Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Personal reflection’ Category

Bomb the shit out of healthcare

Over the past few months there has been a constant stream of articles, written with varying admixtures of sorrow, contempt, and schadenfreude, about Trump voters who are now dismayed because they never supposed that he was actually planning to take away their health insurance, eliminate reproductive rights and medical services, or deport her husband.

These articles calm with facepalm quotes about how they deceived themselves about Trump’s intentions. “She thought Trump would deport only people with criminal records — people he called ‘bad hombres’.” This is contrasted with Trump’s very explicit promises to do exactly what they are now appalled that he is now doing. (more…)

Trump’s foreign affairs

I was thinking about this comment by Josh Marshall

One of the first bits of news that attracted attention to this possible link was a Trump campaign effort to soften the GOP platform’s plank on Russia and Ukraine at the GOP convention.

I think this fits the development of my thinking, more or less, but it leaves something out. As someone who nothing of the personalities involved, I was already primed to think there was something important and odd about Trump’s connections to Ukraine in particular by the reporting on his hiring of Paul Manafort to advise his campaign in March 2016, and Manafort later becoming campaign manager in April. I remember very clearly thinking, how peculiar that someone with so much foreign experience is guiding a US presidential campaign. And someone who has been working in Ukraine, of all places. Within the context of US politics, which is usually so parochial, an operative who had gone off to work for Eastern European oligarchs and Third World dictators seemed inherently corrupt, like many of the figures that Trump associated with in New York real estate who had slipped across the border from shady dealing into outright criminality, and could no longer be seen in respectable society.

I interpreted it as a sign of Trump’s inability to attract normal campaign operatives to his strange ethno-nationalist insurgency. But then there was this 28 April article by Franklin Foer in Slate:

Some saw the hiring of Manafort as desperate, as Trump reaching for a relic from the distant past in the belated hope of compensating for a haphazard campaign infrastructure. In fact, securing Manafort was a coup. He is among the most significant political operatives of the past 40 years, and one of the most effective…
Manafort has spent a career working on behalf of clients that the rest of his fellow lobbyists and strategists have deemed just below their not-so-high moral threshold. Manafort has consistently given his clients a patina of respectability that has allowed them to migrate into the mainstream of opinion, or close enough to the mainstream. He has a particular knack for taking autocrats and presenting them as defenders of democracy. If he could convince the respectable world that thugs like Savimbi and Marcos are friends of America, then why not do the same for Trump? One of his friends told me, “He wanted to do his thing on home turf. He wanted one last shot at the big prize.”


My 8-year-old was telling me about a recent school lesson. The teacher was telling them (for some reason) about the use of the term P.S. Her explanation began “In the old times people didn’t have computers, so they had to write letters on paper…”

Of course, I know that my children have lived entirely in the age of personal computing, but it was still striking to hear it presented in such stark terms. I actually experienced the transformation exactly during my university studies. When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 1983 I had my Apple IIe, my roommate had a Compaq, and otherwise pretty much no one had a personal computer. Everyone else seemed to be writing their papers on a typewriter. (It was kind of unreasonable of me, actually, to expect the professors to read the low-resolution dot-matrix output that I turned in, but I wasn’t very considerate at the time.) The Macintosh appeared the next year, and by 1986-7 everyone was writing their senior essays on the Macintoshes in the college’s computer room.


I’m reflecting now on the various US presidential elections of my lifetime. I have always supported Democrats, and have tended to disparage Republican presidents and presidential candidates personally as well as disliking their policies. I thought it irresponsible of Republicans (and the new media) to cover for Reagan’s increasing mental deficiencies, particularly in his second term. I thought George W. Bush’s first election was tainted by the problematic vote in Florida and the ridiculous intervention of the Supreme Court, and that he owed it to the country to bend over backwards to govern in a moderate, middle-of-the-road manner. (At the same time, it was clear to me that there wasn’t really a clear winner to the election. The electoral system simply failed. Though I believed, and still believed, that the most legitimate resolution would be an absolutely scrupulous full recount of the state which, it turns out, according to later studies, would ultimately have given the election to Gore.)

