Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Filtering by Category: Political Psychology

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

Can Facts Change Minds?

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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

[In]civility & Its Discontent (Yes, It's Meant to Be a Play On Words)

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One would have to be all but comatose not to realize that when it comes to politics, Americans are about as polarized as can be. For the most part, things are pretty much black-and-white.  Case in point: According to a recent poll undertaken by Axios's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, '45's approval rating with Republicans is hovering at 90%; among Democrats, the figure is no more than 8%.  A survey underwritten by The Economist and reported in the conservative National Review showed that a majority of Democrats (82 percent) are in favor of banning semi-automatic weapons, which include handguns as well as rifles, while over half the Republicans (53 percent) are against any such proposal.  The partisan black-and-white split is just as obvious when it comes to repealing Roe v. Wade: A new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that while 81% among Democrats and 67% among Independents are against the SCOTUS overturning the landmark 1973 decision, nearly 55% of those polled who identified as Republicans are in favor of its repeal.  Then too, in yet another Axios poll, 61% of Republican voters firmly believe that the FBI is framing the POTUS, while 78% of Democratic voters firmly believe the opposite. 

Talk about black and white!

Of late, there is a highly contentious issue which divides Democrats and Republicans even within their own camps: the matter of civility in political discourse versus political correctness and outright attack in public places.  The issue has been brewing for quite some time.  More than four years ago, then pre-candidate Trump began assigning cutting nicknames to politicians in both parties - not only as a means of garnering added attention (as if he really needed it )but as a way of building himself up at the expense of those who were more politically experienced and civically mature.  As time went on, the slurs became nastier and more obvious.  Then came the almost daily diet of half-truths and outright lies, as well as the assignment of blame to the evil monolith called "Fake News."  Topping all this were the litany of inane executive orders, the all-but total dismemberment of anything and everything Obama, the incompetence, corruption and revolving door quality of his administration and the utter blind devotion of his  "sheeple."  All this led to the hyper-pyrexic (feverish) state we are currently in.

It all came to a head when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked by the the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia to leave her establishment "because," as she stated in a tweet, "I work for POTUS."  Shortly thereafter, protesters drove Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen out of a Mexican restaurant by yelling "shame" at her, after a press conference in which she defended her agency's policy of separating children from their parents at the border. At another Mexican restaurant in D.C., one patron went up to Stephen Miller, who is the reported architect of many of the president's immigration policies, and called him a fascist. Protesters have also staged rallies outside of Miller's and Nielsen's homes.

It was at this stage that '45, his staff and much of the Republican hierarchy started bemoaning  what they called "a lack of civility in public life."  In response to what she saw as utter hypocrisy within the GOP, California Representative Maxine Waters voiced support for the public confrontation of Trump officials at a rally in Los Angeles, using the word "harass," which really got people hot and bothered. "The people are going to turn on them, they're going to protest, they're going to absolutely harass them until they decide that they're going to tell the president 'no I can't hang with you, this is wrong,'" Waters said.

In response, the president tweeted "Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an extraordinarily low IQ person, has become, together with Nancy Pelosi, the Face of the Democrat Party. She has just called for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement. Be careful what you wish for Max!"  Some, reading between this tweet's lines, saw the president throwing down a threatening gauntlet.  Almost immediately,  Rep. Waters -- who admittedly, has been without a functioning rhetorical "off-switch" for much of her political career -- had to cancel several public appearances due to "a very serious death threat." Shortly thereafter, the fired-up Waters told a gathering of supporters "If you shoot at me you'd better shoot straight."

More than one commentator has, in my estimation correctly, pointed out that the debate over the lack of "civility" in political discourse has taken our attention away from issues which really, truly matter - such as the Supreme Court's decision upholding the Muslim ban; the separation of children from their parents at the border; the Commander-in-Chief's decision to discharge immigrant recruits from the U.S. military, and our new - and potentially disastrous - tariff policies.  Then too, there is a secondary debate over precisely what is the difference - if indeed, there is any - between "civility" and "political correctness."  The Republican call for "civility" is loud and clear . . . while at the same time lambasting Democrats for engaging in the unforgivable sin of "political correctness."  

