Saturday, December 01, 2018

Gregory's Army of the Young

My colleague Harry the Human has convinced Gregory, the charismatic leader of the revolutionary group Mantis, to let him post Gregory's statement to the world, as well as a glimpse into the future (the nomination acceptance speeches of Gregory's acolytes in the 2044 US presidential election).  Read it at: http://www.gregorysarmyoftheyoung.com/

Best, Harry the Human

Saturday, November 10, 2018

California in pain and anger

It's 6:30am, Saturday, November 10.  The winds have died down in Woodland Hills, and the "Woolsey" fire, attacking now in Calabasas to our immediate north, has slowed, so at present we don't have to evacuate.  That could change later in the day.  The cold air smells nice, like a wood fire (last night the Santa Ana winds blew the smoke out to sea), but the meaning of the smell is dire.  The gym at my school down the street is filled with refugees.  At the Ralph's, displaced newcomers look for alternatives to Red Cross pizza.

The news media is correct that this fire is unlike any other Southern California fire we've experienced, partly because of its breadth and ferocity, and partly because of two other things: its timing after a mass shooting near its origin and its proximity to a midterm election that left the U.S. in crisis.

Unexpectedly I found
a strange perspective and further meaning to the fires in a local news report.  A man from Camarillo whose house burned down told a reporter, "I still count myself lucky- I didn't have to go through what they did in Thousand Oaks."  He was referring to the shooting, in which a deranged man with an assault weapon- which he finally used on himself- killed 12 people at a music club. 

Right after the shooting, within a few miles of it, the fire started.  The man with the destroyed house had combined, in his mind, the two catastrophes, so that the shooting in Thousand Oaks and the fires were parts of one attack that struck differently in different places.  After the man spoke in the clip, the news anchor remarked, "Yes, the people of Thousand Oaks experienced the shooting right before this fire erupted around them," instantly understanding what the homeowner had said.  In her mind, too, the shooting and the fires were connected, even as one story.

A BBC reporter who had covered other mass shootings in the U.S. had this observation about Thousand Oaks: "The chilling difference I'm finding here is that, unlike in past shootings, there is no sense of surprise.  It's as if people feel, 'Yes, this is what happens.'"

The resignation and despair plus the blending of the shooting and the fires- and perhaps the sense of uncertainty after the midterm- have induced, I think, an "act of God" feel to the catastrophes, invoking in some, perhaps, a Biblical guilt: What have I done to deserve this?, and in others a guilt infused with assertiveness and anger: Why have I allowed myself, my family and friends to accept a society that has no power over itself, that cannot control weapons or crazy people or much of anything? 

President Trump this morning threw more anxiety into the mix when he insulted hundreds of thousands of distressed Californians by stating that the Woolsey fire and the Camp fire (in Northern California, with over 1,000 dead) were caused by the state's "gross mismanagement," and that the penalty for this should be "No more Fed payments!," an abusive statement reflecting his anger that California refuses to knuckle under to him.

Yet I counsel against putting much energy into anger at Trump, because it won't do any good.  He thrives on it.

Instead, let's take our anger and guilt and direct them at a vacuum, the vacuum where a political party should be.  Democrats and Republicans are done.  They are phantoms floating past the carnage in California, using outrage at each other to mask their ineffectiveness.  We need a new political party, and we need it by 2020.   We should put our anger and/or guilt into that.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The debate game



[This essay made the shortlist in the NewPhilosopher Magazine writing contest, August, 2018.]

The engaging articles in the Summer 2018 NewPhilosopher Magazine, the Play edition, are relevant to my job, which for the past fifteen years has been coaching high school debate (I retired from teaching English in 2009).   The issue explored the dual nature of play, as exercise without purpose beyond itself, and as exercise with extended purposes, and inspired me to revisit two long-pondered questions about academic and political debate:  Do they lead to truth, either for students or politicians running for office, and do they result in accurate ranking of students’ or candidates’ abilities? 

Debate coaches and media networks promoting election debates sometimes suggest that debate entails a search for truth.  We hear about its roots in Socratic dialogue and Enlightenment debate societies, which, in theory, existed to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying assumptions.  However, while formal argumentation may at times display truth, the modern game of debate is not designed to do that; it is designed to determine a winner and loser.  


