The enlightened past

Once upon a time, philosophers could find work with newspapers. There are no such people now. But, back then, Sydney J. Harris was such a person.

Harris (1917-1986) worked for the Chicago Daily News, and, later, the Chicago Sun-Times. For years, he wrote a column called “Strictly Personal,” which was syndicated in 200 newspapers. One of those papers was the Winston-Salem Journal, where I got my first job. When I was college age, not as much was said about liberals vs. conservatives. I only knew that I loved Harris’ columns. He was, of course, a liberal. I should mention that the insufferable William F. Buckley also had a newspaper column in those days, “On the Right,” which was syndicated in even more newspapers — 300. No doubt I read, or tried to read, some of Buckley’s columns, but I have no recollection of it. Buckley would have made no sense to me. His pomposity, and the turgidity of his prose, would have offended me, I’m sure, though Buckley left no lasting impression.

Harris’ columns, I now realize, were formative for me and helped me sort out the political turbulence of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. I think about Harris from time to time, as though he was a mentor. In a way, he was.

Unfortunately, Harris’ books are out of print. His reputation has not carried forward very well into the Internet era. As a kind of memorial, I would like to reproduce here two columns. Both of the columns are taken from the book The Best of Sydney J. Harris, which was published in 1975. Some of the columns, I believe, may go back as far as the 1950s.

We are not fit to colonize space

By Sydney J. Harris

A few days after our successful orbiting of the moon, a friend expressed the hope that this venture would teach people humility in the face of the universe.

“If this helps us realize how vast outer space is, and how small our globe is,” he said, “then it might make us all feel more united as inhabitants of this tiny speck of dust whirling in space.”

This would be a commendable lesson to learn, I agree, but I doubt that we would draw so philosophical an inference from the moon project. Rather, I suggested bleakly, it might lead us in the opposite direction.

Instead of regarding space exploration as a common effort binding mankind together, it is far more likely that we will simply extend our competitiveness from inner to outer space, and look upon the solar system as competing nations once regarded explorations on earth — as places to plant flags, to colonize, to use as economic resources and military outposts.

Unless we make some unexpected quantum jump in our thinking and feeling, we will simply extrapolate to other worlds the same greed and vanity, the same lust for possession and domination, the same conflict over boundaries and priorities throughout the solar system.

What is even more dire, we might also export the contamination of our planet, not merely in terms of wars and prejudices and injustices, but quite physically, in terms of bacteria and viruses and all the assorted pollutions of earth, air and water that are rapidly making our own globe nearly uninhabitable.

Nothing in our history, early or recent, indicates that we are not prepared to despoil other planets as carelessly and contemptuously as we have turned ours from green to gray, from fair to foul, from sweet to sour, in the countryside as well as in the cities — so that even sunny, snowy Switzerland has shown a 90 percent increase in smoke content and turbidity of the air in the last two decades.

We are no more morally or spiritually equipped to colonize other parts of the solar system — given our past level of behavior on earth — than a hog is fit to march in an Easter parade. Our technical genius so far outstrips our ethical and emotional idiocy that we are no more to be trusted to deal lovingly and creatively with another planet than a rhesus monkey can be allowed to run free in a nuclear power plant.

The astronauts are bold men, and the scientists who sent them up are bright men, but they are not the ones who will decide what is done once we get there. The same old schemers will be running the show.

Radical righters are fascists

By Sydney J. Harris

It’s an interesting peculiarity of our social order that while the term “communist” is flung around frequently and often carelessly, its opposite number, “fascist,” is hardly used at all.

In Europe, this is not the case. People have no hesitancy in speaking of the right-wing radicals as “fascists,” for this is what they are. To speak of them as “extreme conservatives” is a foolish contradiction in terms.

And it seems quite plain to me that there are many more fascists and fascist sympathizers in the United States than there are communists and their sympathizers — unless, of course, you care to adopt the fascist line and suggest that everyone who favors staying in the U.N. and retaining Social Security is a Red fellow-traveler.

We seem to be so exercised about communist influence in this country, which is negligible, both in numbers and in appeal to the American temper. Yet, year by year, one sees a fascist spirit rising among the people, although it is called by many other and softer names, and has even achieved a certain dubious respectability in some circles.

