Current Affairs – US

The backdrop of the GOP win in the Montana special election

This commentary (extracted from Twitter) by Anne Helen Petersen, explains some of the backdrop to the election win by Greg Gianforte in Montana. (There is another factor not discussed in this analysis, namely the massive fundraising difference between the GOP and the Democratic Party in Montana).

Leading up to tonight’s results, want to relate the best recap I’ve heard about how Montana politics got the way they are today
This theory comes from Ron Moody, an old-timer out of Lewistown, Montana, a former wildlife warden, & keen political observer
with added context from And Bill Spoja, a lawyer and rancher who’s lived in Lewistown his whole life
Both remember a time when Montana was truly purple. But since the ‘90s, many counties, including theirs, have gone much darker red
Looking back, it’s clear that a major part of the shift was Rush Limbaugh on the radio and Fox News on the tv
But the overall shift in the state came from somewhere else: well-off conservatives moving to Montana from urban areas
These people were increasingly frustrated with liberal politics of the city, sold their houses, and bought houses double the size in Montana
….With ample money leftover to live on. They came to Montana because it matched a conservative dream of America, where men are men, etc.
They mostly came to Western Montana, but the tide extended all the way over to Lewistown, in the Eastern part of the state
This meshes with previous reporting in Flathead region, where people would go on vaca & love how overwhelmingly white it was, then move here
So it’s these New Montanans, fleeing California/Arizona/Texas cities, combined with Limbaugh/Fox inflammation of existing MT conservatives
You could definitely include Gianforte in that first group: moved to Bozeman in the 1990s, fundamentalist Christian, Conservative
The ideology of the prosperity gospel runs strong through both groups: that Puritan idea that your chosenness is manifest in success/wealth
So even if Gianforte is broadly unlikeable with his base, his success, like Trump’s, is testament enough to his worthiness, his Elect-ness
As for Quist, GOP has underestimated how many people have known/met Quist over 3 decades — especially in rural areas
Quist went to 49 counties, all reservations. Brought out “gravel-road” Dems who’d been silent/invisible for years b/c of strength of GOP
He won the nomination in part by going out to rural counties w/dormant Democratic organizations — whose delegates then voted for him at convention
So there’s a little background theory from some Montana old-timers.
And then a bodyslam happened. So who the fuck knows.
But this is just further proof that the best/most interesting people to talk to on the campaign trail are almost always over the age of 70
They have the context, they have the history, and they have very little fear of speaking their minds.

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Accountability of We The People

Remember: every time you look at the credentials, track record, personality and fitness for office of any prospective or actual Donald Trump appointee, remember that this appointee may end up in his administration because enough electors thought it was a good idea to make Donald Trump the President.
We The People, collectively, gave Trump this opportunity to lead the USA.
So if I find anybody on my social media sites or platforms who I know voted for Trump, whining about his appointees, his actions as POTUS, or his approach to governance, I am going to pretty quickly remind them of that fact.
Anybody who voted for Donald Trump owns the accountability. No hiding, bullshitting or handwringing along the lines of “but I didn’t think he really would do all of those things!”. If you try that last line with me, prepare to be ridiculed. You don’t like it? Too bad.

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Friday round-up

1. Diversion 101 – Attack the opponents
This article explains how the current focus of GOP partisans and hardcore supporters of Donald Trump is on attacking Trump’s critics outside of the Republican Party – the media, presumed liberals and other lower forms of life.
The likely explanation for the focus elsewhere is that right now Donald Trump is not doing much of anything that makes sense or which is defensible. Hence the reversion to “oh look! there are bigger assholes over there!” tactics.

2. How to Spot Deceit 101 – divergent and changing stories
One of the easiest ways to detect lies and bullshit being deployed to explain actions and events is to carefully analyze the ways in which the actors are explaining those actions and events, and whether those explanations change over time.
Since lying, by definition, involves making shit up, once you have more than one actor, or actors who are disorganized or complacent, it is usually only a matter of time before narratives and explanations created at different times begin to clearly diverge.
Once that begins to happen, it becomes rather obvious that bullshit is being disseminated.
This Washington Post article explains that in the case of the firing of James Comey, the actors reporting to the President, in the space of 24 hours, created two divergent stories of the events leading up to his firing. Then, not to be left out, the POTUS himself, in interviews, created a third totally divergent story.
This is not evidence of mere bullshit. One of more of the actors in this farce has been disseminating 24-carat whoppers. The totally divergent nature of the narratives leaves me unconvinced that any of the narratives released that far is anything like the truth.

