Our Flirtation with the Autocrat

Our four-year flirtation with the autocrat Donald Trump was a scary affair, eh?  We knew when we started it could mean trouble, but what did we know about his kind back in 2015?  How much harm could a reality show host and real estate mogul do in our White House?  Now he’s dealt our democracy a battering, two months of belligerent lying, an attempted election reversal, and finally a mobbing.  To our credit, in November We the People (most of us) sent him packing.  Then in February our Senate considered whether to issue a restraining order on the man, and, like the good wife, chose not to.  We know he’ll stalk us.  Is there a shelter around here for battered democracies?

Ask the women in shelters what they make of the 43 Republican Senators who refused to convict Trump of inciting insurrection.  They know what it’s like to live under the grip of an autocrat, to cling to a broken leader, one who is bent on defying and denying the very system that elected him and his followers to power. Isn’t it eerie how some of our Senators are behaving like the participant victims of domestic violence?   Publicly they huddle together to vote allegiance to their former leader, while they whisper their doubts in private.

For most of recorded history, we homo sapiens have been led by autocrats.  We have organized ourselves under tribes led by chiefs and kingdoms led by kings.  Life under autocrats was better than life under chaos before civilization.  It never was fair or nice, but it suited the nature we inherited from our herding animal ancestors, who followed their leaders.  Those who strayed from the herd died young.

Then, two centuries ago along came a better idea, democracy. No more kings—let the people rule themselves.  That was yesterday in history time.  Democracy was a radical invention then, born through violent revolutions, over and over.

Since then most cultures have resisted democracy as unnecessary and unnatural.  The spread of democracies around the globe has been a fitful experiment. In 1816 just 1% of the world’s population was governed by democracies.  According to political scientist Samuel Huntington [link to Huntington 1991] the number of democracies reached a peak of 29 in 1922, dropped to 12 by 1942, and then rose to 36 by 1962.  By 2015 that number had risen to 103 countries, embracing just 56% of the world’s population [link to Pinker 2017, p 203].

The process of moving a culture or a country from an autocracy to a democracy is not a straight shot, and many efforts fall somewhere in the middle with a blend of features from both systems.  One country (like ours) can bounce around, flirting for a while with one end of the spectrum or the other. For a bit of good news about recent global trends, as collected and rated by the Polity Project (http://www.systemicpeace.org/polityproject.html), look at what’s happened to the spread of democracies in the past two centuries, and especially since 1980:

Since 1980 the trends have flipped as democracies have risen steeply in number and autocracies have dropped just as steeply.  Of course, our flirtation with the autocrat does not show on this graph, but Stephen Pinker’s main reason for writing Enlightenment Now (2017) was to remind us that electing Trump in 2016 represents just one brief dip on the blue curve that has been rising steadily since 1945.  Trump’s defeat in November 2020 is the correction that history predicted.  Our Congress chose not to unseat him, but our voters finally did.  Whew!

So what were we doing flirting with this autocrat?  Blind loyalty is a useful trait if you’re a breastfeeding infant, and it can be useful for keeping us within the protection of our families and our tribes.  Some variation on this drive for attachment also binds us to our churches and our political parties and our sports teams, whether they serve us well or not.

What do we do when betrayal, abuse, or neglect tests these attachments? Children usually cling tighter to the parent who threatens to leave or dismiss or hurt them.  Adults have more choices, but often we cling as well.  Even Senators cling.  People who work with domestic violence victims see this every day.  After many betrayals we still have a hard time letting go, not just of the relationship but of the meaning or mission for which the relationship stands.

I find it comforting to gaze at the red and blue lines in this chart of Global Trends in Governance.  I’m going to tack that chart up on the wall in our kitchen, where we chew on the big issues.  Yes, I feel bad about our nation flirting with autocracy, but I’m trying to let it go, trying to believe that we’re back on the path to mending our marriage with democracy.

Seduce Me, Bob

During Election Week 2020 my struggle to keep my bearings involved burying myself, when I’d seen too much for the day of the Electoral College numbers, in two gripping books that happened to be on top of my bedside stack.  One was a comforting and inspiring book about an obscure man who has been dead for many years; the other was a disturbing book about an infamous man who is too much alive right now, but may have taken one giant leap toward dying—so-to-speak—that fateful week.  That book fed the fire of my anxieties, while the other doused it.  I couldn’t have made it through the week without them.

The dousing book about the obscure man is James Castle Memory Palace, by John Beardsley.  It’s not quite a book yet.  I was reading the galley proofs for Yale University Press (due January 2021) that John lent me in a brown Staples bag when we visited him in Virginia just before Election Week.  John’s distinction, aside from being my college roommate, is in writing stirring books about folk artists whom nobody else has heard of.  James Castle was born deaf in 1899 and remained mute his whole life in Idaho, but his prodigious memory and his talent for rendering what he saw led him to a daily ritual over forty years of creating drawings, paintings, collages, and sculptures out of home-made and scavenged materials.  At the end of each day he packed up his creations, tied them in bundles with string, and stacked them in the walls of his studio, like insulation between the two-by-fours.  In the shelter of his family’s home in Boise, Castle lived a cloistered and artistically productive life, mostly unrecognized by his community and the art world of the twentieth century.  Memory Palace is one of a number of efforts over the past 20 years to bring Castle’s art to life and to help us understand this modest man and his struggle to share his inner world, to be known by anyone who might some day untie one of his bundles.

The other book I could not stop reading during Election Week was Rage, by Bob Woodward, published in September this year, also about a man who longs to be known.  Could James Castle and Donald Trump be more different in character and lives lived?  One we’ve heard too little of, the other too much.  The question that drew me in and kept me at it, while I wasn’t watching his political fate play out on the tube, was, Why did Trump talk to Woodward, 17 times?

