Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Some Thoughts on Veterans Day

Dad in India.jpg

Our father, Henry Ellis (Schimberg) Stone served in the Army Air Corps (the original name of the Air Force) for nearly six years. By the end of World War II, he had spent nearly 20% of his life in uniform. Dad (1915-2002) was billeted to India as part of the CBI (the China-India-Burma Theater), where he forecast weather trends for transport planes flying over some of the most treacherous terrain on the earth: “The Hump.” This was the name Allied pilots in the Second World War gave to the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains over which they flew military transport aircraft from India to China. It was a deadly route along which thousands of pilots died or were gravely injured. Forecasting weather trends in this part of the world was a crucial job; one which Dad rarely - if ever - spoke of for the rest of his life.

Towards the end of his long and very well-lived life, Dad did tell us a little bit about his time in the CBI. I remember him telling us about the grinding poverty he witnessed in India (a place to which he never returned - even as a tourist); of the searing heat and the pressure of having to be as accurate as humanly possible in order to safeguard the lives of the pilots who daily disappeared into the haze, bound for China with their precious cargo. I also remember him telling us that he felt rather badly for all those men and women who were still talking about their war experiences nearly 70 years after its conclusion - as if it was the high-point of their lives. “You have to have some compassion for them,” he told us. “I know that my life was far more fascinating and challenging both before and after the war . . . “ Then too, he added, “ those who are still telling war stories after so many, many years are probably stretching the truth just a bit . . . to put it mildly.“  Dad, remembered by one and all as a “wondrously handsome gentleman,” was originally destined for - perhaps - for film stardom.  After serving his six years in the war, he realized that he would have to find another path to success. Instead of becoming a Hollywood heart throb, he became one of their favorite stockbrokers, introducing a generation to a new financial instrument: mutual funds. It was a match made in heaven.

Dad, who was not, in the norm, a philosophical or reflective sort, did tell us that the most positive thing about his years in the service, was meeting, working alongside - and bonding with - all sorts of people.  In many, many cases, he told us, he was the first Jew many of his comrades had ever met in the flesh.  And for him - a young man who had spent his formative years in Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia - it was the first time he had ever met corn-fed mid-Westerners, New England Yankees, Sooners, Arkansans and people from the rural north who were educated in one-room schoolhouses.  “In a way,” he recollected when in his mid-eighties, “one great byproduct of service was introducing Americans to one another; it’s much much harder to stereotype people you’ve actually lived, worked and shared life with . . . “

Growing up in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, a majority of our family friends - both men and women - saw some sort of service during the war.  Even mom worked for a spell at an Italian Prisoner of War camp at Ft. Scottsbluff in Western Nebraska, where 4,000 POWs worked the bean and sugar-beet fields.  To us, it just seemed normal that our parents and friends’ parents had served in the war . . . and then got back to the challenges of civilian life.  In other words, veterans were not other peoples’ fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters . . . they were ours.  That, of course, is no longer the case; most of us aren’t related to veterans.

Fast-forward a couple of generations and we find that more and more, people frequently don’t know their neighbors - let alone folks from different parts of the country or totally different backgrounds.  And what’s worse, through the “gift” of social media, ignorance-based stereotyping - frequently stoked by so-called “leaders” who should know better - has grabbed an awful lot of Americans by the collar and shaken them into high-walled, case-hardened opposing camps.  Our politics have become so impermeable, so hermetically-sealed, that today, where one stands is frequently the product of where one sits.  Partly, of course, it’s because we no longer look through the same eyes; mostly, however, it’s due to our no longer knowing one another; partisanship and political puerility have easily lapped what used to be known as “the commonweal,” viz, “that which is shared and beneficial for members of a group, a community or even a nation.”

As we observe Veterans Day - an annual commemoration established 100 years ago (and known until 1954 as “Armistice Day”)  - we give thanks to all those who have served (or still serve) this great nation in both war and in peace.  Some saw service in wars of necessity; others in wars of choice. We even knew people who helped build bridges, dams, libraries and parks during the Great Depression. Heretofore, millions were drafted or enlisted; for the past generation, they have all been volunteers. Unbeknownst to many, the Selective Service System is still in operation, and registration is still mandatory in most states for every male (and soon females) from age 18-26, though the last prosecution for non-registration was in January 1986. Its current director is Don Benton, who was appointed by President Donald Trump April 13, 2017.  Prior to this position, he served as the Trump campaign chair in Washington State.

In contemplating veterans of our collective past, present, and even future - of all they have meant to America and indeed, the world - I find myself pondering the nature of national service - of its importance in American civil life.  I hear the words of the late President Kennedy - himself a war hero: “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”  I wonder if American society would be any different - any more unified, tolerant and understanding, less divided and territorial - if, like past generations - we worked  together side by side  as opposed to standing apart; if we could once again commit ourselves to accomplishing common goals instead of standing  defiantly in our private corners, surrounded only by those with whom we agree.  If we could, in JFK’s awe-inspiring trope ask not what our country could do for us, but rather what we could do for our country. Would we be any better off? I think the answer is “yes.”

In short, I find myself on this Veterans Day contemplating the possible unifying value that National Service could offer this country and its citizens, residents, and refugees.  Congressman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat who served in Congress from 1971-2017, submitted his first legislative proposal for a “Universal National Service Act” in 2003; his bill would have provided that, as early as June 2005, young men and women ages 18–26 could be called to service - and not just military service. It had two cosponsors and was voted down 402-2.  Rangel resubmitted different forms of his bill again in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2017; it never saw the light of day.  Not too long ago, South Bend, Indiana Mayor - and Democratic presidential candidate - Pete Buttigieg, speaking to MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow (who, like Mayor Pete is a former Rhodes Scholar) spoke at length about how, in his estimation, a national public service program for all young adults could help unify Americans of different backgrounds.  "We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era," Mayor Pete told Ms. Maddow. "One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it — if not legally obligatory but certainly a social norm — that anybody, after they're 18, spends a year in national service."
Such a program should, in theory, appeal to both parties — the idealism speaking to Democrats, and the service component drawing in conservatives. Without question, if such a program were to be enacted, it would need to be bipartisan. If would unquestionably require a different Republican president or a Democratic president. 45’ is unlikely to ever call for such a program, anyway; his 2020 budget proposes to eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the agency that runs AmeriCorps.  I for one urge every Democratic nominee for POTUS to make Mayor Pete’s proposal part of their campaigns and for the Democratic Party to make it a prominent plank in the 2020 election. The nuts and bolts of funding, creating (or reworking) an agency that combines the past efficiency of Selective Service and ongoing idealism of Americorps is doable; these are, after all just details. The hardest part is getting both politicians and citizens to understand and acknowledge that national service is a good and positive thing; that the nation need not be at war in order to benefit from national service.

Our parents, grandparents and great grandparents saved the world from fascism 75 years ago. It is daunting to realize that the vast, vast majority of those who accomplished this were children and young adults - at least by modern standards. (Hell’s bells: Dad was only 30 years old at war’s end and he was considered ancient!) If we can but take away the lesson of working together for national goals on this Veterans Day, we will have honored them in the best way possible . . . thereby helping to save ourselves, and getting to know and work with a vast slice of humanity.

I wish you all a meaningful, contemplative and energizing Veterans Day.

There are now 357 days to go until the presidential election.

 Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone


To Boo or Not to Boo: That Is the Question


Like you, I am both pleased and thankful that American Special Forces took out Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the most wanted murderer on the planet. Although he undoubtedly will be replaced by yet another fanatic mastermind, for the moment Isis is both headless and flat broke.  In watching and listening to the president’s speech/press conference about al-Baghdadi’s demise, I  found myself comparing his presentation to that of President Obama at the time he announced the death of Osama bin Laden. Obama’s 1,383-word report took just under 9 minutes to deliver, and consisted of precisely 9 uses of the word “I” or “I’ve.”  It was anything but a “victory lap.”  By comparison, President Trump’s 7,728-word announcement - including a brief Q and A - lasted 48 minutes, 15 seconds, during which he used the words “I,” “I’ve,” “me” and “my” more than 125 times. 

(n.b. For what it’s worth, the picture above shows the ‘situation room’ during both the al-Baghdadi and bin Laden strikes. One is obviously posed - the president and his men are looking straight into the camera; in the other the president and his men and women are looking at a screen. In the top photo, neither the computer nor phone cables are plugged in to anything; that on the bottom shows a fully operational cyber table.)

One of the other major differences between Obama’s announcement regarding the death of bin Laden and Trump’s about al-Baghdadi was tonal: while the former’s was as solemn and matter-of-fact as a Yom Kippur confession, the other’s was far more akin to a victory lap - a rookie running back spiking the ball and receiving a 15-yard penalty for taunting the opposition. As the Washington Post’s Max Boot noted, “President Trump has a preternatural ability to turn any occasion, no matter how solemn or important, into a ridiculous, risible spectacle. . . . When he began to ad-lib about what happened near Idlib, Syria, he treated the world to his usual blend of braggadocio and bluster — dishonest and distasteful in equal measure.  

Among other things, ‘45 managed to insult Democratic congressional leaders by not informing them of the upcoming raid (although he did notify both Russia and Turkey) and offer a minute-by-minute account of al-Baghdadi’s final moments worthy of an obsessive compulsive.  The only problem with this accounting (“. . . he died like a coward . . . whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.”) was that there was no audio, so how did he know what Baghdadi was saying? When asked about this, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Mark Milley pointedly refused to confirm those details.

One of the eeriest, most ear-scratching aspects of this past Sunday is what occurred that night . . . when the POTUS attended the World Series game between the hometown Washington Nationals and the American League champion Houston Astros: upon seeing ‘45 up on the stadium, Jumbotron, a sizable percentage of the fans booed him and shouted “LOCK HIM UP!!” over and again.

The morning after the boo-fest at Nationals Park MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and his wife and co-anchor Mika Brzezinski (who are by no means Trump supporters) said it was “un-American” and “disrespectful” for the crowd to have acted in the manner they did. Quickly, more than 10,000 tweets including the phrase “sorry Joe” began trending on Twitter as users defended the actions of onlookers at Nationals Park on Sunday night. “The misrule, cruelty and infantilism of this administration is such that some sense of an enduring ethos is actually redeemed when we the people openly express our contempt,” wrote author and TV writer David Simon. “Dissent is the most American thing there is -- and to get clean, we need as much as there is on display.”

Scarborough took to Twitter after the segment aired to defend himself against his critics.

“So let’s see if I’ve got this straight: When crowds chant 'Lock her up” toward Hillary, it is illiberal and anti-American. (I agree). But when crowds chant the same toward Trump, it is suddenly a fulsome exercise of sacred First Amendment rights. What hypocritical clowns,” he tweeted.

He added that those who “think that democracy is strengthened by calling for the arrest of political opponents” are as “ignorant and illiberal” as the president himself.

“Delete your account and read some civics,” Scarborough fired back. “Stop embarrassing yourself.”

And so, to boo or not to boo . . . that is the question. This is no simple thumbs up/thumbs down question. To me, it is a real challenge:

On the one hand, I myself have a deep and abiding respect for the office of the President. Indeed, over the past 230 years, it has been occupied by 44 men (Grover Cleveland having served 2 non-consecutive terms) whose backgrounds, personalities, accomplishments and shortcomings were as varied as the nation they led. And whether or not they be blue bloods or tailors, slave owners or abolitionists, professorial or plainspoken, they managed to share one common trait: a deep-seated respect for both the Constitution and the Office they held. And up until recently, this has been an utterly true statement of fact. Sadly, this statement of fact now contains an asterisk . . . which reads “*except for Donald J. Trump.“ For in his words and actions, his demeanor and psychological makeup, he has shown himself to lack that one telling trait which has bound all the nation’s chief executives together.

But one can blithely argue - and correctly so - that his asterisk represents the failure of the man himself, and not the office he holds. If one accepts this argument, then the boos and catcalls (“Lock Him Up!”) even if unintentionally directed at both the man and the office are, in my humble opinion, wrong.

On the other hand, one can say “Enough already! He’s besmirched the presidency, abused his power and turned the White House into just another Trump, Inc. subsidiary. He gets what he deserves!” Although one can certainly understand and perhaps even accept the emotional anger this response engenders, it pushes the swamp well beyond the Anacostia River and perfectly-named “Buzzard’s Point” all the way to America’s collective front porch. This response, although again, understandable, is tantamount to fighting stink with stench, inhumanity with incivility. 

So what are we to do?  To boo or not to boo . . . that is the question.

Personally, I would never join with those shouting “LOCK HIM UP!! LOCK HIM UP!!”  It is both a waste of time and a further degradation of the office.  Seems to me we are better off using our energy to VOTE HIM OUT.  Then too, perhaps we can take chapter out of the book of the sixties’ protests.  I remember a day long ago when then-California Governor Ronald Reagan came to a meeting of the university Board of Regents on campus.  Now mind you, this was at the height of the anti-war, anti-draft  “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 30” era.  And so, when the governor entered the campus, we formed two long, long lines of greeting . . . a cortege of complaint.  As he entered the line, likely wondering if he were about to be screamed at, pelted with eggs or what have you, a unique form of protest ensued: we all, one by one, turned our backs on him, thereby forcing the Governor of California to cross the quadrangle surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of silent backsides.  We opted for silent humiliation in lieu of cacophonous insult.

What are your thoughts?

To boo or not to boo . . . please share your answer.

378 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Of Gadsby, Lipogramic Literature and The Future of Donald Trump


"E" is the most commonly used letter in the English language. Not only that; it’s the most commonly used letter in lots of other languages including French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Danish, and Dutch. So there are undoubtedly easier letters to omit if one decides to construct a lipogram—a text that deliberately omits a particular letter—no matter what one’s nationality or native language might be.

All of which makes the fact that not one but two authors managed to write entire novels without ever using the letter "E" all the more amazing. The first of these, Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby is a 50,000 word novel which he self-published in 1939 —and there’s nary an "E" in sight (at least not once you get past the author's name or the introduction, in which Wright mentions how people often told him that such a feat was impossible). How did he do it? Simple (well, sort of): he simply disabled the “e” key on his manual typewriter.

Inspired by Wright, French Jewish novelist Georges Perec (1936-1982) decided to write his own lipogramic novel without the letter "E"—in his first language, French. Published in 1969, it was called La Disparition and was later, incredibly, translated into English in 1994 by Gilbert Adair, who renamed it A Void, as the literal translation (The Disappearance) would have contained three examples of the prohibited letter in question).

This kind of highly disciplined writing is known as “lipogramic literature,” generally defined as “ . . . a kind of constrained writing or word game consisting of writing paragraphs or longer works in which a particular letter or group of letters is avoided.” Historically, this is nothing new: extended Ancient Greek texts avoiding the letter sigma (Σ, the 18th letter in the Greek alphabet) are the earliest examples of lipograms.

In his review of La Disparition, Italian journalist and short story writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985) noted that Perec “bears no resemblance to anyone else.” Indeed, there is another best-selling “author” named Trump of whom the same can honestly be said: that he “bears no resemblance to anyone else.”