There is no reason why there shouldn’t be a fascist movement in this country; nearly every nation has one. But it should be called by its right name, and it should be willing to accept the consequences of its position, as the fascist parties do elsewhere.

It has no business masquerading as “Americanism” or “conservatism” or “patriotism,” when its whole philosophy of man is based on a hate-filled exclusiveness that would shock and affront the conservative American patriots who founded this country.

What is distressing about this movement is the tacit or open support given it by men who genuinely think of themselves as “conservatives,” and who do not understand the implications of right-wing radicalism any more than the German industrialists understood what would happen to them when Hitler swept into power with their support.

Just as Communism always begins with an appeal to “humanity” and “equality” and always ends with inhuman despotism, so does fascism always begin with an appeal to “nationalism” and “individualism,” and ends with a military collectivism far worse than the disease it purports to cure.

These twin evils are the mirror-image of one another. It would be the supreme irony if, in rejecting the blandishments of communism, we fell hysterically into the arms of fascism disguised (as always) as Defender of the Faith.

Why doesn’t it mold?

Month-old commercial bread — no sign of mold

A month ago I bought a loaf of commercial bread for my annual ritual of the year’s first garden-tomato sandwich. Today I found the leftover bread on top of the refrigerator. There is not the slightest sign of mold. The bread label boasts that the bread contains no preservatives — at least no “artificial” preservatives. What is going on?

I found that, if I Googled for “Why doesn’t bread mold?” there were a lot of conflicting and confusing answers. I changed Google’s search parameters to show links less than a year old, thinking that there must surely be something new involved, and then the answers started looking more plausible.

The bread contains an ingredient called “cultured wheat flour.” That, I believe, is the magic ingredient.

It’s not clear how long “cultured wheat flour” has been in use. I suspect that it’s for less than 10 years. Clearly it is effective at preventing bread from molding. It is made from wheat flour that has been fermented with a bacterium called Propionibacterium freudenreichii. According to an article at BakerPedia, this bacterium is found in dairy foods including Swiss cheese, so it has been around forever and can be considered safe. According to the article, it is as effective as chemical preservatives at inhibiting mold. “As a result,” said the article, “it is growing in popularity in all natural and organic products.”

This bread is from a baking company called “Nature’s Own,” which is owned by Flower’s Foods. This bread is sold not only at my nearest Whole Foods in Winston-Salem, it’s also sold into the very bottom of the market — Dollar General stores. Apparently Whole Foods is satisfied that the bread passes muster.

The calcium-containing ingredients near the end of the list, by the way, are leavening agents that fizz when combined and are probably nothing to get terribly excited about.

The question I was trying to answer was whether it would be safe to give the leftover bread to the chickens. I think that the answer is yes. It’s scary, actually, to eat a food that resists being biodegraded. But fermentation is a natural process that does exactly that, and humans have taken advantage of fermentation as a way of preserving food for thousands of years.

Dissenting views? Please comment…

Not on the agenda: Caring and justice

One of the most useful concepts I’ve come across in a long time is the idea of moral foundations theory, which I wrote about back in February. The theory posits six “moral foundations,” some of which predominate in liberals and some in conservatives. They are:

Fairness (which we can equate with justice)

In liberals, caring and fairness are prevalent. In conservatives, it is loyalty, authority, purity, and liberty. There is some overlap, of course. Conservatives care about family, and to some degree they care about people who are just like them. But if you’re not just like them, then mostly they see little basis for caring about you, and you’re on your own. And liberals have strong feelings for liberty, though we liberals would never tolerate injustice in the name of liberty, whereas conservatives have a high tolerance for that.

ProPublica posted an article this week with the headline “Has the moment for environmental justice been lost?” The article says that Donald Trump has put the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice on the chopping block. It’s not that the Office of Environmental Justice is expensive. It costs only $2 million a year. It’s because the words “environmental justice” stick in the conservative craw, combining two thing that don’t fit with conservative (or libertarian) ideas about liberty.

