Friday, July 5, 2024

Biden Should Go, So Trump Can Be Defeated

 Today someone posted to Facebook this very impressive list of President Biden's accomplishments:

  • Lowering Costs of Families’ Everyday Expenses
  • More People Are Working Than at Any Point in American History
  • Rescued the Economy and Changed the Course of the Pandemic
  • Rebuilding our Infrastructure
  • Historic Expansion of Benefits and Services for Toxic Exposed Veterans
  • The First Meaningful Gun Violence Reduction Legislation in 30 Years
  • Protected Marriage for LGBTQI+ and Interracial Couples
  • Historic Confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson & Federal Judges of Diverse Backgrounds
  • Rallied the World to Support Ukraine in Response to Putin’s Aggression
  • Strengthened Alliances and Partnerships to Deliver for the American People
  • Successful Counterterrorism Missions Against the Leaders of Al Qaeda and ISIS
  • Executive Orders Protecting Reproductive Rights
  • Historic Student Debt Relief for Middle- and Working-Class Families
  • Ending our Failed Approach to Marijuana
  • Advancing Equity and Racial Justice, Including Historic Criminal Justice Reform
  • Delivering on the Most Aggressive Climate and Environmental Justice Agenda in American History
  • More People with Health Insurance Than Ever Before

I mostly agree with this assessment of President Biden's remarkable record. I also agree with Professor Heather Cox Richardson's framing of Biden as the first president to undo the "Reagan Revolution." Since 1981, "supply-side economics" has been a disastrous norm of domestic policy in which taxes on the wealthy are deeply cut, resulting in the massive polarization of wealth that has done so much to destroy our culture, emiserate our people, and drive the rise of the populist Right and its lawless orange Lumpenfuhrer

But unlike the Facebook poster and, I imagine---though I hope I'm wrong---unlike Professor Richardson, I'm disheartened by the administration's tepid support for Ukraine and Israel. The Congressional Republicans have Ukrainian blood on their hands for their yearlong blockage of necessary weapons and equipment, but Biden hurt the Ukrainians with his refusal to sell them the MGM 140 ATACMS (long range ballistic missile systems), and with his insistence that they not destroy the Kerch Bridge to Crimea, a structure vital to the Russian war effort.

And I'm much more upset about the 9 billion dollars the President sent to the murderous regime in Iran, "earmarked for humanitarian purposes." The earmark was a silly fantasy, typical of American magical thinking. Iran promptly spent that money funding Hamas and Hezbollah for the murder of Jews; paying its Morality Police to execute Gay men and to beat Iranian women for wearing their hijabs improperly; and building more weapons, including myriad rockets and, probably, its nuclear program. The regime is still in power, Israelis are still dying, and the Persian people are still miserable. 

Supposing I were a Gentile and had the luxury of forgetting about the Iran issue, I would be less ambivalent about President Biden's achievements. I would still be just as staunchly against the loathsome Republican nominee, former President Donald J. Trump, a 34-count convicted felon, a thief, a rapist, a compulsive liar, and a nearly illiterate failed businessman who bears all the marks of being a Russian asset whose Project 2025 is an explicit blueprint for the end of American democracy. 

Make no mistake: I am 100% opposed to Trump, and would not vote for him in a million years. 

However... Facebook and Instagram are now flooded with reposted memes and original remarks whose point is to shame anybody who's even concerned about President Biden's fitness for office. Those who see the situation this way are making a leap, from the genuinely apocalyptic danger of Trump's likely reelection, straight to the urgent need to stifle every word of criticism of Biden, and any speculation about his stepping aside. I find this disingenuous, impractical, and self-defeating

I believe it may well lead to the dystopian Trumpistan we Democrats and Independents are trying to prevent. They claim it is "absurd" to reconsider the nominee "because of one hour of debate," as if what we saw last week was not a damning vision of exhaustion and cognitive decline. As if that appalling hour of ineptitude and dissociation somehow doesn't matter. 

But we all saw it with our own eyes, and hectoring us to forget about it feels like gaslighting---a fashionable word for a form of abuse in which the perp uses shame and threats to convince the victim to ignore his own or her own direct experience. 

It does not matter that Joe Biden did much better at his recent State of the Union speech; and at the rally that followed the debate; and maybe even at the next debate (only two this year!) on September 10th. What matters is that he was capable of performing so badly, and that he will be older still as his second term transpires. This is not ageism; there are plenty of men and women older than the President who are far more lucid, intellectually nimble, and vigorous than he. I say this with gratitude for his superb achievements, compassion for him, and respect for his office. 

