Saturday, December 31, 2016

Yin and yang of decedents

“I would like to use the law of this land to do everything I possibly can to protect America's children from abuse and violence and to give to each of them the opportunity to grow to be strong, healthy and self-sufficient citizens of this country.” — Janet Reno, Attorney General of the United States from 1993 to 2001

I'VE PONDERED for days about what to write about in this last post of 2106. So many things to discuss, so little time. 

I finally settled on two pieces from the yearend New York Times Magazine series called The Lives They Lived that features short homages each year about people we've lost in the previous 12 months. Some of them are household names, some not, but they all have led unique lives in one way or another . . . for good or for ill. 

You may recall I've selected some to share with you in previous years. This time I've chosen a couple of opposites — at least they are so for me; one person I respecteded and was sad to lose, and the other whose passing I celebrated. In fact I cheered so unabashedly (Scalia Croaks and I Get to Be Glad) that at least one shocked reader took me severely to task. 

But I make no apologies for how I felt then or now. This particular individual who thankfully left us, inflicted no small amount of damage to our nation and the lives of our fellow citizens. My only disappointment is that he didn't begin conferencing with the worms sooner.


B. 1938

What you learn when you ride shotgun with the former attorney general.

By Michael Paterniti

December 21, 2016

Central Florida is the in-between you make go away by pressing a little harder on the gas. Orange groves at dusk, sky full of pastel color, and Janet Reno is driving the car, a rental. It’s 2002, Reno is running for governor of Florida, and I’ve spent days riding shotgun with her, reporting for this magazine, accompanying her to various campaign events — most of them populated by older women, bright and warm women with structures of freshly coifed hair, who fawn over Janet Reno, who knew her mother, an investigative reporter for The Miami News. To them, Janet Reno is the daughter who left Florida to fix America, serving eight controversial years as attorney general under Bill Clinton, and has now returned to fix the Sunshine State.

Just “Janet” to the women — and “Janny,” the oldest of four siblings, to her family — she is leading in the polls of the Democratic primary, up at one point by almost 30 points. Her unusual, grass-roots campaign has been dubbed “The Little Red Pickup-Truck Tour,” for the fact that she has mostly crisscrossed the state alone in her Ford Ranger. She seems to have no advisers, no pollsters, no bodyguards, no team or entourage to speak of.

During her tumultuous tenure as attorney general, the decisions came in a furious rush: Reno oversaw a 51-day standoff with Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex., and authorized the F.B.I. to storm the compound, resulting in the deaths of more than 70 people. She ordered the forced seizure of Elián González, which led to the famous image of a federal agent pointing his automatic weapon at the screaming 6-year-old Cuban boy. She assigned a special prosecutor to lead an investigation of Whitewater — a criminal inquiry eventually overtaken by Kenneth Starr, whose expanded powers resulted in the revelation of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. And she successfully prosecuted the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, as well as the Oklahoma bombers, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. As Reno became the face of each new upheaval, The Washington Post called her “arguably the most powerful appointed woman in American politics,” adding, “She is doubtless the best-known attorney general since Robert F. Kennedy.”

In Florida now, it’s just Janet, citizen/adventurer/candidate, getting gas, shambling in for a chocolate bar. She materializes out of thin air at white picnics and black churches, Hispanic parades and shopping malls where everyone mixes, all 6-feet-1 of her tumbling into the sun in her thick-lensed glasses and mail-order, shoulder-padded dresses, speaking plainly, in a deliberate, almost dulling lingua, about the environment and education, hearkening backward to an Old Florida she would like to reclaim. “I’m not fancy,” she has said in the past. “I’m what I appear to be.”

Back in Washington, many people disputed and opined about who she appeared to be. She was attacked as both a Clinton lackey and a Clinton enemy, when in fact her only allegiance was to the law. She was desexualized and then re-sexualized as a man in drag, a lesbian, a freak — or as her sister, Maggy, once put it, into “a large person with boots on.”

Here’s how she really appears in the lightly freckled flesh, though, among people who know her best: She is curious and open; whip-smart and a little war-weary; afflicted with the tremors of Parkinson’s, not defined by them. She announced that she had the disease during her term as attorney general, and after her medication kept her up at night, decided to cut the dosage. A colleague, wondering aloud about how she might appear to the public, said that she replied, “So I’ll be an old lady who shakes.”

For all her years of tough talk at Justice, you can’t help being struck most by a certain strain of gentleness in her, how she talks lovingly about her deceased mother, about the wonderful old pinto pony named Tony she had when she was a kid growing up in the cypress bungalow, under the gumbo limbo trees, of what was then rural Miami. In her are the echoes of Annie Oakley and Pippi Longstocking, people of the frontier, who yearned for it. When her silverware clicks against the plate and she’s asked about her disease, she says that she knows how it will end, with the loss of her ability to speak and people feeding her, but until she’s incapacitated, she intends to keep living life as fully as possible, visiting friends and family, road tripping and kayaking.

