Archive for February, 2020

Failure to Understand?

MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews equated the victory of Bernie Sanders and his supporters in the Nevada Democratic presidential primary to the Nazi victory over France in 1940. Although Matthews later apologized to Sanders, the initial claim was not only reprehensible, but shows that Matthews doesn’t really know or understand history.

In the early 1930s, the Nazis were a minority party. In fear of a takeover of the parliament by the communists, German President Paul von Hindenburg offered the chancellorship to Hitler, who represented himself as an ally of the more moderate business-oriented political parties. Hindenburg thought his group had “captured” Hitler, when it turned out the other way around, and Hitler consolidated his power by blaming all of Germany’s problems, including the burning of the Reichstag [parliament] building in 1933, first on the communists and then on the Jews… and foreign powers.

In historical terms, it’s Trump who’s analogous to Hitler and the Nazis, not Sanders. In both Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini were supported by the business and industrial community, not by the left-wing radicals such as the communists. Even a number of large U.S. companies financially supported German industrial concerns long after WWII started.

The same pattern also existed in Spain and in Portugal, where right-wing, big-businesses supported the dictators Franco and Salazar. Yet, particularly in Germany and Italy, these dictators presented themselves as populists who were rescuing the middle class from the dangers of the left and from foreign domination and untoward influence. Might this sound just a little bit familiar?

So how could Chris Matthews be so incorrect? Was it merely a desire to see Bernie Sanders as Hitler…or was it something more sinister? I suspect the latter, because the Matthews quote refers to an accurate event in a totally inaccurate context and with an incorrect backstory, which is the staple of self-identified “populist” dictators and their followers.

There is a reason why the oath sworn before courts uses the phrase, “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Too bad that certain news commentators and Trump don’t believe in the “whole truth.”

“Liars” in Context

Every human being I’ve ever met has lied, and certainly more than once. Now it might have been a white lie, or a lie to save someone’s feelings. It might have been calling in sick to work when they weren’t. It might have been worse than that. But all human beings lie… and if you insist that you’ve never lied, that’s a lie as well.

Why am I making this obvious point? First, because the fact that people lie doesn’t just apply to politicians; it applies to everyone. Second, what’s most important about lies isn’t that people lie; it’s the extent of the lie and the context in which they lie. Your lying and telling a friend that they look good or that a thoughtless word didn’t hurt isn’t the same as a president telling thousands of lies, hundreds of which are out and out falsehoods that can be easily disproved by verified facts.

By the same token, while almost all politicians occasionally shade the truth or don’t tell all of it, there’s a huge difference between the politician who utters an occasional lie, exaggeration, or misstatement and one who almost can’t utter an extended statement without lies or gross exaggerations.

Part of the reason that Trump gets away with all his lies, misstatements, and exaggerations is because he’s adept at exploiting a universal human weakness – human beings are mentally limited in the number of objects or thoughts that they can visualize or hold as discrete thoughts in their minds at any one time. After an individual reaches his or her limit, the brain defaults to “many.” So, in most people’s minds, there’s no difference between a politician who makes six or seven misstatements, exaggerations, or lies and one who makes thousands. Unless a person makes an effort to see each lie in context – and most people don’t – their unconscious feeling is that both politicians are “equal” liars… which clearly isn’t the case.

Then add in the fact that people don’t like to think unfavorable thoughts about someone they want to like… and it’s so easy to dismiss an opponent to the habitual liar as just another politician.

But, in the end, anyone who can’t or won’t tell the difference between the occasional liar and the habitual liar, or who thinks that there’s no difference, is lying to themselves… again.

Unethical Cowardice

On Thursday, the Utah State Legislature sent a letter to President Trump, commending him for his actions, citing reducing in size [drastically] two national monuments, repealing “onerous” federal regulations [including one that required oil and gas wells to control methane emissions], and appointing conservative judges. The commendation was sent after the legislature failed to pass two measures aimed at Senator Mitt Romney for his vote to convict Trump. The first bill would have recalled Romney as Senator, despite the fact that state restrictions calling for removal of a Senator have been found unconstitutional, and the second would have censured Romney.

Obviously, the very Republican [more than two/thirds] legislature fears Trump’s possible reprisal against the state of Utah and is trying to defuse Trump’s anger… or at least redirect it only to Romney.

And just what messages does this “commendation” send?

First, the legislature fears what Trump might do, which is a real fear, since Trump, especially this past week, has been venting his wrath on all sorts of people for simply telling what they saw or heard. But to commend a President, especially when he’s punishing people essentially for not lying under oath to protect him, is hardly a principled stand.

Second, the Republican-dominated legislature wants to punish one of its own party for voting his conscience and not following the party line. In short, ethics be damned.

But I’m not surprised. For the nearly thirty years that we’ve lived here, the Utah Legislature has invariably followed a simple unspoken Utah philosophy – Our Way or the Highway. And this was just another example, following several other recent examples, such as trying to more than triple the sales tax on food to fund a decrease in the income taxes of the wealthy [against the wishes of the vast majority of the state] and trying to gut the Medicaid expansion required by a state referendum.

1100 Have A Point

Eleven hundred former employees – Republican, Democrat, and unaffiliated – who served at the Department of Justice under both Republican and Democratic presidents have signed a petition demanding that Attorney General William Barr resign because he “openly and repeatedly flouted” the principle of equal justice under law. The petition follows the withdrawal of four federal prosecutors (one of whom also resigned from DOJ in protest) from the DOJ case against Roger Stone when Barr overruled their sentencing recommendation, after a series of tweets by Trump claiming that the sentence and even the conviction of Stone was “ridiculous.”

Stone was found guilty of lying to the House Intelligence Committee, obstructing its investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. elections, and of threatening witnesses.

Barr also directed the top federal prosecutor in St. Louis to “review” the case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, who had already pled guilty to lying to the FBI.

Now… let’s see. The President who attempted to extort Ukraine to start an investigation of the son of a potential political rival has now pressured his attorney general to lighten sentences of people convicted of meddling in the election in which the President denies there was anything wrong. These events don’t even take into account the other four (if I’ve counted right) Trump campaign associates who were also charged and indicted.

Trump has also refused to commit to not pardoning Stone. So…regardless of Stone’s final sentence, it’s likely Stone will pardoned.

And the saddest part of all this is that most Americans seemingly could care less.

Very few seem to realize that this is the most wide-spread corruption in the federal government in at least the past century, and it’s largely disregarded under the idea that all politicians are crooks anyway.

They’re not… but even if they were, just ignoring it is only going to make it worse.

So maybe everyone really ought to listen to the 1100… if only for self-interest, because one only has to look at Mexico and much of Latin America to see what happens when corruption takes over the legal system, the police, and the courts.

Educational Meltdown?

Why are so many people hooked on screens, whether it’s Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, instant sports streaming, or something else? Instant gratification, of course. Entertainment, news, weather, or even quick short research inquiries. Convenience as well, of course, with driving directions dictated to you by Siri or some other compliant [usually, anyway] electronic voice.

I’ve already offered comments, mostly negative, on Google, and the fact that algorithm-based short popular answers amount to “Top 40” knowledge, and that Google provides knowledge with less depth than a wading pool while giving its users the illusion that they know a great deal when what they know is usually little more than a superficial gloss that they won’t retain because true knowledge is rooted in deeper study and actually knowing the underlying structure and principles.

Unfortunately, there’s another, and darker side, and that’s the impact on education. Over the past few years, I’ve talked to educators across the United States, and almost all of them are having problems with the ability of younger Americans to concentrate and to stay focused on anything not involved with a screen, preferably an interactive screen. They’re also easily “bored” and want to be “entertained” by their instructors, and the highest ratings on student surveys almost invariably go to the most entertaining professors.

This isn’t exactly new, but it’s gotten steadily worse. If memory serves me correctly, back in 1960 Fred Pohl wrote about this problem in a book called Drunkard’s Walk, although that wasn’t the main theme of the book. Pohl accurately predicted the growth of what I’d call “edutainment” where college professors can only keep the attention of students so long as they’re entertaining.

At the same time, as social media has allowed college students to withdraw more and more from day-to-day personal face-to-face interactions, they have become more and more emotionally fragile, less able to take even constructive criticism, and more and more needing constant praise and encouragement. The number needing counseling has skyrocketed.

On top of that, far too many of today’s students have trouble remembering information discussed in class or information that they’ve read, even from a screen. Again, this isn’t totally new. Cram and forget as a technique for passing classes was certainly around when I was a student, but back then some of that information was actually retained.

But this all fits in nicely with the new order, where a President can say something, and then deny it a day or two later… and no one remembers except the purveyors of “fake news,” who aren’t believed by anyone who disagrees with them.

So maybe it’s better this way, where no one remembers history, or unpleasant contradictory facts, so long as they’re entertained and everyone praises them.


The more I see in “social media” and in the news media, the more obvious it is to me that, not only do most people really not understand how politics, government, and the legal system work – or fail to work – most of them really don’t want to understand… and the media, in large part, abets that lack of understanding.

Trump, or any other President, proposes an annual budget… and immediately there are headlines about what the President is going to do…. and all sorts of reactions. No… that’s not necessarily what is going to happen. That’s what the President says he wants to happen, but it’s going to take authorizing legislation and then appropriations to change the existing way things are done. I’ve never seen a President’s budget proposal adopted without significant changes, and many Presidents have had their budgets totally ignored by Congress.

If Congress gets hung up, and it usually does, then a continuing appropriations bill will let matters proceed as they did in the previous year. But any change – positive or negative – requires authorizing and appropriations legislation by both the Senate and the House.

Likewise… for all the rhetoric… no one is going to take all guns away from the American people. The most Congress will ever do – even the most left-wing Congress possible – is to prohibit specific weapons, as it already has with machine guns and fully automatic weapons, and the number of bullets in a magazine. Anything more would require the repeal of the Second Amendment, and that isn’t going to happen. Yet a huge number of gun advocates are deeply convinced that a ban on assault weapons will lead to a ban on all weapons… or that limiting magazine sizes is tantamount to “taking their guns.”

Three years have passed since Trump promised to revitalize the coal industry. Despite relaxation of some environmental standards, there are fewer coal jobs now than then. Why? Because alternative power sources and natural gas are cheaper than coal. Net result – more pollution and fewer jobs. But there’s scarcely a word about that in the coal producing states… or anywhere else.

During the long Presidential campaign, at least two candidates have been questioned on their performance as public prosecutors… and the possibility that they prosecuted minorities too vigorously, especially in cases where later evidence showed that some of those prosecuted were unfairly convicted. That’s tragic… but the blame shouldn’t immediately fall on the prosecuting attorney. If a prosecutor ignores existing evidence, that’s a real problem, but if the prosecutor prosecutes based on the evidence presented, then they’re doing their job, and the blame for evidentiary failure should fall on the law enforcement system that provided the evidence. Prosecuting attorneys are overworked as it is, and to expect them to add detailed evidence-gathering and checking to their duties is not only unrealistic, but impractical. It’s not their job, but apparently the media and some political reporters aren’t interested in either accuracy or practicality.

Then there’s the right-wing claim that convicting Trump of the impeachment charges would overturn the election results and change government. Exactly how? As I’ve noted before, Mike Pence who is a Republican even more conservative than Trump would have been President. That fact didn’t ever seem to get raised or noticed.

I could go on and on… but…maybe… just maybe… I have trouble getting my head around how so many seemingly intelligent people don’t know or don’t want to know anything contrary to what they want to believe… even when it’s laid out in law and the Constitution… or in dollars and cents.

Hail Caesar?

After breaking pretty much every convention, and certainly the expectations of the Founding Fathers, Donald Trump has essentially declared he is Emperor, or at least as much of an emperor as is currently possible. But, I have to give him credit, he’s done things that I didn’t think were possible.

With the exception of Mitt Romney, who’s now facing potential censure by the Utah state legislature for his vote to convict Trump, Trump has turned the Republican Senate into slobbering and apologetic lap-dogs. He’s continuing to gut environmental protection, and the people who suffer the most are, paradoxically, those who support Trump. His tariffs and trade wars are hurting the farm sector, and he’s kept the support of out-of-work or underemployed and undereducated white males, as well as the evangelicals, despite having given them nothing but enormous quantities of the rhetoric they want to hear.

His supporters cite the great economy, but the vast majority of economic benefits have gone to the top 5-10% of the population. Serious and well-researched studies show that real inflation is running at 6% annually, while the “official” rate is 1.8%, or thereabout. Who cares? The stock market is at an all-time high – except all the Trump cheerleaders don’t seem to understand that the stock market is so high and the Fed can still push T-bills because there’s no other place to get any return on savings… and, again, those capital gains and dividends [now approaching an all-time low, by the way] aren’t generally going to Trump supporters, who are lucky to get 1-2% on their savings accounts, if they even have enough money to save.

Is Mitt Romney the closest we can come to a Brutus? Well, the original Brutus ended up committing suicide after Antony and Octavian defeated him in battle. While I don’t expect Mitt Romney to do that, he’s definitely committed political suicide, particularly with the Republicans.

What’s overlooked in comparing the United States republic to the Roman Republic is that the root cause of the disaster that destroyed the Roman Republic and threatens ours wasn’t a bullying strongman like Caesar or Trump, but the underlying corruption of the Senate… and just like Brutus’s assassination of Caesar, which simply resulted in one strongman replacing another, the figurative or literal assassination of Trump, or even his defeat in the next election [which is appearing highly unlikely] will not address the underlying problems of corruption, especially a Senate that’s up for sale to the highest bidder.

The “Truth” Problem

One of the “interesting” aspects of the Trump presidency is the amount of misstatements, false statements, and contradictory statements that issue from the man’s mouth and tweets. One of the more intriguing aspects of this is the polarized reaction of Americans. From what I’ve observed, the President’s supporters either endorse those statements, in many cases finding them true, or admit that many aren’t… and that they don’t care. His opponents reject pretty much anything he says either unheard or with outrage.

Obviously, people have very different ideas about “truth.” I did some research and discovered that philosophers have about as many definitions of truth as there are philosophers, and that there are quite a number of theories that attempt to define truth… or not.

I was clearly misguided; I thought the degree of truth of a statement rested on how close it came to objective verified facts.

In a way Immanuel Kant addresses this, by saying that truth “consists in the agreement of cognition with its object,” which I’d interpret as meaning that if what I see seems to agree with what the object is and does, that is truth. But that means truth is defined by my belief, not necessarily by factual objectivity.

Some philosophers at least deal with the possibility of objectivity.

According to Søren Kierkegaard, at least as I understand what he wrote, there are two kinds of “truth” – objective and subjective. Objective truths are based on facts, while subjective truths are concerned with a person’s way of being and what they believe.

These days, however, especially in the United States, there’s little distinction between these two kinds of truth, which isn’t totally surprising in a nation that all too often equates popularity with excellence and where many believe in promoting self-esteem based on words alone, and not upon achievement.

Martin Heidegger pointed out that the essence of truth in ancient Greece was lack of concealment or bringing into the open that which was previously hidden. That’s definitely not the sort of truth favored by politicians.

And then there’s Friedrich Nietzsche, who essentially rejected any objectivity in truth and claimed that the arbitrariness of human nature meant that humans defined truth as an assemblage of fixed conventions for the practical purposes of repose, security, and consistency… and possibly of gaining power, although I didn’t find that spelled out directly. But it seems to me that Trump could just claim that he was following Nietzsche.

Personally, I tend to favor Alfred North Whitehead’s observation that “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”

And Trump is exceedingly good at treating partial truths, or even tiny shreds of truth, as whole truths that his supporters swallow whole… or, as the old saying goes, “hook, line, and sinker.”