Trump, of late, has been ranting about loyalty. To normal people, loyalty is reciprocal — I’ll look out for you because I care about you, and because reciprocity is fair, knowing that you’ll look out for me. But to a deranged man like Trump, as an article in Vox points out today, loyalty is a one-way thing owed to the big man. And the big man retains the arbitrary and unreciprocal authority to throw those loyal to him under the bus.

During the last year, through the horror of the Trump campaign and Trump’s first six months in office, we have learned much about how the supposedly moral foundations of conservatism lead conservatives to think, speak, and act during our era — a globalized era in which their thinking, speaking, and acting are amplified by globalization and their prowess in using technology. For example:

— Inequality doesn’t matter. In fact, they want more inequality. George Lakoff has described the conservative moral hierarchy thus: God above man, man above nature, rich above poor, employers above employees, adults above children, Western culture above other cultures, America above other countries, men above women, whites above non-whites, Christians above non-Christians, and straights above gays. Inequality is both good and godly, because they believe that this also is the hierarchy that is in the mind of God.

— It is better that the rich should have tax cuts than that 30 million people should have health insurance.

— Racism and a threat of violence can be tolerated and even encouraged, since it’s a basis of their righteous power.

— Corrupt Russian plutocrats are our friends. Democrats are the true enemy.

— Screw the earth. It’s our liberty to exploit it.

— If you’re poor, it’s your own fault, and we’ll do our best to keep you from voting because all you want is to take from the rich.

— No one is owed an education. If you can’t afford it, tough. (Though training labor for corporations at public expense may be OK. Real educations are actually dangerous in the lower classes and are to be discouraged.)

— Health care is not a right. If you can’t afford it, tough.

— The market can do no wrong. Government can do no right.

— To the maximum degree it can be gotten away with politically, profits should be private and costs legally transferred to the public.

— Thank God for scapegoats such as transgender people.

— Ethics? What ethics?

— If it’s not in accord with what we believe, it’s a lie. If we believe it, it’s true.

I would argue that there is something inherently crazy-making about over-esteeming both liberty and authority. Others have pointed out how authoritarians actually crave to submit — to the big man, at least. Liberals have no such problem, because we are highly skeptical of authority.

If white, conservative Trump supporters were a majority even in their own country, then a kind of repressed political stability might be possible. But Trump is in office even though he did not get a majority of the votes, and only because of meddling in the election to an extent not yet known. Six or so percent of the people who voted for him already have turned against him. In other words, the situation is extremely unstable and unsustainable. The iron heel becomes more necessary each day. It remains to be seen whether the damage done to our governing institutions can be restored after Trump is thrown down. But turmoil is guaranteed from here on out.

Moral foundations theory is presented as an objective, values-free way of categorizing people, which is as it should be with a pragmatic theory. To be a conservative, according to the theory, is just as normal for some people as being a liberal is for others.

But now that we have seen 63 million white, angry, ill-informed, ill-educated, heavily propagandized Americans rise up and elect a new kind of leader, and now that we see what kind of leader that is, and now that we see what the Republican Party has at last become, let us please stop deceiving ourselves. Conservatism is not just a normal and alternative way of being. Though ugly in all times, in our times conservatism is deeply pathological and very dangerous. Conservatism is hostile to every virtue and every value that will be needed if humanity (and the planet we live on) is to survive for another hundred years.

John Rawls:

The unjust man seeks dominion for the sake of aims such as wealth and security…. The bad man desires arbitrary power because he enjoys the sense of mastery which its exercise gives to him…. By contrast, the evil man aspires to unjust rule precisely because it violates what independent persons would consent to in an original position of equality, and therefore its possession and display manifest his superiority and affront the self-respect of others…. What moves the evil man is the love of injustice: he delights in the impotence and humiliation of those subject to him and relishes being recognized by them as the author of their degradation.

Which kind of man is Trump? He might once have been merely an unjust man. I would argue that, when he was running for president, he had become a bad man. And now, week by week, he becomes more evil. We also have seen Trump’s conservative moral depravity echoed in the kind of people he has surrounded himself with. Conservatives cannot conceive of themselves as morally depraved. After all, they go to church; they go around saying God, God, God; they make a great show of praying; and they would like to paint “In God We Trust” on every government building in America. But they are proving themselves to be actively depraved. They are acting it out.

