Searching for Bobby Fischer and American Sanity

(Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

Our son Nick recently visited us for the holidays.  We both like to play chess, so we had a couple friendly competitions in the family room.  Now that my brain is atrophying due to age and excessive amounts of social media, he destroyed me.

But it got me to thinking about a guy who was once a sort of chess-playing pop star: Bobby Fischer.  Bobby was an American chess grandmaster who won the U.S. championship in 1956 at the cheeky age of 14.  Overall, he won eight U.S. championships, including a rare 11-0 victory in 1963-64, the only perfect score in the tournament’s history. He’s mainly known for his Cold War rivalry with a Russian named Boris Spassky.  In 1972 he defeated Spassky to become World Chess Champion.

Fischer had his title revoked in 1975 after making outrageous demands prior to a match with Anatoly Karpov.  Some think he did it deliberately because his chess skills were so far beyond anyone else, and he had nothing else to prove.

I didn’t learn chess until I was 15, but I competed for my high school chess team, and wore out the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.  These days, since my wife refuses to learn the game, the only time I drag out the chessboard is when Nick visits.

Fischer died of kidney failure in 2013.  I already vaguely knew of certain “personality quirks” of his.  Wikipedia filled in the details.  They’re not pretty:

  • Although his mother was Jewish, Fischer was a vehement anti-Semite and Holocaust denier
  • Fischer believed in an international Jewish conspiracy
  • He agreed with Nietzsche that religion was used to dull the senses of the people, but then joined the evangelical Worldwide Church of God in the mid-1960s
  • Fischer believed that the world would soon come to an end
  • He became Catholic at the end of his life and believed “the only hope for the world is through Catholicism”
  • Fischer got along well with Jewish chess players, but at the same time wrote that “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews”
  • After 911, Fischer applauded the attacks and said “What goes around, comes around”
  • Fischer openly hoped for a military coup d’état and execution of Jews in the United States

Fischer was never formally diagnosed, but some people have speculated on his sanity.

Check.

***

Last night I watched news coverage and analysis of last year’s January 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, and it struck me that Fischer might fit in well with a lot of people in America today.  Not so much because of his anti-Semitism and religious obsessions—which are bad enough—but because of his anti-rationalism and conspiracy obsessions.

Today, America has an entire political party—the Republican Party—that has hitched its wagon to an autocratic demagogue who continues to spread a Big Lie about an election result.  Not to mention who once ridiculed the coronavirus threat as being a Democratic conspiracy (and views man-made climate change as a worldwide liberal conspiracy).

The PBS show Frontline just aired a documentary that reveals conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremism have only gotten worse since a year ago.

And House Republican Liz Cheney was unseated earlier this year from her conference chair because she condemned Trump for instigating the January 6 riot and implored her fellow Republicans to stand up to him and his catacomb of lies. (Obviously, they haven’t.)

Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most conservative Republicans during the Bush II era (and called “Darth Vader” by critics for his hawkishness and advocacy of torture as policy), was quoted as saying today’s Republican leaders don’t resemble “any of the folks I knew.”

The two Cheneys were surrounded by Democrats and the only Republicans present in the House during a moment of silence yesterday.

***

One would think things couldn’t get much worse than January 6, 2021.  But according to George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and part of a panel on PBS Newshour yesterday, the insurrection is probably just a harbinger, a “warning shot”:

How can one overreact to a mortal threat to American democracy, the first in my lifetime that actually seems to be on a road toward making it impossible for the popular will to be respected at the ballot box?

That’s been the goal of all these bills passed or debated across legislatures in Georgia, in Arizona, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, which are not just about restricting access to the ballot, but are about putting elections in the hands of reliable partisans, so that, next time around, we will have states that claim that the election was somehow wrongly held, and that it’s thrown into the hands of a partisan legislature, which sends its own electors to Congress to choose the next president.

When you have a compelling but divisive leader, and a political party that falls in behind him, and you can convince enough people to believe in unfounded conspiracies…anything can happen.  Witness 1930s Germany. Witness 2022 America.

While you can’t formally diagnose a nation, some people (like myself) have speculated on America’s sanity. 

Checkmate.

COVID-19 in Cartoon America

Watching “CBS Sunday Morning” this morning drove home a startling statistic: the United States ranks number 48 in the world for percentage of citizens who have been vaccinated for COVID-19.

I knew things were bad here.  A story on that same program revealed that the social media platform Facebook is, once again, under fire.  This time it’s for permitting the spread of misinformation on COVID-19—such as that the vaccine contains a microchip allowing the government to monitor us—that is leading directly to people’s deaths.

Researchers analyzing Facebook misinformation, not surprisingly, had their Facebook accounts shut down.  And Facebook, not surprisingly, declined a “Sunday Morning” request for an interview.

I’m far from being an admirer of Mark Zuckerberg, and I have a lot of issues with Facebook, despite being a moderate user.  But one thing Zuckerberg said hit me in the gut.  He implied maybe the problem isn’t so much Facebook, but America, since other countries are less inclined to get suckered by false information on social media platforms.  Ignoring his garbled English, he said “I think that there’s that’s something unique in our ecosystem here.”

My position is that, like other deadly pursuits such as tobacco use, hard drug experimentation, and irresponsible sex, if adults exercise their freedom of choice by choosing ideologically-driven rumors, conspiracy theories, and cartoon science, we shouldn’t bemoan any consequences befalling them.  The problem is, their “viral” stupidity have consequences for the rest of us.  And maybe there is something unique here in America that contributes to our embrace of lies and the lying liars that tell them.

What might this unique condition be?

I’ve always believed that education, not military or economic might, is the key to a population’s well-being.  However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that, while the U.S. scores high in upper secondary education (i.e. high school) graduation rates, it is below average in student reading, math, and science skills.  Per the OECD’s latest (2015) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, the U.S. ranks 25th out of 40 OECD-member nations. Just behind Latvia.

In other words, we’re spitting out high school graduates like assembly line widgets, but many of these widgets are flawed and mucking up the entire machine.

Certainly there are other factors in our embrace of polluted information: an inordinate (or perhaps warranted) distrust of government compared to other countries; a gaping ideological divide that drives the most fanatical ideologues toward irresponsible leaders and media outlets; deep-rooted cultural fears and prejudices.

But doesn’t education overcome much of the above?  Maybe not.

Just yesterday I learned that the father of one of our daughter’s friends tested positive for the coronavirus and is now resting not so comfortably in a hospital bed.  Of course, he’s unvaccinated.  Evidently he has, or perhaps had, a strong ideological opposition to vaccines (and evidently doesn’t care about spreading the virus to others).  His daughter, at one time livid with him for being so stubborn and selfish, is now wringing her hands with worry.  I don’t know his educational background, but his daughter attended one of the best and most expensive private schools in the city, so I’m assuming this guy has a college degree, or at minimum a high-school diploma.

And I have an old schoolmate who graduated with honors from high school, attended an Ivy League university, and who works in health care, yet who consistently lampoons the president’s Chief Medical Advisor and his attempts to educate Americans with scientific data on the coronavirus.

So maybe education isn’t a match for dogmatic ideology.  Or maybe American schools these days are less about knowledge and more about job training and income earning potential.  I don’t know. Does anyone?

Speaking of cartoons, where’s Mighty Mouse when you need him?

The Long, Downward Slide of the Republican Party

On January 28, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made a trip to Florida to meet with ex-president Trump.  The intent was to advertise to all that “We’re still with you.”  Reports are that McCarthy wanted to also “apologize” to Trump.  It’s still unclear what he wanted to apologize for.