Both Congressional Minority Leaders - Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelos -i have weighed in on the side of civility in political discourse . . . and against their colleague Maxine Waters who has urged fellow Democrats Americans to confront individuals who work for President Donald Trump and “tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere.”  Senator Schumer has counseled: 

We all have to remember to treat our fellow Americans, all of our fellow Americans, with the kind of civility and respect we expect will be afforded to us, No one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That’s not right. That’s not American. The president’s tactics and behavior should never be emulated. It should be repudiated.”

So there it is in the proverbial nutshell: Should progressives respond to irrationality, bigotry and cupidity with civility or, fight fire with fire by being just as uncivil as '45 and his robotic sheeple?  Many Democrats (and non-sheeple Republicans as well) favor taking the high road - of obeying the Golden Rule and "Doing unto others as we would have others do unto us" (or as the Jewish sage Hillel's Talmudic version [Shabbat 31a] goes, “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.” Or, giving in to our communal anger and frustration, should we give 'em a taste of their own medicine by matching insult for insult, barb for barb, incivility for incivility?  

My response is neither.  As angered and frustrated as so many of us are about  the childish locutions coming from the "Make America Great Again!" crew, just as many are  even angrier and more frustrated over how far these puerile, inconsistent mottoes and phrases have taken us as a nation.  To "fight fire with fire" by speaking as harshly as those on the other side of the fence is to sink to a level which, although on one level can be psychologically gratifying, is on another, not only beneath dignity; it is a losing political strategy.  Regardless of what Trump and his sheeple may say, we are simply not accustomed to boisterously damning the darkness.  But to merely ignore and/or remain mute to what is being said (as a means of redirecting attention from what is being done - and in our names) is both cowardly and an even worse political strategy.  Anger, panic and frustration can and must act as catalysts for speaking up about what really and truly is on a majority of people's minds: affordable healthcare regardless of personal financial assets or prior medical conditions; public education which is both sufficiently and sensibly funded; a public American face which can and must lead the world in addressing climate change, international trade, war and peace.  And oh yes: at least a paragraph or two about the wisdom of steadfastly supporting our democratic allies, while just as steadfastly staying out of the beds of blood-stained autocrats.

So share with me your thoughts: Shall it be Civility or Incivility or perhaps a meaningful mixture?  And which issues, do you believe are the most important for restoring hope?

Now I know that many of you, reading the title of this week's essay [In]civility and Its Discontent (Yes, It's Meant to Be a Play on Words), brought to mind Sigmund Freud's most important, widely-read and self-reflective work: Civilization and It's Discontent first published in 1930 under the title Das Unbehagen in der Kultur ("The Uneasiness in Civilization"). There is a reason for this not-terribly subtle play on words.  This is no coincidence.  For in this book, which Freud wrote in the last decade of his life, he discussed whether it were possible to discover a purpose in life . . . quite a challenge which the good doctor admitted right at the outset ". . . has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one." Nonetheless, Freud plodded on contenting himself with "the less ambitious question of . . . what men themselves show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it."  Freud correctly explained that in a vacuum, deeds and dreams are largely fueled by our most instinctual desires: to be maximally happy, free of pain and fear, the ABILITY (as opposed to THE RIGHT) to exercise our libidos however and whenever we choose, and being totally unfettered. 

Of course, civilizations - which create cultures - enact laws and promote social norms which  help shape our lives, thus making both civilization and culture possible.  Most accept that laws are necessary. But then there are those who rebel against boundaries and seek a civilization that is their mirror image. As such, civilization can and does leave people in a painful, often debilitating state of discontent.  This, I fear, is what we are currently facing.  While Freud offered no explicit answers for how to deal with and overcome our discontent, he did strongly urge against the "Do unto others as you would have others to do you" approach to solving what ails us.  Why? Because, he argues, on a subconscious level, we desire doing whatever in the hell we feel like doing - of tickling the itch he calls "The Pleasure Principle."  Heady stuff, no doubt, but it does offer a bit of direction in the "shall we be civil or uncivil" debate.  For if we go toe-to-toe with others, matching bluster for bluster, resentment for resentment and discontentment for discontentment, we are, both singularly and collectively, aiding in the dismemberment of civil society.

