Taking the doubt out of Skepticism

Skepticism and a desire for real proof was essential for the progress of our science and technology. But from my life experience skepticism can go right off the rails.  This inspired me to write an article for “skeptic.com”, but their editor told me that though it was good, it wasn’t suited for them.  My father then joked that I should make a site called “rejectionist.com” where I would be the editor and would accept good but rejected articles from elsewhere.  Anyway, in the cause of saving this worthless 🙂 rejected article, I put it here in this blog.  I don’t include my life experience in it, but instead some lessons of that experience that I thought about for a while. So here (drumroll…) it is.

Imagine you live in 1860, and someone tries to convince you that one day there will be flying machines weighing over a million pounds, and carrying more than 300 people over the ocean and beyond. Chances are you would not believe it, and for good reasons. You will see that birds have to be light to fly (an Ostrich is earthbound), so anything as heavy as an airplane could not fly.
But you would be wrong, and that would be because there would be advances in the science of aerodynamics, plus new manufacturing abilities in the 20th century.

A recent example of misplaced skepticism in science was after Daniel Shechtman’s discovery of “quasi-crystals”. Dr Shechtman had to fight a fierce battle against established science to convince others of what he had first seen in his lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology – formerly the National Bureau of Standards – on an April morning in 1982.

Under the microscope he observed that the new crystal was made up of perfectly ordered, but never repeating, units – a structure that is at odds with all other crystals that are regular and precisely repeating.
Dr Shechtman himself is said to have cried “Eyn chaya kazo”, which translates from the Hebrew as “there can be no such creature”.

…For years, Dr. Shechtman reports, he was “ridiculed” and “treated badly” by his peers.

In fact, he was later told that he was a disgrace to his research group and asked to leave.

He now has a Nobel Prize, but we should consider the basic point here. Something that seems impossible, can become possible.

In a prior article on the Skeptic site, (What Would It Take to Change Your Mind? by Peter Boghossian) the author gives an example of a related point. He writes that “a student insisted Obama was a Muslim. When I displayed a series of pictures of Obama drinking beer on the projector, he instantly and emphatically responded, ‘Those pictures are photoshopped!'”

The logic that the student is using is this. He starts from a strong belief that Obama is a religious Muslim. Any contrary evidence must then be false. Therefore, since religious Muslims cannot drink alcohol, and the picture shows Obama drinking alcohol, that picture must be fake, and the way to fake a picture is via “photoshop”. It’s logical, if you accept the premise (though if the student had more imagination, he could keep his premise and find other explanations such as: “the beer is really ‘near-beer’, which is sold in many pubs for people who don’t want alcohol”, or “Obama may have had a questioning period where he tried out a weakened form of his religion, only to return to it full force later.”)


You should be able to consider alternate explanations, whether your starting premise is right or wrong. If you are skeptical of some assertion, and can come up with three incorrect alternate explanations, when the fourth one that you did not think of is correct, then you will come to the wrong conclusion as well.  So oddly enough imagination becomes important when deciding something is true or not.

And there is also the question of information dismissed as fringe and extreme.  Our current president, Donald Trump, called into question Obama’s birth certificate, and then backtracked and said it was valid. In general, the media did not take the birth certificate story seriously. However, there is this mystery:

David Solway, a Canadian writer, writes that “All Obama’s vital documents are sequestered: his name change, baptism and adoption records, Noelani Elementary School records, Punahou School financial aid or school records, Occidental College financial aid records, Harvard Law School records, Columbia senior thesis, record with Illinois State Bar Association, and his law client list, medical records and passport records, among others. He has also suppressed the marriage license of his parents. His backdated Selective Service form remains unexplained and his Massachusetts Social Security Number appears to be invalid.”

So there are circles within circles here – just when you thought it was safe to be humorously skeptical of this whole episode, some questions do get raised. Life is short, and we don’t have the time to run after stories that sound extreme, and yet….

Let’s try another thought experiment.
You live in the 1950s in California, a reliably Republican state at a time when social mores were very different. Would you believe that within your lifetime, there would be a ballot initiative to say that marriage cannot be between two men, or two women, but only between a man and a woman? My mother was born in the 30’s, and she tells me that she would never have believed the culture could have change so radically so quickly.

In fact, “in California, left-wing activists targeted donors to the state’s Prop 8 ballot initiative, which supported traditional marriage. They combed through campaign finance records, and put the names and addresses of Prop 8’s donors on a searchable map. Citizens on this list had their cars keyed, their windows broken, their small businesses flash-mobbed, and their voicemails and emails flooded with threats and insults. Some of them even lost their jobs…”

My point here is not whether gay marriage is good or bad. My point is that since we know the cultural change took place, there must be facts about cultural malleability that few would have recognized just a few decades ago.

An example that combines lack of imagination with fringe scenarios is this one:
There were two genuinely concerning outbreaks of anti-Semitism in the past presidential campaign between D. Trump and H. Clinton. The first involved anti-Semitic e-mail and Internet attacks against Jewish journalists critical of the Trump campaign.
The second was a series of bomb threats called into JCCs around the country.
Naturally some Jews drew some dramatic and alarmed conclusions.
But then there was an investigation.
The JCC threats were the work of a demented Jewish Israeli/American teenager.
Even weirder, the Internet attacks originated from fewer than 2000 sources, half of them in Ukraine or Russia.

So, people who were beginning to convince themselves that there was a new and rising threat to them in the United States, based on what seemed to be strong evidence, had not thought of these wild scenarios that happened to be true.

Remember, we are talking what is real, not what is plausible.  The two are not always  the same.


