The Sanity Plea: Trump and His Enablers Must Go

I’d like to offer a very special thanks to my dear friends S. Kelly Gupta, Noam Chomsky, George Polisner, and Dean Baker for offering feedback and promoting my article. Noam, George, and Dean are fantastic activists who tirelessly expose oppression.

Very powerful piece.  And very well documented.  Should have a powerful impact.  I didn’t know about your background.  Gives you a unique perspective to understand what is happening in the evangelical movement, now with quite considerable influence in the US and elsewhere.

Noam Chomsky
California's wildfire issues spark debate about prevention – Daily Democrat
California Burns, Trump Fiddles

Almost four years ago, I formed this blog, in a general sense, to meet the existential challenge of Trump’s seeming upstart electoral college victory; more specifically, I’ve aimed to better inform fellow technologists of the gravity and historical context said threat. We now approach what I consider to be the most important election of my lifetime, likely more important than any election since Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, or even Abraham Lincoln’s ascent to power in 1860. With each passing year of the Trump carnival, the probabilities of descent survival for the species have dwindled: the most recent year confronts us with the most serious challenges of all. No president has ever been so woefully inadequate, lacking of moral fiber, and devoid of understanding in his own policy positions, save reversing the meager but respectable civil rights and social victories gained during Barack Obama’s tenure. Catastrophic climate change ravages the land, with fire in the west, wind and water in the east, and the slow cooker that is becoming the atmosphere offered perhaps the highest temperatures recorded on land since the beginnings of accurate measurement: 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Trump’s own department of transportation concedes that emission standards will, in fact, partially address climate change; and the report’s recommendation? REVERSE all emission restrictions. I daresay I’ve never heard of such omnicidal whimsy from an agency in the government. Denial, yes, but never acknowledgment but insistence in destroying the world. There’s more, as Trump’s regulatory approach monumentally dismisses hard-fought victories by environmentalists and scientists, in some cases continuing the neoliberal program of laying pipeline in indigenous lands, destroying water sources, continuing a long tradition of imperialist violence. I digress.

A pandemic has massacred at least million people worldwide, with 215,000 Americans among them. Eight million Americans are infected, with the most colossally inept American response imaginable. The economy is in ruins thanks to this same ineptitude. And Trump himself pronounces victory in augmentatives one might expect to hear from a demented spoiled child. “Beautiful,” “wonderful,” “terrific,” like the sleaziest used car salesman you might meet. So who is to blame? The twenty percent of the electorate committed to supporting him unconditionally? The congressional republicans, who with little exception have enabled his every whim, despite declaring him to be a con man, fraud, cheat, liar, and so on? The DNC who ran a deeply unpopular candidate in 2016 after shafting the more popular Bernie Sanders, not once, but now TWICE, despite his actively campaigning for their pick once the contest ends? The Russian oligarchs blamed for electioneering? The debtors to whom Trump owes $400M? I’m reminded of an adage–

whom much is given, much will be required

Luke 12:48

I think the answer lies primarily within traditional power centers : concentrations of capital, a political class owned by the capital class, complicit media, and so on. Contextualizing more specifically, I believe the aforementioned neoliberal program, deregulation, and the ensuing dissolution of social and public institutions are responsible for a newfound suspicion of science, the academy, and the like. Not all of the suspicion is unfounded; the academy has left out much of the population, despite some substantive inclusive overtures on the part of university leadership. Anti-science is perhaps more organized than ever before, with a punditocracy and political elites disparaging higher education regularly. Fox News seems endlessly on the case of some liberal professor somewhere publicly dressing down students who support Trump, though one seldom hears the reverse situation. Said aversion to science has crescendoed, with Pew publishing numbers earlier this year suggesting that republicans still just don’t get catastrophic climate change; and neither party’s leadership seems to understand the omnicidal consequences of nuclear proliferation. Either danger is existential, much more so even than the coronavirus pandemic, though only climate cataclysm seems to receive any mainstream press. We’ll do one better here, with one more pass on the economy, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and badly needed affirmation of the better parts of our species. Let’s first “say it like it is,” as a late friend of my late grandmother once said, with a brief discussion of terminology.

Rather than thinking imbecilically “left” and “right,” consider a more nuanced appreciation for policy. In fact, all of these terms: moderates, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians are utterly devoid of meaning. What passes for conservative now is, in many respects, just outer space. Moderates are the conservatives of yesteryear, capable of considering the government and markets to be tools, with suitable roles in day-to-day life. Today’s so-called liberals, as Hillary may be described, is no more than a moderate in disguise. Bernie Sanders is no left-wing crackpot: his policy positions are quite compatible with the mainstream of America’s 1930s and 1940s. But the cartoonish Red Scares in 1917 and 1947 painted thinking people in America, namely socialists (recall, Karl Marx of the eponymous Marxism was a very learned and respected economist) as conspirators with Bolshevism. It’s well-understood that the U.S. government painted Bolshevism the color of socialism to denigrate the latter. Bolshevists accepted the category to legitimize their vicious totalitarianism.

Peaceful Protesters Gassed So Trump Can Do Bible Photo Op
I wonder if his tiny hand burned?

Firearms and Founding Fathers, You Say?

The Economy Was Made Great Again?

Faith-Based Corruption

Racism, Classism, Electioneering, Textualism, and Constitutional Maximalism

Catastrophic Climate Change

Nuclear Proliferation and Omnicide

Pandemonium in a Pandemic

Psychosis and Dementia

Prescription : Democracy

Firearms and Founding Fathers, You Say?

How do we begin to address the nightmarish flow of guns into our schools, parks, and churches? NRA fanatics might be surprised to learn that the organization itself began as a gun safety and use program. Now, with decades of deafening paranoia swirling about an increasingly bankrupt, increasingly unhealthy population, gun rights activists in the so-called mainstream (again, watch for changes in language) argue that a Biden victory will rob them of their God-given right to own countless guns. The latter would be laughable, were it not for the school shooting statistics, fifty-seven times that of the other comparable countries combined–288 for the US versus two in Canada. I’m reminded of Emerson’s hobgoblin when I hear these gun nuts argue that we owe our freedoms to guns, a fantasy promoted even in grammar school when I was a kid. Zinn, recently singled out by Trump in his conspiratorial histrionic denigration of American history teachers, argued powerfully that our freedoms broaden along a trajectory of victory for American labor. If guns played a role, generally they were in the hands of the National Guard, the Pinkertons, and scabs attacking mostly peaceful protests. In any case, the Second Amendment, apparently more sacred than the Ten Commandments, reads that

[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment II

It ought be clear that the amendment doesn’t refer to anarchist gun possession, as the first clause says: “a well regulated Militia.” Then, in Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the Supreme Court held, for the first time ever, that this second amendment magically no longer applies to regulated militias, but rather individual possession. Justices closely huddled with the Federalist Society, a self-described advocacy group for those panicky lone ranger conservatives unhappy with the imagined liberal orthodoxy of the legal profession about them, abandoned their feigned textualism and originalism with a permanent reinterpretation. Textualism, it would seem, served the late Antonin Scalia well, except when it didn’t. As Noam Chomsky often says, if we really want to understand the intent of the Founding Fathers, we can simply read the meeting minutes of the Constitutional Convention, discussed in Klarman’s The Framer’s Coup. Very few Americans would find the motivations to be anything less than repellant, as the U.S. Constitution was an instrument to retain state power for the white, male, landed gentry. The rest of the population, the focus of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, confronted hostility in often horrific ways. Washington, for instance, ordered the slaughter of the Iroquois with the destruction of over forty villages, earning him the title “Town Destroyer,” a moniker he brandished proudly. In any case, no matter one’s interpretation of the second amendment and the more prominently leveraged tenth amendment, firearms of the 1780s could fire only once every fifteen seconds, and that’s if its wielder could reload very quickly. Contrast that with even modern handguns, and it seems impossible to believe the founders would have supported such unrestricted power.

Some People Actually Owned Set is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list Here's What Firearms Looked Like When The Founding Fathers Wrote The Second Amendment
Wikimedia Commons

Trump may believe that American history teachers ought tell only the good stories, and maybe only the good stories are true. I doubt seriously that Trump has ever had any decent historical dressings-down, not that it would matter.

Historical accuracy is essential to democracy–there have been desperately dark days in the history of America, as the continental expansion was a veritable bloodbath in the extirpation and extermination of the indigenous population, the vicious enslavement of Africans, and centuries of oppression of women, other people of color, and homosexuals, a group whose history seldom reaches mainstream press, but enjoys an excellent treatment in Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War. And yet the past six decades exhibit a civilizing of society unlike anything in history. Despite the occasional regression, we’ve made tremendous progress. The eye uncritical of history succumbs to the same tropes, or so the adage goes. Democracy makes sense mostly in the context of a well-informed citizenry, and denying the sins of our forefathers not only betrays the memory of their victims, but the dignity of any station we occupy.

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The Economy Was Made Great Again?

Trump inherited a growing economy still thrumming from considerable state actions undertaken by the Obama administration. I’m no Obama apologist, as I feel his reforms in saving banks and industries rather than workers was a grisly failure, but without federal intervention, the economy would have crashed altogether. Over thirty years of the neoliberal program, capital flight, deregulation, ghastly military misadventures all led to a financial crisis in 2008, a mess left to the democrats to solve. Obama’s administration managed to reverse many of the negative trends, with the introduction of some regulations and an infusion of federal revenue to salvage the financial sector, though neither banker nor broker faced any criminal charges for morally (and ultimately financially) bankrupt damage done. The International Monetary Fund actually assigns profitability of these American banks a number solely based upon the “too big to fail” government insurance policy, ridiculed by serious economists such as Dean Baker.

Trump believes he, and he alone, rescued a tanked economy–he’s simply taking credit for the work of others, and it should be as plain as that. Trump’s psychosis, something to which we’ll return shortly, is perfectly compatible with such a delusion.

More important for my libertarian conservative readers, it bears repeating again and again–the conservative nanny state, so eloquently described by the same economist Dean Baker, is essential in maintaining a robust, technology-driven economy; corporations aren’t naturally occurring agents, but legal fictions, constructed to concentrate wealth further into fewer pockets. Deregulation is a dog-whistle for “socialism for me, capitalism for you.” One cannot point to any dynamic sector of the economy whose interplay with the fed is minimal.

Trump supremely serves as a grotesque exemplar, having suckled from the government’s myriad udders for most of his life, committing likely a litany of financial crimes along the way. Of course, he’s cashed in as president, golfing gazillions of times, expensed foreign dignitaries out of his own hotels, and leveraging his position to sweeten deals with foreign markets into which he heretofore has been unable to seep his wretched corruption. Again, he owes $400M. Could it be money owed to Putin? I very much dislike the Russian interference thread for reasons I’ll describe soon, but it does make one wonder.

As you probably read this, a Manhattan district attorney is preparing a case against Trump of perhaps tremendous significance–can a former president of the United States face jail time for crimes committed? Trump admitted at a recent rally that he may “have to leave the country” if he loses the election. Good riddance, I say. Better yet, run, then face extradition.

The business community, largely behind Trump but hedging for Biden, carries the so-called “national interest,” while the rest of us are “special interests.” The reputable Brookings Institute published income numbers suggesting that the top one percent owns 29% of all wealth in the U.S., more than the middle class combined. The top permille is problematic, draining resources and exploiting labor abroad; Thomas Piketty, renowned French economist, warns that we are fast approaching a economic tipping point, as the majority of wealth will be inherited. In The Disinherited Majority, sociologist Charles Derber editorializes the progressive implications to Piketty’s more facts-and-figures approach in Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century.

