2020 Won’t Be 2016 (or 2000)

We’re entering what’s been called and what’s going to be “the longest two weeks in human history”. A neuroscientist who writes for Scientific American says we shouldn’t worry too much about what’s going to happen:

Will we be surprised again this November the way Americans were on Nov. 9, 2016 when they awoke to learn that reality TV star Dxxxx Txxxx had been elected president?

. . . Another surprise victory is unlikely to happen again if this election is looked at from the same perspective of neuroscience that I used to account for the surprising outcome in 2016. Briefly, that article explained how our brain provides two different mechanisms of decision-making; one is conscious and deliberative, and the other is automatic, driven by emotion and especially by fear.

Txxxx’s strategy does not target the neural circuitry of reason in the cerebral cortex; it provokes the limbic system. In the 2016 election, undecided voters were influenced by the brain’s fear-driven impulses—more simply, gut instinct—once they arrived inside the voting booth, even though they were unable to explain their decision to pre-election pollsters in a carefully reasoned manner.

In 2020, Txxxx continues to use the same strategy of appealing to the brain’s threat-detection circuitry and emotion-based decision process to attract votes and vilify opponents. . . .

But fear-driven appeals will likely persuade fewer voters this time, because we overcome fear in two ways: by reason and experience. Inhibitory neural pathways from the prefrontal cortex to the limbic system will enable reason to quash fear if the dangers are not grounded in fact. . . .

A psychology- and neuroscience-based perspective also illuminates Txxxx’s constant interruptions and insults during the first presidential debate, steamrolling over the moderator’s futile efforts to have a reasoned airing of facts and positions. The structure of a debate is designed to engage the deliberative reasoning in the brain’s cerebral cortex, so Txxxx annihilated the format to inflame emotion in the limbic system.

Txxxx’s dismissal of experts, be they military generals, career public servants, scientists or even his own political appointees, is necessary for him to sustain the subcortical decision-making in voters’ minds that won him election and sustains his support. . . . In his rhetoric, Txxxx does not address factual evidence; he dismisses or suppresses it even for events that are apparent to many, including global warming, foreign intervention in U.S. elections, the trivial head count at his inauguration, and even the projected path of a destructive hurricane. Instead, “alternative facts” or fabrications are substituted.

. . . Reason cannot always overcome fear, as [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] demonstrates; but the brain’s second mechanism of neutralizing its fear circuitry—experience—can do so. Repeated exposure to the fearful situation where the outcome is safe will rewire the brain’s subcortical circuitry. This is the basis for “extinction therapy” used to treat PTSD and phobias. For many, credibility has been eroded by Txxxx’s outlandish assertions, like suggesting injections of bleach might cure COVID-19, or enthusing over a plant toxin touted by a pillow salesman, while scientific experts in attendance grimace and bite their lips.

In the last election Txxxx was a little-known newcomer as a political figure, but that is not the case this time with either candidate. The “gut -reaction” decision-making process excels in complex situations where there is not enough factual information or time to make a reasoned decision. We follow gut instinct, for example, when selecting a dish from a menu at a new restaurant, where we have never seen or tasted the offering before. We’ve had our fill of the politics this time, no matter what position one may favor. Whether voters choose to vote for Txxxx on the basis of emotion or reason, they will be better able to articulate the reasons, or rationalizations, for their choice. This should give pollsters better data to make a more accurate prediction.

Unquote.

Pollsters did make an accurate prediction of the national vote in 2016 (Clinton won it). Most of them didn’t taken into account the Electoral College, however, or anticipate the last-minute intervention by big-mouth FBI Director James Comey.

In 2000, the Electoral College result depended on an extremely close election in one state. That allowed the Republicans on the Supreme Court to get involved. There’s no reason to think that will happen again, despite the president’s hopes that it will.

When Our Votes Will Be Counted

With so many ballots being mailed or otherwise submitted before Election Day, people are wondering when we’ll know the results. The good news is that only four states wait until Election Day to begin processing ballots. I think this means Election Night will provide some blessed relief, especially if states let us know what percentage of the ballots have been counted (the percentage of “precincts reported” probably won’t be as meaningful this year). Even if the result isn’t clear that night, it should be clear by the next day.