The problem with elitism

I am a believer in letting people make their own choices as much as possible, but that is not a universal belief.  I once had a internet conversation with a veteran of the mainland Chinese military.  Among other topics, he told me that “too much human rights” is a bad thing.  I was reminded of this when I read a letter by a former Soviet citizen, Victor Mishkevich (in the Wall Street Journal) who said this about today’s Russia
True enough, many people in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg want democratic institutions to be established, but the majority of the people do not want democracy. They consider it weak and uncertain. They want and understand “a strong hand.”
A commenter on this letter (on the internet) said this:
Different cultures have different values.  Their members have different desires. If you actually know real Russians, Russians that live outside Moscow, Russians that are not part of the westernized order of talking heads, you will understand that Putin is the perfect leader for them.  He not only promises, but delivers physical security, enough to eat and a motherland that is both feared and respected.  For Russians, that is enough.  They have their own measuring stick, as does every  other divergent culture around the globe.
Another letter appeared in the WSJ a few days later (12/29/2016), replying to Mishkevich:
…everyone wants social and economic freedom. They want to be able to live their life as they choose, speak their mind without fear, and exert full control over their property.
What they often do not want is for their neighbors to have the same freedom. And that’s where the trouble starts.
An implication of all  this is that Russians believe a strong leader like Putin knows what is best for the country more than many of their fellow citizens.  This is a kind of paternalistic attitude.  No doubt we all feel that way to some extent.
Paternalism does sometimes make sense.   I can see the need to lock some people up for their own good, if their minds don’t work correctly.  (Many mentally ill people have “died with their rights on”, because they became homeless and attracted predators or themselves engaged in fatal behavior.)
Obviously this idea is not the kind of clear-cut principle we would like to have such as “never lock a human being up who  hasn’t hurt another human being” or “never force a person to take drugs who has not agreed to it”, but there is a time when principles have fuzzy boundaries.
With children, the same applies.  Parents should give their children the freedom to make some mistakes, but not all avoidable mistakes.
If you believe a class of people is inferior to you, you may take a paternalistic attitude toward them.   Slavery provided one example.
One argument made for slavery by slave-owners in the south was that they were providing better living conditions than their slave would have working in a factory in the north.  These slave-owners thought they knew how to tell a slave to raise his children, or manage his property.
Many Americans also believed that freed slaves would undermine the social structure of the South.  In other words, they did not trust the black to be able to take care of himself, or to have a civilized society.
So that is one source of paternalism – not respecting a class or group of people.
Cliven Bundy is a rancher who got into trouble with the law because he let his cattle graze on public land.  He did get support by some other ranchers for his stand, and  he attracted a lot of attention and was interviewed.
One statement he made, on slavery,  did not go over well:
Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.
There are various things wrong with this statement, including the fact that many black Americans are not on welfare, and many whites are on welfare, but the interesting twist in his statement is that he contrasts two types of paternalism.  Slavery by people who see themselves as benevolent (not all did, of course) can be one, but being depending on the government (which really means being dependent on the taxpayer)  for your food and shelter and healthcare and childcare can be another.  In the latter case, the implication is that you can’t provide for yourself on your own.
Cliven Bundy and supporters
An elitist may decide he knows what is best for you personally, better than you know yourself.  Or, he may decide he knows what is best for society, and that your selfish goals conflict with that.
Eugenics is an interesting example of how elitists decide what is good for society.  There have been compulsory sterilization programs in many countries of the world, sometimes on the basis that the person being sterilized was having many children without being able to provide for them, sometimes on the grounds that the person was disabled or crazy or belonged to the wrong ethnic/racial group.
In that case, an individual may want to have children, but an elitist decides that in the interest of society, he  must be kept from having children.
So we have two problems with elitism as far as the individual is concerned.  First is the elitist who knows what is best for you.  In that regard, Henry David  Thoreau, (1817 – 1862) known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience” once remarked:  “[If] . . . a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
The other type of elitist is willing to sacrifice you for the greater good of society.  David Horowitz, a former leftist who I probably overly quote in this blog, once said that progressives commit great crimes because:
 If you thought that you could, you know, return us to Eden or create a world in which there’s no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no poverty, no war, what lie would you not tell and what crime would you not commit to get there? And that’s why the greatest criminals of the 20th century were communists, were progressives. And they will be in this century as well.
[ To readers of my blog – this will be my last post for this psychology of evil blog.  Its been  enlightening to read for it, and to write it, but my next mission is to escape all this earthly evil by joining a mission to Mars.  (The last part (about Mars) is a joke).  Thanks for reading, and sometimes commenting.]

When close relatives believe totally different histories

Suppose you are a teacher, and you break up a fight in your schoolyard.  Both boys claim the other started it.  You don’t know who is right, so you suspend both of them.  But the person who started it should not be treated the same as the person who defended himself.  The problem with much of the world is that their total ‘story’ of whatever conflict they are in is wrong.
This could be because of their government. Cathy Buckle is a white woman in the country of Zimbabwe, which was ruled by Englishmen for a short time.  Then power was handed over to a radical, Robert Mugabe, a member of the majority Shona tribe who initially said all sorts of reassuring things.  However, words are not deeds.  His first order of business was to turn a North Korean-trained part of his new army loose on the Ndebele tribe, the Shonas’ main rival. Slaughter ensued.  Gradually he also wrecked the economy.  Cathy recently listened to Mugabe address parliament and tells us what she thought:

Perhaps Mr Mugabe was going to talk about the collapsed economy, the chronic shortage of US dollars in the country and the recent introduction of Bond notes, a surrogate currency forced upon us by Presidential decree. Perhaps he would say something about a year filled with demonstrations and protests which were squashed by horrific police beatings, the images captured on mobile phones for the world to see. Perhaps he’d say something about 90% unemployment or continued company closures, about 80 % of our food still being imported 16 years after farm takeovers, or about our crippled health care system or rampant corruption in government departments. So much to talk about; this was surely going to be a very long speech.

