Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Defend and Deny: One Inevitable Result of Kakistocracy

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In last week's piece - Moral Disgrace As Public Entertainment - we predicted that Michael Wolff's tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House would likely ". . . produce, at best, a couple of week's worth of rapturous public entertainment . . . nothing more, nothing less."  Egad: we were correct!  For no sooner had the caterwauling begun quieting down a half-decibel or so then a new blaring note captured media interest from Boston to Beijing: '45's using the term "sh.thole countries" at a meeting with senators in the Oval Office.  His use of this bluntly vulgar, racist-tinged term came during a meeting when he and senators were supposed to be discussing  a bipartisan legislative proposal dealing with DACA and immigration. According to several who attended the meeting, the president questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and what he called “sh.thole countries” in Africa rather than places like Norway.  He wound up rejecting the bipartisan immigration deal. Not only did '45's ugly phrase cause linguists the world over scrambling to come up with a suitable translation for the opprobrious term  (dreksloch ["sinkhole"] in German, מחורבן [m'khurban "crappy"] in Hebrew and trou de merde ["hole of crap"] in Haitian Creole to name but three); his verbal diarrhea brought condemnatory comments from allies and enemies alike. It goes without saying that no leader with even a milligram of grey matter - not to mention class - would ever be caught dead saying such a thing in front of anyone with both reasonably good hearing and easy access to the media.  But '45 did.  And when he and his hapless myrmidons were asked whether he really had used the term in question, they resorted to a nonsensical Three Stooges-like strategy of defend and deny.

A White House spokesperson defended the president's position on immigration without disputing the account of what he actually said.  For his part, '45, while categorically denying having called Haiti and much of Africa sh.thole countries, Tweeted "The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made - a big setback for DACA!"  Senators David Purdue (R-GA) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), both of whom attended the meeting, originally said they "did not recall" hearing the president use that precise term.  Then, within 48 hours, Perdue told moderator George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week."  I'm telling you he did not use that word, George, and I'm telling you it's a gross misrepresentation." When it came to Senate Assistant Minority Leader Dick Durbin's straightforward statement that the president's remarks were "hate-filled,  vile and racist," Perdue accused the Illinois Democrat of "misrepresenting the president's comments." To their credit, a couple of Republicans - including Utah Rep. Mia Love, Maine Senator Susan Collins and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (who, for what it's worth, is not running for reelection), did denounce '45 for his racist comment. But one can easily ask: "Where were all the other Republicans? Why didn't they similarly denounce their party leader? Were they afraid to go on the record as being against their boss . . . or did they actually agree with his racism?  One can easily see these questions being asked of tens of dozens of Republicans during the upcoming midterm elections.  

Back in the mid-18th century, the great Savoyard lawyer/diplomat/philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1753-1862) noted "Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite" namely, "Every nation gets the government it deserves."  If the classically conservative de Maistre was correct, what in the world does the Trump administration tell us - and the rest of the world - about the American people?  Are we so obtuse, debased,  provincial and politically ignorant to deserve this celebrity huckster and his coterie of rank amateurs and family retainers as our government?  The mind reels.  Indeed, for those of us who take politics, American history and governance seriously, what we are currently experiencing is "Leadership by the Lost." 

Believe it or not, there is actually a term for the kind of government we currently have: "Kakistocracy." Kakis- what?  Kakistocracy, which for those who, like yours truly, managed to study Greek, comes from κάκιστος (kakistos - "worst") and κράτος (kratos - "rule"), literally meaning "rule by the worst people." Although the term has rhetorically and theoretically existed for a long, long time, it did not  come into use until the early 19th century when the long forgotten British novelist Thomas Love Peacock published his 1829 satirical romance The Misfortunes of Elfin (note: only read if you love Trollope and other long-winded British novelists).  59 years later, the great American poet James Russell Lowell used the term in a letter to fellow poet Joel Benton in which he asked 'Is ours a 'government of the people by the people for the people,' or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?"  In short, "Kakistocracy" is the bipolar opposite of aristocracy; namely, a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous of citizens.

We can hear the detractors screaming out "There you go again, attacking the president for not being a typical politician."  Well yes, but for a far more trenchant reason than just being partisan progressives.  Throughout our history, our presidents have, for the most part, appealed to our higher, brighter angels; urging us to be guided by the best, most civil and even-handed aspects of our collective national being. This time around, however, we are being urged to cave in to that which is most base, biased, greedy and grossly intolerant within us.  And although no more than 35% of the voting public has thrown its support behind this unique kakistocratic aberration, it has been enough to elect the worst president in the history of our glorious republic . . . not to mention a Congress filled with spineless sycophants. 

Do we truly deserve this kakistocracy?  Are we responsible for this rule by the utterly incompetent?  Yes and no.  In the main, Americans are too caring, humane and tolerant to blithely accept rule by the worst. But at the same time, a bare majority of us turn out to vote, thereby permitting a large minority to control the republic's future.  Those who are aggrieved, abashed and ashamed of what '45 and his ilk have made of American in just under a year should note that we are going to the polls in about 10 months. Together, we can take back the House and Senate this coming November.  Together, we can deflate the Kakistocratic balloon they have wrought and restart the process of putting America back into the hands of thinking, caring, worldly non-psychotic people.  The Three Stooges should remain on celluloid, not Capitol Hill.

360 days down, 1,197 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

Moral Disgrace As Public Entertainment

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Extending back to the earliest days of the great experiment known as America, there have been a handful of social, cultural and political verities which have never been far from center stage.  These verities - call them America's version of Hegel's Dialectics (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) - include: individualism-versus-community; Federalism-versus-States' Rights; fear of "the malignant other"; and moral disgrace as public entertainment.  The first (individualism-versus-community) is what divides those who believe that most - if not all - individuals can succeed on their own just so long as there are no prior civil restraints, and those who hold that success is best achieved by people working together toward a common goal.  The second (Federalism-versus States' Rights) is the individualism-versus-community dichotomy raised to the political level; namely that the American polity works best when power descends from above versus working best when power ascends from below. The third (fear of "the malignant other") is the recurrent national mania for blaming others - "outsiders," and "aliens" "communists" or "authoritarian populists" for the nation's social, political or economic problems.  The fourth and last verity is "moral disgrace as public entertainment," a concept first popularized by writer Philip Roth in his lamentably underrated 1998 roman à clef I Married a Communist. This verity has played on the American stage ever since the days of the Salem Witch Trials, which - again in the words of Mr. Roth - ". . . fed the pleasures of paranoia." For in addition to partaking in the "malignant other" verity,  the trials were damned entertaining to boot.  Similarly did the "Know Nothings" of the 1840s, the McCarthyites of the 1950s and today's Trumpeters know the entertainment value of turning both moral and mental disgrace into a good public show. 

Make no mistake about it: the nation's 45th President is a moral, mental and political disgrace.  I mean, would a sane, balanced person starkly tell the world "I am a stable genius?" But beyond this, in putting both America and the very planet we occupy into grave peril, America's "mean widdle kid" (remember Red Skelton?) persists in masquerading as public entertainment. From his orange bird's nest coif to his penchant for puerile early-morning Tweets and exiguous grasp of civics, American history, the Constitution and our very political process, '45 is a train wreck posing as a transcontinental glide. And, with the publication of Michael Wolff's new tell-all Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (which I, unlike many, have already managed to procure and read) we have now had the worst, basest, most repugnant aspects of the man and his presidency reified.  This is  not to say that each and every charge, each and every quote in Wolff's 336-page work is rock-solidly irrefutable.  With works of this sort, nothing is ever 100% verifiable. However, the welter of tell-all impressions and quotes backs up the certain knowledge that '45 is a man-child in the promised land; an illiterate naif floundering in a sea of lethal omnivores. 

What '45 does not know or understand about realpolitik - whether local, national or (gasp!) international - imperils both the nation and the planet. The fact that he possesses few - if any - core beliefs, leaves him totally vulnerable to the last voice he's heard or last telecast he's viewed. According to author Wolff, '45 is a man who neither reads nor listens; a man who is far far more concerned with being lionized than solving problems; a man who, like the Platte River, is six inches deep and a mile wide the mouth. (n.b. This bon mot is not mine; it was originally used to describe William Jennings Bryan the "Boy Orator of the Platte" back in the late 19th century.) How else can one understand '45's obsessive  push to undermine or overturn virtually everything enacted by his predecessor for no other reason than the former president's having trolled and gently poked fun at him during a White House Corespondents' dinner in 2015? Never mind that the man(child) President Obama was punking had been at the forefront of the whole "birther" cannard. To '45, inconsistency means far less then impropriety. How else to explain that while neither '45 nor his official spokespeople have yet to deny any of writer Wolff's specific charges (other to call the book a hatchet job), he has nonetheless (unsuccessfully) threatened to sue the author and his publisher for libel?  Although not an expert in constitutional law, I'm reasonably certain that there is no tortious liability stemming from definition of character; neither author Wolff nor his publisher are tortfeasors. As the world's most public figure, '45 cannot sue for libel, much less demand prior restraint.

Both sadly and predictably, none of Wolff's revelations will cause "45's most ardent defenders to change their opinion of the man, his motives or his character. Furthermore, for most Americans, the nonstop media unveiling of Michael Wolff's revealing juggernaut (it rose to #1 on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble's websites even before a single volume was sold) will be widely discussed but largely unread and produce, at best, a couple of week's worth of rapturous public entertainment . . . nothing more, nothing less.  Those who were against '45 before its publication will now have even more fodder for their opposition; most of those who were firmly and enthusiastically part of '45's hallowed "base" prior to publication and revelation will find within its pages nothing but noxious "fake news," and will continue to believe him a president as great as - if not greater than - Abraham Lincoln. 

Most regrettably, Wolff's book will, in the long-run be yet another example of moral disgrace as public entertainment - a bit more kiss-and-tell in a society far more addicted to the salacious than the salubrious.  How terribly sad.  But what can one expect from a culture in which the average John or Mary can provide line and verse on at least 3 Kardashians yet have no idea how many branches of government there are . . . let alone name them? Despite the fact - as mentioned above - that not everything in Fire and Fury in the Trump White House - is necessarily true, it does present a president and an administration which is rapidly destroying the very fabric of the American body politic, scaring the daylights out of our allies, and giving our enemies reasons to be both bold and brave.

In the long-run, public entertainment does not - indeed cannot - pave a path for our future.  Trump must go.  Pence and Ryan, who would succeed him - must never be permitted top occupy the Oval Office.  We must find a way to replace them with leaders who, although perhaps not nearly so entertaining, are at least capable of working 24-7 to restore integrity, intelligence and maturity to the body politic. For to be POTUS requires far more than being a mere celebrity; it requires being a thoroughly accomplished actor on the world's largest state.

350 days down, 1,108 days two go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

Will He Or Won't He?

     Donald Trump and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III

     Donald Trump and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III

By now, it is well understood by most that truth is to '45 as lox and bagels are to peanut butter and Jalapeño peppers.  In other words, they are both strangers and bipolar opposites.   Indeed, the past few years have seen the emergence of a cottage industry which keeps track of every one of '45's exaggerations, mistruths, and outright lies. In comparison to his immediate predecessors - Obama, Bush and Clinton - '45 is in a class by himself.  However, in the same breath, it must be admitted that even before his election, the future POTUS told two major, major truths which we, the American public - ignore at our own peril:

  • First, on January 23, 2016, nearly a year before his eventual inauguration, then-candidate Trump proudly Tweeted that he could "stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" and not "lose any voters."  In a grotesque, off-the-wall way, this has turned out to be true; for regardless of whatever outrageous, puerile, mind-numbing things '45 has done, said or Tweeted over the past year or more, his most ardent supporters (his "base") have remained steadfast. In the main, they are as deaf, dumb and blind as Dr. Pangloss' most ardent disciples who believe - despite everything they've seen, heard or experienced - that this is indeed, "the best of all possible worlds."
  • And second, as early as 2015, when pressed as to how we could expect him to deal any of the nation's most difficult problems - rising healthcare costs, climate change, the gross disparity of wealth and the Middle East to name but a few - Trump told Fox News that he wished to be "unpredictable."  The Latin response to this statement would be rem acu testigisti - namely, he "hit the nail on the head."  For in going over '45's actions, statements and Tweets during his first year in office he has been - as per his 2015 promise - completely unpredictable.  Regrettably, as we've learned, his unpredictability is more often related to his last source of information - generally Sean Hannity, the sage of  St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary high school, than to his Chief of Staff, members of his Cabinet or even his own family.

These two truths lead inevitably - and lamentably -  to a question which has, over the past several weeks been uppermost in the minds of many: will the POTUS fire special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III because his investigation is giving him both shpilkis and heartburn?  Although on this, the day before Christmas 2017, no one - including '45 himself - knows if the man insiders call "Bobby Triple Sticks"  (that's after the 'III' which appends his name) will be sacked . . . that's anyone's guess, it could very well happen. But then again, it might not. That's where '45's obsessive unpredictability comes into play. Of course, in order to get to the point where Mueller is actually canned, the president would likely have to first terminate Deputy A.G. Rod Rosenstein, appoint and anoint a replacement who would then act as lord high executioner . . . . unless he fools everyone and refuses to do the dirty deed. Virginia Senator Mark Warner has already warned '45 that "Any attempt by this President to remove special counsel Mueller from his position or to pardon key witnesses in any effort to shield them from accountability or shut down the investigation would be a gross abuse of power and a flagrant violation of executive branch responsibilities and authorities . . . . These truly are red lines and [we] simply cannot allow them to be crossed."

Would this potential "Saturday Night Massacre Redux" cause even a tiny tremor of rejection - let alone revulsion - amongst '45's most ardent fans?  Probably not. Remember, these are the very folks that '45 predicted wouldn't lose faith even if he "stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot somebody." And while reasonable, rational people can take comfort in the knowledge that the blindly "epoxied faithful" represent, at best, a third of the American public, this is still a large enough number to put a systemic roadblock in the path of public unity.  Do remember, that interwoven throughout this third are racists, anti-Semites, homophobes, highly-armed 2nd Amendment gun nuts, supporters of authoritarianism, Randroidian Objectivists (many of whom sit in '45's Cabinet) and people who want to secede from the Union. 

