Friday, June 20, 2014

Climate Inside: Fear

      Image from Venture Galleries

It seems to go against common sense--not to mention the prevailing rational self-interest economic dogma--that very rich people can count on almost-poor people to support the interests of the rich against their own.  But it's an age old alliance, older than democracies, though it's a particularly bedeviling feature of electoral politics in America.

But there is a formula that explains it: greed manipulates fear.  The greedy rich use their vast influence to foment fear among the almost-poor, that the little they have is about to be taken away by...another race, immigrants, liberals, the government, an amazing conspiracy.

This is clearly at work in global warming denial.  The greedy fossil fuel magnates and those whose fortunes depend on them (including of course lots of political officeholders) prey on the fears of the mostly white among the almost- poor, which is most of the almost- poor.  There are several levels to these fears.  First, global heating as part of the liberal conspiracy explained to them on talk radio and Fox News.  But more directly, fear of the climate crisis itself. I mean, what if it's true?

 That fear is especially potent because, let's face it, it's much more realistic than the other stuff.  The climate crisis is scary, and most people who are honest with themselves are frightened by it.  We all wish it weren't true, there are times we all wish we could forget it, ignore it, even not live long enough to have to deal with it. (Too late now though.)

The role of greed is not a pretty sight to see.  We've just seen it big and bold in the statements of Republican Senators threatening to shut down the government this year to prevent the EPA rules limiting power plant carbon emissions from going forward.

The White House called them out on doing so to protect "big polluters," but the really humiliating, really telling event was a few days later when four former EPA chiefs for four Republican Presidents--Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes--went before a Senate subcommittee (in the words of one story) " with a message about climate change: It's real, it's bad and the United States should do something about it."

So no empathy whatever for greed or how craven it makes them look.  But fear is something else--fear is an understandable emotion.  The problem becomes how that emotion is handled, by individuals and by the polity.

It is really the basic test of individuals in our time, and of our civilization: not only do we have the intelligence to figure out ways to address the causes and effects of global heating, but what do we do with our fear.  Do we deny it by denying that global heating is real?  Do we take every possible opportunity to not think about it, think about something else, like the latest conservative/liberal outrage or celebrity misdeed?  Do we latch onto every doubt expressed, even if that doubt is manufactured by the corporations of the greedy, so we don't have to think about it?

Do we despair, because our politics, our country, our world can't possibly confront it, for any or all of a dozen or more reasons?  Or do we acknowledge it, deal with its emotional power, its power to overcome other emotions and rational thought?  Do we use it to motivate our search for solutions, our support for those who want to address it, our own commitments in our own lives?

As President Obama said at UC Irvine, these are particular questions for the young, with the energy, starting out on their paths.  But it is really a question for all of us.  Not guilt-tripping, but being real.  This is the latest test of our civilization and in many meaningful ways it is the most profound one.  It is also shaping up to possibly be the final one.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Game of Skins

The decision of the US Patent and Trademark Office to cancel trademark protection enjoyed by the Washington NFL franchise has elicited the predictably if lamentably vicious know-nothing attacks, particularly on the Obama administration.

But some simple reporting on the decision--as in this ESPN story--shows that the decision stems from a court appeal filed during the GW Bush administration and a similar decision by this Office during the Clinton administration.

This week the Office Trademark Trial and Appeal Board denied certain trademark protections because the team nickname is deemed "disparaging to Native Americans."  This was pretty much the same decision that the Office made in 1999, which was overturned on appeal.  A new appeal by Native American clients was filed in 2006,  resulting in this 2014 decision.  The Washington franchise is expected to appeal to the US District Court.

Since this is a hot button issue on the Internet, lots of  political sites weighed in, all the better to get your clicks my dear.  The extreme right now goes well beyond contesting racism in specific instances to denying that racism exists at all.  The political reflex cliche is "playing the race card" frequently mated with "PC" and swiftly therefore on to Nazi dictatorship.

Defenders revert to tradition and the good intent of the franchise to honor Native Americans by naming a team after the supposed color of their skin--all arguments I recall when what is now known only as the N word was commonly spoken in public in the 1950s and early 1960s.

 Meanwhile there is increasing awareness that naming teams after racial and ethnic groups is an obsolete idea--it was always insulting and now it is just obviously so.  Native Americans are historically a particularly egregious case, and the Washington franchise is the worst but not the only such instance.  Perhaps because living Native Americans are invisible to much of the American public, it is apparently still harder for many to see the "disparagement" inherent in these nicknames and logos, which would be obvious to almost everyone if they were applied to black skins, yellow skins or certainly white skins of various ethnicites.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hope Enacted is Hope Renewed

"Health reform is a very big deal; if you care about the future, action on climate is a lot more important than raising the retirement age. And if these achievements were made without Republican support, so what?"

Paul Krugman
his NYT column summarized here 
and here.

Krugman's column about Obama as a "very consequential president" joins Jonathan Chiat's of last week.  Both of course are counter to the conventional chatter.  Krugman makes the additional point that President Obama's low approval rating are the result of general political discontent and polarization.  Congressional approval is only about 30 points lower, at 16%.

Meanwhile President Obama keeps doing his job, most of which the media now ignores.  This ranges from big ticket international policy--currently picking through the immense complications of Iraq, Iran, Syria, etc.--to the really overlooked parts of America as well as personal service and connections.  In this past busy week, President Obama visited Indian Country, which very few Presidents have ever done.  Polls treat people as quantities, but actual people whose lives are touched or changed directly have a different perspective in evaluating a President.

Then there are the areas where huge policy meets personal connection, and such an event happened this past weekend when President Obama spoke at the graduation exercises of the University of California at Irvine.  He spoke about the issue that concerns young people since they often can see through the fog of the present to what's important to their future and the future beyond.  He talked about the climate crisis.  (Here's the White House summary. And a transcript of the speech.)

