Public Leaders Wanted: Rich Business and Tech Gurus Need Not Apply

Why do we listen to wealthy people with rapt attention, especially the “self-made” variety of the rich when they’re barstool-pontificating about public economic policy? After all, we rightfully roll our eyes when a B-list actor is given air time to blather: When was the last time you listened to Gary Busey’s or Stephen Baldwin’s armchair policy musings?

Part of the answer may be our strange but growing distrust of experts. But in this particular case, I think, the answer lies well within the predictable confines of our human nature. Even the smartest among us – professors, physicists, poets, and yes, sometimes politicians – must have daydreamed about being well-heeled at some point in our lives, as have the “ordinary people” who form the very backbone of our society: middle managers, plumbers, teachers.

Because most of us have wanted at some level, and at some time, to be wealthy (it’s okay to admit it), but have never achieved this despite our other personal and professional successes, it is quite natural for us to conclude that it takes a special intellectual ability not available to us mere mortals. Because the wealthy have achieved what is denied to most of us, we naturally believe that their business or entrepreneurial insights can be translated into other important areas of public endeavor – namely the fashioning public policy.

This is an enormous mistake based on a powerful myth.

The myth is the archetype of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, who through passion, initiative, verve, and with that undefined spark of persevering individualism, makes it to the top. There are no shortages of these examples within the pantheon of American Horatio Alger-like success stories. Most of them, perhaps not too surprisingly, are bullshit. The far more realistic example of America’s self-made success story is Saul Bellow’s Augie March, who bumbles his way through life to reach his financial reward by way of war and a wealthy benefactor.

Business success and wealth are, like many other good things in life, mostly the product of luck, including the luck of the happenstance of one’s birth. There are too many examples to fully illustrate in a short essay, but two stand out to me. One is Donald J. Trump, who he and his acolytes recursively tout as being a self-made billionaire, when he is anything but. His claim is that he started out with a “small” loan of $1 million from his father Fred and built his real estate empire on it. Yet, not only was he a trust fund kid with zero student loan debt and a lavish lifestyle, according to his own statements in public and revealed in depositions, he sucked daddy out of some $14 million, including an illegal casino loan, and later filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection six times, despite relying on special government tax breaks and inside connections. Moreover, according to Fortune, had Trump simply decided to invest his money in an index fund and sit poolside, farting his day away through a silk G-string, he would be far wealthier today, even if we were to believe his inflated estimates of his personal wealth. But his loyal consiglieres line up for cable news talk show interviews, eager to share why this “businessman” is the only hope for America because he can run the government like his business (apparently that means into the ground). Yet he’s never had to answer to a corporate board, much less shareholders. Why would anyone expect that he could effectively manage limited power within the framework of a tripartite government, which naturally requires political skill in building coalitions and allocating political capital in a disciplined way, even if he weren’t an egomaniacal fool with an obvious cognitive impairment? The answer is the cult of the self-made man, the genius of business success that must transcend the banality of bureaucratic government administration because the very belief in the dogma of laissez-faire, tooth and claw capitalist efficiencies requires it.

As they say in the restaurant industry, sell the sizzle, not the steak. Enough of the American body politic bought the sizzle, only to be left hungry, unable to eat the dry, fatty gristle that is Donald J. Trump. Trump, not surprisingly, is not immune to this psychological legerdemain, appointing his son in law Jared Kushner – himself a trust fund kid who inherited a New York real estate empire – to positions of responsibility for which he his wholly unqualified (but one must consider old-fashioned nepotism as well). Adding insult to injury, Trump recently defended appointing the richest cabinet in American history despite his campaign rhetoric railing against economic elites by saying, “I want people that made a fortune.”


Enter Peter Theil, the most prominent of Silicon Valley’s Trump supporters. Not unlike Trump, a privileged upbringing got him into an Ivy League school. He played it fast and loose in Silicon Valley, lost and made fortunes as a venture capitalist, co-founded Pay-Pal, and ran his now defunct hedge fund Clarium Capital Management into the ground. He is of course still unspeakably rich, and has lots of irons in the fire, including significant philanthropic works (to his credit no fake universities or fake charities). Unlike Trump, though, who isn’t smart enough to actually have a coherent political philosophy, Thiel is a devout Libertarian, which unfortunately – and almost by definition – makes him bat shit crazy. To cite one example, in 2008 he pledged a half million dollars to the Seasteading Institute, a harebrained initiative to create floating utopian communities beyond the jurisdiction of the laws of current nation states. A Silicon Valley visionary? No, just your average knucklehead given a platform because he has a fat wallet and the aura of a guru. And he’s thin skinned, too, not unlike the Tangerine Tornado himself. Thiel bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media to the tune of $10 million because he didn’t like their style of journalism (mostly hit pieces on the celebrities and the wealthy like himself). And now he’s under investigation for it.

He’s written books and is a favorite on the lecture circuit. Money buys one instant credibility, along with the presumption of being perspicacious. Like his Silicon Valley compatriots, he thinks that the world will be saved by technology. Well, Peter, technology is eliminating more jobs that the Industrial Revolution ever could (some 47% of current occupations will likely be gone in 20 years), and this blind troth in technology coupled with Libertarian fascination with neoliberal economic dogma is the perfect recipe for disaster.

Clearly, Trump and Thiel are more different than they are alike. But both bathe in the public perception of a false formula: wealth = economic acumen.

It’s time to finally abandon the myth that wealth is a cognate of intelligence or wisdom, or that the government should be run like a business or tech startup. The purposes of governments are many, but one of them is not to make money (notwithstanding the Trump administration’s attempt to transform our Republic into a third world kleptocracy). America has more than her share of problems, but they won’t be solved by the wealthy business class whose only fealties are to profit and technology. The long strange trip of our collective flirtations with business gurus – Nelson Rockefeller, Ross Perot, Mitt Romney – were near misses. Now we’ve finally landed ourselves the 21st Century version of Howard Roark-like contrarian in the form of a bag of orange flesh with severe cognitive limitations whose understanding of socioeconomic policy pales in comparison to Busey’s.

How’s that working out for us so far?

We need to get over our love affairs with Silicon Valley idiot savants, failed real estate developers from Brooklyn, and ideologues whose views on the role of government were cemented at puberty by reading The Fountainhead. (Now, even Mark Zuckerberg is flirting with politics.)

Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris. These men and women are not sexy. They are not gurus, or quants or idiot savants. They are not rich. They are progressive Nobel laureate economists, public policy experts, and legislators. Their political views are not radical and they are not contrarians. They do not worship at the altar of political ideology.  They do not promise easy answers or miracle cures. But their economic policy ideas make sense – that is, if you believe that a country’s economic success should be measured by how well most of its citizens do, and not just the wealthiest.

If we could ever divorce ourselves from the cult of wealth worship and the inerrancy of the rich, the middle class and the poor might have a fighting chance.

At the Crossroads: Universal Basic Income, Revolution, or the Slow Fade into Oblivion?

If we can solve the problem of wealth inequality, America’s decline is not a foregone conclusion

Glen Olives Thompson

With the cascade of problems we face as a nation – arguably more than at any other time in history – I often ask myself a simple question: If we could change one major crisis that would have a positive domino effect on other problems, and that has at least a puncher’s chance at some bipartisan support, what would it be?

The great destroyer of world civilizations has traditionally been wealth inequality (another being natural resource depletion, and not surprisingly the two are closely related). Walter Scheidel in his new book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, argues convincingly that calamities and mass violence (by way of war, revolution, natural catastrophe, implosion of the state, or disease) are the only forces that have reversed this general trend toward inequality. When the playing field is leveled though, inequality resumes its slow creep towards unsustainability until the next crisis erupts.

The historical evidence for this thesis is well documented by Scheidel, but I argue that peaceful and prosperous transitions to more equitable societies are not out of the question either.

During the deepest and darkest hours of the Great Depression, during the long interregnum before FDR’s inauguration when inequality was at its apogee in America, we were balancing on the cusp of both violent revolution and ecological disaster, with many calling for the new President to assume a dictatorial role and declare martial law. Instead Roosevelt (with notable political support from both sides of the isle) implemented the New Deal with radical new ideas for a capitalist welfare state. Disaster was avoided, socioeconomic safety nets that we now take for granted put into place, and a half century Risorgimento took root, dramatically reducing wealth inequality. The three billion trees planted by the FDR’s “tree army” also set down roots. The Civilian Conservation Corps employed 3 million men and also developed 800 state parks, protected 20 million acres from erosion, and cleared 125,000 miles of trails.[i] These monumental achievements were accomplished wholly absent a profit motive, and it is hard to imagine how a profit could have been made through private industry doing the same thing. The nation was saved what very well could have been a crisis of epic proportions – a premature end to the great American experiment of democracy and capitalism.

And yet we once again find ourselves in a disturbingly similar situation, only that in many respects it is much worse.

Despite positive economic growth and full employment, the middle class continues its slow march of the cliff of neoliberal economic policy into a cold and sunless sea. As this graph from a working paper authored by Thomas Piketty, et al., indicates, income for the wealthiest .0001 percent of Americans soared 636

Source: Chicago Booth, Thomas Piketty, et al.

percent in the last 34 years, while the bottom 50 percent saw zero gains.  A demographic that was once the backbone of America – working class white men – is killing itself softly with opioids and alcohol, or not so softly with self-inflicted pistol rounds through the roofs of their mouths. Higher education shackles young graduates with debt. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our (the world’s) environment is degrading to a point of no return. A revivified war on drugs that will refill our private for profit prisons for people accused of possessing certain plants, and a concerted roll back of established civil rights policies will foment further discontent among minorities. Our President is a cognitively compromised laughingstock of the world, a perfect case study for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

People are nervous, unhappy, agitated, lashing out. Hate crimes are on the rise, and it’s becoming increasingly common to publicly berate (or kill) people for speaking a language other than English, or looking not quite white enough.

Yes, that’s the overall pulse of the nation — lashing out. And lashing out also means electing an obvious moron and purblind, preening real estate broker pretending to be a potentate, who promised everything at the cost of nothing, but most of all to shake things up in Washington. Well, he’s done that. And the chickens have come home to roost. The people who voted for Trump were hopelessly ignorant, misguided, racist, mentally ill, and misdirecting their animosities by shadowboxing ghost villains for problems they had nothing to do with, or some combination of the above. Sorry, but fuck them. They will suffer more than anyone in post-apocalyptic America while Trump laughs himself into the foggy retirement of senility, farting through silk pajamas poolside at Mar-a-Lago with a non-alcoholic Pabst Blue Ribbon at arm’s reach.

But enough with schadenfreude (not unlike crack cocaine, it gives an intense high but fades quickly).

Yes, lashing out, but it’s not just the ocean of unwashed and undereducated illiterati, marooned in a recursive cycle of poverty, in a perpetual winter of discontent, victims of the happenstance of their birth. The Left is having its fun too: protests, sit ins, marches, pussy hats, unprecedented fund raising for progressive candidates. And the state of America’s malaise is making liberal late night satirists millions.

Everybody is pulling their hair out in the final stages of a Nietzsche-like insanity, or aimlessly wondering around Borges’ “Library of Babel,” trying to decode ancient conservative wisdom that is nothing more than gibberish, reminding me of the last stanza of Donald Hall’s poem, “The Times are Propitious”:

But from A.D. 300, for a millennium, every daughter knew less than her mother, every son less than his father. Now, as we dispute over the exact moment when we engaged this autobahn downward again – hurtling in a tinny Cadillac fueled by idleness, greed and superstitions – our great-grandfathers (the ones who could read and write) drape themselves white to hear our diminished chicken-cackle language in the parliament of fools.[ii]

We’re in a bad way, to be sure, but what to do? As luck would have it, everybody seems to have an answer; we’re spoiled for choices. Paul Ryan believes that the nostrum of cutting taxes for the richest of us will unleash a “trickle down”


economic boom, the incoming tide raising all ships, despite the fact that this has never actually happened when tried. (So much for unrequited love affairs with Ayn Rand.) Mick Mulvaney thinks that feeding hungry children doesn’t show results. Betsy DeVos thinks that private for profit charter schools and private for profit private universities are good ideas, despite their historic failures. The Trump administration thinks that any eventual infrastructure spending should be farmed out to the more efficient private sector by way of government contracts and public-private partnerships, and that social welfare programs only make people dependent and lazy, paying homage to the shibboleth that the only thing that can save us from ourselves is laisse faire capitalism (preferably in its most radical hyper-capitalist form) and neoliberal economic policy.

Of course only Ben Carson can reach the upper limits of asinine unintelligibility normally claimed as the untrammeled terrain of his boss, by positing that being poor is just a state of mind. (I make the controversial claim that neither hunger, nor violent crime, nor lack of access to education nor employment opportunities, much less adequate housing, are mental states.)

The man responsible for running the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, still won’t contradict Trump’s assertion that climate change is a hoax, and not surprisingly he doesn’t want to spend any money trying to combat it. The list of bad ideas is long and ghoulish, as are the “solutions,” but if you’re a liberal, you should poor yourself another Boulevardier before reading further.

Yes, the Trump administration is doing its best to turn a once flourishing democracy into a third world kakistrocracy/kleptoracy/plutocracy trifecta of bad government. But as it turns out, liberals can be pretty stupid too. People who think that vaccines cause autism? Mostly liberals. GMO’s cause cancer? Mostly liberals. It’s perfectly acceptable to exclude (viz. censor) people from speaking at your university because you disagree with their ideas? Exclusively liberals. It’s racist to celebrate Cinco de Mayo if you’re white? Exclusively liberals.

But while liberal sociopolitical ideas are often captious in the extreme, they are not largely calved from the umbilicus of ideology; indeed, liberals tend to be more pragmatic on policy positions, often building special interest coalitions, and rely heavily on social science data. Conservatives lend their fealty almost exclusively on ideological purity and “common sense,” (despite the fact that common sense policy solutions are almost always completely wrong) and deride their fellow conservative travelers who deviate even slightly from the party line. Any conservative leaning toward reasonableness is cock-blocked by the alt-right guardians of the holy conservative ideological virgin of cupidity. Their policies are palliative salves to soothe the wounds of a failed idea in order to save an idealized halcyon Norman Rockwell America from an ever changing world, but they are no cures.


Which brings me to the central problem of increasing wealth inequality in America. One thing that both liberal and conservative leaders have largely agreed upon for the last three and a half decades is neoliberal economic policy and its cognate of globalism – the idea that the tide of unfettered markets, free trade, low taxes for “job creators” and a minimalist welfare state – will benefit all participants within the political economy. Despite being cloaked in the raiment of academic language by the likes of one of its founders, Milton Friedman (among others), it isn’t science; it’s simply blind troth in a failed dogma. It’s intuitive, I’ll give it that (which is perhaps why so many poor conservatives have until recently supported it) but it has no basis in reality, which is why it isn’t even good enough to be labelled social pseudoscience. Not surprisingly, it has never worked. It didn’t work in the Gilded Age. It didn’t work when Reagan tried it, or Bush the Smarter, or Clinton, or Bush the Dumber, or Obama. Nothing trickled down. It never even dribbled. The middle class continued its downward trajectory on the autobahn of idiocy through Republican and Democrat presidents alike, and the rich simply moved their money overseas or lobbied for loopholes to avoid paying taxes instead of creating jobs; after all, the wealthy may be myopic assholes, but they’re not dumb (or at least not most of them). Thomas Piketty’s meticulously researched work showed us that the richest 1 percent of households in the US received less than a tenth of all income in the 1980s, compared to more than a fifth in the 2013. Professor Steven Pressman of Colorado State University has mined the comparative economic data from 9 countries, and has made some startling conclusions. Namely, during the same time, the middle class in socialist counties such as Norway and France, routinely derided by Conservatives as stagnant remnants of “old Europe,” have been steadily gaining ground.

Simply put, we made a mistake. We were almost compelled to, because the argument was so irresistible, so intuitive, so elegant. Of course it’s also compelling that the Earth is the center of the universe and the sun revolves around us, after all we can see the sun rise and set every day, but we know this not to be true, and have no trouble rejecting geocentrism because it is so easily divorced from political dogma.

The best economists and public policy experts get it. Joseph Stiglitz gets it, as does Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, Bernie Sanders, among others. Conservative political and business leaders by and large do not, nor do most of the 1 percent. They, presumably, have been gavaged the fiction of the free market for so long that it has become part of their permanent mental furniture. Or they just don’t care and have bought into the get-what-you-can-when-can-by-any-means-you-can ethos, the world be damned.

Whether it’s the former or the latter, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the perfect policy prescription for creating a failed civilization. We know that neoliberalism is sending the middle class the way of the Dodo, while the poor are already living a daily reality devoid of the hope in a better future. But the real life policy implications are not limited to economics.

Often the privatization of formerly public services means raising prices to consumers while providing poorer services – as long as a profit is made, and they have a very powerful bipartisan lobby.

As Anis Shivani wrote recently:

Neoliberalism believes that markets are self-sufficient unto themselves, that they do not need regulation, and that they are the best guarantors of human welfare. Everything that promotes the market, i.e., privatization, deregulation, mobility of finance and capital, abandonment of government-provided social welfare, and the reconception of human beings as human capital, needs to be encouraged, while everything that supposedly diminishes the market, i.e., government services, regulation, restrictions on finance and capital, and conceptualization of human beings in transcendent terms, is to be discouraged.

One way to sum up neoliberalism is to say that everything—everything—is to be made over in the image of the market, including the state, civil society, and of course human beings. Democracy becomes reinterpreted as the market, and politics succumbs to neoliberal economic theory, so we are speaking of the end of democratic politics as we have known it for two and a half centuries. As the market becomes an abstraction, so does democracy, but the real playing field is somewhere else, in the realm of actual economic exchange—which is not, however, the market. We may say that all exchange takes place on the neoliberal surface.

Shivani goes on to recite examples of neoliberalism’s insidious results:

And this explains why the 1990s saw the simultaneous and absolutely parallel rise, under the Clintons, of both neoliberal globalization and various regimes of neoliberal disciplining, such as the shaming and exclusion of former welfare recipients (every able-bodied person should be able to find work, therefore under TANF welfare was converted to a performance management system designed to enroll everyone in the workforce, even if it meant below-subsistence wages or the loss of parental responsibilities, all of it couched in the jargon of marketplace incentives).

The actual cost to the state of the AFDC program was minimal, but its symbolism was incalculable. The end of welfare went hand in hand with the disciplinary “crime bill” pushed by the Clintons, leading to an epidemic of mass incarceration. Neoliberalism, unlike classical liberalism, does not permit a fluidity of self-expression as an occasional participant in the market, and posits prison as the only available alternative for anyone not willing to conceive of themselves as being present fully and always in the market.

Shivani’s depiction of neoliberalism might seem a bit too Orwellian, but when one takes a very close look at the economic lives of average Americans, it turns out to be pretty much spot-on, if not even slightly understated, especially if you consider that increasingly, even active participants in the economic life of the country don’t have it much better. Because of neoliberalism and its natural corollary effects of corporatism, hyper-capitalism and the worship of efficiency, wage growth has been decoupled from economic growth, meaning that the long term trend is for the economy to continue to grow while wages continue to fall, adding millions more people to the ranks of the dystopiate underclass: people who are no longer employable or needed by the economy, or if needed only marginally so, a precariat population surviving hand-to-mouth, or in the case of private prison labor, reduced to peonage.

