Friday, May 27, 2016


Media coverage of President Obama's visit to Hiroshima was not untypical.  But the historical significance of the first American President to officially visit, and especially the nature of what President Obama said, reveals that coverage as disgraceful.

For days ahead of the visit, the media buzzed about whether President Obama was going to apologize.  No one in Japan or anywhere else had asked for an apology, there was no statement by the Japanese government, no petition signed by thousands of Japanese.  It was all stuff they just made up, with a hefty assist no doubt from Republicans.  The media is increasingly controlled by corporations with political reasons to cover things in a certain way, and in order to compete for the assumed short attention spans and superficiality of their audience, they go to conflict even if they have to make it up.  Both tendencies were on full display in this coverage.

And as is very often the case these days, the blitz of nonsense before the event moved on to something else without paying much attention to the actual event, and especially the speech itself.  By Friday evening in the US, not even NPR was even mentioning the speech in their news headlines, which led with the utterly unsurprising story of yet another protest in yet another city where Donald Trump was appearing.

So do yourselves a favor and devote about 15 minutes of your life this Memorial Day weekend to actually listening to the speech--which is embedded above.

Then you might want to return to contemplate the following thoughts from the speech--or read the speech here.

"The World War that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet, the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes; an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints. In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die -- men, women, children no different than us, shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death.

There are many sites around the world that chronicle this war -- memorials that tell stories of courage and heroism; graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity. Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction; how the very spark that marks us as a species -- our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our tool-making, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will -- those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.

How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth. How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause."

"The wars of the modern age teach this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well."

"Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering, but we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again."

"But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime. But persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe."

"We must change our mindset about war itself –- to prevent conflict through diplomacy, and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun; to see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition; to define our nations not by our capacity to destroy, but by what we build.
President Obama embraces an Hiroshima
atomic bomb survivor

And perhaps above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race. For this, too, is what makes our species unique. We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story –- one that describes a common humanity; one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted."

"The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious; the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family -– that is the story that we all must tell. That is why we come to Hiroshima."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ante of Evil

The ephemeral nature of political news, most of it disgusting anyway, is prime motivation for not spending precious time writing about it.  That impulse clashes with the almost cartoonish importance of the 2016 presidential contest, shaping up to be a battle of good (sort of) against evil so grotesque that it tempts self-parody and caricature.  But there it is.

Everything coming out of Trump's mouth ups the ante of evils.  The latest is his so-called energy policy that is so reactionary even the fossil fuel industry has gone past it (even though it was blatant pandering to a North Dakota coal country audience), but with the likely outcome of destroying the planet we know.  And if efforts to define that evil can clarify the nature of horrors and especially motivate voters, there are plenty of such attempts to delineate Trump and the consequences of his terrorizing potential reign.

Some old hands at this have made new efforts.  Adam Gopnik wrote again in the New Yorker about the dangerous consequences: "One can argue about whether to call him a fascist or an authoritarian populist or a grotesque joke made in a nightmare shared between Philip K. Dick and Tom Wolfe, but under any label Trump is a declared enemy of the liberal constitutional order of the United States—the order that has made it, in fact, the great and plural country that it already is." Etc. at length and with eloquence.

Jonathan Chiat defined the anti-nuanced man further. "Donald Trump is a wildly promiscuous liar. He also has disturbing authoritarian tendencies."  Maybe in Trump they are the same thing: "His contempt for objective truth is the rejection of democratic accountability, an implicit demand that his supporters place undying faith in him. Because the only measure of truth he accepts is what he claims at any given moment, the power his supporters vest in him is unlimited."

So apparently he can get away with, for example, blatantly praising the dictator of North Korea--for being a dictator.

But does he actually have a chance of being elected?  By the demographics, no.  But recent polls show him nearly tied with Hillary or ahead.  Besides the futility of such early polls in terms of election results (especially since, in my view, the debates are going to make a big difference), they are currently skewed by the ongoing Bernie v. Hillary thing.  Some analysts see the difference in the polls being that GOPers have "come home" to their candidate, while Dems haven't yet.

So will they?  Past experience and more nuanced polling suggests most of them will, and that include Dem-leaning independents.  Bernie's major appeal is to the young (some of whom don't normally vote) and Hillary will have at least a couple of allies who can appeal to them: Elizabeth Warren, who even if she is not v.p. is doing the v.p. candidate's job of needling the opponent; and President Obama, who is popular with young Dem voters (64% approval) and almost as popular with Bernie voters (82%) as with Dem voters in general.