“Ah!” I can hear my many detractors bellowing. “We were wondering just how long it would take you to get around to disparaging Donald Trump, the best POTUS in all American history.” Sorry it took so long (precisely 330 words), but it’s the god’s-honest truth: he is unquestionably unlike anyone else who has ever held that office. Unlike Gadsby or La Disparition, 45’s utter otherness has not been - indeed, has never been - based on a conscious intellectual challenge of being sui generis. Rather, it’s because he has long possessed a different mindset than any of the preceding 44 American chief executives. His unconstrained manner public expression - not to mention his relationship to the truth, or sense of self - have been totally at odds with that which we’ve come to expect from American presidents. He’s not just missing the most common letter in the alphabet; he is totally bereft of that which separates self-aware primates from trilobites.  Yes, this is a pretty harsh judgment, but one which - so far as I can tell - is eminently merited.

Over the past several weeks, the march toward impeachment - not to mention removal from office - has been as relentless and inexorable as Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” As a result of Boss Tweet’s capitulation to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thereby sentencing our Kurdish allies to death and upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East, ‘45 has begun losing the support of his most ardent, most devotedly compliant paper tigers in Congress, the Department of Justice, Foggy Bottom and even the “700 Club’s” Reverend Pat Robertson, who recently warned that the POTUS is “in danger of losing the mandate of heaven.” And, speaking of religion, one wonders how much longer his most zealous Jewish supporters (the ones who are more than willing to overlook everything squirrely about him because “He’s the best friend Israel ever had!”) and begin realizing that by pulling our troops out of Northern Syria, he’s essentially ceded power in the area to Russia and Iran . . . which will likely imperil the Jewish State.

This matter of the Rev. Robertson and white evangelical Christians has me particularly stumped.  Why would Trump’s base - which uttered not a peep over the immorality of separating Hispanic children from their parents and then stuffing them into dangerously over-crowded holding facilities - why should they now find his abandonment of the Kurds and quid-pro-quo with the Ukrainian president so immorally offsetting?  Why after all the years of silence about his many affairs, his shutting down the government in order to get a border wall he had promised a thousand times over would be paid for by the Mexicans, and his obsessive “lapdogism” when it comes to autocrats and murderous dictators, why now the beginnings of this seemingly unstoppable march to the sea of political oblivion?  

Perhaps in the not so distant future, after the partisan dust has begun settling and ‘45 has gone on to the next (and perhaps last) phase of his public life - that of the perpetual defendant - some brilliant, highly motivated lipogramacist will write and publish a novel which avoids the letters t-r-u-m- and p. And, if there is any justice in the world of letters, this novel will suffer the same fate as Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby: shortly after its vanity publication, a warehouse containing the vast majority of extant, unsold copies, burnt to the ground . . . thus consigning the novel’s protagonist, John Gadsy, to the fires of eternal obscurity.

385 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone


Never Interrupt Your Enemy When He is Making a Mistake


After pretty much staying the hell away from politics the past two weeks due to being consumed with the rabbinic side of life, I find that things are pretty much the same . . . and a whole lot worse. But I thank the good Lord for being able to spend at least a couple of days away from the cares, woes and Inanities of partisan politics. And so, having confessed to more sins and transgressions than I thought possible, I’m ready to reengage in the hurly-burly of political insanity. I began the following essay 24 hours before the onset of the Jewish festival holiday called Succot. . . .

When one stops and thinks about it, there are just about as many definitions for politics as there are political practitioners. One of my favorites belongs to Groucho Marx - as written by Morrie Ryskind:

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

Then too, there is the very quotable H.L. Mencken, who famously noted:

"Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule -- and both commonly succeed, and are right.

And of course, who can ever forget the eminently quotable (and wondrously literate) Winston Churchill:

“A politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And have the ability, afterwords , to explain why it didn’t happen.”

Over the years, politics has been likened with many diverse sports and gaming metaphors: Texas Hold ‘em Poker, Mixed Martial Arts, and my favorite, Chess. To my way of thinking, Chess works best for it is a game - or art form - which requires one to be constantly looking five to ten moves ahead, with the goal of deciding whether to defeat the opponent’s strategy or forcing the opponent to play and trying and attempting to defeat yours. I rather prefer the former; this is the strategy attributed to Napoleon (that’s him on the upper left), who brilliantly observed: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. “

This “politics as chess” strategy has been on display for the American public seemingly ever since March 23, 2010, that historic and fateful day when the United States Senate passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka the ACA or “Obamacare”) by a party-line vote of 60-39. From the day of its passage - and even further back to the days when it was first proposed by then First Lady Hillary Clinton - Obamacare has been labeled “Socialistic - a proposed takeover of American healthcare.” And despite more than 60 Republican attempts to vote it out of existence, Obamacare has remained the law of the land until this very day.

But that is likely to change. There is now a chance that one of newly reconstituted Trumpist federal Appeals Courts will soon invalidate all or part of the ACA in the coming weeks. And amazingly, in response to this tragedy, the White House may well try to delay a potential Supreme Court hearing on the matter until after the 2020 election. Talk about Chess!

Senior administration officials say they have some ideas for replacing parts of the 2010 health-care law, “principles” crafted in part by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid administrator Seema Verma. However, replacing key benefits — such as guaranteed coverage for people with preexisting conditions and permitting young adults to remain on their parents’ health plans until age 26 — would require the cooperation of Democratic congressional leaders, who have vowed to defend the law as a totality and have no interest in a piecemeal replacement plan likely to fall far short of preserving health coverage for about 20 million Americans.

The administration’s plan to seek a stay of any court ruling that undermines the law reflects the political disadvantages of its decision to side with GOP-led states seeking to topple the ACA. Even as the Justice Department urges the courts to invalidate the entire ACA, administration officials are promising voters that there will be no immediate impact on their coverage. Why? Because were said legal upending to become reality, ‘45 and his campaign would then have to reveal to voters from Maine to California precisely what their replacement is going to be. Remember, Boss Tweet has endlessly promised the American public that he can produce a far better healthcare plan than Obamacare.

Poll after poll after poll demonstrates that healthcare is at - or near - the very top of voters’ concerns heading into the 2020 election. If the Democrats can finally wrap their collective heads around this fact and keep their collective eyes on the Republican’s political chess game, they stand a strong chance of reaching “check mate” in both the presidential and Congressional elections. For as sure as God made little green apples, their strategy is going to rely far more on reliving and relitigating the 2016 election - plus slinging mega-gallons of mud, slime and flügel scheiss - than anything positive. Of a certainty, there will plenty of “running against Trump.” It only makes sense. However, a word to Democratic strategists: spend more time, effort and energy articulating plans and policies for the future than attacking either the past or the present. Knowing that ‘45 is going to use the same negative, hit-below-the-belt strategy in 2020 that he has used since the day he first entered politics, why not use it against him? Let him and his foul-mouth associates run against the so-called “far-left” and continue calling Schiff, Nadler, Pelosi and “the Squad” vile childish names; let him continue using fear as the intrinsic gear of his corrosive political machine.

Above all, let Trump be Trump . . . all the while being guided by Bonaparte’s political wisdom . . . to never interrupt one’s enemy when he is making a mistake.

That’s one great recipe for political success.

392 days until the election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone



"Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community"

Planet Earth.jpg

(An opening note: Tis that time of the year when reading and editing clinical trials, lecturing and writing about the golden age of Hollywood and engaging in partisan politics must take a backseat to preparing for High Holiday services. And so, as is annually the case, I am turning one of my Rosh Hashana sermons into the basis of a weekly essay. Because I - for obvious reasons - despise the expression “killing two birds with one Stone” - let’s just say that this week’s post is serving a dual purpose . . .

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is the only Jewish holiday which begins on the first day of the month.  And unlike most calendars, the Jewish New Year does not begin on the first day of the first month.  Rather, the Jewish New Year begins on the first day of the  7th month, which is called Tishri.  The Jewish calendar is a monumentally complex document; while years (we are entering 5780) are reckoned on a strictly solar basis, months are strictly lunar - e.g., based on fluctuations of the moon. And unlike most New Year’s celebrations around the world, this one calls for far more contemplation than revelry; the “resolutions” it requires we make are far less fanciful or frivolous than most.  Year in, year out as I prepare for the new year, I reread and contemplate anew a handful of what I consider to be among the most important, the most crucial bits of wisdom coming from our literature.  Among them are:     

  • Lev. 19:14: לֹֽא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּֽאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֹֽה (Neither curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind.”)

    Lev. 19:16” לֹֽא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַֽעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ (“Do not be a talebearer *[a perpetual or compulsive liar]; do not stand by and watch other human beings idly bleed.”

  • The Ethics of the Sages (2:1) הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. ובִמְקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ: (“The Sage Hillel used to say: a A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. In a place where there few if any human beings  you strive to be a mentsch.”)

  • The Ethics of the Sages (4:1): :זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט), מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי (The sage Ben Zoma used to say ‘Who is truly wise? The one who can learn from any and everyone.  For as it is written (Psalms 119.99) “I have learned from all my teachers.”

  • The Ethics of the Sages (2:4) אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר (Do not separate yourself from your community.”)

In concluding 5779 and heading into the Jewish year 5780, these 4 lessons can and should be of paramount importance. For this past year (or two or three) has made most of us angry, cynical, lacking in trust, and has brought about intense feelings of powerlessness. Hillel’s insight into the nature of brutes, boors and ignoramuses is so on the money as to seem like it was written just yesterday.  With few exceptions among those we know and love, people have become stupefied over how easy it is for those supposedly occupying positions of authority to turn their back or remain silent in the face of gross authoritarianism, cupidity and outright inhumanity.  We wonder at the gross inconsistency of public people presenting and proclaiming their religious bona fides to anyone and everyone who will watch or listen, and then turning both a blind eye and a deaf ear on the poorest, most vulnerable among us.  So which of the rabbinic and Biblical aphorisms and laws is most important in this day and age?  Certainly being a menstch  (Yiddish for “a substantial human being”) when so many others are acting like proster mentschen (the antithesis of a mentsch) is of great importance.  I have to believe that Hillel’s dictum about not separating ourselves from the community (הציבור ha-Tzibor ) comes in first.  Originally,  in using the term הַצִּבּוּר (ha-Tzibur, the community) Hillel was referring specifically to the Jewish community.  Today, after centuries and generations, I think we can expand ha-tzibur to mean “humanity in general.” That which ties all of us together into a single community - whether European, Asian, African or Pacific Islander is planet earth. This is the community that binds us all together.

In a medieval Jewish story, a wealthy landowner asks a simple-minded peon who works on his vast estate “What is the biggest thing in the world?” Deathly afraid to give the wrong answer - and certain he is incapable of giving the correct one, he blurts out “The biggest thing in the world is the earth itself!” Thinking over what he had heard, the landowner smiled and said “How right you are! Indeed, that is the only answer possible.” Think about it: could there be anything in the world larger than the world itself? 

This brings us back to Rosh Hashana and all the anger, cynicism and feelings of powerlessness which consume us as we enter 5780. What can we do to shake all the negativity and use it as positive fuel for the New Year? Certainly complaining, kvetching and endlessly arguing with those who see the world through different eyes is not the answer. Nowadays, attempting to change people’s minds is as about as futile and frustrating as trying to convince an elephant how much more sense it makes to be a donkey. No, it seems to me that perhaps the most potent prescription for the New Year is the one ascribed to Hillel in Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Sages):

אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר (“Do not separate yourself from your community”)

In other words, don’t seat a back and merely curse the darkness; find a cause and do your part to repair a broken world. As I write these words, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg - the new face of a planet-wide climate change movement - has just finished an impassioned speech before the United Nations on the biggest thing on earth: the earth itself. In her “How dare you?” address, Ms. Thunberg told the nations of the world “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school, on the other side of the ocean." Citing more than 30 years' worth of scientific studies and warnings that greenhouse gases and other factors were establishing a dangerous new environmental trend, Thunberg criticized politicians for not developing solutions and strategies to confront that threat. She repeatedly reminded the various delegates that her generation - not theirs - will be the ones who ultimately have to live with the consequences of global warming.

In order to make an even greater point, Ms. Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to New York - rather than flying in an immense polluting jet aircraft. For her efforts at rallying young people the world over to the cause of climate change, she was greeted with warmth and thunderous applause. Perhaps not surprisingly, she was also castigated, called a “Socialist who’s part of an international conspiracy,” and put down for not understanding reality. In a sarcastic Tweet, the president of the United States (who did not attend that part of the United Nations gathering) mocked Ms. Thunberg: "She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!" he Tweeted.

Shortly after the speech, Thunberg and other young people filed a legal complaint against five countries, saying their role in climate change has violated a widely ratified U.N. pact on children's human rights.

"I and 15 other children from around the world filed a legal complaint against 5 nations over the climate crisis through the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child," Thunberg said via Twitter. "These 5 nations are the largest emitters that have ratified the convention."

Those countries are France, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey; they are accused of not curbing emissions and promoting fossil fuels, despite being well aware of the risks of climate change. Unlike most other signatories to the convention, the five countries have also approved a procedure for receiving complaints about potential violations.

The U.S. has signed the U.N. treaty, but has never ratified it. When Somalia and South Sudan ratified the convention in 2015, that left the U.S. alone in not being a party to the human rights agreement.

The young activists announced their complaint at a press conference at UNICEF Headquarters in New York — right across the street from the U.N. building where Thunberg spoke earlier.

The movement among the young is catching on. Already, students around the globe are taking off Fridays from school in order to make their concerns known to adults in both the world of politics and business - stressing that time is running out and they must put the needs of the planet above profit. For their efforts, their movement is growing by the week . . . as are the negative comments. But still fueled by youthful idealism - that which less than 2 generations ago ended the military draft, caused the voting age to be lowered from 21 to 18, drove a president from seeking reelection and ultimately ended a war - these teeners and tweeners are the living, breathing embodiment of HIllel’s dictum about not separating ourselves from the community.

And so, on this, the first day of 5780, I urge one and all to commit themselves to a cause or a project larger than themselves;  causes which will help repair the world. The ribono shel olam (“Master of the Universe”) has placed it in our hands to act as beloved stewards and caretakers of the world he/she created. There is so much work to be done and so little time in which to do it. For anyone looking for a cause, a campaign or an action who is a bit in the dark, please contact me and I will provide you with a list of possibilities. God’s planet needs us - now, more than ever.

אני מאחל לכם שנה טובה ומתוקה Wishing you a Happy and Sweet New Year,

הר אשר איעזר בן ר' אליעזר סטון (KFS)

411 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Maria Isabel Bueso, MPS VI, and the Sin of 'Moral Albinism'

In the world of medicine, albinism (being an albino) refers to any of a number of rare, inherited genetic conditions in which the amount of melanin pigment (that which causes skin to tan in sunlight) is dangerously low. Albinism is characterized by almost dead-white skin and hair and - somewhat erroneously - pink eyes. Baby boomers will likely remember rock guitarists Johnny and Edgar Winter and are certainly familiar with journalist Anderson Cooper, all of whom suffer from the condition.

Maria Isabel Bueso: Amerca’s Most Prominent Victim of Trumpain Moral Ablinism

Maria Isabel Bueso: Amerca’s Most Prominent Victim of Trumpain Moral Ablinism

Thus, to be an albino - medically speaking - means to be without any color or shading. It is - without question - a genetic condition. Let’s posit for the nonce that albinism can extend beyond the body, and the term used to describe and define other kinds of human mutations and failings.  What I have in mind is what we might call “moral albinism” - an ethical code utterly devoid of conscience, coloration or nuance, and caused not by an inherited genetic mutation, but rather by intense psychological abnormality - which may or may not be a familial legacy. To my way of thinking ‘45 and most of what passes for his revolving-door, three-ring circus of an administration, suffer from collective moral albinism.  Let’s face it: anyone possessing even a scintilla of “moral melanin” would find it difficult - if not morally repugnant to the max - to lend support to white supremacists, neo-Nazis or racists; to find no problem with separating refugee or asylee children from their refugee or asylee parents; or from having little or no problem deporting children with life-threatening medical conditions to countries which are virtually incapable of treating, let alone saving their lives.   

