Sunday, October 15, 2017

Bullshitter in Chief

What we knew from the very beginning about Donald Trump became ever clearer this past week. It is that Trump is a blowhard, a con-man, someone who has no control over his impulse to frame every action or thought that erupts into his tiny brain into the 'greatest, most amazing piece of courage and mental gymnastics ever to emanate from a human cortex.' Thus, in recent days, he has made a huge deal of his not recertifying the Iran nuclear deal painstakingly crafted by Barack Obama and the big five nations of England, France, Germany, Russia and China, and agreed to by the UN Security Council to make it international law. His reasons were pure bullshit as usual, (Iran’s compliance has been certified countless times by the IAEA, and even attested to by Trump’s own cabinet officers like General Mattis), but he claimed to be attempting to force Iran back to the bargaining table to get the U.S. “a better deal.” Shortly thereafter, still frustrated by Congress’s inability to repeal and replace Obamacare, he took the executive-order route he constantly criticized Obama for, signing a first order ending the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing reduction payments meant to help low income Americans get health care. He then signed another order allowing individuals (usually younger and healthier) to buy short-term insurance exempt from Obamacare provisions, and also allowing small businesses to pool together to buy health insurance. His none-too-subtle hope, in all of these measures, was to cripple the signature legislative achievement of his predecessor: to wit, insurance companies won’t be able to continue if their younger customers do not offset their huge payments to the elderly, nor would they be able to continue offering health care subsidies to low-income Americans without government help. And to cripple it to the point where the whole thing implodes and Congress would be forced to come up with a new health plan. But of course, the Republican-controlled Congress has already proven several times that it can’t come up with a replacement plan, and even if it could, huge portions of the nation would probably rebel.
            What’s astonishing about these measures is that the health-care orders, in particular, would end up hurting Trump’s core supporters the most: those un- and under-employed poor whites living in the South and Midwest who can barely afford to keep themselves above water as it is. And yet, these fools keep supporting their dear Bullshitter because he presents himself as certain and tough and commanding, and because the great unwashed love to venerate those who so present themselves. It’s why they’re easy prey to the likes of used car salesmen and fundamentalist preachers.
            What’s more astonishing, or perhaps not, is that none of the Drumpf’s so-called “actions” are going to fundamentally alter the situations they’re pretending to change. As numerous commentators have by now noted, the ACA is going to go on, no matter what Trump does. It’s the law of the land, most people have gotten used to it, and people are very reluctant to give up a benefit they’ve grown used to. Moreover, the only thing that can really change it is a repeal-and-replace plan that Republicans are incapable of crafting, much less passing into law. As for the Iran nuclear deal, essentially the same thing applies. The deal is not a treaty issued by the United States alone; it is a multi-nation deal that has been sanctioned into international law by the United Nations. As such, it can’t be dismantled or re-negotiated by all the parties together, much less by one nation on its own. And especially for bullshit reasons such as “not living up to the spirit” of the deal, as Trump would have it. So unless Congress is so stupid as to re-impose sanctions unilaterally (and all signs are that they will not, pressure from those ‘sanctuaries of democracy,’ Israel and Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding), the Iran deal will remain essentially as it stands.
            So what the hell was this all about?
            Well, as with much of what Donald Trump does, it was about public relations (bullshit) and shoring up his base. Trump has been hammered so hard of late (even from Republicans like Bob Corker), and is feeling so much pressure from that bulldog, former-FBI director Robert Mueller, that he constantly must revert to the only area where he can still get applause: his none-too-bright supporters. That’s why he must regularly schedule his neo-campaign rallies—like the recent ones in Phoenix, and Alabama. Approval, adulation is like oxygen for this malignant narcissist (the term is Erich Fromm’s, coined in 1964 to describe “severe mental sickness” representing “the quintessence of evil.”) And that is what he gets when he holds one of his rallies; cheers, raised fists, and thunderous applause when he attacks his usual targets such as those ‘football player sons of bitches.’ (Of course, when he attacks real opponents, such as Kim Jong Un, the Bullshitter limits himself to derogatory tweets, proving even here, even with a nation a twentieth the size of the U.S., that he’s a bullying coward whose default mode is bullshit—which allows him to reverse course as he seems to have done today, apparently ordering Secretary of State Tillerson to continue the negotiations Drumpf had just days ago derided as a “waste of time.”)
            The only real question continues to be: how long can he continue to get away with this? What will it take for his idiot white fans (not to mention his Republican enablers) to realize that he is leading them down the garden path to both financial and political ruin? That his policies, if they hurt anyone, are not going to hurt the “elites” that they hate so deeply, but rather people just like themselves? That Donald Trump really gives not two shits for his supporters in general—he’s always been an elitist wannabe himself—and that he probably has massive contempt for them, for their gullibility in believing a bullshitter like himself.
            Perhaps only the approval ratings offer some hope. As of Oct. 13, Trump’s approval rating nationally had dropped to 36%, the lowest of any presidency in modern times. Even George W. Bush’s ratings after Katrina dropped only to 44%. Trump’s is well below that, and erosion is increasingly appearing even in the so-called ‘red’ states of the South and Midwest—the core area of his support. So though most of us would have thought that a presidency such as this, reeling from one disaster to another at light speed, would have imploded long ago, we still find ourselves asking the same question: what keeps it afloat? and for how long? And can the Bullshitter even last to the next presidential election? It’s an open question, so we may never know for certain how accurate or predictive these approval ratings are. One thing we do know, though: some people can be fooled and bullshitted and scorned and treated with contempt till they’re covered with excrement, and incapable, like good Germans under Hitler, of changing their tiny minds. It’s the only thing the Bullshitter-in-Chief can count on these days—aside from a little war to pump things up, that is.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, September 25, 2017

