Spinoza Would be Appalled

I read this today in the letters section of the New York Times in response to this article on Spinoza.

If one were adhere to the worldview of Spinoza as defined here, you would be very saddened by the way democracy is practiced in this country today. The founders viewed liberty and freedom as the bedrock of a self-governing country. We have become over the last century or more a country whereby unelected unknown individuals working for the government have taken control of aspects of our lives for our supposed own good. Spinoza would be appalled as would the founders over how we have lost much of our liberty to think and run our lives.

I responded thusly:

@bill walker Your comment stopped me. Really? So you wanted to read a controversial book and couldn’t find it? You wanted to go to any church at all and someone prevented you? You wanted to see a movie, attend a lecture, take part in a political rally, and were held back? You couldn’t choose a doctor or go to a private or public school or drink from a public fountain or change your gender or post a letter to the editor because “unelected unknown individuals working for the government” were out to limit your freedoms? Spinoza, if he were here today, would be plainly astonished at the amount of freedom we have. Objectively, no people have ever been more free to express their wishes as we are today. It’s not those unelected unknown people who want to limit your freedom: is those elected MAGA stooges who forced libraries to remove dictionaries because they define words that describe bodily functions. In other words, they are us, if we let them.

Trump Support May Not be as Firm as People Think

In a recent discussion with Republican voters in Iowa, I was surprised– and then, not surprised– at the level of skepticism expressed towards Donald Trump.  These are Republican voters.  Most of them supported him in 2016 and 2020.  They believed the innumerable stupid things he said, without proof, without objective verification.  And now, suddenly, some of them feel that he has become self-centered and self-pitying.  They even actually seem to suddenly feel that his divisiveness is a liability.

Four out of eight of these selected voters said they would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of the criminal charges he is facing.  Really?  That matters to some Republicans?  That is astounding.  We have been given the impression by the media that Trump supporters are rigid, inflexible, and devoted.  Yet, most of the eight people interviewed had serious misgivings.  They didn’t like the chaos.  They didn’t like the whining about being persecuted.  They are not going to vote for Biden, by any means, but some of them sounded like they might not vote at all.

I don’t think the media was wrong.  I think these voters have become more conscious of what people might think of them if they continue to parrot Donald Trump’s idiotic incoherent campaign tropes.

If this is an accurate reflection of the real Republican core, Trump has a problem.

They sounded like they don’t want people to think they are stupid.

At least one of them asked the very solid, germane question: what, exactly, will you (Republican candidate) do about the border?  We all agree there is a problem: what solution do you offer.  He observed that none of them gave any specifics.

One striking thing: they don’t flatter Ron DeSantis for not criticizing Trump.

One of them (John, 67, engineer) said this:

Mr. President, do you know how to serve us humbly? Strength and humility go together. Strength and bullying don’t. But I’d really like to have him address why he thinks that it has to be that way. It doesn’t.

Huh.  And I’ll bet he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.  And just now has come to the realization that admitting it might make him look stupid.

This is who you are

I have recently read and heard from Christian apologists who assert, in one form or another, that the Evangelical Christian community that passionately supports Donald Trump actually understands that he is an unworthy person of bad taste and style who is nevertheless God’s chosen vessel to restore America to holiness and conviction and the purity of our bodily fluids.

All right– sarcasm aside, some Christians say that while they are disgusted with Trump’s personal character they support him because he appoints anti-abortion judges, stands up for gun rights, opposes same-sex marriage and homosexuality, and resists the world-wide conspiracy to replace white Americans with people of color.

In other words, they believe that a man who is a serial womanizer, a materialist, a liar, a bragger, and vulgarity incarnated somehow, when it comes to issues that matter to the Christian community, acts in a way that Jesus would approve of.

I don’t believe they really believe that.  They might say they do, but the evidence is overwhelming: they don’t.   Trump is the evangelical community unmasked.  He is what they are.  Vulgar.  Grasping.  Materialistic.  Cruel and dishonest.

They do not see Trump as a corrupt vessel of God’s will; to them, he really is God’s chosen messenger, an avatar of all the values and beliefs that they hold dear but don’t want to publicly acknowledge, a bully and thug who they really like because he is a bully and thug.   The main body of Evangelical Christians  will deny that they embrace Trump the corrupt vessel because he exposes them for what they are:  raging hypocrites who have demonstrated over and over again that they never did really believe in the teachings of Christ or the bible.