On we drive, then, through grove land and orchards, headed to her sister Maggy’s, for a good dinner and a day off on the coast, when something unexpected occurs: Strobe lights flash from behind, a siren whoops once. Until now, Janet Reno has been happily telling stories, about the old family dynasties that rule Central Florida. But with the sound of the siren, her expression turns glum. The color drains from her face, and by the time the trooper opens his door and approaches in clipped strides to the driver’s-side window, she seems about to hyperventilate. He doesn’t make eye contact to say hello or ask a question. He just holds out his hand, grunts, “License and registration.” Janet Reno, in turn, dutifully fumbles for both. It’s possible she has never been on the wrong side of the law. Ever. And now she has been caught, by this eager beaver, maybe 10 miles over the speed limit.

When he goes back to his cruiser, we sit for an interminable moment in silence, except for when she sighs and says, “Oh, well.” When the trooper returns, it’s as if he has been injected with the fluorescent serum of polite friendliness. “Ms. Reno,” he says, deferentially, looking straight in her eyes. “I didn’t realize it was you. I, I. ... It’s a pleasure to meet you out here.”

“I know I was speeding,” says the former attorney general. “I don’t have an excuse.”

“I’m only giving you a warning today — ”

“No,” she insists. “Please treat me like anyone else.”

“Anyone else would get a warning, too,” he says, though that seems likely false. “I want to thank you for your service.”

Janet Reno thanks him for his service. “I just need you to be careful out here,” he says, then he waits obligingly, with a tip of his cap, as we pull from the shoulder, to the clicking sound of stone under the wheels. Janet Reno never lets the speedometer’s needle climb above 55, all the way to Maggy’s, where there’s food and a familiar bed. “He probably should have given me that ticket,” she tells her sister later.

The next day, she shows me how to roll a kayak. She will eventually lose the primary by less than 5,000 votes when the Democratic establishment, deciding that she’s aloof and convinced that her controversial time in Washington has made her unelectable, throws its support behind her challenger. Over the next 14 years of being a Floridian, she will ultimately be relegated to a wheelchair and succumb to the disease, surrounded by loved ones at the end. But on this bright day, we boat the St. Lucie inlet, to snorkel. She applies sunscreen to her fair skin. In her bathing suit, she smiles unabashedly and dives in, leaving a tiny splash. Among the coral and teeming aquatic life, she flutters her large feet and floats in unseen currents, borne forward, almost without trying. Her power, I realize, is this easy oneness with a higher law. And that’s how I’ll choose to imagine her at the end, unspeaking but wholly aware, gracefully slipping through.


B. 1936

He claimed objectivity when it came to originalism, but he was a skeptic about science.

By Emily Bazelon

December 21, 2016

In 1981, the Louisiana Legislature passed a law that forbade public schools to teach evolution without also instructing students on “creation science.” The Creationism Act was challenged in court for breaching the constitutional wall between church and state, in a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1986. For seven justices, the decision involved a simple constitutional question. They saw the law as an effort to force religious belief into the science curriculum, and they struck it down.

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented. He saw the case as a question about certainty: What can we really know for sure? Pointing to “ample uncontradicted testimony that ‘creation science’ is a body of scientific knowledge, rather than revealed belief,” he chided his colleagues for treating the evidence for evolution as “conclusive.”

Scalia’s opinion, joined only by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, drew a pained response from the Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould. “I regret to say that Justice Scalia does not understand the subject matter of evolutionary biology,” Gould wrote in a natural-history journal. “We are not blessed with absolute certainty about any fact of nature, but evolution is as well confirmed as anything we know.” Scalia, a conservative Catholic, defined evolution, like the creation story in Genesis, as a means to discover “the origin of life.” But scientists don’t try to reach that ultimate answer, Gould wrote. “We know that we can’t, and we do not even consider such a question as part of science.”

Scalia’s dissent, written in his first term, became part of a pattern over his 30 years on the court. He relished argument and debate, but when he had to grapple with scientific evidence, he was often wary. “In all my conversations and observations of him, I don’t remember him talking about science,” says Steven Calabresi, a law professor at Northwestern University who clerked for Scalia and considers him a second father. Scalia was the court’s indefatigable and irrepressible originalist, promising to interpret the Constitution based on its meaning when it was written. In his crowning achievement, the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, he used historical research to locate an individual right to bear arms in the 18th-century language of the Second Amendment. “History is a rock-solid science compared to moral philosophy,” Scalia said at the University of Virginia School of Law in 2010. In other words, he saw his project as stripping the law of judicial ideology. When his colleagues reached results that matched their politics, he derided them with the phrase “any stick to beat a dog,” according to another former clerk, Bruce Hay, now a law professor at Harvard. To prove the impartiality of originalism, Scalia often pointed to the occasional votes he cast against his preferences, like his support for a 5-to-4 ruling in 1989 that found a right to burn the flag in the First Amendment.

And so it’s striking, observes Justin Driver, a law professor at the University of Chicago, “that the justice who more conspicuously than any other was invested in trying to make legal interpretation objective sometimes seemed to be skeptical of science itself, the best means we have of pursuing objectivity.” At an argument before the Supreme Court in 2006, in a case about climate change, a lawyer for Massachusetts gently corrected Scalia for referring to the stratosphere instead of the troposphere. “Whatever,” Scalia responded. “I told “I would like to use the law of this land to do everything I possibly can to protect America's children from abuse and violence and to give to each of them the opportunity to grow to be strong, healthy and self-sufficient citizens of this country.” — Janet Renoyou before I’m not a scientist. That’s why I don’t want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.”