National Anthem

Aside from the stupidity and indignity involved in the President of the United States playing “the dozens” with professional athletes over their taking a “knee” during the playing of the National Anthem at professional sports contests, there is something real at stake here. That is, despite the President’s recent “tweet” that “race has nothing to do with it,” race has everything to do with it. If you look at the history—both of the playing of the Anthem at professional games, and the few occasions when athletes have refused to salute during its playing—you can see that the overwhelming majority of those who have used this form of protest have been black. Muhammad Ali said he wasn’t going to Vietnam because “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” and his career was essentially terminated. Tommi Smith and Juan Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute during their victory stance at the 1968 Olympics, and they were similarly vilified; as was Chris Jackson (now Mahmoud Abdel Rauf) who, playing basketball for the Denver Nuggets in 1995 sat down during the playing of the National Anthem (he said the flag was a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny”), and was subsequently forced to stand by the NBA commissioner, and shortly thereafter lost his basketball career. Now we have Colin Kaepernick, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, first taking a knee during a pre-season game on August 26, 2016, and who is this season still undrafted by any professional football team. His career may well be over as a result. But what he said to justify his refusal was simple and eloquent:

            “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” (quoted in “A Brief History of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ being played at games and getting no respect,” by Fred Barbash and Travis M. Andrews, Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2016).

            Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, and its being taken up by a few other football players, and then the similar but not identical refusal of Steph Curry of the championship Golden State Warriors to go to the White House to be ‘honored’ by President Trump, has now morphed into open warfare between the President and professional (mostly black) athletes. And yes, it is about race. Because the (asterisk) President chose, after an obvious race-baiting campaign, to use a campaign stop in Alabama to say that NFL team owners should fire players for taking a knee during the national anthem. He also said owners should respond to players taking such action by saying “Get that son of a bitch off the field now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
            There was no mystery who the “son of a bitch” was. Trump clearly meant the black Colin Kaepernick (though Kaepernick was actually adopted and raised by white parents, so his ‘bitch’ mother is white); the also-black Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, who also has been taking a knee; and after these comments, the scores of athletes, both black and white, who knelt or sat during the National Anthem on September 24 to show their solidarity with Kaepernick and his reasons for refusing to honor the national anthem: e.g., to draw attention to the police murder of black men that has incited the “Black Lives Matter” movement. There is no mystery that Trump, and those who support him, hate the Black Lives Matter movement. There is no mystery that candidate Trump used this and other alleged ‘outrages’ to appeal to his white supremacist audience, his white supremacist base. For that has been the Republican Party’s clear strategy since Richard Nixon inaugurated his ‘Southern strategy’ during the 1968 presidential campaign. But Nixon and most others tried to disguise their appeal to racist Southern states by claiming to be addressing the “silent Majority.” Trump has abandoned that cover story. As a result, his has been a more or less open and overt appeal to racists, xenophobes, anti-semites, and anti-elitists—all those Muslims and Mexicans and Blacks and coastal elites whom he blames for the demise of the Great America he promises to restore. And his recent war with African-American athletes was carefully calculated to occur in one of the most racist states of the deep South, using the kind of language that would be sure to appeal to southern resentments and white anger. For how many public figures, never mind a President, would dare to call a black athlete a “son of a bitch”?
            The question that arose for me this morning, though, was whence comes this jingoism at professional athletic contests? Why should a kid’s game become the occasion for mawkish displays of national pride? One can understand why this might happen at the Olympics—which are, after all, thinly-veiled displays of national prowess, where athletes compete for their home countries. But why should the same pride be displayed at domestic ball games? The above-referenced article in the Washington Post explains why. It turns out that the first known playing of the Star-Spangled Banner occurred during the 1918 World Series, at the first game between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. The key is the date: the United States was then at war in Europe, having just joined the First World War effort in 1917, after immense campaigns to get Americans behind the war effort (which most were reluctant to do). In the traditional seventh-inning stretch at the World Series, the crowd suddenly heard a band playing the Star-Spangled Banner (not yet the official national anthem, which it became officially only in 1931). Some in the crowd began to sing along with the music, and then most of the fans did likewise, cheering at the end. As explained in the Post article: “The event had a public relations bonus for ballplayers in 1918, as there were people wondering why they were on the ballfield rather than the battlefield.” In other words, why the hell are you perfect physical specimens playing a kid’s game rather than doing your grownup duty in battle? Almost immediately, baseball’s owners caught on, with the Red Sox the first team to open every game with the national anthem, and other teams quickly following suit.
So there you have it. The reason the national anthem is played at sports contests has less to do with “respect for flag and country” and more to do with public relations. Professional sports owners have to provide a cover story to explain why grown men are paid enormous salaries to play a kid’s game rather than joining their peers in defending their country. We who opposed the war in Vietnam could see this most clearly in the late 1960s, when Sunday football games became obvious metaphors for (hoped-for) American might on the battlefield—or in the corporate sector. The whole spectacle became so nauseating that for years I could not watch football or any other professional sport. It still nauseates some to this day, augmented these days by the knowledge of the dreadful brain damage that is being incurred by football players at every age. Now, though, we have some of the black athletes who make up huge percentages of major sports teams taking advantage of their prominence by trying to draw attention to the plight of their less fortunate brothers. And that sticks in the craw of all those who think these athletes should be grateful for their success. They should be good workers on the sports plantation and give thanks rather than complain. They should not insult the national pride in the flag and the anthem that celebrate American might and military prowess (or bullying). They should simply shut up and play their kid’s game with childish abandon, leaving the big issues to the grownups.
But many of them are finally, and forcefully saying no. And the President, as is his wont, takes the “no” personally: it’s all directed at him. At his constituency. At his people. At his great America. But the truth is, it isn’t. It’s directed at all of America, America since the beginning, and at last it is saying: if you give us this platform because of our skills and bodies and hard work, then we have the right to use that platform to the benefit of those who have no voice. And we will continue to do it, and draw attention not just to the current outrages, but to the 400-year history of those outrages, until they stop. And all of us with any sense of justice or history or compassion should applaud them—not the National Anthem they are using to make their point.
Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, September 8, 2017

Inequality's Not Only Unfair; It's Unhealthy

I’ve just been reading in a fascinating book, Behave, by neurologist Robert Sapolsky, and some of the conclusions he cites about how inequality negatively affects health struck me as critical to publicize right now, in our increasingly unequal society.
            Begin with this: It’s not so much being poor that predicts poor health. It’s feeling poor. That is, how you feel, financially, when you compare yourself with other people, is the key.
            Now here are some explanations for how this works. First, a psychosocial explanation: lower social capital (the collective quantity of resources such as trust, reciprocity, and cooperation available; in brief, being able to count on your society and other people for support) means higher psychological stress. That is, the less you can count on your society and other people, the more you’ll be stressed. And upping the stress response negatively affects health in a wide variety of ways. Briefly, stress causes the adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids (the ‘fight or flight’ response), which in turn quickly mobilize energy from throughout your body, increase heart rate and blood pressure to deliver energy to muscles needed for a physical challenge. The problem is that we humans often activate a mental component—an anticipatory stress response, ahead of a real challenge; which is fine if a real challenge comes. But if one is constantly convinced a challenge is coming when it isn’t, then one can become anxious, neurotic, paranoid or hostile: e.g. psychologically stressed. And such chronic psychological stress leads to serious metabolic problems: high blood pressure, diabetes, and suppression of the immune system leading to vulnerability to all kinds of ailments.
            Second, what’s called a neomaterialist explanation comes from Robert Evans of the University of British Columbia and George Kaplan of the University of Michigan. This is the one that intrigues me. The idea is that “if you want to improve health and quality of life for the average person, you spend money on public goods—better public transit, safer streets, cleaner water, better public schools, universal health care”; in short, on social capital, such as they have in Denmark, say. But the more unequal a society is (which is to say, the greater the income gap between wealthy and average citizens), the less benefit the wealthy feel from policies that improve public goods. ‘What good does public transit, or childcare, or clean water, or public parks do me?’ is the idea. So then, what do the wealthy benefit from? Why from dodging or lowering taxes to keep more for themselves, and then spending their money on goods and services that benefit old number one—luxury cars with a chauffeur, private golf courses, gated communities that keep out the riffraff, bottled water that evades the public system, private schools for their kids, private luxury health plans. Evans puts it this way:
            “The more unequal are incomes in a society, the more pronounced will be the disadvantages to its better-off members from public expenditure, and the more resources will those members have to mount effective political opposition” (e.g., lobbying by corporations and the wealthy to reduce public spending on social capital).
Evans actually calls this the “secession of the wealthy” (comparisons to the secession of the South to bring on the Civil War are clear), and shows how it promotes “private affluence and public squalor.” Luxury for the haves, squalor for the have-nots, in short.
But this isn’t all. Increased inequality also tends to increase crime and violence. Why? It’s related to that initial notion: it’s not how poor you are, but how poor you feel. That is, poverty amid a culture of conspicuous consumption is a big predictor of crime—as studies show all across America, and indeed throughout industrialized nations. But why? Both because of the psychosocial element: inequality means less social capital, less trust, cooperation, and people watching out for each other. And also because of the neomaterialist element: with inequality comes more secession of the wealthy from contributing to the public good (states with more income inequality spend proportionately less money on that key tool against crime, education). Both together lead to more crime.
And finally, another kicker. As has been shown with experimental animals, if you shock a rat electrically, his stress response shoots up. But if that rat can quickly bite another rat (i.e. taking his stress out on a lower-ranking rat), his stress response is far less. It’s the kick-the-dog syndrome. And it has been shown experimentally with baboons as well: one of the best ways to reduce glucocorticoid secretion is for a high-ranking baboon to displace his aggression onto a lower-ranking baboon: a male loses a fight and then chases a lower-ranking male, who promptly bites a female, who then lunges at an infant. In human societies, displaced aggression is as common as dirt: one study measuring effects with football showed that if the local football team unexpectedly lost, violence by men against their wives or partners increased by 10%, and even more (13%) when the losing team was in a playoff. This operates in poor areas even more graphically: instead of the poor rising up to attack the wealthy who cause their problems, most often they prey on their poor neighbors nearby. And crime in poor neighborhoods is one of the pervasive problems leading to anxiety, poor health, and more.
Starting to sound familiar? Starting to sound like a society you’re familiar with? It’s as if the current U.S. government, especially the Republican sector now controlling whole chunks of it, has taken this whole section and memorized it, and set out to engineer as much of the “secession” of the wealthy as they possibly can. This is why their mantra is always, cut government spending (i.e. cut those social capital programs that help the majority—good schools, healthcare, safe neighborhoods, clean water) and privatize everything from schools to roads to water to power. This is exactly what the Trump Administration is trying to do, mainly through the cabinet heads they’ve appointed to reduce and dismantle government programs and regulations. And by their upcoming push to take an axe to taxes on corporations and the wealthy. And by crippling Obamacare. And by starving schools of necessary funds so they can be privatized. And on and on.
And until the rest of us finally wake up and start to reverse the deadly slide of the United States of America into banana-republic status, we’re all (those of us who aren’t wealthy, that is) going to keep getting unhealthier by the minute.

Lawrence DiStasi