Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Wrap-Up and Looking towards 2017

First, I wish all my readers a Happy New Year, and as much hope as possible for the coming year, though some aspects of the future do now seem awfully dark!

At the beginning of 2016, this blog was nearly dormant. I started it as an exploration of "heroes" and "antiheroes" for secular Jews like myself, and I wrote mini-biographies of a few hundred figures from many cultures and many eras, as well as some general cultural thoughts.

"Judaism provides a code of ethical conduct," I wrote in 2010 when I started this blog. "Many secular Jews feel they’ve left all the belief, rituals, and taboos behind but kept the moral code." I continued: "Some of the heroes of secular Judaism aren’t Jewish. For example, Abbe Gregoire, active during the French Revolution, was instrumental in freeing European Jews from discrimination by defining them as human. Buddha and Martin Luther King are heroes to many secular Jews. Their lives have meaning or they are recognized heroes of secular Jews. Conversely, there are lots of anti-heroes: individuals who are intensely not-respected by most if not all secular Jews."

Unfortunately the idea of a hero has become all-too-relevant under the coming administration. Soon after the November election, I started finding new heroes to write about, not so much from the secular Jewish viewpoint, but from the viewpoint that alas, we might need a few heroes to avoid normalizing the coming disaster and directly or indirectly supporting destruction of valued institutions, disruption of efforts to rescue the environment, terrible bigotry including antisemitism, and persecution of minorities. I've been blogging this theme regularly, and feel sure I'll continue to find new material for posts in the new year.

To reflect my new approach to writing about heroes, I have adopted a new motto for my blog:

"Unhappy is the land that needs a hero." -- a quote from Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht, of course, reminds me of the lurking parallel between our time and his youth in Germany, where a beautiful era of freedom for the arts and music became a nightmare. I'm trying to avoid overdoing these parallels, and to keep my focus on the here and now and our own heroic potential.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Normalized bigotry emboldens further bigotry"

Here's the conclusion of a very insightful article from Slate about the way it's easy to confuse satiric stories on the internet with malicious articles on the same subject:
"Regardless of anyone’s self-satisfied “don’t blame me, I was just X-ing,” all actions online have consequences—at least the potential for consequences, intended or otherwise. So for god’s sake, take your own words seriously."
The article, "The Internet Law That Explains Why 2016 Was So Terrible" by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner begins by citing "Poe's Law" which states that "online, sincere expressions of extremism are often indistinguishable from satirical expressions of extremism." Sometimes, the confusion is even intentional -- and manipulative. I've been very bothered by this exact issue.

The most bothersome example is the claim of some alt-right provocateurs who say they are "just trolling" and that their extremist statements are not somehow serious -- even though they give rise to bigotry, violence, and dangerous laxness about acceptable political speech. The authors state:
"The rise of the so-called alt-right—a loose amalgamation of white nationalists, misogynists, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes—provides a more sobering example of Poe’s law. White nationalist sentiments have metastasized into unequivocal expressions of hate in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory, but in the early days of the group, it was harder to tell. Participants even provided Poe’s law justifications when describing their behavior. A March 2016 Breitbart piece claimed the racism espoused by the 'young meme brigades' swarming 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter was ironic play, nothing more, deployed solely to shock the 'older generations' that encountered it. According to Breitbart, those propagating hate were no more genuinely bigoted than 1980s heavy metal fans genuinely worshiped Satan. The implication: First of all, shut up, everyone is overreacting, and simultaneously, do keep talking about us, because overreaction is precisely what we’re going for."
In other words, they want to have it both ways -- pretending their extremism is just a pose taken to goad people. But actually inspiring belief in the pretend bigotry to the point that gullible people act on the extremist views. Maybe the now-well-known story about child sex-slaves in the basement of a neighborhood pizza place in D.C. began as a joke (or "just trolling") but a weak-brained man with a real assault rifle showed up and started shooting.

The following paragraph from the Slate article summarizes what I've been worrying about without myself being able to frame it so well:
"Perhaps the best illustration of this tension is Pepe the Frog, the anti-Semitic cartoon mascot of 'hipster Nazi' white nationalism. The meme was ostensibly harnessed in an effort to create 'meme magic' through pro-Trump 'shitposting' (that is, to ensure a Trump victory by dredging up as much chaos and confusion as possible). But it communicated a very clear white supremacist message. The entire point was for it to be taken seriously as a hate symbol, even if the posters were, as they insisted, 'just trolling'—a distinction we argue is ultimately irrelevant, since regardless of motivations, such messages communicate, amplify, and normalize bigotry. And normalized bigotry emboldens further bigotry, as Trump’s electoral victory has made painfully clear." (My emphasis.)
Supposedly, Facebook is going to crack down on fake news. I wonder how this challenge of fake fake news will be handled.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Do not be distracted by a delusion of impending normalization."

 Miklós Haraszti
Miklós Haraszti, Hungarian author, published an op-ed today in the Washington Post titled "I watched a populist leader rise in my country. That’s why I’m genuinely worried for America." In this article, he summarized his advice for America in the new era. He bases the advice on experience with Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary. Under Orban he watched the country change "from an exemplary post-Cold War democracy into a populist autocracy." His advice confirms some of my worst fears. He starts with this chilling statement:
"Alas, right now I find it hard to squeeze hope from our past experiences, because halting elected post-truthers in countries split by partisan fighting is much more difficult than achieving freedom where it is desired by virtually everyone."
Here are some of his suggestions:
  • "Do not be distracted by a delusion of impending normalization. Do not ascribe a rectifying force to statutes, logic, necessities or fiascoes. Remember the frequently reset and always failed illusions attached to an eventual normalization of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Orban."
  • "I think hope can be damaging when dealing with populists. For instance, hoping that unprincipled populism is unable to govern. Hoping that Trumpism is self-deceiving, or self-revealing, or self-defeating. ... Or hope extracted, oddly, from the very fact that he often disavows his previous commitments."
  • "Please do not forget that populists can turn into peaceniks or imperialists at any moment, depending on what they think could yield good spin that boosts their support. Remember how Putin and Erdogan had switched, within months this year, from warring to fraternity. Or how Orban in opposition had blasted any compromises with Russia, only to become Putin’s best friend upon his election."
  • "It probably helps to be as watchful as possible on corruption, to assist investigative journalism at any price, and to defend the institutions that enforce transparency and justice. And it also helps to have leaders in the opposition who are not only impeccably clean in pecuniary matters, but also impress as such."
I wonder if an effective opposition here will be able to live up to these plausible suggestions for resistance. Or if we will be destroyed as Hungary has been.

