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 against political and cultural commentary 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 the pompous and privileged liberal order that it would be worth it to piss-off liberals 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.   We especially could use some knowledgeable billionaires, who know about the things they want to influence (a quality so far missing, for instance, in billionaires who have sought to influence education).

Knowledgeable, visionary billionaires, please step forward!  Let's get this party started!

Sunday, May 20, 2018


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 fourteen year old 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, according to my dad, was that, When you're dead you're dead.

My dad told me and my brothers 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. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Why I quit politics

"Why I quit politics" is reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse:

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, the year I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V. I talked to the newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck. Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign. I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging. I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge deeply to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company. The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front in the form of a cashier's check. Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth). Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people. For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, told me, in reference to the signs, that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky. The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant L.A. school district (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup. The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor. Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades. This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors, most particularly Jack Miles at the L.A. Times, liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of articles on bilingual education; several appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization. They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice. I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates. The effect of "1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu mayoral race). Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off. The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary of me. Something sank inside me. The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind. I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why. I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it. I'm going to try to say it now: Politicians can't say "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think. Well "Duh",you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate to deal with such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc. Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children. I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary. It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores. My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign. No sign comes. Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes. Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores. I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result. After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few numbers going up; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities. How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school? How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end? Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training. There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics. These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in the real sense. In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students. If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia. Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now. It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not? Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete. Standards are important, and logical instruction is important. But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores. Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth. What would I have said? I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure." The reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it. If he was polite, though, there would be a pause, and then I would begin to think. This in itself, the sight of a politician lost in thought while the world waits, is anathema to a successful image. But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer. The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting. Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers. We have nothing effective to counter this. We have not figured out a modern motivation for students. The one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool (Singapore, much admired by math reformers, achieves the highest secondary math scores in the world partly by beating underachievers with bamboo canes). We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes. Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties. They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit. There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, not even menial ones. The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs. Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist. Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait. It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market. The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me ( after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career. Even an answer like, " We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over three hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know." Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work. Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition. We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something. If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror. Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot, to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind. Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The view of the world from Keyes Toyota

I'm at Keyes Toyota in Van Nuys, waiting while my 2007 Camry is serviced.  I brought my laptop here, planning to write.  The goal was to loosen my tongue by viewing the world from a new perspective, that of Keyes Toyota.  It seems to be working.

It's ironic that, after two months of writing nothing, I am set free in this distracting venue.  Van Nuys was an early grab at the San Fernando Valley by Los Angeles.  Van Nuys Boulevard features the 70 year old art deco Valley Municipal Center and several miles of car dealerships, of which Keyes Toyota is one.  I'm in the waiting room, sitting at a high round table attended by two bar stools, perfect for writing. A counter nearby offers apples (uneaten) and donuts (going fast) and a luxurious coffee dispenser that produces a latte much sweeter than Starbucks'.  On the wall two feet to my right, looming over my head, is a flat screen TV tuned to CNN.  The volume is low, but I hear the murmur of the lawyer for the lawyer who is defending President Trump from charges he mistreated a porn star.  The dealership's sound system is louder than the TV; as I write it fills the room with a Taylor Swift song which I associate with my granddaughters, who sing the words and dance to it.  Now Taylor Swift has competition for my attention from a man in a baseball cap who has his cell on speaker and is listening to a comedian tell jokes to a laughing audience.  He continually chuckles and turns the volume too high, then lowers it, then turns it up again.  I should point out to him that some people might be trying to view the whole world from Keyes Toyota; I should ask the management to turn off all music and get rid of the flat screen whose scroll continually mesmerizes me- like right now with the story of how the Kentucky legislature pulled an end-run around state teachers by weakening their pensions in a bill about sewers.  I can hear people cheering: "Yay, stick it to the greedy teachers!"  That is a distracting thought.  A man two tables away just asked the lady next to me if she would watch his stuff while he went to the restroom.  As soon as he left she went to the donut counter.  I wondered if the ethics of the situation demanded that I watch his stuff while she was away.  Are ethics like theoretical physics, where if no one sees something happen, it may not have happened?  The man came back from the restroom at the moment the lady returned with her donut.  He observed her apparent indifference to his stuff, then my eyes and his locked briefly.  It was distracting for sure.