As President Mugabe made his way slowly through his speech you couldn’t help but wonder if we live in the same country. Apparently, everything’s fine in Zimbabwe at the end of 2016.

bucklebookOf course the reader could say – what do we really expect from an ideologue like Mugabe  – an admission of failure?
But even in democracies, there are completely different histories believed by people who can be very similar in other respects.  For instance, I have talked with people who believed our most recent housing collapse, with the large attendant damage to the economy, was due to greedy bankers, or the removal of regulations.   On the other side of the political spectrum, the belief is that the government created the situation by mandating loans to poor people and bad credit risks, and indirectly suggesting that the feds would underwrite those risks.
So the villains are completely different, and the conclusions are completely different.
Likewise, I’ve been told I’m a “bloody fool” for saying the economy under President Obama has been poor, and the person who called me this then provided me with an article full of charts that indeed seems to prove I am a fool.  However, I repaired the damage to my ego by reading the following.by Seth Lipsky in the New York Post:
After eight years of blaming America’s problems on George W. Bush, the press that got the election wrong is rolling out a new line — that President Obama is handing President-elect Donald Trump a booming economy.
That takes some brass…. The truth is that the Obama years have been among America’s worst for the economy. His eight years will go down in history as the Great Recession, even though for much, even most, of the span, we weren’t technically in a recession.
It just felt that way. And no wonder. Obama’s is the only modern presidency that failed to show a single year of growth above 3 percent, a point Trump stressed during the campaign (and that was conceded even by the website Politifact).
Plus, the Obama economy failed to prosper even though the Federal Reserve had its pedal to the metal. Its quantitative easing, $2 trillion balance-sheet expansion and zero-interest-rate policy all produced zilch.
My point here is not who is correct and who isn’t.  The point is that at many junctures in recent history, we see the history differently, and that affects our future behavior.
Prager University is a YouTube channel that has a video by a Muslim Englishman who tells us that he believed that the Jews were aliens, living in stolen Muslim land.  The Jews were occupiers who were engaged in genocide against the Palestinian people.  This belief, he said made him and his friends vulnerable to the arguments of Muslim extremists.  He almost went to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, but fate intervened.  In a bookstore he saw a book titled “The Case for Israel”.  The title made him furious.  He picked it up, and read a very different version of history than he had previously believed.  Eventually he decided to go to Israel and see what was going on first hand.  That trip changed him – from a potential terrorist to a friend of the West.
So what you believe really matters.  He obviously is a decent person – you can see the video – but beliefs could have made him a killer.
Kasim Hafeez – dodged becoming a terrorist
So how do these totally different narratives arise?  Is it due to lies?  Misunderstandings?  Paranoia?  Ideology?
I don’t really know, but certainly deliberate untruths play a part, as shown by this final story:
According to the New York Times, in 1980 Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, had a Lebanese imam (a holy man roughly equivalent to a pastor) shot in the head for refusing to preach the propaganda of the PLO. Then Arafat visited the imam’s Lebanese home, took his ten-year-old son aside, explained to the little boy that his father had been murdered by the Israelis, handed the lad a gun, and said, “When you grow up, use this to take revenge.”
Isn’t that incredible!
wall painting of Arafat
Anyway, from my own experience, people are intellectually lazy about subjects which they may have very strong opinions about.  The idea of individual initiative to find the truth (which much to his credit, the British Muslim in the video had), is rare.  Personally, I have .been the subject of wildly varying opinions, most of them quite wrong.  I have been thought insane (see prior post), I have been told I was a sex maniac, that I’m gay, that I’m nasty, that I’m very nice, that I’m a pig, that I impress women etc.  The truthful narrative is that I’m someone who likes such evil occupations as going on bike trips or hikes in scenic spots, am not more insane than – lets say – Donald Trump or Barack Obama – not any more a sex maniac than Mother Teresa (at this point), have a very slow brain – too slow and too empty to have a good conversation with – and I hope that I am well intentioned.  I would be more than happy to be ignored and mildly despised.
“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” as   William Shakespeare has written.
In my case, there is an incentive by angry criminals to make me look as crazy as possible – and the criminal world, as I have concluded, is quite irrational is some respects, but very rational in the method and low level goals.  They may yet write the history.  Or change it.  I never know if I will wake tomorrow the same person as who went to bed the previous night – not physically, not mentally.

