Conspiracy or Three Card Monte?

three-cardIs the charge of election fraud by Donald Trump a consequence of his wounded ego? Is a man who won the presidency by a sizable margin in the electoral college so consumed by his desire to be everything and all that matters in the universe overly prone to delusion and conspiracy theory from the  cognitive dissonance that comes with losing the popular vote by almost 3 million? Could this loss of the popular vote even be a personal moral failing in the weird logic of the patho-narcissist? So much so that the fantasy of the conspiracy must be amended and given new angles and subplots ?

 

CASE “A”

The latest revision of the voter fraud theory was expressed to a group of Senators, assembled to talk strategy about the Gorsuch nomination. Trump quickly turned the discussion into a refined tale of how New Hampshire’s election was a total fraud, with residents from Massachusetts taking part in the election. The assertion was so delusional Commissioner Ellen Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission called Trump’s bluff. “Allegations of this magnitude cannot be ignored,” she said. Such rampant misuse of the election process would be a serious crime, urging the President to come up with the evidence. The administration trotted out its new spokesperson, the youthful, stone-faced Stephen MIller (who has been described as the architect of the immigration policy), on the Sunday morning circuit of TV politics, who embellished the story with how the fraudulent voters had been bussed in from Massachusetts, and that approximately 10 percent of undocumented aliens in the U.S. had registered to vote. Maybe the most remarkable statistic that all of these fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary Clinton.

 

There will be no evidence forthcoming, as there has been no evidence forthcoming for past claims.

 

And why does the megalomaniac bring up his continually revamped tale of intrigue at unpredictable intervals, but general always following a setback on another front? This latest iteration of the voter hijacking came on the heels of the appellate court rejection of the district court’s temporary restraining order on his executive order banning of travelers from 7 Middle Eastern countries. Trump’s original accusation came soon after, on January 25th, the final tally of voter turnout showed that he had lost the popular count by 2.8 million votes. He pledged to launch an investigation into irregularities in two (unnamed) states. “You have people that are registered who are dead, who are illegals, who are in two states. You have people registered in two states.” It turns out that some of his staffers are registered in two state. Details of an investigation were not mentioned again until this latest story; and he has appointed no one less that his second in command, Vice President Pence. To lead the election.

 

CASE “B”

Large public demonstrations protesting Trump’s proposed policies were planned for  immediately after his inauguration January 21 and 22  by the worldwide Women’s March. Scattered demonstrations have sprung up across the country since. A scheduled appearance of right-wing firebrand and exhibitionist Milo Yiannopoulos drew a raucous crowd early at U. C. Berkeley, forcing Yannopoulos to cancel. The administration has claimed that the group Demand Protests had run ads recruiting protesters promising $2500 each for protesting against Trump during his inauguration. Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that those protesting the anti-travel ban Trump begun on February 3 were paid protesters, as were those at Berkeley. U. S. Senator Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) says the rowdy audience at a recent town hall meeting he hosted was the doing of paid protesters.

 

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Given time and the likelihood of more demonstrations, this narrative will be reworked and modified with baleful details. The question of whether these plots are manufactured to neutralized the damage to the ego of the President, or could their invention be from something else; and is placing the root cause on an abnormality in Trump’s personality  a way of covering up more insidious motivations? Could the claim of voter fraud be laying the groundwork for getting even more voter restriction legislation on the books? Several states, including Texas and North Carolina, were already on this bandwagon; and if the fear of illegals stealing elections is contagious, it could make it even harder for citizens (primarily Blacks and the elderly) to vote.

 

And the protesters? The charge that they are in large part “paid” does one thing, if nothing else: it delegtimatizes the purpose and authenticity of the participants. These folks are either phonies and not to be taken seriously, or pose as a threat to incite  dissension where it is not warranted, or, worse, anarchists with violence and destruction in mind. Either of these could serve as  “emergency” situations where it would have more public support for restricting the right of assembly.

 

Rather than advancing what might be called a conspiracy theory itself, the fabrication and promotion of these two tales could probably be a result of both—Trump’s ego and the white nationalist agenda of Bannon and Miller—along with a third: in their throroughly maddening incredibility, they function as smoke and mirrors to distract from the keystone-copsineptitude of the administration, like figurative Keystone Kops doing a security detail at the House of Horrors that has become the White House. We are so amused at the folly and tail-chasing  that real proceedings become a boring sideshow.

Finding Wall Funds

The Trump administration may have come up with new ideas to reinvigorate the enthusiasm for a southern border wall that was so much a part of his campaign and election last fall.

Congressional skepticism about the project has been growing, even from some usually reliable southern and Republican delegations. Texas senior Senator John Cornyn (R-Tx), whose home state has the longest stretch of border common to Mexico, was wary of the economic impact a 20 percent import tax levied as a funding source for the construction would have on his state’s economy.

“The United States imports into our refineries a lot of heavy crude. … Those would all be subject to the tax. One refiner told me that they believed that would increase the cost of gas by 30 cents. I want to make sure we know what the consequences would be and how this would work. I know a lot of the major retailers are concerned about this was well,” he said. “We have a unique relationship with Mexico, with maquiladoras (factories which have duty-free privileges) right across the border and in the car-manufacturing business in particular.” Cornyn isn’t alone in the Republican congress. True to conservative principles, others, including Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak), vow that a 10-12 billion dollar expenditure would need be offset with with reductions in other parts of the budget, which would be difficult to find.

As far as the demand that Mexico pay for the construction, Senator John McCain (R-Az), said curtly “No, that is not viable.”

The junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, has made no public comments on the proposal, possibly still fuming about recent Obama initiatives normalizing relations with Cuba. Even though his ancestry is there, he really hates Cuba.

Our sources have revealed a possible contretemps that might have been an intentional leak of the administration’s strategy to breath new life into the project. A bar service operator (whose name must remain anonymous), related a recent evening at an out-of-the-way D.C. watering hole in which he served White House dignitaries Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer. After a couple of drinks, the couple left, but not without leaving a scrap of paper, which, as it turned out, was an opened but empty envelope,  and fairly covered with a scrawl of of whirls, smiley faces, and what has now been determined to be a back-of -the-envelope brainstorming session between the two to revive the the national and White spirit that fueled support early in the campaign.

“Good fences make good neighbors” was printed fastidiously at the top. Between the doodles and check marks, the envelope gave up the following: Plan A and Plan B. It was unmistakable. Despite the attempt to render the notes to seeming hieroglyphical code, it was possibly a pseudo-cryptogram, intended to float a leak of possible strategies to reverse flagging interest in The Wall. After each bullet point was a short, abbreviated stream of consciousness.

A. Offset in spending–big one: military ± 750B–but OP wants to strengthen military--How jibe?  Reductio ad absurdum: 12B is only 1.6% of 750B! Also make libs and Catholic pacifists happy. win-win.

B. OP to guarantee loan--has extensive open lines of credit--trustworthy--good for it--he's a builder--well?--income verify?--naming rights!--would he?

The chicken scratch near the end of Plan B., calling for the President himself to personally back the financing of the construction became less legible, as if the scribe , whether Conway or Spicer, had lost confidence in B., and her cursive effort was weakening. And come to think of it, for good reasons: it wouldn't be likely the OP would front $12 Billion of his own cash, and getting a signature or collateralized loan for that sum would require proof of income— namely, providing his income tax return to the lender. That was improbable.

And maybe that's why the envelope was carelessly left behind. Maybe it was just another dead-ended strategy session, and not a plot to leak hare-brained trial balloons to bolster support of a bad idea.

Or perhaps it was. But—just saying—if it happens,  you heard it here first.

The Donald’s Date with Cinderella

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On Thursday, January 26, a grim announcement  ticked across the news wires and internet but was buried to the point of near-obscurity by the blitz of executive orders and incessant accusations by the new administration of widespread voter fraud and media manipulation of  inaugural crowd reporting.

 

On November 14, 2016, an interview of Noam Chomsky— linguistics scholar, political philosopher, and public intellectual—by C. J. Polychroniou was published on the website of political news outlet Truthout. In the interview, Chomsky made the assertion that the Republican Party had become the most dangerous organization in world history. The assertion expectedly drew criticism for being preposterously partisan hyperbole, and some other things not quite so nice.

 

Chomsky’s point was made on observations about the two most potentially destructive human creations ever, each having within its exclusive characteristic to cause “catastrophes that could wipe out all of humanity or, at least, devastate modern civilization.” Either of the two acting alone and left unimpeded could fulfill  its nightmarish potential in due course. Those two Frankensteins-in-waiting are Anthropogenic Global Warming (climate change) and nuclear war. And to those, the members of the Republican Party either—on the subject of climate change—sneer at the overwhelming consensus of individual researchers and the esteemed agencies of NOAA, NASA, and many others based internationally, or—in the case of nuclear weapons—make frequent loose-lipped referrals and jingoistic threats to nukes as possible solutions to conflict, as did Sen. Ted Cruz did in recommending “making the sand glow” in combating ISIS; or the even more ominous suggestions to restart the arms race to add even further destructive power to those running the show.

 

The announcement Thursday was made by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the publication of a group that is comprised of physicists and environmentalist working in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which currently sits 15 Nobel Laureates—including luminaries Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss. The Bulletin originated at the University of Chicago by some of the same scientists that worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear bomb. In 1947, reports The Bulletin on its information webpage,

 

the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors…

 

The clock was initially based on the threat of nuclear conflagration only, but in 2007 was expanded to include other potential civilization-altering calamities including climate change, and cyber-and biological warfare. It was first set at 7 minutes before midnight, and has been reset 20-odd times in the last 70 years. The furthest from midnight was in 1991 when the SALT agreement was signed by the U. S. and Moscow, soon followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The closest it was moved toward the bewitching hour was 11:58—just two minutes shy—in 1953, when the U. S. tested its first thermonuclear device, followed in the same year by the Soviets.

 

Thursday’s announcement advanced the clock to two and one-half minutes before twelve, the nearest it has been since that “two-minute warning” in 1953. The symbolic time-setters at The Bulletin have no supernatural ability to foresee the future, but given their familiarity with the history of this project, and the serious nature of their opinions and the effects of their pronouncements, one could only hope they make them only after rigorous evaluation and with religious regard the weighty consequences involved in their interpretation. Reasons for advancing the clock this year were: “the rise of nationalism, here and in Europe; the threat of a new arms race between the U. S. and Russia, along with heightened tensions in eastern Europe and NATO; President Trump’s comments on nuclear weapons; and the disbelief in the scientific consensus on climate change by the Trump administration.”

 

You would think Noam Chomsky was on the Board of Sponsors, having basically said much of the same thing two months earlier. Chomsky might wish, however, to rephrase his comment about the Republican Party to include the volatile and unknowable Trump as its leader as being a major factor in making his judgement. Such an amendment could change what seemed preposterous partisan hyperbole for some to an undeniable truth for all.