But it is quite clear to me that I have never watched the impending installation of a new president with such fear and loathing. Genuine fear. I worry about social programs I care about in the US, but having lived outside the US for more than a decade, and without any likelihood of returning, I feel pretty detached from day-to-day politics in the US. What I feel is existential dread for the fate of a country that is still my own, and for the world, which seems generally more unstable than it has for a long time, and where the US still has overwhelming influence, and even more overwhelming destructive power.

The Jerusalem Syndrome

I just spent a few days as a tourist in Jerusalem. The city has many lovely and fascinating qualities, but it also felt generally stressful to be there. It got me to thinking, maybe in retrospect it wasn’t a good idea to put the Israeli capital in a city that is famous for making people crazy?

Now that Trump seems keen to move the US embassy to Jerusalem the two of them can join in a folie a deux.

From portent to program: Factless fascism

I’m old enough to remember when “relativism” was the second-favourite scare word hurled by the Right (after “socialism”, of course). The truth of the matter was that leftist intellectuals had put a lot of effort into analysing the way worldviews are created by and support particular power relations. This seems like good work, in principle, and obviously useful in interrogating the making of history, economics, and social ideologies, and has made important contributions to the philosophy of science. There have been excesses — edging into denial of scientific truth or progress.

The arch-cultural reactionary Dinesh D’Souza in his heyday (before he became completely ridiculousused the then-modish term deconstruction as a catch-all for this iconoclastic posture toward literary and (it is implied, more than actually shown) moral authorities of the past to exemplify the inconsistent application of moral relativism as a political weapon:

Marx, for instance, never seems to be deconstructed, nor does Foucault, or Lacan , or Derrida, or Barthes. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, seem to enjoy immunity. There may be an entire gender exception for women.

I’ve never been sufficiently au fait with the humanities and social sciences — “critical theory” — to judge whether these extreme denials of objective truth were ever as central to leftist discourse as some critics would suggest. I think this has been overall very productive intellectually and scientifically. But as a political tactic it was, it seems clear now, tragically short-sighted. The Left made a serious strategic error in trying to shortcut its way out from under the dead hand of the past  by promoting relativism and attacking the authority of science and rational discourse. The right wing were taking notes, and while the older generation — figures like William F. Buckley, John Silber and Allan Bloom — started by ridiculing the anti-rationalist turn, the younger generation saw it as a program to be emulated and developed. Fascists have always had an uncomfortable relationship with objective reality, that seems to be offering only stubborn opposition to the imposition of the authoritarian will.

Nietzsche — the doyen of this kind of analysis, but conflicted in this as in everything else — framed what should have been the core left-wing critique of relativism in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft [The Gay Science]:

Ein Jude umgekehrt ist, gemäss dem Geschäftskreis und der Vergangenheit seines Volks, gerade daran — dass man ihm glaubt — am wenigsten gewöhnt: man sehe sich darauf die jüdischen Gelehrten an, — sie Alle halten grosse Stücke auf die Logik, das heisst auf das Erzwingen der Zustimmung durch Gründe; sie wissen, dass sie mit ihr siegen müssen, selbst wo Rassen- und Classen-Widerwille gegen sie vorhanden ist, wo man ihnen ungern glaubt. Nichts nämlich ist demokratischer als die Logik: sie kennt kein Ansehn der Person und nimmt auch die krummen Nasen für gerade. (Nebenbei bemerkt: Europa ist gerade in Hinsicht auf Logisirung, auf reinlichere Kopf-Gewohnheiten den Juden nicht wenig Dank schuldig; voran die Deutschen, als eine beklagenswerth deraisonnable Rasse, der man auch heute immer noch zuerst „den Kopf zu waschen“ hat. Ueberall, wo Juden zu Einfluss gekommen sind, haben sie ferner zu scheiden, schärfer zu folgern, heller und sauberer zu schreiben gelehrt: ihre Aufgabe war es immer, ein Volk „zur Raison“ zu bringen.)