3. Impeachment 101
For those of you using the I word (as in Impeachment), you need to remember that according to a SCOTUS ruling in the case of a judge who was disbarred for corruption following a State Senate trial, impeachment is a political process, not a legal one.
This means that, under the catch-call of “other high crimes and misdemeanors”, the US Senate could theoretically convict Donald Trump of almost anything. Just like they tried to convict Bill Clinton for lying about a blow-job.
If you ever get to watch any impeachment proceedings, you need to remind yourself that this is not a legal process, with all of the required checks and balances and due process. For example,. there is no jury vetting or voir dire process to weed out biased or incompetent jury candidates. The jury is the entire US Senate.
Because impeachment is a political process, this, almost by definition, means that it can be abused in the service of practical politics. This has happened in the past. The ideal way to resolve directional issues in US political governance is via full free and fair elections, not post-hoc persecution of opponents. There are already some disturbing “third world” tendencies creeping into US politics (as exemplified by the “lock her up” rabble-rousing about Hillary Clinton) and any further drift in the direction of retributive actions based on slip-shod legal manouvering will further erode the credibility of the US system of representative democracy.

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The pathology of Donald Trump – there is no Grand Plan

David Roberts from Vox wrote a Tweetstorm the other day about the behavior pathologies of Donald Trump. I took the liberty of unpicking it from Twitter and enclosing it below.
Basically, like Jay Rosen, Roberts believes that Trump’s behavior is not part of some personal Grand Plan or strategy. As Rosen says, the White House is not a ship of state governed by many. The Executive Branch is entirely Donald Trump, with all of the personnel constantly reacting to Trump’s latest outbursts or actions.
Here is Roberts’ take on Trump:

I want to riff on the point I made here, which I still think is central to our current political, uh, situation.
“Theory of mind” (ToM) is a concept in psychology. To have a ToM is to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting inner states. It is to interpret behavior as issuing from, and evidence of, desires, beliefs, intentions, fears, etc.
Humans typically develop ToM early, around 2-3. There are raging debates about whether various animals have ToM, or if so what kind.
People on the autism spectrum have difficulty w/ ToM — difficulty connecting behaviors to mental states, difficulty “reading” behavior. Autism-spectrum presents one kind of ToM problem: a rich text to be read, but a reader with difficulty reading.
There is, however, another (I suspect) more rare ToM problem, namely: sophisticated readers over-interpreting a text. Typical adults are drawn almost irresistibly to see behaviors as indicators of complex mental states – persistent beliefs, desires, etc that are stable, persistent across time and contexts .
Here’s the thing: Trump, by all indications, does not have beliefs, intentions, etc. that are stable, persistent across contexts. He is attuned to who is dominating & who is submissive *in the situation he finds himself in*. It is 100% situational, 0% persistent He seeks domination. That’s all. He does not care about, or even seem cognizant of, lying, reversing himself, switching loyalties, etc. He’s like a goldfish. No beliefs, intentions, plans, or schemes are carried from place to place. Every situation is new. There is, in a very real sense, no “mind” as such, only a set of animal impulses — seek approbation, avoid blame, dominate, win.
Here’s the problem: healthy adults are simply *not accustomed to dealing w/ someone like that*. It is a rare pathology and even rarer for someone to be so protected by money/power/family that they can succeed in life despite the pathology. Utterly novel. To find someone with that pathology in a central position of power in the US is simply unprecedented. Utterly novel. Normal people with normal ToM (including journalists) find it almost impossible to resist over-interpreting Trump’s behavior, to see it as reflective of stable, persistent beliefs, intentions, and plans. They read “mind” into his behavior. Can’t help it. And this describes the vast bulk of journalism & analysis on Trump: a desperate attempt to figure out what kind of “mind” could possibly result in this bizarre set of statements & actions. Is there some long con? Is he distracting us? Secretly a genius? Firing Comey in the middle of the Russia investigation, for example, seems nigh inexplicable. Where’s the “mind,” the deeper rationale? Does this show he “actually” wants to become a dictator? That he “actually” has inside info on what Comey knew/intended? That he’s “actually” distracting attention from the Census thing (or all the other things)? “Actually” angling for revenge on Clinton?
All of these are (perfectly understandable) attempts to apply ToM. It’s what we do, instinctively, *especially* in political analysis. The mistake is not any particular one of these theories. The mistake is *applying conventional ToM at all*. As I argued in the piece (linked way back in tweet 1), Trump is, by all indications, just a bundle of impulses. Nothing more. Most likely explanation re: Russia is not some deep, secret plot, but DT saying yes to something that felt good in the moment and then immediately forgetting about it, connecting it to nothing else. Thus the confusion why everyone keeps bringing it up Most likely explanation re: Comey is not some Machiavellian tactic, but he kept seeing Comey on TV saying not-awesome things and that gave him bad feels, made him feel non-dominant. So he made Comey get off his TV. No “mind,” just stimulus-response.
Accepting this fact — that ToM is useless, that Trump really is nothing more than amygdala — is *absolutely terrifying*. It is more terrifying than any particular ToM as applied to Trump. Stable desires & intentions, even if evil, at least *make sense*. A Trump ToM gives us the comfort of knowing that at least someone’s in charge, someone has a handle on things, even if malign.
The idea that Trump is simply doing what produces good feels in a particular situation, that he is utterly unconstrained by consistency, by past commitments or statements, by laws or norms, by *anything* — that’s there’s no “mind” as such — is chilling. What if he finds himself in a position where North Korea is giving him bad feels? Will he be able to assess a response in light of past commitments, expectations, strategy, norms, or decency? Probably not! He will seek a feeling of dominance *in the moment*. A mindless Trump, acting purely on impulse, is far more dangerous than an evil Trump, acting on grand, secret schemes.
As difficult as it is, journalists, analysts, & other political actors need to internalize this. Evil can be predicted, bargained w/ but there’s no predicting or reasoning w/ pure animal impulse. ToM is useless. Only containment or removal will work.

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The large pool of incompetent leaders in business and IT

When you have been in IT for 35+ years, you get to meet and work with a goodly number of incompetent leaders.
When they are genuinely incompetent, and clearly so, it begs the question “how the hell did that person get to that position”?
There are all sorts of circumstantial reasons, varying from favoritism, nepotism and reciprocity, through being in the right place at the right time, through to the main issue that is surfaced in the second paragraph of this HBR article:

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

In short, it is easy for many men to fake confidence, and many people mistake confidence for competence. The converse of this tendency is also prevalent. Solid, experienced people get overlooked in many teams and organizations because they are poor at self-promotion, often being introverts who find talking about themselves a deeply uncomfortable experience. Many people also perform better than they interview, so they get passed over for new roles because another candidate “aced” the interview. (as anybody who has studied hiring processes knows, interviews are at best an inexact way of screening candidates, and a poor-quality interview process is no better than throwing darts at candidates’ names on a board).
Women are more likely than men to be less fluent at self-promotion. Not only does self-promotion fall outside of their natural personality, it places them in a zone where they are fending off criticism from both sexes that they are engaging in artifice to advance their careers.
What I do know is that I have been exposed to many astonishingly incompetent, venal leaders over the years. Aside from their level of incompetence, the other common factor was their appalling listening skills. Probably as a result of hubris, they assumed that anything that they did not already know about could not be important, because if it was, they would already have known about it. As a result, they tended to reject inputs about their organizations that failed to match the narrative in their heads. (I once was informed by a Director-level person that a presentation that I had prepared about the failings of a delivery partner, while correct, would not have any impact because senior leaders had already decided that the delivery partner was an asset, and the presentation conflicted with that narrative, so it would be ignored). Leaders who reject information that fails to match their preconceptions will crash and burn eventually. They may seem to escape, but everybody in their organization will know what really happened, and their credibility will be zeroed.

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Voyages of Discovery – the AHCA and GOP negligence

In modern IT, I have, on way too many occasion, found myself trying to sort out a a project where, as a work colleague once said. they were trying The Nike Approach To Software Delivery.
As in, “Just Do It”.
An analysis would soon show that more often than not, said project had no detailed plan, limited structure and quite often, no clearly defined destination.
If an expedition by a human pioneer organized along the same lines had set off into the distant unknown 3-400 years ago, those were the guys that would have appeared in history books with some entry like “Met an untimely end at sea” or “was boiled alive by unfriendly natives in a distant continent”.
In other words, a project with no clear objectives or end point, no clearly defined approach to getting stuff done, and no clear structure becomes a Voyage Of Discovery, a project whose purpose, in hindsight, may well simply be to act as a warning to others.
I was reminded of these realities when reading yet another quote from a member of the Trump administration. The tweet, no matter which way you process it, speaks to a level of glib, insouciant negligence that is simply jaw-dropping.

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Proof that America and the UK are still neck and neck on some things

When I was growing up in the UK, I was in a household where sex was The Subject That Must Not Be Mentioned.
In addition, nudity, since it was seen as an obvious precursor to sex, was also a largely taboo subject. My parents’ opinion was that there were these oddball people called “nudists”, who, to the general amazement and amusement of the population, would take their clothes off and run around naked in the Summer. According to my parents, they were either weird or crackers.
When I started traveling in Europe in the 1980s, I rapidly discovered that for the rest of Europe, nudity was seen quite differently. If you were on a beach in Crete and it was 92 in the shade, with a water temperature of 80 degrees, why the hell would you want to wear any clothing anyway? I soon discovered the advantages of informal nudism in countries where nudism, instead of being seen as some form of warped behavior that clearly showed tendencies for weirdness and sexual perversion, was a perfectly logical thing to do, at least on beaches.
Fast forward to the mid 1990s when I moved to the USA. I swiftly discovered that the USA rivalled the UK in it’s lack of understanding of nudism, and it’s post-puritanical schizophrenia about sex. Apparently you could not even say “fuck” on network television, so if you did, it was bleeped out. The sheer unmitigated stupidity and pointlessness of this action (“fuck” is just about the easiest English word to lip-read) was clearly lost on legislators and TV companies. It was all about appearances. As a person who grew up dealing with the English class system and the facades that families erect to paper over all sorts of dysfunctionalities, I find the whole idea of keeping up appearances to be artifice, bullshit and nonsense.
At the time that I was relocating to the USA, Sting gave an interview to an English magazine where he mentioned that he and his wife Trudie Styler engaged in Tantric sex, and had studied it with teachers.
You can guess what happened next. The English tabloid newspapers lifted all manner of quotes from the article and printed them interspersed with ribald and juvenile speculation on Sting’s sexual habits. One implication being, surprise surprise, that Sting was a sybarite who really spent most of his night hours in orgies with all manner of women, and Tantra was just a cover story. This was all accompanied by chortling and “nudge nudge wink wink” innuendoes.
Newspapers in countries usually reflect the attitude of the country towards talking about sex. The English tabloid newspapers are juvenile, the broadsheet newspapers uncomprehending and engaging in subtle cluck-clucking, with occasional attempts at slut-shaming if the people under discussion are female.
So it brings us to the present day, and the latest piece of muck-raking by a US newspaper. The Washington Free Beacon has discovered that Rob Quist, a Democratic Party candidate in Montana who is also a musician, appears to have performed concerts at…yes, you guessed it. A nudist resort.
Quite how this amazing revelation is relevant to his qualifications to run for elected office is, needless to say, not discussed in the Free Beacon article.
The article is fairly standard tabloid smear journalism. The article produces the revelation that Quist has been seen (GASP) at nudist resorts (with the obligatory link to a nudist resort with the salacious warning “may contain inappropriate images” (Translation: Surf on over there for the smutty stuff, har har). The article then concludes with the news that the nudist resort where Quist performed has erased all mention of him from their website (Translation: See! He or the resort must have something to hide).
I am going to surf on over and donate some money to Quist’s campaign. This article is hopeless, muck-raking nonsense. It’s a good example of why I tend to pay limited attention to newspapers and mass media outlets in the USA. They have their editorial priorities all screwed and scrambled as they search for some attention-grabbing headline.

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Slogans, Dissent and other random postings

Random thoughts for the day:

1. Sloganeering
Phrases like “burdensome regulations” and “unfair trade deals” which are becoming standard utterances by members of the current Administration, are slogans. By themselves, without context or explanation, they carry no meaning. They are like a blank canvas upon which a listener can project any idea or meaning that they want.
This, of course, is exactly why slogans are so useful. They allow the listener or reader to replace analysis and information searches with projection. (see also Make America Great Again).
2. Dissent
Dissent is NOT disloyalty. Everybody (and I mean everybody) needs to understand this, so that they can defend people who are penalized or marginalized simply for uttering ideas that are temporarily unwelcome. When people who laugh in Congressional hearings are arrested, tried and convicted, this is nothing to do with “law and order” or “respect” (two more classuc slogans usef by the authoritarian and the insecure).This is about criminalizing peaceful dissent, an activity that forms part of the protections that are enshrined in the First Amendment.
3. Domestic Terrorism is real, but it’s not just Scary Brown People
Another reminder that instead of obsessing over Muslims, we should be paying one hell of a lot more attention to domestic crackpots.
4. The wonderful world of political insults
Once upon a time, the old cynical political Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, once proposed to his staff that they should spread a rumor that one of their political opponents was a goat-fucker. When his staff protested “but sir, we all know it’s not true”, LBJ is said to have replied “well of course it’s not true. But let’s watch the s.o.b. try to deny it”.
This attempt to smear Rep. Keith Ellison is therefore not only juvenile, but stunningly unoriginal.
5. The “bring back coal jobs” myth
An explanation of what the obsession with “bring back coal” is really all about. It is empty symbolism ungrounded in reality
6. How euphemism allows us to avoid reality
Stephen Pinker’s explanation of how talking in euphemisms can allow us to dress up or obfuscate Bad Stuff.
7. Why did Fox News fire Bill O’Reilly?
This article, with its concept of brand consumers as “secondary stakeholders”, provides a good explanation for why Fox News decided to part ways with Bill O’Reilly. Ultimately, although there was no direct damage to the corporations advertising on Fox based on any effective consumer boycott, the corporations realized that the actions of O’Reilly were creating a fundamental messaging and credibility gap that they were going to have a good deal of trouble explaining.
8. the strange story of restaurant job losses in San Diego
Back in October 2006, almost unnoticed by most people, the residential condo market crashed in San Diego. That was the beginning of the property price collapse that rippled up through California in 2007, and which impacted several other over-priced areas (most notably Las Vegas, Phoenix and south Florida).
Now, somebody digging into government data has found this interesting graph showing a steep drop in food sector employment in and around San Diego. This is very interesting, in a “why is this happening?” sort of way.
There are several hypotheses being floated for the drop. One possible explanation is the increase in the Minimum Wage, but other cities that increased minimum wages have not seen this trend. Another is the flight of restaurant employees back over the border to Mexico.

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Fearanoia (n.)

Mental state of residents of the USA characterized by one or more of the following:

1. a belief that the Supreme Court positions on marriage will result in one or more of the following:

– A man marrying his dog

– The legalization of incest

– The appearance of widespread polygamous marriages

– The destruction of the family

– The end of civilization as we know it

2. A fear that Muslim terrorists are entering the USA across the Mexican border in significant numbers

3. A conviction that the ACA is a terrible infringement on personal rights

4. A belief that the borders of the USA can be secured (as in, hermetically sealed so that nobody that I Do Not Want In The Country can enter by any means)

5. A conviction that either people you disagree with should leave the USA and live somewhere else, or that you are ready to leave the USA and live somewhere else

6. A belief that Texas has the right to unilaterally secede from the USA, and should be working on it Right Now.

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The recycling of the Golden Age fallacy. Analysis of a Facebook rant.

I found this rant posted on my Facebook wall today.

