It’s That Time of Year

Christmas isn’t just a time for shopping!  In his thoughtful Christmas 2017 newsletter, a dear friend, A.D., reflects on moral foundations:  “There is still great danger in certainty, whether it is embodied by an ideology like Communism or in a fundamentalist faith… what we now hold as fundamental values and attitudes may look pretty silly in 200 years… even ‘Foundational’ beliefs change over time.”

Roy Moore’s senatorial candidacy in Alabama shows that the passage of 200 years is not required for things to start looking crazy.  Since the election of Donald Trump (heavens, only a year ago!), the moral foundations of the Republican party have morphed such that a credibly-accused pedophile, an Islamophobic racist who feels that America was last “great” during times of slavery, enjoys the full support of the Republican National Committee.  And, of course, Moore has the strong support of our Chaos President, himself a compulsive liar, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, white nationalist bully.  What in the world has happened to the Party of Lincoln?  The self-hypnosis and extreme moral rationalization necessary in order to sacrifice its traditional values for the sake of political expediency has the GOP either sleepwalking or tied in knots.

I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne (highly recommended).  Michel Montaigne, a 16th-century writer whose influence remains powerful today, adopted several Hellenistic philosophies, particularly Skepticism.  He addressed life problems by saying, essentially, “I withhold judgment,” which freed him from having to find an answer to anything, including the endless unanswerable questions that plague us every day.  The Skeptics accepted everything provisionally, rather than try to confront a “real world” with absolute truths which could be known, categorized and arranged in an orderly fashion.  To be so supremely unassuming, as they saw it, was the path to relaxation, joy and ultimately the flourishing of humanity.

Montaigne’s essays were initially embraced by the Catholic Church as exemplary arguments in support of faith, and then, within a century, denounced as subtle works of the Devil.  The Essays remained on a list of banned books until their eventual rehabilitation in the eyes of the Church.  Back and forth went the interpretation:  even the Church, a purported source of moral “foundations” could not claim a firm grip on bedrock.  Bakewell suggests that Zen Buddhism, with its perplexing koans, may have been a better approach to the imponderables of Montaigne’s universe.

A.D. does not “affiliate with a particular catechism,” but nevertheless writes, “I may not be someone swayed by revealed truth, prophecy or miracles but I recognize that, in my attempt to live some sort of a ‘virtuous’ life, I function in a web of religious history and culture... without it, I would probably be paralyzed by a sense of relativity and by a cosmic complexity that is way beyond  my puny reasoning capacities.”  A.D. is being rightfully unassuming:  the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure, says the Skeptic, the Montaigne, in all of us.  Thankfully, faith of a more general (not necessarily religious) type and hope in goodness save us from living in a bleak, unknowable world.  I might also look into Zen…

Not a bad newsletter to get for Christmas!  With apologies to our friend A.D., even Fourth World Nation, the just-released second novel in my sci-fi trilogy, takes a stand.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

“They had so readily mistaken mindless mob behavior for unity, just as they were doing now, thought Benn.  And, according to Marc, the fact that their intolerance would only be assuaged by a tangible demonstration—such as a prophecy or a miracle—was the opposite of faith.  Benn could easily provide such a demonstration, but even then, he would either be seen as a messiah or a witch.”

On that cheerful but skeptical note, Happy Holidays to all those who follow this blog!

 

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Sanity Clause II

Remember when the truth was important?  In a previous post (11/8/17), I bemoaned the fact that the country has been sliding into a collective delusional state, where there is a “new normal” and alternative facts can turn everything upside-down.  The truth becomes fluid (or is simply dismissed as inconsequential, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders has done); anything becomes possible; and history can be rewritten before it has even happened.  I had hoped that the Sanity Clause in our social contract would set things straight, but that appears increasingly to be a big pie in the sky.

Michelle Goldberg writes in her Opinion column today, “There is a debate over whether Trump is unaware of reality or merely indifferent to it.  He might be delusional, or he might simply be asserting the power to blithely override truth, which is the ultimate privilege of a despot.”  Hmm– delusional or overriding truth:  which is worse?

