Dangerous Game

The posturing between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea would be mildly amusing it weren’t for the fact that both of these men seem to lack any sense of balance and both are marginally insane — and they sit on top of powder kegs playing with matches.

Their posturing ceased to be even slightly amusing when the North Korean foreign Minister recently cried “foul” and, not knowing that things don’t work this way, insisted that Trump has “declared war” on North Korea; they now have license to shoot down any American plane that ventures close enough to set off sparks. Meantime, the United States has chosen the moment to fly bombers with fighter escorts near the Korean border in a show of strength — at a time when the posturing needs to stop and clear heads need to take command — if there are any clear heads on either side of this preposterous battle of nit-wits. A recent story in Yahoo put in mildly when it was noted that:

The increasingly heated rhetoric between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is raising fears of a risk of a miscalculation by one side or the other that could have massive repercussions.

Someone really needs to break Trump’s thumbs or hide his phone so he cannot tweet the absurdities he seems determined to tweet at every possible opportunity. He really doesn’t get it. He operates inside his own head and has no sense that the things he says have consequences and the consequences in this case are of monumental proportion. Add to this the fact that a number of Congressmen on the Republican side of the aisle, led by the likes of Duncan Hunter, have decided to throw their weight, such as it is, behind the cry to bring North Korea to its knees at any cost and we have the makings of a truly serious international catastrophe. This is hubris, pure and simple. Or it is simple madness. Perhaps both. At some point someone needs to put a stop to all of this. It has already gone too far.

Before the nuclear age this sort of display of macho insolence would have been expected and even applauded by a great many of those among us who are convinced that “our side” (whichever side that happens to be) is always right in its perception of reality and morality and the only country fit to determine how everyone else in the world should live their lives. Chest thumping is not new. But this is the nuclear age and the fact that rhetoric can escalate out of control and bring about catastrophic consequences is a fact and a fact that needs to be taken to heart. “Massive repercussions,” indeed.

These two men remind me of two kids rattling their sabres to frighten one another. It is time they grew up, lay their sabres down and listened to the still, calm voice of reason. The problem, of course, is that neither of them would hear that voice even if it were shouting in his ear., They are both caught up in some sort of egomaniacal game of “chicken” and each wants to bring the other to his knees. It is incumbent on someone, anyone, to knock one or the other about the head and ears and make them realize that this game they are playing has incredibly high stakes: the lives of millions of people are at stake, as is the very planet itself.

Where are the clear heads when we need them? Or are there none either in Washington or in the whole of North Korea? I understand that most of the clear heads in that country have been silenced by a man who has total control of the political and military machines. In this country we are supposed to have checks and balances to maintain control of unfettered power gone mad. But those checks and balances seem to be tongue-tied and silent at a time when they need to speak up loudly and decisively.

I suspect that there are forces at work behind the scene, forces that are working to tone-down the rhetoric and make clear to both parties involved that they need to shut up and look for peaceful options to a resolution of the tensions between the two countries. But neither of these men seems inclined to listen to those who oppose him. We are not in a position to “take on” North Korea in a nuclear war since it has been made clear by the Chinese that if we start the war they will enter on the side of North Korea. And while North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons may be small and unreliable, that of China nearly equals our own. These weapons are  numerous enough to end the war in a few month’s time — with the casualties piled high in countless numbers and irreparable damage to the planet. Those at work behind the scene presumably are aware of this and will win the day. We can only hope.

So far this is a war of words. I used the term “game” in the title of this piece, but it is not a game at all — or if it is, it is one that no one can possibly win. As the Yahoo News Story suggests, miscalculations are likely — especially with each of the two men in charge of things determined to make the other back down. It is time for the clear heads to speak up and the nutters to tone down the rhetoric and go sit in the corner and cool off.




Formula For Success

So, you wanna be president, eh? I have some tips for you garnered from years of looking and listening at key holes. These are some of the things successful politicians do to win voters — especially voters that would put them in the White House. Pay close attention!

  1. Exude confidence. Appear to be in charge. You want to convince your listeners that you have everything under control, are cool under fire, and will achieve greatness.
  2. Know your audience. Know what they want to hear and tell them precisely that. It’s not about what is true, it’s about what people want to hear.
  3.  Repeat. Again, repeat. If you say something several times people will believe it is true, whether it is or not. Indeed, truth is not the issue, it’s all about what people want to hear and saying it enough times that they will believe whatever you say.
  4. Appeal to emotion. Don’t try to overwhelm your audience with facts. Facts will just confuse people. Know your audience and know what they fear and what they desire. Exploit their known prejudices: play on them. Then probe. And repeat.
  5. Deal in generalities. Don’t get bogged down in specifics. People don’t what specifics anyway. They want clichés and formulas, no matter how vapid or even how untrue. Richard Nixon won his way into the White House by telling folks he “had a plan” for getting us out of Viet Nam. He never said what that plan was, because, as it turned out, he had none. But people believed him because it was what they wanted to hear (refer back to point #2 above).
  6. Smile, look sincere, and pause for effect after saying something your audience responds to favorably — as though you knew what they were thinking.
  7. Never, ever admit you were wrong. Don’t change your mind even if it has been shown that what you said was a bald-faced lie. Stick by your guns and attack those who insist that what you said was untrue. People prefer their candidates to be self-assured, even if they are chronic liars. They won’t recognize a lie anyway and very few of them will bother to check your “facts” to see if they are true.
  8. Pander to your audience. Give them more credit than they deserve. As a group they may have a collective I.Q. of 73.6 but treat them as though they are brilliant and wise enough to make you their choice for president.
  9. Attack your opponents at every opportunity. Blame every problem on them, especially if something terrible has just occurred, and assure your audience that if you were president this sort of thing would not have happened and will never happen again if your are elected. Your opponents can do nothing right. Stress that. Don’t worry whether or not this is true because, as said above, the audience doesn’t care about the truth, they want to hear what they already believe is true.
  10. Keep it short. K.I.S.S. No long sentences. No logic. No lengthy explanations with data and evidence to support. Remember that your audience has the attention-span of a cocker spaniel and act accordingly.