When Bob Woodward approached Trump in 2017 for his first book about him, Trump declined to be interviewed, a decision he later regretted.  Woodward works for the Washington Post, one of Trump’s pet targets for “fake news,” and Fear had portrayed Trump as “an emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable leader,” far from a flattering picture.  And Trump knew Woodward’s books had hardly been kind to George W Bush.  So why in December of 2019 when Woodward approached him about a second book, did Trump, who was facing impeachment, agree to be interviewed on the record?  Was this the about-face of a desperate man, or was Trump now confident enough to think he could persuade Woodward to show his true colors?  After all, Woodward had written plenty of books about living US Presidents, many of them bestsellers.  Trump deserved a place in the presidential canon, right?  He decided to take a chance, 17 times.  If any of Trump’s press team knew about this arrangement, they were unable to keep him from these risky and often lengthy conversations over the next eight months.

Eisenhower is reported to have said that the White House is “the loneliest house I’ve ever been in.”  And it’s not hard to imagine how the loneliness of our leaders has led to many White House seductions—Mimi Beardsley Alford’s by JFK and Monica Lewinsky’s by Bill Clinton, to name a few of the documented ones.  Given all the pending lawsuits against Trump by women he has mistreated prior to 2016 and all the improprieties he has been accused of since 2016, it’s curious that seducing a woman as president has not been one of them.  Rage tells us Trump had another more pressing need on his mind.

All outward appearances during 2020 suggested that Trump’s most pressing and all-consuming need was to win re-election, at almost any cost.  Yet on the quiet he was participating in one of the most daring journalistic seductions ever recorded.  Woodward handled Trump artfully enough to sustain the conversations deep into the summer, just before the manuscript was submitted for publication.  Woodward always called him “Mr President,” and Trump addressed him as “Bob.”  Within the bounds of good manners and good journalism, Woodward frequently challenged Trump on has handling of COVID, the Ukraine affair, and racial justice.  And instead of exploding or firing him, Trump seems to have liked that pressure, responded with more bluster, and sometimes with revelations.  When Trump was not listening, Woodward persisted and repeated himself until Trump finally answered the question or Woodward gave up.  Perhaps more than anyone else during this period, Woodward became  Trump’s confidant.

On Friday, May 22, 2020 Woodward gave Trump a call at the White House.  It was 9:18 pm.  What else did each of these guys have to do on a Friday night during lockdown?  Woodward opened with asking him how he was feeling about China, and Trump said, “You know, I’ve very much hardened on China. So, I’m not happy.  Let me tell you, I’m not a happy camper.”  Then Trump confided his suspicion that the Chinese intentionally let the virus out of China.  “I think what could’ve happened, Bob, is it got away from them and he [President Xi] didn’t want to contain it from the rest of the world because it would’ve put him at a big disadvantage.”  Just two guys talking shop on a Friday night.

Then Trump said, “You’re probably going to screw me.  You know, because that’s the way it goes.  Look, Bush sat with you for hours and you screwed him.  But the difference was, I ain’t no Bush.  Boy oh boy, what a mess.  I’m trying to get out of that mess he got us into in the Middle East.”  The man couldn’t help himself.  He continued to have more conversations with Woodward in June, July, and August.  During one June conversation he said, “I hope you’re truthful.  If you’re truthful, you’ll write a great book. And if you’re not truthful, you’re going to hit me.”

Donald Trump is not alone in these acts of apparent self-sabotage. Think of all the people who will endure shame for fame on the Jerry Springer show, confessing their sins so some imagined public might know them or at least some piece of their story, no matter how sordid.  Think of the fugitives who turn themselves in and the death bed confessions by criminals who have nothing to gain but the chance that they might finally be known.

The Guardian and CNN reported in September that Trump claimed he read Rage in one evening—which would make it the only book he claims to have read during the past four years—and he dismissed it as “boring.” When asked why he participated with Woodward, he said, “Because I assumed he was a little bit fair…There was not much in that book….That’s a boring book.”  Rage shows us that our nation’s outgoing president had an affair in office, and perhaps he got what he most needed.  In spite of all his loud efforts to hold on to power, did his unconscious need to be known trump his need to win?

Choosing Our Pit Bulls with Care

I should have figured this out four years ago–actually five would have been better—but tomorrow is Election Day 2020 with a capital E, so I guess it’s better late than never to let the cat out of the bag for any of you who still plan to vote tomorrow.

One of our most loyal and good friends over the past 30 years told us last week that he’s voting for Trump “because of his Christian values,” meaning Trump’s.  In the same conversation he let us know what a relief it is now that his church is back to worshipping in person again and what a beautiful thing it is to hear the choir singing again.  No, they don’t wear masks in their church.

I know few people as adept as this man at avoiding conflict, so he was not trying to yank our chains. He was sharing joyful news.  And in the back of his mind our friend also knows my wife’s main job right now is guiding the University of Cincinnati to contain this second surge of COVID-19 cases amid record high numbers of cases in Ohio.  And he knows what enthusiastic Democrats we’ve been all the years he’s known us, and especially this year.  When he came this week to visit bearing gifts, Vic asked him to put on a mask, and he said he couldn’t.  He can’t breathe with a mask on.  He left his gifts on our kitchen counter and drove home, apologies all around.

“Blame it on COVID” is our mantra for all that goes haywire these days. This too will pass and our friendship will survive, but this tender point in our week raised again for me the nagging question of how Trump, of all people–this unbeliever who rarely attends church or bends to prayer–pulled off the trick of persuading the Evangelical right that he’s their man.  What’s his method?  And then you have to wonder how Trump pulled the same trick with the NRA, and the pro-lifers, the anti-immigrant groups, and the rural white blue collar workers in the Rust Belt.  And most consequential of all, how did this former pro-choice Democrat pull off the same trick with the whole Republican Party?

Most people who vote for Trump don’t seem much concerned with the character of the man.  They like some of his results, such as the stock market or tariffs for China or suppressing abortions, and any one of those results offers a good enough reason to vote for him.  But for me, character is everything.