Source: Economic Research for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

The bottom line is that the widening economic chasm in this Second Gilded Age leads, not unexpectedly, to disaster. As one can see from the charts above, growing stock market numbers correlate with greater inequality, despite virtually universal claims of the opposite from mainstream press, punditocracy, and politicians. Worse yet, massive debt and no savings has poised the American workforce, the disabled and elderly, and the hopelessly impoverished, for catastrophe now that a recession is fully underway, for reasons to which we’ll return.

The middle class is an aberration in history’s global economy, owing its very life and soul to powerful government intervention in the economy, principally through New Deal legislation promoted by Franklin D. Roosevelt, with staggering public support. And even Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first republican president in twenty years following Roosevelt and Truman, whole-heartedly supported these reforms, going so far as to suggest that opponents of said achievements have no place in the political arena. And these reforms are significantly more liberal than virtually all official policy positions of today’s clintonian Democratic party. If it weren’t for Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, we likely wouldn’t be discussing the visceral cause behind the crumbling economy, the lack of healthcare, overblown and outrageous college tuition, joblessness, and catastrophic climate change–greed. “Greed is good” was a mantra suggested by Michael Douglas’s character in Wall Street, so American we ought emblemize it on the flag. With Trump hugging it, anything is possible.

I’ve heard Christian conservatives argue that 401ks are all that matters, and that capitalism is somehow God’s economic philosophy, a claim which ought ring abominable to true believers. Jesus Christ, the key figure of the faith, was a communist, plain and simple. Unbridled hypocritical capitalism, by contrast, is a vicious dogma decried as such by textile workers of the 1890s, in the tradition of Adam Smith’s “vile maxim“:

[a]ll for our-selves, and nothing for other people.

Wealth of the Nations, Adam Smith

How is this compatible with modern Christianity?

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Faith-Based Corruption

A thread of Trump mania I find most disturbing, yet perhaps retrospectively not surprising is the broad cover and support Trump enjoys from the evangelical movement. The man lies daily in his tweets and interviews, his moral failings are endless, and his fascist rallies conjure the darkest dealings of Weimar Germany. Why am I surprised? Hitler emerged dictator in 1933, welcomed by Germans as a “positive Christian” liberator. Carl Sagan suggests in The Demon-Haunted World that the danger of religion is the fundamental lack of agency into self-inquiry of an existential sort. That is to say, one cannot conduct scientific experiments into religious dogma beyond the purview of historians.

President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and faith leaders say a prayer in the Oval Office in September 2017. Several people have their hands on Trump's shoulders. Most of the people have their eyes closed.
Source: Alex Wong, Getty

Trump’s escapades include paying off porn stars, viciously attacking women, promoting and celebrating racism, taking steps to ban religion (namely Islam), banning transgendered service people from the military, and on and on. Are these truly the values of Christians? My aunt and uncle were traveling evangelists for over thirty years, with a decade of retirement work behind them. They’re still active, but they’re astonished at the support their contemporaries bestow on the most fallen person ever to hold the office of presidency. Many actually have suffered COVID, and yet their support, astonishingly enough, is unflagging. He mocks evangelicals behin closed doors, according to The Atlantic. They pray for him, despite the evil that surrounds him. It isn’t a surprise to me that leading evangelical Jerry Falwell, Jr. has epically tumbled from gauzy grace, embroiled in hilarious sex scandals involving an extra man in his bedroom. Stevens argues in his book that some of the most antigay staffers in republican think tanks are gay themselves, penning histrionic letters to supporters about the dangers homosexuals pose to children. There are too many cases to consider here, but my husband assures me that closeted gays firing their internalized homophobia outward are more dangerous than the run of the mill straight homophobe, as an illusional sexual orientation becomes a fixture of the former’s identity; it’s not to say the latter aren’t dangerous, but the former become more psychologically compromised in their reaction formation.

Returning to the Trumpian evangelicals at large, my uncle argues, convincingly I think, that the doctrine of endless punishment at the very least provides spiritual cover for the aforementioned vulgar promotion of self. Oscar Romero, a Jesuit priest, was murdered in El Salvador in 1980 for promoting in Vatican II and preaching from the pulpit the “preferential option for the poor.” The right-wing dictatorship and its backing by the Carter administration couldn’t tolerate a man so close to the heart of Jesus, an extension of Kissinger’s “contagion to be contained” in the 1973 ouster of Chile’s Allende, or rather democracy. Allende’s ouster and murder on September 11 of that same year is known in South America as the “first nine-eleven.”

I digress further, it seems. I grew up in the evangelical tradition, and save the folks in our circle, it was convenient to place outsiders in the category headed for hell. My uncle observes and promotes universal reconciliation, an increasingly popular doctrine which happened to be the framework for faith of the original church fathers, when the cross represented the poor and the wretched rather than the shield of vicious Roman imperialism, as Chomsky eloquently puts it. How is it possible these people can support Trump? Trump claims to be Christian, complete with hilariously stupid and offensive Bible photo-ops in the midst of having ordered violence upon Black Lives Matter activists protesting the brutal extrajudicial murder of black men and women by police across the nation. He actually says that he has never had to ask God for forgiveness for his sins, a core tenet of the Christian catechism–give me a fucking break! Are these people so inured and starry-eyed that they cannot detect a serpent in their midst? So why should extrajudicial killings bother Trump? He openly calls for violence against black prisoners, and tweets that the fanatics ought “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” no doubt a partial motivation for the recent plot by right wing lunatics to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, namely for the “crime” of restricting social gatherings and school openings to protect Michigans from COVID. In response, Trump simply tweeted what a terrible governor Whitmer is. Apparently, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia also was a possible target of the extremist group. Videos emerged of these folks practicing with their machine guns, posing in ways that would do Hitler proud. QAnon seems to figure prominently, a right wing organization utterly persuaded that pedophiles in the democratic party intend to enslave American whites and destroy Trump. Trump claimed in his recent townhall to know nothing about them, then within two sentences uttering a statement indicative of someone familiar with their work.

Christians are supposed to follow the teachings of tolerance and love, and Trump offers neither in any capacity. He is a crass, vicious, womanizing racist leaving a canyon of human wreckage in the wake of his personal and business dealings, even before becoming president. In the role of chief administrator, he fans the flames of the most dangerous among the religionists, with Islam-based bans, anti-choice jurist appointments, bans on transgendered servicepersons in the military, and on and on; he ridicules these same fanatics behind closed doors, but they are steadfast, now whipped into a frenzy that Joe Biden will ban religion and rise to a position of dictator. Trump, by contrast, is the modern King David, flawed but nonetheless God’s preferred instrument. The lunacy of this comparison is laid bare when we apply Sagan’s earlier critique of religion: most of its manifestations preclude any serious contemplation of God’s will. It rains today, even if my crops drown, because God wills it. A drought is also God’s will, driving thousands to starvation. It also is his tool. Trump is good because they say he is. Why doesn’t this seem to apply to Biden? Or better yet, Obama, a man whose presidency exposed suffocating roots of racism, gnarled and twisted deeply into a nation’s soul.

Personal responsibility has long been the bugle call of the republican party, particularly the religious, as they frequently argue that subjecting oneself to their control endangers one’s soul. And yet Trump’s modus operandi is to accuse the opposition of his own sins, repeatedly and repeatedly. And not just generally. He cites his EXACT transgressions, then casts them upon Biden. It’s astonishing to watch. Trump’s chums in the media, such as bloated Chris Chrystie and creepy Rick Santorum, lap it up, pronouncing Trump the grand victor with a strong case made. I found myself scratching my head thinking, “what case?” It is quite evident that the man cannot tell the truth, yet I hear rumblings that his policies are somehow superior to what the Radical with a capital “r” Biden intends for us. Trump joked that they’d support him even if he shot a person on Fifth Avenue; I’d add that Biden could rescue a bus of orphaned children from being hit by a car on the same avenue, and they’d still hate him. Religious icon Pat Robertson claims that God assured him of Trump’s 2020 victory, and war on Israel will follow shortly, along with an asteroid strike and the conclusion of history. I suppose we should ignore the earlier apocalyptic predictions by this modern-day Nostradamus. It’s astonishing this jack-o’-lantern retains any platform at all, and I suspect if there is a God up there, she dreads the day good old Pat comes knocking.

Jesus himself said it best,

[t]he sons of the world are for their own generation wiser than the children of light.

Luke 16:8

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Racism, Classism, Electioneering, Textualism, and Constitutional Maximalism

Racism in the United States is alive and well. Blacks constitute thirteen percent of the population, yet over half of the hundreds of extrajudicial police killings here are blacks. Forty percent of persons incarcerated in America are black. What explains these skewed numbers? We’ve discussed somewhat the period of Reconstruction subsequent to the Civil War (as though there’s anything civil about war), and how the North-South Compact of 1877 essentially restored the right of states to enslave blacks. I’d refer one to A People’s History, as before, to understand better the period. Jim Crow became the umbrella policy of states hellbent on disenfranchising and torturing the black community, complete with lynching, chain gangs, theft of property, and so on. CNN recently discussed the 1921 massacre of blacks in Tulsa, an event left out of Oklahoma history books. Much of my family originated from the Red River region, about the Texas and Oklahoma border. None of them, to my knowledge, had ever learned about the tragedy, a devastating example of said Jim Crow.

Bragging of the Burn

With the incredible work of black activists, particularly in the 1930s, and with the rather massive deficit for labor following the Second World War, blacks achieved the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, wealthy racist provocateurs have viciously counterattacked the hard-fought gains of blacks, as we’ll discuss more below. Michelle Alexander discusses this second wave of racist policy in The New Jim Crow.

Returning to America’s “first white president,” a label suggested by The Atlantic‘s Ta-Neihisi Coates, Trump bares his ignorance rather astonishingly on October 22: “I am the least racist person in this room,” despite the moderator Kristen Welker being half-black. Biden retorted, much to my delight,

[l]isten to Abraham Lincoln over here… You’re a dog whistle the size of a fog horn.

Joseph Biden

Trump has courted racists with his attacks on black athletes, his insistence of the guilt of the Central Park Five even after a rather clear debunking, he traipses with grotesqueries the like QAnon, Proud Boy, and InfoWars, contradicting his own intelligence agencies by declaring Antifa and so-called “left” wing groups more dangerous than the right wing organizations of which he then pretends to know nothing. He defends white supremacist murderers while assassinating left-wing provocateurs with no trial or arrest, going so far as to brag about the lack of necessity of attempting arrest. Even as I write this, I simply cannot believe my eyes and ears. Extremists plot to kidnap and extrajudicially execute governors, and Trump demands that his followers must “liberate Michigan,” bashing the governor despite the frankly inconceivable cover he provides for psychopaths.

Trump insisted that his accomplishments for the black and brown community dwarf that of any American president, with the possible exception of Lincoln himself; Vox rather strongly suggests the opposite. His business dealings in the 1970s and 1980s were bitterly racist. He tacitly and not-so-tacitly supports white supremacist groups, insists with virtually no proof that Mexicans and others at the southern border are rapists and murderers, insults Black Lives Matter protestors and victims of vicious police killings, outlaws Muslims through travel bans, rips babies from mothers at the southern border, disparages the Chinese because of the origin of COVID, demands suburban women support since he “saved your damn neighborhood” by reversing anti-racist housing orders from the Obama administration, and on and on.

