, on that day, and ever since Election Day. If it hadn’t been his constant lies about the election, his actions in court, his bullying of state officials, all that insanity… there would have been no mob to incite that day.

Seldom in human history has anyone taken such a desperate gamble and, having failed, lived to tell the tale. So impeachment — especially to a guy who’s been there and done that and shrugged it off before, because he has zero respect for the principles involved — is only slightly more than water off a particularly greasy duck’s back.

But it was the arrow in the House’s quiver — the only one, really — so they loosed it.

And we know the Senate won’t take it up any time soon. So what’s my hurry? Why do I have to write about it tonight?

I dunno. Maybe I don’t. But I thought I’d give y’all a place to comment on it. If you have things to say.

That’s it. I’m worn out. Good night…

Millions of separate realities, destroying our common world

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for weeks, but haven’t had the time, because it would be so involved. But I think I’ll throw out a few thoughts about it, and see if y’all take it up, and then add to the conversation as we go.

I’m prompted to go ahead and do so by a piece Jennifer Rubin had in The Washington Post today. It’s headlined, “We must end the post-truth society.” That’s fairly self-explanatory. It deals with a problem we all know exists. And in this case, she’s dealing not only with the grossly destructive tendency of Trump supporters to believe his lies, but other aspects we see in our culture today, such as all the nonsense about the “war on Christmas.”

All fairly obvious, as I said. We now live in a time in which people utterly reject Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” (He wrote it in a column in 1983, although it is apparently based on something James R. Schlesinger had said previously.) When he said it, people across the political spectrum would have nodded, because it’s so obviously true.

But not now. And the word “entitled” is particularly significant here. People out there really, truly think they are entitled to their own facts. After all, they dwell in a universe in which their belief in such “facts” is fully supported and reinforced.A_separate_reality

I’ve commented on this before. Everyone has. And I was conscious of the cause of the problem. But recently, I came to realize it, to understand it, to grok it, more fully. And it was as though I hadn’t thought about these things before.

It happened first when I listened to a podcast series from several months ago, called “Rabbit Hole.” If you haven’t listened to it, I wish you would — assuming The New York Times allows you to do so. (Since I’m a subscriber, I’m never sure what is available to non-subscribers.) It’s in eight parts. The most compelling are the first few, which deal in great detail with what happened to a young man named Caleb.

Caleb is a guy who initially perceived reality in a fairly “normal” way (judged from the perspective of my own reality), even though he was having a bit of trouble finding his way in the world I know. Then he got addicted to YouTube. He started watching it most of his waking hours. After he got a job that allowed him to listen to earbuds while working, he did it (or at least listened to it) ALL of his waking hours.

Meanwhile, YouTube was growing and refining its product. They were making the artificial intelligence that underlies its operation smarter and smarter, and better at constantly showing you more of what interests you. We’re all familiar with this, and I suppose that mostly, we appreciate it. It’s nice when I go to listen, say, to the Turtles play “Happy Together,” and YouTube suggests a video I had never seen of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” (Which it may or may not do for you in your reality.) I end up wasting time, but it’s enjoyable.

One day in late 2014, YouTube recommended  to Caleb a self-help video by Stefan Molyneux, a self-styled “anarcho-capitalist” who also had a political agenda. He liked what he heard; it seemed to speak particularly relevantly to a confused young man. So YouTube showed him similar things. And more similar things. And it got more and more out there, more and more into the terrain of, as the NYT put it, “conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism.” It essentially said to him, over and over, “Oh, you liked that? Then you’ll love this…”

It became his reality. His only reality, since he had no other sources of information about the world. (He didn’t make time for any other sources.) And he got in deeper and deeper. How this happened is charted quite precisely, because Caleb gave the Times access to his video-watching history. They could trace his descent into his own tailor-made madness clip by clip, hour by hour, day after day. For years.

It’s really something to listen to.

Of course, this was just Caleb’s reality — his, and that of others who were absorbed by the increasingly weird things that he listened to and was shaped by. Each individual, of course, would have a slightly different experience, while at the same time becoming members of new, bogus “communities” of people with similar beliefs in this or that area.