I was intrigued by this author, whose work I had not  heard of. Here is his brief biography from his page at Central European University, where he is director of research on human rights at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies --
"Miklos Haraszti is a Hungarian author, professor, and human rights promoter. His books, including A Worker in a Worker’s State and The Velvet Prison, have been translated into many languages. He was a founder of Hungary’s democracy and free press movement in the 1970s. In 1989, he participated in the "Roundtable Negotiations" on the transition to free elections. As a member of Hungary's parliament in the 1990s, he authored the country's first laws on press freedom. From 2004 to 2010, he directed the media freedom watchdog institution of the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Recently, he headed the OSCE's observation missions for elections in the U.S. and in Kazakhstan. He has taught at several universities, including Bard College, Northwestern University, and the New School. In the past two years, he gave courses on global press freedom issues at Columbia University."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Real or Fake?

“Smearing people just because you don’t like what they’re saying often works to shut them up,” Ms. Binkowski [Snopes' managing editor], 39, said. “But at Snopes you learn to grow a thick skin. I will always push back. At least until someone shows up at my workplace and kills me.”
Urban legends were the subject of most Snopes investigations in its first 20 years or so, but now the leaders of the investigative website -- David Mikkelson, Snopes' founder, and Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor -- are busy with the new trend: intentional political lies.  An article in the New York Times titled: "For Fact-Checking Website Snopes, a Bigger Role Brings More Attacks" documents the new work that Snopes is doing -- checking and reporting on the deluge of misleading and false stories designed to sway the masses in ugly ways. Anyone who remembers the fate of the staff of the French satiric journal "Charlie Hebdo" can see that a bit of heroism is involved in keeping Snopes going! (If you don't know about Charlie Hebdo, link here.)

From the article:
"One way to chart Snopes’s increasing prominence is by measuring the rise in fake news about the site itself. If you believe the internet, the founder of Snopes, David Mikkelson, has a longer rap sheet than Al Capone. He was supposedly arrested for committing fraud and corruption and running a pit bull ring. In the wake of a deal that Snopes and others made this month to start fact-checking for Facebook, new slurs and allegations poured forth.

"The underlying message of these spurious attacks is that the movement to fact-check the internet is a left-wing conspiracy whose real goal is to censor the right, and therefore must be resisted at all costs."
I've been counting on Snopes to help me out when I see obviously fake stories repeated on the Facebook pages of my friends, though these are usually the old-style stories that are eye-popping but not intended for actual harm. Now it's more important than ever to be watchful and skeptical. For a summary of how bad things are in this respect see: "Wielding Claims of ‘Fake News,’ Conservatives Take Aim at Mainstream Media."

Friday, December 23, 2016

"Sanctuary policies are an exercise of basic state and local powers"

Here's an opportunity for local governments throughout the land to protect vulnerable, innocent residents, write three law professors in the Washington Post. The article, "Trump can’t force ‘sanctuary cities’ to enforce his deportation plans," explains the constitutional principles that support local opposition to certain federal anti-immigrant actions. These principles, based on the tenth amendment, have in the past been upheld by courts in cases brought by conservatives. Erwin Chemerinsky, Annie Lai, and Seth Davis, the law professors at the University of California at Irvine, explain:
"Cities and public universities are exercising their constitutional authority when they declare themselves 'sanctuaries' in response to Donald Trump’s vow to deport 2 million to 3 million immigrants upon taking office next month. Trump has threatened to force state and local governments to implement his deportation policies, including by taking away federal funds, but such actions would be unconstitutional and likely halted by the courts." ...
"Sanctuary policies are an exercise of basic state and local powers to regulate for the health, safety and welfare of their residents. Some entities have acted out of a moral objection to mass deportations, but that is rarely the only motivation. Many local leaders recognize that sanctuary policies are vital to preserving police-community relations and ensuring that residents feel safe reporting crimes and accessing basic government services. Still others are responding to the risk that collaboration with federal immigration officials could lead to racial profiling and civil liberties violations. Public schools and universities have voiced concern that more aggressive immigration enforcement will jeopardize student safety and interfere with their schools’ educational missions."
Legal precedent rests on cases that concerned local efforts to override Federal gun control laws. I am particularly happy to read this:
"In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court held that the [Brady handgun] act violated principles of federalism and the 10th Amendment for Congress by compelling state and local governments to comply with a federal mandate. Under the anti-commandeering principle, the federal government can no more require state and local governments to help it carry out mass deportations than it can require local officers to investigate and enforce federal gun laws."
The California legislature and other local authorities are considering how to legislate or make policy to protect their vulnerable residents legally, without shielding actual criminals.