When confronted, true to form, he blames others for the negative aspects of his policy. Further, his appointments to the federal judiciary are far right ideologues determined to eliminate legislation and policy intended the make the life of the voter easier. For instance, SCOTUS ruled just this week that states can bar curbside voting, a method of voting offered in Texas and Alabama to aid elderly and disabled who are concerned about COVID. The majority, led by the usual suspects, offered zero (!) explanation for their decision. Their intent couldn’t be more obvious, if one considers that more voter participation diminishes chances of a republican victory. Further, two of the justices are Trump appointments, and the chief justice John Roberts has long hoped to eliminate the Voting Rights Act, as we’ll discuss below.

Over five decades, the most wealthy magnates among us rallied around the infamous Powell memorandum, assembling rightwing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise, and the Cato Institute. These organizations, along with the aforementioned Federalist Society, have sought through judicial activism and constitutional maximalism to wrest democratic controls away from the remaining population of the country. Rightwing exclusivists faced a crushing defeat with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and, convincingly argued by Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot to be the most significant civil rights piece of legislation in all Americana, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Together with the unusually liberal Warren Supreme Court, these elements of government weakened the influence of the ancestors of today’s antebellum hardball Mitch McConnell, and the suspiciously confirmed bachelor Lindsay Graham, his compatriot Jeff Sessions, and the hysteric from Louisiana, John Kennedy (not to be confused with the political dynasty).

In his newly-released book It Was All a Lie, former Republican strategist Stuart Stevens argues argues, convincingly I believe, that the Republican party faced a crisis of demographics in the 1960s; blacks who managed to overcome the vicious Jim Crow obstacles to the ballot entrusted themselves to the party of Lincoln, not the party of Davis. But the Great Depression broadened the coalition that was the Democratic party, entreating blacks for the very first time. Eleanor Roosevelt secured the black vote while her husband Franklin assured, disingenuously, southern white democrats that reforms on behalf of said blacks would be slight. It turns out that it simply would not have mattered, as the republicans offered no solutions to the economic and ecological crises of the 1930s. Stevens mentions that Barry Goldwater’s refusal to endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cut black votes for republicans to an abysmal seven percent.

Southern democrats, sharply disillusioned by integration of the schools, increasingly successful protests by blacks long denied the franchise, the lack of a clear racist leader outside of Strom Thurmond’s unsuccessful bid for president in 1948, and other artifacts of an increasingly inclusive and open society, found a home in Goldwater’s party.

Nixon cemented this migration with his southern strategy, a program of so-called “law and order,” the far right correspondent to the alarming civil rights gains of the 1960s. Under COINTELPRO, Nixon’s espied and assassinated civil rights leaders, flimsily justified to secure us from vicious Soviet influence. Southern racists approved. By 2000, democrat Al Gore couldn’t carry his own state of Tennessee.

Stevens observes that Goldwater left the Republicans at a fork in the road, one clearly high, the other clearly low. The high road, when confronted by an increasingly diverse electorate, is to broaden the tent, so to speak. The low road is to neutralize the diversity with harmful policy. The Republicans obviously took the low road, and by now, they’re scraping the gutter. I’ve long been aware of voter intimidation and illegal purging of voter rolls, as Katherine Harris infamously purged tens of thousands of black voters from Florida rolls in 2000 for her boss JEB Bush–his brother, affectionately known as W., won the state by 541 votes after the Supreme Court, along ideological lines, illegally halted recounts on a pretext so flimsy they themselves admitted that the legal logic would never apply again. And the highly contentious reading happened in the presence of arch-textualists, or jurists sufficiently self-deluded as to be aware of the mental state of the author of the constitutional words. George W. Bush lost the popular vote, and had recounts proceeded, he would have lost the election. It seems strange to me now that the corporate media refused to inquire whether Katherine Harris had played fast and loose with election law, and that the court’s finding was accepted so swiftly. Within three years, we were embroiled in endless wars in the middle east following the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Though I find nothing plausible in the conspiracy theory that Bush perpetrated the attack, the charge of negligence ought stick. When we learned that Bush and his cronies had lied to us about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (something I knew was a lie at the time, as every reputable intelligence agency, including our own, dutifully reported), media said, “tough shit–at least in three hundred days there will be an election.” By contrast, Gingrich and his raving mad Contract with America impeached Clinton for having an affair with an intern, despite his own ongoing affair with his intern while his wife received chemotherapy. He divorced her in the midst of her illness, marrying his mistress.

In any case, I began digging after my own frustration at the obvious tilted coverage in the media, with journalists posting misleading headlines to minimize Gore’s margin of victory. I even emailed several editorialists around the country, and the response I received was akin to, “Thanks for the interest, kid. Yes, more people intended to vote for Gore than Bush, but if they ruined their ballots, that’s tough shit; never mind we say in the headline, ‘Gore’s Victory in Category X Wasn’t So Hot’.” In doing more research, I eventually discovered the work of investigative reporter Greg Palast, and his most recent book, How Trump Stole the 2020 Election, is a must-read for anyone concerned with the ongoing election. I was aware of Diebold machine malfunctions, the higher percentage of ballot spoilage in machines in poor districts, the unreasonable polling hours, locations, vicious racist gerrymandering, and accessibility, along with the election ALWAYS occurring on a work day, but Palast unearths much, much more. From his perspective, no republican candidate has legitimately won the electoral college or popular vote since George HW Bush’s victory in 1988. And yet six of the nine supreme court justices joining the court over that same period were nominated by republicans; the number will be seven in ten if Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation takes place on McConnell’s timetable; think about that for a moment. Bush Sr.’s term from 1989 to 1993 constitutes 12.5% of the total time since his victory, but the republicans have managed the unthinkable : a 70% control on SCOTUS. The court stole the election in 2000, perfectly down ideological lines, so why not 2020? Trump admitted his plan to petition the court for an election victory, hence the need to replace centrist Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a greenhorn of despicable credentials. A common refrain here would be that I cannot imagine Obama or even Bush W. succeeding in such shenanigans. McConnell and Graham, resolute in their objection to Obama appointing to the high court his selection Merrick Garland so close to an election, that being February of 2016, suddenly offer no apology for fast-tracking Barrett less than five weeks before this election. Even more critical are the hundreds of lower court vacancies left in place by the republican-controlled Senate, intent on delivering those seats to candidates nominated by a republican president. At least the electioneering receives national press now, albeit very late in the game. John Roberts recently ruled with a tied vote that Pennsylvania ought have time to tally votes, yet his career is a crusade to destroy the Voting Rights Act with reckless abandon. Noam Chomsky, Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman, and Palast appeared here together to survey his Palast’s findings.

Congressionally, the game is constitutional maximalism, or the maximal use of constitutional authority according to the letter, but NOT the spirit of the law. McConnell, in his bellowing repugnant drawl, suggests that “divided guhvahmint” was the obstacle then, despite clearly arguing differently at the time. Graham loves the role of hypocrite, having denounced Trump, then declaring himself a Trump lapdog after the sham that was the 2016 election.

So what’s the solution? The court represents an institution of enormous power, with lifetime terms and near unconditional and unchecked determination of the future of American democracy. Sheldon Whitehouse spent his thirty minutes for questions to Barrett instead on presenting the dark money behind a cabal of affluent conservatives hell-bent on owning the court. He makes a compelling case, demonstrating that the coming six-to-three majority is the living dream of corporate America, with increasing hostility to women’s reproductive rights, marriage equality, union and labor interests, the environmental movement, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor; the court is a darling of corporate power, presuming and furthering the doctrine of corporate personhood. Barrett, at the tender age of 48, could serve on the court for four to five more decades, factoring in the near-certain advances in senescence reversal, a lifetime legacy. It’s bad enough that one of Trump’s three nominees, Brett Kavanaugh, was accused of rape by a former classmate, and the republicans skirted the issue, just as they did in the case of Clarence Thomas way back when. Seems fitting that Bush Sr., Thomas, Trump, and Kavanaugh are all men accused of sexual misdeeds. Are they guilty? No one has stopped long enough to credibly try to investigate, and the short answer is that these men of power must ascend, with haste directly proportionate to the crimes alleged.

So what are some solutions to an institution so powerful, unaccountable, and indefinitely kinking the flow of progress? We’ll come to that below. Suffice it to say, enumerating the challenges, existential and otherwise, is nontrivial. For instance, what does our planet look like in 2060, when a Justice Barrett reaches the age of 88? We have some alarming readings in the tea leaves. Maybe there won’t be a world to worry about…

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Catastrophic Climate Change

Since the 1970s, man-made changes to ecosphere have been of increasing interest to scientists, though the precise mechanisms were becoming clear to researchers in the late nineteenth century. It should come as a great surprise that Exxon scientists studied climate warming in the 1970s, only to later bury and disavow the same research. To this day, they deny even the denial, pressing hilariously flimsy critiques of ExxonKnew, the preeminent source of many of the controversies. Al Gore argued decades ago that human-caused climate change could destroy the world, yet no administration in the forty years of very obvious warming trends have seriously heeded the call. Bush Jr. dropped his carbon regulatory promise out of the gate, with no pretext. Obama could have declared climate change a national threat, overriding Congress in allocating monies to build a green infrastructure. Hillary Clinton only took the issues seriously thanks to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Trump is the first person to occupy the White House to deny the science altogether. And yet his department of transportation issued a report admitting that climate change is real, and a byproduct of industrialization, but nonetheless repealed emission standards, conceding defeat literally. In a move so callous and murderous, I cannot imagine the man escaping the International Court of Justice–Trump withholds funds badly needed by California to combat the wildfires, despite California’s significant contribution to federal revenue. He claims, ridiculously, that the fires are the fault of the “forest management” rather than a lack of coherent policy on climate change. I’m reminded of his commentary on the passing of civil rights great John Lewis, as Trump stated multiple times, “he didn’t come to my inauguration.” His commentary here might as well read, “California didn’t vote for me, so I won’t help them.” Trump’s mental state is a topic to which we’ll return. Trump insists that blue states fail in all respects, despite the poorest and nearly reddest states, Mississippi and Kentucky, soaking the federal government tremendously. Stevens says forty percent of Mississippi’s state budget flows directly from Washington. In any case, denialism remains hot in Trump circles, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made climate change poses an existential threat, evinced by myriad models such as this one from MIT‘s own Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

EAPS Temperature Pedictions

We’ve discussed this subject at length in earlier posts, and Skeptical Science, among other organizations tightly survey the longitudinal work by climate scientists. Despite Trump’s cease and desist orders to federal agencies in their reference to climate change in public communiques, important work by the National Oceanographic Association of America (NOAA), NASA, and the EPA is ongoing. Even hawkish components of the federal government, such as the Pentagon and the CIA, connect climate change directly to global security, suggesting in the Worldwide Threat Assessment of 2019 that

[c]limate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. […] Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.

Worldwide Threat Assessment, 2019
California's wildfire issues spark debate about prevention – Daily Democrat
California Burning

Carl Sagan warned of a world in which the fantasy occult fascinate us more than the occult discoverable through science. The original pilot of the television science fiction series Star Trek featured a race of beings so preoccupied with dreams that they “gave up, forgetting how to repair the machines left behind by their ancestors.” In a world of technological wonder, it’s quite miraculous how few of us understand even the basics of the global economy, or where most scientific research dollars come from, or how rural electrification, dams, radio, automobiles, aircraft, the computer, the internet, all deeply transformative technologies, were state-supported ventures. I find myself referring back to history–how can we understand where we are now without knowing where we were?