I say that because I’m convinced this election won’t be very close. Millions of voters gave the maniac the benefit of the doubt four years ago. Now they know what they had to lose (jobs, health, peace of mind, not hearing about a dangerous fool every day, etc.).

This is from The New York Times, which has more information about the process.

Untitled

E Pluribus Unum, For Better Or Worse

Perhaps you’ve looked at a map and thought it might be a good idea if the United States came apart at the seams. I have. If only we could make those other people go away!

Abraham Lincoln didn’t agree, of course, but he never met our current president or Mitch McConnell. 

Akim Reinhardt, a history professor in Maryland, says we should seriously consider the idea:

Is there anything more clichéd than some spoiled, petulant celebrity publicly threatening to move to Canada if the candidate they most despise wins an election? These tantrums have at least four problems:

1. As if Canada wants you. Please.
2. Mexico has way better weather and food than Canada. Why didn’t you threaten to move there? Is it because of all the brown people? No, you insist. Is it the language? Well then if you do make it to Canada, here’s hoping they stick you in Quebec.
3. New Zealand seems to be the hip new Canada. I’ve recently heard several people threaten to move there. News flash, Americans: New Zealand wants you even less than Canada does.
4. [Note: #4 isn’t really a problem so I’m leaving it out.]

. . . I’ve got a much better alternative: Stay put and begin a serious, adult conversation about disuniting the states.

If, through the vagaries of the Electoral College, 45% of U.S. voters really do run this nation into an authoritarian kleptocratic, dystopian ditch, then instead of fleeing with your gilded tail between your legs, stay and help us reconfigure the nation. It might be the sanest alternative to living in Txxxx’s tyranny of the minority, in which racism and sexism are overtly embraced, the economy is in shambles, the pandemic rages unabated, and abortion may soon be illegal in most states as an ever more conservative Supreme Court genuflects to corporate interests and religious extremists.

And of course it cuts both ways. Should current polls hold and Joe Biden manage to win the election with just over half the popular vote, those on the losing side will be every bit as upset. So upset that they too would likely open to a conversation about remaking an America.

Indeed, no matter how this turns out, about half the nation will feel like they can no longer live with what America is becoming, even as they live in it. The losing side, whichever it may be, will want to wrest this country back from those who seem increasingly alien to them. So perhaps national salvation comes when the winning side remains open to a discussion the losers will launch about radically redesigning the United States. . . .

It is time for the rest of us to begin a serious discussion about national disincorporation. About disuniting the states. Because no matter who wins, about half the nation will not want to live with it. Tens of millions of Americans on the losing side will not trust the winner to govern fairly, competently, or with the nation’s best interests at heart.

It’s a recipe for disaster. We need to get ahead of this discussion. . . .

Let me be clear. I am not advocating a unilateral declaration of secession and military assault on federal installations like the treasonous, Confederate slave-owners did in 1861. Rather, I am advocating serious discussions about untangling this fractured nation. For finding a peaceful, constitutional solution that either dissolves or drastically reconfigures the United States.

I believe it may be the most sensible and mature approach to dealing with a deeply riven partisan divide that has done nothing but worsen these last forty years, and increasingly breeds mutual frustration and resentment among tens of millions of Americans. The U.S. constitutional system is predicated on compromise, and the Republican Party has spent the last quarter-century working against compromise with increasing fervency. That’s not a smear, it’s a statement of fact. It’s a central tenet of their politics. Republicans are openly dismiss compromise and try to get everything they want and accept nothing they don’t.

It has become dysfunctional. And it’s not going to change anytime soon. . . .

Though perhaps unfathomable at first glance, we may actually be nearing the point where a majority of Americans are ready to call it quits on our current national incarnation. . . .

After all, in the world of national governments, 231 years is a really long time. And it wouldn’t even be our first rodeo.

We have done this before. The Constitution, drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1789, peacefully replaced an earlier form of United States national government organized under the Articles of Confederation. Yes, drafting the Constitution and getting the nation to adopt it over the Articles were difficult processes, hardly perfect, and engendered a fair bit of acrimony at the time. But it came about, peacefully (for the most part), and led to something that’s lasted well over two centuries.

