Kleptocrats, Unite!

Rachel Maddow is building the case that Rex Tillerson’s actions at the State Department – and principally the firing of the top career civil servants – are consistent with the goals of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

To those that understand Putin’s Russia, the goals are simple: transfer as much wealth as possible from the Russian state to private ownership. This is called “kleptocracy” – government serving the financial interests of the leadership. Putin has made an art of this game, becoming arguably the richest man in the world.

As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson was awarded Putin’s “Friend of Russia” designation for his stand against U.S. sanctions that impeded Exxon’s ability to exploit oil and gas resources in Russia. The methods used to enforce those sanctions were situated in the U.S. State Department. Those methods were also used to bring pressure against Exxon for its actions elsewhere in the world.

So Tillerson’s business history supports the conclusion that the State Department, with its focus on human rights and equity, is a nuisance to those trying to get business done in the world. My guess is that this is consistent with Trump’s goals, particularly as it has become clear that our President is almost certainly in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for which the sentencing mandates jail time. Cleaning out the top of the State Department will allow the administration to identify and elevate career diplomats that share their priorities, and perhaps protect themselves from prosecution.

So Rachel, don’t push the Russian connection too hard. Trump and Tillerson share with Putin the attitude that government should be turned to the purpose of making money. Their kleptomania may be sufficient explanation for their policies. Regardless of whether Putin is using blackmail to coerce their actions, the Trump administration is composed of people that appear to be inspired by Putin’s success.

On Politics and Altruism

The Huffington Post has picked up on the clarion call sounded by Judith Herman and others regarding their psychological profile of Donald Trump. Cynics respond that all politicians are power-seeking, and therefore possess significant personality defects. While that may be so, brains do evolve as we mature.

The brain is plastic, and evolves structures as we age that are responsible for socialization. The most evolved structure, which doesn’t appear until most are in their twenties, is responsible for the expression of altruism. Sociopathy (which I see manifested clearly in Trump’s behavior) is the tendency to treat other people as objects. It is indicative of a lack of even the most basic structures of socialization that are entrained with nursing, which delivers the most basic of rewards for collaboration. Forget psychoanalysis: scans of brain activity reveal whether people have even the basic machinery necessary for responsible leadership of others. My guess is that Trump is seriously deficient in that regard.

Louis Cozolino, who teaches at Pepperdine University, also has a practice in psychotherapy that guides adults through experiences that help them to evolve the neurological mechanisms of socialization (see The Neuroscience of Human Relationships). In other words, there are methods for treatment of these disorders, and we should try to educate the electorate to prefer politicians that engage in such counseling. Altruism is the ability to act for the good of others, and is something that everyone should prefer in political leaders.

Of course, the fullest flowering of altruism appears in our great spiritual leaders – those whose service is pursued without any external evidence of seeking for power. It is granted to them by the world they serve. One of my favorite quotes is from Tagore, the educator and poet who was Gandhi’s cultural collaborator:

Power said to the World, “You are mine.”
The World kept it prisoner on her throne.

Love said to the World “I am yours.”
The World gave it the freedom of her house.

In my post Man and Woman, I flirted with the assertion that the capacity to express altruism (characterized as “unconditional love” in that context) is what made Adam and Eve fully human. Conversely, from a psychological perspective, sociopaths are little more than lizards.


Given that Clinton appears to have won the popular vote by upwards of a million votes, some among the pundits are bandying about the idea of changing the allocation rules for the electoral college. These rules are established by the individual states. A multi-state pact is already evolving which will require electors from participating states to cast their votes for the winner of the popular vote. That pact will be triggered when states representing 270 electors agree to the pact.

Is it too late?

I recognize that this mirrors the attempts by Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz to reassign the allegiances of delegates to both party conventions after the delegates were won in the primaries by Clinton and Trump (respectively). Remember those arguments by the “never Trump” delegates that they were not bound by law to vote according to the primary results?

I was astonished and dismayed by those efforts, which I saw as undemocratic. Now, however, as we see how woefully unprepared Trump is to run the presidency – not least due to the fact that apparently the only smart people he knows are actually members of his family or alt-right white supremacists – is it too late for the Electoral College to reject his ascendancy to the Oval Office? Or could the greatest aberration in our electoral system actually redeem itself, and grant Clinton the honor that she so deeply deserves?

Oh, Tay, Can You See?