There is a concerted effort by lobbyists, the corporate stooges holding the leashes of many senators and representatives, to direct misinformation on climate change to the population. The academy has let down the poor and the working class, often siding with the would-be liberal internationalists of the neoliberal program. In the parlance of George Monbiot, we’re missing a narrative to guide us out of the darkness. Ghosts and demons happily assume that vacuum, just as Sagan feared. So the population, goaded by modern day imbecilic Pinkertons such as Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and others, succumbs to the industrialist values of self-loathing and mutual suspicion, finding enemies foreign and domestic, distrusting science, logic, reason, and anything more than bare emotionalism. Powell argued in his memorandum that the ivory intelligentsia has designs on the business community’s private property, and that liberal intellectuals are fueling the radical socialism they place alongside Stalin (then Khrushchev)’s Soviet Russia, a totalitarian state. The hatred of scientists and educators follows a long thread from the southern whites opposed to school integration, increasingly accurate depictions of American history in stark rebuke of the many ideals held dear, such as Aryan purity, misogyny, and ownership of slaves and other property, and finally the critique science, across fields as diverse as sociology, economics, biology, climatology, and ethics, offers for unrestricted capitalism.

The science is clear, though I know educated folks who declare themselves not to be “reactionary” about it, despite the extinction rate currently hovering at one thousand times the usual background rate, wild fires engulfing the west, harsher hurricanes in the southeast, and disasters around the globe increasing. The highest temperature recorded on land, perhaps since 1931, is a 2020 phenomenon: 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley. The smoke and ash from fires have affected my own health, living close to a recent effects earlier, particularly in the northwest when northern California and southern Canada were ablaze. The sun was a blood orange, easily spied by the unprotected eye. Ashes rained on my car, evoking the horror of scenes from Schindler’s List. Instead of Jews and other Nazi victims burning, this time it’s mother nature in the oven, with an ecological holocaust well underway.

The so-called Holocene is officially the sixth extinction event. The science is beyond dispute, yet many still refuse to listen to reason. Time is running out, and it’s possible we’re already beyond the tipping point. Tom Steyer, former candidate hoping for a nomination to be president, became a “green” billionaire by making his company carbon neutral, then leaving private industry to take up the mantle of the climate change. He agreed with Bernie Sanders that a green new deal could provide high paying jobs, revamp our infrastructure, and improve quality of life for all Americans. I see zero evidence to the contrary, and much in their favor. Bernie’s influence has shifted Biden’s platform somewhat toward ecological reform, reform we badly need. The October 22 debate featured a powerful moment : Biden committed to phasing oil out, a policy choice essential to our survival as a species. Trump snapped, “Watch out Texas, Montana,” and on and on. He insisted that our environment had never been cleaner than now, thanks to him. It’s almost silly to bother repeating his more ridiculous claims here, but this speaks strongly to a powerful concern to which I’ll return.

Unfortunately, we face three more extremely dangerous existential threats as we crash into this critical election, the latter two of which finally confirms how dangerous a psychopath he really is.

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Nuclear Proliferation and Omnicide

Nuclear Weapons: A Time-Lapse History - YouTube
Hydrogen bomb test

Nuclear proliferation has long occupied the other side of the extinction coin, with details emerging in more recent years of just how much of a threat the weapons pose. Peace activists such as Dave Swanson argue that first-strike nuclear war, a power reserved by the U.S. and Israel, poses an existential threat, as does war in general. Recently, the King’s Bay Plowshares Seven, an advocacy group of Catholics of conscience, defaced trident nuclear missiles in Georgia, and they received not a word of national media attention. Would that all citizens be so brave as this gentle elderly group of activists.

KBP_group_2_signs_horiz
Plowshares Seven Website

August marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the second world war and securing America as the global superpower, with the Soviet Union a very distant second. In the years to follow, American scientists invented thermonuclear weapons, capable of destructive force many hundreds (and later thousands) of times more powerful than the Fat Man and Little Boy. Development at Los Alamos pressed onward, despite a growing concern that the ensuing reaction of such a bomb would immolate the entirety of the biosphere. Hitler apparently was most displeased at the prospect of a nuclear program under his direction destroying the very world he sought to control; though he envisioned a world free of all the undesirables (to his own vicious tastes), a world uninhabitable left little quarter for Aryans.

Enter Daniel Ellsberg, the renowned dissident, and a former intelligence officer working for the RAND corporation, who released the Pentagon papers, thereby unearthing internal documents revealing true, and nefarious, motivations of the U.S. government’s interest in South Vietnam and the surrounding region–greed. His other, less well-known role was nuclear war planning and preparedness. To his great regret, the largesse of the documents he purloined applicable to the risk of nuclear misadventure were lost to a flood. In any case, he pieced together as much as he could from memory, together with the release of official documentary records, bringing together this and that to write The Doomsday Machine : Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

ellsberg.net

I highly recommend the book, and though I can’t offer a full treatment of it here, suffice it to say that Ellsberg debunks many myths surrounding nuclear weapons, namely

  • the president and ONLY the president can initiate a nuclear attack—any number of levels down the chain actually can launch weapons without explicit orders from above
  • first-strike nuclear war is NOT the U.S. war plan—first-strike has always been a power reserved to the U.S. and Israel
  • nuclear weapons provide suitable deterrence—in reality, almost all military misadventure in the post-war period has involved either the U.S. or the Soviet Union, or both; the weapons seem to embolden rather than dissuade our demons
  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the war—Japan was beaten, ensconced by Allied forces with all supply lines cutoff; the Japanese offered to surrender if they could retain their emperor, an offer turned down by America, then honored after experimenting with the weapons
  • nuclear readiness is tight and secure, with launch codes protected carefully—in many of the stations visited by Ellsberg, codes were posted on the safe door, or the safe remained unlocked
  • denizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only civilians harmed by the bombs—the nuclear tests in the South Pacific destroyed island villages, poisoning the people who lived there (and later the Marines dispatched servicepersons to gather and bury the nuclear waste on Runit Island, withholding the extreme health risks and offering minimal to no protective gear
  • the major existential threat is the force of the bomb itself—it turns out that the more significant threat is the smoke and ash, kicked so far into the atmosphere that precipitation (which coalesces in the troposphere) cannot rain it down, blocking sunlight; enough of this smoke and ash will destroy plant life, unraveling the food chain and leading to mass death, on the order of two-thirds of all humans, likely a conservative estimate
  • we prevented war with the Soviet Union by discouraging their presence in Cuba—in reality, our harassment of three nuclear-armed Soviet submarines in the warm waters of the Caribbean caused two of the three commanders to believe nuclear war was already underway, as each and all already were quite addled by the high temperature since Soviet subs were intended for much colder water; the vote of one Soviet commander staying the itchy trigger fingers of his cohorts, saving all of us
  • war with the Soviets was possible in isolation—in fact, the war planners ALWAYS intended to destroy both the Soviet Union and China simultaneously, with losses they deemed acceptable in Western Europe if the winds were unfavorable

As you can see, this remains an incredibly important issue of our time. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists currently places us one hundred seconds to midnight according to their doomsday clock, the closest we’ve come so far. They plead with world leaders to heed their admonishment:

[h]umanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode–nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Unfortunately, press for nuclear proliferation remains virtually silent. Neither political party commits to nuclear disarmament, and with New START expiring in February of next year, it’s possible neither Russia nor America will feel obliged to slow the stockpile of more and more weapons. As the Bulletin suggests, catastrophic climate change may very well precipitate nuclear war, and thus it is impossible to extricate the two.

Two more global threats confront us, one that didn’t occur to me until this year, the year of COVID.

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Pandemonium in a Pandemic

The Obama administration formed a National Security Council directorate to coordinate with the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health in response to the outbreak of H1N1, a directorate Trump quickly slashed upon entering office. From the beginning of his campaign to the present, he has labored hard at dismantling each and every accomplishment of the Obama administration, from said directorate all the way to the Affordable Care Act, perhaps Obama’s most important legacy and the most progressive piece of legislation passed in a few decades. Trump, as we argued earlier, managed to obtain all but one key vote in the Republican-controlled Senate to dissolve the ACA, his nemesis and fellow republican John McCain refusing his power play. Trump promised to provide a healthcare solution for all Americans, but his tactic rather was to erase the ACA before even formulating a plan, something he still doesn’t have. The truth is, quite likely, that the plan is to have no plan. Poor people don’t deserve to live, so why bother? Trump’s vicious racist housing practices for the poor pocketed him money but wounded the poor he claims to serve.

Now, enter the coronavirus, the most disruptive predicament Americans have faced in a long time. Almost certainly a by-product of factory farming, the zoonotic virus originated in China, quickly covering the earth as travelers spread the respiratory disease. New Zealand seems a model of success in disease response, appropriately and quickly shutting down businesses and public services, save the most critical among them.

Police stand by trucks filled with dead bodies in New York
U’Haul’s in New York serve as hearses

According to investigative reporter Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, Trump’s initial response was to concede the enormous danger behind closed doors but deny the danger publicly. From there, Trump downplayed the dangers, issuing lie after lie, each more outrageous than the last, all from a place of colossally reckless ignorance of the facts. Reading from The Atlantic, one finds Trump blaming Mexico, China, Obama, the democrats, the director Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH’s Allergy and Infectious Disease, and on and on, blaming Obama for leaving him a wrecked medical system, other countries for increasing U.S. fatalities, and issuing baseless claims about the presumed immunity of children and exaggerating how small the risk of death is. Trump seldom dons a mask at his rallies, and few folks in his packed rallies wear masks, and not unexpectedly, outbreaks then occur. Daily cases rise with each bungle and descend with each set of protective measures taken. With a magnanimous flow of misinformation from Trump, a quarter of Americans seem to believe the disease was manufactured to murder us. Some don’t believe the virus is even real.

Source: Worldometer

All told, Trump has plopped his fat ass on his tiny little hands, presiding over the worst public health disaster in living memory. Two hundred and twenty thousand Americans have died. To put things in perspective, as of 2018, the population of my city of residence, Tucson in Arizona, is 545,975. It’s as though my city lost forty percent of its population. Trump is solely responsible for contradicting experts in the government about how to take precautions, he’s responsible for failing to respond, with the inane claim that suicides due to COVID would exceed COVID deaths if the economy remained closed, and he’s denied relief for the millions of Americans now out of work. It’s very difficult to write these words without becoming outraged.

I recently saw a debate clip of Mitch McConnell cackling at Amy McGrath as she lambasted his unwillingness to even bring to committee the stimulus relief packages offered by the House. He’s a ghoulish fiend, basking in the near certitude of reelection in a deeply red state. Trump complains endlessly that the Democrat-controlled House has accomplished nothing, yet they’ve passed over four hundred bills in the past six months, with McConnell joyously sitting on everything, determined to undermine the will of the people.

In the final debate on October 22, Trump reiterated his nothing plan : dismantle the Affordable Care Act with no offered replacement, then somehow believe a plan into being. He’s provided no hints as to what a plan looks like, and he seems to fundamentally not understand that those who lose coverage with the evisceration of Obamacare don’t have an bridge plan while waiting for his “beautiful health care plan” to beam in from the sky.

Again, Trump is a murderer, plain and simple. He understands the cost, and persists with a destructive policy that even infected him, his wife, and his young son. It’s easy from here to address my final concern if we stay the course.

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Psychosis and Dementia

President Trump hugs the American flag at a campaign rally in Tampa, Fla., during the 2016 election.
Has a president ever hugged a flag? Never has a relationship been so one-sided… Tree hugger has served long as an epithet for environmentalist. Is flag hugger the equivalent for a jingoist psychopath?