Arguing for the former, Dr. Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale Medical School, represents thousands of mental health professionals when he writes:  “We are currently witnessing more than his usual state of instability– in fact a pattern of decompensation:  increasing loss of touch with reality, marked signs of volatility and unpredictable behavior, and an attraction to violence as a means of coping.  These characteristics place our country and the world at extreme risk of danger.”

Timothy Egan, in the NY Times, points out that our Chaos President still questions Barrack Obama’s birth certificate; does not believe his own words on the infamous “Access Hollywood” sexual assault videotape; still thinks (without any evidence) that three million fraudulent votes caused him to lose the popular vote; endorsed a website that says the Pope uses magic to mastermind world events; and “gave a thumbs up to a media outlet that claims NASA runs a child labor colony on Mars.”

No kidding.  For those unfamiliar with Alex Jones’s Infowars channel, he’s the apoplectic guy who claims that the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren and teachers was a staged hoax.  A guest on his show claimed that NASA has secretly kidnapped children and is keeping them as sex slaves on Mars, forcing a NASA spokesperson to deny the existence of such a colony.  It’s just incredible, the kind of insanity that passes for conspiracy theory (already a very low bar)!

Here’s some Fake News from my sci-fi novel Fourth World:

“When had Tharsis One and Two dropped off the map?  Shortly after the Great War of Unification.  Mr. Otis Walker, Benn’s second-grade teacher, had explained it many times- often in heatedly emotional terms- to his young, impressionable students.  From the Martian (that is, Tharsis) viewpoint, the centralization of Earth’s government in 2096 marked the beginning of the end:  birth of the Pan-World Electorate.  What was it like, his teacher wondered, receiving the news that your home government no longer existed; that your country had been all but destroyed in a cataclysmic global war?  That NASA, an agency of the former United States of America and your lifeline to Earth, had suddenly vanished?”

What, no NASA?  It must have been brutal, hearing that there would no longer be any kidnapped sex slaves…

 

 

 

 

Trickle-down Ecology

On the same day that the House passed their version of tax “reform,” it was announced that the Trump administration is lifting an Obama-era ban on the  importation of ivory and other elephant body parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia.  The ban was meant to eliminate demand and thereby help to protect this threatened species.  Who wouldn’t want that, right?  The rationale for declaring hunting season for elephants open again, according to US Fish & Wildlife, is that allowing wealthy trophy hunters to pay for killing elephants will raise more money for conservation programs.  So killing more elephants will generate money to protect elephants (assuming those hunting fees actually end up in conservation efforts and not the pockets of corrupt officials)!  I’m sure all the dead elephants will appreciate that their sacrifice was not in vain.

This way of thinking is a metaphor, although imperfect, for the GOP tax plan.  Higher taxes for working families and ultimately for the middle class (after a temporary modest reduction) in order to benefit the wealthy— including huge permanent tax cuts for corporations— is supposed to generate more growth for the economy.  According to an already-disproven theory, the accumulation of wealth in the top 1% will trickle down to help everyone else.   It hasn’t happened before, and even prospectively, corporations are not planning on spending more capital to “grow the economy.”  These tax cuts will not pay for themselves, as the GOP claims.  The plan also explodes the federal debt, placing entitlement programs such as Medicare in danger, along with tax breaks for having children, for tuition, for mortgage interest, for state and local taxes, university endowments— all for a plan which will “pay for itself.”  And while the Senate is at it, why not launch yet another torpedo at the Affordable Care Act?  The zombie rises again (see my previous “Kill Bill” posts), and when they tacked elimination of the individual health coverage mandate onto the bill (which would remove health coverage from 13 million people and raise premiums for everyone else), I thought that would be the death knell for this tax proposal; after all, Repeal and Replace in its various guises had failed so many times before.  But now, because of shrewd maneuvering in Congress, I’m not so sure.

