Roy Moore and the Sacrament of the Group

The big news was that Roy Moore lost the Senate race in Alabama, but the amazing story that goes along with it was that two-thirds of white women in that state voted for him. Even though it seems pretty obvious to an objective viewer that his accusers were telling the truth and Moore was lying about his escapades of the past, these ladies, who you would think would be up in arms against him, still gave him their vote. Why would they do that?

Well, one reason could be the way they prioritize their values : the danger to society from abortion, same-sex marriage, and all the rest of that kind of baggage outweighs their distaste for a man who was preying on teenage girls years ago. Another reason could be that they simply think the accusers were lying.   But a third important explanation was floated this week by the The Cut (one of New York Magazine’s online sites).   In an interview with neuroscientist Jonas Kaplan they raise the possibility that “motivated reasoning” is at work here. This is the phenomenon where once we buy into something psychologically, it’s not so easy to shake it off.   We’re “motivated” to stay with our initial choices.   This can be seen in many different types of thinking, but political thought is certainly an excellent example.

The fact is that we need to belong to something. Whether it’s a family, a community, a church, a party, a country, it’s in our DNA to establish ties to others, and once we’ve created those bonds, we will defend them. We don’t want to hear any criticisms, in fact the criticisms just trigger a defensiveness to the point of unreason: you must be wrong, because I know I’m right.   This is what got Trump elected and kept those Alabama women on board with Moore.

It’s all part of the Sacrament of the Group. Bonding with others can be exhilarating. In a stadium when your team wins in the final seconds or at a political rally when victory is declared, emotions rise to the level of euphoria. We’re part of something– What a great feeling!   It’s a way to transcend the mundane and get closer to something truly glorious.   The groups we choose mean so much to us.

But the danger of course is that it blinds us to considerations that are important.   As Hamlet reminded himself, the Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.  How do we keep from backing the wrong horse or the wrong idea?    Given that this impulse to defend is programed into us, rooted in our DNA, the only answer is an education that includes a check on this aspect of our behavior, a moral education, like the lessons we learn that curb other evolutionary impulses, like stealing what we want, or assaulting women at will.   These impulses were valuable to our primate ancestors, but vices for  men and women.

Every school curriculum should include an acknowledgement of motivated reasoning, and practice in how to step away from it.   Beginning with young children, we should emphasize that whenever you enter into a discussion with anyone, you should say to yourself , “I know what I think, but maybe I’ll learn something from this other person and change my thinking.”   Really listening, weighing evidence…it’s called keeping an open mind. It’s not something many of us currently practice.

A frontal attack on people’s beliefs and values makes them circle the wagons and fight back, tooth and nail.   A softer approach has a better chance of getting somewhere, and those chances would increase if our educators would instill a respect for the viewpoints of others.   It’s in the state’s interest to foster this kind of thinking, to combat  tribalism.  This is one reason why public schools are so important.


Trump to Widow: Why It Came Out Wrong

Can it get any worse? Now what should be a sacred moment, a time for grieving over the deaths of soldiers in Africa has become the latest cause célèbre in our suffering nation’s ongoing political battles. The newspapers and airwaves are full of invective and insult, argument and anger over what Trump said to the widow of a fallen soldier. But everyone is missing a key point in this whole thing: the gender aspect.

Men and women have different speaking styles. Men like to be direct. John Kelly told us that the casualty officer who brought the news of his son’s death said: “Kell, He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into…and when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth—his friends.”   Any man can see how this would be the right thing to say to a father who is also a soldier.   Marines become a band of brothers. They look out for each other. They’re brave. When they sign up they know that we’re at war and a percentage of them are not coming back. General Kelly’s statement ends by saying “That’s what the president tried to say…”

But the thing is, what might make a father feel somewhat better, especially a father who is also a soldier, doesn’t necessarily strike a mother or widow the same way.   They don’t want to hear that he knew what he was getting into, and I’m sure a lot of men wouldn’t either, especially when it just happened and the grief is raw.

As Deborah Tannen’s work has shown, men and women are constantly speaking at cross-purposes because they don’t understand each other’s styles. Men don’t like to apologize, they don’t like to ask directions, and they use speech to establish status. They’re wired to be competitive –you can’t show weakness, whereas women are cooperative.   They talk in order to gain intimacy with friends, telling their troubles as a way of sharing and becoming closer. When men hear about troubles, they start looking for solutions—they think women are asking for advice and they readily give it. This has created a new word recently: “man-splaining.” Women hate it.