But as we saw during the nominating process in 2016, 2020, and 2024, the Democratic National Committee has become a ruthlessly cynical, exclusively top-down organization. Its older methods of candidate selection---which involved factional jockeying and favors and threats, with plenty of cynical opportunism---did not completely preclude all challengers. The Kennedy campaign of 1960 may have had a "ruthless" underside, but it was also genuinely idealistic and genuinely insurgent. In 2016, Donna Brazile and Debby Wasserman-Schultz helped Hilary Clinton destroy the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, which offered the population a lifeline to prosperity. Madame Secretary did not even pretend to offer anything more than a brand. The arrogance and hubris and entitlement of the DNC machine was breathtaking. And now they---and we---are paying the price, because that rigid, top-down machine has already produced its candidates, Biden and Harris, who have already shown they almost surely cannot win this election, despite the horrific evil and incompetence of the Republican opponent. In today's DNC, there is no surviving process for a challenger to rise to the top. 

I will not vote for RFK Jr. He has been an excruciatingly contradictory mixture of brilliance and stupidity, insight and delusion, pragmatism and absurdity, charisma and ugliness, idealism and cynicism. He would have electrified the debates had he been permitted to enter them, and he did have the necessary polling numbers---but CNN, the Coalition on Presidential Debates, the DNC, and the RNC had no trouble breaking their own rules to exclude him. I can't vote for him because his judgment has been so bad, making verbal gaffes that were sometimes true but utterly imprudent; because he is too soft on Russia regarding their criminal war against Ukraine; because he let his CIA daughter-in-law run his campaign, after that organization murdered his father and uncle, ruining the country; because his paper-thin gun control policy makes no sense; because his vaccine positions range from the reasonable to the disastrously foolish, and do not fit together; because he gave his VP slot to his biggest donor; and because he thinks the free market, by itself, is enough to fix climate change. 

In his defense, Kennedy alone has focused attention on the urgent issue of regulatory capture, where giant corporations abuse the public, privatizing the profits and socializing the costs, then stacking the government's regulatory agencies with their own lobbyists---effectively neutering the only institutions that have any hope of protecting the public. They poison the food, soil, and water with glyphosate, causing a cancer epidemic; they dump dioxin and PCBs and "forever chemicals," ruining public health; they strip-mine mountains and wreck waterways, until the tap water in fracked Flint, Michigan is actually flammable; they hobble small business, letting Amazon and big-box stores rule with impunity; they allow Blackrock to buy up all the housing until nobody can afford a home. When the injured public sues, the corporations either out-lawyer them, or pay a trivial fine and keep on going. RFK speaks out about this, having fought it his whole adult life in the courts. That is why his inclusion in the debates would have enriched the national conversation and vitalized the election. Some polls indicate his candidacy will help Trump; others indicate it will help Biden. These are just observations. I didn't tell him to run, and I'm not voting for him.

I don't have a solution. A coup is underway, and it includes Trump, Putin, the Russian intelligence assets and mafiosi named in the Muller Report and the ensuing legal proceedings, Manifort, Chesebro, Eastman, Giuliani, Alex Jones, the January 6th rioters, the poisoned Supreme Court of Alito and Thomas and Barrett and, yes, Roberts, Mitch McConnell's utterly disingenuous refusal to allow a vote on Merrick Garland's nomination to SCOTUS, and McConnell's appalling sabotage of the January 6th impeachment trial. It includes the Congressional Republicans' relentless sabotage of the 117th and 118th sessions of the U.S. Congress since 2021. And it includes about 63 million of our fellow citizens, who prioritize "owning the libtards" over equal protection under the law, healthcare, education, women's rights, clean air and water and soil, civility, and any chance of the Earth not burning into a lifeless Venusian inferno.

The DNC has a chance to run someone else. They can try to do it in a thoroughly insulated way, top-down and centralized, or they can try to do it with an open convention, as in the old days of chaos and something more closely resembling representative democracy. But they ought to do it one way or the other, and immediately. I don't have any knowledge of who is electable and who isn't, except that Michelle Obama has just come out on top in a poll that shows her, and only her, beating Trump. She has never held public office, and to me she represents President Obama's politics of neoliberal perception-management, bad-faith virtue signaling that helps nobody, and de facto economic conservatism (so does Gavin Newsom). But I don't know what she would actually do in the Oval Office, and she would certainly be a hundred times better than Trump. 