At this point we introduce one and all to Maria Isabel Bueso, potentially America’s most prominent victim of Trumpian Moral Albinism.  Maria Isabel (called mostly by her middle name, “Isabel”) was born in Guatemala. At age 7, she was diagnosed with  MPS-VI, also called “Maroteaux-Lamy Syndrome” and mucopolysaccharidosis type VI, a rare and fatal genetic disorder. Permit me a sentence or two as a medical ethicist who is not unaware of compassionate use studies involving MPS VI. This rare condition involves the deficiency or absence of an enzyme called arylsulfatase B which leads to the accumulation of complex carbohydrates. It can easily cause life-threatening complications including coarse facial features, corneal clouding, joint abnormalities, skeletal malformations, an abnormally enlarged liver and/or spleen, hearing loss and death, generally by age 20.  This is the disorder  Isabel was diagnosed as having at age 7.  Without treatment (which was all but nonexistent in 2002) there was little hope she could live another decade.

In 2002, Dr. Paul Harmatz, a pediatric gastroenterologist who practices at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, Calif. learned about Isabel and inquired as to  her interest in coming to California in order to partake in a clinical trial of a new drug (Naglazyme®), a first-of-its-kind enzyme-replacement therapy that extends patients’ lives by more than a decade, on average. Isabel and her family’s willingness to relocate to support her - and armed with a V-2 Visa, helped make it possible for the trial to move forward. Two years later, Dr. Harmatz’s trial led to FDA approval of Naglazyme. For the past 16  years, Isabel has been receiving 6-hour weekly infusions.  Not only that; during these sixteen years she has stabilized, graduated summa cum laude from California State University, East Bay, and made other contributions, including the establishment of a scholarship for students with disabilities. Meanwhile, her family members have forged new careers and new connections in their church and community here in the United States.  For the past 16 years Isabel, her family, and tens of dozens of other children having life-threatening diseases and disorders, have continued receiving medical care under a government program that defers action on deportations in order to seek medical treatment.

Then Isabel - and so many other children and families - ran headlong into Trumpian Moral Albinism: the program which permitted them to remain in the United States was about to be discontinued and they all had one month to leave the country or face deportation.  For Isabel and the other children - whose participation in these clinical trials has led to major medical breakthroughs - deportation was tantamount to a death sentence.  Last week Isabel testified before the House Oversight Committee - alongside Jonathan Sanchez, a young Honduran suffering from Cystic Fibrosis - telling them that being forced out of the United States was signing their death warrants.  

For its part, the Trump administration has wavered back and forth as to what indeed they are going to do.  First, the administration, in a statement from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), announced an abrupt end to the program which permits non-citizens seeking medical treatment in the U.S.  Then, after Isabel’s congressional testimony brought this sinful, inhumane situation to overall public attention, USCIS backtracked a bit and said they would reexamine Isabel’s deferred action application.  As of today (September 15, 2019) no one knows what the outcome will be.  The one thing the administration has done is to transfer the entire issue from USCIS to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), whose mandate has nothing - I repeat NOTHING - to do with these sort of deferrals. 

So far, the administration has been absolutely closed-mouth about what motivated them to deny medical attention to some of the most vulnerable people on earth.  Trump’s legion of moral albinos have taken to social media and charged that these deathly ill human beings are “milking American taxpayers out of their hard-earned dollars” and that “we should take care of Americans first.”  Of course many of those making these kinds of charges steadfastly favor eliminating Obamacare, cutting funding for Medicaid and mental health services and deporting any and all who “take” so much as a dime in government services.  Then too, they have no idea that most compassionate use studies are paid for by pharmaceutical companies, philanthropic organizations, the National Institutes for Health or national groups devoted to raising funds for  and awareness of various medical conditions, diseases and disorders.  

This sinful act of moral albinism - larded over with good old-fashioned stupidity and abject meanness - is, quite likely, the POTUS’s attempt to keep his political base happy . . . to show them how terribly tough he can be when it comes to and all non-citizens. Although I find this strategy far more than detestable, I nonetheless can understand it . . . as a political strategy; do anything and everything to keep your political base happy. Again, this I understand. But what mystifies and sickens me the most is that this base is made up largely of Evangelical Christians - people who carry a Bible in one hand and the sword of puritanical moral judgement in the other. For reasons which totally elude me, they find no inconsistency in decrying the moral degradation of modern society while supporting the least moral president in history; of urging “In God We Trust” signs and the Ten Commandments (which include the words “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” in every classroom all the while cheering on a man who never goes to church, tells a minimum of a dozen lies a day and doesn’t even know that “Corinthians II” is called “Second Corinthians” rather than “Two Corinthians,” His base contains millions of people who can quote Scripture from here to Tristan Da Cuna but conveniently become deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to verses which implore us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and care for the sick and the strangers amongst us.

I guess that when it comes to choosing between appointing conservative Supreme Court justices, restricting abortion access and LGBT rights, supporting the right to own and carry automatic weapons and turning a blind eye to the sin of moral albinism, the choice is easy.

Let’s pray that one day, someone will engage in a clinical trial for creating a successful method of moral melanin replacement therapy. Goodness knows we need it.

421 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

The Truth About Genius

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci

Those who have been reading this blog over the past 15 years will likely be familiar with Alan Wald, whom I have ofttimes expressed thanks for giving me ideas for future essays. So, who in the world is Alan? Simply stated, he has been one of my closest friends for more than 60 years. Due to the fact that “Stone” and Wald” were so close to one another in terms of alphabetical order, we spent a lot of years sitting next to one another in Mr. Ito’s homeroom (that would be be J.O. Ito, whose son Lance would preside over the O.J. Simpson trial) and Chemistry class, (we were lab partners) which was presided over by the wondrously droll Mr. Falb.  Alan and I were born and raised a couple of blocks from one another (he still lives in the same house) and were part of an incredibly unique group of kids who grew up and attended school together from the mid-1950’s through the latter 1960’s.  “Our Gang,” which was made up of upper-middle class Jewish kids, were mostly the children of families that made their livings in one way or another from the screen industry - as writers, actors, publicists, directors and ancillary financiers.  Our parents and neighbors were largely college-educated, literate, highly intelligent, politically knowledgeable and for the most part, quite successful. And yet, despite all the relative advantages,  we were, for the most part, pretty down to earth.  Simply stated, we had no idea that our parents and families were any different from anyone else. 

Needless, to say, teachers looked forward to our “Gang” finally arriving in their classes.  We loved learning and being challenged academically, earned mostly A’s( back when “A” meant “excellent”) and wound up averaging more than 1550 (out of 1600) on our SATS.  Most of us wound up attending top-rated colleges and universities and became physicians, attorneys and academics.  Among the members of “The Gang”

  • Gail W. who, along with her husband founded the Kashi company, which they eventually sold to Kellogg’s in 2000;

  • Stephen G., who became a Harvard-trained pediatrician;

  • Sam W., who was admitted to med. school despite never having graduated from college;

  • Alan Wald, who studied epidemiology, traveled the world and now makes his living as a Hollywood extra;

  • Mike M., who spent 44 years teaching mathematics at UCLA and contemporaneously worked for the Rand Corporation for nearly a quarter century,

  • The relative “failures” became actors, rabbis and medical ethicists, not to mention network news analysts, and first-rate attorneys in Beverly  Hills. 

Despite the collective reputation as a gang of geniuses, we were as normal as hell: we collected baseball cards and had fish-tanks; took piano and dance lessons, went to summer camp and read Mad Magazine.  Some of us even earned letters in swimming, football and track. 

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

There was, without question, one real, honest to god genius in the group: Mike M., the mathematician.  As a kid, Mike was miles and miles ahead of our math teachers.  He also had the best fish aquariums (both fresh and saltwater), and collected baseball cards, comic books and more. “I was born with collectoritis,” he said not too long ago.  He also developed a world-class passion for opera and eventually, operetta.  To say that Mike and his wife are operetta aficionados (his car carries a plate reading “OPERETT”) doesn’t do them justice.  Their home was custom built to hold their massive collection of 60,000 recordings, 10,000 pieces of sheet music, 9,000 books, 5,000 vocal scores, and numerous posters, programs, postcards, radio broadcasts, and more devoted to operetta and early musical theater.  One day in the future, Mike and Nan’s (his wife) collection will be housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara Library . . . along with a $1 million endowment that will fund the costs of packing, moving, processing and sustaining the collection.  

Over the years, Mike has engaged in such far-ranging mathematic topics as The Hilbert Basis Theorem and Hilbert’s Nullstellensatz, Zariski topology, the Grassmannian, Irreducibility and dimension, morphisms, sheaves  and properties. (If you don’t have the slightest  idea what any of these topics entail, don’t worry; hardly anyone  does . . . Remember, Mike is a honest-to-god genius.)

So, what in the world does all of this have to do with genius?  Those who have studied the great minds throughout history (famous people like Tesla, Mozart, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Kepler, Kant, Jefferson, Hawking and Chaplin and not-so famous folks such as Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, Emanuel Swedenborg, Konrad Lorenz and Georg Ohm) all share certain characteristics:

  • An insatiable appetite for knowledge; they question everything.

  • They talk to themselves; no one understands them as well as they themselves do,

  • They are incessant readers; they read on many, many topics and in many, many languages.

  • They are constantly challenging themselves; they must forever be stimulating their brains. 

  • They are acutely aware and understanding of how much they do not know.

  • They’re largely open-minded; geniuses are willing to accept and consider other views with value and broad-mindedness.

  • Geniuses possess a high level of self-control; they are generally able to overcome impulsiveness by planning, clarifying goals, exploring alternative strategies, and considering consequences before they begin.  

  • They are, in many cases, very funny people.   Even scientists agree.

Pres. Theodore Roosevelt

Pres. Theodore Roosevelt

Additionally, some of history’s best-known geniuses are polymaths; people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, whose knowledge spanned a seemingly endless number of subjects and languages.  One of my favorite modern polymaths is former Federal Judge Richard Posner who, in addition to being the most cited legal scholar of the 20th century and America’s pre-eminent authority on anti-trust law, has written on sex, security, politics, Hegel, Homeric society, medieval Iceland and a whole lot more. The Wall Street Journal once called him a “one-man think-tank.”

From all I have read and the many fascinating, creative people of brilliance I have encountered in my first 70 years, I have noted one additional - and truly intriguing - thing that geniuses have in common: an all but total inability to refer to themselves as such.  I don’t think it’s because they lack ego; few human beings do. No, I think the reason for their seeming humility is that they are just too busy, too engaged, to waste time on such such mundanities.

Which, of course, disqualifies our current president from ever being considered a genius . . . except by himself. On more than one occasion, ‘45 has referred to himself as “a true Stable Genius (sic).” He first used the term in January 2018 in response to concerns that he was not mentally fit for office, which were magnified after the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.. The book featured quotes from administration officials who questioned Boss Tweet’s cognitive ability, including White House strategist Steve Bannon, who said the POTUS “has lost it.” In response to the Wolf book, ‘45 Tweeted “Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” He then added that being elected POTUS “on my first try” should “qualify as not smart, but genius . . . and a very stable genius at that!”  ‘45’s bit of inane braggadocio led Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) to author the Stable Genius Act, which would “ . . . require presidential candidates to have a medical exam and publicly disclose the results before the general election.”  The proposed legislation was referred to the House Committee on House Administration, where it has since languished. 

Many of humanities’ greatest advances have come about due to the efforts of geniuses and polymaths who were, in their own time, misunderstood.  Nonetheless, their names and achievements are still remembered and lauded; through their brilliance they achieved immortality.  Today, however, we are faced with the dangerously inane misdeeds of a self-anointed “stable genius.”  Real genius, when all is said, done and understood, is well beyond our ken . . . and whether or not they are “stable”  is utterly irrelevant.

I for one am truly humbled to have lived and grown up in the same neighborhood as at least one certifiable genius.

Thanks once again, dear Alan, for putting yet another idea into my head . . . Here’s to the next 70 years!

426 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

The Audacity of Taupe

Obama in Tan Suit.jpg

Exactly five years ago today (i.e. September 28, 2014) then-President Barack Obama became embroiled in what was the gravest (and to my knowledge, only) scandal of his administration. So what happened? After surviving “birtherism,” being damned for having bowed down to the Saudi King and assorted other heresies, the 44th POTUS had the utter gall to show up at a press conference clad in a . . . are you buckled up and ready for this? . . . a beige suit! Horror of Horrors!

Predictably, Fox News commentators came down on Obama for wearing the suit, claiming that he was “cheapening” the presidency; Representative Peter King (R-NY), who is still a member of the House, fumed that the suit “pointed to a lack of seriousness” on the president’s part. Five years later it’s hard to recall just how much press time this “scandal” consumed. Cable news shows held round-table discussions, fashion critics and image consultants weighed in, and TV news reporters conducted person-on-the-street interviews to find out what the people of Northeast Ohio thought of the controversial look. (Happy to report that to a person, they thought the question was absurd; that there were many things of far greater importance to discuss.)

Where Obama normally limited himself top either grey or blue suits and, unlike Gerald Ford never wore a vest, he by no means was the only president to wear a khaki-colored suit. Check out FDR, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and JFK to see their color sense. Interestingly, most of them - including Barack Obama - had their suits made by the same tailor: “George of Paris” (née Georgios Christopoulos) of Kalamata, Greece. Unlike ‘45, who wears $5,000.00 suits that are tailored to hide his bulging gut, monumental tuchas and over-long red ties, Barack Obama was a fashion plate whether clad in jeans, or khaki slacks. He must have learned from my father - a wonderfully-tailored gentleman in his own right - who used to say that the best way to keep one’s weight in check was to find a great tailor whose prices were just a hair beyond your means. “This’ he used to say, “would force one to keep their size, shape and weight because five pounds one way or the other would cause your trousers and jackets to be obviously out of whack.”

But this is far from the purpose of this essay. As much as I may personally chortle at 45’s tailoring, I am far more disgusted by his absolute inability to laugh at himself. Where ‘45 responds to any negative comment about himself with all the vengeance of a tiger (long recognized as the most retaliatory creature on the planet) Barack Obama’s innumerable cracks about the suit became part of his repertoire of bad jokes: He told attendees of a September 2014 awards dinner for the Congressional Black Caucus that he would have worn his tan suit if the event wasn’t black-tie, and joked at his final news conference in January 2017 that he had been “sorely tempted” to wear a tan suit for the occasion.

How’s About Them Sartorial Apples?

How’s About Them Sartorial Apples?