The exponential growth of technology, especially automation and artificial intelligence (47 percent of current occupations will be gone in 20 years according to the now-famous Oxford study), is accelerating the problem into a full blown and very real civilizational crisis. Remaining jobs are increasingly being crowdsourced to contractors on a per-project basis, saving corporations billions of dollars in labor costs.

There is no colorable argument that the current economic policy of the country could possibly result in the reversal of the incontrovertible trend of growing wealth inequality, notwithstanding the “chicken-cackle” ruminations of Ryan and Mulvaney. Been there and done that, and that dog just won’t hunt.

In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that advances in productivity would continue to such an extent that in 100 years most of humanity would no longer have to work.[iii] I suspect that he was right, leaving us, though, with a troubling question: What are all of these idle or semi-idle people to do to sustain themselves, to live meaningful lives, to prosper within an economic system that does not need them, and indeed sees them as a burden rather than a resource? What products can people purchase who have no money? How will companies sell their products? Envision of world of super-managers, who supervise the assignment of tasks to machines or, decreasingly, to a few lucky humans. It’s difficult to envision this world as a good one, a just one, or a world in which life is worth living. I worry for my children.

Weary of being ignored by a global hyper-capitalist economic system that has promised everything and produced nothing for its average population, political populism is on the rise across the globe – from Trump in America, Duterte in the Philippines, to Britain’s Brexit vote. If history is any guide, things will get worse by an order of magnitude before serious change occurs. History is whispering in our collective ears, but it seems few are listening.

You Say You Want a Revolution? What About Universal Basic Income Instead?

The Republican party is the party of corporate America, and has been for a century. But its power using simple slogans, platitudes and tropes – the effective application of mass corporate advertising for political purposes – to convince the poor and middle class to vote against their own interests, and the purchasing of politicians like so much chattel, cannot last forever. At some point even the dumbest of the dumb will call bullshit on this longest of long cons.

Assuming this will happen (an assumption that is not wholly justifiable), how might we reverse course absent revolution or simple collapse of the state into The Hunger Games writ large? It seems apparent that there only two options. One would be the dismantling, the reverse engineering, of neoliberalism and the global economic system, a triumph of the Luddites, and also a pipe dream. Absent a physical world calamity such as plague, meteor strike, or the increasingly likely collapse of the global ecosystem, this will never happen, for reasons that hardly need articulating: world economic collapse, resistance-to-the-death by world plutocracies, impracticality, chaos. A cure worse than the malady. The preferred option, the option that could lead to unprecedented human flourishing, prosperity, and happiness, would require no more than letting hyper-neoliberal capitalism turn its swag on, and scrapping most of what we know as the welfare state, transitioning to a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI).

The economic and ideological objections from the Right are both easily anticipated and easily refuted. They principle economic objection is that we simply can’t afford to just give people money. The principle ideological objection is that it would rob people of motivation, promoting a culture of sloth, inefficiency, and idleness, killing the human spirit and robbing our civilization of innovation that only the competition of tooth and claw can provide.

The latter objection is the easiest to dispose of, as it is largely based on myth, which is in turn based on political and economic ideology, which almost always bound to be wrong because it a false representation of reality – the map is not the territory, as they say. The belief against all evidence that man’s natural state, when given minimally sufficient resources to survive, is idleness, is perhaps one of the biggest frauds ever perpetuated on the citizenry of the planet, hardly good enough to be classified as a myth. Even a cursory look at history amply demonstrates this: the vast majority of people born into comfort are not satisfied with their patrimony, but rather strive forward into public service, business, academics, the military, or any other number of productive ventures. Why should the poor be any different? As it turns out, they are not. A notable 2015 Berkeley study found 56 percent of working families were dependent on some form of state and/or federal public assistance. Why are these “welfare dependent” slackers working? Because idleness is uncomfortable and boring (and corporate lobbyists like artificially low wages so taxpayers can pick up the tab for the real costs of labor). If it were in our nature, we would have never gotten off the African savanna. Yet the plutocrats who openly despise the poor complain that either they are to blame for not having the discipline to update their skills or decry that there are not enough work programs for them to take advantage of. But they conveniently ignore two important facts. First, many of them have certain cognitive limitations that cannot be overcome through education, through no fault of their own: not everyone is capable of writing code or operating on brains, no matter what educational opportunities are afforded them. Second, what good is it to update one’s skills if those skills are no longer, or will no longer, be of any economic use to anyone?

An illustration by way of another thought experiment may be in order. Suppose that you were guaranteed a basic tax free income for life. Not enough to afford vacations or new cars, but enough for food, housing, and health care – enough for a minimally dignified life just above the poverty line. Would you simply quit your job if you had one, and content yourself spending your days in your Barcalounger, watching basic cable? I don’t think you would. I know that I would not, and I believe that neither would most people. You would keep your job, or go back to school, or start a business, or do volunteer work, or write that book that’s always been on your mind, or any other number of productive endeavors. Of course one can find lazy, unambitious people within any socioeconomic class, but they are the exceptions, not the rules. Thus, UBI could lead to the flourishing of the human potential, and a win-win for corporatocracy, which would have a guaranteed continuation of consumers to purchase its products and services.

Now to the former objection that we couldn’t afford UBI and it would bankrupt the treasury. A simple look at the numbers dispenses this assumption in rather short order. According to the conservative, an organization that claims to be “a guide to the political left,” as of 2012, spending on means-tested welfare spending (which doesn’t include programs that workers pay into such as social security and workers compensation among many others), comes to $956 billion per year. This is administered through an enormous (and expensive) bureaucracy, consisting of no less than 80 welfare programs, providing for an average distribution of some $9,500 per family annually among some 100 million people. Why not scrap this bloated bureaucracy altogether and move to UBI? Make no mistake, it would be more expensive, though one must consider what we’d be getting for our money; namely, socioeconomic stability and a continuation of the laissez faire quasi-socialist economic hybrid model we currently operate under, but one that benefits all Americans, not only her wealthiest.

Support for UBI has come from surprisingly diverse political persuasions. Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Richard Nixon, George McGovern, Martin Luther King, Jr., the conservative Heritage Foundation, and many of the Silicon Valley cognoscenti have endorsed the idea, as have some prominent liberals, although it doesn’t have a prominent spokesperson in either party, undoubtedly because it is not a natural ideological fit for either. Liberals who oppose it are suspicious that Libertarian-leaning conservatives like it, and they’re naturally inclined toward big government paternalism. Conservatives who oppose it do so based almost entirely on ideological reasons – the no free lunch, personal responsibility crowd. But wouldn’t a reduction of welfare state bureaucracy and a dramatic simplification of social welfare programs be a good thing to entice conservative support? Moreover, with regard to the personal responsibility issue, there could be no more whining from the poor about the unfairness of the economic system: spend your money on food and rent, or box wine and meth as you like, but don’t complain that is isn’t enough.

The Devil is, as always, in the details. Some think people from top income brackets should be excluded because, after all, they don’t need it. In my view this would be a mistake. It would only feed the ideologues the ammunition of “I don’t rely on the government, I rely on myself” poppycock. I wish it were a world where we wouldn’t have to anticipate arguments and objections based on ideology, but we must live in the world we have, not the one we wish we had.

The Closing of the Wealth Gap, Bottom Up

There is little question that a real system of UBI would reduce economic inequality. It would also be expensive, some estimates going as high as $3 trillion per year, largely by raising taxes on the rich. There could be no hiding the fact that this would be wealth redistribution. But so what? We already have wealth redistribution, as Piketty and his colleagues have demonstrated, from the working poor to the rich. More importantly, most studies conclude that it would be a boon to the economy through increased spending (this obviously would help wealthy corporations as well as wealthy individual shareholders), increase entrepreneurship, eliminate poverty, and among other positive things, improve health and education, especially among children.

There are other ways to close the income gap from the bottom up as well, such as dramatically raising the minimum wage, which the best studies conclude would benefit the economy without reducing employment. It would also be less expensive – even revenue neutral – but it would not have nearly the comprehensive impact on the economy and society as a whole. Increased automation and out/crowd sourcing naturally results in fewer minimum wage jobs.

Which brings us full circle, back to the ultimate question of how more income and wealth equality, and almost by definition resulting in an expanding rather than retracting middle class, would affect the other major problems America faces. Because there are no studies on point, this of course requires some thoughtful speculation about what would happen if and when we return to the perihelion of prosperity.

Nervous, unhappy, agitated, lashing out. The angst of the precariat is palpable. What if that pressure was released? The following conclusions are, I think, self-evident. In this economically stable world envisioned with UBI, non-college educating working class whites would be less inclined to blame immigrants and minorities for their own perceived and real lack of opportunities. People would be inclined to embrace alternative clean energy instead of making it the bogey man of progress. Hope is the real tide raising all ships, not economic the legerdemain of hyper-capitalism, and the body politic would begin looking to the future as it once did, and not to the imagined past. Race relations would improve, and its roots in tribalism would diminish with the leveling of the playing field. With the lower economic risk of seeking further education or investing in a business, it is hard to imagine individual flourishing not taking place. Other scapegoats for lack of opportunity would fall like brittle trees as well, namely financial and environmental regulation. Conspiracy theories would be less attractive (what’s there to conspire about?). Citizens would be more inclined to vote for leaders really interested in public service and not puppet populists with shit for brains.

UBI would not be a panacea, and it would not lead to utopia, but it very well may keep us from a full blown dystopia, and a violent revolution, going out with a bang, or a whimper, as you please. In short, it would give us some breathing room, allow us the relief that comes from a sense of stability, and with it, the ability to engage in clear thinking, unmolested by our darkest fears.

Civilizations that do not evolve, that rely on the old ways, the old ideologies and dogmas that made them great while resisting change, are gone. Just ask the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Romans. If it is inevitable that we learn from history that we do not learn from history, as Hegel postulated, then we might as well consign ourselves to being fodder for future generations of archeologists. I’m not quite ready, though.

I like data. Much of the section above is devoid of data because good data on the effects of UBI don’t exist. My armchair musings are not my fault, but rather the fault of the danger of UBI to conservative governments. Forty years ago in Dauphin, Manitoba, the then liberal Canadian government experimented with UBI. When a conservative administration took power, the experiment was ended and the data archived. Only recently have the 1,800 boxes of records began to be studied by social scientists, and the results are striking. People receiving UBI didn’t stop working, hospitalizations for mental health issues dropped precipitously, and people started businesses or went back to school. Currently, five governments from around the world are experimenting with UBI on small population samples. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that when analysis of the data comes in, it will be overwhelmingly positive, both in terms of the socioeconomic wellbeing of the recipients, the cost to taxpayers, and the overall economy. Stay tuned.

But make no mistake, a reversal of the national course of growing wealth inequality will resolve itself eventually even if we do nothing. Professor Scheidel has convincingly shown us that. If human caused global climate disruption does not thin the herd sufficiently, something else will. But we need not rely on natural disasters, plagues or revolutions. We’ve done it before with policy changes, and we can do it again. A big idea is required. An idea that both has a chance at bipartisan support, and to serve as platform for other progressive reforms. The alternative of going down the same road we are on, in that tinny Cadillac into the parliament of fools, chicken-cackling as we deliquesce into oblivion, seems a poorer option.

In short, opposition to UBI is an ideological problem, not an economic one. Adopting it would require a paradigm shift in political thinking, or better yet an abandonment of political ideology altogether. And for that reason I am not hopeful.


[i] Alter, Jonathan, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (New York: Simon & Schuster), 2006, p. 299.

[ii] Hall, Donald, The Museum of Clear Ideas (New York: Houghton Mifflin), 1993, p. 62.

 [iii] Keynes, John Maynard, Essays in Persuasion, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. (1963), pp. 358-73.

How to Talk About Politics Post-100: Policy, Not Political Gamesmanship

By Glen Olives Thompson

Joseph E. Stiglitz has observed that economists are so often wrong because they too often measure the wrong things – not unlike drunks (as he delightfully puts it) looking for their keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is. The same is largely true of the political media of the Left, especially when covering Donald J. Trump: they’re quite good at covering the political story, the winners and losers on any given issue, the scandals, the backstories, ad infinitum. But that’s not where the keys are, that’s just where the light is. The keys in this case are policies allowing for multicultural society to flourish in all the ways that matter: economically, culturally, scientifically.

In two words, policy matters. But in spite of the number one issue for voters during the 2016 election being the economy, the Big Three networks spent barely more than a half hour covering policy issues; instead they fixated on Trump’s mental illness and Clinton’s emails. Instead of focusing on important issues like the wealth inequality, racial injustice, foreign policy, education, and the environment, among many other things directly impinging on the daily lives of average Americans, they whored themselves for ratings.

After the election, think pieces and books about the (almost) inexplicable ascendancy of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States have come so hard and fast that they could fill several encyclopedia-length volumes, and it’s only been just over a hundred days since the Tangerine Tornado took office. One of course might have expected this, as the horrific enigma of a narcissistic failed real estate mogul and borderline moron who has never demonstrated even an infinitesimal interest in public service taking the Big Prize would have had to have led to America’s pundits and literati to pontificate, ad nauseam.

I too have not been shy about criticizing Trump, and more importantly, criticizing those who criticize him, because in their often rational and eloquent armchair musings about the Trump phenomenon, they commit the sin of over analysis, and in doing so are led astray, in turn leading their readers and listeners astray (I’m reminded of a writer who said something to the effect that “there have been brilliant theologians but I don’t think there is a god to theologize about.”) For example, there is an understandable trend among the cognoscenti to label Trump as an evil genius, an idiot-savant in his ability to manipulate the media, among many other areas where he is given credit where no credit is due him. The problem can be essentially boiled down to this – smart people are analyzing a really dumb person who has achieved something (by accident) that was thought to be impossible, and thereby they cannot bring themselves to believe that he can be all that dumb after all. A completely understandable mistake, but one we should try to remedy post haste.

Be that as is may, now that the hundred-day benchmark (e.g., disaster) of the Trump administration has come and gone, an equally point-missing analysis of Trump’s failures to implement policy is getting traction: his feckless bumbling to build a conservative governing coalition has led the left wing punditry to conclude that Trump’s lack of success is due largely to the fact that he does not have, and never has had, a political umbilicus. Once a pro-choice democrat, then a Perot-like protectionist, shuttling from being a New York liberal to a country club Republican turned scattershot playboy populist, he’s all over the board, and as such, he’s ensconced himself firmly in the chair of an effete and blustery dictator with no one to dictate to. His populist rhetoric consisting of nothing more than silly shibboleths and asinine aphorisms got him votes, but not the ability to govern. The political neophyte just didn’t understand the limited power of the presidency. He’s never had to answer to a corporate board, or shareholders, and much less two other branches of government. The talent most political pundits have brought to the table is simply this: the ability to state this obvious conclusion in interesting ways, a clever and gleeful schadenfreude. But where does that get us as a society when 97 percent of Trump voters still support him?

I’m troubled by this analytical consensus not because it isn’t true (surely it is), but rather because it is in turn both obvious and pointless, devoid of implications of the ham-fisted policies Trump’s kleptocratic cabinet are (so far unsuccessfully) trying to foist on the American people. People with national reach who are actually talking about the absurdity of Trump’s purblind policy wish list can be counted on a single hand (Reich, Krugman and Kristoff come to mind) while and army of politicos are marching the narrative (and the American body public) over the cliff of savvy analysis, and into a sunless sea filled with lemmings chattering about the horror that is Donald J. Trump as they drown.

Sure, Trump has been unable to implement his most perfidious, backward and counterproductive brain-farts-of-policies, and likely never will. But we’re going to be moving backward until at least January 20, 2021 on crucial game changers for our civilization: environmental degradation, climate change, wealth and income inequality, a necrotizing middle class, and unequal justice for all. And that’s just the start.

From the perspective of public policy, let me be as clear as I can be. Forget for the moment what we might consider political success – getting one’s policies made into public policy, regardless of its efficacy. We’ve had extremely “successful” presidents who’ve been political ideologues (viz. Ronald Reagan) and extremely “successful” presidents who’ve had no discernable political ideology (viz. Franklin Roosevelt), and many in between (George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among others). But to ignore the difference in being politically “successful,” as both Reagan and FDR inarguably were, and guiding the country into the future as a positive force for economic equality and growth, peace, stability, a sense of community (as in we’re all in this together in a complicated world), and yes, a hope that our children might have the chance at a better life, are political journalist’s and pundit’s mistakes to make. Call me a contrarian, but political success is not simply getting one’s way. And the measure of a great nation is not quantified by how its wealthiest live, but rather by how its unluckiest do.

So no, Donald Trump will not be a failed president because he failed at forming a coherent political ideology that could be sold to his own party in Congress. And he will not have failed the country, as other presidents have, because of reasons beyond his political control. He has, and will have, failed the country, while perhaps damaging our already fragile democracy/plutocracy hybrid beyond repair, because he’s an idiot, as are the vast majority of his supporters. As FDR said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

The only chance we will ever have at rebuilding a worthy civilization will depend on the media class recognizing that science- (hard and social) based policies must be talked about and rigorously debated; focusing on the personalities and the political strategies of the players is the forever unrewarded labor of Sisyphus while the country rots around us. Good governance can never successfully have any real relation to political ideology or dogma. That is quite a claim. It will take some explanation.

Ideologies, Dogmas, and Common Sense Deceive Us

One doesn’t hear many economists, or political scientists, or public policy wonks, talk much about the role of the sciences in crafting good public policy. Public policy is mostly based on public perceptions, which are largely molded by economic elites, and as I have often said, bad policy is often good politics. What I mean by “good public policy” is public policy that works for all Americans, not just the rich, and almost by definition, must be stripped of any veneer that claims to represent reality.

We’re slaves to the pairing of two simple words: common (something shared by all) and sense (rationality). Common sense, once our only friend, has become our worst enemy. It needs to be unfriended. The most frequent phrase uttered by my conservative friends when arguing about law and public policy is, “It’s just common sense!” E.g., imprisoning drug dealers and addicts will reduce drug use and abuse, sealing our borders will keep out undesirables who take our jobs and commit violent crimes against us, releasing the shackles of tax and regulation will allow our job creators to create more jobs, and not coddling sexual deviants like those within the LGBT with equal rights will promote healthy traditional lifestyles. (And many more things besides.)

It is true of course that Thomas Paine ─ who Glenn Beck and other Republicans have oddly idolized to the point of beatification ─ used common sense to great effect in his famous pamphlet by the same name. Paine argued that, among other things, there was little reason for an island to rule a continent, the distance between America and Britain made governance difficult, and that Britain ruled America in the interests of Britain without considering the best interests of the colonists. Written in plain language. And solidly based on common sense. It is a beautiful pamphlet: simple, elegant, and correct. When Paine wrote Common Sense almost two and a half centuries ago, science was a novelty, Benjamin Franklin had had only just discovered that lighting was electricity, the extinction of species was but a hypothesis, the basis for modern chemistry was still a decade away, the germ theory of disease wasn’t even on the radar, and we had a comparatively unsophisticated view of how economies worked (I argue that we still do). Indeed, for most of human existence, the only two pillars upon which civilizations could be supported were common sense and religious dogma. Often they complemented one another. (Of course our Earth is the center of the universe – it says so in the bible and we can observe the sun and the stars and the other planets revolving around us!) Our political systems, too, were crude. Slavery was ubiquitous, as were religious inquisitions. Both political and religious patronage, clientelism, and corruption were rife. Women and many minorities, without suffrage, were treated mostly as property of propertied men. The list of the failures of good governance were long and ghoulish, and Paine railed against some of them, speaking truth to power. The central problem we face today is this: while science has progressed remarkably, our political institutions have remained largely stuck three centuries in the past because many of our beliefs have as well.