Another "Will he, won't he?" deals with '45's love of misdirection; of turning public attention - if only for a day or a week - away from the house of cards that is about to collapse all around him, his family and his presidency.  Remember such acts of temporary misdirection as Obama's having wiretapped Trump Tower? Or how about the canard concerning the Clintons, Russia and Uranium?  Or barring transgenders from serving in the military?  Or first declaring that shortly, America would be relocating its embassy to Jerusalem, and then threatening to take retaliatory action against any and every country that voted against us at the United Nations?  Then there's the issue of how reliable and amateurish the FBI has become. Is it possible that if things get so incredibly fraught and legally untenable that '45 will initiate some large-scale military action against North Korea? Unlike the other acts of misdirection, which have been largely buoyed by rhetoric and hot air, this one would be backed up with the largest, most lethal nuclear arsenal on the planet.  And what if, for the sake of supposing, the Joint Chiefs of Staff simply said "NO!  WE WON'T DO IT!"  What then?  A mass incarceration of admirals and generals?  Instituting martial law from Caribou to Carson City?  The mind simply boggles.

There is one "Will he, won't he?" that I can highly recommend to our Commander in Chief: that he, or Mrs. Huckabee Sanders, or his private physician, announce that most regrettably, as a result of an aggressive something or other, he must resign his office, give the keys to Vice President Pence (who could very well be in legal jeopardy himself) and return to Trump Towers where he will live out his remaining days in therapeutic splendor.

Sound impossible?  Perhaps . . . but then again, this is the season for giving gifts . . .

337 days down, 1,121 days to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

Cleaning Up What the Elephants Leave Behind

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Having grown up in and around the movie industry, we got to know quite a number of actors, directors, choreographers . . . even a thespic animal or two.  One of my favorites was a broken-back horse named "Mickey," who appeared in a couple of dozen Mack Sennett flicks.  Being a devotee of "Roy Rogers," and "The Lone Ranger," not to mention that we,  as a family were friends of Bill Williams (née Hermann Katt, the star of "The Adventures of Kit Carson") and his wife Barbara Hale (Della Street on "Perry Mason") plus getting to spend an inordinate amount of time at Corriganville, (the Western movie set out in Simi Valley), I often found myself wondering whose job it was to rid the streets of all the horse manure.  Think about it: did you ever once see a speck of horse plop on the streets of Matt Dillon's Dodge or Roy Rogers' Mineral City?"  Obviously, there were people in Hollywood who made their livings shoveling tons of equine drek between takes. About the only Western star whose penchant for stark realism demanded horse droppings on his befouled sets was the greatest of them all, William S. Hart.

So what in the world do horse plop and classic Western movies have to do with this week's topic?  Actually quite a bit.  Just as as it required a team of devoted sweepers to sanitize the streets of Dodge (or Mineral or Virginia City) from the loads of crap left by all the horses, so too does it take a cadre of devoted  Donkeys (Democrats) to clean up all the dangerous droppings left behind by the Elephants (Republicans).  Take the Republicans' recently reconciled Tax Cuts and Jobs Actwhich few members of Congress have read and even fewer understand. This bill includes something for everyone to hate - unless you are incredibly rich or incredibly stupid. For besides drastically reducing the nation's corporate tax rate from 35% (which few currently pay) down to 21% and being a boon to the super wealthy, their bill would:

  • Put a lethal stake into the very heart of Obamacare, taking health insurance away from 34 Million Americans who will go back to using the ER as their primary care physician;
  • Repeal the Alternate Minimum Tax for corporations while letting it remain for individuals and couples;
  • Repeal  the deductibility of home equity loans;
  •  Nearly double the amount of inherited wealth exempt from tax to about $10 million from a current $5.6 million;
  • Repeal the deductability of alimony payments, which will wreak havoc with low- and middle-income folks seeking a divorce while further lining the pockets or their attornies;
  • Repeal the Johnson Amendment — a 1954 measure which prohibits houses of worship and other tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates;
  • Eliminate the state and local tax deduction, which is taken by many people in high-tax (read "blue"), populous states to avoid double taxation. These states include New York, California, New Jersey and Massachusetts; 
  • Eliminate employer-provided educational assistance, the student loan interest deduction, and other critical higher education tax provisions;
  • Add between $1 and $1.5 trillion to the federal budget deficit over the next decade, which will necessitate deep cuts in such social programs as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in order to pay for it as well as drastically slashing the budgets of most every federal department and agency with the possible exception of the Department of Defense.

This then s the long-promised "major, major tax overhaul" which would

  • Drastically cut corporate taxes;
  • Lop thousands upon thousands of pages from the IRS regs;
  • Simplify  tax filing to the point where one could submit their taxes on a single postcard;
  • Put lots of money into the pockets of middle-class taxpayers,
  • Be absolutely "revenue neutral," and
  • Make America fiscally great again.

Never mind that at most, the Republican plan will put $20.00 a week back into the pockets of middle-class wage earners (at least for the first couple of years), take away any number of basic deductions for those earning less than $75,000 a year, and create new ways in which so-called "Pass-Through businesses," millionaires, multi-millionaires and billionaires can vastly increase their wealth.  And all this Congress has managed to shape, create, tweak and likely pass behind closed doors.  At 500-odd pages, it is by no means the longest piece of legislation in the history of the Republic; just the worst conceived cut-and-paste mean-spirited giveaway of all time.  For months, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin had been talking about  the painstaking analysis that hundreds of his employees were engaged in preparing twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.  Well, that analysis finally was released this past Monday.  It could easily have been contained on a single postcard.  Come to think of it, a single page or postcard is most fitting for this travesty, considering that the economic theory which underpins it all ("Trickle-Down," which was based on the so-called "Laffer Curve") was originally written on a single cocktail napkin.

One of the most devilishly clever aspects of this lobbyist-written plan is that all the changes affecting corporations and the hyper-wealthy are legislatively in perpetuity, while those which, at first blush may be helpful for the non-wealthy, have a life-span of only a few years.  That is when the draconian cuts begin - those additional revenues and fiscal savings required to make sure the tax code continues enriching the already rich.  For devotees of trickle-down this makes sense: once the rich get even richer, they will spend their newfound pelf on creating jobs here at home, thus putting more dollars into the pockets of American consumers.

Right . . . and there was never any horse crap on the ground at the OK Corral. Just ask Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, or Hank Fonda and Randolph Scott. 

It is left to the Democrats to pick up the brooms and shovels and clean up this Elephant-made mess.  But it will not be enough to merely explain and endlessly repeat what the pachyderms hath wrought. The Republican base - most of whom will suffer along with the rest of us - could care less; their leaders have told them it's a real mitzvah to help the rich get even richer. Those who know or even sense that the Republicans have legalized a ginormous game of Three Card Monty don't want to hear about it; they want to know what the Democrats are planning to do about it.  And not just some Huey Long "Soak the Rich!" cure-all.  No, in order to be successful in 2018, 2020 and beyond, Democrats are going to have to do a lot of soul searching, deep creative thinking and come up with specific proposals for how we're going to retake the future on behalf of America's working- and middle-class people.  We're going to have to talk about:

  • Making major investments in education that will place far, far more emphasis on putting future skills into the hands of students than siphoning off dollars to put into the pockets of charter school pirates. 
  • Committing ourselves as a nation to rebuilding our infrastructure and retrofitting our power grids: roads, national highways, bridges, dams, levees.  And not just for the sake of creating millions of jobs; infrastructure is as much a part of national defense as are bombs, bullets and counterintelligence. 
  • Addressing and acting upon those things which truly matter to the American public, such as healthcare, retirement and gun safety rather than divisive, diverting dog-whistle issues like "religious freedom for White Christians";  putting more and more guns into the hands of already well-armed people; deporting millions upon millions of undocumented human beings and constructing an American "Maginot Line" specifically designed to keep them out; making sure that evolution and climate change aren't "rammed down the throats of our children."

It's a tall, messy, malodorous order; this cleaning up of what the elephants leave behind, but someone's got to do it for the sake of America and the future of the planet.

331 days down, 1,127 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

There's Going To Be a Morning After

                         Manoj Bhargava

                         Manoj Bhargava

Introductory note: With each passing week, there are an increasing number of critical issues, personalities and inanities to write about.  Invariably, selecting any particular issue or crisis upon which  to devote a weekly column will result in many people asking me "Why didn't you write about X instead of Y?"  Any attempt to offer an explanation or give a defense is futile - and in my humble opinion unnecessary. In point of fact, the very process of choosing a topic is almost as difficult and time consuming as researching, pondering and writing it.  Why just this week alone, I could be writing on the senate election in Alabama, the President's announcement concerning Jerusalem (and all it entails), the resignations of Senator Franken and Representatives Conyers and Franks, the annual White House Hanukkah gathering to which not a single Jewish Democrat was invited . . . and on and on.  Whenever selection becomes more insuperable than composition, opt for a change of pace.  Remember, the subtitle of this blog is "Politics and a Whole Lot More."

So this week, let's opt for a lot less "politics" in favor of "a whole lot more." This essay is about the future.  It is decidedly more positive and upbeat than any essay about the present. It is planned to the first of several occasional pieces on people, ideas and projects which ultimately will make tomorrow far more hopeful, nurturing and civilized than today . . . 

For every 10 people who know the name Manoj Bhargava, there are likely 100,000 who have used the product which made him a  multi-billionaire: "5-hour ENERGY." Manoj, who was born in Lucknow, India in 1953, is the  founder and CEO of Innovations Ventures L.L.C., which, among other things, produces 5-hour ENERGY. Manoj, who is worth an estimated $4 billion, is a member of the Giving Pledge Campaign and already well on his way to giving away 99% of his fortune to philanthropic causes.  Towards that end, he has created the Billions in Change Foundation which includes an "invention shop" called Stage 2.  This Farmington Hills, Michigan shop creates "useful solutions to the world’s most pressing problems." To date, Stage 2 and Bhargava's Han Foundation have invented a diverse array of devices and techniques to capture and generate free energy, clean, purify and make potable water that is brackish, overly salinized and thus undrinkable, and make non-chemical manure that permits soil to absorb water even while increasing crop yield by an exponential amount.

Stage 2 has created and put into use:

  • A stationary bicycle which, if pedaled for but an hour, can create and store enough energy to light a home, charge a cell phone, and run a fan.  
  • A solar-paneled briefcase-like device which can can generate and store even more energy.  In both cases, the net result is free, non polluting energy. 
  • Two devices, the "Rainmaker for Grey Water," and the "Rainmaker for Brackish Water" which simply attaches to a well and starts working immediately, cleaning water at a rate of 5-10 gallons per minute. And unlike other water filtration devices, this one uses very little energy. It takes just 1.5 kilowatts, which is about as much as a hair dryer,.
  • Shivansh Fertilizer - a cost-free fertilizer that can transform unproductive land into a thriving farm, enabling farmers to reduce reliance on chemicals and increase profits. Shivansh Fertilizer is made by gathering whatever is laying around—dry plant materials, fresh grass, crop residues, animal manure—and then using a simple-to-follow layering method to construct a shoulder-high pile.

To date, these devices  and techniques are already in use and making an important difference in India.  Manoj's plan is to introduce them to the poorest parts of Africa, Asia and the Americas. 

We who live in the world's developed countries might find it hard to grasp that easily more than a billion people on this planet don't have access to electricity or a source of clean water, and can barely make a living through farming.  Manoj Bhargava and his colleagues have already made vast inroads into solving these problems.  Besides saving lives and bringing light where there currently darkness, Manoj is also helping clean the atmosphere by creating non-polluting, free sources of energy (which I am sure the oil, coal and gas companies are going to hate), and above all, giving hope . . . a desperately needed commodity. 

I strongly urge you to take less than a half-hour to watch the following video. Not only will you be amazed at what is happening; it just might restore a bit of faith in the human race:

45 years ago, Maureen McGovern gained instant fame when she sang "The Morning After"  for the 1972 blockbuster hit "The Poseidon Adventure."  Its lyrics are, in light of this week's essay - and other such future pieces about the future - especially poignant:

There's got to be a morning after
If we can hold on through the night
We have a chance to find the sunshine
Let's keep on looking for the light

Oh, can't you see the morning after? 
It's waiting right outside the storm
Why don't we cross the bridge together
And find a place that's safe and warm?

It's not too late, we should be giving
Only with love can we climb
It's not too late, not while we're living
Let's put our hands out in time

There's got to be a morning after
We're moving closer to the shore
I know we'll be there by tomorrow
And we'll escape the darkness
We won't be searching anymore

(© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc)

 

324 days down, 1,136 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

"Believe Me"

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Generally speaking, when a politician begins a statement with the words "Believe me," what follows is - again, generally speaking - likely not true.  Our current POTUS is a prime example of this phenomenon.  Without those two words, he'd have 50% less to say. Need an example? Less than a week ago, while campaigning for passage of the then-pending Senate tax overhaul vote before a gathering in St. Charles, Missouri, '45 said "This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing - believe me. Believe me; this is not good for me." Predictably, the crowd cheered wildly (why, we'll never know). He then concluded the passage by saying that he had "many wealthy friends who are not happy with me . . . believe me." Even if one disputes the fact of '45 having "many friends," his statement is demonstrably untrue; this overhaul will blow up the deficit by more than $1.5 trillion, rob more than 13 million working class and poor Americans of healthcare, raise taxes on those earning less than $75,000, eliminate more than $35 billion from Medicare, and see the vast majority of its benefits going to the wealthiest .05% of the American public, through such fetid codicils as eliminating the inheritance tax (which only applies to those leaving behind estates in the millions upon millions of dollars. Far from "not being good for me," this one factor alone could easily save '45 and his heirs more than a billion dollars). 

Believe me . . . please do, for the above is demonstrably factual, not deviously fatuous. 

We live in a time and place of such utter cynicism, confusion and fear that it is hard - if not impossible - to know what to believe; to know what is truthful and what a mere sack of manure.  Personally, I still put trust in polling . . . when done by such professional organizations and concerns as Pew, Kaiser, Quinnipiac, Rasmussen and even Gallup.  For these are groups that consider polling to be both an academic and scholarly pursuit which will lead them to whatever conclusions the polls will evince, as opposed to polling organizations which strive to "prove" pre-conceived partisan points of view. And yes, these partisan polling outfits traverse the entire political spectrum, from the wildly progressive to the psychotically conspiratorial.  Unfortunately, the best, most honest and professional of polls often lead us to the worst, most cynically disheartening of conclusions.  Consider if you will . . .