The winner’s arguments are not deemed “true,” but better argued; the loser’s arguments are not deemed “false,” but not argued as well.  Competitive debate is a sport, a verbal boxing match in which each side pummels the other with “facts” and “evidence,” and a judge then decides who did this with the most facility (debate derives from Latin battereto fight). Thus, there is never an epiphany on one side in which a debater sees the wisdom of the opponent’s view- in fact that would constitute a loss for the agreeing side.   There are clear benefits to debate- it sharpens important life-skills and brings to light much information and many points of view- but the imperative to disagree impedes its potential function as a search for truth.


The imperative to disagree is also the default mode in public discourse.  Consider the current gun control debate in America.  Below is an exchange using the arguments we hear in the news, as they might be expressed in one of the popular high school debate events, such as Lincoln-Douglas or Public Forum, starting with a resolution, followed by a back and forth between the Affirmative (Aff) and Negative (Neg):


Resolved: In light of recent mass shootings using automatic weapons with high capacity ammunition clips, combat weaponry should be banned from civilian use.

Aff: There is no legitimate purpose in civilian life for automatic weapons.  Such weapons are necessary only for police and military use.

Neg: The founders wrote the Second Amendment to make sure the population has the right to bear arms. Restricting assault weapons is the first step in a slippery slope leading to prohibition of all firearms. The larger question is protection of freedom.

Aff: We are not talking about restricting all firearms. People would still have the right to arm themselves both for personal protection and for recreational uses such as hunting.

Neg: The ultimate purpose, however, is to ban all firearms from the population.

Aff: No it isn’t.

Neg: Yes it is.

Aff: No it isn’t.

Neg: Yes it is.


Of course the last four statements would not be made, but their equivalents would, ad infinitum.  There is no end to the debate.  Although formal rules force closure, the two sides go at it for an implied eternity.


High school debate at least attempts to approach truth through the requirement for "clash," the precise responding to an opponent’s argument (referred to as "hitting").  The public debate on gun control has reached the pointless point, not only because it is at the “Yes it is/No it isn’t” level, but because the Neg, in this case the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its supporters avoid clash.  If the current national gun control debate were a formal academic debate at a high school tournament, the NRA would lose by virtue of its avoiding clash.


For instance, in an academic debate, if the Neg alleged that civilians need combat weaponry to protect against a hypothetical tyrannical government (a common argument), the Aff could counter that our heavily armed citizenry has already given up its 4th Amendment right to private communication without a shot fired.  Such an Aff response would constitute clash, as it directly addresses the Neg point. If the Neg then responded by ignoring the point, which is in fact what the NRA does, then the judge would give the win to the Aff because it clashed and the Neg did not.


Unfortunately in political debate there is no judge to monitor and award points for clash.  One hopes the general public is as observant to detail as the average parent/judge at a high school debate tournament. 


My second question about debate concerns our use of it to determine the quality of the speakers, whether they are students vying for first place or candidates seeking votes.  How reliable and appropriate is this use?


My observation, from judging debate rounds at many tournaments, is that at preliminary tournaments- the novice and opens- there is substantial validity to ranking students in numerical order of achievement, because at these levels there are large differences in technical proficiency.  At the final rounds of qualifiers the appropriateness of ranking is less clear.  Finalists in a qualifier are highly polished.  There will be differences, but they are harder to spot.


The real problem is in the final rounds of state tournaments, or the national tournament.  In these rounds there is often no observable difference between the top several students.  The rankings first, second and third can be meaningless, generated in the minds of exhausted judges trying to avoid a tie.  When the rankings are announced at awards, however, they are treated as 100% valid. The situation seems unfortunate in a culture where the overriding goal in all competitions is to place first.   I say this as a coach whose students have placed first and second in state.  I certainly wouldn’t petition the league to invalidate those rankings.  My students were awesome and it’s a rush to win big.  But the process is unreliable.

Ranking political candidates based on their performance in public debate is unreliable as well.  After a presidential debate in the U.S., commentators try to decide who "won," as judges do in high school debate, but how would anyone know who won when there is virtually no clash?  The media formula for identifying the winner of a political debate appears to be an estimate of which candidate was most likeable.  Not that there's anything wrong with being likeable, but if that's all the debate shows, it's a formula for picking demagogues (they tend to be likeable).  


