Pragmatic States

The United States has a lengthy history of pragmatism in both philosophy and action, a long tradition that may have helped the nation grow but may also have inspired, or at least prefigured, the serious political conflicts of the second decade of the second millennium. Pragmatism, or at least a practical mindset, seems to have begun at the beginning. Alexis de Toqueville made a note of it. He thought that it was the result of the lack of hereditary class distinctions and pre-arranged social levels, but it could just as well have been a consequence of frontier attitudes and the necessity of creating an integrated functioning economy out of a collection of isolated coastal outposts.

It does seem that scientific methods and factual analysis were very much in vogue at the time of the American revolution, a reasonable extension of the Scientific Enlightenment in Europe. But there were some distinct contrasts to the old world, too, attitudes that were mentioned by de Toqueville in his classic study Democracy in America; he noted that the people of what was then a new nation were noticeably, perhaps defiantly, practical in their statements and their actions. At times he expressed this reality in fairly limited terms, as when he wrote, “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” The reality of this observation was later reflected in William James’ metaphorical (and controversial) question, “What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” It also more commonly surfaces in such disdainful American constructs as, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”

More broadly, de Toqueville noted that American preferences were given to the concrete rather than the abstract or the theoretical, and to the utilitarian more than the aesthetic. Returning to an emphasis on monetary measures, he attributed this practical tendency to one national characteristic, the relative equality of individuals: “The prestige that attached to old things having disappeared, birth, condition, and profession no longer distinguish men or hardly distinguish them; there remains scarcely anything but money that creates very visible differences between them and that can set off some from their peers. The distinction that arises from wealth is increased by the disappearance and diminution of all the others.”

But the practical emphasis in the new country was not simply pecuniary. Such influential leaders as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin distinguished themselves by being less concerned bout money and more devoted to politics and diplomacy, and to science that was potentially useful but still unconnected to direct commercial applications. Franklin was a founder and first secretary of the American Philosophical Society, a group devoted to the advancement of what was then known as “natural philosophy,” terminology that at that time referred to science in general, not to the abstract academic pursuits that de Toqueville had in mind when he wrote, “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.”

When the practical mindset began to develop into a modern philosophic movement, in the 1870s, the leading proponents were all prominent United States citizens. Charles Sanders Pierce is considered as the originator, but he is less well known than his followers William James and John Dewey. James introduced his arguments in a small 1907 book titled Pragmatism, with the modest subtitle “a new name for an old way of thinking,” perhaps recognizing that he was building on long-standing American tendencies. He repeatedly included among his cognitive progenitors both Pierce and Walt Whitman.

At the heart of the philosophy of pragmatism is the idea that scientific concepts should be evaluated according to how well they explain and predict phenomena rather than how well they describe reality. There is, in this view, more than one way to visualize the world, and the “truth” of a statement depends on how useful it is. In some of his statements, James sounded almost like a 20th-century self-help guru: “Thoughts become perception, perception becomes reality. Alter your thoughts, alter your reality.”

There are a number of possibilities that can result from such a pragmatic worldview, outcomes that differ based on the goals or results desired by an individual. In U.S. history it was all well and good with individuals such as James and Dewey, the progressive educators who believed in knowledge-based democracy; James even had a number of students who became well-known positive influences on society, including W.E.B. DuBois and Walter Lippman. There was also at least one, Theodore Roosevelt, who achieved a position of significant power from which he could impose his reality on others, leading one to wonder in what ways the concepts of Jamesian pragmatism encouraged and directed early twentieth-century American imperialism. Roosevelt certainly created his own version of reality when he dispatched the Great White Fleet on an around-the-world voyage despite congressional concerns about funding.

In recognition of observed reality, unfortunately, there is always the potential for the dark side to emerge in the evolution of any philosophy in which truth and facts are seen as relative or conditional or where, as Dewey noted, “immutable truth is dead and buried.” What we have been forced to recognize at the start of the 21st century is that there can be a serious downside to allowing influential persons to select or create their own facts and their own truth. The prime example of this is the movement that led to the presidency of Donald Trump, a coordinated and cross-reinforcing propaganda system combining both traditional and social media. Such possibilities may have been anticipated by James when he noted, “There is nothing so absurd that it cannot be believed as truth if repeated often enough.” Combine this potential with the pragmatic desire of like-minded politicians to craft new facts and truths to suit their own purposes and we find ourselves in what many commentators have called a fact-free era. There is no consensus about when this era began in the states; it could be traced back to the expansion of cable television and the internet or to the many Tea party misrepresentations in the campaign against the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). This recent wave of obfuscation included the manufactured justifications in the 2003 buildup to the second war in Iraq, although this is hardly a new tendency. The War in Vietnam was also sustained on lies, and it was Aeschylus, after all, who stated that “In war, truth is the first casualty.”

None of those older campaigns compare in scale to the pattern of fabrications inspired by candidate Trump and expanded during his presidency. The birther lie, the Qanon conspiracy complex, the promotion of the border wall as the sole solution to immigration, the unending multilevel election fraud lies; all of those “alternative facts” were created and sustained with the pragmatic purpose of putting a Republican in the most powerful position in the United States and keeping him there even after he lost the 2020 election. Donald Trump himself is by nature the ultimate negative pragmatist, in that he simply refuses to recognize any reality or facts that do not benefit him. He has no interest in other goals or ideals. His acolytes and supporters are equally opportunistic and they have made every effort to promote the many false narratives whether they believe in them or not. There should be no doubt that applied pragmatic philosophy in the hands of a potential despot and his avid minions almost brought an end to 230 years of successful democratic governance in the United States. Since then, the Trump program was repeated by Jair Balsonaro during his reign and loss of the presidency in Brazil, inspiring a 2023 destructive riot in Brasilia’s government complex, similar to the attack two years earlier on the capitol building in Washington, D.C.

This is not to blame the early pragmatists or their philosophy for the excesses of the recent truth-free era, just as it was wrong when conservative leaders blamed Foucault and deconstructionism for the narratives of modern leftists and their social protests. It is simply a recognition that pragmatism must be tempered by objective reality, communitarian reviews, and inclusive ideals.

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Just a Job

It was a job. It paid slightly above minimum wage and provided no other benefits. Its primary advantage, if you can call it that, was that it required no thought, no active personal involvement or commitment other than the repetitive physical movements that Calvin had mastered in the first hour of employment. There was also minimal opportunity for interactions with any of his co-workers, not even with the woman who stood across from him at the end of the line. He provided her with large aluminum trays with inch-high edge rims, sort of like oversize baking sheets. She loaded each tray with four rows of seven small wrapped boxes of Brussels sprouts as they came off the line of rollers eight inches above the tray. When each tray was full he would move it to a slot on a seven-foot high metal rack and grab an empty tray from the same rack. By the time he got the new tray in place, something he thought took between three and four seconds, the woman already had the next row of boxes ready to drop into place, and the next rows after that were already queuing up on the narrow roller conveyor coming down from the packing operators. He would continue loading the trays into the rack until it was full, at which point a new rack of empty trays would appear and the full rack would be rolled away. It had to be that way. The line of sprouts-filled boxes wasn’t going to slow down or stop and there always had to be another empty tray and a place for the filled tray to go, and the filled rack had to be taken away into the freezer. This was the end of the production line and there was no other place for the boxes to go, except for spilling off the end onto the floor. Calvin had to concentrate on that. He never had a chance to look at the workers who packed the boxes a few feet up the line to his right nor the ones who rolled the racks into place behind him; his eyes were always on the trays, only the trays, his attention on getting everything in its place with no delay. There was simply no time to look around.

That didn’t mean that Cal didn’t know what else went on in the cannery, or the freezery, if you wanted to be accurate. All of their output was frozen, never canned. He had scanned the layout during his lunch breaks. The building itself was a cavernous metal box covering a massive gray concrete slab. Somewhere out in the field Brussels sprouts had been cut off their stalks and loaded into large cardboard bins. At one end of the cannery building those bins were dumped out and the contents funneled onto a narrow white conveyer belt passing between two rows of women whose job it was to repeatedly hold individual sprouts up against rapidly spinning blades that trimmed off the remains of the stalks and the outer leaves. That was the one really dangerous job because the women had to move quickly to keep up with the flow, and the blades were kept very sharp; on occasion a finger or two ended up where they weren’t supposed to be.