To direct our resistance only at the big man and the Republican government is insufficient. There remains the problem of the 63 million people who voted for this and how their conservatism has damaged them and is damaging the rest of us. What is a solution to that, a solution compatible with caring and fairness? What does caring and fairness owe to the morally depraved? I don’t know, though cleaning up their messes and comforting those they are afflicting is part of it. Their big man acts like a child, a child with vast powers, and they’re OK with that. What they all have done cannot be overlooked or forgotten.

The Brontës: To Walk Invisible

For literature lovers, “To Walk Invisible” is a must-see. It’s a two-hour, two-part British production about the Brontë sisters, shown this spring in the U.S. on PBS and now available on DVD.

It is an extremely strange production, and it will give Brontë fans hours of arguing and brooding material. As far as I know, Juliet Barker’s massive tome of a biography of the Brontës (1994) remains the go-to biography. I have not read the entire book (it’s 1,004 pages, and I bought it years ago partly as a reference), but I have read much of it. Based on the Barker biography, I would have said that the chief feature of the sisters’ life in their Yorkshire parsonage would have been unremitting boredom relieved only by imagination. But “To Walk Invisible” shows the household in constant turmoil, a turmoil caused mainly by Branwell’s alcoholism and his overall dysfunction.

The casting is superb. How is it possible that Ireland and the British Isles go and and on producing such superb young actors and actresses? Is it their training? Normally I am quite good at following regional accents in the British Isles, but the northern accents in “To Walk Invisible” were a challenge, especially Emily’s, played by Chloe Pirrie, who is Scottish. Finn Atkins, who plays Charlotte, is English. Charlie Murphy, who plays Anne, is Irish. So I can’t vouch for the authenticity of their northern accents, but they sure threw me. If the dialogue is a problem, you can turn on English subtitles. Jonathan Pryce is a superb Patrick Brontë, and Pryce speaks a perfect Oxford-Cambridge English.

Whether or not Brontë scholars would give their seal of approval to the accuracy of the details of the events and dialogue and turmoil inside the Brontë parsonage (mostly I think they would not), this is a beautiful production. It also gets out onto the moors, dogs and all. Any telling of the Brontës’ story is going to be heartbreaking and heavy on pathos, in that they died far too young and far too unhappy. Only Charlotte lived long enough to enjoy her fame. But a part of appreciating the Brontë contribution to English literature is an appreciation of how badly they suffered to produce it.

Into the Woods: the 10th anniversary

Tomorrow, July 18, will be the 10th anniversary of the Into the Woods blog.

I started the blog while I was still living in San Francisco, more than a year before I actually moved to North Carolina. I hope you will indulge me for a moment for a few self-referential comments.

• In the past 10 years, I have written 1,219 posts, totaling almost 400,000 words. That would equal about four good-size novels.

• About half the readership of the blog is by regular readers who come here almost every day. The other half come from web searches, people who stop by to read an article on a particular subject.

• The most-Googled post is the one on “Buffalo China — a sad American story.”

• Quite a few people stick around and read dozens and dozens of posts, pretty much all the posts about the building of the house at Acorn Abbey, a gothic revival cottage. I’ve lost count, but a number of people have bought the plans to the house from the architect, Rodney Pfotenhauer, and have built (or are at present building) a similar house. I’m going to guess that I’ve helped Pfotenhauer make a good bit of money (which he richly deserves).

• About a third of the blog’s regular readers are outside the United States, particularly in Europe. Readers who come here from Google are from all over the world and are particularly interested in my more nerdy posts, including my post on the Nikon Model S microscope and the post on rebuilding classic Peerless speakers.

• During the past five years, five books have been conceived and/or written here — three by Ken, and two by me. Of course there will be more.

• I am planning a book on the building of Acorn Abbey, but that book is in the queue behind the third Ursa Major novel, to be released next year. It will be a book not just about building a particular house, but about downsizing and simplifying while remaining a productive citizen and staying involved with the world.

Thanks for being a reader! And here’s to the next 10 years.