It's a fact: A majority of Americans say it is the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage. And a growing share now supports a “single payer” approach to health insurance, according to a new national survey by the Pew Research Center.  Moreover, more than half the American people are against repealing "Obamacare" without first having a new plan in place.  And yet, the Republican-controlled Congress is firmly against Obamacare and continues to deride any form of Universal Health Coverage as "Socialist."

It is a fact: Sixty-four percent of voters support stricter gun laws, the poll shows, including 41 percent who strongly support them. Less than 3-in-10 voters (29 percent) oppose stricter gun laws, including 16 percent in strong opposition. Nonetheless, Congress continues to assert that those seeking new gun safety laws are merely hiding their true goal: currying favor with their deep-pocketed friends at the National Rifle Association. Virtually every Republican (and a few Democrats) is even against enacting laws making it more difficult for people convicted of domestic abuse to acquire guns.  Instead, they acclaim that any piece of gun safety legislation is but a first step in taking guns away from all Americans. (Please note the use of the term "gun safety," rather than "gun control." I think using the former is more to the point, and therefore less likely to scare away those sitting on the fence.)

It is a fact: Despite the fact that only one in four Americans recently polled were in favor of the Republican's tax overhaul, it passed the Senate 51-49 with but a single Republican (outgoing Tennessee Senator Bob Corker) voting against it.  How is this possible?

It's a fact: Nearly 70% of those polled favored America's participation in the Paris Accord - which aims to tackle climate change head-on.  Nonetheless, '45 - with the backing of his Republican-led Congress - pulled out of the international pact. America is now the only country on earth not to be a part of that pact . . . with our president still questioning whether global warming is or is not a "Chinese Hoax."

It is a fact:  A vast 86 percent of Americans support a right to residency for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, with support crossing the political spectrum. Two-thirds back a deal to enact such legislation in tandem with higher funding for border control. Despite this, nary a single Republican leader has so much as suggested that '45 change course and permit these "Dreamers" to remain in America.

It's a fact: American voters, by a  margin of 69%-27% approve of the constitutional right to abortion established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. Despite this, both Congress and innumerable Republican-controlled state legislatures are continuing to chip away at a woman's right to choose; whether by cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, passing legislation which limits abortions to only the first 8 weeks of a pregnancy, saddling clinics performing abortions with impossible requirements, or declaring that life begins at the moment of (or even before) conception.

Believe me: all the above are demonstrable facts.

So why don't our elected officials heed vox populi - public opinion?  Is it because they are cruel, heartless, greedy or just plain stupid?  Could it be that Washington, D.C. and the various state capitols are all on another planet . . . or could it be something else?

Believe me: it is something else.

That "something else," which motivates (forces?) the party in power to go against the demonstrable will of  "We the People" is the worst Supreme Court ruling in all American history: the court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case, which gave corporations and so-called "super-pacs" the status of people, thereby permitting unfettered, unlimited, often untraceable amounts of money to be showered upon political officeholders and candidates who would do their bidding and dance to the tune played by corporations, super-pacs and lobbying organizations.  In essence, Citizens United (which was decided by a 5-4 vote) gave multi-billionaires like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and Bob Mercer (who until recently was, among other things, a major stakeholder in Breitbart News) and single-interest groups and super-pacs (such as the National Rifle Association, the coal, oil, gas and big pharma) the biggest, cushiest seat at the table.  Through unlimited contributions, they have been given legal cover to place a hammy hand on the scale of democracy.  Indeed ever since Citizens United the Constitution seems to begin with the words "We the Corporations of the United States . . ." It is the rare senator, representative, governor or state legislator who has the conviction, courage and guts to go against the will of those with the bucks. Call it "Gold's Law" - Thems with the gold makes the law.  Things were a bit different in the years before Citizens United.  I well remember the words of a former boss, the late California Assembly Speaker Jess 'Big Daddy' Unruh who said both "Money is the mother's milk of politics," and "If you can't take their (lobbyists') money, drink their booze, eat their food and have fun with their women (Jess' statement was a bit more Raymond Chandler on this last point) and then have the courage to vote against them, you just don't belong in politics."  

Believe me: polls show that a clear majority of the American public understands that Citizens United is bad for politics, bad for America, bad for Democracy.  And yet, the Supreme Court decision is law and the billionaires continue to get their way.  What is to done?  How to rid America of that which has so utterly befouled our political process?  One way would be to get the SCOTUS to overturn their earlier decision.  Of course, as long as the highest court in the land is filled with conservatives, that's never going to happen.  Another - and perhaps only realistic - way of getting rid of it would be amending the United States Constitution.  While at first blush this might seem like history's biggest pipe dream, do recall the words of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin" - "The wheel's still in spin. . . For the loser now will be later to win/For the times they are a-changin."

Believe me: Getting rid of Citizens United via Constitutional Amendment, although quite difficult, is not impossible

Believe me: A growing number of state legislatures and more than 700 cities, towns and municipalities have already endorsed such an amendment. 

Believe me: Nationwide petitions have garnered millions of signatures. 

Believe me: In September 2014, a majority of U.S. Senators voted in favor of a constitutional amendment but their 54-42 majority fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome the threat of an opposition filibuster. It was a partisan clash: All 42 “No” votes came from Republicans and all 54 “Yes” votes came from Democrats.

Believe me: Citizens United is turning this country into even more of a corporate state than we were back in the Gilded Age.  Indeed, in turns of Supreme Court history, Citizens United was, is and shall always be Worse Than Dred Scott

Believe me: Ridding America of the consequences of Citizens United will go a long, long way towards restoring representative Democracy to the land of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt.

For those who wish to participate, click this link and add your name and voice.  Then, make sure you only vote for Representatives, Senators, state legislators and members of your local county and municipal governments that will support repeal.  If we work together, it can work.

BELIEVE ME!

318 days down, 1142 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

 

The Ever-Contracting Universe of D.J.T.

                  Pearl Buck, JFK, Robert Frost, Mrs.Kennedy

                  Pearl Buck, JFK, Robert Frost, Mrs.Kennedy

On April 29, 1962, President John F. Kennedy (who, as of this past Wednesday has - unbelievably - been gone for 54 years) hosted a lavish black-tie White House banquet honoring 49 Nobel Laureates from the Western Hemisphere. Prominent attendees included then-Canadian Liberal Party leader Lester Pearson, writer (and Nobel Laureate) Ernest Hemingway's widow Mary Welsh Hemingway, Poet Robert Frost, novelist John Dos Passos, literary critics Lionel and Diana Trilling, and two-time Academy Award winner Frederic March, who read excerpts from the works of Nobel Prize winners Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck and George C. Marshall. 

In his welcoming remarks to his august guests, President Kennedy (a month shy of his 45th birthday and himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer)  keenly observed  “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”  Although these words (likely written by Kennedy's Ted Sorensen) are generally well-remembered, what followed is not: “I think the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of peace, are very basic drives and pressures in this life of ours--and this dinner is an attempt, in a sense, to recognize those great efforts, to encourage young Americans and young people in this hemisphere to develop the same drive and deep desire for knowledge and peace."

Talk about a class act.  The Kennedy years - that brief interregnum between Eisenhower and Johnson - were frequently called "Camelot," a glittering kingdom where, in the words of C'est Moi:

 A knight of the Table Round should be invincible,
 Succeed where a less fantasticbman would fail /
Climb a wall no one else can climb,
 Cleave a dragon in record time,
 Swim a moat in a coat of heavy iron mail.
 No matter the pain, he ought to be unwinceable,
 Impossible deeds should be his daily fare.

Turn the page, advance 54 years, and we now find ourselves in the midst of Camelot's dark and ugly underbelly, as in the words of Seven Deadly Virtues:

The seven deadly virtues, those ghastly little traps
Oh no, my liege, they were not meant for me
Those seven deadly virtues were made for other chaps
Who love a life of failure and ennui . . .
 I find humility means to be hurt
 It's not the earth the meek inherit, it's the dirt
 Honesty is fatal, it should be taboo
 Diligence-a fate I would hate . . .

Nowhere does the difference between the Kennedy years and today reveal itself more starkly than in the matter of Nobel Laureates.  Where Kennedy delighted in dining with and basking in the aura of the crème-de-la-crème of brilliance and scholarly accomplishment, '45 has turned both a blind eye and a deaf ear to all of them. Simply stated, in 2017, there is no place at  today's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the best and brightest in the scholarly empyrean.  Why? Perhaps '45, who has on any number of occasions reminded his cadre of followers that he is "a very intelligent person" is simply cowed by their brilliance and fears that they would easily show him up for the brainless blowhard he is. (Actually, they probably would not; they are far too classy a bunch for such bad manners.) Not that such an unmasking would deter his ardent base from believing he is the Great Oz. Perhaps he is playing up to the solid, stolid anti-intellectualism of his political universe, which is largely made up of those for whom climate change is nothing more than a deceitful conspiracy, and the  only "Big Bang Theory" they've ever heard of is that which attaches to Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, rather than Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble.  Then too, perhaps he simply does not want to suffer the unprecedented embarrassment of having his invitations turned down.  For truth to tell, more than one of the Nobel Laureates was relieved by '45's decision to not have a gala in their honor.  

Make no mistake about it: '45's universe, unlike that of Einstein and Hubble is constantly contracting: intellectually, morally and politically. America - indeed, the world - seems to be populated by an ever decreasing number of people and nations who have one thing in common: a need, desire and ability to idolize him no matter what he does or says;  no matter whether he is as inconsistent as a major league strike zone or as intellectually vapid are a flat-earther. During the past year or more, a lot of people have come to understand that '45's universe contracts every time an individual, group or cause changes its mind about him.  He possesses total recall when it comes to slights, challenges or personal affronts, and clinical amnesia when it comes to any - if not all - his yesterdays.  For so many, the only thing one must know about him is that he is rich . . . really, really rich (or so he says).

When I attended university nearly a half-century ago, I took just enough "Physics for Philosophy Students" courses to figure out how much I did not know about physics. I do recall learning something about Edwin Hubble's discovery (theory?) that the universe was not static . . . that it was constantly expanding. This was the find which revealed that the universe was apparently born in a "Big Bang." That when the universe was just ten-to-the-minus-thirty-fourth of a second or so old — that is, a hundredth of a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second in age — it experienced an incredible burst of expansion known as inflation, in which space itself expanded faster than the speed of light. During this period, the universe doubled in size at least 90 times, going from subatomic-sized to golf-ball-sized almost instantaneously.  As a student of philosophy, history and political science, I found this terribly difficult to grok.  And so, I found myself asking the professor, "If the entire physical universe was the size of a golf ball, what reality existed outside that golf ball sized orb?"  When he told me "nothing whatsoever," I tried to . . . as the modern expression goes . . . "wrap my brain around that one." After a sleepless night or two, I decided that there were simply some things better left to the astrophysicists, G-d bless them all. I was better off studying Hume than Hawking.

To the best of my knowledge (which is woefully slight), the question remains: "What reality exists outside a constantly expanding physical universe?"  With regards to this week's topic, it is far, far easier to answer the question "What reality exists outside a constantly contracting political universe?"  To be certain, the discards include ideals, programs, equality, humanity and long-term vision.  And if something is not done over the next several years, '45's "real America" - i.e. his universe - will consist of only those who are mostly white, Christian, highly conservative, terribly rich and highly autocratic.  And while I know that JFK was far from a saint (extra-marital affairs, an addiction to painkillers and being the son of a father who was a fascist and likely anti-Semite), at least he did his best to expand the universe in which he lived. And he made us proud to be Americans . . .

297 days down, 1,049 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone     

Giving Thanks . . . Despite It All

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In honor of Thanksgiving, this week's essay is about as devoid of snark, sarcasm, complaining, kvetching and partisan political caterwauling as is humanly possible.  To do otherwise, it seems to me, would go against both the history and the spirit of this most humane of American celebrations.  Many remember the story of the first Thanksgiving as taught in school:

  • Of how the first colonists spent the majority of their first year in the New World (1620) aboard the Mayflower, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious diseases. 
  • Of how in March, of the next year the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English.
  • Of how several days later, he returned with another Native American, Tisquantum ("Squanto"), a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition.
  • Of how Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants.
  • Of how he also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years.  
  • Of how In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit to what is now considered "America's First Thanksgiving." 

Although this story - like most national historic tales - is what one might call "truthful embellishment," it has been passed down from generation to generation largely intact. In October 1789, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26 as "a national day of thanks." In his proclamation, Washington declared that the necessity for such a day sprung from ". . . the Almighty’s care of Americans prior to the Revolution, assistance to them in achieving independence, and help in establishing the constitutional government."  Washington's successors likewise made proclamations about a day of thanksgiving. Finally, in 1863,  in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made it official:  there would henceforth be a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November. Over the generations, the Thanksgiving table has become pretty routinized: turkey, roast potatoes, yams, cranberries and pumpkin pie - despite pretty good evidence from culinary historians that the first such feast likely consisted largely of mussels, lobster, swans, turnips and native fruits and vegetables.  Table "conversation" would have consisted largely of the recitation of Psalms and prayers of . . . what else? . . . thanksgiving.

Today, of course, in addition to the routinized cuisine and ever-present Detroit Lions' football game (this year they take on the Minnesota Vikings at home) conversation consists largely of gossip and, I am sorry to say, political arguments. This year, I am even sorrier to say, politics will likely play an even larger and angrier role around dining tables from Penobscot to Pasadena. Much of it will be salty, snarky, cruel and even personal; it will likely drown out words, expressions and feelings of thanksgiving. Just this morning, I received an email from my friends at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (commonly known as the "D-triple-C") proudly proclaiming "Every grassroots Democrat needs to go into the fray (i.e. the Thanksgiving meal) armed with our FREE guide to Thanksgiving with your Republican relatives!" In urging email recipients like myself to download their pdf file, it went  on to proclaim "Its full of facts and figures to fend off opinions on everything from climate change to taxes. In the Trump era, having these conversations has never been more important. And we’re here to help!"  What a great way to spoil a meal . . . and desecrate the meaning and spirit of Thanksgiving.