What Trump said may have sounded like man-splaining, but more than that it came off as just plain insensitive.   What sounded good to Kelly and Trump was exactly what this grieving widow did not want to be reminded of.

There’s one further addition to the mix that made this case particularly bitter and that is the fact that our current president is terrible with language. Not having heard a tape of the conversation with the widow, we have to rely on her report and that of the congresswoman, but is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that Trump took Kelly’s advice and made a hash out of it? And even if he didn’t garble the words, he’s so aggressive-sounding in his speech, so blustery, so New York City, that anything he said was liable to come out wrong.

Melania seems like a nice person.  Maybe she could get involved and help with these kinds of communications.

Don’t Like the Electoral College? Tough!

So many of my friends still haven’t gotten over the 2016 election, and desperately want a change in the electoral system, aiming straight for the villain of the drama, the Electoral College.

“Get rid of it!!  The person who gets the popular vote should be president!”

Oh, my friends, my friends, you have forgotten your history!  The United States is not and never was a country in the usual sense. In a word, we are not a nation, we’re a federation and the Electoral College was the price we had to pay for there to be a United States at all.

Don’t you remember how in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention the small states were worried that if they signed on to what James Madison was proposing they would lose all their power?   They were afraid the big states like Virginia would always have more members in a Congress where representation was based on size of the population, and the big states would out-vote the little ones in everything. Thus was the Senate born in that famous Connecticut Compromise—a bicameral legislature with 2 senators for each state no matter how big or small, and that affects each state’s numbers in the Electoral College too. The small states in the West and Midwest (rural America) have disproportionate power both in the Senate and when it comes to voting for the President, but without that system, there would have been no United States. Today there would only be 50 separate countries or perhaps groups of smaller unions. Our government is a federal government and that’s the way it’s going to stay, complete with Electoral College until the whole thing breaks apart, which is not unlikely.   No country lasts forever, and that goes for federations too.

So to those who say it’s not fair that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the presidency in the Electoral College, the point is, yes, that would be true in most countries, but it’s completely fair in our federation, simply because those were the rules each state (each “country”) agreed to when we came into being. If we don’t like it, we can change the rules, but do you really expect all those western rural states to give up their power to the eastern states dominated by cities? That will never happen until there is so much unrest, so much protesting, so much chaos, that we will have to amend the Constitution or risk the break-up of our 239-year old federation.

In the meantime, it would be nice to think that the electors in the Electoral College were men and women of the highest character who would take their roles seriously and not slavishly follow a party line.   It turns out the Founding Fathers who later started the Federalist Party were correct in being leery of too much democracy.   2016 proved that “the people” sometimes make terrible decisions and it would behoove the Electors to reject someone who is egregiously unqualified to hold this exalted office.



After Charlottesville Will It Be West Side Story?

If anyone wants to know where we’re heading now after Charlottesville, it’s easy to see. More rallies are planned, more anti-rallies will confront them. The ideologies are diametrically opposed, but the hotheads on both sides are united in their hope  for a good fight and will look for any excuse to lash out. They are the Jets and the Sharks, pounding their chests, as they circle each other singing:

We’re gonna hand ’em a surprise…Tonight.

We’re gonna cut ’em down to size…Tonight.

We said, “O.K., no rumpus,

No tricks.”

But just in case they jump us,

We’re ready to mix….Tonight.

Planning to go to a future rally near you?  Be aware that many young men love the idea of  fighting and violence.

We’re gonna rock it tonight,

We’re gonna jazz it up and have us a ball!

They’re gonna get it tonight;

The more they turn it on the harder they’ll fall!

You’re not going to have a reasonable discussion with anyone. It’ll be more along the lines of

JETS: Well, they began it!

SHARKS: Well, they began it!

ALL:  And we’re the ones to stop ’em once and for all,   … Tonight!

The answer is not to do nothing, it’s to hold your own rally in a different part of town or, if you find yourself in the presence of speakers or marchers you disagree with,  silently turn your back in protest.

Just a reminder: both the leaders of the Jets and the Sharks ended up dead.

see also Charlottesville and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry


Charolottesville and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

I was struck by some similarities between the conflict in Charlottesville and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.   Fanatics were the leaders in both cases, and both groups were looking for instant publicity in order to stir up a rebellion: Brown wanted the slaves to rise against their white masters, while the alt-right wants the whites to rise up and claim their putative place in the Home of the Brave. The alt-left or the antifas also want to stir up their side and confront their opponents head-on.   The disciples of violence are primed and ready. More confrontations are being planned.