In my mind is the image of a vast elephant graveyard, abandoned by wealthy conservation programs.   More money, it turns out, does not help the dead elephants.  Nor does it help those who will bear the tax burden and feel the pain under this GOP bill, in order to make the rich even richer.  The elephant graveyard, in that case, might well be Congress, in the aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections.

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Sanity Clause

Ha-ha-ha!  You can’t fool-a me, there ain’t no Sanity Clause!

    — Chico Marx, A Night at the Opera

 

Like so much of Marxism, Chico’s remark to Groucho as they examine a (social?) contract has been proven wrong.  Ralph Northam has just defeated Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race, giving us a glimmer of hope that sanity may yet make a major comeback in this country.  The election was widely viewed as a referendum on Trumpism or Bannonism, with Gillespie stirring up white racial hostility by appealing to the racially resentful Republican base in that state.  If he had won, the GOP would have taken a step closer to being Steve Bannon’s party, and candidates in other states would have feared the white nationalist vote as well.

Northam’s victory comes as a huge relief, providing perspective to those of us struggling to maintain a sense of what is normal.  In our society, the level of willful ignorance, incivility, racism, sexism, intolerance, misogyny and just plain hatred has climbed alarmingly since Trump’s election last year.  We have become so inured to the daily White House lies, recklessness, misdirection, coarseness of communication, nepotism, conflicts of interest and blatant corruption that we’re tired of protesting these things.  Congress is so strongly influenced by money that the coal industry and the NRA remain untouched despite ample evidence that their activities can cause harm.  Denial of science and history have allowed, in too many minds, the possibility of an alternate universe, an alt-society ruled by alt-facts.  Up can be down, neo-Nazis can be “very fine people,” and the air can be “too clean” for our own good.  Sounds like science fiction to me.

In this alt-society, there is a “new normal” compared to one year ago, a gross distortion of what we view as acceptable, and even what is real– never mind any vision for the future of America.  From overexposure and fatigue, we’ve slid into a collective delusional state, which by definition endangers our collective sanity.   But only to a certain degree, it turns out.  Tonight’s good news from Virginia shows that we’re not locked into an irreversible slide toward group insanity, but rather that we can, and should, continue to resist.  In the nick of time, Virginia has invoked the Sanity Clause!

Immediately after yet another tragic mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX two days ago, our Chaos President tweeted that this was not a gun issue, but rather a problem with mental health “at the highest level.”

If he’s referring to his Administration, we have reached a rare agreement:  there is indeed a mental health problem at the highest level, and the 25th Amendment may be the Sanity Clause we now need.

 

Ready Or Not

Ever have that dream– you know, the one where you’re in a classroom, it’s the day of the final exam, and you suddenly realize you haven’t attended a single class all year long?  Or maybe the worse dream, where you find yourself naked at noon in the middle of the town square?

Both of these, in my experience, tend to come at challenging times (like the last day of medical school), when we feel insecure about being exposed as unprepared or incompetent.  Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to Fourth World, a dream sequence in which Benn Marr argues with the little voice of his subconscious mind:

“… there’s a clear impression that he’s acting a role, passively following a script in some holo-play.  In that context, the director, after yelling “Emote, Benn, emote!” has suddenly disappeared on his lunch break, leaving Benn completely unprepared.  You should have studied, Benn, the small voice scolds.  Should have been paying closer attention, it piles on needlessly.”

