Saturday, December 31, 2016

Trump As Ingenue

Marx was a genius; in fact, he was a super-genius. He had a theory of economics, of sociology, of history, of revolution, and a moral idealistic theory. The whole shmear. So much of what he said 150 years ago is in common usage that, like Shakespeare, sometimes you read what he wrote and think, it's just a lot of old sayings. “Dictatorship of the proletariat”; “the first time as tragedy the second time as farce”, “ownership of the means of production.” In fact, there is so much, you can pick and choose what you use and what you believe, and who's to say whether or not you are a Marxist?

Is Putin a Marxist? Yes, I think he understands much of the world in terms of Marxism. You can't be trained for years on end in Marxism and not come to think in those terms as second nature. When he thinks of “capitalism,” reams and reams of material must bubble up inside him. He must accept much of Marxist thought, probably the labor theory of value and how capital is generated, relations between the classes, the inevitable conflicts that capitalism and imperialism generates in search of markets. All that.

But to understand the world in Marxist terms is not necessarily to accept Marxist ideals. Certainly Russian communism has incorporated nationalism since Stalin's time. Only an ultra-dedicated Marxist can look at Marx's predictions and say they are OK, that we just aren't there yet. He predicted conflicts and wars that wouldn't come, he predicted the rise of the proletariat that wouldn't come, he predicted a classless society that wouldn't come. And lots more. Part of the problem is that no one can predict the future, because it is just unknowable. But another part is what we ourselves bring to our predictions, which in the case of Marx was probably wishful thinking. Wouldn't it be nice if there were to be a heaven on earth? Wouldn't it be nice if everyone were treated fairly (ignoring that “fair” is not an objective terms, but a very subjective one.) Wouldn't that justify the wars and hardship and misery of the world, if there were a heaven at the end of it? And since God is obviously a myth, the heaven will need to be on earth.

Well, good luck with that. After enough time had elapsed to show that Marx was not a reliable guide to the future, but that his analysis of society often did indeed hold up, then the Russians who were supposed to continue to be “Marxists” could pick and choose what elements of belief would be enough for them to be so qualified. What Putin and his ilk have chosen not to believe is the heaven on earth part. He believes the analysis part, just not the idealism part. The masses will always be the masses, Russia will always have a vast peasantry in outlook, even if many of them are no longer down on the farm.

Meanwhile, while the masses are the continuing mass, what's so bad about capitalism? What's wrong with state capitalism? Who says we have to treat the masses to economic prosperity? With our understanding of economics and society, and with the understanding of power that we have achieved in the last 100 years thanks to the ascent of Lenin – what's wrong with our benefitting from it as a class ascendant? What is wrong with being rich and powerful? After all, we can get the traditional Orthodox Church – it was wrong to suppress them – to bless us and be complicit. “Opiate of the masses,” bah! It's good for them to believe, it makes them happy, and why should we stand in the way of that? Add in nationalism and patriotism, a history and expectation of authoritarianism, all of which can substitute for economic health, and you have a winning formula, as long as you have no ideals and no guilty conscience. Go forth and conquer, and if you can't conquer, at least get rich.

In other words, yes, Putin is a Marxist. If you put a check box next to all the elements of Marxism, he would check most of them. He just wouldn't check the idealistic part.

Which brings us to the subject of Donald Trump. What is Donald Trump seen through the Marxist filter? Not a stupid man, but a very narrow man, a classic caricature of a capitalist. Lenin's description of a capitalist fits him well: a man who “will sell us the rope with which we will hang him.” (Another old saying.)

Not a cultured man, not a man of taste, not a man of learning, not a man who understands government, and indeed, not a man who understands and reveres the American theory of democracy. He does not understand the long history of English polity, the rise of parliamentary government, the problems with royalty and aristocracy, the difficulties of finding the enlightened popular will. What he sees is the world of the capitalist. The reference group for Trump is businessmen. His idea of quality was and is to get the best businesspeople (as long as they will be loyal to him) in government, along with some generals. What a high it must be for Trump, the proprietor of a family business, to have the real major leaguers answering to him! The head of ExxonMobil, the guys who have made real money, the real corporatists.