After trimming, the sprouts dropped into a chute filled with hot chlorinated water that rinsed and blanched them as they floated over to another conveyor belt that took them between two long rows of women who, again very rapidly, loaded them into small wax-coated boxes on scales that made sure each box held at least 12 ounces. The women then closed the boxes and added them to another conveyor in the unending train down to the end of the line, where they slid off the belt onto a narrow roller shelf leading down to where Cal and his partner waited with the endless trays and the rolling freezer racks. At the season’s high point the line would run eleven hours each day, six days a week, only shutting down for scheduled breaks and a half-hour lunch.

After hours of repetitive unrelenting monotony and the continuous background din, Cal went out into the quiet night to walk the half-mile back to his small apartment, an upstairs room in an eighty-year-old victorian residence that had been subdivided into five units. There he removed the clothes that reeked of the distinctive odor of cooked sprouts, clothes that he could hang up outside his window if it he didn’t expect rain or high winds. He could wear them again the next day after they aired out. He threw together whatever he had available in his small refrigerator, gulped down the resulting meal, and collapsed into bed. There wasn’t much time for anything else. A few months of that schedule and he was ready for the only other benefit of the job; it was seasonal. There were three months of Brussels sprouts in the fall and three months of spinach in the spring, with two blocks of unemployment pay separating the two. It was like a paid summer vacation twice a year, a break that was needed if the workers were to recuperate from the trials of each season.

It was a job. And he had kept at it for two years after it was the only thing he could find following graduation from high school. There weren’t many other job opportunities in his small town, and in his first few months, while still living at his parents home, he had barely managed to build up enough money to put down the security deposit and first month’s rent for his apartment, as minimal as it was. Never mind any kind of personal transportation; maybe he could afford a scooter, eventually. In many evenings, especially on weekends, his sleep suffered because of the late night noise from his neighbors, all of them apparently young workers with more ordinary weekly schedules. He hoped that an unblemished work record at the cannery would help him get a better position somewhere else, but it seemed that cannery work was not the kind of experience that other employers were looking for; he had kept looking, but hadn’t received any positive responses. Perhaps, he began to believe, he was stuck.

It was during the next spinach season that he found himself walking away from the cannery next to a couple of women from the trimming line, Cassie and Helen. Slightly older than him, they had been working there for four years. They invited him over for dinner, where he discovered that they had few more possessions than he did. Their only advantage was that their ability to share the rent allowed them to have a more spacious apartment, but it was obvious that their combined incomes didn’t go much further than his. There were a few other differences he noted during their dinner. One was that even though the meal was a relatively simple stew, their cooking skills were well beyond his own. The meal was delicious. But their discussion was also notable in one aspect; every time he brought up a complaint about the cannery and the type of work they were involved in, the women would shrug and change the subject. When he expressed the worry that he would still be struggling in the cannery forty years later, as an old man, Cassie just laughed and said, “You don’t have to worry about that, believe me.” The two were much more interested in talking about current events in the world outside of their small town. In all of this they were unfailingly positive.

It was several months later, at the beginning of the summer break, that the reasons for their optimism, or their casual acceptance of the world as it existed, began to come to the surface. The two never mentioned any of that themselves, but one morning they did invite Calvin to a brunch in the dining hall at the 4th Street Baptist Church, a meeting that would include about sixteen people who worked at the cannery along with their friends and families. It would be the first time he would be in a church since he had moved out of his parents’ house, but Cassie told him it was just a gathering of friends, not anything religious, so he decided to go. But at his table there were eight people, including Cassie and Helen, and four of them actively began a discussion about middle eastern crises and the recent movement of the United States embassy to Jerusalem and the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements there and on the West Bank. As Calvin listened he realized that they were enthused by these events, or perhaps not by these events themselves but by what they might imply for the near future. The others at his table were not actively contributing to the speculation, but they were clearly interested.

The event ended a bit after one o’clock and Cal found himself walking back to their apartments with Cassie and Helen again, a trip that began with none of them talking. A few blocks into the route Helen broke the silence. “You know, Cal, now and then it’s seemed to us like you’ve been disappointed when you complained about working at the cannery and we didn’t react the way you wanted … I mean, we didn’t do anything to encourage your negative comments or agree or disagree, or anything like that. Maybe now you’ll see why.”

Cal didn’t, but he wasn’t sure how to phrase his lack of understanding, how to get the two to express what they clearly had thoroughly incorporated into their view of the world. Something, obviously, allowed them to ignore all of the negative aspects in their lives and their lack of future options. He shook his head and said, “I’m not sure.”

Helen stopped walking and smiled. “Don’t you see? The signs, what they were talking about at our table, they’re all around us. We don’t know exactly when, but the world is building toward Armageddon. The end is on its way. The end of everything. Everything that’s happening right now is almost meaningless, it won’t last more than a couple more years. Don’t worry about any of this … this transitory stuff.” She waved her arms outward as if to dismiss the entire world. “It doesn’t mean anything, none of it. It’ll all be taken care of.”

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Change Le Même

One of the most common tropes around the beginning of the twenty-first century is a phrase that has been used to describe virtually every major event from the attack on the world trade center to the election of Donald Trump as president to the premiere of the musical Hamilton to the Covid-19 pandemic. That phrase, with slight variations, is “the world will never be the same again.” Sometimes the words change, but the sentiment is the same: Vladimir Putin’s Russia invades the Ukraine, and “Life in Europe will never be the same again.” The United States government rejects the Paris Climate Accords of 2015, or reinstates them, and “this changes everything.” Well, of course it does, and life will never be quite the same, will it? The problem is that in media reports and political statements and commemorative gatherings those who use such phrases are attempting to connote significance or draw attention to an event by using an overgeneralized, meaningless, and increasingly trite statement.

The fact is that every event, every personal choice, every rainstorm, every car crash, every solar flare, every little or big thing, changes the flow of reality. Permanently. It doesn’t matter how small or inconsequential or “uneventful” an occurrence is. In fact it doesn’t even matter if anyone notices. If a tree falls in the forest and no sentient beings are there to notice it, does it make a difference? Yes, it does. As Heraclitus famously noted more than 2,500 years ago, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” This statement is an analogy for his belief that everything is constantly changing, that even in the next moment the world around us will never be the same again. I actually prefer the more direct Terry Pratchett version of the same concept because it is both more inclusive and more immediate:

“The universe is, instant by instant, recreated anew. There is in truth no past, only a memory of the past. Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore, the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise.”

The fact is that change is the only consistency in the world, and Pratchett’s statement expresses the all-encompassing nature of that variation. It is unrealistic to imply that any single event, no matter how large and consequential, has a monopoly on world-changing effects. Yes, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed the future of Europe, but so did the action of an unnoticed swallow pooping on that same wall a week earlier. Nobody noticed that event, and the deposit may have been washed away by rain long before the wall was destroyed, but the wall, and the neighborhood surrounding it, would never be the same again. As a process of change the effects of the caustic poop and the erosive rain would, eventually, have had the same effect as the sledgehammers and excavators and skip loaders that made short work of the long-standing barrier. Admittedly, the bird impacts would not only have taken much longer but would have been disconnected from the larger political reality. The wall was both an effect of, and a powerful visual metaphor for, that reality, but otherwise the ultimate effect on the wall would have been similar.

This is not to say that someone speaking at a commemorative gathering thirty years after the fact, in 2019, would be wrong it they stated that the removal of the wall changed the fate of Europe and the world. That is true. But that statement on its own would also be meaningless, an empty hyperbolic flourish, especially if it is not followed up with any details about the larger political collapse. Instead of applying an overused cliché to a metaphor, the speaker could tell us what specific changes resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reintegration of Germany. Instead of vaguely implying that there was a uniquely significant series of events, a speaker should tell us about some of the specific changes that occurred and let us recognize, on our own, how important they were.

There is also a downside whenever we focus solely on differences that result from major events. Recognizing that there are changes all around us all the time, and that the smallest variations can be just as effective as some of the larger events, and sometimes even more effective in the aggregate, we can make more sense about what is happening and why. The famous chaos theory allegory about a butterfly changing direction in the air over China which causes consolidation of a thunderstorm over Ohio may not refer to something we will ever be completely aware of, but that doesn’t make it any less significant. But that’s perhaps the rub. In theory we know that the minuscule atmospheric fluctuations around that butterfly’s wings can affect the weather in the United States, but we can neither observe the wing movement accurately enough, nor can our most powerful computers model the resulting effects thousands of mile away. Even with the great improvements we’ve made in such forecasting, and the relative simplicity of predicting storm futures, there were widely divergent paths presaged for Hurricane Ian the week before it hit land in Florida in 2022. And even after those multiple forecast paths converged two days prior to landfall the predictions still missed the eventual attack point by more than a hundred miles, leaving much of the city of Fort Meyers inadequately prepared.