Microsoft put up a speech-bot name ‘Tay’ on Twitter last week, and it took less than twenty-four hours for it to become a sexist Nazi. While labelled as “artificial intelligence,” Tay did not actually understand what it was saying – it merely parroted the speech of other users. On the /4chan/pol feed, that includes a lot of dialog that most of us would consider inappropriate.

What distresses is that Microsoft hoped to have Tay demonstrate the conversational skills of a typical teenager. Well, maybe it did!

In a recent dialog on the “liar Clinton,” I probed for specific proof, and received back the standard Fox News sound bites. When I described the Congressional hearings on Bengazi, the accuser had the grace to be chastened. This is typical of so much of our political dialog: people parrot sayings without availing themselves of access to the official forums in which real information is exchanged. The goal is to categorize people as “us” or “other,” with the goal of justifying arrangements for the distribution of power that benefit the “us.”

Donald Trump is a master of this political practice. Apparently his campaign doesn’t do any polling. He simply puts up posts on Facebook, and works the lines that people like into his speeches.

So I worry: did Microsoft actually succeed in its demonstration? Most American teenagers don’t understand the realities of the Holocaust or the difficulties of living under a totalitarian regime. In that experiential vacuum, do they actually evolve dialog in the same way that Tay did – with the simple goal of “fitting in?”

Somewhat more frightening is that Donald Trump appears to employ algorithms not too different from Tay’s. For God’s sake, this man could be president of the most powerful country in the world! He’s got to have more going on upstairs than a speech bot!

Fortunately, many teenagers, when brought into dialog regarding offensive speech, actually appreciate receiving a grounding in fact. You’d hope that our politicians would feel the same.

Trump v. Jesus

As I watched the footage of Donald Trump screaming “Get them out of here! Get them out of here!” and “Try not to hurt him – but if you do I’ll defend you in court,” I had this image of Jesus standing in the center of the crowd, trying to calm the hatred, just falling to his knees as a great shouted heart-cry arose from him.

This is not what I died for!

Rachel Maddow’s backdrop to her coverage of violence in the Trump campaign sported a picture of a Trump in full bombast, underlined with “De-Nomination.” Rachel sees Trump as a fascist, and drew parallels with the behavior of his followers and those of Hitler. Indeed, one of those caught on film pushing a black attendee at a Trump rally proudly proclaimed his affiliation with a white supremacist group. Maddow believes that through his incitement of violence Trump is disqualifying himself for nomination to be the leader of a free nation.

I see this as being a far more complex phenomenon, recognizing that the anti-Trump media has tended to feed the paranoia by casting his off-the-cuff comments in the least charitable light. Trump’s retort to Megan Kelly that “blood [was] coming from…wherever” was probably an unfinished reference to her nose or mouth, not her vagina.

My own visceral reaction to Trump comes from another source. After I finished playing with electrons and muons, I left particle physics because I realized that it would never have practical applications. It wouldn’t create jobs for the people that need them most. My first “real” job involved rescuing a project built by technologists to monitor waste discharges from a facility that employed 10,000 people. The system was required by the local treatment facility because prior discharges had disrupted their operations. Working eighteen hour days under enormous pressure, I brought the system under control, investigated patterns of radiation releases that violated the terms of our discharge license, and participated in tours to calm public fears. I protected those jobs.

After leaving government employment, I began work as a software developer. In my three major engagements, I worked in companies run by people who hated government, seeing it as merely an impediment to job creation. But the ethic of their operations was shocking to me. The organizations were dominated by fear – fear largely originating from the realization that the software used to control the expensive machines they built was so incomprehensible that engineers could no longer configure the installations. In each case, I refactored the code, fixing bugs and adding features as I went. I saved jobs.

The response in every case was to beat me down, because I exposed the fact that, at root, it was the behaviors of executives that made it impossible to achieve success. It was the lies and anger managers projected at their employees that destroyed their capacity to think. I came in and restructured those relationships, building a core of rationality and blame-free problem solving that enabled people to grasp at hope. I ministered to my peers as a Christian, and that terrified those that terrified them.

So this is what I see when I see Trump: a screaming blaggart who builds casinos designed to take advantage of people of weak will, and exclusive communities that protect the rich from rubbing elbows with the poor. I see a destroyer of families and social cohesion, and a diverter of energy that could be employed to heal the infirm and sustain the poor.