These are certainly challenging times; how prepared are the President and Congress?  Are they standing naked in the Mall (sorry for the image)?  When efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act came up, it turned out that they were totally unprepared and had no feasible alternative plan ready– despite seven years of yelling and posturing.  The only way to repeal Obamacare would be to deprive millions of their constituents of health coverage.  And, if not for a few brave Senators, they would have done just that, in order to pay for…

… their tax reform!  Republicans have been agitating about this for years too; cutting taxes for big business and the wealthy has always been the GOP’s top priority.  So when the time came, were they ready?  Well, Repeal and Replace failed, so paying for tax cuts required raising the nation’s debt by $1.5 trillion dollars, which I thought would go deeply against the grain, for Republicans– but apparently not.  Even after ballooning the federal deficit, they still have to cast about for other ways to save money:  including, you guessed it, safety-net and entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, which are now threatened, along with child tax credits and other targets.   Bypassing public hearings and scrambling to pass their tax bill ASAP, the GOP wants the “win” that eluded them with healthcare.  Who says we lack the ability to compromise in such partisan times?  Between our Chaos President and a GOP majority lacking the courage to displease his voter base, the government has managed to severely compromise our collective vision of America, let alone our standing in the world and the well-being of future generations.

Speaking of compromise, Chief of Staff John Kelley has blamed the Civil War on the lack of compromise between North and South, whereas historians tell us precisely the opposite:  that it was decades of compromise over the treatment of slaves that led to the Civil War.  Middle-school students are taught this!  As Benn’s subconscious would say:  You should have studied, John Kelley.  Should have been paying closer attention.  His ignorance of history parallels the Administration’s willful ignorance– in fact, denial– of science.  When it comes to protecting human rights, the environment, and world peace, it is perilous to govern by individual, subjective beliefs about the truth rather than documented, demonstrable facts.

However, beliefs do seem to rule right now, rather than knowledge of the historical, scientific and geopolitical facts.  In that case, I wonder, how prepared are our leaders to face an immensely complex world?  The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration brings to mind the enlarging crisis in the Middle East– connecting, at one end, Israel and the Palestinians to Iran, Syria and ISIS at the other end.  The belief that sending more military to kill terrorists will solve the problem is simplistic and dangerously naive.  It’s a bit like fighting global warming by turning up your air conditioner.  Is Trump ready for China’s One Belt, One Road expansion?  The re-emergence of Russia as a world power?  Brexit?  Population migration driven by climate change in central Africa?  Corrupt elections in South America?  We know by his Tweets that Trump doesn’t have a clue how to contain the nuclear threat from North Korea.  In fact:  Name the issue, and I doubt anyone in this Administration would be ready to deal with it effectively.

We’ll need to take better care of our own welfare, our own futures, and each other.  Heed the little voice:  study the issues.  Pay closer attention.  And above all, vote!

 

Shameless Commercial

Dear Friends,

The long wait is over!  It’s been just over a year since the release of Fourth World, and during that time the response to my first novel has been fantastic.  In addition to the usual suspects (e.g. immediate family), many friends-of-friends and distant acquaintances have expressed admiration for Fourth World.  For the numerologists out there, and those who love “objective” data:  out of 13 reviews, 11 gave the book five stars– and the other two, four stars.  The main complaint I’ve heard is that people are anxious to know what happens to the mysterious hero/anti-hero Benn Marr, and to his sometimes-befuddled friend Lora.

You may recall the final paragraph of Fourth World (spoiler alert):

 

Walther Beame shook his head, overcome by a heady mixture of resentment, relief and triumph.  Stepping forward once again with the Dermamist squeezed tightly in his trembling hand, he uttered through gritted teeth, “Welcome home, son.  Welcome home.”

 

Is Benn returning home like Leopold Bloom, or Ulysses, or is he more the Prodigal Son?  The answer to that and other burning questions lies in the sequel, Fourth World Nation (this is the second part of a planned trilogy).

To quote my own blurb on the back cover:  “The year is 2197, and young Benn Marr has joined the Chimera Project.  To escape the clutches of a greedy pharmaceutical corporation and the Pan-World Electorate, Benn and Lora flee to Mars, where they encounter the cruel effects of colonialism:  shameless exploitation, political inequity and militaristic oppression.  They are swept into the deadly conflict erupting between the world government, the Resistance, and a mysterious, quasi-religious cult.  It is a conflict which turns all of Benn’s relationships, as well as his conception of his own uncanny abilities, upside-down.”

 

Fourth World Nation is available on Amazon, in paperback or as an eBook (you can download the Kindle app for free).  There are links to both books on this blog, but here’s the Amazon site:

 

https://www.amazon.com/Fourth-World-Nation/dp/1973142503/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1509379909&sr=8-1&keywords=Fourth+world+nation

 

For those who have yet to read Fourth World, the first book in the science fiction trilogy, it really is best to start at the beginning.  Fourth World is also available on Amazon, as a paperback or eBook.  Here’s a link to that site:

 

 

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LWVNG6A/ref=cm_cr_ryp_prd_ttl_sol_0

 

 

My heartfelt gratitude to everyone for your generous comments, reviews and support!

 

All my best,

 

Chee Chow

 

 

Now Is The Time

Much is made of freedom of speech, but equally important– and largely unmentioned– is freedom of dialogue, of conversation.  On the NYT Opinion Page this morning, David Brooks said, “You can’t have a civil conversation with people who are intent on destroying the rules that govern conversation itself.”*

In this ever more divided nation, you are free to make a statement, but good luck getting a meaningful response, an exchange of ideas from which both sides may come away a bit wiser.  His editorial got me thinking about several recent examples of the decline in conversation.  When Texas and Florida were inundated by hurricanes and rising sea levels, those who wondered whether global warming had worsened the storms’ effects were roundly scolded by Scott Pruitt and the Administration:  “How can you be so insensitive?” they were admonished.  Now is not the time to talk about climate change, not while people are still recovering!

After the mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas, some (probably the same insensitive miscreants as above) brought up the subject of sensible restrictions on firearms, only to be scolded again, this time by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who acted disgusted by the concept and righteously repeated the gun control mantra (the one chanted after Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando and many other mass shootings):  This is a terrible tragedy!  Now is not the time to talk about…

Likewise, the playing of the national anthem at a sporting event is not the time to call attention to racial inequality and police brutality toward African-Americans by sitting down or taking a knee.  It’s not the time, even if you emphatically explain that you are not disrespecting the country, the flag or the military.  That explanation will not begin a conversation; it will only draw derision and threats of boycott, as though you had said nothing at all.

When we are standing at the edge of nuclear war because two national leaders with oversize egos are calling each other names, that is not the time to have a conversation about impeachment, when we must bravely face death by nuclear holocaust with national unity and patriotism.

When the Chaos President, fuming and frustrated at the repeated failure of Repeal and Replace, launched a couple of gratuitous torpedoes at the Affordable Care Act, aiming to sabotage his nation’s healthcare, very few in Congress spoke up.  Now is not the time to speak up against Trump– not when they still have to pass big tax cuts for the rich, not to mention having to appease Trump’s unshakeable, fearsome voter “base,” which might hurt shaking, fearful incumbents in next year’s midterm elections.

Only in times of national emergency do former presidents speak out against the sitting POTUS, so it’s not a good sign when both George W. Bush and Barrack Obama make speeches in the same week to denounce reneging on national commitments, white supremacy, nativism and divisive politics– unfortunately without naming the Great White Nativist, the Divider-in-Chief they obviously have in mind.  Nor does John McCain mention Trump, although his speech about the poorest Americans serving in Vietnam while the wealthy were able to get deferments for such reasons as bone spurs clearly points an accusing finger at the Donald.

Why not name him?  Steve Bannon has been running amok for years, saying anything he likes (even trumpeting the fact that he intends to destroy the careers of all Republican senators except for Ted Cruz– which actually makes Lyin’ Ted look bad)!  So why shouldn’t Republicans in Congress, who are known to hate Bannonism and Trump, pull off the gloves?  Now is the time!

Kudos to Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain:  you waited until there was nothing more to lose, but you did finally voice what most Congressmen have been thinking.  Maybe more of them will be emboldened to speak up now, before we all have nothing more to lose.

 

* This is taken out of context; he goes on to advocate for the argument Yale Law professor Stephen Carter made in his book “Civility”– that one has to confront fanaticism with compassion.