But the court had to deal. Justices are generalists by trade, picking their way through a minefield of facts without the benefit of personal expertise. A majority of the justices agreed in the climate case to state the scientific consensus: “The harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized.” In dissent, Scalia held fast to doubt: “The court’s alarm over global warming may or may not be justified.”

He also refused to treat social-science research as settled. In 2013, the lawyer defending California’s ban on same-sex marriage gave no examples of how allowing gay couples to marry could be harmful. “I don’t know why you don’t mention some concrete things,” Scalia prodded him. “There’s considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not.” In fact, at that point there was a strong body of evidence showing that children fare as well with gay parents as they do with straight ones.

Scalia, whom Donald Trump has called his model for selecting future justices, also contradicted scientific consensus when he declared it “very likely” last year that the death penalty deters murder. He dismissed the findings of a panel of the National Research Council, which surveyed the relevant studies and unanimously concluded in 2012 that the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect. To support his claim to the contrary, Scalia cited three articles. Two were statistical studies that the National Research Council had discredited. The lead author of the third (which was not an empirical evaluation) had previously stated that his paper did not claim the death penalty had a deterrent effect. “Scalia was willing to cite work that was thoroughly refuted by an accepted scholarly institution, without feeling any need to buttress his position,” says John Donohue, a Stanford economist and law professor who conducts empirical research on the death penalty.

By seeking refuge in uncertainty, Scalia — paradoxical though it may sound — cast himself as a kind of apostate. He even refused to join part of a 2013 opinion, by Justice Clarence Thomas, that laid out basic principles of human genetics in textbook fashion: “Sequences of DNA nucleotides contain the information necessary to create strings of amino acids.” Scalia said he could not affirm the facts based “on my own knowledge or even my own belief.” The last bit could contain multitudes; Scalia didn’t explain it.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

We're all going to suffer

“I am a person who is unhappy with things as they stand. We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth because of the injustice of things.” ― Hugo Claus, well-known Belgian author who published under his own name as well as various pseudonyms

I WAS going to write about something else. Really. But this from The New York Times is both depressing and infuriating, and must be shared. As a prized friend recently advised, have necessary medical procedures performed now!!!! 

Snatching Health Care Away From Millions

By Paul Krugman 

December 30, 2016

If James Comey, the F.B.I. director, hadn’t tipped the scales in the campaign’s final days with that grotesquely misleading letter, right now an incoming Clinton administration would be celebrating some very good news. Because health reform, President Obama’s signature achievement, is stabilizing after a bumpy year.

This means that the huge gains achieved so far — tens of millions of newly insured Americans and dramatic reductions in the number of people skipping treatment or facing financial hardship because of cost — look as if they’re here to stay.

Or they would be here to stay if the man who squeaked into power thanks to Mr. Comey and Vladimir Putin wasn’t determined to betray his supporters, and snatch away the health care they need.

To appreciate the good news about Obamacare you need to understand where the earlier bad news came from. Premiums on the exchanges, the insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, did indeed rise sharply this year, because insurers were losing money. But this wasn’t because of a surge in overall medical costs, which have risen much more slowly since the act was passed than they did before. It reflected, instead, the mix of people signing up — fewer healthy, low-cost people than expected, more people with chronic health issues.

The question was whether this was a one-time adjustment or the start of a “death spiral,” in which higher premiums would drive healthy Americans out of the market, further worsening the mix, leading to even higher premiums, and so on.

And the answer is that it looks like a one-shot affair. Despite higher premiums, enrollments in the exchanges are running ahead of their levels a year ago; no death spiral here. Meanwhile, analysts are reporting substantial financial improvement for insurers: The premium hikes are doing the job, ending their losses.

In other words, Obamacare hit a bump in the road, but appears to be back on track.

But will it be killed anyway?

In a way, Democrats should hope that Republicans follow through on their promises to repeal health reform. After all, they don’t have a replacement, and never will. They’ve spent seven years promising something very different from yet better than Obamacare, but keep failing to deliver, because they can’t; the logic of broad coverage, especially for those with pre-existing conditions, requires either an Obamacare-like system or single-payer, which Republicans like even less. That won’t change.

As a result, repeal would have devastating effects, with people who voted Trump among the biggest losers. Independent estimates suggest that Republican plans would cause 30 million Americans to lose coverage, with about half the losers coming from the Trump-supporting white working class. At least some of those Trump supporters would probably conclude that they were the victims of a political scam — which they were.

Republican congressional leaders like Paul Ryan nonetheless seem eager to push ahead with repeal. In fact, they seem to be in a great rush, probably because they’re afraid that if they don’t unravel health reform in the very first weeks of the Trump era, rank-and-file members of Congress will start hearing from constituents who really, really don’t want to lose their insurance.

