Tuesday, December 5, 2017

We Can Do It but We Won't

I am talking about lifting the masses of the world’s poor out of desperation and into a decent life. We can do it. It is autocatalytic: once some people have begun to rise, they can assist us in lifting others. This is already happening in some places where it has been encouraged, places in which the rich overlords have not prevented it. Humankind can rise if it is not oppressed. The Old Testament prophets railed against those who would grind the face of the poor into the dust. This is why they are poor: it is not because they are lazy, but because rich people oppress them. (There are, of course, a few lazy ones, but this is not usually the case.)

One of the most pressing needs is to control diseases such as malaria and intestinal diseases. These diseases thrive in, and reinforce, a spiral of poverty. Poor people with diseases cannot afford medical care, not even in America, and this only allows the diseases to spread more. The economic burden is multidimensional.

  • First, there is the cost of the medical care itself.
  • Second, there is the cost of people not being able to work. This is a cost to all of society, not just to the direct victim.
  • Third, the parasites themselves, living in people with chronic diseases, consume a lot of the nutrients in the food that the people eat. If someone is full of worms, like the dissident who escaped from North Korea a couple of weeks ago, the worms are using up calories and nutrients.
  • Fourth, and this is one I never thought of until I read about it in something that Lewis Thomas wrote, is that the food that feeds the parasites represents a substantial portion of the agricultural output of any nation that has a lot of poor sick people. Lewis Thomas said that fully twenty percent of the food produced by countries with chronic malaria goes to feed the malaria parasites.


The spiral of sickness in poor societies is reinforced by all four of the above forces. To help poor people escape from sickness, especially the mild chronic sicknesses that do not kill them but keep them torpid all of their lives, will help their lives not only directly, but indirectly by improving the entire economy of their nations.

For nations as for individuals, health is a good investment. Will we help poor countries to achieve this investment?

Lewis Thomas said, “The idea that all men and women are brothers and sisters is not a transient cultural notion, not a slogan made up to make us feel warm and comfortable inside. It is a biological imperative.”

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trump and Andrew Jackson

Trump’s Republican worshipers are hostile toward immigrants—though they claim not to be; they welcome even Muslims, so long as they are from countries in which Trump has business investments. But Trump is himself a pure-white descendant of people who immigrated from Europe within the last two centuries. He is of pure immigrant ethnicity.

And then there are the Native Americans. I can just hear full-blood or mostly full-blood Native Americans telling Trump, “Get out of our land and go back home.”

White Americans have always considered themselves the true owners of North America. And none was more convinced of this than President Andrew Jackson. It was his direct action that took all of the tribal lands from the Cherokees, even though the Supreme Court ruled that he could not legally do so. He did it anyway. And he ordered the Army to force the Cherokees to move. General Winfield Scott obeyed Jackson’s orders, and rounded up the Cherokees by force and put them in a stockade, trapped with wastes and disease and malnourishment. Then he forced them to travel, many of them on foot, through the fierce winter of 1839 to what is now Oklahoma. That is how my great-great-great grandmother Elizabeth Hilderbrand Pettit (later Armstrong) and her little girl Minerva, my great-great grandmother, came to Oklahoma. General Scott hated to do this, and kept apologizing to the Cherokees, and they understood that he was simply following orders. I’m not sure that makes it right, but I do not hate General Scott. I do, however, hate Andrew Jackson, who broke the law in order to grab all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi.

Might Trump do anything like this? Might he believe that Native Americans, while not immigrants, are lesser citizens than whites? (Many Native tribes did not receive American citizenship until 1926, sixty years after black people did.) Might he decide to expropriate tribal lands today? Maybe the Supreme Court would stop him? It didn’t stop Jackson.

But, of course, Trump is not the same as Jackson. Or is he? In January, Trump ordered a portrait of Andrew Jackson to be hung in the Oval Office. Okay, okay, Trump, we get the message. I guess us Cherokees had better get ready to move…where? There’s no place left, unless France will take us. Okay, Chief Baker, start learning French, so you can ask the French government, “Est-ce que nous pourrions nous démenager en France?”



