Begging Your Indulgence . . .

. . . While I indulge in a bit of possibly relevant personal history.

I started writing a column here in September 2008, near the ignominious end of the criminal enterprise known as the Bush administration. Back in those now-forgotten days, TPJmagazine was still “The Political Junkies,” and I adopted the pen name, “Reluctant Junkie.” I chose that nom de plume because politics was not something I had ever wanted to obsess over. I simply was not a political junkie at heart, and over many years I rarely paid more than average attention to politics. Then the “Unitary Executive” and his henchmen took over the government and began systematically deceiving the nation and undermining the foundations of our constitutional democracy.

Now don’t scoff: I always knew full well that politicians lie more than, say, bus drivers, schoolteachers, or members of most other professions. It’s just that the inherent dishonesty of high-level politics had never grabbed my attention with such urgent, gut-wrenching force. Day after day I read or watched the news with jaw-dropping astonishment and rising anger as official and unofficial right-wing liars spewed out the most brazen disinformation. I remember on several occasions calling to my wife, “You’ve got to hear what they’re saying now – you won’t believe it!” And after 9-11, the administration’s treacherous propaganda machine, abetted by a timid and complicit mainstream media, ramped up to a truly spectacular level as our neocon rulers made their false case for invading Iraq, and George Bush got the war he craved to build his political capital. From there things continued to deteriorate, and for probably the first time I felt personally threatened by my own government. I’m not saying I shouldn’t have felt that way earlier, only that the threat signal never broke through all the noise with enough force to distract me from my preoccupations.

And I sure resented the hell out of feeling that way about my government. Call me an idealist, but I hold the quaint view that our Federal Government should uphold the highest standards of honorable and ethical conduct in all areas. (And in truth many government agencies seem to do pretty well, considering the uncertainties and constraints they work under.) Yet here was this purportedly elected administration operating in secrecy and running the people’s government in the style of an organized crime cartel. By the end they had run up an unconscionable debt, destroyed the economy, alienated most of the world, passed some abominable legislation, and made a travesty of a number of federal agencies. In the latter case, they appointed inexperienced political hacks to run federal agencies and obstruct the regulatory apparatus wherever it conflicted with the goals of their various constituencies. Essentially, Bushco politicized everything they could get their bloody hands on, turned the government into a spoils system to advance their political goals. I haven’t researched this, but I remember reading that even if the Democrats manage to stay in power for another election cycle or two, they will not be able to dislodge those career right-wing apparatchiks that Bush appointed.

At this point a moderate might say I’m overstating the case, coming down too hard on an administration that just had a different political philosophy. To any such suggestion I would reply, “Overstating, hell! If anything, I’m being far too generous.” For eight years I paid close attention to what those bastards were up to, and I can give you chapter and verse on many of their crimes and scandals. But as this is only an overview, I’ll refer you to Google: try entering “Bush administration crimes/scandals” and spend an hour or so refreshing your memory, as I did. And maybe you’ll come to the same conclusion, that Bush and his cronies should all be vigorously investigated, charged as appropriate, and arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced. They did nothing less than run our government like a criminal enterprise, and they should be held accountable to the full extent of the law.

Of course I know that nothing close to that is going to happen. But when the Democrats won in 2008, I hoped that maybe the wheels of justice might begin to grind, however slow; instead, under a president who only wants to ”look forward,” the wheels have ground to a halt. It galls me that Democrats are so intimidated by the rabid right in this country that they won’t even investigate obvious crimes.

Anyway, the dozen columns I wrote as a reluctant political junkie were personally rewarding and also somewhat therapeutic, providing me with a modest opportunity to feel like I was fighting back against the outrages emanating from the right. I can’t recall ever writing with such passion. But then real life intervened and I had to suspend the column for personal reasons. A year later TPJ agreed to take me back; so here I am again, this time with a new pen name – Science Junkie – that reflects a new focus on science, particularly as it relates to human nature rather than the discouraging topic of U.S. politics. Of course, given the right’s belligerent and well-financed opposition to any science that conflicts with their goals, politics is inescapable and will rear its head to some extent in almost every column. But my primary emphasis will be on my first love, science and related issues, not partisan politics, which never was my forte.

During my year-long absence from TPJmagazine, the Obama administration has repeatedly disappointed its progressive supporters on several fronts. Speaking for myself, I have been especially incredulous regarding Obama’s unjustified efforts to promote the fantasy of bipartisan cooperation. Who besides Obama thinks this is possible? The very idea that reasonable, pragmatic people can work with the power-hungry “Party of No” or the incoherent Tea Party is absurd, utterly pointless. Considering the nature of fanatical right-wing extremists, their express and implicit goals, and their recent, barely disguised endorsements of violence, the only rational course of action for those in the reality-based community is to do everything possible to keep power out of their hands. Which is main reason I support Democrats these days rather than joining the call for a progressive third party. I wouldn’t feel that way if we were talking about a situation closer to normal politics; but victory at this time for Republicans and their Tea Party comrades could very well mean the reversal of all the progressive gains of the past seventy years. These new conservatives are even more radical than Bush’s cohorts and could make us yearn for the calm rationality of the Bush-Cheney administration. Their success would be nothing short of a disaster – for us and quite possibly most of the world. Hence, my very practical, lesser-of-evils, reluctant but necessary support for the Democrats.

That’s why, as much as I respect Ralph Nader, I could not vote for him or any progressive third-party candidate at this time. I agree with Mr. Nader that elected Democrats are almost indistinguishable from Republicans in many ways, and we can no longer count on them to protect and defend the rights and interests of the vast majority of working people and the disadvantaged – but at least they offer a fighting chance. If we follow Mr. Nader’s advice and vote our conscience, as he recently recommended, we’ll be throwing the next election to regressive fanatics who very likely have no intention of ever relinquishing power. So I would remind him that if he thinks the previous administration posed a threat to our democratic institutions, this generation of reckless ideologues will turn that threat into a living nightmare.

So on that happy note I take leave of writing about partisan politics to focus on the fascinating world of science, especially as it impacts crucial human issues now confronting us. I am especially excited about discussing findings in relatively new fields like cognitive neuroscience that now have much to contribute to our understanding of human nature (for want of a better term). I would like to report on recent findings that might help to explain, for example, why people cling to patently false beliefs and ideologies that defy reality. Or how large numbers of otherwise intelligent people can be so easily manipulated by quacks, charlatans, and demagogues. I contend that the new sciences of the mind may be yielding some truly useful findings – not speculative theories but genuine facts that could force us to reconsider all the old assumptions about our “true nature.”