In Daniel’s Dream of the Four Beasts [Dan. 7], Daniel sees the coming of “the Ancient of Days” on a “flaming throne” with “wheels of fire.” This is the imagery that accompanies Apollo, god of the sun, in Greek religion. Daniel sees the fourth beast being consumed by flame, even as the last of its horns continues with its “boastful words.” So we have Trump, distracting us with his boasting (“When I’m elected, we’ll win so much that you get tired of winning.”) from the necessary work of healing the world of the mess we’ve made of it, and most specifically the effects of global warming.

I think that Rachel had the wrong word on her backdrop last night. I think that it should have been “Domination,” that great enemy of Christian truth and freedom that seeks to force others to comply with its will. As foretold in Daniel, the fiery destruction of domination is an unfortunate prerequisite to the coming of the Age of Christ. As Jesus suffers the “birthing pains” of His return, try not to be taken in by the enemy’s vainglorious self-promotion.

Climbing the Mountain of Healing

After eight years of fear-mongering and greed under the Bush Administration, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I stood in the conference room at work to watch the proceedings. Breathing more easily, I felt the will of Christ stretch itself across the nation to join with that of our new president.

I caught a clip of the Tea Party responder to this year’s State of the Union (a motivational speaker named Root) warming up the crowd at a Trump rally. While I can’t call it a message, the energetic peak of his oration was the statement “This is war!” That is one way to look at society, as a struggle to the death of factions in a world where there is just never enough. To survive, we have to find that mythical figure epitomized in our history by Washington, Lincoln or FDR: a great general and leader to whom we can entrust our lives.

The problem is that fear is a deeply ingrained physiological habit. It is a way of relating to the world that destroys reason. When the enemy is gone, the habit remains and turns inwards. For some, the escape is into substance abuse, but for others it finds release in seeking enemies among their fellows.

Again and again, our society has raised up representatives to heal those divides, and those representatives suffer terribly for our sins. Jackie Robinson and the Central High Nine were all abused for the privilege of entering the lily-white citadels of baseball and education, and understood that they could not respond in kind. I heard one of the Central High Nine speak on his experience, and while my first reaction was outrage, it was closely followed by awe at the strength and discipline he had demonstrated.

Barack Obama spoke about this problem in his confrontation with the bigots in the federal legislature who declared early on their intention to oppose him at every step. His response was of the type. It was captured for me in a photo: During one of the budget stand-offs with the House, he invited the Speaker to play golf. The event was memorialized on one of the greens with Obama crouched low over his ball, pointing to lay out the line to the hole while looking over his shoulder at Boehner for agreement.

I write this today because I find myself dumbfounded by the political analysis of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Obviously among the Republican front-runners we find those parroting the legacies of FDR (Trump) and Washington (Cruz). Their are bombastic and shallow, but raise fervor in their frightened partisans. There is much to be alarmed by in this phenomenon – it was the root of fascism in Europe. I consider it to be a cancer in the body politic.

On the Democratic side, we were promised a different dynamic, a dialog informed by reason. After the first Democratic debate, one headline characterized it as “The Adults Take the Stage.” But there are significant differences between the candidates, and these are not just in substance but in tone. The pundits have tried to characterize these differences, and now tend to settle “forward thinking” and “heart” on Sanders while saddling Clinton with “hanging on to the past” and “head.”

Sanders earns these designations for his fiery railing against the monied class. This appeals to the youth of our nation, those whose disdain for politics has allowed the establishment to secure its privilege by buying the House and Senate in off-term elections. Sanders promises a radical departure from the past, a storming of the castle to take back the wealth of the nation. He yells and gesticulates, demonstrating a strong emotional connection to his program that promises dedication to its achievement.

I have already expressed my discomfort with the similarities with the Republican front-runners.

I see Hillary struggling with her characterization. The body politic does seem to want passion, but when she projects it in her campaign stops, it rings false. That is picked on by the pundits, who have now taken to comparing her to Bush. But I believe that comparison reflects a deep and systemic misunderstanding of the disease facing our nation, and the fact that the temperament that makes Clinton so attractive to me at this time is simply incompatible with the politics of the males in the field.

Consider this: if you had liver cancer, would you feel encouraged by an oncologist who said “This is war! Your liver is evil! I’m going to take it out and stomp on it! And – oh yeah – thanks for putting my daughter through college.” Or would you like to be given sympathy and encouragement with specific options for treatment along with a description of side-effects and costs.

In other words, would you want a warrior or a healer?

In Hillary, I see the latter. Although I see it in Obama, it’s typically a feminine proclivity. Have some sympathy for her as she struggles against the burden of the pressures that have kept women from full and equal participation in our body politic.