I urge you to ask yourself where you stand: do you think it wiser to return curse for curse, epithet for epithet, or to take a different less bellicose tact.  It is an internal debate which can help us, together, begin healing a civilization which  has, of late, befouled the pathway of life with the stench of discontent.

537 days down, 936 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Profligacy of a Presidential Parade

                                  "Generals"  Wastemoreland & Hershey Bar

                                  "Generals"  Wastemoreland & Hershey Bar

Upon reading that '45 was seriously proposing a military parade marching down Pennsylvania Avenue to showcase our strength and as a tribute to our troops, I found imagining him attending the parade in some ridiculous military uniform.  Suddenly, I found myself awash in long-forgotten visual memories from the 1960s of General "Hershey Bar" and General "Wastemoreland," two guerrilla-theater icons of the Viet Nam-era, left-coast, anti-war movement. Wearing outrageously ornate military uniforms, Generals "Hershey Bar" (Bill Maton) and "Wastemoreland" (Thomas Michael Dunphy) were as inextricably tied to the anti-Viet Nam, anti-draft years as Country Joe and the Fish, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The very idea that '45 should order up a military parade replete with soldiers, sailors, marines, not to mention tanks, missiles and weaponry marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in 2018  is as repugnantly ridiculous as LBJ ordering the same in 1968 -- which he did not do.  Generally speaking, military parades are held at the end of a war, when there is something to cheer about.  At those times, it's the soldiers, sailors, marines - officers and non-coms - who are at center stage - not their Commander-in-Chief.  But should '45 actually go through with his plan, it will be all about him, not the troops. In matter of fact, a large proportion of warriors will still be in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and dozens upon dozens of nations where we continue having both an overt and covert military presence.

Goodness knows there is no need for us to show the world just how much firepower we have; the United States spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined.  Most of the countries holding these sorts of parades are "wannabes" - second-tier autocracies trying to prove to the rest of the world that they should be feared . . . if not respected . . . for their military might.  Think North Korea.  When goose-stepping soldiers accompanying bombs, tanks and assorted lethal weaponry march past the reviewers' stand in Pyongyang, it is partly for the benefit of the world, but mostly for the aggrandizement of their "Outstanding Leader," Kim Jong Un. While it is not all that difficult to fathom Kim Jong Un's (and North Korea's) pathological insecurity, one would need the analytic skills of a Freud or Adler to limn '45's lethal mixture of insecurity and narcissism.

According to official White House rhetoric, the purpose of this parade is ". . . a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation."  At a recent press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters, "President Trump is incredibly supportive of America's great service members who risk their lives every day to keep our country safe." Not mentioned in the briefing were two facts: first, that the real purpose of the parade was to show the world just how powerful the U.S. is, and second, to cast anyone who objects to a military parade through the streets of Washington as unpatriotic, cynical, or both.

It is possible that the parade will never come off.  Perhaps cooler heads and steadier hands will convince '45's handlers that the "benefits" of such an event will easily be outweighed by its cost and the misuse of work hours.  Estimates for the parade are already hovering above the $20 million mark.  Considering the fact that the federal budget has recently been hit with a double deficit whammy - the tax-cut-to-end-all-tax-cuts, and the additional $300 billion "sweetener" used to keep the government up and running - the last thing we need is a $20 million+ ego massage for the POTUS. I can think of a lot of ways that $20 million can be spent . . . such as providing veterans with post-military training or assisting them with PTSD-caused opioid addiction (both of which have been radically cut). 