Why do the Republicans hate health reform? Some of the answer is that Obamacare was paid for in part with taxes on the wealthy, who will reap a huge windfall if it’s repealed, even as many middle-income families face tax hikes.

More broadly, Obamacare must die precisely because it’s working, showing that government action really can improve people’s lives — a truth they don’t want anyone to know.

How will Republicans try to contain the political fallout if they go ahead with repeal, and tens of millions lose access to health care? No doubt they’ll try to distract the public — and the all-too-compliant news media — with shiny objects of various kinds.

But surely a central aspect of their damage control will be an attempt to push a false narrative about Obamacare’s past. Health reform, they’ll claim, was always a failure, and it was already collapsing on the eve of the G.O.P. takeover. When the number of uninsured Americans skyrockets on their watch, they’ll claim that it’s not their fault — like everything, it’s the fault of liberal elites.

So let’s refute that narrative in advance. Obamacare has, in fact, been a big success — imperfect, yes, but it has greatly improved (and saved) many lives. And all indications are that this success is sustainable, that the teething problems of health reform weren’t fatal and were well on their way to being solved at the end of 2016.

If, as seems all too likely, a health care debacle is imminent, blame must be placed where it belongs: on Donald Trump and the people who put him over the top.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Homecoming, healing and escape

“Sadness is an energy we discharge in order to heal. Sadness is painful. We try to avoid it. Discharging sadness releases the energy involved in our emotional pain. To hold it in is to freeze the pain within us. The therapeutic slogan is that grieving is the ‘healing feeling.’” ― John Bradshaw

A COUPLE of nights ago, little miss prickly paws — otherwise known as Shiva — got one of her claws caught in the bedspread. When she tried to leave, she found she was stuck. She tried pulling away to free herself, but the harder she pulled against her snare, the more tightly attached and upset she became.

I hastened to her assistance. First I tried lifting her paw and pulling it gently forward to detach her, but that only confused and panicked her more, and she just pulled all the harder in the wrong direction. I finally lifted her whole little struggling self up, shifting her forward enough to release the tension on the fabric, and the bedspread fell away.

I said, "Sometimes we have to go backwards in order to go forward," as if she could understand me and learn a life lesson. C'mon, we all explain things to our furry children, right?

She had pulled hard against what had snagged her, but actually moving towards it was the only way out. Remember those little woven Chinese finger traps that we used to play with as kids where the only way out is in? That was Shiva's situation.

Shiva and the bedspread that once trapped her.

I was thinking that life can be like that. 

A woman I know describes it as leaning into the pain, and it takes takes courage. I learned how to do it from, among other sources, the work of John Bradshaw, the internationally-famous family systems therapist. I've been a fan of his ever since I accidentally discovered him 30 years or so ago. 

I had absentmindedly turned on the television, to whatever channel it had been on the night before, and as it happened, PBS was holding one of its annual fund-raisers. As part of it, John was giving a talk in front of a live audience. After not very many minutes I had tears cascading down my cheeks. I thought, "Holy crap! I don't know who this is or what he's talking about exactly, but I'd better find out."

As part of the fundraising drive, PBS was giving his ten-tape series called Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child — this was beforet DVDs — as a premium for a certain donation level. I mailed in a check immediately.

Watching the series was life-changing. His premise is that we remain stuck emotionally at whatever age we sustain damage as children. We may be outwardly adult in age, appearance and even the trappings of life, but parts of our psyche and personality will stay three or five or nine or whatever age we were when we were wounded, and the only way to free ourselves from the hold it has on us is to revisit what happened in a safe, loving, supported, but conscious way. 

Having been a failure-to-thrive infant fathered by an alcoholic, abusive father, born to a suicidal, mentally ill mother who died in a mental institution . . . and abandoned, kidnapped, passed back and forth, and sometimes placed with unkind adults all by the age of six, I figured I had my work cut out for me.

Certainly I sought other interventions along the way, but Bradshaw's series pulled it all together for me and made all of it make sense to me — bedrock sense. His series is a step-by-step guide to walking into the pain and leaving it behind.

Just like little Shiva, going towards what's trapping us is often the way out.

The book was a New York Times bestseller. 
Also available as an audio book, but I recommend the DVDs.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Their brains are different. Really.

“Neuroscience is by far the most exciting branch of science because the brain is the most fascinating object in the universe.” — Stanley B. Prusiner, American neurologist, biochemist and director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at University of California, San Francisco 

I DON'T think you'll find any of this surprising, really. This article, sent to me by friend Jan Reddin, is from Raw Story, but I've also read and vetted some of the studies that are cited in the piece, so I'm confident they're legit. 

Not that knowing any of this does us any gosh darn good. He-who-shall-not-be-named is still president-elect. God help us all. 

A neuroscientist explains what may be wrong with Trump supporters’ brains

By Bobby Azarian

August 4, 2016

There’s no doubt that Donald Trump has said many things that would have been political suicide for any other Republican candidate. And almost every time he made one of these shocking statements, political analysts on both the left and the right predicted that he’d lose supporters because of it. But as we have clearly seen over the past year, they were dead wrong every time. Trump appears to be almost totally bulletproof.