A recent Politico poll shows 72 percent of Republicans think the recent U.S. presidential election was fraudulent.  Now, think about this: almost three-fourths of one of the two major political parties in the U.S. subscribe to a cockamamie conspiracy theory and support a former leader who, through his irresponsible and incendiary oratory, inspired an insurrection by white supremacists against the U.S. Capitol.

This in addition to four years of incessant bloviating, insults, lies, and just plain bad policy that has turned America into the wealthiest banana republic in the world.

I don’t know what these people are thinking.  Do they think?  But the black comedy we’re experiencing now, where GOP congressmen actively promote a political tactic the German National Socialist (Nazi) Party perfected called the Big Lie, refuse to publicly wear facemasks during a deadly pandemic, refuse to hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees (Merrick Garland, in January 2016), or who set off alarms by bursting through congressional metal detectors installed to protect legislators, has to begin somewhere.  When and how did this horror show begin?

To be fair, Democrats have also shifted from the middle in the last forty years or so.  However, most political observers agree that the shift is much more pronounced on the right side of the aisle and is less about policy than behavior.  Part of it is due to a powerful conservative-biased media that erupted during the Clinton presidency and is now a regular news/propaganda source for many Republican voters.  Columnist and GOP’er David Brooks recently observed that “a lot of these Trumpy Republicans, they run for office so they can get on FOX News, not to pass (legislation).”  That’s a lot of power—dangerous power— for a news network to wield, and it’s a major contributor to the gridlock we now see in Washington.  And FOX News is just one of many conservative outlets…shockingly, one of the more benign ones.

Another reason why the Republican Party has abdicated its responsibility as a guardrail of democracy is existential fear.  Authors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, in their book How Democracies Die, trace this fear to a changing demographic precipitated by civil rights legislation in the 1960s.  The historically dominant white male demographic is shrinking, due to civil and equal rights, immigration, and an overall more tolerant and diverse secular and non-secular landscape in America.

No group wants to be squatting on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder.  But white males, who predominate in the Republican Party, see themselves slipping downward.  This existential fear encourages extremism, embodied by, at best, election-year attempts at character assassination, and ever-increasing racist and xenophobic behaviors at worst.  And now, Big Lie tactics.

The slide began a long time ago: GOP strategist Lee Atwater’s self-admitted “naked cruelty” against Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA) before the 1988 presidential election; Republican politicians’ incessant attempts to scandalize Bill Clinton during the 1990s (Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, then the pearly gate of Monica Lewinsky, which resulted in the partisan weapon of impeachment for lying about sex); the now-discredited “Swift Boat” smears of 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry; GOP accusations that Barack Obama was a Muslim, or that he wasn’t born in the U.S. (which Trump spearheaded, quite successfully, before his own presidential run); the 2016 refrains of “Lock Her Up,” led by GOP leaders, including Trump, despite zero evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.  And most recently, Trump’s attempt to smear Joe Biden through enlistment of a foreign power in digging up dirt on his political rival’s son (and which Trump was justifiably impeached for, despite Senate Republicans’ refusal to convict).

Maybe the slide began with the illegal activities of the Nixon re-election campaign committee (CREEP) that resulted in the Watergate scandal.

***

So far in 2021 it’s clear that the Republican Party is still the party of Trump, with all the poison that such an association brings to American democracy.  Unless moderate Republicans (those few that are left) have the chutzpah to pull their party back to reality and decency—and if world history is any lesson—there are even darker days ahead for the U.S. than what occurred on January 6.

NEWSFLASH: a recently-elected GOP congresswoman from Georgia named Marjorie Taylor Greene posted on Facebook in 2018 that a Jewish-run banking firm deliberately fired a space laser to start a California wildfire in an effort to manipulate the stock market and benefit itself.  Ms. Greene is a QAnon supporter with a history promoting wacky anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. She also posted and liked Facebook comments advocating execution of Democrats. Despite this, Republican leaders, including fellow conspiracy-theorist and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (see above) have so far done nothing.