And I decided to let Trump know about this. Of course, nobody will ever read this message that I submitted to the White House website but here it is anyway.

“I am a member of the Cherokee tribe. Don’t scoff at me because I am not as white as you are. My tribal tradition reveres the Earth rather than treating it as a conquered mass of resources. And we Cherokees are a conquered nation. Even though the Supreme Court of the United States sided with us, President Andrew Jackson illegally captured our tribe and sent it on the Trail of Tears. Ever heard of this? Andrew Jackson defied the Constitution. But you chose his portrait to hang in the Oval Office. I assume you will be doing more of the same, taking control of our tribal lands today and giving them to your friends? How proud you must be of the genocide of Native American tribes, only one of which was my Cherokee tribe at the hands of your hero, Andrew Jackson.”

Just this past week, at a ceremony intended to honor the last surviving Navaho code-talkers from World War Two (they communicated in Navaho, which was more incomprehensible to our enemies than any code could be), Trump had to put in a little joke about Pocahontas. While he may not have intended offense, he obviously did not try to avoid giving offense. In the photo, you will see the portrait of Andrew Jackson just behind the honorees. What an ironic photo!



Trump celebrates an historical figure who is a hero only to white Americans.


Monday, November 20, 2017

And Now for Some Fake News, Part Two.

I also wrote this one on September 14, 2016.

Prominent Scholar Endorses Trump

Dr. Nikolai Smerdyakov, director of the Karamazov Institute of Scholarly Studies in Prague (a town in central Oklahoma), and one of the most famous scholars of scholarship, today endorsed Donald Trump for President.



“Never in my lifetime,” said Dr. Smerdyakov (who has a Ph.D. from Trump University), “has a presidential campaign been so focused on the factual assessment of important issues. And it is Donald Trump who has kept attention focused on these issues. In all previous campaigns, candidates have talked endlessly about things such as the economy, the environment, race relations, and international relations, which are clearly irrelevant to American national interests in any possible future scenario.

“Instead,” continued Smerdyakov, “Trump has kept America focused on the most important issue: building a wall all along the entire Mexican border. We already have a gigantic fence along the Mexican border, and it has not been very effective. To build a truly effective wall is a challenge for a new generation of engineers: to build a wall so tall and so sturdy, and with an abuttment so deep, that no human being could ever cross it. Not even sending a man to the moon entailed such a design challenge. You want investment in science and technology? Well, here it is!

“The main way that the wall will stop the flow of Mexicans into America,” continued Smerdyakov, “is to make them not want to come. We need another recession and we need it now. If nobody can hire them, then they won’t come. That’s what happened in 2008. No new houses or apartments being built, no jobs for Mexican roofers. Houses abandoned? No lawns to mow. And if spending a trillion American dollars on the wall, or spending a trillion dollars to force Mexico to pay for it, won’t bring on a recession, what will?

“The major result of Trump’s policies,” continued Smerdyakov, “Will be a massive brain drain from America into other countries of the world, so we need the wall to keep Americans in as well as to keep Mexicans out.” When reporters pointed out that most brainy Americans would flee to Canada, Smerdyakov admitted, “Then we will have to build a wall along the Canadian border too. I hadn’t thought of that.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already invited Americans to come to Canada if Trump is elected.

“An added benefit of the wall,” concluded Smerdyakov, quickly recovering, “is that it would block the wind and put all those environmentalist wind generators out of commission. It would also make birds and monarch butterflies take alternative migration routes. But in my scholarly opinion, a good conservative America doesn’t need liberal birds and butterflies crossing our sacred territory.

“And the list goes on,” Smerdyakov continued. “The Apollo program gave us artificial orange juice with artificial pulp. The Mexican Wall program will undoubtedly be able to give us artificial tamales with artificial meat. The market for that will be huge!”