Several of the articles in the NewPhilosopher Play edition look at the contradiction between the playfulness of play and its seriousness.  For instance, in “Being outside yourself,” Simon Critchley and Nigel Warburton consider the exaggerated sense of meaning felt by fans after their home football team either wins or loses, in the context of the essential meaningless of either winning or losing.  Debate as well is a mix of play and serious ambition.   To me as a coach, debate is more play than serious, but I would rather not leave it at that.  

Perhaps we can take another look at debate as play, and see how it might serve serious purposes, both academic and public.  Can we structure debate rules to avoid deadlocks of “Yes it is/No it isn’t”?  Do debaters have to insist they are right?  Are “win” and “lose” sufficient outcomes?  Must there be first, second and third places that force judges into subjective and even random decisions?


Hopefully such questions will not become moot.  Academic and public debates are indications of a democratic society.  Recent totalitarian trends, if fulfilled, could mark the end of all but cosmetic debate.  If we can hold on to debate in its current, relatively uncensored form, it might be worthwhile to upgrade the rules and goals with deeper understandings of play and its purposes.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

When last I looked

Said the captain to first mate
"It must be something that I ate

for if I look across the sea
and think of what it all could be

then taste the salty swell of fate
I find the will to recreate

the empty canvas I did see
when last I looked across the sea."

Me for president!

On November 3, 2020, vote for me for president!  Ok, you will be "throwing your vote away," as they say, because I can't win, but you would be throwing it away in a visible, comprehensible fashion, and it's possible you'll be throwing it away no matter what you do.  Consider my platform:

1. I do not know how to solve any of our social problems, whether racial, economic, or gender-based.  I'm not saying I don't understand aspects of those problems.  I'm saying I don't know how to solve them.  Where else are you going to find honesty like that from a candidate?  

2. I have a plan to restore ethics to our society: Get everyone to concentrate their minds and wills on evolving into a new kind of human, using the emerging tools of bioscience.  If we could agree on what kind of human we want to be, we might find ourselves in an ethically minded, mutually beneficial situation with a common goal.  On the other hand, that's just a plan.  I don't know how anyone could get the human race to consciously guide its own evolution.  As if!  Here's me in the Oval Office, speaking to the nation:

My fellow Americans, I come before you to present some options as we, together, chart a path to a new humanity!  In recent discussions, we've gone over the pros and cons of our species being horny all the time, and contrasted this with the estrus cycles common in our animal relatives.  I ask you to send me your thoughts on this question: Should humans be redesigned with an estrus cycle?  Thank you, and God bless America!

Ludicrous?  Sure, but wouldn't you rather be engaged by a president who talks to the nation about real things than sit in a stupor while your brain is force-fed platitudes?

3.  As president, my influence on foreign policy will be limited because I will not be able to change the fact that when people are bored, even if they're well fed, they often become violent.  You can promote artificial, relatively safe wars in the form of games, but at some point so many people want to kill other people that governments are forced to allow them to.  In modern America, the media, working in concert with government, provides the narratives for war, and many sectors profit.  As president, I expect to be able to do very little to change this reality.  I will have this limitation in common with all other post-war presidents, but at least I admit it.

4.  I don't know how to solve our environmental problems.  Specifically, I don't know how to force the oil and related companies to slow down- more than cosmetically, that is.  In my view it can't be done.  No power on earth can stop the companies that pillage the earth and seas, or indeed the army of consumers that keeps these companies in business.  Our species will scour the entire surface of the planet, as if killing its worst enemy, and suck dry every last pool of energy in the biosphere.  You can tell it's going to happen because it's happening.  If I'm your president, you will hear the truth and maybe you'll be able to plan better.

So the next time you sigh when a politician displays a facade of knowingness, purity and leadership, remember: There's a candidate for president who says what many think but don't say.  And that candidate is...me! 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Keyes Toyota II: Let's get this party started!

