How to Make People Believe Absolutely Anything (In 5 Simple Steps)

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Anyone — yes, even you — can induce people, or at least a large number of people, to believe absolutely anything, no matter how absurd. And there is plenty of living proof out there. Consider Alex Jones, who has a huge following, many of whom believe that 9-11 was an inside job, that Sandy Hook was staged, that children are being abducted and shipped off to a slave colony on Mars, that pigs and gorillas have been given human brains and are running around talking, that a pedophilia ring is being run out of a pizza parlor, and that millions of people voted illegally in the last election. But perhaps the ultimate illustration of how preposterous persuasion works is a man who gets much of his “information” from Jones: his big fan and close ally, the man currently sitting in the Oval Office.

He is undoubtedly the most dishonest, corrupt and inept individual ever to occupy the White House. Yet he has a loyal cult following who still believe that he is honest, forthright and a successful businessman and brilliant leader who is somehow Making America Great Again — and even believe, perhaps most astoundingly of all, that he is a Good Christian. How did we get here?

Many people felt, and still feel, blindsided by the last election. But while the man himself seems to have come out of nowhere, it was inevitable that someone like him would be elected sooner or later. Because the way has been prepared for literally decades by a fringe media consisting of feverish AM talk show hosts, Fox “News” talking heads, and countless newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites. What they have done, anyone can do. And while it may require time and effort, it all boils down to 5 simple steps.

1. Tell them what they already want to hear

Savvy manipulators know that it’s easier to persuade people to wade in up to their necks if you can just convince them to get their feet wet first. Most of us are constantly seeking confirmation of what we already believe (the confirmation bias). When somebody reinforces our beliefs, we tend to regard them as more reliable and trustworthy in general. That’s why manipulators so often make a display of religiosity; committed religious individuals are especially prone to blind trust in anyone they perceive to be ardent followers of the One True Faith — otherwise priests wouldn’t be able to work their boyish charms so successfully. Begin with “Make America Great Again” (whatever the hell that means), and in no time you can work your way up to “millions voted illegally” and “I had a record-breaking victory”.

2. Stoke emotional responses, especially fear and rage

Ronald Reagan was gifted with that proverbial knack for faking sincerity; consequently, he is widely regarded, even today, as a man of impeccable honesty and character, even though he constantly lied through his teeth. (Indeed, with the exception of George W. Bush, it’s likely that no president lied more — until now, when the current White House Occupant dwarfs them both combined). But his sober demeanor was quite unusual among demagogues; they usually realize that while any statement carries more weight if delivered with emotion, the most potent emotions are fear and anger.

Typically, you just don’t hear demagogues speak in a calm, rational tone of voice; it’s more common to hear them sounding like fundamentalist preachers warning of hellfire and damnation than (like Reagan) kindly uncles delivering a homey morality tale. They will raise their voices, they will pound on their desks, they will relate little stories (factual or not) that supposedly validate their point, they will make their voices quiver, they will sometimes even bring themselves to tears.

The most effective message of all is “you are being threatened” or better yet “you are under attack”; particularly since these are messages that many people are already eager to hear. Thus the eternal popularity of silly narratives like transgender bathroom predators, the War on Christmas, and “they’re coming to take your guns”.

There is a part of our brain (the amygdala) that is constantly on the lookout for danger. In caveman days, it was conditioned to be suspicious of anything unknown; after all, that rustling in the bushes very well could be a lion scouting out lunch.  But even though the human race as a whole has long outgrown this mindset, there are still many people (we generally call them “conservatives”) who view the unfamiliar as something to be feared; and view people who promote, represent or advocate for acceptance of anything unfamiliar as enemies to be hated. Political opponents and ideological complements are no longer viewed as mere opponents and complements; they are mortal foes against whom you should prepare for “another civil war”.

3. Find someone to hate

It stands to reason that if you are going to control people effectively with fear and rage, then there must be a “them” to direct the fear and rage toward. You must find a suitable scapegoat to blame for all your (real or imagined) problems. It’s helpful to pinpoint specific individuals (e.g., Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) but entire demographic sectors work even better. In the past, a number of groups have served this purpose well: Muslims, gays, African-Americans, communists, and most notoriously, Jews.

