Sunday, May 24, 2020

Nihil Nixed

I must admit that many of my most recent blog posts have had a strong spiritual tone.  This may have been a bit of a turn-off to those who are uncomfortable with the spiritual as I define it, or to those who want me to write essays that are focused solely on the observable, quantifiable physical and economic processes of the ongoing decline of the Global North.  While I don't apologize at all for the spiritual element, I promise that today's post will not be just another sermon.  I also promise that in addition to the spiritual, today's post will contain the empirical.  But before you can have your dessert, you must first eat your dinner!

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Let's begin by studying a word: nihilism. The first page of a Google search of this word reveals the following definition at the top of the page: "the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless." According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, nihilism is "originally a philosophy of moral and epistemological skepticism that arose in 19th-century Russia during the early years of the reign of Tsar Alexander II," although the Encyclopedia acknowledges that the concept pre-dates 19th-century Russia. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (woo-hoo!), a product of the University of Tennessee, Martin, states that nihilism is "...the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated." The IEP also states correctly that nihilism as a cultural phenomenon was examined by Friedrich Nietzsche, who concluded correctly that nihilism is the inevitable product of the rejection of the belief in a personal God who gives meaning to the universe, as corroborated by another Internet powerhouse created by a high-powered university, namely Stanford. Nietzsche foresaw the destructive effects which nihilism would have on European and Euro-centric societies which had hitherto relied on Christian ethics and morals as a guide to right action and a restraint against wrong action. His solution therefore was to propose the emergence of an Übermensch (or perhaps a collection of them) who would form a new aristocracy imposing its will on the rest of humanity, thus becoming the creators of the system of values by which the rest of humanity would be obliged to live - often without realizing this obligation. In other words, in the place of God - the Übermensch! These individuals would be able to thus reign over the rest of us by virtue of their more finely developed "will to power", and by means of the power thus conferred by that more developed will.

Now, time for full disclosure: the above paragraph is the result on my part of a rather brief study of nihilism and Nietzsche.  A full study would require weeks, months, or even years of time and the possession of a brain possessed with enough reserves of working memory to untangle really long and knotty philosophical arguments.  I know I don't have the time (mowed the lawn yesterday, need to plant more soybeans in my backyard and finish cleaning the house), and I'm not sure I have even a tenth of the mental firepower needed for such an effort.  But let me break down the above paragraph into a set of propositions.  Nihilism (and Nietzsche) involves the following:
  1. The belief that there is no intrinsic master of the universe who imposes meaning and values on the universe;
  2. The need to save human society from the anomie that results from Statement 1 above by the emergence of an Übermensch or aristocracy of such individuals who by their own finely developed will to power gain the power to impose that will on the rest of us.
  3. The rejection of the notion of impartial treatment of all men (and hence of the equality of all men).  Note that this equality is specifically taught by the New Testament - a source which is rejected by both nihilism and Nietzsche.
The implications of these three attitudes are that if you happen to be one of the fortunate few who can act as an Übermensch,  you can set the rules of whatever part of human society you control according to your own tastes.  And more than likely, the chief goal of your tastes will be to maximize your power as much as possible, even if it means a diminishing of the power of others.  ("Let's divide up the world fairly between us.  One for me, and one for me.  Two for me, and two for me...Heads I win, tails I win...")  You can get away with it, because there is no intrinsic master of the universe who can impose his standards on you - standards which may well contradict yours.

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At first blush, the tradition of thinking embodied in traditional American religious fundamentalism and white American evangelicalism would seem to be the farthest thing from nihilism and from the concept of the Übermensch posited by Nietzsche as the antidote to that nihilism. After all, the rallying cry of American Protestants has historically been Sola Scriptura. And if you're going to cry, "Sola Scriptura!" ("By Scripture alone!") you have to accept Bible passages such as the Book of Ezekiel, which I am currently reading. Ezekiel's prophecy is the polar opposite of nihilism, as seen in quotes like this:
Then He said to me, "The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is very, very great, and the land is filled with blood, and the city is full of perversion, for they say, 'the LORD has forsaken the land, and the LORD does not see!' But as for me, My eye will have no pity nor shall I spare, but I shall bring their conduct upon their heads." - Ezekiel 9:9-10
In other words, by crying "Sola Scriptura!" white American evangelicals have stated their belief in a moral universe, a universe ruled by an impartial moral standard imposed externally on it by a Creator who Himself rules over the universe He has created, and who is angered by and ready to punish the violation of His moral standard.  Therefore, this moral standard is not the creation of any mortal man, but rather of the God who created the universe.  Indeed, according to C.S. Lewis, the mere fact that humans appeal to a moral standard at all - even when the standard to which they appeal is of their own making - shows that humans acknowledge the existence of independent moral standards.  This argument is beautifully set forth in Mere Christianity.   (By the way, white American evangelicalism seems to love C.S. Lewis - at least from what they say about him.)

Armed with this recognition of a moral standard that is independent of man and which originated outside of man, white American evangelicalism has branded itself a warrior in behalf of this moral standard to impose this standard on everyone, whether they want it or not.  Thus from the late 1960's until 2016, prominent American evangelical voices such as Charles Colson, Franklin Graham, Francis Schaeffer, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, et al, have spoken tirelessly against the disappearance of Christian ethics and culture from the broader American culture, as well as warning against the rise of popularity of other religions and the loosening of American sexual mores.  I must say that I think they have been partly right to speak out against things which the Bible speaks against.  But when it comes to the fulcrum - the center of gravity - of the New Testament, they have been unaccountably silent.  For Christ Himself (whom they claim to believe and follow) said, "Therefore, however you want people to treat you, you too, do so for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."  He also said that next to the greatest commandment, namely to love the Lord with all one's being, the second greatest commandment was to love one's neighbor as oneself.