Is it so impossible then to imagine the United States reconfiguring itself once again?

Of course a new United States could take many shapes. . . .

But regardless of what shape it might take, perhaps the most important thing is to have the conversation. Like adults. To talk about what it means to share national governance; how it’s working to our satisfaction, and how it’s not; and what we might do to improve it. . . .

Or perhaps, irony wins the day. Maybe serious discussion about disunion actually help decrease partisan tensions. Simply broaching the topic in a serious manner may force many Americans to recognize how close we are to losing we’ve always known.

Or perhaps such discussions really do lead many Americans to decide that it’s time to replace We the People, with You and Us the People.

Unquote.

Prof. Reinhardt has a few ideas about how this dismemberment might be accomplished. We might become two or three nations; change the Constitution to give more power to individual states; combine states or divide them up, etc. To use two old phrases, thinking about dividing the U.S. is a parlor game and a pipe dream.

Here’s one reason. Although we think of blue states and red states, some of them are purple. In addition, if you drill down further, America is an even greater mixture of blue and red. This is a map with counties marked blue or red depending on how they voted in 2016, with each county assigned space on the map based on its population.

countycartrb512

Assigning either blue, red or purple to each county based on the percentage that voted one way or the other would make it even harder to separate us by our political leanings.

I think a better and more practical solution will be to reinstate majority rule in the United States by making the Electoral College obsolete, getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate and granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. That would allow the federal government to pursue more progressive policies, which would help the economy, allow more social ills to be addressed and reduce inequality.

We also need to remove some of the emotion surrounding three issues: abortion, gun control and the Supreme Court. Abortions are already becoming more rare; putting more emphasis on education and birth control would reduce them further. Private ownership of guns is here to stay; but somehow we need to do what the majority of Americans want, i.e.  institute sensible gun control. A revised, clarified Second Amendment might allow us to do that while protecting a citizen’s “right to bear arms”. The Supreme Court has become too political. I’d add three seats, so we’d have 12 justices evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. No more 5-4 decisions. If a ruling can’t get a majority, let the lower court decision stand. 

Maybe thinking about how we could make America a better country for people on the right and left and in the middle is also a parlor game and a pipe dream. It seems to me, however, that a more perfect union is within our grasp if we make the effort. It would be much harder to make those other people go away.

A Bit of Chomsky, A Lot More Kubrick

Noam Chomsky and Stanley Kubrick were both born to Jewish parents in 1928 in big cities on the East Coast (Philadelphia and New York, respectively). I don’t know if they ever met. Chomsky, whom Wikipedia describes as a linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist, recently gave an interview to Truthout, the non-profit news organization. These two paragraphs are receiving attention:

What is happening in the U.S., India and Brazil . . . cannot fail to evoke memories of the early 1930s . . . . One common feature is the fanatic adoration of the Maximal Leader by his loyal followers. There is one curious difference. Mussolini and Hitler were providing their worshippers with something: social reforms, a place in the sun. Trump is stabbing them in the back with virtually every legislative and executive action, and seriously harming the U.S. in the international arena. The same is true of his companions in arm in India and Brazil.

Trump’s commitment to cause maximal suffering to the American population is stunning to behold. It goes well beyond his truly colossal crimes: racing towards the abyss of environmental catastrophe and sharply increasing the threat of nuclear war. In far lesser ways, once again no stone is left unturned in ways to cause severe harm to the public.

I think Chomsky’s analysis of our political situation is too apocalyptic, except when he warns about our inadequate response to climate change. You can read the whole interview at Truthout.

I found a Washington Monthly article about my favorite director more rewarding. It’s a review of a new biography, Stanley Kubrick, American Filmmaker, by David Mikics, that apparently analyzes Kubrick’s body of work in a way that sounds simplistic but makes a lot of sense:

In America, we are in a season of political rebellion. Throughout the country, protests have become a part of everyday life. Some of them are righteous (the Black Lives Matter movement wants to end police brutality and systemic racism); some of them are not (armed conservatives are pushing states to reopen before it’s safe). . . . And perhaps no artist has more frequently captured the essence of rebellion—whether personal or collective in nature—than Stanley Kubrick. 