One thing we know now about the character of Donald Trump that we did not know so painfully clearly four years ago–thanks to the large numbers of tell-all books that all tell the same story about him—is that, though he is not as rich or talented as he would like us to believe, he does have a talent for smelling fear in others.  He is keenly interested in what we fear.  And he loves to fight to win.  His niece Mary Trump tells us what he hates, above all else, is to lose.  These are good breeding characteristics for pit bulls, and we have to grudgingly give The Don credit for imagining against all good judgment that they might also be good breeding characteristics for presidents.

His method is so simple I’m embarrassed to confess it just came clear to me yesterday.  For each of the groups he courts to support him, he identifies what they fear, who their enemy is, both in reality and in fantasy.  Then he aligns with that fear by offering to fight that enemy.  He pitches this offer in a pugnacious, tenacious manner that leaves no room for doubting him.  He will fight to win for “you.”   If your enemy is his enemy and he will fight your enemy, then he must be on your side.  You can vote for him.  This is not some crafty political strategy worked out by his advisers in smoke-filled rooms.  This was what The Don learned on the campaign trail in 2016, winging it from the podiums, trusting his intuition about his audience, seeing what ignited his followers and then feeding them what they hungered for. Maybe it worked beyond his (and our) wildest dreams.

If you’re afraid of science wielding more power than the church, Trump’s your man.  If you’re afraid of ultra-liberal Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Trump’s your man.  If you don’t give a damn about Sanders but you’re afraid of Roe v Wade, Trump’s your man.  If you’re afraid of Mexicans taking your job on the assembly line, Trump’s your man.  If you’re afraid of losing power to a majority of minorities, Trump’s your man.  It’s hard to say no to such an offer, no matter how he wears his hair or talks to women.  If he fights for you, that should be enough.  And so, by the thinnest of margins in the Electoral College, he won the 2016 election.

And it would be enough if he truly fought for you and your cause.  But we know now, if it wasn’t so clear four years ago, that this man cares much more about the fight and his grip on the national news cycle than he cares about you or your cause.  Negotiation and compromise are not in his playbook.  He makes a better pit bull than president.  The line of once-Trumpers who now feel betrayed by him is long and angry and loud.

Is Donald J Trump, Jr, the slickest con-men in the history of American politics?  I don’t know, but I know he will go the way of all con-men.  And we who have been duped still have a choice.  We can lay low and grumble, or we can take our lessons and vote smarter about our leaders.  One lesson we can learn from this man is that our democracy is available for dismantling. Uncountable lawsuits, the Mueller Investigation, and a Congressional Impeachment hearing could not stop his hobbling of the State Department, the Justice Department, the EPA, the intelligence services, the CDC, the Post Office, and his campaign for voter suppression.  Only this year’s resolute march of voters can prove powerful enough to stop him.  Will we be ready when the next con artist tries to Trump his or her way to the White House?

Another lesson is that a con-man can find plenty of people to follow him, even long after he has betrayed their interests. Trump will pass, but his followers remain our neighbors and our friends.  How do we close the gaps?  Character counts.  And votes count.  This week we learn again just how much the votes and character count.

Dreaming of the Cure

Thank you, Mother Nature, for gathering us all together under one common threat to bang us over the head with another of Nature’s painful lessons.  The lesson that comes to us under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic is that our human race, all 8 billion of us, is now more tightly bound together than ever before.  Compared to a century ago when the flu pandemic claimed more lives than this one will, we are now more tightly bound by travel, communication, shared news, the internet, and the global exchange of things.  What touches some of us now, even sneaky viruses, may touch all of us.  In the balance, I think this is good news, if we can learn to understand it.

Yet the perverse irony of our new-found bond is that we are now obliged to engage in a conspiracy of mistrust, at least here in the US.  Under orders of our governors, most of us shelter in place to avoid the silent carriers, and to avoid being that silent carrier who could deliver the lethal droplets.  We venture out for essentials when we dare, masked and gloved, assuming that all who pass us by, even our friends, are silent carriers.  Those who defy these orders earn public scorn and clips on the news.

We assume the silent carriers are out there, but what do we know?  We don’t know nothing.  I don’t know my COVID status, and I don’t know the status of the people I share our house with, my co-workers at the clinic, the kids on our street, or the cashiers at my grocery store.  In our southwest corner of Ohio, where the rate of COVID-19 cases is lower than much of the nation, what is more toxic to our economy and our social well-being than the virus itself is this mandate of mistrust we are obliged to engage in, for lack of something better.

So while you’re waiting for something better, like a vaccine or a treatment that works every time for every one, dream with me about what it will take for us to reestablish our ability to trust each other.  Dream about the CDC developing a national COVID registry of test results linked to a free app we can all download to our phones.  Dream about all pharmacies and clinical labs providing rapid and reliable COVID PCR testing, with the results automatically entered in the CDC registry. Dream about the Gates Foundation making it possible for anyone who does not have a cell phone to get a free device at your pharmacy that can operate this app like a phone.  Dream about being prompted when it’s time for you to get your next test, and where. Dream about responding on a daily basis to a questionnaire on your phone that asks about your respiratory symptoms in the past week and your exposures to any COVID positive contacts or probable cases.  Dream about this app alerting you when you have been within 6 feet of someone who has tested positive in the past two weeks.

Dream about knowing your COVID-19 status, which is updated daily on your phone (Green, Yellow, Red)—this will be your ticket to circulate freely among other green “19 negatives” you can trust.  Dream of feeling safe on a bus or in a restaurant or singing in your chorus again. Dream about the fact that soon, once we have this level of understanding about COVID-19 in our neighborhoods and regions, the only people required to shelter in place will be the 10-15% who have been recently exposed (yellow), are silent carriers (red), or are “19 positives” (red).  Dream about an economy that is freed from the bulldozer of statewide lockdowns and the mass paranoia of germophobia.

If Germany and South Korea and New Zealand could create this system of testing in a few short months and avoid crushing their economies, we can do more than just dream about it.  This kind of “cure” is less expensive and far easier to achieve in the next six months than a vaccine or clinical trials for treatments or trillions of dollars in emergency aid.  And this testing system will reach farther and faster to repair, if not cure, our crippled economy.

