The Man Who Never Weeps

“that’s a fucking lie. to say president obama (or past presidents) didn’t call the family members of soldiers KIA – he’s a deranged animal.”

—Alyssa Mastromonaco, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations

I have purposely avoided writing about Tr-mp lately. What more can be said about such a man? Recently someone said to me, “I hate him so much.” But that hate, while understandable, is misdirected.

Tr-mp houses in his head a plethora of pathetic pathologies that compel him to do the things he does. Nothing comes of hating him. The blame for Tr-mp goes to the culture that made him famous despite his failures, to the system that put him in power despite his unfitness, and that keeps him in power because of an unseemly institutional lust in the Republican Party for particular policy goals most members believe they can only achieve with the help of this historically dangerous and tragic figure.

Image result for mcconnell and trumpI watched his performance in front of the cameras yesterday, with the creepy Mitch McConnell by his side. I watched it all, as painful as it was. For almost two weeks Tr-mp has failed to even mention the deaths of four U.S. special forces soldiers in a desert in Niger. These and other U.S. soldiers were apparently part of a larger contingent of Nigerien troops who had met with some local leaders and were later ambushed by an Islamist terrorist group. Details are still unclear as to exactly what happened, but reportedly the mission these troops were on was not well supported. French aircraft rescued them, after flying from bases in Mali, hundreds of miles away. We will certainly find out more as days go by, but as for Tr-mp, we already know enough.

At a press conference yesterday, someone asked Tr-mp about the four soldiers and why he hadn’t spoken about them or why he hadn’t reach out to the families of the fallen. By now you know what happened. Tr-mp, because it comes so naturally to him, lied. He accused President Obama directly, and other presidents indirectly, of not making calls to families who had lost loved ones in service to the country. For this damnable lie, Tr-mp has received justified condemnation, but he’s also received plenty of unjustifiable defense. As always.

We have one of the nation’s worst natural disasters in history going on in Puerto Rico and Tr-mp cares only about himself and his feud with athletes or other trivia. He has been both condemned and defended for his posture toward Puerto Ricans—again, as always. When he attacked war hero John McCain at the beginning of his campaign in 2015, he was both condemned and defended. When he attacked a Gold Star family, same thing. When he admitted to sexual assault on tape, ditto. When he appeared at CIA headquarters, in front of a memorial wall that honors fallen CIA officers, he talked about the size of his inaugural crowd and his war with the press. For that inhumanity he was showered with shame, but he had plenty of people offering him an umbrella.

He recently attacked John McCain again, this time for a vote against a nasty healthcare bill that McCain, a man now ailing from brain cancer, found objectionable. Tr-mp once more was condemned—and defended. Tr-mp has now made good on a threat to put millions in jeopardy of losing their health insurance, a move that was followed by more condemnation—and an indefatigable defense. I could go on and on with the outrageous things he has said about and done to real people, all of it accompanied by necessary and appropriate condemnation and an unnecessary and inappropriate defense.

We are witnessing the behavior of a man, as I have said before, who has no soul. To put it another way, he apparently has no neurological capacity for empathy. He cannot feel, much less bear, the burden of another human being. He knows nothing of honor, of sacrifice. He is a man who cannot weep. You can imagine Tr-mp doing a lot of things, but you can’t imagine him sitting alone in the Oval Office composing a letter to the family of a fallen soldier and shedding a single tear. You just can’t imagine such a normal, human reaction coming from him. And as sad as that is, the saddest part of this deplorable drama we’re living through, the most distressing reality we face in real time, is that a large number of everyday Americans—your Republican neighbors and friends and family members—along with nearly every Republican member of Congress, will move on from this latest outrage, this latest offense to honesty and decency, like yesterday was just another day.

We simply have to come to terms with the fact—those of us who see Tr-mp as the sick, empty man he is—that a large swath of our fellow Americans just don’t give a damn that nearly every day Tr-mp assaults what’s left of the old idea of American exceptionalism, which by now is a corpse that he drags through our national streets, mocking us, mocking our country, and mocking what we used to believe we all shared, if we shared nothing else: our common decency, our democratic values, and our lofty, if not fully realized, ideals.

 

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Nature’s Monsters?

Every tragedy generates questions. After monstrous mass shootings, we wonder if our gun laws are as insane as they appear. After monstrous hurricanes, we wonder if man-made climate change is making the storms worse. After a monstrous presidential election, we wonder if our cultural institutions, and too many of our people, are hopelessly lost.

As important and vital as all those questions are, what happened in Las Vegas last Sunday night, and the mystery surrounding the motive of the killer, has me asking even deeper questions. I am inviting you to explore some possible answers to those questions. This lengthy journey is not for everyone, but it represents something I believe is important for thoughtful people to do: address the hard stuff. In doing so, I do not want to leave the impression that I am minimizing the suffering involved in this tragedy or disrespecting and ignoring the victims of this horrific crime. Obviously, the victims and their loved ones are owed our sympathy and compassion. The following examination, though, is focused on other issues.

I am fully aware that most of you will not read through this piece in its entirety nor watch the lengthy video at the end. We are, after all, living in the age of tweets. But I encourage you to take the time to read and listen. You may not agree in any way with what is said or claimed. We can discuss that in the comment section. But we can’t discuss it intelligently if you don’t invest the time and your thoughtfulness in what follows. I have pondered these issues and the questions they raise for most of my life, beginning with, as a kid, asking my father why it was that random thoughts, thoughts I didn’t like, popped into my head against my will and beyond my control. He had no answers. That phenomenon was then, and remains so today, mysterious to me.

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PART 1: THE WHY

I stayed awake all night as the tragedy in Las Vegas was unfolding on television. When I found out the killer was a 64-year-old affluent white man with no apparent political or religious or even personal motive for killing innocent people, the first thing I thought of was a man named Charles Whitman, another seemingly “ordinary guy” who killed a lot of people. Since Sunday, a lot of people have mentioned Whitman and his role as the first mass-murderer in American television history, the man whose crime gave us SWAT teams.

I thought of him for a different reason.

Whitman was 25 years old in the summer of 1966, when the Marine-trained sharpshooter “decided” to ride an elevator to the top of the University of Texas Tower and use the many weapons he brought with him—all of them packed, along with supplies such as “canned peaches, deodorant, an alarm clock, binoculars, toilet paper, a machete, and sweet rolls,” in an old Marine footlocker that he moved with a two-wheeler—to kill innocent people. Here’s how David Eagleman, writing for The Atlantic in 2011, described what happened:

Front page coverage of UT sniper, Charles Whitman. Aside from standard A1 features like the brief weather forecast and a daily humor feature, the front page of the next day’s San Antonio San Antonio Express was wholly dominated by shooting coverage. The Photo: Digitized Microfilm / Digitized MicrofilmAt the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them…

By the time the police shot him dead, Whitman had killed 13 people and wounded 32 more. The story of his rampage dominated national headlines the next day. And when police went to investigate his home for clues, the story became even stranger: in the early hours of the morning on the day of the shooting, he had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

Now, I was almost 8 years old on August 1, 1966, and have only a vague recollection of that story as it appeared on the evening news—CNN wouldn’t come into existence for another 14 years. But I can guarantee you that plenty of people labeled what Whitman did, just as Tr-mp labeled what the Las Vegas killer did, as “an act of pure evil.”

Evil. Pure. If it were as easy as that.

Just what is evil? Why do we use the word? Do we need the concept of evil to help us live with the mysteries of our existence, the mysteries of human behavior?

I don’t recall hearing anyone refer to the series of hurricanes that have recently brought with them much death and destruction as “evil.” No one, as far as I can tell, said that what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico and elsewhere was “an act of pure evil.” Why is that? Maria has killed more people than the murderer in Las Vegas killed. Why is one killer seen as evil and the other not?

It seems obvious that the reason we put what hurricanes do in a different context than what human beings do is because storms are seen as natural events that have no intentionality. We know there is no “Maria,” in the sense of a personality making willful decisions to target innocent islanders in the Atlantic. Hurricanes are complex low-pressure tropical weather systems fueled by the evaporation of warm ocean water and “steered” by environmental conditions, such as prevailing winds. They begin life as mere tropical disturbances that may or may not become “monsters” that kill and destroy. Why some do and some don’t is a matter of “organization,” the process of which is not completely understood.