Lying, Of Course

It started with advertising, I think — though I can’t be sure. I refer, of course, to lying. I don’t mean the occasional lie. I mean the chronic lie, lying as a matter of course. Selling the car to the unsuspecting customer by telling him that it was owned by an old lady and never driven over forty; selling the house without mentioning the fact that the basement leaks whenever it rains; insisting in the face of overwhelming evidence that global warming is a fiction.  I realize, of course, that people have always lied. But what I am talking about is the blind acceptance of lying as a way of life. It seems to have become the norm. Everybody does it, so it must be OK.

As one who taught ethics for forty-one  years I have a bone to pick with this sort of logic. Just because everyone does it (which is a bit of an exaggeration) does not make it right. In fact, the cynic in me is tempted to say that if everyone does it it is almost certainly not right! From an ethical perspective it is never right to lie, not even in an extreme case, although one might plead expediency in such a case. But it is never right, not even the “little white lie” that we might tell about our neighbor’s hat in order not to hurt her feelings. I might tell the little white lie, but I must realize that it is not the right thing to do, strictly speaking. In this case it’s just the expedient thing to do, since hurting her feelings would be much more upsetting than simply telling her that her hat is lovely when in fact it’s perfectly awful. It’s the lesser of two evils, if you will. In any event, the little white lie is not the problem. The big black lie is the problem: it has become commonplace. And it is the fact that lying has become accepted behavior that is of greatest concern.

When my wife and I were babysitting with our Granddaughters some time back I sat and watched several Walt Disney shows the girls seemed to like. The plots involving teenagers and their bumbling parents were absurdly simple, but they tended to focus on a lie told by one of the characters that generated a situation that required several other lies to be resolved. It was supposed to be funny.  I was reminded of the “I Love Lucy” shows (which I did love) that were also frequently based on a lie that Lucy told Ricky and which generated a situation from which all of Lucy’s cleverness was required to extricate herself. I then began to reflect on how many TV shows generate humor in this way. These situations are funny, of course, as were the Disney shows, I suppose. But the point is that the lie was simply an accepted way of doing things. If you are in a tight situation, lie your way out of it.

On our popular TV shows, it’s not that big a deal. But when our kids see this day after day it must send them a message that lying is simply the normal way of dealing with certain sorts of situations that might be embarrassing or uncomfortable. In any event, when it becomes widespread and commonplace, as it has clearly done in today’s world, it does become a larger problem. When Walmart claims it always has the lowest prices and has to be taken to court to reduce the claim to always having low prices we become aware that the rule of thumb seems to be: say it until someone objects and after the courts have ruled we will make the change. In the meantime we will tell the lie and expect greater profits. And we all know politicians lie without giving it a second thought: whatever it takes to remain in a well-paid position requiring little or no work whatever.

As we listen to the political rhetoric that fills the airwaves and makes us want to run somewhere to hide, we realize that bald-faced lying has become a commonplace in politics. Tell the people what they want to hear, regardless of the consequences. It’s all about getting the nomination and then winning enough votes to be elected. If those lies result in harm to other people, say people of another religion or skin color, so be it. Consequences be damned! It is possible to check the facts, of course, but very few bother to take the time since if the lie supports the listener’s deep-seated convictions and prejudices it will readily be believed, true or false. And if it doesn’t, we simply stop listening. For example, one could simply search “FactCheck” and discover that the majority of Donald Trump’s claims are a fabrication or are blatantly false. But, then, truth does not enter in. We don’t seem to care much about that any more. Sell the house. Sell the car, Sell the political candidate. Whatever it takes. The end justifies the means.

This, of course, is utter nonsense.


Prognosis Negative

I haven’t seen the latest medical report, but the patient is in a coma and on life support so the prognosis can’t be good. The patient, of course, is the American democratic system and it is very sick if not near death. It waits for a champion on a white horse to rescue it — or perhaps miracle drugs, or a transfusion of new blood. As bad as things are at present they will get much worse if the Republicans have their way — judging by what they say.

