A human truth about John McCain

John McCain in senate
McCain’s Senate portrait

Oh, that’s right; I was going to write about John McCain!

Right after he died, I said I never doubted he loved his country, and that I would wait a couple weeks to say anything else. Now it’s been 22 days and the news cycle (which is on ultra-spin these days) has moved on. So here we are. And this post is about him, but it isn’t only about him.

See, I want to honor the heroic things he did. I don’t care if he was a great pilot or not, he stood for his country and went to war while cadet bone-spurs was dodging STIs in Manhattan (look it up). He co-authored an important piece of campaign finance legislation. He spoke against the lies about Obama. And I am delighted that he stood up to Trump right at the end. But.

But he also gave us Sarah Palin, and there’s a straight line from Caribou Barbie to Donald Trump. Let’s be honest about that.

His voting record, for the most part served the interests of the rich. Which is not surprising, because he married into a rich family and lived as a rich person ever after. Let’s be honest about that. And have done with the myth that rich people built this country. It was the sweat and blood of working people and enslaved people. And the blood of indiginous people. And people in other countries who suffered and died so our extractive industries could exploit their resources. Let’s be honest about that, too.

Why bring this up? Because as someone once said, the truth will set us free.

When I die, don’t sugar-coat my legacy. (For example, I have never been great at anything, and have come very late in life to some realizations I should have had much earlier. And in spite of that, I still have hurt people who are important to me; sometimes by lack of understanding, sometimes by being unable to reconcile the directions of our respective lights.)

Why does this matter? Because we the living, need to stop living in the shadow of perfect dead people. We are trapped in the expectations of one sanitized legacy after another. If you want to honor me when I am gone, don’t pretend I was great. Let my shortcomings give living people space to breathe. To make mistakes and admit them, and walk on a journey instead of pretending to live at a destination.

And that’s the same for John McCain. He sometimes rose to greatness, and he was sometimes just awful. There are damn few people who were mostly great or mostly awful. This is where most of us live.

Let’s be honest about that.


  • Wikipedia, John McCain, is a pretty complete history and lacking in partisan rancor

“But we did it too!”

She was right you know. About all of it. Nailed it exactly during the campaign:

I see people responding to this by saying “But the US has been doing the same thing to Latin America and the middle East for years!”

Yeah. That’s true. I’ve taken part in some protests about it. But what’s your point?

If you want to say that the US should open up about its past sins and give the countries it has manipulated some transparency and maybe even some reparations, sure. We’d probably have to scale our military back to pay for it and start acting like we are part of the world community instead of its lords and masters, but that’s the cost of being a big bully all those years. Our status as an empire during the cold war.

But that isn’t the sense I get from people saying that. I get the feeling they are just saying; “Taste of your own medicine!” They just want Americans to suffer. They seem not to want us to defend ourselves against direct attack. Which is weird, since it’s mostly Americans* I even hear saying that.

The problem with that approach is that American influence matters. The world does have real problems in which we can lead. And we have a chance to move the foundations of that leadership to higher moral ground. But while we do that we still have our own nation to run.

If it was wrong for the US to meddle in Nicaragua, it is wrong for Russia to meddle in the US. And while we try to amend for the wrongs we have committed, we should defend ourselves. We have the FBI, we have the CIA and NSA; they can help fend off the illegal foreign influence of Russia screwing with our elections. We should let them do their jobs. This is so obvious it kind of hurts to have to say it.


Maybe he forgot about Rosie?

Today I went to Harbor Freight to get a grinding wheel, with nephew-in-law coming along for the ride. At 17, he’d never been in such a tool-intensive environment and flitted from one new object to another. He was amazed by the size of a pipe wrench, and thought he’d never be able to lift it. I picked it up and handed it to him, and said; “It’s aluminum alloy, so it doesn’t weight as much as you’d think.” He took the wrench, surprised by its light weight, and that’s when it happened…

WWII color image of black woman setting rivets in aircraft section
Photo Library of Congress

“Always get lighter tools!” said an older man, medium height, stocky build, gray hair, “So the women can lift them!”

“Right,” I said, puzzled “So they can fix the plumbing while you watch the game?” I set the wrench back on the shelf.

“Lemme tell ya!” he continued, “It’s equal rights! They want equality, don’t they? They want equal rights, don’t they? Twenty, twenty-five years ago we had a woman working at Caterpillar, and she was on the floor but she wouldn’t lift anything and she’d always say ‘you lift it’ and I said ‘Why?’ and she said ‘Because you’re a man’ and I said, listen, I told her, listen, I make $9.50 an hour and you’re makin’ $10.50 an  hour and you should be lifting…”

It went on like that for a while as we edged away. He covered how much he could lift, and how little women would lift, and how he didn’t mind lifting things because it kept him spry and strong but he thought it wasn’t fair, and if they want equality they should…

An employee asked; “Are you finding everything sir?” and I gratefully turned my attention to her. “Yes, thank you” and we slipped away to the next aisle. The old guy was still talking.

I wondered what it could have all been about. “He’s still mad about something that happened 25 years ago.”

“I wasn’t listening,” said nephew-in-law.

Ya didn’t miss much, kid.

You can’t hear what you’re not listening for

One way of understanding “open-mindedness” is to allow the possibility of changing your mind. And yes, it’s a good idea to leave the door open a crack, listen to your opponents, in the off chance they may be right about something. But that’s only one dimension of openness. Another is not making assumptions about what your opponents are saying.

Windmill with birds
While cell towers, cats, and skyscrapers kill many more birds, research continues to make windmills safer. Image credit: Phys.org, click to read article

Recently on a thread about clean energy, I read this:

You never hear environmentalists talking about windmills killing birds #DirtyLittleSecret

This “gotcha” happens a lot in online discussions, where someone assumes the other side ignores their own problems.  I provided several links to environmentalists doing exactly that going back more than a decade; it’s a pretty hot topic and the subject of a lot of research. And a strange thing happened: the other fellow actually read them, and thanked me for the information.

More examples:

“You never hear atheists complaining about Islam, only about Christianity!” (Yes it’s true that in the US atheists complain about the theocrats closest to them, but I’ve read a lot of atheist discussion online and Islam definitely gets its turn.)

Oct 2017 march in London against ISIS
From massive Oct 2017 anti-ISIS march in London. Image credit: Guardian, click to read article

“You never hear Muslims protesting terrorism!” (Oh man, where to start. Mass demonstrations against terrorism, Islamic leaders issuing Fatwas against terrorism, Muslim anti-terrorist op-eds, and much more.)

“You never hear liberals going after their own for sexual harassment!” (There’s too much truth in this one, but it’s changing. And not a moment too soon, given the patchy record of white male leaders in our country. And I have seen a few conservative OpEds calling for change.)

“We’re not even allowed to say Merry Christmas!” (Nobody said you can’t say Merry Christmas. That’s not a thing.)

…and so on ad nauseam.  The worst thing about the “You never hear” gotcha is it tries to find moral cover in the idea that no one really cares about anything, that only tribalism matters.

It is true that tribalism matters. Our country is a feedback loop where ideologies split so close to the center line that neither side can afford to give an inch for a moment, for any reason at all.

But what if it didn’t matter so damn much? What if we could acknowledge worthwhile thinking on the other side? The acknowledgement would an act of rebellion in itself, tossing threads of communication across the divide.

A more relevant point is that it’s a waste of social opportunity to argue against a point of view that is not real or at least which your correspondent does not hold.

Our lives are shaped by belief in the human soul

When an airplane crashes, the FAA somberly reports that “154 souls were lost.” Most religions have some doctrine of a transcendent personal essence that survives beyond death, perhaps to enjoy the eternal presence of God, the suffering of His absence, or another round through an endless cycle of re-birth.

The soul is often held to be the substance of personhood. In the United States, a seemingly eternal battle is fought over the personhood of human zygotes. Some white nationalists assert that neither black people or Jews have souls at all. Most people in the West take their own personhood for granted, never stopping to wonder if (as Buddhism claims) the self might be an illusion.

The soul is also a foundational concept behind punishment and blame. Personal responsibility for one’s own misfortune requires that there be a self to be personal – a “person”.

So you have a self? Your likes and dislikes, your gender, your religion, your ethical holdings – these are you? Are you sure?

What would it mean for “you” to grow up in a majority Hindu or Islamic country? Or a century when women were held responsible for the sins of mankind?

What does it mean to be “masculine” or “feminine”? If the set of expectations for men and women’s behavior is handed down by culture, then how much of your gender was simply assigned at birth, and not part of your “soul”?