Anyone who follows the trends in sociology or politics knows that human behavior may be even more complex and unpredictable than the weather. One event, the theft of a wallet perhaps, will have a ripple effect that changes every time a new actor reacts to hearing about the theft or responds to movements of the wallet or its contents. Predicting the extent of that one theft would require detailed information about the capabilities of the thief and the personal inclinations of every person who is asked to respond to any attempted identity fraud through driver’s license or credit card information. A very different example on a much wider scale was provided by the 2022 midterm elections, in which pre-election polls indicated a decisive “red wave” that would have provided the Republican Party with Senate leadership and a large majority in the House of Representatives, as well as control over an increased number of state governments. The unanticipated individual actions of millions of voters combined to cancel those predictions and made it obvious that the future of the United States “would never be the same,” neither in the ways that were forecast by the polls nor in the ways it existed prior to the election. We can try to predict something about the broad cumulative results of that cumulative vote, although the ripple effects will be, again, too complex to analyze. And even if the votes hadn’t been anonymous we would never be able to accurately determine why the election didn’t follow the advance polls or pundit analyses. It was the result of the individual complex motivations of millions, people who themselves may not know exactly why they made the decisions they did.

Big events, and the speculation about them, can deflect from experiences and concepts that can be more meaningful in our lives. For many reasons it is important for us all to be more aware of, and indeed to pay increased attention to, the small changes that are always around us, the ones that also mean, to repeat the obvious, that the world will never be the same again. That awareness, for one, can help us as individuals have an impact on such diverse vital realities as the next election, the future of climate change, our personal relationships, the continued prosperity of the flowers and earthworms and bees in our gardens, and, perhaps most important of all, our own personal enjoyment of life.

It doesn’t matter if the things you observe are unique and extraordinary or everyday and mundane. The world around us is full of events; most of them are small and seemingly repetitive. But for all of that they can be consequential and interesting and informative. Given the right state of mind or meditative approach, few of them are either boring or a waste of time. As cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker noted, “A common man marvels at uncommon things; a wise man marvels at the commonplace.” Don’t wait for the big events, and don’t get distracted by them. Your best response to the world around you is indicated by the continuation of the Terry Pratchett quote at the beginning of this essay:

“Therefore, the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.”

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CEO Government

In recent decades it has been common for political pundits and some candidates for office to denigrate the very title “politician” and to promote the idea that what the country needs is to populate our government with non-politicians. In truth, of course, this means individuals who have virtually no relevant experience in the job. For some reason they don’t state their arguments in those terms. What they usually say is something like “my opponent is a career politician who has never run a business or hired people or met a payroll.” They like to say that it’s only common sense that “what we need in the legislature is people who have been successful businessmen.” Politicians, they claim, are isolated from reality, self-serving, only interested in getting re-elected. Non-politicians, it is implied, would bring to government the important skills of executive management based on reality.

I’ll return to those arguments later. First we can take a look at what our country has reaped from a business-directed philosophy regarding government. There are several relatively recent examples of political candidates who were successful in being elected using promises, from the punditry and their campaign supporters, that electing a prominent entrepreneur would revolutionize government. We can ignore those well-known individuals, like Ross Perot and Carly Fiorina, who attempted and failed in their campaigns. We might also leave aside those who have entered public service as legislators; our assessments of the success or failure of these individuals depend too much on partisan and subjective evaluations of their voting record. The important question is what happens when a wealthy businessperson becomes a high-ranking public servant in an executive position.

In New York City we had the example of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was the CEO of a very successful financial firm prior to his transition to the public sector. He was elected to the office of mayor in 2002 with virtually no relevant experience, but he was fairly popular, was reelected twice, and left after his third term only because of term limits. He made a good adjustment to the restrictions placed on public administrators, learning to work effectively with the 51-member city council and the various city agencies. There were, naturally, some disagreements, and a few cases in which Bloomberg vetoed bills and a few in which his vetoes were overridden, but overall his administration was competent and productive.

The same can almost be said of the tenure of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California, which began as a result of a crowded 2003 special election following the recall of governor Gray Davis. Prior to this Schwarzenegger had been a professional bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Olympia title seven times, and a popular movie actor. He was reelected once and for the most part cooperated with the state legislature. His second term was his last because of term limits, although he likely wouldn’t have been chosen for a third term because his approval rating at the end had dropped to 23 percent because of growing stories of ethical and sexual misconduct.

Moderate success is not something that can be said of the tenure of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota. Ventura gained his fame as a professional wrestler, color commentator, and actor prior to serving one term as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota and becoming governor in 1999 four years after his term as mayor ended. His single term was marked by significant dissension with the state legislature, producing a record number of legislative vetoes. He was accused of mishandling the state budget, ending with a large deficit, and repeatedly denigrated the media. He chose not to run for reelection.

Thus far it seems that the recent score for non-politicians in executive government positions is decidedly mixed, and certainly not an influence that has produced the revolutionary positive effects that have been promised by those promoting the meme of business-honed entrepreneurial skills.

At the presidential level the primary example of a successful businessman becoming a public executive was the brief tenure of Warren G. Harding, 1921 to 1923. His reputation for business acumen came from his rescue and rebuilding of a failing newspaper, the Marion Star, in Marion, Ohio. On his path to the presidency he served four years in the Ohio State Senate, two years as Lieutenant Governor, and one six-year term in the United States Senate. He parlayed his senate position into a successful run for president in the 1920 election. In theory he brought the best of both worlds, achievement in business enriched with experience in government at multiple levels. His governing philosophy was that government should assist businesses as much as possible, and he appointed Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce. The second year of his term was marred by multiple strikes, including a nationwide railroad walkout by 400,000 workers.

His administration was also marred by a series of scandals, most of which only came to light after Harding’s 1923 death from a heart attack. Most of them involved corrupt practices such as influence peddling and kickbacks. This has been attributed to Harding’s tendency to nominate friends and business associates with minimal relevant experience to high-ranking agency positions. The pinnacle was the Teapot Dome scandal in which the Secretary of the Interior was convicted of accepting bribes to allow an oil company to drill into naval oil reserves in Montana and California without the benefit of competitive bidding or any of the procedures required before implementation of such significant government decisions. Congressional hearings revealed that Harding had approved the drilling. Overall it seems that the vaunted management skills that were supposed to come with election of a president and agency appointments of business leaders were not present in the Harding administration.

In the history of the United States there has been only one president who went almost directly from acting as a corporate executive to the Oval Office. That was Donald Trump. Harding at least had a few years of public sector experience before he was elected to the highest position. Trump had none. He is then, the most pure example of a high-level business administrator elevated to a government executive position, a fact that does not argue well for the theory of private-sector preference. Admittedly, Trump was not exactly the best example of an entrepreneur, given that what he achieved in business was financed by family wealth, was sustained as much by questionable public relations efforts as by good management, and was marred by repeated investment errors and bankruptcies. His public record is similarly replete with poor choices for campaign advisors and managers of federal agencies, inconsistent decision-making, self-serving decisions, and statements that demonstrated his lack of knowledge of U.S. history, science, laws, traditions, and regulations. Not to mention his lack of interest in all of the above. He famously treated the heads of agencies as if they were his personal minions, there to do his bidding (as if they were mid-level managers) instead of public servants dedicated to the legal mission of their organization and the public welfare. This is especially true of his four Attorneys General, each of whom were treated as if they were Trump’s personal lawyer. He was impeached twice, once for misusing federal resources in an attempt to slander a potential competitor and once for inspiring an insurrection to keep himself in power.

We could treat the Trump debacle as a fluke, a one-time disaster that resulted from elevation of a singularly unqualified individual, but the primary characteristic that caused Trump to fail was one that is unfortunately common among private-sector managers. That is the tendency to operate as a unitary executive, to make decisions without consulting other stakeholders. Public service is a different world; administrative options are much more limited due to policies regarding transparency, mandatory public hearings, judicial review, and the fact that most of the real decision-making power is invested in the legislative bodies rather than the executive. Like a powerful CEO, President Trump was not used to having his decisions questioned, much less blocked, and that became obvious in many of his choices and in his negative reactions to setbacks. In four years the Trump administration clearly demonstrated how foolish it is to promote business leadership by itself as a model to reform government.