People, on the other hand, are almost universally viewed as moral actors. That seems as obvious to us as the idea that hurricanes don’t have intentions. Human beings, we believe, have free will, and consequently their actions can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, or somewhere in between. In the case of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower killer, his actions, like the actions of the Vegas killer, clearly appear to most people as “pure evil.” As noted, Whitman stabbed both his devoutly religious mother and his wife in the heart with a hunting knife before he went to the Austin campus and began his killing spree there, including shooting that pregnant student in the stomach, her boyfriend in the neck, and another student in the mouth. Here is what he wrote in a note he left at his murdered mother’s apartment:

To whom it may concern,

I have just taken my mother’s life. I am very upset over having done it. However I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now. And if there is no life after, I have relieved her of her suffering here on earth. The intense hatred I feel for my father is beyond description. My mother gave that man the 25 best years of her life and because she finally took enough of his beatings, humiliation and degradation and tribulations that I am sure no one but she and he will ever know—to leave him. He has chosen to treat her like a slut that you would bed down with, accept her favors and then throw a pitance [sic] in return.

I am truly sorry that this is the only way I could see to relieve her sufferings but I think it was best.

Let there be no doubt in your mind I loved that woman with all my heart.

If there exists a God let him understand my actions and judge accordingly.

Charles J. Whitman

He apparently wrote that note, on a legal pad, after he had moved his mother—whom he likely strangled and hit in the head with something heavy before he stabbed her—into a sleeping position on her twin bed, and after he washed his hands and knife. He placed the note on her body and covered her up with a bedspread. He left her apartment around 2 A.M. and headed home, home to kill his sleeping wife with the same hunting knife, plunging it into her chest multiple times. At that crime scene he also left a note—most of which he had typed the evening before—one that he finished in his own handwriting after the murder. Here is the entire note, beginning with the typed portion:

I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks. In March when my parents made a physical break I noticed a great deal of stress. I consulted a Dr. Cochrum at the University Health Center and asked him to recommend someone that I could consult with about some psychiatric disorders I felt I had. I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had some tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company. I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationaly [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for doing this. I don’t know whether it is selfishness, or if I don’t want her to have to face the embrassment [sic] my actions would surely cause her. AT this time, though, the prominent reason in my mind is that I truly do not consider this world worth living in, and am prepared to die, and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it. I intend to kill her as painlessly as possible.

Similar reasons provoked me to take my mother’s life also. I don’t think the poor woman has ever enjoyed life as she is entitled to. She was a simple young woman who married a very possessive and dominating man. All my life as a boy until I ran away from home to join the Marine Corps [at this point, Whitman was “interrupted” by “friends,” which he noted in handwriting in the margin; the rest of the note was handwritten after he murdered his wife] I was a witness to her being beat at least one [sic] a month. Then when she took enough my father wanted to fight to keep her below her usual standard of living.

I imagine it appears that I bruttaly [sic] kill [sic] both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job.

Years before the killing began, Whitman kept a diary. After he murdered his wife, he took the time to go through some of the old diary entries before he left his home to prepare for the killing to come later that day at the University of Texas. One such entry was dated February 23, 1964, and its subject was mostly about how much he loved and valued his soon-to-be wife (they married in August of 1964). Using the same pen that he used to finish his explanation for brutally killing his mother and his wife, he jotted just above the entry:

I still mean it. CJW 8-1-66

That February, 1964, entry had ended with this:

My Darling Kathleen, I love you very much. That statement is so simple but maybe someday I’ll be able to convince you of all the emotions and feelings that it encases. My wife, you are wonderful.

Whitman, again, just after he stabbed his wife to death and covered her bloody body, took the time to comment on that diary entry:

Only time has shown me how right I was in these thoughts over 2-1/2 years ago. My wife was a true person. CJW

This former Eagle Scout—at age 12 he was nationally recognized as the youngest Eagle Scout in the world—also took the time just after murdering his mother and wife to write brief notes to his brother Johnnie and his brother Pat. To Johnnie he wrote:

Kathy and I enjoyed your visit. I am terribly sorry to have let you down. Please try to do better than I have. It won’t be hard. John, Mom loved you very much.

Your brother, Charlie.

To Pat he wrote:

You are so wrong about Mom. Maybe some day you will understand why she left Daddy. Pat, Mom didn’t have any desire to harm Daddy whatsoever. She just wanted what she had worked for. She really needed that $40.00. Thanks for sending it. She’ll never know about that Grandmother or not.

Charlie

Perhaps now is a good time to say a little more about Charles Whitman and what is generally known about his life, since the point here is to try to understand how a human being could commit such murderous acts, acts that people call pure evil.

Whitman first attended the University of Texas on a Marine scholarship, majoring in architectural engineering. His IQ was reportedly above 130. He played the piano, some say “beautifully.” He took amphetamines. He had a bad temper. He was very comfortable with guns. He was apparently a domestic abuser “who expected too much from” his wife, according to a close friend of his. That friend also said Whitman was a “perfectionist,” who “would wipe his hand behind pictures hanging on the wall looking for dust.” The same friend told police that Whitman “had turned atheistic in his belief,” despite the fact that he had attended Catholic parochial schools most of his life. He also “talked frequently about his father” and how much he “hated him.” His father, who ran a successful plumbing business in Florida, was allegedly “very strict and domineering and ran the household with an iron hand.” In the spring of 1966, Whitman went to Florida to bring is mother to Texas, after she reported to him that there were “family problems.” And, as already mentioned by Whitman himself, he suspected something was wrong with him.

Whitman liked to make lists. One such list he titled, THOUGHTS TO START THE DAY.Here are the items on that typed list:

READ AND THINK ABOUT, EVERY DAY

STOP procrastinating (Grasp the nettle)
CONTROL your anger (Don’t let it prove you a fool)
SMILE–Its contagious
DON’T be belligerent
STOP cursing, improve your vocabulary
APPROACH a pot of gold with exceptional caution (look it over – twice)
PAY that compliment
LISTEN more than you speak, THINK before you speak
CONTROL your passion; DON’T LET IT lead YOU — Don’t let desire make you regret your present actions later (Remember the lad and the man)
If you want to be better than average, YOU HAVE TO WORK MUCH HARDER THAN THE AVERAGE
NEVER FORGET; when the going gets rough, the ROUGH get going!!!!!

YESTERDAY IS NOT MINE TO RECOVER
BUT TOMORROW IS MINE TO WIN OR TO
LOSE.  I AM RESOLVED THAT I SHALL 
WIN THE TOMORROW BEFORE ME!!!

Attached to that list was another list, handwritten:

Whitman
1. Grow up (think-don’t be so ready with an excuse)
2. Conduct with superiors (time and place for everything)
3. Know your status and position and conduct yourself accordingly.
4. Courtesy (Generally show respect for seniors but lets personal feeling towd. indiv. show.)
5. Organize yourself and your work so that the insignificant is not a major crisis.
6. When time permits exhaust all effort to find answers before asking the simplest of questions.

Just below that list, was another typed list referencing his wife:

GOOD POINTS TO REMEMBER WITH KATHY
1. Don’t nag.
2. Don’t try to make your partner over.
3. Don’t criticize.
4. Give honest appreciation.
5. Pay little attentions.
6. Be courteous.
7. BE GENTLE.

On the day of the murders, Whitman wrote at the top of the first list the following:

8-1-66whitman's list
I never could quite make it.
These thoughts are too much for me.
CJW

Now, what do we make of all this? What do we make of someone, widely seen as an “all-American boy,” who goes to the trouble of trying to improve himself by such measures and then, with much planning and forethought, brutally murders his mother and wife and fourteen others (one of those shot from the Tower died in 2001 and the death was ruled a homicide connected to Whitman) on a summer day on a college campus in Texas? Why did he commit such a monstrous act? Was he a monster?

Remember that Whitman had asked in his “suicide” note that an autopsy be performed on him. And I believe that Texas law, under the circumstances, required one. So, an autopsy was done. The Atlantic’s David Eagleman explains:

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants. In humans, activity in the amygdala increases when people are shown threatening faces, are put into frightening situations, or experience social phobias. Whitman’s intuition about himself—that something in his brain was changing his behavior—was spot-on.

So, can we blame a brain tumor, affecting the amygdala, for Whitman’s actions? Or was it some combination of the tumor and genes and environment? Or was he simply an evil man, with an evil soul, who made evil choices?