Consider his body of work. Spartacus (1960) chronicles the eponymous Roman gladiator who led a slave revolt. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) reaches its climax when a sentient computer tries to kill off his crew once he learns that they plan to disable him. Barry Lyndon (1975) tells the saga of an incorrigible 18th-century trickster who rejects his family of Irish farmers to ingratiate himself in the British aristocracy. The Shining (1980) shows a man’s descent into madness as he plots to murder his wife and son. Full Metal Jacket (1987) takes its biggest turn when a Parris Island Marine trainee shoots his draconian drill instructor.

It’s fitting that Kubrick focused heavily on rebels. He was one. That’s one of the major takeaways from a new biography by David Mikics . . .  Kubrick did poorly in school—was simply “not interested,” he said—and didn’t go to college, much to the chagrin of his New York Jewish middle-class parents, who owed their livelihoods to their education. Instead of college, Kubrick spent his early 20s as a photographer and made extra cash by competing in chess tournaments. . . .

The rebellions of Kubrick’s characters, however, almost always came up short. In Spartacus, the revolt fails. In 2001, HAL’s scheme falls apart. In Barry Lyndon, the protagonist’s story ends in terrible misfortune. In The Shining, Jack Torrance freezes to death. In Full Metal Jacket, the Marine trainee, Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, kills himself.

Kubrick’s rebellion, by contrast, served him well. He refused to follow Hollywood’s formulaic filmmaking clichés and was unafraid to touch on outré subjects (this is the man who made Lolita, after all). His films still won eight Academy Awards (Kubrick himself only won once, for special effects on 2001). Many were international box office hits. The most famous actors in all of Hollywood, like Jack Nicholson, would drop whatever they were doing to work with him. In the latter part of his career, he had a unique arrangement with Warner Brothers that let him make movies on all of his own terms. He is now widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers who ever lived.

In other words, Kubrick’s filmmaking life was marked by a fundamental contradiction. He was the consummate model of a rebel who succeeded, yet he spent his entire life making films about rebels who fail. 

. . . While taking photos for Look magazine in the late 1940s, he started going to movie screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, where he was introduced to foreign films. He . . . saw a lot of movies that didn’t meet his standards. “I know I can make a film better than that,” he would say. Soon, he started using the little money he had in savings—approximately $1,500—to rent camera equipment and make short movies.

His first was a 16-minute documentary on a boxing match, Day of the Fight. He sold it to RKO Production pictures for $100 more than it cost him to make it. That inspired him to quit his job at Look and turn to film full-time. He made a few more shorts before his first feature, Fear and Desire, which was a commercial flop but received enough critical appreciation that he was able to continue making movies. 

It took his third feature film, The Killing (1956), about a meticulously planned racetrack robbery gone wrong, for Kubrick to come into his own as an artist. The noirish film follows Johnny Clay, a veteran criminal who wants to pull off a final heist and leave town. It ends with Clay trying to get on a flight to Boston with a bag full of cash. When he arrives at the airport, the gate attendant won’t let him bring the bag as a carry-on because of its weight. Eventually, Clay lets him check it. Then, while he’s on the runway, Clay watches as a woman’s dog jumps from her arms. The baggage cart driver swerves to avoid hitting it, and the suitcase falls off and opens. The money goes flying into the air, scattered away by the airplane’s propellers. Clay and his girlfriend quickly try to leave the airport but realize the futility of attempting to escape—and are met by cops at the airport entrance. 

This was the first display of what would become the classic Kubrick plot. As Mikics writes, the director was “drawn to macho revolt, and to anything else that makes well-laid plans screw up royally.” It was a subject that stayed constant even as Kubrick later became an incredibly versatile filmmaker, bouncing from genre to genre. The director went from an antiwar movie to a historical epic to a dark comedy to a sci-fi to a dystopian movie to a period drama. Then he made a horror film, a war film (not the same as an antiwar film), and an erotic psychodrama. In each of these movies, men (they were always men) rebel in some form or fashion against their reality and surroundings.