I mentioned this podcast, and recommended it, to friends, who recommended in turn that I go watch “The Great Hack” on Netflix. It examined the same phenomenon from a different angle, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, “in which the personal data of millions of Facebook users were acquired without their consent… predominantly to be used for political advertising.” Data that reflected you through your online habits, using an app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” I recommend that, too. Even if you don’t find it enlightening, at least the graphic effects are cool (such as a person walking down a crowded city street, while bits of data are shown flowing up from every smartphone he passes). Or I thought so.

I’d always been concerned about the thing that was working on Caleb. Back in the 90s, when I was first exploring the Web, I saw that a lot of sites — including newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal — would invite you to create your own, personalized interface. “Mywsj.com,” or whatever. I found this disturbing, especially when newspapers did it. But I confess I didn’t see how bad things would get. My objection was simply that the point of a newspaper is to provide a community, or a state or a nation with a common set of information about what’s going on — something that in a free country will inevitably lead to fierce debates about what to do in light of the facts, but at least everyone was starting from a common set of facts, a common perception of reality, which at least provided some hope of an arrival at a rational course of action. Facts collected and passed on by professionals with a quasi-religious ethic of accuracy and impartiality, let me add, and curated by editors who had over the years demonstrated skill and insight into current events. (Now watch all the self-appointed media critics go ballistic on that one. Hey, it wasn’t perfect, but man was it superior to what we have now.)

To be a fully prepared citizen, capable of contributing constructively to the public conversation, you needed to see ALL the news, not just the bits that tickled your personal fancy. You needed a sense of the fullness of what was going on.

Now, we have separate realities, millions of them, curated by algorithms to tell us what we want to hear (as opposed to editors, who tended to irritate all of us with the unwelcome information they shared). Everyone on the planet is now an editor and publisher, with power the old-school professionals couldn’t dream of: Each person is able to cast out his or her versions of reality to the entire world, instantaneously. No matter how well- or ill-considered their perceptions are. And each person is informed by sources such as these — the particular ones that each person chooses, or has chosen for him or her by the algorithms.

More than 40 years ago, I enjoyed Carlos Castaneda’s series of books about his apprenticeship under the Yaqui Indian shaman called Don Juan, including a volume titled A Separate Reality. It was fascinating to read of his adventures in that separate universe, and enjoyable (rather than threatening) because I lived in the safe, mundane reality with most people. Castaneda’s universe was shaped by not just Don Juan’s tutelage, but a variety of hallucinogenic drugs. Which I avoided, satisfied simply to read about it. It was a nice escape.

But that was amateur hour compared to what surrounds us today. There are millions of separate realities — one shaped separately for each of us. And some of them are truly wild. Worse, they have rendered any sort of consensus-forming through our system of representative democracy practically impossible.

And that’s how you get things like the mob attacking the Capitol last week. A mob of people absolutely convinced that they were “patriots” saving the republic from something that threatened it. Because that’s the way it is in their respective separate realities.

It’s the Trump brand of reality that’s currently wreaking havoc on our country, appealing to each adherent in a different, personalized way. But of course there are billions of others around the globe.

I’m sort of wary of my own, and perhaps I should be even warier. Just the other day, after the failed revolution, I was noticing how everyone seemed to agree with me about what had happened, more or less, on Twitter. (Which, if you’ve spent decades as an editor fielding reader complaints, causes you to get suspicious.) This happens because they are brought together in a reality shaped by the people and institutional sources I have chosen to follow, and those who have chosen to follow me.

But I’m simultaneously aware that, despite the shocking violence last week, which led even Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell to go ahead and certify Joe’s election (something that would have been utterly unremarkable — would in fact not even have been prominently covered — in the world in which these separate realities did not yet exist), these views are not universally shared. It’s not just the abomination of Joe Wilson and the other members who voted against confirming the election. The almost half of the country that voted for Trump seems to be spread along a vast spectrum, from your Mitt Romney types to your Ted Cruzes. And they have all sorts of verdicts on events, shaped by their distinct online interactions.

Each and every one in his own, separate universe, shaped by its own separate facts. To which he is quite certain he is entitled….

Nice job there, Ah-nold

Just thought I’d share this video Arnold Schwarzenegger put out yesterday.

It’s gotten a lot of positive reactions. Conan O’Brien said, ““This is the most powerful and uniquely personal statement I’ve heard from ANYONE on where we are right now as a country.”

I thought it fitting to quote O’Brien, since in the video, Arnold wields his “Conan” sword…

Conan sword

Thanks for letting me know!

dogs antifa

After the attack on the Capitol, I went to see what was being said on the Facebook page of a certain person who is, shall we say, an acquaintance.

There, I found reassurance. I told my wife, “You’ll be happy to know that the attack on the Capitol was NOT carried out by Trump supporters. It was Antifa.” I was so relieved that such an abomination wasn’t incited by a sitting president of the United States!

Along those same lines, I share with you the image I received today via text.

Yeah, I know the language violates my blog standards, but I’m giving them a break. Hey, they’re dogs. They don’t know any better…

Impeachment, 25th Amendment, or wait for Inauguration?

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States

What’s it gonna be then, eh?

How are we going to deal with the man who incited the mob’s attack on the U.S. Capitol? As I see it, these are our choices:

  1. Impeach him again, only this time, the Senate does its job and removes him.
  2. Use the 25th Amendment to remove him.
  3. Just wait two weeks, and he’ll be gone anyway. Plan to have a big party once Joe is sworn in.

Let’s look at each option a little more closely.

  1. Impeachment — Possibly the best thing I’ve read today was Bret Stephens’ column in The New York Times, headlined “Impeach and Convict. Right Now.” He makes a very compelling case, and his points about why we all should have expected what happened yesterday the moment Trump came down that escalator in 2015 are compelling. He argues that “To allow Trump to serve out his term, however brief it may be, puts the nation’s safety at risk, leaves our reputation as a democracy in tatters and evades the inescapable truth that the assault on Congress was an act of violent sedition aided and abetted by a lawless, immoral and terrifying president.” True. My one disappointment in reading it is that he didn’t deal with the details: Just how would it get done that fast. It would take more time than between now and the 20th just for the Senate to go back and do what it should have done on the first impeachment — hear witnesses. I’d like to think it was possible, but is it?
  2. 25th AmendmentNancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are pushing this option. Because when it comes to impeachment, you know, they’ve been there and done that. It makes perfect sense. It really shouldn’t take much time to get those signatures together, and in any other administration since the Amendment was adopted in 1967, it would have happened already. Ah, but that’s the thing you see. There has never been an administration like this before. Everyone in the Cabinet was chosen by Trump — often as a replacement to someone who was not sufficiently subservient to him. The vice president would have to lead the way. And while it was nice that Mike Pence didn’t join the riot yesterday, do you think he would step up and do this, and that enough “principal officers of the executive departments” would go along? That would indeed be something to see.
  3. Wait for the Inauguration — We’ve endured it for four years, and we’re only talking 13 days. No, there’s no guarantee that one or more of those 13 days won’t be like yesterday, only worse. There was never a guarantee that ANY day in the last four years wouldn’t have been like that. Most of us knew this. The rest learned it yesterday. Given the difficulties of the first two options, this one seems the most practical. There’s just one big argument against it in my book, but it’s a biggie: This is what Lindsey Graham wants us to do.

Personally, I’m torn. Even if it’s impossible, I’d like to see people do their absolute best to bring about his ouster through option 1 or 2. Either would be the right thing to do. We can’t just shrug off what has happened, and miss this opportunity to redeem our country from the shame of having Trump as our president. That’s wrong.

But… would even more damage be done to the country if we tried one of those options and failed, not because either was a bad idea, but because we ran out of time? How would the rest of the world, and history, see a failed attempt to remove someone who has done what he has done? Would anyone ever see those very necessary options as being worth trying — and if they’re not, what does it do to confidence in the Constitution?

So what should we do? I look forward to your arguments…