When asked to comment on how America could build the Mexican wall if the scientists and engineers flee to Canada, Europe, and Mexico, Smerdyakov declined to comment.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

And Now for Some Fake News, part one.

Well, now that last year’s campaign is over, there is nothing left to do but to laugh about it, I guess. Here is some of the campaign news you might have missed last year. I wrote this on September 14, 2016.

Candidate Clinton Releases Her Genome

Today presidential candidate Donald Trump demanded that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton release her genome to the public. Much to everyone’s surprise, Clinton agreed.

It turns out that Clinton’s genome is totally unlike any other of the thousands of human genomes that have ever been sequenced—in fact, totally different from the genome of any other species that has been studied on Planet Earth. “You and I have a closer similarity in DNA sequence to bacteria than Clinton has to you or me,” a visibly shaken Dr. Francis Collins admitted. Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, was one of the pioneers of the Human Genome Project. [Editorial note: at the beginning of the Trump Administration, Collins resigned and was replaced by the president of the Smoker’s Association of America.]





The only conclusion that can be reached, according to Collins, is that Secretary Clinton came from another planet. Said Collins, “It appears that Clinton’s genes come from some species of human-like creature that is nicer and more reasonable than any member of the species Homo sapiens.”

When asked about some of the specific differences between the Clinton and human genomes, Collins said, “Human DNA is built from adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. But Clinton’s genes are encoded in glucose and menthol.” When asked to describe glucose and menthol in layman’s terms, Collins said, “Sugar and spice.”

When asked why it was that Clinton sometimes shows human frailties, Collins speculated that Clinton must be faking it. “She is just pretending to have frailties in order to make people think she is one of us.”

When Candidate Trump was asked if he would release his genome, Trump responded, “Over my dead tax returns and medical records.” Then he grinned devilishly, started huffing and puffing, and laid an egg that was pure silicon, just like the eggs of the Horta on Star Trek.


When asked for comment, President Barack Obama said that the entire thing had been seriously overblown. “How silicon you get?” he asked during an interview.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Novel as Experiment in Whitehead's Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was one of the most famous novels of 2016. In this novel, a young slave Cora escapes from Georgia on the Underground Railroad, and eventually...does she make it? I won’t spoil the ending. But in this novel the Railroad is really a railroad, with railroad cars on tracks running through tunnels.

One impression is inescapable, and intentional. The amount of deliberate suffering inflicted by slave owners and slave hunters on the slaves, and even on other whites, is almost infinitely brutal. In this novel, slave hunters would kill and rape white abolitionists. Slave owners would put the eyes out of a slave who tried to learn to read. A white daughter turned in her parents to be hanged for hiding a fugitive slave (Cora), in return for an elevation of her social status. One slave hunter wore a necklace made out of human ears. One slave owner tortured his male slave by cutting off the slave’s manhood, stuffing it in the slave’s mouth, and sewing it shut.

Remember, this is fiction. Many of these things did not actually happen. For example, it makes no economic sense for slave owners to torture and kill their slaves for minor infractions; slaves were expensive to buy and maintain. Slave owners would, in the real South, treat slaves like animals, but not usually worse. But Whitehead achieves the novelist’s purpose, to make the reader hate slavery, and to see how it turns slave owners into devils.

And then I realized that this was the point. Most of these brutal things occurred at some point in history, but not all at once. During the lynchings after the Civil War, whites would indeed torture blacks. In doing so, they were not losing any money, the way slave owners would have. Whitehead took actual events from the lynching period and stuck them into the time of slavery. Whitehead also created a superficially nice-looking South Carolina, where black escapees were treated nicely, but it turns out that they were being sterilized in the name of scientific eugenics, and being used in scientific experiments. These things actually happened in the first half of the twentieth century. By placing the brutalities of fictional Georgia and North Carolina alongside the superficial niceness of the fictional South Carolina, Whitehead was inviting us to compare them. Were eugenics and scientific experimentation (as in the Tuskegee experiments), any less brutal than slavery? We usually don’t ask that question, because they occurred separately in history. Whitehead lines them all up during one brief time in Cora’s life. He performs an experiment with history. Hypothesis: eugenics is less brutal than slavery. Conclusion: No, they are both brutal.