Mayor Javier Gonzales
A few weeks ago, I heard an NPR interview with Santa Fe's mayor, Javier Gonzales. Mayor Gonzales, along with several mayors around the country from Chicago to New York to Seattle, have pledged that their cities will remain safe places for people without documentation. The mayor's statement:
"This is a test of our values. Every leader across the country will have to make a decision about, what are we going to stand for? And so there is a real choice that I'm prepared to make and be held accountable for. ... I've got to believe that the president-elect who said his primary focus was to create jobs in our country, who has said that he wants to heal and move forward -- that he'll see this as a very divisive, hate-driven type of rhetoric that does not allow our country to be great again. If anything, it further divides us and it moves us in the wrong direction."

UPDATE January 26, 2017. The new administration is indeed threatening sanctuary cities, and their mayors are pushing back. See: "‘Sanctuary City’ Mayors Vow to Defy Trump’s Immigration Order." 
I will do another post on the subject soon.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Barbara Mikulski

Barbara Mikulski, now 80 years old, is retiring after 30 years in the US Senate. Today's column by Gail Collins in the New York Times, "The Senate Bathroom Angle" describes Mikulski's career, especially how she worked tactfully to have the almost all male Senate create a bathroom for women Senators. Collins also suggests indirectly why we are unlikely to see leaders like her again. I hope you read the entire article, but here's an excerpt:
"In Washington, Mikulski has always exhibited a highly unusual combination of feistiness and bipartisanship. Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, recalled that when she first arrived, Mikulski immediately reached out.

"'She didn’t know me from Adam — or perhaps I should say from Eve,' Collins said in a recent tribute on the Senate floor. 'Yet, despite the difference in our seniority, our states and our parties, she took me under her wing. … I was so grateful for her kindness and her wisdom. … She taught me the ropes of the appropriations process and instituted regular bipartisan dinners for the women of the Senate.'

"Those dinners have become famous — especially since the male side of the chamber has become more and more viciously partisan. In the beginning, they were held in a Senate room named after the late Strom Thurmond, an infamous pincher of ladies’ bottoms.
"Recently Mikulski and Collins invited their female colleagues for coffee, to welcome the latest generation of newcomers. It was a final gesture of outreach as Mikulski moved on into Senate history.

"She deserves some kind of permanent memorial. Maybe they could put a plaque in that bathroom. Or better yet, they could rename the Strom Thurmond Room in her honor."

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Howard McMahan (1930-2016)

Howard McMahan was a wonderful family man, the father of three children, grandfather of nine, and great-grandfather of nine more. He worked in government and private industry, mainly in Fort Worth, Texas. His wife Myrtle is my cousin, and I have very fond memories of their wedding many years ago. I was very sad to learn that he died yesterday after a very long decline from Altzheimers.

Howard with a fanciful sculpture at the Fort Worth Modern
Art Museum where he and Myrtle took us in 2008.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Beautiful Table

A beautifully set table greeted us when we sat down for dinner last night at the home of our friends Jane and Howard. Red maple leaves, gold-painted nuts and pine cones, red pears and pomegranates, streamers of gold ribbon, and white flowers lit by several candles created a beautiful centerpiece. At each place was the starter: an avocado half garnished with pomegranate seeds, persimmon, and citrus fruit. The main course -- osso bucco with stuffed squash and broccoli -- was marvelous. Wine from our hosts' trip to France was a perfect choice to accompany the food. Each course was served on beautiful china -- I did not ask about the china but I suspect that it's part of an interesting collection. 

Dessert: chocolate wine cake with home-made ice cream.
We feel strong gratitude to our friends for such a delicious and entertaining meal, and for the company of their other guests. As frequently happens at remarkably well-prepared meals, the conversation centered on various food, restaurant, and French outdoor market experiences from travels by the guests and hosts.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

"I fear the chill that could descend."

Michael E. Mann from his page,
listing his many popular books.
An op-ed in the Washington Post titled: "I’m a scientist who has gotten death threats. I fear what may happen under Trump," summarizes the experiences and new fears of often-attacked climate scientist Michael E. Mann, a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. Over many years, Mann has been threatened legally with court actions, probes to obtain his personal papers, and efforts to deny funding to him and to his institution, as well as receiving threats of violence. 

"In all," he writes, "I’ve been through roughly a dozen investigations prompted by climate change deniers. Each time, I’ve been exonerated. Investigators find that my methods are sound and my data is replicable." Here are more details from his article:
"I’ve faced hostile investigations by politicians, demands for me to be fired from my job, threats against my life and even threats against my family. Those threats have diminished in recent years, as man-made climate change has become recognized as the overwhelming scientific consensus and as climate science has received the support of the federal government. But with the coming Trump administration, my colleagues and I are steeling ourselves for a renewed onslaught of intimidation, from inside and outside government. It would be bad for our work and bad for our planet."
Mann provides ample documentation about the malice and ignorance of the appointees of the new administration:
"Trump’s nominee for energy secretary, Rick Perry, wrote in his 2010 book that “we have been experiencing a cooling trend” (in reality, 2016 will go down as the third consecutive record-breaking year for global temperatures), and when he was governor of Texas, his administration removed all references to climate change from a report on rising sea levels. Trump’s proposed interior secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), plays down climate change as “not proven science” and has a dismal record on the environment, voting again and again in favor of the fossil fuel industry. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state, represents those interests even more directly as the chief executive of ExxonMobil."
The reaction of climate scientists to the new and coming attacks has been, among other things, an effort to archive government data before climate science is shut down. The damage that could be done is horrifying:
"We are afraid that four (possibly eight) years of denial and delay might commit the planet to not just feet, but yards, of sea level rise, massive coastal flooding (made worse by more frequent Katrina and Sandy-like storms), historic deluges, and summer after summer of devastating heat and drought across the country.

"We also fear an era of McCarthyist attacks on our work and our integrity. It’s easy to envision, because we’ve seen it all before. We know we could be hauled into Congress to face hostile questioning from climate change deniers. We know we could be publicly vilified by politicians. We know we could be at the receiving end of federal subpoenas demanding our personal emails. We know we could see our research grants audited or revoked.

