Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Expert Advice

“Sorry, Only Seeing This Now…” Government Finally Text NPHET Back After Recommending Level 5 Restrictions 2 Weeks Ago
 —Headline on the Irish satirical newspaper web site Waterford Whispers, October 19
If you watched the original Star Trek series when you were a kid, as I did, then you may have wondered, as I did, why Mr. Spock was not the ship’s captain instead of James T. Kirk.

Spock was invariably cool, calm and in total control of his emotions. He was a brilliant scientist—in fact he was the Enterprise’s science officer—and a rigorous practitioner of logic. While Kirk was frequently distracted by some bit of intergalactic skirt or otherwise being led by his emotions, Spock was completely dedicated to his work and mission. Whenever Kirk had to absent himself and would tell Spock to “take the com,” things always seemed to run much more efficiently, and the leadership decisions were more consistent and clear.

There is an obvious reason why Kirk was the captain and not Spock. It made for better stories. Efficiently run organizations are not inherently watchable from an entertainment point of view. The show’s writers did actually come up with a justification for the Enterprise’s command structure. In the sixteenth episode of the first season (“The Galileo Seven”), Mr. Spock is in a position of command on an away mission. After an emergency landing on the planet Taurus II, Spock’s manner annoys and frustrates his subordinates no end. A desperate attempt is made to escape the planet, but the shuttle cannot escape the planet’s gravity. In an apparent act of desperation, Spock dumps the craft’s precious remaining fuel and ignites it. This seems pointless and foolhardy, but the flare is spotted by the Enterprise crew, which is then able to save the shuttle passengers by transporter beam in the few remaining seconds.

Kirk—and perhaps the writers—think Spock has learned a lesson in leadership because he acted emotionally rather than logically, but wasn’t Spock’s desperate act actually logical? After all, it succeeded. In a last-ditch situation, trying anything, even with near-zero probability of success, is surely more logical than doing nothing. Still, Kirk’s larger point stands. Leadership is more than just technical expertise.

In times when people get frustrated with their political leaders, you often hear voices arguing that governmental decisions should be made by technocrats or “experts” rather than individuals whose strongest ability is climbing to the top of the political ladder. You particularly hear this nowadays as countries struggle with a long-term emergency medical situation. President Trump has been roundly criticized for being dismissive of Anthony Fauci, a lead member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and other medical advisers. Joe Biden, who looks likely to replace Trump in January, says repeatedly that, as president, he would “follow medical experts’ advice.”

For months Irish politicians smugly compared themselves to Trump and congratulated themselves on following the experts. The self-congratulation stopped abruptly four Sundays ago when the press learned that the country’s chief medical officer, on behalf of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), had written the government advising that the Republic of Ireland move to Level 5, i.e. the most restrictive set of measures currently available. The following evening, in a television interview, Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Leo Varadkar defended the government’s decision to go to a lower-than-recommended level of restrictions, saying the medical advice had come “out of the blue” and was “not thought through.” Sixteen days later, under continuing media criticism and deteriorating case numbers, the government went to Level 5.

In his original defense of the government’s hesitation to tighten restrictions, Varadkar pointed out that the government must take into account all manner of economic and social repercussions, while the medical experts’ brief is limited to the spread of the virus. They have the luxury, if you want to call it that, to strive for minimal risk in their recommendations. The government faces serious risk no matter what it decides. The government’s defenders declared that, while NPHET should be heeded, it is not the government.

One of the strongest arguments I have read for not turning experts into autocrats comes not from some right-wing sheet but from an article two years ago in the left-of-center Guardian. In the piece David Runciman of Cambridge University argued against “epistocracy: the rule of the knowers.” It is a detailed and thoughtful article and well worth reading. Here is the nub of his argument:
Epistocracy is flawed because of the second part of the word rather than the first—this is about power (kratos) as much as it is about knowledge (episteme). Fixing power to knowledge risks creating a monster that can’t be deflected from its course, even when it goes wrong—which it will, since no one and nothing is infallible. Not knowing the right answer is a great defence against people who believe that their knowledge makes them superior.
The nature of science is exemplified by experimentation, debate, revision and skepticism. Ironically, many people, usually not scientists themselves, invoke Science as some immutable ultimate authority, not unlike the way religious fundamentalists would try to shut down arguments by invoking the Old Testament.