The only thing that might be more perplexing than the psychology of Donald Trump is the psychology of his supporters. In their eyes, The Donald can do no wrong. Even Trump himself seems to be astonished by this phenomenon. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

Senator John McCain, who has been a regular target for Trump during his campaign, has a simple explanation for his unwavering support. “What he did was he fired up the crazies.”

While the former Republican presidential nominee may be on to something, he doesn’t exactly provide a very satisfying scientific explanation.  So how exactly are Trump loyalists psychologically or neurologically different from everyone else? What is going on in their brains that makes them so blindly devoted?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect:

Some believe that many of those who support Donald Trump do so because of ignorance — basically they are under-informed or misinformed about the issues at hand. When Trump tells them that crime is skyrocketing in the United States, or that the economy is the worst it’s ever been, they simply take his word for it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains that the problem isn’t just that they are misinformed; it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed. This creates a double burden.

Studies have shown that people who lack expertise in some area of knowledge often have a cognitive bias that prevents them from realizing that they lack expertise. As psychologist David Dunning puts it in an op-ed for Politico, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.” Essentially, they’re not smart enough to realize they’re dumb.

And if one is under the illusion that they have sufficient or even superior knowledge, then they have no reason to defer to anyone else’s judgment. This helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.

Hypersensitivity to Threat

Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A classic study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging study published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety. And a 2014 fMRI study found that it is possible to predict whether someone is a liberal or conservative simply by looking at their brain activity while they view threatening or disgusting images, such as mutilated bodies. Specifically, the brains of self-identified conservatives generated more activity overall in response to the disturbing images.

So how does this help explain the unbridled loyalty of Trump supporters? These brain responses are automatic, and not influenced by logic or reason. As long as Trump continues his fear mongering by constantly portraying Muslims and Mexican immigrants as imminent dangers, many conservative brains will involuntarily light up like light bulbs being controlled by a switch. Fear keeps his followers energized and focused on safety. And when you think you’ve found your protector, you become less concerned with remarks that would normally be seen as highly offensive.

Terror Management Theory

A well-supported theory from social psychology, called Terror Management Theory, explains why Trump’s fear mongering is doubly effective.

The theory is based on the fact that humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitably of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.

Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this hypothesis, and some have specifically shown that triggering thoughts of death tends to shift people towards the right.

Not only do death reminders increase nationalism, they influence actual voting habits in favor of more conservative presidential candidates. And more disturbingly, in a study with American students, scientists found that making mortality salient increased support for extreme military interventions by American forces that could kill thousands of civilians overseas. Interestingly, the effect was present only in conservatives, which can likely be attributed to their heightened fear response.

By constantly emphasizing existential threat, Trump creates a psychological condition that makes the brain respond positively rather than negatively to bigoted statements and divisive rhetoric. Liberals and Independents who have been puzzled over why Trump hasn’t lost supporters after such highly offensive comments need look no further than Terror Management Theory.

High Attentional Engagement

According to a recent study that monitored brain activity while participants watched 40 minutes of political ads and debate clips from the presidential candidates, Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged. While Hillary Clinton could only hold attention for so long, Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session. This pattern of activity was seen even when Trump made remarks that individuals didn’t necessarily agree with. His showmanship and simple messages clearly resonate at a visceral level.

Essentially, the loyalty of Trump supporters may in part be explained by America’s addiction with entertainment and reality TV. To some, it doesn’t matter what Trump actually says because he’s so amusing to watch. With Donald, you are always left wondering what outrageous thing he is going to say or do next. He keeps us on the edge of our seat, and for that reason, some Trump supporters will forgive anything he says. They are happy as long as they are kept entertained.

Of course these explanations do not apply to all Trump supporters. In fact, some are likely intelligent people who know better, but are supporting Trump to be rebellious or to introduce chaos into the system. They may have such distaste for the establishment and Hillary Clinton that their vote for Trump is a symbolic middle finger directed at Washington.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Paul Krugman points out the ominous parallels

"A new poll shows that Republican approval of Vladimir Putin has surged even though — or, more likely, precisely because — it has become clear that Russian intervention played an important role in the U.S. election." — Paul Krugman, American economist, Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York Times columnist and Nobel Memorial Prize winner for Economic Science

SHOULD WE be worried . . . very, very, very worried? Yes, we should. I've been thinking ever since the November 8 election that I may very well live to see the disintegration of our American republic. 

But don't listen to me. After all, I'm just me. Below, however, is what Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman had to say recently in The New York Times

FYI: In addition to his current teaching position, Mr. Krugman was a professor of economics at MIT and at Princeton University. He's also Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics and was President of the Eastern Economic Association
He has written over 20 books, including textbooks, and has published more than 200 scholarly articles in professional journals and edited volumes. He's also written several hundred columns on economic and political issues for The New York TimesFortune and Slate
In 2016 Research Papers in Economics ranked him as the world's 24th most influential economist.

The smart money is on Mr. Krugman.

