Economics, Law, Politics, Religion

This Has Never Happened Before

Free Photo: Arica After 1868 Earthquake

Soon, a corrupt, emotionally unstable demagogue and white nationalist fellow-traveler will be inaugurated as President of the United States. He will be supported by a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, and, soon, the return of a Republican majority on the Supreme Court. He will also have the passionate, unwavering loyalty of a mass following that believes even his most outlandish lies.

Donald Trump’s assumption of the presidency poses the greatest threat to our country of any event in my lifetime. In a future post, I hope to collect in one place what seem to me the best proposals for protecting the United States by opposing and resisting the Trump presidency on every front.

In this post, I would like to consider the stakes of the coming months and years.

The dangers of this presidency have no precedent in modern American history. Since the United States became a global military power, not to mention a nuclear power, no President has been remotely as emotionally unstable, unqualified, hostile to democracy, or allied with enemies of the United States as Donald Trump.

I will offer only one example, focusing on the last point. Our incoming President has openly taken the side, against citizens of the United States, of a hostile foreign power that attacked them. Donald Trump has openly and unapologetically sided with an enemy of the United States against the American victims of the enemy’s attack.

Nothing like this has ever happened before, to my knowledge, in American history.

It is now known that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed attacks on American computer servers and released emails stolen from Americans in an attempt to increase Trump’s chances of being elected. The incoming President has long been pro-Putin—most likely a result of his longstanding, repeatedly announced admiration for authoritarian tyrants, his many business dealings with Russian oligarchs, his susceptibility to cheap flattery, his sympathy for Putin’s anti-Islamic ethnic nationalism, and his unwitting reliance on Russian-funded news media and advisers in the pay of the Kremlin.

Instead of condemning Russia’s violations of the rights of fellow Americans, the incoming President defends Putin. Trump is openly and unapologetically on the side of a foreign enemy that attacked Americans.

Day after day, month after month, year after year, Trump continues to defend this petty tyrant and butcher who promotes ethnic hatred around the world, who has had journalists and political opponents jailed and killed, who has stolen billions of dollars from his people, who is responsible for mass atrocities in Syria and elsewhere, and who recently invaded and occupied a sovereign European state. Putin is not only an enemy of the United States. He is an enemy of the human race.

This is the man that Donald Trump, our incoming President, has praised and continues to praise. An attacker on the United States. A foreign enemy.

Our incoming President supports the butcher Putin, praises him, and defends his illegal interference in our elections and his crimes against our fellow citizens. Our incoming President’s party remains largely silent in response to this unprecedented betrayal of the United States.

This has never happened before. What will happen next?

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A defense of the humanities

Continuing from where my earlier post on the humanities left off:

One of the sources of the crisis in the humanities – maybe the primary source – is the unprecedented success of science over the last several hundred years in expanding our understanding of the world. “The sciences” are the primary opposing term to “the humanities” when we talk about a crisis in the humanities, as the recent debate between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier illustrated.

So one challenge for defenders of the humanities is to show valuable things that humanistic study can do that can’t be done by the natural or social sciences. I think there are a lot of such things, but I rarely hear defenders of the humanities stating what they are in clear and accessible terms — in language that might persuade someone who is not already convinced of the humanities’ value. This post is a first attempt at describing at least one very valuable thing that the humanities, and the humanities alone, can do.

As an initial note, I should say I’m a big fan of science. I don’t have much sympathy for the adoption of a skeptical attitude toward science generally, rather than a critical attitude toward various aspects of how various sciences happen to be conducted today. There’s always room for improvement, refinement, and reform, as any good scientist would agree. Maybe some esoteric branches of theoretical physics will turn out to have been making unfalsifiable claims; the funding mechanisms for research obviously shape what gets studied, as do other institutional factors that may be flawed, such as academic hiring and publication procedures; and certainly there are a number of obvious problems with the social sciences today, such as the bias toward publishing surprising psychological findings that turn out to be impossible to replicate, and the much-lamented fixation of mainstream economics on beautiful but useless or worse-than-useless mathematical models. Also, reasonable questions can be raised about the effects of our ever-expanding technologies on the ways we live and think. Despite all of this, can anyone seriously doubt that the natural sciences, and increasingly the social sciences, have for the last few centuries been responsible for an incalculable expansion of our ability to predict and control what happens in our world, and that this is a pretty good sign that they’ve incalculably expanded our understanding of the world as well? The point really shouldn’t need stating. But sometimes in a conversation about the sciences and the humanities, you come across anti-technologism, primitivism, or metaphysical mysticism that attempts to defend the value of the humanities by denying or downplaying the ability of science to help us understand and explain.

So let’s give credit to the natural sciences, and even the social sciences, where credit is due. Much of psychology may consist of weak experimental verification of obvious and trivial observations about common human traits, and economics may often go astray when attempting to become a physics where no physics is possible – but psychologists have also proven a number of significant and arguably surprising hypotheses, such as the widespread persistence of latent racial bias; and we’re certainly better off having contemporary economic modeling tools such as the IS/LM curve, rather than having no way at all to predict the likely effects of lowering interest rates in the wake of a housing bubble and financial crisis like the ones we have just experienced. I’m as frustrated as the next person when I come across a physicist making inept philosophical claims about how science has finally discovered why there is something rather than nothing; or when I read an unfalsifiable “explanation” of some psychological or cultural trait based on a just-so story about our evolutionary history; or when I come across yet another botched attempt to use neuroscience to answer questions that neuroscience cannot yet answer, or – worse – questions for which neuroscience can by definition contribute nothing, because they are questions about the meanings of things, or about what should be the case and not what is; or when someone makes a clumsy attempt to apply the latest technology (such as “big data”) to the humanities, and in the process only shows that they fail to understand the most important questions that the humanities address.

Yes, I’m as frustrated as the next person with all of these examples of social scientists overreaching. But it’s not enough to criticize what is wrong in some social scientists’ imperialistic forays into the humanities. It’s equally important to say – clearly, explicitly – what the humanities do right.

So here is one thing the humanities do right:

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