It wasn't all that long ago that the term "tax and spend" was used by nearly every Republican to attack and stereotype nearly every Democrat.  The GOP was the party of fiscal sanity, lower taxes and less spending.  It would now seem that this term has been erased from the Republican campaign book; from now on every use of the "tax-and-spend" epithet will be repulsed by Democrats referring to their colleagues across the aisle as the party of "axing-taxes-and-profligate spending."  Not the sort of thing any professional politician wants hanging from his/her lapel.

If '45 really, truly wants to have his parade, I will be only too happy to put him in contact with Tom Dunphy (General Wastemoreland).  Now in his late 70's the general still resides in Berkeley where he writes poetry.  I'm sure he will be happy to loan you his uniform for the parade . . .

386 days down, 1,171 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

 

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Are We Living In a Dystopian Novel?

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Literary scholars (of which I am definitely not one) have long debated what the first dystopian novel was.  Some claim it was Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726); others say the honor belongs to either French writer Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863) or British author H.G. Welles' The Time Machine (1895); then there are those who swear the honor belongs to one of two American novel: either Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column (1890) or Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908).  It is likely that some readers of The K.F. Stone Weekly have not yet read - nor heard of - several of these classic works,  and as such, are likely unable to define the term "dystopian." However a brief rendering of some of the most famous novels in the genre - Kafka's The Trial, Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games - should give at least a hint as to the definition of dystopia.  Simply stated, dystopian novels, stories or movie adaptations deal with an imagined future time, place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad - typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. In other words, "dystopia" is the bipolar opposite of "utopia."  

 

In light of the many changes that have radically altered civil society over the past generation or two - and especially since the advent of the Internet - and a populace conditioned to view reality through the lens of "optics" -many of the most dire and frightening predictions of great dystopian novels have come chillingly true.  Consider, if you will, brief summaries of a handful of dystopian novels; the pictures they paint are haunting:

  • The Iron Heel (1908): Focusing on the breakdown of politics in a future American society, Jack London imagines the rise of an oligarchic tyranny which bankrupts the middle classes and rules over its poor subjects with a crass, uncaring iron heel;
  • 1984 (1949): George Orwell creates a highly disturbing future world of "Newspeak," and "Big Brother," in which 2+2=5;  hot is cold, up is down, constant surveillance and a government-controlled media;
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1953): America has become a society in which books are burned and intellectual thought is illegal. Ironically, when first published, Bradbury's book was itself banned for containing "questionable themes";
  • The Drowned World (1962):  A vivid picture of a world irreversibly changed by global warming; the cities of Europe and America lie submerged in tropical lagoons, while a biologist cataloging flora and fauna is beset with strange dreams.
  • The Handmaid's Tale (1998): Set in a totalitarian, post-nuclear world, Christian theocracy has overthrown the US government. Women are forbidden to read, and the few capable of having children are subjugated and forced to serve the wider needs of society by becoming breeding machines.

What makes these - and many, many other - dystopian novels so chillingly, mind-numbing is how closely they approximate the direction American society has been taking over the past several decades.  The rise of cyber reality, untrammeled, self-centered consumerism, instantaneous hand-held communications, creeping authoritarianism, a rising tide of religious and ethnic intolerance, a growing distrust of science, and a penchant for accepting the most outlandish conspiracy theories as reality, has changed society a thousand times over. Today, as in dystopian novels, there exists a sizable plurality which disdains those they view as effete intellectuals, derides those who hold different opinions on matters of race, politics or sexual orientation, and despises those who will not walk in lockstep with their anointed leaders.  These are people who have been conditioned to turning a blind eye toward provable facts, all the while claiming that these facts are nothing more than lies promulgated by elitist elements for their own purposes. 

Of all the many disabilities and outright lies '45, Bannon, Limbaugh, Fox News, conspiracists like Alex Jones and white supremacists like Richard Spencer and David Duke have foisted upon American society, perhaps none is quite so diabolic - or brilliant - as that of "Fake News."  For over the past several years, they have trained and conditioned their Pavlovian followers into believing that anything in print, on the Internet or broadcast over the airwaves which does not jibe with their preconceived notions of reality is a big fat lie; a lie spread by the Fake Media.  This is utterly brilliant.  All '45 or his lieutenants have to do to negate something in the news which questions their facts or veracity is to proclaim that they are part and parcel of the "Fake News" conspiracy. 

