This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers and comments that I link to. Movie reviews and reports and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

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Kinsley: OLD AGE

Michael Kinsley’s OLD AGE: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE (Crown/Tim Duggan Books 2016) is another slender book that, like part of Junger’s, was originally published as various magazine pieces.

Kinsley is known for his ‘law’ — “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth” — and for being one of the founders of the online magazine Slate. (After that he was an editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times for a while.) He’s well-known for having Parkinson’s Disease, for 23 years now, though he stresses that this book isn’t about that; it’s about the Baby Boomer generation and their ambitions. What were they? To have the most toys? Years of good health? A good reputation? For the latter, just live as a good person.

But he does, first thing, address the strategies for dealing with news of a serious illness: acceptance, confrontation, or denial. Americans admire confrontation — learning everything you can about a disease; fighting back — but in the author’s case denial was easy, given his age and no visible symptons. He just kept working, confiding in only a very few, then a few more. When he finally ‘came out’ he signed onto a Speakers’ Bureau to travel around talking about his illness. Because of his age, or his illness, he found that he fell off the list of potential candidates for various positions. Here’s an example of Kinsley’s self-deprecating wit:

For a while in the 1990s, I was on the short list for all sorts of journalism jobs. After I went public with the Parkinson’s, that pretty much stopped. Maybe I’ had my run. Maybe I fell off the list due to some kind of unwritten term limit under which you can only be mentioned for so long before your name begins to seem shopworn. Or maybe I became radioactive for reasons I’m unaware of or too vain to see. (You’re supposed to say, “On, no, Mike. That can’t possibly be it.” Louder, please.) This is one of those things that happen to everybody in their sixties or seventies but happened to me in my fifties.

The next section talks about a procedure called deep brain stimulation, DBS, involving wires into the brain from batteries implanted in the chest. Author pondered what his first words would be upon awakening, and settled on “Well, of course. When you cut taxes, government revenue goes up. Why couldn’t I see that before?”

Seated on a plane next to Robert McNamara inspires thoughts about how life isn’t fair. Illness or death anywhere between 60 to 90 is considered ‘normal,’ while billionaires like Larry Ellison spend money on life extension. How if you’re 65 now, average life expectancy is 82.9. He discusses the idea of a tontine – a mutual pool that is won by the last surviving member. Social security is like that. If you imagine a group of 100 colleagues your age, how old until on average one of them dies every year? 63. He discusses symptoms of Parkinson’s, and goes on again about stem cells and how those opposed to using them nevertheless don’t lobby to shut down fertility clinics. He feels like a scout for his generation, experiencing the trials of old age when only in his 50s.

And then he talks about the possibility of dementia, or Alzheimer’s, and how you’re the least qualified person to assess your own brain. So the game isn’t about long life, it’s about living long and having your marbles. He discusses famous people who’ve had Parkinson’s, how the disease goes along with socially withdrawn, rigid, introverted people. He has a cognitive assessment, with mixed results.

Then there’s reputation. Author quotes Mark Twain about how quickly most humorists are forgotten. But almost all writers are doomed to obscurity. E.g. newspapermen like Joseph Kraft and Walter Lippmann. How for 40 years some novelist named Mary Brunton was regarded more highly than Jane Austen — but Austen’s family kept her reputation alive. By now it’s assumed that anything popular in its own time *won’t* have an enduring reputation. The test for immortality is perhaps 100 years.

The final section — as Kinsley explores the various options for the goals of the baby boomers — looks back at the ‘Greatest Generation’ who won World War II. The boomers came after the Greatest Generation, and had it relatively comfortable. They ducked Vietnam, engaged in self-indulgence in the ’60s, and cynicism about two presidents spread to cynicism about everything. Some boomers now apologize for their generation—squandering the legacy of the GG. But it can be spun the other way—the GG created problems that the boomers got us out of; the boomers expanded rights and created a culture that swept the world, created a technological revolution, and are now stuck supporting their own adult children.

And now we’re out in the world killing again. American exceptionalism – “the belief that the rules of nature and humanity don’t apply to us” – got us into Vietnam, but this realization lasted only a decade before we started invading other countries again.

So what can the boomers do to redeem its generation? Legalize marijuana? A national service program? Too late for that. How about paying off the national debt? Assume that’s a good thing to do. And invest in research, repair the infrastructure. It would be the boomers’ gift to the country, once and for all.

Americans expect more from their government than anyone—but they don’t want to pay for it. It can’t go on. But how to pay for it? Well, you could tax inheritances. More broadly and at lower rates than current inheritance taxes. Let moderately wealthy couples give back all the social security they took in, rather than passing it on to their kids. Or adjust the health care system to avoid spending so much at the end of lives. It won’t be simple. But it can’t be harder than D-Day.

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Junger: TRIBE

Sebastian Junger’s TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging (Grand Central/Twelve 2016) is one of several short, relatively ‘incidental’, books I’ve read in the past month — ‘incidental’ in that they’re mostly off-topic to my more serious themes of science, philosophy, and the future, as were the books I wrote up here in February. Though as it’s turned out, every one of the books I’ve read recently does has something to contribute to my thinking on the big matters.