I for one have not - indeed will not - download the file.  And for good reason.
       

It has long been a custom in our home that before we dig in and eat everything in sight, we go around the table and give everyone as much time as they need to express what they are grateful for.  We also have a hard and fast rule: NO POLITICS AT TABLE!  I for one am thoroughly grateful that on Thanksgiving I don't have to think about - let alone teach, speak, ponder or write - about politics, politicians or civic crises. Thanksgiving is meant to be a day when, like the first celebrants way back in 1621, we get in touch with our higher, more humane angels, and leave our more temporal travails by the side of the road.  Don't worry, they'll be there tomorrow . . . along with the turkey sandwiches and cold roast potatoes.

I for one am indescribably thankful for:

  • Our family . . . as long-lived talented, accomplished and interesting a lot to be found anywhere.  There's not a boring one in life's barrel!
  • That despite the fact that many of us in our clan are saddled with difficult physical "conditions," we live, act and truly see ourselves as healthy people.  
  • For my many, many students at 3 different universities, many of whom are in their eighties and even nineties and still thirsting for knowledge.
  • For our granddaughters; there is nothing more beautiful than the untrammeled love and innocence of two-year olds.
  • For our pets, whose only shortcoming is that they are not immortal.
  • For having been granted just enough wisdom to be aware of how much I do not know, and the ability to find the people who do . . .
  • For you, my dear readers, who keep me in line, on my toes and always thinking about next week's essay . . .

Do remember: if you will keep politics away from your table and give everyone the opportunity to express their thanks, everything you eat and drink will be calorie-free. 

That's a promise!

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all. 

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone  

People Who Live In Glass Houses . . .

                                       Judge Roy Moore and '45

                                       Judge Roy Moore and '45

 

 

Don't know if former Judge - and current U.S. Senate candidate - Roy Moore and his supporters are fans of the great Irish wit Oscar Wilde.  I kind of doubt it; after all, Wilde was both flamboyant and gay . . . not to mention highly literate. (Sorry for being so snarky, but that's just the way I'm feeling.) Nonetheless, if any of them had indulged in his more quotable quotes, they would likely have come across this gem: "Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation." Then too, they might have come in contact with an even better chestnut which says so much about the political reality we currently face: "Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

For examples that bear out the truth of Wilde's second bit of wisdom, one need only listen to (ugh!) right-wing talk radio or watch either Fox or One America News Network (OAN), both of which specialize in pro-Trump stories, anti-Clinton, anti-Obama chit-chat and anti-abortion reports, while steadfastly ignoring stories about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election or just about any and every outrageous thing the POTUS has done, said or tweeted.  In listening to a sampling of right-wing talk show hosts (Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck, Savage and Pags to name but a few) I'm continually hearing that the entire Roy Moore episode is "Fake News," that in the United States one is "innocent until found guilty," and that the Bible-thumping, twice-removed Alabama Chief Justice is being railroaded by a bunch of disgusting pro-gay, anti-Christian liberals who make up the world of Fake News".  They've even gone so far as to cite Biblical precedent for what Moore is (falsely) accused of.  And yet, in the same breath, the so-called "true believers" have no problem proclaiming that Weinstein, Spacey, Halperin, Ratner, Kresiberg et al and others accused of taking sexual improprieties are guilty of both immorality and committing despicable acts (which they very well may be) . . . along with President Clinton and the late Senator Ted Kennedy.  

Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty?"   How can so many on the right demand fairness for Roy Moore - despite five women coming forward to essentially tell the same story - and then convict any Democrat, show business liberal or non Bible banger  in the court of public opinion?  What Judge Moore and many - though certainly not all - of the Hollywood crowd have in common is that they have vehemently denied all charges.  What they don't have in common is that Roy Moore, who throughout his more than 40 years in the public eye, has proclaimed himself to be as moral as Jesus; as upright as Ward Cleaver, is running for the United States Senate; the rest of the bunch is not. In seeking the genesis of this incongruity, we return to the words of Oscar Wilde: "Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

Among Capitol Hill Republicans the first party-line went something like: "If these charges are true, then Roy Moore should drop out of the race.  But not until there's been a full investigation." This approach was and - for some still is - a case of straddling a partisan political abyss.  Anyone with even a dollop of real-world experience knows that any such "investigation" could likely take months if not years to conclude.  And by then, Senator Moore would be knee deep into his six-year term . . . continuing his decades-long assault on the forces of modernity and immorality.  (n.b. In the world of abnormal psychology, Moore, his Alabama acolytes and a hefty percentage of pro-Trump Republicans suffer from what is called "Metathesiophobia," namely, a morbid, ofttimes paralyzing fear of change.)   

Yesterday, out of the woodwork, a fifth woman came forward to accuse Roy Moore of molesting her when she was all of 16, and worked as a waitress at a restaurant or diner which the then 30-year old District Attorney used to frequent.  The Senate candidate once again denied all charges, said he had never met the women, had never been to the dining establishment where she worked, and once again proclaimed that all these women making charges against him were part of a liberal, 'Fake News' witch hunt meant to damage his candidacy in favor of the "radical, pro-abortion Democrat" Doug Jones.  At a press conference held later in the day, the now 56-year old woman, Beverly Young Nelson, not only told her story in minute teary detail, but produced her high school yearbook in which then-D.A. Moore wrote: "To a sweeter more beautiful girl I could not say Merry Christmas." He signed it "Love, Roy Moore, DA."  Then the New York Daily News and a slew of other media outlets reported that Moore was allegedly barred from the Gadsden (Alabama) Mall for "hanging around the mall and flirting with young girls . . ."  And yet, despite all this, an awful lot of Alabama Republicans are even more firmly behind Roy Moore and will vote for him in the December 12 special election.  Better an alleged child molester than any Democrat . . . 

These latest charges and revelations caused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and nearly a dozen of his Republican colleagues to urge Moore to drop out of the race.  This group included National Republican Senatorial Campaign Chair Cory Gardner (R-CO) to take things even a step further: "“If he refuses to withdraw and wins, the Senate should vote to expel him . . . he doesn't belong in the United States Senate."  The way things develop and progress these days, Moore could have dropped out of the race by the time you read this essay . . .

The one person who has yet weighed in on all this, not surprisingly, is the POTUS.  He isn't about to do or say anything that could revive stories about his sexual history.  After all, this is the man who bragged on tape about his sexual conquests, using gutter language to describe various parts of the female anatomy.  He is smart enough not to do or say anything which could put his throne in danger.  Then too, by not chiming in, he is likely bolstering the future throne of Roy Moore, who would be a solid vote and/or voice of support for anything '45 dreams up.  Remember, '45 originally supported Moore's opponent - Senator Luther Strange - in the recent Republican primary (he even campaigned for him) and then announced, even before the votes were tallied, that if Strange lost, he would gladly and enthusiastically support Roy Moore.  

Will Roy Moore drop out of the race?  Will Attorney General Jeff Sessions resign his post in order to become a write-in candidate on December 12?  Will enough Republican voters hold their noses and vote for Democrat Jones?  Only time will tell.  But one thing is certain: no matter who wins December 12, there are going to be at least two losers: Roy Moore and the POTUS.

If Oscar Wilde were still among the living, he might write something like "People who live in glass houses shouldn't store thrones . . ."

285 days down, 1061 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

Remembrance of Things Past

Nearly six years ago, I published a piece entitled "Forty-Five Photos Might Be Worth Ten Million Votes."  It was, unashamedly, a pro-Obama photo essay meant to make readers feel both good and proud about the nation's 44th President - his accomplishments and charm, his intellect and million-watt smile, as well as how well grounded he was despite all the barbs, slings and arrows headed his way 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Amazingly, even after having been out of office for nearly a year, his detractors are still slinging the same arrows and rehashing the same conspiracy theories. 

Keeping all this in mind, I've decided to reprint the essay under a different title just to remind us that presidents can have class and grounding, and can make us proud.  What follows was originally posted on February 26, 2012  . . .

 

Something quite a bit different this week:

 With so much time, attention and ink being devoted to the retrograde lunacy and schoolyard caterwauling that is the Republican field, I thought it would be appropriate to devote a column -- in a few words and forty-five pictures -- to a class act: President Barack Obama.  It comes as no surprise that in the midst of debates and screaming headlines concerning such contrived "dog whistle" issues as contraception, transvaginal ultrasounds and personhood, we wonder "are there any adults left in the room?"  Actually there are.  And one of them is President Obama.  There is such a vast chasm in this country between those who can't find a single positive thing to say about our president and those who find him to be the embodiment of the American  Dream.  I must admit to being in the latter camp.

   And so, without further ado, a "Thank You" to the man and the family who reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

 

 

Thanks Mr. President

For . . . the "room lightening" smile:

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For The mind that always thinks:

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For preventing a second Great Depression:

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For the humor:

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For bringing the number of women on the Supreme Court to 3:

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For making the White House the "People's" house:

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For 1.1 million jobs created in 2010 alone, more than the entire 8 years of George W. Bush:

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For the love of people:

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For the love of family:

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For the First Lady:

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For Health Care Reform:

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For leaving the past behind:

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For the world having respect for America again:

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For quietly and calmly dealing with crisis after crisis, after crisis, after crisis, even if not being responsible for any of them:

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For being so "cool":

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For being fierce - when need be:

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For having the intellect to be curious:

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For the capacity to know that you are, as we are, imperfect:

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For having the sense to not let it destroy you:

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For having the capacity to be compassionate:

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For being an inspiration to so many:

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For saving the auto industry and at least 1.4 million jobs:

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For loving our troops:

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For understanding the horrible price of war:

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For facing the most difficult and loneliest job in the world with grace, dignity, honesty and guts in spite of so many "Haters":

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For being, in spite of all the hate, pettiness, racism, corruption and immaturity around, the most progressive and 'for the people' president in decades:
 
And simply for this:


For Being....................

"MR. PRESIDENT"!

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275 days down, 1,071 days to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

Are We Really That Gullible?

                   Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

                   Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

Without question, there is a universe of difference between that which is coincidental and that which strains credulity to the breaking point.  Coincidence?  That's Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - the friendliest of enemies - dying within hours of one another on July 4, 1826 . . . the "Golden Anniversary" of American independence.  Coincidence?  That's Mark Twain being born on November 30, 1835 - the day Haley's Comet made its once-in-75-years appearance in the earthly skies - and then dying (as he predicted) upon its next appearance, April 21, 1910.  Coincidence? The first worker to die during the construction of Hoover Dam was J.G. Tierny on December 20, 1922. The last person to die during its construction was J.G. Tierny's son, who died on December 20, 1935 . . . thirteen years to the day.

Unlike coincidence, those things which strain credulity to the breaking point essentially test not only intelligence, but gullibility - which we shall define as "a failure of social intelligence in which people are easily tricked or manipulated."  Case in point: supply-side economics, which holds - against all proof or reason - that severely cutting taxes on corporations and the truly wealthy will foster far greater economic growth than anything ever dreamed of by Keynes, FDR or any Democrat who ever lived. This is, in essence, the philosophical foundation of the Reagan, G.W. Bush, and Paul Ryan economic strategies.  (It should be noted that the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s were so disastrous that he was forced to support what was at the time, the largest tax increase in American history.  Few remember that fact.) But despite the counter-intuitive nature of supply-side economics, it still has many, many adherents . . . especially among those it hurts most and helps the least.  Talk about straining credibility.  Just how gullible are we?

A second example of pushing gullibility to the very edge of reason is the current imbroglio over over the awarding of a $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico's hurricane-ravaged electrical grid to Whitefish Energy Holdings, LLC, a tiny, two-year old, two-employee company based in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's hometown. Whitefish, Montana (population c. 7,300), a resort town in the Rocky Mountains of northwest Montana, is a place, like the mythical bar "Cheers," where "everybody knows your name." The company's founder is one Andy Techmanski, described on the company's website as ". . . a trained journeyman lineman with over 22 years of experience completing critical utility infrastructure projects worldwide."  Not only does Zinke know Techmanski; the secretary's son worked a summer job at one of Techmanski's construction sites. That  both Secretary Zinke and Techmanski) deny anything fraudulent or collusive in the $300 million deal is, to put it mildly, straining credulity to the breaking point.  Just how gullible do Zinke, Techmanski and the Trump Administration think we are?  Coming on the eve of the first indictments in the Trump/Russia investigation being made public, this is unquestionably a controversy (scam?) the administration neither wants nor needs.

The controversy goes beyond the Zinke-Techmanski-Whitefish connection; much of it focuses on the high rates Whitefish is charging for labor. The contract shows labor rates which are well beyond pricey: $240 an hour for a general foreman and $227 for a lineman. The per diems are also expensive: almost $80 a day for meals, and $332 a day for lodging. Employee flights are billed at $1,000 each way. For subcontractors (the bulk of Whitefish's workforce) the prices go even higher: a general foreman costs $336 an hour and a lineman, $319.  (Anyone interested in wading through the contract, put on your glasses, park  your credibility by the side of the road, and click this link.)

Not surprisingly, Presidential Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told members of the White House press corps in no uncertain terms that “This is a contract that was determined by the local authorities in Puerto Rico," and that both her boss and Sec. Zinke discussed the controversy during their meeting this past Friday.  Moreover, Sanders said,  the interior secretary steadfastly avowed he had no involvement in Whitfish's being awarded the $300 million contract. In a statement coming out of his office Zinke said "Any attempts by the dishonest media or political operatives to tie me to awarding of (sic) influencing any contract involving Whitefish [Energy Holdings] are completely baseless. Only in elitist Washington, D.C., would being from a small town be considered a crime." In a grammatically challenged addendum, Zinke noted that “Neither myself nor anyone in my office has advocated for this company in anyway (sic). After the initial contract was awarded, I was contacted by the company, on which I took no action. All records, which are being made available to appropriate officials, will prove no involvement.”