A few of them deserve to succeed. In Paths of Glory (1957), for example, Kirk Douglas plays a French colonel whose unit refuses orders to invade an enemy anthill, and then stands up against the military establishment for seeking to punish his soldiers (had they carried out the order, they would effectively have been committing suicide). But most of Kubrick’s rebels are far less noble. Many, like The Shining’s Torrance, are full of a kind of masculine rage that destroys their capacity for rational thought.

Dr. Strangelove (1964) is an especially powerful example. Sterling Hayden plays a general who becomes impotent, has a psychotic breakdown, and ignores the chain of command so he can order a nuclear attack on the Soviets. He uses the bomb to replace the sexual release. This is a tale not so much of failed rebellion—his plan does, in fact, work—but of rebellion as a form of mental malfunction. 

The connection between rebellion and malfunction is also apparent in A Clockwork Orange (1971). The film is obviously about a rebel: a conscienceless youth gang leader named Alex who takes pleasure in violence and rape. But the film reaches its apex when he comes in contact with another rebel: the government’s minister of the interior, who controversially tries to reform Alex through an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico technique. . . . Once he’s released from jail, however, his former victims find him and torment him until he can’t take it anymore—and he tries to commit suicide.

Pretty soon, the news media picks up his story, civil society is outraged, and the menace becomes the victim: the subject of the minister’s brutality. The government then has to “uncondition” Alex to save face. The state’s plan completely backfires. The film ends with Alex being re-released into society just as dangerous as he was before.

Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange were clearly political. But many of Kubrick’s revolts were personal. His final movie, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), is centered around the theme of adultery. The film—the last to star Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as a married couple—follows Cruise as he ostensibly sets out on a voyage to cheat on his wife after she tells him she once considered having an affair. That includes him infiltrating a secret society’s masked orgy. Complications, however, get in the way, and he never follows through. When he confesses his adventures to his wife, she seemingly forgives him (the final lines of dialogue are some of Kubrick’s finest). But it still becomes an archetypal Kubrick story of failed rebellion. As Mikics writes, the film is essentially “a piquant fairy tale: male defiance is quickly foiled by fate, which brings the man back to where he started.”

For today’s aggressive conservative protestors—the mostly male demonstrators who march on statehouses bearing arms—Kubrick’s macho plot lines could prove prescient. Try as they might to act against others and increase their power, the rebels in Kubrick’s films are rarely able to get their way, or at least what they truly want. 

This may also be the case for Dxxxx Txxxx himself. The president already seems like a character out of Dr. Strangelove. The question is whether [his] unsteady revolt against American political institutions will end . . . like The Shining’s Jack Torrance’s revolt against his own mediocrity—in self-destruction. 

A hallmark of Kubrick’s rebels is that they almost always lose control of the situation. Johnny Clay’s heist itself succeeds, but is upended by a swerving luggage cart. The minister in A Clockwork Orange manages to reprogram Alex, but his efforts are then undone by societal backlash.

Mikics suggests that Kubrick’s preoccupation with catastrophe stems in part from his New York Jewish upbringing. . . . “Gentiles don’t know how to worry,” Kubrick once remarked. 
That may explain why Kubrick, unlike his characters, was a perfectionist. He was an exacting director who demanded dozens of takes. For the Vietnam set in Full Metal Jacket, which he filmed near his estate in England, he refused to use plastic props and instead imported 100,000 tropical plants from Hong Kong and more than 200 palm trees. He would edit and reedit his films seven days a week. . . .

Kubrick’s perfectionism was an indelible part of his filmmaking identity. In essence, it was a manifestation of his belief in hard work—that the way to successfully overcome adverse odds when rebelling is through carefully considering every little thing. This was one of the reasons he loved chess. He once said the game “teaches you . . . to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good,” but to “think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.”

. . . He loved telling cautionary tales of how rebels can go wrong. In a speech during the final months of his life, the director paid tribute to Icarus, the great rebel of Greek mythology, who tried to fly higher than his father by creating wings with wax and feathers but who plummeted to his death when the wax melted in the sun. 