Common sense, to perhaps state the obvious, is necessary to our survival. Looking both ways before crossing the street. Not driving motor vehicles if under the influence of alcohol. Refraining from sex with intemperate strangers. Avoiding contact with lions or bears. Not shitting where you eat. Among thousands of other things. Through evolution by natural selection, we are biologically disposed to have it (some more than others, as “fail” videos on YouTube amply demonstrate); it keeps us alive so that we can reproduce and spread our genetic heritage.

But common sense rationality also often fools us. We think, for example that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. We are, after all, the center of the universe. At least that’s what humanity believed for the vast majority of its existence. But now we know better (thank you Copernicus). The sun does not rise or set. We live on a planet orbiting around a rather ordinary star, and the appearance of a rising and setting sun is merely a spatial illusion; we’re rotating on our axis at 1,037 miles per hour through space travelling through the cosmos with our solar system and galaxy at a rate of 2.7 million miles per hour. We cannot feel this of course, because we have evolved to sense only the force of our planet’s gravity, the impingement of other movement on our senses would not serve any useful purpose for our survival. It is only through science, which gives no credit or importance to common sense, that we now understand that when compared to the cosmos, we are at best a bacterium, a micro-fauna, on a speck of dust on the leaf of a tree on an entirely forested continent.

David Hume said some two hundred years ago that we know nothing. What we pass off as knowledge is the product of custom, habit, and the application of common sense which is almost bound to be wrong; even in science we cannot observe causation, the best we can do is falsify theories, never prove them. Kant, Schopenhauer, and later Karl Popper seized upon these ideas, creating an impressive body of philosophical work.[i] (Some people still can’t get their heads around Kant’s famous premise that objects conform to our knowledge of them.)

As I’ve said before, paraphrasing a long-out-of-print college history textbook:

If we reduce the age of the earth to our own familiar 24-hour day, the time that elapsed prior to the appearance of humans is 23 hours and 58 minutes. And of the two remaining minutes, which represents the time of humans on earth, the period of civilization is less that the last ½ second. Given this time scale, it should be no surprise that we know almost nothing; certainly what we don’t know vastly dwarfs what knowledge we have sown from science so far in our still brief awakening to sentient existence. [ii]

It seems that we have willingly imprisoned ourselves in Plato’s Cave, refusing to believe the reality presented to us through science. We tend toward finding comfort in the solace that is ignorance, in stolid platitudes and silly slogans posted on social media by the millions a day.

Thinking is hard work.

If this were not bad enough, we are wired to be seekers of patterns and causal connections, no doubt contributing to our survival, but this has a down side, too. When we don’t know something, we are inclined to invent knowledge, mistaking ignorance for truth. Our brains interpret the lack of knowledge as pain, and understanding with pleasure,[iii] whether that understanding is based on verifiable data or not. And for good reason: there is an indisputable evolutionary advantage in acquiring more knowledge, but this becomes an obvious disadvantage when we invent fake knowledge. A troubling observation, to be sure, something that has come to haunt us in the form of fake news, the pride and joy of the Trump administration and the alt-right.

In a purely intellectual sense, these problems of perception, epistemology, psychology and evolutionary biology fascinate me, but they are also key to the most basic problems of human existence on this planet: How are we to govern ourselves? How are we to create free, just, prosperous, and equitable societies? The answer for America has been a representative democracy combined with free market capitalism, but this doesn’t seem to be working nearly as well as it seemed to a half century ago.

Good manufacturing jobs are all but gone. The middle class is well along the well-travelled road to extinction while the wealthiest are living lives of opulence never seen before in human history. Our prisons are splitting at the seams. Racial tensions and police brutality seem to be where they were during the Civil Rights Movement. Otherwise intelligent people believe that bad weather is caused by sin. We are more politically polarized than ever. We seem to be perpetually taking one step forward and two steps back. We’re living in a new Gilded Age where corporations and their wealthy constituents control the government to the inarguable detriment of the rest of society. We seem to be but barely a generation away from The Hunger Games writ large. If this trend can be reversed, it won’t be by choosing any particular political ideology or economic dogma on offer.

We Can’t Understand Good Policy Until We Understand Ourselves

Bryan Magee in his book Confessions of a Philosopher made an important observation. He said that asking, “What is the meaning of life?” is a very bad a priori question. It assumes that the foundational questions have already been answered: such as if there can there be such a thing as a meaning to life, and equally important, if we have a reliable mechanism ascertaining what it might be. If those questions are not reliably answered first, then one is likely to waste quite of lot of time, perhaps a lifetime, pursuing the question of the meaning of life without a proper foundation, leading to infinite false starts, wrong turns, and poetic, perhaps even soothing, casuistry, with no real knowledge to be gained. So too, we must first ask ourselves a foundational question before moving on to the subject of what is good as opposed to bad public policy. That question is: What are we? For example, if we were created in the image of god, and the fundamentalist, literalist traditions within Islam are the divine revealed truth of our creator as given to Mohamed, then the policies of ISIS would be the only way to go. By the same token, if the Jews got it right in their own bible and Jesus was not the son of god, then, well, we have a different result, or then again, perhaps another Abrahamic faith is the real truth of our existence, or then yet again, perhaps an altogether different Eastern faith. (For reasons I think I need not elaborate on, I do not think any are true.) By the same token, if another dogma – an economic as opposed religious one this time –  Milton Freidman’s supply-side, trickle-down program implemented by Ronald Reagan had been the nonpareil tide raising all ships, Reagan would never would have had to raise taxes, and the Clinton presidency would have spelled economic disaster for America. Of course the wealth never trickled down under Reagan (it never even trickled) and Clinton’s Keynesian approach led to one of the longest period of economic growth in U.S. history (and a budget surplus to boot). Of course Dubya was a Reagan fan, and with the help of perpetual wars, the Clinton gains were squandered. Hegel was right it seems: We learn from history that we do not learn from history.   That’s what blind troth in ideology gets you.

Once we have answered the question of what we are (a much easier question that whether or not there can be such a thing as meaning to life), we can tackle the next question: What is the best form of government and economic system to achieve maximum freedom, economic prosperity, and justice for all?

With some disrespect to creationists, we are highly evolved primates,[iv] and were not created by a supreme being from dust or a clot of blood or a rib. We are the products of evolution by natural selection. Our propensity for violence, for tribalism, for irrational cognitive biases, among many other things, are deeply ingrained in us, and it takes an educated mind and a conscious effort to recognize and combat them. We are predisposed to seek out, interpret, and focus on information in a way the confirms our own preconceptions, and arguments against our closely held beliefs only tends to make them stronger, such as our beliefs in particular religious dogmas or political ideologies. (This particular propensity is known as confirmation bias ─ but there are hundreds of others well known in psychology.) We are highly irrational animals, well evolved for living on the African savannah, but not so much for living in modern, complex, crowded, increasingly urban, and technologically-driven societies. This is a problem; we can’t change what we are, but we can understand what we are. The answer, in part, is education, especially within the sciences. Indeed, the lack of the application of social science to law and public policy explains, largely, why conservatism and its ugly younger brother, libertarianism, are so ubiquitous in America and around the globe.

Gaps have to be filled. We’re compelled to do it. We see patterns where they exist, and also where they do not exist. No doubt this led to our survival when 99 percent of our cousins went extinct. But this propensity has become a burden in modern civilizations. How does one explain what one does not know? How does one predict what one cannot predict? One creates a dogma, and from that, an ideology, a lattice around which everything can be explained and predicted. It is comforting even when it is wrong, perhaps especially when it is wrong. The Aztecs thought good things would come to their society as a whole if enough virgins were sacrificed. As mentioned above, college educated public leaders think that bad weather is caused by human sin, ignoring what climatologists say about the effects of global man-made climate change. An Iranian cleric, a man of countless years of “learning” not long ago preached that immodest women cause earthquakes. For most educated people and for all scientists, this is bizarre beyond description. But much of the world still believes this type of Bronze Age feckless stupidity.

There are real differences between Liberals and Conservatives, and some of them appear to be biological, but in a balance-obsessed media culture, they don’t get talked about much. Recent research, covering some 50 years of party politics, reveals that Democrats are generally solution-seekers and practical problem-solvers, building coalitions with groups having similar interests, while Republicans are much more obsessed with ideological purity.[v] This is not to say that politically liberal people are not ideological, as many of them join their politically conservative brethren in marrying themselves to an idea and then unable to divorce it when it is proven hopelessly wrong or misguided (more on that below), but there are fewer of them. Democrats also tend to be smarter. Not only is there a curious and disturbing connection between low I.Q., conservatism, and racism, liberals are generally better educated, and the more educated one becomes, the more liberal one becomes, something that conservatives, unable to ignore, attribute to liberal college professors indoctrinating students into their “cause,” but not surprisingly this turns out to be bad pseudoscience,[vi] not even good enough to be wrong. There’s more. I’ve always been puzzled how fearful my conservative friends are – of death, of crime, of immigrants, of socialism, of voter fraud, of minorities, you name it. As it turns out, my anecdotal experience with social and political conservatives is born out statistically in a recent Pew poll, which found that 58 percent of Republicans think that the ability of terrorists to attack the United States is greater than the time of 9/11 compared to only 31 percent of Democrats, despite that the Conservative assertion is patently false by any metric looked at. It turns out, according to a fascinating study conducted in Britain, people with conservative views tend to have larger amygdalae, the structure in the brain activated by fear.[vii] This raises the perennially fascinating chicken-or-egg question of whether conservatives are born, or their amygdalae are shaped through their personal experiences, or of course, some combination of the two, but it does not matter much. The above findings are being confirmed more every day: conservatives tend to be not great at abstract thinking, undereducated, tribal, driven by fear, and slaves to ideology and dogma. When one finds the modern world so overwhelming, so seemingly incomprehensible when individual pieces are examined up close, one place to turn is ideology – a hook to hang the whole bag one’s beliefs that never need change based on new information, to say that “welfare makes people lazy,” “other people (mostly Mexicans and Chinese) are to blame for our problems.”

I mentioned Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz’s insights in the opening paragraph of this essay, and to illustrate how ideology will always corrupt public policy, economic ideology provides a very good example.

Hyper forms of state socialism, such as that experienced in Soviet Russia, hyper-forms of capitalism, which we are now enduring (and have suffered through before in the first Gilded Age), and all other absolutist ideologies, will always fail because they are constructs of the human mind, and as such, they claim knowledge to which they cannot know, and ignore evidence which contradicts their veracity. It is, again, a fool’s game where being wrong has little significance: if a society believes that the rains will come if enough virgins are sacrificed, and still the rains do not come, the High Priest, the Grand Shaman, will not be blamed. (Over the course of human history, “truth,” “knowledge,” and “facts” were simply decided by the ruling classes.) After all it is only He who is in direct contact with the gods. He will only say that the drought was caused by impiety, and not enough virgins were sacrificed. More virgins will be sacrificed. And either the rains will still not come and the civilization will wither and die, in which case only those with the capital resources (the high priesthood) will remain, or the rains will come, through no doing of the shaman, and He will claim victory. So, too, if economic prosperity does not come to all through free market capitalism, through the operation of plutocracy, no matter. It is not the fault of for-profit business corporations, but rather the government of the people which was too timorous to fully embrace it and let it turn its swag on, erecting obstacles like regulations and taxes. This is what ideologies and dogmas do so very, very, well – they can never be wrong.

All Politics is Yokel, and That’s a Big Problem Too

Most people are inscrutably ignorant about some very important things that all participants in society should have at least a basic knowledge of, like science, basic geography, economics, and government. Seventy-five percent of Republicans and Evangelicals think that Christianity was written into the Constitution, 80 percent don’t know how many Senators the United States has, almost half the population can’t point to where New York is on a map (much less Iraq or Afghanistan), a quarter of Americans don’t know from which country the United States gained its independence, almost a third don’t know what the Holocaust was, and some 25 percent of Americans think that the sun revolves around the Earth. The list of specific instances of our ignorance is much longer and sobering. And yet we ask these participants in our pseudo-democracy to make informed judgments about policy, and who would be the best representative in government to carry those policies out.

Even more sobering, if not hopelessly depressing, is what too many of us believe to be true is in fact embarrassingly fustian rubbish. Recent polling suggests that 42 percent of Americans think that god created mankind unevolved 10,000 years ago, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Seventy-two percent of adults believe in heaven. Conspiracy theorists routinely mistake correlation with causation and haven’t a clue as to the basic rules of logic, the scientific method, or how to identify logical fallacies. Social media is abuzz with conspiracy theories that Hurricane Mathew was created by FEMA for reasons that are too moronic even to mention. Sixty-six percent of Trump supporters think that Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim” despite the fact that he drinks alcohol, eats pork and professes to be a Christian. Whether people believe these things or simply say them as a way to articulate their dissatisfaction at being ignored for so long is still an open question. But these passionate, disenfranchised people vote nonetheless, and they’re increasingly frustrated with their seemingly hopeless economic plight, misdirecting their animosities through clouded minds and fuzzy thinking, shadowboxing the ghost villains of taxes, big government, regulation, and immigrants, insisting on easy solutions to complex problems, instead of focusing on what is before their very eyes: an increasingly plutocratic system manipulated by people that not only care nothing for them, but openly disdains them. They are, to put it mildly, easily distracted, and easily distractible by the emotional propaganda peddled by plutocrats. They unknowingly, but consistently, vote against their own interests.

Let me illustrate with three short examples. Paul LePage – a high-functioning retard and open racist who thinks immigrants are bringing the “Ziki fly” into his state – was elected to the governorship of Maine. Twice. Although his state, like many others, is suffering from a serious opioid overdose problem, he vetoed a bill which would have allowed pharmacists to dispense anti-overdose drugs without a prescription, claiming it would only encourage drug use, and openly advocates for the beheadings of criminal defendants who kill Mainers. Sam Brownback, another simpleton governor (Kansas) too dumb or naïve or corrupt or blinded by ideology to notice that supply side economic policy works in theory but fails in practice, tanked his state’s economy by cutting both regulations and taxes for the rich. Louisiana’s failed governor, Bobby Jindal, offers us another tale of caution about the application of idiotic supply-side theory. When he took office in 2008 Louisiana had a $1 billion budget surplus; when, after slashing taxes for wealthy business interests, deregulating industry where he could, cutting welfare benefits, and ignoring environmental regulations for Louisiana’s oil and gas industry, in the nation’s second poorest state, he left it with a deficit of $1.6 billion, and unprecedented environmental degradation, adversely affecting the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of Louisianans. Idiots elect other idiots, or people who pretend to be idiots to get elected. This is a problem. Winston Churchill’s quip that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” seems like a more prescient observation now than at any other time in history.

I stole the “All Politics is Yokel” portion of the above heading from Christopher Hitchens, who didn’t coin the phrase, but brought it to life brilliantly in a 2011 article about Michele Bachman for Slate. Curiously, as Hitchens noted, we don’t want our public leaders to be smarter than us. We want our public leaders to be just as dumb as we are. One need only casually observe the political pandering to “regular” folk. Al Gore (for whom I have a great deal of respect because, among other things, he appreciates the value of empirical fact) emphasized his rural upbringing in Tennessee when in fact he was raised as a privileged Senator’s son at a luxury hotel in Washington, D.C. (to his credit, he willingly served in Vietnam, unlike the long list of chicken hawk draft dodgers like George W. Bush and Donald Trump). Bill Clinton, too, the Rhodes Scholar with a genius-level I.Q. of 148, “the man from Hope” Arkansas, spent most of his youth in the ever-so-slightly more worldly Hot Springs. But at least he can claim true hillbilly creds, being the first in his poor, dysfunctional family to graduate from college. The blue-blooded Connecticut Bush’s blushed at their Yankee roots and preferred to pretend they were Texas wildcatters. Joni Ernst, the graduate-degreed junior Senator from Iowa, bragged about having to wear bread bags on her feet as a child and working at the local Piggly-Wiggly. Politicians have learned the hard way that you need to downplay your intelligence, your education, your expertise, your privileged upbringing, if you want to get elected. Never bring your resume to a political debate. Politicians need to identify with voters, and the best way to do that is to dumb yourself down, to become one of them. The very word “elite” has become a pejorative, no doubt due in part to the frequent pairings of economic elite, business elite and political elite, or if you like, Hollywood elite. Of course it has not always been this way. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and Adams, were highly educated and privileged elites – political philosophers, writers, military leaders, businessmen, lawyers and scientists. And yet they were elected by a largely illiterate agrarian citizenry who trusted that they had their best interests in mind.[viii] What happened? How have we come to distrust smart people so much? In his book In Defense of Elitism,[ix] William A. Henry III provides a provocative, if not persuasive, answer. Progressive liberalism and its confounding ideology of egalitarianism is to blame, at least partially. The myth propagated by this ideology has been fundamentally ingrained in us among the Left: all men are created equal, how you play the game is more important than winning, all cultures are equally contributors to society as a whole, everyone has something significant to contribute, and the common man is almost certainly always right – the diametric opposite philosophy of Ayn Rand’s caustic cult of individualism. But like Rand’s rantings, this too is hogwash. (The open acceptance of this egalitarian ideal has foisted upon us the scourges of moral relativism, cultural relativism, and the banal, parochial absurdities of political correctness.) These things are so obviously not the case in reality that I am confounded that any educated person could believe them.

Liberal readers may be feeling a flush coming on right about now, so poor yourself a Boulevarder, and brace yourselves for a modest revelation: some cultures contribute next to nothing to world civilization, some people are dumb through no fault of their own, objective achievement is nothing to be ashamed of, and the common man is more often than not wrong about just about everything. Disagree if you like, cling to your confirmation bias if you must, but note that, as Freud once said, the truth need not be something we must find agreeable.

Nonetheless, this puts politicians in a tough position. Identifying with your dumb constituency and agreeing with their incoherent views of the world – or coherent but incorrect views of the world –to get elected is one thing. Getting reelected is another. To do so you must have a credible argument that you have at least tried to turn your voters’ dangerous and dunderheaded perspectives into some form of policy. (Whether the politician actually believes her constituency’s views, while speculatively interesting, is irrelevant.) At the same time, you must please your wealthy benefactors with legislation that favors their interests at the expense of your poorer constituency. In sum, our political process, our very own human condition, has left us in a quagmire of absurdity. Legislators are beholden both to their rich financiers and their birdbrained base voters at the same time. A third of voters who see this clearly, both the forest and the trees, are a dissolute minority. The result is that the credulous voter finds herself (at best) within a maze of political sophistry or (at worst) an infinite library of riddles worthy of Borges’ fertile imaginings in “The Library of Babel.”

Sean Otto, author of The War On Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, noted recently in an article for Scientific American, that in this new era of “post-fact politics,” the denial of scientific evidence that conflicts with political, religious or economic agendas has become normalized. Otto went on to say in the same article that

[o]ver the last 25 years the political right has largely organized itself along antiscience lines that have become increasingly stark: fundamentalist evangelicals, who reject what the biological sciences have to say about human origins, sexuality and reproduction, serve as willing foot soldiers for moneyed business interests who reject what the environmental sciences have to say about pollution and resource extraction. In 1990, for example, House Democrats scored an average of 68 percent on the League of Conservation Voters National Environmental Scorecard and Republicans scored a respectable 40 percent. But by 2014 Democrats scored 87 percent whereas Republican scores fell to just over 4 percent.