The Mob that got away – a fable

When I took over the Soprano crime family, I was shocked at their general sloppiness, inefficiency, and lack of discipline.  I kicked out the low performers, brought in some enforcers from the Russian and Cuban mobs, and reorganized the management.  Despite their decentralized organization, the Soprano family was a prize, because they had a technology based on the borrachero tree of Columbia.  This tree is a source of the drug Scopolamine, which criminal amateurs in Columbia blow into the faces of victims, or spike drinks with.  It puts victims in a daze of some sort, so that they can be robbed.  The victims do not collapse, they just lose an aspect of will or consciousness.
The Sopranos were smart enough to refine Scopolamine into an aerosol, not just a powder, and they were even smarter in how they weaponized it.  They could modify a smart phone to be a Scopolamine gun, or they could put a pipe under the chassis of a car to envelop pedestrians.   Victims did not know what hit them, or even whether they had been hit.
It was a great money maker for the guys, and they could get past any security with it.
The Sopranos also got hold of some expert hackers on the “dark web” as well as the most advanced electronic bugging equipment – such as microphones that could be implanted in a wall and which only send messages in coded bursts once an hour.  They even found some Russian scientists who had worked on a top secret project on drugs that affect behavior.
So they had a great thing going – except:
One day a trusted lieutenant of mine named Corleone came into my house and asked: “can we talk- we have a problem”?
I invited him in, and he told his story.
He said that an individual with little money and nothing worth having had been targeted by a loose cannon in our organization.  The loose cannon was a woman named Berta, from Lower Slobovia, who had immigrated recently to Connecticut, and had used the drug, without permission, on this individual.
“This is expressly against our policy!” I said.  “We can’t have our technology exposed by it being used massively and randomly!”
“Yes” said Corleone.  “Her assumption was that nobody would believe this guy.  She used the drug “libidamine” which had been brought here from Russia.  It raises the libido.  The guy himself was a real piece of work, really disgusting.  But he posed as a puritan.  So she thought she’d teach him a lesson.  Its a powerful drug she used, most guys after a few days of it start looking for ‘women of the night'”.
“Continue.  I am intrigued”. I said.
Corleone looked glum.  “She and her friends gained access to his apartment.  They drugged him, but it didn’t work as planned.  Sure, it raised his libido, and he did strange things like trying to change what he ate, or putting in huge vats of spring water in his apartment.  But it did not get him to act as desired.  Our scientists back in Columbia were first astonished, then challenged.”
“It doesn’t sound too serious so far,” I said.
Corleone looked impatient.  “You don’t get it.  — They got so challenged that one day, they poured ten times the normal dose into a bottle of water in his fridge.  Berta and Pierre did it at night, while the target was sleeping.  Next morning, he got up, drank the water, and got hit with libidamine’s effects like a ton of bricks.  He realized he was drugged.  He went to the FBI.  He went to the police.”
I was getting alarmed.  “And they believed him?”
Corleone looked tired.  “No, they did not.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Corleone took a breath.  “The problem is that this guy is famous.  Here’s a photo of him.”
Corleone offered me a photo. I looked at it.  It was a of a slight, skinny man with big glasses, and a large balding head, and drooping cheeks and a bloated nose.  He had a depressed expression.
“You are worried about this guy?” I asked.  “He’s pathetic.  You are pathetic.  Get out of here!”
Corleone refused to leave.  “No, you have to listen.  This guy was known as being very handsome – and that kind of reputation spread – and spread.”
I looked at the photo.  Handsome?
Corleone continued.  “And, he attracted the attention of the fair sex, which apparently sent him off his rocker, and a couple of his dorm-mates managed to get his behavior on film. It was so gross, and so disgusting, that it gained a cult following.  People would gather in a room and throw rice at the screen.  You see also, he is Jewish, and he was drooling over the idea of getting hold of a blonde girl, and people see this behavior and think they’ve exposed a hidden part of reality – what Jews are like!”
“I’m confused”, I said.  “which is it – is this guy a handsome heartthrob – a disgusting pervert – or a bald nerd who we should never have tangled with?”
“All three,” he said.
I looked at the photo.  “I don’t get the attraction” I said.
Corleone started theorizing.  “Ever hear the term “metrosexual”?  I think some women don’t like the idea of real men.  They like nerdy weak guys with friendly personalities.  And his current looks are deceptive.  He was good looking at one point.  He was a big fish in a small pond.”
I was getting a headache.  “Look Corleone, I think you are overdoing this.  Its a very strange story you are telling me, and I really don’t think we have to worry about it.  Just in future, keep a better leash on our foot-soldiers.”
Corleone shook his head.  “This guy is a wild man.  He has made speeches about what we did to him on trains – on public trains.  He has posted posters, distributed cassette tapes, and so forth.”
“So what?  Anyone going to believe a lunatic who talks about his libido on trains?  Or in mysterious Mafiosi who are targeting him for no reason?”
Corleone showed me another photo.  It was of a short blonde woman.  “This woman fouled us up.”
“She’s the original woman the movie was about.  She decided to contact him.  We had to stop it.”
“So did you kill her?”
“No, we drugged him.  She sat next to him on the train, and we drugged him the previous night, and it gives anyone a massive headache.  We also tried some suggestion, with our hypnotic drug.”
“And then?”
“It worked.  We prevented communication.  She decided he was a loser.  Which of course he is.”
But then, our guys felt he had to be watched constantly.  They already had a back door into his house, and even a compartment we built behind a wall near his room.  They gassed him with the latest drugs we have.  Interrogation drugs and poisons of various sorts.  They got into his room one time, after he was safely anesthetized, and damaged his spine.  When he showed signs of going too far afield, they warped his feet.  And then the worst possible thing happened.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Was I the head of serious money-making outfit. or of a three-ring circus?
“Continue please.” I said.  “Who is in charge of this operation?”
Corleone explained that Velasquez and Cohen were the soldiers assigned to this case.  I remembered Velasquez.  He had lost his father at an early age, and his mother was an alcoholic who beat him.  He spoke like a wounded angry animal, and that was on a good day.  Cohen spoke more like a robot, an idealistic robot.  They were good soldiers, ruthless when they had to be and maliciously sadistic when possible.
I leaned forward.  “What is the worst possible thing that you say happened”?
Corleone said “They went squishy.  They felt sorry for the guy.  They had been spraying his pants with kidney poison, and he was nearly exploding.  He tried to make a deal.  He spoke aloud, promising that he would not talk about us any more.  He wrote it on his computer, which we had bugged.  Velasquez and Cohen decided to give him a break.  They put their reputation on the line, trying to persuade us to let up.  And I, like a fool, let myself be persuaded.”
“You did!!!!”
Corleone looked scared.  “Yes, I said they could let up on the poisoning, they just should watch him, and threaten him when he went out of line. – But you see, one thing went wrong after another.  He interpreted our threats as imminent doom, and went to the police.  And he was paranoid, so he thought we attacked him when we didn’t and he started speaking on trains again.  So Velasquez went after his spine again, and Cohen and Harvey the Hulk bent his feet again.  Then we sprayed a nasty poison that made him bleed – affects the intestines, you know.”
“I see.” I said.  “So he started squealing.  Did anyone believe him?”
“Yes!  he appealed on the train for help – he asked anyone who knew anything to tell his town police.  And lo and behold, phone calls started coming in to the bewildered local police department.  Previously they thought he was insane, and were collaborating with other departments in the area to keep an eye on him.”
“Beautiful” I said sarcastically.  “Beautiful!.  You screwed things up with this clown.  Let me tell you what has to be done.  We have to discredit him.  Keep the pressure on.  Be outrageous.  Be audacious.  Use the Interrogation drug – he will talk endlessly at night and during the day.  Use the aphrodisiac.  Use the Viagra mist.  He will sound crazy – and the story is so crazy, that he will go down in history as a major lunatic!   And in future, Corleone, tell any Member of our mob that if they free-lance like this we will use drug X99 on them!”
Corleone paled.  “Not X99!”
“its gotta be done” I said.  “Starting with Berta from Lower Slobovia!”
I ushered Corleone out.  “Oh,” I added – “That movie you talked about – that will discredit him too.  Show it!”
The approach worked.
Our organization continued to thrive and go from strength to strength.
We of course had a special fate planned for the metrosexual who broke the deal with us.  It was drug Y88 – even worse than drug X99.
The moral of the story is: sometimes you gotta do, what you gotta do.  And don’t hire people from Lower Slobovia.  Ever.