And while some remain alarmed at the possible damage the aggressive and acerbic Sanders campaign is wreaking on Hillary (though Hillary is proving again she's fully capable of damaging her own campaign), others believe it's being inflated, and that Sanders has signaled plenty of times that he'll support Hillary vigorously against Trump.

Meanwhile Trump keeps finding new outrageous acts to bait the headlines, like suggesting he'd debate Bernie before the CA primary--for $10 million (to be paid by the network broadcasting it, to charity. Later he said he was joking about debating Bernie at all.) Yet there are also pieces stating that this is Trump's high point and that he's going down fast and hard in the near future (this is one among several which I selected partly for the title: Soon it will suck to be Donald Trump.)

But Trump's quick demise into inconsequential disgrace has been predicted before, including here.  It's hard to believe it won't happen, but everything about Trump and his success is hard to believe.  In fact it's impossible to believe.

But it's happening.  And several commentators--including Charles Blow at the NY Times-- warned that even if defeated, the Trump triumph to this point will have repercussions for years to come.  Or as Blow wrote: "He has given his Republican supporters permission to vocalize their anti-otherness rage, and that will not easily be undone. As a Louisiana boy experiencing a confounding sense of déjà vu, let me assure you: There is no way to un-cook the gumbo."

Monday, May 23, 2016

The End of Empathy?

According to various surveys, Americans spend an average of something like 3 hours a day on their mobile devices.  A survey of women at one college found they spent about ten hours a day on their smartphones.  75% of young people (18-24) in yet another survey said the first thing they do upon waking is check their phones, presumably for text messages or Facebook updates.

All this worries Sherry Turkle, a very prominent and popular analyst of computerish things, for a number of reasons.  One of them is that this involvement in interconnection on a social media level somewhat paradoxically means that young people are losing the ability to empathize.  She cites a study saying that, according to standard psychological tests, there's been a 40% drop in empathy among college students in the past 20 years.

Whether or not this can be quantified, it's not easy to read online comments and discussions and mentally combine empathy and the Internet.  (And no, emojs don't count.)

The reason she suggests also seems paradoxical but to me rings true, at least in part: the absence of solitude.  "It's the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent," she writes.

But apparently we have nothing to worry about, according to another quote I read in the same issue of the New York Review of Books in which I saw Turkle's.  This one is in an essay on the new psychologists, particularly the mechanistically inclined evolutionary psychologists that seem to have taken power within the "profession."  It's an alarming piece for many reasons (such as the dependence of certain psychologists on Defense Dept. money, including those who helped design and run torture programs, and generally their arrogance) but this is a quote illustrating the point of view of a popular psychologist, Steven Pinker, in his popular book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  

While Pinker argues encouragingly that, taking the long view of our society, violence has declined and things are getting better, he takes the currently fashionable view in psychology that this is due mostly to an increasing reliance on rationality rather than feeling.  While empathy may have helped account for social progress in the past, the "ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary."

I don't argue at all with the idea that society can and should create (or "evolve") norms that become second nature, because that's what they do.  Nor do I argue against applying reason, and increasing individual and societal consciousness, though I'm suspicious of the narrowness of the word "rationality" in these folks' mouths.

I do not however believe that empathy will ever be "unnecessary," as long as we are human beings anyway.  Empathy is near our essence.  It is an act or function of that other essential human quality: imagination.  Imagination is why empathy requires, if not solitude, an independent individual process of thinking and feeling that can happen in conversation or while watching a movie or listening to a talk, or observing others. (Eventually some solitude is probably required to complete it.)

It is even possible, as playwright Arthur Miller does in his autobiography, to correlate empathy with intelligence.  Miller (a Jew) writes about visiting the parents of his first wife (a Catholic) in the early 1930s. He notes that her mother "had intelligence: she was able to identify with people who were not Catholic."  Whereas her father could not.  Miller referred to this simply as "Stupidity, the want of empathetic power..."

It's a different kind of intelligence than these psychologists measure or perhaps even allow.  And it's striking that Miller offers one definition (though not a sole or exhaustive one) of stupidity as the inability to empathize.  It is a kind of intelligence that combines "rationality" (thinking, reason, logic, logical categories and correspondences, etc.) and feeling.  It's the kind we need, especially to meet the challenges of the future, which is already in progress.