Hang on tight, because we’ve been on paved road this far. Now we turn the wheel out into the wilderness…

The people who did things in the past that were culturally acceptable at the time, but not now… does your belief in the self influence your opinion of them? Are you a better person than they were?

Once you strip away culture, what’s left? Do you, for instance, dislike pumpkin? Could be the expression of a genetic allele that influences the development of your taste buds.

Once you strip away culture and biology, what’s left? What’s YOU? What’s the soul in there that deserves accolade for compassionate deeds or judgment for wrong behavior?

“OK, wait a minute”, you say. “I’ve been through thousands of experiences and that shapes who I am.”

OK, fine and good. Those would be the “culture” mentioned earlier. But it means that personhood can be an emergent property of body, brain, and experience. Does it emerge all at once? When? And how much?

We have not even got to the metaphysics of transcendence yet.


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  • This post isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive view of any religion’s view of the soul or the self. Or even the distinction, if any, between the two. It’s about the widely-held cultural belief that there is some kind of abstraction underlying each of our visible persona. That belief affects our daily lives in countless ways.

Doc Rat

Doc Rat wrong advice
Doc Rat giving Quarrydog advice he really, really comes to regret. Click the pic to begin reading online. It’s a big story, running from 09 May to 09 December of 2014.

Picture an Australian doctor, who is also a cartoonist. His anthropomorphic comic is published often in Aussie medical journals, and also online as Doc Rat.

Most of the time it’s medical humor or awful, awful puns (this guy must be a riot at parties). But beginning in 2014 he undertook an epic series that delved deeply into cultural ethics, as one of his characters was obliged on pain of familial disgrace, to take part in a killing ritual he wanted no part of. The resulting conflict challenged the society of Doc Rat’s world, resurfacing in the comic at unexpected times. It’s great stuff.

Also in Doc Rat’s world is a full development of something our own culture has only barely grasped; the weight of an apology. This is another theme that resurfaces throughout the series.

Even though he’s busy with a medical practice, the author publishes very often so I make a point of keeping caught up. His blog is worth reading too. So far I’ve found an amazing review of Watership Down, and unexpected insights on Zootopia.

If there’s a Zootopia II, Doc Rat should be one of the characters.

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  • Even more honorable mention: I found Endtown through Doc Rat.


Really old stack cutter

Part of my day involved making a few adjustments to this old Triumph stack cutter. This is a machine that can cut through a whole ream of paper at once. Guessing at its age… 30 years? 40 years? Maybe 50 years since that is the age of our college.

But it’s still in use. Take a look at the front platform, where paper is loaded. It is machine-turned aluminum, which is made when a circular wire brush is machine-pressed in progressive spots down onto the metal, making a bright textured finish that never wears off. And you may notice… it’s worn off, where stacks of paper are slid into the clamp and blade assembly.

Depth ruler for stack cutter
Transparent indicator fashioned from Plexiglas and colored red with nail polish

The bolt that adjusts the alignment fence (which ensures a square cut) was rusted in place, so it took some doing to move that fence over about a sixteenth of an inch. And while I was in there, hey, let’s replace the ruler that the operator uses to set the depth of cut. I used a nice self-adhesive steel-ribbon ruler from the L.S. Starrett company.  The old ruler had literally been hand-made out of paper by someone a long time ago. Their markings were dead accurate (!) but only at one-eighth intervals and the machine operator had wanted one with finer markings.

In the past I’ve repaired the crank handle that moves the depth stop in and out, the poly cutting block, and replaced the roughly two-pound steel blade. Later I’ll get someone to help me turn it over (it’s mostly cast iron) and give its mechanicals some serious TLC. Maybe get another ten years out of it.

I just love old machines like this. The company is still in business, so I’d say there isn’t a penalty for making such high-quality machinery. When you make something right in the first place, maybe you don’t have to replace it every other year? (Of course that only applies to mature technologies like heavy machines. Not to, for instance, smart phones which are still a new product category in development.)

When I do the major service, I’ll make pictures of its impressive internal mechanism.

  • The big crank on top lowers the clamp that holds the paper in place for cutting. There is a similar crank in front that moves the depth stop in and out to set cut depth.
  • The machine is designed for safety. You can arm it with one button in the middle, but to get the blade to come down? Takes both hands, one on each side of the machine like the buttons on a pinball machine. You’d have to be really creative to hurt yourself.