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It Can Happen Here: Self in Society Roundup 41

Kagan on U.S. dictatorship, the anti-immigrant right, Holocaust denial, the ACLU-NRA alliance, idealism and work, parasites, Mars, and more.

Copyright © 2023 by Ari Armstrong
December 10, 2023; ported here on December 21 with minor changes

Kagan on Dictatorship: Robert Kagan: "There is a clear path to dictatorship in the United States. . . . For many months now, we have been living in a world of self-delusion. . . . Barring some miracle, Trump will soon be the presumptive Republican nominee for president. When that happens, there will be a swift and dramatic shift in the political power dynamic, in his favor. . . . Trump's power comes from his following, not from the institutions of American government, and his devoted voters love him precisely because he crosses lines and ignores the old boundaries. . . . If Trump does win the election, he will immediately become the most powerful person ever to hold that office. Not only will he wield the awesome powers of the American executive—powers that, as conservatives used to complain, have grown over the decades—but he will do so with the fewest constraints of any president, fewer even than in his own first term." And Trump will use this power, Kagan predicts, to wage political warfare against his enemies. "Should Trump be successful in launching a campaign of persecution and the opposition prove powerless to stop it, then the nation will have begun an irreversible descent into dictatorship." Read the entire article, and then take its message to heart like your country depends on it.

Rise of the Anti-Immigrant Right: Tyler Cowen has notes. Although Cowen recognizes an increase in racism, I think he underestimates the impact of white nationalism on anti-immigrant movements. Think of the widespread U.S. conservative fearmongering about immigrant "replacement" of white people. But I also think (much of) the left gets a couple of things badly wrong about immigration, and these mistakes help feed anti-immigrant movements. First, (much of) the left, in its desire to "respect diversity," defend the underdog, and see all injustice as the result of economic dynamics, refuses to recognize the profound problems with certain variants of Islam as ideology, which we might call "totalitarian Islam." We've seen this same problem manifest with parts of the left reflexively siding with Hamas and even outright calling for the annihilation of Israel. Second, (much of) the left insufficiently cares about integrating migrants into the cultures and especially the economies of their new countries. We're in a very bad spot insofar as the "democratic socialist" left and the racial-nationalist right are driving the dynamics of political discourse.

Holocaust Denial: In an Economist/YouGov poll, 20% of Americans ages 18–29 said they "strongly agree" (8%) or "tend to agree" (12%) that "the Holocaust is a myth." Population-wide the figure is 7%. The figure is higher for Biden voters (7%) than for Trump voters (4%), and higher for Democrats (10%) than for Republicans (6%). Ilya Somin hopes that the apparent Holocaust denial "may be just one facet of widespread general public ignorance about politics and history, rather than an indicator of neo-Nazism or anti-Semitism." I think he's overly optimistic, and anyway the ignorant easily are swayed by the evil.

ACLU Defends NRA: ACLU: "We're representing the NRA at the Supreme Court in their case against New York's Department of Financial Services for abusing its regulatory power to violate the NRA’s First Amendment rights. We don't support the NRA or its viewpoints on gun rights. But we both know that government officials can't punish organizations because they disapprove of their views."

Blasphemy Laws: Hemant Mehta: "Denmark reinstates blasphemy law, criminalizing the burning of holy books."

Mental Illness: Steve Stewart-Williams worries mental illness is over-diagnosed and worries about "perverse incentives we've created for people to interpret everyday stresses as psychological disorders."

Math: Singapore's Challenging Word Problems for Grade 4 has some difficult problems. Example: "Two-thirds of Eddie's books is equal to 3/7 of Linda's books. If Linda has 15 more books than Eddie, how many books do Eddie and Linda have in total?" My guess is most U.S. adults could not answer that.

Fair-Weather Idealism: Ray Girn: "The 'fair-weather idealist' is someone who genuinely values the idea of doing something of great impact. When such a person encounters an idealistic individual or organization, something good in them is awakened; they may fall in love with the possibility of doing grand, mission-driven work. . . . But what makes their idealism fair-weather is that they are not primarily drawn by the opportunity to do the actual work. Their motivation is not grounded in a real understanding of, and love for, the doing. What they fall in love with is the idea of being the type of person who does such work, the thought of being mission-driven, the image of pursuing a life of impact." Instead Girn calls for "practical idealism."

T. Gondii: John Ingold: "[R]ats infected by T. gondii [Toxoplasma gondii] lose their fear of cats, which makes them an easy meal. This is great for hungry cats, but it also works out well for the parasite, which just so happens to reproduce in the digestive tract of cats (without harming them) and is spread through cat poop." Also: "Approximately 10% to 15% of people in the United States show evidence of a previous T. gondii infection." There's some indication, Ingold writes, that infection in humans can make people less risk-averse and frailer in old age. But the frailty (if the connection holds) might just be due to inflammation, which can be caused by lots of things.

Mars: Robert Zubrin argues the Mars Sample Return mission is too expensive and too risky. He writes, "For the same $10 billion now projected to be spent on the MSR mission over the next 15 years, we could send 20 missions averaging $500 million each in cost. These could include landers, rovers, orbiters, drillers, highly capable helicopters, and possibly balloons or other more novel exploration vehicles as well."

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