And although after 5 years most fashionistas still contend that Obama’s taupe suit (no matter how impeccably tailored) was a boo boo, what shocks them most is that it came to dominate an entire news cycle. If this turns out to be the worst personal scandal of the eight Obama years, so be it. In comparison to what his successor has put the planet through over the past 19+ months, Obama’s “Audacity of “Taupe” is nothing more than a quaint twitter (pun intended) in the annals of presidential history. In retrospect, the Obama years now seem as innocent and charming as an episode of The Donna Reed Show. Of course they weren’t; after all, these were the 8 years which included Obama’s “red line in the sand” vis-à-vis Assad’s Syria, the assassination of Bin Laden and the deportation of more illegal immigrants than ‘45 ever dreamed of. And yes, for virtually everything Obama did, did not do, said or wore, he had tons of militant detractors.

But if anyone had looked into the political crystal ball and foretold that our next president would be known for monetizing his office; for making creepy comments about finding his own daughter attractive; for being investigated for allegedly colluding with Russia and obstructing justice; and for cozying up to dictators from Rio to Moscow to Pyongyang, we would have immediately sent that crystal ball to the repair shop and deported said seer to the lunatic asylum of Charenton.

What most of us crave is a return to sanity and maturity; to honesty and humility; to empathy and compassion . . . if not to far more use of the first person plural instead of a steady diet of the first person singular. And who knows, perhaps even a return to the audacity of taupe, if not pin stripes or power pantsuits . . .

435 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

'45 Is NOT the Best Friend Israel Ever Had

Trump Not Israel's Best Friend.jpg

One of the easiest ways to start a heated argument these days is to claim that Donald Trump is unquestionably NOT “the best friend Israel ever had.” For many American Jews and non-Jews alike especially - those who view politics mostly through the “blue and white” Israeli lens - 45’s moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and then recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights provided more than enough brownie points to earn him the exalted title of “The best friend Israel ever had.”. Gee, and I have long been of the opinion that when it comes to Israel - or Canaan, Judea, Palestine Eretz Yisrael or whatever you choose to call it - Moses, Theodore Herzl and David Ben Gurion dwarf the man who currently occupies the White House.

Like the vast majority of American Jews, I am both a staunch Zionist and an ohayv Yisrael (a lover of Israel). Unlike many, I am able to read, speak, write and understand both ancient and modern Hebrew with a reasonable degree of proficiency, and am a close student of both her history and politics. Again, like a majority of American Jews, I am not a particular fan of P.M. Netanyahu, am totally against the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) Movement, and am a devoted Democrat. I find no disparity between loving and supporting the Jewish State and finding fault with - and speaking out against - various policies, principles and politicians whenever necessary. To my way of thinking, this does not make me - or those who are of similar mind - any less a Zionist than those whose litmus test is 100% fealty. Sorry guys: Democracy should not - and in fact does not - make any such demands.

Which gets us back to the question of whether or not Boss Tweet is “the best friend Israel ever had.” The answer has to be a resounding NO!! While there are dozens upon dozens (hundreds?) of idiotic, mean-spirited, mendacious anti-democratic things ‘45 has done to make his eventual historic ranking beneath that of Presidents Andrew Johnson, Zachary Taylor and Warren G. Harding, the one which should truly bother American Jews the most is his making Israel a wedge issue in American politics. To wit, the POTUS - with the knowing acquiescence of Bibi Netanyahu - have done the unthinkable: turned support for Israel - which for decades has been a bipartisan imperative - into a political wedge issue. Trump, with the active support of Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, have done everything in their power to convince America that Democrats are anti-Israel anti-Semites while Republicans are the only people who “truly can be counted on” to support Israel. As the New York Times’ Tom Friedman noted just the other day, Few things are more dangerous to Israel’s long-term interests than its becoming a partisan matter in America, which is Israel’s vital political, military and economic backer in the world.

As I noted in an essay posted last February (Politics - Like Acting and Aging - Ain’t For Sissies) ‘45’s strategy for reelection would involve turning the as yet unnamed “Squad” into the face of the Democratic Party, thus hopefully shoring up his support among evangelical Christians (who form the largest pro-Zionist bloc in America) while convincing more and more Jews that if they love Israel, they must vote Republican.

(It should be noted that a majority of white evangelicals consider Israel to be the Jesus Landing Pad. Once all the Jews congregate in Jerusalem, Jesus can return with his flaming sword. Jews who refuse to accept him as their savior will die. In other words, Jews are nothing more than eschatological doormats for white evangelicals.)

The “Trumptanyahu” strategy vis-à-vis keeping two duly elected Muslim members of Congress from entering Israel (Reps. Omar and Tlaib) is the bottom of the barrel. Yes, both of these women (along with the other two members of “the Squad” - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts) are supporters of the BDS movement and would never, ever get my vote. Nonetheless, it is up to the voters of their districts - not the Israeli P.M. and certainly not the POTUS - to cast judgment on them by driving a lethal spike into the heart of the democratic principles which have guided our countries for generations. Historically, no president has ever - and I mean EVER - forced a foreign leader to deny duly elected members of Congress from entering his/her country. By doing so, it shows that both Trump and Netanyahu are more interested in being reelected than in preserving democratic values. Bibi caved after reading a Trump tweet to the effect that permitting Omar and/or Tlaib entry would be a sign of “weakness.” It should be kept in mind that Netanyahu, like Trump is facing national elections, which he- again like Trump - must win in order to keep from going on trial for corruption. And, in order to win and retain his position as P.M., he must stay in the good graces of the most conservative, ultra-nationalist factions in Israel’s political universe . . . just as ‘45 must cater to his political base made up largely of ultra-conservative, pro-gun white evangelicals. The two - ‘45 and Bibi - are in their way, fraternal twins. Indeed, many a pundit has declared “Netanyahu is pretty much identical to Trump . . . but with a better vocabulary - in 2 different languages.”

‘45’s latest foray into foreign policy via tweet has drawn harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle. Even the vaunted, establishmentarian AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) has broken with the president over the Tlaib/Omar fiasco. "We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand," AIPAC tweeted this past Thursday. Both Florida Senator Marco Rubio and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) chastised P.M. Netanyahu (though not the president by name) for denying entry to two members of Congress. Said Senator Rubio, “I disagree 100% with Reps. Tlaib & Omar on #Israel & am the author of the #AntiBDS bill we passed in the Senate,” he tweeted. “But denying them entry into #Israel is a mistake. Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) called Israel’s decision to bar the two representatives “outrageous,” and revealed that in recent exhaustive talks with Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, that they would be permitted their visit. But then the POTUS became involved and all bets were off.

This of course puts Democrats in a politically dicey situation; condemning many of Omar’s and Tlaib’s comments (and rightfully so) while supporting their right to visit Israel and perhaps see how democracy works - even if not perfectly so - in the Middle East.

Trump and Netanyahu share many political commonalities . . . not the least of which is gleefully putting short-term gains (e.g. reelection) before long-term progress.

In any event, it is growing clearer every day that Donald Trump is NOT the “best friend Israel ever had.” And those who ignore all the other noxious aspects of his being, ultimately do so at the sake of weakening and perhaps losing the state they truly love. For with the exception of moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, he hasn’t done jack. What he has done is go against virtually every Jewish value handed down from Mt. Sinai, codified in rabbinic literature and passed on from generation to generation.

That is definitely not the mark of a haver - a “friend”.

So go ahead . . . attack me, call me an anti-Semite; tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about; insist that I am a deluded liberal stooge . . . but please try and do it in Hebrew if you can.

 445 days until the next presidential election.

 Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone


The Inexplicable Confidence of the Utterly Incompetent

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It seems that with every passing week and month, the partisan political divide has become wider, nastier and far more case-hardened. Political stereotypes (“Hollywood is made up of nothing but intellectually snobbish, irreligious, far-left dupes”; “the South is made up of uneducated, gun-toting bigots”) have supplanted reason and made conversation - let alone progress - next to impossible. We’ve all been victimized by stereotypical belief patterns, whether at work, while socializing or at family gatherings. And, to be perfectly honest, it hurts; precisely because it drives a wedge between people who used to be close. One of the hardest things to deal with is the political certainty of those who in reality evince precious little - if any - knowledge of politics. If it is of any succor however, remember the words of King Solomon, writing under the name of Kohelet:

.מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה֙ ה֣וּא שֶׁיִּֽהְיֶ֔ה וּמַ֨ה־שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂ֔ה ה֖וּא שֶׁיֵּֽעָשֶׂ֑ה וְאֵ֥ין כָּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ

Namely, “What has been is what shall be; and what has been done is what shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Long, long ago, the extreme confidence of the incompetent was noted by Socrates who, we are told, said something along the lines of “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Then there was Charles Darwin who, towards the end of his life noted that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Not long after Darwin’s demise (1882), a new academic field, Political Philosophy, proved that this was actually true. The so-called “father” of political philosophy was a French polymath (a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning) by the name of Gustav Le Bon. Le Bon (1841-1931) whose areas of academic interest included medicine, sociology, anthropology and physics, was most famous for his 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which has long been considered one of the seminal works of political psychology. As far back as 1895, Le Bon described the psychological underpinnings of support for such demagogues as Hitler, Mussolini, Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump - who wouldn’t become part of the world scene for decades to come.

In a 1999 paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger brought statistical truth to what has been known by philosophers since Socrates and Darwin. Simply put, that incompetent people think they know more than they really do, and tend to be more boastful about it.

To test Darwin’s theory, the researchers quizzed people on several topics, such as grammar, logical reasoning and humor. After each test, they asked the participants how they thought they did. Specifically, participants were asked how many of the other quiz-takers they beat.

Dunning and Kruger were shocked by the results, even though it confirmed their hypothesis. Time after time, no matter the subject, the people who did poorly on the tests ranked their competence much higher. On average, test takers who scored as low as the 10th percentile ranked themselves near the 70th percentile. Those least likely to know what they were talking about believed they knew as much as the experts.

What do YOU see when you look in the mirror?

What do YOU see when you look in the mirror?

Dunning and Kruger’s results have been replicated in at least a dozen different domains: math skills, wine tasting, chess, medical knowledge among surgeons and firearm safety among hunters. For readers of this blog, the most important finding of their study - and those studies which have since followed - is that the less people know about civics, politics and foreign policy, the more they claim to understand. Whether or not Donald Trump, his advisers and strategists have ever read, heard of or digested what has come to be known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” is as irrelevant as it unlikely. Nonetheless, they act as if they do.

The Dunning Kruger Effect is a type of cognitive bias, whereby people with little expertise or ability assume they have superior expertise or ability. This overestimation occurs as a result of the fact that they don’t have enough knowledge to know they don’t have enough knowledge. When they look in the mirror - assuming they ever do - they see a genius . . . or a titan or one whose every judgment is correct. A study published in the April 2018 issue of the journal Political Psychology aimed the “Dunning Kruger Effect” specifically in the direction of partisan politics. Researched and written by University of Maryland Political Science professor Ian Anson, Partisanship, Political Knowledge, and the Dunning‐Kruger Effect found that those who evinced the least political knowledge (e.g. the ability to name Cabinet secretaries, identify the length of term limits for members of Congress or the names of programs that the U.S. government spends the least on) were far more likely to overestimate their level of political knowledge. Anson’s study found little difference between unknowing Democrats and unknowing Republicans. Indeed by itself, this is awfully depressing.


While the results of Anson’s study suggest that being uninformed leads to overconfidence across the political spectrum, other studies have shown that Democrats now tend to be more educated than Republicans, possibly making the latter more vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll released in March of 2018, found that 54 percent of college graduates identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, compared to 39 percent who identified or leaned Republican.

Writing in Psychology Today, cognitive neuroscientist Bobby Azarian speculated that the Dunning Kruger Effect “ . . . may help explain why certain Trump supporters seem to be so easily tricked into believing proven falsehoods when the President delivers what have become known as “alternative facts,” often using language designed to activate partisan identities. Because they lack knowledge but are confident that they do not, they may be less likely than others to actually fact-check the claims that the President makes.”

Getting through to people is never easy . . . especially in light of what everyone from Socrates and Darwin to Dunning, Kruger and Anson have both posited and proved. The best answer on the horizon is, of course, to overwhelmingly defeat Donald Trump and all those who feed their partisans with half-truth and outright lies, and replace them with people possessing greater intellectual honesty and modesty.

Remember this: a wise person knows what they know; a very wise person knows what they do not know; a truly wise person knows, trusts and engages with those who know the things that they themselves do not know.

452 days until the election . . .

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone


Clara Bow: The “It” Girl (1905-1965)

Clara Bow: The “It” Girl (1905-1965)

This week’s essay, simply entitled “It,” is the 756th hebdomadal (weekly) essay I’ve written and posted since February 5, 2005. Back then, the blog was entitled Beating the Bushes: Barack Obama was a virtually anonymous junior senator from Illinois, Pete Buttegieg had just graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, and was heading off to Oxford’s Pembroke College where had had just been named a Rhodes Scholar; real estate magnate Donald Trump was beginning the second season of The Apprentice, and the bestselling fiction novel was John Grisham’s The Broker. No one had yet heard of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, or the terms sexting, and ransomware; for weeks and months on end, one of the top news stories dealt with Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman, whose epic life-or-death battle came to the forefront of America's conscience — and to the highest court in the land.

One of the biggest differences between writing essays in 2005 and today is that back then, one had at least a week’s worth of leisure to research, cogitate and prepare before coming up with – and committing to - a title . . . let alone determining what in the Hell one was going to be writing about. By comparison, today, each potential topic lasts about ten minutes before taking a backseat to some other breaking news of earth shattering importance. Take for an example this week: just as one was beginning research on an essay dealing with the 2nd round of Democratic debates, there was the presidential attack on Rep. Elijah Cummings, and the city of Baltimore with all its racist overtones; the Presidential son-in-law’s involvement in that city’s decline, and the horrific massacres in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio which have led to yet another debate about automatic weapons, gun safety laws, mental health and the relationship between the current administration and galloping white supremacy. This is not even to mention the Iranian seizure of additional oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, North Korea’s newest nuclear missile tests or the administration’s promise to impose new tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese consumer goods.

All-in-all, a vast smörgåsbord of temptations guaranteed to afflict one with acute weltschmerz combined with progressive intellectual dyspepsia. Oh how one longs for the days when screaming headlines were the exception, not the commonplace. What those of us who closely follow, write about - and are deeply invested in - politics on all levels, we cry out for change; for a reality in which class replaces crass; for a stable of political animals who place the broad weal of humanity above the narrow straitened path of partisanship. In short, we seek those who possess that ineffable quality called “It.” Being ineffable (too great to be spoken in words) “It” is nearly impossible to define; but one senses it when one sees it.

The Library.JPG

On the window shelf in my library, one finds several keepsakes which are, in my estimation, the symbols of my rather complex being. There, from right to left one finds a small statue of Moses grasping the Tablets of the Law, (representing my Jewish self); a magnificent wooden cigar box (my fascination with the inexplicable); a bust of Thomas Jefferson (symbolizing the ultimate Renaissance Man); a photo of my beloved father Henry in uniform, with the Taj Mahal looming in the background (the ultimate gentleman as warrior); a photo with Annie (the strongest, most resilient human being I know), and a truly rare photo of silent actress Clara Bow - the original “It” girl - my all-time favorite movie star.