As Eagleman points out, there are many cases in which brain tumors are suspected to be major contributing factors to psychopathic criminal behavior. But not all psychopaths are violent criminals and not all psychopathy is caused by brain tumors (and, to be clear, there is a difference between psychopaths and psychotics, which you can learn here).

To move away from the issue of tumors altering feelings and behavior, there are other brain impairments that are connected to psychopathy.  A neuroscientist named James Fallon has been studying the brains of psychopaths for two decades. Four years ago he published a book, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.” Here’s how the stunning revelation in the book was described:

While researching serial killers, he uncovered a pattern in their brain scans that helped explain their cold and violent behavior. Astonishingly, his own scan matched that pattern. And a few months later he learned that he was descended from a long line of murderers.

Those close to Fallon had known that he wasn’t “normal.” Here’s how Tanya Lewis of Business Insider told the story:

When Fallon saw that his own scan fit the pattern of brain activity he had found in the psychopaths, he started to question his theory. He thought to himself, “I’m okay, I’m not a bad guy.”

But when he went home and told his wife what had happened — how his brain resembled that of a psychopath, at least according to his theory — she reacted very strangely.

It wasn’t that surprising, she said.

But it wasn’t just his wife who reacted this way. Friends and colleagues told him the same thing, that he was “kind of not there emotionally,” Fallon recalls. Even his daughter thought so — as a young child, she painted her dad as a “dark figure.” Fallon’s psychiatrist friends described things he had done in the past that they said showed a profound lack of empathy (one of the telltale signs of psychopathic tendencies), like skipping a friend’s funeral because he thought it might be boring. His friends and family agreed. “I realized people had been telling me something for years, I just didn’t put it together,” Fallon said.

It’s important to keep in mind that scientists are still researching psychopathology and they don’t have all the answers yet. But they think that people like Fallon have a connection with the world that’s very different from others.

According to some of this research, psychopaths understand when there are people in need or in pain, but they don’t feel it viscerally the way most people do. As Fallon put it, “I don’t get the interpersonal warm and fuzzies.”

So Fallon started looking to his genetics for answers. It turns out he has a gene that’s been linked, in several studies, with an increased risk of violent and aggressive behavior.

An ABC News report continues Fallon’s story:

Two of his distant relatives were notorious: One, Lizzie Borden, was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with a hatchet in 1892. Another, Thomas Cornell, was the first in the American colonies hanged for killing his mother in 1672.

Fallon said he escaped the same fate because of the interplay between nature and nurture. He was raised in a loving family. Still, he had some other telltale signs, such as panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and social anxieties.

“Looking at my genetics, I had lethal combination, but I just had the happiest childhood growing up,” he said. Fallon’s mother had four miscarriages before his birth and, as a result, he said he was, “treated well because they didn’t think I would be born.”

“There were dark periods I went through, but they didn’t bring me to a psychiatrist, but they told my sisters and teachers to watch out for me,” he said. “My mother instinctively knew there was a problem.”

Conscience and a sense of morality and impulse control lie in the limbic system and in the orbital cortex in the brain, according to Fallon.

“They connect and inhibit each other not unlike the super-ego controlling the id,” he said. “It’s the interface between the intellectual mind and the emotions attending to them.”

Fallon’s brain scans show low activity in both regions of the brain.

“No behavior is really evil or bad — it’s all contextual,” he said. “There is a time for sex and a time for killing, when someone attacks the family. But it’s done in context. The orbital cortex adjudicates the idea of morality and interacts with the amygdala’s drive to eat, drink and screw. There would be mayhem if it didn’t exist.”

As a neuroscientist, Fallon said he always believed humans were ruled solely by their genes and not their environment in the nature versus nurture debate.

“I never took it seriously,” he said. “I was the poster boy for genes causing everything. But I had to eat crow and say I was wrong.”

I consider all these insights to be the most important scientific discoveries of our time. And the research continues. A recent Harvard study concluded:

Psychopaths’ brains are wired in a way that leads them to over-value immediate rewards and neglect the future consequences of potentially dangerous or immoral actions.

The senior author of that study, Josh Buckholtz, an Associate Professor of Psychology, said (emphasis mine):

For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that’s why they do all these terrible things. But what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don’t have, it’s the choices they make. Psychopaths commit an astonishing amount of crime, and this crime is both devastating to victims and astronomically costly to society as a whole.

And even though psychopaths are often portrayed as cold-blooded, almost alien predators, we have been showing that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of these bad choices. Because it’s the choices of psychopaths that cause so much trouble, we’ve been trying to understand what goes on in their brains when the make decisions that involve trade-offs between the costs and benefits of action. In this most recent paper…we are able to look at brain-based measures of reward and value and the communication between different brain regions that are involved in decision making.

“Trying to understand what goes on in their brains.” That’s what scientists do. That’s what all of us should do. And while there is so much more to learn, and while some of the tentative conclusions may turn out to be mistaken, the overwhelming evidence points to the connection between the physical brain and psychopathy, a connection that only gets more complicated as we throw genetics and environment in the mix. The ScienceDaily article featuring that Harvard study elaborates on the physiology:

What they found, Buckholtz said, was people who scored high for psychopathy showed greater activity in a region called the ventral striatum — known to be involved in evaluating the subjective reward — for the more immediate choice.

“So the more psychopathic a person is, the greater the magnitude of that striatal response,” Buckholtz said. “That suggests that the way they are calculating the value rewards is dysregulated — they may over-represent the value of immediate reward.”

Buckholtz zeroed in on what appears to be the culprit. And I include his lengthy explanation here, even if we laymen aren’t familiar with the terminology, merely to emphasize that we are talking about something physically wrong with the brain:

“We mapped the connections between the ventral striatum and other regions known to be involved in decision-making, specifically regions of the prefrontal cortex known to regulate striatal response,” he said. “When we did that, we found that connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy.”

That lack of connection is important, Buckholtz said, because this portion of the prefrontal cortex role is thought to be important for ‘mental time-travel’ — envisioning the future consequences of actions. There is increasing evidence that prefrontal cortex uses the outcome of this process to change how strongly the striatum responds to rewards. With that prefrontal modulating influence weakened, the value of the more immediate choice may become dramatically over-represented.

“The striatum assigns values to different actions without much temporal context” he said. “We need the prefrontal cortex to make prospective judgements how an action will affect us in the future — if I do this, then this bad thing will happen. The way we think of it is if you break that connection in anyone, they’re going to start making bad choices because they won’t have the information that would otherwise guide their decision-making to more adaptive ends.”

The effect was so pronounced, Buckholtz said, that researchers were able to use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to accurately predict how many times inmates had been convicted of crimes.

If you have read this far, you may or may not be ready for what Dr. Buckholtz says next:

Ultimately, Buckholtz said, his goal is to erase the popular image of psychopaths as incomprehensible, cold-blooded monsters and see them for what they are — everyday humans whose brains are simply wired differently.

“They’re not aliens, they’re people who make bad decisions,” he said. “The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers. If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren’t inhuman, they’re exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction.”

That may not be what most of us want to hear after what happened in Las Vegas. And I understand the intense anger directed at the killer. If he had murdered someone dear to me, I would be out of my mind with anger. But consider that the man who killed at least 58 concert-goers in Nevada had a father who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for years after escaping from a federal prison in Texas, where he was serving time for bank robbery. Just before that, the father tried to escape from a jail in, of all places, Las Vegas, where, according to the FBI, he attempted to run down an agent with his car. The FBI also noted at the time (1969) that the father had been “diagnosed as being psychopathic.” That’s the father. As for the son who would go on to become a killer, one writer noted,

It seems he was 8 when his father was convicted of armed robbery and sent to prison; 15 when the old man escaped and went on the lam; and 26 when he was re-apprehended.

No one knows what, if any, effect those experiences had on the Las Vegas killer. It is hard to imagine they wouldn’t affect him in some way, even if they didn’t contribute to his crimes. And no one, at this point, knows if the killer had any brain impairments. His brother, who is naturally upset and bewildered by all of what happened, said recently:

I hope to hell they find when they do the autopsy that there’s a tumor in his head or something because if they don’t we’re all in trouble. No one wants to hear this but I’m as touched by this.. my brother is dead who wasn’t this guy that did this. He’s dead… I liked my brother, he was a good guy. This is a horror story in every possible way.

Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo recently referred to the killer as “disturbed and dangerous,” which is a much more informative, if less satisfying, description than calling him “evil.” The sheriff also said that the killer “spent decades acquiring weapons and ammo and living a secret life, much of which will never be fully understood.” Perhaps Sheriff Lombardo is right. Perhaps the killer’s life, a life that led to such an unimaginable act of cowardly violence, will never be fully understood. After all, the life of Charles Whitman isn’t fully understood after all these years. And we must admit that there are plenty of people who have awful parents, troubled childhoods, and even damaged brains who don’t end up as record-setting killers. But there are scientists out there trying to understand psychopaths, especially those who turn to violence. And the closer we get to understanding them, the better off we all will be.

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PART 2: THE WILL

For years now, I have been wrestling with the issue of whether human beings have genuine free will. Certainly we have the sense that we are making free choices. And certainly the idea that we are all free moral agents is socially useful, even if it isn’t strictly true. No one can argue otherwise. But do we really have free will? Is it merely an illusion? And why does it matter whether we have it or don’t?

As for me, like many others, including scientists and philosophers, I have settled on the conclusion that we don’t have free will. We are not free moral agents. Whether we have what some call a soul, which, after our physical bodies die, lives in eternal bliss or torment, is not something that I or science can speak to. But science can, and does for many people, speak to the idea that what we experience as “our will” is just our brain fooling us. Here’s the way Sam Harris puts it:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Free will is actually more than illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

Now, that may seem strange to some people unfamiliar with the progress of neuroscience. And it may seem strange to categorically claim that none of us is directly responsible for what we do. But if you watch the video below, and carefully follow the argument, you will see the logical basis both for the illusion claim and how to deal with the issue of responsibility that appears problematic if that claim is true. No matter whether our choices are “determined by prior causes” or the “product of chance,” we are not morally responsible for the acts done at the behest of our illusory will, but—and this cannot be missed or misunderstood—we have to be held responsible for them in a social context. No one can have a get-out-of-jail-free card when unspeakable crimes are perpetrated. Until we solve, through science, the problem of how to fix defective brains or mitigate dangerous brain states, we have to quarantine the violent psychopaths. If they can be treated and made well, we should do that. If they can’t, we should keep searching for effective treatments—even as we necessarily isolate them.

I could write even more about the issue of free will. I could cite many learned people who don’t believe in its reality. But the video below does the best job I have seen of explaining the issues involved. If you have read to this point, obviously you are interested in this topic. I ask you to invest more time—with someone much more knowledgeable about the brain science and its implications (including the philosophical fatalism that denying free will suggests) than I could ever be—and then we can have a layman’s discussion in the comments section:

The Last And Best Word On Tr-mp’s Racist War On Black NFL Players

Nick Wright, of Fox Sports, has had no problem in the past talking beyond sports. Here is his five-minute take on Tr-mp’s racist rants against protests by black NFL players:

Theocracy And The Finger Of God

“And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”

—Exodus 31:18

“I’m not running for this position. I’m running to serve God and his will.”

—Judge Roy Moore

Today Republican voters in Alabama will quite likely choose Roy Moore, a twenty-four carat, lawbreaking theocrat, to be their nominee to replace Jeff Sessions in the U.S Senate. And chances are, despite Democrats’ hopefulness, Roy Moore, a twenty-four carat, lawbreaking theocrat, will be Alabama’s next senator, after the December 12th general election.

Moore is infamous for a couple of law-ignoring moments. After he installed a two and one-half ton granite Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse in 2001 (he was chief justice of the state supreme court at the time), a federal judge ordered him to remove it. He refused. He then got canned by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary. But he came back. He managed to get himself re-elected in 2012 as, again, chief justice of the Image result for roy moore and gunstate supreme court. In 2016, this lawbreaker decided it didn’t matter that his state’s ban on same-sex marriage was overturned by a federal judge. He ordered the probate judges in Alabama to keep enforcing the bogus law. He got suspended and eventually quit, after it became clear officials weren’t going to participate in his personally-enforced theocracy. (Although, interestingly and inexplicably there are still eight judges in Alabama who are honoring Moore’s dictum by simply not issuing anyone a marriage license.)

And, now the gun-toting zealot is back yet again.

Just the possibility that Roy Moore could sit in the Senate here in the 21st century tells us at least two things. One, it tells us Alabama is a very strange place. But we kind of knew that already. Two, though, it tells us that a large number of American Christians aren’t that far removed from Islamist theocrats all over the world, in terms of how much they despise genuine secularism. And make no mistake about it, we were designed to be a secular nation. Our Constitution is a secular document. It was not handed down by God, but handed down by some entity called “We the People.” And you won’t find any God-invoking language in the document. But, if it is God-invoking language you are after, you can find it in the Preamble to the Confederate Constitution. Wikipedia provides a handy comparison between the original and its treacherous imitator:

  • The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”[4]
  • The Preamble to the Confederate Constitution: “We, the people of the Confederate States, each state acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity — invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God — do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.”[1]

Even though the traitors invoked Almighty God’s “favor and guidance,” that didn’t work out too well (see: Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865, for evidence of that). But despite that massive failure, the idea—the idea that this is God’s country and not our own—still persists. Jeff Stein, of Vox, recently wrote a profile of Moore. Stein got to the heart of the matter:

Moore’s defense in the Ten Commandments case is instructive. One conservative defense of the tablets could be that local courts should have the freedom to erect whatever monuments they want. This was not Moore’s argument. Instead, he said that the Ten Commandments should stay because they really are divine, and therefore more important than human law.

“The Ten Commandments are not only a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, as the Supreme Court stated in Stone v Graham,” he writes. “They are God’s revealed, divine law and the basis on which our morality depends.”

Few Christians, of course, can cite or name most of the supposedly vital commandments (which are presented in different versions in the Old Testament). Stephen Colbert famously and hilariously, more than ten years ago, revealed the hypocrisy of a Georgia congressman named Lynn Westmoreland (also noted for referring to the Obamas as “uppity”) and by extension the hypocrisy of most theocracy-minded Christians:

COLBERT: You co-sponsored a bill requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

REP. WESTMORELAND: Uh-huh.

COLBERT: Why was that important to you?

REP. WESTMORELAND: Well, the Ten Commandments is not a bad thing, uh, for people to understand and to respect.

COLBERT: I’m with you.

REP. WESTMORELAND: Where better place could you have something like that than a judicial building, or in a court house?

COLBERT: That is a good question. Can you think of any better building to put the Ten Commandments in than in a public building?

REP. WESTMORELAND: No. I think if we were totally without ’em we may lose a sense of our direction.

COLBERT: What are the Ten Commandments?

REP. WESTMORELAND: What are all of ’em?

COLBERT: Uh-huh.

REP. WESTMORELAND: You want me to name ’em all?

COLBERT: Yes. Please.

REP. WESTMORELAND: Umm. Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Uhhh, I can’t name ’em all.

Funny stuff.

In any case, Sam Harris said of the Commandments (in Letter to a Christian Nation):

They are, after all, the only passages in the Bible so profound that the creator of the universe felt the need to physically write them himself — and in stone. As such, one would expect these to be the greatest lines ever written, on any subject, in any language.

Well, are they the greatest lines ever written? Let’s consider the second of the commandments (I chose Exodus 20:4):

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

Think about the absurdity of that for a moment. The alleged creator of the cosmos, omnipotent and omniscient, allegedly used his own finger to etch out that silly command, rather than publish some insight into, say, what causes many preventable diseases among his made-in-his-image creatures (we human beings finally began to figure that out in the middle of the 19th century, by the way). And consider the secondary absurdity that resulted from that ridiculously trivial commandment. Here is a passage from Wikipedia that demonstrates some of it:

In 726 Emperor Leo III ordered all images removed from all churches; in 730 a council forbade veneration of images, citing the Second Commandment; in 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council reversed the preceding rulings, condemning iconoclasm and sanctioning the veneration of images; in 815 Leo V called yet another council, which reinstated iconoclasm; in 843 Empress Theodora again reinstated veneration of icons.[114] This mostly settled the matter until the Protestant Reformation, when John Calvin declared that the ruling of the Seventh Ecumenical Council “emanated from Satan”.[114] Protestant iconoclasts at this time destroyed statues, pictures, stained glass, and artistic masterpieces.[114]

All of that from essentially nothing.