Plenty of other people have explained quite well how it suited American Protestant and evangelical churches to ignore the Scriptural duty each human being has toward his or her fellow human beings, since after all, white America made itself great by trashing, robbing, enslaving and oppressing everyone else on earth.  Under such an arrangement, it would have been highly politically inconvenient for the mass of evangelicals to condemn what Ezekiel would call the gaining of material wealth by violence.  (See Ezekiel 22.)  Indeed, if I might editorialize for just a bit, the Scripture frequently uses sexual imagery to describe the relationship between the God of the Bible and those who call themselves His people.  The true Church is therefore called the Bride of Christ, while those who call themselves God's people and yet are unfaithful to Him are frequently called harlots or unfaithful wives.  In this context, the white American evangelical church has for a long time made itself the spread-legged harlot - the serving wench - of secular, earthly economic and political power, and not the Bride of Christ.

They did so first by teaching that a Christian man's duty to love his fellow man applied only when the two men who needed to love each other were white.  Then they taught that since the rest of us were defective, they could exterminate or enslave us at will, as if to re-enact Israel's conquest of the land of Canaan.  The only problem with this is that they posited that we their intended targets deserved our mistreatment because we were more wicked than they.  And lastly, they redefined evil as being confined simply to certain sexual sins and piety as being confined merely to private observance of religious devotion - thus giving them license to systematically break almost every commandment of God that addresses how people are supposed to treat each other.

I know what effect such teaching (and the treatment I received from white churches who taught it) had on me at first - there was the self-doubt, the questioning, the wondering whether it was actually true that God had created me to be the trash can, the vomit bucket, the toilet bowl, the punching bag of a select subset of humanity, and whether there really was nothing I could (or should) do about it.  One of the things that saved me from that self-doubt and questioning has been that over the years, I have watched the ways in which the leading voices of white American evangelicalism have failed to uphold their own standard.  For they can't even keep their own rules; therefore, they have lost all rights to claim that they are better than me in any way.  So they say that sexual morality is the only kind of morality that matters?  Maybe - but what about the many flag-waving Republicans who voted for Bush, who lost all their retirement savings in the 2008 financial meltdown?  What about the patriotic American soldiers who were killed in the 2003 Iraq invasion which the United States performed to remove weapons of mass destruction that never existed?  These are by no means the only true believers who have suffered from the failure of man to do right by man.  And regarding sexual morality - why is it that the Republicans and evangelicals who were so strident in impeaching Bill Clinton have rallied around Donald Trump?  You who are ready to punish my imperfection, you who accuse me of being a violent thug ready to rape women because I am an African-American male, why have you not stoned Dennis Hastert to death for his sin?  Or Mark Sanford?  Or Josh Duggar?

But I am not here today to editorialize.  I have a larger point to make - first, that the white American evangelical church (and by extension, the entire Republican party) have come to me to be the perfect embodiment of nihilism.  Nihilism in the sense that while they say they believe in an impartial moral standard that originated outside of themselves, they act as if there is no such standard and that the only standard to which they are willing to submit is the standard which they themselves create and have the power to enforce.  They are the Übermensch aristocracy, whose philosophy is captured in this quote attributed to an aide of former President George W. Bush:
The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' [...] 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
So,... what's the point of all that I have written so far?  As I said a few sentences ago, I am not here to editorialize.  Nor am I here to try to appeal to the better angels of the people now in power in this country.  Frankly, I am tired of that kind of editorializing (although today I found a particularly fine example of it here).  To me it's a waste of time to tell people who do very bad things that they are in danger of thus making themselves very bad people once you see that they want to be bad because they find badness to be ego-syntonic.  My question is much cruder.  Namely, it is this: how long can a society get away with murder before there are consequences?  For the universe is not nihilist!  After all, the Bible does not just appeal to our better angels; it also promises consequences to those people who do not have better angels.  And the consequences are not just that such people will become icky.  The Bible promises that God will break things in the lives of those who continue in evil.  "The soul that sins shall die." - Ezekiel 18:4.  "The wages of sin is death..." - Romans 6: 23.  "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap." - Galatians 6:7.  In other words, I am looking for the propagation of the outworkings of damnation in a society that ought to be damned.  Moreover, I am looking not only as a Christian, but as an empiricist, a person who has received a technical professional education and earned a technical professional degree and who is familiar with the scientific method.  And this weekend, I think I've found some evidences for the propagation I've been looking for.

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Consider again the white American evangelical and Protestant establishment as the spread-legged harlot - the serving wench - of secular, earthly economic and political power, and not the Bride of Christ.  Consider that church as a key pillar of the power base of Donald J. Trump, and consider that this is so because of the leaders who have risen to prominence in the evangelical ecosphere.  Now consider what is happening to that church in the age of COVID-19.  I leave you with the following citations:
I therefore hypothesize the emergence of a much smaller evangelical presence in America over the next several months, and the diminishment of American evangelicalism as a potent and controllable force in American politics.  (Disclaimer: I am not a prophet, and have not been officially certified by any state or government board as having any sort of gift of prophecy.  Take what I say with a grain of empiricism - YMMV.)  I also hypothesize the emergence of a cohort of jobless pastors!  This decline of evangelical power is, I think, one of the biggest reasons why Trump is so hot to remove social distancing restrictions on large indoor gatherings.  It is also why the Trump administration has extended COVID-19 financial aid to evangelical churches (in violation, some would say, of the Constitutional separation of church and state).  

