Opinion: ‘Absolutely nutty’ theory explains it all

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In his new book “Determined,” neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky argues that there is no such thing as free will: everything we do is the result of factors such as biology, environment, culture and genetics.

“When you behave in a particular way, which is to say when your brain has generated a particular behavior,” he writes, “it is because of the determinism that came just before, which was caused by the determinism just before that, and before that, all the way down…we are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment.”

The consequences of accepting Sapolsky’s view would be revolutionary: it would make no sense to blame people for bad behavior. What they do results from neurons firing in assorted regions of the brain, the product of an array of causes they can’t control. Yet even Sapolsky recognizes that taking the absence of free will seriously “sounds absolutely nutty.”

But how else to explain what went on in Congress last week?

On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders had to intervene when a fellow senator challenged the Teamsters president, who was testifying at a hearing, to a “stand your butt up” fight. A House committee chairman called a colleague a “smurf” and a “liar.” And, as Douglas Heye, who formerly worked for the House Republican leadership, noted, “Tennessee Republican Rep. Tim Burchett accused former Speaker Kevin McCarthy of elbowing him with a ‘clean kidney shot,’ a charge McCarthy denies. These events — all of which happened before lunch was over — are more and more typical of daily life in Congress.”

The reality is that Congress has become a terrible workplace, and members and staff are feeling those effects,” Heye observed.

Burchett was one of eight Republicans instrumental in McCarthy’s ouster for the sin of allying with Democrats to pass a short-term measure to keep the government operating. Decapitating the speaker led tortuously to the choice of a new speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson. What did Johnson do last week? He allied with Democrats to pass a short-term measure to keep the government operating.

As if to punctuate the wild week, the House Ethics Committee issued a report Thursday accusing the indicted Rep. George Santos of New York of seeking to “fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit.” He charged the campaign for expenses related to apparently personal trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, along with cosmetic products and services, the report alleged. It accused him of “blatantly” stealing from his campaign, deceiving “donors into providing what they thought were contributions to his campaign but were in fact payments for his personal benefit” and constantly lying about his “background and experience.”

Drew Sheneman/Tribune Content Agency
Drew Sheneman/Tribune Content Agency

Santos, facing potential expulsion from the House, responded by announcing he will not seek reelection next year. As Julian Zelizer noted, we know of Santos only because he “fabricated a record, a whole fake life really, to become one of the handful of Long Island Republicans who helped swing control of the House from the Democrats to the GOP…”

“The Santos story, as dramatic as it has been, is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle that has allowed US democracy to descend into a morass of disinformation and falsehood.”

“Santos may be bowing out, but Trump is still their 2024 presidential frontrunner. Four indictments aside, as well as numerous civil suits, Trump remains popular and enormously powerful despite a fact-checking record so long that it should find a place in the Guinness Book of World Records,” Zelizer wrote.

For more on Congress:

John Avlon: Republicans only care about the debt when a Democrat is president

Clay Jones/CNN
Clay Jones/CNN

Nikki Haley’s idea

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is gaining ground with New Hampshire voters, according to a CNN poll, which puts her second in the GOP primary race, though still far behind Trump. But SE Cupp argued that Haley made a big misstep in saying on Fox News “that if elected president she’d solve the problem of social media bots and incivility by requiring ‘every person on social media [to] be verified by their name.’” She later amended that thought to apply it only to people outside the US.

Cupp pointed out that “What Haley is missing isn’t just the importance of anonymous speech in our founding, or the fact that anonymous speech is protected under the First Amendment, but the fact that anonymous speech actually keeps us safe.” It protects whistleblowers, victims of sexual assault and harassment as well as dissidents living under repressive regimes, Cupp noted.


“The most important factor in determining the political outcome of Israel’s current war will not take place in Gaza — but will instead unfold in the West Bank,” wrote Hussein Ibish, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

He argued that for Israel to cripple the political power of Hamas among Palestinians it will need “to seriously rethink its attitude towards the Islamist extremist group’s archrivals: the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on the international stage.”

“Without strengthening these Palestinian groups, which still represent the mainstream of the national movement, Hamas and even more extreme groups will almost certainly continue to grow and thrive among the Palestinian people.”

“A negotiated agreement with the Palestinian factions who, despite everything, still want to reach a peace deal with Israel — for good or ill, currently led by Abbas — can bring that about. It’s the only thing that can bring Israelis peace and genuine security.