On account of his people’s business relations and past, the Jew is not used to being believed. You see this in the way Jewish scholars are obsessed with logic, that is, compelling assent through reasons. They know that they can succeed in this way, even when the prejudice of race and class tell against them, even when one would rather not believe them. Nothing is as democratic as logic: It recognises no personal distinctions, and takes even the crooked nose for straight.(Europe must be grateful to the Jews particularly with respect to logicalising — for clearer habits of thought. Above all the Germans, a pitifully irrational race. Everywhere where the Jews have gained influence, they have taught people to reason more precisely and write more clearly. It has always been their task to bring a people “to its senses”.)

And so we find ourselves in the 21st century with a senior adviser to a Republican president criticising, in 2002, the naivety of what he called the “reality-based community”, stating

That’s not the way the world really works anymore. 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.

And sure enough, as soon as a new Republican is elected, we have his surrogates even more openly attacking the very notion of objective reality:

 And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.

You may think you’re talking about facts and evidence, but for those on the inside these are just ways of saying whether you “like Mr. Trump”. They tried out their message first on evolution as a matter of “belief”, honed the message on climate science — a harder nut to crack — and finally brought us to where groundless claims that millions of people voted illegally are also matters of belief.

Speaking of Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago philosopher who had a hit book in the mid-1980s The Closing of the American Mind, which was mainly about how the kids today with their crazy rock-and-roll music were having more sex than he had at their age, which was driving him crazy. But I remember one really striking idea that he was pushing was that, just as the Romans conquered the Greeks militarily, but then as a consequence of absorbing the Greek world ended up being dominated by Greek culture and philosophy, so the Anglo-American world conquered Germany militarily, but are now dominated by the German Weltanschauung, and Nietzsche in particular.

Paradoxical times

I remember in my childhood, maybe when I was ten or so, talking with my brother about the weird counterfactual possibility that someone could be elected president without winning a majority of votes. Of course, we imagined the most extreme possibility, a candidate winning by one vote in a minimum collection of states, and getting not a single vote in the rest, so that he could attain the presidency with (we worked out) only about one quarter of the votes.

This was discussed in the same kinds of spooky tones that we used to discuss uncanny notions like that someone could be his own grandfather or God could make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it. When grownups on television tried to defend the Electoral College it was generally in terms of turning small vote majorities into decisive Electoral College majorities, thus enhancing the popular credibility of the vote. Now we’ve gotten used to the Electoral College being used to entrench Republican government against Democratic majorities. Given that it was originally designed to enhance the power of slave states, we can say it’s working as planned.

All the president’s businesses

Trump is behaving like a central Asian autocrat, blending his family business with national politics, alternatively threatening and pardoning the opposition according to his whim. One tends to think that it can’t go well for him, but then, we thought that a year ago. Who can call him to account?

My usual baseline emotional reaction to Republican presidents’ scandals and abuses is: Bring ’em on. The more the better, since in the long run they mainly serve to embarrass and distract the administration from carrying out policies that I generally oppose.

My reaction to Trump is very different, which just shows how genuinely different he is from a “normal” Republican. Part of this is his shamelessness and limited attention span. One typically reasons about a leader, “He can’t possibly do X, because the consequences would be Y, and that would be hugely unpopular.” That doesn’t work for Trump. Partly it’s his unshakeable bond to his core supporters — the I-could-shoot-someone-on-Fifth-Avenue phenomenon. But mainly it’s the impression that he is literally incapable of understanding or anticipating any consequences over a time horizon measured in minutes. Maybe this impression is inaccurate, maybe it’s just a bluff. If so, it’s effective, and he’s won this game of Chicken. No rational person would challenge him now under the assumption that he would be dissuaded by the prospect of long-term damage, to himself, to the country, or to the world. This gives him a madman’s freedom, whether or not he is actually mad.

I am existentially frightened of the effect of his administration, which means that I am hoping, not for his success, but for limits to his failure. I am hoping that someone will get his gritting under control before he comes into office, because I worry about him systemically corrupting the US federal government. I am hoping that some sensible people — even extreme right-wingers — will take control of his administration’s foreign policy because I worry that his impulsive leadership will lead to nuclear war or the collapse of peaceful order in Europe.

It’s been two weeks since the election, and the shock has worn off. The fear has, if anything, grown. Before the election, I eagerly awaited the puncturing of the vast Trump ego balloon. (I kind of assumed he was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, being propped up by foreign banks and individuals who would lose interest after the election.) Now, I’d gladly accept him and his family looting hundreds of billions from the US treasury if he’ll leave us in peace.

The bright side 2

I ran into an American neighbour the other day.

Neighbour: The news from our home country is pretty disturbing.
Me: It could be worse.
Neighbour: How could it be worse?
Me: It could be January already.

Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.

Closing time

Leonard Cohen is dead. Not an untimely or tragic end. But an end.

I never felt like he knew the secret of life. Not even that he knew reasons for hope. But maybe that he was pointing out something head intuited about how to live without hope. (Now may be a good time to go back and read Camus…)

I’ve been listening to his music a lot in the past few weeks. It suited my mood and, I thought, the mood of the times. I first encountered the song Everybody Knows in the soundtrack of the 1990 film Pump up the Volume, and was so impressed by it that I followed the credits to find out who was responsible for the song. Leonard Cohen. Never heard of him.

In those pre-amazonian days it was not an easy matter to find an unknown recording. I went to several record stores before I found a greatest hits CD, which give me my first hearing of Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Who By Fire, and so many more. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. Whereas people argue about whether Bob Dylan’s songs are poetry, with Leonard Cohen it’s not entirely clear whether his songs are really songs. And it’s clear that he was never sure himself, and he always seemed somewhat abashed by the fact, but as long as people thought they were, and wanted to hear him sing them, he’d oblige them.

I eagerly went to share my discovery with a fellow graduate student and folk music enthusiast. I played Suzanne for him. From the first bars he said, “That’s Leonard Cohen. He’s Canadian.” My friend was Canadian. I had no idea that there was such a gap between US and Canadian pop culture experience. I’ve since learned that Cohen has been hugely famous all over Canada and Europe, particularly the UK, since the 1970s.

Leonard Cohen’s words and music have accompanied my life ever since. With my partner of many years we bonded, early on, over noticing that we were sharing a snack of tea and oranges. A few years ago I was amazed that he had started producing albums and performing again. Beautiful new songs — the lyrics all his, the melodies mostly his collaborators, something he’s been doing since the 1980s. An unflinching openhearted reckoning with life and death, with the 20th century in all its horror and beauty. Religion, psychology, and eroticism. Jewish and Buddhist and Christian. Texts like

Show me the place, help me move away this stone.
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone.
Show me the place where the word became a man.
Show me the place where the suffering began.


I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen,
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their story
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring,
It was almost like the blues.

But I always come back to the Leonard Cohen lines I first heard:

Everybody knows the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows that he fight was fixed
The poor stay poor and the rich get rich
That’s how it goes.
Everybody knows.

Everybody knows the boat is leaking
Everybody knows the captain lied
Everybody’s got this sinking feeling
like their father or their dog just died.
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
and a long-stemmed rose.
Everybody knows.

The NY Times has posted a link to a 1995 profile that includes this quote

I’ve always found theology a certain kind of delightful titillation. Theology or religious speculation bears the same relationship to real experience as pornography does to lovemaking. They’re not entirely unconnected. I mean, you can get turned on. One of the reasons that they’re both powerful is that they ignore a lot of other material and they focus in on something very specific. In these days of overload, it’s very restful to know, at last, what you’re talking about.

And maybe just one more verse of Everybody Knows:

Everybody knows that you love me, baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows that you’ve been discreet
but there’s so many people you just had to meet
without your clothes.
Everybody knows.

And from Closing time:

It’s partner found and it’s partner lost
There’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops
It’s closing time…

I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since
But closing time.

Tag Cloud