Yet in spite of the continual distractions, or because of them, I sit here and write.  How does the world look from Keyes Toyota?  It looks like a fantasy, like a science fiction novel about a society of engineers that is engineering itself out of existence, embracing its replacement and waging wars to keep from thinking too much about it.

Keyes Toyota is not part of the fantasy.  This place is sane.  The peaceable customers; the efficient, friendly service; the donuts- it's all sane, none of it part of the sci-fi horror outside.  

But I'm the writer here, I remind myself, which gives me pretend god-like powers over make-believe things.  I wonder if, to enhance its palatability, I should insert an idea about sensible people into the sci-fi story unfolding outside, and suggest that, even in a human world run largely by emotion, the right mix of sensible people might handle the politics of animal dominance and turn that politics, in the case of the United States, into something that, if not a true democracy, at least would not be a true kleptocracy, plutocracy, oligarchy or military coup.

"But how would the sensible people accomplish that?" I ask myself.  "Would they form a new political party, the Sensible People's Party?  Would only sensible people join?  How many people would that be?  Would the party have any money?"

I retract the idea.  The view from Keyes Toyota is that even in a sci-fi horror fantasy, the Sensible People's Party would fall on its ass, too much a fantasy even for fantasy.  People are just not that sensible.

Real new parties may be coming, I ponder, but they are not here yet.  There was a tentative gesture in a full page ad last week in the Los Angeles Times, announcing a new party as an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, called by the acronym "SAM," for "Sure Aggravates Me!" or something, which seems to have fallen into the void the day it was posted. 

Minus real-world new parties or the hope of a Sensible Peoples' Party, what can a sci-fi horror story bring us? 

Keye's Toyota's large east facing windows are allowing in the glare of the rising sun; it's getting warm in here.  I'm going to write an anti-war party into my sci-fi horror story- plausible or not- because hopeful stories get better ratings.  This party will not be called an "Anti-War Party"; it won't oppose war per se, only war that is mediated through profit motive and/or designed to manipulate our side rather than win.  We can think of this party as an informed assessment of likely reaction to the coming elimination of almost all human jobs due to automation. The party platform will assert that when the world's managers realized the difficulties inherent in virtual total human unemployment, they determined that the best way to control the restless unemployed would be to set all definable groups against each other, leading to a multiplicity of wars of such complex and convoluted origins that no anti-war movement could keep up with the process.  War, in its backers' estimation, will serve to occupy the unemployed and drastically reduce their numbers, while making vast fortunes for the war industry, fortunes that will then be used to further war politics.  

The new anti-war party will sound the alarm about how painful and deadly war is- for those who might not know- and will suggest alternative emotional therapies to group hatred of the "other."  

The new party will be able to keep up with the war parties because it will be backed by visionary billionaires who are outside the war profit network, and it will have some sense of what the electorate sees, feels and understands, a sense that only Trump and his operatives had in the 2016 presidential campaign.  

In my story the new party will be ready by the 2020 campaign.  It will reflect not just a wish to conduct foreign and domestic policy outside the dictates of the military-industrial complex (which will no longer be a jokey term) but a desire to make the transition from traditional human civilization to the new engineered civilization as peaceful and trauma-free as possible.  The sci-fi story unfolding in the world around Keyes Toyota will feature a new American party that at least tries to be sensible, because hopeful stories do get better ratings.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Political winds of high school debate

The California High School Speech and Debate Association (CHSSA) held its annual state championship last April.  As a high school debate coach I've been attending state tournaments (when students qualify) for about 14 years, and I've noticed a shift in the political expression of students.  This tournament in particular was different.