Sometimes the Fake News angle goes beyond belief. Take General Jon Kelly's press conference the other day in which he denounced Florida Congressional Representative Fredrecka Wilson  for having given herself credit for the construction of a new FBI building in Miami.  Turns out that a video taken of that event by the Ft. Lauderdale News Sun Sentinel proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Rep. Wilson never said any thing of the sort. Turns out, that according to General Kelly and presidential press secretary Sarah Sanders, the Sun Sentinel video was a hoax; just another example of Fake News being perpetrated by the liberal mainstream media.  

Other examples abound - going back to that which got the future '45 his first political notice: "birtherism."  Polling done during the 2016 election showed that two-thirds of the Trump supporters knew for a fact that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, is to this day a practicing Muslim, and was sent here as a child for the purpose of eventually turning America into an Islamic nation.  Then too, '45's rabid base still "knows" that he scored the "biggest victory" in the history of presidential elections, and had more people attend his inauguration than any president in the modern era.  And how do they know these things when facts, photos and statistics prove them wrong?  Why their fearless leader told them so!

Oy!

And while one can easily respond with "Don't lose too much sleep over it; these crazy people represent far less than a majority," I say this: members of this "crazy plurality" represent some of the most heavily armed people in America.  Whether '45 knows it or not, the people who consciously created this Republican base (the very base which '45 and most of the cowards in Congress spoon feed) have their own frightening, dystopian agenda: to create a Civil War; a conflict which will pit the followers and descendants of the Old South, Joe McCarthy, Charles "America First!" Lindburgh and the Koch Brothers against the descendants of FDR, Kennedy, King and Obama . . . not to mention Richard Hofstadter who, while not a dystopian novelist, did, back in November, 1964, write one of the most important dystopian essays of all time: The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

I for one do not wish to live within the pages of 1984. The Chrysalids or The Running Man. My choices tend towards George Eliot's Middlemarch and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward  where at least idealism still has a chance.

264 days down, 1082 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Witch Hunts and Whiners

  Norman, Norma  & Cousin Mitzi  (c.2008)

  Norman, Norma  & Cousin Mitzi  (c.2008)

About a month ago, '45 began characterizing his many woes as "The single greatest witch hunt of a politician in history"  To say this whine is childish and betrays an appalling ignorance of American history is putting it mildly. Perhaps even worse, it both demeans and utterly trivializes the debasing, life-shortening horrors of the real victims of American witch hunts - from Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba (the first of the so-called "Salem Witches"); to Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Eugene Debs and U.S. Rep. Victor Berger (victims of the post-WWI "Red Scare"  overseen by then-U.S. Attorney General A. MItchell Palmer); to John Garfield, Zero Mostel, Norman Corwin, Norma Barzman, Marsha Hunt and literally hundreds of members of the so-called "Hollywood Blacklist"; to the literally thousands of gay and lesbian government employees whose lives and careers were upended due to Senator Joseph McCarthy's so-called "Lavender Scare." (Eerily, one of the people most responsible for this "scare" was Senator McCarthy's chief counsel, the young Roy Cohn who, it turned out, was himself a closeted gay man and would, many years later, become '45's personal attorney.)

The history, reality and psychological underpinnings of conspiracy theories, witch hunts and blacklists have long been a personal political and academic passion.  Indeed, my senior thesis at University, written more than 45 years ago, researched the impact that McCarthyism had on the 1952 presidential election between Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson and General Dwight David Eisenhower.  Talk about a real drubbing: Republican Eisenhower beat Democrat Stevenson by 6.7 million votes and demolished him in the Electoral College by a margin of 442-89. That year also saw the G.O.P.  recapture both the House and Senate. One big reason for this Republican sweep could be laid at the feet of McCarthy and his "reds under the bed" conspiracy, which Governor Stevenson refused to endorse.  His so-called "effete, Ivy League, blue blood" background (he was a Princeton grad, his paternal grandfather was Vice President of the United States and his maternal great-grandfather had been Abraham Lincoln's campaign manager) did not sit well the majority of American voters. They were in the mood for a witch hunt against anyone who had ever belonged to, supported, or made a donation to a group like "Committee For the First Amendment," "The American Civil Liberties Union," or the "Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions." (HICCASP)

The latter two groups - made up mostly of Hollywood progressives - were the special targets of Senator Joseph McCarthy, California state Senator Jack B. Tenney (who chaired a California version of HUAC and Hollywood film censor extraordinaire. Joseph Breen.  Together, they carried out out one of the nastiest witch hunts in all American history; by comparison, the current '45 imbroglio has as much to do with a real witch hunt as a jug of $10.00 moonshine has to a bottle of Armand de Brignac Brut Rose.  As a Hollywood Brat, I have gotten to know, interview - even befriend - a number of those who were blacklisted and exiled from what was once called "The Land of Mink-Lined Swimming Pools and Plastic Palm Trees."  

For several years, my late cousin Mitzi would invite a group of blacklistees to her house on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills to eat and share memories of times past.  (That's Mitzi in the photograph alongside the legendary Norman Corwin (1910-2011) and screenwriter Norma Barzman, the exiled wife of screenwriter Ben Barzman - best known for the 1948 classic "The Boy With Green Hair."  Now nearly 97, Norma is one of few surviving members of the Hollywood Blacklist. Their senior surviving member, my friend Marsha Hunt, will become, god willing, 100 this coming October 17.  The longtime honorary Mayor of Sherman Oaks, Ms. Hunt still lives in the same house (on the corner of Fulton and Magnolia), just around the corner from ours that she occupied when I was a kid delivering her papers for the now defunct Valley Times.

These artistic souls, along with hundreds and hundreds of their colleagues now deceased - understood the meaning "witch hunt" in a way that our current POTUS could never possibly fathom.  They all woke up one day to find that they were being reviled, hunted down and eventually stripped of every ounce of their creative worth just because certain people claimed they were traitors . . . or sexual deviants.  Most lost their jobs and livelihoods, some actually committed suicide and, if they chose to keep working as actors, directors, cinematographers, choreographers or set designers, had to either leave the country or - if they were screenwriters - to employ a "front" - a person who would put their name on a screenplay for which they had never so much as typed a single letter.  

This, my dear '45, is what a witch hunt is truly like.  These people did not suffer from persecution complexes; nor did they believe that the entire world revolved around them.  They - like the witches of Salem, the Native Americans of America's great heartland or turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe - were subjected to their contemporaneous witch hunts because they were "different," "foreign,"  or had beliefs and ideas that were out of the mainstream.  Then too, they frequently served as convenient scapegoats for ignorant, bigoted, amoral politicians seeking to better their lot in life.  The bulls-eyes were placed on their backs without their knowledge, without their consent, and generally speaking, without due cause.

On the other hand, it is you, Mr. '45, who have put the bulls-eye on your own back - by showing total contempt and disregard for the high office to which you were elected; by being both an enemy of - and stranger to - the truth; by offending far too many decent people and showing far too little concern for anyone or anything which cannot benefit you on a personal level. Yes, you still do have a cadre of  diehard, zealous supporters out there; men, women and children who still believe that everything you say is the god's honest truth and that anyone who disagrees is part of an evil conspiracy meant to bring you down. But please do remember something history teaches: that conspiracies are, far more often than not, built on foundations made of sand . . . and that demagogues are self-deluding builders of sand castles.  Quit whining about witch hunts; you haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about. To paraphrase the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen, "I've known victims of witch hunts; some of them are - or were - friends of mine.  Believe me Mr. T.,  you are no victim of a witch hunt."

Mr. President: might I strongly urge that in place of whining, it might benefit you both personally and politically to engage in the study of history.  It has a lot of revealing things to teach . . . even to someone who thinks he's the smartest kid in the class.

148 days down, 1,309 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone