Harry Pregerson, Judge who respected dignity

Harry Pregerson, one of the most liberal federal appeals court judges in the nation, dies at 94

U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harry Pregerson, a Los Angeles-based jurist who embraced the underdog and let his conscience inform his rulings, has died. He was 94.

Pregerson, who was suffering from respiratory ailments, died Saturday night at his Woodland Hills home surrounded by family, said Sharon Pregerson, his daughter-in-law.

A few nights earlier, with his health seriously failing, he turned to his wife, Bernardine, and expressed a regret.

“’The hard thing is that I don’t have strength anymore to help people,’” recounted U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson, Harry’s son.

“He was full of love,” Sharon Pregerson said. “He helped so many people. That was his mission. That’s why he got up every morning.”

Pregerson, born in Los Angeles on Oct. 13, 1923, was one of the most liberal federal appeals court judges in the nation.

He grew up in East Los Angeles, served as a Marine in World War II and suffered severe wounds in the Battle of Okinawa. He later graduated from UCLA and obtained his law degree from UC Berkeley.

Dubbed a “thug for the Lord” by one attorney, Pregerson was relentless in his efforts away from the bench to help the poor in Los Angeles.

He worked to establish several homeless shelters and volunteered at one each Thanksgiving.

Dr. Katie Rodan, Pregerson’s daughter, said that she nicknamed her dad “the rescue machine” when she was a teenager.

“He wants to save everyone,” she said in a 2015 interview. “He wants to save the world.”

On the bench, Pregerson was often controversial. He stirred criticism when he refused to follow a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding California’s tough three-strikes sentencing law. Not long after the court’s decision, Pregerson dissented in rulings that upheld life sentences, some for relatively minor crimes.

His dissents were seen by some critics as insubordination, but Pregerson was frank about putting his conscience first.

“My conscience is a product of the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout Oath and the Marine Corps Hymn,” the Carter appointee said during his Senate confirmation hearing. “If I had to follow my conscience or the law, I would follow my conscience.”

Pregerson also angered some when he issued an order in 1992 to put a hold on the execution of Robert Alton Harris, who was already strapped inside the gas chamber. The Supreme Court later overturned Pregerson’s decision, and Harris was executed as planned.

Conservatives railed at him for overturning death sentences and accused him of activism. Some prosecutors said they dreaded appearing before him. Pregerson said he simply believed that many death row inmates had not been given fair trials.

“You read the record in these cases, and you see what happened and how defendants’ rights are not observed,” he said.

Pregerson also was viewed by some as a federalist, a label most often worn by conservatives and libertarians.

He favored restraints on the power of the federal government and wrote a decision saying federal authorities lacked authority to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the decision.

“His was a jurisprudence that was really based on the recognition of the dignity of every person,” said UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

“For him the law was much less about abstractions and much more about what it would mean in people’s lives,” Chemerinsky said.

Pregerson took senior status in 2015 at the age of 92 after 36 years on the 9th Circuit. The move reduced his workload, but he made it reluctantly, at his wife’s urging. “You know, at 92 you are not 82,” the judge said in an interview at the time. “You slow down a bit and need a little more rest.”

The injuries he suffered in the war also were hobbling him. He needed two ski poles to help him walk.

He told The Times he viewed the bench as a way to improve the lives of others.

“I looked upon being a judge as a chance to help as many people as I could through the law,” he said. “And it has given me that opportunity, no doubt about that.”

A public square, a freeway interchange and a child-care center in L.A. bear Pregerson’s name.

In response to a lawsuit when he was a lower court judge, Pregerson prevented construction of the 105 Freeway until construction jobs were set aside for women and minorities and a training program was in place to give them the needed skills.

The settlement he helped write also ensured that affordable housing was built for residents displaced by the project.

Civil rights lawyer Paul L. Hoffman, who teaches international human rights law at UC Irvine and Harvard University, called Pregerson “one of a kind.”

“He was so committed to social justice,” Hoffman said.

Christopher David Ruiz Cameron, a law professor at Southwestern Law School and a trustee of the Mexican American Bar Foundation, said Pregerson lived most of his life on the Westside and in the West Valley, “but his soul remained in the working-class Mexican American community of East L.A. where he grew up.”

“Harry never forgot his roots,” Cameron said. “He identified with the struggles of Chicanos and practically considered himself one of us.”

The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Pregerson made his home in Woodland Hills, where he and Bernardine raised their two children, Katie and Dean.

Two years before taking a reduced workload, the elder Pregerson lost his grandson, David, Dean’s son, in a hit-and-run. The elder Pregerson said the family would never get over it. He recalled that his father, a postal worker who fought in the trenches in World War I, told him life was a battlefield.

“You never know when you will get hit,” the judge said.

Pregerson remained close to his adult children and grandchildren throughout his life.

When Rodan was 12, her mother decided she was bored at home and wanted to go back to school full time to receive a graduate degree in microbiology. She expected the judge to assume the domestic duties, Rodan recalled.

“He was a typical 1960s man,” she said. “He came home late from work and expected to have the dinner on the table.”

Suddenly, he was taking her to ballet and running errands. But he couldn’t cook, and she said they ate dinner at restaurants. She called those years “a gift.”

“He told me, ‘When you grow up, be your own boss and make your own money. Don’t rely on a man to support you. You don’t know what life is going to deal you.’”

Rodan, a dermatologist, took his advice and started highly successful skin care companies.

Besides his wife and two children, Pregerson is survived by son-in-law Amnon Rodan, daughter-in-law Sharon, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

 

Letter to the President

Letter to the President

November 14, 2017

Updated & Reposted from February 10, 2017

The Honorable Donald J. Trump
President of the United States
Leader of the Free World
Master of the Universe
Self-made Billionaire

Dear Mr. President:

Please excuse my boldness in addressing you directly, but I wanted to take this opportunity to express my extreme displeasure with the disrespect shown you by some of the comedians of the world as they misinterpret your efforts to make the world a better place. It seems some of these comedians are struggling for attention and choose to create audiences at your expense. It is obvious that your modesty is ignored as they chastise you for reminding us that you are smart, brilliant, handsome, rich, the greatest negotiator, the greatest business man, the greatest entertainer and the obvious choice to lead, not only this great country, but the entire free world (as well as any other part of the world that you feel is worth leading). And as an example of your modesty, you have consistently chosen not to use the word that best describes you, “Fantastic.” And I apologize for using the term “great country” so carelessly. We all know that we elected you because of your promise to “make America great again.” And the fact that after you declared the United States to be first in all respects, spokespeople for these unimportant countries like Great Britain and Switzerland have asked to be considered for second place, which indicates that they have accepted their plight as runner ups.

It seems like mere jealousy on the part of the people in this country, the very  people that you are trying so desperately to help, to criticize you for prioritizing the fact that you had the biggest crowd ever at your inauguration, and that you pointed out the incompetence of our judiciary, our “so-called” judges, for interfering with your effort to make America safe again, and the malicious act on the part of some clothing retailers in discontinuing Ivanka’s clothing line, and that you walk around the Whitehouse at night in your robe, when you don’t even have a robe, or that by “draining the swamp”, as you promised to do, that you brought the swamp residents into your cabinet, or that you are using the office of the presidency to promote personal gain, or that you had your spokesperson shout out a plug for Ivanka’s clothing line and that such action is in violation of federal law, and that you are sidling up with the murderous leader of Russia because you owe them billions, or that you contend that if we help the rich become richer then the wealth will “trickle down” to we plebeians, a trickling which Reagan started trickling in the 1980s that we are still waiting for, or that you are in violation of the “emolument” clause of US Constitution by continuing to own businesses that will profit from your presidency, or that SNL stated that they are having their best audiences in 22 years since Alec Baldwin started mocking you on Saturday nights and that he said that all they were doing is repeating what you said the week before (which may be plagiary, which you could pursue with our so-called judges). And they don’t seem to have any remorse for accusing you of obtaining wealth on the backs of the banks you stiffed and the contractors you stiffed and the minorities you denied access to your properties.

And now, after resisting the demands of all the American people, you have finally lamented and offered us, in such a generous and self-sacrificing show of concern for those less fortunate, a tax reduction for the rich which will be so beneficial for us plebeians as it stimulates the economy in a bigly way, even though such measures historically have failed to bring such relief about after we swallowed that same explanation.

And you have proved to all of the other countries of the world how great you are by blessing them with your presence, although those who reside in your country are reluctant to acknowledge and admit your greatness.

It would be no surprise if the American people, after finally realizing you greatness and bigly-ness, will unanimously decide to make you our emperor so that you can enforce your will on us without interference with those of opposing opinions while making America great again.

These are just a few of the things that I am upset about and I am sure there will be more as we ride along on our way to opulence for all as you so earnestly pursue.

So, Mr. President, don’t be deterred in your quest for a better world for all. You have started in, as you say, a bigly way.

And sir, please don’t be deterred from your quest for a better life for all – just because some or our ungrateful citizens refer to you as our “Groper in Chief,” when you were just doing what you were entitled to do as a famous person.

You are Fantastic!

Yours truly,
A concerned and grateful citizen of America
The country which will soon be great again.

 

Harvey’s lessons for Trump

Los Angeles Times Editorial: “Harvey’s lessons for Trump”

This Times editorial summed up the dilemma of the serious disaster in Houston versus the head-in-the-sand situation of our executive branch of government.

Trump’s Twitter acknowledgement: “Wow – Now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood! We have an all out effort going, and going well!” Kind of like one of his usual comments like “this is the best and most wonderful job ever done by any president since the beginning of mankind”, even though he hadn’t even been to Texas yet and had no way of knowing how well anything was going.

Of course, he writes all this global warming stuff off, stating that these massive storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods are just weather, they have nothing to with global warming. Obviously, the scientific community are all mistaken. There is no need to change the way we are destroying the Earth, this stuff happens all the time according to Trump and his experts, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

These experts refute the fact that global warming is real and that it makes storms like Harvey much stronger, more unpredictable and quicker to intensify. The experts say that warmer temperatures mean more evaporation from the seas and thus more rainfall from storms.

“Rising seas threaten shipping ports, coastal areas and freshwater estuaries as saline ocean water seeps into the Everglades and threatens the water supply of millions of people in Florida.”

Trump’s appointees are proponents of increasing fossil fuel production. Their beliefs imperil the health and safety of the people they swore to protect.

As the Los Angeles Times editorial board stated in their article: “Trump has subscribed to fake science ….… this would be a far more winnable battle if the world wasn’t also forced to fight ignorance in the White House, and a president content to whistle past the flooded graveyard.”

Then he has the audacity and stupidity to broadcast the “huge” crowd he drew later instead of encouraging everyone to help in the recovery effort, to donate money, food, clothing, and shelter. He didn’t have enough sense even to mobilize the National Guard which has troops in Texas and all of the other states who are trained in recovery techniques and assisting in treating injured people.

What an idiot. What a waste. What a disgrace for our country. The guy is heartless and hopeless.

Exploding our planet out of existence

Exploding our planet out of existence

Ted Folkert

August 14, 2017

Messages to North Korea from our fearless leader, President Trump, the same guy who had five draft deferments when he declined the opportunity to fulfill his duty to serve his country militarily:

“… the world will see fire and fury like it has never seen before” …. “if they don’t get their act together they are going to be in trouble like countries have never been in trouble before” … “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded.”

We are talking about explosions here. North Korea exploding the United States. The U.S. exploding North Korea. Infrastructure destroyed, buildings destroyed, transportation destroyed, massive killings – all unnecessary, all a no-win situation, all with nothing to gain – just disaster and unnecessary loss of lives of innocent and helpless people.

It seems that our life is dominated by explosions and/or the fear of explosions. Is there a day that goes by without a huge explosion somewhere? One day it is in Mosul. The next day it is in Baghdad and another day in Kabul. Every day in Syria and often in Yemen, frequently in Israel and Palestine. In Africa, it seems rampant. The newspapers display massive destruction of buildings, automobiles, streets, bridges, homes and, of course, people. Lots of people. These occurrences are so common now that they hardly illicit any obvious concern among those of us not directly affected. If the devastation continues in Iraq and Syria, fueled by opposing involvement by the U.S. and Russia, the Middle East may all go up in flames and become destroyed with widespread, completely crumbled, infrastructure. Much of it already is.

Most all of our entertainment now requires explosions. Our movies, TV shows, news programs, children’s toys, and adult’s toys. The mining industry, tunnel building industry and obviously our wars, are all dominated by explosions. We explode tall buildings when we want them demolished. Our development of weaponry and the testing thereof is dominated by explosions. We can’t be adequately entertained without explosions. Not small isolated explosions, but massively destructive explosions. In warfare and in entertainment, we need explosions that annihilate entire buildings, entire neighborhoods, entire cities, with thousands killed with a single explosion, bodies flying everywhere. This provides the same thrill that the Lone Ranger used to do with one “speeding bullet.” A speeding bullet doesn’t get it anymore. Now we need massive explosions. Onesies and twosies don’t provide the necessary thrill anymore. Now we need lots of blood and flying body parts. Otherwise it doesn’t move our excitement needle.

It is hard to find a movie to watch that doesn’t include murder by knife, hatchet, baseball bat, strangulation, suffocation, poisoning, bullet, or explosion – preferably by explosion. Explosions for the film industry must have created a whole new industry. It must have created a whole new degree in film industry education – like maybe: explosives technologist, or master of explosion, or explode-ologist, or mass-killing specialist.

Imagine your lifetime legacy to be the best creator of explosion clips for the film industry. It seems that there should be such a category in the awards ceremonies. You know – the shows where all of the famous entertainers congratulate each other with wonderful awards.

We don’t seem to be getting any scientific predictions concerning the impact of the daily explosions the world over on the sustainability of our little planet to support additional explosions while still supporting human life. This would seem to be a worthwhile subject to address. I mean, where does all of the smoke go? Does it go into our atmosphere from whence we get the air we breathe, the atmosphere that enabled life? And what is the impact of all these explosions on this thin crust that we live on which has been supported by a molten core for millions of years now, this crust that enabled life and sustains life?

The extended use of explosives in warfare, and a friendlier name used more frequently, “police action,” has created, the somewhat softer term, “collateral damage.“ The term apparently justifies, or at least shirks responsibility for, deaths and destruction caused by explosions which were badly aimed or for which it was not possible to destroy the target without killing innocent people or destroying unintended property. So that makes it forgivable for the perpetrator or initiator of the action. Kind of like saying: “sorry I killed you, or sorry I destroyed your city, or sorry I killed your parents, but it had to be done because the message or our intent was more important than you or your parents or your city.”

Explosive devices are becoming so common now, even the most dreaded atomic weapons, that it is only a matter of time until virtually every country on the planet will possess enough of them to destroy other countries entire populations and entire commercial areas. So, then who controls the use of such weapons? Are all the countries on Earth going to, all-of-a-sudden, just get along with each other? Will all the countries reach an agreement to resolve disputes through negotiation and to adhere with the decision of some governing body? Like the United Nations?

In considering the impact of such controversies and festering disputes one can imagine looking at the horizon every night and viewing distant explosions like firecrackers on the Fourth of July.

It’s kind of like what happened to the tough guys when guns became so easy to come by. All-of-a-sudden the little guys were just as tough as the big guys. Like they say, “the bigger they come the harder fall.”

This should be taken literally by the big powerful countries. All-of-a-sudden a little country like North Korea can be feared just like a big powerful country like the U.S. The bigger they come the harder fall. And what happens when Isis and other incessant trouble makers on the planet get access to them? Are we to assume that we can prevent such a disaster forever? Don’t believe it. At some point in time they will fall into the wrong hands. Then what?

The young people of the world need to join hands. They need to communicate across borders and oceans. They need to converge on common ground in moving forward with the necessary goals for saving the planet for human life. The older folks aren’t going to do it. Too many of us don’t understand or don’t believe it when it comes to saving mankind. Look at who we elected to lead our country into the depths of disaster. This is how the older folks think. We have had it too good. We haven’t experienced the planetary challenges that are not only on the horizon but are already in the process of destroying the planet’s ability to sustain human life for the ten billion of us who will soon inhabit this molten rock we live on. That is ten billion mouths to feed daily, 10 billion who require fresh drinking water, a comfortable shelter, 10 billion who need clean air to breath.

The young people must find a way to eliminate explosive warfare from the equation. The planet simply cannot survive unless we take extensive measures to prevent global warming, which cannot be accomplished without ceasing to pollute our air with carbon emissions. This includes explosions. Every time one of the pistons in your car’s engine reaches the top of the cylinder the compressed gas creates an explosion. The elimination of explosions must be accomplished without imposing considerable hardship on the populace. We don’t need explosions to provide food, shelter and clothing, the essentials for survival, except those explosions generated by internal combustion engines in our cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, and tractors. The process of eliminating those is progressing but not fast enough. The future of the planet is all about the young. The young must pursue this challenge aggressively, not the way it is being pursued by those in power. For those in power it doesn’t matter much. For the young it means everything.

Think about it!

Helplessness, Hopelessness, and Despair – “The Big Three” – Revisited

Helplessness, Hopelessness, and Despair – “The Big Three” – Revisited

Ted Folkert

July 25, 2017

The examples of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair seem to never cease. We see it by the thousands in Los Angeles each day as we drive by the outdoor encampments, which continuously multiply. They tell us that there are 50,000 or more people who have nowhere indoors to sleep now. It seems that we could count that many just around the downtown area as we drive by nearly every side street all over the downtown area and most all the underpasses.

These are the visible and invisible people, we see them but we don’t see them. We just drive on by. What else can we do? So, it seems.

But, as we know, “the big three” are not isolated in Los Angeles. No, they are visible and invisible everywhere we choose to go, worldwide.

Another new episode appears today about those seeking escape from the big three. Quoting from the article by Jenny Jarvie and Kate Lithicum in the Los Angeles Times:

“A group of people had waited for about a week at a hotel on the U.S./Mexico border before smugglers helped them cross the Rio Grande. ‘These human smugglers crammed more than 100 people into a tractor trailer in the stifling Texas summer heat,’ Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement. ‘Human smugglers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have absolutely no regard for human life.”’

“By the time they climbed up into the pitch-black truck, they had already crossed the Rio Grande on rafts and walked all night through wild brush land.”

“The air was hot inside the 18-wheeler, and there was no food or water. A few hours later, the truck driver told a federal agent, he opened the door to find ‘bodies just lying on the floor like meat.”’

“Thirty-nine people were discovered in and around the truck early Sunday after a disoriented man approached an employee for water in a Wal-Mart parking lot just off Interstate 35, about 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.”

“Eight men were pronounced dead at the scene Sunday morning and are believed to have suffered from heat exposure and asphyxiation.”

“Seventeen of the vehicle’s occupants were rushed to hospitals with serious or critical injuries. An additional 13 had non-life-threatening injuries. Two men have since died at hospitals, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.”

Just another sad story of a case of smuggling struggling people gone bad.

This is not an implication that we should not have immigration laws or rules about sleeping on sidewalks. But it is an implication that we should revisit our attitude toward those in need of assistance.

And it is an implication that we should acknowledge the fact that our planet is becoming crowded and that the resources for sustaining life must be shared amongst all the population of the planet regardless of where they reside and what their needs are. And it is an implication that we are attracting immigrants because we have figured out how to capture and enjoy these limited resources better than most.

And it is an implication that we should reeducate ourselves about discrimination based on religion and national origin, and that wealth should be added to that list. Of course, this is in direct opposition to the desire and direction of our much-maligned president, the president who has been called more derogatory names than perhaps all our other presidents combined, and only in six months. Stay tuned, more to come.

Think about it!

Corrupt Governance

Suggested reading, especially for our so-called president, and for the political activists who call themselves libertarians

Libertarianism has never worked and it never will.

The words of Jeffrey D. Sachs – “The Price of Civilization” –quoted in my soon-to-be-published book – “Greed Disease.”

Sachs is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on economic development, global macroeconomics, and the fight against poverty.

“At the root of America’s economic crisis lies a moral crisis: the decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite. A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world. Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery. The economic crisis of recent years reflects a deep, threatening, and ongoing deterioration of our national politics and culture of power.”

“We have entered an age of impunity, in which rich and powerful members of society – CEOs, financial managers, and their friends in high political office – seem often to view themselves as above the law.”

“Our challenges lie not so much in our productivity, technology, or natural resources but in our ability to cooperate on an honest basis. Will the super-rich finally own up to their responsibilities to the rest of society?”

Sachs joined the faculty at Harvard in 1980 in the start of the “Age of Milton Freidman” when Ronald Reagan became president. “The main effect of the Reagan Revolution was not the specific policies but the disdain for the poor who depended on government for income support, and a new invitation for the rich to shed their moral responsibilities to the rest of society. ……. that he released their entrepreneurial zeal by reducing their taxes is debatable, but there is little doubt that a lot of pent-up greed was released, greed that infected the political system and that still haunts America today.”

“Fairness entails not only the distribution of income within society at a point of time but also the distribution of income across generations, concepts that economists call sustainability, If the current generation depletes the earth’s scarce natural resources, by using up its fossil fuels and freshwater aquifers, or acidifies the oceans through carbon dioxide emissions, or drives other species to extinction, it severely diminishes the well-being of the generations to come. Those future generations can’t defend their interests today, since they’ve not even been born.”

“A small number of Americans reject the very idea that government should promote fairness or efficiency through taxation. In that philosophy, known as libertarianism, individuals have absolutely no responsibility to society other than to respect the liberty and property of others. This extreme philosophy has been embraced by some of America’s richest individuals, such as Charles and David Koch, based on an inheritance, to try to instill their libertarian views throughout the society.”

“Libertarianism is based on three kinds of arguments: every individual should be free from taxes, regulations, or other demands of the state, that only free markets protect democracy from government despotism, and that free markets alone are enough to ensure prosperity. Such an approach ….. is a dangerous illusion.”

“… the fairness of the marketplace should not be exaggerated. Many people are simply unlucky. Market forces such as foreign competition may turn against them. Others are born poor to parents who lack education and skills to escape poverty. Still others have disabilities and diseases that are no fault of their own. Some live in places hit by earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, floods, or other hazards and depend upon government to survive and recover. The marketplace can be brutally unsentimental, leaving the poor to starve or die from illnesses and neglect, unless society steps forward through government or charitable relief.”

“ …. the market by itself is not equipped to achieve the triple bottom line of efficiency, fairness, and sustainability. The market system must be complemented with government institutions that accomplish three things: provide public goods such as infrastructure, scientific research, and market regulation; ensure the escape from poverty; and promote sustainability of the earth’s fragile resources for the benefit of future generations.”

“ …. there is vast gap between what Americans believe and what the mass media tells us to believe. Americans are mostly moderate and generous in spirit, though the media tend to emphasize and even promote extremes. And the politicians vote along with the rich and their specific interests. America can be much better than it is today if public policies begin to follow American values, not the values that corporate-driven media pretend to be American values. ….. politicians play for campaign contributions instead of the well-being of their grandchildren.”

“ ….. the United States is privately rich and socially poor. It caters to the pursuit of wealth but pays scant attention to those left behind. … the focus does not lead to greater happiness.”

“ ….. with 7 billion people trying to gain or maintain a foothold of prosperity on a crowded planet already under unprecedented ecological stress, only advanced technologies – such as high yield food production, renewable energy sources, sophisticated recycling of resource use – can hope to cope. We will have to learn to work hard and fast, and with the technology tools, to achieve a planet that is prosperous, fair, and sustainable.”

“We have reached, or soon will reach, dangerous thresholds of human activity that fundamentally threaten life on the planet. The earth’s air, water, land, and climate are all under threat. It almost seems that humanity has a death wish. The ignorance and shortsightedness can lead us to disaster, but the greed of powerful vested interests has been far more consequential than public confusion or shortsightedness. Americans impose the highest per capita impact on the planet yet show the least regard for their actions.”

 

Trump and the True Meaning of ‘Idiot’

Trump and the True Meaning of ‘Idiot’

Eric Anthamatten

THE STONE JUNE 12, 2017

In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, respondents were asked what word immediately came to mind when they thought of Donald Trump: The No. 1 response was “idiot.” This was followed by “incompetent,” “liar,” “leader,” “unqualified,” and finally, in sixth place, “president.” Superlatives like “great” and a few unprintable descriptives came further down on the list. But let us focus on the first.

Contemporary uses of the word “idiot” usually highlight a subject’s lack of intelligence, ignorance, foolishness or buffoonery. The word’s etymological roots, however, going back to ancient Greece, suggest that, in the case of the president, it may be even more apropos than it might first seem.

In ancient Greek society, an idiotes was a layperson who lacked professional skills. The idiot contributed nothing to public life or the common good. His existence depended on the skill and labor of others; he was a leech sucking the lifeblood from the social body. Related to this, idiocy (from the root idios, “one’s own”) was the state of a private or self-centered person. This contrasted with the status of the public citizen, or polites, such that to be an idiot was to be withdrawn, isolated and selfish, to not participate in the public, political life of the city-state. In Greek society, the condition of idiocy was seen as peculiar and strange (a meaning that is retained in the English word “idiosyncratic”); thus “idiot” was a term of reproach and disdain.

The education scholar Walter C. Parker sought to invoke this original meaning in his 2005 essay “Teaching Against Idiocy.” In it, he writes that “when a person’s behavior became idiotic — concerned myopically with private things and unmindful of common things — then the person was believed to be like a rudderless ship, without consequence save for the danger it posed to others.” The idiot, then, was a threat to the city-state, to public life, and to the bonds that make communication and community possible. Parker continues: “An idiot is suicidal in a certain way, definitely self-defeating, for the idiot does not know that privacy and individual autonomy are entirely dependent on the community.” Parker also notes that the idiot has not yet reached “puberty,” or the transition to public life.

The idiot, understood in this sense, undermines not only community but also communication. An “idiom” is a phrase peculiar to a specific language or place. The idiot speaks only in idioms, though these function for him not as colorful additions to a language or culture, but are understood by him alone. To members of the community, his utterances are the babblings of a baby or a madman, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Given all this, the idiot can be defined as such: a prepubescent, parasitic solipsist who talks only to himself.

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, the term began to take on the more familiar meaning, namely a person of low intelligence. This meaning is fraught with ableist history, as “idiot” was used as a diagnostic term indicating severe intellectual or developmental disability. Dr. Henry H. Goddard was the first to translate the French Binet-Simon intelligence test, a precursor to I.Q. tests, into English, and used the metric to classify “mental age”: An adult with a mental age less than 3 years old was labeled an “idiot”; between 3 and 7, an “imbecile”; and between 7 and 10, a “moron.” Originally, an I.Q. was determined by dividing mental age by actual age and multiplying by 100: An idiot was anyone with an I.Q. below 30. (Goddard, by the way, was an early advocate for special education but also favored eugenic practices and believed that the idiot should be removed from society by institutionalization or sterilization.)

Thankfully, such medical nomenclature has fallen out of favor. Yet, the term is still on the books in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico and Ohio, which officially do not allow “idiots” to vote.

Humans evolved for the most part by putting community first and the individual second. Despite many of the political narratives that posit a mythological “state of nature,” in which selfish, violent, atomistic individuals must forgo their natural liberties and make compromises and contracts to secure their own existence, scientific evidence simply does not support this. For creatures like us, self-preservation was always also social preservation. The “I” is in its very existence also a “we.”

The idiot does not understand this, and thus does not understand how he came to be, how he is sustained and how he is part of a larger ecology. The idiot cares nothing about public life, much less public service. The idiot cares only about his own name. The idiot, by way of his actions, can destroy the social body. Eventually, the idiot destroys himself, but in so doing, potentially annihilates everyone along with him. He is a ticking time bomb in the middle of the public square.

 

Crucial Facts from The Union of Concerned Scientists

Crucial Facts from The Union of Concerned Scientists

Facts that our present administration and some of our influential corporate leaders choose to ignore, fearing that these “inconvenient truths”, as Al Gore would call them, may adversely affect their personal wealth and fame.

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists fights attempts to censor, distort, or manipulate science by politicians or interest groups.
  • Since 2013, the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has exceeded 400 parts per million – the highest level humankind has ever experienced. Expanding our use of clean and renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, biofuels, and geothermal energy, is essential to reducing global warming pollution while providing secure and reliable power.
  • Sustainable agriculture is less damaging to the environment than industrial agriculture, and produces a richer, more diverse mix of foods.
  • The role of science in our democracy has been marginalized, misrepresented, and manipulated. The challenge is to change the discussion and advance the essential role of science, evidence-based decision making, and constructive debate as a means t improve the health, security, and prosperity of all people.
  • Tropical deforestation accounts for 15 percent of the world’s global warming pollution-more than the total emissions of every car, truck, plane, ship, and train on Earth.
  • Today more than 25,000 nuclear weapons exist around the globe. These weapons are a detriment to our society, not an asset.
  • There are more than 100 nuclear reactors providing commercial power in the United States, many of which are near the end of their mandated lifetime. With 10 safety incidents classified as “near misses” in 2015 alone, improving safety and security provisions at these plants is more critical than ever.
  • Renewable energy technologies tap into natural cycles and systems, turning ever-present energy around us into clean, safe, and sustainable sources of electricity. Requiring utilities to generate at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources would not only reduce global warming emissions but also create jobs and save consumers money.
  • Arctic sea ice is a sensitive indicator of the effects of global warming. Over the past few years the amount of ice that covers the Artic has steadily decreased and is now at record-low levels. This has potentially drastic effects on wildlife, ecosystems, and climate.
  • 2015 was the warmest year ever recorded in the United States, with tens of thousands of heat records shattered across the country. The impact of climate change has hit home-from extreme droughts to raging wildfires to record flooding to more extreme and frequent storms.
  • Since 1970, the annual average temperature in the Northeast United States has increased by two degrees Fahrenheit – with winter temperatures rising twice as much.
  • Rapidly retreating glaciers, melting sea ice, and thawing permafrost alter nature’s delicate balance in Artic ecosystems, threatening the continued existence of many species of Arctic wildlife, which highlights the impact of global warming on animals, humans, and the environment, and the importance of science-based solutions to protect our health and safety.

Trump Incompetence by David Brooks

“ …. the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence.”

When the World Is Led by a Child

David Brooks – May 15, 2017

At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist.

But as Trump has settled into his White House role, he has given a series of long interviews, and when you study the transcripts it becomes clear that fundamentally he is none of these things.

At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.

First, most adults have learned to sit still. But mentally, Trump is still a 7-year-old boy who is bouncing around the classroom. Trump’s answers in these interviews are not very long — 200 words at the high end — but he will typically flit through four or five topics before ending up with how unfair the press is to him.

His inability to focus his attention makes it hard for him to learn and master facts. He is ill informed about his own policies and tramples his own talking points. It makes it hard to control his mouth. On an impulse, he will promise a tax reform when his staff has done little of the actual work.

Second, most people of drinking age have achieved some accurate sense of themselves, some internal criteria to measure their own merits and demerits. But Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself.

“In a short period of time I understood everything there was to know about health care,” he told Time. “A lot of the people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber,” he told The Associated Press, referring to his joint session speech.

By Trump’s own account, he knows more about aircraft carrier technology than the Navy. According to his interview with The Economist, he invented the phrase “priming the pump” (even though it was famous by 1933). Trump is not only trying to deceive others. His falsehoods are attempts to build a world in which he can feel good for an instant and comfortably deceive himself.

He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Trump thought he’d be celebrated for firing James Comey. He thought his press coverage would grow wildly positive once he won the nomination. He is perpetually surprised because reality does not comport with his fantasies.

Third, by adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious.

But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.

Which brings us to the reports that Trump betrayed an intelligence source and leaked secrets to his Russian visitors. From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.

The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man.

Our institutions depend on people who have enough engraved character traits to fulfill their assigned duties. But there is perpetually less to Trump than it appears. When we analyze a president’s utterances we tend to assume that there is some substantive process behind the words, that it’s part of some strategic intent.

But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.

He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Trump thought he’d be celebrated for firing James Comey. He thought his press coverage would grow wildly positive once he won the nomination. He is perpetually surprised because reality does not comport with his fantasies.

Third, by adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious.

But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.

Which brings us to the reports that Trump betrayed an intelligence source and leaked secrets to his Russian visitors. From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.

The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man.

Our institutions depend on people who have enough engraved character traits to fulfill their assigned duties. But there is perpetually less to Trump than it appears. When we analyze a president’s utterances we tend to assume that there is some substantive process behind the words, that it’s part of some strategic intent.

But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.

“We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him,” David Roberts writes in Vox. “It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next. But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there is no there there?”

And out of that void comes a carelessness that quite possibly betrayed an intelligence source, and endangered a country.