California is, numerically, a blue state, but CHSSA includes many school districts in red regions: in suburbs, non-urban coastal areas, and inland.  Through the W. Bush years the political commentary from debate competitors at state tournaments, and even at local tournaments in Southern California, tended to be conservative and relatively kind to Republican presidents.  There were frequent references to the wisdom of President Ronald Reagan.  I recall little criticism of W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Young people's views appear to have changed over the last few years. At this year's states, I judged a round of Extemporaneous Speech, in which students have thirty minutes to prepare a five to seven minute speech on political topics that often involve foreign policy. In the round I judged the speeches on foreign policy were eye-opening. Below is a list of three topics from the round, followed by a summary of students' points.

Topic: Trump's strike on the Syrian military 

Student's points:          

The strike made no strategic sense beyond enhancing the President's image and was counterproductive by generating bad PR for the U.S.

The North Korean "crisis" 

Student's points:                  

The North has been firing missiles into the ocean for years without any crisis. Trump is manufacturing the crisis for his own political benefit.

The Mother of All Bombs (MOAB)     

Student's points:  

Trump continues Obama's policy of drone strikes in Afghanistan and the Middle East that has killed hundreds of civilians and turned people in those regions against us.  On top of this, Trump dropped the MOAB, the strategic purpose of which does not appear to extend beyond the political needs of the President.

Granted this is a small sampling of students, but they are representative of a high achieving group that is sensitive to the relative persuasiveness of various arguments.  For them, the prevailing wind is skeptical.

[Postscript, 6/24/18: I just returned from the 2018 National Speech and Debate tournament in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where I watched the final round of Lincoln-Douglas Debate (known for its complex values-based format) in which the resolution was, "U.S. targeted assassinations via drone strikes, by killing civilians, work against U.S. interests."  The Affirmative stated that killing civilians, whether intentionally or not, promotes terrorism by making the U.S. appear callous, warlike and hypocritical, considering how Americans would feel if a foreign power killed American civilians on our soil in pursuit of its enemies.  The Negation, who lost the round, seemed uncomfortable in negation, at one point conceding, "I understand that the U.S. government may not reveal truthful information about civilian casualties it causes...."]

What makes this seeming shift in students' political views especially interesting is that high school debate is often prep school for future politicians. Many presidents and other political leaders competed in high school debate (former Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have had a formidable "kill shot").  This batch of kids, whom we call Millennials (or, since 2011, iGens) has apparently either noticed on its own or picked up from its parents the idea that, even in the case of national security, or especially in that case, the government's actions and claims should be viewed skeptically.  

Could this trend in young people be part of an overall post-partisan trend that includes adults? Listening to NPR's "Wait wait don't tell me!" on my way to the state tournament Saturday morning, I heard a harsh assessment of former President Obama's hands-off posture towards Trumpism, with a fair amount of outrage that instead of helping a troubled nation figure itself out, Obama allocated time to earn $400,000 for speaking to an investment group.  I don't recall the Clintons being reviled by NPR for the millions they squeezed from the 1%.  Is American political thought waking up?

It's an exhilarating idea, but I'm not sure that people who fear our military industrial complex as much as they fear North Korea should take much heart in this partial awakening.  Bear in mind that it won't be represented in the media.  None of the student positions detailed above has been promoted on CBS, NBC or ABC network news, the organs of our state. Quite the reverse: the North Korean crisis is presented as a real thing, requiring breathless presentation of fast breaking events; the attack on Syria, we were told, made Trump look "presidential," not crazy; the MOAB was necessary because of a North Korean threat 3,000 miles from its target.

More hopefully, in Florida, after students at Stoneman Douglas High School were traumatized by a shooter who killed 17 of their classmates, several Stoneman debate team members appeared on the national media stage and pre-empted the gun control discussion.  Unlike matters of foreign policy, which are theoretical to most people, gun control in this case is personal, and the Stoneman debate students used this to maximum effect to move the Florida legislature to enact gun control measures that no lobbying group or single politician could have done.