Five thousand miles later I'm back at Keyes Toyota, waiting while my venerable Camry is serviced.  My first post from this venue, "The view of the world from Keyes Toyota," (5/30/18), broke a two-month block against political or cultural writing.  The donuts and comfy chairs eased my anxieties about...well, about the reason I couldn't write, and words came.  After the Keyes experience, the block returned.  Upon reflection, I think I'm suffering from something troubling us all: Lack of information.  We don't know what's happening to our society.  

I’ve returned to the muses at Keyes Toyota to address the problem.  After coffee and half a chocolate donut, I’m ready to begin.  Here's an outline of what most people who follow the news know or suspect:

1. The American two-party system, a marvel of flexibility since the Civil War, became dysfunctional in recent decades.  The pace of social change was too rapid for the parties, so that today they cannot address concerns arising from cutting-edge technologies, like those leading the revolutions in Artificial Intelligence, automation, the Internet, surveillance and bio-engineering, while race and gender issues are addressed only as polemics.

A note on race: The primary achievement of post-war American government has been to resist or dismantle overtly racist policy.  Government legislation and funding have done almost nothing to help people understand their own feelings about race, and what to do about those feelings.  That is because all the intelligent, potentially helpful discussion is below public radar, in living rooms or in academia, such as the perspectives on race from UCLA anthropologist Jarred Diamond, whose ideas would be a great starting point for rational discussion.  As things are, what we call "politics" does not utilize the vocabulary or the basic knowledge, or indeed the goodwill, needed to address race.

2. Over the last decade, for fear that the American electorate would realize that neither party is addressing its needs, Democratic and Republican strategy has been to distract attention from the problem by starting fires.  The GOP, aided by the media, whipped up the righteous Tea Party, and the Dems basked in the holy light of opposition.  Neither party had to maintain or understand anything beyond this manufactured culture war.

4. The upshot of the culture war is that we have no useful vocabulary or perspective for rational public discourse, leaving us wide-open for manipulation.  The news media works with the parties to promote the appearance of non-culpability for the situation.  News stories are formulated to present a world of hopeless disagreement, though much of the disagreement is by design, not accident.  Reporting the confusion enhances the confusion.  

The lack of honest media reporting is evident in the rarity of stories on the coming near-universal unemployment that will be caused by automation.  Almost all standard news stories serve as distractions from this mostly unreported one.  That includes news about our simmering wars.  There's no North Korean or ISIS threat that is anything as dangerous as the threat to civilization from unemployment, which should be covered prominently in every news outlet every day, as one of the basic existential problems of humanity.

5. Donald Trump capitalized on the parties' dysfunction by launching a populist campaign for president.  Using hate speech that had previously been expressed in code, he convinced Tea Party voters that he was real, and he convinced many people who were sick of distant and self-satisfied upholders of the liberal order that it would be worth it to piss them off, even at the price of chaos and destruction.

6. Chaos and destruction is what we're getting.  Trump, from one point of view, represents a raiding party of venture capitalists looking to make gigantic killings off privatizing vulnerable sectors of America- as Vladimir Putin's associates did in Russia.  America, as the the subject of a globalization shake-down, is being devalued in the process.

That is the part many people know or suspect at this point.  What those of us on the outside do not know is whether Trump will win, or (since he's already winning) to what extent he will continue to win, and if he doesn't entirely win, how much of the United States will he be able to devalue and sell before he is stopped?

Consider the U.S. Postal Service.  Trump complains that it loses money, which begs the question: Why does the Postal Service need to make money?  That is not its purpose.  Its purpose is to offer a secure communication system that binds the nation together.  Snailmail is slow, you say?  That's a small price to pay for the last refuge of private communication in America.  If you seal a document in a stamped envelope and put it in a mailbox, no power anywhere in the world can see that document without a court order, other than the person to whom it is addressed.  That is not the case with anything sent via the Internet or phone.  Today, the Fourth Amendment's due process right to privacy of communication applies only to the U.S. mail. 

Will Trump last long enough to privatize the Postal Service, Social Security and Medicare, monetize the national parks, strangle public education and propel America and the world into cycles of war that preempt all rational discussion about anything?

We don't know.  It does not seem that the FBI will be able to stop him, and the Democrats are not unified for impeachment.  Maybe Trump will get everything he wants, even a second term.