I am happy to report that over the past several weeks I believe we have been in the presence of an “It” leader-on-the-rise: South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg, whose name is still so unpronounceable that most people refer to him as “Mayor Pete,” possesses “It.” He is a masterful articulator and very good at sidestepping controversy. Asked, as he stood next to Bernie Sanders onstage at the most recent Democratic debate, whether age was an important factor to consider in the upcoming election, Buttigieg gave a roundabout answer that stressed the importance of ideas and vision over age, while also explaining that looking to younger people was the important evolution needed for our country’s future. But probably most memorable was his directing a statement to sitting Republican congressmen: “And if you are watching this at home, and you are a Republican member of Congress, consider the fact that when the sun sets on your career, and they are writing your story—of all the good and bad things you did, the thing you will be remembered for is whether in this moment, with this president, you found the courage to stand up to him or you continued to put party over country.”

Mayor Pete.jpg

As a serious practicing Christian (He was raised and educated Catholic as a child, and became an Anglican [Episcopalian] while studying at Oxford), Mayor Peter has had no problem calling out Republicans for what he sees as their sectarian hypocrisy: “For a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that … God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages,” Buttigieg said, “has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.” This is the kind of straight-shooting attack that many Americans have been waiting for. Possessing “It,” Mayor Pete has the ability to be animated without being antagonistic; didactic without being demeaning and plain-spoken without resorting to puerility.

At age 37, Mayor Pete may seem too young to be a serious contender for POTUS. Indeed, he is 36 years younger than ‘45, 40 years younger than Joe Biden, 41 years younger than Bernie Sanders and 33 years younger than Elizabeth Warren. Were he to be elected, this would represent the greatest age differential between a president and his successor; JFK was 27 years younger than Dwight Eisenhower. The one thing JFK and Mayor Pete have in common - besides a Harvard education - is that ineffable quality we began this essay with: IT.

(And by the way, for those whose primary interest in any candidate is where they stand vis--à-vis Israel, Mayor Pete is a strong - though not totally uncritical - supporter of the Jewish State . . . far more prominently so than most progressive Democrats.)

2020 may well not be Mayor Pete’s year, although, in my humble opinion, the time is ripe to - in the soaring words of JFK, to

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . .unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

458 days until the election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

To Impeach or Not to Impeach: That Is the Question

To Impeach Or Not to Impeach.jpg

Although relatively low in entertainment value, former counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s testimony before two House committees did prove at least five things:

First, that a majority of the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee and Select Committee on Intelligence never read more than the briefest of summaries of the Mueller Report;

Second, that Attorney General William Barr’s assessment of that report was an absolute crock of beans;

Third, that candidate and then President Trump and his associates engaged in potential profit-making ventures with one of America’s worst enemies and then committed numerous provable acts of judicial obstruction;

Fourth, that not only did the Russians cyber-invade the voting systems in all fifty states in an effort to guarantee a Trump victory - they are hard at it for the 2020 election; and

Fifth, that despite the hearings, the House is hardly any closer to impeaching the POTUS than it was the day before the hearings. And while Democrats should be applauded for asking hard questions based on their (or their staff’s) reading and understanding of the lengthy, dry-as-dust report, Republicans were far more interested in bad-mouthing and taking cheap shots at Director Mueller - turning an American icon of Lincolnesque proportions into a senescent partisan hack.

Yesterday, Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) announced that he had asked a federal judge to unseal grand jury secrets related to the Mueller investigation, using the court filing to declare that lawmakers have already in effect launched an impeachment investigation of President Trump. In a legal maneuver that carries significant political overtones, the committee attorneys told a judge that it needs access to the grand jury evidence collected by Mr. Mueller as special counsel — such as witness testimony — because it is “investigating whether to recommend articles of impeachment” against the president. With the filing, Chairman Nadler was attempting to sidestep the debate raging inside the Democratic Party over whether the full House should hold a vote to formally declare that it is opening an impeachment inquiry. By declaring that his committee was in effect conducting such an inquiry, he was heading off a politically difficult vote in the committee or the full house to pursue impeachment.

To impeach or not to impeach: that is the question. Although a majority of Democrats across the country favor impeachment proceedings, only around 100 Congressional Democrats have already gotten on board. (Follow this link to see the latest tally of which Democrats favor impeachment, which say “not yet,” and which have yet to respond.) The percentage of Republicans polling against impeachment proceedings easily equals the president’s national approval ratings - about 43% at best. Among independents, impeachment is supported by a plurality, with “not sure” coming in a rather distant second. For House Democrats, impeachment is being debated and discussed along three different lines: the legal, the political and the moral.

The Legal: Despite what A.G. Barr, Republicans in Congress, the president’s base and conservative trolls everywhere may aver, there is a welter of evidence to show that crimes have been committed. Perhaps no one pierced what the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan called “the clouds and cacophony” of the morning session (e.g. the Judiciary Committee) more magisterially than Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) who wielded the gavel during afternoon session. (n.b.: for purposes of full disclosure: I have long been close to the Schiff family; his father and late mother were students of mine for many years, and I have, on occasion, served as family rabbi. My respect and admiration for Adam are boundless.) In his opening remarks, Chairman Schiff “. . .scorchingly outlined President Trump’s three-way betrayal of his country and the American people.” Adam is always low-key and lawyerly; broad emotionalism is simply not his style. The most important point he got across in his opening remarks was that even if the two-year Mueller investigation couldn’t establish criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians, their disloyalty to country was “something worse” than a crime, and Mueller’s team amply established it. “A crime is the violation of a law written by Congress,” Schiff intoned, “but disloyalty to country violates the very obligation of citizenship, our devotion to a core principle on which our nation was founded, that we, the people, not some foreign power that wishes us ill, we decide who shall govern us.”

As one who has actually read, digested and taken copious notes on the entire Mueller report (it took me more than 5 weeks), I can attest to the fact that there were crimes ‘aplenty involving  candidate Trump, President Trump and much of his staff and administration.

The Political: To impeach or not to impeach is also an issue with a major political component. As of today, Speaker Pelosi is not in favor of impeaching the 45th POTUS. Why? Certainly not because she believes he is innocent or falsely accused, but rather because there is a highly critical national election on the horizon. As the highest ranking official in the opposition, she must determine if supporting and carrying out impeachment proceedings in the House (which stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of succeeding in the Republican-led Senate) will put a major roadblock in her party’s attempt to take back the White House and both houses of Congress in 2020. Knowing that there will undoubtedly be a tremendous amount of Russian meddling in the 2020 election, she must do what is best and politically smartest to garner the maximum number of votes in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and West Virginia. As such, will it be better (and politically smarter) to run on “kitchen-table issues” like jobs, healthcare, taxes, and Social Security (among others) or on impeaching Donald Trump? If it’s the latter, will she then see her party drowning in the very swamp he has created? She must determine which is more politically potent: hatred of Trump or concern for the working class. Never underestimate the political smarts of Nancy Pelosi; she is one of the shrewdest political operators in American history.

Make no mistake about it: Should House Democrats decide to proceed with impeachment hearings, the Trump White House will Twitter away with all the wrathful vengeance and fury of the Biblical plagues. And while they will be applauded by their base for standing up to “the Socialist Squad,” they will likely gain few if any new supporters. On the other hand, it is possible that pushing the impeachment envelope may keep many independent voters away from the polls, fed up with Democrats who, in their opinion, are far more interested in getting rid of ‘45 than in addressing their middle-class needs and concerns. For the Democrats, this could easily become their Sisyphean challenge.

In an interview Adam Schiff gave nearly 2 months ago (well before the Mueller’s presentation to Congress) to Los Angeles Times staff writer Christine Mai-Duc, the California Democrat summarized the political conundrum about as well as is humanly possible:

I think the most powerful arguments both for and against impeachment are really mirror images of each other. If we don’t impeach him, what does that say to future Congresses and presidents about whether this kind of conduct is compatible with office? And by the same token, if we do impeach him, and he’s acquitted in the Senate, and there is an adjudication that that conduct is not impeachable, that may be a worse precedent. So I think before we go down the road of something that would absorb the whole Congress and whole country and lead to a very predictable result, we should be sure that this is the right thing to do for the country.

The Moral: Without question, our current president lacks both a moral compass and basic human decency. It may well be that Democrats must respond to all this immorality and indecency with a tactic which is not all that politically smart. After all, to many Americans - whether they are consciously aware of it or not - Donald Trump has two distinct advantages: he is a media celebrity and he stridently opposes virtually everything that has a moral component.

Those who aren’t ferociously enamored with Donald Trump are well aware of his many, many flaws and shortcomings: his racism, sexism, xenophobia, crudity, heartlessness, narcissism and perhaps above all, his utter inability to tell the truth. He is, without question, the least moral, most disloyal citizen to ever occupy the White House. And if for no other reason than this, Democrats should proceed with impeachment. Much of the nation is both benumbed and bewildered at the Republicans’ spinelessness; at their rank inability to confront the leader of their party. It seems to me that if the Democrats do not proceed with impeachment hearings that they too will be guilty of spinelessness. It may not, in the long run, make for smart politics. Goodness knows it will - succeed or fail - carry all the marks of courage and good citizenship - qualities sorely lacking in our time and place.

In the mid-1930s, shortly before the beginning of World War II, Austrian Robert Musil, the author of The Man Without Qualities (easily one of the greatest novels-of-ideas ever written) noted that “No culture can rest on a crooked relationship to truth.” Herr Musil, you said a mouthful. The political culture of the United States (and now, with the ascension of Boris Johnson, of Britain) is sick. It is unserious, crooked and lethal. There is no honest way to dissociate the rise of Trump and Johnson from the societies that produced them. The triumph of indecency is rampant. Choose your facts. The only blow Trump knows is the low one. As the gutter is to the stars, so is this president to dignity. 

Although impeaching him will likely not succeed in the Republican-controlled United States Senate nor fix what is wrong with our political culture, it is nonetheless, in my very humble opinion, the right thing to do. Some will respond “Although I agree with your assessment, winning the presidency is far more important.” I disagree: sometimes it is essential to do what in the short-term may be the wrong thing . . . but for the right reason.

In the long run, if we impeach him it’s not because we despise ‘45 so much; it’s because we love our country and its ideals so very much more.

467 days until the presidential election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Will There Be a Morning After?

Will There Be a Morning After.gif

Once upon a time, the new school year began shortly after Labor Day. I don’t know about you, but here in South Florida, our Fall Semester begins on Monday August 12 - when many kids will still be up north at summer camp. So why does our school year begin so incredibly early? Only G-d and the Palm Beach County Board of Education know. for certain . . . perhaps. Likewise, once upon a time, presidential elections began in earnest on Labor Day weekend of the year in which the nation went to the polls. Nowadays, presidential campaigns begin on the day the president takes the oath of office. And mind you, some of the potential candidates are gearing up not for the election four years hence, but occasionally a full eight years into the future. Of course, our current POTUS began his reelection campaign the very day he placed his hand on the Bible - a book he’s probably never read cover to cover. In other words, nowadays we seem to have both a never-ending school year and a presidential election season without end.

It goes without saying that a high percentage of the American public is anxiously awaiting - if not praying for - the end of the Trump presidency. We are up to here with all the bald-faced lies and “leadership via Twitter”; with the ceaseless name-calling, and revolving door executive department; with the utter societal divisiveness and the disparagement of the CIA, FBI and the press; with the dismembering of our international alliances and the catering to those who are most base and intolerant . . . and on and on and on. For the first time in our lives, many, many Americans - myself included - are in fear for the future of a country whose very slogan, e pluribus unam (“Out of many comes one”) is on the critical list.

But merely dislodging Trump and his clueless, avaricious crowd’s hands from the levers of power is neither a certainty nor a cure-all; American polity and society have long been fraught with cancerous cleavages. But never in our history have they been so case-hardened and, what’s even worse, so frighteningly weaponized. One of the most pernicious things Trump has done in his brief political career is to make fear the central plank of his presidency; the fear of the “other.” Historically, that is the despot’s way. Where most candidates for president have presented policies and visions meant to inspire, Trump has somehow convinced a sizable plurality that without his firm grip on the reins of authority and leadership, America is doomed - doomed to be brought down by enemies invading our once-great nation. Trump’s America is largely peopled by White Christian males (financed by self-serving billionaires) who fear that their “kind” are losing the country to “socialists,” “illegal aliens,” the arbiters of “political correctness” and atheists.

In the past week, we’ve gotten more than a sneak peak of their 2020 campaign strategy: running against the “socialist America haters”; making the entire “Democrat Party” into a tool of Representatives Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. (I predicted this in an essay nearly six months ago entitled Politics - Like Acting - Ain’t for Sissies..) Trump has his mindless minions so well-trained, so brainwashed, that should he actually lose both the popular vote (which he did in 2016) and the Electoral College, there will begin, the morning after the election, a cacophonous hue and cry of refusal and threat. The “defeat,” they will stridently claim, was all a gigantic hoax; a deadly lie promulgated by the “fake media.” This may well be, I fear, the first time in American history where there won’t be a relatively smooth transition from one presidency to the next. In short, it is possible that there may be no morning after. We saw a minor version of this with the election of Barack Obama in 2008: for 8 years, millions refused to accept him as ‘‘their president,” because he was not - and never would be - “one of us.”

I can easily imagine ‘45 holding a series of post-election campaign-style rallies in which he fans the flames of militant dissension by refusing to concede defeat. He will likely claim that “millions of undocumented illegals” voted twice, thrice and even more to steal victory and insure his defeat; that the will of the people had been thwarted by the Communists and Socialists who, beginning day one of the new administration, will begin confiscating their weapons, outlawing Christianity, and putting the government into the hands of “The Squad.” If such be the scenario, his intent will be nothing short of calling for civil war. Now, whether or not he has given thought to what his words could actually lead to is worth debating, for likely he has not. Nonetheless, as haunting as this possibility is, do remember that a clear majority of the approximately 390 million guns in America, are in the hands of self-identified conservatives, white nationalists and fans of conspiracy. Theoretically, what havoc they can wreak is beyond belief.

So what is to be done? (And mind you, I am plagiarizing neither Lenin nor Chernyshevsky; I may be a progressive, but I ain’t no Commie. This is incredibly close to our family history; just yesterday, Madam [our mom, who’ getting close to 100 years] was loudly decrying all her friends and colleagues - like John Garfield, Marsha Hunt and Larry Parks - who lost their careers due to accusations of being Commie sympathizers).  It seems to me that the first thing we can do is accustom ourselves to the fact that we may very well wind up voting for a Democratic candidate who is not our first choice. In the long run, we must vote for - and lend support to - the candidate who has the best chance of sending Boss Tweet back to where he comes from - whether it be Germany, Queens or his mother’s womb. I could care less, just so long as he leaves. Our support must be given to a candidate who is fearless, not feckless, who carries him- or herself with dignity, and has a functioning moral compass. This person must be skilled in the art of governance, capable of appointing a Cabinet of skilled professionals whose virtuosity is vastly above the venality of their predecessors; a president who is already on speaking terms with the people he or she will have to work with, and knows the value of doing justice, loving mercy and walking with humility. Again I repeat: it is likely that this person may not be your ideal candidate and may have a few cobwebs in the attic. But then again, as Grandpa Doc used to say: “If heaven were meant only for perfect people, it would be the emptiest piece of property in the universe.”

Once we have our candidate, we cannot - indeed must not - go sit on the sidelines licking old wounds. We must do everything in our individual and collective power to ensure that ‘45 and his ilk suffer the greatest defeat in all history. It’s time for progressives and moderates, for Democrats and Independents to finally start acting like a vast majority and rid our country of the mindless meanness which suffuses society. America still has the ability to be a beacon of light to the world . . . to guarantee that there will be a morning after.