"I faced all of those things a decade ago, the last time Republicans had full control of our government."
The conclusion of this opinion piece, which I find of great concern:
"I fear the chill that could descend. I worry especially that younger scientists might be deterred from going into climate research (or any topic where scientific findings can prove inconvenient to powerful vested interests). As someone who has weathered many attacks, I would urge these scientists to have courage. 
"The fate of the planet hangs in the balance." 

Friday, December 16, 2016

"California will launch its own damn satellite."

"California Gov. Jerry Brown vowed the state will fight any retreat from policies to combat climate change, telling a scientific gathering here that the nation’s most populous state will preserve efforts to curb emissions widely believed a cause of global warming.
"'We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers and we’re ready to fight,' the Democratic governor said in a thundering voice to thousands of scientists attending the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. 'And we will persevere, have no doubt about that.'" ...
"'If Trump turns off the satellites,' Mr. Brown said, 'California will launch its own damn satellite. We’re going to collect that data.'" -- Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2016
California Governor Jerry Brown
from the WSJ article
The Wall Street Journal and several other news sources reported on Jerry Brown's fighting stance that California will not give in to attacks on science by the incoming administration. Both the new administration's policies and its appointees appear ready to disrupt current efforts to study climate change and have promised serious attacks on efforts to prevent or slow climate change. WSJ writer Jim Carlton continued:
"Mr. Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, has said he would withdraw President Barack Obama’s climate rule cutting power-plant carbon emissions, and has picked climate skeptics to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department."
In the Atlantic, writer James Fallows writes that Brown's speech was
"...a rousing call-to-battle against the environmental backward-movement and larger disdain for fact of the coming era, from a person who as he nears age 80 has struck a distinctive Happy Warrior tone of resistance. Happy, in its confidence. Warrior, in its resoluteness."
In the Sacramento Bee, writer Christopher Cadelago quoted the governor as saying to the scientists:
"'Keep it up.' ...  'Don’t flag. We’ve got a lot of work to do.' ...

"He reminded the scientists that he earned his nickname, Governor Moonbeam, in his first governorship for proposing that the state launch its own communications satellite, and even had an ex-astronaut on his payroll as a space adviser. 'I didn’t get that moniker for nothing.'"
The WSJ article, "California Governor Brown Challenges Trump on Climate Change," is subtitled: "Jerry Brown says the state will press ahead to fight global warming." The Atlantic article is titled "This Is What the Resistance Sounds Like." The Sacramento Bee article is titled: "Jerry Brown strikes defiant tone: ‘California will launch its own damn satellite’"

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Will humor become a form of Heroism?

From the New Yorker:
Humor helps. It helps me to see issues in a new way. It helps me to cope. I think it helps a lot of people. Andy Borowitz is a satirist whose tweets, Facebook posts, and New Yorker pieces have been on the frontlines of political commentary. Here's a quote from Borowitz's article titled "Putin Agrees to Receive Intelligence Briefings in Trump's Place" --
"Trump said that, while he was 'totally uninterested' in receiving the briefings, Putin appeared to be 'extremely interested.' ... Trump also touted his deal-making prowess in securing the Russian President’s services. 'The American people are getting an amazing deal here,” he said. “Putin is doing this totally for free.'"
As with most cases, Borowitz's humor can evaporate if you over-analyse it. His method is to use just enough exaggeration. Occasionally he cuts it so close that his "news" gets linked as real news or is reprinted as if factual in humorless foreign newspapers. I guess his audience is pretty limited to the kind of people the incoming administration was elected to get even with -- elites, educated people, those who have accomplished something. The ones "they" hate.

Or as Borowitz wrote on Facebook yesterday:
"For years a big part of the American Dream was to become better educated, better informed, and, yes, smarter. If that's elitism then I'm doubling down on it." 
True but funny. Funny but, sadly, too true. Will Borowitz be a hero of the coming disaster? I'm grasping at straws, I guess.

Then there's Garrison Keillor. It's been many years since I was a fan of his radio shows or since I read any of his books, but I appreciated his little piece in the Washington Post yesterday: "What will be Trump’s legacy? Who cares." Here is an extract:
"Presidents are royalty and we measure our lives by their reigns, but their effect on the country in general is greatly exaggerated. Take me, for example. Mr. Lyndon Johnson’s Selective Service System more or less governed my 20s, and now that I’m old and shaky, his Medicare is very helpful, but for most of us, presidents are part of the scenery, like the great stone heads on Easter Island. Millions of words have been written about Richard Nixon but his effect on my life was minuscule compared to that of my third-grade teacher Fern Moehlenbrock. Her kindness and cheerfulness grow larger and larger in memory, and Mr. Nixon recedes to the size of a dried pea. ...
"And now, after eight years of the most graceful and articulate chief since FDR, we get this crude showman with the marble walls and gold faucets. Most of the country dreads him as he slouches toward Washington to be inaugurated. I worry what effect he’ll have on children. Everything Mrs. Moehlenbrock told us — no pushing, no insulting, no lying, no crude talk — Mr. Trump does on a daily basis. But how will he actually affect my life? Not much. ...
"...It’s going to be a long four years, people. Get back in touch with old friends. Take up hiking. Read history. But not books about Germany in the 1930s — it’ll only make you uneasy."
Will this help us stand up to tyranny? Well, maybe. That last sentence makes me feel worse, not better.

Another hope -- that Al Franken will figure it out and lead us somewhere else. Unfortunately, in a long article about him this week, the New York Times Magazine writer only pointed out how he's tried to be much more serious as a senator. The article: "Al Franken Faces Donald Trump and the Next Four Years," subtitled "The second-term Democratic senator, who once made a living satirizing politicians, envisions an unfunny future."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Are the witch hunts beginning?