To be certain, there is something rotten in Whitefish . . . heretofore famous for being the home of the late Dodger Rookie of the Year Steve Howe and former Bulls/Lakers/Knicks/ coach Phil Jackson. This just might be the straw that breaks the political camel's back for '45 and his flying circus. Already, several Congressional committees are launching investigations into the deal. As of this past Friday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee  became the latest panel to probe the business deal. Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and ranking member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked the Department of Homeland Security to review the contract to determine whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] will be responsible for reimbursing PREPA (Puerto Rico Power Authority)  the cost of Whitefish Energy’s work. Of all the putative scandals, political blunders and treating the federal government as just another subsidiary of the Trump Organization, this one could well turn out to be the sinful siren song which ultimately strands an administration on the shoal of political ruin.  For here, '45 and his "drain the swamp" henchmen may have gone too far by treating the citizenry just once too often as gullible stooges. There just cannot be that much mindless gullibility existing in America; no supposedly free nation can be home to so many so willing to accept such bilge. 

Even as this essay is reaching its conclusion, it may well be out of date: just a few minutes ago Fox News (!) reported that Puerto Rico's Governor,  Ricardo Rosselló has asked the board of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to cancel the contract with Whitefish Energy. Perhaps finally . . . finally, the administration has gone too far; has treated American gullibility as a bottomless pit of credibility. Let's all keep our eye on the ball . . . and demand that we begin being treated as citizens of worth, not as gullible, guileless cretins. 

America's future is at stake.

270 days down, 1,076 days to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

 

 

Are We Living In a Dystopian Novel?

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Literary scholars (of which I am definitely not one) have long debated what the first dystopian novel was.  Some claim it was Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726); others say the honor belongs to either French writer Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863) or British author H.G. Welles' The Time Machine (1895); then there are those who swear the honor belongs to one of two American novel: either Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column (1890) or Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908).  It is likely that some readers of The K.F. Stone Weekly have not yet read - nor heard of - several of these classic works,  and as such, are likely unable to define the term "dystopian." However a brief rendering of some of the most famous novels in the genre - Kafka's The Trial, Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games - should give at least a hint as to the definition of dystopia.  Simply stated, dystopian novels, stories or movie adaptations deal with an imagined future time, place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad - typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. In other words, "dystopia" is the bipolar opposite of "utopia."  

 

In light of the many changes that have radically altered civil society over the past generation or two - and especially since the advent of the Internet - and a populace conditioned to view reality through the lens of "optics" -many of the most dire and frightening predictions of great dystopian novels have come chillingly true.  Consider, if you will, brief summaries of a handful of dystopian novels; the pictures they paint are haunting:

  • The Iron Heel (1908): Focusing on the breakdown of politics in a future American society, Jack London imagines the rise of an oligarchic tyranny which bankrupts the middle classes and rules over its poor subjects with a crass, uncaring iron heel;
  • 1984 (1949): George Orwell creates a highly disturbing future world of "Newspeak," and "Big Brother," in which 2+2=5;  hot is cold, up is down, constant surveillance and a government-controlled media;
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1953): America has become a society in which books are burned and intellectual thought is illegal. Ironically, when first published, Bradbury's book was itself banned for containing "questionable themes";
  • The Drowned World (1962):  A vivid picture of a world irreversibly changed by global warming; the cities of Europe and America lie submerged in tropical lagoons, while a biologist cataloging flora and fauna is beset with strange dreams.
  • The Handmaid's Tale (1998): Set in a totalitarian, post-nuclear world, Christian theocracy has overthrown the US government. Women are forbidden to read, and the few capable of having children are subjugated and forced to serve the wider needs of society by becoming breeding machines.

What makes these - and many, many other - dystopian novels so chillingly, mind-numbing is how closely they approximate the direction American society has been taking over the past several decades.  The rise of cyber reality, untrammeled, self-centered consumerism, instantaneous hand-held communications, creeping authoritarianism, a rising tide of religious and ethnic intolerance, a growing distrust of science, and a penchant for accepting the most outlandish conspiracy theories as reality, has changed society a thousand times over. Today, as in dystopian novels, there exists a sizable plurality which disdains those they view as effete intellectuals, derides those who hold different opinions on matters of race, politics or sexual orientation, and despises those who will not walk in lockstep with their anointed leaders.  These are people who have been conditioned to turning a blind eye toward provable facts, all the while claiming that these facts are nothing more than lies promulgated by elitist elements for their own purposes. 

Of all the many disabilities and outright lies '45, Bannon, Limbaugh, Fox News, conspiracists like Alex Jones and white supremacists like Richard Spencer and David Duke have foisted upon American society, perhaps none is quite so diabolic - or brilliant - as that of "Fake News."  For over the past several years, they have trained and conditioned their Pavlovian followers into believing that anything in print, on the Internet or broadcast over the airwaves which does not jibe with their preconceived notions of reality is a big fat lie; a lie spread by the Fake Media.  This is utterly brilliant.  All '45 or his lieutenants have to do to negate something in the news which questions their facts or veracity is to proclaim that they are part and parcel of the "Fake News" conspiracy. 

Sometimes the Fake News angle goes beyond belief. Take General Jon Kelly's press conference the other day in which he denounced Florida Congressional Representative Fredrecka Wilson  for having given herself credit for the construction of a new FBI building in Miami.  Turns out that a video taken of that event by the Ft. Lauderdale News Sun Sentinel proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Rep. Wilson never said any thing of the sort. Turns out, that according to General Kelly and presidential press secretary Sarah Sanders, the Sun Sentinel video was a hoax; just another example of Fake News being perpetrated by the liberal mainstream media.  

Other examples abound - going back to that which got the future '45 his first political notice: "birtherism."  Polling done during the 2016 election showed that two-thirds of the Trump supporters knew for a fact that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, is to this day a practicing Muslim, and was sent here as a child for the purpose of eventually turning America into an Islamic nation.  Then too, '45's rabid base still "knows" that he scored the "biggest victory" in the history of presidential elections, and had more people attend his inauguration than any president in the modern era.  And how do they know these things when facts, photos and statistics prove them wrong?  Why their fearless leader told them so!

Oy!

And while one can easily respond with "Don't lose too much sleep over it; these crazy people represent far less than a majority," I say this: members of this "crazy plurality" represent some of the most heavily armed people in America.  Whether '45 knows it or not, the people who consciously created this Republican base (the very base which '45 and most of the cowards in Congress spoon feed) have their own frightening, dystopian agenda: to create a Civil War; a conflict which will pit the followers and descendants of the Old South, Joe McCarthy, Charles "America First!" Lindburgh and the Koch Brothers against the descendants of FDR, Kennedy, King and Obama . . . not to mention Richard Hofstadter who, while not a dystopian novelist, did, back in November, 1964, write one of the most important dystopian essays of all time: The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

I for one do not wish to live within the pages of 1984. The Chrysalids or The Running Man. My choices tend towards George Eliot's Middlemarch and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward  where at least idealism still has a chance.

264 days down, 1082 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

Message In a Bottle

                                "Message In a Bottle"                                                                Watermans Gallery, Falmouth, U.K.                                                                                       

                                "Message In a Bottle"                                                                Watermans Gallery, Falmouth, U.K.                                                                                       

 

This past Wednesday, we were having a discussion in my "All Politics All the Time" class at Florida International University dealing with the past weeks' political events, including our current POTUS, his administration, the dismembering of the Affordable Care Act, what he was going to do about the Iran nuclear pact, and the inability of his Congress to get anything done.  Included in our discussion were such matters as:

  • 45's "now-I'm firmly-in-your-corner-now-I'm-fed-up-with-you" response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico;
  • Whether the president would "decertify" the multi-national treaty with Iran or let Congress decide what to do about it;
  • Whether to get rid of DACA or again, turn it over to Congress and let them decide;
  • Whether to actually build that wall on the U.S.-Mexico border or merely continue talking about it.
  • How to respond to all those - both inside and outside of government - who proclaim him a moron (and here, one is reminded of anH.L. Mencken quote from nearly a century ago: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron”)
  • 45's "now-I'm firmly-in-your-corner-now-I'm-fed-up-with-you" response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico;
  • Whether the president would "decertify" the multi-national treaty with Iran or let Congress decide what to do about it;
  • Whether to get rid of DACA or again, turn it over to Congress and let them decide;
  • Whether to actually build that wall on the U.S.-Mexico border or merely continue talking about it.
  • How to respond to all those - both inside and outside of government - who proclaim him a moron;
  • Whether to continue calling North Korean strongman Kim Jung Un "Rocket Man" or actually do something about the grave threat their nuclear program poses to the world.

In the midst of this discussion, one student asked "Do you think any of this is going to matter one iota to the president's base? I mean, will they continue supporting him no matter what he promises and then does not do, and despite all the obvious, glaring, insane inconsistencies he presents to the world?"  This great - though slightly rambling - question spurred on yet another discussion about the politics of derangement, of catering to political bases, political messaging and a host of other things . . . few of which have solid answers.  Then, another student asked: "Dr. Stone, do you think the Democrats are going to be able to use any of this stuff against the Republicans in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, let alone the 2020 presidential race?"

"Wow!," I responded after pondering for a moment or two or three what she had just asked. "Rem acu tegisti," I muttered; " . . . which is Latin for "you've hit the nail on the head!  But sorry to say that I really don't have a quick answer.  My crystal ball hasn't come back from the laundry. Anybody want to chime in?"

And "chime in" they did . . . in a big way.

It's a great class, filled with politically engaged students, many of whom stand firmly on the progressive side of the fence. Some got their first taste of politics during the (Joseph) McCarthy era . . . one or two even back in the days of FDR and the New Deal. They are well-read, know the issues, and deeply care about the path our country is currently on. Our conversation continued on for nearly the rest of the session (thus eliminating several other topics I had on the schedule).  Three things we managed to agree on were:

(1), If the National Democratic Party is to get back on top it will take new dynamic leadership that is young enough (as well as articulate and charismatic enough) to turn on - and turn out - the millennials, who at this point in time are turned off; 

(2), The party will have to develop and deliver a powerful and clear-cut message which talks about things that actually affect (I refuse to use the word "impact")  the daily lives and aspirations of real people; things like new technology, free universal pre-school education and college tuition, healthcare for all, saving the planet from self-destruction and putting people far, far ahead of oligarchs - and

(3), Not being afraid to call a bigot a bigot, a priggish moralist an impediment to progress and not permitting the other guys and gals to sidetrack us with issues which really, truly are nothing more than dog whistles for their intolerant base.  In short, let the Republicans field a candidate best suited to 1920 while Democrats fight like hell to attract committed voters who care about 2020 and beyond.  

Back in late July, Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer unveiled the party's so-called "Better Deal," an attempt to "wrestle the populist mantle" from '45 prior to the 2018 midterm election.  Since then, both the slogan and its attendant planks have fallen into ashy desuetude.  Obviously, the party of FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and Obama is deeply divided between those who seek answers in past political successes and those who boldly challenge to "go where no one has gone before."  Roughly speaking, the messaging boils down to the (Hillary) Clinton/Sanders dichotomy on display in 2016 . . . and ever since. 

Goodness knows that for every progressive proposal the Democrats may eventually add to their agenda, the Republicans will cry out Tax and spend!, Blowing up the deficit for the sake of those who won't work! and Bowing down to our enemies!  Since this is all but inevitable, the Democrats must be prepared to fight back and make the public understand in no uncertain terms that the Republicans are also guilty of Tax-cuts and spend!, Blowing up the deficit for the sake of corporations and the 1%! and Turning America into a country our allies can't trust and our adversaries don't fear!"  Part of that "message in a bottle" will no doubt come from FDR and LBJ (in terms of social policy and spending); from Obama (in terms of dignity and grace) and from that least political of all baseball legends, Leo Durocher, who famously said "Nice guys finish last." It's time to take off the mittens and put on the boxing gloves.

So far as precisely who will  be leading the charge, we will have to wait for that bottle to wash up on shore.  But don't be surprised if the names include:

  • Mass. Senator Elizabeth Warren
  • Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown
  • New Jersey Senator Corey Booker
  • Calif. Senator Kamala Harris
  • Minnesota Senator Al Franken
  • Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
  • Former First Lady Michelle Obama
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz
  • Disney CEO Bob Eiger
  • Calif. Governor Jerry Brown

The "message in the bottle" which the party urgently seeks is still out of reach, washing back-and-forth betwixt the sea which bore it and the shore which needs it.

270 days down, 1,086 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

 

"Your Noble Son Is Mad"

                                                     Hamlet: Act II, Scene 2

                                                     Hamlet: Act II, Scene 2

A little over 13 months ago (September 3, 2016 to be precise), I posted an essay entitled "Sundowning?"which speculated about whether or not the then-candidate Donald Trump was showing signs of presenile dementia - of "sundowning" (a term used to refer to behavioral changes that often occur in the late afternoon or evening in people with Alzheimer's disease and similar conditions). The piece was quickly picked up by the online Daily Kos and republished under the title "Is Donald Trump Suffering From the Sundown Syndrome?" Because the Daily Kos has a far, far larger readership than The K.F. Stone Weekly, it attracted something like twenty times the number of comments I might normally expect; many of these comments were positive; quite a few were negative. The main objection readers seemed to have about the essay was not that I was speculating on whether Mr. Trump was evincing signs of clinical madness, but rather that I - a non-psychiatrist/psychotherapist/clinical psychologist - should be so bold as to diagnose a person I had neither met nor spoken with.  Among analysts, I was repeatedly told, this is a deeply unethical no-no. 

(n.b. More than a half-century ago, an informal ban, known as “the Goldwater Rule," was put into effect.  This "rule" is the legacy of an embarrassing episode from 1964. That year, Fact magazine published a petition signed by more than a thousand psychiatrists, which declared that Barry Goldwater, who was then the Republican Presidential nominee, was “psychologically unfit to be President.” Goldwater lost the election (by a far, far greater margin than Hillary Clinton), but he won a libel suit against the magazine. The bad publicity seriously tarnished the reputation of psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and armchair speculators like yours truly.  And up until the rise of Donald Trump, the "rule" was pretty much observed.)