The current White House Occupant targeted brown-skinned foreigners, falsely claiming that Mexicans have driven up crime and that Muslims celebrated in the streets on 9-11. His cult followers certainly jumped on board with those sentiments, but they reserved their most venomous hostility for a much larger and longer established enemy that the right-wing media have hammered away at for years: “liberals”.

“Liberals” are always an ideal target because they are a motley and loosely defined assortment that constitutes at least half the population of the United States, including many people all around you — friends, neighbors, relatives and coworkers. Yet they are supposedly people who hate America, want to kill you and enslave you (not necessarily in that order), and want to sacrifice unbaptized babies on an altar devoted to the worship of Hollywood celebrities.

4. Project your own sins onto others

The quickest and most effective way to divert attention away from your true motives, flaws and misdeeds is to accuse someone else of the same thing — as loudly, and as quickly as possible, before people start realizing it’s really you who are the guilty party. Thus during the campaign the future White House Occupant made a point of branding his opponent as a liar and a crook, even while he himself was breaking all records for dishonesty and corruption. He was following the lead of his harbingers and cheerleaders in the right-wing media who have been howling for decades about how (all other) media is extremely biased and untrustworthy.

People with legitimate adult criticism usually focus on the specific complaint rather than making a broad generalization. When a person repeatedly applies derogatory labels or vague accusations to someone else, it’s usually a sign that you should examine the behavior of the person doing the applying.

5.  Lather, rinse, repeat

The more frequently people hear something, the more likely they are to believe it. So don’t just state your claims and make your case once. Proclaim them over and over and over, day after day after day. Crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary. Fake news, fake news, fake news. Liberal media, liberal media, liberal media. Worship me, worship me, worship me.

And there you have it. It may not be a quick and easy process, but this simple 5-step plan is guaranteed to produce results if you pursue it diligently and patiently. I look forward to seeing you in the White House.

 

 

 

“Why Does God Allow Suffering?” Still No Answer After All These Years

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Like the proverbial ghost of a murder victim hanging around and crying out to be mollified, the question of why God would allow humans to suffer as they do is one that has haunted theologians and religious philosophers for millennia. Nobody ever has been able to provide a satisfactory answer; some seem to believe they have done so, but all they have done is provide some very faulty reasoning — usually red herrings or circular logic invoking biblical passages. But a satisfactory answer is demanded if we are going to allow the possibility of a deity at all.

Why? Because one of the primary attributes of a supreme being is benevolence. God, we are told, is good. But suffering, by definition, is bad; thus a benevolent deity would not allow it unless He had a benevolent reason. This assumes that such a being would be (a) aware of the suffering and (b) able to stop or prevent it.   And indeed the other major attributes of divinity include omniscience and omnipotence. (Which are in fact inseparable — omnipotence would include the power of being omniscient, and omniscience would include the knowledge of how to be omnipotent.)

Parenthetically, the very concept of omnipotence is inherently self-contradictory. If God can do anything, can He will Himself out of existence? Can He do so in such a manner that He never will have existed in the first place? Can He create an object so heavy that even He can’t lift it? If there is even one such task He can’t perform, then He is not omnipotent. And yet, if there is even one such task He can perform, he also is not omnipotent.

I suppose one might respond that God’s omnipotence includes the ability to resolve such apparent paradoxes, but that really reeks of moving the goalposts. It’s one thing to assume that a supreme being would have the means to actualize the things that we perceive to be true or plausible; it’s quite another to assume that such a being would have the means to obviate what we perceive to be false or contradictory. And if we grant Him an exemption from being required to have the potential for acts that are self-negating, then we are saying it’s okay if He can’t do certain things that we mere mortals can do — e.g., commit suicide.

But for now, let’s treat such complications the way religionists usually do: let’s ignore them. What we cannot ignore, however, is the unavoidable conclusion that if we grant the existence of an omnipotent/ omniscient God, then it isn’t merely a matter of allowing suffering, but of causing it. An omnipotent/ omniscient God would be a creator of all things, including suffering and evil — and their more immediate agents (Satan, etc.).