“Where can we do business, and with whom can we do it?” That's Trump's world, which is easy for any student of Marxism-Leninism to understand. Like Putin, Trump doesn't have an ounce of idealism in him. Like Putin, he understands the power of lies, the importance of capturing the attention of the nation without the use of an independent filter of a press, the rapture of immediacy. Tell your story and don't let a counterstory emerge, that's the ticket. Putin likes his shirt off, Trump speaks Queens-ese. Think they can do business together? They think so.

So Vladimir and Donald have a business communality. Beyond that, however, and of course, are their vast differences. What strikes me most is the difference in global sophistication. Putin has been playing this game his whole life. He has seen the Cold War from the inside, he has experienced East Germany, the Stasi, the fall of the Wall, the fall of the Empire, the resurrection from the ashes to the new Empire, the new nationalism. So much, so much.

Trump has had bankruptcies and near bankruptcies, and a migration of his business to one of branding. Globally? He'll be winging it. Where Putin has Marxism, national eclipse and rejuvenation in his back pocket, Trump has … business. Just business. Forget all the personality and character deficiencies. What is his sense of Putin, of Russia, of the world? To Trump, he must see Putin as a businessman ascendant, just like himself. The questions of policy will resolve themselves into, where can we do business, and with whom? He is a realist in the sense that he rejects any concern with the welfare of people anywhere but in the US, and it's questionable how much he is concerned about the US. If he ever thinks about it, which he may not do seriously, he is a trickle down man. He admires Putin because Putin knows how to exercise power, he has succeeded in a crowded field, become very rich, divorced his wife to be with a flight attendant, and doesn't have to bother with public criticism. “What's wrong with that as an ideal?” thinks Donald.

And this is going to be a problem. Donald as ingenue, smiling as he comes on stage, snarling behind the stage and those who would keep him off stage, it's doubtful that he looks into Vladimir's eyes and sees KGB, as he should. If Donald thinks Ukraine is far, far away, and the “stans” not worth thinking about, in fact natural parts of the Russian Empire, Russia will simply regrow like a briar patch. Does that matter to anyone outside the briar patch? Many would say yes, that growth and influence of an inevitably antagonistic force, an autocracy that itself needs to feed off the labor of others, an anti-liberal societal force, a force historically dedicated to aggression under cover of defense – many would say that this is a problem, that you can't just say “shut your door so I can't hear what you're doing.”

Of course, that could be wrong. I'm frequently wrong – just ask my kids. Or just ask me, I'm my own most severe critic. Maybe being a non-interventionist friend will work after all. Maybe live and let live and let's make money together will work. Maybe the ingenue will be wily enough to escape with vital interests intact. Who knows?

But myself, I value the bourgeois virtues of what I see as freedom of thought, freedom of expression, the rule of law, the protection of the weak, the progress of fair competition, the steady increase in equality before the law and equality of opportunity, personal dignity, all those shibboleths. And I don't think that dancing with the big bad wolf is going to do us any good. I just wonder how and where Donald will lose his innocence. It could be bloody.

On the other hand, I take succor in thinking, you never know. You just never know. Hopefully.

Budd Shenkin

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sometimes It's Hard To See The Comedy

“The Human Comedy” escaped my understanding for a long time. I've never been the type to be removed from life, I'm always into it, reacting, being excited, fearing. “Comedy” is something you watch, and if you're nice and mature and secure, you watch yourself being part of it.

I mean, how can you view Trump as a part of a comedy? I do remember, though, going through the Reagan years. Ketchup is a vegetable, trees pollute, James Watt at Interior pretending to be a normal human being. Admiration of Reagan for his presentation skills and his anecdotary, surface over substance. Weinberger the hardliner, Meese the hardass. For that matter, I remember Nixon, all of which has been documented and was recalled regularly as each miscreant was released from jail. Martha Mitchell as a hero, that's how comedic it was.

How can “we survived” be a rallying cry? We did make progress, it's true, but how much of it was due to government is debatable. Look at the women. Disappointed as so many are – although look at the white women's vote for Trump to see how un-monolithic it is – look how many women are making it, even in Trumpland with the hateful Kellyanne and pathetic Hope Hicks. Still, they're there. And look at all the learned, skillful, intelligent African-Americans we see as journalists and academics on TV. Look at the protection people and cities offer to the immigrants among us – I remember who harbored the Jews and I'm ready to give back, as are so many of us. The power of the people, the movements, and I wonder if stupid Ava Duverney admits that LBJ had a point to him, looking back?