The articles explain the DOE response to recent demands from the incoming administration to provide a list of employees that worked on various climate change issues. DOE officials' response is NO! 

Like many people, I am worried that the new administration, with its extreme views and extreme appointees, will not take long to start a variety of witch hunts in the civil service of our country. I've been wondering: Who will stand up to them? Who will be the new kind of hero that we suddenly need? This is the first major example.

The Washington Post article states:
"The scientists and their colleagues at Energy know global warming is real. What they don’t know is what Trump might do to those whose work has been in line with the science and the Obama administration, which has spoken about 'the urgent imperatives of climate change.'"
Specifically, this article quoted a statement from Eben Burnham-Snyder, a department spokesman, including his emphasis in the last sentence, refusing to name names:
“Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of DOE (Department of Energy) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people. We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department. 
“We will be forthcoming with all publically-available information with the transition team. We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team.
Background detail comes from an earlier Washington Post article titled "Trump transition team for Energy Department seeks names of employees involved in climate meetings" as quoted by MSNBC:
"The Trump transition team has issued a list of 74 questions for the Energy Department, asking officials there to identify which department employees and contractors have worked on forging an international climate pact as well as domestic efforts to cut the nation’s carbon output.

"The questionnaire requests a list of those individuals who have taken part in international climate talks over the past five years and 'which programs within DOE are essential to meeting the goals of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.'

"The questionnaire, which one Energy Department official described as unusually 'intrusive' and a matter for departmental lawyers, has raised concern that the Trump transition team was trying to figure out how to target the people, including civil servants, who have helped implement policies under Obama.
The earlier Post article cited a number of climate scientists and other experts who were (to say the least) very concerned at the intention of the questionnaire, and provided a detailed discussion of previous interference with the DOE  by Republican administrations. Very important and interesting.

The MSNBC article concludes thus:
"Trump’s request was ridiculous. The more the president-elect’s team hears the word 'no' in response to outlandish questions, especially McCarthy-like appeals such as these, the better."
But the future is grim -- today's headline in the NYT: "Rick Perry, Ex-Governor of Texas, Is Trump’s Pick as Energy Secretary." Quote:
"The selection of Mr. Perry to lead the energy agency would offer a rich irony: During a televised debate in 2011, when he was seeking the Republican nomination, Mr. Perry intended to list the Department of Energy among agencies he wanted to eliminate, but he could not remember its name."

UPDATE, Dec. 15: CNN and the Washington Post report that the questionnaire has been withdrawn: maybe. This is definitely an ongoing process --
"'The questionnaire was not authorized or part of our standard protocol,' Trump’s transition team said in a statement to The Washington Post. 'The person who sent it has been properly counseled.' 
"The disavowal marked one of the earliest apparent instances of the Trump transition team changing course and seeming to acknowledge a mistake, although even that is unclear. Also Wednesday, Trump transition adviser Anthony Scaramucci had appeared to defend the inquiry on CNN’s 'New Day' with Chris Cuomo, saying, 'This is an intellectual-curiosity expedition.'"

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Getting Rid of Science

One message of last month's election is that the American People want to be rid of science. Regulation that relies on scientific evidence is detested or held in contempt. We are told that the free market will take the place of science in holding dishonest companies in check.

From Reuters: Peanut factory
in Georgia that intentionally shipped
contaminated products.
I've been thinking about this theory about the free market vs. science. As an exercise in understanding the concept, I've looked up the case of salmonella-contaminated peanut products that happened a few years ago when "714 people in 46 states were sickened, some critically" and nine people died.

According to an article in CNN titled "For first time, company owner faces life sentence for food poisoning outbreak" (September 21, 2015), the case was incredibly persuasive. "Federal inspectors found roaches, rats, mold, dirt, accumulated grease and bird droppings during their raid. They also found a leaky roof." Two owners and the quality control manager at the plant where the tainted peanuts were processed are now serving their sentences, though justice took something like 8 years to be realized.

How did anyone know where the salmonella outbreak came from? Obviously, each person who came down with a salmonella infection couldn't have possibly identified the source of their illness. The contaminated peanut products were shipped from the deteriorating plant to other food manufacturers (shipped, one might note, even if they had failed required tests for contamination; shipped with a cynicism so great that the jury could render the exceptional guilty verdict). A wide variety of other corporations, believing that they had purchased legitimate goods, used the peanut products in a variety of foods.

To find the source -- a plant that had criminally avoided inspection -- a lot of SCIENCE was needed. Here is an extremely technical explanation from the CDC, which illustrates the amazing complexity of identifying the source of a disease outbreak:
On November 10, 2008, CDC's PulseNet staff noted a small and highly dispersed multistate cluster of 13 Salmonella Typhimurium isolates with an unusual DNA fingerprint or pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern reported from 12 states. On November 25, CDC's OutbreakNet team, working with state and local partners, began an epidemiologic assessment of that cluster, which had increased to 35 isolates. On December 2, CDC and state and local partners began an assessment of a second cluster of 41 Salmonella Typhimurium isolates. The PFGE patterns of the second cluster were very similar to the patterns in the first cluster and were first noted by PulseNet on November 24, as a cluster of 27 isolates that had subsequently increased to 41 isolates. Neither of these patterns were seen previously in the PulseNet Salmonella Typhimurium database. The clusters also appeared similar epidemiologically, so the two patterns were grouped together as a single outbreak strain, and the investigations were merged. (source)
You just have to look at this paragraph (not read it!) to know how little the free market could do to enable consumers to act when there's an outbreak of food contamination. If there are any heroes in this story, they are the unnamed scientists and federal inspectors who quietly work to protect the public.

