Out with the old

I watched Obama’s last press conference yesterday and was yet again struck by how calm, thoughtful, fair-minded, moderate, and intelligent he is. And what a very good president he has been.

The economy has recovered under his watch, adding 36,000 jobs per week over eight years. Financial markets have rebounded. He has limited our military adventurism. As he promised, he tried hard to close Gitmo. He presided over the successful raid that ended bin Laden. He can be forgiven for the crime of getting health insurance for 20-30 million people who didn’t have it before. He did all these things and many more in the face of absurd obstructionism and vilification

During the press conference, he repeated that the biggest threat we face is losing sight of who we are as a nation, gently chiding his republican critics who have eviscerated him for not being tougher on Putin, but who now, according to a recent poll, think Putin is more trustworthy and reliable than democrats.

The mercurial and petulant man-baby that will soon replace him is an entirely different animal. The new president will have the nuclear codes and the authority to unilaterally launch a strike at will.

According to Seth Baum, the executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, Trump’s election makes it more likely that humanity will perish in a catastrophic event of some kind, because his intentions are secret. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Baum said Trump’s “tendency toward erratic behavior, combined with a mix of difficult geopolitical challenges ahead, mean the probability of a nuclear launch order will be unusually high.”

It’s the “his intentions are secret” thing we need to worry about most. What Trump says does not actually reveal what he intends, which is the essential characteristic of “bullshit”. Trump is a classic example of a bullshitter.

In his seminal essay, “On Bullshit”, Harry Frankfurt distinguished bullshitters from liars. He said,

Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

It’s going to be a tense four years. I predict Trump will do away with press conferences entirely, as he needs them no more than he needs daily security briefings. We will not have a chance to compare his performance under that difficult spotlight with that of Obama. He has said he will continue to communicate his thoughts via twitter, and this will have to suffice.

Every morning we will awake to something no one had foreseen. An angry response to a negative restaurant review, perhaps, or perhaps a tweet that ends the world.



Syria: All vs. Everyone

Having a hard time figuring out who the good guys are in Syria? It’s unbelievably complex. That’s why there’s no good “solution”, political or military. Also, there are no clear, achievable objectives for us that could shape a coherent policy and that’s why we’ll be the loser no matter who is deemed the winner. Even if we stay out of it, we’ll be someone’s enemy.

Above all, it’s too complex for Trump. You can’t sum this thing up in a tweet.

The first thing to know is it’s not ISIS vs. The West. This would be a convenient explanation and one that is very attractive to  Trump: a simple, patriotic narrative that would energize our military and that our population would support. And it’s what is being put forward by Trump’s man-crush, Vladimir Putin. For Putin, anyone who opposes Assad is a terrorist. Trump ran on a platform of “bombing the shit out of ISIS”.

Apart from the Syrians themselves, there are five countries involved, each with it’s own set of interests: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and the U.S.

Turkey wants to keep Kurdish separatists in check, both in Syria and Iraq. They supported anti-Assad rebels early on and would like to see him gone.

Iran wants to prop up Assad to maintain its access to Lebanon, where its client, Hezbollah, opposes Israel, whose nuclear weapons Iran fears. Also, maintaining Shiite control of Syria’s Sunni majority  increases Iran’s regional influence. Assad is a member of the Shiite Alawite sect.

Russia also wants to prop up Assad. Syria is one of Russia’s few allies and buys weapons from them. Syria contains Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

Saudi Arabia wants to check the spread of Iranian power. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two regional proxies in the never ending conflict of Sunni vs, Shia.

The U.S. would like to see Assad gone. We’ve given weapons to the “rebels” (hopefully the good ones) and the Kurds in order to fight ISIS.

Lots more explanation here.


Within Syria, you’ve got the weak Assad government and its Alawite followers. You’ve got anti-Assad “rebels” who are the remnants of the Arab Spring. You’ve got Syrian Kurds, the Sunni civilian majority, factions within the military, a variety of extremist groups battle-hardened from fighting in Iraq. And you’ve got ISIS, which seems composed mainly of foreign kids that have been lured into the mess by Jihadist propaganda.

As is the nature of all things in the middle east, each sect, tribe, gang, and family has its own interests, and as time has gone on, each has felt more threatened by reprisals from all the others. The factions have become smaller, more numerous, and more intractable. Assad’s indiscriminate bombing of cities is the most extreme example of this splintering – everyone who is not part of his clique is his enemy.



What to do? Who knows. When it’s over, it won’t be over. There will be vendettas and plots, executions and assassinations. If Assad remains, he will be the president of nothing with enemies all around.

But I am quite confident that, before then, the man-baby will find a way to make it worse.

Gravity is just a theory

Right. Newton’s Theory of Gravitation is a theory. It attempts to explain the phenomenon of gravity, which we can all easily observe. Everyone agrees that something, let’s call it “gravity”, keeps us from flying up into the air willy-nilly. Even mentally ill people. Even religious fundamentalists. Even, and here I’m on thinner ice, Republicans.

Let’s not confuse ourselves by saying gravity is “just a theory”, or the jury is still out, or reasonable people disagree, or whatever.

I can find you a “scientist” who is willing to go on record as saying that tobacco has not been proven to be a risk factor for cancer. It takes some doing, but, if you start with the Tobacco Institute, you can get it done. Since some people who smoke don’t, in fact, get cancer, it’s just a theory (supported by a mountain of evidence).

It’s a little harder to find a scientist who will say human activity is unrelated to the observable phenomenon of climate change, but there are apparently 27 of them that have been identified.

I won’t question their integrity here by revealing who is paying for their research. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that human activity is accelerating climate change.

This, of course, makes no difference to most Republicans, or to the president-elect, and certainly not to his transition team aide, Anthony Scaramucci. Speaking on CNN, Scaramucci said that the scientific community “gets a lot of things wrong”.

He said,  in the past “there was an overwhelming science that the Earth was flat”, and  “there was an overwhelming science that we were the center of the world.”

OK, there’s really no point in arguing with the willfully ignorant. I get that. But let me just get one quick point in here. It is simply not the case that there was “overwhelming science”  showing the earth was flat or the sun revolved around it. There was overwhelming superstition and religious conviction that these things were true. The mission of science is to either prove or disprove them.

He said the “Trump team wanted common sense solutions – non-ideological”.

That’s the heart of the problem right there: to these idiots, science is ideological.  And why shouldn’t they think that? After all, if you can fund a scientific study that shows tobacco is not so bad, well, that kind of proves science is for sale, right?

Who knows? With enough funding, maybe we can disprove the theory of gravity. And we’ll all fly away.


Are you now or were you ever…

A communist? A homosexual? A Conscientious Objector? A climate scientist?

Wait. A climate scientist? I mean we all recognize the other accusations (in the form of “questions”) from the McCarthy era, but not the “crime” of being a climate scientist.

In the McCarthy era, they hauled you before the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked you these questions. It didn’t really matter what you said because they already had you based on some meeting you’d been to or someone you’d been associating with.

But then they asked you who else was there, who your friends are, who influenced you, and so on. They wanted you to name names. It was the worst thing you could do, and yet there wasn’t much point in refusing. If you refused to answer, you would go to jail for contempt of congress and you’d lose your job and become a pariah. If you answered, you’d be shamed, lose your job and become a pariah, but, hopefully, not go to jail. You were blacklisted either way. And they already knew the names you were naming.

Describing the times years later, Arthur Miller said,

It was a ritual of humiliation –  conspiracy was the name for all opposition. And the reformation of the accused could only be believed when he gave up the names of his co-conspirators. Only this ritual of humiliation, the breaking of pride and independence, could win the accused readmission into the community

In today’s terms, the country had been delivered into the hands of the radical right, a ministry of free-floating apprehension toward anything that never happens in the middle of Missouri. It is always with us, this anxiety, sometimes directed towards foreigners, Jews, Catholics, fluoridated water, aliens in space, masturbation, homosexuality, or the Internal Revenue Department. But in the 50s any of these could be validated as real threats by rolling out a map of China. And if this seems crazy now, it seemed just as crazy then, but openly doubting it could cost you.

Sounds like a lot things happening today. But naming names of scientists? Was this a thing back then?

Not then, no. But it is now. From a piece in the Christian Science Monitor:

Donald Trump’s transition team has sent a list of 74 questions to the Energy Department (DOE), asking, among other things, for the identity of all employees and contractors involved in international climate meetings and domestic attempts to cut carbon emissions.

The questionnaire specifically asked for the names of all DOE employees who attended the United Nation’s annual climate talks for the past five years, employees who helped develop the President Obama’s social cost of carbon metrics, and which programs are essential to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

All of which raises concerns that Trump’s administration will target employees involved in Obama-era policies that the president-elect spent his campaign promising to dismantle, including the Paris Climate Agreement, Clean Power Plan, and various other DOE and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.

“This feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list,” said a Department of Energy employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal by the Trump transition team, told Reuters. “When Donald Trump said he wanted to drain the swamp it apparently was just to make room for witch hunts and it’s starting here at the DOE and our 17 national labs.”

The Republican Party has been the anti-science voice of America for a long time now. They’ve opposed stem cell research, put forward “creationist” curricula in schools, and some have even opposed vaccination. And, of course, they’ve advanced the notion of climate change as a left-wing hoax.

So far, scientists themselves have not been sanctioned for their work. So far.

Oy vey.

Press conference? I’d rather tweet.

Why should there be a problem if a president wanted to use Twitter instead of some other media to make an announcement, change or clarify policy, or even pick a fight. Is it so different from making a speech?

Yes, it’s different, and, yes, it’s a problem.

First of all, you have only 140 characters to say your piece. Can you really make international policy in 140 characters? Can you even use full words? Is there any room for nuance? Can you avoid ambiguity? No, no, no, and no. But it’s perfect for someone with a limited attention span.

Second, if you make a speech, you have a speech writer. You have editors. You make second and third drafts. You pass it by your advisers. You vet your points and choose your words carefully, particularly on foreign policy matters. With Twitter, none of this happens. Got a brilliant idea while sitting on the toilet? Tweet! Perfect for someone who is impulsive and always right.

Third, not only don’t you have to consult with others before tweeting, you don’t have to answer any questions after tweeting. Or if you do choose to answer questions, you can say it was a joke or you were misunderstood or it was locker room talk or you were speaking as an entertainer and not as an official or they started it or whatever. And you do it on Fox”news”. It’s the opposite of a press conference where people try to pin you down and hold you to what you’ve said before. Twitter is a one-way medium if you want it to be. Perfect for someone who likes to make proclamations and give orders, but can’t take in any information.

Trump has given no press conferences since the election, but has often tweeted, even about matters that should be the domain of the president, not the president-elect.

He got himself (and, therefore all of us) in hot water by accepting a call from the president of Taiwan. Then someone apparently told him that we’ve had a one-China policy for fifty years, and the Chinese regard Taiwan as a province (where all the Nationalists fled after the 1949 revolution).

Of course, Trump can never be wrong, so let the tweeting begin. Trump doubles down, as always, and says the one-China policy is in play unless we get a better “deal”, blah blah blah. Goes on TV (Fox of course) talking about North Korea and a lot of other stuff he obviously just heard about five minutes ago.

But he’s  not dealing with Low-energy Jeb or Little Marco or Lyin’ Ted or Crooked Hillary here. China’s Global Times newspaper called him an ignorant child (should have said man-baby IMO) and said “The ‘one China’ policy cannot be bought and sold. Trump, it seems, only understands business and believes that everything has a price and that if he is strong enough he can buy and sell by force”. They said a “real crisis” would ensue if Trump kept this up.

I don’t see a good way out here. Maybe the China tiff will fizzle. I hope so. But no one is going to take away the man-baby’s Twitter now. They tried it once a couple of days before the election, but it didn’t “take”.

We’re in trouble.

Yesterday’s wisdom

Some things make so much sense when you read them that you just know they’re true. They can’t not be true.  Depending on your own view of the world, they may give you comfort or consternation. Either way, they’re so obviously true, you can just accept them and modify your behavior and thinking going forward based on what you’ve read.

Less than two months ago, a couple of weeks before the election, Paul Krugman wrote  that Donald Trump had only a 7% chance of being elected according to the Times Upshot model, whatever that is.

His theme in that piece was basically that any Republicans who had endorsed him or hadn’t backed away from him soon enough should be ashamed of themselves, and that anyone who voted for down-ballot candidates were voting for Trumpism.

It was obvious from the beginning that he was a “con artist” — so declared Marco Rubio, who has nonetheless endorsed his candidacy. His racism and sexism were apparent from the beginning of his campaign; his vindictiveness and lack of self-discipline were on full display in his tirades against Judge Gonzalo Curiel and Khizr Khan.

So any politicians who try after the election to distance themselves from the Trump phenomenon — or even unendorse in these remaining few days — have already failed the character test. They knew who he was all along, they knew that this was a man who should never, ever hold any kind of responsible position, let alone become president. Yet they refused to speak out against his candidacy as long as he had a chance of winning — that is, they supported him when it mattered, and only distanced themselves when it didn’t. That’s a huge moral failure, and deserves to be remembered as such.

Of course, we know why the great majority of Republican politicians supported Mr. Trump despite his evident awfulness: They feared retribution from the party’s base if they didn’t. But that’s not an excuse. On the contrary, it’s reason to trust these people even less. We already know that they lack any moral backbone, that they will do whatever it takes to guarantee their own political survival.

And what this means in practice is that they will remain Trumpists after the election, even if the Orange One himself vanishes from the scene.

What he wrote made all the sense in the world. It was all obviously true. Backing Trump was an indication of spinelessness and dishonesty. But it’s all yesterday’s wisdom