A political scientist at Furman University, Jim Guth:

White evangelicals share with Trump a multitude of attitudes, including his hostility toward immigrants, his Islamophobia, his racism, and nativism, as well as his “political style,” with its nasty politics and assertion of strong, solitary leadership. Indeed, Trump’s candidacy may have “authorized” for the first time the widespread expression of such attitudes.

The Evangelical Christian community has always been pro-gun.  They love guns.  They have always been generously forgiving of war criminals like William Calley, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Nicholas Slatten, if they are Americans.  They have consistently rejected the Bible’s clear mandate to care for creation as obedient stewards, not as exploitive pirates.   They preach abstinence and self-denial but indulge in every possible form of acquisitiveness of property and worship church leaders who brag about their private jets and access to political leaders.   They claim to admire integrity and character but they hated the two presidents with the most integrity and character in the past 50 years, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

As they sit there in their pews, chanting and singing, reciting from scripture, and folding their hands in prayer, they know, deep in their hearts, that what they like about Trump is precisely his pettiness, his vindictiveness, his vulgarity, his bullying, his meanness, and his materialism.  They do not quietly accept him and hold their noses: they bless him and admire him and scream and cheer him when he is at his most divisive and vulgar.

He is you.  And he has revealed to the world the truth of what it means to be an evangelical Christian in the United States in 2024.


I take note of a recent confirmation of this point.

More on the issue.

By the way, in Iowa it is not considered polite to talk about rugged individualism and “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” economics and then mention corn subsidies.

Evita, Hamilton Family Theatre, Cambridge, 2023-10-26

With the rise of populism in various countries around the world (Hungary, Poland, India, United States, Italy, etc.) it is worth seeing “Evita” in Cambridge at the Hamilton Family Theatre. It’s a very good production and touches on the nature of populism, the irrational belief people might have that a narcissistic, corrupt, self-serving figure like Evita Peron (and a certain orange-haired American politician) will save the nation, bring social justice and equality, and stick it to those educated, rich, smart-alecky elites that control the media and preside over government bureaucracies.
Regardless of the politics, it’s a fascinating story, and they could have written an entire second opera on what happened to Eva’s body– and Juan Peron– after her death, and, of course, the corpse of the Argentinian economy.
An object lesson in mass media as well: the people thought Eva was saintly because she created a foundation and personally wrote checks to poor people who lined up to see her. The specific stories made great anecdotes, with saturated media coverage, but most of the money probably ended up in the pockets of Juan and Eva Peron.  There is no reason to not account for the income and spending except to hide where the money went.
There is a bit of a drive out there to rehabilitate her image, and argue that Rice’s lyrics for “Evita” are based on a rather biased biography.  It is probably true that she was not as bad as her enemies made her out to be, but there is ample evidence to suggest that her charitable works were never not substantially self-serving even if she did promote unions that bettered the lives of working class individuals in Argentina at the time– and promoted her husband to the presidency and, she hoped, herself to the vice-presidency.
There’s a bit of a feminist angle to the “rehabilitation” of women of historical importance like Josephine, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, and Evita.  Most of the time, yes, the negatives stories have been exaggerated over time, but the essential details of their lives remain the same.  And in some cases, the “rehabilitation” glosses over historical facts in order to cleanse their reputations.  Marie Antoinette was involved in conspiracies to restore her husband to the throne; Josephine did not inspire Napoleon’s great strategies or legislative accomplishments, Cleopatra reign was oppressive, and Evita was a self-centered narcissist who used her sexuality to achieve her position of privilege under the Peronist regime.

Misplaced Schadenfreude

I keep seeing headlines like “Democrats Keep Hoping it’s Curtains for Trump” and can’t believe them.  I suppose in one sense it’s true: the Democrats keep hoping Trump will be defeated and his movement will fade away.  But in terms of the 2024 election, they can’t seriously be hoping to run against Nikki Haley.

The only chance the Democrats have of winning in 2024, with Biden as their nominee for president, is if Trump is the Republican nominee.  Or maybe DeSantis.  But if the Republicans end up nominating Nikki Haley or Larry Hogan or Chris Christie, Biden will surely lose, by a big margin.

And the only chance Trump has of winning is if the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden.  Consider Trump against Amy Klobuchar or Gretchen Witmer or Sherrod Brown or Gavin Newsom or Sheldon Whitehouse.  He would probably lose by a large margin.

The most bizarre aspect of this entire scenario is that America has the two worst presidential nominees in 100 years and can’t do anything about it.  What does “democracy” mean in this context?  How is this a democratic “choice” when a majority of Americans want to choose from a multitude of candidates that are not the ones they are forced to choose from?