The next time you hear a candidate say the all-too-common phrase “I’m not a politician” as if that were a positive attribute, imagine yourself on a human resources team looking at applicants for a job you need to fill. You need an experienced welder, and a candidate comes in and says, “I am not a welder.” Or you need a sous chef and the applicant tells you, “I’ve never cooked a thing.” Do you hire those people? If not, tell me why would you hire a declared non-politician for a job that requires political skills, including talking to constituents, writing legislation, and compromising to get that legislation passed? And if you do hire (vote for) that person, how can you then still expect your government to work effectively and accomplish things on your behalf? Or perhaps you are in fact a conservative “small government” idealist who really doesn’t want government to work well at all.

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Ban Books and More

As I write this we are in the midst of a national effort to ban ideas. This isn’t anything new; our politicians and pundits have been involved in what has become known as the “culture wars” for years, and previous country-wide attempts to control political and moral speech go back more than two centuries. The United States Constitution was less than ten years old when the first Sedition Act was passed in 1798, making any speech or writing illegal that spreads “false, scandalous, and malicious” concepts about the government. The modern culture wars have a much broader purpose. Conservatives have long been complaining that such broad categories of tradition as Christianity, free enterprise, gun ownership, marriage, gender identification, and U.S. history are under attack. They are leading into the 2020 mid-term elections by stepping up their arguments, targeting liberalizing movements that are attempting to foster more open discussions about gay and transgender people and about the less savory aspects of the national historical record.

The conservative method of choice is, first, to distort and exaggerate any concepts they oppose. In their recent formulation there is a dangerous “gay agenda” that wants to convert or “groom” young people into “perverted” sexual behavior, and an associated “woke” agenda that wants to shame white people by telling them they are responsible for slavery and lynching and discrimination and native genocide and all of the other negative events in our shared past. Second, as part of pushing back against cultural liberalization they want to severely limit what can be taught in our schools, prohibiting discussions of inclusive gender roles and accurate history in all classrooms.

These efforts, of course, have spilled over into banning books that refer to the unwanted topics. They reject not only non-fiction books like The 1619 Project (Nicole Hannah-Jones) or And The Band Played On (Randy Shilts) that specifically discuss the banned historical record, although those are also included, but also fiction that features any minority or gay or transgender characters leading lives that are as ordinary and honest as people in their social situation can experience. The objections remain even if the references to discrimination or non-heterosexual activities are minimal. So the list this year contains notable award-winning fiction, including To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Gender Queer (Maia Kobabe), The Handmaids Tale (Margaret Atwood), The Bluest Eye and Beloved (Toni Morrison), Maus (Art Spiegelman), The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie), Heather Has Two Mommies (Leslea Newman and Laura Cornell), Lawn Boy (Jonathon Evison), How to Be an Anti-Racist (Ibram X. Kendi), Where The Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak), and In The Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado). And, in an act that verges on self-satire, some activists have once again called for banning Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), a repeatedly banned book about destroying all books, not just those with specific content. I don’t know about you, but I am somewhat familiar with most of these books and I am at a loss at figuring out what they all have in common.

These are only a few of the most familiar books on the many lists that have been created across the country. Other lesser-known titles have also been questioned and slated for removal from classrooms and libraries, almost all of them either about gay or transgender people or about racial or cultural minorities. In the past year more than 1,500 books have been banned in more than 90 school districts in half of the states in our country. Members of the school board in the Rapid City School District in South Dakota went further, asking about investigating their list of books to see whether they should be not only banned, but destroyed. Many school and city librarians have been threatened for having the temerity to argue against banning books, and a teacher in Norman, Oklahoma—incidentally, the home of the University of Oklahoma—was suspended because she provided her students with a QR code they could use to seek information and order books from the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned program. After the teacher resigned under pressure, the Oklahoma State Secretary of Education pushed further, demanding that her state teaching certificate be revoked. As he explained, “This is completely the tool of a far-left extreme group that is using the profession and using schools to indoctrinate, groom kids and to try to hyper-sexualize [children] and teach them to hate their country. And we’re not going to allow it.” This statement indicates that the book ban is only one part of a multi-directional appeal to paranoia directed against public education.

The book-banning effort is not merely a collection of local or regional grassroots efforts. It is a national campaign coordinated by such activist conservative groups as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Family Research Council (FRC). This movement encourages people to file similar challenges against the same books in multiple school districts in almost all states. For the local participants, that provides a significant advantage, for they can receive their lists of objectionable books and offensive content from a central source. This frees them from the drudgery of searching for and actually reading parts of any of the books they oppose. It also allows the campaign to bring in individuals other than concerned parents. Many conservative politicians have been promoting book bans as part of their usual electoral activities, a strategy that is a direct extension of their ongoing culture wars, the decades-long crusade of fear-mongering being used to build voter enthusiasm in advance of elections. They’ve expanded their crusade with manufactured outrage and anxiety about transgender use of public bathrooms and teaching Critical Race Theory. They’ve incorporated it into broader attacks on public education and campaigns for school board members. In other words, more of the same, only more of it.

My own first personal experience with book banning also involved a national effort, one that occurred during my high school years. In that case the cause was anti-pornography and it was sparked by the publication, in 1961, of Henry Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer. The book had first been published in France in 1934, but had long been banned by the United States government because it “dealt too explicitly with his sexual adventures and challenged models of sexual morality.” The early 1960s campaign followed and built on the late 1950s controversies regarding Lady Chatterly’s Lover (D. H. Lawrence), Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), and Howl (Alan Ginsburg), and it expanded to embrace William Burrough’s Naked Lunch and J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, among other novels containing questionable dialog. But the one set of actions that most impressed me was the extraordinary campaign against the Dictionary of American Slang, a book edited by Stuart Flexner and Harold Wentworth and first published in 1960.

The Dictionary of American Slang was, as advertised, a dictionary in the standard format. It was therefore dry, matter-of-fact, a lengthy list of individual words with their definitions and, often, sample usages. This project, properly done, quite obviously required not only including some slang terms that were considered objectionable, but explanations that sometimes referred to a variety of body parts and bodily functions that at the time weren’t commonly found in “acceptable” books; for example, books other than the ones written by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence. The mere appearance of this book in public and school libraries was strongly protested, and removed from some locations, because it actually contained some “obscene” terminology. In other words, it was a fairly complete compilation of American slang. What was most surprising about the effort to ban this book, however, wasn’t the book itself. It was the strategy used by those who opposed it. The morally incensed individuals who showed up at meetings of school boards and city councils and library boards brought with them handouts, printed pages listing a large number of the offensive words and phrases that were contained in the dictionary. These they passed out to anyone who would take one. Their intent must have been to spread to others the outrage they felt at finding a book that actually contained such words, but the reality was that they were actively distributing the very content that they were hoping to have banned from public access.

The same odd strategy is still being used as I write this. People who oppose specific books based on overt sexual descriptions or objectionable words are showing up at public meetings with printed handouts containing many of the offensive passages they object to. Their lists include only those short passages, having separated those “perverted” and “obscene” phrases from any of the pesky “socially redeeming content” that surrounds them in the actual book. In other words, they remove the broader context, which is the vast amount of inoffensive material that has allowed the Supreme Court to reject censorship in so many other cases. Could these individuals be arrested for distributing pornography? By their own definitions it would make sense. Instead, the media generally passes on, without comment, their argument that they are doing all of this to protect children. That happens to be the same justification that was used by those who fought against the Dictionary of American Slang. Back in the 1960s supporters of the Dictionary had replied that those who opposed it were “protecting” most children from words they had already heard and used. These days the book banners seem to be going further, trying to protect children from reality, a reality with which many of them are already all too familiar. I must admit that it would be easier to remove descriptions of reality than to revise the reality itself—the very real historical and current systems of oppression—but the people who ban books are only interested in the first of these two options.