If such a system threatens your sense of civil liberties, compare life under widespread testing it to the liberties we have lost in lockdown and unemployment.  In our country, our COVID deaths are just over one hundred thousand, our cases just over one million, and our newly unemployed in the many millions. Smart testing, the kind you and I dream about, could save millions of livelihoods in the coming months.  What are we waiting for?

My Vector Complex

When I was young, my older brother helped me understand why he always beat me in knee football at least 49-7, why he could read four comic books in the time it took me to read one, and why he never puked on the school bus but I did.  “You’ve got an inferiority complex,” he said, with one hand on my head.  “It’s a fact of life for some younger brothers.  Get used to it.”  And so I got used to being a slow reader and sitting alone on the bus.  The biggest girl in my brother’s class, Maddie, pinched her nose as she passed me by in the bus aisle one day and said, “I hear you’re dangerous.”

When I grew older my parents sent me to a school where nobody knew my older brother, and they held me back for a year so I could be one of the bigger kids in my class.  It worked. Nobody dismissed me as the younger brother.  I forgot about my inferiority complex, and life was not so bad for a while.

Then I got to college and discovered that I’d had it easy compared to the tougher, brighter people in my class who had worked jobs in high school to earn their way in.  A classmate convinced me that my parents holding me back had really been a form of cheating in the big game of life.   When I realized that other people deserved to be there more than I did, that they dismissed me as just another easy in, I rushed my existential crisis to our college counseling service, where I learned that I suffered from the silver spoon complex.  The only way I could get over my silver spoon complex was to work my butt off.

So I worked my butt off and got a degree in counseling so I could work even longer hours taking care of people with inferiority complexes and silver spoon complexes and other difficult but interesting problems.  Figuring out how other people think seemed like a good investment, a way to absolve myself of the sins of my privilege. I thought it was worth it until my wife told me I was no fun any more, all I did was work, what happened to our marriage?  She said I’d developed a savior complex.

She didn’t dismiss me from the house, but she could have.  And she had a point.  It made me think.  I cut back my hours and started playing pickleball and made a few friends. Eventually I gave up the savior thing.  I woke up one year and realized I didn’t have so much to worry about. We had a few laughs.  Life was not so bad for a while.

Then this corona virus took over the world and infected the way we think. In just a few months I’ve become dangerous again.  Strangers and friends in the grocery store look at me sideways, if they look at me at all.  They don’t see me.  They see that magazine cover with the virus shell and the bright red crowns on the surface.  They’re looking for signs that it’s eating me—are my lips blue, am I huffing to catch my breath, am I pink and sweaty with fever?  To them I’m a walking petri dish.  Any second now my mouth might froth over with grey virus cooties wearing so many red crowns, the froth spilling down my chin.  That’s why we wear masks, to hide the virus signs while we sneak a few groceries home.

They don’t trust me, and why should they? They all know that I could kill them with one cough or a lethal sneeze.  I’ve got cooties, you’ve got cooties, we’ve all got the COVID-19 cooties.  A shake is not a shake any more, and a kiss is no longer a kiss—it could be the kiss of death.

In just a few months “How’re you?” is no longer a greeting or a rhetorical question. Now the only answer anyone wants to hear is, “I’m PCR negative within the past 14 days, and exposure free.  How are you?”  I don’t know how or what I am.  Or what anyone is.  I’ve been dismissed as many things before, and I’ve figured out how to come back so to speak, but this infection of mistrust might be big enough to close my shop.  I’m not sure I’ve got the stuff to bounce back this time. I can’t imagine a life where hugs and kisses are a menace and intimate contact only happens on a screen.

So in a fit of private desperation late one night this week I called the COVID 19 hotline and got a young woman who sounded like she was interning for her telemarketing degree and reading from a script.  She listened politely for the requisite first couple of minutes, and then she said what should not have surprised me as much as it did.  “You’ve got the vector complex, sir.  We recommend joining our rapidly growing online Vector Support Group.”  In just a couple of quick minutes, Ms Intern nailed my problem.

Instead of listening to her while she was reciting the 1-800 number and the website link, I heard my brother whisper in my ear, “Get used to it.”

Calling All Billionaires

How’s your distancing doing?  My first few days of working at home have felt like a long weekend in the middle of the week, a forced staycation.  Or are you in shutdown-lockdown-quarantine from this “invisible enemy” most of us call COVID-19?

Now that we’re all joined in a national waiting game, it’s hard to avoid wondering how this waiting apart will end.  By what criteria will our governors decide to lift the current work, gathering, and travel restrictions?  That day will come only when we can turn the invisible into the visible through widespread testing.  Until we can “see” who is positive and who is negative for COVID-19, we will be groping in the dark with no idea what our true risks are.

South Korea got those numbers right from the start of their epidemic with widespread testing for COVID-19.  Back in early February the South Korean government established rapid testing at a rate of 10,000 tests per day in targeted areas of the country to identify the cases and the asymptomatic carriers and who was negative.  By mapping the hotspots and tracking progress over time they have been able to efficiently quarantine the cases, the carriers, and those exposed to carriers, containing the epidemic without shutting down their economy.

Our government is coming late to this game.  A month into this epidemic in the US we have only tested 59,000 total.  Finally this week the engines of government and private enterprise in the US announced intentions to ramp up testing capacity to 10,000 tests a day. (See Kaleigh Rogers 3/18/20)) In Ohio we just began drive-through testing last week, limited to symptomatic patients who have a doctor’s order.  And it still takes 3-4 days to get a test result. We’re a long way from 10,000 tests a day. Until we can do widespread testing with rapid results and tracking over time, our epidemiologists will have no reliable way to define the course of this epidemic in our regions.

Where are our billionaires when we need them?  They should be lining up for the chance to play savior here and now.  Fast infusions of cash to the labs and state health departments could accelerate the purchase of testing kits, the hiring of temporary staff, the set up of emergency labs, and the distribution of testing data to CDC and those who make the policies that manage this epidemic state-by-state.