In most classrooms, the story is taught as a lesson on the dangers of overreaching and needless ambition. But Kubrick shared a different analysis. He said, “I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘Don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as: Forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.”

Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems by Charles E. Lindblom

I began reading this book sometime around 1978. I finished it today. I don’t remember why I stopped reading it the first time. Through the years, I thought about picking it up again but never did. Until a few weeks ago.

Charles Lindblom (1917-2018) was a Yale professor of politics and economics. In Politics and Markets, he categorizes and analyzes the different ways nations are organized, concentrating on the relative roles played by governments and markets in countries ranging from the United States and United Kingdom on one end of the continuum to China, the Soviet Union and Cuba on the other. Since the book was published in 1977, he pays a lot more attention to communism than he would do today.

Reading this book is strange at times. Lindblom is describing something in great detail that you might feel you already know. Don’t we all understand how governments and markets work? Well, not as well as Prof. Lindblom did. (Still, if you had to teach relatively advanced students from another planet about the way governments and businesses operate on Earth, starting from scratch, Politics and Markets would make a very good text.)

The book left me with two main thoughts. The first is hardly a revelation: all countries, even Cuba circa 1976, are hybrids. All countries have governments, of course. But all of them also employ so-called “free markets” as well. No society is totally planned by the government, for good reasons. Even the most pervasive governments use markets for various purposes, as when money is paid to acquire consumer goods or to attract employees to better-paying jobs.

This makes China’s transition from a communist country to a leading participant in world markets easier to understand. The Chinese have retained the one-party control of communism while doing a better job at capitalism than many of their capitalist competitors. The issue is always what mechanisms (laws, regulations, civic education) should be used to insure that businesses are successful while serving the health and welfare of society. Neither total government control of the economy nor total freedom for business would make sense. 

The other thought is more surprising. We often hear that democracy and capitalism work well together. They say it’s something to do with freedom. Yet there is a serious conflict between democracy and big business. Lindblom explains how the people who run businesses must be encouraged or induced to keep the economy functioning. If government officials interfere too much (from the business perspective), companies can stop producing sufficient amounts of the goods and services the rest of us need, at prices we can afford. They can also decide to pay us to little to live on or employ too few of us. If business people don’t produce enough or raise prices too much, there’s inflation; if they don’t pay us enough or hire enough of us, there’s deflation.. 

Because big corporations are so important to the economic life of a nation, the unelected owners and managers of these firms wield great power. From the book’s final paragraphs:

. . . It is possible that the rise of the corporation has offset or more than offset the decline of class as an instrument of indoctrination. That the corporation is a powerful instrument for indoctrination we have documented earlier. That it has risen to prominence in society as class lines have muted is clear enough. That it creates a new core of wealth and power for a newly constructed upper class, as well an an overpowering loud voice, is also reasonably clear. 

The executive of the large corporation, is on, on many counts, the contemporary counterpart to the landed gentry of an earlier era, his voice amplified by the technology of mass communication. A single corporate voice on television, it has been estimated, can reach more minds in one evening than were reached from all the platforms of all the world’s meetings in the course of several centuries preceding broadcasting. More than class, the major specific institutional barrier to fuller democracy may therefore be the autonomy of the private corporation.

It has been a curious feature of democratic thought that it has not faced up to the private corporation as a peculiar organization in an ostensible democracy. Enormously large, rich in resources, the big corporations, we have seen, command more resources than do most government units. They can also, over a broad range, insist that government meet their demands, even if these demands run counter to those of citizens expressed through their polyarchal [rule by the many] controls. Moreover, they do not disqualify themselves from playing the partisan role of a citizen — for the corporation is legally a person. And they exercise unusual veto powers. They are on all these counts disproportionately powerful, we have seen. The large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit.

Lindblom doesn’t offer a solution, although he thinks more corporations might be treated like defense contractors or public utilities. The government would guarantee their profits while exerting significant control over their operations.

And with that, Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets can safely return to a bookcase to sit quietly for another 40 years. That’s if it escapes the recycling bin, or a natural disaster, since even excellent books don’t live forever.