And while I am neither so egotistical nor deluded to think that my essay Sundowning? was in any way a factor for serious inquiry into '45's mental state, it was one of the earliest.  Over the succeeding 13 months long-distance psychological analysis of the POTUS has become a burgeoning cottage industry.  Back in February of this year Psychology Today published a piece entitled The Elephant in the Room: It's Time We Talked Openly About Donald Trump's Mental Health.  This in-depth article, coauthored by Rosemary K.M. Sword and Phillip Zimbardo, discussed in great detail the need to toss aside the "Goldwater rule" and seriously investigate the mental state of the then-newly inaugurated president. Their essay - which quickly went viral - stimulated a chillingly robust discussion within the mental health community.  It also led to the creation of an organization called Duty to Warna nationwide group made up of mental health professionals.  One of the first things the group did was to publish a petition which read, in part: 

We, the undersigned mental health professionals, believe in our professional judgment that Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States. And we respectfully request he be removed from office, according to article 4 of the 25th amendment to the Constitution, which states that the president will be replaced if he is ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”  Within six months, the petition was signed by more than 60,000 mental health professionals.

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Just the other day, Bandy Lee, (M.D., M.Div, Assistant Clinical Professor in Law and Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine) published an epochal work, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.  Putting the Goldwater rule on the top shelf of a closet marked "ethics" for the nonce, the 27 writers (including Gail Sheehy and Tony Schwartz, Trump's The Art of the Deal ghostwriter), and doctors (including possibly the two greatest living American thinkers in the field of mental health Robert J. Lefton, and Judith Lewis Herman, as well as, among others, Luba Kessler and Henry J. Friedman) reached some truly troubling - though easily observable conclusions.  The various physicians, analysts and writers find '45 to be an  “extreme present hedonist.” He may also be a sociopath, a malignant narcissist, borderline, on the bipolar spectrum, a hypomanic, suffering from delusional disorder, or cognitively impaired.  It should be noted that '45 is not the first POTUS to suffer from one or more of these mental issues.  As The New Yorker's Masha Gessen has noted: "Lyndon Johnson was bipolar, and John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton might have been characterized as “extreme present hedonists,” narcissists, and hypomanics. Richard Nixon was, in addition to his narcissism, a sociopath who suffered from delusions, and Ronald Reagan’s noticeable cognitive decline began no later than his second term."  But the saving grace for all these flawed presidents - even Richard Nixon - was that they surrounded themselves with seasoned professionals - men and women who were experts in their various fields - and were, more often than not, willing to listen and incorporate both the advice and analyses they were given.  Not so '45, who appears to listen only to himself.  Needless to say, this puts America - indeed the entire globe - in a potential state of peril. For a "leader" to be as unstable, bullying, insecure and narcissistic as '45 is, he could, like a petulant child, wage nuclear war just to get back at people who don't like him.  The world simply cannot afford to have a POTUS who is still - at age 71 - going through the so-called "Terrible Twos."

It should be noted that 45's father, Fred Trump, spent at least the last decade of his life in the throes of Alzheimer's Disease.  At the time of his death at age 93, he had great difficulty recognizing people.  In an interview some years ago, Fred Trump's son, the future POTUS, said he wasn't at all scared that the disease might be the last thing he inherited from his father. "Do I accept it?  Yeah," he told the reporter who asked the question. "Look, I'm very much a fatalist."  Although Alzheimer's Disease and many other forms of pre-senile dementia are not usually hereditary, the mental well being of the President of the United States is of great concern; especially this president, who has become a poster-child for a whole host of bizarre behaviors.  In his own way, '45 is reminiscent of Hamlet. 

One might recall that in Hamlet, the most brilliant play in the English language,  Polonius, father of Laertes and Ophelia, and the gasbag Lord Chamberlain of Hamlet's uncle, King Claudius' court.  In act II, Scene 2, the pompous, conniving old fool (Polonius) informs his boss that the noble Hamlet is crazy:

 

                                                                                             Since brevity is the soul of wit

                                                                             And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

                                                                                       I will be brief: your noble son is mad.

                                                                                  Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,

                                                                                What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?

                                                                                                      But let that go.

Translated into a more modern rendering, Polonius says:

                                                                        Since the essence of wisdom is not talking too much,

                                                                                          I’ll get right to the point here.

                                                                                                   Your son is crazy.

                                                                                “Crazy” I’m calling it, since how can you say

                                                                       What craziness is except to say that it’s craziness?

                                                                                             But that’s another story.

Unlike Polonius, Dr. Lee and her colleagues are neither gasbags nor conniving fools. And unlike the question of Hamlet's sanity, 45's madness is not "another story."  It is absolutely central to the health and safety of a nation . . . if not of an entire planet.

261 days down, 1,093 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

Where Once Were Giants . . .

Of late, our local PBS station has been rerunning Ken Burns' brilliant seven-part 2014 documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.  It has kept me in rapt awe - the backgrounds, accomplishments and vast range of interests and abilities of these two distant cousins whose family fortunes had been secured several generations before their respective births (Theodore in 1858, Franklin in 1881).  Patricians of the first rank, the interests and accomplishments of TR of Oyster Bay and FDR of Hyde Park (who, in matter of truth, did not know each other all that well and whose sides of the family had a natural aversion to one another), were both broad and awe-inspiring.  I remember watching the series, narrated by the gifted actor Peter Coyote (born Rachmil Pinchus Ben Mosha Cohon) back in 2014.  For some reason it didn't affect me in the same way as it has this time around.  After giving the matter some thought, I discovered the reason why.

But first . . .

                                                        The Cousins Roosevelt

                                                        The Cousins Roosevelt

Neither TR nor FDR ever had to do a day's work; they never had to earn a penny.  And yet,  despite all this - despite the private tutors, exclusive prep schools, summers in Europe and undergraduate years at Harvard - they worked harder than any wage-earning laborer,  devoting their lives to expanding their personal horizons by devoting themselves to the political arena. and public service.  These men were, in brief, the embodiment of that all but forgotten motivator known as noblesse oblige (the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth). Indeed, it gives me increasing pride that my parents decided to give me the middle name "Franklin," after the recently deceased POTUS. 

Yes, I am more than aware of the fact that there are a lot of contemporary "movement conservatives" who deride T.R. for being "more concerned about parkland than profits," and Franklin for being "a Socialist in aristocrat's clothing" and the "founder of the national debt."  Then too, many liberals score Theodore for having "made far too many trophies of far too many big game animals" and his Hyde Park lantsman for "turning his back on the Jews of Europe." Wall Street hated both these American blue bloods for being traitors to their class, while Main Street loved these patricians for offering the American working-class people first a "Square" (TR) than a "New" Deal (FDR).  Sure, they had their faults: TR was both an egomaniac and perpetual child; FDR wasn't terribly loyal to his wife and frequently played fast and loose with the truth.  Both could be insecure and mother-fixated. Both overcame debilitating physical conditions - TR's childhood asthma and FDR's polio)  which would have permanently invalided most anyone else.  But true to their heritage, they came to see themselves as preeminently healthy men with "physical conditions."  Nothing more, nothing less. 

And yet, despite the shortcomings and character flaws, they were  giants; real honest-to-god giants.   In addition to being the youngest-ever member of the New York State Legislature, New York Police Commissioner, New York Governor, a Rough Rider in the Spanish American War,  Assistant Secretary of State, Vice President and President of the United States, TR found time to father six children (one of whom died in WWI, and one in WWII), be one of the best traveled men of his time, write more than 3 dozen books (histories, biographies, political essays,  flora and fauna) including several which are still in print.  Likewise FDR, who was married to cousin Theodore's niece Eleanor, served in the New York State Senate, was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ran unsuccessfully for Vice President in 1920, was elected Governor of New York, and like his elder cousin, fathered six children.  Three of his sons would become combat officers in WWII.  Unable to walk or stand unaided due to polio, FDR nonetheless manged to stand and campaign in virtually every one of the then 48 states through 4 presidential campaigns. 

Unlike the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, neither of the Roosevelts - nor the Kennedys, Pells, Chaffees, Cabots, Lodges, Frelinghuysens, Rockefellers, Adamses Saltenstalls or Griswolds - sought political office as a lark . . . as just another quaint jewel-encrusted fob on a rich man's golden watch chain.  For the scions of American capital, politics was a calling, an urge - sometimes a necessity - to give something back.  And whether one agreed with their politics or not (I for one find little to recommend in the actions of say, the Cabots, Lodges or Frelinghuysens, but rather admire the Pells, Chaffees and Browns of California) the fact that generation after generation served the people is both noteworthy and laudable. Nowhere does the historic record find, say, a Griswold, Kennedy or Adams serving in office in order to benefit "the family business." Nowhere do we find them crowing over their family wealth, position or possessions. Though both TR and FDR had their suits tailored by Brooks Brothers, wore shoes and boots cobbled by Foster & Sons and ties handmade by Charvet, they were as comfortable in their own skin as a Main Street druggist.  Today, by comparison, we are led by a parvenu whose ego is far larger than his net worth, his manners those of a boorish brat, his braggadocio overpowering enough to make a battle-hardened marine wince.

Both TR of Oyster Bay and FDR of Hyde Park surrounded themselves with experts; men - and occasionally women - who knew more than they did about the one-thousand-and-one things a president must grapple with on a daily basis. They - the cousins Roosevelt -  were wise because they knew what they knew.  They were truly wise because they knew what they did not know.  They were exceptionally wise because they found - and listened to - people who knew one whole hell of a lot more about what they themselves did not know.  And in the end, it was they - TR or FDR - who made the decisions, embraced the applause . . . and when necessary, bore the blame.  Though as playful as pugnacious children and as intellectually appetitive as college freshmen, these men - like a majority of their predecessors and successors - represented the United States of America with both dignity and aplomb.  There was never the fear that through word, deed or spontaneous impulse that they would ever embarrass the nation they were elected to lead.

Yes, where once were selfless giants  now lives a selfish pygmy . . .

255 days down, 1,099 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt Franklin Stone

Channeling William Congreve

                  Wm. Congreve (1670-1729)

                  Wm. Congreve (1670-1729)

Between the ages of 23 and 30, William Congreve (1670-1729) was England's most celebrated playwright.  A writer who all but single-handedly created the English "comedy of manners," Congreve was known for " . . . his brilliant comic dialogue, his satirical portrayal of the war of the sexes, and his ironic scrutiny of the affectations of his age."  His major works - all completed by age 30, included The Old Batchelour (1693), The Mourning Bride (1697) and his last - and most frequently staged piece, The Way of the World (1700). A classmate and lifelong friend of the wonderful satirist Jonathan Swift, devoted disciple of England's first Poet Laureate John Dryden and, along with Philosopher John Locke a member in good standing of the Whiggish Kit-Kat ClubCongreve spent the second half of his life living off royalties before succumbing to the grave effects of a carriage accident at age 59.

Many of you reading this essay are familiar with Congreve's most famous bon mots . . . even if you're unfamiliar with the man himself, or any of the plays he wrote.  For if nothing else, the man was quote-worthy.  Two of his best-known phrases come from a play called The Mourning Bride (1697):

  • Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast (frequently misquoted as "Music hath charms to sooth the savage beast") and 
  • Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned, (generally rendered as "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned).

Trust me when I tell you that this week's essay is neither about William Congreve, Restoration Comedy nor Whig political gatherings in 18th century England.  It's about "Graham-Cassidy," the Republican-controlled Congress's last-ditch effort to finally fulfill its 7+ year promise to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.  During the latter years of the Obama presidency, Republicans voted more than 60 times to repeal the ACA, fully believing that doing so wouldn't involve even a speck of political downside . . . and for several reasons.  First and foremost, they knew that should any repeal measure actually pass, the POTUS would veto it. Second, continually pushing ACA repeal scored points with their rabid anti-anything-Obama base.  And third, they knew there was little political harm in ticking off Democrats, because they weren't likely to vote Republican under the best of circumstances.

I've got to believe that some of the more thoughtful Republicans worried that someday they would actually have to put up a real replacement package - one which would not only pass both houses of a GOP-run Congress and be signed into law by a GOP president, but one which would have a snowball's chance of pleasing someone - anyone - outside their financial backers and faithful flat-earth birther Luddites. When that long prayed-for day finally arrived on January 20, 2017, Republicans began to realize - as said by the new POTUS a  mere five weeks  after his inauguration "Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated."  Really?  Hadn't you been paying attention to all the weeks and months, all the legislative hearings and the incredible hoops the Dems. had to jump through in order to get party-line passage of the ACA?  Where were you?  Out on the hustings claiming that the entire process from day one to day last was done in secret without so much as a single opportunity for debate.

This of course  is simply not true.  Although the final ACA bill was, to a great extent, masterminded by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), this only came about after 79 separate hearings, a ton of amendments and hour upon hour of open public debate.  Compare this to Graham-Cassidy, which has had virtually no hearings, less debate than a gathering of Trappist monks (who take a vow of silence), and virtually no reaching out to their colleagues across the aisle.  

While it is true that the final version of the Affordable Care Act came to slightly over 2,300 pages where Graham-Cassidy is less than 50, it would appear that neither its cosponsors nor the POTUS know precisely what its mandates mean, how much it would cost . . . or even what it says.  As but two examples of this phenomenon: In a September 20, 2017 interview on CNN's "New Day," Senator Cassidy (who in private life is an MD) said that under terms of his bill “We protect those with preexisting conditions. … The protection is absolutely the same [as under Obamacare]. There’s a specific provision that says that if a state applies for a waiver, it must ensure that those with preexisting conditions have affordable and adequate coverage.”  At best. the senator's statement is highly misleading; at worst, it is utterly untrue.  Then there is 45's recent (9-20-17) Tweet in which he wrote: "I would not sign Graham-Cassidy if it did not include coverage of pre-existing conditions. It does! A great Bill. Repeal & Replace."  Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel had the last word on 45's Tweet, saying "Can you imagine Donald Trump actually sitting down to read a health-care bill? It’s like trying to imagine a dog doing your taxes. It just doesn’t compute, you know?” 

The two things all Republicans know for a certainty are that Graham-Cassidy is not Obamacare, and that it would take most of the tax money accrued under the ACA and turn it into block grants for the 50 states . . . essentially permitting each state to figure out how they wish to spend their healthcare dollars. There are, of course, many problems with the "block grant" approach, the most obvious and overwhelming of which being that not all states are equal.  How so? Well, to begin with,  median household income is much higher in New Hampshire than in Arkansas; heart disease and obesity are much bigger problems in Mississippi than in Colorado; the opioid epidemic is much worse in West Virginia than in Nebraska. Relatively sparsely populated areas struggle with the closings of rural hospitals, leaving large geographic areas underserved, while urban areas have a high concentration of large hospitals, many of which struggle with overcrowding. With regard to the first certainty - that Graham Cassidy is not Obamacare, its repeal would represent one more move to remove anything having to do with Barack Obama from the public record. In this it is reminiscent of the Biblical injunction (Exodus 17:45, and Deuteronomy 25:19 concerning Amalek: "Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it (i.e., to blot out the name and remembrance).