Watch out! These clashes will only escalate and lead to a Second Civil War, just as Harper’s Ferry led to the first one.   They get everyone going, mad at the other side, spoiling for a fight. Have we learned nothing in 150 years?   Even our saner leaders are not doing enough to head this off.

This is the USA.   Certain things are legal: to carry guns, to march in protest, to say what you want to say in public and private forums.


we could make things illegal and safer if we wanted to by passing new laws that would forbid non-governmental marches and protests in which people are carrying weapons of any kind.   We could outlaw military-style firearms period.   We could censor (yes, dammit, say it proudly, censor!) certain kinds of speech as the Germans have done, in outlawing any support or symbols of the Nazi ideology. The Germans have figured out you need something called “defensive democracy” designed to keep the state safe from demagogues.  German  law bans the incitement of hatred or violence, or ridiculing parts of the population in a manner apt to breach the peace—including racist speech (Volksverhetzung).

This is what’s needed. So, come on, Congress! Step up to the plate and pass some laws for the greater good!

In the meantime, if you disagree with someone’s views, don’t do this:

Yell and scream at them

Throw things at them

Provoke them in any way

Do this: hold your own rally in a different spot of town or stand in silent protest with your back turned to the speakers or marchers that you disagree with.  You could also try to reason with them, but Reason is in short supply these days.

see also Charlottesville: In the Absence of Reason Try Reconciliation

Free Speech in Germany?  Up to a Point


Charlottesville: In the Absence of Reason Try Reconciliation

Charlottesville goes down in history now. Once again we have people on both sides hell-bent on confrontation–shouting, raging,… you can almost hear their blood boiling as fists are clenched, the curses fly, and the trigger fingers start itching.

What an exercise in futility!   The anitfas are not going to change anyone’s mind this way.   They are just going to make more people on the margins become actively sympathetic to the alt-right.  We all know that the good people of Charlottesville did not want to let a white nationalist march go unchallenged, but where does this kind of angry challenge get us?  Innocent people dead and injured.

Ideally, rational people would sit down and talk about their differences and come to a way of working them out. But there comes a time when reason is absent, when people are so brainwashed, so ignorant, or so worked up they can’t think straight. What do you do then?

Suppose someone stands up in a meeting and says something outrageous, like “We should kill all the _________” (fill in the group of your choice).  There are several options for how to deal with it:

1) ignore it.

2) suppress it. We are loath to do that in our country because of the First Amendment.

3) shout them down. That’s what the counter-protesters were trying to do in Charlottesville.

4) indicate your disapproval publically but silently.   Stand up in the meeting and turn your back. Line the march with counter-protesters but silently fold your arms, shake your heads.

The fourth way is the best and is something I’ve heard the Quakers sometimes do. The third will almost surely lead to increasingly violent conflicts and ultimately deaths. It breathes oxygen into a smoldering fire.    The second way has its place, and every country in the world does outlaw certain kinds of speech, but this will lead to underground movements espousing forbidden causes. The first runs the risk of outrageous viewpoints spreading, which also is the case with the third.

This issue of the Confederate monuments is a difficult one. Of course Robert E. Lee was on the wrong side of history, defending a horrible institution, but is there a better way to go about this than rubbing the noses of the soldiers’ descendents in their defeat?

How about a competition to commemorate all sides in the War Between the States—more monuments to be placed near Lee’s, representing slavery, emancipation and most importantly, reconciliation.   I believe the leaders of Charlottesville are wise enough to realize that simply telling the alt-right to “Go home!” as the governor of Virginia did is not the answer. They ARE home and we have to live with them, just as they have to live with us.

see also Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland and Confronting the Dark Side in Portland

The Perfect Song for the Trump Administration: Ship of Fools (Narrenschiff)

These days anyone in Germany who is a fan of Reinhard Mey, one of their great performers, must be thinking of his 1997 song “Narrenschiff” (Ship of Fools) as they gaze across the Atlantic at what was once the United States of America. Mey is one of those rarities: a poet who can also write his own music, sing his own songs, and powerfully deliver either a personal or political message.   What Georges Brassens did for France, Mey is doing for Germany.

I’m not sure what was going on politically in Germany in 1997 to get Mey so steamed up, but this song really packs a punch today. It’s about a ship full of idiotic passengers more interested in partying and money than in getting somewhere safely. They ignore the high seas outside and are focused only on the high life on board.  The crew is even worse. The chorus goes like this (it’s better in rhyming couplets of course):

The helmsman is a liar, the captain is drunk

And the engineer has sunk into a dull stupor

The crew, pure lying scoundrels,

The radioman too cowardly to send an SOS,

The Klabautermann is steering the Ship of Fools:

Full speed ahead and set course for the reef!

Now, this Klabautermann (Hobgoblin) is an interesting guy in German folklore. He’s a kind of invisible water spirit of the Baltic who can be quite amusing at times.   He sometimes helps sailors in distress, but if you ever actually see him, the legends say, your vessel is doomed.

The ship is full of pimps, money launderers, and slot-machine barons (casino-builders!) on their way to a “treasure island”,

…..where even the president

Has lost his shame and doesn’t hesitate

To adorn his entourage with the tax dodger.

So much of this song applies to the Trump administration and Donald Trump in particular, it’s really uncanny:

And smug old men strut around brashly

On the upper deck with ladies who are always much too young

Who warm their flabby limbs and chew their food for them

Mey wrote this song as a warning.   All of us have the capacity to blind ourselves to what’s going on around us to an incredible degree.   He could have been writing about global warming, or speculation on Wall Street, or our culture in general with its overemphasis on buying stuff and good times.  Too many of us are ignoring the signs:

The lookout calls from the highest mast: Endtime in sight!

But it’s like they’re turned to stone and they don’t hear him

They follow like lemmings in hordes, their wills gone,

It’s as if everyone had lost their reason

Sworn themselves to destruction and decay

And a will-o’-the-wisp has become their guiding light.



Wonder Woman, Is All You Need Love?

Just saw Wonder Woman where the writers pose some interesting questions.   For example, the bad guy (Ares, the god of war) claims that he was given a bum rap when he led a failed rebellion against Zeus in the good old days. All he was trying to do was to get things back the way they were before Zeus stupidly created the human race. Humans, he argues, are such horrible, selfish creatures that the only thing to do with them is destroy them, or have them destroy themselves in war. Once the last human has been exterminated, then the gods can go back to living in a paradise. Humans are so debased that they will inevitably sink to the vilest, most despicable behaviors. This calls to mind  Hobbes’ state of nature where we are all at each others’ throats in the blink of an eye, out only for ourselves, and what we can gain.

The picture Ares describes has a lot of similarities with Trumpworld, where our main concern is being “great,” whether as an individual or as a nation. You can’t be great unless someone else is not great, right? So it’s all about competition, getting ahead, out-maneuvering someone else. It’s a tough-guy, belligerent, pushy kind of world, where if you don’t give me what I want, I’d just as soon knock you over the head to get it.   Nice guys finish last, you losers.

But Wonder Woman learns that love can triumph over anger, greed, and war. In the final battle, she snatches victory from the jaws of defeat by drawing on the power of love that her friend Steve has shown her. The message is that we must accept the fact that human beings are flawed, but redeemable.   Wonder Woman’s mission is now to help us find our higher selves and keep that Ares-side in check. Not a bad moral. I could hear John Lennon’s voice ringing in my ears:  “All you need is love!”

But unfortunately, that’s wrong, that’s not all we need.   All we need is justice.   No one should know this better than Gal Gadot who plays Wonder Woman and comes from Israel where justice is in short supply.   You can flood the Middle East with as much love as you want, but until you solve the land issue—who owns what parcels, who can build where, who will be empowered to make decisions—you’re never going to have peace. Maybe Gal Gadot could use her newfound status as a superhero to smack some sense into the extremists on both sides who are holding that whole blighted region hostage and doing so much to make the world a more dangerous place.   Ares has been hard at work there for decades, but in disguise as Jehovah and Allah, in whose name the extremists claim the right to the land they’re killing each other for.  Time to unmask him and get serious about some practical solutions, not built on the impossible notion of what land God gave to whom, but rather on what would be fairest to everyone.  Love would help of course, and friendships need to be built, but any kind of peace has to be a just peace if it’s going to stick.

Next film up with Wonder Woman is the Justice League—how timely.

Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland


More senseless killings, this time in Portland Oregon.  A mentally-disturbed man was verbally abusing two Muslim teen-aged girls on a train and ended up killing two men trying to intervene.   The killer had a troubled past, to say the least, and most recently came to police attention for his angry rants at a Free Speech Rally. In case you’ve missed them, these rallies are being held around the country by the alt-right following the dust-up on college campuses over uninviting conservative speakers, and in case you missed that, these were right-wing individuals whose views are unpalatable to some students on the left.  When there were complaints and protests about these speakers, their bookings were cancelled. “What happened to Freedom of Speech?” the conservatives ask, with good reason.