There are more absurdities in the Ten Commandments, but Sam Harris deserves the last word on the last one, number 10 (don’t covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, ox, ass, or anything else):

…what are we to make of the fact that, in bringing his treatise to a close, the creator of the universe could think of no human concerns more pressing and durable than the coveting of servants and livestock?

And what are we to make of the fact that a man who may become a member of the United States Senate can think of “no human concerns more pressing and durable” than pushing Iron Age dictates upon the nation and placing them above its man-made laws? As David Dinielli of the Southern Poverty Law Center put it, Roy Moore’s ideology “would allow those who think they know the unknowable and the mystic to impose their beliefs on everyone else.”

And unless a man-made miracle happens in Alabama either today or in December, we will have to deal nationally with a U.S. Senator who has a history of imposing his knowledge of the unknowable on his fellow citizens.

 

Tweet Home, Alabama

 Published 9/25/2017 @ 6:44pm

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where about 3 1/2 million Americans live, was assaulted by Hurricane Maria and has been in severe distress. CNN reported it this way today:

Hurricane Maria whipped Puerto Rico with Irma-level winds, drenched the island with Harvey-level flooding, crippled communications, decimated buildings and damaged a dam that puts downstream residents at risk of catastrophe.

Yet help has been slow to come, officials and residents argue.”This is a game changer,” Governor Ricardo Rosselló told CNN Monday. “We need to prevent a humanitarian crisis occurring in America.”

Many believe the humanitarian crisis is well underway, as the island has turned dark due to the loss of electricity. Many also believe the Tr-mp administration, and Congress, are moving too slowly to confront the crisis. One of those many is Hillary Clinton, who tweeted:

President Tr-mp, Sec. Mattis, and DOD should send the Navy, including the USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico now. These are American citizens.

Another critic of Tr-mp’s response is Clinton’s former spokesman, Brian Fallon, who tweeted today:

Trump’s racist neglect of Puerto Rico is threatening lives. It is time to start caring about the crisis there.

As for Tr-mp, he’s been busy, rallying and tweeting. But not about Puerto Rico. As we all know, he has more important things on his mind: uppity blacks “disrespecting” the flag by daring to take seriously what it stands, or is supposed to stand, for. Tr-mp tried to sell his racist gobshite in Alabama, where racism, judging by the rally-goers’ reaction to his “sons of bitches” tantrum, is still a valuable commodity.

Puerto RicoI suggested on Twitter that if Puerto Ricans want immediate help, they should rename their island “Alabama.” Maybe borrow a southern dialect when they beg Washington Republicans for help. Perhaps wear a Tr-mp trucker hat and refer to themselves as part of the “white working class” when they post pleas on Facebook. Whatever it takes.

The truth is that the disaster in Puerto Rico just hasn’t received, at least up until now, the attention it would have received if it had happened in, say, Alabama. If those Puerto Ricans were part of the white working class, a subject of much press coverage for months and months, they’d be bathing in clean water by now. And if you think that a big part of the reason they are not is because the Americans in Puerto Rico have something in common with the athletes in the NFL and NBA that Tr-mp is so preoccupied with, you are onto something. Tr-mp is, most clearly, a racist. In fact, his racial identity, and the way he used it during the campaign, more than anything else explains why he is where he is.

Ta-Nehisi Coates began his latest thought-provoking article (“The First White President“) with this sentence:

It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Tr-mp: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.

The rest of that fantastic piece demonstrates why such a statement is insufficient. Read it, if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed. Some of what Coates has said I have tried to say for eight years now. But I can’t say it like this:

For Tr-mp, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Tr-mp has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Tr-mp arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Tr-mp truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Tr-mp is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.

Coates rightfully complains about those “theoreticians”—like libertarian Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve—who believe Tr-mp’s rise is the fault of liberals who despised and condescended to “the white working class.” If you have read any of the post-election analysis, which is still going on, you have no doubt heard this point made. Even some liberals, like Anthony Bourdain, have fallen for that nonsense. Coates quotes him:

The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we’re seeing now.

Well, let’s see. Is that what liberals, whether “Eastern” or anywhere else in America, do? And even if we do, is there some truth in it? You tell me, after you read a piece published recently (“For those in the Party of Tr-mp, the Republicans—not the president—are to blame“) by Jenna Johnson, a reporter for the Washington Post. She interviewed Tr-mp voters in a small town (population: 8,461) in Granville County, North Carolina, a place she described as a long-time “Democratic stronghold” that “was one of six rural counties in North Carolina that flipped from voting twice for Barack Obama to voting for Trump last year.” (Tr-mp won by less than 700 votes.) Johnson began her piece this way:

During one of their usual morning gatherings at the Bojangles’ restaurant in this rural town near the Virginia border, a group of retirees from a local Baptist church shook their heads at the failure of Washington to repeal Obamacare, lower the national debt, build a wall along the southern border, kick people off welfare or get anything else accomplished.

Should we call these folks “ridiculous” for desiring to build Tr-mp’s ridiculous wall or to kick people off welfare? Or should we try to sympathetically address their “white working-class” mentality, which they undoubtedly carried into retirement?  How about this from the article:

“I think he’s an idiot, but I voted for him,” another church member chimed in, as others laughed and a woman sitting across from him countered with: “As opposed to what was in there before?”

Should liberals dare to call out this brand of stupidity? Should we be afraid to say critical things about someone who proudly admitted they voted for a candidate they considered “an idiot”? More than that, should we back away from saying harsh things about someone who is dumb enough to suggest Tr-mp is not as much of an idiot as Obama was? Huh?

How about this:

Many of the church members gathered at Bojangles’ last week pointed to the president’s Christian faith, saying he brought the Bible and prayer back into the White House. Even though Trump rarely attends church himself, he frequently talked about religion on the campaign trail, promising that with him in the White House, Christians would once again feel free to openly say “Merry Christmas.”

“President Trump has talked more about Christian values than any of the last two or three presidents that we’ve had,” said Wayne Overton, 79, who is retired from the Postal Service and now raises cows on a farm a few miles outside of town and tours the country in a motor home. “And I admire him for picking the vice president that he picked. If something happened, our country would be in good hands.”

I don’t care what Charles Murray thinks. I don’t care what Anthony Bourdain thinks. I don’t care what anyone thinks, if they think this kind of ignorance and irrationality and thoughtlessness shouldn’t be addressed forcefully just because it exited the lips of white people, working or retired, in North Carolina or Alabama or anywhere else white folks think they are an oppressed people. These white “Christians” are rubes and their views deserve contempt. And those who think the election of Tr-mp had very little to do with racism are part of the problem and deserve, if not contempt, at least fierce criticism. And those who argue, as Tr-mp’s press secretary laughingly tried to do today, that his remarks in Alabama about athlete-protesters—who all happened to be black—have nothing to do with race, they are either liars or don’t understand the country in which they live.

After charging liberals with some of the same sins as right-wingers, Coates quotes Bernie Sanders:

Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and just deplorable folks. I don’t agree.

Coates responded to this perfectly:

This is not exculpatory. Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.

You see, those white church folks in Granville County, North Carolina, or those rally cultists in Huntsville, Alabama, last Friday night may or may not be closet white supremacists themselves, but they put all of us in the hands of a man who without a doubt had no trouble sending the message of white supremacy during the campaign and who, also undoubtedly, sits in the White’s House because of that strategy. Coates notes how even Barack Obama underestimated Tr-mpism, underestimated “the power of whiteness.” He puts it in a way I can’t:

Trump, more than any other politician, understood…the great power in not being a nigger.

That’s what Tr-mp was doing in Alabama. That’s what he was doing by trashing black NFL players who have been solemnly kneeling during the national anthem. That’s what he was doing by disingenuously disinviting Steph Curry, NBA champion, from a visit to the White’s House (Curry had already said he wasn’t going). Tr-mp was exercising, in front of people who well understood what he was doing, the “great power in not being a nigger.”

It will surely come to pass that Congress will offer some substantial relief help to Puerto Rico. And it will surely come to pass that Tr-mp will visit the islanders and photo-op his way from place to place. But that rally in Huntsville on Friday, and his subsequent tweets over the weekend, demonstrate where his heart is and has always been.

And it is up to us, those of us who have seen this backlash against Obama coming, to call out all of those who prioritize the “white working class” and refuse to admit the obvious: Tr-mp is using his whiteness, as orange-tinted as it is, as a tool to keep himself in power, to keep himself where, if the ideals of America still matter, he most certainly doesn’t belong.