Here's what worries me: the new administration coming to Washington, with an anti-science mandate from the voters who elected them, has promised to take measures to make the FDA and the CDC less powerful and effective. They promise not to bother businessmen like the owner of the peanut plant who wrote of a contaminated batch of his product "Just ship it."

The three convicted people from the Peanut Corporation of America, "starting their second year behind bars," filed a briefs on November 28, 2016, asking to have their convictions and sentences overturned. One of the reasons why the lawyers claim their clients should be freed is that they say the jury should not have been aware that people died from the contamination! (source)

Maybe our new leaders will pardon these business people and encourage them to go back to making lots of profits without regulation.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Last American Hero?

John Glenn died yesterday. He was 95 years old, a war hero who flew 149 combat missions, became an astronaut -- one of the Mercury seven founding astronauts who took great risks going into space, and after that served 4 terms in the Senate, and made one last space voyage in 1998. His obituaries -- like this one, "John Glenn: The Last American Hero?" in the New York Times make his heroism clear.

Glenn may indeed be one of the last conventional heroes. He was a battle hero, fighting in popular wars that were widely supported for very good reasons. He was a conventional American man, from the heartland, showing conventional virtues of heroic valor. According to the article, he risked being fired from his job to support John F. Kennedy in 1960, though I don't know that he was ever called on to express a large measure of political courage during his career in the Senate.

He inspires vast praise:
"After he safely splashed down, the nation erupted with applause and gratitude not seen since Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic." (Washington Post Opinion article)
I have no problem viewing John Glenn as a hero, or even comparing him to others (even as bad as Lindbergh became) as this writer does. However, I think we are about to need men and also women with a different kind of courage to lead us soon. In this blog, I believe I've taken a broader view of what heroic courage requires. Standing up to corrupt and exploitative government appointees and electees is starting to take courage in our society. Next year they'll be in power, seeking their own gain and worse. What will a hero need to do?

A current example, though maybe small, shows what's coming and the new type of heroic response that we might need in our new world. Earlier this week, Chuck Jones, a union leader in Indianapolis pointed out the lies in Trump's announcement about better jobs at the Carrier Plant whose members he leads. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, he described his actions:
"I’m a union leader in Indianapolis. I represent the Carrier workers whose jobs Donald Trump has pledged to save. And I’m tired of being lied to. ... 
"When I met with Carrier officials last Thursday, I realized that that wouldn’t be the case. Though Trump said he’d saved 1,100 jobs, he hadn’t. Carrier told us that 550 people would get laid off. 
"Trump didn’t tell people that, though. When he spoke at our plant, he acted like no one was going to lose their job. People went crazy for him. They thought, because of Trump, I’m going to be able to provide for my family.

"All the while, I’m sitting there, thinking that’s not what the damn numbers say. Trump let people believe that they were going to have a livelihood in that facility. He let people breathe easy. When I told our members the next day, they were devastated. 
"I was angry, too. So I told a reporter the truth — that Trump’s 1,100 number was wrong. When Trump read my comments, he got angry."
Trump's response of course was to attack Chuck Jones and blame the victim, as usual in a tweet: "Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!"

A New York Times article, "Trump as Cyberbully in Chief? Twitter Attack on Union Boss Draws Fire" points out that a Republican strategist calls this "cyberbullying." From the article:
"With the full power of the presidency just weeks away, Mr. Trump’s decision to single out Mr. Jones for ridicule has drawn condemnation from historians and White House veterans."
We'll be needing heroes of a new kind. Maybe the kind of heroes that I've been writing about in this blog, in some cases, though I desperately hope we won't need to go as far as resistance fighters in France and Warsaw ghetto fighters during World War II. The new situation has brought me back to considering what heroes really are, and I'll be looking for them and following them more as events unfold.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Simon Dubnow (died December 8, 1941)

Simon Dubnow -- from
In Ha'aretz today: a brief biography of Simon Dubnow.

Dubnow was the author of A World History of the Jewish People, a pioneering book, which was published between 1925 and 1929. Born in 1860 in what is now Belarus, Dubnow acquired a secular/Russian education. He resided at various times in St. Petersburg, Odessa, Berlin, and Riga, depending on where he could have the freedom to live and write.

From the article -- "This Day in Jewish History 1941: Nazis Murder a Great Historian in the Street" -- a few paragraphs:
"After the post-1881 crackdown on Jews in the empire, ... Dubnow began to educate himself, reading widely in philosophy and economics. While still young, he realized he did not believe in God, though later as a historian, he would recognize religion's role in preserving Jewish identity. Only in 1887, however, did he decide to focus on Jewish history. ... 
"The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 initially gave him optimism that Jews could be accepted into society, but ongoing anti-Semitism made him consider a solution other than integration. Though sympathetic to Zionism – a “beautiful messianic dream,” he called it – Dubnow was sure that large numbers of Jews would never agree to move to Palestine. Neither did he believe that salvation would come via either socialism or assimilation. .... 
Dubnow... was murdered ... either by a Latvian guard or a Gestapo officer who, according to one version, was a former student of his. The legend says that the great historian, just before his death, turned to other Jews surrounding him and implored them: 'If you survive, never forget what is happening here, give evidence, write and rewrite, keep alive each word and each gesture, each cry and each tear!'"

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Are We White?