 

Twain Meets Arendt

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One of my longtime favorite recognitions to fellow conversationalists’ interesting stories and and anecdotal experiences replete with strange twists or surprise endings has been at times an approving nod— but almost always adding this brief note of contrast in poetical meter :

“Yes. Truth is stranger than fiction.”

The undeniable wisdom expressed in the sublimely short one-liner should be recognized as the the work of Mark Twain, one of America’s finest in the art of letters, lecturing, journalism, storytelling and satire. It’s one of just many on the subject of truth (and its contradiction, untruth) penned by the  bushy mustachioed wordsmith:

 “When in doubt tell the truth

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.

“One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.

“Carlyle said ‘a lie cannot live.’ It shows that he did not know how to tell them.

 “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” 

 I admittedly had been missing what now I find more interesting in that aphorism: the second part,

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick possibilities; Truth isn’t.”,

 because it touches closely on two threads in the fabric of history of the campaign, transition, and now presidency of Donald Trump. One thread is the misrepresentations, falsehoods, alternative facts, conspiracy theories, and just. plain. lies—fictions, in other words, have needed to have been at least possibilities. The other thread is the fact—the “truth”—is the invariable failure to disavow, admit to, or contradict the fictions, even when presented with uncontroversial and unambiguous evidence of their falsity. This is the truth of the impossible, the truth that is not limited to the possible: perhaps a truth important to him for other goals that may need justifying, perhaps a truth to be held to as evidence of his own genuineness, his infallibility. Perhaps confronting and bowing to the facts would, in his mind, be a show of weakness or lack of heroic character.gaslight-2

Or maybe this “truth unobligated to the possible” is a page from an old playbook, a dictator’s handbook of sorts. Some interesting quotations from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and other troubling comparisons were among a recent reading on the Open Culture website.

The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

 

“The great analysts of truth and language in politics”—writes McGill University political philosophy professor Jacob T. Levy—including “George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel—can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is…. Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism.”

The sheer number of deceits plays a role in the process of control. The following may be the most insidious of all propaganda and psycho-manipulative techniques. “She [Arendt] also recognized the function of an avalanche of lies to render a populace powerless to resist, the phenomenon we now refer to as “gaslighting”:

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”

 

This deserves repeating “the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.” The stability of our collective psyche is being tested. Our individual neuroses are being aggravated; and increased stress within the self and among our fellow citizens is finding expression through harmful avenues of release.

Some minimize the or flatly deny any motivation of the Trumpian campaign of mendacity—claiming his obsession with picayunish details of crowd sizes (particularly at his inauguration) and his popular vote count in the general election—to nothing more than an innocent but hyper-inflated ego rationalizing away the unfavorable numbers. But an examination of these seemingly trivial obsessions uncovers a codified language within at the ugly heart of this charade, a message of  jingoistic nationalism, revulsion to the dark hoard overrunning America, his intentions to control public information, and subordinating the value, usefulness and honesty of entire networks of intergovernmental agencies. For the authoritarian personality, mere victory is not enough, nothing short of total victory is necessary.

 

Arendt’s analysis of propaganda and the function of lies seems particularly relevant at this moment. The kinds of blatant lies she wrote of might become so commonplace as to become banal. We might begin to think they are an irrelevant sideshow. This, she suggests, would be a mistake.

 

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Thelonious Monk, another American genius in the arts as jazz composer, pianist, and band leader is quoted as saying “The piano ain’t got no bad notes.” His contemporary and fellow musical genius Miles Davis offered this modification: “There are no wrong notes in jazz: only notes in the wrong places.” Notes in  a musical composition function in similar in a way similar to words in a sentence, paragraph, or larger composition, as individual elements resulting in an emergent creation larger and more complex than sum of the parts. So while any word we choose in making statements of fact or opinion is both possible and acceptable (Monk), the arrangement (Davis) can end up being a thing of beauty to meaningless gobbledegook to anti-truths and alt-facts.
Mark Twain, witnessing today’s power abuses through communicative manipulations might say we are in immediate  need of music lessons; while at the same time finding lots of fresh material for his maxims on truth and lies.