Such rejection is essentially an authoritarian argument that says “I don’t care about the evidence; what I say/what this book says/what my tribe says/what my wallet says goes.” This approach is all too human, and is not necessarily conscious. It is, rather, reflective of the sort of confirmation bias scientists themselves continually guard against. Francis Bacon noted the problem at the beginning of the scientific revolution, observing: “What a man had rather were true he more readily believes.” Conservatives notice that many scientists are, in fact, left-leaning. If one is not a scientist, and is conservative, a shorthand is brought to bear, with suspicion of the science as—rather than an objective statement—being a politically motivated argument from the left.

But liberals should not be gloating or feeling superior, as there are quite a lot of embarrassing antiscience beliefs among them as well, as liberal anti-vaccine and anti-GMO advocates so readily demonstrate. Liberal intellectuals have long preached the merits of postmodernist identity politics – that all truth is relative and subjective, that believing that the sun revolves around the Earth is as equally true as thinking otherwise, that we all construct our own truths and they are equally valid. This may be comforting (I personally can’t see how), but it is dumb nonetheless. The grandiloquent essay “Material Issue” by intellectual historian Jackson Lears is a perfect example of this asininity. In his fervent argument against scientific reductionism, he attacks Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris for scientism, which is, according to his own definition, “the redefinition of a science to a metaphysic, promising precise answers to age-old ultimate questions.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as nothing these three people have said indicate that this is what they believe. And even if they did, I will never understand why this would cause anyone any particular existential angst. He goes on to accuse the failures of neoliberalism on scientism, and even goes as far as to call evolutionary psychology “pop-Darwinism.” This is bizarre. In the world of fake news (not Trump’s “fake news” which is simply news he doesn’t like), the world hardly needs people who think that their beliefs or their “knowledge” – however authority-driven, alternative, or simply objectively daft it is – is equal to objective truths we have gleaned from the application of the scientific method to the natural world. Of course people are perfectly free to believe that the Earth is flat, manmade global climate disruption is a “scam to fund vacations up in the Antarctic,” or any else easily proven to be empirically false, drawn from the deepest well of human ignorance. But when such views are woven into the fabric of public policy, as they now are, it is hard to see how our planet’s species can survive in any meaningful way. And no, Dr. Lears, the failures of neoliberalism are the failures of an economic dogma, not of science.

This essay should give both liberal and conservative partisans a lot to bitch about. In my view, Republican voters are mostly dumb, hopelessly gullible, irrationally fearful of shadows, living in a cave formed from by millenia of ideology and dogma, too afraid to look outside at how the world might actually function in the sunlight of clear thinking. They elect either cynical leaders who are laughing themselves into the halls of power or the vaults of the bank (or both), or stupid leaders who actually believe the poppycock they so successfully promote. Democratic voters, in turn, though smarter and more issue-oriented, have bought, hook, line and sinker, the idea of egalitarianism as a universal truth, their leaders selling this brand of Bovine Scat almost equally well, and now we’re all choking on that rotting fish of coddling political correctness and silly side issues. We can happily debate cultural appropriation or identity politics when we live in an economically prosperous and economically equitable society. But instead public leaders on both sides have embraced – either fully or tepidly – the religion of neoliberalism. Political leadership has become more about internecine wars of rhetoric rather than a dispassionate application of what we already know toward implementing rational public policy fair for all of society. Not only is the truth not something we must find comforting or agreeable, it may be something we will never have the ability to know with absolute certainty. But striving to discover what it might be while fighting against obfuscation, pandering, self-interestedness, and cognitive bias, is the worthiest and most important goal of all.

If that were not a bleak-enough portrait, it gets worse. Perhaps the most fascinating – and depressing – book published in 2016 was The Enigma of Reason, written by cognitive researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, where they outline in convincing detail the very limits of reason. According to them, reason evolved as a mechanism to resolve problems posed by living in collaborative groups, and not to enable us to solve logical problems or make sound judgments after evaluating unfamiliar data. This, like much of what is discussed above, is counterintuitive in the extreme. Wouldn’t, through the process of evolution, abstract reasoning be selected for? In other words, wouldn’t humans who were poor at reasoning eventually be eliminated from the gene pool? The authors argue that in hunter-gatherer tribes, there was far less advantage to reasoning clearly than winning arguments – making sure that you weren’t being taken advantage of by your potentially selfish peers. Thus we have confirmation bias: sticking to your guns (or more strongly believing your erroneous beliefs) even when overwhelming counter-evidence is presented.  Not only do people have a natural tendency to believe that they know more than they actually do, what they think they know is, as often as not, un-remediated bullshit. In everyday life this may be relatively harmless, but when it comes to law and policy, it has gotten society, and our larger civilizations, in quite a lot of trouble.

The good news, of course, is that although reason may not have evolved to help us with problem solving, it can and has been hijacked to do just that, as our scientific and technological progress indubitably indicates. Alas, though, scientists don’t elect governments.

I hold no illusion that a majority of people will ever think like I do, or that I have any chance of convincing them to abandon their insidious belief systems; I just can’t bring myself to be diplomatic about willful ignorance. Others are better at that, and therefore probably more effective in actually changing minds. If they are, they should concentrate on our only hope: promoting pragmatism, embracing economic and other policy ideas that work for all people while rejecting those that do not, and making adjustments along the way as needed. To do this, however, we must excise the cancer of dogma and ideology from our minds and recognize our own human nature. The medicine to eliminate or at least shrink this cancer, the cancer-fighting cocktail, if you will, is education combined with a sea change in our political discourse. One cannot happen without the other. This would be no easy task, and perhaps ultimately a Sisyphean one, but not trying is not an option if world civilization is to have any hope of sustainability.

Which is Why the Political Media Needs to Focus on Policy, Not Politics

Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. He could have been describing the liberal class of American political pundits. Their intellectual heft could be put to much better use in talking about how specific policies really affect the lives of Americans. While surely they would agree that average voters need to be better informed, they’re afraid that getting into the weeds of public policy would be too boring, and eruditely calling the play by play of Trump’s floundering political ground game is undoubtedly thrilling. I don’t begrudge them that. Schadenfreude feels good. But for the love of god, our planet is at stake here.

And it is not as if the American body politic is deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to realizing the importance of policy. After all, the recent cris de cœur of righteous indignation at town hall meetings across the country about the possibility of the Republican Congress of actually repealing the Affordable Care Act is evidence enough.

So no, Donald J. Trump’s lack of political ideology is not a handicap to his political success, if you define political success as accomplishing something genuine for the betterment of America and all of her socioeconomic classes – her elite WASPs and her tired, and poor, and brown alike, instead of just possessing the sufficient political capital to enact one’s agenda.

Trump’s unprecedented unpopularity, though, brought about by his glaring flaws of character and intelligence, are a silver lining inasmuch as they almost guarantee that the worst of his pernicious policies will never be implemented. Of course the silver lining to this cloud has its dark side too: pragmatic progressive science-based policies during the reign of this administration are dead in the water as well. Absent a biblical miracle, hope at meaningful progress during this administration must be shelved.

By way of analogy, as mentioned, our most admired modern American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wasn’t an ideologue either. He was a rational pragmatist within the tradition of Benjamin Franklin. He best summed up his lack of political ideology by saying, “I’m a Christian and a Democrat, that’s all.” He changed the course of American and world history in his first 100 days in office by implementing pragmatic policy solutions during the darkest days of the American experiment, jettisoning those that didn’t work and making permanent those that did. Trump’s lack of political ideology is best summed up in his own words as well: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure. It’s not your fault.” His is the ideology of a petty cult of personality.

And that sums it up. Political ideology is a palliative, not a cure. Not everyone within the political media can be a Krugman or a Reich, but everyone can talk about progressive policy ideas that work, and conservative policies that do not. We consigned the Ptolemaic model of our solar system to the dustbin of history 500 years ago for the heliocentric model. We openly and rightly ridicule people who think spirits cause disease instead of germs. We trust engineers to build our airplanes and not imams. There is no reason in principle or practice that we cannot apply science and reason to politics and public policy. FDR was right – a democracy will fail without an educated electorate. There will always be conservative media outlets the cynically selling the seductive pap of obscurantism and a failed ideology, and the advantage is theirs: fear, tribalism, and greed sells (sometimes you can’t keep it on the shelves). We’re genetically predisposed to it. But we’re also capable of learning.

Yes, liberal media, you were right about Trump as his first hundred days in office have indubitably proven. Yes, he is a monster, a fraud, a liar, a dunce, a bad businessman, and a wholly incapable national leader. But at some point the back patting must stop and the educating must begin in earnest. I can hear the objections already: “Our job is to report, not educate!” No, your job is to inform people about what is true. That means saying that while not all Trump voters are racists, all racists voted for Donald Trump; that the roots of tribalism and racism are partially biological; that the principles of economics is mostly dogma; that most socialist democracies have a higher standard of living and a larger middle class in proportion to their population than America; that too many conservatives unwittingly vote against their own interests; that what you believe based on intuition is almost always bound to be wrong; that voters are not yet powerless against plutocrats; that our problems have nothing to do with immigration; that climate change is real and we’re slowly killing our planet (and ourselves with it). That we can solve the problems that we created by educating ourselves and implementing good public policies that work for all Americans and not only the wealthy. And many more things besides.

With the notable exceptions of immigration, race relations, and the environment, Trump supporters are not significantly different from the supporter of Bernie Sanders on almost every other policy position: neoliberalism, the economy, wealth inequality, maintaining Social Security and Medicare, and avoiding more foreign military adventures. Indeed, many people who ended up supporting Trump had voted for Obama in the prior presidential contest, and seriously flirted with the Sanders campaign. Had Sanders been the Democratic nominee instead of Clinton, he would have won. That gives me hope.


[i] For an excellent, delightfully readable overview of these philosophical works, see, e.g., Magee, Bryan, Confessions of a Philosopher (New York: Radom House) 1998.

[ii] Greer, Thomas H., A Brief History of Western Civilization (5th Ed.), (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1987), p. 6.

[iii] See, e.g., Kringelbach, Marten L. and Berridge, Kent C. (Eds.), Pleasures of the Brain, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[iv] If there were a single book to put to rest the feckless idea that we are somehow not the products of evolution by natural selection, it would have to be Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. But, alas, willful ignorance is a too-powerful force.

[v] See, e.g., generally, Grossman, Matt and Hopkins, David A., Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, Oxford University Press, 2016.

[vi] See, e.g., generally, Gross, Niel and Simmons, Solomon (Eds.), Professors and Their Politics, John Hopkins University Press, 2014 (a series of studies indicating that the political leanings of professors have very little correlations with beliefs of their students upon graduation).

[vii] Kanai, Ryota, et al., “Political Orientations Are Correlated With Brain Structure in Young Adults,” Current Biology 21(8), p 677-80, April 26, 2011.

[viii] See, e.g., generally, Wood, Gordon S., Revolutionary Characters: What Made The Founders Different, New York: Penguin 2006.

[ix] Henry, William A., In Defense of Elitism, New York: Doubleday, 1994.

No, Donald Trump is Not an Evil Genius

Political and psychological analysis of Donald J. Trump has come so hard and fast after his election that it has almost become an interdisciplinary academic school in and of itself. This of course is understandable, as never in our nation’s history have we elected such an ignorant charlatan who has never had an even infinitesimal interest in public service, and has probably never read a book that wasn’t illustrated. People (non-Trump voters) are understandably shaking their heads and asking, why? How? This can’t be!

Not exactly a nuanced thinker

After his election, journalists and academics from all political appetites got down to the business dissecting and analyzing every desiccated strand of Trump’s hair: how he won, how he pays no price for his many mendacities, why his supporters by and large still like him, among many more topics. You could fill a multi-volume encyclopedia with the think pieces that have been written. The Trump phenomena is, after all, an intriguing and unprecedented enigma.

One of these threads of late has been how brilliant Trump is at manipulating the media using unpredictable tactics – baiting and switching, obfuscating, and touting conspiracy theories via Twitter at just the right time to divert attention away from his growing number of gruesome self-inflicted political wounds. To many on the left he is seen as a megalomaniacal evil genius, a master tactician of feckless Machiavellianism. On the right, he’s manhandling the biased media in a way that has never been done before, delightfully sowing fear, loathing and confusion in his wake. Both are wrong.

Much of this speculation is simply a case study for how to overanalyze. If William of Occam were still around he would conclude that the great bulk of these theories are wrong for a simple reason: Donald J. Trump is just an impulsive narcissist and a borderline moron, a very slightly more sophisticated version of his contemporary and New York’s other famous idiot, “Teflon Don”—John Gotti. This is a much easier explanation, with equal explanatory power concerning our Commander and Chief’s behavior.

Take, as one example, Trump’s series of tweets accusing former President Obama of wiretapping him, without providing, of course, evidence. This got deep, heavy, media coverage, and rightfully so. But that coverage then led the cognoscenti to wonder: Weren’t these accusations against Obama a brilliant distraction from the Russia collusion scandal? Keyboards sizzled as writers pontificated. Not surprisingly, as it turns out, Trump had just belched up some conspiracy he’d seen on – where else? – Fox News, by its international conspiracy theory correspondent, Judge Andrew Napolitano, who had culled the pap from “anonymous sources” which probably means Breitbart. These writers didn’t stop to think about the fact that Trump has had a habit of tweeting about anything and everything that he happens to find personally offensive, at all hours, based on dubious sources or no sources at all. Or that the President’s tweets only intensified the Russian “Manchurian Candidate” speculation. It seems entirely unlikely that Trump thought about this either.

Of course it’s easy to understand this basic instinct of the literati. This man assumed the presidency of the United States of America – inarguably the most powerful executive position that has ever existed on our planet – while withstanding the white-hot gauntlet of righteous indignation from the members of his own (professed) party. He achieved what was thought to be impossible only a year ago. Surely there must be something behind the hairspray, the grotesque hindquarters, the seeming inability to construct a coherent (much less grammatically correct and logically consistent) sentence on his feet. But, given his rapid ascendency, must he not possess some undefinable talent, not unlike an idiot-savant, which we must try to understand?

No, I say, and so would Occam: he’s no idiot-savant. He’s just a deeply flawed, wealthy moron. His political campaign was not the result of any masterplan or mastermind at work. Even he didn’t think he was going to win. It remains doubtful as to whether he ever wanted the job. We can go on and on analyzing how he won: an ineffectual Clinton campaign ignoring the Rust Belt, white middle class economic angst, an indifferent body politic, racism, white nationalism, the growing influence of the alt-right, a flawed election system, James Comey, ad nauseam. And in any combination one wishes. Trump’s election was a happenstance of history, a perfect and unfortunate storm of circumstance and luck. A much less definitive answer will always be elusive – any single factor could have changed the game. But it didn’t – politics is politics, it is not physics, as pollsters and pundits have so indubitably demonstrated to us. No, Trump is not a perfidious puppeteer, and how some political writers ostensibly believe this is a somewhat beguiling.


I can’t remember a time when I ever thought Donald Trump was a smart person. He and his acolytes on the alt-right milk the encomiastic meme that he’s a self-made man and negotiator nonpareil. But even in the 1990s, when his spoken words were slightly more intelligible, he came across as an insufferable self-promoter and real estate con man who lucked into a fortune. His personal history, when stripped of the glitter of hagiography, supports this view.

While he says, unsurprisingly, “I’m like a smart person,” he won’t release his college transcripts. Of course Presidents seldom voluntarily release their transcripts, but no President has ever prated so much about his own intelligence, and besides, didn’t Trump demand that Obama release his transcripts? He also claims to have gotten his start with a “small” million-dollar loan from his father, omitting the fact that he was also a trust fund kid, had testified in a deposition that he borrowed $9 million from his father’s estate, and according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall), was given somewhere around $14 million by his father, Fred. Moreover, dad bailed him out of a bad casino deal with an illegal $3.5 million loan. Bloomberg News estimated Trump’s net worth at around $2.9 billion, not very close to Trump’s own $10 billion claim. He isn’t even among the top 20 richest real estate moguls in the world, but has been involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits (and counting). Had he simply invested his money in index funds, his net worth today would be closer to $13 billion. He operated a fake charity and a fake university, the latter of which cost him $25 million in a fraud settlement. Combined with his multiple bankruptcies, these facts hardly paint a picture of a smart businessman. By any honest account, he is a walking, talking, breathing fraud.

Trump is not particularly good at abstract thought, and has no patience for policy; like a bird, he’s mostly a bundle of instincts, appropriately demonstrated by his tweets. He surrounds himself with likeminded conspiracy theorists like Steve Bannon, and in the course of less than a hundred days has managed to change a flawed but functioning democracy into a third world kakistocracy/kleptocracy hybrid. He should not be given evil genius creds because it is entirely likely this was never his plan. Such a plan would require an actual political philosophy and coherent thinking. Nor do his current and former supporters deserve a shred of sympathy: they are either ignorant, credulous, complicit in Trump’s prevarications, or some amalgam of the three, and were therefore willing participants in strengthening the lattice of lies that ensconced him in the White House.

Trump is, and will always be, a failure – as a businessman, as a person, as the President of the United States. No financial net worth calculation will ever be able to change that.

Calling a Duck a Duck

“Alt-Right” is a Convenient Fiction: It’s Just the Right With A Modem

Many people have apparently forgotten that haplessly ignorant and hopelessly angry conspiracy theorists who sometimes couch their white supremacist leanings in obscurantist academic language have been included within the “big tent” of the Republican Party since 1965. This is simply an observation of fact, if one is to give any countenance to what most within the “alt-right” say they believe. How are their feckless ideas fundamentally different from those within the John Birch Society? Or the more important rhetorical question: How are their beliefs fundamentally different from the average mainstream Conservative who only repeats them as off-the-record whispers into the hairy ears of his peers at the country club bar?

There are a million ways to slice and dice the “real” reason Donald J. Trump got elected, and impressive efforts have been made to attribute it to third party candidates, white middle class angst, a fundamentally misguided Clinton campaign, fake news stories, the archaic electoral college model, and many others.  It of course could have been any of these things individually, and more likely a combination of some or all of these things, but without the “alt-right” and their preposterous, simplistic but easily digestible memes aimed at the ignorati, it is hard to see how Trump could have been elected. Could Trump have won without the “alt-right”? Sure, and for any of the above reasons. But the “alt-right” were game-changers in ways that none of the other competing theories are.

The “alt-right” doesn’t have anything new to contribute, and they don’t have any coherent political philosophy. They just learned how to use a computer.

Yes, I make the not-so-bold claim that the influence of the “alt-right” got their guy and their party elected, or, as this claim can never be empirically verified, it was enormously influential.

And their guy and their party must now dance with them that brung ‘um.

Realize, too, and equally importantly, that the very term “alt-right” is a misnomer, which is why I put it in quotes. Since Obama’s election in 2008 the “alt-right” became the “actual-Right” – the Right of reality, and let’s not insult everyone’s intelligence by pretending otherwise, that their ideas are somehow new, or important, or intelligible. And let’s not also pretend that this is some kind of new mutation of a virus infecting Conservative politics. If anything, it is simply an extension of old ideas by a social media medium that easily reaches people without requiring them to do anything so strenuous as to read a book.