The Atlantic online is running two articles by Emma Green:
Both are full of excellent observations of modern society, the particular situation of Jews at this moment of increased antisemitism, and historical material. The author explores just where American Jews have stood as a particular type of minority and how they have progressed from a truly marginal status to a much more mainstream position where Jews hold power -- power that's usually reserved for "white" people. From Are Jews White:
Over time, though, they assimilated. Just like other white people, they fled to the suburbs. They took advantage of educational opportunities like the G.I. bill. They became middle class. “They thought they were becoming white,” said Lewis Gordon, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. “Many of them stopped speaking Yiddish. Many of them stopped going to synagogue. Many of them stopped wearing the accoutrements of Jewishness.”
Jews think about questions of race in their own lives with incredible diversity. There are many different kinds of Jews: Orthodox, secular, Reform; Jews by birth, Jews by choice, Jews by conversion. Some Jews who aren’t particularly religious may identify as white, but others may feel that their Jewishness is specifically linked to their ethnic inheritance. “If you’re a secular Jew, how are you a Jew? It has to be through your cultural or ethnic identity,” said Gordon. “Whereas if you’re a religious Jew, you would argue that you’re a Jew primarily through your religious practices.” As Jews assimilated into American culture, “ironically, investment in religiosity paved the way for greater white identification of many Jews,” he said, allowing more religiously observant Jews to think of themselves as white, rather than ethnically Jewish.
Both articles are worth reading, and I can't begin to summarize their many insights.

We Live in a Dystopia

A fictional dystopia is a frightening place. Some authors or script-writers have depicted dystopian societies with little or no government -- thus, chaos or control by opportunists or thugs. Other authors envision totalitarian nightmares. Leaders with evocative personalities are often part of these chilling environments. Strange technologies may disrupt normal behavior of the residents; some dystopian fiction is outright sci-fi. Lies supplant truth in many dystopias, and challenge the equilibrium of the characters. Imagined dystopian life often includes an abnormal or overwhelming setting, with too much to look at and nothing to make sense of.

Recently, American life that I see in the newspapers -- and I mean the mainstream press -- is all too much like a fictional dystopia. Here are some examples.

The Ghost Ship

A room in the Ghost Ship: "The Oakland warehouse and
art collective was full of collectibles, instruments and
art projects that had been amassed over its existence
from across the world." -- Rolling Stone.
We learned Sunday of a dreamscape of antique and junk furniture, exotic ethnic artworks, new artworks in progress, artists and musicians creating visionary projects including concerts. The labyrinthine network of artist studios and performance spaces in a former warehouse in Oakland, California, was called "The Ghost Ship." A strange and troubling man was the impresario and creator, and collected money from the residents and concert-goers.

It must have been beautiful. Rolling Stone reports: "Artists lived in the warehouse and built lofts that existed between the first and second floors. Partitions between the lofts were made of pallets, two-by-fours and other types of wood while all the floors were covered in carpet." (source)

But people knew there were problems, according to CNN:
"On November 13, the city received complaints of blight and unpermitted interior construction at the building and sent an investigator to the property on November 17. The inspector verified the blight complaint but could not gain access to the building to confirm the unpermitted construction complaint, leaving the investigation open, the city said.... 
"Most of the time it served as a "live-work" warehouse: part commune, part artists collective. Photos posted online show a space with a ceiling resembling a ship's hull, covered wall to wall with furniture, instruments and tools of the artists' trades." (source)
Until Saturday night, no one seemed to take seriously that all the beautiful artistic atmosphere was accompanied by makeshift construction, rickety stairways, lack of exits, open-flame propane heaters, illegal dwelling places, flammable collections, etc. Residents were afraid to complain, for fear the dream would end with eviction from the illegal space.

Yes, it ended. Headlines for the last two days have described how the Ghost Ship, hosting a concert on the nearly inaccessible second floor, became an inferno. Over 35 people died a terrible death. Utopia became dystopia in seconds.

Attack on a Pizza Parlor

A pleasant neighborhood restaurant in Washington D.C. inexplicably was chosen by bizarre conspiracy theorists as the site where criminal activity was alleged without any. Utterly unfounded accusations included tales of secret tunnels underneath the restaurant's dining room, and fantasies that Hillary Clinton and her associates tortured children there.

Sunday, a self-appointed "investigator" showed up at the D.C. restaurant threatening people with an assault rifle and other weapons, shooting a hole in the ceiling. Somehow the patrons and employees -- all of course completely innocent of the ridiculous fabrications -- escaped being shot, but there was a really horrifying scene while the intruder was being pacified. This violent act "quickly became a symbol of the powerful and dangerous potential impact of rumors and conspiracy theories have taken on during a volatile election." Other businesses were also targeted by the fabulists -- "Business owners initially tried to ignore the false claims, but in recent weeks have been frightened by harassment and violent threats." (source)

"That an insane online conspiracy theory brought violence to a neighborhood business five miles from the White House is mind-boggling. Even worse is that similar fake stories involving Mrs. Clinton and pedophilia have been promoted by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s choice for national security adviser." (source)

Again, for totally different reasons, a delightful place where families gathered for pizza, ping-pong, and neighborhood get-togethers turned from utopia to dystopia.

Politics -- our dystopian direction

Our politicians have abdicated a commitment to truth as we used to know it. "Post-truth" is even the word of the year chosen by the Oxford English Dictionary. Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post wrote a column titled "The post-truth world of the Trump administration is scarier than you think." She warns:
"It’s time to dust off your old copy of '1984' by George Orwell and recall this passage: 'The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.' 
"And be vigilant."
An interview in Vox about the "post-truth" environment puts it this way, beginning with a quote: "'Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.' -- Jonathan Swift... As the Swift quote suggests, lies travel faster than truths, which makes the internet a reservoir of misinformation. Because anyone anywhere can propagate a lie at practically no cost or risk, there is really no containing the amount of bullshit percolating online."

Numerous recent articles have summarized the "post-truth" era not only in politics, but also in science, with a reading public eager to be misled about issues of nutrition, vaccines, climate change, and many more areas. Dystopian, yes, but I have no time to expand on this aspect of the situation.