The Free Speech Rallies have been steeped in anger as the alt-right organizers and masked Anti-Fascist protesters on the left taunt each other and generally act like they would like nothing better than to get physical. The police have kept them apart mostly, but a lot of the people are young, and, as in the 60s, they are a volatile group.   It doesn’t take much for one person to do something stupid and the next thing you know “dying for a fight” is literally where we are.  Rallies can be powerful, transcendent moments, part of the Sacrament of the Group, but in the wrong hands they become the antithesis: angry mobs out of control, with the energy of the group reinforcing unthinking acts of violence.  Here’s a description from someone who was at the Boston rally—there was no violence there, but depressing doesn’t begin to cover it.

And now the promise of real violence has been met. Two good men are dead and one wounded because a guy with a tricky grip on reality was stirred up by all the acrimony in the air. He took his rant into a train and pointed it at these poor girls.  How many of us would have the courage to stand up to him as these men did?

With a president who seems indifferent to the unrest he’s already caused and the mayhem that is waiting in the wings, don’t expect any improvement in the rhetoric from the leadership anytime soon, no Lincolnian appeals to our better angels.  But in the name of sanity, folks, please, calm down!  Don’t waste your time taunting people you don’t agree with. Talk to them if you feel you must– the chances of changing anyone’s mind may be slim–but it’s more likely to happen in a respectful atmosphere than in a super-charged anger zone.   What good does it do to toss around words like Fascist or carry an insulting placard? It’s just more fuel for the overheated atmosphere we live in.   Save your energy and organize for the next election, whatever side you’re on.  Let each side have their rallies, and if you must, quietly protest ideas you find reprehensible, but when you mock, jeer, or threaten the other side, especially to their face, it does nothing to advance whatever cause you’re fighting for.  It’s undignified and unworthy.


Free Speech in Germany? Up to a Point

Free speech is in the news again as a German court ruled this week that a comedian, Jan Boehmermann, may not repeat parts of a poem critical of Turkish president Erdogan. Did the judges get it right? Let’s look at the details.

The poem came in the wake of Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists in his country and accuses him of treating minorities badly.   Surprisingly, Germany still has a law on its books dating from the 19th century that forbids criticism of foreign heads of state. Boehmermann broke that law. He knows he broke it, and wanted, in fact, to challenge it. The German government agrees that law should go and is going to repeal it soon. Chalk one up for freedom of speech. No person, not even a head of state, should be immune from criticism.

But the other part of the ruling had to do with the way in which our comedian chose to criticize.   He did it by stating that Erdogan watched child pornography, was a gang rapist, and had sex with animals. This is reminiscent of Hustler magazine’s scurrilous “jokes” about Rev. Jerry Falwell, humor that the US Supreme Court ruled was allowed under free speech protections. The German court found the exact opposite, saying this was a type of speech not covered by German law.   So who was right? If you’re a moral relativist you might say both—it’s a cultural thing. I don’t think so.

It’s important to note that the Germans use the word “Meinungsfreiheit”—Freedom of Opinion—instead of “freedom of speech.” It’s a good distinction to make. Article 5 of the German Constitution has this to say:

1) Everyone has the right to express their opinion in speech, writing, or in pictures.

2) This right is limited by the laws that protect children and by the right of personal honor (der persönlichen Ehre).

3) Art and science, research and teaching are protected freedoms.

Boehmermann claimed he was exercising his artistic freedom. But the court noted that art must give way to Erdogan’s right to maintain his honor, or we might say his personal dignity. That seems unquestionably the correct way to look at this.   You shouldn’t be able to just spit out obscenities about anyone in the name of art.

So who is this comedian anyway? One news report noted that Herr Boehmermann is one of the most “incisive satirists” in Germany with his own show on a TV network. Really? And this is the kind of material he comes up with? What is going on over in Germany? This sounds about as incisive as any snickering schoolboy could come up with on his day off. The question I have is, did anyone think it was funny? Or was it just a stunt to challenge that old law?

Whatever the answer to that question, can we agree he was way off base? Just as in the Charlie Hebdo case, there should be limits on speech, writing, and pictures. That limit could be summed up in the word respect.   Let’s have your opinions by all means, but choose your words with care.   To adopt Boehmermann’s tactic only makes you look like an idiot and undercuts your message. The German law has it right and should be a model for every other nation.