After the outbreak of the war, Fatma Ashour, a lawyer and human rights activist, fled south from Gaza City to Khan Younis, where she is living in a house with 28 people. “Eight children, and 3 elderly people. Our priority is those 11 people. We give them breakfast. If there is not bread, they can have a biscuit or whatever can be found. If we find dates, they can have one each. If there’s neither, we use powder milk to make them tea. That’s how things stand. We, the grown-ups, we have to endure. We only eat lunch…”

Some of the people with us have run out of money. We help them as much as we can. Every now and then someone bursts out crying — a member of his family has been killed, or his house destroyed. It’s an unbearable situation.”

Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, a progressive based in Minneapolis, drew national attention after she bought a ticket to a campaign fundraiser for President Joe Biden and stood up to ask him to “call for a ceasefire right now.” Biden replied by recommending “a pause.” And while Israel has implemented regular pauses, Rosenberg argued that these are not enough:Biden and others in his administration have continued to mince their words, calling time and again for a pause, instead of speaking out loudly and unambiguously for the one thing in Gaza that will truly end the suffering and save innocent lives: a ceasefire.

Aviva Klompas, former director of speechwriting at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, observed that accepting a ceasefire now will cost many more lives in the long run” if Hamas’ infrastructure isn’t destroyed after its October 7 attack on Israel. “A ceasefire would be a de facto victory for a nihilistic jihadi terrorist organization that is financed and backed by Iran, one of whose leaders recently stood on American soil and warned that ‘new fronts will be opened up against the United States.’ Any truce would leave Hamas’ leadership, military, weapons and deadly ideology — along with its network of tunnels — intact. It would also broadcast a message to Iran and its other proxy terror groups that there are no real consequences for committing large-scale atrocities.”

Bin Laden on TikTok

A 21-year-old “Letter to America,” purportedly written by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, became the focus of posters on TikTok, who endorsed his critique of US behavior in the Middle East. The Guardian, which had posted the letter as part of its news coverage in 2002, took it down amid the flurry of attention last week.

Peter Bergen, author of a biography of bin Laden, wrote, “Let’s be clear: Osama bin Laden was not a deep thinker but the leader of a group responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and other Westerners, along with tens of thousands of people in Muslim-majority countries. So, the fact that people on TikTok are extolling bin Laden’s 2002 ‘Letter to America,’ al Qaeda’s rationale for the 9/11 attacks, in videos that have been watched at least 14 million times is simply baffling. Most of the people praising bin Laden on TikTok seem to be in their 20s, so they were either not born or were young children when 9/11 happened, and they seem to be entirely ignorant of the actual history of al Qaeda.”

Walt Handelsman/Tribune Content Agency
Walt Handelsman/Tribune Content Agency

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Dana Summers/Tribune Content Agency
Dana Summers/Tribune Content Agency

President Biden met with China’s President Xi Jinping at an estate outside San Francisco Wednesday. The fact that the leaders of the two powers, increasingly at odds, are still talking is likely more important than the specifics of their agreement on matters such as restoring direct contact between US and China military leaders.

There was no visible sign of progress on the wars in Gaza and Ukraine. Writing before the summit, Frida Ghitis noted, “Biden may want Xi to help bring down the temperature on the world’s ongoing wars and help prevent new ones from igniting. But from Xi’s perspective, today’s open conflicts are damaging to the US-led world order and hence, I believe, helpful to his goal of seeing the US fail as the world’s preeminent superpower, allowing China to emerge as an alternative.”

After the four-hour meeting, Biden said Xi agreed to reduce exports of chemicals that are used to manufacture fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid routinely smuggled from Mexico to the US. “If China can indeed get a handle on the flow of fentanyl precursor chemicals, that might help make a difference in preventing the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans succumbing each year to overdoses,” Peter Bergen wrote.

Supreme Court rules

Who will guard the guardians? That question, posed by Juvenal, the Roman poet more than 2,000 years ago, is at the heart of the controversy over the Supreme Court’s new ethics code, which sets out 14 pages of rules and commentary. It follows revelations about unreported financial ties between two justices and deep-pocketed conservatives.

As Stephen I. Vladeck asked, how is the public “supposed to have faith that they’ll be followed. In adopting these rules, the Supreme Court didn’t address that issue at all.”

What’s needed is some mechanism for obtaining the justices’ compliance with the rules. One possibility is the creation of an Article III inspector general. It’s a position that has long been proposed for lower federal courts but that could also have at least a modicum of authority to monitor the justices’ behavior as well.”