An American Crackup?

There are many fissures in Western societies, and there are individuals and nations who wish to exploit them. Lets look at the fissures in both the United States and Europe.
The New York Daily News carried this headline on June 24, 2016 – And now Texit: Texans consider seceding after Brexit — especially if Donald Trump loses election.
But after Trump won, I got message on Facebook that in response to this awful event, California should secede from the union.  I took a look at the website of the California secession movement, and they say they feel they are subsidizing the other states, and are hampered by protectionism (I agree with them there) and that the rest of the country is not doing enough about global warming!
According to the Los Angeles Times, these Texas secessionists AND California secessionists AND Hawaii secessionists cozied up with other Western separatist groups at a Kremlin-funded conference in Moscow, hosted by a seven-foot Russian dude “who wears crocodile leather shoes” and leads Russia’s Anti-Globalist Movement.
According to Alexander Ionov—the aforementioned crocodile-shoe wearing leader of the small anti-American group that organized the conference—the Russian government chipped in part of the cost of the conference at a swanky hotel close to the Kremlin.
My guess is that the Ukraine secessionist movement (they want no part of Russia) was not represented.
Texas Secession?
So what are a few (not all) of the other fissures in our society?)
Some of the fissures that could be exploited cross the traditional boundaries of left and right.  For example, some believe that “neo-conservatives” (generally Jewish) got America into a war in Iraq which turned out to be a huge disaster.  Some believe that those same neocons want us to be belligerent toward Russia, which, according to this line of thinking, is simply asserting its rightful place in the world.
And of course there are racial fissures.
The “Black Lives Matter” movement believes that policemen kill blacks due to racism.
Conversely, we read a police officer, Jeff Roorda, saying that:
Genocide, constabulicide, the great blue massacre … whatever term you choose to use, you should consider – strongly – the possibility that what we’re witnessing now has escalated into something beyond just a war on police. If Dallas, Baton Rouge and Palm Springs didn’t convince you of that, the eight police officers that have died in a recent eight-day span should. The ambush-style execution of police has become a common occurrence in 2016, and now the cowardly assassination of the two Des Moines area police officers on Nov. 2 culminated a bloody spree of anti-police violence that took the life of an average of one American hero in blue per day starting on Oct. 26.
He adds:
I was on the streets of Ferguson and I heard the seething words of hatred that came from the mouths of the antagonists who overthrew an American city. More than just the words, it was the intensity of expression in their faces…
This mob mentality that has spread like cancer across America and has soaked our streets in blue blood should be recognized for the genocidal movement that it is. To write it off as anything else imperils the lives of even more cops and the very fabric of our democracy.
jeffroordaThen there are the culture wars:
a U.S. government letter of guidance stated that under Title IX, schools were prohibited from forcing students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity.   Obviously if you tell people that their teen age girl has to share a bathroom with any male who claims  he’s a woman, you will create a fissure.  These people will feel they are beleaguered and attacked by their own government.
The final fissure I’ll mention is due to a leftist tactic… An SDS radical once wrote, “The issue is never the issue. The issue is always the revolution.”  He is not alone in saying that, and if ‘issues’ and ’causes’ are waystations toward the ultimate goal, then you would expect leftists to look for issues to inflame and exploit.
Looking at the rest of the world, Douglas Shoen wrote a book about Russia with the paranoid sounding title Putin’s Master Plan.  He says this:
…Russia’s proxies [include]…far-right nationalist parties that admire Putin’s muscular, boldly chauvinistic leadership style, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France or Jobbik in Hungary. And some are far-left radical parties that share Putin’s antipathy toward the economic and political institutions of the West, such as Greece’s infamous SYRIZA or the newly ascendant Podemos in Spain. In some countries, including Greece, France, and Germany, Putin has allies on both the left and the right who compete fiercely, but what’s important to him is that both answer the phone when Moscow calls..
Its interesting that several (not all) of these groups share 1) a protectionist attitude toward trade  2) anti-American attitudes   and 3) pro-Russian attitudes.    For instance, Hungary’s Jobbik party and the French National Front and the Spanish Podemos share all three.  You can be a leftist, or you can be a rightist, it doesn’t matter, you share these three attitudes.
Shoen piles on more examples:
Greece’s infamous neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party has deep connections with and receives considerable support from Russia’s right-wing activists, who operate only with Putin’s approval and implicit imprimatur. Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, even received a letter in prison from Putin adviser and Kremlin insider Alexander Dugin, one of the ideological architects of Putin’s Eurasianist ideology, expressing support for Golden Dawn’s geopolitical positions and requesting a line of communication between Golden Dawn and Dugin’s Kremlin-linked think tank in Moscow.
In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party advocates a set of policies similar to those of France’s National Front: It is against Islamic immigration, against the EU, and against America. In July 2015, the AfD elected Frauke Petry as its leader based on “promises to make every effort to convince Berlin to strengthen ties with Russia.
( Unfortunately Europe is not the bulwark it used to be.  For instance, a Pew Research Center study conducted in spring of 2015 finds that “at least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia. . . . Americans and Canadians are the only publics where more than half think their country should use military action if Russia attacks a fellow NATO member.”)
The Interpreter, the online magazine of the Institute of Modern Russia, a prodemocracy group, says that Russia spreads conspiracy theories in the West.
Conspiracy theories can take a valid complaint, but attribute it to the wrong cause. Take ISIS.
ISIS, the Russian president suggests, is a Western creation— specifically, a creation of the United States, which, after all, housed the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as a POW in Iraq. The Russians have helped foster this conspiracy theory among many Iraqis, which doesn’t make the American project in that beleaguered country any easier. The truth about ISIS is far different, as Putin— and Bashar al-Assad— well know. Assad funded ISIS’s predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, for nearly a decade, as it fought against American forces there.
According to the website “WarOnTheRocks”, Russia encourages
…wide-ranging conspiracy theories promote fear of global calamity while questioning the expertise of anyone who might calm those fears. Russian propaganda operations since 2014 have stoked fears of martial law in the United States, for instance, by promoting chemtrails and Jade Helm conspiracy theories….
Conspiracy sites [may]…repeat and repackage the same basic content for both right- and left-wing consumers. Sometimes, these intermediaries will post the same stories on sites with opposite political orientations.
Sincere conspiracy theorists can get vacuumed up into the social networks that promote this material.
In at least one case, a site described by its creator as parody was thoroughly adopted by Russian influence operators online and turned into an in-ironic component of their promoted content stream, at least as far as the network’s targeted “news” consumers are concerned.
Sloppy thinking, and misattribution of negative events, lead to mischief-making dictators like Putin making inroads with their propaganda, much of which does not have the label “from Russia” on it.  But if real issues – such as the real problems that came with Muslim immigration, the high unemployment in many countries in Europe, and so forth, can be dealt with by responsible leaders who admit there is a problem, and that their constituents are not “deplorables” or whatever other name they come up with, then perhaps the democracies can defuse the power of the movements that Putin wants to make common cause with.
Schoen, Douglas E.. Putin’s Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Global Influence –  Encounter Books. Kindle Edition. 2015