Even a majority of Democrats don’t want Biden.  You would think– in a democracy– that a political party could at least chose it’s own leader.  But, without exactly explaining why, the media make it clear (correctly) that no one is going to challenge the party leader if he is an incumbent.  The last time someone seriously tried this– Ted Kennedy trying to unseat Jimmy Carter– the result was victory for the incumbent and then an electoral loss (to Ronald Reagan in 1979).

One cannot ignore the fact that Biden, and Trudeau, in Canada, are both convinced that they and only they can lead their parties into the next election.  What astounding egos!  It is mind-boggling when there is such overwhelming evidence that both of them might very well, in fact, ensure the election of the most dangerous and incompetent opposing candidates in fifty years.


The New Speaker: Mike Johnson

The new Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, is known to be a devout Christian. He prays very often, leads bible studies, podcasts his wisdom on Godliness and spirituality, and fights passionately against renewable energy, gun control, and anything based on science or fact. Amen. Jesus and Exxon. Amazing how his politics align so much with Trump and so little with actual scripture. He argues that scripture commands individuals to be hospitable to “the stranger at your gate” and treat them well, but governments can pretty well tell them to go to hell.


This man believes in the Bible the way McDonald’s believes in nutrition.

The Price of Hostages

Of course, our sages were aware that ransoming prisoners can also lead to other dangers. If a community is too quick to pay ransom, then it risks incentivizing kidnappers. One therefore needs to calculate the dangers of overpaying. But this stipulation does not negate the ethos, only contextualizes it.  NYTimes

I was surprised to find this in the New York Times.

A history of Israel’s Negotiations with Hostage Takers

“Does not negate the ethos” is a piece of rogue logic that doesn’t follow anything previously stated.  In fact, it directly negates the ethos: your action (paying hostage-takers) may cause other people to be taken hostage and  cause other families to experience the grief you experienced.   The writer, Mikhael Manekin, is telling you: I can make the illogical logical with my magic word “contextualize”.

What does this mean:  “Contextualizes it”?  Other than, let’s introduce some really fuzzy logic here– the context is my emotions.  I feel devastatingly awful for the families of hostages so lets compel the government to do everything it can to get them back, even if the success of the hostage-taking leads to more hostages.

That is what the writer has admitted in the article.  “It risks incentivizing kidnappers” stated as if, oh well, it might not happen.  It absolutely happens.  She gives us the glories of compassion and capitulation: pay them, pay them, pay them!

Paying the kidnappers provides one with cheap virtue.  You congratulate yourself for your act of kindness and disregard the consequences for others.

In 2011, it [Israel] released more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, a soldier who was kidnapped in 2006 by Hamas.

Wow.  And does anyone publicly ask whether any of those 1,000 prisoners were involved in the slaughter in Israel last weekend, or in the hostage-taking?  Would anyone be surprised if they were?  [In fact, the current leader of Hamas was one of the 1,000!]

The PBS News Hour, which I normally am very fond of, did a series a while ago in which Amna Nawaz interviewed families of hostages held in Iran or Russia.  The stories were given extraordinary length for a situation that only involves one person each, and I think Amna had tears in her eyes.  The story screamed at the viewer:  do something!  Anything!  [This continued for several episodes with further interviews with relatives of hostages, again, with extraordinary length for a national news story.]

[Update, yesterday (2023-11-21), Amna again interviewed a pair of American women whose children or grand-children are being held as hostages.  Again, the interview was granted a large chunk of national news time and space.  How many viewers consider the fact that there are dozens of other stories, equally compelling, involving as much or more suffering, that are selectively not covered most media outlets because the Israel story is, for the moment, the world’s rage.

The one question she did not ask: is it possible that paying the ransom of a prisoner held previously led to your loved one being held for ransom?

I thought I had heard once that Israel’s stated policy was to never pay ransoms.  Obviously, either my memory is mistaken or their policy has changed.  I thought then, as I think now, that that policy was the right one, as heart-breaking as it may seem to the families of hostages.   You won’t share my view unless reporters like Amna Nawaz ask the question: did negotiating with the last hostage-takers cause this hostage-taking?  Are your children (or husband or father etc.) at risk because the tears of the last families of the hostages persuaded the government to give in and negotiate even though it was bad policy to do so.  For obvious reasons.