The “alt-right” moniker used to describe Trump supporters should be discarded for simple “the Right,” or if you prefer, “Conservative.” You could even do the Prince thing and say, “The party formerly known as the Conservative Party,” but that’s a mouthful, and it wouldn’t clarify anything. (As Bill Maher once noted, “survival seeds” are really just “seeds.”)

The “alt-right” label does not procure us with any new insight, does not enlighten us, and it does not provide any new, particularly useful information. There’s simply no need to complicate things with a further descriptive. It’s been tried before. These reckless ideologues and irresponsible fakirs have been called the “far right,” “neoconservatives,” “paleoconservatives,” among other names, none of which stuck. Why? As I said, there’s simply no need for a new name. Certainly there’s a want for a new name, as it could have the effect of decoupling the racist kooks from mainstream Republicans, giving them political cover from being too closely associated with the the mentally ill and the shameless liars who spout the silly shibboleth “cuckservatives” (more on who those people are below), but it would be superfluous.

I think that too many people really don’t get this, and I feel the strange need to belabor the point somewhat, so please indulge me. By way of analogy, when you tell someone that you’re an American, do they ask you, “Really, from what country?” It might be a pedantically correct question because Mexicans (the ones actually living Mexico) are also Americans, if geography and history are to be considered. But it would also be an embarrassingly scholastic question. In the real world, when you tell someone that you are an American, they are not confused about what country you’re from. And in the real world when someone tells you that they’re a Conservative, there should be no confusion that they are from the party that supports Know-Nothing nativism, and has done so for more than a century. Now, though, they (Conservatives) have become so dumb that they’ve lost any pretense of diplomatic subtlety. Perhaps this was a result of having a sophisticated, educated scholar, gentleman, and black bon vivant in the White House for 8 years instead of a monosyllabic borderline moron from Connecticut who pretended to be a Texas Wildcatter and chews with his mouth open. Nobody knows. But this is, in my view, a good thing. It is always better to deal with open racists and people wearing tinfoil hats than people who pretend not to be racists, or sane, hiding their tinfoil hat under waves of orange comb overs.

The dog whistles are gone now, or at least now both dogs and humans can hear them.

Photo credit: MSNBC

How can I be so sure that the “alt-right” and the Conservative Right are just slightly different curings of the same beef? For a very simple reason. Those “cuckservatives” who so indignantly, righteously, and correctly, excoriated Donald J. Trump with unambiguous recursives throughout the long campaign, are now glad-handing him in the hope of serving in his administration. What Conservative among them refused to meet with him on principle? Who among them stood by their faux egalitarian, pluralist principles and denounced him? I haven’t been able to find a single one. The oft-repeated refrain from Trump supporters is, “He says what I am thinking.” Indeed, you’re thinking at a primary school level and you’re newly-anointed leader is speaking at the same level, often lower. And the shameless pilgrimage of newly-reformed, born-again acolytes to the Mecca of all that is wrong with the world – the Trump Tower – is proof that Conservative leaders agreed with Trump all along too, but because they were politicians, they just couldn’t say so, and like Trump himself, they thought he would lose anyway. But now that the game has changed, they no longer have to speak in code about their insidious ideas, and what a relief it must be to shed the heavy and false raiment of reason and say what you think, as grotesque as it is.

I could be wrong of course – I am, after all, imputing motives to the actions of desperate aspirants that they themselves deny, and therefore this is circumstantial evidence to be sure. It could be that they disagree with Trump but still think they can be instrumental in their respective roles in public service. But one might find it worth considering that their boss has never shown even the remotest interest in public service through the course of his silk-pajamad life, unless you count his fake charity or fake university. Or perhaps they think they will be serving the country and not the man running it. One doesn’t have to be completely politically jaded to dismiss that theory, though. Let’s be serious.

More broadly, this political amalgam of mostly poorly educated jingoists and xenophobes calling themselves Conservatives must always remain under the “big tent” of the Republican party for the very simple reason that if they split into different factions they would cancel out any real political influence they have held as a group; if they split into a Old-Conservative (pre-Tea Party) party and a New-Conservative (post-Breitbart) party, the big circus tent would collapse on itself and competing carnival barkers would drown themselves out. The internecine wars would not be survivable. I wouldn’t complain, but I’m not credulous enough to think it will happen. After all, we saw how politically ineffective Conservatives were when they found themselves between the two (politically) geologic periods of Obama’s election in 2008 and his reelection in 2012, which very nearly became the Permian-Triassic “dying out” for the Republican Party – but was saved by a little known organisms, like rural toothless hillbillies teaming up with resentful post-industrial Rust Belt garret-dwellers, who in turn developed symbiotic relationships with wealthy neoliberals, internationalists and the primordial slime of simpletons of all demographic groups, to create a more diverse and complex system which allowed it to survive, and apparently thrive. But like all complex systems, its survival comes with a price – inherent instability.

Conservatives are mad at the world, but their members can’t completely agree as to why they should be: minorities are taking their jobs (especially Mexicans), America was tricked into electing a secret Muslim from Kenya, manmade global climate disruption is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and the ultimate goal of Liberals is to see America become a communist fagtopia arm of the United Nations by taking away our guns (or any combination of the above, or all of the above, and many more absurdities as well).

As it turns out, these new Conservatives should be justly angry about many things. They should be angry that their Conservative leader for 8 years, a man so dumb he has become somewhat of a cult figure within the movement (and now spends his time finger painting wounded soldiers in his garage), sent young men and women into senseless wars of choice having much more to do with neoliberalist economic theology than its (much more effective) branding as “freedom” – because we don’t want average publicly-educated children to bothered with any author as scary and confusing as George Orwell. They should be mad that they have been conned for decades into voting against their own interests. They should be mad that the very same Conservative leaders who they worship openly, also despise them and ridicule them, openly. Indeed they should be angry at both major political parties for selling the snake oil of silly side issues like political correctness, identity politics, terrorist cells infiltrating the Homeland by parading as Syrian refugees, and the clear and imminent danger of transgender people using a restroom different from what their God-assigned individual genitalia told them their assigned restroom should be.

But the important issues do not anger them, because they’re not largely aware of them, or if aware of them, only vaguely. And their animosities are so easily misdirected by more emotional and visceral manufactured threats.

Things like economic theory or political philosophy are obscured by the grime on the lenses of perfectly serviceable reading glasses, and yes, I know that I am risking taking this analogy too far to imply that they cannot read. Of course they can read. They just cannot see well. The reason for their myopia is not their own doing, it is the result of the disease that was given to them by the very people who benefit from their legal blindness – the “alt-right” – the new Conservatives.

It did not used to be this way of course. There was a time when Conservatives were not bat-shit crazy, angry, confused nut jobs from an alternate universe, or kids with so little moral character or emotional intelligence that they value shock value over all else. Sure, some of their base tendencies were similar with their bad seed offspring – they tended to be white and privileged, slightly racist, fearful of change, and subject to unquestioning belief in dogma. But they weren’t crazy. They were part of an intellectual movement, a movement like all intellectual movements before and since, struggling to make sense of the world, and in doing so providing a framework in which one could hope to decipher reality, filtering out both the observable and non-observable objective facts that were superfluous and distracting to true human understanding of how a good human society could be achieved. They were people like William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will. Of course Buckley is dead and Will has been sidelined with most the rest of his reasonable, intellectual brethren, in the face of a movement that they themselves inspired, but has now cannibalized their leaders’ once respectable, if not at least intelligible, ideas, and shat them out as transmogrified demagogic slogans and memes, never having fully digested them. The stench is overpowering. But like a dog eating its own vomit, the stink is apparently overpoweringly seductive for the semi-sentient. To complete this offal scatology analogy – if for no other reason than to shock sensitive readers – one might remember the quote from Gabriel García Márquez, “…the day shit is worth money poor people will be born without an asshole.”

Never mind. While I never agreed with most of the arguments of the (now dead or well into the final death-rattle) intellectual conservative movement, but in the heady days in the marketplace of ideas, you could argue with them about economic policy, about social policy, and any number of other things like philosophy and sociology, and they would be well-versed in the arcane theories of Keynes and Kant and Nietzsche, and we could even agree on many objective facts in the process, of course differing on interpretation and details. They were passionate and persuasive debaters, and their arguments often made intuitive sense. The closest one can come now to any Conservative who is in power and can speak in complete sentences is the automaton in the form of Paul Davis Ryan (R-Wis), the current Speaker of the House whose apparatchiks think of him as some kind of policy wonk when he is in reality a gym rat man-boy who fell in love with Ayn Rand and never got over her.

But then something happened. Many of their policy ideas were put into practice. And time passed. And everyone could see without the need of intellectualizing that their theories just didn’t work, at least for the average American.

Photo credit: USA Today
Photo credit: Daily Mail

Out of many possible examples, let me just give the most obvious one. The sine qua non of economic policy for Conservatives like Paul Ryan, to put it in its most sanitized form, is “supply-side” – reducing taxes for the wealthy and reducing regulations for corporations, which, as the story goes, would result in higher growth and higher investment, and the economic benefits that the wealthy would obviously filter down to the less rich, the workers, and to society as a whole (hence this theory’s more pungent name of “trickle down” economics). Economists like Milton Friedman and many others built whole careers on this fallacy. It was implemented in earnest with Ronald Reagan’s economic policies in 1980. The problem was of course that nothing trickled down. It didn’t even dribble. Almost four decades later, after being applied liberally (no pun intended), it became increasingly more difficult to convince people that it was working, or that it simply was never given a fair chance at working, or had been ruined by the sabotage of another competing party in power with a different theory. Even the congenitally or willfully ignorant could see that this was the case, without having to think too hard about it – it was felt in everyday life. Our grey post-apocalyptic industrial cities and towns are here, the homeless encampments are here, the food banks who turn hungry people away because there is no food are here, the record breaking Dow is here, and the full employment rate at crappy service industry jobs are here too. One need only open her eyes to see these things.

But when one invests a lifetime of intellectual energy propagating an argument, or as in this case be, a beautiful but dangerous illusion (neoliberal theology), it is a dreadfully hard habit to give up. So the passion for the argument has not abated, at least within the circles of conservative economic ideas, and neither did its sophistic leanings, or perhaps even its dogmatic principles. But at some point the all-powerful force of dogmatic belief had to eventually come in some sort of contact with the immovable object of economic reality. So conservatives simply gave up on reasoned argument and began selling fear and loathing, which have very good historical records of moving public opinion in one’s favor, as it requires no thought or analysis, only an amygdala and consciousness.

Progressives like very much to demonize Conservatives as being dimwitted knuckle-draggers too dumb to consider facts and too dumb to accept the realities of objective truth. Conservatives, likewise, very much like to demonize Progressives as pie-in-the-sky “knee-jerk” educated-beyond-their-means Liberals, who have no hard-felt ideological roots and will take them to wherever their interest-based political winds will blow them. Both of these absolutes are wrong, but if there were not some seed of truth to these generalizations, these stereotypes could never have taken root.

Conservatism, in principle, isn’t a bad thing. Teddy Roosevelt was a conservative, and he wanted, mostly, to conserve the natural environment. He almost single-handedly created our national park system and was the forerunner of our environmental protection laws. And Progressives love him for this. Yes, Liberal Progressives can love a Conservative. And Conservatives can love a Liberal right back. After all, none other than Richard Millhouse Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave us the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Yet Progressives excoriate Teddy for being a war-mongering, racist populist, as perhaps they should. And Conservatives excoriate Nixon as being a race-baiting political opportunist, as perhaps they should. Conservatives want to conserve – our democracy, our heritage, our way of life, our hopes and our dreams for a better future. Progressives want to progress beyond conservation, into the bold new world of possibilities, where all men being created equal is not just an aphorism. The instincts of these two groups have found common ground in the past, and if history is any guide, will again in the future. Their ideas need not become a diametrically opposed zero-sum game. Regressive dreamers of a golden-white Norman Rockwell past that never really existed but want to make it re-exist with the hocus-pocus of hyper-free market capitalism and white pride vs. progressive dreamers that a brave new world of equality can be created using the same magic.

Pragmatists, consigned to the bench, sit on sidelines, scratching their heads, writing essays like this, adjusting their jocks, and smelling their fingers.

It has been widely reported that coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News – the milquetoast powerhouses of basic news dissemination, spent a total of 32 minutes of airtime on coverage of public policy issues – crime, abortion, civil rights, the environment, poverty, etc. – compared to 220 minutes in 2008. During the Republican primary season, the networks spent 333 minutes on Donald Trump alone. Of course they did – facts and issues are mostly depressing, and talking about them when there is man who looks like an immolated orangutan with a bad wig would kill ratings. The major networks are not dumb. They’re just sycophantic followers of money at any cost, not unlike the racist they gave so much coverage to and helped to elect.

But I digress. The Conservative parties, both here and abroad, are parties of feckless white nationalists, blinded by a failed ideology of individualism and neoliberalism. Liberal parties, both here and abroad, are rainbow coalition parties guided by the failed ideology of what’s-in-it-for-me idealism, and neoliberalism too. The only people talking sense, the Bernie Sanders’s of the world, are not being listened to because the gatekeepers of ideas won’t let them be heard.

Conservatives can try to surgically excise deplorables from their platform by calling them “alt-right,” but that’s just an obvious ploy to distance themselves from the very people who elected them, and by extension, who will govern all of us. Why Liberals have accepted this labeling game is less clear. They would be better off to put all of them into the same sack and just call them Conservatives; of course they have differences, but it is a mistake to focus on those differences instead of their commonalities. Clinton was half-right to call half of Trump supporters “deplorables.” Half-right because they are all deplorables. You, Trump supporter, might be the most honest morally upright example of a hominid in the world, and supported the President-elect for a legitimate reason (e.g., he doesn’t like the Trans-Pacific Partnership), but in doing so you had have to have ignored every other deplorable thing he stood for, which is a moral failing if there ever was one.

I’m just calling a duck a duck.

Something Quite Slightly Grotesque

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Democratic leadership excoriated Donald Trump. (All is fair in love and war.) But thinking that he could not possibly win, mainstream Republicans did too. Mitt Romney called him a “phony” and a “fraud.” He said Trump has led the nation to the abyss. He was, of course, right – not exactly a hard call to make. (I can only imagine, but it must have been fun to be on that Right-rickety bandwagon, cannibalizing one of your own and feeling good about it because it was, well, the right thing, the honest thing, the decent thing, to do.)

But then, against all odds, Trump won. He didn’t even want to win. Nothing in his curriculum vitae even remotely suggested that he has ever had the slightest interest in public service.

Now he is being fawned upon for jobs by those that quite rightly denounced him a month ago.
Neil Cavuto of Fox News openly wondered how Trump could meet with Romney at all. But this pondering came across as somewhat silly. After all, if Trump could only choose from his apparatchiks, he would have to fill a thousand administration positions from a pool of people he could count on two hands. The parade of possibles now meeting with Trump at his private golf club or his suite at Trump Tower in New York is pathetic, grotesque, and of course expected.

They are, to use Hillary Clinton’s phrase, a basket of deplorables. Not the toothless, racist hillbilly kind of deplorables, but rather the polished, Ivy League kind. They’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and they speak in complete, reasonable sentences. And they’re shameless. Some of them may think that they can make a positive difference in the Trump administration, perhaps even pushing back against their new Commander In Chief’s basest instincts. Others, a minority to be sure, might be true believers. Still others, more likely than not, just want a job, like so many other Americans, and Trump did, after all, promise to bring jobs back to America, a promise he of course can’t fulfill.

Donald is, of course, loving it. For those glad-handing job seekers, though, they might have to look their children in the eyes one day, and not with sexual ardor, I hope.

Father’s Day?

DSC01812I recently attended a Father’s Day event at my kids’ school. It was horrific.

A few weeks earlier there was a Mother’s Day event which consisted of a catered brunch, the presentation of crafts made by kids for their moms, and a touching video honoring mothers around the world. Perfect.

The majority female administration, faculty and staff at our children’s private school, though, couldn’t leave dads twisting in the wind, and a handcrafted collage just wouldn’t do – aren’t dads the conventional under-recognized tripartite of the family unit?

Someone – undoubtedly a woman – came up with the brilliant idea of inviting all the fathers with their children for some bonding, exercise, and games on a Thursday afternoon outside in the blistering June heat in Chihuahua. Text messages erupted in protest, but we went anyway; after all, it was to honor us (and guilt is a powerful motivator). So after work, middle aged men in suits went through eight circuits with their kids, alternating between dancing, sack-racing, aerobics, obstacle courses, water-balloon tosses and all manner of other clichéd “fun” activities for families.

And it was great fun. For the kids. Kids don’t mind high-desert dirt sticking to their perspiration-drenched bodies as they run and squeal and play with their friends. Dehydration can be a hoot. But this wasn’t Children’s Day. (Every day is Children’s Day, plus they get an extra one thrown in, not even counting Student’s Day.) This was Father’s Day, and the attending fathers (I wouldn’t claim to speak for them all), didn’t have such a great time (as their ruddy faces, glum expressions, and stained trousers seemed to hint).

Personally, I don’t think we deserve a special day – not even the most responsible, disciplined and attentive of us. All we did was ejaculate inside of a women and they took care of the rest, which is the hard part of making babies.

Someone had a brilliant idea that it would be great fun for fathers to bond with their kids in a team building exercise for Father’s Day sponsored by the school. But if you’re a dad and you’re not doing that on a regular basis with your children by taking them to parks, to museums, to family events, or even just playing board games with them, then you’re a fuck-up of a personal father failure, and a once-a-year hopelessly-contrived school day with your kids is at best a token acknowledgment of your paternity and responsibility as a person.

I’m not saying we don’t deserve some recognition, but it should be proportional, and usually it is. A personalized coffee mug, a six-pack of artisanal beer, an afternoon left unmolested to nap in front of the TV. That doesn’t seem to be asking for much. And that’s all we want.

So take it easy. Speaking for myself, I don’t want equal recognition, and I don’t think I deserve it at any rate. But even if I did, I would be happy with a brunch (I might insist on just one mimosa), and that would be it. Anything more would be gratuitous politically correct pandering.

And I almost forgot.  When we got home my daughter cried because we left about five minutes before every last balloon was popped in the grand finale of balloon-popping as the sun was setting and the commute traffic was heating up. The kids were so exhausted they slept in my bed. I slept on the couch.

Happy Father’s Day.

The War Closest to Home

[Author’s note: the events memorialized in this essay took place between 2002 and 2013, with the actual writing of this story in 2014; the recollection of past and exact dates are subject to the vagaries of memory; names have been changed. Unless captioned, photographs are from local media sources, some are graphic.]

A human skull in Mexico’s northern desert

The drug war being fought in Mexico is very different from America’s war on drugs. The war in America is prosecuted by the government against her ordinary, if not usually her poorest, marginalized residents. The Mexican war consists of a bloody triangulation of an asymmetric conflict between the Mexican government and her hyper-violent competing drug cartels. They are more than just symbiotic: they are obligate. And neither war is necessary. Indeed they exacerbate the problems of drug abuse, violence, the public health crisis, and human rights violations. This is my story of having lived through Mexico’s ongoing drug war, viewed through the duel lenses of academia and personal experience.