I wish Jamie Raskin was the nominee, or even the young House Minority Leader, Hakim Jeffries. But it seems to me that the old DNC playbook---pick the guy ourselves, then verbally abuse everyone who asks questions---is a recipe for failure, and with it, endless tyranny. 

We are living through a poignant, ironic, tragic crisis. Waves of unintended consequences are crashing together on our collective heads, flowing from the misguided and contradictory efforts of warring factions, each of whom was sure they had the solution to all our woes. Just when the most dangerous coup since the Civil War is blazing its trail through our ossified institutions, we are stuck with an aging chief executive and his politically inept Vice President, amid several hot wars and a renewed cold one, even as climate change wreaks ever-faster havoc on our cities, coasts, crops, and oceans. This is a nail-biter, full of worry and dread and bitterness. We will need courage, dialogue, and whatever well-being we can give each other in all this upheaval.

Friday, May 17, 2024

A Teenaged Thing to Say: The Farewell to One's Childhood Theism

At 14m30s here in an autobiographical story on The Moth podcast, cognitive neuroscientist Christof Koch says: "I'm saddened by the loss of my belief in a religion. It's like leaving forever the comfort of your childhood home... But I do believe we all have to grow up.” This announcement that one has left childhood behind is a teenaged thing to say. The farewell to childhood is the main theme of adolescence—not of adulthood. There is much to admire about Christof Koch, but this moment was not his finest hour. On the other hand, he has an interesting new book, Then I Am Myself the World (Basic Books, 2024), which I will be reviewing elsewhere soon.

The same maturational process that leads from naive theism to disillusioned physicalism does not end at that step, or not for everyone. It can continue far beyond that position. As his writing life unfolds, Koch's books move closer and closer to an escape from the disillusioned physicalism he learned from Francis Crick (1916-2004), but it seems to me Koch remains hidebound by a passionate loyalty to that lost mentor. I'm hoping he'll read Iain McGilchrist's book The Matter with Things (2021), as I'm very curious what sort of effect that author's work would have on him.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Nov. 30, 1968: The BBC, The Rolling Stones, and a Near Death Experience

 Yesterday on YouTube I larked into a performance of the Rolling Stones' new hit song, "Sympathy for the Devil" on The David Frost Show, from November 30, 1968, on the BBC.

The band is young and beautiful, still innocent and nervous, and not yet bereaved-and-freaked-out by the death (a likely murder), some 7 months later, of Brian Jones, who plays piano con brio here. Mick Jagger's youthful androgynous loveliness is quite striking, and he's apparently feeling shy about taking off his shirt, which he does in stages, hunched over as if to conceal himself. The performance is just different enough from the studio record that it's pretty clear it's not a lip-synch, though the lead guitar sounded pretty much the same to me (superb, that is). But the lyrics are among the best Jagger ever penned, and because he vocalizes in that special, yelling way of his, it's not always clear exactly what the hell he's saying. The song was new at this point, and I wish he had sold it better on The David Frost Show. Well and good.

After the performance we learn that the other guests include the young Shakespearean actor Nicol Williamson, who in 1969 would star in Tony Richardson's excellent film of Hamlet, opposite Mick Jagger's then-girlfriend, Marianne Faithful, as Ophelia, with Michael Pennington as Laertes, and Anthony Hopkins as Claudius. 

Here on the David Frost show, Williamson is feeling cranky, coming off as young and rather insecure, taking issue with everything anyone else has to say. He does a decent reading-aloud of a scary passage from Samuel Beckett about death, the subject of the segment, which had apparently been a troublesome obsession for him at this period. Other guests speak briefly and unremarkably... and then, at about 11min40sec, something wonderful and delightful and now entirely obsolete takes place: 

Frost, the host of the show, invites the audience to express their personal opinions. He doesn't charge at them with a microphone, as American talk show hosts have done since the 1980's. The audience members simply raise their hands and he calls on them. "The lady in the front row" is a lady indeed, in a modest dress, handsomely middle-aged, looking self-assured and entirely in her element as a proper member of the British public who knows how to behave and expects others will do the same. Which they do. Before she begins to speak, Frost offers her a drink (!), which she declines, and then, in endearing plain talk, tells of her husband's having had a blissful and transformative near death experience---it's a misnomer, since like many patients, he was temporarily dead, but that's what we call them. 