No one said it would be easy . . . but it’s as essential as the dreams we dream or the very air we breathe.

473 days until the most significant election in American history.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone



A Circus of Spineless Enablers


In the world of social psychology, “enabling” is a term often used to connote a relationship with an addict. It might be a drug addict or alcoholic, a gambler, or a compulsive overeater. Most frequently, it’s the enablers, rather than the addicts, who suffer the effects of the addict’s behavior. In the world of contemporary politics, “enablers” are those who sit silently and spinelessly by, while their leader(s) - who are addicted to a mélange of outrageous behaviors and psychological instabilities - lead the nation along the path of destruction. These spineless enablers, are better known as “the Republican caucus” where seldom is heard a discouraging word . . . but the skies are much cloudier all day.

About the only ones who’ve found spines are those who have already retired from office, announced that they will be retiring or, in a few rare cases, have actually been defeated for reelection. Then there are those like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who have gone from voluble anti-Trumpster to mostly adoring lapdog. How many remember all the way back to 2016 when Graham - the late Senator John McCain’s best friend - called Sir Donald of Orange everything from a “kook,” a “jackass,” “a little jerk,” a race-baiting bigot,” and “the most flawed nominee in the history of the Republican Party.” What a difference an election makes.

Then there is the case of Texas Senator Ted Cruz. During the 2016 primary season, when Cruz was a serious candidate for president, then-candidate Trump made fun of Cruz's wife's appearance and suggested that his Cuban-born father had had a hand in John F. Kennedy's assassination. He also savaged the senator on Twitter: "Why would the people of Texas support Ted Cruz when he has accomplished absolutely nothing for them?" Back when he had a spine, Cruz responded by calling Trump "a sniveling coward," ''a pathological liar," "utterly amoral" and "a serial philanderer." He refused to endorse him during the 2016 Republican National Convention, only to suddenly announce his support barely a month before Election Day 2016. Today, they are as thick as thieves.

There once was a time when Republicans stood for things like balanced budgets, limited government, a strong military and could be counted on for expressing a full-throated loathing for dictators and autocrats. And, beginning with the post-Nixon years, they frequently carried the Holy Book into battle against immoralists and malefactors of all stripes. From today’s perspective, that time seems to have been generations ago. Today, Republican office-holders at nearly every level are little better than clowns in a circus made up of spineless enablers; men - and even women - who remain mute while their leader rants and raves, sets records for telling lies, adds trillions to the deficit, picks fights with our closest allies and further isolates America from the rest of the world. Don’t these elected officials realize that their “leader” is a racist, immoral, foul-mouthed buffoon . . . not to mention a criminal?

Why won’t they open their mouths even once? How can anyone with an ounce of sense, a conscience and a true love of country stand idly by while the POTUS and his administration of acting understudies separates already traumatized children from their parents and then sequester them for weeks and perhaps months on end in for-profit “detention centers” (here I’m using the term we employed back in WWII); how can they continue showing loyalty to a man who spends the majority of his time playing golf, Tweeting, and holding endless love-fests (campaign rallies) and firing staff? How in the name of all that’s holy, healthy and sincere can they get a good night’s sleep? The answer to this last question is difficult to parse. However, it would seem that many, many Republicans are simply in fear; fear that should they rise up and relocate their backbones, take a stand against corruption, mendacity and gross incompetence and quit being enablers, that they will be called foul names, find themselves facing deep-pocketed challengers in the next primary, and actually losing their seats in Congress.

Is there ever going to be a “straw that breaks the camel’s back” before it’s too late?  Will the Jeffrey Epstein case turn into America’s “Profumo Scandal” and bring the government down? Will ‘45’s latest race-tinged rant against four members of the House of Representatives finally get the (mostly) white men on Capitol Hill to scream out ENOUGH ALREADY!? And most importantly, can all we’ve been through over these past 2 1/2 years finally get the workaday world to figure out that America deserves far, far better than a circus master with an unerring sense of that which is both immoral and macabre, and vote him out?

What America needs now, more than ever, are citizen patriots; experienced leaders; incorruptible elections and a solid moral compass. And while about a dozen or so Republican senators and representatives have called the president’s latest “Love it or leave it” rant “unacceptable,” their response - in a great Talmudic idiom - is little more than דחית בקנה (dah-kheet ba-kaneh - “pushing him away with a weak reed.” I have to believe that in their heart of hearts, a large majority of the president’s spineless enablers are truly embarrassed by the words and deeds of their party’s leader and fear for the country’s future should he retain his office. But what they fear even more is being voted out of office if they turn their weak reeds into steely spines.

Without question what we do not need is a circus of spineless enablers.

479 days until the next national election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Thinking About Joyce Kilmer

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Our maternal grandmother, Anne (a.k.a. “Granny Annie”) was, among many other things, a walking encyclopedia of poetry. She could - and would - at the drop of a hat recite by heart everything from Vachel Lindsay’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight and Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade to Frank Lebby Stanton’s Keep a-Going’! , William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis, Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and Joyce Kilmer’s Trees. These poems - and dozens of others - were the soporifics which lulled us to sleep in our earliest years. Oddly and eerily, for the past couple of days, I’ve been trying like the Dickens (pun intended) to remember (without having to resort to a Google search - no challenge there) which poet wrote Trees. I could still recite it by heart, but somehow had misplaced the poet’s name. . . . a clear-cut “junior moment.” Actually, it turns out that my temporary forgetfulness was a goad to this week’s essay . . . a little something which likely occupies a treasured spot and purpose in my Celestial Cigar Box. Just before falling asleep early on the morning of July 4, the name “Joyce Kilmer” (1886-1918) reached the old frontal lobe. Eureka! Along with the Kilmer recollection came yet another of Granny’s beloved poets: Lucy Larcom (1824-1893), perhaps best known for Plant a Tree, whose first line goes “He who plants a tree plants a hope.”

When I woke up on the morning of July 4 and started reading online editions of various newspapers, I was struck dumb to see an article by A.P. science writer Seth Borenstein entitled A Way to Fight Climate Change? Plant a Trillion Trees. So that’s what the remembrance of Kilmer and Larcum was all about . . . planting trees to save the planet. From what I’ve learned over the past couple of days, there is a new study just published in the journal Science which concludes that planting billions of trees around the world would be the cheapest and most effective way to tackle the climate crisis. Since trees absorb carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, a worldwide planting initiative could remove a substantial portion of heat-trapping emissions from the atmosphere.

The researchers say a program at this scale could suck up about two-thirds of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions caused by human activities since the start of the industrial revolution, or nearly 25% of the CO2 in the atmosphere. "This is by far — by thousands of times — the cheapest climate change solution," study co-author Thomas Crowther, a climate change ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, told The Associated Press. Crowther stressed the need for urgent action, given how rapidly climate change is already progressing, and said tree planting would have near-immediate results, since trees remove more carbon when they are younger.  "It's certainly a monumental challenge, which is exactly the scale of the problem of climate change," Crowther said.

Replenishing the world’s forests on a grand scale would suck enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to cancel out a decade of human emissions, according to an ambitious new study. Scientists have established there is room for an additional 1.2 trillion trees to grow in parks, woods and abandoned land across the planet. If such a goal were accomplished it would outstrip every other method for tackling climate change – from building wind turbines to vegetarian diets. The hundreds of gigatons worth of anthropogenic emissions which could be removed from the planet is beyond belief.

Lack of accurate information meant for years experts severely underestimated the number of trees on Earth. Combining data from ground-based surveys and satellites, Dr Crowther and his colleagues arrived at a figure of three trillion trees on earth – over seven times more than a previous Nasa estimate. And so, they have determined that if somewhere between 1.5 and 2 trillion trees were planted, we would come light years closer to our goal of saving the planet.

The world’s longtime leader in reforestation is, of course Israel, where over the past 118 years through the Jewish National Fund, the tiny country has planted more than a quarter-billion trees, turning a desert into a garden. They have proven that it can be done, and that along the way, reforestation also creates jobs, food and hope.

Besides the politics involved in stopping climate change (the administration of the planet’s largest contributor to anthropogenic poisoning blithely rejects science), there is that haunting, depressive feeling that when all is said and done, there’s next to nothing we can do to stem the tide; to save the planet from an ecological apocalypse. However, there is reason for optimism; while we’ve been sleeping, kvetching and growing increasingly impotent, there’s actually a lot going on . . . much of it unnoticed and unknown:

  • The United Nations Trillion Tree Campaign has already planted more than a billion trees on several continents. One can select the continent - or country or town - they wish to assist.

  • India has been tackling reforestation in a massive way. Not that long ago, 1.5 million volunteers in the state Madhya Pradesh state planted more than 66 million trees in less than 12 hours.

  • There is an 8,000 km wall of trees being built in Africa - making it the largest living structure on the planet once it's finished. The wall aims to spread across the width of Africa and through more than 20 countries including Senegal, Nigeria and Ethiopia. A decade on from its launch, the wall is currently 15% complete, with 11.4 million trees planted in Senegal alone.

  • An international organization called Plant For the Planet is engaging students from around the world to become “Justice Ambassadors” in the fight to help heal the planet. To date they have planted billions of trees, millions of tons of food, and seen scores of nearly extinct creatures coming back to life.

  • Various states, counties, cities and towns have instituted their own projects and rules for making their home turf a bit more edenic.

  • There are companies, such as Truewood, (they make and market wonderful wooden watches) which will plant 10 trees for every watch sold. In their first two years in business, they have already planted more than a half-million trees. (I myself already own and proudly wear 4 Truewood time pieces.)

As mentioned above, planting billions and billions of trees also helps increase biodiversity, creates jobs, and feeds hundreds of millions of previously starving people. It is also far, far less expensive - and far, far quicker - than changing the planetary economy from carbon-based to renewable.

Kilmer was undoubtedly on to something when he wrote:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast . . .
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

And even more to the point, perhaps, was Lucy Larcom’s Plant a Tree, in which she proclaimed:

He who plants a tree
Plants a hope . . .

Wayfarers he may not live to see.
Gifts that grow are best;
Hands that bless are blest;
Plant! life does the rest!

Heaven and earth help him who plants a tree,
And his work its own reward shall be..

488 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Ditch Mitch

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Many people who watched Wednesday and Thursday night’s Democratic “debate” (put in quotation marks because it was not, by definition a debate) noted that the first night did not contain a single reference to the POTUS, and that neither night contained a single mention of Israel.. Conservative commentators and garden variety Trumpeters quickly concluded that the first-night gathering didn’t mention their idol because all the Democrats are afraid of him, and that Israel was never brought up because the Democrats are anti-Semitic Israel haters. What they failed to mention - and what a lot of people watching did not notice - were the dozens of negative references to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). From the number of times Mitch was mentioned, one might assume that the 2020 election is first and foremost a race to replace the 77-year old “Senator No.”

Hmmm . . . not such a bad idea, come to think of it. For more than anyone on Capitol Hill, the Kentucky senator is the living, breathing embodiment of the Trump agenda - or lack thereof. To the best of his ability, he spinelessly - and silently - puts up with whatever canal water spews forth from his boss, and refuses with every fiber of his being to allow anything passed by the Democratic-led House to get an airing in the upper chamber. Four years before he became Majority Leader, “Senator No” told members of the Heritage Foundation in no uncertain terms that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” And although he failed in that mission, once he was sworn in as Majority Leader (Jan. 3, 2015), he did everything in his power to put an enormous blockade in the way of anything Obama wanted to do . . . up to and including refusing so much as a hearing for Merritt Garland, Obama’s pick for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. McConnell’s rationale?The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”

If one reads between the lines here, what McConnell is really saying is that no “lame duck” president should have the right to nominate a Supreme Court Justice - and especially in an election year. I wonder how that would work for Mitch if the boot were on the other foot; that the lame duck president would be a Republican and the Senate controlled by Democrats. McConnell’s knowledge and understanding of what the Constitution has to say about the separation of powers and what are and are not presidential prerogatives is not that lame; he is a smart man. However, more than that, he is a vicious, take-no-prisoners partisan Republican. Surely he must know that American history is replete with Presidents making Supreme Court nominations during their last year or so - 19 to be precise. (Hauntingly, two of those lame duck nominations - both of whom were elevated on the court - were Jews who would go on to be among the giants of the SCOTUS: Louis D. Brandeis (nominated by Woodrow Wilson) and Benjamin Cardozo (nominated by Herbert Hoover).

It has long been as clear as mother’s milk that one of 45’s major aims has been to erase virtually everything Barack Obama ever accomplished during his eight years in office . . . or short of that, take credit for those things he cannot destroy. To achieve this despicable goal, Boss Tweet needed a trained seal in the Senate. He found him, of course, in Mitch McConnell. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the president found a spot for the Majority Leader’s wife Elaine Chao in his cabinet (she’s Secretary of Transportation), and a high-ranking job as head of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) for the Majority Leader’s brother-in-law, Gordon Hartogensis. (The PBGC is an independent agency created by Congress in 1974 to essentially pay out pension benefits to workers if their private pension funds fail. Hartogensis is married to Grace Chao, Secretary Elaine Chao’s younger sister.). Ain’t that cozy?

Increasingly, the hyper-partisan McConnell is being seen for what he truly is: a corrupt obstructionist who, for whatever reason he has chosen, has become 45’s lapdog. And while Democrats are making him a central figure in their push to take back the Senate in 2020, there are quite a few Republicans across the country - including his home state, Kentucky - who don’t think too highly of him either. According to one Democratic strategist, Matt Canter, a pollster at Global Strategy Group, “McConnell is a transcendent figure in American politics; he is a unifier. He unites everyone in hatred and animosity toward him, including Republicans. He’s a walking, talking definition of what people hate about Washington and the corrupt political system today.”

Seen in this strategic light, is it any wonder that Senator McConnell was so roundly attacked this past Wednesday and Thursday on MSNBC? Nationally, Democrats are already up and running with a website - “Ditch Mitch” - who’s aim is to defeat McConnell in his bid for a 7th six-year term. For Democrats, of course, taking back the Senate is just as important - if not more so - than defeating ‘45 or holding on to the House of Representatives. Today, Republicans hold a 53-47 edge over the Democrats in the Senate. However, there are 22 Republicans up for reelection as compared to a mere 12 Democrats. In recent polling, Democrats hold a slim 3% lead in swing states. However, being exposed to messaging about McConnell, that lead grew to 12 points. In other words, the “Ditch Mitch” movement is beginning to resonate with voters.

McConnell’s approval rating among swing-state voters in the survey is just 26%, with 50% viewing him unfavorably. Among independents, just 18% view him favorably, and 58% have a negative opinion. In counties that swung from former President Barack Obama to President Trump, his approval rating is 25%, while 53% have a negative opinion.Three highly touted Democratic Senate candidates ― Iowa’s Theresa Greenfield, Texas’ M.J. Hegar and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon ― all focus on McConnell’s influence in their campaign launch videos; they barely mention the president. Hegar refers to her potential opponent, Sen. John Cornyn, as “that tall guy lurking behind Mitch McConnell in basically every single video.”