History in 500 Words

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Father Fred. Queens. Rental housing. Department of Justice. Housing discrimination settlement. Manhattan envy. Loan. Trump Organization. Trump brand. Casinos. Hotels. Trump Tower. Trump Princess (yacht). Junk bonds. Bankruptcies (x6). Over-leveraged. Central Park. Rape. Murder. Central Park 5 (Black youth).  NY Times full-page ad. Trump :restore death penalty. Convictions overturned. Trump Shuttle. Trump Place. Trump Steaks. Trump Wine. Trump University. Trump ego. The Apprentice. WWE. Don King. New Jersey Generals. Dennis Rodman. Miss Universe. Dressing rooms. Celebrity Trump. Trump lawsuits: 3500 (plaintiff/defendant combined). Stiffing workers. Short-paying suppliers. Trump resorts. Trump golf courses and clubs. Trump hair. Mar-a-Lago compound. Lawsuit. Municipal tax credits manipulator. Twenty-five million dollar Trump University settlement. Billion dollar business loss. Unknown IRS tax credit. Non-disclosure of Federal Income Tax filings. Audit in progress. Reform Party. Birtherism. Long-form birth certificate. Investigators to Hawaii. Make America Great Again. Mexico. Rapists. Crime. Drugs. The Wall. NAFTA. TPP. Paying for shipping jobs out. Tweets.Terrorism. Ban Muslims. Register Muslims. Monitor mosques. Deportation force. Bomb ISIS. Torture. Muslims in New Jersey seen celebrating 9/11 attacks. Waterboard. Take out the families. Populist. Right wing. Rallies. Hooliganism. Doctor: healthiest President ever. Obamacare repeal. Great plan to replace. Executive order cancellations. Climate change denial. Exit Paris Climate Agreement. Brexit booster. Trade wars. Border taxes. America First. Lower taxes on corporations. Increase military spending. Spend more. Tax less. Reduce deficit. Dismantle Iran nuclear agreement. Nuclear Triad. Supports West Bank settlement. Tough on crime. Blue lives matter. Urban blacks. What’s to lose? Second Amendment and 2 Corinthians buff. No birthright citizenship. Pro-life. Women should pay. Megyn Kelly. Bias. Blood. Eyes. Wherever. Victim of press. Snowflake. Lying Press. Blacklisted news outlets. Washington Post . Buzzfeed. Huffington Post. Politico. Loose cannon. Lyin’ Ted. Little Marco. Low-energy Jeb. Small hands, big…Loosen libel laws. Mock disabled reporters. Deny. Bully. Paul Manifort, campaign director. Russia. Melania plagiarism. Mitt Romney’s malleable  conscience. Crooked Hillary. Emails. Benghazi. Find emails, Russia! Russian finds emails. Clinton Foundation. Play-to-pay. Bernie Sanders. Socialist. Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton victims. Sexual harassment. Locker room talk. Groping. More accusations. Late night Tweets. Attack pageant contestant. Lawsuits. Trump narcissism. Trump abuses. Election rigged if he loses. FBI announces looking at Weiner’s emails. Hillary emails. Trump wins. Margin: -2.8 million votes. More tweets. Unhinged. Election rigged. Campaigned for electoral swing state vote. Ben Carson. Mock knife/belt buckle story. Nominated for HUD Secretary. Chris Christie. Bridgegate. First selection for VP. Prosecuted Jared Kushner’s father. Pushed out of transition team. Rudy Giuliani played for sucker duh. Rick Perry, Dept. of Energy (yikes nukes). Betsy DeVoss, Public Ed enemy No.1 and grizzly-shootin’ head school marm. Steve Bannon. Breitbart. Rabble-rousing possible supremacist. Mike Flynn. Islamaphobe. Mnuchin, empathy-free mortgage buzzard. Secretary of Treasury. Rex Tillerson, Exxon Texan. Putin podnah. Sarah Palin who? Saving 800≠2000 Carrier jobs.  CIA, FBI, others reveal Russian hacking of DNC. Election not rigged. Someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. Dangling participle or fat-shaming. Or the Chinese. Putin denies. Shawn Spicer. Latino-free cabinet is no problem. Buzzfeed reports Russian dossier on Trump activities. Russian hotel. Trump. Peeing prostitutes. Fake news. Disgrace. CNN denied questions in press conference. Star-studless inaugural fête. Women’s March possible larger draw. Lowest-ever approval rating. Highest ever IQ presidential cabinet. Many positions still unfilled. Hit the ground running. Monday.
You are now entering the Trumpocene.

Take the Fork in the Road, Please

from Life in the Trumpocene

After the occurrence of some significant event—in this case, the election of a megalomaniacal and unpredictable billionaire celebrity to the U. S. Presidency—it is human nature to look back in time to see how it could have been predicted and prevented; or at least discover that someone or something else had foretold it (which is much simpler—there always are signposts to the future pointing the way to the present, signposts the time traveler had forgotten reading along the way, or missed entirely—and made sure those oversights should be avoided the next go-round. Or signs that were just ignored, pooh-poohed as “that’s just crazy,” or, “that couldn’t happen here.” Keep in mind, there could be hundreds or thousand of such examples, some more specific like direct, pre-election polling; others more general, like explanations of the social psyche or political-economics as explained by academicians, literary sages, or cultural critics. Either way (and to cliche´-up this point) hindsight is 20-20, and simple—and fun! As a Big Picture person myself, I like the following warning signs (billboards maybe?) of the climate that led to election of DJT.

Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, in his 1998 Achieving Our Country (Harvard Press, first paperback edition, 1999), writes

The point of his book The Endangered American Dream [Edward N. Luttwak] is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized– are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen…

Or this keenly descriptive state of the political and economic state of affairs that had made the state of Kansas look like a microcosm of the rest of America (or the Arab states) and an easy touch for demagoguery. From Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Metropolitan Books Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2004) five years later:

The Wall Street Journal ran an essay about a place “where hatred trumps bread,” where a manipulative ruling class has for decades exploited an impoverished people while simultaneously fostering in them a culture of victimization that steers this people’s fury back persistently toward a shadowy, cosmopolitan Other. In this tragic land unassuageable cultural grievances are elevated inexplicably over solid material ones, and basic economic self-interest is eclipsed by juicy myths of national authenticity and righteousness wronged.  

The essay was supposed to be a description of the Arab states in their conflict with Israel, but when I read it I thought immediately of dear old Kansas and the role that locales like Shawnee play in conservatism’s populist myth. 

Using the backlighting of the past, the present has come more into focus. But viewing forms from that perspective can be as illusory as the figures in Plato’s cave, however; so for the future we to know as completely as possible the present as the condition of the past, and then direct an LED-brilliant flashlight beam toward—what?