But again, look at how many didn't avail themselves of the Voting Act to actually vote. Look at the “left out” white working class who once again successfully voted against their interests. I doubt that many of them were sentimentally voting for their Russian heritage. Look at the ridiculous stooges parading to the Cabinet – what strategy will the Democrats adopt with too many targets in the range? Pick out one or two? Keep laying the record out and then vote them in by two votes or a tie broken by Pence who hopes to replicate the Cheney presidency? Talk about a swamp, here's one with bodies floating to the top.

It's pretty amazing that progress is made at all since, as I've become fond of quoting since the election, fully half of Americans have intelligence that is below the median. And paint them as victims as much as we like, and reluctant as we are to blame victims, it is those in the hinterlands, those who didn't leave, those who haven't had the ability to do much with themselves, those who don't even see what is being done to them, those who continue to elect jerks, those who don't understand that those who wrap themselves in the flag are deserving of immolation – they are the ones who just contributed to their own continued cultural and financial penury. I think I heard that it was those just above the median incomes voted most heavily for Trump – that's so typical, there is the real Republican heartland, keep those just below me down! But still, they wouldn't carry the day if … if … if only....

Give credit where credit is due – the Republicans are good businesspeople, in the narrow sense of the word. They keep their eye on their prize, they use money and organization to full effect, focusing on governorships and the House. They cringe at nothing. Russian influence? Big deal, let it play out. False implications by my nominee for Asshole of the Year, James (Hotshot) Comey? Just reporting to Congress. Think of Turtle McConnell's place in history, if history will still be written. It will have to be a day far from our own when treachery and treason are played as comedy.

But, God willing, that day will come. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and then for the rest of our lives, we will look back and remember, this is what we were faced with, and this is how we acted. Not rashly, not over the top, not hysterically, but thoughtfully, with appeals to reason, with appeals to the better emotions – what a phrase, “the better angels of our nature!” That is our challenge.

As Krugman says, “Personally, I’m still figuring out how to keep my anger simmering — letting it boil over won’t do any good, but it shouldn’t be allowed to cool. This election was an outrage, and we should never forget it.”

Don't worry, Paul. Thanks for continuing to lead. You will have no dearth of followers.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, December 10, 2016

And So It Goes

Hanging out at the body repair shop isn't usually a rollicking affair. But up at the corner of Ashby and Claremont at Cook's Collision, it's been pretty nice. The reception area there has some humanity to it. Maybe it's because body work is usually an insured transaction, so hard bargaining and tension are absent; it's more like we are all on the same side, especially because there is significant competition in the body repair business which makes customer service a priority, unlike the local drawing station of Quest Diagnostics the other day where the officious clerk used her hand to motion me to sit down over and to the side while she continued her phone conversation, and maybe because Cook's, even though they have multiple offices, is a family business. Maybe it's like when I ran Bayside and understood the importance of personal connections, and the importance of being on the same side, the importance of customer service. Or maybe it's just the people who work there at Cook's, and maybe because it's in Berkeley. Maybe everything.

So when an unaccounted for major indentation of the my left rear fender occasioned a visit to Cook's in the late afternoon of Tuesday, November 15, I heard the chatty staff person over in the corner say, “It's my birthday, and I'm going out!” “Really?” I said. “It's my birthday, too!” Which it was.

Matt, the Berkeley branch manager, is a 6'3”, 140 pound extroverted friendly guy with a dark little beard. He was out front handling me and my case at that moment, so he turned to me and said, “How old are you?”

I have to admit to a little bit of vanity on this – I stay in some semblance of shape with lifelong exercise and have favorable genetics. So I said, “How old do you think I am?” Matt and the birthday lady looked at me, made some calculations I guess, and pondered. Matt said, “Well, my Dad's 63, and you're younger than he is.”

“You're way off, “ I said. He looked at me, she looked at me, and I said, “I'm 75.”