This forms a stark and happy contrast with the famous young actor's dismal terror of oblivion. Then the man next to her makes a quick point, expressed in a slightly clumsy way that nevertheless gets his meaning across, and it's a good one. The world appears to be infinite; it is real even though infinity is not rational; therefore we, too, might be infinite as well, without that being a special exception made just for us. 

The whole thing is incredibly civilized, humane, easy, and pleasant. I feel envy (not jealousy; I want what they have, but I do not want to destroy it) and admiration. Something has been lost in the long meantime. I was born May 13th, 1968. Dr. King was killed April 4th; Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY), June 5th. But those were American traumas. They touched the British, too---"I shouted out, Who killed the Kennedys?" goes the song on this very show---but Vietnam was our disaster, not theirs. I get the sense that in 1968, the social fabric was tearing slightly slower in England than here. Civility and discourse; time to think and space to converse; norms of social behavior that provided scaffolding for interactions with strangers that made it relatively safe to roll the dice on humanity and have a chat in a pub with someone you didn't already know. Something has been lost, and this quaint, humbling, forgotten moment of British television encapsulates it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Bionians, at Play in the Fields of Their Lord

 Here are three short excerpts from a single, randomly chosen spot (pages 4 to 5) in a fairly recent book of Bionian psychoanalysis called Ghosts in the Consulting Room: Echoes of Trauma in Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2016). By "Bionian," I mean deeply influenced by the work of analyst Wilfred Bion (1897-1979). Quotations from the book are in red here, with yellow highlight on the errors therein.

Harris (2013) wrote about Bion’s well-known ideas about death in life in the context of his advice to analysts to work without memory or desire: 'This is Bion’s famous instruction to the analyst: work in the present moment, without reference to history and desire.' (Bion, 1967, p. 612)

This is wrong. The phrase Bion used was "without memory and desire." He was drawing upon T.S. Eliot, who was drawing upon Chaucer, who was drawing upon Lucretius (as usual with Bion, he gave no attribution to those sources). 

But let us introduce another Bion quote to add to the complexity of Bion’s relationship to temporality. To wit: 'I died on August 7th, 1917, on the Amiens-Roye Road. (Bion 1982, p. 265.)' 

No. The date Bion specified was August 8th, 1918, not August 7th, 1917.

James Grotstein, Bion’s analysand, thinks that Bion remained stymied, stuck, hopelessly lost in the wake of the death of that beloved friend in 1917. Grotstein ends his discussion of Bion’s memoir with this comment: 'Someone once said that Bion was “miles behind his face.” I take this to mean that he was withdrawn, lonely, and unreached.' (Grotstein, 1998, p. 613)

Also wrong, in at least three ways. First, James Grotstein adulated Bion for 35 years, praising him in hyperbolic, fawning language in publication after publication, as part of a successful effort to build a kind of cult around the man he idealized. He never called Bion "stymied, stuck, hopelessly lost," and that view does not fit at all with the myriad assessments Grotstein did make of his hero. 

Second, the soldier who died horribly in the foxhole he shared with Bion on August 8th, 1918 was a private whom Bion pseudonymously calls "Sweeting," apparently taking the name from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night ("Trip no further, pretty sweeting"). This hapless soldier was by no means a "beloved friend" of Bion; at any rate, there is no evidence of this in the memoir or elsewhere, and the text seems to suggest they hardly knew each other. This supposed close friendship is a bizarre invention.

And third, as mentioned, the year was 1918, not 1917.

The point of my fault-finding is not to cast aspersions on the work of distant colleagues, whom I'm not even naming here because I'm reluctant to dent anyone's afternoon. Nor is it to impugn the editorial rigor of the publisher. The point is to illustrate, one more time, the anti-scholarly textual practice of the Bionian subculture. Those who toil in the Bionian field consistently present a markedly low standard of accuracy in their productions and, oddly enough, this trait is itself a legacy of Dr. Grotstein (1925-2015). Afraid of competing with the Master, Grotstein neutered himself in several ways; the major form this took was the obsessive praise of Bion that drives, and suffuses, Grotstein's work. Somewhat less obviously, Grotstein also inflicted upon himself a mental block against accurate quotation of anyone except Bion. Check any literary quotation in his entire oeuvre, and you will find it contains at least one error. Getting things wrong is simply part of the Bionian style. For a while I thought this was due to a repressed contempt for poetry, an alien resource they tend to deploy as a kind of credibility-enhancing decoration. But in some cases, it seems, the habit of misquotation and making-things-up affects even their presentation of the Master himself. Live and learn.