Archive for February, 2022


Americans, in particular, embrace a conceit that the United States is special because it has, if you will, “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and they tend to believe that the United States is unusual and almost unique in that regard as being the first modern nation to embrace that ideal without transitioning from a monarchy.

And I have to admit that I semi-consciously bought into that general feeling, that is, until I began to read The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a massive and quite scholarly tome that in the first 400 pages [which is how far I’ve read to date] effectively disassembles factually so many myths about human history. As the authors document, there have been quite a few societies, some of them powers in their own time, that were not ruled by kings, monarchs, oligarchs, emperors, or other authoritarian systems of governance. The book also shows examples of cultures run by sophisticated and intelligent people who chose societal structures based on a need to maximize individual freedom. From what I can determine, none of those cultures survived contact with more aggressive cultures, possibly because maximizing personal freedom minimizes the cooperative sacrifice of freedom necessary to fight off aggression.

There are several points implied by these analyses (and I’m making the implications, because I haven’t finished the book). The first one that struck me was that egalitarian societies tend to be more vulnerable because they reject or minimize physical coercion for societal ends, while authoritarian societies can more easily and readily mobilize and employ force on a massive scale. The second is that, effectively, money in a culture with a banking system is a means of storing and wielding power. Without a banking system, the value of tokens, i.e., money, rests on either the value of the token itself or voluntary acceptance of the value of those tokens, which allows a would-be recipient to refuse the tokens. Some earlier societies consciously rejected the use of money because they believe it concentrated power in too few individuals.

One of the basic points hammered into me in economic history was the fact that a society cannot develop much in the way of tools and technology without an agricultural surplus, that is, that those growing or hunting the food have to produce considerably more than they consume. There are effectively only two ways to get that result: either pay the growers more or compel them to do so.

From these basics, it seems to me, certain results are almost inevitable. Because the creation and maintenance of higher technology requires concentration of wealth/power, and of individuals with specific skills, higher tech societies must either bribe or force workers. If bribery (the free market way) is employed, those with skills deemed less valuable or useful are going to be less and less satisfied.

If the examples cited in The Dawn of Everything are accurate, and they seem to be, authoritarian societies persist in some form or another until they’re destroyed by a more successful authoritarian regime, or very seldom, by a successful and popular egalitarian movement, while more egalitarian societies are destroyed by greed and dissatisfaction or by conquest because the culture cannot or will not sacrifice enough to be able to defend itself.

Selling Out

Over the weekend, both Bill Maher and The New York Times made essentially the same observation – that large U.S. corporations are engaging in wide-scale self-censorship with regard to China. Movies are being censored as they’re being made to remove any subject matter, no matter how small, that might offend Chinese authorities – like removing the flag patch of Taiwan from the Tom Cruise’s flight jacket in the next “Top Gun” movie.

It doesn’t matter to corporations that the Chinese government is an autocratic surveillance police state that is operating concentration camps against minorities within its own borders or that Chinese corporations are the largest-scale thieves of intellectual property. All that matters is the bucks to be made by access to the Chinese domestic market.

“Bucks above all” isn’t limited to corporations, of course. The International Olympic Committee has continually turned a blind eye to the rampant Russian doping scandals, and allowed the fiction of the “Russian Olympic Committee” to send athletes to the Winter Games, clearly for financial reasons.

This kind of behavior by corporations also isn’t new in the United States, either. Even before the U.S. entered WWII, both General Motors and Ford allowed conversion of their German plants to military production at a time when U.S. government documents showed they were still resisting calls by the Roosevelt administration to step up military production in their U.S. plants. Ford’s German subsidiary, Ford-Werke, even used slave labor from a concentration camp to produce military materiel.

IBM supplied the punch card technology that allowed the German government to identify and track “undesirables,” such as Jews and Gypsies, so they could be exterminated by the Nazis. Even after it was apparent that the system was being used for the Holocaust, IBM continued to supply Germany with machines. IBM subsidiaries in Europe still delivered punch cards to Nazi Germany, and IBM executives directed operations through neutral Switzerland.

Until the US officially entered WWII, Standard Oil re-registered its oil tankers under the flag of Panama, enabling the ships to carry oil to Nazi Germany, and also provided tetraethyl lead to Japan.

The bottom line is fairly simple. For far too many large U.S. corporations, the opportunity to make more bucks transcends U.S. national interests, environmental stability, basic morality, and truth. And that hasn’t changed in over a hundred years, which is why corporations need strong federal oversight… and why the corporate sector fights such oversight. They want the freedom to maximize their bucks, regardless of the impact on everyone else… and the world.

Political Speech

Over the past several years, there have been considerable furor, claims, and counter-claims over political statements by prominent candidates that have in fact been proven not to be accurate in the slightest. Those statements are usually justified under the general concept of “freedom of speech.”

As many have said, and I’m among them, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts, meaning that you shouldn’t be allowed to present false or untrue facts, at least not publicly. Yet politicians, especially those such as Donald Trump, repeatedly reiterated proven untruths.

Despite assertions that all speech should be free, the Supreme Court and other courts have held that certain forms of speech are not protected by the First Amendment. In general terms, there are nine categories of unprotected speech: obscenity, fighting words, defamation (including libel and slander), child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, true threats, and solicitations to commit crimes. So it’s legally clear that not all forms of speech are protected.

So far, at least, under current law and legal precedents, politicians and those running for office cannot be prosecuted for statements that are untrue or misleading.

What I find both interesting and appalling is that while various state and federal laws prohibit false or misleading advertising about products, there’s no restriction on untrue or misleading statements by politicians.

What the Supreme Court either ignored or dismissed in the Citizens United decision is that political speech conveyed by any media, whether print or electronic, is not just speech, but an advertisement for what is actually a commodity – the services which a politician or would-be politician promises to undertake for his or her constituents if elected.

When someone expresses an opinion or even wrong or false facts in conversation, they aren’t selling a product, but when they do it in public arenas and/or through the media in pursuit of a political goal, they’re trying to sell a commodity… and the claims for that commodity should be regulated and legally penalized for blatant falsehoods, just as corporate advertising is, at least theoretically.

Educational Censorship?

From what I’ve read lately, the Republican Party is now proposing the very thing that it finds objectionable in certain segments of the Democratic Party – censorship by the extreme minority.

Now, what the GOP has proposed doesn’t sound like that, at first glance, because the proposal is to make every bit of every teachers’ curriculum publicly available, apparently online. It sounds so eminently reasonable, and it feeds into another Republican line of attack that surfaced in the last election – the idea that parents should control what their children are taught.

Part of this belief comes from the idea that, if we’ve been to school, we know what should be taught and how. If we’ve played a sport, we know as much as the professional coach, etc. But the plain fact is that most people don’t know as much as the teacher does about the subject being taught, nor do they know as much as the professional coach. They’re entitled to their opinions, but, unless they have equivalent professional experience, their views shouldn’t override the professionals in professional matters.

Years ago, some family members were discussing music with my wife the professor, who’s sung opera and art song internationally and taught and directed opera at the university level for over fifty years. They asked some questions about her views of the comparative excellence of various works, then decided that their beliefs were superior to hers, despite the fact that none of them, despite their advanced degrees in other fields, had any academic training or professional experience in music. But they were still quietly totally convinced of their “expertise,” as are too many parents who have little to rely on but their own personal experience.

Then there are the practical downsides to this latest Republican proposal, one that might as well be termed “educational populism.”

To begin with, such a proposal will add an enormous workload to teachers, many of whom are already burning out and leaving the field. And given that most teachers and curricula are already heavily scrutinized, generally the only parents who will peruse such data are those who already object, which, in effect, becomes a form of censorship by the minority.

If something like this becomes law, wherever it does the result will be to further dumb down the curriculum, because the teachers who need to keep their jobs will avoid controversy at all costs and more of the teachers who are trying to get children to think for themselves will leave or be driven out.

But the Republicans are politically astute in capitalizing on the innate belief that parents know more about what their children should be taught than the teachers do. And this “astuteness” is likely to result in even greater damage to public education in the United States.

Banned Books

Over the past year, banning books in U.S. libraries, both public and school, has reached an all-time high. Now, to be frank, trying to ban books in the United States has a long and odious history that dates back to the arrival of the first “colonists,” or if we’re being perfectly truthful, the first European invaders, but, all too often, truth is one of the reasons why people want to ban books, because, if it’s not their truth, or it contradicts or shows flaws in their truth, they don’t want a contrary truth out there, especially where their children might encounter it.

The books banned somewhere in the United States are too numerous even to list them all, but among those banned are titles that are classics of one sort or another: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, The Jungle, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Slaughterhouse Five, Gone with the Wind, A Farewell to Arms, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Catch-22, Of Mice and Men, A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Beloved, Ulysses [James Joyce], The Color Purple, The Grapes of Wrath [also an older book, released in 1939 by Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck], The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man [Ralph Ellison], Song of Solomon [Toni Morrison, another Nobel Prize winner], and Native Son [Richard Wright]

The vast majority of books being banned currently deal with race or racial identity, gender issues, and systemic injustice, and the majority of the current bans are by schools and public libraries.

In 2020, the latest year for which statistics have been compiled, the most challenged book was George, a novel about the life of a transgender fourth grader. The other nine books that made the 2020 top 10 banned list were Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You; All American Boys; Speak; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice; To Kill a Mockingbird [some 60 years after it was first published]; Of Mice and Men; The Bluest Eye [Toni Morrison]; and The Hate U Give.

The latest high profile attack by the book banners is Maus, a serialized comic book published as a graphic novel in 1992 [and the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize] by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who channeled his Polish-Jewish, Holocaust-surviving parents’ experiences into the semi-autobiographical masterpiece in which Jews are represented as mice and Germans as cats.

From what I can see, the book banners all share one common trait – they want to decide what published work they, their friends, and their children can even see on the bookshelves, and they’re angry and afraid that views contrary to their own will pollute or contaminate people, or heaven forbid, make them think and change their views. In short, the book banners want control.

And that kind of control is antithetical to the First Amendment, pure and simple.

If a parent can’t instill basic human values in his, her, or their children before they start really reading, banning books isn’t going to help. In fact, banning a book might even spur greater interest in the banned book. Apparently, after the attack on Maus, the book moved back onto the bestseller list.

What book banners all have in common is a dislike of something depicted in the book they wish banned, and these dislikes spring from both ends of the political spectrum, and rarely from those with more moderate views.

Like all true believers, the book banners are firmly convinced that they, and only they, should control the books their children and others in their community can even see on the library shelves or be taught in school, regardless of whether they’re literary classics or present an accurate depiction of events or beliefs that have created harm to others.

But then, while there just might be a connection between people who don’t want their children to have open minds and those who insist that an honest and fair election was stolen because they didn’t like the results, there are also those at the other end of the political spectrum who also don’t want facts, presentations, and views contrary to their beliefs represented on the shelves.

Censorship is censorship, regardless of political, social, or economic views.


Particularly with regard to COVID, there’s been a huge debate over “freedom.” As I pointed out earlier, a society that is densely populated or one that has densely populated urban areas that make up the majority of its population will, by necessity, need to restrict the freedoms of its citizens, if it doesn’t want its society to drown in chaos, anarchy, and violence.

I’m scarcely the first person to note this. Theodore Roosevelt observed, “Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.”

The historian Will Durant put it another way, “When liberty destroys order, the hunger for order will destroy liberty.”

The United States has a unique demographic problem. It contains vast areas of land with extremely low population density, but most of its population [86%, according to the 2020 Census] lives in urban or suburban areas with much denser population. Yet the 14% of the population that lives in non-urban/non-suburban areas occupies 72% of the land area of the U.S.

In Utah, where I live, 82% of the population lives in five counties, which hold only 15% of the land in the state, for a rough population density of roughly 203 people per square mile in those five counties. The population density in the rest of the state averages 8 people per square mile, but many counties have far less dense populations. On average, Daggett County has 1.4 people per square mile. And Utah is a low-density state.

New York City averages 26,403 people per square mile, while San Francisco has 26,403 people per square mile and Los Angeles 8,485 people per square mile. Yet even in states with densely populated cities, there are often large areas with low population densities.

What does this have to do with “freedom’? Damned near everything. People in rural Utah, or rural anywhere, don’t think they need as much government and regulation because not everything they do impacts thousands of people.

But there are two problems with that. First, those people in the more densely populated areas do need such regulation to keep order and maintain a reasonable level of safety. Admittedly, there are urban areas suffering excessive and unnecessary regulation, i.e., California, but some of California’s bigger problems, like the explosion of homelessness, might well be tied to not only the lack of affordable housing, but also to the lack of regulation of where people can live and under what conditions. Perhaps their “freedom” to squat or erect tent cities in public parks and thoroughfares is a bit excessive, but talking about that is has become political suicide.

Second, like it or not, lack of regulation and order in rural areas has adverse impacts not only on those areas, but on everyone, because everything is connected to everything else.

COVID, for example, while often late in coming, still hit rural counties and almost always had a more devastating effect because those counties don’t usually have strong health care infrastructure. In addition, most of those who have died disproportionately of COVID in rural counties were people who didn’t get vaccinated, largely because they didn’t want the federal government infringing on their freedoms. But now they’re demanding far more federal and state health care and support than they’re paying for.

While rural counties tend to be conservative and anti-government, they also benefit disproportionately from a wide range of federal government programs, even while their inhabitants complain about the government that provides those services. Counties like Daggett County would have difficulty even maintaining roads without financial aid from the state and federal government.

The other associated problem is that too often under-regulated companies operating in rural locales not only ruin the local environment, but far more. For example, in 1972, in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, Pittston Coal’s sludge dams collapsed,sending hundreds of millions of gallons of black polluted water down the valley, killing 125, injuring 1,100, destroying 16 communities, 1000 homes, and in the end, the company paid little more than a million dollars, despite all that, as well as polluting all the drinking water for years in a large section of West Virginia for years.

PG&E in California has been found legally responsible for massive groundwater pollution, fatal natural gas pipe explosions, and, most lately, for massive wildfires, almost all of which have occurred in rural areas where the company faced less intense regulatory scrutiny.

The bottom line is pretty simple. The less populated areas get a disproportionate share of federal resources, but they don’t want to operate under any laws that they see as unnecessary, even when those laws are for everyone’s benefit. Yet they want the funding from those higher density areas to fund services they want and can’t afford without outside government assistance. What’s worse is that all too many of the local politicians in such areas either don’t know or won’t admit that they receive such subsidies.