“Wow!” they said. The lady said, “I thought maybe 50's or early 60's!” I felt great, we made our arrangements and I went home to prepare to go to Hawaii the next day. Even though it was the ¾ mark of a birthday, no festivities were planned, and off we went.

I renewed my acquaintance with the Cook's office as I kept the agreed upon repair appointment last Monday, with no fuss and bother but renewed helpfulness, and at 5:30 Thursday I was back in the rain to reclaim it, hoping to make it on time for my 6:30 book club meeting – 22 years and counting! – at the French Club in San Francisco (actually, Cercle de l'Union, on Mason Street, but known to one and all as “the French Club.”) A spirited, slim dark haired lady in her 40's was there, too, picking up her car; we told our receptionist that our cars were a 2011 Infiniti (mine) and a 2007 Prius (hers). The receptionist called over the loudspeaker, with brio, “Bring out the gray Infinity M56S and the red Prius!”
And then here came Matt, renewing our acquaintance with his now immortal first words, “Happy birthday!” Mrs. Prius looked on interestedly with a little smile. I thought Matt was pretty funny, so nice, spirited. And the lady behind the desk was also spirited, happy, engaging. Matt unpromptedly told us his history – here at Cook's for 11 years, rising to be manager and making pretty good money, ever since graduating college (unspoken: “I'm a college graduate!”) where he majored in “Women's Studies.” “Wow,” I said, “Women's Studies! That's great!”

Mrs. Prius joined in, agreeing how great it was. I said how I had come to appreciate the oppression of women much more seriously in the past few years, especially since granddaughter Lola appeared, and especially after seeing the emotions of women to Hillary, and how I looked back and realized the barriers to my mother's generation and my own generation, and how younger women don't appreciate enough what others had done for them. Mrs. Prius agreed, and said she was the main bread winner in her family, had two kids, worked full time, sometimes was torn between work and kids, etc. “Wow,” we said. “That's not easy. I don't know how women do it,” I added. Also, “But sometimes you get to work, look around and say, I'm free!” Smiles and agreement.

Mrs. Prius said how happy she was that people were understanding it now, although she said, here we are in Berkeley, and around here conversations are probably different from the rest of the country. “Probably so,” we agreed. She said we were lucky to live here, silently acknowledging the bubble phenomenon.

Then Matt caught sight of the bottle of white wine I had on the counter. “What's with that?” he asked. I said I was going to book club after I got the car.

Everyone lit up. “Hey,” said the receptionist, “Can I come to 'book club'?” with air parentheses and a big laugh. “Yeah,” said Matt, “sounds like 'book club' is a good deal!” More air parentheses. Mrs. Prius was a full participant. “'Book club'!”

What a wonderful collection of strangers. And then when I told Matt I've have to come back to get my wife's car fixed – unaccounted for damage of the right front headlight area – he said, “Just call and come in and I'll see if we can do it cheap, parts at cost, and you don't have to call insurance.” I told him he could work for me anytime. I was sorry I wouldn't see Mrs. Prius again. She was really a doll, so engaging and fun.

Then it was off to “book club.” It took me about 1 ½ hours to drive in the rain to the French Club and I was late, but the meal hadn't yet been served and there was a seat ready for me at the head of the table next to Jeff. Everyone agreed that we avoid driving into the city as much as we can, now that traffic is such a killer. The dinner was fabulous, butter nut squash soup, trout, bison steaks, three cheeses, Busch de Noël, and my wine and others' wines, too. I ate too much. I was pleased that my wine was good. We discussed our dual assignment, Candide and L'Étranger, both of which I had read in French as well as English – my French isn't good enough to go without the translation by my side. Reading them slowly let me think more about them. We try to get something French for our annual trip to the French Club and Norman had just pulled these out of the air, adding the latter because the former is pretty short.