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Real Magic

Arthur had come to the conclusion that even after years of dedicated effort, after all of those hours and hours of lonely practice, staring at himself in front of a mirror, watching attentively to micro-adjust his movements and his statements, and despite the feeling that he had succeeded in virtually all of his goals, it just wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t satisfying, not any more. He began to wonder how much it had been, ever. It had been engrossing, at least. With the assistance of online videos and books and focused attention and innumerable repetitions, he had managed to master the subtle sleight-of-hand movements that were required to perform almost all of the magician’s tricks that he had ever seen performed. He could produce a specific playing card or a variety of other objects seemingly out of thin air. He could make small solid objects appear out of, or disappear into, a handkerchief or a hat or an observer’s pocket with invisible ease and without even thinking about his actions. Nobody who watched him could tell how he managed any of these subterfuges, and he still enjoyed the looks of open-mouthed astonishment and disbelief and perplexity that he regularly saw on the faces of his audiences and appreciated the small degree of local fame that he had achieved. Performance always brought positive feelings, no matter how small the crowd. But he had begun to realize that it wasn’t enough. For one thing, he always knew that, however impressed his audiences may be, it just wasn’t real. It was always a fake, a deceit hidden by body movements. It wasn’t authentic magic. Maybe, he thought, he wanted once or twice to be amazed himself.

What Arthur finally decided he wanted, what he hoped to achieve, was more, much more than tricks. He wanted something that violated the laws of physics or the prohibitive limits of resource realities. He wanted to be able to wave a wand or his open hand sideways in front of his body and proclaim some exotic mysterious phrase and see, as a result, a physical object change in form or appear out of thin air, preferably without the usual distractions such as the intervening puff of opaque smoke. “Abracosina!” he would cry while visualizing roast beef and mashed potatoes, and his dinner would appear, plated and ready to eat, a fork and knife at its side. “Lavasuto,” he would whisper, quietly but authoritatively after he had finished eating, with a slight uncurling of his fingers, and the dirty dishes would float gently away from the table, wash and dry themselves, and slip away neatly into their places in the cupboard. What good is magic, he argued to himself, if it doesn’t make your life easier? Significantly easier. But then he thought that perhaps such examples were too mundane to be considered as applications for the use of true magic. What, though, would it be like to be able to make a real difference, to construct or rebuild homes or repair cars or save people from injury? What would it be like to effortlessly feed hundreds of homeless, to turn water into wine? “Or,” he smiled, “soda into beer?” That would indeed be magic. Real magic, he told himself, should be miraculous!

Arthur decided that the answer was to be found in research into the only disciplines that were commonly regarded as being capable of magic of the type he would consider real. What he needed was sorcery or witchcraft, what were commonly referred to as the dark arts. Maybe he needed the assistance of supernatural beings, angels or demons who could access the powers that were hidden out of reach of normal everyday existence and the beyond the knowledge of normal individuals, of Muggles. For a few months he devoted his spare time to reading many of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and of his Gothic sources of inspiration; Edgar Allen Poe, Matthew Lewis, and Ann Radcliffe. There he found descriptions of the kinds of events and powers that he was hoping for, whether for good or evil, but he soon tired of all these works and rejected them as useless, interesting, as were the Harry Potter books, but entirely fictional and thus irrelevant. He had to admit that what was running through his mind frequently as he read these works were the fanciful images from Disney’s animated Sorcerer’s Apprentice with Mickey Mouse. The conclusion he came to was that these authors had active imaginations but no real experience of the kind that would help anyone else duplicate the stories they told. In short, they had been a waste of time.

What was needed was a change of focus. He diverted his research into another very different direction indicated by new online searches. That meant obtaining copies of grimoires, traditional spell-books such as the Key of Solomon and the Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Heinrich Agrippa and a few different versions of the Wiccan Book of Shadows. He cleared a corner of his bedroom and set up a shrine with a solid rosewood bookshelf, planks untainted by stains or vanishes or paints. The spell circle, big enough for him to sit in, was defined by woven strips of switch grass and a large number of those short votive candles that burn for hours in small glass containers. With the lights off, it was the perfect setting for concentrating on whatever spells he could attempt and the whatever potential results they could create.

His research pointed toward the importance of amulets, talismans, fetishes, charms; the name was unimportant. What was important were the words that were uttered in conjunction with manipulating one or more of these ritual objects, and, of course, the shape and imagery of the object itself. The proper vocal inflections, the verbal tone, sincere and solemn, would probably also be important. Finding the correct combination would take some experimentation, just as sleight of hand had taken hours and hours of practice. It seemed that objects of certain shapes were most significant, with the best options ovoid, others rounded abstract imitations of the human figure. Also important were the specific materials that comprised the object; there were mentions of quartz crystal, jade, opal, magnetite, obsidian, cast iron, gold, copper, soapstone, turquoise, ivory, and even some forms of ironwood. Fortunately for his budget it didn’t necessarily have to be an expensive substance; the critical characteristics were solidity and purity and personal resonance. Many of these items, especially in the Medieval traditions, also incorporated astrological symbols as engraved images. These could include symbols of the Zodiac, those derived from Hellenistic representations of constellations, or the vedic symbols of the Jyotisha system, or the animal designs used in Tibetan disciplines or, less often, the hieroglyphs of the Egyptian dynastic world. It was all a bit overwhelming, especially since he had not found the forms he wanted in purchased items and felt he would have to fashion each of these pieces himself in order to build the appropriate spiritual connection between the potential worshipper (himself) and the eternal soul of the charmed object. He soon had invested a bit too much of his income in a set of power tools, including hardened chisels and a rock polisher and grinders of various sizes and began spending late nights starting with rough chunks of solid rock slightly smaller than his closed fist, and working them down into smooth rounded shapes that he could caress in one hand while he meditated and concentrated.

The problem was that Arthur still didn’t know what to say or what to think while he sat in his circle in the semi-darkness surrounded by small flickering candles, closely holding his chosen talisman. He knew that others called on specific ancient deities or biblical demons or fallen angels, maybe Ares or Asmodeus or Beelzebub or Lillith or Mephistopheles or the Succubus or Tyche. Maybe he should go to Hermes, the messenger, and let him decide who should get his requests. Isn’t that the job of a courier? Or maybe directly address Hecate, the goddess of sorcery and magic. According to some texts, certain deities should only be contacted during the reign of specific astrological signs, and then only with the use of one specific type of his many sacred objects? And it was apparently common with some sources to address such powerful personages with some sort of pseudo-medieval wording, using thou and thine and wouldst and mote, as if the gods and demons were able to understand English but were stuck in the fourteenth century. Arthur preferred the straightforward spell language of modern Wiccans, but wondered if that might be seen as dismissive, an attitude that would offend? His other disappointment was that the Wiccan spells only addressed such things as improved health, reduced pain, better personal relationships. Vague goals, no real magic of the type he wanted. Maybe, perhaps, he should find other deities or demons and address them in ancient Greek or Latin phrases? Or, gods forbid, in Aramaic or Amharic or Ge’ez or Tigrinya or … R’lyehian? Who knew?

Perhaps it was his lack of experience or his methods or his uncertainty or attitude, or all of the above, but none of Arthur’s attempts to address a supernatural presence, the hours spent seated on the floor in the near-dark, ever elicited a noticeable response. The local practitioners that he contacted were mostly willing to discuss his questions, at least once he had demonstrated that he had done his homework and offered to meet them at a restaurant or tea shop, often with him paying the bill, but their advice was, in ways similar to what he had found in the grimoires, uncomfortably variable and too often contradictory. All he did was waste a lot more time and money, to add to what he had already spent on candles and books and rocks.

Well, maybe it wasn’t an entire waste, he eventually told himself; he had certainly learned a great deal about the arcane world of the supernatural and its practitioners. The whole thing just began to seem much too complex and uncertain. And maybe even ineffective, another set of tricks, this time a sleight of mind. And it seemed to be no more of a path toward what he wanted from magic than the illusions he had mastered, with the added limitation that this new path was a solitary one, with none of the positive feedback that had once been provided by audience acclaim. Maybe, he decided, it was time to return to cards and distractive patter and hidden objects. At least now he had more information to add to his comments about angels and demons and historic documents, exotic details that he could use to spice up his performances. It wasn’t really a loss. It might even make it all more fun.

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Supreme Ego

In June this year the Supreme Court vacated Roe v. Wade with an extreme, repetitive, and oddly argued opinion that will, despite assurances to the contrary, threaten a constellation of basic rights that have been built up over the past six decades using the concept of an individual right to privacy and liberty. The majority opinion makes a strong effort to deny the possibility of wider impacts beyond abortion, but that argument is belied by two factors: (1) the very wording of the justifications used by the decision, rejecting the 14th Amendment “due process” protections that underlie so many other Supreme Court decisions, and (2) the concurring opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, which actively promotes a broader application of those same justifications.

In the meantime, the same political activists and institutional groups that have brought us to this egregious moment in our nation are following Thomas’s lead, mobilizing not only to use federal legislation to expand the abortion ban nationwide but also to reverse the Supreme Court precedents that legalized contraception (Griswold, 1965, and Eisenstadt, 1972) and gay sex (Lawrence, 2003) and gay marriage (Obergefell, 2015). And neither the majority opinion nor the Thomas concurrence mentioned it, but the same legal logic that they used to overturn Roe could also be applied to once again allow bans on interracial marriage (Loving, 1967); despite the fact that the written dissenting opinion refers to it several times. The dissenting justices noted that the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision of 1992 reaffirmed Roe by insisting on the “right of the individual” to make the most basic decisions about whether to bear a child, and tied that right not only to abortion but to contraception and to marriage. The previous Supreme Court rulings about those issues, and the rights they recognized, are inherently connected.

In this essay, however, I want to pull back from those potential future reversals in significant rights cases that might result from the June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. This does not mean that I don’t recognize the very real danger posed by that opinion’s logic. Unfortunately we should also concern ourselves with the tendency revealed by the current Supreme Court supermajority in three cases, to include Dobbs, that were ruled on in the same 9-month session. And no, I am not even referring to such questionable rulings as those that blocked the EPA from enforcing CO2 emissions or OSHA from requiring vaccine mandates in the middle of a pandemic or the State of New York from requiring licenses to carry deadly weapons in public. Those were bad enough, but not nearly all.

There were three cases this session in which the Court majority demonstrated a strong religious bias in favor of their own personal religious beliefs, and, in the process, created serious fissures in the wall of separation between religion and government. Those three cases are the following:

(1) Dobbs, in which the majority opinion not only rejected the right to privacy, but in the process gave primacy to the minority religious view that life begins at conception. Justice Alito’s majority opinion distinctly made it clear that the only reason they considered Roe v. Wade to be different from the other privacy cases, and why they chose to vacate it, is that it involved “protection of fetal life.” But the idea that fetal life needs to be protected is not a universally accepted concept. The original rulings in Roe and Casey had worked to balance the concern about the fetus against concerns about the health and life of the mother. As the minority dissent in Dobbs noted about the new ruling, “To the majority ‘balance’ is a dirty word, as moderation is a foreign concept. The majority would allow States to ban abortion from conception onward because it does not think forced childbirth at all implicates a woman’s rights to equality and freedom.” For them, the supposed rights of a fetus, and even an embryo, eclipses those of the adult mother and her family.

(2) Carson v. Makin, in which the Court majority required the State of Maine to extend its tuition assistance program to include religious schools. In that tuition legislation, Maine had required any recipient schools to be “nonsectarian” in deference to the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion took the side of the two sets of plaintiffs who wanted tuition support. That means that they rejected both the many past interpretations of the First Amendment and the interests of the taxpayers who would prefer not to support religions other than their own. The individual religious preferences of these six justices, expressed in the Carson ruling, will have repercussions in every state that wants to support private schools without funding specific religious doctrines.

(3) Kennedy v. Bremerton, in which the majority opinion clearly distorted the case record in order to rule in favor of a football coach who had been fired for encouraging his team and other students to join him in a vocal public prayer on the fifty yard line after games. They chose to elevate the “freedom of religion” right of this coach to primacy. iIn effect they ignored the comparable rights of the students and parents who had initiated the action by complaining that they had felt pressured to join in a religious activity at odds with their beliefs. The ruling overturned the 50-year precedent set in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) which had stated that the government (and its representatives) cannot advocate for any one religion.

All of these cases pitted minority religious demands against the previously-recognized rights of the larger public to be free of religious doctrines that differ from their own. In such cases the meaning of the First Amendment is clear, or it has been until this Supreme Court session, and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment makes clear that this restriction applies to the state governments as well, in this wording: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The question, then, is why the majority of this Court has so blatantly and repeatedly rejected the long judicial history that has supported the separation of church and state.

The six majority members on the Supreme Court owe their presence there to membership in, and support from, the Federalist Society, an influential judicial clearinghouse that advocates for an originalist textualist interpretation of the Constitution. They cling to this dogma despite many statements from the original authors who supported flexibility in interpretation, especially where individual rights are concerned. As the Ninth Amendment states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Clearly, at the very beginning, the men who wrote and signed the Constitution would not have wanted it interpreted in an unchanging “originalist” manner or to have a human right rejected because it wasn’t mentioned in the words of the document. But that particular set of original opinions doesn’t seem to matter, not to the Federalists nor to the author of the Dobbs decision.

Conveniently, the general philosophy of Federalist members tends to align originalism with current conservative views on abortion, LGBTQ rights, campaign finance, free markets and deregulation, and low taxes. To advance this broad agenda, the Society provides networking and scholarship support for conservative and libertarian students, lawyers, and judges—and helps Supreme Court candidates with their Senate confirmations. The current Supreme Court majority was vetted and promoted not only by the Federalist Society but also by a variety of “pro-life” and Christian Nationalist organizations.

The result is that we now have a Supreme Court majority that has demonstrated their willingness to force their own personal Christian doctrines on the entire country by endorsing the unconstitutional, in fact anti-constitutional, actions of activist Christian plaintiffs and ignoring the religious freedom rights of the other citizens they had interacted with, among them pregnant women, ordinary taxpayers, and members of other religions. But their willingness to do so was exactly why they were nominated and confirmed.

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No Such Thing

One simple economic principle that is all-too often ignored is the one represented by the acronym TANSTAAFL. Never mind that in order to create an easily pronounced phonetic entity the short instructive declaration behind TANSTAAFL has been often expressed as a nonstandard colloquial sentence containing a word that virtually no professional economist would ordinarily use—that underlying sentence is “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” Perhaps someone thought that the statement would be more memorable and effective as a pseudo-folksy formulation? In any case, the statement is true, in fact; there ain’t no such animal. That is, no product or service is ever provided without some cost. But that fact hasn’t stopped a massive number of entrepreneurs and their advertisers from pretending that they are providing something for nothing. They’re even spending large sums of money to convince people that that’s exactly what they’re doing. Admittedly, “free” attracts attention. At the time of this writing, according to ubiquitous advertising, consumers can get the following services without paying anything for them: Delivery of packages, personalized information about retirement homes or Medicare plans, scheduling of maintenance and repair services, help with filing income taxes, dinners with retirement advice, bank checking accounts, and analyses of the condition of their car or home HVAC system or teeth (free x-rays!).

You may have noted that there are examples that I’ve left out of the list above. I can start with one recent example. In the past decade there has been a rapid expansion in “free” stock brokerages. The most well-known of these is one attractively named after the anti-establishment hero Robin of Locksley, but there are many others. It would appear as if there’s no shortage of entrepreneurs with money and stock market connections who are ready to give away some of that to help ordinary people invest in the stock market without charging them any money for the opportunity. How generous! Magnanimous, even! It also, unfortunately, seems that there is no shortage of ordinary people willing to believe that such investment opportunities are truly free of cost. However, TANSTAAFL.

Before I go further, I’ll note that when I talk about investment cost I am referring to brokerage fees, not about what millions of day-traders and crypto investors and commodities traders have discovered; the reality that one of the most significant potential costs of investing in volatile markets is … risk. When you buy a share in something that can vary widely in value you want it’s value to increase, but you also take the chance that it can go downward rapidly. Too many small investors are attracted to speculative markets by the myth of endless and inevitable growth, and they become devastated when their life savings decline suddenly, when the markets suffer the inevitable downturn, as happened dramatically last month with crypto currencies and this month with stocks. Such personal losses can be significant, and it’s no consolation to note that when they purchased the collapsing token they weren’t directly charged a fee or commission. Risk involves a very different myth.