Some people have tried to skirt around this by suggesting that after He created the universe, God adopted a hands-off policy and just let things unfold on their own.  Doesn’t make any difference; if He set things in motion knowing how every little thing was going to turn out, it’s effectually no different from personally bombing every airport and gassing every holocaust victim.

So why would a benevolent God cause/ allow suffering? The answers that have always been presented fall essentially into one of 6 categories, each of which is quite faulty.

The Job Response

Written around 2500 years ago, the beautifully poetical Book Of Job tells a story in which God and Satan essentially indulge in a bet about what will happen if God’s faithful servant Job is subjected to extreme suffering.  Some people have interpreted this as an experiment on God’s part to learn for himself what effect suffering will produce. But this is absurd on the face of it; an omniscient being would never have any reason to experiment.

Of course, there is another explanation for Job’s torments…

The Nietzsche Response

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously remarked,”that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. And many religionists have adopted a similar attitude to rationalize the existence of suffering. In doing so, they (and perhaps Nietzsche as well) are conflating suffering with adversity.

It’s true that our muscles (physical and otherwise) grow stronger with resistance, and it’s human nature to enjoy challenge and its conquest. But suffering is not merely adversity. It’s pain, torment, agony. Very often, it consists of challenges that cannot be overcome, but merely endured as they get worse and worse. And there are at least 5 problems with pegging suffering as a stepping stone to personal growth.

1. It’s a post facto conclusion

Yes, there are times when we prevail over suffering, and we feel the stronger for it. But to conclude that this must be the reason the suffering exists is to put the cart before the horse. Particularly since…

2. It doesn’t always work.

Suffering doesn’t always leave us stronger.  Very often, it leaves us quite broken. And yes, Mr. Nietzsche, it often leaves us very dead.

3. It’s inequitably distributed.

We all know people who already are perfectly strong and of sound moral character, and yet have had to endure horrible ordeals. Yet we also know, or at least are familiar with, individuals who are irresponsible, shady and downright evil who lead charmed lives, are born rich, scarcely ever endure a day of pain, and even are elected president. If God had designed suffering as a tool for fortification, surely there would be considerably more justice and reason to it.

4. Opportunity is often denied.

There are many, many people who endure horrible suffering in their lives, but have no chance to reap any benefit from it. Many children, for instance, are the victims of terrible violence, disease or calamity. They feel the pain, but they do not have the potential to develop any more strongly because of that — particularly if they die in infancy.

5. It’s all unnecessary.

Even if none of these objections held true, it still would be quite unnecessary for an omnipotent and omniscient God to subject His subjects to torture. Because anything that possibly can be achieved by suffering can also be achieved by other means — indeed by any of an infinite number of other means — just as effectively — indeed even more effectively. After all, He supposedly can do anything, right?  So clearly, He inflicts suffering on us only because He wants us to suffer. And this is hardly the hallmark of benevolence. In other words, it appears that God is either omnipotent/ omniscient, or else He is benevolent — but He can’t be all of “thee above”.

The half-full glass response

Whether or not we derive any other benefit, say some religionists, suffering at least affords us the chance to appreciate our blessings (assuming we actually have any). But the same 5 objections apply to this premise. Above all, God certainly could install in us an innate appreciation for our blessings that wouldn’t require any agony to acquire.

The Black and White Response

Even if you don’t need suffering to appreciate your blessings better, maybe it will at least enable you to tell the difference, eh? So some would argue. But it’s an incredibly silly example of begging the question. If suffering didn’t even exist, why on earth would you need to tell the difference?

The Karmic Response

This one comes from Eastern religious traditions, which have a much broader concept of God than does Christianity. The basic idea is that if you lose an eye, for example, it’s payback for your having cost someone else an eye in a past life. Okay, but that still doesn’t explain why the potential for you to have cost someone else an eye existed in the first place.

The Man Behind the Curtain Response

If all else fails, the religionist is likely to respond that God inflicts suffering just because He does, and it’s not our place to question why; it’s our lot merely to trust that there must be a reason for it, even if there evidently isn’t.