Coming Dec. 15: The Last Jedi

Today Disney released a teaser for the next Star Wars Film, “The Last Jedi.” The film will be released Dec. 15.

It is thrilling to see Gwendolyn Christie cast in the new film. She is the 6’3″ British actress who plays Brienne in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” It’s heartwarming to see new scenes with Carrie Fisher, who is now dead. She had already filmed her scenes before her death. It appears that we will return to Ireland’s Skellig Michael, one of the most magical places in the world.

Those of us who would curl up and die without stories are looking forward to Season 7 of “Game of Thrones,” which starts tomorrow. And looking forward to “The Last Jedi” should see us safely through til Christmas.

⬆︎ Gwendolyn Christie

This Land Is Our Land

Ken has completed his next book, and it is due at the publisher this week. The book is This Land Is Our Land: How we lost the right to roam and how to take it back. It will be released next April.

The book came about after Ken published a piece in the New York Times last year, “This Is Our Country. Let’s Walk It.”

Ken calls the book radical. But having read the manuscript two or three times, I would say that it’s radical only to those who hold, as Ken says, a despotic view of property rights. The book is scholarly but very readable (as Ken always is). It’s brilliantly researched and documented, with 575 footnotes. It is, in many ways, a book about the law. But it also imagines a future that I’m pretty sure the readers of this blog would like.

A great feast of reckoning is coming

Don Jr. and Eric Trump, during their now-gone days of gloating

They thought that they could get away with it. With the presidency and the executive-branch bureaucracy in their hands, with both houses of Congress, and with a stolen seat on the Supreme Court, it looked like a slam-dunk to them.

They’d have all the power they needed to never be found out and brought to justice. They’d be able to make deals with the Republican party to enact the entire right-wing agenda — vast new riches for the rich; new miseries for the old, the poor and the sick; a deregulatory ax to any kind of restraint on exploitation, whether of disempowered people or of the earth; Orwellian levels of lies and deception along with a mewling media too weak and demonized to challenge it; more dumbing down of the masses, from the first grade to the universities; ingenious new laws to lock all of this in place even when a strong majority rose up against them; a pool of white trash brownshirts in the flyover lands, always angry and primed for violence; blow jobs and a cut of the tax money for the white preachers; perpetual degradation and a life of fear for godless liberals and all the others they hate; ever crueler courts, as they continue to stack the courts; new powers for right-wing state governments; more prisons — prisons that even turn a profit; a new international alignment playing kissy-kissy with kleptocracies (and kleptocrats) while insulting people-oriented democracies (and their leaders); unrestrained American corruption on the Russian model; and an American democracy crushed and looted, like Pinochet’s Chile.

Though we are still not out of the woods, with luck we may have just passed the point at which the tables have turned.

The New York Times has turned the tables during the past four days with an ever-tightening noose — a noose of treason — around the neck of Donald Trump Jr. Actually, though, the noose was not made by the New York Times. Rather, the noose was made by whoever supplied the brilliant sequence of leaks that have forced Donald Jr. to incriminate himself ever more deeply with each day’s new leak. So far there have been four days of leaks about the meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016. But we may not be done yet. Young Trump, according to the emails revealed by the Times, was delighted at the prospect of getting some dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian operatives. With that dirt, they’d be able to stampede the media, bamboozle the voters, enrage their base, and make Sanders supporters hate Hillary as much as Republicans did. We don’t yet know whether they tampered with elections systems, though we do know they tried. They’d be able to say (and say, and say, and say) that they’d won the election. Therefore they’d have had themselves a masterpiece worthy of a narcissistic crime family — a legal coup. Apparently they are so narcissistic that Donald Senior even boasted about Russian help, as though it never occurred to him that justice could ever catch up with a Trump.

And it’s not just Donald Jr. whose neck is in a noose. This is going to be a wholesale hanging. Jared Kushner also was at the meeting, as was Paul Manafort. This morning, the Palmer Report reported that ProPublica has recovered an old tweet that reveals that Reince Priebus, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, was at Trump Tower on the morning of the meeting. So it seems likely that the Republican party was in on the treason, too. Donald Senior denies knowing anything about the meeting or the conspiracy, but if you believe that, then I have a big building or two in New York to sell you, if you don’t mind the underwater mortgages.

Now we wait for the wheels of justice. We liberals are used to that. We know all too well that the wheels of justice turn slowly, and we know all too well who it is who always tries to break the wheels of justice. Because it’s always the same damned people.

Just think how they gloated after the election. Remember how they taunted us? Are they gloating now? How well do you suppose they’re sleeping? How paranoid do you suppose they are about which piece of the story is going to be revealed next?

And so, unless they are somehow able to head this off, then the same democratic institutions in Washington that have stopped them before will stop them again. Government. No wonder they hate it.

But that’s just Washington’s justice, and that’s not justice enough. Almost 63 million Americans voted for this. Some already regret it. Some never will. To them, the biggest shit show in American history promised to make us strong again. And the most depraved character in American politics — ever — looked presidential. That is deeply pathological. It’s terrifying. The Republican party enabled it (and is still trying to head off justice).

Because I live in the sticks, I am acutely aware of another matter of justice and of holding people responsible for what they have done. As I have said before in this space, anyone who voted for Donald Trump has forfeited the right to be called a decent human being. We have to figure out how to handle that. Speaking strictly for myself, I am not willing to ever forget it.

Informed delivery??

Back in April, the U.S. Postal Service rolled out a new feature called “Informed Delivery.” If you sign up for it, then each morning you’ll receive an email from the postal service with a scanned grayscale image of each piece of mail that is to be delivered to you that day.

I wasn’t aware of this until I picked up a promotional leaflet about it while I was at the post office today. My first reaction had to do with privacy. Obviously they’re taking pictures of every single piece of mail that passes through the post office.

After a little Googling, I learned that the post office has been taking pictures of all the mail since the 1990s. It’s part of the address-scanning and automatic sorting process. But just think what they can do with that. Not only do they have pictures of all the mail, but they also can cross-reference all the addresses and feed a database that documents who knows whom, and who does business with whom. In other words, there is no private way of communicating with anyone anymore — not by telephone, not through email, and not through the post office. You can be sure that it’s all in a database somewhere, indexed, cross-referenced and retained.

Privacy questions aside, what might Informed Delivery be good for? I live about a quarter of a mile from my mailbox. It actually would be nice to know in advance what, if anything, is in the mailbox before I go out to retrieve the mail. I don’t necessarily go to the mailbox every day. But yeah, I signed up for it.

In its promotional material on Informed Delivery, the postal service says that they hope it will make the postal service seem more relevant to millenials, since millenials’ lives apparently revolve around their smartphones. And apparently, for those who have signed up for the service, it’s popular. The postal service says that almost 80 percent of the people who receive the daily emails look at them. (You do know, don’t you, how businesses can tell whether you opened a piece of mail?)

It seems the postal service will also try to use it for marketing. Companies that send mail will be able to pay the postal service for little ads that will be displayed in the daily emails, when something the company has mailed is scheduled to be delivered that day. Direct marketers are trying hard to figure out how to leverage that.

In any case, now we know that someone has pictures of all the mail we’ve received since sometime in the 1990s. We can assume that the mail can be searched by name and address, and we can assume that they can build lists of everybody we’ve ever sent mail to or received mail from. We also should assume that the mail can be cross-referenced to telephone calls and emails. Keep in mind that, as you drive each day, particularly in urban and suburban areas, your license plate is frequently scanned by roadway cameras, and thus your car can be tracked. Your cell phone is a tracking device. And of course they have, or at least have access to, a database of credit card transactions. What you do with your computer is tracked.

It is better to be aware of these things than not to be aware. And I think it’s better to monitor the ways we’re monitored than not to. Normally all that stuff is stored, and ignored, in vast databases. But when they want to build a dossier on someone, just think how much they’d know.

Here’s a thought experiment. If you wanted to communicate with someone at a distance in a way that could not be monitored and that would not leave a record, would you be able to do that? If so, how?


I got my first Informed Delivery email this morning. Here’s what it looks like — a DVD from Netflix’s DVD division, and what appears to be an invitation to an elementary school reunion. It’s kind of cool, actually, because now I know that I need to go up to the mailbox today and retrieve the DVD.