We need these high school debaters in office as soon as possible! 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Ten Commandments are boilerplate

"Boilerplate" refers to "standardized pieces of text for use as clauses in contracts" (Webster).   Between the standardized clauses are blank lines where the user adds information that gives meaning to the contract.  For example, the boilerplate rental contract available at Staples provides legal text about the renting process, but it is incomplete until someone fills in the renter's name, the rent amount, the landlord's obligations, etc.  Boilerplate is a convenience designed to deliver the necessary framework for legal transactions, but just as the boilerplate at Staples is incomplete, so are the Ten Commandments, with blank lines needing to be filled in.  

This is easy to demonstrate with commandments 5-10, which prohibit (in this order) mistreatment of parents, murder, adultery, stealing, lying about your neighbor or coveting his/her possessions or spouse.  Are there any major religions that might have doctrinal problems with any of that?  There don't appear to be.  Every religion or system for human behavior asserts these kinds of things, usually like the Ten Commandments do, in general terms without specific definitions or examples, making it boilerplate.

Commandments 1- 4 need some discussion.

1. I am the Lord thy God; thou shall not have any gods before me.

This is arguably a specifically Jewish (and by extension Christian and Muslim) commandment, as it applies only to the Judeo/Christian/Muslim god, commonly capitalized to suggest that "He" is the only such entity in the universe.  On the other hand, Hindus believe that there are millions of gods and that the chief god is Vishnu (who rules along with his feminine aspect, Parvathi).  The idea that your top god is the only top god is common among religions and thus is boilerplate.

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

The Judeo/Christian/Muslim god is invisible to "His" adherents, who know next to nothing about "His" thoughts, nature, ambitions, and certainly nothing of what "He" looks like.  Other religions might allow people to draw pictures and make statues of how they think their gods appear, but their doctrines do not assert that people are equal to gods, that they can understand what a god is "like."  We are ruled by gods, whatever the religion, and we cannot see them the way we see each other.  Therefore the intent of the restriction on artistic expression in the 2nd Commandment is common to all religions and is boilerplate.

3. Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord your God in vain.

The phrase "in vain" was translated from the Hebrew, shav, meaning "emptiness of speech, lying," and may have referred specifically to lying under oath.  In the modern conception, this commandment is taken to prohibit references to God in swearing or cussing, as I learned in middle-school when a friend punched me in the shoulder for saying "goddammit!," which my friend said was taking the Lord's name in vain.  Seriously, must one-tenth of humanity's foundational guidance be that you can't say "goddammit!"?  That's so silly it must be a human idea that God just puts up with.  Arbitrary human pretensions to divine knowledge of this sort are common to most religions, so Commandment 3 is boilerplate.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

Recently on a road trip to Reno my wife and I saw a billboard outside a small town that claimed that all Christians who observe Sunday as the Sabbath will go to hell and be tormented forever because the actual Sabbath is Saturday.  There was no mention of whether Jews, who also consider the Sabbath to be Saturday, will get any benefit from this (in terms of treatment after they're dead).  Since the day of the week ordained for worship is a blank line in the 4th Commandment, it is boilerplate.

As noted, there is nothing wrong with boilerplate.  We certainly need to be told not to kill or rob or otherwise hurt each other.  But we do all the prohibited things frequently and without concern because we define the terms used in the Commandments to suit our needs.  Is it murder to kill in war, or to terminate a newly fertilized human egg?  Can starving people steal to feed their children?  Are there abusive parents who should be disobeyed?  The answers are concealed in blank lines in the boilerplate of the Ten Commandments.  

Nor is there is anything to suggest how or if we should curb the human desires that lead to transgression of the Commandments.  Should we drug people who have such desires?  Or kill them?  Or give them therapy?  Such questions are not addressed.

Of course most people don't do critical studies of their religion's doctrine in the course of adopting it; they adopt it because their culture adopted it, and they disassociate themselves from other religious doctrines because other cultures adopted them.  Such people are susceptible to rhetoric leading to religious wars.

When it comes to war, we don't even have the boilerplate of a commandment.  War might be noble and divinely inspired; it might be stupid and a sign of our impending extinction.  We're given nothing on the question.

The Ten Commandments are important for providing general goals we can try to attain.  They are not very useful for immediate problems, unless you fill in the blanks yourself.

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