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Self in Society Roundup 47

Trumpism, Biden, United States of Rome, cruel and unusual punishment, Cowen in Kenya, Nones, and more.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
January 26, 2024

Trumpism: Adam Rawnsley and Asawin Suebsaeng: "U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland recently warned of 'a deeply disturbing spike in threats against those who serve the public.' Last month, his top deputy said the Department of Justice is receiving urgent reports of threats to public officials 'on a weekly basis.' Around the country, election officials in key battleground states say they are devoting unprecedented resources to election and physical security, and are bracing for an increasingly hellish 2024 to come." See also the writers' piece on Trump's continued conspiracy mongering.

Smith on Trump: Notably, everything Noah Smith likes about Donald Trump involves Trump's wielding of federal power. Smith writes, "The most important thing that Trump did right was to break America out of its free-trade, laissez-faire consensus. . . . Biden’s administration has been the one to implement industrial policy and strategic trade policy, but that was only politically possible because of Trump." Now, in some cases there's a good argument for federal power, as with Operation Warp Speed for the vaccines and with restrictions on exports that are likely to help a hostile foreign power build its military might. Still. We're way past the idea that the reason to elect Republicans is to free the economy. But, because he is not delusional, Smith recognizes a second Trump term would bring chaos. Chaos is not good in the context of the preservation of American institutions and in the context of potential civilization-ending nuclear war.

Lowry on Biden: Rich Lowry: "[I]f Joe Biden were, as a matter of principle, devoted to defending democracy at all costs, obviously the first thing he would do would be to step aside for some younger, more capable, less radioactive Democrat with a much better chance of beating Trump." But a) it is not obvious who such a candidate would be—Lowry does not name this mystic candidate; b) a Democratic primary likely would be an expensive and candidate-pounding affair; and c) it's not obvious that any other candidate would have a better chance of beating Trump. Biden did, after all, already beat Trump. Anyway, we know with close to certainty that Trump and Biden will be the two candidates. So the only relevant choice is between them. All Lowry is doing is muddying the waters to rationalize the indefensible, a vote for Trump, who very obviously wishes to be a lawless ruler.

The Decline and Fall of the United States: Talia Lavin's editor David Swanson: "As for the fall of the Empire itself, take your pick: Gibbon puts it as early as the rise of Caesar, and as late at 1590 AD, when his history comes to a close, though the conversion of Constantine 312 AD and the triumph of Christianity are deemed the primary culprits. . . . Personally, I favor 406 AD, when the Rhine froze over, rendering the Empire's northern line of defense utterly useless; within a decade the barbarians had sacked Rome. . . . This is why it's so tricky trying to draw comparisons between Rome's fall and our own precarious moment in history. To many on the left, faced with the prospect of a would be-tyrant set to dismantle the republic, it's the first century BC. To those on the right, it's the fifth century AD, and the foreign 'invasion' has already begun. But most everyone seems to agree that din of calamity and the stench of decay are already in the air."

Cruel and Unusual: Ralph Chapoco: "The state of Alabama Thursday executed Kenneth Eugene Smith for the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett. The execution [was] the first ever carried out with nitrogen gas. . . . Smith convulsed for two minutes, with seven minutes of heavy breathing as he took large breaths. . . . Smith . . . survived a botched execution in November 2022." This state killing constitutes cruel and unusual punishment for various reasons: 1) Allowing such a large gap in time between the crime and the execution means the state is killing a person who has undergone substantial changes, 2) forcing someone to worry about potentially being executed for such a long duration is inherently cruel, 3) trying to kill someone a second time is inherently cruel, 4) killing someone in a novel way is definitionally unusual, and 5) this method seems to have caused substantial physical and mental distress.

Transgender Stats: Axios: Yes, "diagnoses of gender dysphoria" are up. Still, "the transgender population remains relatively small—about 1.6 million people 13 and over, per one estimate, or about 0.5% of the total U.S. population."