Junger is a journalist and author, whose book The Perfect Storm became a film and contributed a lasting phrase to the English language. According to this book’s flap, Junger is *defending* tribes — “small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding” – as necessary to our psychological survival.

This may well be, but I came into the book wondering how he would square this psychological tendency of our human nature with the modern dangers of tribalism, that in the US has led to such divided and corrosive politics, where only belonging matters and not, say, facts and evidence. I’m not sure he did square it, but he had many interesting stories and observations anyway.

For example, a story, in the introduction: How the author hitchhiked across the northwest US in 1986. He grew up in Boston suburbs where neighbors didn’t know each other, and nothing required them to band together, or form any kind of solidarity. In Gillette, Wyoming, standing alongside the highway with his backpack, he was approached by a man he thought might rob him, but who instead gave him, Junger, his lunchbox.

‘Tribe’ might mean the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. This book is about why that sentiment is rare in modern society, and what we can learn from tribal societies. Modern society makes people not feel necessary.

The first of four sections is about how, as Europeans settled America and drove back the native tribes, it was not uncommon for European men to leave their own society and join the Indians — and virtually never vice versa. Indian society was egalitarian, and marked by extreme loyalty to the tribe; they work less than ‘civilized’ people, are virtually never alone. While modern socities emphasize authority, and leave individuals alone even beginning in infancy.

Moral behavior derives from evolutionary group pressure, where bad actions, like hording and selfishness, are punished, and cooperation is rewarded. The anonymity of modern culture makes it easy to cheat, not just in small ways, but in huge ways, e.g. insurance fraud and the financial crisis. (And despite that crisis, legal correctives, e.g. forcing CEOs to reveal their pay ratios, have been blocked by Republicans.)

Comment: note the conservative resistance. Why wouldn’t conservatives be interested in making it more difficult for cheaters to cheat? Because it’s about rigging the system for themselves?

The second is about the author’s contact with war, as a journalist in Sarajevo as it was besieged by the Serb. War, like natural disasters, makes everyone equal, and their behavior changes, as in the Blitz, when those trapped together in shelter instintly began cooperating, forming ad hoc laws, and outside mundane life went on, without the hysteria officials had feared would occur. The war actually had a positive effect on mental health. the modern world protects us through police and fire forces, so that an individual may never experience a catastrophic situation in his entire life. The effect of the war on Britain led to social movements in the UK that brought about national health care and a strong welfare state. That lasted decades, until Thatcher came into power. Catastrophes force self-interest to be subsumed in group-survival. Thus in a way some people miss wartime.

Comment: He makes a key point that people in war or natural catastrophes typically cooperate, at least while the disaster is in place – they don’t, as in so many catastrophe novels and movies, go hysterical and become dysfunctional. How many SF catastrophe novels and movies depict this apparently instinctive cooperation? Aren’t they usually about the breakout of chaos? Because that’s so much more dramatically interesting.

The third section is about PTSD, which even author — a journalist and not a soldier — experienced upon returning home. PTSD was diagnosed only after Vietnam; before that it was shell shock or simply cowardice, something resulting in execution. Rates of PTSD are at historic highs, though partly this may be because it’s easy to rig the system. Still, what’s so dispiriting about modern society? Many soldiers miss the war after it’s over. The US fares poorly in three factors that affect a combatant’s transition to civilian life: the cohesiveness and egalitarianism of society, not being seen as victims (as when getting lifelong payments for having PTSD); and feeling as necessary and productive back home as when at war.

The final section ties these themes together. Story: an incident at a bar in Spain in which drunk Spaniards and Moroccans seemed about to fight, until passing wine around made them happy and convivial; as if male conflict and male closeness are two facets of the same quality.

Modern society is complex, so that most Americans are disconnected from all the things that keep the nation going, from farming to oil production. Those who build our infrastructure are less regarded than stockbrokers. And so people cheat.

Rampage shootings in the US occur generally in affluent towns or rural majority-white Christian towns. After 9/11 there were no rampage shootings for two years, and rates of crime and suicide declined. So what behaviors are missing from day-to-day life? America is split across so many boundaries, it helps understand how soldiers feel coming home. Here’s a striking paragraph, p124:

Today’s veterans often come home to find that, althought they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country–a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.

In the dispute between liberals and conservatives, both sides represent ancient evolutionary concerns: on the one side, freeloaders who threatened survival; on the other, a culture of compassion in which all were cared for. “Each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.” P127

And so the author wraps up. How to make veterans feel their society is worth fighting for? Focus on shared humanity, not how people are split by differences. American politics is undermining the tribe by trying to excommunicate others from the group.

Examples: Sergeant Bergdahl’s desertion was an outrage; but nothing compared to the bankers who caused the financial collapse of 2008. Unemployment, and suicides, went up. Yet none of the CEOs were charged; they got huge bonuses. Neither political party has denounced those men.

Better example: of another businessman, who gave up his salary until his company recovered. That’s the kind of service and self-sacrifice that society needs.


So: I don’t think Junger has a solution. Rather, this book is an example, or illustration, of an inescapable quandary: how our human nature, forged over millions of years living on the Savannah, doesn’t adjust easily to live in a multicultural society, or a world society. Junger seems to be aware of these evolutionary issues, as Wilson and Pinker have explored, but — there’s no easy solution.

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Links and Comments: Petty Rage; EO Wilson; Rutger Bregman; Conservative Causes; Zealots

Paul Krugman’s March 11 column, The Power of Petty Personal Rage discusses incidents about plastic straws, hamburgers, and Captain Marvel.

The point is that demented anger is a significant factor in modern American political life — and overwhelmingly on one side. All that talk about liberal “snowflakes” is projection; if you really want to see people driven wild by tiny perceived slights and insults, you’ll generally find them on the right. Nor is it just about racism and misogyny. Although these are big components of the phenomenon, I don’t see the obvious connection to hamburger paranoia.

Just to be clear: To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, I’m not saying that most conservatives are filled with rage over petty things. What I’m saying instead is that most of those filled with such rage are conservatives, and they supply much of the movement’s energy. Not to put too fine a point on it, pathological pettiness almost surely put Donald Trump over the top in the 2016 election.

What caught my eye was the Mill quote, in which one could replace ‘stupid’ with numerous other characteristics – racist; xenophobic; paranoid; scientifically illiterate – and the formulation would also be true.


Here’s the NY Times Book Review weekly Q&A from February 28th, with E.O. Wilson: By the Book: Edward O. Wilson. What caught my eye was his comment about what he reads or does not read.

I read about writers of fiction but I almost never read fiction. I’ve always felt, as I believe T. S. Eliot put it, that the artist is engaged in a continual self-sacrifice, a loss of the personal perception of reality. It depends on someone else’s emotional responses. The surprise in nature and the understanding of reality that science provides offer the only real independence.

Because, as evidenced by his recent book The Origins of Creativity, he certainly sees a lot of movies! In that book, which I’ll summarize here eventually, he has a chapter on archetypes — the hero, the monster, etc. — with examples for each that are almost entirely films, many of them SF films. (He does mention a book, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, but in a way that suggests he hasn’t read it himself.)


Profile of Rutger Bregman — He Took Down the Elite at Davos. Then He Came for Fox News. — author of the book Utopia for Realists, which I read recently and will discuss soon, a book that puts forth ideas about universal basic income, a 15-hour-work-week, and the inadequacy of the GDP as a measure of social health.

A highlight of the profile is how in an interview for Fox News he so enraged Tucker Carlson that the interview almost didn’t air.


Op-ed: Do American Women Still Need an Equal Rights Amendment?. Sidebar: We’re already living in Phyllis Schlafly’s nightmare. Sidebar in the print version: “Much of what Phyllis Schlafly warned against in the 1970s has come to pass.” And the world hasn’t ended! Recalls Stephen Prothero’s book Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections), in which his explanation is that by the time conservatives become aware of a trend they don’t like and rally around it, the cause is already lost.


Here’s a cartoon citing part of a famous Abraham Lincoln quote to explain the support for Donald Trump, a notion that I’ve had for some time.


And here’s an article about a radio host in Britain who argues with supporters of Brexit: Fighting Brexit, One Caller and 100,000 YouTube Clicks at a Time. The point here is that zealots for a cause aren’t rational; they will hear your evidence and arguments and simply dismiss it.

Typical was a recent exchange with a caller named Julian, who contended that the Tory government had failed to convince the bloc that it was ready to leave without a deal — a common lament among Brexiteers unhappy with the government’s negotiating tactics.

Not true, Mr. O’Brien countered.

“March 2018, the European Union published 80 ‘no deal’ notices explaining the preparations they were making,” Mr. O’Brien said. “That’s nearly a year ago.”

Julian was unpersuaded. Mr. O’Brien repeated his case, then dropped the placating approach. He raised his voice and brought out the shiv.

“For you to sit here on national radio and say we never really made them fear that no deal was a possibility, it’s not even silly, Julian,” Mr. O’Brien said, barely suppressing his anger. “It’s like arguing that the moon is made of cheese” — and the next words he seemed to put in italics — “while sitting on the moon.”

There was a long pause.

“I don’t agree,” said Julian.

“Oh, my days, man!” Mr. O’Brien exclaimed. And on it went.

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Links and Comments: Anti-Vaxxers

From Sunday’s New York Times, essay by Frank Bruni: The Real Horror of the Anti-Vaxxers, subtitled “This isn’t just a public health crisis. It’s a public sanity one.” (The print title was “The Anti-Vaxxers’ War on Truth”.)

How many studies do you have to throw at the vaccine hysterics before they quit? How much of a scientific consensus, how many unimpeachable experts and how exquisitely rational an argument must you present?

That’s a trick question, of course. There’s no magic number. There’s no number, period. And that’s because the anti-vaccine crowd (or anti-vaxxers) aren’t trafficking in anything as concrete, mundane and quaint as facts. They’re not really engaged in a debate about medicine. They’re immersed in a world of conspiracies, in the dark shadows where no data can be trusted, nothing is what it seems and those who buy the party line are pitiable sheep.

And, boy, are they living at the right time, when so much information and misinformation swirl by so quickly that it’s easy to confuse the two and even easier to grab hold and convince yourself of whatever it is you prefer to believe. With Google searches, you find the ostensible proof you seek. On social media, you bask in all the affirmation you could possibly want.

This is a key point:

I should also add that alternative facts had currency long before Kellyanne Conway christened them such and that junk science, nutty hypotheses and showy apostasies have been around forever. Humans aren’t rationalists. We’re romantics, and the world is wondrous when you believe that you belong to some brave and special tribe and have experienced enlightenment — about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, about the existence of extraterrestrials, about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, about vaccines — that all the less perceptive, more gullible conformists out there simply can’t comprehend.

And so they are

Beneficiaries of wisdom that prior generations lacked, they toss it away, wasting and mocking progress itself.

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Links and Comments: The Smart Ones Figure It Out; Coyne on Yet Another Religious Apologetic

I’ve mentioned before how I think “the smart ones figure it out,” even as traditionally it’s been impolite to discuss it. The smart ones are generally smart enough not to make an issue of it; to not challenge their friends or loved ones for the sake of getting along in the world; it’s a private revelation, broached in scandalous books by intellectuals like Voltaire and Thomas Paine for centuries, but in the broader culture only in the past 10 or 15 years, as we see in the rise of the “nones.”

He Went from Fundamentalist Christian to Vocal Atheist. Here’s How.

One could see how this guy’s rather Sheldon Cooper-like smarminess might put people off; but it’s his nerdy self-confidence that has enabled his YouTube channel.


It’s always fun to see yet another religious apologetic, like this NYT op-ed, What Science Can Learn From Religion, by David DeSteno, and then see how clearer-minded folks like Jerry Coyne respond: New York Times op-ed: Science can learn from religion. With data. And a long response that discusses how the points in DeSteno’s essay are not necessarily religious.

As for the other two, I am not so sure they come from religion. Ritual probably long preceded present-day religions, and may have had little to do with belief in divine beings. The origins of ritual are lost in the irrecoverable past of our species. Indeed, religion may have adopted rituals like singing and dancing from the teenage phase of our evolutionary history.

And, of course, there are other ways of bonding. Do soccer fans derive their chants and solidarity from observing religion? I don’t think so. There are many things that help us bond, and many rituals that facilitate that, and surely some of those don’t come from religion. I won’t go into this in detail as readers can think of these on their own. But why not write an article like “What science can learn from soccer”?

(I’m always impressed by how Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago, finds time to write such lengthy posts like this, sometimes more than once a day.)

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Links and Comments: Scientific Humanism; the Socialist Menace; Border Crisis

Michael Shermer’s final Scientific American column, in January, summarizes The Case for Scientific Humanism, a “blending of scientific naturalism and Enlightenment humanism,” echoing my own Provisional Conclusion #5:

Modern science arose in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Scientific Revolution and the adoption of scientific naturalism—the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that are knowable, that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, and that human cognitive, social and moral phenomena are no less a part of that comprehensible world. In the 18th century the application of scientific naturalism to the understanding and solving of human and social problems led to the widespread embrace of Enlightenment humanism, a cosmopolitan worldview that esteems science and reason, eschews magic and the supernatural, rejects dogma and authority, and seeks to understand how the world works. Much follows. Most of it good.

Human progress, which has been breathtaking over the past two centuries in nearly every realm of life, has principally been the result of the application of scientific naturalism to solving problems, from engineering bridges and eradicating diseases to extending life spans and establishing rights.


Paul Krugman on how Trump and conservatives are demonizing the idea of socialism: Trump Versus the Socialist Menace, subtitled, “The Commies are coming for your pickup trucks.”

And in case you haven’t been there, the Nordic countries are not, in fact, hellholes. They have somewhat lower G.D.P. per capita than we do, but that’s largely because they take more vacations. Compared with America, they have higher life expectancy, much less poverty and significantly higher overall life satisfaction. Oh, and they have high levels of entrepreneurship — because people are more willing to take the risk of starting a business when they know that they won’t lose their health care or plunge into abject poverty if they fail.

On the other hand, we should never discount the power of dishonesty. Right-wing media will portray whomever the Democrats nominate for president as the second coming of Leon Trotsky, and millions of people will believe them. Let’s just hope that the rest of the media report the clean little secret of American socialism, which is that it isn’t radical at all.


And Thomas L. Friedman on why “Building a border wall won’t solve our immigration problem”: What if Trump Could Explain as Well as He Inflames?

He explains how a real president would explain how the so-called border crisis is the result of numerous historical forces, among them corruption and gang warfare in Central American countries, and…

That’s why, among other things, a smart U.S. immigration policy would promote family planning in rural areas in Central America. Letting America’s religious right limit U.S. family planning assistance abroad is stupid.

The only thing more stupid is not working to mitigate climate change, which Trump refuses to do. Extreme weather has been disrupting small-scale farming in Central America. And when small-scale farming weakens or collapses, people leave the countryside and flock to the city. And if they find high unemployment and high crime rates there, they head to America.

But of course demagogues like Trump reduce everything to simplistic talking points: build wall because scary brown people. Appealing to fear, and tribalism.

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Oliver Sacks on Forster and Rees

There’s a short essay by the late Oliver Sacks in current issue of The New Yorker: The Machine Stops.

He muses about people walking down the street staring at their phones.

Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E. M. Forster in his 1909 story “The Machine Stops,” in which he imagined a future where people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged—“Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs—except the need for human contact. One young man, Kuno, pleads with his mother via a Skype-like technology, “I want to see you not through the Machine…. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”

And then contemplates whether the Earth will go on or face catastrophe, citing Marin Rees.

Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before, though it moves cautiously and slowly, its insights checked by continual self-testing and experimentation. I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass. This idea is explicit in Pope Francis’s encyclical and may be practiced not only with vast, centralized technologies but by workers, artisans, and farmers in the villages of the world. Between us, we can surely pull the world through its present crises and lead the way to a happier time ahead. As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this—that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour. 

Posted in Culture, Human Progress, Science, science fiction | Leave a comment


THE ONCE AND FUTURE LIBERAL: After Identity Politics (Harper, 2017) is by Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, and is much more explicitly about politics than most books I read. (Because my concerns extend far outside the relatively narrow realm that divides the political parties in the US.) But it links to the previous books reviewed in its reaction to the current president.

And it’s a critique about the side I’m on, and I need to know where or if my side needs to improve. It’s a theme that’s become common; Francis Fukuyama has a recent book on this subject called IDENTITY, and the theme is a recurrent refrain in David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times, where he expresses regret at the loss of common American values of community. (Which I don’t think ever existed, in the MAGA formulation, precisely because the population of the US has become more multicultural and inclusive of anyone other than heterosexual Protestant white families.)


The author’s thesis is that liberals have ‘abdicated’ their traditional role of leading the country, despite notes of ‘resistance’ to Trump and his right-wing media complex. The basic reason is that liberals have become the party of identity, wherein recognizing differences is more important than finding a unified set of values. [I’ll give him that point – it’s hard to win elections without having some kind of unifying set of values for the electorate to rally around.]

He considers the past century or so as having been formed by two ‘dispensations’ – the first was Roosevelt’s, which set a tone and set of expectations that lasted until the ‘60s disrupted them; and then Reagan’s. Despite changes in presidencies, these two eras are distinct. One was about shaking hands; the other about a rainbow. Neither side now has any common goals; they live in caves. Compare the homepages of the Republicans – a list of values – and Democrats – a list of constituencies.

It *should* be about shared citizenship. The liberals need a new orientation.

P21. Recalls how it felt when Reagan was elected, denying the malaise detected by Carter. And then in ’89, when the Berlin Wall came down. Reagan’s themes were about self-reliance, building wealth, the free market, and that government *was the problem* — i.e. the individual, the entrepreneur, was the most important element of society. This trend got worse under Clinton; Republicans became hysterical, shutting down the government, impeaching Clinton for trivia, and became even worse under Obama, reacting to the recession, and giving the likes of Glenn Beck audiences for conspiracy theories.

P59. Liberals responded largely by retreating to the universities. The original American identity was to both country and church. With the civil rights movements, personal identity became more important. Images from the 1950s—suburbs, traditional families—led to early ‘60s ‘identity crisis’. It was a political romanticism, 71b, the search for meaning, that everything connects.

And so in universities, both students and curricula focused on personal issues – not wider ones, not engagement with the world. Personal brands became important, the Facebook model.

And the locution “Speaking as an X…” as if one’s identity as an X made one immune from criticism or argument. There was no objective basis for discussion. [ The latest book by Jonathan Haidt, with Greg Lukianoff, which I haven’t read yet, The Coddling of the American Mind, seems to be precisely on this topic. ] At least Marx looked at the big picture, the historical forces, p92.

P99. Now neither side has a political vision of American destiny. Liberals have an opportunity under Trump, but are sabotaging themselves by the continued focus on identity. It could be a ‘reset moment.’

Author offers four lessons: about institutional vs. movement politics (i.e. it’s about winning elections); the priority of democratic persuasion over self-expression; the priority of citizenship over personal identity. And the need for civic education in an increasingly individualistic nation.

Thus: Black Lives Matter is not the way. Most voters are clueless—Trump’s followers are mobs, not citizens who could pass a citizenship test. Both sides now actively undermine the idea of citizens.

And so: passion and commitment, knowledge and argument, curiosity about the world outside your head and about people unlike yourself. Willingness to sacrifice for fellow citizens; ambition to imagine a common future.

Now if only he dared image what that common future might be – what would make both sides happy? Harari’s humility might be a step…

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The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time (Workman, 2017) is by Brooke Gladstone, co-host of a syndicated radio program, “On the Media,” that I occasionally hear on my NPR station. The book is small, 91 pages with sources, published as a chapbook-sized paperback. It overlaps Kakutani’s book in some of its themes and its occasional references to science fiction – which, of course, is frequently concerned with the nature of reality.


Asking the existential question, what is reality?, she quotes PKD: “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” P3. Note that PKD quote goes on, about he creates fake realities for a living, and about how society today creates fake realities and fake people.

Fake reality begins in the head. It is your umwelt, what the individual perceives, a small subset of the world, the bigger reality of which is called the ungebung, p6.

We necessarily live in a world guided by stereotypes, including the one about progress; an attack on them shakes the foundations of our world. William James describes how accommodating a new idea is done as minimally as possible. How the brain reacts. Le Guin quote: learn which questions are unanswerable, and don’t answer them. Defer judgment.