Up Close and Personal

Finding bodies a daily occurance

It was an idle Wednesday afternoon in the sweltering summer of 2011. I was returning home from an insufferably boring faculty meeting, my tie loosened, the air conditioning full-blast in my little Seat Cordoba, waiting at the traffic light on an overpass at the Periférico de La Juventud and Juan Escutia only a few kilometers from my house. I could taste the ice-cold Indio beer waiting for me. A Jeep pulled up directly in front of me, blocking the intersection. A man wearing a black ski mask exited the back holding an automatic rifle, not the easily recognizable AK-47 or AR-15, with which I am familiar from my youthful U.S. Army days. I saw the simultaneous bird-like head jerks of surprise by the two young male passengers, the half-second of hesitation, the “oh shit’ moment just before the bullets’ impact. The sicario unloaded a full magazine into the VW Jetta. Amongst the shattering glass and deafening noise I oddly noticed a phone number painted on the back window with white shoe polish, indicating the car was for sale. From the corner of my saucer-eyes I slunk down low in my seat and turned to look straight ahead, barely able to see above the steering wheel, my heart suddenly pounding out of my chest.

Another volley erupted – presumably a second magazine was emptied – but I was looking now straight ahead. And the Jeep was gone. It couldn’t have taken more than 10 seconds. Nothing to be done, no available escape, only the brief fiery fear that a stray bullet might part my head as clean as a machete could a coconut. The light turned green and I accelerated. In the rearview mirror I could see cars driving around the Jetta as if it were occupied by a couple of hapless motorists who ran out of gas. But of course it was occupied by the corpses of two young men – two among more than 120,000 others who have been murdered during the ongoing Mexican narco wars. And another 26,000 disappeared, presumed dead. More than all combatants killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last two decades.

Typical hit

The next morning, El Heraldo – one of two major newspapers in Chihuahua’s state capitol of the same name – reported the assassination in the crime section; it hardly warranted, and was not given, a front page spread. Standard hits such as these read like a local police blotter from Peoria, but with the obligatory and gratuitous photos of bloodied, lifeless bodies shredded by high-velocity rifle rounds. No one got the license plate number, but even if they had it would have undoubtedly come back as stolen. The carjacking of nondescript SUVs for the purposes of carrying out gang hits is the preferred method for acquiring a vehicle to do dirty work. Sometime later, perhaps a month or so, an unwisely feisty mother of two refused to turn over the keys to her Suburban and was shot in a supermarket parking lot. She died on the scene with her two kids still strapped in their seats. Another story buried in the back pages of the crime section. Still later, one of my law students, AC, unwisely refused to give over the keys of his Trailblazer and was shot in the head. He survived, but suffers from lifelong disabilities of both movement and mind.

For many years there was a tacit understanding between the Mexican government and the various drug cartels, a sort of inevitable tolerance of each other brought by a common understanding the market for illegal drugs would never go away, nor would the attempts to stop it. Though this is somewhat of an oversimplification, the unspoken agreement more or less consisted of a recognition that both had a job to do and a role to play: the government knew it could never win outright, and the cartels acknowledged that some drug busts and apprehensions were the cost of doing business.  The government was in the need of occasionally arresting a cartel lieutenant and interdicting drugs headed for the border, in exchange for the cartels keeping their cool ─ a lid on outright turf war. The PR was necessary. Until 2006, Mexico’s heart was never really into confronting drug cartels in a serious and sustained way, but cooptation by the U.S., and the money provided for drug enforcement and interdiction, made it an inevitable, albeit futile, exercise, largely for show. There had always been some violence between competing cartels, and between various state and federal police agencies and cartels, but the grease of corruption and the unstated acknowledgment that stopping proliferate trafficking was a fool’s game, kept the squeaky wheel of violence to a minimally acceptable level.

The brutality of ISIS pales in comparison to Mexico’s drug violence

But then the conservative National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional or PAN) Candidate, Felipe Caldarón, won the 2006 presidential election, and made good on his promise to clean up corruption and rid Mexico of the drug cartels. This was, unfortunately for me, just after I had decided to pursue my passion for food and open a Spanish restaurant. Three months after our grand opening of El Capote, the violence was nearing its apogee. Assassinations at traffic lights, on the street, at car washes, in bars and restaurants, were daily occurrences. Massacres of dozens of people at single locations became common. Running gun battles now included grenades and rockets. Mexicans who had the financial means moved into gated neighborhoods, or out of the country altogether. People stopped going out. Almost half of all restaurants in the cities of Chihuahua and Juarez closed, and in some places a quarter of all businesses, whose owners were coming under increasing threats of extortion from cartels who were being squeezed harder and harder, not to mention the precipitous drop in tourism one might expect. Suddenly our restaurant was empty. Broken hearted, we closed, and for the first time in many years, I cried like a baby. Deep, guttural sobs. I now realize, many years later, that I was not crying for our restaurant, I was crying for Mexico, my adopted country. The morning after our first Help Wanted ads ran for waiters and cooks, there was a line of hopefuls outside the restaurant. And not just young people looking to earn extra money, but people with bachelors degrees: accountants, nurses, graphic designers. I was taken aback by the resumes. My manager half-smiled at me and shook his head. “Es México, Jefe. La vida es una batalla.” Yes, life is a battle in Mexico, both figuratively and literally.

Soldiers patrolling Ciudad Juárez

I went back to my teaching job, stopped reading the local papers, and tried not to notice the violence, although often it was impossible. There was the bloody body in the street I encountered just outside of Wal-Mart so freshly killed the police had not arrived yet and no crowds had the time to gather. There were the two hours locked inside a convenience store on a late-night run for cigarettes because a gun battle had erupted outside. When another midday firefight broke out in the parking lot of a strip mall where my wife’s family owns a store, our kids were almost trampled by people running to get out of the way. Thankfully the only casualties were a two critically wounded policemen and a bullet hole in my brother in law’s delivery truck.

That last incident was also the last straw. We had been thinking about moving for some time. But my wife’s family has deep ties to Mexico. Her grandfather was a former governor of Chihuahua State. They are known and respected and financially comfortable. Although I’m an American and our kids have U.S. passports, my wife would never consider moving to the States, despite having been educated there. Emotional ties to one’s country often run irrationally deep. We decided to make a go of it again in a safer place, in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, along Mexico’s beautiful Riviera Maya coastline. We would still be in Mexico. It seemed like a reasonable compromise, and we planned to return when things calmed down.

Fighting the Bad Fight: Policy Meets Reality

The war at home is different, but it is a war nonetheless. It is not a war largely waged against drug traffickers, although that front certainly exists in the form of futile drug interdiction efforts. It is a war waged by the U.S. government against its citizens, mostly the sad, desperate dystopian society-within-a-society. Understanding its origins and its consequences is not especially complicated.

Mexico City: a small cache of drug money

According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the trade in illegal drugs is worth more than $300 billion annually, making it the world’s most lucrative business market. Bigger than IBM, bigger than General Electric, bigger than Apple, bigger than Telmex (the Mexican company owned by one of the world’s richest men, Carlos Slim). And the reasons for this are clear. First, people like to consume drugs. Second, drug traffickers don’t have to bother with inconveniences like paying taxes, complying with national and local business laws, permits, or any other form of business regulation. What’s more, the market is not ever likely to disappear. Since before recorded history, evidence suggests that our species were quite fond of drugging themselves. Excohotado points this out convincingly in A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned-Age. (We have very good evidence, too, that other animals like to alter their consciousness for pleasure – to get high – such as African elephants, North American birds, and dolphins, but to name just a few.) The world’s first civilization, the Sumerians, dating from 7,000 BCE, discovered the pleasure of opium around 3,400 BCE. It’s been a mind-altering thrill ride since then, but only in recent human history have we been overly concerned about the phenomenon.

One of the results of alcohol prohibition

A study of alcohol prohibition in America proves instructive. It was a national disaster. Drinkers didn’t stop drinking because alcohol was illegal. They just bought their favorite drug from a different source ─ the black market. The American mafia was born. Violent clashes between rival gangs and bootleggers vying for territory, and between the police and these newly-minted criminal elements, bloomed into a low intensity war where thousands of lives were lost. Not surprisingly, the homicide rate increased drastically during Prohibition, and fell drastically after it was repealed, despite economic hardships brought by the Great Depression. Equally important is the surprising fact that while alcohol consumption initially went down during the first years of prohibition, in a few years it increased to 70% above pre-Prohibition levels despite being illegal. By prohibiting the production and consumption of alcohol, the use of alcohol increased, as did violent crime, which is not, I suspect, exactly what the government had in mind when the law went into effect.

After 13 years of gun battles with bootleggers and gangsters, Prohibition was repealed. The grand experiment proved to be an epic failure. After repeal, tax money from alcohol sales poured into the accounts of the federal and state governments, quality standards of alcohol products were promulgated and enforced, and regulations were put into place enforcing things such as the minimum age to purchase and consume alcohol, the labeling alcohol content, and restrictions on marketing activities, among many others. Violent competition and bootlegging evaporated as legitimate business enterprise took over the alcohol market. It is universally agreed by historians that Prohibition was a huge blunder, a fact wholly lost on the U.S. Congress. “We learn from history that we do not learn from history,” as Hegel so famously and presciently noted. At the time we were ending the failed experiment of alcohol prohibition, we were beginning, this time in earnest, the very same approach to prohibition with other drugs, and not at all surprisingly, to a similar result.

I’ve published two academic articles on U.S. drug policy as well as several magazine pieces, and the results of my research have surprised even the cynical me. The impetus for illegalizing most drugs in the U.S. came not from science, but rather xenophobia. First, we banned Chinese opium dens, then marijuana used mainly by Mexicans, then hashish favored by Sikh Indian immigrants, and of course cocaine favored by the black community. But branding the War on Drugs with the caustic simplicity of “racist” would be too convenient, and superficial. The white ruling class, as it turns out, did not (as is often argued) intentionally target minorities to imprison them, concocting their preferred drugs as an convenient excuse, though one might reasonably argue this has been the net result.

We learn from modern evolutionary biology that we humans are tribal–we are adapted for survival on the African savannah to stay within our own tribe, help one another, and be suspicious of other groups that may want to harm us and are competing for the same scarce resources. We tend to not like groups that are different from us. In fact, studies by scientists have demonstrated that the human brain is really only capable of knowing from about 150 to 290 individuals (our tribe): their personalities, ambitions, hopes, dreams, fears, etc., in any significant way. After that we have to rely on abstractions, constructs, and stereotypes. This, in turn, tends to lead us into xenophobic behavior, often without realizing it. It is natural to want to control other groups that are different from us; different in terms of race to be sure, but also language, religion, customs, among many other things. After all, in our still (relatively) primitive brains are fine-tuned to be living in tribes on the savannah. This explains why such wild claims were made about the dangers of drugs like marijuana and heroin when there has never been any good scientific proof of particularly insidious harm. In fact, the most dangerous and most abused drug – alcohol – is not only legal, aggressively marketed if not glorified within the media, but is also the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States according to The Centers for Disease Control. And the vast majority of overdose deaths in the U.S. are from prescription drugs, not illegal drugs, while not a single death has been attributed to marijuana.

nixonIn 1970 we saw tribalism raise its ugly head once again. Richard Nixon was having nothing to do with the long-haired, counter-culture, pot-smoking, acid-dropping, hippies; they threatened conservative social values. They weren’t part of the tribe. Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The following year President Nixon signed the Act, and in a speech to the Congress which was televised nationally, declared his War on Drugs. Nixon’s War on Drugs was a brilliant political move, not only resulting in his landslide election in 1972, but also leading to many other international leaders copying his “tough on drugs” strategy (often pushed along by means of cooptation by the U.S.). Initially funded by one hundred million dollars in federal money, funds poured into state, local and federal law enforcement coffers around the nation. The War was on.

druggraph1Currently the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, far exceeding both Russia and China, and the majority of inmates are poor whites and minorities in jail for non-violent drug-related charges. Since 1970, the U.S. has spent more than one trillion dollars on this drug enforcement effort, and the social cost to otherwise law abiding and productive citizens jailed for recreational drug use is immeasurable: families separated, casual drug users branded as felons, lost jobs, and all-too-many lost lives.

druggraph2And not only has drug use remained essentially unchanged since the War really turned its swag on in 1988, but drugs are much more potent and much cheaper than they have ever been. Meanwhile, in other countries like Portugal, which have abolished all criminal penalties for personal drug possession, drug use by teenagers has declined, the rate of HIV infection among drug users has dropped, deaths related to heroin and similar drugs has been cut by more than half, and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction has doubled. In a 2008 World Health Organization study, the United States ─ despite its stringent federal anti-drug laws ─ found that Americans have the highest level of illegal drug use of all countries surveyed, far exceeding levels of drug use in countries with liberal drug policies such as the Netherlands, Portugal and Greece, among others.

The historical data and empirical evidence are crystal clear: the War on Drugs is an abject failure of public policy of such colossal proportions that is almost cannot be exaggerated. It impinges on the very concept of freedom and individual liberty. It imprisons perfectly happy, healthy, and productive citizens. It encourages violence and weakens public health. It is an immoral abomination, and indeed I am at a loss for words to describe its utter fatuity.

The answer to the question of why we haven’t abandoned this costly canard comes in three parts, each one of which is powerful in its own right, but together arguably insurmountable: money, propaganda, and counter-intuitiveness.

crazymanOnce the government establishes a multitude of federal and state agencies to accomplish a mission with billions of dollars of funding, creating thousands of well-paying jobs, defunding becomes an exercise in futility. If you are in political office at the municipal, state, or federal level, even hinting at defunding, much less reducing funding, or still less liberalizing U.S. drug laws, your career is likely to be a short one. Second, because we have for so long been bombarded with the anti-drug propaganda on the evils of drug use, it has become a part of our collective “knowledge,” despite the Everest of scientific data that contradict it. The third reason that U.S. federal drug policy has not been liberalized is that asserting fewer drug laws will not result in more drug users is deeply counterintuitive. Yet when examining data from other jurisdictions as well as our own historical evidence, it is undeniably true. As the great historian Barbara Tuchman said in 1984, once a government commits to a policy, no matter how purblind and asinine it may prove to be, “all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it.”

How Could One Expect Otherwise?

In 2004, before my wife and I had children, we travelled around Mexico, visiting every state in an old Chrysler Spirit. But the bohemian life wears on you after a while, so we temporarily “settled down” in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, taking a one-year English teaching contract. For our two week summer break, we decided to take a road trip (upgrading the Spirit for a 1980 4WD Chevrolet Blazer) with two fellow teachers, Jaime and Magdalena. Both were Canadian, although Jaime also held U.S. and Peruvian passports. At the time my Spanish was still pretty rudimentary, so Jaime’s native Spanish skills came in quite handy, especially when it came to finding mota. The day before our scheduled departure he asked me if I knew where to buy pot, and of course I didn’t. (Our usual dealer, a toothless local journalist living in our apartment building was out of town.) “No worries,” he said, “Let’s go have a look.” After asking a few appropriately grungy locals, we were directed to a traffic cop, who sold us quite a lot of high-quality cannabis at a reasonable price. This was my first important practical lesson about living in Mexico. Not all police are corrupt, but their salaries are so low, they’re always looking for a way to supplement their income. Most did this by accepting bribes instead of citing citizens for minor infractions (the infamous mordida – little bite). This municipal cop, however, preferred his niche of being a street-level dealer. Fine with us.

Our first stop on the road trip were the campgrounds near the ruins of Palenque. We spent two nights and a day there, exploring the ruins by day and smoking weed, making tea with magic mushrooms, and getting scared shitless by the nighttime jungle noises (howler monkeys are the worst). After that, we spent a day and night at the far-more-spectacular much-more-remote ruins at Calakmul. No tourists, just half-excavated ancient Mayan ruins near Guatemalan border. Our next destination, quite by accident, was the most interesting.  To break our trip to Cancun, we took a very long detour and stayed in Xcalak, a tiny fishing village, more Caribbean than Mexican, with brightly painted wooden shacks, no grocery stores, and electricity only half of the day. As we drove into the pueblo, though, it was impossible not to notice that almost all of the shanties had a new motorcycle or car parked in front. Satellite dishes protruded from almost every roof. When the power was cut at night, the town came alive with the distinctive hum of Honda generators. Curious, indeed, in this rural, poor, and isolated part of the country. We soon found out from the owner of a local bar why there was a hotspot of prosperity in what was the dirt-poor southern Yucatan Peninsula. About a year before, a boy playing on the beach discovered large plastic bundles washing ashore and fetched his mother to have a look. They were packed tight with pure, uncut, Columbian cocaine. Apparently a passing speed boat was spooked, perhaps by the Mexican Navy which is traditionally tasked with coastal drug interdiction, and the drug-runners tossed their cargo into the sea. Soon the whole town was on the beach harvesting the good fortune.

There is no part of Mexico untouched by the drug trade. As mentioned, it is the world’s most lucrative business enterprise, and the world’s richest country, with the highest percentage of per capita illegal drug users, as well as the world’s highest gross consumption of illegal drugs, is just a stone throw to the north. One could hardly expect anything else.

Why Drug Wars only Adds Fuel to the Fire

Nobody is bootlegging moonshine anymore. Harry Browne, the philosophical leader of the Libertarian Party and its one-time presidential candidate said it best. I’ve used this quote (and also Hegel’s) perhaps too much in other works regarding the subject, but if there is one quote that bears repeating, indeed that should be memorized by all policymakers in both America and Mexico, this is it:

There are no violent gangs fighting over aspirin territories. There are no violent gangs fighting over whisky territories or computer territories or anything else that’s legal. There are only criminal gangs fighting over territories covering drugs, gambling, prostitution, and other victimless crimes. Making a non-violent activity a crime creates a black market, which attracts criminals and gangs, which turns what was once a relatively harmless activity affecting a small group of people into a widespread epidemic of drug use and gang warfare.

These lessons of history, when compared with the available empirical data on illegal drug use, can only lead to one reasonable conclusion: criminalizing individual drug use is not only asinine, it is also ineffective, harmful, and outrageously expensive. The answer is legalizing drugs, while taxing and regulating sales, as we do with the drugs of alcohol and tobacco. But I do not pretend that this would be an easy task. If a government overtaxes and overregulates a particular drug, making it economically prohibitive to purchase legally, consumers will turn to the black market. If, on the other hand, taxes and regulation are reasonable, the consumer will easily avoid the risks of black market purchases and purchase through legal channels, even at a premium price. Thus, in the end, public drug policy is really about balancing various interest in order to find a formula that works, as is done with alcohol and tobacco, acknowledging that a utopian ideal will never be reached, and a certain percent of the population will always abuse certain substances.

Pouring more than a trillion dollars into a lost cause with the remote hope that drug use will be reduced is the ultimate in naiveté. And what is more (and more obvious) is that this strategy has been proven, convincingly I think, to have been an enormous intellectual swindle, just as the prohibition of alcohol was, while the competing strategy ─ the liberalization of drug prohibition laws through legalization, regulation and control ─ is the only proven game in town for those who are actually serious about addressing the problem of drug addiction, drug-related violence, public health and other socioeconomic problems facing modern societies. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results. Under this definition the global war on drugs is insane.

Other experts agree. On September 11, 2014, while the news cycle was understandably dominated by remembrances of the 9/11 attacks, the Global Commission on Drug Policy quietly published its report Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. The Commission members agree that the War on Drugs is bad public policy doing far more harm than good, but also that ending the War would also mean the beginning of the end of drug-related violence worldwide, noting specially that the War has fueled crime and enriched criminals, undermined development and security, threatened public health and safety, and wasted billions of dollars, all while sabotaging national economies. Not exactly a stellar track record.