Such people would have you believe that there is near-unanimity among scientists on a range of critical issues. Worse, they seem at times to believe the anointed experts are infallible. Certainly, following the prevailing scientific opinion in a crisis is the smart thing to do, but it should never be treated uncritically as received truth. Unanimity of opinion is the virtual antithesis of science. You only have to read the October 4 Great Barrington Declaration by professors from Stanford, Harvard and Oxford or a recent letter to the Irish government signed by fifteen doctors, including those on the frontlines, to realize that there is a healthy debate going on about the best way to deal with pandemic.

By all means, you want Mr. Spock on the ship’s deck for his technical expertise and his advice. The captain, though, will want to hear from him and other crew members and then draw upon his or her own judgment before heading out into the great unknown.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020


“I feel great. I feel, like, perfect. I think this was a blessing from God, that I caught it. This was a blessing in disguise.”
 —President Trump on his having contracted Covid‑19, October 7

“I just think is God’s gift to the left.”
 —Actor/activist Jane Fonda, during a Working Families Party online event, October 2
Sometimes it is worthwhile to look back and recall what was happening a hundred years ago.

As it happens, in 1920 the world was enduring the fourth wave of a pandemic. The first wave of the so-called Spanish Flu had occurred in 1918. Also, in 1920 Russia was midway through a bloody civil war. The two things may or may not be unrelated.

At the beginning of the current year, a lot of political analysts opined that President Trump was sailing toward an easy reelection on the strength of the U.S.’s strong financial numbers. These days, however, because of the Covid‑19 pandemic and its effect on the economy, the smart betting is that he will lose to Joe Biden. Did something similar happen with the 1918-1920 pandemic?

Cause and effect are always tricky to prove, but some historians suggest that the flu’s scourge did have a political effect. Europe was already reeling from a devastating four-year war when the pandemic began. In her 2017 book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, author/journalist Laura Spinney suggests the flu “fanned the flames that had been smoldering since before the Russian revolutions of 1917 … illuminating the injustice of colonialism and sometimes of capitalism too.”

No doubt it was one more factor in the deteriorating post-war situation in Germany, which would eventually lead to a second world war. On the more constructive side, the ravages of the disease prompted citizens of democracies to press for better healthcare systems, a struggle that continues to this day.

Did the Spanish flu really fan the flames of activism, progressivism and radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s? More to the point, is the current pandemic having that effect in our own time? It is arguable whether the prospective election of Biden would necessarily signal a major leftward shift in the American electorate. After all, Democratic primary voters—and more importantly Dem party leaders—seem to have settled on him precisely because, compared to younger Democratic politicians, he looks downright moderate and not scary to most voters. If he wins, it will clearly be a rejection of the incumbent rather than a ringing endorsement of anything voters heard in the primary debates.

Still it cannot be ignored that the Democratic Party, which is by all measures (except perhaps the Electoral College) is the largest of all U.S. political parties, has moved decidedly leftward in the 21st century. A Democratic President and Congress will certainly come under pressure from progressive factions in terms of the economy, social issues and climate change. Republicans would have you believe that the country will go full-blown socialist if Biden is elected and particularly if Democrats also take the Senate.

Experience suggests that is unlikely. The Democratic leadership can use all the right woke buzzwords, but once the party is in control of government they can act pretty darn moderate, usually contorting themselves in blaming the Republican opposition for a lack of results. Remember the 111th Congress (2009-2011) when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress? They got through Obamacare—not even the single-payer system progressives had long fought for—and what else? Climate change? President Obama signed a treaty in Paris but then never submitted it for approval to the Democratic-controlled Senate because it was certain to fail. The party’s reward for its one accomplishment, healthcare reform, was a rout in the 2010 midterm elections.

But maybe things are different now? There’s a new generation of voters. There’s better education. People are more politically active. Young people are finally really engaged. The problem is that these are all things we’ve heard during every election since 1968. We’ll find out after November 3 whether things have really changed that much.

More worrying is how activist progressives will react if their political victory falls short of their ideals. Republicans know how that turns out. Four years ago the party saw many of its usual voters give up on the old establishment types and go for a populist firebrand. Will progressives do something similar if they also decide the system is rigged against them?