Trump's use of government resources to prop up cronies leads me to the consideration of other propagations of the outworkings of damnation.  These considerations overwhelmingly involve the effect on American secular power.  But you'll have to wait until my next post to read them.  It's way past time for me to do other stuff...

Friday, May 22, 2020

I Am Not Going To Church This Sunday

So I hear that Donald Trump has made the following statement:
"The president just demanded places of worship reopen for in-person services and he talked about guidelines being issued for “communities of faith”. 
He wants them open “for this weekend”. Called upon governors to life quarantine restrictions relating to religious gathering places.
“If they do not do it I will override the governors,” he said.
He then turned on his heel and left the White House press briefing room without taking any questions.
Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany then brought up Deborah Birx, response coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, to the podium for an expert briefing."
 - Quotes retrieved from the Guardian, 22 May 2020.

I've got news for him: I'm not going to church this Sunday.  I will not be celebrating Memorial Day in crowded places.  (I will not be celebrating the 4th of July at all.)  I will not be going to indoor, sit-down coffee shops (like the Starbucks near my house which opened its doors today for the first time in several weeks).  I will not go to restaurants.  I will not go to national parks.  I will not attend sporting events.  I will not join in this idiot's pretense that life is normal.  Because it's not.  Due to Donald Trump's malignancy and incompetence, we have the following situation:

  • A pandemic has dealt (and continues to deal) a crippling blow to our economy.
  • The people who to date have borne the brunt of the deaths resulting from that pandemic are people whom Trump and his white Republican murderers have targeted for destruction.
  • There is not yet a viable, proven vaccine available for COVID-19.  (Yes, I know that a certain American biopharma manufacturer is boasting of optimistic results - but their data have not been rigorously peer-reviewed.)
  • There is not yet a viable, proven antiviral drug that is effective against COVID-19.  (Yes, I know that the manufacturers of remdesivir have boasted of minor reductions in disease severity and length of hospitalization - but many doctors and scientists have questioned the methodology of the U.S. remdesivir study. (See this and this.)  And yes, I know that Donald swears by hydroxychloroquine, but I suspect that not a drop of it has passed through his lips.  How might the world look if he did really overdose on some fish tank cleaner!)
  • There is not yet any kind of widespread testing available for coronavirus infection.  A Washington State-based group that had developed a free, accurate test kit that could be used in people's homes was asked this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to halt the use of their tests.  On the other hand, the FDA has granted authorization to a Texas firm to provide in-home test kits - but those who want a kit must jump through a few hoops first.  Why am I not surprised?  Donald Trump has already made it abundantly clear that he is opposed to widespread testing because of the possibility that the test results will indicate that the United States is experiencing a crisis for which the Republican Party has no answer.
  • Those states and regions which have ended social distancing restrictions are now seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases.  As a result, there will be further spikes in death rates.  Again, not surprising.  Throw lit matches into a dry meadow in the middle of summer, and you will have fire.
In calling therefore for churches and other places of worship to open this Sunday (and in threatening to force them to open whether they want to or not), Trump shows not only his ignorance of the Constitution, not only also his ignorance of the Bible (Matthew 4:7, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test"), but most importantly, his ignorance of the realities of trying to reopen a nation and its economy without dealing with the issues that forced it to close in the first place.  Those realities are excellently explained in an article by Jonathan V. Last titled, "We Cannot 'Reopen' America."

On another note, I've noticed that Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic is not just an isolated case of insanity.  Rather, he is typical of all of the global Far Right leaders who have come to power (many of them with the help of the Russian government) over the last several years.  Thus Boris Johnson's Britain became an outlier among those nations which consider themselves in any way European, in that Britain came to have the largest number of COVID-19 cases of any country in that part of the world.  And Russia, which has long aspired for a return to greatness, now has its wish for greatness fulfilled in a sense, in that it now has the largest number of COVID-19 cases of any nation on earth except for the United States.  (We're still No. 1 - Go, USA!  Or let's not!)  Moreover, both Putin and Trump seem to be reading from the same playbook in that their national health response to the coronavirus has been characterized by scapegoating of foreigners, political posturing, and chaos.  One way in which Putin's government differs from Trump's is that Trump merely bullies and browbeats medical experts who contradict him.  Putin, on the other hand, seems to have lost a few dissenting doctors who mysteriously fell from windows over the last few weeks.  They didn't slip on their tea, did they?

Update: I need to add another country currently being trashed - er, I mean, ruled - by a far-Right leader: Brazil.  Jair Bolsonaro has just earned the dubious distinction of leading his country to overtake Russia in COVID-19 deaths and confirmed cases.  That means that Brazil is the new global No. 2.  This confirms my hypothesis that everything the Far Right touches turns to used toilet paper.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Psychodynamics of Losing

I have started reading the Book of Lamentations in the mornings, having spent the last month or so reading the Book of Jeremiah.  The most obvious message of these books is the spiritual - namely that the kingdom of Judah was conquered and overthrown by Babylon because the Jews had chosen to deny the truth of God by worshiping other gods, and they had chosen to deny the truth that humankind is made in the image of God by oppressing each other - including the most powerless in their midst - the alien, the orphan, and the widow.  But my reading this time has opened up for me a fascinating glimpse into the psychology and psychodynamics of the ruling classes of nations that are in decline.