The next potentially paradigm-shifting event on the horizon with regard to the global war on drugs is the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). The U.N. has traditionally been pro-strict enforcement, but in the face of the massive body of evidence against this approach, it will be fascinating to see what unfolds.

No Escape

About year ago we were living in Playa del Carmen, operating a small Italian restaurant on the famous Avenida Quinta. On one long summer weekend my wife made plans with another mom and a gaggle of kids to visit a water park in Cancun. Not my kind of thing, so a friend and I decided to drive south to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. We bought some pot in the uber-chic beachside resort village of Tulum (not to be confused with the archeological ruins or the scruffy pueblo further inland) where the world’s great unwashed backpackers share the beautiful beach with the jet-set crowds from Hollywood and New York. The drive south was slow and bumpy, but gorgeous beyond description, with the Delaware-sized UNESCO World Heritage reserve to our right, and the crystalline Caribbean sea to our left. We had no air conditioning in the rickety old Jeep we had borrowed, and the jungle was literally steaming. Luckily, just outside the southern terminus of the peninsula there is a small village (Punta Allen) that supports a few hundred people with a dive center and some sport fishing. Soaked through with sweat and caked with road grime, we stumbled upon a shady palapa near the water where an old man was selling tacos de bistec, and thankfully, ice-cold Indio beer. There was also an onshore breeze. It was a nice place to spend some time. The tacos were delicious and the beer was ambrosia.

We chatted with the old man. His face looked like a black leather catcher’s mitt. His had clearly been a hard life. There was a sad, silent, indigenous air about him, but he opened up, like locals tend to do when a Spanish-speaking Gringo shows some interest in their lives. He, like almost everyone else in the village, was a fisherman before the Riviera Maya became a tourist haven in the 1970s. As a young man he enjoyed a simple life. His father taught him how to fish and there was always enough to eat: tropical fruit grew in abundance, fish were plentiful, and sometimes they would kill a deer. With the influx of tourism came an increase in commercial fishing however, and his family could no longer compete. His wife died years earlier and he now made his living selling tacos and doing odd jobs. He said he had two sons and a daughter. They wanted a better life. His daughter works as a hotel maid in Cancun, and one son is a bartender at a Playa del Carmen resort. He looked down and pretended to be busy arranging things on his taco cart. “And your other son?” I asked. He hesitated for a moment.  “He left to work in Texas four years ago, in Brownsville. I haven’t heard from him.”

I stumble over my words and change the subject.

Mass graves discovered almost daily

Were Paco’s son alive, even if he never made it to his destination, he would have wired some money, or at the very least telephoned. He was undoubtedly one of the 26,000 Mexicans who have been “disappeared” since 2006. Intended migrants are favorite targets of the cartels; they are used as drug mules, or slaves, they are coopted or lured into the trafficking business with promises of avarice, or are simply robbed and killed. Fosas clandestinas – clandestine mass graves – are discovered almost daily, sometimes through investigation, often by chance: the stink of death and disturbed soil noticed by neighborhood kids.

We drove back to Playa del Carmen in silence, deflated. I’ve always been prone to bouts of depression, and I could feel another one creeping up behind my eyes, my world darkening. It is the poor people who suffer in the drug wars in Mexico and the United States, the marginalized, those without rights. The top Mexican drug bosses live in opulence, as do many of the politicians in their back pockets. In a nation where 45 percent of the population live below the poverty line, some 37.6 million people survive on less than five dollars a day. It should not be surprising that there is an endless supply of poor young men to act as soldiers and smugglers for the drug cartels; these are the ones gunned down in the street or imprisoned, not by-and-large the kingpins and their acolytes. In the U.S., too, rich people are rarely arrested and imprisoned for drug possession or trafficking, for that matter; that privilege is almost exclusively reserved for the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless, despite the fact that illegal drug usage among income levels and ethnicity is essentially the same.

We drove in silence and I ruminated. Suddenly my restaurant seemed like a waste of my life. Selling lobster raviolis and huitlacoche fritters to sunburned vacationers seemed pointless and jejune, as did my obsession with food. My biggest worry was where my restaurant ranked on Trip Advisor. It was at that moment that I began to think about going back to writing and teaching. I am economically poorer for the decision, but academia keeps pulling me back, and I’m glad for it.

This asymmetrical low-intensity war in Mexico has all of the unthinkable brutality of ISIS in Mesopotamia: videotaped decapitations, people being burned alive, raped, dismembered, enslaved. Add a good dose of corruption, where poorly paid local police can significantly supplement their incomes by cooperating with certain cartels or local gangs, and you have a recipe for chaos. Chaos fed by the outrageous profits of the drug trade, in turn fueled by the unyielding demand for drugs by Americans.

The war closest to home is in Mexico: a triangulation of warring cartels competing for lucrative trafficking routes, with governmental policing entities sometimes brutally, and futilely, trying to stop them, or as is often the case, actively helping them for profit. The war at home is simpler and only two-sided. It is a war prosecuted by the government against the poorest and most vulnerable of its own citizens. Both are morally defenseless and pernicious wars against virtually defenseless people. Neither are necessary. Both are counterproductive and inhumane.

We should stop this nonsense. But the inertia built up over decades, with the sticky tentacles of federal, state, local and international agencies, each with its hand in the cookie jar, are formidable foes, perhaps even insurmountable ones. But alas there is hope, although I am not convinced that a rational, pragmatic policy is not really possible within my lifetime. Views are slowly changing about drug use and abuse, with a definite trend evincing changes in drug policy at the state level, particularly with respect to the decriminalization of cannabis. If this trend continues, and the marijuana fear is debunked, as it surely will be, then there is hope. The legalization of cannabis in Colorado, despite the hysterical predictions of the usual Conservative anti-drug crusaders that the state would become a zombie apocalypse, can only be considered a success measured by any metric you like. Eugene Jarecki’s 2012 blockbuster documentary The House I Live In confirmed what academics and researchers have been saying for decades: the War on Drugs has never been about drugs. Most recently, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, showed us, in a riveting narrative, that our own popular understanding of drug addiction swims in a putrid sea of pseudoscience and misinformation. Together with the Global Commission of Drug Policy report, this makes powerful and increasingly agreed-upon body of evidence against this horrific public policy.


I originally wrote this piece in late 2014, where it was submitted to a magazine editor before finally being rejected after a few months with the comment, “we like this piece but it just doesn’t work for us at this time.” It languished on a spare USB drive as I worked on other things, and I only rediscovered it searching through my scattered library of unpublished work to include on this blog.

Since then, some important events have unfolded. Enrique Peña Nieto from the PRI assumed office on December 1, 2012. He is not a popular president, but no Mexican president has been popular in modern times: accusations of cronyism, nepotism, corruption, inefficiency, and wildly inappropriate priorities stick to Mexican presidents like feathers to tar. But drug violence quieted down significantly. People began going out again, starting businesses; universities initiated programs in business and entrepreneurship, and young people embraced technology, and once again, hope. The Mexican inteligencia and polemicists began the task of evaluating Peña Nieto’s predecessor’s policies on the Mexican drug war. How could Calderón, a smart man educated at two elite Mexican universities (a bachelor of laws and a masters in economics) followed by a Master of Public Administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, have so seriously botched this purblind drug war? How could he have possibly thought that military force could be used effectively against an endemic social and economic problem? (Calderón actually fired entire police departments and sent in soldiers, who were not trained for and knew nothing of policing, let alone investigating crimes.) Under his tenure rural communities in parts of rural Mexico, especially in border states like Chihuahua, became essentially lawless vestiges of the old Wild West.

Under Peña Nieto’s tenuous tenure, infrastructure spending increased dramatically, fueled in part by state revenue from high oil prices, increased foreign direct investment, and once-again growing tourism. The attitude of hope, of looking forward to a better future, was palpable. It lasted for 21 months, until September 26, 2014, when 43 student protesters from Ayotzinapa were kidnapped in the state of Guerrero by the police of Iguala, turned over to the local drug gang Guerreros Unidos, and murdered. Prompting Freedom House to declare Mexico 1st place for the worst human rights developments in 2014.

It was a surprise punch in the gut to Mexican society. Days of quiet, morose disbelief were followed by the catching of a collective breath, and then massive street protests in Mexico City, Iguala, and elsewhere throughout the Republic. The ham-fisted response from many Mexican legislators was to propose amending the Mexican constitution to ban public protests.

In the United States, we seem to be learning, slowly, too slowly, that a massive criminal enforcement approach to a minor public health problem is exactly ass-backwards. The evidence, after all, is overwhelming in this regard. Smaller and more nimble jurisdictions like Portugal, the Netherlands, and many U.S. States, have or are in the process of reversing course, to great effect. North America, though, with close to a half billion residents, continues to struggle under the inertia of a massive bureaucracy, sometimes happily, sometimes haltingly, committed to the status quo.

© 2016 by Glen Olives Thompson.

A Self Dialectic: Muslim Terrorists Are / Are Not Motivated Primarily by Islam

jihadiIn the wake of the latest terrorist attacks in California, it occurred to me that although I study and write about religions as they relate to a broad spectrum of public policy, I hadn’t quite made up my mind about the above proposition. As an atheist, my instinct is to side against religion. But instinct by definition is not reason. And there are plenty of secular humanists and fellow atheists who disagree with me on this specific issue.

So I decided to do more digging and engage in an oddly schizophrenic, but in my view eminently useful, conversation with myself, taking up the secular apologist cause in explaining why and how violent jihad can be stripped from its Islamic underpinnings. I then in turn refute, or attempt to refute, these arguments, also from a secular perspective.


On September 17, 2001 President George W. Bush started a political neologism by proclaiming that “Islam is peace.” Since that time, every American administration, and almost all elected politicians worldwide have made similar pronouncements in an effort to separate the Islamic faith itself from acts of the most ghoulish barbarity committed by some of its adherents. It is, of course, easy to understand why: telling the truth might have meant alienating 1.6 billion people, almost a quarter of the world’s population professing a religious faith. (Indeed, it might have added fuel to the fire for those Muslims who advocate for a global holy war.)

Soon after Bush’s inane pronouncement, many academics and liberal progressives picked up on the meme, joining the administration in this claim (the oddest of bedfellows). The Muslims who commit these acts, the martyrs who detonate themselves in markets, on buses, in hotels, restaurants and shopping malls, are cast either as “not true Muslims” (a derivation of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy), or nihilists (the most recent and oddest accounting). Or simply politically and economically oppressed Muslims, too weak to fight a conventional war against Western imperialists and usurpers, who are therefore using terrorism for political reasons only tangentially connected to religion.

The arguments are not implausible, but I was still puzzled because, on the other hand, it seemed to me that Muslim terrorists are primarily motivated by their faith. If this is true, wouldn’t it be better, then, to call a duck a duck, say that Islam has a problem, and support Islamic reformers? The results of burying our collective heads in the sand has been that terror and tears continue to plague us, and many (if not most) Muslim reformers have been shouted down, threatened, exiled, murdered, or in other ways silenced. If it is not true, conversely, then the best response might be – I know not what. The military approach, by almost all accounts, has been an abject failure, and in my view has done far more harm than good.

But let us see – my tentative conclusions could be wrong.

The reader should note that the confines of this essay, in order to be as comprehensive as possible within a reasonable word limit, is limited to terrorism, and does not address other aspects of whether Islam is a religion of peace such as Islamic support for the poor, hospitality and sharing, a wide body of world literature, Sharia law, honor murders, genital mutilation, the killing of apostates and infidels, the subjugation of women, the suppression of free expression and dissent, etc.

Arguments and Refutations

The arguments that Muslim terrorism is unconnected or only tangentially connected to Islam takes many forms and can be stated in different ways. The arguments below are presented in italics, followed by the refutations in normal typeface, and have been distilled down to the following: (1) an entire religion should not be condemned for the acts committed by fringe extremists; (2) terrorists are driven by other reasons such as political ideology rather than religious theology; and (3) there is a double standard in so much that terrorism is employed by radical elements of other religions but it is seldom if ever recognized as such, while Islamic terrorism is singled out.

As a last note before the curtain of reason is opened and the show begins with the First Act, I have made a good faith effort to argue as persuasively as by own cognitive limitations will allow in favor of the above three broad propositions. I put forth no straw men, and I would be willing to bet that some readers who agree with the three propositions will remain unconvinced after having read my refutations.

Argument 1:     Painting with too broad a brush

Why do some want to condemn an entire faith with over 1.6 billion adherents for the admittedly heinous acts of a tiny majority of extremists?

First, “extremists” according to Gallup (defined as those who (a) think the 9/11 attacks were justified and (b) have an unfavorable opinion of the United States) only account for about 7 percent of Muslims. If that sounds like a lot, consider a couple of things. The poll was only conducted in 10 countries, and in some Muslim countries, like Morocco, only 1 percent of Muslims qualified as extremists. Also, notice how Gallup defined extreme to include Muslims who have an unfavorable opinion of the United States. Many people have an unfavorable opinion of the United States, even many Americans. If one were to define “extremists” only to include the first group, undoubtedly the numbers would be even lower. More pointedly, of the small percentage of Muslims who might be considered “extremists,” how many of those would be willing to act on those views? The numbers must surely be infinitesimally small.

Second, of course extremists – of all casts – tend to have the loudest voices, giving the impression that they are more prevalent and more influential than they actually are. Despite the poll’s flaws, Gallup admits that it debunks the notion that terrorism enjoys wide support in the Muslim world, noting that, “Not only are those who sympathize with terrorist acts a relatively small minority, but the most frequently cited aspect of the Muslim world that Muslims say that they admire least is ‘narrow-minded fanaticism and violent extremism.’” After a terror attack, why do you think that there are so many condemnations of violence from the Islamic community?

Third, all religions have extremist fringe components. Catholics like Timothy McVey and Christian members of the Klu Klux Klan in America have committed acts of terrorism, as have radicalized Hindus and Sikhs in India, as have Catholics in Rwanda and Orthodox Christians in Bosnia. (More on that below.) One would be surprised if Islam did not have radicalized adherents.

Finally, although this may be slightly beyond the strictures of the argument, we should put things into perspective. The tiny number of Islamic terrorists who actually carry out acts of violence should be compared to the very few people who have been killed by terrorists since 9/11 along with those killed by other means. For example 19 Americans were killed in terror attacks in 2013, compared to 10,000 by drunk drivers, 53 by bees, and 23 by lightning strikes. From September 11, 2001 through 2013, a total of 3,380 Americans have been killed in terror attacks, compared to 406,496 firearm deaths (homicide, suicide and accidents). In fact, according to the FBI, between 1980 and 2005, only 6% of terror attacks within the U.S. were carried out by Islamic extremists.

Will America’s response be yet another invasion of an Islamic country, more drone strikes, serving only to further radicalize more Muslims? As Malala Yousafzai has said, “With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”

Islam is a grand religion with a rich history of scientific achievement, architectural beauty, charity, literature, and provides comfort, hope and fraternity to billions of people. It shouldn’t be condemned by ignorant people who think that a tiny minority of misguided sociopaths who claim to be Muslim speak for true peace-loving Muslims.

Well, let me start with what I think is largely irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion. Is Islam a “grand religion”? I don’t think so, but then again I don’t think any religions are grand, or even good; indeed I think religion is a cancer on societies, which perhaps I’ll address later.

There is one broad area where we agree, and that is another military adventure in the Middle East would be the worst of all possible responses to terror attacks, and indeed counter-productive if history is any guide. (Hegel may have been right when he said that we learn from history that we do not learn from history.)

With that minor throat clearing out of the way, let me point to why your argument must fall, and by its own weight.

While it is true that terrorism “only” claimed 19 American lives in 2013, globally it took the lives of almost 18,000 innocents. That is no small number. And let us not forget that history did not begin on September 11, 2001. Your clever use of the FBI database from 1980 to 2005 hints a bit at obfuscation. So 6 percent of attacks were carried out by Muslim extremists, but this would have had to include the 9/11 attacks. The more relevant question would be: how many people were actually killed or wounded by jihadists? Incidentally, since 9/11 some 74 Islamist terror plots have been foiledcold comfort I submit. But playing the numbers game is largely point-missing for the obvious reason that is evades the topic under debate: Why do some want to condemn an entire faith with over 1.6 billion adherents for the admittedly heinous acts of a tiny majority of extremists? So let us move on from this digression (we can debate the entirely unrelated topics of traffic safety and gun control another time).

This question to be completely coherent must be broken down into parts. First, what do the numbers actually represent? And second, are these extremists really “extreme” within the Islamic faith?

The first sub-question is easier to deal with; you haven’t quibbled excessively with the Gallup poll, so neither will I. Let’s low-ball “Muslim extremists” at 1 percent of the population. That’s 16,000,000 extremists. Again, no small number. And let’s say 1 percent of those would be willing to act on their extremism. That’s 160,000, and scary, when you consider how many innocent people one extremist can kill with a single car bomb or a few magazines of automatic rifle cartridges.

The second part (whether jihadists are in fact “extreme” under Islam) is both more interesting and more difficult. The best answer is – it depends on who you ask.

So I looked at three Muslim scholars’ views which seem representative. According to Reza Aslan, Islam in neither a religion of peace nor violence – it’s just a religion. His essential argument is that people take their values and culture to their religion, and interpret their religion through that lens, not unlike the KKK in America, an organization which maintains both its Christianity and its overt racism and violence. Tariq Ramadan, by contrast, insists that Islam is a religion of peace, and jihadists have misinterpreted the call for jihad literally instead of as an inner struggle. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (a terrorist with a PhD in Islamic studies) has a different view:

Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting. No one should believe that the war that we are waging is the war of the Islamic State. It is the war of all Muslims, but the Islamic State is spearheading it. It is the war of Muslims against infidels. O Muslims, go to war everywhere. It is the duty of every Muslim.

This presents us with a bit of a problem: When Muslim scholars, Muslim leaders, and average Muslims themselves can’t seem to agree on the correct interpretation of the Qur’an, how are non-Muslims to decide? Or as Christopher Hitchens has said, “Who am I to adjudicate?” One could argue that Islamist terrorists and ISIS – the most literal interpreters of Islam – are the true Muslims and other nominal Muslims are simply misguided un-Islamic pseudo-fakirs. (Again, who is the true Scotsman?)

As any religious historian can tell you, all of the holy books of the Abrahamic faiths are oral stories of semi-literate Bronze Age desert dwellers cobbled together hundreds of years after the events they purport to describe; they are all chalk-full of vagaries, internal contradictions, inconsistencies and outright immoral ideas, as one might expect. This largely explains why there are no less than 5 Jewish sects or “movements,” more than 35 different Christian denominations in the United States alone,  and 5 major sects within Islam (and many more minor ones, each with their separate schools of jurisprudence and divinity). Each, of course, believes that their interpretation is the correct one, and each can point to specific scriptures which support their interpretation. In the case of Islam, these schisms often lead to violence comparable to the horrors found within the Pentateuch. As Hitchens said in God is Not Great (pps. 123-24), “The Koran is borrowed from both Jewish and Christian myths,” and “If one comprehends the fallacies of one ‘revealed’ religion, one comprehends them all.”

So no, all Muslims should not be condemned for the acts of a few extremists. But that most salient fact carries with it a troubling but necessary question of its own: Are these Islamist jihadists committing acts of terror really “extreme” or are they simply following the commands of their holy book? As I said, it depends on who you ask.