How Republics End

By Paul Krugman 

December 19, 2016

Many people are reacting to the rise of Trumpism and nativist movements in Europe by reading history — specifically, the history of the 1930s. And they are right to do so. It takes willful blindness not to see the parallels between the rise of fascism and our current political nightmare.

But the ’30s isn’t the only era with lessons to teach us. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the ancient world. Initially, I have to admit, I was doing it for entertainment and as a refuge from news that gets worse with each passing day. But I couldn’t help noticing the contemporary resonances of some Roman history — specifically, the tale of how the Roman Republic fell.

Here’s what I learned: Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.

On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Here’s what Adrian Goldsworthy’s “In the Name of Rome” says: “However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic … no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.”

America used to be like that, with prominent senators declaring that we must stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.” But now we have a president-elect who openly asked Russia to help smear his opponent, and all indications are that the bulk of his party was and is just fine with that. (A new poll shows that Republican approval of Vladimir Putin has surged even though — or, more likely, precisely because — it has become clear that Russian intervention played an important role in the U.S. election.) Winning domestic political struggles is all that matters, the good of the republic be damned.

And what happens to the republic as a result? Famously, on paper the transformation of Rome from republic to empire never happened. Officially, imperial Rome was still ruled by a Senate that just happened to defer to the emperor, whose title originally just meant “commander,” on everything that mattered. We may not go down exactly the same route — although are we even sure of that? — but the process of destroying democratic substance while preserving forms is already underway.

Consider what just happened in North Carolina. The voters made a clear choice, electing a Democratic governor. The Republican legislature didn’t openly overturn the result — not this time, anyway — but it effectively stripped the governor’s office of power, ensuring that the will of the voters wouldn’t actually matter.

Combine this sort of thing with continuing efforts to disenfranchise or at least discourage voting by minority groups, and you have the potential making of a de facto one-party state: one that maintains the fiction of democracy, but has rigged the game so that the other side can never win.

Why is this happening? I’m not asking why white working-class voters support politicians whose policies will hurt them — I’ll be coming back to that issue in future columns. My question, instead, is why one party’s politicians and officials no longer seem to care about what we used to think were essential American values. And let’s be clear: This is a Republican story, not a case of “both sides do it.”

So what’s driving this story? I don’t think it’s truly ideological. Supposedly free-market politicians are already discovering that crony capitalism is fine as long as it involves the right cronies. It does have to do with class warfare — redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy is a consistent theme of all modern Republican policies. But what directly drives the attack on democracy, I’d argue, is simple careerism on the part of people who are apparatchiks within a system insulated from outside pressures by gerrymandered districts, unshakable partisan loyalty, and lots and lots of plutocratic financial support.

For such people, toeing the party line and defending the party’s rule are all that matters. And if they sometimes seem consumed with rage at anyone who challenges their actions, well, that’s how hacks always respond when called on their hackery.

One thing all of this makes clear is that the sickness of American politics didn’t begin with Donald Trump, any more than the sickness of the Roman Republic began with Caesar. The erosion of democratic foundations has been underway for decades, and there’s no guarantee that we will ever be able to recover.

But if there is any hope of redemption, it will have to begin with a clear recognition of how bad things are. American democracy is very much on the edge.

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Monday, December 19, 2016

Today: a fictional toad and a real one

“I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you for a friend. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think about how fine everything is.” — Frog from Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel  

TODAY IS a grim day. This afternoon the Electoral College affirmed Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th president. 

I intended to wear all black today in mourning for the country I thought I knew, but in a few minutes Paul and I will drive to the Des Moines domestic violence shelter to watch Santa pass out the 108 wrapped presents that Paul and I delivered earlier today: new pajamas and fuzzy blankets for the women and children in hiding there. 

Santa of course is really all of the people who have donated money, new blankets, new pajamas and time so that Paul and I could make sure these gifts found their way into Santa's sleigh. So instead of the black crepe I feel like wearing, I'm in a bright red blazer with shiny, gold buttons in order to look as festive as possible.

And likewise, I won't inflict my deep sorrow on you, dear reader, in today's HLSS post. I will instead share a sweet, poignant piece I've saved 
from the The New Yorker for you since May.


By Colin Stokes   

May 31, 2016

On a cool autumn day, a frog and a toad awake in their separate houses to find that their yards are filled with fallen leaves. The frog and toad (conveniently named Frog and Toad) see each other every day, and are particularly synchronized: rather than clean his own yard, each decides to go to the other’s house to rake up the leaves there as a kind surprise for his friend. But, unbeknown to either of them, after the raking is done and as they are walking back to their respective homes, a wind comes and undoes all of their hard work, leaving their yards as leaf-strewn as they were at the beginning. Neither has any way of knowing of the other’s helpful act, and neither knows that his own helpful act has been erased. But Frog and Toad both feel satisfied believing that they have done the other a good turn.

This story, called “The Surprise,” appears in “Frog and Toad All Year,” an illustrated book of children’s stories by Arnold Lobel that was first published in 1976. Its mirrored structure is simple yet ingenious: the gust of wind disrupts the course of what might have been a more traditional and didactic children’s tale about two friends who benefit from mutual gestures of kindness. At the end of the story, Frog and Toad’s altruism has amounted to nothing more than the feeling they each got from it. 