Widespread testing is not a luxury.  It’s the only means to efficiently allocate scarce medical resources where they’re most needed and to define who should and should not participate in quarantines, and for how long.  It’s essential to resuscitating our economy.  Widespread testing for many months will also provide the most reliable way to say with confidence when our quarantines have been effective and when we can confidently come together again to laugh and cough and sneeze without fear. Mr Bloomberg, can you spare some change?

Impeach Joe Biden

November 8, 2022—Exactly two years to the day after President Biden’s victory over then President Donald J Trump in the 2020 election, a victory Biden celebrated with the now famous phrase “the true jury has finally voted,” the House of Representatives voted today to impeach Mr Biden for the same two articles, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, that led to Mr Trump’s trial and acquittal in 2020.  In what pundits widely consider a more artful and nuanced spinoff of Mr Trump’s efforts to secure his second term, Mr Biden is now formally accused of coercing the governments of Iraq and Mexico to influence the 2024 election in his favor.

In his first major role following the late Speaker Pelosi’s sudden demise in September, House Speaker Adam Schiff announced the articles of impeachment as “the right thing to do.”  To a sparsely attended press conference, Speaker Schiff praised the bipartisan vote of 235-200, while acknowledging that Mr Biden has defied no less than 13 subpoenas in the past three months of House inquiries into his apparent dealings with Iraq and Mexico.  Speaker Schiff said, “While we are also concerned about the declining health of Mr Biden, as seen in his persistent refusal to trust his own Cabinet over the past six months, our overriding duty is to protect this nation from abuses of power.  We acknowledge that, lacking the power to subpoena, a power we once held dearly, we can only base our evidence on hearsay.  We acknowledge that the Democratic majority in the Senate is not inclined to convict one of its own. Perhaps censure is an option.  Let the record show that Mr Biden has been charged and the public duly informed.  And let us pray that in 2024 the true jury will finally vote, if we can keep this Republic until then.”

***

That’s my fast forward from the sidelines of our Impeachment Trial, now after a week and a half of presentations, entering the first day of questions.  I guess the fantasy works just as well with any plausible Democrat who could beat Trump in the 2020 election. The most baffling aspect of this whole Impeachment process for me has been the hard party line towed by both sides since the day the inquiry began in November.  No member of Congress has yet dared to cross that line.

For me, Article 2—the less talked about obstruction of Congress charge—captures the most urgent and most non-partisan issue at stake here.  What does this trial mean for the power of Congress to investigate?  Not just this President, but any future President?  None of the several hundred Republican Senators and Representatives has publicly expressed a concern so far about the effect that an acquittal in this trial will have on their future capacity to subpoena members of the Executive Branch, whether the President is in their own party or the opposition.

Am I missing something here?  Is it not true that acquittal in this trial will invite future Presidents to cite the precedent of Trump’s acquittal in 2020 for ignoring or defying multiple Congressional subpoenas in the future?  Without subpoena power, Congress can’t check an unfit President.  Shouldn’t all Representatives and Senators vigorously refuse to have their teeth extracted?  Where are the legal scholar pundits when we need them to be screaming at these apparently para-suicidal Senators, “Don’t Jump!!  Don’t give up your teeth!!”

And what does this have to do with the theme of this blog, the art and science of making contact?  Here is a chance for two large groups of powerful people with loyalties that divide them to seize a common ground, to protect a power they all covet.  And here is a chance for this Congress to claim a power the voters need and want them to own, protect, and exercise.  Shouldn’t this bond among all members of Congress trump party loyalty at this time?  For Republican Senators to choose loyalty to Mr Trump over loyalty to their own power as Senators would be not just a one-time folly driven by fear.  It would also be choosing to turn our Congress into a toothless body for all time by giving up the power to effectively subpoena future Presidents.

Tell me I need not fear.  Tell me our Senators would never do such a thing.  That’s the kind of contact that would give me hope—that these Senators could find each other soon enough to save their power and our Republic.  Next Monday I’m going to see my dentist.

Waking Up to Trees

Until we moved into the city six years ago, I spent most of my life ignoring trees. People were more interesting, although I have met some people who are as dull as a tree.  For most of my life I could afford to dismiss trees as the slow, silent, and sleepy side of nature.  Aside from a handful of the most common trees, I couldn’t remember tree names or what made one tree different from the others.

Six years ago when we moved to this house in the urban neighborhood of Clifton near our work at the University of Cincinnati, part of the attraction was that the house was surrounded by trees.  It sits at the end of a short lane on a small clearing that on three sides drops off steeply into ravines.  The trees that surround this three-story house are two and three times the height of the house.  I knew enough then to recognize the oaks and two large beeches, and deeper in the ravines the bone-like branches of three big white sycamores.  The rest were an anonymous blur.

The first lesson I woke up to was that trees mean leaves.  And more leaves.  And more leaves.  Around our house raking is no longer a fall sport.  We rake year round.  In the ten beds of ground cover scattered around our front yard, it took me several years to rake off the matted brown carpet of leaves that had accumulated over the years of our former owner having more urgent things to do, like raise four kids on her own.  Our son finally introduced me to the wonders of a leaf blower, which I had assumed was only for people too lazy to lift a rake.  No, it takes a leaf blower to blast out rot-blackened wads of leaves from the tangles of ground cover.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving this year brought us a ripping cold wind that kept us inside and stripped the last of the oak leaves from their branches, leaving all our surrounding trees naked, except for the two silver beeches which still stubbornly held on to  their leaves on the lower half of the branches.  On that calmer Thanksgiving day after the wind storm, our yard had again turned brown with the leaf fall, but I felt more confident this time blowing and raking up three tarpfuls, then hauling them to my slash pile by the fence corner half way down the ravine—more confident this time than the other three or four times I’ve played this game this fall that this would be my last round, at least for this season, at least for the lawn.  I could spend the winter clearing out the ten beds of ground cover.