Maternal Mortality: Maybe the U.S. stats are not as dire as you've heard. Noah Smith based on K. S. Joseph et al.: "Starting in 2003, U.S. states started rolling out a change to death certificates—a checkbox for pregnancy at the time of death. This resulted in a whole lot more deaths getting labeled as pregnancy-related."

Cowen in Kenya: Tyler cowen interviewed Harriet Karimi Muriithi and Githae Githinji of Kenya. Here is something Githinji, an elder in his community, said about dealing with people who act badly: "What we normally do, we as a group, we listen to one another very much. When one person reaches that stage of being told that you are a man now, you normally have to respect your elder. Those people do respect me. When I call you, when I tell you 'Come and we'll talk it out,' with my group, you cannot say you cannot come, because if you do, we normally discipline somebody. Not by beating, we just remove you from our group. When we isolate you from our group, you'll feel that is not fair for you. You come back and say—and apologize. We take you back into the group."

Cowen with Schulz: I enjoyed Tyler Cowen's wide-ranging chat with Dan Schulz.

Measles: There's a measles outbreak in Europe owing to lagging vaccinations during the pandemic.

Malaria Vaccine: The malaria vaccine in Africa "reduces all kinds of deaths among children—not just malaria deaths—by 13%," NPR reports. "Certainly, some of these averted deaths will be directly related to malaria. But the unexpected development is that the vaccine seems to reduce deaths where malaria is only a contributing factor."

Oregon on Drugs: Claire Rush: "Democratic lawmakers in Oregon on Jan. 23 unveiled a sweeping new bill that would undo a key part of the state's first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law, a recognition that public opinion has soured on the measure amid rampant public drug use during the fentanyl crisis. The bill would recriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs as a low-level misdemeanor, enabling police to confiscate them and crack down on their use on sidewalks and in parks, its authors said." But there's nothing inherent about decriminalization that requires the legality of public drug use.

Nones: NPR: "When Americans are asked to check a box indicating their religious affiliation, 28% now check 'none.' A new study from Pew Research finds that the religiously unaffiliated—a group comprised of atheists, agnostic and those who say their religion is "nothing in particular"—is now the largest cohort in the U.S. They're more prevalent among American adults than Catholics (23%) or evangelical Protestants (24%)." But these results are not as meaningful as atheists might hope. Pew relates: "Most 'nones' believe in God or another higher power. But very few go to religious services regularly. Most say religion does some harm, but many also think it does some good. They are not uniformly anti-religious. Most 'nones' reject the idea that science can explain everything. But they express more positive views of science than religiously affiliated Americans do." But the bit about science explaining "everything" is ambiguous; holding that there is potentially a rational explanation for any given phenomenon is different from holding that science can or will explain "everything."

Subliterate Americans: Arnold Kling quotes Douglas Belkin: "A quarter of college graduates do not have basic skills in numeracy and one in five does not have basic skills in literacy, says Irwin Kirsch, who oversees large-scale assessments for ETS, the company that administers the SAT."

Shellenberger in Venezuela: Robert Collier 2004 via Rob Tracinski: "Michael Shellenberger, president of Lumina Strategies, an El Cerrito public relations firm . . . was hired by [Hugo] Chavez . . . to help repair his poor public image in the United States."

Movie Notes

Abe: What do you do if you're the young grandson of Palestinian Muslims and of Israeli Jews, and you live in New York and love food? You try to bring your family together with a blend of traditional foods. That's basically what the wonderful 2019 film Abe is about. Also it's about a boy pursuing his passion even if that means pushing against his parents' coddling.

Plan B: I very much enjoyed half of this 2021 movie, which involves some candid and thoughtful discussions about relationships and sex. The other half, not so much. It's the now-standard storyline of two friends who go on a road trip that spins crazily out of control. This ends up with the two friends acting wildly out of character in some cringey scenes. Nevertheless, Kuhoo Verma is especially good as one of the friends.

The Retirement Plan: Avoid this movie. It's terrible.

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