I tried this kind of literary experiment when I was in junior high. I wrote a short story in which I divided England into two counties, Rupertshire and Spratleyshire, and I gave them two different forms of government. I set them side by side and allowed a traveler to directly compare them. That’s all I remember about this story, which might be in a box somewhere.

The Underground Railroad will certainly stir your fury. The young escaped slave Cora did not take every opportunity for revenge that came to her. I found myself wishing she had tortured and slowly killed the slave catcher in Indiana, rather than leaving him alive and tied up. That is, Whitehead stirred my desire for revenge then confronted me with mercy. This literary theme will never grow old.


Colson Whitehead broke up the timeline of history in a way that is forbidden in most historical fiction: he altered the historical context. But he made this broken timeline into parallel segments and compared them, as in a scientific experiment.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Altruism as Evil: The Work of Donald Trump

Altruism occurs when (usually) animals cooperate with one another, to the benefit of all of them. One kind of altruism, recognized by evolutionary scientists, is indirect reciprocity, in which an individual gains recognition and admiration for doing generous acts—and along with that admiration comes profit. We all want to do business with people who have a public reputation for generosity.

Nearly everyone recognizes altruism as good. Everyone, that is, except Donald Trump. He seems to believe that it is evil to do good things for other people.

One way that more fortunate countries have of helping the less fortunate ones is through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization(UNESCO). Educational and scientific exchanges promote world peace, one of the express purposes of the United Nations in general and UNESCO in particular. UNESCO facilitates altruism, especially indirect reciprocity.

But Trump has removed the United States from UNESCO. Not only does he not believe that the United States should promote world peace in this way, but he also appears to hate the reputation for goodness that the United States used to enjoy as a member of UNESCO. It used to be that when the world looked at America, it thought, “they want to help us,” and we got a lot of admiration for that. But today the world looks at us and thinks, “they hate us.” Trump, who is always sneering and insulting everyone else, already promoted this image, and has now backed it up by action. We hereby send the message to the world that, even if you are our friends, we do not need you. We do not even like you.

Trump’s consistent message has been “America first.” But this is not what he meant. Probably every nation puts itself first. What Trump meant, apparently, was “America only.”


America, Trump thinks, does not need the admiration or goodwill of the world. All we need to do is to intimidate them.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Altruism: Don't We Wish

I recently heard an interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University. He had some really interesting thoughts; and not just thoughts, but results of his own research. Oh how I wish I could agree with him.

Haidt’s research shows that our political convictions—in particular, being liberals vs. conservatives—is based on psychology rather than reason. Of course, liberals have always “known” this about conservatives: those conservatives are just mean people who want to oppress and victimize other people. And conservatives have always “known” this about liberals: those liberals are just immoral people who want to destroy the moral compass of society. But Haidt has shown that liberal vs. conservative biases may come from the deepest part of our brains. Conservatives have a need for order, while liberals relish diversity. This even shows up in the conservative preference for dots on a screen that move in lock-step with one another, and liberal preference for dots moving independently.

But what do we do with this information? It is here that, I fear, Haidt has gone off on a cloud of wishful thinking. If both liberals and conservatives can just recognize that their beliefs have a psychological basis, then they could start to talk and work things out. This is, as I understand it, Haidt’s gospel, as it were. He also says that our society needs both liberals and conservatives, to keep each other from going overboard.

Alas, there are two problems here.