6% is doomed

Finally there may be some good news for home buyers. A jury’s ruling last month in Kansas City, Missouri is likely to end the 5% to 6% real estate commission rate that is typical in the US, but much higher than in most parts of the world.

“The industry argues that requiring homebuyers to pay commissions would make it difficult for some to afford homeownership,” wrote Stephen Brobeck of the Consumer Federation of America. “In reality, effective rate competition would lower — not raise — the cost of buying a home. Today, buyer agent commissions are baked into the sale price of homes, but buyers are unable to comparison shop for and negotiate them. If buyers knew they were paying these commissions, many would look for lower rates, have serious conversations with their agents about compensation and try to negotiate lower commissions.”

Trump’s remarks

Former President Donald Trump came under sharp criticism for his incendiary remarks in New Hampshire: “We will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” Biden told campaign donors it was reminiscent of “language you heard in Nazi Germany in the 30s.”

But Dean Obeidallah pointed to another aspect of Trump’s recent public appearances. “I’m not talking about Trump saying outrageous and incendiary remarks or lying to help himself politically. We are all — sadly — used to that Trump. No, this is something far more alarming. In just the past two months of campaigning, Trump’s confusion and errors range from saying he defeated Barack Obama in 2016 to confusing the name of the city and state he was in.”

“What makes all of this really interesting is that the shoe is now on the other foot: Trump has long railed that the 80-year-old Biden, his likely Democratic opponent in the 2024 presidential race, was showing the effects of aging in his mental abilities. In fact, Biden is just three years older than the 77-year-old Trump.”

For more:

Peter Bergen: Trump’s ridiculous terrorism claim

Megan Fox, poet

Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Megan Fox isn’t the first celebrity to take up the pen of a poet, Patricia Grisafi wrote. “Jewel, Tupac Shakur, Billy Corgan, Alicia Keys, Mary Lambert, Florence Welch, Halsey and Lana del Rey, among others, have all penned and published poetry with varying degrees of commercial success.”

And, after all, Bob Dylan received a Nobel Prize for “new poetic expressions” in his body of work.

Fox’s poetry matters because women and their stories matter,” Grisafi observed. “No matter how often we are told that we need to listen to women, the prevailing message is always that women should shut up.”

“Where Fox would be the muse for other artists, she is now a creator and a muse for her own art. Her body, famous subject of the male gaze, becomes a poetic body that is the site of multiple traumas, struggling to speak and make meaning…These are feminist poems, and they carry Fox’s message: reject silence.”

Air travel grief

Flying for the holiday? Get ready for “flight delays, cancellations, lost baggage and all the miseries that come with flying,” warned Ganesh Sitaraman, author of the new book, “Why Flying is Miserable.”

Airlines make money when they cut costs and increase profits, which can mean worse service for flyers. If we want to make flying less miserable, policymakers — and the traveling public — will have to tackle these incentives.”

The airline industry once gave passengers piano bars in planes, poker machines and steak and champagne, Sitaraman noted. But in 1978, Congress deregulated the airlines and it became a race to the bottom. “Today’s miseries of flying derive from this choice to deregulate airlines and unleash them into the Hunger Games of ordinary incentives. Added fees for baggage, an increasing number of fare classes, differential pricing — these all make perfect sense as a way to squeeze money out of passengers.”

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‘The Crown’ returns

Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in "The Crown" season 6 - Daniel Escale/Netflix
Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in "The Crown" season 6 - Daniel Escale/Netflix

The beginning of the final season of the royal soap opera “The Crown” has landed, and it doesn’t hold back.

As Holly Thomas wrote, “The undisputed star of season six — or at least, of the first four episodes released this week — is the late Princess Diana, played by Elizabeth Debicki. This installment, which covers the weeks leading up to Diana’s death in 1997, sees the stiff fabric of the show unravel as everyone is dragged irresistibly into her orbit.”

The measured, stately pace of the series so far is upended by the all-consuming tragic story, which even includes “ghostly, posthumous visions of Diana.”

“The episodes melt into each other,” Thomas noted. “Their themes are all the same: Diana, as ever, outshining her former in-laws; Prince Charles’ jealousy as he seeks public approval for Camilla Parker-Bowles; the senior royals’ resisting modernization and Mohamed Al-Fayed’s attempts to fashion his son Dodi as the new Mr. Spencer. Images of Diana cavorting on Al-Fayed’s yacht in a swimsuit and the paparazzi hurtling after her could be placed almost anywhere on the storyboard. It’s deliberate chaos, perhaps, but chaos nonetheless.”

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