In an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Books had a close look at the recent Republican National Convention and he had many astute observations to make. The one that interested me the most was the following:

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe

people are poor because of circumstances beyond their

control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.

We should have seen this coming, of course. When the presumptive Vice Presidential candidate tells us his favorite “philosopher” is Ayn Rand who advocates cut-throat capitalism we should have taken note. This group doesn’t care about people or the planet. There is no talk about the importance of educating the young or taking care of the poor. The latter are simply hoist by their own petard: they are lazy and unmotivated and that’s why they are poor. If they had any gumption they would be wealthy like us. This is not only a twisted, and even shrunken, view of the world, it is also a bit sick.

As Brooks suggests, the truly distressing echo resonating from the Republican rhetoric is the lack of compassion and concern for those who need our help. The chest thumping and braggadocio of the wealthy who honestly believe they made it on their own and everyone else should do and be exactly like them or there is something wrong with them is either delusional or downright stupid. This is especially so when one looks around and sees the talented and gifted people who are struggling to keep their heads above water as against the many stupid and uncaring people with great wealth who seem only to be able to gloat.

There are good people who need help and often the only institution that is in a position to deliver that help is the government, whether we like it or not. We tie the hands of government and reduce the effectiveness of social programs at our own peril: there but for the grace of God goes you or I. Even if people don’t respond to the call for charity and love of our fellow human beings, one would think they would respond to enlightened self-interest. We all benefit from a healthy government rooted in the concept of the common good.

If government “gets out of the way” we all run the risk of going down for the third time. The day of Horatio Alger is past. The day of progressive economic theorizing is past. We need to rein in our greed and self-interest and try to see the broader canvas. We need to develop new economies of sustainability and conservation — in the true sense of this term. And we need to care about one another. If we can’t see these things then the patient is beyond hope. Not even the most miraculous of drugs can save him.

‘Tis (Almost) The Season

In case there was any doubt that the coming elections will be the most expensive (wasteful?) and mind-deadening yet, the spectacle of the campaign already underway in Virginia and Florida sets the record straight. As a recent Yahoo News story tells us, Both states and both media markets are awash in TV ads in a crush noteworthy for its negativity, early start and involvement of outside groups that are likely to spend more on commercials than both the Obama and Romney campaigns. With this in mind, it occurs to me that we need a primer on informal fallacies. Political cant is full of them.😊

I have spoken about the post hoc fallacy before, but it bears repeating. This fallacy is committed when one politician (from either party) claims that his or her opponent is responsible for the mess we are in — whatever the mess of the day happens to be, usually the economic mess. (You see, the politicians have figured out that American voters focus myopically on the economy so they aim their rhetoric in that direction.) None of these people will accept blame for the mess; it’s always the other guy’s fault. The fallacy results from the fact that even though Smith claims that incumbent Jones is responsible for the mess, Jones may not in fact have had anything whatever to do with the mess simply because he’s the incumbent. The mess may have been there for years before Jones ever took office. But his opponent will blame him anyway. There is a mess. Jones is in office. Therefore Jones caused the mess. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. It’s fallacious reasoning.

The second most popular fallacy we will hear repeatedly is the ad hominem fallacy. This is committed when the politician attacks his opponent rather than his opponent’s political position. It’s a personal attack and it may be even more common than the post hoc fallacy. It’s always fun to poke fun at people and the voters respond with applause. It is also called “mud-slinging” and it gets votes. No one wants to vote for a scum bag and if we are told that Jones is a scum bag we won’t vote for Jones. It’s a fallacy because even though Jones is a scum bag his opponent might also be one — as indeed might all politicians. But the fact that Jones might in this case have made a good point or have a reasonable position in spite of his scum-bag status the issue itself is ignored completely. The point here is to direct attention away from the issue or the stand Jones takes on the issue to scum-bag Jones himself who is not worthy of our vote. Obviously,

A third fallacy, which is not quite as common, is called “poisoning the wells” in which we are told that we shouldn’t vote for Jones because he is known to be a socialist. Or a Communist. Or a conservative. Or a liberal. Or a reactionary. Or a radical. The labels aren’t the issue here. What is the issue is the guilt by association. We label the group our opponent is supposedly associated with and, knowing what we think we know about that group (which is often very little, but we know we don’t like it) we refuse to have anything to do with that politician. Thus, we vote for the candidate who convinces us that his or her opponent is “one of them.” That’s poisoning the wells. Nothing that person says can be relied upon; he’s one of them and we know what they’re like — or we think we do.

The reason these ploys are called “fallacies” (and there are many more, believe me) is because they are technically non-sequiturs. That is, the reasons given for the conclusion do not support that conclusion. They not only do not support the conclusion, they are often totally unrelated to the conclusion. But we accept the conclusion anyway, because we find the reasons given persuasive — usually on a “gut level.” On that level, these fallacies are especially powerful. Intellectually they don’t hold water.

Keep your eyes and ears open. You will be hearing these fallacies committed again and again. And they will probably launch many a bright political career, depending on how cleverly they are employed and how easily duped the voters are. While this is happening you may want to make sure your mute on the television is in good working order and “caller ID” is operating on the phone!