What does a child learn from this? That doing good deeds can make the doer feel good, even if those deeds go unrecognized? That those to whom we feel closest will never fully know how much we care for them? That frogs and toads shouldn’t be trusted with basic garden work? Lobel’s ending, “That night Frog and Toad were both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed,” is a satisfying conclusion that nonetheless makes the mind roam. 

One wonders if the friends will meet the next day and ask each other expectantly whether cleaning up their yards had been difficult, only to be flummoxed when they heard that, yes, it was. Instead, like a sitcom that starts each episode with its narrative slate wiped clean, the next story in the book finds Toad waiting anxiously for Frog to arrive at his house for Christmas Eve dinner. After Toad imagines all of the most dramatic things that could have happened to Frog on his walk over, and prepares to set out to rescue him, Frog shows up at Toad’s door with a gift in hand. He was late because he’d been wrapping it. “ ‘Oh, Frog,’ said Toad, ‘I am so glad to be spending Christmas with you.’ ”

Lobel, who wrote and illustrated the Frog and Toad series, was born in 1933 and raised in Schenectady, New York. Having begun his career doing work for advertising agencies, he started illustrating for Harper & Row in 1961, and the following year published his book “A Zoo for Mr. Muster,” about a man who becomes a zookeeper so that he can spend every day with his animal friends. During his career, he worked on dozens of children’s books, both as a writer and as an illustrator, and also, in some instances, in collaboration with his wife, Anita Kempler, whom he met while studying art and theatre as an undergraduate, at Pratt Institute. 

His specialty was animals and their misadventures: an owl who butters his own tie by mistake, a crow who convinces a bear that it’s fashionable to wear bedsheets for clothes and a pan for a hat. In his Frog and Toad books, published between 1970 and 1979, the pair visit each other at home and explore their natural surroundings together, occasionally seeing other animals, like a snail who is the mailman, or birds who enjoy cookies that Frog and Toad throw out when they can’t stop eating them. Many of these stories still make me laugh, like the one in which Toad wakes up and makes a list of things to do. “Wake up,” he writes, then immediately crosses it out. “I have done that,” he says.

Lobel’s daughter, Adrianne Lobel, a painter and set designer who lives in Manhattan, told me that her father’s sense of humor was influenced by popular TV series—his favorites were “Bewitched” and “The Carol Burnett Show”—and by the polished comedy routines of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and Fred Astaire and Edward Everett Horton. (When she produced a stage adaptation of the Frog and Toad stories, in 2002, the opening number had the amphibian duo coming out of hibernation, somewhat dreamily, like the number “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” performed by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, in which two men meet intermittently throughout life, exchange superficial pleasantries, and then meet in heaven and do the same.) 

As a child, Adrianne didn’t think there was anything particularly special about her father reading her the stories he’d written. “It was just ‘Papa’s written another story—he’s going to read it to me now.’ ” 

She recalled a time when she and her younger brother Adam were fighting in the back of a car on a road trip. “My father had been very quiet for a long time, and I guess he couldn’t stand listening to us anymore, and he said, ‘Do you want to hear a story?’ So we settled down, and he recited from beginning to end in verse a story he had just written in his head.”

The “Frog and Toad” books remain in print to this day, and still pop up on the bookshelves of young parents. I asked Adrianne, who now has a teen-age daughter of her own, why she thinks the two characters have such staying power. 

“It was the only thing he wrote that involved a relationship,” she said. “I’ve watched children grow up, and that whole drama that’s kind of the precursor to the hell of romance later in life—who is best friends with whom and who likes who when, and this person doesn’t like me now—it’s very painful, and I think that children really like to hear that this is not abnormal, that Frog and Toad go through these dramas every day.” 

Take, for instance, the story “Alone,” from “Days with Frog and Toad,” in which Toad goes to Frog’s house to visit him but finds a note on the door that reads, “Dear Toad, I am not at home. I went out. I want to be alone.” Toad begins to experience a little crisis: “Frog has me for a friend. Why does he want to be alone?” Toad discovers that Frog is sitting and thinking on an island far from the shore, and he worries that Frog isn’t happy and doesn’t want to see him anymore. But, when they meet (after Toad falls headfirst into the water and soaks the sandwiches he’s made for lunch), Frog says, “I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you for a friend. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think about how fine everything is.” In the end, the trials of their relationship are worth bearing, because Frog and Toad are most content when they’re together.

Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me. “It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me. Lobel never publicly discussed a connection between the series and his sexuality, but he did comment on the ways in which personal material made its way into his stories. 

In a 1977 interview with the children’s-book journal The Lion and the Unicorn, he said, “You know, if an adult has an unhappy love affair, he writes about it. He exorcises it out of himself, perhaps, by writing a novel about it. Well, if I have an unhappy love affair, I have to somehow use all that pain and suffering but turn it into a work for children.”

Lobel died in 1987, an early victim of the aids crisis. “He was only fifty-four,” Adrianne told me. “Think of all the stories we missed.”

When reading children’s books as children, we get to experience an author’s fictional world removed from the very real one he or she inhabits. But knowing the strains of sadness in Lobel’s life story gives his simple and elegant stories new poignancies. On the final page of “Alone,” Frog and Toad, having cleared up their misunderstanding, sit contently on the island looking into the distance, each with his arm around the other. Beneath the drawing, Lobel writes, “They were two close friends, sitting alone together.”

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A cabinet of oligarchs

“Representative government is artifice, a political myth, designed to conceal from the masses the dominance of a self-selected, self-perpetuating, and self-serving traditional ruling class.” — Giuseppe Prezzolini, Italian literary critic, journalist, editor, writer and later an American citizen

I WOULD BE hard-pressed to pick which cabinet member selection is the worst . . . which one is the most likely to do the most damage. From Alternet, here's a contender.

Rex Tillerson: An Oligarch’s Dream at the State Department

By Adele M. Stan / The American Prospect
December 14, 2016

If confirmed by the Senate, the next secretary of state will enter into the service of the second employer he has ever had in his life: the United States government. Since his graduation from the University of Texas in Austin, according to The New Yorker’s Steve Coll, Rex Tillerson has known only one boss (in aggregate): the shareholders of Exxon Mobil.

Already even Republicans are chafing against President-apparent Donald J. Trump’s pick of the oil giant’s CEO for the post of the nation’s top diplomat, on account of Tillerson’s close ties to Vladimir Putin, whose government is implicated by U.S. intelligence services in cyberattacks intended to tip the election toward Trump. If Putin and Trump aren’t quite locked in a bromance, it’s clear that Trump would like one.

Trump’s global business holdings, if maintained during his term in office, already amount to an unconstitutional conflict of interested, according to respected constitutional scholars. In the past, he has conducted business with Russian oligarchs, as when he staged the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, in a venue owned by Aras Agalarov, an oligarch said to be close to Putin. Trump subsequently sought to engage Agalarov in a Moscow building deal, according to Politico’s Michael Crowley.

When word of a prospective Tillerson nomination hit the internet, journalists and wags began wondering out loud about Trump’s own investments in the fossil-fuel sector. Although little is known of the full scope of Trump’s financial interests, it is known that he has investments in the company that is building the pipeline whose construction set off the Standing Rock protests.

But to focus on Trump’s interests in a single sector is to misunderstand the value of Tillerson in a Trump administration, a presidency that daily proves itself to be a clique of private capitalists convened to leverage the assets of the U.S. government in the service of private capital. Tillerson’s draw is not simply that he knows the ways of Big Oil—not a small thing—but that he’s close not only to Putin, but to the Russian oligarchy. Most notable among the deals Tillerson crafted on behalf of Exxon Mobil is one with the Russian firm Rosneft, which has been on hold since the imposition of sanctions against Russia for its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. A state-owned enterprise, Rosneft is run by the oligarch Igor Ivanovich Sechin. Essentially, to do business in Russia is to be in deep with the oligarchy.

So, let’s say you want to create an oligarchy of your own, say, in the United States. You have your favorite companies—perhaps your own and those of your cabinet friends who, like you, earned their millions and billions through privately-held corporations and entities. They’re all (with the exception of your secretary of state) people who hail from the opaque world of private capital, ill-disposed to transparency and regulation, who will back you up when you conduct the business of the U.S. government in the service of your own business interests—so long as you cut them in on the deal in some way.

To succeed in setting up your U.S. oligarchy, you’re going to need to be friendly with oligarchs in other major powers, since what you’re really aiming for is a global oligarchy run from the White House. Why wouldn’t you want a guy like Rex Tillerson as your secretary of state?

While Exxon Mobil—unlike Betsy DeVos’s Amway or Seth Mnuchin’s Dune Capital or Andy Puzder’s CKE Restaurants—is a is a publicly-traded company, it is a company like no other, and one whose executives see it, according to Coll, as “an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy.”

If you’re looking to build an oligarchy of your own, how cool would it be to have a guy running your foreign policy who’s accustomed to doing so in the interest of generating profits? And how much better for you would it be if that same guy knew “all the key players” in the oligarchies of the world, and had operational knowledge of the ways of successful oligarchies?

As I write, talking points from the Trump transition team lauding Tillerson’s accomplishments are circulating through the offices of GOP senators and members of Congress. (Politico’s Seung Min Kim got ahold of the document and published it here.)  Among them is the asserted fact that in a two-year period, Tillerson spent two-thirds of his time in Russia.

Unlike other of Trump’s controversial cabinet picks, Tillerson has the support of the GOP foreign policy establishment in the form of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates. Noteworthy, however, is the fact both Rice and Gates are paid consultants of ExxonMobil.

In Trump’s selection of Tillerson, the flows the presumptive president envisions are likely not limited to those of oil. Imagine a spigot of money flowing, unfettered, from oligarch to oligarch, across the deserts, plains, seas and steppes. Factor in the politics of thuggery that have characterized the campaign run by the man poised to be the commander-in-chief.

We are perilously close to the demise of the republic. Those who refuse to oppose this nomination vigorously will have much to answer for.