Coercive debating in an Iranian Jail

Maziar Bahari – 118 days in Evin Prison
Maziar Bahari  had left London in 2009 to cover Iran’s presidential election, promising his fiancée Paola that he’d be back in just a few days.  The Iranians arrested him and those few days stretched into three months of violent interrogation in Evin Prison, Iran.
The interrogator, who Maziar called “Rosewater” due to his perfume, explained that Maziar was an agent of foreign intelligence organizations – the CIA, M16, Mossad, and Newsweek.  Maziar thought Rosewater was joking about Newsweek, but he was serious, he believed that Newsweek was a part of the American intelligence apparatus.  Plus, Maziar was supposedly the mastermind of the Western media in Iran.  The editors of most of the American media, Rosewater explained, were assigned by the CIA.
As various more accusations came, Maziar tried to answer them, but got nowhere.  He writes
 In high school, one of my favorite subjects had been logic.  I’d always thought I could follow people’s reasoning…But I had no idea what Rosewater was talking about….All I could do was follow out a logical sequence of my own:
These people are in charge of my life.
They are ideological, ignorant, and stupid.
I am screwed.
There were very weird moments.  Rosewater brought up the topic of the state of New Jersey, and said
All I know is that it is a godless place, like the one you were trying to create in this country.  With naked women and Michael Jackson music!….You were planning to eradicate the pure religion of Mohammad in this country and replace it with ‘American’ Islam.  A New Jersey Islam.
Rosewater backed up his arguments with violence.  This included punching Maziar in the head or slapping him on the legs with a belt, or punching him in the shoulders.
One instance of this was interesting, First Rosewater reminded Maziar of a martyr of the revolution who had said “Tell America to be angry with us and die of that anger!”
Maziar had known that martyr’s family, and also knew that the martyr’s son had been arrested by the current Iranian government.  So he pointed out the irony “I find it ironic that you quote a statement form the heyday of the revolution while you have arrested the son of the man who said it.”
This was a mistake.
Rosewater ‘grasped my left ear and his hand and started to squeeze it as if he were wringing out a lemon.  As the cartilage tore, I could feel the pain, like a slow fever…
Rosewater and his bosses offered a deal to Maziar, he just had to incriminate the reformist politicians he had interviewed as being part of an American plot.
In reality, Maziar was what he presented himself to be – a journalist.  He says that though it is likely that M16 and the CIA did what they could to help dissidents in Iran, it was absurd to blame millions of people’s disenchantment with their government on foreign intelligence agencies.  He also says that in Iran the journalists are often at the service of the government, and a free press was an alien concept.  So the interrogators assumed the same thing was true of the Western press.
Rosewater believed he was doing something good by putting Maziar through all of this.  He said to him:
The whole country is in a turmoil because of you, How can you answer all of the mothers who’ve lost their children because of you?  How can you answer for all the blood you’ve shed since the election?
If we were to compare debate vs interrogation, there was a big difference.  Even though in a normal debate, both debaters may have a predetermined conclusion that they won’t give up, there isn’t the omnipresent threat of violence when one debater says the wrong thing.  In prison, however, you can always win an argument if you can inflict pain when the opposing debater – your prisoner – says something you don’t like.
There is another interrogation that I’ll mention here, it was of a man named Menachem who was sentenced to eight years in a concentration camp in Stalin’s Russia for being a dangerous element in society.  He was a Zionist, and before he was shipped up north, in endless nights of interrogation he debated, with his interrogator, the Russian Revolution, Zionism, the Russian commune and the Jewish kibbutz, Capitalism and Communism, the Spanish Civil War and the French Popular Front.  There was no violence in this interrogation.
Menachem says:
My interrogator was young, tall and handsome, and almost polite in his manner.  He no more doubted my “guilt” than I that his accusations were nonsense.
His basic assumptions was astounding nonsense, but the dialectic super-structure he built up on this foundation was nearly perfect.  During those long nights…[he] told me:
“Zionism in all its forms is a farce and a deception, a puppet show.  Its not true that you aim to set up a Jewish State in Palestine, or that you  intend to being millions of Jews there.  Both these aims are utterly impractical….This talk of a ‘State’ conceals the true purpose of Zionism–which is to divert the Jewish youth from the ranks of the revolution in Europe and put them at the disposal of British imperialism in the Middle East.”
Like Maziar with his statement about irony, which provoked Rosewater, Menachem got his interrogator angry when he pointed out a contradiction – he said that Paragraph 129 of Stalin’s Constitution lays down clearly that the Soviet Union will give refuge to citizens of foreign States persecuted for fighting for national liberation.  So, added Menachem naively, “You have no right to keep me in gaol.”
At these words, the Russian’s face went alternately red and white.  No longer the polite officer, he clenched his fist and raised his voice:  “Stop this nonsense, you stupid lawyer!  You dare quote the Stalin Constitution?
The Russian went on to explain that the quote was out of context, but Menachem tells us it was certainly not out of context.
Menachem says that being in isolation can break revolutionaries.  This isolation is not only physical, but also mental and political, since there is nobody out there who will even be aware of your stand, who your words will reach.
Maziar too talks of psychological methods being more effective than pain in getting prisoners to give up.
The story ended well for both Menachem and Maziar
Menachem Begin