No, The Republican Party Is Not Splitting In Two

Ezra Klein wrote a short piece today—after a week of Tr-mp receiving some undeserved praise for his embarrassing conduct at the United Nations—that simply points out what everyone in the pundit-dominated media should, but doesn’t, know:

It’s become a joke on politics Twitter that Trump’s pivot is always around the corner, that the media can’t stop announcing that this is the moment Trump finally became president. But there will be no pivot. There will be no moment Trump suddenly and permanently grows into the job.

Most of us know this, at least those of us who don’t play the game of pretending that Kelly or McMaster or Mattis can transform an ignorant and disturbed clown into a serviceable chief executive of the country. Not gonna happen. But the media game goes on.

Another media game going on right now is an attempt to separate the Republican “establishment” from the Tr-mp cult, which pundits universally call his “base.” While media commentators have long tried to divide the GOP into those who think Tr-mp is an Orange Jesus and those who are allegedly just tolerating the Apricot Anti-Christ for “agenda” purposes, the job began in earnest recently when Tr-mp made a “deal” with “Nancy” and “Chuck” over DACA—a deal not worth the paper it wasn’t written on. Today, NBC News, through its “First Read” publication (authored by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Carrie Dann), kept the game going with this:

How Donald Trump Is Splitting the Republican Party in Two

The article began with a confident lede:

We now have data to prove that today’s Republican Party is split in two — between a Trump Party and your more traditional GOP.

My first reaction was: horseshit. We hear such talk all the time. We hear how there are really two GOPs. We hear talk of a Tr-mp versus Ryan-McConnell dynamic. We hear how Tr-mp despises those “establishment” leaders and how they don’t much like him either. Again: horseshit. Even if that were true, it doesn’t mean a damn thing. In politics, especially Republican politics dominated by white men, it doesn’t matter if you like the white guy you’re dealing with, so long as he will do your dealing. The real dynamic that means something in this drama is this: for Tr-mp, it is whether the GOP leaders in Congress can give him something—anything—he can sell to his rally cultists as a Big Win; for the GOP “establishment” it is whether Tr-mp will sign regressive legislation like gutting Medicaid and giving tax cuts to bazillionaires.

The truth in all this is that there really is very little practical difference between those who self-identify to pollsters as “Tr-mp supporters” and those who identify as “Party supporters.” The latest poll, upon which the article above was based, used the distinction:

This week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked this question to Republican voters: Do you consider yourself to be more a supporter of Tr-mp or a supporter of the Republican Party? Fifty-eight percent of them answered Tr-mp, and 38 percent said the GOP.

The Tr-mp supporters are more likely to hail from rural areas and to be men, while Republican Party supporters are more likely to be women and residents of the suburbs. And the differences between them — on their views of GOP leaders, immigration and race — are fascinating.

Get that? First, almost six in ten Republican voters identify as Tr-mpers. Less than four in ten identify with the party itself. But let’s look at the “fascinating” results. Exactly how fascinating are they? Well, here’s the first result presented:

_________________________________________
Approve of Tr-mp’s job performance
Tr-mp supporters: 99 percent

Party supporters: 84 percent
__________________________________________

You tell me just how “fascinating” it is that almost all Tr-mp cultists support their cult leader? Who didn’t know that? But also tell me how fascinating it is, in terms of an alleged split in the party, that 84% of Image result for trump is the republican partysupposedly establishment “Party supporters” also support Tr-mp? That’s not much difference. Yet NBC pundits tried to make that a stunning difference, so much so that, remember, the title of this article was “How Donald Trump Is Splitting the Republican Party in Two.” Is a 99 and 84 Tr-mp approval rating result evidence of a split between the cultists and the establishment? Especially of a split in two? Huh? Of course not. But the evidence provided by their own poll was shaped to fit the narrative of the writers.

Although there are more significant differences between Tr-mp voters and GOP establishment types on some of the other issues, on the only issue that matters, whether Tr-mp is performing well, the two groups are almost in complete agreement. And so long as Republican leaders in Congress look at these polls showing such support—among all Republicans—for Tr-mp, they will be afraid to act against him—even if Robert Mueller, bless his heart, gets the goods on him. Again, fear of those who approve of Tr-mp is all that matters.

I know it is hard for some folks in the news business to admit it, but Tr-mp not only belongs to the Republican Party, what is more important is that the Republican Party, almost every bigoted square mile of it, belongs to him. When it comes to Donald the Dotard, there is no split.

Stealthcare

Republicans claim they have a “health” care plan. Oddly, though, nobody but Republicans can see any health in it. And even some of them are having trouble with their eyes.

My go-to person when it comes to analyzing these kinds of things for amateurs like me is Sarah Kliff, who now works for Vox. She wrote:

I have spent the bulk of 2017 writing about the different Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Graham-Cassidy, in my view, is the most radical of them all.

While other Republican plans essentially create a poorly funded version of the Affordable Care Act, Graham-Cassidy blows it up.

Kliff features the most cynical part of the proposed legislation, cynicism so breathtaking that even in the age of Tr-mp it stuns:

The bill offered by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy takes money from states that did a good job getting residents covered under Obamacare and gives it to states that did not. It eliminates an expansion of the Medicaid program that covers millions of Americans in favor of block grants. States aren’t required to use the money to get people covered or to help subsidize low- and middle-income earners, as Obamacare does now.

Now, that first part—that the bill steals money from states that expanded Medicaid and gives it to those that refused to do so—hasn’t received enough attention on the cable news shows I have watched. It is goddamned disgusting that Republican Senators, like Ron Johnson of Wisconsin (a co-sponsor of the monstrosity and one of the biggest creeps in the U.S. Senate), are willing to go on TV or write editorials telling people that his red state has been getting ripped off by Obamacare while other states, blue states, have been making off with the loot. In USA Today, Johnson wrote:

Under Obamacare, three states with 20% of our population — California, New York and Massachusetts — get 36% of the funding. Our bill fixes that.

Johnson was on MSNBC this morning and said the same thing—without being challenged. In fact, I have yet to hear a cable news host or interviewer confront any Republican senator, who tries to sell such bullshit to voters, with this simple question: “If you feel that way, if you believe your state has been on the short end of the Obamacare stick, why haven’t you demanded that your Republican governor expand Medicaid under Obamacare and take care of more of your people?”

The reason red states don’t generally benefit as much from the ACA is because 20 Republican-controlled states have refused to expand Medicaid coverage to their citizens, the funding of which is almost all paid for by the federal government. And now the block-granting scheme in this new legislation will essentially reward those worthless Republican governors and legislatures by giving them money, in amounts that won’t do the job ultimately, that doesn’t have Obama’s name on it—and excising the “Obama” from Obamacare means more than anything to these cynical schmucks.

And speaking of those cynical schmucks, possibly 50 of them in the U.S. Senate are willing to vote for a scheme that not only is bent on damaging or destroying Medicaid, but its stinginess will have to be reauthorized in 2026, else there will be no Image result for poor people on medicaidfederal money, not a dollar, spent on health insurance for those who need it. I have heard Senator Cassidy, a physician who forgot his oath, essentially say, “Ah shucks. Don’t worry. Nobody’s gonna get hurt. Congress will keep the spending coming after ten years. Trust us.”

No thanks. There’s too much at stake, as the chart above demonstrates.

In any case Sarah Kliff goes on to discuss more of the GOP deathcare bill:

Insurers in the private marketplace would be allowed to discriminate against people with preexisting conditions, for example. And it would eliminate the individual mandate as other bills would have, but this time there is no replacement. Most analysts agree that would inject chaos into the individual market.

Taken together, these components add up to a sweeping proposal sure to upend the American health care system. Because the Senate hasn’t seen an independent analysis yet from the Congressional Budget Office, I can’t even say for sure how sweeping, and neither can any of the Republicans who have come out in support of it.

Of course they can’t say how “sweeping” this bill will be. And they don’t want to know any of the details. The CBO is the last body they want to hear from. Besides that, they have ignored it in the past and there is no reason they will pay any attention to the CBO now. After all, Republicans don’t give a damn what the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Nurses Association, the American Hospital Association, the National Rural Health Association, the Children’s Hospital Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, the American Diabetes Association, the American Public Health Association, and other groups have to say about it (h/t to Rep. Don Beyer).