P19, Neil Postman’s book, and his contrast of Orwell and Huxley [also cited by Kakutani]. Orwell seemed spot on; but Huxley seems to have prevailed. Milton thought truth would prevail; thus Jefferson and the 1st amendment, the idea that the press could provide enough information; but later James Fenimore Cooper found the press to be about making mischief.

There are four criteria for a demagogue: they pose as a mirror for the masses; they ignite waves of emotion; they use that for political gain; they break the rules that govern us. P27. Trump wrote as much in The Art of the Deal. Trump didn’t seem to qualify, until he ran for president, mirroring the masses and breaking the rules.

Was his rise a conspiracy, by the Russians? While conservatives are usually more inclined toward conspiracy theories, liberals seem more inclined to believe the Russia story. Trump presented that mirror, to make America great again, rousing emotion, and demonizing various groups. He flouted the law, and common values. Those values included the idea that most citizens participate; that those who are indifferent don’t matter, the lumpen.

Trump’s values are that nonwhite and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. [Despite the evidence that majority of attacks in the past couple decades in the US are by far-right white men.] And so he struck a bargain to his supporters: he would lead them, and they would believe whatever he would say.

P47, Lying is the point. The barrage of lies; both Trump and Putin. Steven Bannon understood. Without a consensus about facts, politics is a raw power struggle between the weak and the strong. Thus Trump discounts all facts, the investigations, the media. The war on media, the ‘enemy of the people’. Negative news is fake news. His epithets against his rivals.

–So, how is reality recovered? P60. Self-deception will undermine him. The press erred in not taking him seriously. The old scripts for political news, e.g. that in return for quotes the press would omit certain juicy facts, vanished. But the press is recovering. George Lakoff describes the taxonomy of Trump Tweets: preemptive framing; diversion; trial balloon; deflection. The solution is not to dwell on them.

And so what do we do. Protests are good, but don’t answer the question.

Author indulges in a long description of Gulliver and his interactions with the Laputans and the Houyhnhnms.

Author claims that her facts reflect the world as it is; Trump’s do not; and author cannot conceive of his world. But we admit that our facts are incomplete. We only know our own facts. Facts are real and will reassert themselves eventually. The real world will catch up with us. Even if we cannot see that real world.

And so we might try to see the reality in that other person’s eyes. And that begins the end of our reality problem.


Thus ends my summary; the book gets a little vague at the end. I would characterize it as: recognize that none of us knows all the facts, and so we can’t apprehend complete reality; but that there is a reality out there, which will catch up with us, especially those whose ‘facts’ belie reality.

And I reflect that there is apparently *always* a portion of the public inclined to follow demagogues, the portion given to group/cult thinking, a portion that always exists within the range of human personality types and moral tendencies. I read recently how even when Joseph McCarthy was defeated and humiliated, some 30% of the public still supported him. And some will always support Trump. This aligns with the famous quote, “you can fool some of the people all of the time…” But perhaps it’s simply not about alliance to reality; it’s human nature to function within a bubble, to align with one’s group or community, which as long as it survives, is indifferent to reality. Until it bites back and kills them.

Again, politics is mostly about struggles between rival groups, and rarely is about response to reality.

And the swings between which faction is in charge from year to year may be due to random circumstances. It’s likely never, as winners like to claim, because the populace has endorsed the winner’s agenda.

Still, there is an arc to history, — evidently. The evidence is there.

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Michiko Kakutani’s THE DEATH OF TRUTH: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (Tim Duggan Books, 2018) is, remarkably, the first book by the long-time and influential book reviewer for the New York Times, now retired. It has extensive notes (citations) and a list of additional sources, but no index.

Questions going in: does she suggest how we recover? And whence his supporters?

Ways to recover? Not many suggestions; it’s not the subject of the book. She mentions, at the close, citizen action, and protecting the branches of government, education, and the free press.

The subject is the analysis of how we got here. It’s a combination of the American tradition of anti-intellectualism, the cultural relativism of the 1960s and postmodernist attitudes on the left (now co-opted by the right), and a cultural narcissism also arising in the 60s. The rise of right-wing media propaganda in Limbaugh, Fox News, Breitbart, and others, feeding off their audiences worst fears. And of course Trump’s shameless, endless lies. And, yes, the internet, which makes all this worse, due to its anonymity and appeal to base emotions. (Incidentally notable are that chapter epigraphs include quotes by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Robert A. Heinlein.)



The two most monstrous regimes in human century came in the 20th century, and both relied on ways of making people susceptible to lies and totalitarian rule. Hanna Arendt’s analysis sounds like conditions today, as we see similar ‘danger flags’ to use Margaret Atwood’s term. Now we have fake news, alternative facts, and now ‘truth decay’ p13.

How did all this happen? It’s not only Trump. There are deeper issues: the news media since the advent of Fox News; the rise of social media; and even, on the left, the rise of relativism in the 1960s.

Ch1, The Decline and Fall of Reason

Lincoln, in 1838, understood that the nation was founded on Enlightenment values. Yet there’s also been an irrational counterpart, a ‘paranoid style’ that reoccurs in waves: the Know-Nothings, Joseph McCarthy, and now the modern right, founded on grievance over changes that seem to be taking America away from them. How that Yeats quote has become so popular again; the sense that things are falling apart, 26t.

Trump followed the fringe right since the 1990s with paranoid fantasies about Clinton and Tea Party alarmists. Large percentages of Republicans believe things that are not true. Trump began his career by playing off false beliefs.

Trump embodies anti-Enlightenment principles, repudiating rationalism, tolerance, and empiricism, 27b, getting his information from partisan sources like Fox News and Breitbart. (Like Chauncey Gardiner.) Books by Jacoby and Gore trace these trends. Trump criticized the Iraq war, but learned nothing from it.

Larger attitudes in American society: Andrew Keen’s 2007 book; Tom Nichols’ 2017 book.

Trump relies on loyalty and reverse-engineering his conclusions for evidence, the very opposite of the scientific method, p37, and reminiscent of Orwell, whose 1984 has no word for ‘science’.

April 2017 saw the March for Science, in DC and around the world. Comment about how attacks on science are like turning off the headlights, and driving blind, p39.

Recalls memoir by Austrian Stefan Zweig of Hitler’s rise, and how no one then took him seriously, until too late. How the Nazis moved slowly, seeing how much they could get away with…

Ch2, The New Cultural Wars

Cultural relativism began in the 1960s, with ideas fashionable on the left, but has been co-opted by the right, ironically adopting attitudes seemingly counter to their firm stances on law and order. Post-modernism rejected the Enlightenment; it suggested that truth depended on perspective and cultural background, and every statement could be different interpreted, p47b. This led to some fine art, but also a steady loss of faith in institutions and official narratives. By the 1990s it seemed earlier cultural wars were over, but this was premature. They came back with hard-core rightists—Tea Party, birthers, evangelicals, white nationalists—in part reacting to Obama and his policies. Trump plays on all their fears. Now the right is indifferent to violations of decency and standards they ironically upheld in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This relativism is not the same as multi-culturalism, p53.

Postmodernist views of science reflected the ambivalence of the cold war: science as hawkish, pro-business, etc. Attitudes reflected in Orwell, who suggested there was no science, but German science, Jewish science, etc.

Postmodernism also emphasized the instability of language, with ‘deconstruction,’ the idea that all texts are complex and variable in meaning and can never be said to represent what the author meant to say, p57t. A scandal involving one supporter, Paul de Man, over anti-Semitic comments, was dismissed as merely being ironic; who could tell? Thus undermining the idea that any statement can mean anything, employed by Trump supporters who dismiss his outrageous claims as not being meant literally.

Ch3, “Moi” and the Rise of Subjectivity

Parallel with the rise of postmodernism was the advent of a culture of narcissism, reacting to the pace of social change, or perhaps as Tom Wolfe claimed, hedonism granted by increasing disposable income. The “Me Decade” and the rise of celebrity news, or subjectivity and the celebration of opinion over fact. Trump exemplifies this trend: three statements about how his feelings trump apparent facts, and Gingrich’s defense of how public feelings trump evidence of reality (about crime statistics).

This myopic tendency among Americans was noted by de Tocqueville, later exploited by Norman Vincent Peale, and Ayn Rand. Serious writers reflected this in literature that became self-conscious; Tom Wolfe wrote fiction in reaction, but not many followed. [[ science fiction, of course, can be seen as the very opposite of self-involved fiction about oneself. ]] Thus the rise of memoirs, and blogs, 69t, the James Frey scandal; no one really cared whether his book was memoir or fabricated.

Personal testimony became fashionable—even in biographies of other people.

This subjectivity has been exploited by those who “want to equate things that cannot be equated” p73.6, thus creationists who want to “teach the controversy.”

Trump did this with his “both sides” comments. Climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, all depend on this ploy, by attempting to manufacture doubt, as did the tobacco lobby in the ‘60s. The media has been irresponsible in promoting such false equivalence.

Some have reacted: stop inviting the cranks onto BBC, said one. Long quote from Christiane Amanpour, p76.

Ch4, The Vanishing of Reality

Epigraph by Philip K. Dick, from “The Electric Ant”.

Trump’s presidency represents a warping of reality, of the surreal, in which reality is stranger than fiction. Politicians have always spun reality, but Trump is worse, lying reflexively and shamelessly, lying to appeal to fears, p80, attacking news he doesn’t like as ‘fake news’. Trump used lies as a business tool; all that mattered was making the sale. Recalls PT Barnum, who relied on the willingness to believe, rather than whether something was a fact.

Borges, Gibson, Lem, PKD, Fellini grappled with similar theme; Borges’ Tlon about a fictional planet imagined by a secret cabal. And Pynchon, with themes of paranoia.

And “The Matrix”, exploited by the far right to imagine selling their own inside-out alternative reality. 86.6 Of conspiracy theories and fake news, on sites like 4chan and Reddit, internet bubbles that don’t just reflect reality, but shape it.

Ch5, The Co-opting of Language

Language is like water; we think and live in it. This is why Trump and other authoritarians coopt language. Again, Orwell, his Newspeak, satirizing the ‘wooden language’ of the Soviet Union, with tautologies, bad metaphors, and Manicheanism. Hitler, like Trump, was obsessed with speaking directly to the people, and subtly redefined certain words, p92, and how the Nazis were obsessed with the best or the most; any event had to be about the biggest elephant ever killed or the coldest water Napoleon fought in.

Trump uses words to mean the opposite of what they really mean, calling news fake, assigning nicknames based on the sins he is guilty of himself – lying, crooked, crazy – and how his administration bolsters these lies—to assert power over truth itself.

Similarly to 1984, Trump changes the past to suit the present; White House websites were revised to remove pages on climate change, etc.

And Trump’s incoherence – “his twisted syntax, his reversals, his insincerity, his bad faith, and his inflammatory bombast” p98.7 – are “a bully’s efforts to intimidate, gaslight, polarize, and scapegoat.” He’s more concerned about how he looks than what he says.

And his Tweets. His assault about ‘fake news’ have been picked up by other countries.

Eco on Mussolini: he did not have any philosophy, only rhetoric. Trumps echoes him.

Ch6, Filters, Silos, and Tribes

Arthur Miller on Bush. Growing divisions between political sides; each demonizes the other; they can’t agree even on the idea of college. People now seek out like-minded communities, special interests. Both sides are ideological; like sports teams.

The chief reason: the explosion of right-wing media, p110. Limbaugh in ‘90s, and his “four corners of deceit” and his charge of scientists as frauds, p111. Then came Fox News, Breitbart News, Sinclair Broadcasting and its Orwellian scripts; they all spin “truth-based content” into narratives that ratify their audiences’ worst beliefs or fears. Shameless, solipsistic, and insulated.

This is tribal politics, all about party loyalty despite evidence, p113. Reasons behind confirmation bias; how group dynamics makes it worse. Conservative Charles Sykes stepped away from his radio show and wrote a book called HOW THE RIGHT LOST ITS MIND; listeners simply rejected how conspiracies they believed in were “demonstrably false.”

There are no more common TV shows that ‘everyone’ watches; news sources and social media filters everything into silos, so it’s harder and harder to agree on facts.

Ch7, Attention Deficit

Gibson quote, from his novel ZERO HISTORY, p119

The world wide web was, in 1989, a noble project; it’s gone sour, due to its anonymity and posts that appeal to base emotions.

Fake news is mostly conservative [[ this is a key point – the conservative worldview is about retaining traditions in the face of the reality about the universe ]] and more pro-Trump than pro-Hillary. Trump’s hate-fueled messages were tailor made for social media; thus mob chants of ‘lock her up’. Targeted posts; Russian accounts; fake accounts, to deflect bad news about Trump.

It will only get worse, with fake video…

Ch8, “The firehouse of Falsehood”: Propaganda and Fake News

Heinlein quote about appealing to prejudices, from “If This Goes On”, p135.

Russia is at the center of much of this, following Lenin’s model of revolution—not to improve the state, but to smash it. One tactic is to simply lie; “ordinary morality does not apply to them.” [[ another key point about some conservatives; they excuse everyday lies because they believe they have a ‘higher cause’ ]]

Steven Bannon, too, wanted to destroy the state, p138.

Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offered simply solutions to complex problems, 139m; ends justify means. Hitler in Mein Kampf.

Hannah Arendt on how they gaslighted their populations, wearing people out, to cynicism. Propaganda isn’t about misinformation; it’s about exhausting critical thinking and truth, 143t.

Russian propagandist Vladislav Surkov described how it wasn’t so much about ideology, as about power and wealth. How there is no objective truth, inspired by Derrida, to undermine western ideas of truth and transparency. The goal was to replace the republic by a CEO…as predicted in comic books.

Ch9, The Schadenfreude of the Trolls

Quote from The Dark Knight.

In American, cynicism has been growing into a nihilism, “partly a sense of dislocation in a world reeling from technology change, globalization, and data overload…”

Trump is a symptom. His is a dog-eat-dog world; quote from his book. He defines himself by those he attacks, and relentless negativity. Republicans have followed suit, or lose donors.

There’s also a growing loss of faith in institutions, the respect for the rule of law, civility, 155m; that life is random and devoid of meaning. The Great Gatsby, et al, 156t.

Note again how fake news projects didn’t take with liberals, 156b.

This nihilism is shone in the writer who compared Trump’s campaign to the 9/11 flight: charge the cockpit or you die.

And how Trump and others dismiss their worst comments, as jokes. Daily Stormer: always blame Jews for everything, etc., claimed as self-deprecating humor in one place, true belief in another. 159.

There’s an echo here of deconstruction, also deeply nihilistic, as if the search for truth is futile. A kind of post-modern irony, like the 1980s ad star Joe Isuzu, and Rush Limbaugh.


Recalls Neil Postman, AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, 1985, considering BRAVE NEW WORLD and 1984, and that Huxley was prescient and Orwell applied to the Soviet Union. As it’s turned out, Orwell applies to us too, in Trump. It will take years to repair his damage, 168.

Washington’s farewell address anticipated this, warning against undisciplined men who would subvert the power of the people, and about foreign influences.

No easy remedies, but among them: the Parkland students who took action. Citizens must protect the institutions of our founders: the three branches of government, and two other foundation stones: education and a free and independent press, 172t. And Jefferson and Madison both made statements that support the need to find agreed-upon facts, without which there is no way to debate, or conduct democracy.

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