  • Liberals are much more likely to agree with Haidt on his basic points. Conservatives will usually reject the very premise that psychology has any influence on their beliefs. They believe that they are God’s chosen and that they are as unlikely to be wrong as for God to not exist. The Holy Spirit has made them conservatives. That being the case, a true conservative will consider it unnecessary or even evil to have a meeting of minds with liberals. Haidt reached his conclusion from his liberal background; can he point to even one conservative scholar who has reached the same conclusion from his or her conservative background? Maybe he can, and if so, I’d like to hear about it.
  • Conservatives have a lot more guns piled up, ready to hand, than liberals. How can any parity of discussion be reached when one side is heavily armed and the other side virtually helpless? If you have guns, who needs dialogue?


These are two deadly asymmetries that make discussion impossible between liberals and conservatives, in general. Happily, some individual conservatives and liberals can talk, but this will not happen on a large enough scale to influence the immediate future.

Haidt gave an example of how liberals and conservatives could discuss an issue and perhaps come to a better understanding of one another. The issue: global warming. The liberals could begin a discussion by citing a military general, rather than an environmentalist, who talks about the dangers of global warming. Great idea. Only we climate scientists have already tried this. Defense Secretary Maddis has already said that global warming will cause international conflicts to which the U.S. military must pay close attention. Maddis is not just a conservative, but a hand-picked Trump follower. But the conservative global-warming denialists have either taken no notice or have been hostile toward this prominent conservative. A search of the most prominent denialist website turned up no matches with “Maddis.” The reason is, of course, that the denialists are paid by fossil fuel corporations, or individuals who have gotten rich from them, or foundations started by them.

Haidt also said that, on average, religion makes people more moral. But in order to justify this statement, Haidt had to include, in the term “morality,” those activities that bind the group together, even if it means that the group is hostile toward other groups and causes a great deal of harm to the world in general. I am sure Haidt does not mean to establish a moral equivalence between, say, the United Nations and the Nazis, but I am unclear about how he avoids this equivalence.

This problem is the very same one we encounter when we consider altruism, about which I have often written. Altruistic behavior, encouraged by empathetic feelings, enhances an individual’s evolutionary success within his or her social environment. In ancient times, the social environment was very local. Today, the environment can be the whole world. Natural and cultural selection may favor warm, fuzzy feelings within the group, but may also favor extreme hostility. This hostility can take two forms: the feeling of sweet revenge against cheaters within the group, and extreme hostility toward people outside the group, whether they are cheaters or not. It might be enlightening to think that conservatives draw the line between “us” and “them” more narrowly than do liberals. Haidt may have written about this someplace.

In a related thought, Haidt also said that, according to surveys, conservatives care more about the people around them, while liberals care more about the people of the world. And here is where I have to draw a completely different conclusion from my Oklahoma experiences than Haidt may draw from his New York experiences. The conservatives who live around me in Oklahoma seem to be hostile toward everyone except, maybe, their own families. They dump garbage in their neighbors’ yards and allow their dogs to attack anyone who is out on the street. Many of them fly Confederate flags, which displays their hostility toward even many of their immediate neighbors. And, in this reddest of red states, “Oklahoma is ranked 3rd in the nation for women killed by men in single victim-single offender homicides.” (see data here). Red states are not moral, at home, or in their communities. I wonder if the surveys that Haidt has conducted indicate more about what people like to think about themselves than what they actually do. Prominent conservatives, from Bill O’Reilly on down, proclaim Christian morality while pursuing immoral personal lives.

What I come away with, from Haidt’s statements, is that individual conservatives and liberals might try to understand one another better, after finding some personal common ground. This common ground might be something as strange as a shared adoration for the music of the 1930s country singer Jimmie Rodgers—which I share with a very conservative person I’ve not yet met but if I do I will talk to her about this rather than about politics. But on a national level? I think it is hopeless.


Haidt’s views might be appropriate for a society at equilibrium—that is, one in which liberal and conservative views can mix and respond to one another, reaching some kind of stable balance. But right now, our country is experiencing extreme disequilibrium. This is not true in every country. In France, a country about which I know a little, the conservatives and liberals disagree vividly. But the conservatives do not have stockpiles of guns in France the way they do in America. Even if American conservatives choose not to use these guns, they have the psychological advantage: we all know that they have them.