Or maybe there will be a revolt from Trump's own ranks- the billionaires.  The only hope I'm seeing is a new party supported by billionaires from outside the President's circle and influence.   Knowledgeable, visionary billionaires, please step forward!  Let's get this party started!


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Nematode


Oh brillig was the slithy tove

All mum with crap that he had sold

So on he went, as we are told

A goal in mind, a windy road

A nematode, but I digress

Our subject still a wilderness,

Wherein such souls as look askance

At superficial happenstance,

To waddle in the cosmic dance

And ask the question, should the chance

Present itself, or even not-

For questions ask their own true selves

Forgiving answers to themselves-

And truth be told I need more rhymes

Not once not twice but three more times!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

My mom, 1923- 2008


Coincidentally, the anniversary of my mom's death falls near Mother's Day.  Ten years later, I am thinking of her.

My mom was born Benna Gerber in Syracuse, New York.  She attended the University of Minnesota, where my dad saw her play a rabbit in a sorority skit.  He was struck by her beauty (many were).  After that, he called her "Bunny," and the name stuck.

My parents were second generation Jewish Americans.

Bunny's family came from Lithuania on her mother's side, from Poland on her father's.  Like my dad's family, who were from the Ukraine (see "My dad, 1919-2012" on this blog), the families had fled for their lives over the course of turn-of-the-century pre-holocausts in Eastern Europe and Russia.  They were able to find new lives in America.  Thank you, America!

I am the eldest of three brothers.  My mom told me that she and my dad decided not to have children until Hitler was confirmed dead.  When she told me that, I looked up Hitler's death and found it was in fact nine months before my birth.  

Why didn't my parents want to have kids in a world where Hitler had won? Hitler laid out his pathology himself. Here's a quote from Hitler:

Hate is more lasting than dislike.

Like many of Hitler's statements, this one is true.  Hitler used bits of truth to decorate his most awful ideas.  The problem wasn't the truth or untruth of these bits (since the faithful don't care what's true anyway) but their intent.  In the quote above, the intent is to show that hate is wonderful because it lasts so long.  Here's another Hitler quote:

Mankind has grown strong in eternal struggles and it will only perish through eternal peace.

The first part is arguably true.  The human lot has been tough.  We lost our Eden- whatever savanna or jungle it was- and have struggled for a new one ever since.  Hitler's intent, however, is to claim that humanity is noble only when it struggles against nature and itself.  When and if there is some kind of peace or equilibrium for humankind, according to Hitler we will become useless and pathetic, not enlightened or happy or anything.  Hitler, you asshole.

My mom said she was devastated when the Nazis took over Germany and, in two years, expelled its entire intellectual class, because she had loved German culture.   I recall she liked Goethe. Here's something Goethe wrote:

Divide and rule, the politician cries;

unite and lead is the watchword of the wise.

She liked some German Jews, too, like Einstein and Freud.  We had books by Freud lying around the house.

My mom saw a male Freudian shrink, and my dad saw another one, with opposite results.

My dad was a pharmacist and union activist trying to come to terms with his successful businessman father.  His shrink urged him to go into business, which he did.

My mom was a full-time homemaker who was frustrated that much of her mind was not required for the job.   In middle-school she took first place in the New York State Algebra Competition, but she did not pursue advanced math.  She read history, literature and psychology, but had limited society to discuss her reading.  She took a history class at a community college and became close to her professor.  He urged her to seek a Masters and PhD in history at UCLA.  

After an initial period of interest and excitement, my mom dropped the UCLA plan after her shrink told her that her desire for advanced degrees was caused by "penis envy."  I heard this from my dad after she died.  I will never know how she succumbed to this idea.  

My mom could stand her ground.  

She did so on the question of where she would raise her children.  My dad's idea was that he would get his pharmacy degree and run the family drug and liquor store in Bismarck, North Dakota, where I was born.  That would have been a far cry, for me and my brothers, from being raised in Los Angeles.