Be Careful of What You Wait For

It’s a symptom of the Age of Information and light-speed accessibility to answers for just about any question one may have: the letdown, the frustration, that feeling of empty anxiety when the question involves more that a one word or short and tidy synopsis quickly consumed and easily digested. But  knowledge is more than a set of factoids without context, and  cannot be shared or absorbed and made meaningful so quickly. Answers to complex problems with amorphous concepts and  ambiguous definitions that must be moved in and about and fit into a jigsaw puzzle of a  picture that we may have never before seen are furtive and unwilling captives in the game of epistemological hide-and-seek.  True knowledge is not reducible to daylong trivia surfing or discoverable by wagging Diogenes’ lantern toward every distraction that shows itself while skittering around in the rabbit hole.

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Right now, there is a need to know that outweighs our aversion to the symptoms of the failure to be instantly gratified with a simple truth.  What is needed—sooner rather than later—is knowing whether President-elect Donald Trump is who he said he is, or has presented himself to be in his campaign leading to his election: the nativist white nationalist, the unstable vindictive bully; the crass, loose potty mouth  that shows little of a conscience or empathy; the woefully incurious and uninformed world statesman wannabe; the misogynist and sexual abuser; the high roller businessman with a fondness for stiffing contractors and suppliers, and for his proclivity for civil litigation to skip out on debts and vengefully force adversaries into punitive settlements. And for the secular, the “none”, the atheist and non-Christian (Muslim) communities, knowing whether his pandering to the evangelical and religious right interests is a sincere and personal belief or just a play for that segment of the base of support. The citizenry needs to know because knowledge is a power unto itself, and power is ultimately what it will need if he is what his made-for-media persona has portrayed, strobing from our televisions and tablets for the last 18 months. It will need first the power to resist, and then the power to overcome. The answer may indeed be somewhere between the binary yes, he is that man/no, he is not, deep down, that man, and may be only discoverable by assembling clues about those whom he surrounds himself with. 

That need and desire for this knowledge is not limited to the citizens of the United States. The whole world, of which the U.S. has been the geopolitical leader by default since the end of World War II,  is watching,  as relations in international trade and immigration and his lack of understanding in matters of international military defense and strategy—and eventually war and peace itself— could be at stake. Global leaders are watching to see if he is what he seems to be;  and if he does what he said he would do.

Once, he was a Democrat, a liberal-leaner in the earlier days of the cultural wars. We didn’t know much about him then, but now know his father and he (as his father’s young apprentice) were involved in cvil rights litigation for housing discrimination. We know that he took a serious personal interest in the Central Park Five case in which five youthful Blacks were wrongfully convicted (through forced confessions) of the rape and murder of a 30 year-old jogger. Trump took out  full page ads in several NYC newspapers, calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, presumably with the five to be first in line for the sentence. This is but one instance of refusing to admit a mistake , but rather use the revelation as a chance to double down with the myth to burnish his law and order image for his constituency. An October 8, 2016 report in the Washington Post reported “This week, when confronted again with just how wrong he was about the Central Park Five, Trump not only refused to acknowledge widely reported and well-known facts or the court’s official actions in the case. He did not simply refuse to apologize: he maintained their guilt.” We know that his current political self-promotion began with the “birther” charge against the newly-elected Obama not long after his inauguration in 2009, and he did not dismiss the idea until only a few months ago, unapologetically. We know that he claimed he could not get a fair trial from a judge of Mexican descent. We know that a proposal for a southern border wall was the kick starter for his campaign , a wall that would keep out Mexican rapists, criminals, and drugs. We know that he proposed a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the country…”. That’s Trump, the racist, intolerant, and mean-spirited  Trump we have grown to know and despise, but…

In the early-morning hours after the evening of his election, he took a very low-keyed and conciliatory approach is his victory speech. He proclaimed it to be a time for unification. A day later, we saw a humble and deferential Trump commenting on his Oval Office sit down meeting with President Obama. He has spoken up for provisions in Obamacare that are worthy of surviving onto the next government health insurance program, such  young adults  staying on parents’ coverage, and no pre-existing exclusions. A spokesperson doubted the implementation of a “deportation force” he called for early in the campaign to round up 11 million undocumented immigrants. It may even be possible  that he is truly appreciative and respectful of the enormous job he has been chosen for and may be, at least temporarily, awe-stricken at the potential for good that could come from it.

But given his record, his reckless abandonment of truth and propensity to fictionalize history, do we have cause for hope that he will be a unifier instead of divider, accepting and forwarding the value inherent in a pluralism of interest groups, races, and secular and religious concerns, all functioning successfully in one nation?  On issues of global import, such as climate change and the preservation of natural resources, will he follow the slash and burn policies of corporate greed that have bequeathed ours and the next generation a thoroughly polluted planet? On the marginalization of public education—the greater the move toward privatization and its phony voucher/choice system, at the expense of the  commons  and assumed duty of the state for public education, the nearer we approach a neo-feudal state where only those who can afford education will pass their money, privilege, technological training, and good paying jobs down to their heirs. Judging from his selection of one of the most trenchant theocratic governors and homophobe sui generis in the country as his running mate, Mike Pence, the answer to one of those questions is no. Judging from a list of prospective cabinet appointees, the answer to the other hypotheticals is, again, no. Hardliners on international relations like John Bolton and Newt Gingrich are on the list for possible Secretary of State; religious right mainstays like Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Scott are on the list as leaders of the Department of Health and Humans Services (think Planned Parenthood, AIDS funding, universal healthcare); and tough guys Rudy Guiliani and Chris Christie are in line for Attorney General to  run the well-oiled and privacy crushing surveillance network which has been expanded logarithmically during the Bush and Obama administrations. A skeptical eye needs to stay focused on his choice for the vacancy on the Supreme Court, but many more eyes need to be kept on lower court appointees. Currently there are 103 judicial vacancies with 59 nominations pending. District and Federal Appeals courts can be just as important the the Supreme Court much of the time, since many rulings go no further than these bodies. On the Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex ruling, Trump recently said “it’s settled law…”, meaning—what? On Roe v. Wade, he continues to reiterate his pro-life position, earlier calling for punishment of women exercising choice (which he later recanted), but here, too, the court has made its decision. It may be something he needs to avoid altogether, but looking at his associates….

And then there was the opinion of a television commentator that Trump is not an ideologue, that he is experienced in the art of the deal, that he is a pragmatist, a git-er-done type guy. Pollyanna, I think, was her name.  

And then there is the appointment of his campaign strategist, executive chairman of  Breitbart News, and a white nationalist and anti-semite look-alike (if not the real thing) Steve Bannon, as his Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor; and Republican National Committee Chairman and yes man Reince Priebus  as his White House Chief of Staff. The Donald is reportedly requesting security clearances for his sons and daughter, who will also be running his large, global business woven with wide-ranging and mostly unknown foreign entanglements, which stinks of nepotism and conflicts of interest.

And all of this within six days after his election. Can we really know with certainty  who the real Donald Trump is this soon? From the rapid assembly of his inner circle and narrowing pool of cabinet selections, and a list of potential successors to Scalia’s seat on the SCOTUS bench compiled months ago, probability may be just close enough to certainty to presume that we need not wait much longer to know enough to begin planning the resistance—and hope this knowledge comes with the power to survive, and eventually overcome.

Yes, It Can

When is a theatrical production not a play? When it is a reading, with  script readers  taking the place of actors, reading—while either seated or standing—the dialogue of a play written for actors by the playwright and without a designed set or choreographed movement and action across a stage. It is still a theatrical production, but one stripped to the bare bones of voice.

Five of the 13 players sitting in a closely packed row of chairs in front of the conference room-turned-theater at Jefferson Parish Library in Metairie were members and directors of NOSHA in what was a special invitation to participate in a reading of Sinclair Lewis’ play It Can’t Happen Here. The occasion was the 80th anniversary of its release; the play was adapted and distributed by the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Berkeley Rep, a non-profit community theater established in 1968 is currently running the complete theatrical version of the play at its home base in California through November 6.  It was a special invitation for JPL and our own secular humanist group to participate, as it was one of the fewer that 50 venues in the country that hosted and produced the event.

The story was a preview into what America could look like if democracy succumbed to a political solution lead by a nationalist demagogue. Getting his gloomy inspiration from the election of Hitler in Germany and the rising influence of Louisiana’s populist Governor and Senator Huey P. Long, Lewis followed the career of small town Vermont journalist Doremus Jessup, who, though deeply motivated by the ideals of truth and justice, delayed getting involved in the growing movement that elevated a folksy charmer, a fictionalized authoritarian Long named Buzz Windrip. Windrip ends up winning the nomination of the Democratic Party, and is set to run for (and win) the Presidency against the Republican Trowbridge and Franklin Roosevelt (who ended up running on a third party ticket after losing the Democratic nomination).

Library program director Chris Smith introduced the program and narrated the settings between acts and scenes of the play. Curiously the readers were never introduced to the audience individually; time constraints may have been the reason: the reading took a full two hours, pushing the ending right up against library closing time. The readers seemed well-rehearsed—they spoke with just the right amount of dramatic inflection and were on cue most of the program, though the vocal projection waxed and waned at times. There were more characters in the script that performers, so some were required to do multiple parts. It could be a bit confusing if the observer wasn’t familiar with the storyline, especially with no action across a stage to help visually associate the different characters.

Probably a more significant motivation than the 80th anniversary for Berkeley Rep’s staff to re-release the program was the current Presidential election campaign and to confirm that, yes, it could happen here. The rise of Donald Trump has uncovered an undertow of a new and septic populism— a populism founded on nationalism and some degrees of xenophobia and racism—and has found in Trump, warts and all, a bona fide advocate. Lewis’ story includes Windrip’s paramilitary Minute Men to deal with dissidents; Trump’s deportation force will be assigned to sort out the rapists and drug dealing illegals and place them on the right side of his Mexican-funded, beautiful wall. A probable adaptation by the Berkeley writers has Windrip reveling at a rally about how protesters were handled in the good old days. The historical Father Coughlin’s and his incendiary anti-semitic radio rhetoric becoming an ally of Long-Windrip parallels the evangelical Grahams’, Falwells’, and Robertsons’ current romance with strongman Trump. The boorish everfacsism_comes_to_americayday Donald we see is merely a simulacrum of the master wheeler-dealer of foreign trade, the ultimate job creator, and the genuine Isis-slayer Generalisimo Trump that he has cultivated and grown bigly (tee-hee) with assistance from a ratings-driven media. The power of the media in shaping pseudo-leaders was a major factor in the rise of yokel Lonesome Rhodes, portrayed by Andy Griffith in the 1958 film A Face in the Crowd, who also had a bad mouth/hot microphone problem.

The program of It Can’t Happen Here on the Berkeley Repertory Theater website has the following advisory:

It Can’t Happen Here includes the use of herbal cigarettes, haze, and gunshot sound effects. Berkeley Rep offers an advisory about any stage effect of potential concern to patrons’ health. We don’t offer advisories about subject matter, as sensitivities vary from person to person. If you have any concerns about content, please contact the box office.

For those having seen enough of the similarities already, a trigger warning might have been welcomed. Or at least, please, a caution about a possible circuit overload. But to those who are just about done at this point, and are happy to just plug their ears and hum along with with this 50 year-old ditty from The Mothers of Invention, this advisory: Don’t do it. 

popper-meme


And now, please, introducing our troupe and congratulations to:

Beth Deitch, Jim Dugan, William Gautreaux, Charlotte Klasson, and Anne McKinley

Goodwill vs. God’s Will

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

August, 2016

The crew of NOSHA volunteers who made the trip to Denham Springs to assist in the cleanup from the flooding that swamped nearly 90 percent of the homes there traveled in separate cars with the exception of Dave and Joyce Thomas, who shared their ride. Joining in on the project were the Thomases, Eve Ortiz, Kathleen Branley, Jennifer Porter, Glenn Pearl, MartyBankson, and Cecelia (a young woman referred by previously committed Adam Kay). Most used  smartphone GPS  to guide them into the subdivision and onto the street where the project was, but most  all had to park and locate a mailbox somewhere on the street to find the house number, or call a contact already on the job if they didn’t recognize anyone working outside. The mailboxes were lost at the curb’s edge in the heaps of soggy mattresses, broken dining furniture, stacks of wadded clothes, rolls of ragged-edged carpeting, teevees, fridges, and picture frames with water-stained photos of family memories . A small hill of ruined doors, millwork,  cabinetry and sinks would continue filling the front yard from the street back toward the house as the day passed.

 

The Thomas’ acquaintance Paul was coordinating the work. Paul calls Connie Donovan “Aunt Connie”–though their actual relationship may have been less direct. Connie is a 63-year old widow, living alone, and is still working. She was one of the fortunate few who had flood insurance, if “fortunate” is indeed even fit in the description of a  500-year flood.  Many of the modest houses in this neighborhood were built on piers and were elevated about three feet above the ground, but the neighborhood  got  6-7 feet of floodwater from the overflowing Amite River just to the west of it. The maths and elevations didn’t work out. Every house in the subdivision and many more subdivisions like it went under, along with most of the business along the main thoroughfares.

 

Paul got the crew quick-schooled and started at the basics of house gutting: taking the door and baseboard trim off with hammers and pry bars, removing the electrical switch and receptacle plates, then pulling the soggy sheetrock from the wall studs at the seam four feet above the floor. Then the crumbling and saturated mess had to be shoveled and wheelbarrowed out of the house down the front porch steps, adding more to the misery of the front yard. Bathroom vanity cabinets, toilets, kitchen cabinets, pots, pans, dishes and foodstuffs in the pantry all had to go. Two mice were forced to relocate when their space inside a wall was uncovered.

 

The feeling of overwhelming loss never seems to be strong enough to keep the victims from finding something–anything–left in the wreckage that was salvageable, something to cling to; and those things become  special and dear. Aunt Connie had set up a makeshift table in the front yard near the driveway, where she placed and cleaned and dried those things she found. A pop-up summer shower was about to do what the floodwaters didn’t, but we managed to get some scraps of plastic sheeting and a tarp over them before the hardest rain fell.

 

About midday someone delivered some go-boxes of jambalaya; those that didn’t pack a lunch didn’t  go hungry. And there was plenty of water for hydrating, though Cecelia had an overheating episode but seemed recovered enough to be able to get to her car and drive back to New Orleans. The heat and humidity was reminiscent of the hot tropical conditions that plagued New Orleans after Katrina. Joyce and Dave’s experience in that disaster was evident as they chipped away through the day’s work, like, “¡No problema!”.

 

This volunteer effort was the most labor-intensive the Social Aid and Pleasure Club has experienced; a true test of physical stamina and heat tolerance. But it will be remembered as most edifying when thinking  of Aunt Connie’s words of appreciation and thanks to each of us as, one by one, we headed home. And when reflecting on her little makeshift table, and the keepsakes that took on a new and special meaning for her– and for us.

 

REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON: NOLA SKEPTICS ON REASON RALLY 2016

REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON:reflecting pool NOLA SKEPTICS ON REASON RALLY 2016

Four years ago, Reason Rally 2012 was promoted as the “largest secular event in world history,” a Woodstock for atheists and skeptics. Organized and produced by David Silverman, President of American Atheists, Inc., it was a momentous coming out part for 30,000 non-believers on the Mall in Washington, D. C. A long lineup of speakers from the scientific and entertainment fields were the main event.

Reason Rally 2016, held last month, and again in Washington, “had a greater variety of activities over the weekend, which reflects the happy fact that the secular movement has progressed beyond the need to merely show we exist,” said Beth Deitch, one of several NOSHA members from New Orleans who went. “The number of groups was so much larger than four years before. So many demographics and perspectives were represented.” To be sure, over 30 groups were represented—from FFRF to Secular Media Network to Mythicists Milwaukee to Lady Parts Justice—almost all of them tabling in tents set up along the outer edge of the mall.

The organizers set a decidedly more political slant to the speaking subjects and activities this year, probably in part due to it being an election year, and partly because so much legislative wrangling  and a plethora of court opinions have been handed down over the last year. LGBTQ and other social justice issues were a recurring theme. “The Reason Rally is absolutely a political event,” said executive director Lyz Liddell. “That’s the reason we’re holding this in an election year. We want to see reason taking precedence over religious-driven ideology.”

Traveling with Deitch was William Gautreaux; John and Donna Williams and John’s sister, Darlene Reaves were in the crowd while also visiting their daughter during their trip to the city. Former NOSHA members Douglas and Yvette Parfait came, said Doug, with one purpose:  “I didn’t go this time to listen to speakers, and I didn’t. Not one.  I went to mingle, to find as many people I’ve only known on Facebook as I could.” Taking pictures was another thing he managed to do, and do quite well—thanks to him for the photos included in this story.

THE VENUE. THE CROWD.  A noticeably  lower turnout from the 2012 event has been the topic of discussion for just about everyone associated with the event. Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist blogger, came up with several reasons for the low turnout, including: the late cancellation of Johnny Depp and Richard Dawkins; the novelty had worn off; it took place in the summer; etc., etc. A few observations, estimates, and a few explanations by our NOLA contingent:

Douglas P.

“In 2012, the number was 30K-ish, I haven’t heard of any official estimate for 2016, however I would say 4K (but that’s just my estimation).

The white chairs in front of the stage were VIP seating, and those chairs were never filled, sparse as well. I found that a little embarrassing.”

Beth D.

“I do think the physical layout of the event made the crowd look somewhat smaller than it actually was. The stage was in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with the space in front of the stage taken up by the VIP seating. We had VIP seats, which was nice, for sure, but it kept the bulk of the crowd from being close to the stage — behind the chairs was the reflecting pool, so the crowd had to be split off on either side of the pool were still around 10,000 atheists gathered in one place for RR2016, which was exhilarating!  I believe that growth may have contributed to the lower  attendance in 2016 than in 2012: There are now atheist conventions and events and communities all over the country, all throughout the year….”

John W. 

“I haven’t seen an official after-the-fact estimate of the turnout but I’m guessing it didn’t reach the 30+K that was projected. [George] Whitfield was routinely delivering numbers like this throughout the colonies over 270 years ago, during the Great Awakening [the original American religious revival event], before there were planes or cars. So for me the turnout was disappointing…

We sat under a tree, in the shade, near the spot where, in the movie, Jenny spilled into the Reflecting Pool yelling for Forrest [Gump]. A few ducks with ducklings swam in the green water of the pond, shoveling algae up with their bills like a BP oil skimmer. A large egret flew overhead several times, and on each occasion was promptly mobbed by two crows. One of us sat in doggy doo. My impression is that DC is behind the times when it comes to curbing your dog. We even ran across it on our way out, in the airport, on the terminal floor.”

OBSERVATIONS IN THE PSEUDO-TRANSGENDER BATHROOMS. Public restrooms: almost every anti-theocrat and social justice advocate’s favorite issue this spring; and the management at the hotel where (ironically) the comedy program was presented was happy to accommodate; transforming, with a quick paper-over, the usually gender-specific WCs into New Age community  toities. 

Beth

“Friday night we went to a Reason Rally comedy show, which was so much fun! The emcee for the show was David Smalley, who is the host of the Dogma Debate radio show/podcast, and founder/president of the Secular Media Group. He has been a strong ally for trans people in this ridiculous focus on their right to pee in peace. So I was not at all surprised to find that the signs for the restrooms at the show venue had been covered with new paper signs reading “gender-neutral restroom.” And guess what? Not one person fainted away, or was overcome with a sudden desire to sexually assault someone! However, one of the comedians did comment on one behavioral change he noticed: with women being around, ALL of the men were actually washing their hands! William leaned over to me and said ‘yeah, that’s not usually the case.’”

John

“We all attended the Friday night comedy show. The comics were Leighann Lord, Ian Harris, Keith Jensen, and they were all very funny, as good as any New York comedy show I’ve been to. After the comedy show, off of the hotel’s lobby, I used my first gender-neutral public toilet. I’m not sure it was sanctioned by the hotel. There were several women waiting for stalls in the bathroom; and I’ve never seen men belly-up so close to the urinals, which is actually a good thing. The guys also all washed their hands when they left, just like one of the comics had just joked about. There is a lot of truth in good comedy.”

ON THE PROSELYTIZERS. No gathering of heretics, secular activists, or misguided souls debauching on Bourbon Street escapes their notice and compulsion to share God’s word. No one expected a reversal of this trend at the Reason Rally.

Beth

There were a few bothersome protesters and proselytizers about, but the occasional individual ranter was easy to ignore, and any protesting groups were small and on the periphery.  (I know Ray Comfort had wished to bring a large contingent of harassers, but was informed that any sizable protest would require a permit and a designated location).”

William

The Christian protesters were not allowed to organize within our rally to harass us, but they were sometimes alone or in groups of two or three within the rally proselytizing. Of course, we completely ignored them.

However, there was one guy handing out little cards with the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), symbol on them. It has a dark blue background with a yellow equal sign. Since I was a volunteer with HRC for 10 years, I wanted to support them, so Beth and I each took a card. We flipped the card over, and there were Bible verses denouncing gay people. We went to give the cards back to the guy and told him that this was dishonest and intentionally deceptive. I asked him why Christians needed to use lies and deception to get people to listen to their message. He did not have an answer. It’s just like when Christians go into schools and bribe kids with pizza and other kinds of treats in exchange for listening to the Christian message.”

Feels True

John

“…A little further down, at 17th and Constitution, my sister and I ran into an aggressive preacher with a bullhorn. I promised myself that I wouldn’t engage him, but again, like many times before, I did anyway. In an amplified voice he told us that we were going to live in Hell for eternity. We said we would be amongst friends and started dancing like it was Mardi Gras. With this he became unhinged. As we danced away the bullhorn quoted bible verses and called us fools. We were fools for reason.”

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