It is a classic example of a user seeking validation. There is no explicit or implied attempt at discussion or analysis, which is just as well, since most of this rant contains assertions that are flat-out unsupported by facts or evidence.
Rants of this type usually have a predictable structure:

Part 1 – List a number of fear-inducing, dystopian assertions with little or no supporting evidence (in this case, opening with an ominous and doom-laden statement like “RIP America” gets you bonus FUD points)
Part 2 – Make a claim that the assertions prove X, where X is something that they consider to be Very Troubling and Dangerous
Part 3 – Implore readers to pat them on the back via Amen or some affirmation that They Are Right, plus Please Pass It On.

Part 2 is the Compelling Statement. In this particular case, the author makes the claim that young people are disrespectful brats. Etc. Etc.

Now, I want to reminisce up to and including the present day.
When I was 16 and in school in the UK, I read and listened to people the same age as my grandparents complaining about how “the youth of today” had no respect for their elders, dressed terribly, behaved badly etc. etc. Some of the complainants (usually military veterans) were of the opinion that “a spell in the armed forces” would sort these reprobates out and magically convert them to that generation’s idea of “responsible adults”. They would write their complaints in letters to the BBC and newspapers, usually signed with bylines like “Yours, Disgusted, Godalming”.
(Nobody ever did get a good answer whenever they asked the “put them in the military” proponents whether it really was a good idea to take immature, borderline nasty jerks who already knew how to engage in vandalism and assault, and teach them to, you know, really be effective in using handguns, military weapons and other mechanisms of mass destruction.)
When I was in my 30s and making my way in the world in London and elsewhere, I read and listened to people the same age as my parents complaining about how “young people” had no respect for authority, behaved badly etc. etc. This time, instead of the “put them in the army” panacea, they apparently needed “a good dose of discipline” or “tough love” or the irresponsible parents needed the discipline. Once again, they would write to newspapers and the BBC and huff and puff about the imminent threat that this posed to The Future of Civilization.
This was the era of the infamous “short sharp shock” cure being touted by the Conservative Party, which was quickly abandoned as its proponents discovered that it made no difference to crime and recidivism rates. This law and order thingy is really a lot more complicated than most politicians think it is.
Now I am turned 60, I am reading and hearing people my age complaining about “young people”, “Millennials” etc. Apparently they are over-privileged little shits who have had way too much handed to them on a plate, and need a good dose of Reality or some such. See the rant above. Since we are now in the Age of The Internet, this generation rants on Facebook, and any other social media platform they can find, preferably where people will pat them on the back and say “yes, you’re right, we are indeed Doomed”.
Do we see a pattern here?
Every generation complains about successive (younger) generations, unfavorably comparing their behavior to their own (remembered) behavior.
This, folks, is a variant of what social scientists call the Golden Age fallacy, the idea that there was a time, that we can all remember, when Everything Was Better. It is usually that time when children were always well-behaved and respectful, the law was respected and obeyed without question by everybody, people worked hard etc. etc. (With the more, exclusionary or class-focussed, one usually finds more sinister phrases like “people knew their place” entering the conversation, often in whispers).
We are good as a species at forgetting all of the Bad Stuff that we did or which happened to us, and burnishing the Good Stuff in our mind. This is actually a good thing in many ways, since it makes us more able to put bad events in the rear view mirror and retain a necessary sense of optimism. However, it has a downside, the downside encapsulated in the old phrase “rose-tinted spectacles”.
If you want an illustration of how selective memory of the past works, try engaging a mother who is attempting to protect her daughter from under-age sex, and ask her when she lost her own virginity. I have done this. The results are instructive, hilarious and bizarre in equal measure. The responses prove that amnesia is not just for Iran-Contra suspects.
My conclusion: none of this complaining is new. I find it more amusing than anything else. It is also pretty much unserious. We live in an age where we have never been safer. There has not been a major war in over 70 years. Life for many people is a damn sight better than that of our grandparents. At least 2 of my grandmother’s siblings did not reach adulthood. And try asking the descendants of the World War II combat veterans who did not make it back about the Good Old Days.
So when I hear and read very old people talking about “The Good Old Days”, part of me nods sagely and smiles. No, the Good Old Days were, for many people, not at all good. There is a good reason why it is called the Golden Age Fallacy.
Rants like this one are not new, and are no more compelling to me, even as I get older.

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