Menachem Begin, being a Polish citizen, was released when Sikorski signed his pact with Stalin.  Menachem made his way to Palestine, became the leader of the Irgun, which rose up against the British.  Eventually, he became Prime Minister of Israel.

Maziar returned to England, and later found out the real identity of “Rosewater”.  He leaves us with a final thought about his interrogator:
The man who woke me up on that morning in June 2009 and put me through a nightmare for 118 days lives a nightmare every day.  He is the one who spends his time in Evin, in a small dark room, beating and humiliating innocent people.  He is just another employee of a bad system, a by-product of ignorance and religious zealotry.
One of these days, Maziar jokes, he will send Rosewater a plane ticket to New Jersey.


Then They Came For Me – Maziar Bahari with Aimee Molloy (2011)
The Revolt – Menachem Begin – (1951, 1977)

Who are the people around us?

Recently, with the astonishing victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election, various Hillary supporters have been trying to figure out what happened.  Meghan O’Rourke speculates that Hillary’s “defeat was a visceral reminder that misogyny and unconscious bias remain powerful forces.”  David Remnick says that  his election was “a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.”
So these two people, and many others, usually on the left side of the political spectrum, now believe there is this huge racist, sexist hinterland that they had ignored up to now.  If they are more charitable, they say that people in the heartland “gave into their fears”.
A conservative commentator, Daniel Greenfield, saw it differently:
It’s midnight in America. The day before fifty million Americans got up and stood in front of the great iron wheel that had been grinding them down. They stood there even though the media told them it was useless. They took their stand even while all the chattering classes laughed and taunted them.
They were fathers who couldn’t feed their families anymore. They were mothers who couldn’t afford health care. They were workers whose jobs had been sold off to foreign countries. They were sons who didn’t see a future for themselves. They were daughters afraid of being murdered by the “unaccompanied minors” flooding into their towns. They took a deep breath and they stood.
They held up their hands and the great iron wheel stopped.
Meghan O’Rourke and David Remnick on the left side of the political spectrum, and Daniel Greenfield on the right are all quite literate, intelligent, educated writers – and yet – look at the vast divide of how they see reality.
So who are all those Trump voters out there?   Some certainly are racist and are proud of it.  But many are not.
Liberal movie maker Michael Moore described some of them:
Donald Trump came to the Detroit Economic Club, and stood there in front of the Ford Motor executives, and said, ‘If you close these factories as you’re planning to do in Detroit and build them in Mexico, I’m going to put a 35 percent tariff on those cars when you send them back, and nobody is going to buy them.’ It was an amazing thing to see. No politician, Republican or Democrat, had ever said anything like that to these executives. And it was music to the ears of people in Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Brexit states. … Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying the things to people who are hurting. And it’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff, who used to be part of what was called the middle class, loves Trump. He is the human Molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for. The human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them. And on Nov. 8, Election Day, although they’ve lost their jobs, although they’ve been foreclosed on by the bank, next came the divorce and now the wife and kids are gone, the car’s been repo’d, they haven’t had a real vacation in years, they’re stuck with the sh–ty Obamacare bronze plan, where you can’t even get a f—ing Percocet. They’ve essentially lost everything they had, except one thing. The one thing that doesn’t cost them a cent and is guaranteed to them by the American Constitution: the right to vote. They might be penniless, they might be homeless, they might be f—ed over and f—ed up, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s equalized on that day: a millionaire has the same number of votes as the person without a job,…
Michael Moore
And some of the Trump voters are just conservatives who don’t like the Democratic party’s agenda.  This is quite hard for liberals to understand.  Liberals see President Obama as a man of integrity and honor, and Hillary as a mildly flawed but well intentioned stateswoman, and they just don’t comprehend how any well-meaning person could oppose them.
And that brings us to another contingent of people out there.
A former Marxist progressive says this:
Ever since I abandoned the utopian illusions of the progressive cause, I have been struck by how little the world outside the left seems to actually understand it…the ruthless cynicism behind its idealistic mask.. the fervent malice that drives its hypocritical passion for “social justice”….No matter what slogans we chanted, or ideals we proclaimed, our agendas always extended beyond the immediate issues we championed to the destruction of the constitutional order of the society in which we lived.
The writer of the above lines was David Horowitz, who now often has to have bodyguards when he speaks at American Universities.  And how does this former Marxist revolutionary view Hillary Clinton, who was the alternative candidate to Trump?  He sees her as a liar in the way she presents herself, hiding the fact that she is a progressive missionary, like many of the people both she and Horowitz associated with in the sixties and seventies.
My point here is not to say who is right or wrong here.  The point is that there are sizable contingents of people out there in society who don’t understand other sizable contingents.
I remember one conservative woman saying about the Obama administration – “we are ruled by sociopaths”.  And a day ago, I read one liberal citing some Trump acquaintance who described Trump as a sociopath.   Again, I’m not saying either person is right or wrong.  I’m trying to illustrate a problem in knowing who people are.
Leaving politics, lets look at another type of person in our environment, namely criminals.
Criminals are not always people just like us, who just happened to have less inhibitions about getting what they want.  There is a subset that are very different than us.
For instance it has been shown that children from Mauritius who show slower heart rates and reduced skin responses when annoyed by loud tones or challenging questions tend to have criminal records when they get older…

There is a theory behind this, and it’s about being insensitive to fear. Normally, a startling noise races the heart and sends the body into a high state of alert, which is what the skin electrodes pick up. But research indicates that children who are not alarmed don’t react to the threat of punishment when they misbehave. Nor do they react to the distress shown by other people. They don’t learn that their bad actions, like causing others pain, have bad consequences for those people.