In brief, here are a few more dystopian features of our political situation:
  • Pretending to attack "political correctness" provides an excuse for speech and behavior that used to be held unacceptable.
  • Police are not held accountable when they shoot innocent people, especially innocent Black people. Acquittal of police officers who have killed seems to be a daily news article. Living in an atmosphere where one can be shot at any time obviously puts Black people in a much worse dystopia than whites.
  • A majority of votes does not determine which candidates for office become our elected officials. Most obviously, the losing candidate for President received approximately 2.5 million more votes than the elected candidate, but statewide elections also return large majorities of State and National Representatives of the opposite party to that which received the popular vote, thanks to gerrymandering and other electoral frauds. The certainty of being elected without popular support has enabled totalitarian behavior among many state officials, and appears to be about to enable such behavior nationally as well.

Racism and Antisemitism

Cartoon from L.A.Times
Racist attacks and racially-motivated violence have increased throughout our society, especially in schools. Racism has become "normal" thanks to campaign talk of locking up and/or deporting individuals with specified religions or national origins, another dystopian element of the current political atmosphere.

"Xenophobia" is the word of the year at -- which cited "anti-immigrant rhetoric of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the United Kingdom's Brexit vote to leave the European Union as reasons for its choice." (source)

Overt antisemitic statements and gestures have become almost routine, up to and including Nazi salutes. The antisemitic participants in the incoming administration represent a very pressing concern in the areas I've been covering in this blog, which is why I'm writing here.

From the New York Times: "a brick thrown through the window of a Muslim-owned restaurant in Kansas, apartments of Muslim families in Virginia hit with eggs and graffiti, swastikas scrawled on synagogues and in a playground in New York." (source)

From the Southern Poverty Law Center: "In the ten days following the election, there were almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation from across the nation. Many harassers invoked Trump’s name during assaults, making it clear that the outbreak of hate stemmed in large part from his electoral success." (source)

From Ha'aretz: "The New York Police Department said it has seen a dramatic rise in hate crimes following the election of Donald Trump, with the majority of incidents directed at Jews." (source)

From the L.A.Times: "'The truth is, the alt-right is a new buzzword that made it appear as if these white supremacists have something different to offer,' said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. 'The name is an alternative to "white supremacy." They just want to make it more acceptable, digestible to white people.' Segal added, 'There’s nothing new there.'" (source)

Social Media

The use or misuse of social media (Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Snapchat...) is held responsible for much of the enabling and inspiring of thuggish elements in our society -- such as the man with the gun in the neighborhood restaurant. In totalitarian nightmare societies of the past plenty of low-tech capabilities allowed this type of destruction of the social contract. Information control by totalitarians is also a frequent element in fictional dystopias.

Author Kenan Malik writes of the new life of lies:
"Lies masquerading as news are as old as news itself. ... In the past, governments, mainstream institutions and newspapers manipulated news and information. Today, anyone with a Facebook account can do it. Instead of the carefully organized fake news of old, there is now an anarchic outflow of lies. What has changed is not that news is faked, but that the old gatekeepers of news have lost their power. Just as elite institutions have lost their grip over the electorate, so their ability to define what is and is not news has also eroded." (source)

Friday, December 2, 2016

"It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis

Suddenly last month, Sinclair Lewis's eighty-year-old book It Can't Happen Here became a best seller. I don't know how many of the numerous recent purchasers have finished reading it, but I managed to read the whole thing. It's very depressing, and without giving away the ending, I think I can say it has no brighter side.

Bust of Sinclair Lewis
by Jo Davidson,
National Portrait Gallery,
Washington, D.C.
Paul Krugman says:
"So how bad will the effects of Trump-era corruption be? The best guess is, worse than you can possibly imagine." (Why Corruption Matters)
This could easily be the theme of Lewis's book, which of course did not turn out to be prophetic of his own time. He starts with an imaginary scenario of the American election of 1936, which was the immediate future when he wrote. His scenario takes full account of the current situation in Germany at the time, of America's fragile situation in the Depression, and of America's potential to mirror the escalating Nazi horror show.

It Can't Happen Here projects the election of fictitious candidates in 1936 and the aftermath of this election until around 1940. The candidate, a charismatic demagogue with an even more sinister collaborator, promises prosperity to the masses. He also promises persecution and maltreatment of hated minorities such as Jews and blacks, superpatriotism, glorious conquest of other countries, suspension of civil rights and other rights, and cancellation of democracy by removing the powers of Congress and other means. The candidate is elected by the masses of (white) people, many motivated by his promise to give each of them (the white people only) $5000, which was a lot of money in 1936.

Immediately upon taking office, the new President suspends all democracy by empowering the thugs and rabble as "Minute Men," arming them, and allowing them to terrorize the population. Soon the Minute Men are everywhere, often killing people without consequences. Concentration camps are set up for anyone who objects or belongs to an unwanted race, political party, or ethnic group. The novel is full of vivid descriptions of how this happens, while all along people say "It can't happen here," or more frequently, "It can't be happening here."

The events are seen through the life of one Vermont newspaper owner, Doremus Jessup. Lewis, already a Nobel Prize Winner when he wrote the book, was a fantastic portrayer of ordinary people and had an incredible way of showing how a specific individuals were typical. In reading, one can't help realizing how his characters in one small Vermont town still share so many features of today's Americans 80 years later.

The Jessup family's struggle -- and that of their friends and neighbors -- illustrates the impact of the disaster of totalitarianism and the way that people can be manipulated through their own prejudices and weaknesses. As I said: depressing. I'm sure many others will be or have been writing about this all-too-frightening characterization of American vulnerability and its results. And how much the people can still embrace hatred as an American value. I had chosen some apt quotations from Lewis, but I don't feel as if I need them to recommend this book -- if you want to be horrified, or maybe surprised that maybe we relied on our better nature for so long.