In general, whenever someone is offered a free service there is one important question they should ask. They should consider who, exactly, is actually paying for the activities they are supposedly getting for free, and how and why. Remember that the company that provides any service, of any kind, is paying people to do that work. In some cases their reasons for doing so are obvious. A vehicle repair garage might provide free brake checkups because they know that a certain percentage of the cars they check will need maintenance, which they can then provide, for a fee. A beauty salon that offers free makeup demonstrations knows that many of the customers will buy their recommended products, and that some will continue on as regular paying clients. The time share operation that offers a free informational dinner knows that an adequate number of their guests will accept the sales pitch and sign up for the endless string of monthly payments that keeps their business afloat. These days, in almost all of these cases, even those people who show up for the free service but who don’t accept further involvement can be monetized by selling their contact information to lists used for mass marketing. It is in fact possible that you can get something for free if you ignore such ancillary costs as wasting a couple of hours and the personal toll of irritation from aggressive salespeople and losing a certain amount of your privacy and future exposure to promotional contacts. But any company that offers a free service always has an ulterior motive—sometimes their goal is simply to encourage people to purchase things they don’t really need and wouldn’t otherwise buy, but even if the advice they provide is legitimate it is always motivated by the desire to turn a “free” service into an activity that will pay their bills. That intent is not always made obvious, but it’s always there.

In recent decades the internet has made possible another category of intermediary services that offer to provide information for free but that are subsidized by third-party providers who fold the cost of their efforts into what they charge. Examples of this are booking services that provide people with lists of other businesses, such as retirement homes or construction or maintenance services. If a customer selects one of the businesses on the list, that business generally returns what might be considered a finder’s fee to the booking service. The customer is rarely notified about that fee, but it is inevitably there and inevitably comes out of the amount that the customer is eventually charged. The same is true when someone uses a travel agency or an internet travel site to book a hotel or a flight or a rental car. In all cases, the company that provides the actual service, the hotel or airline or car rental company, will provide a kickback to the agency or the booking site. It is possible that the end provider spreads out the cost of such payments across all of their customers as a generalized business expense, raising the amount they charge to all customers. In some cases a hotel or airline will charge less, or provide more benefits, for customers who book directly with their own web site, which means it’s always good to compare the booking site results with the web site of the actual service provider. Even then, customers often never know how much they actually did pay for their own digital convenience, or for the convenience of others, but they should never doubt that that cost will be paid and that TANSTAAFL will reign. Companies that provide “free” services have to remain in business, after all, and they do prefer profitable ventures.

I return now to online stock brokerages that allow clients to purchase equities “for free,” that is, without any brokerage commission or fees. It is true, on the surface, that an ordinary investor can go to these sites and purchase equities, and that no fees will be charged directly. But those brokers, somehow, are still managing to make money. In fact, most of them have been quite profitable in recent years. That’s possible thanks in large part to an alternative method of extracting income from investors, involving the use of “off-exchange” wholesalers. In ordinary brokerage transactions an individual investor pays a broker for the stocks they want, paying a small commission for the access, and the broker buys those stocks from a registered public stock exchange. With the new no-commission brokerages, a fourth player is often added to this process. The investor pays the broker and the broker buys the equities from a wholesaler, at a raised purchase price. The wholesaler keeps the difference between that amount and the current exchange price and returns part of it as a kickback, called a Payment for Order Flow (PFOF), to the broker.

Anyone who has traveled overseas is probably familiar with a similar arrangement, in which someone who purchases a foreign currency pays a slightly inflated price and receives a lower return if they sell some of that money back. In most currency exchanges customers are provided with a list noting, for example, that they will pay $ 1.14 for each Euro they buy and will receive only $ 1.08 when they sell them back. Often the list will also note that $ 1.11 is the actual current exchange rate. Customers recognize that the extra $ 0.03 they pay for each Euro is what they pay for brokerage access. Such currency exchanges and the stock market PFOF system are quite similar, except for one thing: The currency transaction is completely transparent and PFOF is completely opaque. The individual PFOF investor is never told that they actually do pay a monetary cost in their “free” non-commission trade, a cost hidden in the inflated purchase price and the reduced amount when those stocks are resold.

The point of all this is that everyone should be suspicious whenever they are offered a free service and should give some thought to how it could be that any business making any free offer (if it is truly “free”) would manage to stay in business. In other words, we should all be aware of economic reality. We should remember the truth of TANSTAAFL and think about how we will, in reality, eventually, end up paying for any “free” offer we accept. Because, after all, in virtually all cases, we will. There’s another common phrase that should come to mind in reference to such attractive arrangements: Let the Buyer Beware.

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Big Boy Pants?

In recent decades we, as a society, have made progress in removing many of the vestiges of sexist behavior and thought from our society. For many of us it’s not enough progress, to be certain, just as for those groups that decry “political correctness” and “cancel culture” we’ve gone too far. Yet, it is progress. We have increasingly made it clear that many forms of verbal and physical violence that once were ignored, and too often approved of, will no longer be automatically tolerated. Those who use their position or status to intimidate or belittle or assault others will not always be exonerated in the ways they were in the past. The amount of social privilege held and misused by individuals based on their group membership is also being challenged and, in many cases, reduced. Again, this is not always true, nor nearly often enough, and we should continue to create change. Yet, we have seen progress.

There is forward movement on the level of sociocultural imagery as well, for example, in the scenes portrayed in advertising and in our assumptions about gender roles. We have commercials on television in which husbands do the dishes and change diapers and otherwise act like responsible parents. The work balance at home still needs to be improved, and there have recently been pandemic-related set-backs in which far more women than men left their jobs to provide childcare. Access to women’s health care has also been significantly curtailed, but our cultural reality has not yet been turned back entirely to what it was before the 1970s. Despite significant backlash, we have seen progress.

There is, however, one element of language in which we don’t seem to have progressed at all. It may be a seemingly small item, but one that looms large against the progress we have made. It is in the use of one set of phrases that seems to be as popular as it has ever been, a retrograde sexist usage that nobody seems to be concerned about, one that may be every bit as common among woke young progressives as it is among patriarchal conservatives. As one example, this month I was listening to a discussion on a National Public Radio program in which a female commentator was interviewing Scotland’s First Minister, a woman named Nicola Sturgeon. The question came up, as it always seems to in interviews of successful female legislators, about whether Sturgeon had attained her position by mimicking the actions and attitudes of her colleagues. That is, did she behave like a typical alpha male? We can briefly note, under the rubric of lack of progress, that there are concerns regarding why only women are asked such questions. More on that, perhaps, in another post. In this interview Sturgeon replied that, at first, “Unconsciously and unknowingly I started to behave in a way that was about conforming and fitting in with the people that I was surrounded by.” That is, she continued, she acted in ways that were “adversarial and aggressive.” As a result, she was considered “bossy and strident” and given the nickname “nippy sweetie,” a phrase that implied that her behavior was anti-social and that simultaneously belittled her as a person.

Such reactions from her make colleagues could have been expected. Sexism is still the norm. However, what surprised me in this interview was the way the NPR representative worded the question. She asked, directly, if Sturgeon had acted “ballsy.” The First Minister replied that her behavior had not often been referred to as ballsy, but instead had received the Scottish label “nippy,” which is somewhat similar, but negative in tone (i.e., adversarial and aggressive). Now, NPR is not exactly the most progressive or woke outlet in the media universe, but they have made efforts to limit sexist content, and their overall careful socially centrist approach has earned them the label “liberal media” even though they as often skew conservative in their programming. Somehow the term “ballsy” had slipped through into a discussion between two women on this relatively aware radio outlet. Are they maybe not aware enough?

The lesson is that even mindful individuals, even those who are generally regarded as feminist or feminist-leaning, including liberal comedians and politicians and other public figures, often use such cliches as “he lacks the balls to do that” or, ignoring the obvious physical contradictions, “she really showed some balls this time.” In some ways this is similar to a common rebuke used to encourage an indecisive or hesitant individual, advising them to “put on their big boy pants.” Like “ballsy,” this odd phrase is also often incongruously used in reference to women. I presume it means to act like an adult. The implication, though, is that only “big boys” are true adults. Perhaps big boy pants come with a pair of balls? That would be a logical interpretation.

Of course, in literal terms only men can have balls. The use of phrases such as “he lacks the balls,” however, goes beyond any literal reality. It implies that even though all men literally have balls, only “real men” really have them. Other men, along with women and anyone else deemed inferior, are advised to “grow a pair.” It is, therefore, the ultimate in gender stereotyping, the direct identification of specific positive behaviors with male anatomy. The only way that someone can satisfy such behavioral demands is, literally, to become a male. And these are behaviors that are regarded as valuable and desirable. So what about the female body? Men who fail to display ballsy behavior, those who are not forceful and domineering enough, have often been referred to as “pussies.” That demeaning reference has somewhat fallen out of favor in recent decades, thanks in large part to the spread of feminist thought, but it is still in use. Which means, again, we have made progress, but it is still incomplete.

Now, to answer one obvious objection, I fully recognize that the whole “balls” thing is a metaphor. It is, in that sense, indirect sexism. It is possible that those who use the related cliches aren’t even thinking about the literal, physical reference. Even so, this is a metaphor that celebrates traditional masculine roles and behaviors, the overconfident, pushy, domineering, mansplaining type of masculinity. In many ways it celebrates what has become correctly identified as toxic masculinity; it is “ballsy” to take charge and to move forward without subtlety, to disregard the feelings and opinions of others. It is even “ballsy” to do stupid and destructive things, and somehow the use of this terminology manages to put a positive spin on those activities, too, even if the consequences are, and could have been predicted to be, mostly negative and anti-social. It is why some truck owners hang an oversized metal bull scrotum from their trailer hitch. Examples of crazy “ballsy” behavior are ubiquitous in click bait videos on social media. If an activity demonstrates that the person “has balls,” it implies that that is a good thing, no matter how dangerous or anti-social the behavior is.

This may sound to some like a minor problem. This is, after all, only one word among thousands, representing one set of sexist assumptions among the many that we’ve been changing. But in its ubiquity and casual acceptance, “balls” is a clear demonstration of social intersectionality and the ways in which sexism manifests itself in sometimes unrecognized subtle interactions. Not that the use of “balls” itself is all that subtle, but it represents a much broader body of social dynamics, the corrosive hidden assumptions under the visible surface. It stands as an icon of how far we still have to go in countering the sexism within everyday life. We need to identify such items and replace them with more positive cliches to express the types of behavior we want people to emulate … and to apply them with more care.

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Imperial Failure

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine should not have been a surprise. Not to anyone. It was, in large part, a result of the imperial imperative; the desire of an egotistical leader with dictatorial powers to reconstruct the global prestige and territorial influence of the pre-1989 Soviet Union, and thus to raise himself to the status of the great leaders of the past. It thus had much in common, predictably so, with the military actions of many failing and former imperial regimes of the past. Another primary motive was the desire to reverse the supposed threat posed to the Russian regime by regional governments that support reforms such as democratic processes, freedom of speech, anti-corruption movements, and growing alignment with NATO and western Europe. Statements by President Putin and his supporters and his media have demonstrated the importance of political control within their “sphere of influence” as they promoted the imperial myth of Ukraine as an integral part of historical Russia.

The propagandistic preface to the 2022 attack on Ukraine thus mirrors the justifications that preceded the 2014 takeover of the Crimean peninsula and the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia which resulted in the occupation of the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The timing of the Georgia military action followed Putin’s 2000 election and the 2003 changes that brought an increasingly pro-western government to power in Georgia. There is an unfortunate trend here, one that puts Putin’s actions during his two-decade reign solidly within the global pattern displayed by imperial powers faced with the dissolution of their territorial influence, a violent history that does not bode well for the future. The almost inevitable consequence of imperial decline is war, military attempts to retain or regain powers that were at one time viewed by the empire as normal and appropriate.

War also has its common patterns. One almost ubiquitous and likely necessary function in justifying an attack on any foreign population is demonization of the people and their leadership. In reference to Ukraine, of course, the Russian propagandists have had a problem in that the people of Ukraine are largely indistinguishable, in physical and cultural terms, from much of the population of Russia. They do not have darker skins or distinctive facial features, the types of characteristics that have so often served colonial subjugation of southern hemisphere regions by northern hemisphere countries. Ukrainians are mostly Christians, not largely Muslim like the populations of Chechnya or Afghanistan. Even their clothing and customs are similar to those of the region around them, encompassing countries like Belarus and Moldova as well as large southwestern segments of Russia. Many Ukrainians even speak Russian and have relatives living in Russia. Therefore, to justify military action, Russian propaganda had to invent some other differences and amplify them in propaganda.

The Kremlin government responded to this need in two ways. First, they characterized the Ukrainian leadership as a pro-Nazi regime maintained by a fascist military. This is an effective message because of the strong regional memory of the trauma of World War II, so that in much of Russia the necessity of defeating and excising Nazis is understood at a visceral level. Second, they have severely controlled the media, making sure that any unapproved information about Ukraine or about their operations there, especially news about the destruction of cities and attacks on civilians, is strictly blocked. The war is not a war, it is a “special military operation.” Under a new law anyone in Russia can be imprisoned for as many as 15 years if they spread information other than the official message or if they use the words “war” or “invasion.” Independent media sources and popular social media platforms have been virtually silenced.

The Russian propaganda efforts at home seem to have been successful. Polls report that public support for Vladimir Putin has risen to near 80 percent. Many Russian nationals living in Ukraine have noted that their relatives in Russia refuse to believe any of their first-hand accounts about the actions of the Russian Army. There are indications that the indiscriminate violence used by Russian troops against civilians in Ukraine has been motivated by beliefs that the vast majority of the Ukrainian population supports Nazi philosophy and Nazi activities, that even Ukrainian civilians are, in effect, the enemy, and are deserving of harsh punishment. In short, Ukrainians have been broadly and effectively demonized, and this development has affected the conduct of the war.

What was unexpected in the progress of this war was the failure of the Russian military to sweep across Ukraine in a dominant blitzkrieg-style attack. The model for this, of course, is the effective movement of Hitler’s forces in the previous major European land war, the attacks of the late 1930s and early 1940s. It was assumed that Putin’s forces had levels of hardware superiority and troop strength similar to that of World War II Germany, characteristics that gave Hitler’s army control of both the air and land back in the early 1940s. Everyone, even those who opposed the war, seemed to believe that Putin’s forces would capture most of Ukraine, including the capital of Kyiv, within a month.

There were problems with this assumption. Perhaps the primary one is that warfare has changed significantly since World War II. Modern anti-tank weapons are still carried and fired by individual soldiers, similar in that way to the WWII bazooka, but the new guided rockets are designed to accurately hone in on and penetrate the weakest location in a tank’s armor, the turret. Unlike WWII scatter-shot anti-aircraft guns, modern hand-carried anti-aircraft weapons use heat-seeking rockets that are much more likely to hit their target and much more likely to destroy it. Ukraine’s open flat terrain is also ideal for the efforts of long-distance snipers using modern rifles, telescopic sights, and night-vision tools. Ukrainian troops have used all the above tools very effectively in small-unit guerrilla tactics. As a result, Russian soldiers and armor, relying on tanks and personnel carriers, have suffered significant casualties. They have failed to move rapidly on the ground and Russian aircraft have failed to gain control of the sky.

There is also some evidence that Russian military leadership was inadequate if not incompetent, and arrogant as well, failing to anticipate the effects of modern weapons and to provide necessary supplies for anything more than a brief attack, so that their intended blitzkrieg was stalled by unexpected casualties, by shortages of fuel and food, and by clogged roads and damaged bridges. Russian troop communications were insecure, allowing Russian-speaking Ukrainians to monitor their plans, greatly improving the effects of Ukrainian guerrilla and sniper actions. The leadership didn’t even anticipate the danger posed by Ukrainian cruise missiles, a failure that resulted in the loss of the flagship Moskva.

All of the above has created confusion, anxiety, and low morale among Russian troops, effects that may simultaneously have made many resist orders and, unfortunately, caused many others to take out their frustrations on civilians; thus the stories about widespread murder, rape, and looting. A focus on troop characteristics should also remind us about another characteristic of imperialistic military action. When an occupying force attempts to maintain or regain control of territory, the advantage of raw power often lies with the occupiers, the country that has the strongest economic and military power. However, the motivational advantage is generally more intense on the other side, among those who believe that they are defending their own land, their own country. Whatever narratives are offered for a takeover, troops who find themselves in a foreign land will always be less motivated, having much lower intrinsic morale compared with their enemies who are fighting for what they view as their “home.”

In short, there are three facts about the 2022 attack on Ukraine that should not have surprised anyone. One, as I noted at the beginning, is the attack itself. Putin’s ego and recent history made that inevitable. Another is that the Russian efforts have, as I write this, been notably, dramatically, unsuccessful. Russia’s corruption in weapons contracting and in military leadership had made that, too, inevitable. Finally, the devoted resistance of the Ukrainian population could have been predicted. We can only hope that the eventual outcome is disastrous enough for Putin and Russia that it will, finally, put an end to his attempts at territorial expansion by providing him with the lesson that he should have learned long ago. In history it seems that only a manifest failure has been effective in halting imperial ambitions such as his.

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