Bismarck was a town of about 8,000, with eight Jewish families among a largely German demographic.  My dad's family (and my mom and I after I was born) lived over the store, in what is now designated the "historic Lasken building."  During the war, a clerk translated the conversations of German patrons discussing who would take title of the store after Hitler won.  When my dad was five years old, he watched from his second floor bedroom window as the local Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the street in front of the store.  He recognized the ringleader as Bismarck's police chief and husband of his kindergarten teacher.

I was born in a German hospital.   My mom told me that people came into her room "to stare at the Jewish baby."  A German doctor performed my circumcision.  For abstruse reasons, the procedure had to be done a second time by a certified mohel (I have a strange scar and the periodic delusion that I’m Harry Potter).

My grandfather hung out with the gentile power-brokers of the town, who had promised him that his son and his new wife could join their country club at some point (entry had been denied my grandparents).  When the time came, however, my parents were denied entry.  That was it for my mom.  She agreed with her father-in-law, who had already left Bismarck and retired in Los Angeles, where he was a founding member of the Brentwood Country Club.  With my mom voting to ditch Bismarck, my dad could no longer resits.  When I was one-and-a-half, we left my hometown (cue Anatevka).

My mom (like my grandfather) was right about moving to Los Angeles.  As the world collapses into the memories of feuds past, L.A. benefits from its relative lack of history.  There are ghosts of the Chumash and residuals of the Mexican-American War, but almost no imprint from the Civil War.  The city is contentious, but it lacks the East Coast's- and  much of the Midwest's- more intense memories of endlessly bloody Old World history, or memories of a painful European birth, which go back further on the East than on the West Coast.  Every political persuasion lives in Los Angeles, but without sufficient historical memory, nothing comes to a boil.  Good choice, Mom!

I know my mother's family mostly through her stories.  Her father, an itinerant photographer who died before I was born, was hounded for not being ambitious.  My grandmother's sisters (whom I met when I was fourteen on a trip to Syracuse) berated him for being a schlemiel with no moneybut my mom knew who he was.  She said he was good at cooperating, that in human situations he saw the cooperative routes.  

When I met my mom's aunts, I was taken aback.  They had been wild flappers in the '20's, and they still were in the '60's.  Lithuania must have been some place!  

My family on both sides had lost their cultures, extensive groups of families, now a few diminishing threads in America.  My paternal great-grandfather had fourteen children.  He was devout.  When the Cossacks attacked on the Sabbath, the family (including my grandfather, who was ten) hid in the fields and escaped harm, but my great-grandfather refused to interrupt Shabbat prayers and was cut down wearing his prayer shawls.

My grandfather's philosophical take-away from his father's death, according to my dad, was that, When you're dead you're dead.

My dad told me and my brothers when we were small that there is no God and that when you die you are gone.  My mom seemed to go along with this, but sometimes I was not sure.  She told me that when she was a girl she saw God as a wise old man.  

After my mom died, my dad struggled to remain secular.  Two years into his grief, he told me that he simply could not accept a universe that did not include my mom in it.  He said that either my mom's spirit exists in some form, or he would have to reject the universe.  

My mom became ill in her 80's.  I don't know a lot about her illness, other than it involved her heart, because she never talked about it, never shared her tsuris.  On her 85th birthday,  I drove to Oceanside, where my parents had retired, to see her.  I picked up no clues that she was sick.  It was a warm and unexpectedly positive visit, assuaging painful memories of the jerk I had been to her in my clueless adolescence.  The night after my visit she called me.  She said that she knew about death, and that it was Ok...really.  The word really haunts me today.

Two weeks later she and my dad were sitting across from each other in the living room, reading.  My dad said that my mom looked up suddenly and said, Ouch!  She said Ouch! two more times, and then, according to my dad, her eyes opened wide in what appeared to be, not pain or fear, but amazement, as if she were seeing something impossible to describe.  Then she was gone.

My dad had the idea that my mom's spirit helped him find parking places.  I have the same idea, feeling her presence especially when a spot appears just when I'm about to give up and do valet parking.

When else do I feel my mom's spirit?  I feel it when I think about what she said about her father's feel for cooperation, or her sadness at Hitler's killing German culture.  I feel it now, in this political moment, when Pandora's box is being opened, yet again, by our history-obsessed chimp brains.  

Somewhere my mom is watching, telling me it will be ok, really. 


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