Then there’s Kentucky, where no one has officially thrown their hat into the ring to challenge Mitch McConnell. Those in the know believe his challenger will wind up being former Marine combat pilot Amy McGrath, who narrowly (51%-47.8%) lost a 2018 congressional race to a 3-term incumbent in a district which Boss Tweet won by more than 16 points in 2016. McConnell has the absolute highest disapproval rating in the country (50%) and scores even worse in his home state. Twenty-two senators can boast of an approval rating 50 percent or above, but McConnell is the only senator with at least half his own constituents rating him unfavorably. This is, of course, not a good sign for the Majority Leader. Indeed, he has become a great unite.

For anyone interested in helping Amy McGrath decide to run against “the Grim Reaper” (that’s the nickname he recently gave himself) check out her Facebook page or the website supporting her putative candidacy.

Defeating Donald Trump is critical. No question. But recapturing the United States Senate and exiling Mitch McConnell is likely of even greater significance.

494 days until the next presidential election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

The Super Hero

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Most reasonably well-educated literate people are familiar with the term “narcissism,” have heard the term “narcissistic personality,” or are aware that many professionals are convinced that Boss Tweet, the nation’s 45th POTUS is a walking exemplar of that syndrome. According to the Mayo Clinic’s overview of narcissistic personality disorder, “NPD is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” Sound familiar? By now, a wide rage of practicing psychiatrists and psychologists has pretty much concluded that ‘45 is afflicted with this disorder. Even more chilling, the Mayo Clinic overview informs that behind the narcissist’s . . . mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

Without question, a certain amount of narcissism - not to mention both egotism and egoism - exists in most successful public people. Those lacking a healthy sense of self and innate feeling that they possess the requisite tools for making a difference, should best stay the hell away from the political arena. It is also extremely helpful to have the hide of a rhinoceros, be a good listener, and demonstrated ability to learn from others. Generally speaking, those afflicted with NPD do not possess any of these qualities. The fact that any succeed in that arena is generally due to them simultaneously possessing an amoral, autocratic bent. Again, case in point, ‘45.

One lesser-known subset of NPD is called the “Hero Syndrome,” which is generally defined as “A phenomenon affecting people who seek heroism or recognition, usually by creating a desperate situation which they can resolve.” The phenomenon has been noted to affect civil servants, such as firefighters, nurses, police officers, programmers, and security guards. Fans of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, may recall a highly-rated 2002 episode called “Vulnerable,” in which actress Mary Kay Place guest stars as the director of an expensive nursing home who keeps overdosing residents, with the neuromuscular blocking agent succinylcholine (SUX), and then giving first aid in the therapy of unexpected respiratory depression. She thereby becomes a hero. This all comes to light when the Special Victims Unit investigates a parallel case in which one of the residents actually dies. Their investigation turns up Hope Garrett (played by Ms. Place), who turns out to be nuttier than a fruit cake and more dangerous than a black widow spider.

This month, we been witness to the president ‘s Super Hero side, in which he has “identified” at least three major crises, announced bold solutions for them that could easily be more lethal than the crises themselves, and then at zero minus eight, pulled America out of the flames of impending disaster. In Greek Drama, the role Boss Tweet is playing has long been known as Deus ex Machina - literally, the god in the machine . . . the one who saves or spares at the very last moment. (n.b. In ancient Greek drama, many tragedy writers used this literary device - Deus ex Machina - to resolve complicated or even seemingly hopeless situations in the plots of their plays.

Let’s take a gander at the 3 most recent situations in which ‘45’s “Hero Syndrome” has been on display for one and all to see:

First, on Friday evening June 7, ‘45 announced with great fanfare that the escalating series of tariffs he planned to impose on Mexico — starting at 5 percent and growing to 25 percent - unless they stepped up actions along their northern (our southern) border to keep “illegal aliens” from “invading” the United States. . . . had been “suspended.”

According to the president’s original threat (which had been announced one week earlier) unless the Mexican government would agree to - and put in place - an expansion of a program to allow asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their legal cases proceed, these tariffs would go into effect on Monday, June 10. Not surprisingly, ‘45 immediately began taking enormous heat from global leaders, business executives, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and members of his own staff; all warning that he risked disrupting a critical marketplace. And then, with less than 72 hours to go, he announced that the tariff threat had been “suspended,” due to his efforts.

Turns out, ‘45 wasn’t the Deus ex Machina - the super hero - he wished the world to see. The deal to avert tariffs by having Mexico agree to the “deployment of its National Guard throughout Mexico, giving priority to its southern border,” had actually been under negotiation over the past several months. In reality, the Mexican government had already pledged to do what the president had publicly demanded on May 31, 2019, had been agreed to in March during secret talks in Miami between Kirstjen Nielsen, then the secretary of homeland security, and Olga Sanchez, the Mexican secretary of the interior. And for anyone paying attention to the situation, they would have remembered then-Secretary Nielson’s announcing the Migrant Protection Protocols during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on December 20, 2018.

So much for Trump the “Super Hero.” And yet, he continues to flap his wings, proclaiming that he - and he alone - was responsible to bringing the Mexican government to its knees . . . and, at the last possible moment.

Second: This past Friday, June 21, our Commander-in-Chief announced via Twitter that at the very last possible moment, he had called off an airstrike against Iran after learning it might lead to no fewer than 150 civilian deaths. In a series of tweets on Friday morning, Mr. Trump said he was prepared to retaliate against three sites in Iran for that country’s downing of an American surveillance drone, but that he pulled back because the death of that many Iranians would not be “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.” “We were already cocked and loaded,” POTUS proclaimed. (Gee, I always thought the expression was (“Locked and loaded.”)

Boss Tweet said in an NBC interview later that day that news reports that he had called off the mission while it was underway were inaccurate. But two senior United States officials said again on Friday that the military had received the president’s go-ahead and that jets were already headed toward targets in Iran when the mission was aborted. Within 24 hours of aborting the “cocked and loaded” bombing raids, ‘45, fearful that Bolton, Pompeo and his right flank might consider him a spineless dove, went back to saber rattling with a vengeance: “I'm not looking for war and if there is, it'll be obliteration like you've never seen before. But I'm not looking to do that. But you can't have a nuclear weapon. You want to talk? Good. Otherwise you can have a bad economy for the next three years.” Whether this back-and-forth is another example of Trump’s “Hero Syndrome” affliction or just pure political chess is anyone’s guess. I for one believe that ‘45 may well have done the right thing . . . but for the wrong reason; that he ratcheted up war rhetoric in order to come out a hero for the 2020 campaign . . . even if it was/is at the expense of international alliances, the safety of Israel or the stability (?) of his White House. Remember, by unilaterally pulling out of the JCPA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action . . . the “Iran Deal”) and bringing back economic sanctions, the administration made an increasingly hostile Iran all but inevitable. It’s reminiscent of a firefighter torching a building in order to go in, save a few lives and then be declared a hero.

Third: A week ago today (June 17), ‘45 told the nation that “shortly,” his administration would be deporting “millions of immigrants.” This promise, like so many others he has made, is little more than red meat for his base. Think about it: deporting “millions” of immigrants - most of whom have been here for years - would be an absolutely monumental undertaking that would cost taxpayers billions upon billions of dollars - not to mention being a major assault on such American values of justice and compassion. How many buses and airplanes would it take to deport even a million human beings? How long would it take to organize such a program? Are there enough bureaucrats and administrators in the federal government to figure out precisely where to return these people to? Again, this is political red meat, not reality.

And then, suddenly this past Saturday the president abruptly scrapped plans for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to round up some 2,000 immigrants who have already received final deportation orders. These raids, he announced, were to have taken place yesterday, Sunday June 23. ‘45 averred that he was calling off the raids in order to give Democrats “two weeks to come up with a plan to curb undocumented immigration.” Here, we see another aspect of the Hero Syndrome: saving people through what appears to be a last-minute humanitarian act. Does ‘45 expect the Democrats to be able to solve the problem of what to do with undocumented immigrants within 336 hours? Of course not. Will he ever mention his initial plan to deport millions of “illegals” again? Don’t hold your breath. It’s all about optics and running for reelection - an activity Boss Tweet has been fully engaged in ever since January 20, 2017 - the very day he took the oath of office.

Falling prey to his Hero Syndrome affliction; acting like some “god in the machine” and offering last-minute changes in fate and destiny - are increasingly at the top of the president’s political playbook. Democrats would do well (once their presidential field has dramatically decreased) to run ads with video captures of ‘45’s innumerable flip-flops. These would not for the purpose of getting Trumpeters to leave the fold; rather, their intention would be to broaden the Democratic tent and ultimately send Boss Tweet back into the ether.

America does not need a mindless heroic poseur.

What we need - indeed what American deserves - is a human with a heart, a soul and a plan.

501 days until the presidential election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Sen. Elizabeth "I Have a Plan For That" Warren

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There is a specter haunting presidential politics: whether to support the candidate whose policies and personality one likes best, or instead, to support the one person you believe will have the best chance of defeating the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At this early date, few political wonks, geeks or activists have come close to aligning themselves to a particular candidate. Indeed many are caught between the devil and the deep-blue sea when it comes to answering the question “What yardstick or barometer should one use in selecting their presidential candidate?”: ideology and policy (which are based largely on fact) or a sense that candidate X or Y has the best chance of cold-cocking ‘45 and his alternate reality universe on November 3, 2020 (which is, of course, based far, far more on emotion)?

Hey, here’s a novel thought: what’s to say that we cannot find and support a candidate who combines intelligent, well thought-out policies with passion, a down-to-earth personality and the ability to inspire? For those of us who are already deep into our search, the name “Elizabeth Warren” is growing in stature and believability. While few have been watching, Senator Warren has been crisscrossing the United States and talking to voters face-to-face. It seems that hardly a day goes by without her offering up yet another plan or proposal addressing America’s most pressing “kitchen-table” needs. As a result, she has been moving up in the polls; as of today, June 17, 2019, the newest NBC NEWs/WSJ poll shows that a combined 64% of Democratic primary voters now say they are either enthusiastic or comfortable with Elizabeth Warren, up from 57% in March. A combined 27% say they either have reservations or are very uncomfortable with her candidacy, as compared to Senator Bernie Sanders (her chief progressive opponent) for whom 56% are either enthusiastic or comfortable (down from 62% in March), and a combined 41% say they either have reservations or are very uncomfortable with him. And, according to Bloomberg News’ Sahil Kapur, “A national Economist/YouGov poll released last week showed Warren in second place among the large Democratic field with 16%, behind former V.P. Joe Biden’s 26% and ahead of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s 12%.

Typical of the Massachusetts’ senator, candidate Warren has neither crowed nor led a pep rally over these new polling figures. “I’m out there doing what I believe in. I get a chance to talk about what’s broken in America, how we can fix it, and build a grassroots movement to get that done. And I get to do it every day.” The one thing she does seem to communicate virtually every day is her latest “plan” for everything from rebuilding America’s infrastructure, to providing (and paying for) childcare for working-class and impoverished families, addressing (and paying for) Medicare for All, fixing a broken immigration system without resorting to fear-mongering, addressing global warming and reversing the Trump tax cuts for corporations and the hyper wealthy. (At this point in the essay, you may wish to check out Senator Warren’s campaign website, which details all of her proposals; they are a real eye-opener.)

And for all her efforts, the Republicans’ response has consisted of precisely 3 words: “Pocahontas,” “Socialist,” and “Radical.”

Pocahontas (Rebecca Rolfe)

Pocahontas (Rebecca Rolfe)

I would venture a guess that only a tiny fraction of those referring to her as Pocahontas have any idea of who she was, of why she has a place in American (and British) history, or that she who was born Princess Matoaka, in present-day Gloucester County, Virginia in c. 1596 and died Rebecca Rolfe in Kent County, England, at age 21. All they likely know is that in 1986, Senator Warren claimed to have Cherokee ancestry, took a DNA test to back it up, and has since apologized. The DNA test concluded that the “vast majority” of her ancestry was European but that her lineage was very likely to include one Native American ancestor somewhere between six and 10 generations ago. Regardless of this, ‘45 stuck her with the nickname “Pocahontas” and continues to mock her to this very day. And that, as mentioned above, is the sum and substance of what most Americans know about her . . . which is really next to nothing.

The coming months will predictably bring a whittling down of the roster of Democratic pols seeking nomination. They will leave the field either because they’ve:

  • Come in 5th, 6th, or lower in a primary;

  • Run out of money;

  • Made an on-camera boo-boo;

  • Had something from their past dug up and magnified to the point where it defines them;

  • Shown themselves to be not ready for prime time.

And since a majority of the 20 or so hopefuls are currently spending the majority of their time and money just making a name and identity for themselves with the public - separating themselves from the pack - you had better believe that there’s also going to be quite a bit of negativity.

Here’s where Senator Warren is different. Quite different. Like Senator Sanders, former Vice President Biden and Mayor Pete-of-the-unpronounceable-last-name, Elizabeth Warren doesn’t need to spend all that much time introducing herself to the public. But unlike them, she spends the lion’s share of her campaign time speaking truth to power; explaining what she intends to do in a Warren Administration.

And unlike most - if not all - of those running for the nomination, Senator Warren already has an enormous paid staff in place and working. By the end of March, Warren's campaign staff numbered about 164 people, according to payroll spending released this week in a quarterly Federal Election Commission disclosure. The 69-year-old candidate, who was the first major contender to jump in the race with a New Year's Eve announcement, now has a team of more than 170 people and plans to bring on new hires every month in the second quarter of 2019, campaign officials confirmed.

As Warren and her advisers see it, it's part of a larger strategy that diverts from past presidential campaigns that have prioritized spending on television ads. As voters change the way they consume information online, they say, Warren has focused on building a campaign operation in early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, holding events (58 town halls in 14 states) where the emphasis is on answering questions (more than 250 from audiences), engaging with the press (105 one-on-one interviews and 44 media availabilities), and demonstrating substance on policy.

“We are building a grassroots organization that’s built to last,” said Kristen Orthman, the campaign’s communications director. “We have front-loaded a tight-knit team and set our organizational plans, priorities, and culture faster and in finer detail than anyone.” In other words, Elizabeth Warren began putting together her campaign - and future presidential staff - long, long before her official announcement.

As far back as 2009, journalists were beginning to take interest in Elizabeth Warren. In late October 2009, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi wrote a major piece entitled Elizabeth Warren for President. (And mind you, this was less than a year into the Obama Administration.) In that article, Taibbi wrote: “We need someone … to re-seize the Party from the Wall Street interests that have come to dominate it … [Someone] who will know the difference between real regulatory reform and a dog-and-pony show, and will not be likely to fill a cabinet with bankers from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.”

The strength of Warren’s campaign is a series of detailed policy proposals aimed at correcting a series of corrupting inequities in American life. The first major proposal she released, on January 24th, was aimed at perhaps the biggest problem in American society: the wealth gap.

While working people almost all live off highly-taxed “income,” high net worth individuals mostly live off other revenue streams: carried interest, capital gains, inheritance, etc. Warren’s plan would create a net worth calculation that would hit households worth between $50 million and $1 billion with a 2% annual “ultra-millionaires tax.”

She has a similar plan for corporate tax, one that would wipe away the maze of loopholes big companies currently use, and force any firm that makes over $100 million in profits to pay a new 7 percent tax. “Amazon would pay $698 million instead of zero,” she says. “Occidental Petroleum would pay $280 million … instead of zero.”

Other proposals include a Too Big To Fail breakup program for Silicon Valley that would designate internet firms that “offer an online marketplace” and have annual revenues of $25 billion or more as “Platform Utilities.” Under the plan, “Google’s ad exchange and businesses on the exchange would be split apart,” and “Google Search would have to be spun off as well.”