The second lesson I woke up to about trees was that, just like people, if you don’t pay attention to them they can hurt you.  One quiet October evening a couple of years after we moved in, our son and daughter-in-law left our house around 10:30, got in their car, and drove home.  Sometime in the next hour a loud crash disturbed me briefly from sleep, but in the darkness and the quiet that followed I could make nothing of it. The next morning I found the road to our house buried under the full spread of an enormous oak tree that had dropped squarely across where our visitors park cars, smashing the fence and the street light on the near side, stretching across the road to the fire hydrant on the far side.  How do you thank a tree for sparing your children?  That fire hydrant earned us the attention of the city fire department, who called in the urban forestry division to cut and chew up enough of the top of the tree to allow a fire truck access to the hydrant.  Then they wished us good luck with the rest.

The urban forester who came the next day told me this was a black oak that had rotted at the roots.  The leaves and branches looked healthy, but enough of the roots had rotted by a white fungus that it could no longer balance its weight.  What about all these other giants towering over our street?  How many were about to fall?  Hard to tell he said, but best to get them looked at.  I realized I didn’t know enough about our nearest and tallest neighbors.

A tree map composed by the Davey Tree Company eventually told us that in the woods surrounding our house we have 144 trees that are eight inches in diameter or larger and 44 different species.  We learned that in one ravine we have 57 sugar maples in case we ever need to boil sap, and the four towering oaks that flank our mailbox and the walk to our house are black oaks, just like the one whose long trunk still lies like a beached whale in the ravine where it fell four years ago.  The roots of the standing oaks look okay for now, but what’s going on underneath?

Two red dots on the map identified our top priorities, an ash on the east side of the house overhanging the deck by our kitchen and a black locust on the west side that had a large shelf fungus growing about 30 feet off the ground, making the locust likely to snap in a west wind and drop its crown on our roof.  Then I learned that cutting down a huge tree is the cheaper part of the job.  More expensive is paying the pros to cut it up and haul it away.  Since both trees fell deep into the ravines, I decided to save some cash and do the cutting and hauling myself.  That’s how I learned why ash and locust are called hardwoods.  They can blunt a decent chainsaw blade in an afternoon.  What would have taken the pros one afternoon took me a good year of afternoons trimming, chainsawing, splitting, stacking, and hauling.  I learned enough from a year with those two trees on the slopes of our ravines that next time I might pay those pros to finish the job.

I’ve tried to imagine our house without all these trees.  Nice house, no raking–but naked, and no magic.  The serenity of our front yard depends totally on the arc of the trees on three sides forming a cathedral of branches—equally magical for a yard party or sitting alone on the bench.  What draws the kids from our street is the rope swing that hangs 42 feet from a limb on one of the black oaks near the mailbox.  And the hammock that hangs between the blue spruce and the Japanese maple held seven of the kids at once many times this summer.  Without trees would the cookies in our pantry be enough to fetch them to our kitchen door?  So with their future in mind in the ground cover beds around our yard over the last few years I’ve planted seven waist-high trees, hoping some day they may flower: a lilac, two dogwoods, a serviceberry, a hawthorn, and two hibiscus.

After visiting us last summer, our sixteen year old cousin JP, who lives in a desert suburb of Santa Fe where no tree stands taller than a house, sent me a book by Peter Wohlleben called The Hidden Lives of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World (2015).  It’s a series of essays by a German forester that woke me up to the fact that trees are social creatures that communicate with each other, both by pheromones and by their underground network of fungal mycelia.  The book made trees seem less slow, silent, and sleepy.

Then last week our local theater offered a showing of the new documentary Fantastic Fungi, featuring Paul Stamet, the guru of psilocybin mushrooms, teaching us about the subterranean kingdom of the mycelium network, the trees’ internet.  And this week I noticed on the desk of my college roommate, who is an expert in horticulture, David Haskell’s book The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (2017).  Trees are great connectors?  Seeing that book on his desk from two years ago left me with the deflating realization that what I had fancied to be my growing discovery had in fact been well established in the common wisdom.  It’s now hip to think of trees as part of our eco-culture of communications.  I am once again late to the awakening.  Why should we be surprised, once we admit our tree-dwelling ancestors, that our social life still so much prefers to take place in the company of trees?

Since I semi-retired a couple of years ago, I’ve been wondering what my community might do with me as my faculties dwindle.  When I was younger I had no patience for trees.  But now that I have fewer responsibilities, I’ve found a curiosity about trees that might keep me going in the commune of our neighborhood, which is all younger families.  Maybe if I study hard for the next decade they’ll let me play the keeper of trees. It might be just right for a slow and sleepy old guy.

Our Smartest Hive: Discovering a New Altruism

“But never before has it been easy to solicit and collate contributions from thousands or millions of unknown collaborators.“

–Walter Isaacson

 

One of my pet follies is keeping a few beehives in our back yard.  It’s a folly because, since moving our hives from the leafy suburbs into our leafy city neighborhood six years ago, only once have I harvested honey from them and not once has even one of the four hives I’ve bought each spring survived a full year.  Is it pests or pesticides or colony collapse or a dearth of pollen in the city woods around us that kills our hives?  Andrew Kartal, who supplies us with our bees each year and inspects our hives when I have a crisis, thinks we don’t have enough pollen in town.  But, being a devoted fool, I keep trying to figure out city beekeeping by fiddling with how I feed them and how I treat them for pests and any other trick I can try.

I don’t do it for the honey.  I do it for the fascination of watching the collective wisdom of these hives in action.  How do they figure out who does what when?  The stray honey bee that follows me into the kitchen when I’m preparing the feeding buckets appears as dumb as a house fly.  But as one of the thousands in the hive, that bee plays several key roles in what makes a hive miraculously smart.  How do they all figure out when to requeen and when to swarm and how many drones should tend the larvae while others forage for pollen?   I’d love to be a fly-on-the-wall in those council meetings.