But if God indeed created us, then He created our minds, with their insatiable curiosity. We want to know where we came from, where we’re going, how the universe ticks. How do we benefit in this regard by simply stacking one layer of mystery on top of another? How does it help to say that God created the universe if we don’t know what God is or where He came from? How does it help to say that God wants us to suffer if we have no understanding of the reason?

Of course, Official Explanation is only one of God’s intended functions, but it’s a very, very major one. Another is Succor in Time of Need (although that’s a very problematic proposition too, as we shall see in a future discussion) and in that capacity, His inscrutability actually might be regarded as an asset; in other words, one might believe that it takes an unfathomable being to solve unfathomable problems.

But even that role is secondary to His supposed role as Creator and therefore Official Explanation. And regarding that role, and given the presence of suffering, our (admittedly limited) reason must conclude that one of the following must be true: (a) God does not exist at all; (b) His powers are limited; or (c) He is inexcusably cruel. None of which is a possibility that religionists particularly want to consider.

 

 

 

Gleanings from Social Media

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Like most other people today, I spend a certain amount of time perusing social media. Not because I particularly enjoy it, but because it’s a good source of material for this blog. But the down side is that the impression one gets from such outlets is that the present human condition, and the outlook for the human race, are very bleak indeed.

I know someone who literally believes the earth is flat. Literally. She posted the above photo on Facebook not long ago, and declared that the concept of a round earth is a myth promoted by the Great Conspiracy to turn us into mindless drones. And the astronauts? They never really went anywhere. The government has expended billions of dollars and millions of man (and woman) hours and even several lives to advance a “myth” that nearly everyone has already believed for centuries. Oh and she also believes that chemtrails are used to control us, that global warming is a myth, that vaccines cause autism, and probably that Obama is still trying to take away her guns.

I wish I could tell you that she’s alone, but there are many others out there too. Most of them spreading an endless supply of misinformation that swarms the Internet like a plague of locusts. What is perhaps even more troubling is that even the positive and accurate information circulating out there in the hivemind paints a rather grim picture.

For instance, another link I saw posted from the website Daily Kos offers an illuminating explanation for the way “conservatives” in particular are so frequently ensnared in the web of what used to be called fake news before that term was stolen. Basically, right-wing manipulators are playing a game of telephone. And whatever the participants hear, they believe. Unshakably. And permanently.

As yet another link explains, any attempt to introduce verifiable facts to a devotee of alternative facts results in what is called the backfire effect:

As a rule, misinformed people do not change their minds once they have been presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. But, beyond simply not changing their minds when they should, research shows that they are likely to become more attached to their mistaken beliefs. The factual information “backfires.” When people don’t agree with you, research suggests that bringing in facts to support your case might actually make them believe you less. In other words, fighting the ill-informed with facts is like fighting a grease fire with water. It seems like it should work, but it’s actually going to make things worse.

Wow. If this is true, and given everything else that we’ve seen on Facebook et al, what conclusion can we draw except that we’re all doomed?

Well, someone else online posted at least a glimmer of hope. And it comes from comments made 300 years ago by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, whom we’ve encountered before:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true….People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

In short, if there is any hope at all of encouraging the delusional to actually realize that they are delusional, it lies not in challenging their delusions, but in humoring them as far as possible. That may sound like a slender thread of hope. But it may be the only thread we have. At least if the culture of social media presents an accurate reflection of society at large.

Protests Against Logical Fallacies

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By any measure, the Women’s March that occurred on Jan. 21 was a resounding success, with an estimated participation in Washington of some 470,000 and an estimated participation worldwide of about 4 million in more than 100 countries. Accordingly, it has come under attack from Trump supporters –even though the event was not specifically geared as an anti-Trump protest — who have summoned a smorgasbord of logical fallacies as justification for their criticism.

Many Internet memes making the rounds suggested that the marchers were just spoiled whiners and sore losers; one compared the circumstances of American women to the plight of women elsewhere in the world, including:

Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive, no rights and must always be covered.
China and India, infantcide (sic) of baby girls.

Afghanistan, unequal education rights.
Democratic Republic of Congo, where rapes are brutal and women are left to die, or HIV infected and left to care for children alone.

Mali, where women can not escape the torture of genital mutilation.

Pakistan, in tribal areas where women are gang raped to pay for men’s crime.

This is an example of the fallacy of relative privation , more colloquially known as the “not as bad as” fallacy. Its premise is that you have no right to complain if other people have it worse than you. By this reasoning, you have no right to seek medical attention for a broken arm because other people are dying of cancer. And ultimately, you have no right to seek redress for anything, because there’s always theoretically someone who has it worse.

There was also the corollary of this premise, which we might call the fallacy of relative merit or the “not as good as” fallacy. For example there was this photo:

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With the caption: THESE ARE THE WOMEN REALLY MARCHING FOR YOUR RIGHTS.

The implication is that because the march on Washington didn’t require the kind of courage and risk that attends putting on a uniform and putting your life on the line, it’s not a valid campaign for human rights. Again, we could say that essentially nothing is as worthy an action as something else, and thus nothing ever should be done. Fortunately, when this meme made the rounds on Facebook, at least one person responded in this fashion:

EXCUSE Me!!! I am a Veteran…I wore the uniform for 24 years. The only reason I was able to serve is because at some point in history…someone MARCHED to allow me to serve as a BLACK and as WOMAN!!! I take nothing away from those serving today… So there is NOTHING wrong with marching.

The relative privation narrative above even mentions protesters showing up with a “5 dollar Starbucks” in hand, suggesting that if anyone can afford such indulgences, then they have no cause for complaint. That’s a huge non-sequitur, of course. But even if it were perfectly true, it’s based on the false assumption that each of the marchers is there representing only herself/ himself. Which is hardly the case at all; the march was on behalf of all disadvantaged people all over the world.

Another web virus was a video clip of a man purported to be a veteran (which evidently is supposed to make him an authority on these matters) that actually appears to be a commentary on other protests, but it’s been applied to the Women’s March as well. Upbraiding the “crybabies”, (who, in typical cart-before-the-horse fashion he proclaims are “the exact reason Donald Trump won the election”), he throws in several straw men that have no relevance to the actual grounds for complaint, including “You’re causing all this destruction just because your candidate lost” ; “You don’t always get your way”; “Ain’t nothing free”; and “But you want everything”.

His reference to protesters causing destruction could be considered an instance of the fallacy of composition –.a scant handful of protesters (actually masked interlopers who were not a part of the protest proper) had been destructive, so he’s applying that property to all of them. It’s unclear whether he is presenting himself as a phenomenally gifted psychic or a sociologist who’s actually studied the demographics of the crowd, but in either case he’s horribly inept:

None of you put on a uniform, but you’re quick to disrespect the flag, to not wanna say the Pledge Of Allegiance, not wanna recognize the Bible.

In fact, a great many of these protesters have put on uniforms of various kinds, including (as he evidently was referring to) military uniforms. Veterans are often involved in protests, because they often feel (perhaps justifiably) that they’ve been given the short end of the stick. But what difference does it make how many veterans were there? Does this social critic mean to suggest that nobody has a right to exercise constitutional rights who has not personally defended them in warfare? That has never, ever, been a condition for the rights and privileges of citizenship in the U.S.

Whom did he see “disrespect the flag”? What the hell does the Pledge Of Allegiance have to do with anything, and how would he know how many people in the crowd say it and how many don’t? And the Bible??? Who doesn’t “recognize the Bible” when they see it, and how is it in any way relevant to what is going on here? And how does he presume to know the religious convictions and practices of half a million people? It would be hard to cook up a bigger pot of red herrings.

One valid point he makes is that the demonstrations make people late for work. Or is it so valid? One sermon that the critics keep preaching to demonstrators is “you’re responsible for your own circumstances so quit your bitching.” Which is not only irrelevant, but not quite true — it’s hard to blame people who voted for Hillary Clinton as creators of the Trump presidency. But pretend that we all are one hundred percent responsible for our own circumstances. That means that people who are late for work can’t blame it on activity in the street — particularly when they have the capability of finding out about those activities in advance and planning accordingly.