One can see these psychodymanics at work in the conflict between the ruling class (and their propagandists, the false prophets) versus the prophets of God who announced that God was about to destroy the kingdom of Judah.   One might call these rulers and their false prophets the revanchists, the "nationalists" and "patriots" of their day, because they represented the hope that Judah might remain as an independent kingdom subservient to no one, and that Judah might one day regain all the lost glory of the kingdom of Solomon.  Their desire for a return of lost glory could be viewed as an expression of national narcissism, because this desire for lost glory was not accompanied by a willingness to submit to their God. 

On the other hand were the true prophets who accurately prophesied that God was about to destroy Judah.  This sentence, "God is about to destroy Judah", had three implications:
  • that the nation in which the rulers and the people had invested their identity was about to be destroyed;
  • that God was the One who would do the destroying;
  • and that this destruction was God's commentary, His verdict on the nation, its character and practices, as captured in the following quote: "Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say 'We are delivered!' - that you may do all these abominations?" (Jeremiah 7:9-10)
The true prophets did not have access to the political power and concentrated wealth of the ruling classes and their "prophets", so it was easy for the privileged members of society in Judah to label the true prophets as traitors who sought to incite sedition.  Therefore some of these true prophets wound up doing jail time, and a few got assassinated.  But what is so fascinating to me is the way the ruling class and their adherents reacted when the prophecies of the true prophets began to come true, during the twenty-two and a half years between the death of King Josiah and the fall of Jerusalem.  What we see is not just the rejection of true spirituality by the king and the people of Judah, but the refusal to submit to the king of Babylon, even as the military and political realities went increasingly against Judah and Jerusalem.  The darkening regional military and political realities are described well in some of the secular histories of this region during the final days of the kingdom of Judah.  But the Bible itself notes that during these last days, Judah was invaded and humbled three times by foreign powers, and that at the last, those who held Jerusalem resisted until "...the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land.  Then the city was broken into..." (2 Kings 25:3-4).  In other words, there were people in Judah who were willing to fight the inevitable, even if it meant a fight to the death.  That means that there was something they valued so much that the loss of the thing valued was to them a fate worse than death, even though they must have known that they were going to lose.

And this willingness to fight to the death to maintain a cause that is both immoral and losing made me think of other instances in history in which humans have chosen to fight for such causes.  There is the obvious case of the second destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, a destruction which resulted from the rebellion of Jewish ethno-nationalists against the Roman Empire.  But there is also the case of Nazi Germany from 1942 to 1945, in which the Wehrmacht chose to fight to the death rather than lose an identity which had been carefully constructed for them by the rulers of their society and which made sense only within the context of that society.  (Side note: did you know that the motto of the Wehrmacht was "Gott mit uns" - that is, "God with us"?) And there is the example of the last days of both Rome and Byzantium.  The fall of the Byzantine empire is noteworthy, as the decline of Byzantium was a long time in the making.  The Byzantine emperors had focused for so long on infighting to maintain themselves as the top dogs in their empire that they had failed to notice that the world was changing around them while their empire was weakening.  Nearly a century before their final fall, one of their emperors was arrested in Venice for outstanding debts incurred by hiring Crusader mercenaries in an attempt to recapture lost territory.  (You might say that he nearly went broke trying to Make Byzantium Great Again.)  During its last years, the Byzantine empire could only watch helplessly as its enemies obtained the most advanced military technology of the day - namely, devices capable of shooting large projectiles by means of gunpowder.  These devices (cannons, to be precise) were the decisive factor in the fall of Constantinople, in which the last Byzantine emperor fought to the death.

Which brings me to the present day, in which those who cling to the hope of their own supremacy at the expense of everyone else on earth are beginning to fall on hard times.  I am thinking particularly of Donald Trump and the regime he represents and of which he is a chief symptom.  Consider these facts:
  • The United States has lost its place among the top ten most innovative countries in the world.  This is due to decades of underinvestment in education at all levels in this country.
  • The United States has seriously begun to lose intellectual capital from this country, as smart foreign nationals (and some smart native-born Americans) are choosing either to stay away, or to relocate to other countries.  (See this and this.)  These are the results of a certain American brand of xenophobia/racism combined with longstanding cuts in funding for basic research.  Continued American racism and hostility toward anything Chinese is not helping this trend.
  • Speaking of China, by most accounts, Donald Trump has lost the trade war he started.  (As an aside, for those members of the global Far Right who were hoping that Russia could return the world to where it was several decades ago, it appears that Russia has lost its recent oil price war with Saudi Arabia.  In losing that war, it has lost far more in the process.)
  • Because of Trump's blunders and malignant stupidity in his response to the coronavirus threat, the office of the Presidency (and with it the entire Executive Branch of the Federal Government) is losing its relevance in shaping American national life, as governors of states team up with each other to provide leadership for the good of their citizens without consulting Trump.  (See this also.)
  • Speaking again of coronavirus, the United States has decisively lost its former place as global leader and coordinator of global crisis response, as over twenty nations (including the most powerful nations of Europe) have publicly met via videoconference this past week to begin coordination of a global response to the coronavirus pandemic.  (So much, by the way, for Russian hopes of fracturing the world order for its own benefit!)  The United States was not invited to the call.  (See this also.)  Note also that these nations have thrown their full support behind the World Health Organization - counter to the wishes of Mr. Trump.  This makes it very likely that effective remedies to the coronavirus pandemic will not be produced by the United States.
  • According to some reports, the U.S. Dollar is about to lose a significant portion of its value vis-a-vis other currencies over the next several months.  This is partly the result of government-mandated corporate bailouts (pushed by Trump and the Republican establishment) that have helped corporations prop up stock prices without creating any new actual value in the American economy.
Are we here in the "most powerful nation on earth" about to lose much of what we hold near and dear - especially the intangible psychic construct of ourselves?  And how do people react to the loss of an idealized grandiose self and of the belief system that props up that self?   In her book Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan explores the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance - the experience of having reality contradict deeply cherished beliefs - and the ways in which the brain of the person being contradicted tries to adapt.  One of the most perverse adaptations is to double down on the belief that has just been contradicted by reality.  Our President is succeeding in making himself and this nation irrelevant.  Will the members of Trump's base respond to the complete moral and intellectual failure of their champion by injecting themselves with bleach?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Scapegoating of the Named Patient

Those who have followed my blogging for a long time know that I originally began blogging in order to document and reflect on my experiences in an abusive fringe evangelical church in the United States. That church was founded by a dysfunctional husband-and-wife team and their two dysfunctional sons. These four formed the original leadership core of that church (or, to use their terminology, that "Assembly"), and I am convinced that from the very beginning the sons knew fully and accurately just how much of a counterfeit their parents were, and therefore knew fully and accurately just how much of a scam their "Assembly" was. Quite naturally, the dad appointed himself the "head honcho" of that sorry bunch (or as he put it, "the Head Steward of the Work!").

As time passed, the Assemblies grew both in the total number of groups and the total number of members in each group, and this necessitated the promotion of certain ambitious members of each group to places of leadership. Once a person was inducted into a leadership role, he almost always found himself in a select inner circle whose members were allowed to see aspects of our head honcho that were hidden from the rest of us. Those aspects consisted of embezzlement, corruption, hypocrisy, secret malignancy, and exploitation (including sexual sin) - although from time to time, all the rest of us could see the open malignancy, pride, narcissism, and bullying that flashed forth from the leadership and from our head honcho.

The interesting thing that happens to people who exist for a long time in such an environment is that they tend to become like their environment. This means that most of us tended to become jerks (and few things are more annoying than a religious jerk), and because our head honcho was a king-sized jerk, the people closest to him - his deputy leaders - became some of the biggest jerks in our group. Many of us who were not in the inner leadership circle did not recognize the extent to which we were becoming corrupt in our zeal to become like our leaders. When that corruption was pointed out to us by outsiders, we were able to justify it by saying that our gung-ho zeal, and the pushiness of our proselytizing/recruiting of others, and the way we disparaged anyone who had a life outside our group was all actually evidence of our spirituality. (I guess it was! Just not the way we thought.) We also justified our attempts to find people whom we could boss around by claiming that this was an evidence of our desire to "grow in stature." I must say, though, that our inability to recognize the foolishness of the things we were being taught to emulate is no excuse, but rather an evidence of almost criminal stupidity. (And for every finger I point outward, I recognize that there are three pointing back at me.) But the men (and some women) who comprised the inner circle of leadership knew something the rest of us didn't know - that the leading family - the head honcho and his wife and sons - were engaging in criminal behavior, including domestic violence. Yet they became the chief enablers of the head honcho and his family. Not only this, but many of these deputy leaders became petty tyrants and bullies in their own right, causing much distress for the people under their authority.

Although this system was corrupt, it did seem to possess a certain durability, in large part because it had evolved a very efficient means of dealing with any honest, non-corruptible people who were recruited into its midst. Such people usually left soon after being drawn into an Assembly, and when they left, the leaders would tell very convincing lies about how these leavers left because of some hidden "sin." Some of these leavers made the mistake of trying to persuade us "stayers" that they left because they saw holes in the head honcho's doctrine and preaching. Whenever that happened, the leaders would simply say that the leavers left because of "spiritual pride." But the leaders and the head honcho got something more than they could handle when a few of these leavers and some of those in the process of deciding to leave found out about the domestic violence, financial irregularities, and adultery going on with the head honcho and his family. Our "Assemblies" therefore suffered an existential crisis from 2000 to 2003, and it was a crisis which most of our groups did not survive.

Now what is interesting about this crisis is that the vast majority of the members were forced to face the reality that the head honcho we had all been following was a thoroughly corrupt hypocrite. A corollary to this realization was the realization that our deputy leaders had been corrupt enablers of the head honcho. As this additional realization began to be spoken openly among us, the deputy leaders began to try hard to portray themselves as fellow victims with us against the head honcho. Some of them even went as far as trying to say that they tried without success to rein in our head honcho. And all of them condemned the head honcho and tried to wash their hands of him. Based on what I know of some of these leaders, I think their vehement final public rejection of the head honcho was motivated by a desire to pick up the pieces of the small-time religious "empire" which the head honcho had created, so that one or more of these deputy leaders might crown himself the new "head honcho." In other words, by their condemnation of the head honcho, these deputy leaders tried to scapegoat him (as the most obvious target) in order to draw attention away from their own complicity in perpetuating a toxic, abusive system. The thing that thwarted these deputy leaders in their ambition was the fact that the rest of us had by this time awakened to the fact that not only had we all suffered abuse at the hands of the now deposed head honcho, but that we had also suffered abuse from his deputies, and that these men had acted like jerks toward the rest of us. So it was that most of us, me included, walked away completely from that mess.

Years later, I found myself dealing with other dysfunctional systems, and this pushed me to read a large amount of literature on the dynamics of dysfunctional organizational systems, whether on a household level or on the level of something larger. One of the things I learned is that in dysfunctional systems controlled by an obviously sick, evil, or deranged person - the "named patient" (also known as the "identified patient") - the other members of the system frequently bear significant culpability for the continued survival of that system. Yet it is usually convenient for them to blame all the problems of the system on the "named patient."

So we fast forward to April 2020, and I have to say that a few recent essays in popular online news sources have raised my eyebrows. The essays have all been about the coronavirus pandemic and the completely and utterly dysfunctional response of the Trump White House to the pandemic. And while I agree with the fact that Trump botched things "bigly," what strikes me is that some of these essays have called for Mike Pence to take over the Federal coronavirus response because of Trump's malignant incompetence. The author of one such essay pleaded with Pence to "remove Trump and save us from the coronavirus." Another essayist stated that the coronavirus crisis would not have gotten as far out of hand in the United States had someone else been president - "Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Mike Pence, really almost anybody else..." I am not a huge fan of Hillary Clinton, but I will agree that we would not be facing what is likely to become an economy-destroying crisis on account of the coronavirus if she had become President in 2017. But what I see in the mention by these essayists of Republicans who might have done a better job than Trump reminds me uncomfortably of the attempts by the deputy leaders of my former abusive church to rehabilitate themselves by means of loud public denunciations of our former head honcho. Except that this time, it seems to be certain members of the Republican Party and the conservative political establishment who are trying to rehabilitate themselves by condemning Trump.

The only problem is, they can't succeed. Not if they're honest with themselves. Just as the former deputy leaders of my former church condemned themselves by condemning our former head honcho, these must realize that they condemn themselves by condemning Trump. Don't get me wrong - Trump needs to be denounced, like my former abusive church head honcho needed to be denounced. But the voices on the right who are condemning Trump must admit that they themselves are the very people whose desire for moral impossibility combined with their ungodly access to concentrated wealth and power to bring us the regime of Trump in the first place. Trump is therefore a symptom of a wider dysfunction.  Aren't the Republicans the same people whose narcissism refused to acknowledge that their desire for what they want needed to be tempered by the recognition of the rights of the other peoples who live on the earth? Are not many of these people the same people who paid large amounts of money years ago to create the Tea Party movement? Many operatives from this movement are now loudly demanding that the restrictions on gatherings and businesses imposed by state governors in order to halt the spread of COVID-19 be immediately lifted.  And are not many Republican politicians just as insane as Trump? Do you think that a Sarah Palin presidency would look any different by now? Who among these people was protesting during the days of Trump's Muslim travel ban? Which of these people rebuked Trump for stationing U.S. Border Patrol agents and military personnel at the southern border to rip Mexican children out of the arms of their parents and throw them into cages? How many of them approved of the destruction of social safety nets in Wisconsin by former Governor Scott Walker? How many of them have secretly or openly agreed with some of the nutcase statements from Governor Sam Brownback about "God, guts and guns" - especially about his disdain for gun control even after high school students across the nation expressed outrage over the lack of effective gun control in this country? How many of them refuse to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change even to this day? How many of them are trying to disenfranchise voters in states controlled by the Republican Party by refusing to allow mail-in voting during the present pandemic?

These people are infected with the same malignant narcissism which animates Trump. Some of them may not be as far along in their disease as he is, yet they are all moving inexorably in the same direction toward a singularity of moral impossibility in which they demand supremacy at all costs, regardless not only of the rights of others (including both nonwhite and white others), but of physical reality itself (including the actual science of epidemiology and its bearing on the propagation of viruses). Blogger Olga Doroshenko describes this narcissism thus in its effects on Soviet Russia: "During [the Bolsheviks'] 73-year rule, the Russian narcissism reached the final stage: total separation from reality and hence, self-destruction of the nation." (Emphasis added.) As the United States and its leadership are wholly taken in their own narcissism, our own self-destruction looms as a distinct and unpleasant possibility.  We'll see who finally takes the fall for that self-destruction.  But if you are a Trump supporter, and you find yourself one day with a mouth full of gravel, don't just blame him.  Blame yourself also.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Playing With Matches In A Paper House

Today, 28 March 2020, as I write this, the United States of America has for the last few days been the world leader in confirmed coronavirus cases.  What's worse is that even though the number of confirmed cases has climbed to over 116,000, the growth rate continues to be exponential, as seen here.  The site captured in the last link also shows that the COVID-19 death rate continues to climb exponentially.  In light of these events, I thought it might be helpful to provide a short list of things we now know about the course of coronavirus infection in humans.
  • We now know that of all people who become infected with COVID-19, approximately 80 to 81 percent will develop mild illness and fully recover.  However, 19 to 20 percent will develop severe disease, with five percent developing "critical disease" according to this source.
  • We also know that while early reports stated that young people were significantly less likely to develop severe disease than older people, later data has shown that young people are still at significant risk of developing severe disease.  This source reports that nearly 40 percent of those hospitalized in the United States for COVID-19 were under 55 years old.  The majority of hospitalizations in New York are for people under 50 years old.  And there are sources such as this which present the personal stories of strong, accomplished young athletes who have been seriously sickened by COVID-19.
  • We know that the death rate as a percentage of total cases of COVID-19 has been climbing in the United States.  When the first outbreaks occurred, the U.S. death rate was from 1 to 1.5 percent.  However, the latest percentage for New York City is approximately 1.7 percent.  (Click this link and then do the math.)  What happens when the health care systems of the various states are overwhelmed is another matter.  Consider, for instance, what would happen to the 19-to-20 percent of an infected population who develop severe disease, yet who don't have access to health care because their health care systems have been overwhelmed.  Then the U.S. death rate might almost certainly exceed 5 percent, and might even go as high as 10 percent.
We also know a few things about Donald Trump, the terrible titular leader of the United States in these terrible times.  We know that Trump had access to an Obama-era disease management playbook written by the National Security Council as a sort of "lessons-learned" document describing how the Obama administration successfully managed the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015.  We also know that Trump disregarded it.  And we know that Trump was warned by intelligence analysts in January 2020 of the potential severity and impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.  He chose to ignore and downplay those warnings.

As I look at the ways in which Trump and his cohort have tried to spin this crisis, I have found myself asking questions, such as, what drives Trump?  What are his strategic motivations?  What is his long-term thinking?  (Sometimes I ask these same questions about either one of my two cats as I see them staring off into space.  But they are cool and not sinister, whereas Trump is evil.)

To the extent that he thinks at all, Trump seeks to rebuild White "great power" autarky as it existed over 100 years ago.  However, it was never really "autarky", was it?  What really happened was that the great colonial powers, after they had exhausted their own resource base, sought to keep themselves great by stealing the bodies, lands, and stuff of all the other peoples on earth, laying claim that "this piece of land which we 'discovered', along with its people, now belongs to this particular Northern nation."  This has been the motivation behind American military and economic interventions under Trump, as well as his thwarted desire to build a wall to keep the nonwhite nations of the earth from coming to the United States in search of that which was stolen from them.  But it has also been the motivation behind the efforts of the United States and Russia to neutralize and destroy any independent power centers that are not European or Slavic.  Hence, Trump has sought to "weaponize" the coronavirus in a soft-power sense by calling it "the Wuhan virus" or "the Chinese virus" in his bid to demonize and other-ize people of Asian descent.  Unfortunately, there are knuckleheads in the United States who have followed his lead and perpetrated recent hate crimes against Asian-Americans.  But this response is typical of the narcissism which says, "If there's any imperfection among us, it can't possibly be with me!  It must belong to someone else!"  Such a response is not helpful, because it ignores the fact that white people can transmit the coronavirus just as easily as anyone else.  Consider Boris Johnson, Rand Paul, and the flocks of high school and college students who went to beaches in Florida on spring break, got infected by each other, and brought the COVID-19 infection back to their fellows at their home campuses.

But while we can acknowledge the possibility that Trump "thinks" in some sense, it is also true that he "feels" - that is, certain situations produce in him strong visceral reactions.  As a narcissist, therefore, he cannot handle having to deal with predicaments that are beyond his control, predicaments which require a collective response shaped by many diverse points of view, a response that patiently takes a long view, a response that acknowledges that there are no quick fixes, a response that is humble and open in the face of difficulty.  The current COVID-19 outbreak is just such a difficulty, and Trump has acted like a fish out of water in the face of it.  Thus he has tried desperately to spin this crisis into something where he can be seen as decisively in charge, the leader of the cavalry coming over the hill with a promised quick fix.  This is what is behind the gaggle of questionable "medical experts" seen on Fox News who have backed Trump's assertions that the coronavirus was no worse than the "seasonal flu" or who have pushed questionable remedies such as chloroquine as a cure.

(Trump's obsession with chloroquine deserves special mention.  The only reason he heard about the drug at all in connection with COVID-19 is because of a certain French microbiologist with sketchy credentials and practices, who contacted Fox News and told them that he had successfully treated COVID-19 infected patients with the drug.  Note that chloroquine has never been used as an antiviral drug.  Note also that the Chinese government ran a study of their own which showed that chloroquine had no effect on the course of COVID-19 in patients.  Lastly, it should be mentioned that at least one person has died from trying to self-medicate using a form of chloroquine found in fish tank cleaner.)

And now, Trump has already long since tired of trying to act "presidential" in the face of a crisis which does not offer quick fixes.  (He and his friends are also tired of losing money to a crisis which they let get out of hand.)  Hence, he wants the United States to return to being "open for business" by Easter, with no restrictions on travel or gatherings (or, most importantly, shopping!).  That brings up some interesting possibilities.  Right now, his approval rating is hovering around 50 percent.  Say that represents 150 million Americans.  Say that they also do what he says and return to "life as normal" starting on Easter.  This means abandoning social distancing and self-isolation.  Say also that 70 percent of these people wind up becoming infected with COVID-19.  That would equate to 105 million people.  To make the numbers easier to deal with, let's say 100 million.  Out of these 100 million, 20 million will get sick enough to require hospitalization.  But long before we reach the 20 million mark, the health care systems throughout much of the United States will be overwhelmed.  That means that between 5 and 10 million could die.

The COVID-19 outbreak will cause an inevitable contraction of the American economy.  If the people of the United States do the right thing and continue to aggressively self-quarantine and self-isolate, the only thing we will lose is money - and we will be taking the shortest route to recovery in the process.  If we try to push our re-opening too soon, our economy will contract for another reason - the economic and social disruption that results from millions of us dying.  In seeking to re-open the country for business by Easter, Trump is playing with matches in a paper house.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Of Houses, Storms, Sand and Bedrock

Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell—and its fall was great.

- Matthew 7:24-27, World English Bible

The words of the Scripture quoted above came to me this week as I pondered the progress of recent events worldwide and nationally.  The quoted parable defines wisdom quite specifically - namely as the willingness to do the things commanded by Jesus.  But it also points out a couple of other facts, namely, that everyone is building something, and that storms come from time to time to test every person's work.  If a person's house gets knocked down by the storm, he can't blame it solely on the storm - he must also admit admit that he was a stupid builder.

Thus the coronavirus pandemic might be viewed as a storm of a certain kind, and the leaders of nations might be viewed as those whose house-building is being tested.  In particular, two kinds of leaders are being tested:
  • those who understand as the Proverbs say, that a king's glory is his people, and that the king had therefore better provide for the common good of his people so that his kingdom can be strong;
  • and those who cannibalize their people in order to enrich themselves.
In the latter group we can put all of the politicians of the global far right who have become heads of state within the last four years, as well as their chief enabler, a certain Vladimir Putin.  The interesting thing about these people is that they were able to raise a base of certain members of the common people to back them by convincing them that narcissism, greed and selfishness are good things and that by these things they would make their countries (and their base) great again.  This then has been the character of the metaphorical "houses" they have built.

The current storm, however, is exposing a lot of shoddy workmanship, bad carpentry, and substandard building materials in these "houses".  Consider that Angela Merkel's Germany is weathering the coronavirus storm much better than the United States right now, because of two factors: a robust public health system, and a chancellor who tells the straight-up truth.  Consider also the robust, clear-eyed responses of South Korea and Singapore to the current crisis.  And lastly, consider the response of China, which after initially fumbling, took such steps as making testing free, removing all payment requirements for new patients seeking care, and enforcing of self-quarantine.  As a result, new cases of COVID-19 are now declining in China.  Compare that with the response of a certain Mr. Donald Trump, which can only be described as one long, continuous fumble.  As a result of Trump's fumbling, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed today below the level it held on the day when President Barack Obama left office.  And coronavirus cases in the United States continue to climb.

Trump's initial response - namely to downplay the severity of the crisis while doing nothing to help the people of the United States - is remarkably similar to the response of Boris Johnson, the current prime minister of Britain, whose government decided that the best way to protect Britain was to allow the virus to spread naturally in order to build up "herd immunity" among Britons.  ("God save the Queen," you say?!  How about "God help Britain!"  With friends like these, who needs enemies?)  Political pressure forced him to abandon this plan, but its replacement still looks a lot like "doing nothing."

Russia, on the other hand, seems to have adopted a different approach.  According to the World Health Organization, Russia has only 199 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection as of the time of this writing, with no confirmed deaths.  Russia is therefore nearly perfect, the very thing every narcissist wants to be...except that a large number of Russian doctors are now saying that the Putin government is forcing them to under-report cases of COVID-19, and that the Russian medical system is so decrepit that accurate assessments of the current situation in Russia are impossible.  They are also pointing out the extremely limited number of test kits available, the inaccuracy of these kits, and the fact that they are all made by one Russian monopoly.  There also seems to be a sharp spike in cases of "community-acquired pneumonia" and "community-acquired influenza", with entire hospital wards being emptied of other patients in order to accommodate the new cases.  Maybe Putin's government doesn't know the difference between COVID-19 and other viruses, but it does know how to try, at least, to capitalize on an opportunity to weaken nations that are better than Russia - as witnessed by an EU report stating that pro-Russian media outlets are sowing disinformation about the current pandemic in order to try to aggravate the public health crisis in the West. Nice to see what Putin's priorities actually are.

But it's not just heads of nations whose work is being tested by this storm.  It's individuals and families as well.  I am thinking of what our responses to a crisis say about our individual character.  Of particular note is the extent to which each of us is addicted to mass media, including social media with its news feeds.  And I am thinking of the mindset which I encountered when I was first exposed to the concepts of peak oil and resource depletion - the mindset which at the time was called prepping, but which I now call hoarding.  It is a particularly dysfunctional kind of hoarding which makes people go to Winco and buy out all the Top Ramen, toilet paper, and beans they can get their hands on.  And four times within the last nine months this behavior has appeared.  The first three times, it was because the weather reporters on the news predicted heavy snow.  Now, note - this happened in 2019 and early 2020 in Portland, Oregon.  Yet people seem to forget that in 2008 it snowed for two weeks, and everyone managed to live without resorting to hoarding.  People can be such...people...sometimes...  Is it possible that many of us have built our lives on a set of poisonous assumptions and bad moral choices?  How is your house holding up in all this rain?

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Coming Shenanigans of November 2020

For many of us who live in the United States, the November 2016 election shows overwhelming evidence of election fraud and tampering by the Trump regime and the Russian government.  The nation was pacified into accepting the election results by the argument that it was really Trump's capture of a number of "battleground" or "swing" states, combined with the peculiarities of the Electoral College, that allowed Trump to "win".

Lest the same strategy is being revived to condition Americans to accept another fraudulent "victory" for Trump in 2020, I thought it would be good to re-post a 2017 interview I held with Rick Lass of the United States Green Party in which he described what happened when members of the Green Party asked for recounts of vote results in three of these "battleground" states.  The response from the governments of these three states is illuminating, but hardly surprising, as the leaders of these states value earthly power above truth-telling.  If you want to listen to the interview, there is a download link in the original post.