Even though Norman picked them out of the air, it seemed, I congratulated him on his inspiration – warranted, especially since many of his suggestions are anything but, which I reminded him of, of course – 22 years with ex-neighbor Norwegian Norman leads to some teasing, of course, mais naturellement. Both books were heavy on anti-clericalism, somewhat distressing to Jeff, who is a committed Catholic. More substantially, though, at least to this American reader, both of them, in their way, look for the truth of things. Candide is so funny, the ridiculous assertions of Pangloss that this is the best of all possible worlds and the deadpan recitation of acts betraying the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. Each cleric worse than the last. Spirituality is one thing, religion and churches another. Larry, the professor of drama at SF State and an increasingly committed Jew, didn't like or respect Candide, but I liked Candide, and I sympathized with Meursault. Jeff, a committed Catholic, was distressed as well and didn't like L'Étranger, understandably. It's possible that no one resonated to my comparison but Tom, my fellow physician who I recruited for the group years ago and who treasures and reveres the book club and whose wife died last year and who is still grieving and to whom we all raised a glass and dedicated it to Ida Jean. My comparison was that scientists look to distinguish pattern from noise, but that in the world of searching for meaning, what you mostly find is noise, unless it is the World War II enemy sending code to its ships and overseas commanders. But when Pangloss looks to understand everything as the best it can ever be, imposing a pattern where clearly it doesn't exist, and when Meursault's priest similarly tries to evoke the religious best from Meursault, the authors are depicting noise misunderstood as message.

Meursault isn't so different from Candide, just more passive, less passionate, and more removed from his feelings. He's resistant to the made up stories of convention; what happens if we just tell the truth? I wonder if that isn't just a rationalization, however, ex post facto explanation of why we do what we do. Isn't he depressed? With that opening sentence, his mother isn't just incidental. Wasn't that a disappointment, that they didn't have much to say to each other, and his recitation of the funeral is full of details of who did what and said what, and the sun, and that's pretty much it, then back to work? She comes up now and again, kind of like Holden Caulfield's dead brother Allie comes up recurrently here and there, never making too fine a point on it, and Holden finally gets hospitalized while Meursault gets guillotined. Not to put too fine a point to it. Beware of non-conformity, and beware of depression behind it.

We could have continued this exploration if the guys had accepted my nomination for the next book as Danny Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, a study of errors of cognition among other things, but they opted for Hillbilly Elegy instead, which won't be a bad book although it's pretty trendy.

I've never cottoned to “What is the meaning of life?” which I have always found pretty meaningless. Instead, I think, who cares? When I said that, Jeff, who had orchestrated a little applause for me when I came late because everyone knew I had just had dental surgery two days before but was still determined to come, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “We care, Budd.” And he does, and they do. It's an amazing group, put together by Norman who just ups and does things because it's the right thing to do. He also collects warm jackets for charity at Christmas.

I had said the same thing to my friend Bob, when he took me to lunch on Monday, the day before the surgery, the day I took my car in. I asked him if he remembered how we had started taking each other out in celebration of our birthdays and he said no. I told him it was his idea, that he had said, this is what women do for each other, why shouldn't we? He didn't remember. But I did. I've got a very good memory, it seems. Good hippocampus.

My Dad observed late in life that love, or real caring for, flows downward. He meant that you never feel about anyone the way you feel about your kids. Not that kids don't love their parents, they do, but it's just different, that's all. He put it in a way that he would generally do it, with a hook, not exactly a complaint, but there was some of the “who will take care of me?” in it. Especially for someone like him who was raised by a mother who always wondered who would take care of her. He got himself off to a good retirement home, prematurely perhaps, and said in defense of this decision, “You all don't want to be stuck with me, do you?” A preemptive act of love, or defense?

So when I think who cares about me, I think about my parents, and how they care about me. To some extent it's a straightjacket, you can't give up on yourself, but that's not a bad thing, unless you wind up living their lives instead of your own.

I told Bob this: “I say, when I come down to it, I know my parents love me. But then people will say, 'Your parents are dead.' I'll tell them, 'Not to me, they're not!'” Bob laughed. Call it introjected love of self if you want, but I don't need to bow to the dictates of time and decay and death, do I, really? They can still live in me, and I'm hoping the best feelings of me will live in my kids, and my granddaughter, and other descendants if I get to be with them, not the bad parts hopefully, but the good ones, predominantly, anyway.