In fact, sometimes we are tardy for our appointed rounds due to circumstances beyond our control. But that applies to a great many types of events, including not only protests but inaugurations. If we used inconvenience to the general populace as a criterion for prohibiting events, we’d never have any large-scale outdoor functions of any kind.

It’s also common for people to respond to the Resistance by saying, “hey, Trump was elected so let’s give him a chance. Every 4 years, people complain about the outcome of the presidential election. Why can’t we all just forget our differences and work together?”

This would have been an excellent speech 4 years ago or 8 years ago, when people were indeed raising a ruckus just because they had an irrational hatred of the guy who won. But it’s the most glaring of false equivalences to try to make a similar case now. The resistance to Trump is not just because the protesters’ candidate lost; it’s because Trump has made it very clear, with virtually everything he says and does, that he is grotesquely unfit for office, and a very real danger to the country and the whole world. It isn’t just a matter of ideological differences; and suggesting such is an effort to “normalize” someone who is anything but normal and healthy. “Working together” with him is “working together” with someone who is doing everything he can to prevent us from all working together.

If you pay careful attention to these attacks on anti-Trump protesters, you’re likely to find more species of faulty logic than you can shake an alternative fact at.

The “War On Christmas” in 4 Minutes

I regret that I didn’t discover it until Christmas Day, but Jesse Dollemore has a nifty little video that addresses the silly “War On Christmas” narrative that surfaces every year around November.

Dollemore shows a clip of Donald Trump proclaiming to an adoring throng that “we’re going to start saying Merry Christmas again.” (Does that mean he’s going to issue an imperial proclamation that everyone must say it?) And clips of the talking heads at Fox “News” reacting in a manner that (honest to Pete) brings to mind teenage girls screaming over The Beatles.

They declare that their War On Christmas has been won now that Trump is elected, and because of him people are starting to say “Merry Christmas” again (as if they’d been prohibited from doing so up until now), and even ask “When was the last time you heard a politician say” the taboo magic phrase.

Then, after presenting a few actual facts on the matter, Dollemore serves up a clip of President Obama wishing Americans a Merry Christmas 16 times — and Michelle Obama twice.

When was the last time you heard a politician say “Merry Christmas”? Depends on how much you’ve been paying attention.

 

The Big Misconception About the Electoral College

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The Electoral College has been very much in the news lately, with many people passionately calling for its eradication or staunchly defending it — usually depending on whether their candidate won or lost. There’s certainly room for debate on this matter, but what’s annoying is how frequently supporters of the institution defend it with the same misconception: the EC, they so often say, was designed to provide “balance” in the electoral process. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Electoral College, in fact, was designed to promote imbalance — i.e., to give some states disproportionate representation in relation to other states. Specifically, it was designed to give more clout to slave-holders and to advance the interests of wealthy landowners in general. And although slavery has subsequently been abolished, the EC still is doing an excellent job of keeping certain sectors of the populace “in their place” and skewing elections in favor of agrarian communities as opposed to urban communities, and in favor of wealthy white men over everyone else.

Another common phrase you hear from defenders of the EC is that it protects the country from being dominated by California and New York. So does it make more sense to have the country dominated by Oklahoma and Nebraska? Because that’s exactly what’s happening. Under the present system, many states that depend mostly on agriculture are valued far more highly than some states that thrive on agriculture plus the tech industry, publishing and media, banking, insurance, science and medicine. As an extreme example, a vote in Wyoming carries more than three and a half times as much weight as a vote in California.

And it’s getting even more lopsided. Twenty years ago, it probably would have been unthinkable for a presidential candidate to win the popular vote by nearly 3 million, yet still lose the electoral vote. But as more and more people move into cities, their votes for president will count less and less. If the trend continues, the president ultimately may be selected by a mere handful of voters. (Although technically there’s no limit to the number of votes a state can acquire, there’s a practical limit because the total must be 538.) Among other things, this means it’s going to be increasingly difficult for a Democrat to get elected — which is precisely why the system will never change: the last thing Republicans want is a level playing field. (See mandering, gerry.)

Supporters of the present system — or of the candidates most likely to benefit from it — also like to tout maps of electoral results like the one reproduced above.  This, they declare, is proof that the country overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, even though most of the voters rejected him. Makes perfect sense, eh?

Sometimes they’ll get even cuter by breaking down the electoral map into counties, resulting in a sea of red with only a few little islands of blue. Where the hell are all the libruls lurking?

2016 election results map

Such maps are bad models because they depict geographic boundaries rather than demographic density.  What we are perfectly capable of producing, and yet you seldom see, is a 3-D map revealing that “blue” voters tend to live in more densely populated areas, and often even in high-rise buildings.

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The two-dimensional maps are meant to reassure us that the right guy won, because he’s representing more of the country. But what they actually do is betray the big flaw of the Electoral College: the president is elected by land mass more than by the citizens who live on it. Donald Trump was not the choice of the people, but he had the overwhelming support of cows, coyotes and cacti.

Defenders of the system are fond of comparing the Electoral College to the World Series. Specifically, they often cite the 1960 match, in which the highly favored New York Yankees outscored the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates 55 to 27, and yet the Pirates still won the series — thanks to the storybook finish of a home run by a mediocre hitter in the bottom of the 9th inning of game 7. We accept and even relish this kind of unexpected drama in sports; so why not in elections?

Well, because even though the presidential election has developed into a spectacle in its own right, with its catty debates and October surprises, it was never designed to be entertainment the way baseball was. It was designed to be a way to pick the leader of the nation; and that objective is better filled by honoring what the people want and need rather than honoring where they live. Furthermore, determining a baseball champion with a series of games rather than a single game helps minimize the element of chance; but breaking up a national election into state elections actually heightens the role of chance. In 2000, for instance, the fluke of a confusing “butterfly ballot” was enough to flip the entire state of Florida — which in turn was enough to flip the entire election.

Consider a hypothetical race between 3 candidates. In state A, candidate Jones receives 5 million votes, Smith receives 4 million and Brown 1 million. In State B, Brown receives 5 million, Smith 4 million and Jones 1 million. The totals for these two states then are: Smith 8 million, Jones 6 million and Brown 6 million.  So Smith, the candidate with the most votes, is awarded no electoral votes at all. Repeating this 25 and a half times, we see that it’s theoretically possible for a candidate to win the popular vote, and yet receive ZERO electoral votes for her trouble.

Does this mean the EC should be abolished? Not necessarily. Because there seems to have been another, more honorable purpose for its existence: to serve as a last line of defense against tyranny. The founders explicitly stated that the institution should be composed of individuals better qualified than the general public for selecting a national leader; and should help ensure that dangerous, unqualified demagogues should not sneak into office just because they happen to hoodwink the voters.

But obviously, the system has failed us big time. The Electoral College has become little more than a rubber stamp; some states even have made it illegal for electors to contradict the choice of the voters in that state.

So perhaps it should be abolished after all. Just don’t hold your breath.

The Myth of a Decaying Society

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How many times have you read it or heard it? The world is going (or has gone) to hell in a hand basket. If only we displayed the Ten Commandments in more places. If only we had more capital punishment. If only kids didn’t wear such strange clothes and listen to such strange music. If only parents and teachers beat their kids more like they used to . If only movies didn’t have four-letter words. If only we had another B-movie president.

This year, 2016, will go down in history as the year when one of America’s two major political parties nominated a presidential candidate with no qualifications whatsoever. All he offered (besides a galactic ego and a very long history of very shady business deals) was a vacuous slogan: Make America Great Again. But that was enough to persuade millions of voters to march behind him. Because many of them, though they’d never had it so good, had been convinced that the nation was in such rotten shape that they were willing to entrust it to a crackpot demagogue snake oil salesman.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to Twenty-First Century America; it’s as timeless as civilization itself. Some 600 years ago, at the height of the Renaissance, a poet wrote what at first appeared to be a celebration of the richness, the vitality, the color and panache of his age, but he wrapped up his poem by concluding that he’d never seen things so bad. A couple of millenniums before that, Confucius was complaining that the music of his time was corrupting the morals of society, and the celebrated Hebrew prophet Jeremiah (or someone) was authoring the Lamentations bemoaning an utterly bleak world. Go back to just about any age, in just about any country, and chances are you’ll find a record of someone complaining about how things were just not like they used to be in the Good Old Days.

Time out. If all of these wailers were correct, then that means that civilization has been on a steady plunge since day one. And the world is now in the worst shape it’s ever been. Take a good look around you; do you really believe that’s the case?

It’s not unusual to look back upon one’s formative years with fondness. But as they age, many people grow more jaded, more disillusioned, more cynical, more bitter. And, unwilling to acknowledge that they themselves have changed, they often ascribe the difference to  a worsening environment.

Today, you’ll hear many people say that “this is not the country I grew up in.” And the turning point you’ll often hear them invoke is the Sixties — more specifically, the Summer Of Love, and the few years thereafter. In their minds, everything has gone downhill since then, and we could make America Great Again if only we could return to the Ozzie and Harriet Utopia of the Fifties. But, like the Jeremiahs of ages past, they are viewing their youth through rosy glasses.  To paraphrase a popular saying, the past ain’t what it used to be — and it never was.

As it happens, I’m old enough to remember what times were like before the hippies ruined everything. And what I remember is a bit different from what the nostalgia addicts remember.

I grew up in a world where “colored people” had separate schools,  courts and water fountains. Women, if they were lucky enough to get jobs as secretaries and receptionists, could maybe earn half of what men did. Gays could be arrested and beaten for their “crime”. Adults could physically and sexually abuse children with little fear of reprisal. Police brutality occurred with impunity, since nobody was recording their conduct and posting it on Youtube. Those of us who were lucky enough to have telephones had them mounted on the wall in our homes; and we didn’t own them; they were on loan from the phone company. “Religious freedom” meant forcing kids to pray in school — and there was plenty to pray about.

We were taught to live in constant fear that we could be annihilated at any moment by a nuclear attack from the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union; and just in case ducking and covering under our school desks didn’t protect us, we wore military-style dog tags to school so our bodies could be identified when recovered from the rubble. We knew the end of the world was surely at hand when a Catholic was elected president.

Pollution and crime were sharply on the rise. Plenty of abortions were performed, but in secret by unqualified personnel; with the result that many women and girls died horrible deaths, which were hushed up and disguised as death by other means. When I was 19, men of my age not only had to register for the draft, but were drafted — it was literally the luck of the draw that kept me from being shipped off to Vietnam. In college, I knew a young man who was sentenced to 3 years in prison for possession of marijuana. Yet everyone was encouraged to smoke cigarettes, because they were just so cool.

My, but times have changed, haven’t they?

Today, while racism and racial tension certainly still exist, race relations and equality have never been better. Women can be CEOs or just about any other thing they damn well want to. Gays can get married. Religious freedom includes (in some cases at least) freedom from religion, just as the founders intended. The economy is not in the best shape it’s ever been, but it’s been much worse, even in my lifetime; in fact, it’s been improving for the past.. oh, 7 years or so. We’ve had an all-volunteer military for years. Pollution has been declining for about 35 years; and contrary to the impression you might get from the media, crime has been declining steadily for at least 25 years or so.

Sure, we still have problems. And some of those problems would have been unthinkable when I was a kid. We never worried then about AIDS, overpopulation, climate change or ISIS. But every age has its own unique challenges. What’s different now is that we have the knowledge and the technology to meet those challenges head-on. In the past, all people could do when a plague or a meteor collision or an ice age occurred was just pray and hope. And today, even though we have an unprecedented level of misinformation stranglehold on the masses courtesy of the mass media, we also have the means of counteracting it — such as, ahem, websites like this one. Not only are things better than ever in the U.S., they are, on the whole, better than ever worldwide.

In short, the better they have it, the more stridently people complain. Polls consistently show that most Americans think their country is “headed in the wrong direction”. Maybe it has been, in some ways, over the period of a year or two. But many people believe it’s been heading in the wrong direction consistently for decades. What do they want — more crime, more racism, more pollution, more war, more disease, and less freedom?