Archive for January, 2019

The Image/Reality Conflict

In The Outline of History (1920), H.G. Wells stated, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”  True as that may be or may have been, I’m getting the feeling that at present we’re seeing a race between “image” and reality.

Regardless of rhetoric and belief, walls seldom work at keeping people in or out, and when they do work, it takes enormous effort and creates horrible tragedies… and in a short time, any wall fails.  History has shown this time and again.  That’s reality, but for the past month we’ve seen a political battle between the image of the wall as a security blanket and the reality of its impracticality.

Study after study has shown that societies work far better, are more stable, and progress more when economic inequality is lessened in a society, particularly the gap between the poorest and the very richest members of a society.  History has also shown that absolute income leveling does not work, and that functional societies need income gradients based on ability and effort.  Yet we have a world where the 26 richest men in the world [and they’re all men] control as much wealth as the poorest 48% (or 3.7 billion people), and even in the United States, the top one percent controls 40% of all the wealth, and it’s become harder and harder for people to move up from the income level of their parents, or, if they’re born rich, easier to stay rich than at any time in over a century, essentially since the time of the Robber Barons.  Yet all too many Americans hold to the image that government hinders income mobility, when in fact government law and policies over the last thirty years have largely benefited the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.  That’s the sad reality.

Then there’s the image of social media “bringing people together,” but if social media actually does that, then why do people feel more isolated than ever, and why are those individuals most addicted to social media the ones who feel the most isolated.  Once again, the image seems to be triumphing over reality.

Even as Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are melting faster and faster, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, too many people hold to the image that the world is too vast for “mere” human activity to play any significant part in the ongoing global warming. And deniers cite a mere handful of scientists who deny global warming over the 99% who cite human activities as a significant cause. 

The United States is a far safer place for children than it’s ever been, yet American parents are more fearful for their children’s safety than ever before, largely because the media focuses on every sensational adverse event that happens to a child. In the same vein, millions of parents don’t have their children vaccinated, even when years of statistics show that the side-effects of vaccination are minuscule compared to the side-effects of the illnesses those vaccines prevent.  These parents either don’t know or ignore the fact that measles and whooping cough used to kill thousands of children annually, or that measles largely wiped out several Native American tribes and a huge percentage of Hawaiian islanders.

We have a President who has made thousands of false statements over the past two years, and yet something like 38% of the people still believe him.

So why do images grasp so many of us so firmly that we cannot see reality?

Personal Polarization

These days, there’s a lot of talk about the polarization of political views, which is reflected in the current stand-off between the Republican Senate/President Trump and the House Democratic leadership.  As always, however, what occurs in Washington is a reflection of what’s happening everywhere in the nation.

One of the facets of this polarization is, from what I’ve observed, a much greater tendency for each side to objectify the other side by insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree fully with them on various “hot-button” issues must be a card-carrying extremist on the other side.

So… if I say that the ultra-feminists are carrying political correctness to absurd extremes, which I believe they are (since I believe that they should have concentrated on getting economic and political power and equality first and foremost), I risk being called a toxic male, or at best one who is hopelessly out of touch. If I say that black movements such as Black Lives Matter have not only called attention to young blacks unjustly killed, which has happened far too often, but also gone overboard and exalted black street punks/minor criminals into martyrs, which they have, then I’m told that I have no understanding of minority rights and am a white privileged racist.

If I point out to my rancher/farmer acquaintances that they can’t keep mining the groundwater in the high desert area where we live or that there’s too much overgrazing on federal lands, I’m immediately dismissed as a left-wing environmentalist who doesn’t understand and wants to destroy their family heritage. Likewise, if I point out that the BLM has mismanaged the handling of a host of issues, from wild horses to collecting grazing fees, I’m called part of the right-wing rape-the-land advocates.

If I point out that the majority of “hate” groups in the U.S.  are by far mostly composed of far right extremists, which is documented, and if I don’t publicly condemn the comparatively few extreme leftist outbreaks, which I tend not to do because the far-right is doing that quite extensively, and I really don’t want to associate myself with them on that, then I’m labelled as an extreme leftist.

If I point out that the current administration’s idea of building a wall is insane, impractical, and wasteful, then I’m a far left liberal who wants to turn the country over to greedy criminal immigrants who will destroy “our way” of life, despite all the facts to the contrary, or the fact that I’ve been vocal about the need for immigration law reform.   

As I’ve repeatedly pointed out in my blogs, facts have become irrelevant.  Only image and emotion matter any more.  Each side picks the facts that support its views, and their images, and categorizes and objectifies anyone who doesn’t agree as the enemy. 

And those of us in the middle are becoming fewer and fewer, because we don’t agree fully with either “side,” and that means both sides view us as the enemy.

And then people wonder why there aren’t any compromises.

“Baroque” Writing

The other day I was reading a fantasy novel that had been recommended to me by someone whose judgment I trust.  I had to force myself to finish it.  It wasn’t that the technical aspect of the writing was bad.  The writer has a good command of mechanics and style.  It wasn’t that the plot was trite; it wasn’t.  The concept of the magic was good, and it seamlessly fused magic and post-Renaissance/early industrial-level technology.

So why did I have so much trouble finishing the book?

The plot reminded me of the worst in Baroque music, over-ornamented and excessively twisted and complex.  Now, I know… lots of readers like those kinds of books and their plots.  I’m not one of them, and probably the reason why is because I spent too much time in Washington, D.C., and national politics.

To put it bluntly, involuted and convoluted schemes don’t usually work in real life.  First is the simple problem that not even three people can keep a secret very long, let alone the number required to orchestrate a complex conspiracy.  Second, the more moving parts anything has, especially if those moving parts are people, the greater the chance that something will go wrong, in fact, that many things will go wrong.

Then there’s the problem that when things get really ornately complex, more gimmicks or gadgets are needed, especially if there’s an evil genius or power that wants to make people act against their self-interest (which there is in this book), and that’s also not the way matters work in real life.  People do shady things out of greed, the lust for power or sex, or because it gives them a twisted kick.  It’s dreadfully straight-forward.  The twists in life come from the interaction of comparatively direct motivations that don’t allow everyone to get what they want.

When an author over-complexifies, so to speak, he or she loses me.  Now, that’s just me.  I don’t dislike complexity, but when I write, I want the complexity to come out of the interaction of human motives and drives.

Maybe that’s why I also generally prefer Classical or Romantic period music, but I say generally, because far from all Baroque music is over-ornamented, unlike Baroque-plot books.

The “Wall” Image Problem

If people were logical, there wouldn’t even be an issue over the wall. But people are emotional, and their emotions are tied into images.

For Trump and his supporters, the wall is an image of strength and protection against the hordes of immigrants that threaten their vision of America. It doesn’t even occur to them that for most Americans and much of the free world, walls connote a different kind of power and domination, the kind represented by the Berlin Wall and even the Great Wall of China, where between 400,000 and two million people [depending on the historian] died building various iterations of that wall, and which at one point required a million men to defend and maintain it, vainly as it turned out.

Next, there’s the problem with the image of immigrants.  Despite the fact that every single person in the United States, including Native Americans [they just came first], is either an immigrant or the descendent of immigrants, most of them poor, Trump and his wall supporters possess the image of immigrants as greedy and criminal, while most of those who oppose the wall hold to the positive idea of the United States as a land of opportunity for immigrants.

Then, there’s the larger image problem.  Exactly what would building a massive concrete barrier say about the United States?  Would it say that we’re a free and open land?  What kind of power would that convey?  Based on the history of walls and who built them and for what reasons, I’d say that such a wall conveys the idea of dominating great power that places security above all else, a power that will trample human rights for the sake of security, and certainly that’s what we’re seeing with the way the current administration is dealing with immigrants and their children.

What’s one of the most disturbing aspects of this confrontation is that neither side has directly addressed the simple issue of what such a wall says about us as a people, or to what lengths those who want to build that wall will go to obtain that security.

As for whether such a wall would even provide such security, I’ll defer to General George Patton who said, “Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity.  If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, anything made by man can be overcome.”

Democrats: It’s Your Turn on Immigration

Regardless of how the shut-down turns out, the Democratic Party risks losing its majority status in the next election for one simple reason.

A majority of the country believes that there is an immigration problem.  While I’m obviously no fan of the President, and while the immigration situation was not the national emergency or crisis Trump has turned it into, there is an immigration problem.

As many people have pointed out, we’re making it harder and harder for the kind of skilled and educated immigrants we can use to actually immigrate here.  We’re making it harder and harder for foreign students who get their advanced degrees to stay here and work.

We allow hundreds of thousands of people to come as students or tourists…and stay past their education or visas… and then almost randomly, with no real program, abruptly deport a comparative handful, often breaking up families, and leaving legal children without a parent.

We have a need for low skilled workers to do grubby jobs.  But rather than have a program for them, as we once did, now illegals do some of the work, legal immigrants do some, and some doesn’t get done, and those who do it are often subject to brutal conditions because so much is under the table.

There aren’t enough immigration judges or other personnel… and all that I’ve mentioned doesn’t come close to covering the problems.

Now… unlike the Democrats, Trump has addressed the problem and proposed a solution.  In my opinion, as most who read this blog know, it’s a lousy and wasteful solution that doesn’t really do anything that will get to the roots of the problem, but it’s a solution.

In all the Democratic rhetoric, I haven’t heard one single word about what their solution might be to the problem, only that what Trump has proposed is wrong.  I agree.  What he’s done is wrong and also won’t really solve the problem.

But he’s trying to address it.

The Democrats are pretending it’s not a problem; that it will go away if we continue immigration as we did before.  It won’t.  Given the awful conditions in too many Latin American countries, this problem isn’t going away.

So… Democrats, what’s your plan… besides saying “No” to Trump?

An old political consultant I respected greatly once said, “You can’t beat anything with nothing.”  And right now, the Democrats have exactly nothing.

Triumph of the Evil Genius?

We don’t have a national emergency.  We soon will, because that’s exactly what Trump has planned. It’s all part of a grand scheme that just might work. Consider the developments to date. 

First, Trump has been conducting rallies all over the United States for the past two years, emphasizing the dangers of immigration and the need for the wall, to the point that now 87% of all Republicans believe it’s necessary.  The facts that show it’s unnecessary, wasteful, and counterproductive don’t matter to the success of the Evil Genius’s plan. All that matters is that the overwhelming majority of Republicans believe that immigrants are an immediate threat to the U.S. and that the wall must be built.  That means that very few Republicans in Congress can afford to oppose Trump.

The Democrats have discovered that Trump isn’t interesting in bargaining or compromise.  But their problem is that their base is composed of minorities, educated white women, and some liberal white males, all of whom are vitally interested in civil and gender rights and environmental protection.  The Trump administration has stepped up deportations to an all-time high and has been attempting to cut back the rights of immigrants, legal and illegal, to remove civil rights protections, to make voter registration and voting more difficult for the poor and disadvantaged, and to nullify environmental protections which benefit largely the poorer segments of society.  Given the Trump administration’s record in these issues, they rightly fear that any compromise will just enhance Trump’s power. Also, if they give in on the wall funding, then Trump will spend the next two years tweeting that “even the Democrats knew I was right.  They funded the wall.”  

Second, Trump has no intention of allowing Congress to reach a compromise on the wall issue.  When the Congressional leadership reached an agreement on $1.6 billion on border security, a number Trump said he’d approve, once the bill was passed, Trump rejected it.  Vice President Pence then said Trump would go for $2.5 billion, and the leadership started to put together that bill, when Trump then declared that wasn’t acceptable.  Now, Trump is demanded $5.7 billion for the wall.  But he’s also saying that it’s “up to the parties.”   He’s positioning himself so that neither side can politically afford to compromise, and when everything breaks down, he can claim that the system has failed and he needs emergency powers.

While not all of the federal government is shut down, Homeland Security cannot pay its employees, and they’re a large element of border and transportation security.  The now unpaid TSA agents are already calling in “sick” in high numbers, and since they’re certainly among the 80% of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, this problem will worsen, as will the stress and strain among the other near-million or so federal employees not being paid.

As a result, sooner or later there will be some sort of border of immigration incident.  Trump will use that incident to point out the failure of Congress to address this “vital national security issue,” ignoring the fact that he’s the one who created the issue, and will push for a national state of emergency.  If that doesn’t do it, the next incident will.

Sooner or later, as the Trump administration tightens controls and increases deportations, including the child-age legal citizens of illegal immigrants [which reportedly has already begun to happen], there will be demonstrations against the administration.  The administration will claim that the demonstrations are fomented by foreign agents [as they have already claimed at times] and will restrict civil rights more.  The actual process will take longer and have more steps, but the result will be the same.

In short, if Congress refuses to act with veto-proof legislation, Trump will continue to fan the flames until he gains full emergency powers over government.

Don’t tell me It Can’t Happen Here.  It is happening.  The only question is whether we do something about it and demand our legislators cut Trump out of government funding, which they can do.

Temper Tantrums

When Trump learned that the House of Representatives and the Democratic minority in the Senate were willing to give him more border security funding, but no wall or solid steel fence, he walked out of the meeting, saying “Bye-bye.”

He talks about the need to protect Americans, but every day that the partial government shut-down continues, far more Americans are harmed than any possible protection than could be obtained from a concrete wall or solid steel fence.   The National Parks are taking a beating that will require millions to repair and clean up.  Tax refunds are threatened.  Federal contract workers will never get paid for the last three weeks.

No matter what Trump says, none of that really matters to him. He wants that wall because he campaigned on it, and he wants his way.  He wants to proof he’s boss.  And since he can’t say “You’re fired,” to Congress, this is the next best thing for him.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest to him that there are better and more effective ways to deal with the flow of refugees.  It doesn’t matter how many American citizens suffer.  It doesn’t matter than the wall would be a five billion dollar fiasco that would simply channel would-be illegal immigrants into other ways to get into the U.S.  It doesn’t matter that we’re getting more illegal immigrants by far by other ways than across the Mexican border.

Now…the Democrats could turn up the pressure on this issue by saying that, while a wall won’t work and sends the wrong message, there is a need for more border security and that they’d support more funding – with the proviso that none of it goes to a wall.

Or Trump could easily “win” by saying, “Okay, you’re right.  The wall won’t work the way I thought, but that means we need to spend more on other ways to stop illegal immigration. Give me five billion, with solid language that says it can’t be spent on a wall or a solid steel fence.”

 That way, he’d put the Democrats in the corner.  But he’s too much of a four-year-old in temper tantrum outlook to do that.  And so, Americans and would-be migrants will all continue to suffer, and if Congress does cave and he gets wall funding, they’ll have suffered, and all the money spent on the wall will be essentially wasted.

So much for the great deal-maker and temper tantrums in politics.

Action as Distraction

The other day, I ran across a reader review of one of my books, where the reader downgraded it because it had the “least action” of any book in the series, as if his prime criterion for excellence was violent action.  My first reaction was why he bothered to read my books at all, and my second was that the book in question had more than a little “action,” but no great and endless battle scenes.  And that led to my third thought, which was about the current administration.

With all the emphasis on “the wall” and the totally unfounded idea that illegal immigrants will pose a great and violent threat, and the heralding of the “triumph” over ISIS in Syria, as well as the postured threats and tariff wars, most people aren’t seeing the “real action,” just as that reader didn’t.

As I’ve noted earlier, the Mexican border isn’t the biggest problem with illegal immigrants; and, overall, illegal immigrants are actually paying more in taxes than they’re getting in benefits.  At the same time, green cards are being denied to immigrants with permanent legal status here – yes, you can stay, for now, and until we take away more rights, but you can’t legally work here.  That forces legal immigrants to work illegally if they want to stay alive, and if they’re caught working illegally, then they can be deported…  not only that, but the number of illegal, and some legal immigrants being deported is growing. 

But “the wall” dominates the news. 

In the meantime, across the board, environmental protections are being dialed back administratively, effectively worsening air quality and endangering health. The current administration is continuing to use administrative measures to weaken health care insurance, while administrative decisions are effectively lengthening the protections against competition for brand-name drugs, thus ensuring higher drug prices for longer, and higher health care costs.

Across the entire economy, a few large corporations are gaining market strangleholds, while Congress looks the other way, and the President insists on keeping part of the government shut down until he gets his way.

Our national transportation system continues to erode, and our electric power distribution system is a disaster waiting to happen, but the President claims victory against ISIS in Syria while the DOD secretary resigns, and everyone is up in arms as the President back-pedals on withdrawing troops from Syria.

And Congress, and most Americans, focus on the distractions, while missing all too much of the “real” action, just like that clueless reader.

Professional Politicians, Idealists, Polarization, and Immigration

The problem with true idealists in politics is that few true idealists are able to compromise, and no government, particularly a democratically-based government, works without compromise. 

The problem with most professional politicians is that their ideals are subservient to their desire to retain office, and to remain in office they will vote for popular but unwise policies and legislation. While popular opinion can be fickle, most widely held popular beliefs are simplistic ideals, all too often at variance with reality.

Thus, the combination of idealists and professional politicians mitigates against compromise and practicality, and the less that government accomplishes the stronger people’s beliefs become, in turn reinforcing the problem of polarization, largely because those beliefs are rooted in images only loosely connected to physical reality.

We see that today in the debate over immigration, where one side is convinced that the situation is urgent and the most important problem facing Congress, while the other side minimizes a non-functional bureaucracy that needs overhaul and more funding.  Yet the one side ignores the fact  that the immigration problem is in fact far less severe than it was a decade ago and that, while the immigration system needs funding and fundamental reform, building more walls won’t solve anything and would be a waste of money, while the other side wants what amounts to more open immigration without coming up with a coherent program for dealing with immigration. 

To top it off, neither side in Congress wants to really deal with the problems in Latin American countries that have led to the current flow of immigrants.  And because Congress can’t come up with a unified solution with enough votes to override a Presidential veto, Trump will continue his posturing and fear-mongering  until Congress smartens up… or caves in.

I’m wagering on a cave-in.