Nor do they even care what insurance groups have to say. America’s Health Insurance Plans is a political advocacy association representing 1300 health insurance companies. They don’t like this plan, even though I suspect that’s mostly because they fear it will lead to a single payer system. Blue Cross—bleeping Blue Cross, for God’s sake—released a statement full of “significant concerns” about Graham-Cassidy, saying it “would increase uncertainty in the marketplace, making coverage more expensive and jeopardizing Americans’ choice of health plans.” But more important, Blue Cross said:

The bill contains provisions that would allow states to waive key consumer protections, as well as undermine safeguards for those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Planned Parenthood and the AARP and advocates for the disabled and advocates for veterans (“A vote for #GrahamCassidy is a vote to take healthcare from veterans.”) and NARAL (“If #GrahamCassidyBill passes, ~13 mil women will lose access to maternity care. THIRTEEN MILLION.”) are all opposed to the bill. In fact, it is hard to find anyone outside of Republicans in Congress, and Tr-mp’s base of cultists (who will get hurt by this bill), who is in favor of it. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

The Sisters of Mercy, the Catholic group who advocates for the “poor, sick and uneducated,” said, “Time to Oppose Graham-Cassidy Healthcare Bill.” No, it is past time. Way past time. We can’t just blame this on Tr-mp. This is the fault of a GOP that will do anything—do anything to anyone outside its big-donor base—in order to rid the country of any traces of the Scary Negro who once sat in the White’s House. And nothing bothered them more than when he dared to put his uppity black hands on our healthcare system. They promised years and years ago they would lynch Obamacare. They meant it, even if they are having trouble finding the right rope.

Here is the number to the U.S. Capitol Switchboard, which can get you connected to the Senator of your choice:  (202) 224-3121. Besides what I included above from Sarah Kliff, there are other crappy provisions in this bill. Here is a link to a short summary of the biggest outrages and a “Sample Call Script” that you can use to help you talk to anyone who will listen.

Unpresidented, Again

“There’s never really been a time when a generation of people, raised and rooted in the United States, has been stripped of official recognition and pushed back into the precarity of unauthorized-immigrant life.”

—Dara Lind, of Vox

Dara Lind explains stuff for Vox. This morning she wrote of the nasty DACA reversal decision ordered by one racist coward, Tr-mp, and announced by another racist with bigger balls, Sessions. Lind’s article (“Why ending DACA is so unprecedented“) featured this gem:

Undoing DACA would widen the gulf between reality and law. And that gulf is, in some ways, broader than it’s ever been before. What truly makes the end of DACA unprecedented, in the broad sweep of US history, is the size of that gap between the law and the reality.

With DACA hanging in the balance, America has a group of people on the verge of being socially integrated, but legally isolated — socially championed, but legally victimized — in a way we’ve never really seen before.

Well, we’ve seen a lot of things lately we’ve never seen before. And, somehow, one never gets used to it. Every affront still shocks. But Lind pointed out something that I think many of us either didn’t know or forgot about our border history with Mexico:

Historically, it was easy enough to cross the US/Mexico border and work in the US — both because it was simply easier to enter the country by land without being detected than to sail into New York harbor, and because (partly because it was so hard to regulate) the US government didn’t restrict immigration from the Americas the way it did from the Eastern Hemisphere.

It was so easy, in fact, that immigrants were often simply migrating back and forth. “Immigrants preferred to live in Mexico for most of the time,” Stanford historian Ana Minian explains, “and then come for short periods of time, sometimes up to a couple years, and then return to Mexico until they needed to come back again.”

It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that the US made it harder to legally immigrate from Mexico. After that, it was still possible to come to the US and work — just not legally. So the circular migration continued, but its legal status changed.

She notes that the “circular flow” stopped in the 1990s, when border security was beefed up and the crossings became riskier (thanks to a bipartisan effort in Congress and with Bill Clinton’s signature on a little-known law that, in Lind’s words, “essentially eliminated an existing back door to legal status” and “locked a front door to legal status, too”). Thus, many of the immigrants simply just stayed here rather than take the border-crossing risk. And their kids stayed with them. Today we call those kids DREAMers. And this country is the only home they know.

In June of 2012, President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden about his decision to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. He talked about the DREAMers:

These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag.  They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one:  on paper.  They were brought to this country by their parents — sometimes even as infants — and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.

Put yourself in their shoes.  Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life — studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class — only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.

Unable to put himself in anyone’s shoes but his own, Tr-mp, with the help of his loathsome and lying Attorney General, just told these DACA beneficiaries that they aren’t welcome here unless a Republican Congress, which isn’t even able to confidently guarantee the nation’s bills will be paid without defaulting, can rescue them within six months. Jesus.

John Kennedy wrote a book in 1958 called A Nation of Immigrants. On the back cover of a posthumous edition published in 1964 are these words:

Throughout his presidency, John F. Kennedy was passionate about the issue of immigration reform. He believed that America is a nation of people who value both tradition and the exploration of new frontiers, people who deserve the freedom to build better lives for themselves in their adopted homeland.

Man. What was he thinking?

sessions on dacaAs I write, Senator Lindsey Graham, who applauded Tr-mp’s action today, said this is a “defining moment” for the Republican Party to get this right, to fix our “broken immigration system” by helping the DREAMers. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot of “defining moments” for the Republican Party over the last several years. And they have certainly defined themselves, time and again. They are now defined by that Orange Racist Creep who didn’t have the guts to go out himself today and tell the DREAMers they were now at the mercy of the same congressional Republicans who supported him, a man who began and maintains his putrid political career by scapegoating immigrants.

More Hypocrisy The Size Of Texas

We’ve all seen how Republicans in Texas have fallen in love—deeply, madly in love—with socialism. Just this morning, CNN interviewed yet another Texas lawmaker, who was once all concerned about “offsets” for federal spending for Hurricane Sandy relief in the northeast. Needless to say, this lawmaker didn’t want to talk today about offsets for Hurricane Harvey recovery. Nope. The concept of offsets was either blown away by the storm or perhaps drowned in the poison floodwaters of a regulation-hating state.

Even more hypocrisy was evident on CNN this morning during Michael Smerconish’s program. His first guest was Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who bragged about going after price gougers, the ultimate free marketeers. You would think that hard-core Republicans like Paxton (who, as an aside, is leading the fight against DACA) would applaud those who are taking advantage of the situation, who are just using market principles to make a fast buck. After all, since Moses was a toddler conservatives have extolled the virtues of unfettered free markets and the magic they make. Tr-mp boasts constantly about all the deregulation he is doing, supposedly freeing up businesses that are, allegedly, hamstrung by regulations so they can “compete” in a “free” market.

Ken Paxton told us he has his posse out looking for the gougers and will throw the book at them, as if they were the worst kind of criminals. Earlier in the week Paxton made the same argument he made this morning:

There’s nothing wrong with a free market, but this isn’t a free market. This is an unusual market where you have a storm like that that creates such devastation.

Hmm. An “unusual market”? So? So what? Can’t a person profit from unusual markets? If I were smart enough to look ahead and buy hundreds of cases of water at $4 a pop, then could sell them for $99, what’s wrong with that? Here’s what Paxton thinks is wrong with it:

People are in crisis. They’re experiencing great difficulty, so we’re trying to protect people from opportunists who take advantage of people in difficult times.

Opportunists? Difficult times? Some people don’t need hurricanes to make their lives difficult. They live in difficult times with or without massive storms, yet they are priced out of a lot of markets by opportunists, especially opportunists in the pharmaceutical industry. What makes this situation different? Why shouldn’t motels and hotels be allowed to triple their room rates during times like this? Why shouldn’t convenience stores be allowed to charge $20 a gallon for gas? What is the ken paxton price gougingmoral distinction between charging whatever the market will bear for a good or service a week before the hurricane as opposed to a week after? Why does free market-loving, regulation-hating Texas even have laws against price gouging? Why do the other 33 or so other states have such laws?

Well, most of us can see why. It hits us in our guts. We know in our bones that it is morally reprehensible to make quick money off other people’s misery or their dire need. We know it is plain wrong to sell for $100 something that last week cost $4, just because a hurricane made such free market transactions—and make no mistake about it, they are free market transactions—possible. Yes, we can see that. It is obviously morally unjustifiable.