Here’s something to chew on. The Times of London reported the other day that a survey of nearly five million people found that those born between 1981 and 1996 had less faith in democratic institutions than previous generations. “The collapse of confidence,” said the paper, “is particularly pronounced in the ‘Anglo-Saxon democracies’ of Britain, the United States and Australia. However, similar trends are seen in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Europe.”

The study was conducted by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University. Roberto Foa, its lead author, said, “This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their twenties and thirties.”

“In western democracies,” reported The Times, “41 per cent of millennials agree that you can ‘tell if a person is good or bad if you know their politics,’ compared with 30 per cent of voters over the age of 35.”

Added Dr. Foa, “The prevalence of polarizing attitudes among millennials may mean advanced democracies remain fertile ground for populist politics.”

One-hundred years ago next month, the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Vladimir Lenin, addressed the Conference of Political Education Workers. He declared, “Each man must choose between joining our side or the other side. Any attempt to avoid taking sides must end in fiasco.”

A century later his words echo strong and clear.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Expat Literary Hero

 They began to raise their voices.
 «Now we have a Fascist dictatorship!»
 «Instead of a Communist one!»
 People sitting near us looked uncomfortable. As for me, I was becoming, strangely and unexpectedly, aroused.
  —Excerpt from Chapter 11 of Searching for Cunégonde
There is something empowering about writing fiction. When you pen a novel, you experience the illusion of being God. You create people. You make them do what you want. You have total control of their fates. You can bestow them with good fortune or you can punish them with senseless tragedy. Their destinies are pretty much literally in your hands.

In practice, it doesn’t really feel that way. Characters—even ones you create yourself—have a way of taking on lives of their own. I think most authors have the strange experience of finding they are channeling their characters rather than controlling them. Your own characters sometimes do things you did not plan or want. Events sometimes take a turn you didn’t see coming when you started out.

These are interesting things to ponder but are probably best left for my book blog where I announced this week the publication of my fifth novel Searching for Cunégonde. More pertinent to this space is the fact that, when one writes a story set in a particular time and place, one is generally constrained by real-world events and situations.

The new book continues the adventures of Dallas Green, the protagonist of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead and Lautaro’s Spear. More pertinent to this space is the background provided by the real world to his story. In all three books, he is a picaresque hero journeying through the strange world in which he finds himself. The first novel was set in 1971, the time of the Vietnam War, the military draft in the U.S., and political unrest in Central America. The second book took place in 1980, the year of a U.S. presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan’s election, the sixth Deauville American Film Festival, and a constitutional referendum in Chile.

The new tome splits its narrative mainly between two different time periods. One strand picks up directly after the end of Lautaro’s Spear in December 1980 and proceeds through the following year. These bits alternate with events in the year 1993. This larger scope allowed me to draw in all sorts of historical references. Dallas experiences several weeks of comfortable living under the Pinochet dictatorship as well as venturing into Argentina, also governed by a military junta. There is then a return to California which not only provides a contrast between South and North America but also an implicit comparison between the rural San Joaquin Valley and the suburbs of the Bay Area. Indeed there are a number of contrasts drawn in this story, for example two very different funerals in two very distinct cultures.

By the time this leg of Dallas’s journey ends, he has become all too acquainted with the violent latter days of Ireland’s Troubles. He has also become a nearly unwitting participant in the bad old days of the Cold War, and he even gets to witness the single most symbolic moment of the fall of Communism.

If I have made Dallas’s exploits sound as if they are all about politics, then I have misled you. In this book, as in the others, the heart of the story is really in the friendships. There is some romance as well, or at least as much romance as a neo-Lost-Generation baby-boomer can manage in a cynical world. He finds himself in bed with an interesting array of lovers and not-quite lovers.

At one point someone compares him to the hero of Voltaire’s Candide, thus tipping my hand. That is how I have always seen him—someone more or less politically innocent, wandering the world with wide eyes and bearing witness to the strangeness and wonder of the wider world.

Appropriately enough for this blog, in the course of this novel Dallas becomes an expat. I tried to capture at least a bit of the disorientation that comes with adjusting to a different culture and functioning in a different language. In the end, though, the goal was always to entertain. Mainly to entertain myself, but in the hope that others might be inadvertently entertained as well.

The paperback edition of Searching for Cunégonde is available from major online booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The digital version is available from Amazon’s Kindle store, Barnes and Noble’s Nook store, Kobo, Google Play and Apple iBooks. For those links and other information, kindly consult my book blog.