I suspect it may have changed for the same wrong reason the stated policy of the U.S. (also to not pay ransoms) is frequently ignored: families of the hostages take to the TV screens, sometimes complaining bitterly that the President won’t meet with them, soaking up the tears of compassionate viewers and the outrage: why don’t they do something?  It’s bullying, really.   I resent them.  I resent them because they don’t seem to care that the government action they want will endanger the lives of others.  They implicitly insist that others can suffer as long as their loved ones are saved.  But that doesn’t sound nice, does it?  That’s why reporters like Amna Nawaz don’t bring it.

No family is going to go on TV and complain about the family of a former hostage forcing the government to negotiate that ransom thereby incentivizing the kidnappers who hold their son or daughter or husband.

I know some people will think I’m heartless.  Heartless to who?  The current victim or the next one?  I believe those who readily pay ransoms are the heartless ones: they know– they surely know– that they have just confirmed to the world the value of taking hostages.  They have insisted on rewarding a criminal.  They threaten to smear any politician who resists their entreaties as callous, heartless, and monstrous,  and politicians know that the general public will buy it.  Why don’t they pay the ransom this one time?  How can they be so cruel?  Even the reporter is crying.

I believe the U.S. and Canada should make it clear –as they generally do– to people who visit Iran and Russia and other nations that are not ruled by law that they risk being taken hostage, arbitrarily imprisoned, or kidnapped, and that the government– having warned them not to go there– will not pay any ransom for their release.

Brittney Yevette Griner chose to play for a professional basketball team in Russian and was caught bringing hash oil into the country in February, 2022.  She was sentenced to 9 years labor in one of Russia’s brutal prisons.  Yes, that is absolutely awful, and Russia has a repugnant lawless regime.  That’s why you don’t go there if you have any sense.  That’s why you don’t put your government and families in a terrible position in the selfish pursuit of your own interests.

And that’s why, as heartless as it seems, the U.S. should have refused to offer anything in exchange for her release.

And if you are an American in Russia right now– are you kidding me?

But of course they did pay the ransom.

“On December 8, Griner was released in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.”  (Wiki)  

Bout was charged and convicted of supplying weapons to terrorists that could or would be used against American soldiers.  After release, he returned to Russia and entered politics.

The people who were or will be victimized by Viktor Bout will remain anonymous, faceless, invisible.  They won’t be on PBS News Hour pleading for the lives of their loved ones who died in a conflagration somewhere fueled by weapons sold to insurgents or terrorists by Viktor Bout.  It’s not as personal as Brittney’s mom pleading with President Biden on TV.  And Amna Nawaz won’t be tearing up as she reports on the deaths of civilians in a terrorist attack that was enabled by Viktor Bout.

For any individual case, a non-negotiation policy is heart-breaking.  In the long-term, if  potential hostage-takers know that the government they wish to blackmail has a strictly-observed policy of not negotiating, it seems reasonable to believe that they would be less likely to take a hostage.  Even better, follow your own government’s advice and don’t go there.

The next time America captures, tries, and convicts a Russian criminal, if I were an America, I would stay as far away from Russia as possible.

Because Russia knows that a TV interview with the family of a hostage will be enough to push the government into bad policy.





President Jill Biden

The only way Joe Biden gets re-elected president is if his opponent is Donald Trump.

The only way Donald Trump gets elected president is if his opponent is Joe Biden.

The history of aging, increasingly feeble presidents with younger, more vigorous wives is not reassuring.  And it is reassuring.  In some cases, as with Nancy Reagan and Eleanor Roosevelt , the results may be anodyne.  In the case of Woodrow Wilson in 1919, the result may have been catastrophic.

Jill Biden is a medical doctor.  She seems pretty smart, pretty capable.  If Joe Biden becomes enfeebled while president, if he suffers a stroke, if he is barely capable of leaving his bed, it would not shock me to see a situation similar to the Woodrow Wilson situation in 1919 develop.  Jill Biden relates Biden’s “directives” to his senior staff and does not permit any of them to directly converse with the ailing president.  When questions are raised, the president’s own physician reports to the cabinet and the vice-president that he is perfectly mentally capable of issuing instructions, even if, perhaps, he is not, really.   In that situation, Jill Biden speaks with the presumed authority of her husband, and it would difficult for others to bypass her to determine directly if the president is actually capable of executing his office.

The government, of course, is, for all practical purposes, actually run by the hundreds of high-level officials, White House staff, and cabinet appointees.  The president sets his agenda by appointing like-minded people to positions of power.  They will know what to do.