Under more favorable conditions and in the hands of better beekeepers, three thousand drones and a queen make a plenty smart enough hive to thrive through the years.  What interests me more urgently is what the sufficient number and composition is for our own species to thrive through the years.  One of my colleagues, Jurgen Unutzer at the University of Washington, signs his emails followed by the motto “None of us is as smart as all of us.”  This turns out to be a quotation from Kenneth Blanchard, the author of The One Minute Manager, a popular book on corporate leadership.  But I wonder how we should read “all of us.”

Under most circumstances all of us in large numbers are not very smart.  Mob justice is never patient, compassionate, or subtle.  The crowd psychology of rioting protesters is rarely creative or clever and usually ends badly.  Even large peaceful, well-organized demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people can at best deliver a single message for a day or two: stop the war, give us our freedom, end racism.  Our largest effort at collective decision-making, national elections, which involves millions, is limited to a list of yes/no votes on a single day—not a complex or sophisticated process.  Historically our most productive efforts at collective intelligence have taken place in huddles, councils, board rooms, and committees, which do their best work when the number in the room is less than twenty, often closer to ten.

Then along comes the Internet, and with it the discovery of a new capacity of the human species.  Listen to how Walter Isaacson summarizes this discovery in the last chapter of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014, p 482):

“Like the computer, the ARPANET and the Internet were designed by collaborative teams.  Decisions were made through a process, begun by a deferential graduate student, of sending around proposals as ’Requests for Comments.’ That led to a weblike packet-switched network, with no central authority or hubs, in which power was fully distributed to every one of the nodes, each having the ability to create and share content and route around attempts to impose controls.  A collaborative process thus produced a system designed to facilitate collaboration.  The Internet was imprinted with the DNA of its creators.

The Internet facilitated collaboration not only within teams but also among crowds of people who didn’t know each other. This is the advance that is closest to revolutionary.  Networks for collaboration have existed ever since the Persians and Assyrians invented postal systems.  But never before has it been easy to solicit and collate contributions from thousands or millions of unknown collaborators.  This led to innovative systems—Google page ranks, Wikipedia entries, the Firefox browser, the GNU/Linux software—based on the collective wisdom of crowds.”

Finally, after eons of evolution, we invented a tool, the computer, that allowed us to tap into a capacity we didn’t know we had.  We’ve done this man-and-tool trick before.  The invention of musical instruments revealed our capacity for elaborate musical communications.  Ships led to distant travel that revealed our capacity for learning foreign languages.   Guns and steel revealed our capacity for large-scale warfare and massacres.  Now the Internet and the systems it has spawned have revealed our capacity to work with many thousands of strangers on a mission that serves people we will never know.  We have done this not for love or money or fame, but for the chance to participate in and belong to something meaningful and useful to “all of us.”

The revolutionary discovery is that under a novel set of conditions a large self-selected group of people can cooperate through a governance structure by consensus to create highly sophisticated systems of open-source software.  No bosses, no experts, no voting, no pay, no credit.  The built-in mechanisms for self-improvement of these systems increased the chances for survival of the invented software.

One of the conditions that allowed Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia to eclipse Nupedia, which was edited by experts, and Encyclopedia Britannica in just a few years was the counter-intuitive premise that allowing anyone—not just experts—to contribute and edit articles would improve the quality of the articles rather than diminish it.   That open-door and hands-on policy, which looked to most like an invitation to chaos, proved key to tapping this unrecognized resource.  With just a few guidelines created collaboratively by the Wikipedia community (such as “articles should strive for a neutral point of view” and disputes about facts required mediation), Wikipedia mushroomed from 1,000 articles in 2001 to 100,000 articles in 2003 with 500 active editors.  When the Encyclopedia Britannica quit publishing its print edition in 2010, its electronic edition had 80,000 articles, less than 2 percent of the articles in Wikipedia.  In 2014 Wikipedia had grown to 30 million articles in 287 languages.  This growth of Wikipedia represents knowledge power and dissemination on a scale unimaginable in 2001.

Isaacson wonders why some people have devoted thousands of hours to these projects.  This is “commons-based peer production” driven by “a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals,” he writes.  He cites the reward of interacting with others and the personal gratification of doing useful work, the same altruism that makes us do old-fashioned church work or food drives or litter pick-ups.  Caring for our neighborhood is good for us.  But now we have “wiki-crack, the rush of dopamine…when you make a smart edit and it appears instantly in a Wikipedia article.”  This is a new kind of altruism on a new scale with a greater reach.

The Internet and some of its offspring appear to have created a big room for a subset of “all of us” in which the wisdom of the crowd really does create a smarter hive for the rest of us.  Now what is the next currently unimaginable invention that will tap this deep well of altruism?  Is the power of this resource equal to the challenges of our big problems: poverty, famine, plagues, warfare, corruption?  If Google can’t tell you, just Wiki that question.

Our Silent Heart-to-Hearts

When Naomi backed in through their apartment door, arms loaded with her handbag, gym bag, and the box of dinner ingredients from Fresh Hello, Arturo was waiting for her, suavely dressed in his Armani shirt, arms outstretched, grinning, folding her into his embrace.

“Hello, my love!” he cooed.  “Tonight we celebrate.”  He set her bags and the box on the counter, raised her hand, and lightly spun her.  She shuffled around, saying, “Celebrate?”

“Rollerblade down to the waterfront. Maddie and Jimbo want to sail us out around the Statue of Liberty and back.  Barbecue on the back of their boat in the twilight.  We’re going to celebrate this baby coming and the raise I got and spending a chunk of it on remodeling our closet into a nursery.”

“Okay,” she said, wondering what else he had in mind.  “I guess this box dinner can wait till tomorrow night.”

“Okay?” he said, looking deep into her eyes.  “What does that mean?”

She turned away to peel off her jacket and hang it on the hook behind the door.  “Okay means let’s do it,” she said in a voice that didn’t convince him.

“Whoa,” he said. “It’s time for a heart-to-heart.” He pulled out his phone and tapped his Social Coherence app.

On this day in 2025 this will be the second time Naomi has heard that call for a social coherence check.  Earlier that day she will have heard it from her boss, Ruth Havens, head acquisitions editor.  During their weekly review conference the usuals had been present around the small table in the conference room: Jill and Abdul, the two other assistant editors, Tim from marketing, Alfie from finance, and Hema the intern.  Ruth was pushing for closure on whether to go ahead with investing in a series of young adult books by an unknown author on the tricky topic of gaming as a teaching technique for high schoolers.  After going around the table and getting an apparent unanimous consent to offer the contract, an uneasy pause settled on the room.  Ruth shuffled some papers, looked again at her team, and announced, “This doesn’t feel like unanimous consent.  Social coherence check. All got your wrist bands on?” She pulled out her phone and tapped the app. The others around the table reluctantly tapped in as well.

In five or ten years could social coherence monitoring be as routine an event for the device-devoted as texting is today?  So far, there’s no app for it.  Social coherence is a concept, but too complex to have made it to the popular market.  Still, I find the possibility mesmerizing—that the physiologies of two people (or seven!) could synchronize—not just their thoughts, but their heart beats, their breathing rates, their hormones.  Why not?  Herd animals and flocks of birds must synchronize in these ways.  Mothers and infants sometimes can synch their breathing and voices and even their heart rates.  Why not two adults, or many?  We can synchronize our steps when we march and our voices when we sing.  How deep does this synchrony go?

I picture a graphic on their phones that reveals how well or poorly synchronized their hearts are.  Maybe two lines, or seven, showing each of the rhythms of the variations in heart beats and some overlay that measures the degree of coherence or incoherence.  Instant feedback.  Well-trained participants could then use their skills to try to get their physiologies in sync with the other(s).  Think of it as group biofeedback.

The term “social coherence” has emerged in the psychophysiology lingo recently.  It rests on the concept of coherence within a physiologic system, such as the cardiovascular system.   Physiologic coherence begins with the observation that a rhythmic process in our bodies, such as breathing or heart rate, can oscillate in a range of patterns, some of which have high degrees of order, stability, and efficiency.  Your car engine, which also operates in rhythmic cycles of cylinders firing, can run in a range of patterns, including an optimal idle speed and an optimal cruising speed around 55 mph.  Coherence in these oscillating systems refers to optimal patterns of efficiency.

We recognize these efficient physiologic patterns partly through feelings of pleasure.  We find a steady resting heart beat around 60 more comfortable than heart beats as low as 30 or as high as 110 beats per minute.  Evolution has made us so we enjoy these more efficient states.  And we know the opposite, chaotic physiologic states, as the absence of pleasure, or as discomfort or pain.  This lack of physiologic coherence can be as distressing as incoherence in speech or thought.  We recognize when a person’s speech crosses a certain line between order or sense and disorder or nonsense.  Alarm bells go off in all of us.  Are we less good at recognizing physiologic incoherence?

There is a published definition of cardiac coherence, based on the physiologic measure of heart rate variability.  This concept of heart rate variability refers to the fact that resilient hearts vary their rates widely in response to challenges; aged or diseased hearts are less flexible and can vary their heart rates much less. In a recent review the authors of this definition found that cardiac coherence may be related to other measures of health, such as the ability to regulate strong emotions, maintain stability of the autonomic nervous system, and control blood pressure.

Cardiac coherence is an attractive possibility, but neither the concept nor this specific definition has spread much beyond the circle of the authors in the nine years since it was first published, so it’s not yet clear how useful this definition of cardiac coherence may be.  If you google “cardiac coherence,” the only published scientific article in the first three pages of listings is the 2014 article cited above.  One of the more promising of these listings is the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s page for the Center for Integrative Medicine offering “cardiac coherence training.”

There is also a self-report measure of the effectiveness of coping with stress, called the Sense of Coherence, by Aaron Antonovsky, which may be loosely related to the concept of physiologic coherence, though no one seems to have studied that link.  A paper published this year found that this Sense of Coherence measure explained a substantial amount of the risk for developing diabetes in a group of people with chronic stress.  Maybe a person’s low sense of coherence reflects an “incoherent” or disordered physiologic state that paves the way to chronic illness.

There are lots of gaps that need to be filled in this potential story.  If this is more than the coincidental use of the same word by two silos in the psychophysiology world, it’s possible that our sense of effective coping includes sensing cardiac coherence as well as other forms of physiologic coherence.   Steven Porges, in his book The Polyvagal Theory (2011), makes clear the evolutionary origins of the links among emotions, social attachments, and heart rate variability in animals and humans, all of which are essential to adaptation and health.  And there’s good science suggesting that in humans mother-infant synchrony of several types, including heart rate variability, during the first three months of life predicts later capacities for self-regulation of emotions among toddlers, attachment security at 6 years old, and empathy in adolescence [link to ref].  This is evidence for social rhythms entraining biological rhythms that later pave the way to more complex social rhythms, such as the sometimes surprising capacity of teenagers to experience empathy for others.

So is it possible that we can not only sense coherence within our own physiologies but in the physiologies of others, first our mothers and later our lovers or colleagues? Can I intuitively adjust my heart to sync with yours? So far the evidence is not persuasive.  Many gaps need to be filled before we can confidently say so. Maybe with better group biofeedback we can learn this fine art.  What kinds of synchrony might we be experiencing without knowing it when we dance, sing, or have an intimate heart-to-heart talk.  How many levels of conversation are we conducting?  I can sense your breathing.  Can I sense your heart beats too?  If our hearts are in sync, do our words matter?

Smart scientists have a lot more work to do on the devices and the data analysis and the apps that can translate all that data from our wrist bands into a few simple graphs that will guide us to adjust our behavior and our heart beats for finer harmony among us.  Until then, to find some kind of social coherence, we’ll have to rely on our intuitions and looking deep into other people’s eyes and listening to how they say their words and guessing if we’re in sync.

Then some day there’ll be an app for that.