Argument 2:     The West caused terrorism through imperialism and the oppression of Muslim peoples, which is why terrorism is driven more by political ideology and less by Islam

Let us imagine for a moment a different world. A world in which the richest, most powerful country on our little blue dot of a planet was a conservative Muslim one. Let’s call it Islamalandia. It has the largest standing armies and navies in the world. It is rich beyond imagination, except for one thing: petroleum. The United States and Britain are comparatively poor, have no navies, and their armies are small, poorly trained and ill-equipped. But in the alternate universe, they have lots of oil. Islamalandia – to ensure political stability and the flow of oil – for centuries continually meddles in the internal politics of the U.S. and Britain: participating in coups, installing friendly dictators and puppet governments, invading and dividing the U.S. into different political areas without regard to religious and ethnic concerns, dropping bombs as felt necessary, and wantonly exercising Machiavellian Realpolitik at will. Much of the U.S. and Britain are occupied by Islamalandia’s forces, and are forced to concede parts of their territories for Islamalandia military bases. Unconcealed racism is rampant, and people with white skin are routinely discriminated against, ridiculed, caricatured, and mocked in the media. Islamalandia imposes its religious and political ideals of sharia law within its empire. The U.S. and Britain have no hope of fighting this giant.

Would not American fundamentalist Christians, Catholics, Jews and English Anglican Christians resort to terrorism? In doing so, wouldn’t they claim that they have license to do so in the name of their gods to keep the Islamic menace at bay?

The point is obvious: we caused Muslim extremism.

Where were Islamist acts of terror before the U.S. and Britain ham-fistedly exercised there imperialist ambitions in the Middle East after WWI?

Is it a coincidence that terrorist attacks escalated dramatically after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? The primary cause of terrorism is feckless and immoral foreign policy by Western powers. It’s not difficult to see the causal connection.

To answer your first question, I don’t know if Christians would resort to acts of terror, though I tend to doubt it, and hope never to have to find out. Your second question is easier to answer: Islamic extremism and terrorism goes back to the 7th Century Kharijites. Muslims have been killing each other in sanguinary feuds, killing apostates, killing infidels, since the founding of the religion.

I wouldn’t want to, and haven’t, claimed that Islam is the only cause of terrorism, but rather it is the prime cause. True, academicians, think tanks, writers and intellectuals have come up with a plethora of alternative, some competing, some complimentary, explanations: western foreign policy, group pressure, socioeconomic frustrations, political ideology, a rebellion against modernity, the abuses of kleptocracy, and according to Thomas Piketty’s recent musings, income inequality, to name a few. I was surprised to find that the competing theories are not only encyclopedic in their breadth, depth and scope, but also grasping and largely point-missing. It could conceivably be one, all, or any combination of these things. Omitting religion as a prime causal factor, though, I think could only be described as an intentional fatuity.

It’s not as if Islamic terrorists are exactly shy about stating their motivations. Why not go to the source?

Jihadists say they commit acts of terror for religious reasons. They’re unambiguous and explicit in crediting both their motivation and success to Islam. Ihsanullah Ihsan’s statement is typical: “[o]ur animosity is based on religion. We hate Americans for their secular ideology.” Find a jihadi waxing on about group pressure, poverty or foreign policy. You won’t find many. But you’ll find thousands of examples of terrorists giving purely religious reasons their acts of terror.

Is there some reason we should not believe them? Are they so self-deluded that they don’t even know why they’re doing what they’re doing? Apparently many people think so, but this seems to defy credulity.

Which brings me to your second question: In the same or similar circumstances, would Christians do the same? We need not speculate. History has already given us a pretty convincing answer, as Sam Harris pointed out recently in an interview for Salon. When asked about colonialism and the portioning of the Middle East after the First World War, I can do no better than quote his response at length:

But the religious lunacy and tribalism was already in place—and that is why the West’s careless partitioning of the region was so problematic. I agree that the history of colonialism isn’t pretty. But the example you raise just proves my point. In fact, this practically became a science experiment that dissected out the crucial variable of religion. There are (or were) Christians living in all these beleaguered countries. How many Christian suicide bombers have there been? Where are the Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians who are blowing themselves up in crowds of noncombatants? Have there been any? I’m guessing there must have been a few, but the Muslim supply of such people is apparently inexhaustible. In every case, we’re talking about the same people, speaking same language, living in the same places, enduring the same material deprivation. In fact, the Christians of the Middle East have it worse. They’ve not only suffered the legacy of colonialism, they’ve been hounded out of their countries and often killed outright by their Muslim neighbors—and they still haven’t organized themselves into a death cult. What’s the difference that makes the difference? Religion.

We can also look outside the Muslim world to see that mere injustice and inequality rarely produce such destructive behavior. Many countries in Latin America have legitimate grievances against the U.S. Where are the Guatemalan suicide bombers? Where are the Cherokee suicide bombers, for that matter? If oppression were enough, the Tibetans should have been practicing suicidal terrorism against the Chinese for decades. Instead, they practice self-immolation, for reasons that are totally understandable within the context of their own religious beliefs. Again, specific beliefs matter, and we deny this at our peril. If the behavior of Muslim suicide bombers should tell us anything, it’s that certain people really do believe in martyrdom. Let me be very clear about this: I’m not talking about all (or even most) Muslims—I’m talking about jihadists. But all jihadists are Muslim. If even 1 percent of the world’s Muslims are potential jihadists, we have a terrible problem on our hands. I’m not sure how we deal with 16 million aspiring martyrs—but lying to ourselves about the nature of the problem doesn’t seem like the best strategy.

Argument 3:     Critics of Islam who blame the religion for terrorism are hypocrites: there are plenty of examples of Christian acts of terror but it’s seldom called that in the media

Ancient, contemporary, and modern history are rife with acts of terror by Christians in the name of Christianity, but you curiously never see it couched in those terms. I can mention two recent ones: the war in the Balkans, and the near-genocide in Rwanda.

I see that you’re a fan of Harris and Hitchens. With regards to the Balkans war, did not Mr. Hitchens mention in god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (p. 22) that “the extremist Catholic and Orthodox forces were colluding in a bloody partition and cleansing of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were, and still are, spared the public shame of this, because the world’s media preferred the simplication [sic] of ‘Croat’ and ‘Serb,’ and only mentioned religion when discussing ‘the Muslims.’” He goes on to say that “confessional terminology was reserved only for ‘Muslims,’ even though their murderers went to all the trouble of distinguishing themselves by wearing large Orthodox crosses over their bandoliers, or by taping portraits of the Virgin Mary to their rifle butts.”

The atrocities committed against a civilian Muslim population by Christians for religious reasons would be a perfect opportunity to “call a duck a duck” to use your phrase.

In the same book (pps. 190-93) Hitchens in some detail tells the story of the Catholic Church’s collusion in the massacre of the minority Tutsi population by the majority Catholic Hutus in Rwanda. As Hitchens tells this macabre tale, it begins in 1987 when a Catholic visionary called Little Pebbles begins seeing visions of the apocalypse, bloody massacres, and the eminent return of Christ (these visions oddly coming from the Virgin Mary). The Church investigated the appearances of the apparition of Mary on a hilltop and concluded they were reliable. At the given moment in 1994, the massacre of the Tutsis began. Frightened Tutsi and dissident Hutu sought refuge in churches, and the interahamwe relied on priests and nuns to point out where the targets of the massacre were hiding. Father Weceslas Munyeshyaka was smuggled out of Rwanda with the assistance of French priests, later to go on trial for war crimes for providing lists of civilians to the interahamwe, among other acts of collusion. Sadly, equally culpable in the atrocities, Bishop Misago, escaped justice, with one official in the Rwandan Ministry of Justice saying, “The Vatican is too strong, and too unapologetic, for us to go taking on bishops. Haven’t you heard of infallibility?”

As of this writing, despite intense pressure, the Church has never apologized for the role of its clergy in the Rwanda massacres. Ironically, after every Muslim terrorist attack, we see peaceful Muslims in the streets and on social media saying, “This is not us! We abhor radical jihadists! This is not Islam!”

Of course there are ubiquitous examples of radicalized Jews committing acts of terror on peaceful Muslims, not to mention the bombing or attacking of abortion clinics by American fundamentalist Christians, equally illustrative of the double standard. I’ve never seen a headline that said, “Christian Terrorist Attacks Clinic.” Are these people not also motivated primarily by their religion?

Forgetting the method of killing a terrorist might employ for a moment, this seems to poke some holes in Sam Harris’ question, “How many Christian suicide bombers have there been?” I submit: quite a few, actually.

Finally, if you go back a bit in time, Christianity in its various permutations has been responsible for horrific crimes against humanity – do you not remember the crusades, the inquisitions, the burning alive of apostates, the beheadings and torture of non-believers?

Let me begin by saying that this line of argument is something of a non sequitur. If I were to concede everything, I would have conceded nothing. It does not follow that if adherents of other faiths commit acts of terrorism because of their faiths, Muslims do not.

Now let me concede something more substantive: the religious (Christian) aspects to the violence and atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda were seldom discussed by the media – they should have been, as they played important roles. But once that has been said, we’re still left essentially where we started.

Indeed, I think you over argue your case. Hitchens used these two examples to buttress his thesis that religion poisons everything. He did not argue that religion was the root cause of these atrocities, or that Christians are compelled by their scriptures to commit them. His central point throughout the chapter from which you draw these examples, is that religion does not only not make people behave better, but often makes them behave worse. He did not indicate, nor even intimate, that religion in these two case studies were the prime factors in the atrocities committed, but rather, important factors in a mix of ethnic tension, politics, and historical animosities, adding fuel to the fire, if you will.

Second, it has never been claimed that the majority Roman Catholic Hutus were somehow an oppressed class and resorted to mass murder as defense mechanism, as some claim is the appropriate rationale in explaining Islamic jihadism. Indeed, the Rwanda situation has been explained quite adequately in terms of political and ethnic grounds. (Which of course is not to say the Church’s role wasn’t shockingly complicitous and revolting.) Bosnia is a better case for Christian terrorism, but there, too, religion was one part of a complex mix of history, geography, ethnic tension, and political ambition. Both of these stains on humanity could have been committed, and would have been committed, in the absence of any religious motivations. The same can’t be said of Islamic terrorism, and thus, I think Sam’s question stands untouched.

Your last point regarding the past atrocities of Christianity is an important one. Christianity underwent several reformations. Islam has not. Christianity – with the notable exception of some fundamentalist sects mostly in the United States – has (begrudgingly and all-too-slowly) accepted science, and in doing so has had to concede great swaths of its theological underpinnings. Islam is anti-science. Christianity has accepted the principle of the separation of church and state. Here, too, Islam has not. Harris has a salient point to make on this as well: there is no concept in Islam of “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” Perhaps as importantly, the Church has apologized for many (by no means all) past wrongs and injustices – either through overt action, silence or sanction – perpetrated by it or by others. Islam has not, and being that it claims to be the final and unimprovable word of Allah, and no further knowledge is either needed or desired, it is hard to account for how it could.


The reader of course will make her own conclusions. Mine is this.

All Abrahamic religions – as well as many other religions – are bad inasmuch they are quite demonstrably man made but purport to be the word of an omniscient god. But they’re not all bad in the same way, and some are worse than others.

Islam has a problem. A problem that cannot be easily explained away by the mental gymnastics it takes to account for Islamic terrorism in lieu of the elephant in the room – the teachings of Islam itself.

I understand the reasons politicians proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace and has been hijacked by radicals or “nihilists.” It is much more difficult to put one’s finger on why so many of my fellow atheists, progressives, and secular humanists with no dog in the hunt, make the same claim. They can be viciously critical of other religions such as Christianity, or religion in general, but are silent on Islam. Or worse, side with the jihadists, and label people such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher racists, bigots and Islamaphobes. But they save their worst vitriol for moderate Muslim reformers themselves such as Maajid Nawaz, a former member of a radical Islamic group, who has co-written a book with Harris. The most curious case must be that of Glenn Greenwald, a homosexual Jewish atheist who not only routinely defends radical Islam, but attacks those critical of Islam with ad hominin diatribes (one of his assistants even calling Nawaz a “talking monkey”). Leaving the Jewish issue aside, surely Greenwald must know that he and his husband would not be long for this world if they were to move to one of the 10 predominantly Muslim countries (all in the Middle East or North Africa) where homosexual acts are punishable by death.

Could it be that progressives (Nawaz refers to them as the “Regressive Left”) would be too uncomfortable finding themselves on the same side of an issue (for obviously different reasons) with Christian neoconservatives? This seems to be the primary complaint Chris Hedges has about Harris and his fellow intellectual travelers, but that wouldn’t explain how these otherwise very bright public intellectuals could be so intellectually unserious, if not dishonest, on this single issue. Alternatively, Douglas Murray is of the opinion that since the end of the Cold War the Left has been in short supply of fascists, racists and bigots – too few to maintain their own political identity – and so have turned to cannibalizing their own. There may be other theories out there as well. My own guess is that the secular but nonetheless de facto apologists for theocracy have drunk too deeply from the Liberal ideological trough, which is fed from the spring of egalitarianism – that we’re all basically the same, with same potentials for success and failure, and our successes are more often due to luck or the enjoyment of advantages that others don’t have, and likewise our failures are due to disadvantages not within our control. A slight simplification, but only slight. When applied to religions, and more specifically Islamic jihadists, one can see how easily it is to slip into the Pavlovian impulse of defending those who have and which have, been historically oppressed and manhandled by the ham-fisted geopolitical machinations of Western powers. If this, too, does not fully explain this dichotomy, then I am left wondering.

Is there hope one day that Islam can credibly claim that it is indeed a religion of peace? Sure, but if it happens, it will be a long, slow, painful process. It took Catholicism centuries to become the paper tiger that it is today. Hitchens has said that because Islam is the youngest of the Abrahamic faiths, it is also the most insecure, and therefore also the most fundamentalist. For reasons mentioned, Islam doesn’t have within its toolkit the important principle that secular government can be separated from religion. This is an obstacle, but then again there are examples of peaceful forms of Islam to draw inspiration from. The Islamic practitioners of Sufism, for example, are primarily motivated by the spiritual and not literal (and thus often detested by the devout).

Be that as it may, I believe one thing is certain. There is nothing to be had worth having by looking to Islamic or secular apologists to confront the problem of Islamic terrorism. Nor is another feckless military intervention proposed by Chickenhawks on the Right. Malala was right, and her words bear repeating: “Guns can kill terrorists, but education can kill terrorism.” If there is any education to be had, it must come by way of Muslims from within Islam itself. Which means reformers like Maajid Nawaz, and others, must be given a voice and not be shouted down by the Regressive Left playing a political game at the expense of global security and respect for human rights.

© 2016 by Glen Olives Thompson

On Lies, Embellishments and Journalism

Williams Recovers from Falling on His Sword, While O’Reilly Never Even Thought about Falling on His Own.

brian williams

Real journalists, when caught in a lie, get fired. Brian William finally returned to TV as a breaking news anchor for MSNBC on September 22nd after being canned by NBC in February when it was discovered that his mostly off-air comments about his experiences in Iraq, among others, were not true. O’Reilly, on the other hand, after being caught in numerous on-air and off-air bald-faced lies, kept on keepin’ on. What gives?

Lying is nothing new in the course of human history. It’s not even unique to our species ─ chimpanzees have been known to do it, and other species as well. And of course we Homo sapiens are the grand masters of lying. The fact that there are no less than 43 synonyms for lie in the English language, is telling. If George Washington ever actually said, “I cannot tell a lie,” it is almost proof that he was a liar.

We are also all embellishers, the slightly less ugly cousin of the liar.

Seriously ─ just look at your resume. Were you really responsible for the increase in sales revenue? Did you really supervise the whole kitchen brigade? And does your more distant (and less verifiable) work history somehow improve with the passage of time? Memories are like photocopies of photocopies: they degrade. But in many cases they mysteriously degrade in a good way, making us look better, braver, smarter, wiser.

Outright liars usually get caught, and pay a price. History is rife with examples. If you claim to have graduated from Princeton University, but actually graduated from Podunk University, you’ll eventually get caught, and perhaps, fired. (Hard to argue it was just a typo.) This is especially true if you’re a public figure, under the microscope, with every journalist in the world, and every enemy (who may also be journalists) looking for the scoop. Which is all the more reason public figures, especially journalists and politicians, would be well advised to be extraordinarily careful.

Brian Williams was suspended from CBS for making mostly offhanded comments that his helicopter was forced down in Iraq by RPG fire, as well as statements about what he witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. None of which were true. But he is a journalist, and we are right to expect more of him. He didn’t obfuscate. He manned-up, fessed-up, and lost his job. He didn’t demonize his critics, engage in schoolyard-esque ad hominem attacks about perceived bullies. He apologized. He packed his personal belongings in cardboard box along with his crumpled pink slip and went home. His recent reemergence on MSNBC after 7 months left him looking somewhat haggard. He’s probably been sitting on his sofa, wearing a stained t-shirt and boxer shorts, bleary-eyed with two days of beard growth, nursing a scotch, glued to his TV watching Bill O´Reilly’s own scandals unfold. In my imagining of this scenario, Williams is confounded by Bill’s pernicious resilience.

bill o'reilly

O’Reilly’s fabrications, as outlined in Mother Jones and further confirmed, were by order of magnitude more egregious than Brian Williams’. He’s accused of lying when he said, “I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head” when recounting his time in El Salvador in 1981.  Impossible, according to Media Matters. But Bill graduated with a B.S. degree in embellishment to take a full-blown PhD in lying, defending his doctoral thesis with tooth and claw. He claimed to be in the thick of the Falklands war zone in 1982, having guns pointed at him, of rescuing a coworker, of having witnessed a mass riot where citizens were killed. None of it true, according to every source that was there, except of course, Bill himself.

And he was apparently never in any danger of being fired. Instead, he got fired up. He started making threats. He was garnering support from Fox News automatons. And his ratings are up.

The latest “gotcha” is a doozy. In his book Killing Kennedy he claims to have heard the self-inflicted shotgun blast that ended the life of Lee Harvey Oswald’s friend George de Mohrenschildt in Palm Beach Florida in 1977, while he was outside of Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s home. A phone call recorded at the time, however, uncovered by journalist Jefferson Morley two years ago and aired recently on CNN’s Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter, clearly shows that O’Reilly was 1,200 miles away at the time. Oops. No way for O’Reilly to credibly claim that the audio tape isn’t true. Or that he misremembered. Or it’s some kind of left wing conspiracy.

This time O’Reilly’s right wing supporters and conspiracy theorists have fallen conspicuously silent. As has O’Reilly. He didn’t fess-up, take the blame, or pack his bags.

We’ve all lied, we’ve all embellished, we’ve all misremembered. We’re all human. But we’re not all journalists, and we’re not all habitual liars. As Jon Stewart has pointed out, though, Fox News is. And Bill O’Reilly, in the greatest Fox tradition, does not just play fast and loose with the truth, he has an actual contempt for it.

Which explains why his job was never in any danger. And why Teflon Trump can utter the most supercilious asininities without negative affect. Fox doesn’t even pretend to value facts, despite its slogan of “fair and balanced.” Facts are for losers, as I can easily imagine Trump saying. O’Reilly is still around because nobody seriously expects him to tell the truth, unless of course their only source of news is Fox News, in which case they have no other source to compare.


© 2015 by Glen Olives Thompson.