The list of public officials (including Republican governors, mayors and state legislators) national medical associations (now above 75) and "just plain Americans" who are on record as strenuously opposing Graham Cassidy is growing by the minute.  And ironically, the number of Americans who are voicing support for Universal Healthcare is also growing.  Ever since Arizona Senator John McCain came out and stated for the record that he will vote against it (despite his closest friend, Senator Lindsay Graham being one of Trumpcare's eponymous sponsors), there is a pretty good chance the bill will crash and burn.  About the only ones who are totally upset about this possibility are the Republican Party's biggest financial backers . . . people like the brothers Koch who, like their fellow multi-billionaires, stand to lose out on one hell of a lot of cash (via tax breaks) if Graham-Cassidy fails.

The game is in the ninth; the home team is down by a run with the bases loaded, two outs and their best hitter coming to the plate.  Indeed, there is a good reason to keep open a hope for victory.  But hoping isn't the same as action. Get up from your seat, call, text or email your senator; make your voice heard. These men and women do pay attention to what their constituents have to say; especially if they are up for reelection. (By the way, if you do not know your senators' phone numbers follow this link. For those who prefer to communicate their thoughts and feelings via email, follow this link.)

We conclude with yet another quote from William Congreve. In  Act 5, Scene 8 of his first play, the above referenced The Old Bachelour the bachelour's best friend, a chap named Sharper, gives his mate the following advice:  "Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure: Married in haste, we may repent at leisure."

Taking a page from the Book of Chutzpah, I will slightly alter the famous part of Sharper's advice,  put the resulting barb into a cartridge, load the cartridge into a blow-gun, and taking deadly aim, send it directly into the heart of the Senate Republican caucus. To wit:

                                              They who legislate in haste must expect to be invalidated at leisure.

247 days down, 1,193 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F Stone

                                                                               

 

 

Notes From the Underground Or, Apropos of the Coming Storm

This essay was in the process of  contemplation and composition when, thanks to Hurricane Irma, all the lights, air conditioning and internet were lost. Consequently, it has had to be put off until just how. It's weird going a week without posting an essay.  So far as I know, this is the first week I've missed since February 2005.  In any event,  I am delighted to report that we are all well, suffered precious little damage, and now find ourselves with cool air, cold water and hot WiFi.  Who could ask for anything more? And by the way, if the title of this piece doesn't make a lot of sense, do familiarize yourself with the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, the father of Existential literature . . .  

170911-hurricane-irma-mc-752_2_bbba781eb72176932786a153989f7657.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000.jpg

Waiting for a hurricane to arrive exacts a crushing toll on one's nerves and psyche, not to mention putting one's kishkes into painful twisted knots.  As a Californian who has gone through several major earthquakes, I can tell you a simple truth: I greatly prefer severe quaking to interminable waiting. Earthquakes happen when you least expect them; one is spared the dozens upon dozens of hours of continuous television and radio coverage - of the countdown to  climatologic Armageddon.  True, one can take precautions and make preparations for Andrew, Wilma, Harvey or Irma; but in the long-run, they're going to exact whatever vengeance they choose.  There are also any number of precautions one can take against earthquakes (most in terms of construction), but again, in the long-run they're going to exact as much vengeance as they please.  The big difference, as stated, above, is in the waiting.  Waiting for Irma reminded me of the scene in Casablanca when Rick, Ilsa and Sam were hanging out at La Belle Aurore, waiting, waiting for the Nazis to reach Paris.  All they could do was wait, listen to the cannons, and drink champagne . . .

Even before Irma arrived, there were interminable tornado warnings . . . each extended by fifteen, thirty, sixty minutes or more.  In comparison to the bear which is a category 5 hurricane, a tornado is a mere bee sting.  When Irma finally arrived, we were hunkered down, listening to what sounded like a 10,000-mile long freight train whizzing past our the house at lightening speed for hours on end. This was, to say the least, both a frightening and a deeply humbling experience.  Frightening for obvious reasons.  (Heck, the only folks who wouldn't have suffered from fright were, like Rick, Ilsa and Sam, probably indulging in a bit of the grape). Humbling, to realize in CAPITAL LETTERS how utterly powerful and destructive the forces of nature and nature's God, can be.  

This show of immense, ineffable power makes all our petty pride and status-filled striving seem as utterly insane as the rantings of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov.  Nothing - not wealth, nor status nor connections - can  every hope to overpower the forces of nature.  And anyone who causes us to believe they can is an utter fool . . . and even worse, a self-deluded idiot. 

Coming on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, I thought to myself (while sitting in the dark near my wife and dog) "who in their right mind can still deny climate change and its role in creating not one but two massive blows in a single week?"  Well, in the weeks leading up to these latest hurricanes, Rush Limbaugh and his buds-with-mikes were coming across like Irma truthers. Limbaugh the loon actually had the errant chutzpah to tell his devoted fringe that hurricanes and massive tropical storms are simply part of a liberal conspiracy solely aimed at furthering the discussion on climate change,   And then, within 24 hours, he announced that he was evacuating South Florida . . . for reasons of "security."  Ah consistency; the hobgoblin of little minds! 

For those who are not aware, there is a single street in Palm Beach (S Ocean Blvd, Palm Beach, 33480 to be precise) on which live (at least during the winter) four of the world's biggest, baddest, boldest climate change deniers: Ann Coulter, the increasingly irrelevant Flush . . . eh, Rush, '45, and the Brothers Koch. These aren't just homes; they are palaces ranging in size from 20,000 to more than 62,000 square feet - not to mention the beach-front acreage.  One has to wonder if all that has happened to their princely abodes will change their minds about the state of the weather.  One can only hope.

So now we dig and dry out, decide whether or not to finally install those hurricane-proof windows and shutters, and await the next storm (perhaps Hurricane Melania?).  It all makes great fodder for the High Holiday sermons I shall begin delivering in less than a week.  One of points I shall do doubt be highlighting is how disasters such as Harvey and Irma tend to bring out the best, most humane aspects of an otherwise disparate and divided folk. One can see it in the patience and consideration that drivers show in going through intersections one car at a time; of neighbors going door to door to see if there's anything they can do - and then extending a hand, arm or leg in the cause of community. I've read and heard of Muslims helping Jews and rock-ribbed conservative Christians lending assistance to same-sex  couples.  It is, without question, a very, very good thing to learn that the folks next door are just as human, just as vulnerable, just as loving as you are.  

We will, without question, long remember Harvey and Irma - their power, their destructiveness and terrifying ability to totally destroy and uproot.  May they also be long remembered as having been the cause for us reaching out to our neighbors as if they were the closest of kin.  And may Harvey and Irma also teach the naysayers that hurricanes, tornadoes and tropical storms have as much to do with the misdeeds of man as with the power of the Divine. 

Be safe, be proactive, but above all be kind . . .

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

Zelig Eshhar: Putting Cancer in the Rear-View Mirror

                        Professor Zelig Eshhar

                        Professor Zelig Eshhar

(Introductory Note) Back in early June when this blog moved to its present site, the subtitle also changed: from "Formerly 'Beating the Bushes'" to "Politics and a Whole Lot More."  Well, this week is mostly "A Whole Lot More" and a tiny bit of "Politics." The underlying basis for this week's piece comes from an aspect of my professional life which I have rarely, if ever, written about.

For nearly 2 dozen years, I have served as a "community member" of two different Institutional Review Boards; first, Cleveland Clinic Florida and, for going on five years, Schulman Associates IRB (Institutional Review Board).  It is our job to carefully screen, edit and approve medical research projects - some dealing with surgical procedures, some pharmaceuticals and yet others, visionary techniques.  Our "primary directive" is to help safeguard the rights of research subjects and to make sure that all research is carried out in an ethical manner.

Over these many years, I have read, digested (to the best of my lay ability) and edited easily more than 1,000 research protocols.  By this point in time, I guess you could say that I qualify, medically speaking, as either a "lay professional," or perhaps a "professional layperson."  For it is my job to translate medical and scientific terminology into understandable English at, say, an 8th or 10th-grade level.  

Having written this, let's enter enter the world of Zelig Eshhar, cancer research and CAR-T . . . 

 

There's a pretty good chance that few, if any who are reading this piece have ever read or heard of Zelig Eshhar, let alone be conversant with the medical acronym CAR-T.  Trust me when I tell you that shortly, that's going to change; that both Professor Eshhar, an Israeli immunologist at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science and his breakthrough research will become as well known as penicillin, Viagra and joint replacement surgery.  

Professor Eshhar's breakthroughA is called CAR T Therapy, which stands for Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell Therapy.   T-cells are the white blood cells that fight foreign or abnormal cells, including cancerous ones. Under normal circumstances, T-cells try to fight cancerous cells – but because the body has been weakened by the cancer, the response is usually not strong enough to prevent the spread of cancer. In addition, cancer cells are genetically programmed to evade T-cells - essentially to see them as "the enemy." Dr. Eshhar figured out a way around this by extracting T-cells from the patients and then genetically modifying them to develop longer-lasting and more aggressive responses to the disease. As a result, research subjects experienced significant improvement – and even elimination of the disease altogether.  In a sense, what Dr. Eshhar's process does is retrain T-cells and put them back into the body. CAR T therapy represents a quantum change in both theory and practice.  Instead of using chemotherapy, which is essentially a poison used to kill various tumors or cancer cells, CAR T takes an immunological approach in which one's own body provides the "slaying" mechanism.

Chemo drugs are huge money-makers for the pharmaceutical industry.  Various companies - such as Roche, Novartis and Eli Lilly pour tons of money into researching what they hope will become the next blockbuster drug.  And if (and when) they come up with a drug that works on a particular type of cancer (breast, prostate, lung, pancreas, etc.), it can be worth billions of dollars in global sales. 

Currently, the biggest sellers are:

  • Roche's Avastin (Bevacizumab) with global sales of $6.7 billion;  used to treat breast, colorectal , kidney and ovarian cancers. 
  • Celgene's Revlimid (Lenalidimide) with global sales of $4.2 billion;  used to treat Multiple myeloma (a cancer of plasma cells)
  • Roche's Retuxin (Rituximab), with sales of $7.5 billion; used to treat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (a cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes)
  • Roche's Herceptin (Trastuzumab) with sales of $6.5 billion (used to fight a type of breast cancer called HER 2+)
  • Johnson & Johnson's Imbruvica (Iritunib capsules) with sales of $5.3 billion (used to treat certain kinds of leukemia - a blood cancer - and lymphoma.

(BTW: many chemotherapy drugs you see advertised on TV end in either mab or nib. The former stands for "Monoclonal Antibody," [a  type of protein made in the lab which can bind itself to substances in the body like cancer cells]; the latter stands for a small molecule Inhibitor. A nib drug blocks [inhibits] the cell's ability to divide and grow.)

CAR T-cell Therapy is a horse of a different color. As Professor Eshhar explains it, "T-cells and antibodies in patients and animals are part of the immune system, capable of distinguishing tumor cells from normal cells. These cells, however, are not enough to fight the cancer cells, which manage to “evade and avoid them. The end result is cancer and an immune system that is not efficient enough to thwart it."  Stumped by this reality, Eshhar decided to combine the antibodies with the T-cells, figuring, in his words that "Two are better than one."

What he did was extract the T-cells and genetically engineered  them to include a molecule that has the cancer recognition skills of both the antibodies and the T-cells. The modified T-cells were then injected into patients. As Eshhar explained it, these T-cells “now recognize the cancer and will now be efficient because I engineered them so they will attack the cancer."  This is the simple essence of Chimeric Antigen Receptors.  To date, this process has shown spectacular success; so much so that the company which began experiments with CAR-T - Kite Pharma - was just bought out by Gilead Sciences, Inc. for a whopping $12 billion.  Not bad for a company (Kite) which has never turned a profit.

And so, cancer care has taken a gigantic, formative step; away from medicines on the chemical level and towards therapy on the genetic.  The growth and acceptance of Eshhar's technique is moving as a geometric rate.  Just 4 days ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Novartis' CAR T-cell therapy for young people up to age 25 with a form of leukemia called "acute lymphoblastic leukemia" - a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow that affects white blood cells.  And just last month, the online Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News reported the first successful use of CAR-T in  therapy for Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), a virulent, fast-growing type of central nervous system tumor that forms from supportive  tissue of the brain and spinal cord.  (This, by the way, is the type of cancer that Arizona Senator John McCain recently had surgery for. The average survival for malignant glioblastoma is around 14 months.)

Various research projects involving CAR-T have shown startling results ranging from total remission of certain types of cancer to its total disappearance.  More time, more dollars and more research will be needed before it can be declared "the silver bullet" in cancer treatment. But for now, it is terribly exciting, extremely hopeful and awesomely imaginative.  When asked how much money he could make off the sale of KITE Pharma (on whose Scientific Advisory Board Professor Eshhar serves), the good doctor responded "I am not a banker and I don’t know the laws. I don’t know how much we will get. I prefer not to relate to this. Research is what interests me, to improve the treatment and make it more effective.”

So what is this potential miracle cure going to cost?  No one knows for sure, but Novartis has pegged the price of its newly-approved CAR-T drug Kymriah at $475,000 for a single infusion, an amount that is within the range anticipated by oncologists and that Novartis characterized as "well below a price level that could be justified on cost."  As time goes by and new CAR-T medicines become available, the price will likely come down. But make no mistake: for the foreseeable future, it's going to be a highly expensive therapy.  But in an article published just a couple of days ago the online Life Science Washington experts anticipate that "Through further collaboration between academic groups and industry, and with a greatly improved local infrastructure, and an increased understanding and predictability of therapy resistance, there is great hope that CAR-T will become an efficient and affordable therapy – for the benefit of everyone."