When it might matter, of course, is in a situation that demands a military response.  China might very well consider an ailing president vulnerable to aggressive moves by competing powers.  China might make a move on Taiwan.  Putin might become more aggressive in Ukraine.   Cuba might finally invade Miami.

It could all turn out well.  Jill Biden might be a wise and effective leader.  But she would not have been elected to be president.  Constitutionally, the cabinet and vice-president should meet to determine if Biden continues to be fit for office.  They could demand, perhaps, that an independent physician examine the president.

Here’s the thing:  it will be in the interests of many in the top echelons of political power to maintain the illusion that Biden continues to execute his office.  They were appointed by him.  They derive their power and status from that appointment.  His replacement may replace them.   His replacement may be politically weaker than he is.   Even the opposition party may be reluctant to see the presidency handed over to a younger potentially more appealing candidate.  (Right now, the thinking is that Kamala Harris is not a strong potential candidate, but given a year or two in office, who knows?)

People love to imagine unlikely scenarios and play them out but this one is strikingly possible.  It appears that Trump will be Biden’s opponent in 2024 and it is not unlikely that Biden, despite current polling, prevails in the swing states, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona.  He probably only needs one of them to win, whereas Trump needs all four.

He is obviously already suffering from various age-related challenges, physically and mentally.  It is difficult to imagine him surviving a debate with Donald Trump except for the fact that Donald Trump (strikingly, today, in an interview with Kristen Welker of NBC) also appears to be showing age-related challenges.

Here’s a prediction: neither of them agrees to a debate.



Best Joke in Dr. Strangelove

The best joke in Stanley Kubrick’s insanely brilliant “Dr. Strangelove” is not, as is widely repeated, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here: this is The War Room”.  It’s not a bad joke.  I always thought it was a bit obvious given the pedigree of the rest of the movie, but it’s okay.

The best joke is when the President demands of General Turgidson how a mentally unfit General could possibly have launched a nuclear attack on Russia all by himself, without presidential authorization.  Turgidson responds  with this:

I think I’d like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in…I don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn the whole program because of a single slip up, sir.

The absolute brilliance of those lines lies in the allusion to standard business and political wisdom: don’t judge until you have all the facts.  This pedestrian axiom is familiar to everyone, widely accepted, and almost applicable to situations in which a “slip up” has relative anodyne consequences.

To insert this line in the middle of an intense discussion of actions that may, as a consequence, result in total war with the Russians and ultimately annihilation of the human race, is more than just schadenfreude.  It is profoundly revelatory about the nature of the nuclear arms race and politics.  It hammers home profoundly the fact that these incredibly powerful weapons, capable of wiping out all life on the planet, are the hands of mere men, and “Dr. Strangelove” reveals to us just how absurdly unqualified the men who control these systems are, how petty, and clumsy, and sometimes stupid, and how the consequences of their short-comings can actually result in the destruction of the world.

Let me say that, on the surface, these men, Muffley, Turgidson, Ripper, Mandrake, and the others, would appear to the public to be competent, intelligent, and rational.  But when Ripper talks about the threats to our bodily fluids and President Muffley argues with Premiere Kissov over just who is the most sorry about the turn of events, and Bat Guano tells Mandrake that he is going to have to answer to the Coca Cola Company, we realize that humans are just too wrapped up in our immediate concerns and perspectives to comprehend the majesty and might of nuclear weapons.

This motif resurfaces time and time again through-out the movie.

Another line that is far funnier than the war room quip.  Turgidson, after hearing a description of the new Soviet weapon that can destroy the entire world, says “Gee, I wish we had one of them Doomsday Machines, Stainsey”.

And this why “Dr. Strangelove” is, perhaps, the greatest film of all time, and the one that is most relevant to our current age.  You could substitute climate change, pandemics, massive bank failures, whatever you like for nuclear war and you would have same fundamental factors at play: foolish men with constricted perspectives making decisions of extreme consequence for the human race.

And the nuclear issue remains.




Hogeweyk for Elderly Politicians

What we need is a Hogeweyk for elderly politicians. We should recreate the White House and Capitol buildings on a smaller scale and let them wander around freely, negotiate treaties and pass legislation, without harming any real people. Paid staff would circulate around telling them all they still have it and only they could do what they do. They could even hire fake reporters to wander around so the elderly politicians could experience the excitement of hiding from them.

It will be tricky getting them in though: we’ll have to wait until they go to sleep and then move their beds into the village, like the head counsellor in “Meatballs”.

This could solve a lot of problems.