Warren has also unveiled ambitious plans for cancelation of student debt and free college, universal child care and a new corporate accountability plan that would force high-ranking corporate executives to certify they’d conducted a “due diligence” inquiry, making it easier to prosecute them for misdeeds conducted under their watch.

She even created an “economic patriotism” plan that overtly targets many of the excuses for domestic job loss offered by her own party — automation, a “skills gap” or just blunt economic reality when trying to compete with cheaper labor abroad. She calls bull on it all. “No,” she writes, “America chose to pursue a trade policy that prioritized the interests of capital over the interests of American workers.”

She then laid out a series of plans that create “aggressive intervention on behalf of American workers,” create a “Department of Economic Development” and put an end to practices like corporations using public money for R&D, then eating the benefits in stock buybacks while exporting jobs. Her plan would give taxpayers an equity stake in publicly developed enterprises.

This idea has such broad appeal that it even had Tucker Carlson talking it up last week as he denounced companies that “wave the flag, but have no loyalty or allegiance to America.” She even got Carlson to rip Republicans, saying, “Republicans in Congress can’t promise to protect American industries. They wouldn’t dare. It might violate some principle of Austrian economics…”

Can Elizabeth Warren capture the Democratic nomination and even the White House? Can her utterly unique blend of political progressivism and economic populism; of small-town-Middle-American-single-working-mother values and Harvard Law School professorship; of writing books for the masses which discuss elite topics . . . actually work? (Senator Warren has written more than a dozen books. My favorites include A Fighting Chance, This Fight is Our Fight: the Battle to Save America’s Middle Class, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan, and The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are (Still) Going Broke.

Can Elizabeth Warren succeed? Can she actually grab the Democratic nomination and then defeat ‘45? To be honest, I do not know the answer; my crystal ball has been in the repair shop since early November 2016. What I do know is that she is not the radical her opponents accuse her of being; rather, she is running against a radical who has instilled fear and silence in his supporters and both hatred and total fatigue in his challengers. Simply stated, Elizabeth Warren is surging in the polls because the more people learn about her and hear what she has to say, the more they realize just how refreshing and revitalizing a bipolar opposite can be.

The more ‘45 calls her Pocahontas, accuses her of being a Socialist and an effete intellectual snob without engaging her in serious debate about all the serious dinner-table issues she has spent a lifetime dealing with, the more obvious it will be that the emperor has no clothes . . . and even fewer brains.

When it comes to running against Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren can honestly say “I have a plan for that too!”

508 days left until the 2020 election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Throwing a Monkey Wrench into Medical Research

The Future of Medical Research.jpg

This past week, while donning his horrendously-tailored “soup and fish,” dining with the Windsors and about-to-be former British P.M. Teresa May, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landing, playing golf in Ireland and bashing Senate Minority Leader Schumer, Speaker Pelosi and Director Mueller, ’45 somehow managed to find the time to throw a toxic monkey wrench into the future of medical research. ‘45’s announcement that the federal government is changing its policy on the use of human fetal tissue in medical research sent a collective chill up the spines of clinicians and researchers from Maine to California. His announcement - which has been percolating for quite some time - has precious little to do with science and everything to do with partisan politics. It is obviously designed to please the many anti-abortion groups which have strongly supported ‘45, the very man who once proclaimed on “Meet the PressI am firmly pro-choice in every sense of the term.”

As mentioned a few sentences above, the push for banning the use of human fetal tissue in government-sponsored research has been percolating for the past several years. The level of controversy around fetal tissue research waxes and wanes. Human fetal tissue research has been done in the United States since the 1930s, and NIH has been funding this type of research since the 1950s. There was a ban on such funding, however, during part of the terms of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Federal money was restored with bipartisan support in a 1993 bill for the NIH. Among the backers of that effort were some strong abortion opponents, such as Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who argued that the research could help people — like his daughter — with diabetes.

NIH spent $115 million on human fetal tissue research in 2018, a tiny fraction of the nearly $14 billion it spent on clinical research overall. NIH currently funds roughly 200 projects that use fetal tissue, according to HHS.

Fetal tissue once again became a hot-button issue in 2015 with the release of doctored videos, later discredited, purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing tissue donation policies and reimbursement. Last fall, the Trump administration announced it was conducting a review of all research involving fetal tissue to ensure it was consistent with statutes and regulations governing it.

Under the new policy, employees at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will no longer conduct research with human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions, after using up any material they have on hand. Officials also immediately stopped funding a multiyear contract at the University of California-San Francisco using human fetal tissue in mice to research HIV therapies. Federally funded projects at other research institutions using fetal tissue can continue until their grants expire. But renewal for these projects and future proposals will have to go through a newly established ethics review process to receive funding. It’s not clear yet what standards that process will entail or whether such experiments will be able to proceed under government sponsorship.

Additionally, under the new policy, extramural researchers who submit applications that pass scientific review and score high enough to be funded will now encounter a new and time-consuming layer of review. Under a procedure described in a 2006 law that governs NIH policy, HHS will need to announce in the Federal Register that it plans to assemble an ethics advisory board to review each proposed grant and invite public nominations for that board. The board would be made up of 14 to 20 people from various backgrounds, including at least one theologian, one ethicist, one physician, and one attorney. No more than half of the panel members can be scientists. The HHS secretary must wait at least 30 days after the publication to appoint the board. The board will then have up to 150 days to recommend to the secretary whether the proposed research should be funded.

Even then, the Secretary can overrule the committee if he finds its recommendation “arbitrary and capricious.” 

(Truth to tell, it has long been the case that every NIH-sponsored clinical trial must be thoroughly vetted and scrutinized by an Institutional Review Board [IRB] which is made up of physicians, scientists, bio-engineers, ethicists and so-called “public members.” I have been an active member of the largest of these boards for nearly 25 years and have easily vetted more than 2,000 research protocols in that period of time. So this is , in reality, nothing new.)

The anti-abortion (“pro-birth”) crowd has somehow convinced its followers that banning medical research which uses human fetal tissue will somehow keep women from obtaining abortions. Where they ever came up with this idea is beyond me. It has about as much logic behind it as enshrining the Volstead Act in our Constitution (about 100 years ago) , proclaiming that it would greatly reduce the number of people imbibing alcohol. What it did do was create a world of bootleggers, murderous gangs, bathtub gin and the likes of Al Capone, Frank Nitti and Eliot Ness.

Many of these same pro-birth advocates claim - in the name of scientific research - that there are “effective options” to using human fetal tissue, including monkey or hamster cells for vaccines as well as blood collected after birth from umbilical cords that are rich in blood-forming stem cells. They also suggest the use of adult stem cells and “organoids” — artificially grown cells that somewhat mimic organs. Another suggestion made to Alex Azar - the former president and chief lobbyist for Eli Lilly and Company and current Secretary of Health and Human Services - was that using tissue from a miscarriage could be an acceptable alternative to using tissue from an aborted fetus because it’s from “a natural death, not an intentional killing of the child.”

Checking with many of my IRB colleagues, they say that the use of adult stem cells and organoids “aren’t close to being ready for prime time. . . they cannot mimic real tissue.” The use of human fetal tissue in medical research holds out the hope for real progress coming up with therapies and even cures for HIV, Parkinson’s Disease, Diabetes and various forms of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimers Hunington’s and Lewy Body Dementia.

Considering the Trump family medical history, one would think that ‘45 would be more interested in doing research which might save his sanity - or that of his children and grandchildren in the future - than scoring electoral brownie points with anti-abortion activists in the present. The United States has long been a world leader in medical research. Creating new, potent and safe drugs, devices and procedures is a long and difficult process which requires scientific brilliance, firmly embedded in ethical practices. It also requires an absolute minimum of partisan politics. Diseases, syndromes and impairments are neither Republican nor Democrat, liberal or conservative. They can strike anyone and everyone.

We owe it to future generations to remember this simple truth and let the researchers get back to their labs and clinics and do what they do best.

516 days till the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone


Can Facts Change Minds?


John Maynard Keynes (1st Lord Keynes, 1883-1946) was far, far more than a brilliant macro economist for whom an entire academic theory was named; he was also a giant among intellectuals. Once, when asked how he dealt with radical changes in economic theory, he responded somewhat archly, “When facts change, I change my mind - what do you do sir?” Lord Keynes’s response - although perfectly understandable in its time and place - would be all but incomprehensible in the age of Trump. For today, the presentation of facts is terribly skewed; for many, that which they believe to be true is a fact, while that which they disagree with is a malevolent lie - or, in contemporary parlance, “fake news.”

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” is the first law of propaganda and perverse, take-no-prisoners politics. The quote, often attributed to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels (when in fact it may well have been first said by Lenin) has long undergirded that which is worst in political strategy. As far back as the 1840’s an entire political party - the so-called “Know Nothings” - was birthed on the false conspiratorial fear that Irish Catholics were streaming across (and for some, under) the Atlantic in order to take over the United States. The liar-in-chief behind this xenophobic, nativist canard was one Lewis Charles Levin, a 3-term member of Congress from Pennsylvania’s First District. He would eventually be voted out of office, suffered a total mental collapse, and spent his last months as a resident of the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane. From all indications, Levin never really believed his lies; nonetheless he continued telling them to his gullible, fearful constituents. No amount of facts could change the minds of his fellow “Know Nothings.”

So too, no amount of facts could dissuade the followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy from firmly believing that there were Communists controlling the State Department, as well as writing, directing and starring in Hollywood movies. In those days, McCarthy and his young assistant, Roy Cohn, seemed to be everywhere repeating again and again the scurrilous charge that America was under attack from within.  A lie told often enough becomes the truth . . .

Then again, no amount of facts could dissuade “true believers” that the U.S. Destroyer Turner Joy had been attacked by the North Vietnamese, thus necessitating passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and a prolonged, deadly war in Southeast Asia. Today, there are still many, many people who know for a fact that Barack Obama was:

  • Born in Kenya;

  • Is a practicing Muslim, and

  • Was brought to Hawaii as an infant in order to one day make him POTUS, thus bringing Sharia law to America.

And although he has (kinda, sorta) disavowed these asinine lies, ‘45, the “birther-in-chief,” is still looked upon by many of his acolytes as the keeper of absolute truth. Here too, as with the “Know-Nothing” conspiracy, McCarthyism, and the Gulf of Tonkin - to name but 3 - no amount of fact gathering can change the minds of true believers. The more lies, the more truth; the more objective facts disproving ‘the truth,” the stronger, more obdurate the “true believers” become. Were the Trumpeteers to be presented with Lord Keynes’ question about what they would do when facts change, they would likely respond “Nothing! We would know that these new ‘facts’ were nothing more than FAKE NEWS!”

Mind you, I’m not making this up out of thin air. As a blogger with a fairly obvious political bias - and an addiction to facts - I am frequently the recipient of comments from the other side of the aisle. Many of these Tweets inform me just how very little I know about politics, history, economics or a dozen-and-one other areas of knowledge. I have learned over the years not to respond with facts . . . no matter how reputable or solidly researched they may be. I simply do not have the time or the stomach to get into cyber shouting matches . . . nor do I have a particular love of banging my head against a wall. An awful lot of these communiqués repeat - and almost verbatim - the same words, arguments and attacks; as if they had all garnered “knowledge” from the same source. As but one example: should I happen to mention the number of provable untruths and outright lies the POTUS tells or tweets per day, I will be reminded that President Obama (frequently called “Obummer” by these folks) frequently proclaimed that “Under Obamacare, those who are happy with their healthcare plan can keep it.” Truth to tell, this was not Obama’s finest moment; it was as much a political ploy as an untruth. But to keep bringing it up again and again, means not only that Obama spoke an untruth, but that his enemies cannot come up with any other lies with which to tarnish him.

Occasionally, I will receive mentions of Solyndra, Loretta Lynch (which actually goes back to Bill Clinton), Benghazi and “Pizzagate” (both of which involved accusations against Hillary Clinton). All of these have been debunked by responsible fact checkers (known to conservatives as members of the “Fake News” world). And yet, if one responds with an up-to-date list of ‘45’s lies and misstatements (which as of the end of April; 2019 numbered 10,111) his core base will merely shake their heads and proclaim that the numbers research was underwritten by none other than George Soros . . . case closed.

Without getting into the myriad psychological reasons why facts generally do not change minds, let us instead ask: how in the world can or should one talk or reason with that friend, coworker or family member who is a staunch ‘45 supporter? Or someone who does not believe that there is such a thing as climate change . . . or utterly dismisses Darwin? If facts aren’t going to change their minds, how does one proceed? And more importantly, what do candidates running for POTUS say (or not say) out on the campaign trail in their quest of getting voters to change their minds?

The publication of the Mueller Report is a perfect example of how facts can fall by the wayside and fail to change minds. (It should be noted that one hell of a lot of people who have denied or derided the report’s findings have not even read it; they rely on A.G. Barr’s - and the president’s - conclusion that “there was no collusion, no obstruction of justice . . . the POTUS has been exonerated.” I am currently knee deep in the report’s second volume and can tell you that there is plenty of guilt etched on its pages. But those who firmly believed that the POTUS and his administration were/are as pure as the driven snow before the report’s publication, still hold fast to their beliefs. Likewise, those who firmly believed that the POTUS and his administration are/were as guilty of sin before the report’s publication, still hold fast to their beliefs.

Partisan politics contain a large measure of tribalism - of self-identification. It’s sort of like glorying in your love and support of the Dodgers while reviling anything having to do with the Giants or Yankees. In politics, sharing fake news stories on social media that denigrate the candidate you oppose is a way to show public support for one’s partisan team—roughly the equivalent of painting your face with team colors on game day. To a great extent, even facts or information can have a tribalistic component. In many cases, intelligence, education and literacy have little to do with beliefs; identifying as a Christian or Jew; a conservative or progressive; a Democrat or Republican has a far greater allure. Facts which go counter to one’s tribal identity are, therefore, most frequently rejected.

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once boldly stated “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” In our current social, cultural and especially political climate (which by no means began with ‘45) Tolstoy’s insight is a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

If facts cannot change political thoughts or alliances, then what are all those Democrats and one, perhaps two Republicans seeking the presidency to do? How are they to proceed? How are they to convince people that there are many bad ideas (backed by lies) out there that aren’t helping our economy, our future and our standing in the world? Not by attacking all those ideas all the time. Attacking things like The Wall, tariffs, huge tax cuts for the wealthy, immigration, guns, abortions etc., means continuing to speak about them. Each time a politician attacks a bad idea, he/she winds up feeding the very monster they are trying to destroy.  Their campaign time is better spent championing good ideas than tearing down bad ones. From where I sit, they shouldn’t be wasting time explaining why bad ideas are bad. To do so is simply fanning the flame of ignorance and stupidity.

The best thing that can happen to a bad idea is to let it fall by the wayside. The best thing that can happen to a good idea is that it is shared and discussed. A suggestion to all those seeking the position of president: Feed the good ideas and let bad ideas die of starvation.

In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary chose “post-truth” as its word of the year, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” And while it’s a far cry from Lord Keynes’ wisdom quoted at the beginning of this post, it says a great deal about the obstacles we face going in to 2020. And so, we return to Keynes for a closing thought:

“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong."

523 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone