Friday, January 29, 2010

R.I.P J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger's death was announced on Thursday. I remember him here. This top cover of The Catcher in the Rye is the famous blank one J.D. Salinger insisted on, and of the edition I first read. Salinger didn't want an illustration to interfere with how the reader imagined Holden Caulfied, and he was right. When I first saw the cover on an earlier edition (bottom photo) that my friend Mike brought on a high school debate trip, I was shocked. That wasn't my Holden. Now I have paperbacks with both of these covers. Salon has a slide show of its many other covers--though I haven't been able to get it to work myself, here's the link.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."
Howard Zinn
from his book, You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train. Historian Howard Zinn's death was announced today.

I Don't Quit

President Obama's State of the Union address was masterful, personal, politically astute, beautifully reasoned and perhaps most striking--100% Obama, the same as he was as a candidate, talking now about the first year of his presidency, and his goal's for the year ahead. While I didn't agree with all his proposals, he gave no ground on the most important issues of the past year and the year ahead, and he inspires confidence as our President. He called for action on health care reform, and said he won't abandon it. He called out the Supremely Political Court for its decision opening wider the floodgates of corporate money in elections. He emphasized that jobs will be the top priority this year.
In general, I agree with Joe Klein's reaction. Check out E.J. Dionne's column as well. The media response seems to have been very positive, and in the first CBS poll, 83% approved of his proposals. A few highlights (the text as delivered is here):
"And if there's one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it's that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it -- (applause.) I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal. (Laughter.) But when I ran for President, I promised I wouldn't just do what was popular -– I would do what was necessary. And if we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today."
"As a result, the markets are now stabilized, and we have recovered most of the money we spent on the banks. To recover the rest, I have proposed a fee on the biggest banks. I know Wall Street isn’t keen on this idea, but if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need."
"From the day I took office, I have been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious – that such efforts would be too contentious, that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for awhile. For those who make these claims, I have one simple question:
How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?
You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations aren’t standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well I do not accept second-place for the United States of America."
"...I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation."
"From some on the right, I expect we’ll hear a different argument – that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts for wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, and maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is, that’s what we did for eight years. That’s what helped lead us into this crisis. It’s what helped lead to these deficits. And we cannot do it again."
"But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We cannot wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about their opponent – a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual Senators. Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game. But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government.

So no, I will not give up on changing the tone of our politics. I know it’s an election year. And after last week, it is clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern. To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."
"We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don’t quit. I don’t quit."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."
--Justice Louis Brandeis

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Emerson for the Day

"But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes, genius creates."
"The American Scholar"
P.S. Click on the photo to really see it.

If We're Doomed, This Is Why

It's essentially all here, in one blog entry, by Joseph Romm at Climate Progress, originally posted on January 4 and still the site's most popular post. In the post, and in the comments. But before I get to that...

In the end, nobody beats evolution. You adapt to environmental changes, or you go extinct, or at least lose your character and status and start slipping back to something lesser in the long biological journey. What humanity has going for it is intelligence. But that intelligence has resulted in huge changes to the environment that demand even greater intelligence to deal with. In that sense, humanity has to take control of its own evolution. It has to change the game by changing itself, and then consciously changing the environment it has unconsciously disrupted to the point of collapse.

When Darwin first proposed evolution by natural selection, people like T. H. Huxley understood that humanity had to change the game first of all by changing its behavior based on an ethical evolution. Humans, like other animals, had the capacity for cooperation, compassion or empathy, and altruism, but humanity had to make a choice to give them prominence, and appropriate voice in its behavior. Or else it would destroy itself and its environment, thanks to its powerful but mindless and soulless technology.

Then people like H.G. Wells realized that human evolution had to speed itself up in the intelligence it applied to understanding the threats of the social environment. He saw for example that if nations continued to fight each other using technologies developed from scientific knowledge, they would destroy each other and civilization itself. The rational thing, the intelligent thing, would be to cooperate as a species. Later, ecologists showed how the intelligent thing to do is understand and foster the ecological balances that support our life. Humanity has to apply its intelligence to its place in the world, and its impacts on that world.

Though Wells died in despair months after atom bombs were dropped on Japan, the world has so far avoided blowing itself up. But in terms of just intelligence, you don't have to be too much smarter than a human child to see the rationality of what he ranted about all his life.

What takes a more sophisticated intelligence is dealing with a problem that is going to cause catastrophe--and quite probably, civilization-ending catastrophe--in the future, by unfamiliar means. So far we seem to be up to the challenge of gathering the knowledge necessary to know what's happening to the climate and why with enough precision and enough likelihood to rationally merit action to prevent the worst of it. But then the challenge is (or perhaps was) to get enough people to understand and accept this information, so that our democratic/bureaucratic societies will work together--coordinating as a single civilization--to develop and take those actions.

The challenges involved are multiple. But they represent the next steps in our evolution as a species, which turn out now to be necessary for our survival in the foreseeable future. These steps in intelligence and its application aren't beyond the physical capacities of our brains. Plenty of people have already taken them. Now they are steps in social evolution, involving changes in individual consciousness and, for want of a better word, psyches.

This is perhaps my usual all-too-wordy preface to the nub: this post and the responses. To confront this crisis of crises, the Climate Crisis, we as a species, as a civilization, must confront the evidence and what it means. That's mostly what the post itself is about. It lays it out, with all the links you could possibly want. The basic conclusions are up front: "Many of the predicted impacts of human-caused climate change are occurring much faster than anybody expected... If we stay anywhere near our current emissions path, we are facing incalculable catastrophes by century’s end." And beyond that, the end of life on earth as we know it, the end of civilization and for all intents and purposes, the extinction of humanity as we know it.

You've heard it all here before, but if we're doomed this is one reason why: we can't absorb and evaluate this information. Conceptually, we haven't evolved our thinking to cope with the reality of phenomena like feedback loops, lag times and tipping points. These relatively simple concepts concerning the behavior of complex systems are far too nuanced for anything in our politics but self-satisfied moronic ridicule.

Emotionally, we haven't evolved our feeling or consciousness to apply ethics--as well as compassion, empathy and altruism-- to all of humanity and the planet. If we did that, we would allow ourselves to see that the tremendous weight of this evidence is great enough to justify action, even if these predictions somehow turn out to be wrong. Why do we fear the miniscule chance of being the victim of terrorism, and ignore the much greater chance of huge catastrophe? Selfish genes, I guess.

Psychologically, we can't handle the truth. We go into denial, or we flop around in despair. We don't apply consciousness to at least considering that this is denial, a trick of the psyche--at best, an inappropriate survival mechanism in these circumstances. Instead, billionaires and wannabe millionaires encourage and exploit denial to extend their selfish brutal power and enrich their stupid short lives.

The evidence for all of this is everywhere, including in the comments to this post. One finds that an estimate of those who understand and accept the outlines of the coming catastrophes at 2% is too generous:

"Even my very over educated friends are mostly out-to-lunch on this and while not “deniers” they are in major league denial about the whole thing….it’s like they just can’t believe it’s THAT bad."

But the most cogent comment is from scientist Tom Kimmerer:

"As the bad scientific news keeps piling up, we need to face the reality of weather: we have had an exceptionally cold year in North America, and are in the deep freeze right now. People don’t understand climate, but they do understand weather. I suspect that if we were coming off a really hot year, all the climate denial in the world would not move public opinion. Jim Hansen once said that we will take global warming seriously when the man on the street notices. Right now, the man on the street is freezing his butt off.

As a scientist, I fully accept that global warming is real, serious and a grave threat..but if there is no local (i.e. weather) experience to back that up, it is psychologically difficult for people to take the threat seriously...If 2010 is hot in the US, we are likely to get a climate bill. If the cool spell that began this summer continues, we won’t."

Look, I appreciate the emotional impact of such experiences of the senses as a really hot summer. The memory of a few of those from the late 80s and early 90s is still with me. But are we such captives of experience of the moment that we need it all the time? I mean, we will get it--more killer heat waves, storms, droughts, tropical diseases moving ever northward, flooding--and in relentless combination. It's just that it will be too late to do much about it then. And that's the point: the test of our intelligence is to anticipate a future problem and prevent it.

"As a species," David Orr writes, "we are in our adolescence, and as common at that stage of life, we live dangerously." Gene Roddenberry used to say the same thing. Fair enough, but attitudes like the above--which I think Kimmerer correctly nails--seem more like the thinking of small children. As a species and as a civilization we have a lot of growing up to do, pretty much instantly. If we are up to that, we will have taken an evolutionary leap, and we might even fulfill the promise of our civilization and species, even after all that waste, cruelty and blood in our painful history. If we aren't up to that, we've flunked the evolutionary test.

We don't have to be perfect. We're still bristling egoes, swarming with hurt, haunted by dreams, bathing in self-deception. We just have to be adults about it all.

Not that the twenty people who will ever read this need to hear it. This cuts no ice with some people, I know, who have their own narrative of reality. Extinction, the end of civilization, is part of the plan. But if our kind of consciousness doesn't exist anywhere else, then it dies with us, disappearing from the universe. We view the end of civilization, and the extinction of humanity as we know it, a little more seriously.

Not that I'm likely to live to see it. For me, the tragedy is all this potential unfulfilled. To contemplate that is saddening. To see how it is being cut short in my own time just makes me angry.

Another ridiculously long post. Well, I never could blog.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Star Cycle

A new image from earth-based telescopes of the Cat's Paw Nebula, some 5500 light years away. The photo is notable (click on it--it's huge) because it seems to include stars being born, and stars dying. In the night sky, this nebula is about the size of a full moon.

The Grand Psychopathic Party (And the Media Who Love Them)

Now there's this predictable "analysis/advice" from Newsweek's Jon Meacham who advises that Obama be more like Reagan, because he "has grandly failed so far in doing what presidents must do, which is to lead the nation emotionally as well as rationally. It would be great if politics were fact-based, but it is not, and it is surely not nuance-based. What works in a classroom or a think tank does not work on Capitol Hill or in the White House."

Besides being repulsively patronizing, Meacham is spouting retread conventional wisdom that--with some decent point about communication within it--champions the simplistic and emotional over the complex and rational that happen to reflect reality.

So what does he have in mind? Something simple and emotional like this not untypically simple and emotional GOPer statement by Andre Bauer, current Lt. Governor and candidate for governor in the GOPer primary in South Carolina--a state with a high percentage of African Americans, and with more than half of all children in the free and reduced school lunch program? Because Bauer compared giving people government assistance to "feeding stray animals."

"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better," Bauer said.

The fact is that most simplistic and emotional appeals being made these days are by the Rabid Right, and they are overwhelmingly racist, ignorant and lies. Reagan's simple formulations and formulas had emotional appeal, because who can fail to be made happy by the idea that you don't have to pay taxes and you still get what you expect from the government? Or that the Contras in Nicaragua were "freedom fighters" instead of hired thugs? Or that we had to invade Iraq to prevent mushroom clouds over American cities? Or that "Obamacare"= death panels? This is the kind of crap that benefits politicians and ruins the country, impoverishes, maims and kills people, and kills the future.

It's not fun to watch Democrats soul-searching when they lose, or to open themselves to ridicule and lies by trying to communicate the nuances of policy that matches the nuances of reality. But if the choice is between that and deliberate simplistic emotionalistic lies justified by politics or by some warped version of faith, untrammeled fulminations from the dark unconscious masked as political dialogue, I'll stick with my soul and hope it sticks with me.

The charge that Obama doesn't relate policy to the emotional reality of people can be made only by people who don't cover his speeches. But the simplistic and emotionally charged stuff does make reporters' jobs easier, and certainly plays well in the media, where it fits in so well with simplistic, emotionally charged and often lying commercials. Maybe that's a big reason that politics isn't fact-based or nuance-based.

And we have to wonder just what emotions count in politics. President Obama utters the word "empathy" and the Rabid Right is up in arms, because apparently when you try to feel what others in different circumstances are feeling, this is not Christian anymore but socialistic. Yet there is a word for people without empathy: psychopaths. Is that the politics the media finds so sweet to empower?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Weekend Update

There are people who get told to clean out their desk and be out of here by noon, but if you make six figures or so, you just get another layer of boss. So it shouldn't be surprising that nobody got fired for the Democratic party debacle in MA, but they all got a new boss: President Obama hired one of his campaign chiefs, David Plouffe, to oversee all the Dem campaigns in 2010.

The reporting of President Obama's comments at the Ohio Town Hall was puzzling, until I saw this extended excerpt of what he actually said. Then I felt better about what he said, and even more depressed by the quality of the reporting.

Speaking about health care, he said: " I didn't take this up to boost my poll numbers. You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything. That's how you do it. You don't offend anybody. I'd have real high poll numbers. All of Washington would be saying, "What a genius!" (Laughter.)...So if I was trying to take the path of least resistance, I would have done something a lot easier. But I'm trying to solve the problems that folks here in Ohio and across this country face every day. And I'm not going to walk away just because it's hard. We are going to keep on working to get this done -- with Democrats, I hope with Republicans -- anybody who's willing to step up.

Because I'm not going to watch more people get crushed by costs or denied care they need by insurance company bureaucrats. I'm not going to have insurance companies click their heels and watch their stocks skyrocket because once again there's no control on what they do.

So long as I have some breath in me, so long as I have the privilege of serving as your President, I will not stop fighting for you."

The President also came down hard on the Supremely Political Court's decision in his Saturday media talk.