Well, it isn’t obvious to everyone. Some people, other than the gougers, think they can justify it. I used to faithfully read a publication called The Freeman, which up until last year had been published, beginning in 1950, by a group called the Foundation for Economic Education. The FEE, its leaders say, is a libertarian think tank focused on bringing “about a world in which the economic, ethical, and legal principles of a free society are familiar and credible to the rising generation” [their emphasis]. None other than philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek, a god of economics on the right who won a Nobel prize, said:

The Foundation for Economic Education is committed to nothing more nor less than the defense of our civilization against intellectual error.

That kind of intellectual snootiness is characteristic of most libertarians (and conservataives), who believe they and only they understand how the world works. Trust me, they really believe that. They think most of us out here are just ignorant rubes. In any case, you may have guessed that the libertarians at places like FEE actually think price gougers are good guys. Yep. They really do. Here’s an article published last Monday:

Texas Price Gougers Are Hurricane Heroes

Yes. The guy charging $99 bucks for a $4 case of water is a goddamned hero! I will allow you to personally examine the ridiculous arguments (which I have addressed many times) that support such a stunning claim, but I want to say two things about those arguments.

One, libertarians—and the many Republicans who have bought into their economic philosophy—don’t seem to factor into their tidy intellectual analysis the fact that people are motivated to do good by things other than making an easy dollar. We actually see that profit-less motivation going on in Texas, as folks get in their own little boats, use their own gas, and go about rescuing people.

Two, always beware of someone selling a counter-intuitive laissez-faire idea on the grounds that regulation of markets “hurts the very people who need our help most.” All you have to do to refute that bullshit claim is look at the modern Republican Party—whose leaders push the economic philosophy that in its purest form turns price gougers into heroes—and ask yourself: are these Republicans, and their rich donors seeking tax cuts, trying to help the folks who need our help the most?

The ongoing tragedy in Texas should clearly demonstrate, for all time, at least two things: Price gougers are not heroes, and redistributing wealth in order to help people in need—democratic socialism—is heroic. For now, even most Republicans can see that, even if they won’t put it in those terms. But soon, after the water has receded and the cleanup cash is on its way, I am betting they will go back to their old ways: unfettered free markets are good and socialism is bad!

Ted Cruz: Selective Socialist

In west Dallas, Texas, there is a burial ground called La Réunion Cemetery. Most of the people interred there were European colonists who started a socialist community and tried gallantly to maintain it. At the time, 1855, Dallas was “a shabby little frontier village” next door to the community of hope-filled socialists. Today it is the ninth largest city in the country.

The La Réunion colony failed. And it failed for many reasons, beginning with the fact that, as Public Radio International put it, the colonists didn’t have “a very clear idea of what they were getting themselves into”:

The Texas heat. The lack of a navigable river. Slavery, and the violent politics around it. Land speculators and hucksters. And lots and lots of snakes.

To make matters worse, most of the European colonists had no farming skills. They were artisans and thinkers who mostly expected paradise, not frontier misery. They were no match for the harsh environment they’d unwittingly entered.

Those starry-eyed Europeans did not realize their utopian socialist dreams, but the hardy souls who eventually moved to that shabby little village next door did make a difference:

…historians credit Dallas’s early growth to the sudden arrival of these people, among them architects, musicians, builders, bankers and editors. When the Civil War broke out, many of those immigrants tried hard not take a side — some even hid out in Mexico to avoid the Confederate draft. After the War, the Reconstruction government needed non-Confederates to run the town: there they were, these battered idealists.

Some believe Dallas would never have become the city it is without those folks. Those socialists.

Which brings me to what’s going on in Texas today. No, I don’t mean the godawful storm that is still doing terrible things in and around Houston. And I don’t mean Agent Orange flying in to vainly attempt a rescue of his administration from abject failure. What I mean is the idea that all of us, as Americans, are expected to assent to helping devastated Texans with our tax money. But should we?

As has been widely reported, all but one of the Texas Republicans in the House and both U.S. Senators essentially said “Eff off!” to victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, as those right-wing anti-socialists voted against the aid package to help folks in the northeast. Suddenly, though, Hurricane Harvey has washed ashore and brought with it a new fondness for socialism. Suddenly, it is time to redistribute the wealth. Suddenly, La Réunion lives again!

Ted Cruz, whose father probably helped kill JFK and who has an ugly wife—unretracted claims of Tr-mp, not mine—defended his drop-dead-Sandy-victims vote this way:

The accurate thing to say is that I and a number of others enthusiastically and emphatically supported hurricane relief for Sandy. Hurricane relief and disaster relief has been a vital federal role for a long, long time and it should continue. The problem with that particular bill is it became a $50 billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork.

Image result for hurricane sandy and ted cruzNow, I’m not that interested in whether Cruz is lying about having been “enthusiastically and emphatically” supportive of pork-less hurricane relief five years ago. My default position on people like Cruz is that they are lying every time they speak, so no biggie here. What I am focused on is the casual way he says, “Hurricane relief and disaster relief has been a vital federal role for a long, long time and it should continue.” That sentence rolled off his tongue so smoothly that it sounded like he meant it. So, let’s pretend he did and ask ourselves, What does it mean?

It means that Ted Cruz has endorsed socialism. There is no other way to look at it. Ted Cruz is a socialist. He is as red as any La Réunion colonist ever was. He essentially said the United States is just one big La Réunion-like settlement. But, of course, we all know Ted Cruz doesn’t see it that way. Houston is a special case. It is a limited case. We shouldn’t get carried away with this socialist talk, he would insist.

But he’s wrong. What he advocates is a form of socialism. It is the government taking something from one citizen and giving it to another. And that idea is, theoretically, what conservatives have always hated. It is, theorectically, what they want to erase from American life. It is, theorectically, why they constantly attack New Deal thinking and programs.

But the still-developing disaster in Houston and elsewhere isn’t theoretical. The cloak-room purity of free markets and rugged individualism has surrendered to the stark reality that we all are necessarily in this together. Or at least we should be. My problem is not with sending whatever is necessary to help folks in Texas and Louisiana recover from this tragedy. Of course we should assist them, even if their Republican politicians are horrible legislators.

My problem is that some people can only see the need for socialist-like responses during large-scale disasters like this one. These types of events clearly demonstrate the foolishness of drown-government-in-the-bathtub ideology. Everyone can see that the future of Houston and other communities will depend on a large distribution—redistribution—of federal dollars, just like what happened here in Joplin. Ted Cruz can see that. All Republicans in Texas can see that. What they can’t see is that the same application of socialist thinking—the democratic variety—ought to be applied even when parts of the country haven’t been shellacked by a massive storm.

Every day someone experiences their own personal Hurricane Harvey. It may be a lost job or a devastating medical diagnosis. It may be the reality of being trapped in poverty, without a means of escape. It may be a drug addiction. It could be any number of things. And our reaction to these individual storms should be the same as if they occurred on a massive scale in a matter of a few days. There’s no reason to think otherwise. If democratic socialism is good during collective disasters, it is good during individual disasters.

And the theoreticians on the right know this. Back in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hammered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the Bush administration proposed a post-storm aid program that bothered the puritans of parsimony, the ideologues of individualism. Writing for Reason magazine (“Bush’s Disaster Socialism“), Shikha Dalmia explained her opposition:

Conservatives care not just about the size of government but about its scope as well. Direct federal aid—aid disaster victims don’t even have to justify to a bureaucracy—would inevitably expand Americans’ sense of individual entitlement, establishing a dangerous precedent. On Bush’s principles, why not have the federal government pay for health insurance, job training, and child care for victims of any calamity? After all, why are people who knowingly live in a hurricane-prone area more worthy of federal largesse than those who meet with random, unpredictable accidents? In short, how can Bush resist any suggestion to launch an all-encompassing national accident insurance program?

 You can see that, like George W. Bush’s proposals in 2005, Ted Cruz’s embrace of “disaster socialism” throws a wrench into the intellectual machinery of anti-welfare, anti-statist, ideologues. They see what it really means to embrace federal aid to hurricane victims. They see the socialism at the heart of it.

Shikha Dalmia asked the right question: “why not have the federal government pay for health insurance, job training, and child care for victims of any calamity?” Why not? Because Ted Cruz and others like him, hypocrites hungry for collective dollars today, will lose their appetite for those dollars when it comes time to hand them out to victims of “random, unpredictable” misfortunes that happen in everyday life.

That’s why not.

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