Besides our memory of being cared for and loved as children, there is the love and company of spouse, so important and precious. Taking care of others is an underrated benefit; they need to allow you to do it, for your own benefit. And of family, the company of friends, and come to think of it, the company of strangers. Let people decry the segmentation of society into groups who feel the same and live with each other and encounter each other only to find common feelings and beliefs, even at the body shop, but I'm not sure that's so bad a thing. I wish I could have taken the three of them – receptionist, Matt, and Mrs. Prius – to “book club” with me. They would have enjoyed it.  I definitely think they wanted to sample my white wine.

Budd Shenkin

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Five Senses, Plus At Least One

The day of the amateur scientist is gone. Everything is professionalized, even sports! Bigger and better, everything!

So, when I start to think I have something in mind that is new, I know that can't be correct. It isn't correct, it can't be.

But anyway, I thought I'd check it out. Here's the thing: traditionally, we recognize five senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Fair enough, but this is a small and restrictive list. There is always talk about a Sixth Sense, often in sci-fi mode. It's mystical. ESP – like a ghost sense. I don't believe in that – even though I've thought from time to time that I've had something, like the time I played 20 questions and got to “German composer starting with the letter 'h'” without missing one question (it turned out to be Hindemith). But I don't believe in voices of the dead or ghosts or crap like that. Or the vague sense that he's no longer there.

It's true that other animals have senses we don't have – like radar or magnetism. We might have some of that that we're not quite conscious of. Certainly other animals perceive the world around them differently from the way we do because of their different balancing of their senses – imagine how a sense of smell orients a fish, for instance, think what their world is like. Our book club read a book that sought to explore that – what would it be like to be an otter, or a swift? (Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster – my advice, do not read.) We are primarily vision and hands, and then big forebrain, I think.

But what struck me was something that we use all the time but somehow has not been described as a sense. That is this: the Sense of Time. We have it, we all know that, but somehow it may not have been described as a sense. It's kind of mysterious because it is one of those things that pops up, that isn't under our conscious control or even our conscious supervision. And time itself is always mysterious.

There is the straightforward sense of “How long has it been? It seems like it's been 20 minutes, doesn't it?” Check on your watch and it's been 19 minutes. Somewhere we have a sense of time, click click click.

It's also somehow different because it gets distorted, depending on what we're doing. If I'm on the computer writing something, time passes “quickly,” and it's time to go before I know it. So, there is some lack of precision depending on circumstances. But that variability also shows that it's there.

Then there's time at night – how do we know how long we have been asleep? Somehow, I tend to know, but I don't know how I know.

Also, what about the phenomenon of awakening just before the alarm goes off? Who hasn't that happened to? How does that work, exactly? I sure don't know, but I know it does. There is the same wonder as when something pops into our head we've been looking for, or even what we weren't looking for. Pop, pop, click, click.

So, as I say, this is not the time for us to simply appear at the Royal Academy of Science and make a short address to the learned ones in attendance and have observations and thoughts recorded in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy by the secretary, to be noted years later when the functional MRI depicts exactly where and how such calculations are made in the brain, and how they come not to be sensed directly by the executive function. If one wants to establish precedence, one can't be an amateur off the street. One needs to be established to be famous.

So, time as a sense must have been thought of before, right? Of course it has been! Of course.

So I looked it up on Google and found this: The Five Senses -- Great little discussion. Talks about some other senses that might be described, which I had thought about myself. The interoceptive senses that perceive states within the body – you feel hot. What about feeling thirsty? The author says: “Humans have other senses that they are aware of, outside of the Traditional Senses. Senses like Balance, Temperature, Kinesthetic sense, and Pain.” GREAT! No sense of time listed!

So, I'm not looking any further. I figure, it's now in the Proceedings of Budd's Blog, as of today. Forget being first to the pole, that's so passé.

Actually, to be serious, I bet that functional MRI's are going to chart a whole bunch of neuron complexes firing off, and they'll chart what set them off, and where the firing went, and get all our known senses charted, and then some we don't know about will be discovered – what was it that set that firing off? Ah-hah, it was … what? Something. And they'll trace to where the firing landed, and maybe even see unconscious adjustments made by the human being. And some will remain a mystery for a long time. They will also compare species, and see just how different we all are. The problem of the brain will go on for a long time.

What a great mystery.

Budd Shenkin