Neuro-criminologist Adrian Raine had the idea to look for a defect that begins before birth and can still be detected in adults. He knew that in a fetus,

a thin wall of brain tissue develops to separate a cavity into two cavities, and that this becomes the amygdala and other brain areas as development proceeds.
When the wall doesn’t form completely, a condition known by the jawbreaking name of cavum septum pellucidum, it’s usually a sign of abnormal development in the amygdala and other structures. Years later, in adults, the failed wall can be spotted in a brain scan.
Raine found that the condition is also associated with dangerous minds. In a 2010 paper, he and his colleagues compared people with and without the feature on several fronts. The groups were tested for antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and aggression. Their records were searched for criminal arrests and convictions. In every single one of those areas, there were a lot more men and women with the wall defect….

Raine himself is a big believer in protective factors. “You can’t make a lesion to the prefrontal cortex and, hey presto, you get a criminal. It’s not like that,” he says. “Of course social factors are critically important.”

Adrian Raine

Nonetheless, this indicates that there are people around you who look normal on the outside, but are not normal on the inside, in a way that means they don’t feel the way you expect normal people to feel.
People may not understand their own children.

As the families of autistics or schizophrenics wonder what happened to the apparently healthy people they knew, other families grapple with children who have turned to horrifying acts and wonder what happened to the innocent children they thought they understood.
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, seniors at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., … held the whole school hostage, killing 12 students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves. Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, said this to an interviewer afterwards: “I used to think I could understand people, relate, and read them pretty well,” Sue said. “After this, I realized I don’t have a clue what another human being is thinking…”
People are very diverse. I knew a man who was upset whenever he saw “roadkill”. But there are people who hurt animals for fun.  Some get sexually aroused by hurting animals.
Some men hurt animals in front of their wives and children, to intimidate them, so they won’t speak about domestic abuse within the home.

Why do some people and not others pull the wings off butterflies, toss firecrackers at cats, and shoot the neighbors’ dogs with BB guns?
The trait that is responsible is sadism.

The research was dreamed up by Dan Jones at the University of British Columbia (now at the University of Texas at El Paso). The experiment was, as my former psychology teacher Howard Polio used to say, “so good it makes your teeth hurt.”
The researchers constructed a bug crunching machine designed to give cheap thrill to latent sadists. The bug-cruncher was a modified coffee grinder with a tube attached to the top where you could drop live bugs. When a bug was dumped into the machine, the device would make a gruesome crunching sound. The animals used in the study were three pill bugs named Muffin, Tootsie, and Ike. About the size of coffee beans, pill bugs are actually crustaceans and more related to lobsters than true insects (here). Sometimes called roly-polis, pill bugs are cute (sort of), and are sometimes even kept as children’s pets. To enhance their likability, each bug was placed in a individual cup labeled with its name.
After being told the researchers were studying “personality and tolerance for challenging jobs,” the participants completed a battery of questionnaires. These included a measure of the three Dark Triad variables (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.) and a scale designed to measure individual differences in sadistic tendencies (ex., “I have fantasies which involve hurting people.”). They were then told they had to conduct one of four noxious tasks. They could either kill live bugs by dropping them into the crunching machine, help the experimenter kill bugs, clean a dirty toilet, or place their hand in ice cold water (very painful). If a subject chose to kill bugs, they had to actually drop at least one of the bugs into the cruncher. At the end of the experiment, the participants were asked to rate how much pleasure they got from participating in the study.
(Note that subjects who opted to clean the toilet or to put their hand in ice water were stopped before they started the task. And my animal activist pals will be happy to learn that none of the pillbugs were injured in the study—a hidden barrier prevented them from coming into contact with the crusher blades.)Did any of the subjects choose to kill Muffin, Tootsie, or Ike? Yes. Twenty-seven percent of them personally dropped bugs into the crusher, and another 27% choose to help the experimenter kill the bugs. Were the personalities of the bug killers different from the other subjects? Yes. The bug killers had the higher sadism scores than the other groups. Further, the bug killers could either stop at Muffin, or they could also, for kicks, toss Ike and/or Tootsie into the machine. The researchers found that bug killers with high levels of sadism reported they got more pleasure from their dastardly deeds than non-killers. And, as you might expect, the more pleasure the subjects got out of crunching animals, the more bugs they killed.
The most interesting aspect of the study (other than the creativity of the design and the fact that a quarter of college students opted to kill Muffin, Ike or Tootsie), was that a statistical analysis revealed that sadism was a bigger factor in predicting animal cruelty than the Dark Triad variables. …

So to sum up this very disorganized blog post,
1. a quarter of your fellow college students enjoy killing cute bugs.
2. a percentage of people who demonstrate noisily for a cause may not really be all that interested in the cause – it can be a means to an end
3. if you are suddenly shocked by the political choice of large numbers of people, it might be worthwhile to actually investigate why they made that choice, rather than dismiss them as ignorant or worse.
4. Some of your townsfolk may superficially look like everyone else, but may be sadistic, and of them, a smaller subset may have no moral brakes. The evil they do is only limited by their fear of consequences, and that fear may be very muted.