Stuart Stevens maintains that we can distill the core of republican electorate to a coalescence of rabid sports fans, incapable of tolerating policy differences, and frankly incapable of ever thinking their team should lose. I’m no sports fan, but I’ve been around long enough to know that if a player switches teams, he instantly becomes the enemy to most of the fans of his team of origin; to a fan, category is trivially irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong, sports fans can have at it, and one can concede a useful means of entertainment. But it simply won’t do as a basis for policy and government. So it makes sense to me that Trump contradicts himself and projects his own wrong-doing onto others, principally upon Biden, all the while team Trump and media surrogates, Rick Santorum and Chris Chrystie, declare a victory for Trump in the last debate; it’s astonishing! He described no specific policy on topics raised, instead spending as much time as he could hurling mud at Biden on frankly absurd conspiracy theories. Apparently, fantasies about Biden “golfing more that” Trump carry much more significance than the principal issues of our time : healthcare, race, or climate change. His spectators cheer hysterically, many of whom refusing to wear masks in crowded places. They cheer him on, no matter how ridiculous his claims are. He also accuses Biden of hiding in basements, precisely the thing he’s been doing. It seems like a bad strategy to project one’s culpability onto the opponent, thus drawing attention to the very issue that colors him corrupt, but it isn’t hard to see in the context of a personality disorder. After all, the federal monies necessary to support him in his near weekly golfing, and hosting meetings and dignitaries in his hotels are staggering: he’s visited his properties over five hundred times during his term so far, according to Citizens for Ethics. His basement hiding led to the stunning Bible photo-op, featured earlier, one of the most ridiculous of his myriad missteps. Citizens for Ethics provide a decent list of his conflicts of interest, a number no fewer than 3,400. And he projects these corrosive conflicts onto Biden, laughably enough.

I need no therapy credentials to point to myriad lies (twenty thousand according to the Washington Post and The Guardian), his ugly mistreatment of women, his river of self-congratulations in his intellect, his perfect policies and decisions, and so on, dripping with asinine augmentatives. His obsession with outperforming Obama seems clinically significant, as he regularly issues polls asking whether he or Obama is superior, despite Obama neither being a candidate nor bearing much on this election at all. It began early, with his pressuring his toadies to edit aerial photographs of his inaugural crowd size compared to that of Obama. I suppose if he really wants to beat Obama at something, he’s more vulgar, more offensive, and more hateful.

Moving along to much more critical issues, most of which we’ve already discussed, Trump exhibits a gross disregard for others in his tweeted orders to white supremacists to kidnap and murder governors, as discussed earlier, his vicious border policies, his encouragement of further police violence, his assassination of a suspect Oregon accused of shooting a violent counterprotestor while defending a counterprotestor gunman at a Black Lives Matter protest, his doggedness in scrapping Obamacare with no regard to the massive impact on the poor and disabled, and most seriously of all, if there is a greatest sin of Donald Trump, his colossal mishandling of the coronavirus, a disease at the time of this writing having 8.5 million cases and 223,000 deaths. The man is drowning in the blood of his victims, and these particular victims are Americans.

A term of increasing prominence seems to be narcopath, or a mixture of narcissist and sociopath. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists tend not to arm-chair diagnose, that is, surmise the psychosis of a person not in their professional care, but I’m happy to cosign arm-chair diagnoses and perhaps a mental fitness test for president going forward. According to Business Insider in 2019, 350 psychiatrists and psychologists signed a petition, arguing

[w]e are convinced that, as the time of possible impeachment approaches, Donald Trump has the real potential to become ever more dangerous, a threat to the safety of our nation,

[w]hat makes Donald Trump so dangerous is the brittleness of his sense of worth. Any slight or criticism is experienced as a humiliation and degradation. To cope with the resultant hollow and empty feeling, he reacts with what is referred to as narcissistic rage[,]

[h]e is unable to take responsibility for any error, mistake, or failing. His default in that situation is to blame others and to attack the perceived source of his humiliation. These attacks of narcissistic rage can be brutal and destructive.

Drs. Bandy Lee, a Yale psychiatrist

Suffice it to say, some mental health professionals recognize the gravity of Trump’s psychosis. Chomsky recently referred to Trump as a sociopathic megalomaniac, pointing out quite correctly that ignoring the climate crisis is suicidal. Psychology Today refers to narcissistic personality disorder as a decent explanation for Trump’s grandiosity and utter inability to understand facts or accept responsibility. Trump denies responsibility for permitting so many deaths under COVID, yet he quickly calumniates his opponents with precisely his own sins, such as insisting repeatedly that the Biden family has bilked his political connections for his own financial gain. Biden’s response was perfect: “release your tax returns.” Trump’s dirty financial dealings one day will more fully bask in the cleansing light of criminal prosecution, though even seeing darkly through the glass intimates the truth: Trump is the most corrupt president in American history, contending with the likes of Warren G. Harding, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant. He’s as racist as Andrew Jackson, more crazed than Richard Nixon, and his mishandling of COVID stacks well against Ronald Reagan’s cruel reluctance to research AIDS and the myriad deaths associated therewith. In his fog of grandiosity, Trump actually seems to believe he’s better than everyone and everything. And he’s also a victim of everyone and everything. Narcissistic sociopath, psychopath, pick your poison. Not that it really matters at this point, but whence comes this painted animal?

Trump’s own niece Mary happens to be a psychologist, and she penned a timely memoir aptly titled Too Much and Never Enough : How My Family Created the Most Dangerous Man. She describes Trump as a petulant, whiny, misogynistic womanizer, gripped by voracious avarice and cruel whims. His mother, beset by illness, was cold and distant, while his father Fred was a cruel taskmaster. Perhaps Trump’s psychosis might make sense under the circumstances. Trump has never respected women or minorities, or any one else. Trump’s lurid, disgusting behavior is so well-known in New York City that it wouldn’t surprise me that stories abound of his vulgarity. I know personally a former comedic and restaurant waiter from NYC with such a story, though I’ll not repeat it here.

As though this weren’t alarming enough, it’s worth comparing Trump’s debating chops in 2015 with those of 2020, and one will note a marked deterioration in his verbiage and cognition. I know neurologists who claim he must have some form of dementia, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. He’s obese, he’s 74 years old, and he suffers from an extreme personality disorder. The National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests neuroticism increases while conscientiousness decreases the risk of late life dementia. Does he have it? He’s claimed repeatedly that he can remember five things, then repeat them in order. Is this the bar for the president of the United States? Border collie dogs can remember order of a small number of things. Are they qualified to be president?

A psychotic man on the precipice of dementia, who has already cost us hundreds of thousands of American lives, has access to nuclear codes, and offers according to his self-inflated intuition, as he did in October 22’s debate again, that the virus will go away and we’ll all be wonderful again. Meanwhile, he and Mitch McConnell sit on democratic legislation aimed at helping states and cities. He says it’s all Nancy Pelosi’s fault, despite hundreds of bills receiving the dead-on-arrival stamp from Mitch. When confronted, Mitch just cackles. Why are these people in government? Stevens says it best, admonishing his fellow conservatives:

[w]hat the Republican Party must realize is that it needs America more than America needs the party. And the America it needs is the one that is 320 million Americans and growing, a country of immigrants and less white every day: the real America, not the gauzy Shangri-La of suburban bliss that never existed.

It Was All a Lie by Stuart Stevens

So what can and what should we do about it?

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Prescription : Democracy

No matter the intention of the founders, no matter the wickedness inflicted by man upon others, no matter chaos and horror confronting us now, we have just one answer, and it’s much simpler than we might imagine : democracy. Democracy literally means “common people” and “power,” much like the name of my blog, Scire Populum et Potentiam. The founders never intended it, the framework of our economy and government largely oppose it through institutional stupidity in corporations and exaggerated power in the hands of the Senate, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court. McConnell concedes impending electoral defeat of republican dominance, but brags that installing Amy Cohen Barrett, another right-wing hysteric, to the Supreme Court is a very long term victory. Currently, nine people, serving for life, can make decisions of enormous impact. And they don’t have to offer any justification, as they did in the case described above. The president now, unlike when the Constitution was ratified in 1789, can completely destroy the world, something Trump seems hellbent on doing. The Senate distorts the power of small states, with filibuster rules capable of locking up any meaningful progress the people may wish. Gerrymandering, voter purging, voter intimidation, and the like ensure that likely democratic voters can’t participate. No thinking person can believe any of the aforementioned make for good policy. Magna Carta originated a western tradition of commons, justice, and distributed power.

Magna Carta (British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106).jpg

Both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, for all their many flaws, inched us closer to democracy. Labor movements have pioneered the most free society in recorded history. And yet we still have so far to go.

The Russian interference in the 2016 election is largely known to members of both parties. More alarming to me was repeated tropes about Russia threatening our “democratic norms” and “democratic values,” and our “sacred traditions of democracy.” Utterly preposterous. Electing a man from a selection of two who is almost totally unaccountable to the electorate is NOT democracy. Very little of public will makes its way into top-level decision making. None of these norms are democratic. We must change these norms. If we did the following, our institutions would protect us even if Russia hacked Facebook until Putin and Zuckerberg are green in the face.

Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, writes in On Tyranny : Twenty Lessons for the Twentieth Century several lessons. Mine are similar, but hopefully complementary. Take a look at his book.

  1. Vote for Biden and all Democrats. This couldn’t be more self-explanatory, as Trump and McConnell will otherwise further destroy our country and our world. Don’t accept that polling means you ought not vote. This was likely a factor in Trump’s theft of the office in 2016. Further, vote for democrats up and down the ballot; republicans might insist that local policy is apolitical, yet they provide a mechanism for republicans to organize more effectively. Sure, Biden and I disagree on several policies, and though Bernie’s ideals more closely approximate mine, we disagree on a few things (such as the dispensation of Edward Snowden.) It’s frankly unsophisticated to expect we’ll agree with everything a nominee or candidate offers on her/his political market. Paralyzing cynicism will not suffice to indemnify those of us in more privileged sectors. See the next point.
  2. Assume accountability for our world. Taken from Snyder, we as Americans wield more power than most anyone else in the world. That factor of influence increases dramatically for the technologists amongst us. It’s not enough to surrender responsibility just because the person we didn’t choose happens to win the election. Chomsky correctly points to intellectuals bearing responsibility. I point also to technologists. We have only one earth, and soon we may have none.
  3. Study and listen to science. Become aware of the facts. Find books, like the many I list here, which are largely peer-reviewed and sensible. Scientists study for years and years to become experts. They’re probably not wrong, but the scientific method is the best tool we have in discovery. Catastrophic climate change is real, and our timer has almost buzzed. Nuclear winter could and likely would follow as resources become increasingly scarce in dangerous places. Pakistan and India are both nuclear states, and they both cope with diminishing fresh water flowing from Kashmir.
  4. Learn our history in all its many dimensions. My high school American history course concluded with the atomic bomb in 1945, despite my taking the course in 1995. Pat Ledbetter, now a candidate for the Texas senate, taught me so much more in college. She transformed my perspective. We’re accountable for our history. Blaming others for their problems when our ancestors, and thus we ourselves, have benefitted tremendously from their enslavement, both before and after the Civil War. Read A People’s History. Read Chomsky’s How the World Works. Learn about Israel/Palestine. Watch Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. Read Palast’s articles and reports on voter disenfranchisement; no matter your position on the spectrum, you cannot support simultaneously democracy and the horrific and illegal purge and intimidation of voters documented in his works. Democracy Now offers a marvelous reading list.
  5. Learn economics. Unlike theoretical economics, a field obsessed with implausibly simple game models, the real story is much simpler. Read Piketty, Baker, Derber, Chomsky, Monbiot, Robert Reich, and so on. Good data exists. Corporations and their public relations surrogates thrive in darkness. Anticommunist tropes abound, but America is much more socialistic than is understood. We’ve discussed this topic extensively in past posts. Understand when markets work and when they don’t. Read The Conservative Nanny State. Let’s illuminate the absurd; it may wail and gnash, but it’ll wither and die in the presence of knowledge.
  6. Talk to black friends about racism. Understand the talk black parents have always given their kids to protect them from racially-motivated violence, particularly by police. Talking to them openly about their concerns will stun you. Take Harvard’s racism and bias test. You’ll be surprised and disappointed, likely. Research slavery, Jim Crow, the chain gangs, and the vital role enslaved blacks played in the oft-celebrated industrial revolution.
  7. Celebrate pacifists rather than warriors. War is unnatural, according to peace activist and philosopher David Swanson. We celebrate murderers with statues and icons and holidays, but how many national holidays celebrate something unrelated to religion or war? Labor Day comes to mind. Read Dave’s works, and support him in his activism. What he has to say will blow your mind.
  8. Pressure Biden to support the Green New Deal. Our future hangs in the balance. A Biden victory is insufficient to guarantee good policy. Obama could have declared climate change a national emergency, circumventing any hostile obstructionist congresspersons in addressing the problem. Biden can do the same.
  9. Pressure Biden to support Medicare for All. A public option is an excellent step, but expanding Medicare to all Americans, permitting some to opt out if they like their private insurance, is easily accomplished with a slight tax, a tax tremendously lower than current premiums. I hear the refrain of anecdotal failures in Britain, New Zealand, and the like, but the failures in our own system are far worse, well-documented in Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko. We can have as good a system as we demand; nothing is free, including democracy.
  10. Pressure Biden to commit to nuclear disarmament treaties. We’re facing, below the media surface, incredible danger from nuclear weapons; pressure, pressure, pressure.
  11. Demand funding for education. Educators are suffering terribly, and this economic stress long precedes the pandemic. I believe educators are among the most important people in our society, as they shape the youth, safeguard science, and research the universe around us to expand our global consciousness and conscience. My heart and love go to out to E. Clyde Yeatts, Dr. Pat Ledbetter, Joybell Schalk, Dr. Gerald McDaniel, Dr. David Jorgensen, Dr. Michaela Vancliff, Dr. Venkateswaran, Dr. Santosh Pande, Dr. Lance Fortnow, Dr. Guy Lebanon, Dr. Ashok Goel, Dr. Danny Dyer, Dr. Tie Luo, Dr. Moysey Brio, Dr. Joe Watkins, Dr. Misha Chertkov, and Dr. Noam Chomsky.
  12. Demand infrastructure reform by American industry. Our auto technicians, fracking and oil engineers, and anyone potentially displaced by sane climate policy can easily be retrained to design and build high speed rail, badly needed. They also can engineer clean energy solutions.
  13. Call your representative and senators. They’re yours. Call them everyday. Get others to do the same. Make it part of your routine. Write emails, letters, and so on. You’ll be surprised how many friends you’ll find around you with similar inclinations.
  14. Organize peacefully. A Biden victory won’t assure us of anything more than restoring sanity to the executive office. We must organize with petitions and protests to compel and coerce his administration and Congress to fight for us, including economic and social justice, and civility. Democracy, like most objectives, is largely a local phenomenon. You can organize to get a traffic light put up, or you can organize to end the Muslim ban. America, at least for now, offers freedom of speech, perhaps the most important freedom of all. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau depict civil disobedience quite well. Leverage the advantages afforded to us. Trump and his predecessors have often punished and sometimes violently attacked peaceful protests. It takes courage. The next two suggestions makes this a little easier.
  15. Cultivate a robust private life. Appropriating this from Snyder, a healthy inner circle is a refuge, or at least it has been for me. I love my family here in Arizona, and I owe them my life.
  16. Reach out and talk to each other. Our people are highly atomized, now so worse because of the pandemic. Americans are brave and believe in democracy, but we don’t know each other. For centuries, exchange programs have existed to acquaint students with new places in sister city reciprocity. Americans need to talk to each other. It’s not enough to blame others. Reaching out begins with me, today. I’ve almost never failed to engage another in talk; we’re social animals, badly in need of each other, now more than ever. The old admonishment to avoid religion and politics in discourse I believe is at least half wrong: politics determine our national and cultural norms, and we should have the courage to discuss them with each other. I suspect we’ll discover we have more in common than not. Virtually all of the aforementioned are topics we can discuss with anyone. I’ve spoken with hundreds of working class people through the years, and no matter the age difference, they listen in child-like wonderment when you demonstrate a deep knowledge of the history.

To this list, I’d like to propose loftier but still achievable deep and specific structural changes.

  1. Automatically register all citizens to vote. One has to be either an imbecile or a fascist to disagree with this. Every citizen has a social security number issued through the federal government. One person, one vote seems rather obvious.
  2. Migrate voting to the internet once and for all. We entrust security protocols online to safeguard our medical records, our banking, our mail records, our online purchases, and our genealogy in many cases. How would this be any less safe? This would eliminate most of the means by which thuggish republican officials have tried to disenfranchise Americans. The reasons so many are early voting in this cycle distill to fear of COVID and concerns about irregularities barring them from voting on election day proper. Currently, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas permit no voting by mail, an outrageous restriction. It’s time for an election overhaul.
  3. Dissolve the Electoral College. This is a no-brainer. The electoral college’s only purpose was to ensure that a demigod couldn’t become president. They failed. More importantly, they’re undemocratic, rendering it possible for men to win elections without the popular vote. Then the media and the government celebrate this as the “will of the people.” Give me a fucking break.
  4. Weaken SCOTUS and POTUS. Among the programs we should seek are significant reductions in the power of SCOTUS and POTUS. The president is an administrator, not a dictator. Yet he can act unilaterally in opposition of the will of the people whenever he likes, with only a few constraints. They have no business making decisions more powerful and significant than COTUS, the Congress. Said Congress has ceded power, in some cases gradual, others rather incredible, to POTUS in the post war period. For instance, they’ve not declared war officially since Pearl Harbor, though we’ve been embroiled in war in all the years following 1945; POTUS has deemed these skirmishes necessary, for one reason or another. Further, it’s expected now, across the ideological spectrum, that POTUS set the legislative agenda for his term, despite this clearly being the Constitutional responsibility of COTUS. Why? My own interpretation is dark: Congresspersons would prefer not bearing responsibility for controversy, as this is tantamount to forfeiture of one’s political livelihood.
  5. Institute term limits. We’ve already suggested this for members of SCOTUS. If representatives remain in the House for a fixed upper limit of terms, it follows that long-term political survivability will no longer influence their judgment. Of course, the risk is that they no longer have to consider the will of the people, at least during their final term. This is easily rectified with a weighted voting system, or the recognition that one’s political party may not retain power otherwise. In any case, it seems clear that evergreening political terms has partially led to broken government. And that leads to the next point.
  6. Cut dark money and PACs out by federally funding elections. Following a long tradition of empowering corporations by the preposterous bestowal of personhood, a gushing river of dark money strangles nearly every piece of government in America. Citizens United may be one of the latest court decisions permitting limitless, unaccountable money to sway campaigns and lobbies, but the full story begins much earlier: the court held, rather incredibly, in 1886 in Santa Clara County v. South Pacific Railroad Co. that corporations ought receive equal protection under the eponymous clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The SUN PAC decision in 1975 solidified means by which corporations can influence election, formalizing the legality of the political action committee. More recent cases protect corporations under the first amendment, such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., protecting their “right” to restrict healthcare options based upon the company’s religion. I’ve never seen a company in church, but then again, stranger things have happened. In any case, we could easily solve much of this quagmire through federal funding of elections.
  7. Broaden the House. The House of Representatives is the most democratic part of the federal government. 436 people can’t represent 330 million. It’s just ludicrous. We need a representative for every thousand people, with a hierarchical house. You should get to know your representative personally.
  8. Eliminate the Senate. The Senate serves no obvious purpose, other than to retard democracy. Popular bills aren’t while unpopular ones are passed. The Senate distorts the power of smaller states. They complain that they’ll receive no representation otherwise. I could say the same thing about myself. I’m only one person. Why doesn’t my vote count ten times as much as yours?
  9. Add many more referenda to federal and state ballots. More people vote when referenda appear on the ballot. More to the objective of democracy, people can actually decide policy rather than vote for a surrogate who will or will not (and more often don’t) carry out the design of the voters. Wouldn’t it have been nice to prevent the Iraq War, or to ensure that Americans crushed by the financial crisis in 2008 receive a bailout rather than the avaricious banks? Americans would feel greater accountability if we could sway policy.

I’ll close with a quote from Sagan.

File:Earth from Space.jpg

Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

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Algo-Stats Special : On the Responsibilities of Technologists

In April of last year, I wrote a piece on the growing crisis in the misapplications of technology in my line of work: algorithms, machine learning, optimization, and data science.  It seems appropriate to include the discussion here on my activist blog.



Slagle, N.P. “On the Responsibility of Technologists : A Prologue and Primer,” Algo-Stats, 2018-04-15.

A special thank you to S. Kelly Gupta for invaluable suggestions, and to George Polisner and Noam Chomsky for taking the time to read an earlier draft and offer encouraging feedback.

A Casting Call for the Conscientious Data Practitioner

For some time now, I’ve planned on writing an article about the very serious risks posed by my trade of choice, data science.  And with each passing day, new mishaps, events, and pratfalls delay publishing, as the story evolves even as I write this.  For instance,  Mark Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, sporting a smart suit and a booster seat ostensibly to improve morale.  Though some interesting topics came up, the discussion was routine, with the requisite fear-mongering from Ted Cruz, the bumbling Orrin Hatch asking how money comes from free things (apparently he forgot to ask Trump about withholding pay from blue-collar contractors), and a few more serious people asking about Cambridge Analytica, such as Kamala Harris querying the lengthy delay in Facebook notifying users of Cambridge, and, surprisingly, John Kennedy panning Facebook’s user agreement as “CYA” nonsense.

The tired, public relations newspeak of the mythical well-meaning, self-regulating corporations accompanies happily the vague acknowledgements of responsibility around certain things we heard from Zuckerberg, along with references to proprietary and thus unknowable strategies almost in place.  And though I doubt Congress in its current state can impose any reasonable regulations, nor would those in charge be capable of formulating anything short of a lobbyist’s Christmas list, my intention here is to argue for something more substantial : a dialog must begin among technologists, particularly data practitioners, about the proper role of the constructs we wield, as those constructs are powerful and dangerous.  And it isn’t just because a Russian oligarch might want Donald Trump to be president, or because financial institutions happily risk economic collapse at the opportunity to make a few bucks; data has the power to confer near omnipotence to the state, generate rapid, vast capital for a narrow few at expense of the many, and provide a scientifically-sanctioned cudgel to pound the impoverished and the vulnerable.  Malignant actors persist and abound, but complacency among the vast cadre of well-intentioned technologists reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s discussion of the “white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”  So I must clarify that I’m writing not to the bad people who already understand quite well the stakes, but to my fellow conscientious practitioners, particularly those among us who fear consequences to career or suffer under the peculiar delusion that we have no power.  Consequences are real, but  we as technologists wield great power, and that power is more than additive when we work together.  The United States is unusually free, perhaps in the whole of human history, in that we can freely express almost any idea with little or no legal ramification.  Let’s use that freedom together.

A Lasting Legacy : Power and Responsibility

Fifty-one years ago last February, Noam Chomsky authored a prescient manifesto admonishing his fellow intellectuals to wield the might and freedom they enjoy to expose misdeeds and lies of the state.  Much of his discussion dwells on the flagrant dishonesty of particular actors as their public pronouncements evolved throughout the heinous crime that is the Vietnam War, and in more recent discussions, such as those appearing in Boston Review in 2011, describe the significant divide between intellectuals stumping for statism versus the occasional Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg, and Bertrand Russell:

The question resonates through
the ages, in one or another
form, and today offers a
framework for determining the
“responsibility of intellectuals.”
The phrase is ambiguous: does it
refer to intellectuals’ moral
responsibility as decent human
beings in a position to use their
privilege and status to advance
the causes of freedom, justice,
mercy, peace, and other such
sentimental concerns? Or does it
refer to the role they are expected
to play, serving, not derogating,
leadership and established institutions?

We technologists, a flavor of intellectuals, have ascended within existing institutions rapidly, for fairly obvious reasons.  More specifically, those of us in data science are enjoying a bonanza of opportunities, as institutions readily hire us in record numbers to sort out their data needs, uniformly across the public, private, good, bad, large, small dimensions.  We’re inheriting remarkable power and authority, and we ought approach it with respect and conscience.  Data, though profoundly beneficial and dangerous, is still just a tool whose moral value is something we as its priesthood, if you will, can and ought determine.  Chomsky’s example succinctly captures how we should view it :

Technology is basically neutral.
It's kind of like a hammer.
The hammer doesn't care whether
you use it to build a house or
crush somebody's skull.

We can ascribe more nuance, with mixed results.

Data is Good? Evidence Abounds

I suspect I’m preaching to the choir if I remark on the impressive array of accomplishments made possible by data and corresponding analyses.  I believe the successes are immense and plentiful, and little investigative rigor is necessary here in the world of high tech to note how our lives are bettered by information technology.  Woven throughout the many successes, more subtly to the untrained eye than I or similar purists would prefer, is statistics, and the ensuing sexy taxonomy of machine learning, big data, analytics, and myriad other newfangled neologisms.  The study of random phenomena has made much of this possible, and I’d invite eager readers to take a look at C.R. Rao’s survey of such studies in Statistics and Truth.

I’m in this trade because I love it, I love science, I love technology, I love what it can do for you and me, and I’m in a fantastic toyland which I never want to leave.  So I must be very clear that I am no Luddite, nor would I advocate, except in narrow cases (see below), technological regression; the universal utility of much of what has emerged from human ingenuity has served to lengthen my life, afford me time to do the work I want, and make me comfortable.  Though the utility is so far very unevenly shared, I do believe we’ve made tremendous progress, and the potential is limitless.  So I’d entreat the reader potentially resistant to these ideas to brandish Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” then judge for oneself.  My primary objective here is to begin a dialog.  Now for some of the hard stuff.

Data is Bad? There is Evil, and There Are Malignant Actors

Evils of technology also are innumerable, as the very large, growing contingency of victims of drone attacks, guns, bombs, nuclear attacks and accidents, war in general, and so on, will attest.  Surveying the risks of technology leaves the current scope long behind, but it’s worth paying attention to the malignant consequences of runaway technology.  I’ll be reviewing Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine on my other blog soon; suffice it to say the book is good, the story is awful.  The book is a sobering, meticulous analysis of the most dangerous technology ever created, and how reckless and stupid planners were in safeguarding said technology.   Here, we’ll stick just to problems arising from bad data science, and the bad actors, be it ideologues, the avaricious, the careless, or the malevolent.

We ought consider momentarily the current state of affairs : Taylor Armerding of CSO compiled the greatest breaches of the current century, attempting to quantify the damage done in each case.  Since the publication of his summary, the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal has emerged, sketching a broad “psychographic” campaign to manipulate users into surrendering priceless data and fomenting discord.  Quite dramatically, a 2016 memo leaked from within Facebook shows executive Andrew Bosworth quipping,

In other words, “don’t bother washing the blood off your money as you give it to us.”  Slate offers an interesting indictment on the business model that has rendered the exigencies of data theft, content pollution, and societal discord concrete, imminent contingencies.  And most recently, Forbes reports that an LGBT dating app called Grindr apparently permits backdoor acquisition of highly sensitive user data, endangering users and betraying their physical location.  And the first reported fatality due to driverless technology deployed by Uber occurred in Arizona this month, generating a frenzy of concerns around the safety and appropriateness of committing these vehicles into the public transportation grid.  The reaction I noted on the one social media platform I use, LinkedIn, was tepid, ranging from despairing emoticons to flagrant, arrogant pronouncements that this is the cost of the technology.  I also observed a peculiar response to those unhappy about the lack of security around user data : blame the victims.  The responses vary from the above declaration of cost of convenience to disdain for the lowly users in need of rescue from boredom, discussed by one employee of Gartner, a research firm :

let's be honest about
one thing: we all agree that
we give up a significant part
of our privacy when we decide
to create an account on Facebook[;]
[w]e exchange a part of our private
life for a free application that
prevents us from being bored most
time of the day.

I’d refer this person to Bosworth’s memorandum, though he, like CNN in 2010, likely hadn’t seen it before venturing such drivel.  I interpreted their argument as a public relations vanguard aimed at corporate indemnification.  Certainly, an alarming number of terms and conditions agreements aim to curtail class action lawsuits and, where legal, eliminate all redress through the court system.  On its face, this sounds ludicrous, as the court system is precisely the public apparatus for resolving civil disputes.  Arbitration somehow is a thing, with Heritage and concentrations of private power reliably defending it as freer than the public infrastructure over which citizens exercise some control, however meager.   Sheer genius is necessary to read

[n]o one is forced into arbitration[;]
[t]o begin with, arbitration is not
“forced” on consumers[...] [a]n obvious
point is that “no one forces an
individual to sign a contract[,]”

and interpret it any other way than that the freedom to live without technology is a desirable, or even plausible arrangement; Captain Fantasticanyone?

Maybe it’s a question of volume, as catechismic, shrill chanting that we have no privacy eventually compels educated people write the utter nonsense above.  If one were to advance the argument further, it’s akin to blaming the victims of the engineering flaws in Ford’s Pinto; after all, the car rescues the lower strata of society from having to walk or taxi everywhere they want to go, and death by known engineering flaws is the cost of doing business.  The arrogance evokes Project SCUM, the internal designation for a marketing campaign tobacco giant Camel aimed at gays and the homeless in San Francisco in the 1990s.

Governments cause even greater harm, exhibited in Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on the NSA’s pet project to spy on you and me, code-named PRISM.  Comparably disconcerting, Science Alert reported this week that the development of drone technology leaving target acquisition in the control of artificial intelligence is almost complete, meaning drones can murder people using inscrutable and ultimately unaccountable data models.  State-of-the-art robotic vision mistakes dogs for blueberry muffins in anywhere from one to ten percent of static images analyzed, depending on the neural network model, meaning a drone aiming at a muffin would destroy one to ten percent of the dogs mistaken, and this is training on static imagery!  Imagine the difficulties in a dynamic field-of-view with exceedingly narrow time windows necessary to overcome errors.  Human-controlled drones already represent enormous controversy, operating largely in secret without legislative or judicial review under the direction of the executive branch of the American government.  Who must answer for a runaway fleet of drones?  What if they’re hijacked?

More locally, Guardian recently unmasked the racist facial recognition models deployed by law enforcement agencies, bemoaning the existence of “unregulated algorithms.”  I’d wager the capability to reverse-engineer a machine learning model to steal private data receives great attention among adversarial actors and private corporations.  I can remember in my first job many years ago being in a discussion over an accidental leak of a few lines of FORTRAN to a subcontractor, to which I naively queried, “Why are we in business with someone we think would steal from us?”  A manager calmly replied that anyone and everyone would steal, and in any way they can.  Maybe it’s true, but I’d like to believe there’s more to countervailing passive resistance than meets the eye.  In any case, data science and artificial technology are tools co-opted for sinister and dangerous purposes, and we ought try to remember that.

Data is Ugly? Errors and Injustice, Manned and Unmanned

Data needs no bad actor or vicious intent to be misleading.  Rao refers to numerous unintentional examples of data misuse within the scientific record, peppered throughout the works of luminaries such as Gregor Mendel, Isaac Newton, Galilei Galileo, John Dalton, and Robert Millikan, as documented by geneticist  J.B.S. Haldane and Broad and Wade’s Betrayers of the Truth.  For instance, the precision Newton provided for the gravitational constant is well beyond his capacity to measure, and Mendel’s genetic models could explain the recorded data only with astronomical probability, suggesting either transcription errors or blatant cherrypicking.  Rao notes

[w]hen a scientist was
convinced of his theory,
there was a temptation to
look for "facts" or distort
facts to fit the theory[; t]he
concept of agreement with theory
within acceptable margins of
error did not exist until the
statistical methodology of 
testing of hypotheses was
developed.

That is, statistical illiteracy can only compound the problem of “fixing intelligence and facts around the policy,” to paraphrase the infamous Downing Street Memo.

Statistical literacy doesn’t guarantee good outcomes, even with honest representation.  Data can reinforce wretched social outcomes by identifying the results of similar failed policies of the past.  For instance, everyone knows African Americans are more likely to be harassed by police.  Thus, they’re more likely to be arrested, indicted, charged, and convicted of crimes.  Machine learning algorithms identify outcomes and race as significantly interdependent, and new policy dictates that police should carefully monitor these same people.   Asking why we ought trust an inscrutable model is unmentionable, reminding me that earlier propagandists invoked the “will of God” as justification for slavery, and later, the “free market” requires that some people be so poor that they starve.  Maybe elites always require some ethereal reason for the suffering we permit to pass in silence.  Anecdotally on racism, a myopic cohort once pronounced triumphantly to me that racists aren’t basing their prejudice on skin color, but on other features correlated with skin color.  The Ouroboros, or some idiotic variant, comes to mind.

Weapons of Math Destruction : Destructive Models

Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs) ponders such undesirable social outcomes of big data crippling the poor and the disadvantaged.  Within the trade, dumb money describes the proceeds mined and fleeced from vulnerable populations.  The money poor people have ranges from real estate to be reverse-mortgaged, poverty and veteran status to leverage for education grants and loans, desperation of the poor in the form of title loans, payday loans, and other highly destructive financial arrangements.  Myriad examples of startups and firms abound, from for-profit online education firms like Vatterott and Corinthian Colleges targeting veterans and the poor to cash in on student loans, and their enabling advertising firms such as Neutron Interactive post fake job ads to cull poor people’s phone numbers to blast them with exaggerated ads.  Thinktank Learning, and similar firms model student success, helping universities and colleges game the U.S. News and World Report ranking system, a perfect example of a WMD.  Comstat and Hunchlab help resource-starved police departments profile citizens based on geography, mixing nuisance crimes with the more violent variant and strengthening racial stereotypes.  Courts rely now on opaque models to assess risk of convicts, determining sentences accordingly, according to a piece in Wired last year.  Ought we understand the reasons why two criminals convicted of the same crime receive different sentences?  The book is very much worth a read.  Her own journey is revealing, having been an analyst at D.E. Shaw around the time of the market crash.

Data has accumulated over the years that ETS’s prized Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a test required for candidacy in most American graduate programs,

  • has disproportionately favored the white, the rich, and the male, (sounds like a WASP daytime drama),
  • may not be all that useful for prediction, and
  • operates in darkness, inscrutably like many such “psycho-social” metrics.

My own personal experience with the examination is kind of interesting and comical : I’m apparently incapable of writing.  Being a south paw, my penmanship is atrocious, but I seem to remember having typed the essay… Kidding aside, acquiring feedback from them was impossible, and they led me to believe that the essay receives grades via an electronic proofreader.  I guess no one remained who could interpret the algorithm’s outputs.

A more serious question O’Neil raises is that machine learning models suffer many of the same biases and preferences born by their architects; I think of ETS reinforcing malignant stereotypes, a kind of “graduate ethnic cleansing.”  Algorithms running for Title Max target the poor, making them poorer still.  More seriously, what are these models trying to optimize, and is it desirable behavior?

The Problem of Proxies

O’Neil offers that part of the problem with building opaque data models to inform real world decisions is that the real world objective we’d like to improve is poorly proxied: unsuitable substitutes seem to be hogging the constraints.  For instance, how can an algorithm quantify whether a person is happy?  Happiness is something we all seem to understand (or think we do), and we can generally spot it or its shaded counterpart with little effort.  Millions of years have chiseled, then kneaded the gentle ridges of the prefrontal cortex to lasting import.  Algorithms might read any number of interesting features, and unlike consciousness itself, I suspect happiness, or at least its biological underpinnings, is something an algorithm could predict, but any definition suffers limitations.  My earliest intuitions in mathematics led me to believe that any state can be reproduced with sufficient insight into the operating principles.  Though the academy has largely reinforced what I used to call the “dice theory” (and I was all-too-proud to have dreamed it up myself), Galileo lamented centuries ago, as have others more recently, including Hume, Bertrand, and Chomsky, that the mechanical philosophy simply isn’t tenable.  More narrowly, we may be incapable as we are now to effectively proxy very important soft science social metrics.  I believe misunderstanding this may be fueling the insatiable appetite of start-up funding for applications lengthening prison sentences, undercutting college applicants, burdening teachers with arbitrary, easily falsified standards, bankrupting the poor, and harassing and profiling the most vulnerable.  Is society better off with young black men fearing to walk the street at night with the justified concern of being murdered?

A striking example of poor proxying is invoking the stock market as the barometer of the economy.  And this is something I see in social media time and time again.  Missing from the euphoria is that for nearly fifty years, the Gini index is positively correlated with the S&P 500, the former measuring economic inequality and the latter indexing the “health” of the stock market.  That is, as the stock market becomes healthier, the distribution of the money supply drifts away from the uniform.  Not coincidentally, this behavior seems to begin right around Nixon shock, or the deregulation of finance and the dismantling of Bretton-Woods.  In his 2004 book The Conservative Nanny State, economist Dean Baker discusses “perverse incentives” in maximizing incorrect proxies in patent trolling, wasteful copycat drug development, and the like.  The U.S. Constitution guarantees copyright protection to promote development of science, contravened by wasting sixty percent of research and development money on marketing and replicated research.

Even in a more seemingly innocuous setting, say social media, do we see deep problems in proxies.  Shares and likes become the currency of interaction, and social desirability need not interfere for most.  I’ve noticed in my own experiences in writing comments online that a frenetic vigilance overcomes me if I feel I’ve been misunderstood or have given the wrong sort of offense, as I’m (perhaps pathologically) hardwired to care about the feelings of others.  By interacting online rather than in-person, a host of nonverbal cues and information are absent, forcing us to rely on very weak proxies.  Psychology Today touched on this in 2014, and I suspect the growing body of evidence that flitting, vapid interactions online are damaging social intelligence demonstrates that the atomization of American culture is in no way served by social media.

Admittedly, the story seems dire, but belying the deafening silence is a groundswell of conscientious practitioners, fragmented and diffuse, but pervasive and circumspect.

The Courage to Speak

When I discuss any of the above with cohorts privately, a very large fraction agree on the dangers of misusing this technology; reflexive is incorrect habituated resignation, especially in America where illusory impotence reigns supreme. And so I see very little in the way of commentary on these issues from tradespersons themselves, though a handful from my network are reliable in discussing controversy.  Perhaps the psychology is simpler : is it fear of blowback and risks to career of the kind Eugene Gu is experiencing with Vanderbilt?  Certainly even popular athletes face blacklisting, Colin Kaepernick being an exemplar.  Speaking out is risky, but silence strengthens what Chomsky calls “institutional stupidity“, of which some of the above quotes embody.

The point I’m trying to drive home is that the responsibility of we the technologists demands an end to controversy aversion; we simply MUST begin talking about what we do.  Make no mistake, the ensuing void of silence emboldens demagoguery in malignant actors, such as the aforementioned projections on unmanned, computer-controlled drone warfare, further deterioration of the criminal justice system, exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, and wrecking the global economic system.  Further, refusing to speak out assures a platform for desperately irresponsible, dangerous responses of blaming or ridiculing the victims, a sort of grinding salt in the wounds.  Consider the extreme variant of the latter : Rick Santorum, Republican brain trust, has sagely admonished school shooting survivors to learn CPR rather than protest and organize to demand safety, and Laura Ingraham, shrill, imbecilic Fox host, has gleefully tweeted juvenile insults at one of the outspoken survivors.  Why would we relegate damage done by runaway data science as the cost of doing business, if we can clearly perceive the elitism and cynicism in the above?  Silence may seem safe, but is it really?  Ignoring sharpening income inequality, skyrocketing incarceration rates, and stratification and segregation has a cost : Trumps of the world become leaders, the downtrodden looking to demagogues.

The Coming Storm Following the Dream

With each public relations disaster and each discovery of flagrant disregard for users and their precious private data, we hurtle toward what I believe are an inevitable series of lawsuits and criminal investigations leading to public policy we ought to help direct.  C.R. Rao wrote some years ago regarding a lawsuit against the government failing to act to save fishermen from a predictable typhoon, plaintiffs’ chief issue being that the coast guard failed to repair a broken buoy :

[s]uch instances will be rare,
but none-the-less may discourage
statistical consultants from
venturing into new or more
challenging areas and restrict 
the expansion of statistics.
[emphasis mine]

The General Data Protections Regulation, or (GDPR), organized by the European Union, is perhaps one of the broadest frameworks ratified by any national or supranational body.  This coming May, the framework will supersede the Data Protective Directive of 1995.  The US government has regulated privacy and data with respect to education since 1974 with FERPA and medicine since 1996 with HIPAA.  Yet court precedent hasn’t yet determined the interpretation of these acts with respect to machine learning models built on sensitive data.  What will an American variant of GDPR look like?  Practitioners ought have a say, and the more included in the discussion, the better the outcome.  But this sort of direction requires coordination, and because of the unique and difficult work we do, we are fractured from one another and more susceptible to dogmatism around the misnamed American brand of libertarianism.  The American dream is available to technologists (and almost no one else), whence a rigidity of certain non-collectivist values, enumerated in a study conducted by Thomas Corley for Business Insider : the rub is that wealthy people believe very strongly in self-determination, and assume they are responsible for their good fortune.  I think of it as the “I like the game when I’m winning” phenomenon, and like most deep beliefs, some kernel of truth is there.  We could spend considerable time just debating these difficulties, and my being married to a psychiatrist offers uncomfortable insight.  In any case, discussions surrounding this are ubiquitous, and my opinions, though somewhat unconventional, are straightforward.  Historically, collective stands are easier to make and less risky than those alone.  In semi-skilled and clerical trades, we called these collections “unions.”  Professional societies such as the AMA, the ASA, the IEEE, and so on, are the periwinkle-to-white collar approximations, with the important similarity that collectively asserting will just simply works better.  And yet, we in data science have little in the way of such a framework.  It’s worth understanding why.

Cosmic Demand Sans Trade Union

The skyrocketing demand for new data science and machine learning technology, together with a labor dogmatism peculiar to the United States have left us, so it would seem, without a specific trade union that is independent of corporations and responsible for governing trade ethics and articulating public policy initiatives.  Older technology trades have something approximating a union in the professional societies such as IEEE and the American Statistical Association; like the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, these agencies offer codes of ethical practices and publications detailing the latest comings and goings in government regulation, technology, and the like.  Certainly, the discussion occurs here and there, though Steve Lohr’s 2013 piece in the New York Times summarizing a panel discussion at Columbia hinted a common refrain in our trade:

[t]he privacy and surveillance
perils of Big Data came up only
in passing[...] during a
question-and-answer portion of
one panel, Ben Fried,
Google’s chief information
officer, expressed a misgiving[:]
“[m]y concern is that the
technology is way ahead of society[.]

That is, we all know we have a problem, but little is happening in the way of addressing it.  A smattering of public symposia have emerged on certain moral considerations around artificial intelligence, though much of what is easily unearthed is some older articulations by Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, and older still those by Isaac Asimov.  These often take the form of dystopian prognostications of robot intelligence, though I agree with Chomsky that we’re perhaps light years away from understanding even the basic elements of human cognition, and that replicating anything resembling that is not on the horizon.  Admittedly, my starry-eyed interest in Kurzweil’s projected singularity is what pulled me into computer science, but Emerson warns us that intellectual inflexibility belongs to small minds.  Fear-mongering of the future brings me to a spirit we ought exorcise early and often.

Unemployment and Automation : A New(ish) Bogeyman

No discussion of the impact of our technology would be complete without paying a little attention to the fevered musings and catastrophization of mass unemployment due to automation.  We as a society of technologists ought have a simple answer to this, namely that the post-industrial revolution mindset of compulsory employment as monetized by imagined market forces is illogical, inefficient, and unnecessarily dangerous to who we are and what we do.  Even less charitably, slavish genuflection to the free market mania is an obstacle, rather than a catalyst, to progress, as the complexities of civilization necessitate a more nuanced economic framework.  Though we’d need another article or so for better justification for the foregoing, I’ll skip to the conclusion to say that we must restore and strengthen public investment in technology democratically and transparently, casting off militarization and secrecy.  A good starting place is the realization that virtually all high tech began in the public sector, and that’s a model that serves both society and technologists.  It also organically nurtures trade consortia of the variety described above.  In any case, the principal existential threats we face have nothing to do with mass employment, though thwarting those threats, nuclear proliferation and catastrophic climate change, might require it.

Triage and Final Thoughts

Answering these current events demands responsible, courageous public discourse, appropriately supporting victims and formulating strategies to avert the totally preventable disasters above.  We should organize a professional society free of corporate, and initially governmental, interference, comprised of statisticians, analysts, machine learning scientists, data scientists, artificial intelligence scientists, and so on, so that we can internally by conference

  • collectively educate ourselves about the ramifications of our work, such as reading work by trade specialists such as O’Neil,
  • jointly draft position papers on requests for technical opinions by government and supranational organizations, such as a recent request from NIH,
  • dialog openly about corporate malfeasance,
  • draft articles scientifically explaining how best to regulate our work to safeguard  and empower the public (eloquently stated in Satya’s mission statement),
  • exchange ideas and broaden our trade perspective,
  • collectively sketch safe, sensible guidelines around implementations of pie-in-the-sky technology (such as self-driving cars), and
  • strategize how to redress public harm when it happens.

A few technologists, such as George Polisner, have very publicly taken stands against executive docility with respect to the Trump administration; his building of the social media platform civ.works is a great step in evangelizing elite activism, and, of course, privacy guarantees no data company will offer.  Admittedly, we all need not necessarily surrender positions in industry in order to address controversy, but we can and must talk to each other.  Talk to human beings affected by our work.  Talk to our neighbors.  Talk to our opponents.  The ugly legal and political fallout awaiting us is really just a hapless vanguard of the much more dangerous elite cynicism and complacency.  How do we ready ourselves for tomorrow’s challenges?  It begins with a dialog, today.