In my introductory remarks I noted that this week's piece was "mostly 'a Whole Lot More' and a tiny bit of 'Politics.'"  So where does politics enter the realm of CAR-T?  In this one closing thought:

The progress that can and should be made in this ground-breaking therapy will require a staggering investment - both on the part of big pharma, foundations and the federal government.  Regrettably, this is all happening at the very moment in which the administration has proposed cutting funds for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)  from $31.8 billion to $26 billion. They are also seeking a $1 billion cut in funds for the National Cancer Institute.  It doesn't take a genius to realize that this is bad, bad timing. Hopefully Senator McCain, who is one of the most widely respected voices on Capitol Hill, will be able to convince his colleagues to stem this heartless tide.

Then too, it is indeed highly ironic that a world class Israeli immunologist working at an Israeli institute, (and assisted by scientists named Kohn, Levy and Rosenberg) should be getting his most deserved moment in the sun at  precisely the same time that neo-Nazis and white supremists are airing their diabolic dreams and desires in front of every camera and microphone pointed their way.  God forbid any of them should wind up needing CAR-T therapy.  Will they turn it down because its "parents" are Jewish . . . ?

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

Shake Hands With the Devil

                        Mnuchin,  '45 and Cohen

                        Mnuchin,  '45 and Cohen

OK, by a show of hands, is there anyone out there who remembers the last time we had a 24-hour news cycle without at least one breaking story guaranteed to shoot the old systolic up into the stratosphere?  Waiting . . . waiting.  Hmmm . . . by the absence of hands, I guess that means the answer is "no" - that for the longest time, every day brings at least one bulletin, one screaming headline, one hyper-dramatic (or hyper-inane) matter which is all but guaranteed to eclipse (or make us all but forget) yesterday's screaming headline. Now mind you, it's not just the White House and its current occupant who are totally shouldering the blame for this rise in cacophony; the media plays a huge role as well. After all, there are just so many sources and platforms for news (both real and fake) and views, and thus, so many ways to make a pile through selling ads. The competition for these ad dollars is intense.  In other words, '45 has been a boon-and-a-half to all those who book and sell ad time and space.

In the main, we've become unknowingly inured to the fact that today's front-page-above-the-fold, top-of-the-hour screamers (North Korea, the Mueller investigation, the pardoning of "Sheriff Joe") quickly gets pushed back a page or three until they are largely relocated to the file marked "ho-hum." Occasionally, a story comes along with so many aspects ("sidebars") as to possess what in show business is  called "having legs" -- that is, staying power.  One obvious example is the Charlottesville horror and what it says about the POTUS and the country he supposedly leads.  By now, everyone knows that there is a Grand Canyon of difference between the scripted and off-the-cuff '45. The former presents him as a man possessing a modicum of compassion and a desire to bring a fractured nation together. The latter unshackles him from these chains of sane moderation and permits the "loose cannon" of his soul to escape the censor of his lips.  

One day '45 (unscripted) blames "many sides" for the violence in Charlottesville, absolves himself of any blame by insisting that these sorts of incidents occurred when Barack Obama was POTUS and proclaims that there were "some very fine people" in attendance at the confrontation. Then, less than 48 later (and four days after the actual event) the scripted '45 states "Racism is evil -- and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans . . . . Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America."  Then, in another (unscripted) speech in Arizona, he goes back to his initial approach, in which he does not specifically condemn the KKK, neo-Nazis or white supremacists . . . and which draws ecstatic  reviews from the likes of  David Duke and the White Supremacist website The Stormer. 

That the POTUS does not find any moral difference between neo-Nazis, white nationalists, white supremacists and what he has been told to refer to as the "Alt-Left," is both highly disturbing and terribly frightening. That those Jewish people who support him - either as financial backers or actual employees - have remained mostly mum is disgusting.  Just the other day, '45, flanked by, among others, Gary Cohen (Director of the White House Economic Council) and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin came down to the lobby of Trump Tower for what was supposed to be a press event dealing with infrastructure. Instead, the two most visible and highly placed Jewish members of the administration (save Jared and Ivanka, who seem have been on an extended holiday in the "Land Beyond Denial") stood in obvious shock and discomfort as their boss (unscripted) once again proclaimed “There is blame on both sides. I have no doubt about it – and you don’t have any doubt about it either.”

Since that August 15th gobsmacking, much has been made over the fact that 45's Chief Economist Gary Cohen actually gave serious consideration to resigning his post.  To date, he has not.  What the former president of Goldman Sachs did do was  release a critique of the president in an interview with the Financial Times in which he stated “This administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities."  Giving some insight into the storm brewing in his kishkes (Yiddish for "guts") Cohen further stated “I have come under enormous pressure both to resign and to remain in my current position.  As a patriotic American, I am reluctant to leave my post . . . because I feel a duty to fulfill my commitment to work on behalf of the American people. But I also feel compelled to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks. Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK."

Good for Mr. Cohen; his words make sense.  But if he is that disaffected, that disgusted and alienated, why in hell is he still working for a man and an administration which kowtows to racists, white supremacists and people who, given the chance, would gladly consign him, his family and all those he loves to crematoria?  And while we're at it, why are Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, '45's son-in-law Jared Kushner, '45's longtime personal lawyer Michael D. Cohen and billionaire backer Sheldon Adelson (among others) as mute as Marcel Marceau?  Sam Nunberg, a former campaign adviser came to '45's defense, rationalizing that “I have spent thousands of hours with this man. He does not have one anti-Semitic bone in his body.” Nunberg, who himself is Jewish condemned the neo-Nazi protesters as “a bunch of disgusting people. A bunch of people saying anti-Semitic stuff.”  Nonetheless, he had not a single word to say about his former boss's lack of response.

I'm sorry; this just doesn't cut it.  I find it difficult to swallow that a man who quietly accepts the plaudits of anti-Semites and racists isn't in some way either an anti-Semite or racist himself, or at best, an egregiously opportunistic fool.  From a political point of view, '45 - who has been campaigning for reelection since the day he was inaugurated - knows how badly he needs to hold on to his ever-shrinking base.  And, if in order to maintain that base - which includes the likes of David Duke, Richard Spencer, Sheriff Joe and all their jackbooted followers - he must be acquiescent . . .  so be it.

WRONG!  To my mind, it is the sacred obligation of any and every American - whether Jewish or not - who believes in equality and humanity to denounce '45 and those who persist in supporting him.  Obviously this is not the case; there are Jewish people out there who are willing to rationalize his actions and overlook his immoral recrudescence.  As a progressive political blogger who also happens to be a rabbi, I am frequently on the receiving end of nasty comments from readers informing me that they are more than willing to overlook '45's "shortcomings" because " . . . on the one issue that matters - Israel - he is the best thing that's every happened!"  Whenever I receive a comment containing this sentiment, I write back asking the correspondent to provide examples with which to under-gird  their contention; to tell me precisely what he has done for Israel that makes him such a great friend of the Jewish State. Generally, the answer is something like "Well, at least he's not Obama, who made an 'Apology Tour,' bowed down to the King of Saudi Arabia and had his Ambassador to the U.N. vote against Israel every chance she got." I'm sorry, but it's always been my strong belief that a POTUS who is not good for the country cannot be good for Israel.

In just a little over a month, Jewish people the world over will be observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where we confess our sins, beg for forgiveness and search our souls for the moral strength we need in facing a new year.  

Are you listening Messrs Cohen, Mnuchin, Kushner, Adelson, Nunberg et al?

218 days down, 1,239 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

The Ever Shrinking Universe of Donald Trump

   A Group of Interacting Galaxies (Taken From the Hubble Telescope)

   A Group of Interacting Galaxies (Taken From the Hubble Telescope)

Quantum cosmologists - folks like Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Steven Hawking and Alan Lightman - study and theorize the origins of the universe.  Amazingly, the field is not a new one by any stretch of the imagination; as early as the 5th century B.C.E.,  the philosopher Democritus proposed that all matter was made of tiny and indivisible atoms, which came in various sizes and textures—some hard and some soft, some smooth and some thorny.  To be certain, there are significant disagreements between cosmologists about such things as the age of the universe, precisely when the "Big Bang" (BB) occurred, etc.   But then again, what could you expect when the two words making up the very name of the field (quantum and cosmology) are bipolar opposites? (quantum is the theory of the utterly small, while cosmology is the study of the unimaginably gigantic.)

One thing on which most every cosmologist agrees is the Big Bang theory, which posits that 14 billion years ago the entire observable universe was, in the words of MIT professor Alan Lightman “roughly a million billion billion times smaller than a single atom” and has been expanding ever since, to its current size of something like 100 billion galaxies.  When I first read that statement in Lightman's wonderful 2014 work The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You KnewI spent the better part of a week pondering the bit about the pre-BB universe being "roughly a million billion billion times smaller than a single atom."  The thing that truly revved my mental engine was contemplating what was outside that universe.  Intellectually, of course, the answer is simply "nothing" . . . for there cannot be anything outside the universe.  But from a "grand-scheme-of-things perspective," the query produces a profound mind cramp.  Nonetheless, I will pretend that I follow what these brilliant ladies and gentlemen are positing, and agree that the universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang. (Yes, there certainly are female quantum cosmologists; one of the greatest by far is Sandra Faber of the University of California, Santa Cruz,  co-inventor of the "theory of cold dark matter.")

Moving on from the mind-numbing realm of Quantum Cosmology to maddening world of big-time politics, we ask "What's outside a political universe when it starts shrinking?  And here, we are referring specifically to the current POTUS.  For over the past several weeks, his universe has been devolving at an alarming rate.  Consider that during a rather brief span - which for most new presidents would be a "period of good feelings," he has:

  • Sacked his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after a mere 2 weeks and 2 days on the job;
  • Canned James Comey, Director of the FBI;
  • Shown his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, the door;
  • Axed his Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci after a mere 10 days on the job;
  • Fired his Chief of Staff Reince Preibus and Preibus' deputy, Katie Walsh;
  • Disbanded both the American Manufacturing Council and the Strategic and Policy Forum after members began resigning in droves;
  • Saw every member (minus 1) of the Presidential Committee on the Arts and Culture submit their resignations in a stinging rebuke which ended with the words "Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values. Your values are not American values. We must be better than this. We are better than this. If this is not clear to you, then we call on you to resign your office, too." (BTW, the committee member who did not sign the letter was the committee chair, First Lady, Melania Trump); 
  • Accepted the resignation (?) of chief political strategist Stephen Bannon, who has already met with Breitbart News' chief financial backer, multi-billionaire Bob Mercer, and is ready to go to war with "globalists," who apparently include '45, his former boss and protégé;
  • Begun to be on the receiving end of some serious rebukes questioning his sanity, stability and moral integrity from leading Republicans including Senators Corker, Flake, Rubio and Hatch as well as a gaggle of former party leaders and professional media conservatives;
  • Been utterly trashed by his Art of the Deal ghost writer Tony Schwartz, who  predicted that '45 is getting ready to "call it quits" - and that the resignation will happen soon; 
  • And lastly (at least for purposes of this essay) has seen charity after charity, and cause after cause, cancel mammoth black-tie galas at Mar-a-Lago, thus putting a significant crimp in his income.

Indeed, things are not going well for the POTUS; his "base" is beginning to thin even while his world is imploding.  His universe is shrinking, leaving him more isolated than ever.  And what's worse, in the days following the neo-Nazi/white supremacist tragedy in Charlottesville, he has shown himself to be a moral albino; a man without a conscience or scintilla of shame.  And owing to his peculiar "mental makeup" (to be both kind and diplomatic) he has  become increasingly untethered.  I for one fear he is fully capable of launching a preemptive strike against North Korea as a means of expanding his deflated universe.

(n.b. The most recent issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists unequivocally states that the bellicose rhetoric of both North Korea's Kim and America's '45 has obscured a critical fact: to wit, that North Korea's Hwasong 14 ICBM is not nearly as powerful nor lethal as either side advertises, and as of now, is incapable of reaching the continental USA.  Much of what we are hearing and fearing is political hot air. Unquestionably, the misinformation serves both sides' political needs.)

One small sign of just how far his universe has imploded was Friday's announcement that he and the First Lady will skip this year's Kennedy Center honors "in order to allow the honorees to celebrate without political distraction."  Reading between the lines, what he's really saying is "I don't want to be booed by so many cultural icons on national television; my ego couldn't take it."   '45's decision to stay away from the star-studded gala means it will be just the fourth time in the program’s 40-year history that a president will not be in attendance. In 1994, President Bill Clinton skipped the event while on his way to Budapest for a conference. In 1989, President George Bush was preoccupied with a summit meeting in Malta with Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In 1979, Jimmy Carter did not attend because of the Iran hostage crisis.

In the seven months '45 has been POTUS, the moral authority of both Office of President and the country that the vast majority of the planet looks to for leadership has been both critically damaged and severely diminished.  How long it will take to put the brakes on this precipitous slide is anyone's guess.   Clearly though, there already exists enough evidence to impeach '45 on the grounds of abuse of power, obstruction of justice, and violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

There is already enough evidence of mental impairment to invoke the 25th amendment.  Just the other day, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) did just that; she introduced a resolution asking Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to consider removing President Trump from office under terms of that Amendment. 

Simply stated, the man must be removed from office.

To those who shake their head and say "But if we somehow manage to do the impossible and get him out of our hair, that means Mike Pence will become President," I respond in the words of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich: " . . . a principled right-winger is better for America and the world than an unhinged sociopath."

We conclude with a return to the world of science:

Some quantum cosmologists belong to a school of thought called the "two-headed theory" of the universe. This school sees the Big Bang as sort of a pothole in the long road of time, with the future pointing away from that moment in two opposing directions. In this theory, time moved in a way we would consider backward for billions of years — with the universe contracting all the while — until it shrank to subatomic size. Then the big bang occurred and time began to progress, and the universe expanded, in the way we see now.

So perhaps what we are going through these past 7 months is precisely that - albeit in miniature; a shrinking, chronologically retrogressive period in which our reality becomes too impossible to imagine, let alone wrap our heads around.  But remember, there is that second "head" . . . the Big Bang which causes the universe to progress, to grow, to - in terms of this essay - get us back on the path of political sanity and moral clarity.

It doesn't take an academy of quantum cosmologists or brainy theoretical astrophysicists to accomplish this task.  What it does - and will - take are elected officials with guts and principles and a citizenry that awakens to the realization that one need not be systemically predisposed to speaking out . . . just genetically incapable of remaining silent. 

Donald Trump must go!

211 days down, 1,246 (?) to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone