Sunday, December 31, 2017

Why it’s not a good idea to keep a tiger as a pet

Tigers are among the most beautiful animals on earth. It's no wonder that some people are fascinated by them and feel a desire to keep them as pets. However, tigers are not domesticated animals. Small tiger cubs will soon grow up to weigh hundreds of pounds, and they can easily overpower and kill a person. Furthermore, because tigers are endangered, it is especially important to the overall tiger population and the ecosystem for more tigers to live in the wild.

Tigers can turn on their human keepers

Tigers occasionally maul their keepers. In 1998, in Florida, a tiger put Richard Chipperfield in critical condition. It was shot by Graham Chipperfield. The brothers were trainers for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In 2003, Antoine Yates was mauled by a 500-pound tiger that he secretly kept in his apartment in a Harlem housing project. His brother found him injured on the floor and brought him to the hospital. To capture the tiger, police had to rappel down the side of the apartment building with a tranquilizer gun. Yates served six months in jail for endangerment.

He fondly explained his relationship with the tiger, "Ming": "To be close to such a beautiful animal 24 hours a day is magical. I began to really understand a big cat. At that point I was ready to disconnect from the world."

Also in 2003, a leashed white tiger mauled Roy Horn during a performance in Las Vegas. Horn, who had performed with tigers for three decades, lost enough blood to put him in critical condition.

In December 2013, a circus tiger mauled its trainer, Danny Gottani, in front of spectators in Madrid, including Gottani's own mother. Gottani had nearly two decades of experience with tigers. His injuries were not life-threatening. A spectator captured cell phone footage of the mauling.

Tigers are difficult to contain

One might think that the risk could be minimized simply by keeping the animal in a cage. It's not quite that simple. It's one thing to put a tiger in a box, and another thing to keep the box sealed.

In 1893, the Walter L. Main Circus Train derailed in Pennsylvania as it traveled downhill, leading to the escape of many exotic animals. One tiger entered a barn where it killed a cow and scared away the milkmaid. The farmer, Alfred Thomas, shot it.

The obvious danger presented by captive tigers was alluring to one depressed man who climbed into a tiger enclosure in China in a suicide attempt in 2014. (The tiger dragged him but refused to eat him.)

In the wild, tigers rarely bother humans. However, once a tiger learns to stalk humans as prey, it becomes a menace. A Royal Bengal tiger killed 10 people in Northern India over just two months in early 2014 and remained on the loose. Villagers were intent on finding and shooting the rogue animal, but it is easier said than done.

Celebrities who are known to have tigers

Tigers are expensive, and celebrities sometimes purchase them as status symbols or curiosities. These arrangements are usually short-term, as keeping a tiger is a lot of work.

An article in USA Today in 2003 reported that Michael Jackson kept two tigers ("Thriller" and "Sabu") on his Neverland Ranch; Mike Tyson kept three tigers at home ("Kenya," "Storm" and "Boris"); and Paris Hilton kept a mostly untamed tiger ("London"). All of these tigers were subsequently sent to live elsewhere. Hilton, whose TV show is ironically called "The Simple Life," wisely said of her tiger: "I don't have it anymore...[It] got too big, and if it ever got loose I'd be in so much trouble."

A four-month-old female tiger cub was given to Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko during her presidential campaign in 2009. Tymoshenko became a political prisoner, and the tiger, who had been named "Tigryulia" during its stint as campaign mascot, was sent to a zoo, where it gave birth to four cubs in 2012.

In 1837, U.S. President Martin van Buren was sent a pair of tiger cubs by the Sultan of Oman. Congress did not permit van Buren to keep the tigers and had them sent to a zoo.

Tigers are endangered

Tigers are endangered in the wild. The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2011 that more tigers live in captivity in the United States than roam wild in all the world: "Because of a flourishing trade in exotic animals, there are an estimated 5,000 privately owned Bengal tigers in the U.S. There are only 3,600 Bengal tigers left in the wild."

In addition for the demand for tigers as pets, the demand for products made from slaughtered tigers leaves them vulnerable to hunters. For example, on Sept. 4, 2012, the HuffingtonPost reported:
 "Police have seized four baby tigers and more than 100 pangolins being transported in a car in central Vietnam...Tiger bones are used in Vietnam to make a traditional painkiller that sells for several hundred dollars an ounce." Superstitions about the curative properties of tiger products thus sadly contribute to the animals' decline.

Don't get a tiger

Tigers are stunning creatures, but their care and feeding is a delicate matter that requires heroic effort. They can kill their human keepers, they are difficult to capture once they've escaped, and because of this, a license is generally required to keep one. If you are inclined to keep a cat, an animal shelter will have a small one for you. (Millions of unwanted cats are euthanized in the United States each year.) If you are inclined to help tigers, a good start would be a donation to a wildlife charity or to an organization like the Shambala Preserve that takes large cats from people "who realize they have purchased an animal they can no longer handle".

For kids, check out the book Big Cats Are Not Pets! by Julie S. Marzolf.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 27, 2014.

Tiger image by Eddy Van 3000 from in Flanders fields - Belgiquistan - United Tribes ov Europe (Sleeping beauty, dreaming of lots of meat.) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Why people believe the president is mentally 'unleashed'

What people were saying at the end of November 2017

The New York Daily News published an editorial on Nov. 29 marveling that, while Congress is in “delicate negotiations” over his tax reform bill and a day after North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, he tweeted “demanding the firing of a private citizen who happens to run MSNBC, a news channel he hates” and “casually accused a congressman-turned-TV-host of murder" (the latter of which PolitiFact rated as a "Pants on Fire" lie and which received a tweet in response from the accused Joe Scarborough: "Looks like I picked a good day to stop responding to Trump's bizarre tweets. He is not well."). The newspaper concluded from this “latest spasm of deranged tweets” that the president is “profoundly unstable,” “mad,” “mentally unwell and viciously lashing out...we are witnessing signs of mania.” That same day, he also thrice retweeted anti-Muslim content posted by a leader of an extremist hate group.

Stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post describe “what can only be described as the president suffering some kind of break with reality,” according to Tina Nguyen in Vanity Fair. She says that “his private misstatements, within the White House, about easily verifiable facts, are harder to explain.” Perhaps some statements “were delivered in bad faith,” but it is also possible that he suffers from “a much more serious break from reality.”

Stephen Collinson, Nov. 29:

“Conversations about Trump's fitness and mental state have percolated in Washington for months. They have been fanned by the comments of GOP Sen. Bob Corker who warned the President could spark World War III.

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake last month fired off an explosive Senate speech in which he said that no one should stay silent, "as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters.”

His actions are not in his own interest, which is another indicator that he is not thinking rationally. Attacking others based on unsupported accusations could lead to the revival of accusations against his own checkered past. Experts say that his vocal declamations against the influence of Muslims contributes to worldwide terrorist recruitment. Chris Cillizza pointed out that his retweets of the alleged Muslim/Christian violence videos may impact his "tenuous efforts to convince the courts — which have previously cited his comments on Islam — that he has the power to institute a travel ban from several majority-Muslim nations."

"Something is unleashed with him lately. I don't know what is causing it, I don't know how to describe it," said New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman on CNN on Nov. 29. Two days later, Michelle Goldberg published this opinion in the New York Times:

"He seems to be cracking up.

There is a debate over whether Trump is unaware of reality or merely indifferent to it. He might be delusional, or he might simply be asserting the power to blithely override truth, which is the ultimate privilege of a despot. But reports from the administration all suggest an increasingly unhinged and chaotic president. Trump’s aides are trying to spin his behavior, which they clearly expect to get worse, as a sign of heightened confidence. “Officials tell us Trump seems more self-assured, more prone to confidently indulging wild conspiracies and fantasies, more quick-triggered to fight than he was during the Wild West of the first 100 days in office,” Mike Allen reports on Axios.

This should be seen as an emergency situation. But now that Republicans are about to get their tax cuts, they appear to have decided that it doesn’t matter whether the president is sane. ... On CNN, Senator Lindsey Graham chided the press for treating Trump like “some kind of kook not fit to be president,” which is some serious gaslighting from a man who previously called Trump “crazy,” a “kook” and “unfit for office.”

The message here is clear: Republicans aren’t going to defy their mad king over anything as mushy and amorphous as democratic norms, rationality or national honor.

* * *

If you think 2017 was bad, imagine an America without allies fighting another two-front war, this one involving nuclear weapons, under the leadership of the most hated president in modern history, while a torture apologist runs the C.I.A. The world right now is a powder keg. Trump, an untethered maniac, sits atop it, flicking a lighter that Republicans in Congress could take away, but won’t."

December 28, 2017 interview with the New York Times

On Dec. 28, Trump gave a half-hour interview to the New York Times. His words are incomprehensible. Ezra Klein described the interview as containing "a string of falsehoods that make it difficult to tell whether the leader of the free world is lying or delusional," and he commented that the latter is the "scarier" option. Among the interview excerpts that Klein unpacks is one that causes specific political alarm:

"He [Trump] appears to believe that he is engaged in some explicit or implicit quid pro quo with the Department of Justice: He doesn't fire Jeff Sessions, or demand prosecution of his political enemies, or whatever it is he imagines doing with his 'absolute right to do what I want to do,' so long as they treat him and his associates 'fairly,' which likely means protecting him from Mueller's investigation.

Imagine reading this comment on transcripts from Richard Nixon's tapes. It would be the kind of comment that would leave us glad Nixon was forced from office, chilled that such a man ever occupied the presidency at all."

And in another excerpt:

"Trump's premise in this section appears to be that President Obama engaged in a wide array of criminal, undemocratic, and negligent behaviors but his attorney general protected him from justice. And Trump's conclusion is that Obama's attorney general did his job well. To Trump, the attorney general doesn't serve the country, or the Constitution, but the president."

Part of what is so alarming here is not just that the president says these things, but that he says them on the record to the New York Times, suggesting that he is out of touch not only with the facts but also with ethics, the limits of power, and decorum. And to the New York Times, he shares this message about how he perceives their role in the upcoming 2020 election: "...all forms of media will tank if I'm not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win." It is unclear whether he thinks the newspaper is currently succeeding (given that they currently cover his presidency) or failing (for some other reason), how this status would be assessed, and why he thinks the newspaper has power to "let [him] win" an election.

Klein says that, in his role as White House reporter, he's talked to Republicans and Democrats who have the president's ear, and uniformly they have told him that the president "is not just notably uninformed but also notably difficult to inform — his attention span is thin, he hears what he wants to hear, he wanders off topic, he has trouble following complex arguments. Trump has trouble following his briefings or even correctly repeating what he has heard."

He concludes that regardless of whether the president has "some form of cognitive decline or psychological is plainly obvious from Trump's words that this is not a man fit to be president, that he is not well or capable in some fundamental way."

Aaron Sorkin, creator of the TV series "West Wing," said in December that the president has an "observable psychiatric disorder."

John Harwood said of the same interview that the president displayed "delusions of omnipotence," referring to himself "in terms so grandiose and extreme as to be self-evidently false. Taken together, his comments signaled an inability to grasp conditions in the country, the limitations of his own capacities and the nature of the office he holds."

To Charles P. Pierce, the president's performance in the interview suggested signs of Alzheimer's. He was "only intermittently coherent. He talks in semi-sentences and is always groping for something that sounds familiar, even if it makes no sense whatsoever and even if it blatantly contradicts something he said two minutes earlier. To my ears, anyway, this is more than the president*’s well-known allergy to the truth. This is a classic coping mechanism employed when language skills are coming apart." He added that the president's self-designation of his understanding of taxes as "better than the greatest C.P.A." is "more than simple grandiosity. This is someone fighting something happening to him that he is losing the capacity to understand."

What can be done?

The 25th amendment allows for a procedure to remove presidents from office when they are unfit.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Who 'war' it better?: Why it's bogus to tweet about military prowess, especially with these numbers

President Trump recently distributed the following information, presenting it as a personal accomplishment that proves he is more competent or effective than his predecessor, President Obama. Here's why it is a mistake to use this information to make a point about who is more effective than whom.

Screenshot taken from the Washington Examiner the morning of Dec. 29, 2017. The article was dated Dec. 23. A factual error in the information circulated widely online before the media outlet corrected it.

  1. Seemingly forgetting that the war against ISIS is about an international coalition defeating a common enemy, Trump self-promotes an argument that he is a better commander-in-chief than his predecessor. This is problematic on several levels. The war is about the freedom and safety of the people of Syria and Iraq; it should not be presented as a pissing content between Trump and Obama. It is morally repugnant to do so and, in its blatancy, it undermines U.S. credibility as a leader in international security. Also, credit for any successes needs to be shared with the dozens of countries who have served as coalition partners.
  2. War is not a "who wore it better" contest.

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  3. The numbers show that about the same area of land was liberated from ISIS during the first 11 months of the Trump administration as during the final 28 months of the Obama administration. Trump seems to want us to infer that his military campaign got the same results twice as fast. He is treating these numbers as a businessman looks at a balance sheet. This is a misunderstanding of how military campaigns work. Square miles are not dollars; they are not identical and interchangeable. Terrain, for example, plays a role in how difficult it is to conquer land. So does the civilian population you have to work around. And, of course, the level of resistance from enemy fighters is crucial. The chart reflects the U.S. Defense Department's assessment that Trump only had to contend with 35,000 ISIS fighters when he took office; it does not reflect how many fighters Obama's administration had to deal with at the outset nor how many additional fighters entered the fray during those years. The numbers indicate that the military sped up the rate at which it conquered land, but one possible explanation is that conquering land became easier.
  4. Similarly, if half the number of bombs are required to capture the same amount of land, that suggests that the nature of the combat has changed. Bombs suggest an air war; ground combat may use fewer bombs. Indeed bombs are expensive for the country that drops them and they are destructive of lives and property on the ground, yet they may also be cheaper and less destructive than alternative weapons. Therefore, the military has its reasons for using or not using them. The way this information is presented, it appears at first glance that the international coalition used half the violence to conquer the same amount of land. This is not necessarily true. They used half the amount of one kind of violence. Other types of weapons and tactics are missing from the chart. Furthermore, the decision about whether to use bombs is not always up to the U.S. president. Most, but not all, bombs in this conflict have come at U.S. direction and expense. The second-most prolific bomber is Britain's RAF.
  5. The numbers show that twice the number of people were liberated from ISIS under Trump as under Obama. That only means that the land taken from ISIS in 2017 was twice as densely populated as the land taken in 2014-2016. It probably reflects the 2017 victory in the Iraqi city of Mosul, a city whose population has been estimated between one and two million.
  6. In listing the number of U.S. deaths, remaining ISIS fighters, and "people freed," an important category is missing: Iraqi and Syrian civilian deaths. Inevitably, in any war, some innocent people intended to be freed are killed in the conflict. In Iraq alone, where documentation of civilian deaths is spottier than in Syria, the U.S.-led coalition confirmed its responsibility for 971 civilian deaths in 51 incidents during the Obama administration (the end of 2014 through 2016) and 1,119 civilian deaths in 56 incidents in the beginning of the Trump administration. Iraq also has a number of civilian casualties for which responsibility is “contested”: 63 incidents under Obama and 213 incidents under Trump. (Source: Airwars) This gives a more complete picture of the human cost of war. Reducing the number of ISIS fighters in a territory with millions of inhabitants does not come without a price, and the president ought not to seem glib about it by erasing those casualties from the record as he claims to be a better commander-in-chief than his predecessor.
  7. Charlie Kirk tweeted this information from the Washington Examiner on Dec. 27 at 3:14 p.m. and it was immediately retweeted by the president. In the original version of the information that was tweeted and retweeted, the arithmetic has an obvious error. If only 17,500 square miles were “held by ISIS” at the end of Obama’s administration, Trump could not have caused 26,000 square miles to be “liberated from ISIS” (unless he had lost ground to ISIS and then had to reclaim it). Accordingly, the Washington Examiner acknowledged their own mathematical error and corrected their article with an erratum. The president followed up at 6:09 p.m. with a tweet of a visual meme with a corrected number and a text caption that made his point without explicitly referencing the number in question. He did not acknowledge that he was correcting an error, but you can see the error for yourself since, as of Dec. 29, neither Charlie Kirk nor the President had deleted their original tweet with the wrong information. (Screenshots below were taken from the president's Twitter page the morning of Dec. 29. Red arrows are superimposed to highlight the error and subsequent correction.)

I do not argue that the President should waste a single hour of his time figuring this out. Instead I argue that he should not waste untold hours of everyone else's fact-checking time by tweeting things that either he does not understand or that he does understand and about which is happy to mislead everyone else.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Quotes: On time

Erich Maria Remarque:

After a while he says suddenly in the half-darkness: "What actually is time?"

George puts his glass down in astonishment. "The pepper of life," I reply. The old rascal can't catch me so easily with his tricks. Not for nothing am I a member of the Werdenbrück Poets' Club: we are used to big questions.

Riesenfeld disregards me. "What's your opinion, Herr Kroll?" he asks.

"I'm a simple man," George says. "Prost!"

"Time," Riesenfeld continues doggedly. "Time, this uninterrupted flow — not our lousy time! Time, this gradual death."

Marcel Proust:

When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host. Instinctively, when he awakes, he looks to these, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth's surface and the amount of time that has elapsed during his slumbers; but this ordered procession is apt to grow confused, and to break its ranks. Suppose that, towards morning, after a night of insomnia, sleep descends upon him while he is reading, in quite a different position from that in which he normally goes to sleep, he has only to lift his arm to arrest the sun and turn it back in its course, and, at the moment of waking, he will have no idea of the time, but will conclude that he has just gone to bed. Or suppose that he gets drowsy in some even more abnormal position; sitting in an armchair, say, after dinner: then the world will fall topsy-turvy from its orbit, the magic chair will carry him at full speed through time and space, and when he opens his eyes again he will imagine that he went to sleep months earlier and in some far distant country.

Douwe Draaisma:

In hourglasses the grains of sand increasingly rub one another smooth until finally they flow almost without friction from one bulb into the other, polishing the neck wider all the time. The older an hourglass the more quickly it runs. Unnoticed, the hourglass measures out ever shorter hours. This chronometric imperfection hides a metaphor: 'For man, too, the recurring years fly past more and more quickly, until finally the measure is full. Man, too, is increasingly permeated by impressions.

Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space. Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.

E. B. White:

She is at that enviable moment in life [I thought] when she believes she can go once around the ring, make one complete circuit, and at the end be exactly the same age as at the start.

Charles Ray Goff:

But why are we so important? We have only 613,200 hours to live if we live to the age of seventy. We sleep a lot of that away; then there are four or five early years that we can't remember; also, there's a lot more time that's wasted in useless activities. And so we really don't have many years to live. This leaves us wondering why all this fuss about our importance.

Zora Neale Hurston:

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Michael N. McGregor:

Although the trip lasted only a month, it stayed with him the rest of his life. When someone asked in his later years how long he traveled with the Cristianis, he answered, ‘Even till now.’

Charles Baxter:

Any writer can learn how to use a request moment to enliven a story. King Lear asks his daughters to tell him how much they love him. The ghost of Hamlet’s father has a series of requests for his son. Lady Macbeth asks, or tells, her husband to fulfill his fate. A request — a demand — forces a character into action, or dramatically charged inaction, as in the case of Hamlet. One character turns to another character and says, ‘There’s something I want you to do. Oh, and by the way, the clock is ticking. I want you to do it by Friday.’

Terry Pratchett:

Your whole life passes in front of your eyes before you die. This is called living.

George Packer:

By 50, the obvious fact of your own decline is easily mistaken for an intimation of the world's.

E. M. Cioran:

When people come to me saying they want to kill themselves, I tell them, ‘What’s your rush? Your can kill yourself any time you like. So calm down.’

Jeanette Winterson:

I keep pulling at the rope. I keep pulling at life as hard as I can. If the rope starts to fray in places, it doesn't matter. I am so tightly folded, like a fern or an ammonite, that as I unravel, the actual and the imagined unloose together, just as they are spliced together — life's fibres knotted into time.

Art Greer:

Happily retired people spend their time doing what they've always enjoyed doing, only more of it.

Anthony Doerr:

He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.

Andy Andrews:

Why do the ages of our world’s greatest civilizations average around two hundred years?

Why do these civilizations all seem to follow the same identifiable sequence — from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, and finally from dependence back into bondage?

Peter S. Beagle:

"Would you call this age a good one for unicorns?" "No, but I wonder if any man before us ever thought his time a good time for unicorns."

Paul Virilio:

To what utopia and, more importantly, to what uchronia, to what new relationship with time?


Erich Maria Remarque. The Black Obelisk (1957). USA: Crest, 1958. p. 46.

Marcel Proust. Swann's Way (Du Cote de Chez Swann, 1917). Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1921). New York: The Heritage Press, 1954. p. 5.

Douwe Draaisma. Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. (2001) Translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans in 2004. Cambridge University Press, 2005. p 201.

Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951. p. 5.

“The Ring of Time” by E. B. White. Reprinted in Understanding the Essay, edited by Edward O. Shakespeare, Peter H. Reinke, and Elliot W. Fenander. USA: The Odyssey Press, 1966. p. 186.

Charles Ray Goff. Shelters and Sanctuaries: Christian Hope in a Time of Confusion. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1961. p. 18.

Zora Neale Hurston, quoted in the Associated Press, quoted in The Week, Sept. 26, 2014, p. 17.

Michael N. McGregor. Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. Fordham University Press, 2015.

“Undoings: An Essay in Three Parts.” Charles Baxter. Colorado Review, Spring 2012, Vol. 39, No. 1. p. 106.

Terry Pratchett, quoted in Quoting The Week, July 18, 2014. p. 15.

George Packer in The New Yorker. Quoted as "Viewpoint" in The Week. Feb. 22, 2013. p. 12.

E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born, quoted in Simon Critchley. Suicide. Thought Catalog, 2015.

Jeanette Winterson. The PowerBook. London: Vintage, 2001. p. 210.

Art Greer. The Sacred Cows are Dying: Exploding the Myths We Try to Live By. New York: Hawthorne Books, Inc., 1978. p. 93.

Anthony Doerr. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Scribner, 2014.

Andy Andrews. How Do You Kill 11 Million People?: Why the Truth Matters More Than You Think. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2011. p. 46. Citing Andy Andrews, The Heart Mender (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 141-42.

Peter S. Beagle. The Last Unicorn. (1968) New York: Penguin, 2008. p. 5.

Paul Virilio, with Bertrand Richard. The Administration of Fear. Translated by Ames Hodges. Les editions Textuel, 2012. Translation: Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012. p. 77.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The forces behind political polarization

Jonathan Haidt explains in a recent essay that we become politically polarized when centripetal or centrifugal forces are imbalanced. These are the forces that draw us together or pull us apart.

“Imagine three kids making a human chain with their arms, and one kid has his free hand wrapped around a pole. The kids start running around in a circle, around the pole, faster and faster. The centrifugal force increases. That’s the force pulling outward as the human centrifuge speeds up. But at the same time, the kids strengthen their grip. That’s the centripetal force, pulling them inward along the chain of their arms. Eventually the centrifugal force exceeds the centripetal force and their hands slip. The chain breaks.”

The “good kind of identity politics,” according to Haidt, is exemplified by MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech that ”framed our greatest moral failing as an opportunity for centripetal redemption.” Identity becomes centrifugal “when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions” identifying which groups have power over which others and furthermore when you say that they must “fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male.” When students are told to examine everything “in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people....This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.”

Polarization is a problem insofar as it prevents people from working together to maintain a democracy. “Here," Haidt says, "is the fine-tuned liberal democracy hypothesis: as tribal primates, human beings are unsuited for life in large, diverse secular democracies, unless you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life.” Therefore the Founding Fathers of the United States designed a constitution as if it were “a clock that might run forever if they chose the right springs and gears.” They “built in safeguards against runaway factionalism, such as the division of powers among the three branches, and an elaborate series of checks and balances. But they also knew that they had to train future generations of clock mechanics. They were creating a new kind of republic, which would demand far more maturity from its citizens than was needed in nations ruled by a king or other Leviathan.” Today, however, “our government is divided into two all-consuming factions, which cut right down the middle of each of the three branches, uniting the three red half-branches against the three blue half-branches”.

Haidt referred to a previous essay in which he argued that polarization was caused by the following trends. In his words:

  1. The two parties purified themselves ideologically
  2. As politicians polarized, so did many Americans
  3. The urban-rural divide grew into a gulf, reflecting diverging interests and values
  4. Immigration was rising, leading to larger racial and ethnic divisions
  5. The net effect of all these trends is that partisans dislike one another more intensely
  6. Meanwhile, rule changes and culture changes in Congress made it harder to maintain cross-party friendships
  7. The media environment changed, making it easier for partisans to confirm their worst suspicions, and putting greater pressure on politicians to play to the extremes
  8. As the costs of campaigns increased, politicians have become increasingly afraid of offending their party’s donors
  9. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States lost a common enemy that had once unified the country
  10. The end of the Cold War coincided with the baton pass from the Greatest Generation to the baby boomers, who may be more prone to hyper-partisanship

Nina Khrushcheva has a more specific observation about clock mechanics. She applauded moments in U.S. history where politicians defended the procedural checks and balances even against other pressing moral demands, such as when "Secretary of State Daniel Webster supported the Compromise of 1850, despite his hatred of slavery, in order to save the union" and when "Robert Taft denounced the Nuremberg Trials, despite his hatred of the Nazis, to defend the fundamental US legal principle that a person could not be criminally charged on the basis of a retroactive statute." (Both of these examples were featured in President John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.) She notes the current initiative in late 2017 "to pass a tax bill that would benefit America’s wealthiest households at the expense of saddling the country with more than $1 trillion in additional debt" and she implies that the process could have benefited from "thorough public committee hearings" and with less willingness on the part of politicians to "trade their honor for the approval of their tribe."

Adam Garfinkle gives seven reasons for the decline of trust in society. The first three or four overlap with Haidt's reasons for polarization.
  1. heterogeneous demographics driven by immigration
  2. the lack of a "common language to discuss good and evil" and the rise of "Christian neo-fundamentalism"
  3. less face-to-face interaction due to technology and class segregation
  4. institutional and bureaucratic failure
  5. media portrayals of the world as a mean place
  6. breakdown of family leading to emotional insecurity
  7. too much state intrusion


“The Age of Outrage: What the current political climate is doing to our country and our universities.” Jonathan Haidt. City Journal (Manhattan Institute). Dec. 17, 2017.

"Profiles in Cowardice." Nina L. Khrushcheva. Project Syndicate. Dec. 18, 2017.

"In Way Too Little We Trust." Adam Garfinkle. The American Interest. December 13, 2017.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Is 'Trumpism' a cult?

The case for Trump support being a cult is not ironclad. The current president has his passionate supporters, but so have past presidents. While the jury is still out, some thinkers argue that Trump support has at least some cultlike aspects.

Dr. Alexandra Stein, a former member of a leftist political cult known as The O, told Kate Leaver in February 2017:

"'I have a five-point definition of a cult,' Stein tells me. 'One: The leader is charismatic and authoritarian. Two: The structure of the group isolates people. The third thing is total ideology, like, "You only need me and no other belief system has any relevance whatsoever." The fourth thing is the process of brainwashing.' The fifth point, she says, is the result: 'creating deployable followers who will do what you say regardless of their own self survival interests.'

'That's why you get people who will blow themselves up,' she concludes. 'People don't understand this, but anyone in a cult is not really able to think, or to feel.'"

* * *

'I think we're seeing enough; enough to say Trump is operating like a cult leader,' she says, before adding tearfully, 'I wish it wasn't so.'"

Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, wrote in May 2017:

"[Mark] Lilla and others have suggested that political cults tend to fill religious vacuums; that is, they tend to arise when people lose faith in the efficacy of the religious status quo to manage their problems. In other words, in times of confusion and fear, people will vouchsafe unto symbols of the nation, the state, the race, the leader, and so on what they used to reserve for God and related religious symbols. Political religion therefore always competes in some form with preexisting religious organizations and beliefs, giving rise to a range of outcomes that include cooptation, intimidation, repression, and other possibilities as well. This precisely is what led Voegelin to insist on similarities between authoritarian and totalitarian systems and religious systems..."

Using an 11-point list of cultic structure and belief, Garfinkle finds that Trumpism is cultic only to a "middling extent," and moreover its cultiness has been decreasing since the election was won. He warns that, nevertheless, "[t]o the extent it is more cult-like than its recent predecessors, the 'excitement' may be just ahead of us as the movement circles the wagons."

Reza Aslan, author of God: A Human History, points out in an interview on Nov. 20, 2017 that "to this day, still, three-quarters of white evangelicals strongly support him," and "support for him is highest among those who go to church at least once a week." He asks why churchgoing makes one more likely to support a

"lying, lecherous, greedy, sexist, racist, narcissistic sociopath whose entire worldview makes a mockery of Christianity, makes a mockery of basic Christian tenets like humility, and empathy, and care for the poor. And scholars like myself have been just wracking our brains trying to figure this out, 'cause it makes no sense."

He observes that this is limited to white evangelicals (as two-thirds of evangelicals of color supported Hillary Clinton). He also observes that white evangelicals (who called themselves "Values Voters") used to say that public morality was important for politicians, but today, atheists are more likely to say that. Aslan concludes that Trump has "transformed a large swath of white evangelicals into his own personal cult." Aslan is using "cult" in a "pejorative's a 'value judgment' word." He believes Trumpism is a cult insofar it is "an insulated group of individuals in thrall to a charismatic leader to whom they have given divine status, prophetic status, and that is definitively what has happened among a large swath of white evangelicals when it comes to Trump."

Jen Hatmaker, a writer who was formerly popular with white evangelicals, lost much of her fan base when a month before the 2016 election she publicly supported Black Lives Matter and same-sex marriage.

"She got angry comments and blog posts written about her. Her children were pulled aside at their school and scolded. Readers mailed her books back to her with pages burned or torn, sometimes entirely shredded. Her speaking tour was canceled. She got death threats and was afraid to leave home.

'This year I became painfully aware of the machine, the Christian Machine,' which she says is 'systems and alliances and coded language and brand protection' set up to advance political power.

The election of Donald Trump, she said, happened because the 'Christian Machine malfunctioned' and silenced dissent against a political candidate who was obviously not living his life in accordance with white evangelicals’ self-described values."

Evangelicals aside, most Americans are displeased with the president, and therefore his approach to campaigning and governing may not survive in American politics. Ezra Klein's Nov. 7 article in Vox:

"Trumpism without Trump was possible before Trump was president. It might be possible after he’s president. It’s not possible while he’s president.

In 2016, Trump had the advantage of being a true outsider: He had no record to answer for, no unemployment rate to explain, no votes to justify. For all his oddities and eccentricities, he was a blank slate — a businessman to those who wanted a businessman, a culture warrior to those who wanted a culture warrior, a pragmatist to those who wanted a pragmatist, a conservative to those who wanted a conservative, and so on. He was theory severed from practice; “ism” without the reality check of is.

But now we have Trumpism with Trump, and the American people don’t much like it. Trump is no longer an abstraction, Trumpism no longer an idea. Instead, we are watching the real thing: a White House in chaos, a legislative agenda in shambles, a world in which nuclear war is likelier and America’s global leadership is diminished. Trump isn’t merely unpopular; he is less popular than any president at this point in their term since the advent of modern polling, and he is that unpopular even though the economy is growing and Americans are not dying in large numbers overseas."

Thursday, December 14, 2017

December 2017 energy news: Bail out coal, let oil and gas keep releasing methane

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is proposing a measure to subsidize power plants that operate with a 90-day backup fuel supply on site — that is, coal-fired plants, since renewable energy and natural gas pipelines cannot work that way — even though not even 1 percent of 1 percent of recent power failures were due to a lack of supply. According to a New York Times editorial on Dec. 7, "the primary aim here is to bolster the coal industry, which President Trump embraced unreservedly on the campaign trail and whose moguls embraced him right back," and the initiative would likely cause consumer electricity prices to rise by up to $11 billion "for no discernible public benefit." David Roberts wrote for Vox that this is essentially a bailout of the coal industry, as Trump has made it Perry's job "to figure out a way to stop so many coal-fired power plants from closing." The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) needs to vote on the measure by early January.

"This proposal has been so poorly thought out that it has made odd bedfellows of groups that are often on opposing sides of big policy debates. The oil and gas industry, for instance, has teamed up with renewable energy and environmental groups to fight it. Eight former FERC commissioners from both parties have sent a letter opposing the plan, arguing that it 'would be a significant step backward from the commission’s long and bipartisan evolution to transparent, open, competitive wholesale markets.'"

In a separate move, the administration wants to allow oil and gas companies to continue to release methane at current levels. In December 2017,

"the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which works under Secretary Ryan Zinke at the Interior Department, delayed the implementation of a rule requiring oil and gas companies drilling on federally owned lands to curtail the waste of methane by releasing it in the air. The rationale for delaying the implementation of the rule until January 2019 was that the regulation "may be rescinded or significantly revised in the near future," a hint that Zinke would like to dump it entirely."

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

After Alabama's election of Doug Jones

What happens with a Doug Jones win?

His election as U.S. Senator makes him "the first Democrat in a decade to secure statewide office in Alabama." The Senate is now majority Republican at 52-48, but when Jones takes office to replace the current Republican senator, the majority will narrow to 51-49.

"A Democratic-controlled Senate could do an enormous amount to hamstring President Trump in his third and fourth years in office. And Doug Jones’s win has made that possibility — once absurdly unrealistic — finally look plausible."

"Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that Republicans will be able to get a tax reform bill on Trump's desk by Christmas. If that happens, Jones' victory probably will not affect the GOP's plan for a comprehensive tax overhaul," since Jones will probably not replace the incumbent Republican until January.

The end of the road for Roy Moore

Almost half of Senate Republicans had called for Moore to drop out of the race in light of sexual assault allegations, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned of an ethics investigation if Moore were to be elected. At least one Republican admitted not voting for Moore, while another said he should be expelled from the Senate if he were to win.

Ellis Cose wrote:
"For much of the nation, Moore’s loss was a huge relief. Moore, after all, is a man with problems. And that’s putting it mildly. As a thirtysomething prosecutor, he seemingly preferred the company of young girls to adult women. He "probably" believes homosexuality is criminal, Islam is a false religion, and America should be a Christian theocracy. He also seems to favor doing away with all constitutional amendments beyond the Bill of Rights — including, presumably, the amendments that eliminated slavery and granted the vote to women and blacks. Moore is, in short, a backward-looking, self-righteous religious bigot who symbolizes much that was foul about the Old South. And he was running against someone who has dedicated much of his life to delivering the South from darkness."

In the early 2000s, while his opponent, Doug Jones, was convicting a perpetrator in a racist murder that had deeply wounded the South decades earlier,

"Moore, recently elected chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, was on the verge of illegally installing a more than 5,000-pound granite Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the state Judicial Building. Such religiously themed stunts brought Moore increasing fame and ultimately resulted in his removal as chief justice. He has spent the years since making outlandish statements, preaching to his fan base, and doing absolutely nothing to prove his suitability for public office."

As of the evening of the election, Roy Moore refused to concede even though the vote wasn't close enough to trigger an automatic recount. He told his supporters to "wait on God and let this process play out." As interpreted by Elaina Plott on Twitter, it seems that Moore believes "there is no world in which God would will for a Democrat to win"; if so, it will be hard for Moore to explain why any Democrats are in office or why anything he believes contrary to God's preference has ever happened anywhere. His philosophical quiver is in need of some theodicy.

The lost election has at least embarrassed the president.

"Completely disregarding the advice of top Republicans, Trump had thrown himself unequivocally and comprehensively behind Moore — and so the deeply flawed Republican candidate's upset loss on Tuesday is now his own.

* * *

A source close to the White House told CNN's Jim Acosta the the result was "devastating for the President" and an "earthquake."

The source also suggested that the President had been led into a poor political spot by his former top chief strategist Steve Bannon, who had embraced Moore as an archetype of the anti-establishment army he wants to take over the GOP."

The day after the Alabama election, Omarosa Manigault Newman, the president's only black senior advisor, departed her White House position. She had been named Director of African-American Outreach during the 2016 campaign and, following Trump's election, was given the title of Assistant to the President and Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison. The next day on ABC's "Nightline," she acknowledged that Trump frequently gave "pushback" that was "racially charged," but she said "he is not a racist." She added that she felt "lonely" in an administration that hadn't "reached the level of diversity...that I strove to see."

On Dec. 27, the night before the state planned to certify Jones as the winner, Moore sued, asking for a fraud investigation and a new election.

Doug Jones won, because why?

Ellis Cose wants to make sure we know:

"The only reason Alabama avoided the disaster of electing Moore is that blacks turned out and voted in droves. The National Election Pool exit poll found that blacks made up 30% of Tuesday’s electorate and voted overwhelmingly (96%) for Jones. Moore won 68% of white votes and even won a majority of white women’s says something distressingly damning that so much of the New South’s virtue is dependent on blacks rescuing whites from their worst impulses."

This victory, despite voter suppression, says Scott Douglas:

"In 2011, Alabama lawmakers passed a photo ID law, ostensibly to combat voter fraud. But “voter impersonation” at polling places virtually never happens. The truth is that the lawmakers wanted to keep black and Latino voters from the ballot box. We know this because they’ve always been clear about their intentions.

* * *

In Alabama, an estimated 118,000 registered voters do not have a photo ID they can use to vote. Black and Latino voters are nearly twice as likely as white voters to lack such documentation.

* * *

My organization is also challenging the state’s felon disfranchisement law, which affects an estimated 250,000 people here — 15 percent of Alabama’s black voting age population, but fewer than five percent of whites."

Michael Harriot wrote:

"Do not ever forget that most white people in Alabama voted for Roy Moore. It wasn’t even close in the white parts of Alabama. The only reason the next senator from Alabama isn’t a decrepit predator who believed he had the right to control the genitals of women, homosexuals, trans people and anyone who didn’t worship the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the same exact white manner as he does, is because of black people.

We own a unique kind of magic. We just made the impossible happen. We did this.

Don’t you ever forget it."

Self-awareness in one's career

Your beliefs today

"Personalities, values and underlying beliefs...will influence what career people choose," writes Mary Hope in "Are You Just a Job Title? Work and Identity Explored." This is "the key to both professional success and contentment." More specifically, a person's underlying beliefs about how the world works helps determine the psychological profile of their job.

Psychological profile of a job

In "How Your Job Shapes Your Identity," The Book of Life raises questions about what kinds of thought and action your job requires you to do. Those questions could be paraphrased as follows. To look at the present or future? To promote positive outcomes or to warn of risks? To see things concretely or to interpret their meaning? To be suspicious of others' motives or to trust them? To see the better or worse sides of human nature? To seek consensus or go your own way? To withstand criticism or to be guaranteed respect? To have a clear path to advancement or accept chance? To deal with industry decline or industry growth? To set financial goals or to have other motivations? The article calls these "the psychological requirements and consequences of jobs — what mindsets a job breeds, what doing the job requires of your inner life, how it expands us and (crucially) limits us." The answers to the questions identify "what traits of human nature [the jobs] weaken or reinforce."

Has your work changed you?

Once a job is landed, it can influence or even replace one's original identity. "Role engulfment" describes what happens when people "lose all sense of themselves except as they exist through work," Hope writes. "For those people the loss of work or being forced to change career through redundancy or retirement can provoke a severe identity crisis, with people asking: ‘Who am I? What am I if I don’t work?’."

Role engulfment does not happen as a merely private process. It is often socially prompted. "In a rootless culture with no obvious class markers," that is, the United States, at least, writes Joe Robinson in "American Identity Crisis: Are You Your Job?,"

"the job defines the person and the pecking order. You are what you do. It’s a case of mistaken identity that is hazardous to your health, life, and even the work you do. In a 24/7 world where we’re always in work mode, there’s little escape from the identity that’s not you."

This "performance identity" leaves you vulnerable to

"false beliefs that rub out the real you — that all value lies in performance, that you can’t step back from production and tasks for a second, or you’re a slacker; that busyness is next to godliness; that self-worth comes from the productivity yardstick, net worth; or that taking time for your life is an interruption of production."

One goal of becoming more aware of one's underlying beliefs and the psychological profile of one's current job is to avoid having one's identity engulfed by the job. Another goal is to be better able to perform in one's current job or to choose a new job.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Roy Moore, dogwhistling on the campaign trail

George Soros, a Holocaust survivor and philanthropist to human rights causes, has long been a target of the right-wing. He is attacked for his political liberalism, his Jewish ethnicity, and his atheist beliefs. At age 14 in Hungary, he had to pose as a Christian to survive the Nazis. As an adult, he declared that he did not believe in God.

On Dec. 4, U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore (R-AL) made these comments on air on a radio show hosted by Bryan Fischer, implying that the 87-year-old Soros will go to Hell.

"He [Soros] is pushing an agenda and his agenda is sexual in nature, his agenda is liberal, and not what Americans need. It’s not our American culture. Soros comes from another world that I don’t identify with...No matter how much money he’s got, he’s still going to the same place that people who don’t recognize God and morality and accept his salvation are going. And that’s not a good place."

Soros' support of secular, feminist causes has long riled many on the right. Soros founded the Open Society Foundations, whose Human Rights Initiative funds efforts in defense of LGBT rights worldwide, especially in the most repressive countries. Following the November 2016 U.S. election, the UK's Independent published this opinion article: "Already we see calls for the Trump presidency to adopt the foreign agents legislation of Vladimir Putin which makes it hard for gay rights groups and other human rights groups to operate in Russia. The target of this legislation is predictable: George Soros." Conservative groups have also disapproved of his support of abortion rights.

Moore, meanwhile has a history of anti-LGBT positions. “On February 19, 2003 Justice Moore met with a Soulforce delegation [a pro-LGBT organization] on the anniversary of a case denying custody of children to their lesbian mother," Bob Minor wrote. "Moore had argued that 'the lifestyle should never be tolerated.'"

Moore's spokesperson, according to the Daily Mail, "said that the comments were 'anti-George Soros' and therefore no apology was needed" to the wider Jewish community. The comment clearly states, however, that "people" who don't accept the salvation of Moore's god are all "going to the same place" which is "not a good place." So on the far of it, this is not a comment against George Soros as an individual but against Jews, atheists, liberals, and feminists in general. If it were ever acceptable to say this kind of thing (which it is not), it is especially bewildering that Christians think they have the high ground in this instance given that Soros had to pretend to be Christian while he was a child so he would not be slaughtered by agents of the occupying state. That biographical detail in itself should make Christians stop in their tracks before asserting that Soros (or any Jew, whether theist or atheist) needs to accept Jesus or else be rejected by God and burn for all eternity.

Some may be confused or bothered by the concept of a "Jewish atheist." Others may be upset about liberals in general. Still others are paranoid about wealthy Jews. It does not matter. In a mature, decent, civil society, it should be unacceptable to campaign on the basis that your political opponents and their supporters are rejected by God. It is always a dogwhistle when any politician says that any group of people is going to Hell. In this case, Roy Moore is making an antisemitic, antisecular, antifeminist, homophobic dogwhistle. He is doing all those things at the same time. He knows that different voters will hear different things. With the election in two days, we need to hope that enough voters can hear the meanness of what he is doing and will call him on it.

Running against Roy Moore for Alabama's U.S. Senate seat is Doug Jones. The election in Alabama is Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Nation, religion, language: Amin Maalouf on identity

Originally posted 17 July 2007 to, a blog that is going offline.

“What makes me myself rather than anyone else is the very fact that I am poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off a part of myself?”
— Amin Maalouf, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, 1996

Maalouf observes the ironic fact that, the more connected one is to other people, the more specific is one’s place in the world, and this unique identity becomes a sort of isolation. “Every one of my allegiances links me to a large number of people. But the more ties I have,” he writes, as an Arabic-speaking Christian in Paris, “the rarer and more particular my own identity becomes.” He explains how we often arrange the separate elements of our identities in a hierarchy of importance but that hierarchy can change over time.

In considering the most popular identities worldwide today, Maalouf suggests that globalization is making nationalism obsolete, because, in a globalized age, we desire identities that are not tied down to a particular geographic area. So, where we humans once were nationalists, we are instead phasing in religious community. This partly accounts for the rise in religious fundamentalism today.

But Maalouf speculates that, religion, too, may one day be replaced by something that becomes more relevant, such as language. Language is a top competitor for the cornerstone of identity because one can specialize in multiple languages and because one must have the language of the dominant culture if one does not wish to be cut off. Religion, by contrast, is more exclusivist (one can generally only specialize in one religion) and arguably less fundamental to the larger culture than is language.

Maalouf regards the rise of English as a lingua franca as a positive influence if it can bring people together who otherwise could not have spoken at all, and a negative influence only in cases where it replaces a common language with a richer history. Today, he concedes, everyone needs three languages: English, for global business; then, a language he identifies with; and finally, a language he loves. He believes that freedom of speech should include the right to speak the language of one’s choice.


Amin Maalouf. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. (1996) Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. See pages 1, 13, 18, 94, 131-140.

Is the American soul sick? Differing perspectives in 'The Left Hand of God' and 'Tempting Faith'

Originally blogged on 10 December 2006 for, a site that is going offline. I compared two books on politics and culture published that year, Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God and David Kuo's Tempting Faith.

The Left Hand of God

God's "left hand" and "right hand," as Lerner defines them in his book The Left Hand of God, describe worldviews based on generosity and compassion (on the Left) and on competition and vengeance (on the Right). These two worldviews help explain the differences in politics and in religion associated with the Left and Right.

Lerner, a rabbi with Ph.Ds in philosophy and psychology who edits Tikkun Magazine, writes:

“...although the right may talk about love or invoke God, what they have in mind is the Right Hand of God. The Right Hand of God is the hand of power and domination, the vision of God in which love is presented as consistent with celebrating the pain inflicted on those who are perceived as evil. ... It’s this vision of a muscular religion, backed by a God of power, that ensures that no one will ever call them naïve, because in their actual politics they are not siding with the powerless but cheerleading for the powerful." (pp. 20-21)

The voices of fear and hope, the Right Hand and the Left Hand of God, “tend to operate below the surface of consciousness, [and] people often are not fully aware of which voice they are responding to at any given moment. Often they act in ways that seem on the surface contradictory... (p. 51) He explains that right-wing religious institutions manage to preach love while encouraging their followers to “align with a harsh, militaristic, and self-interested politics that is based on the (unstated) assumption that all that “love, kindness, and generosity" talk has no real world application outside of that church or religious institution." (p. 110)

I would quibble with Lerner on some points. First, the metaphor of God having two hands seems to imply that these two worldviews are different sides of the same coin and that they balance each other out, yet Lerner favors the Left and doesn’t advocate anyone running to the ship’s other deck, thereby creating a visual image of a one-handed god. Second, while solidly in favor of a woman’s right to have an abortion, he implies that the only truly spiritual emotional response to abortion is grief. Telling people how to feel generally does not work, and giving people permission to broach a taboo while encouraging them to feel guilty about it is, ironically, a classic Right Hand of God technique to gain power over them. Third, Lerner suggests that the question of same-sex marriage be solved by having the government refer only to “unions" while leaving the word “marriage" for religious institutions. He needs to consider how the ordinary inquiry “Are you married?" would translate into the invasive question “Are you religious?" Only the most determined atheists would delight in providing a negative answer, while millions of others in interfaith, spiritual-but-not-religious partnerships might feel “married" even though no clergyperson pronounced them so. But these opinions, which are slight missteps in my view, do not greatly mar the book, as Lerner does not claim to have all the right answers to these questions. He prefers to focus on the larger picture of a philosophy motivated by compassion, and this he achieves well. While acknowledging that people have shown meanness since time immemorial, he critiques the influence of a godless capitalism that has helped promote the anti-ethic of a “rip-off consciousness" — the idea that it is normal and acceptable to cheat one’s employees, customers, and government — leading to an all-encompassing “cynical realist" approach to life that replaces idealist, hopeful, generous intentions. Lerner believes that mixing spiritual values with left-leaning politics has the potential to bring about an ethical revival in the United States.

Tempting Faith

David Kuo’s Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction makes an interesting companion read because Kuo, like Lerner, diagnoses the political Right as being more interested in its own power than in healing the world. However, he speaks as a conservative political insider rather than as a progressive critic. Kuo was President Bush’s former Special Assistant and former director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Disenchanted after the faith-based charity initiative he helped to launch was stripped of most of its funding (he was promised he would be able to offer $8 billion in grants to faith-based charities, but ultimately only $30 million became available and it was controlled by another department [p. 211]) and applied in a discriminatory fashion (non-Christian groups were dropped from the application piles in at least one instance [p.215]), Republican speechwriter and politician David Kuo decided to reveal these inside power struggles.

As Kuo puts it, “Christian leaders are supposed to be putting Jesus above and before all things, enabling them to recognize and resist this seductive [political] power. Instead, it looks like they believe a political agenda is the most important thing." (p. xiii) If that is so, what drew him to the Republicans? “It is easy to say that I became a Republican because I went through a religious conversion, felt guilty about an abortion, or just needed a job. Those things are all true," he admits. “But if the Democratic Party had displayed a similar interest in addressing these cultural problems, I would have run to them. Instead, they embodied a hostility toward these issues and toward Christian involvement in the political world that was increasingly known as the last acceptable form of bigotry." (p. 52)

He gives some practical advice to those spiritually-inclined Leftists who would like to begin dialogue with spiritually-inclined Rightists: be curious about right-wing, right-hand-of-God celebrities and cultural influences. Demonstrating awareness of their existence is a form of respect. Ignorance harms well-intentioned diplomacy, as demonstrated by this blunder:

“They [Democratic aides for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid] asked me who to talk to. I started giving them names–like Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council. 'Who?' 'What’s that?' I mentioned the support for environmentalism at the National Association of Evangelicals and again they said, 'What’s that?' ... That Terry McAuliffe [leader of the Democratic National Committee’s faith-based outreach] didn’t even know the author of The Purpose Driven Life showed a staggering ignorance. Was it any wonder evangelicals preferred hanging out with Republicans?" (p. 256)

Lerner and Kuo arrive at different conclusions. Kuo recommends that Christians take a two-year “fast" from national political campaigns to reconnect with their faith and values on a more personal level. (Kuo, newly diagnosed with a brain tumor, retired from the White House and became a fisherman, so that helps explain why he perceived the contemporary moment as a convenient and necessary time to take a break.) Lerner, by contrast, begins by asserting that “there is a real spiritual crisis in American society" that needs to be addressed (p. 14) and recommends that readers join his Network of Spiritual Progressives to begin infusing spiritual values into politics immediately; he does not suggest there is any greater insight to be gained by waiting. By contrast, Kuo says he once thought America had a spiritual crisis and that it was his job in the White House faith-based charity office to help fix it, but, after seeing the spontaneous outpouring of spiritual activity immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he concluded that “[t]he American soul wasn’t sick." (p. 188)


Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.

David Kuo. Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Fallout from Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel

On Dec. 6, 2017, President Trump announced that he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, something he had threatened to do at least since February. Palestinians chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" at immediate street protests in Gaza City and Rafah.

Seventy years ago, UN Resolution 181 recognized Jerusalem as an international city to be administered by the United Nations. The resolution never took effect due to the Arab-Israeli war that immediately followed, as a result of which Israel took the western part of Jerusalem and Jordan took the eastern part. Israel annexed more of Jerusalem in 1967 after the Six-Day War.

According to J Street, "no action or decision of the international community has superseded the 1947 resolution. The consensus view of the international community" has been that Jerusalem's status "can only be determined by the parties as a part of a resolution to the conflict." This changed with Trump's announcement on Dec. 6 which makes the US the only nation to affirm Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem.


In Gaza on Dec. 7, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the the U.S. policy "could only be confronted by a renewed intifada [violent uprising] against the occupation." Reaction was also felt throughout the region, as Iraq's foremost Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said that U.S. announcement "hurt the feelings of hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims.”

Generally, a mediator in any negotiation should not be perceived to have prejudged the outcome. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that this decision "discredited a bit the United States as an honest broker" and "makes it more difficult to play a role to relaunch a peace process."

Chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that "President Trump has delivered a message to the Palestinian people: the two-state solution is over," implying that he does not expect future negotiations to produce an independent state of Arab-majority Palestine that is separate from Jewish-majority Israel. "Now is the time to transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea." A single state of Israel-Palestine in which Palestinians had full voting rights has long seemed unattractive to Israel since it would shift the nation's demographics to be majority Arab.

Trump once said that a peace deal was "frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years," as he explained to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over lunch on May 3. "We believe Israel is willing, we believe you're willing, and if you both are willing, we're going to make a deal." He added that he would "do whatever is necessary" to mediate. The White House released a comment that "any agreement cannot be imposed by the United States or by any other nation. The Palestinians and Israelis must work together to reach an agreement that allows both peoples to live, worship, and thrive and prosper in peace." This outlook now seems to have dimmed.


An opinion poll of Israelis taken Dec. 13 by Smith Research for the Jerusalem Post found that a majority of both Jews (77 percent) and Arabs (69 percent) feel that the Trump administration is more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian.

Also on Dec. 13, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), consisting of the foreign ministers of 57 Muslim-majority nations, met in Istanbul to announce that they will recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state and that, without further action from the UN Security Council, they will appeal to the UN General Assembly.

Analysis of past actions in the Trump administration

Without taking any real action — such as moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an act Trump said he will defer for six months — "he gets to declare victory on an issue important to some American Jews and evangelical voters," Howard Kurtz wrote for Fox News. Kurtz noted that Trump has made similar sweeping policy announcements while deliberately delaying their effects, such as his rejections of the existing Dreamers immigration program and the Iran nuclear deal.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Movie review: 'Village of the Damned'

What happens in 'Village of the Damned' with the spoogly-eyed children

Originally published to Helium Network on March 15, 2011.

A chattering evil thing blows into the quiet but vibrant town.  You know you need to know what comes next. 

As the humble, happy residents prepare their harvest festival, every living being within the town limits suddenly faints, causing a fatal car crash and a self-barbecue on an outdoor grill.  Precisely six hours later, everyone, except for the aforementioned unfortunates, awakes.  Ten females are now pregnant.

The government sends in scientists who aren't telling all they know.  The scientific team, represented by Dr. Susan Verner, offers a stipend of $3,000 per month to each family that promises to submit its special alien offspring to the scientific team's regular examinations.  For this rural community in mid-twentieth-century America, it is a princely sum.  All of the women - apparently also influenced by coercive alien dreams - decide to carry their pregnancies to term.

Having conceived on the same day, the women all go into labor on the same night in a spartan makeshift blue tent with fabric partitions.  A teenager's delivery causes Dr. Verner to shortly declare "I'm sorry, it's stillborn" and to wrap up the remains and spirit them away before anyone else can see them.  She rebuffs the local doctor and the priest when they inquire after the dead baby.  The other nine women, however, give birth to apparently normal babies with pale, angelic, round, smiling faces that command the affection of their fathers and mothers, despite the fathers' lurking suspicion that they are not the biological parents.

Things go wrong when the children are a few months old.  They are not merely silver-haired and preternaturally intelligent, but far more hideously, they have metallic irises that can turn their evil spoogly gaze on anyone who affronts them and thereby control the person's mind to compel them to inflict self-injury.  Mara, sitting in her high chair, is offended that her mother served her soup that was too hot.  She stares at her mother until her mother sticks her own arm elbow-deep into the boiling soup pot and soon afterward by a similar psychic transmission she compels her mother to jump off a cliff.  Her father, Alan Chaffee, who is the town's physician, mourns the loss of his wife and he tells Dr. Verner that he will no longer participate in the medical research program.  Dr. Verner is undeterred from her overall program, reporting with melodramatic gravity that "it is now of interest to national security that we continue to carefully monitor their developing powers."

By the time the silver-haired children have reached the apparent age of about eight, they have put a stranglehold on the town, which has fallen into disrepair, marred by rusting vehicles and weeds.  The children walk in formation, four boy-girl pairs, led by Mara and followed by the unpaired ninth, a shy runt, David.  His powers are curtailed by the absence of the tenth child who supposedly died at birth and would have been his mate.  David is able to learn about empathy.  Although he causes the bereaved teenage mother of his stillborn mate to commit suicide with a pistol (simply by communicating the thought to her psychically), David has an empathic breakthrough when he understands that Dr. Chaffee mourns the loss of his wife just as he mourns the loss of his mate.

The townspeople become increasingly panicked by the mounting carnage and furious at the .  At the sparsely attended funeral of the teenager who killed herself, the priest accuses the silver-haired children of being mere facsimiles of human beings who have only a collective mind rather than individual souls.  Soon there is all-out warfare between the adults and the children.  The alcoholic school janitor hits a boy in the head with his broomstick; the children spoogly-eye him until he backs up a ladder onto the roof, falls forward onto a truck and impales himself.  The children request that their parents allow them to live in a barn outside town; when one worried father arrives to rescue his child, the children's eyes glow brightly like headlights and compel him to drive into a fuel tank.

Dr. Verner reveals to Dr. Chaffee the horrible dead alien baby that she apparently keeps in a jar, illuminated by blue light.  By further research she finds out that this sort of alien pregnancy has happened before and that all of those towns were eventually destroyed since "they couldn't get out without the children knowing."  This information is too little, too late.  Mara is able to read her father's mind and she is upset that he knows about the other failed towns.  "So the question becomes, should you be allowed to live?" she asks matter-of-factly.

Fulfilling a prophecy made by the janitor, the priest sets himself up as a sniper to kill the children, but they force him to turn his gun against himself, ironically committing the sin of suicide against which he preached.  The townspeople congregate in a mob with torches to destroy the children, but they cause the leader to self-immolate.  The police arrive and only massacre each other.  The children even down a helicopter just by looking at it.  Dr. Verner, at last, is punished by being compelled to vivisect herself under the full-strength glowing eyes of her research subjects.  Only David is too uncomfortable to participate.

With no time to lose, Dr. Chaffee cooks up a plan to beat the children at their own game.  The final scene has a special resonance for viewers who know that Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Dr. Chaffee, suffered a severe, life-changing accident one month after the release of this film.

The 1995 film is based on John Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos. The plot is rather predictable but it is still creepy. This was a box-office dud that nevertheless earned its place in B-movie history for its unabashed portrayal of spoogly-eyed children.