If anybody believes that President Obama has forgotten about hope and change, you need to read or watch this speech.  He identified with the optimism of youth (yes, it's there along with the cynicism and moments of despair), he said there's good reason to be optimistic and above all to create and renew hope by doing.

"We’ve got some big challenges. And if you’re fed a steady diet of cynicism that says nobody is trustworthy and nothing works, and there’s no way we can actually address these problems, then the temptation is too just go it alone, to look after yourself and not participate in the larger project of achieving our best vision of America."

Among the challenges he named are income inequality and gun violence, but he concentrated mainly on the climate crisis.

And since this is a very educated group, you already know the science. Burning fossil fuels release carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide traps heat. Levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are higher than they’ve been in 800,000 years. We know the trends. The 18 warmest years on record have all happened since you graduates were born. We know what we see with our own eyes...  

So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science, accumulated and measured and reviewed over decades, has put that question to rest. The question is whether we have the will to act before it’s too late. For if we fail to protect the world we leave not just to my children, but to your children and your children’s children, we will fail one of our primary reasons for being on this world in the first place. And that is to leave the world a little bit better for the next generation."

He summarized the progress in clean energy and cutting back on carbon, including UC Irvine's contributions. He took on the deniers, including the latest GOP mantra of "I am not a scientist" (the contemporary equivalent I suppose of Nixon's "I am not a crook.")  The President countered:

"Now, I’m not a scientist either, but we’ve got some really good ones at NASA. I do know that the overwhelming majority of scientists who work on climate change, including some who once disputed the data, have put that debate to rest. The writer, Thomas Friedman, recently put it to me this way. He were talking, and he says, “Your kid is sick, you consult 100 doctors; 97 of them tell you to do this, three tell [you] to do that, and you want to go with the three?”

He cut through the Washington fog to ask the key question, clearly on the minds of his audience because of the applause he got: "What’s the point of public office if you’re not going to use your power to help solve problems?"

He got after the news media. "And part of the challenge is that the media doesn’t spend a lot of time covering climate change and letting average Americans know how it could impact our future. Now, the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts spend just a few minutes a month covering climate issues. On cable, the debate is usually between political pundits, not scientists. When we introduced those new anti-pollution standards a couple weeks ago, the instant reaction from the Washington’s political press wasn’t about what it would mean for our planet; it was what would it mean for an election six months from now. And that kind of misses the point. Of course, they’re not scientists, either.

And I want to tell you all this not to discourage you. I’m telling you all this because I want to light a fire under you. As the generation getting shortchanged by inaction on this issue, I want all of you to understand you cannot accept that this is the way it has to be.

He talked about changing public opinion, which is in line with what he said about this recently, referring to Lincoln's belief in its political power. But nearly 3/4 of the public believe in the climate crisis and support efforts to address it.  So he called for the extra step of direct involvement. "You’re going to have to push those of us in power to do what this American moment demands."

He briefly made the positive economic case--that the country that leads in clean energy and carbon reduction technologies will lead the world economy.  He announced a new initiative--a $1 billion fund applied to dealing with the effects of the climate crisis.

But he always returned to a direct connection with this audience.  He listed some of the professions that would help address the climate crisis, professions that some these graduates could enter. He said that when President Kennedy introduced a new idea, it was usually to a university audience and their interest in the future.

Even when our political system is consumed by small things, we are a people called to do big things. And progress on climate change is a big thing. Progress won’t always be flashy; it will be measured in disasters averted, and lives saved, and a planet preserved -- and days just like this one, 20 years from now, and 50 years from now, and 100 years from now. But can you imagine a more worthy goal -- a more worthy legacy -- than protecting the world we leave to our children?

In the closed universe of Washington media babble, there's a key word that has been absent for a long time.  And President Obama returned to it at the end of this key speech.

And this generation -- this 9/11 generation of soldiers; this new generation of scientists and advocates and entrepreneurs and altruists -- you’re the antidote to cynicism. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get down sometimes. You will. You’ll know disillusionment. You’ll experience doubt. People will disappoint you by their actions. But that can’t discourage you.

Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed a young mind, or sent men into space. Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

R.I.P. Chuck Noll

Chuck Noll, who coached the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s, died on Friday at the age of 82.  That victory record still stands.  The BBC headlined him as the most successful American football coach in its lead-story obit.

Before there was a Phil Jackson, there was Chuck Noll, who combined football intelligence and attention to detail on the basics, with a philosophy of life as well as playing.  He told his players that life and the pursuit of excellence are processes without end, that the real measure of how good they are is how well they raise their children.

When he retired as head coach in 1991 he didn't join the broadcast booth or become a celebrity.  He stayed in Pittsburgh, living quietly.  He always told his players to think about their lives after football, and he had.

I met him in 1980, on the practice field at St. Vincent College that now bears his name.  When the season started I attended a post-game press conference and asked him a few questions afterwards for a story I was writing on the relationship of Pittsburgh to its sports teams, especially in the troubled years of the 70s.  When I asked him about the fans, his face lit up in a broad smile--something I hadn't seen before.  He credited Pittsburgh's fans not only with inspiring the team but in creating new ways to be a fan that had since spread throughout the league.  "They started it." He praised their creativity.

One of his examples was the tank that fans built and brought onto the field at halftime, as representatives of Franco's Italian Army.  Running back Franco Harris had embraced a biracial identity, and so Italians as well as African Americans embraced him as their own.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette has many articles on Noll including statements by those who knew him and worked with him, starting here.  Noll was held in as high esteem as royalty, yet he became a normal person who mostly left his public role behind.  Pittsburghers not only respected that--they liked it.

Speaking of Sports

It's happy time in Pittsburgh as the streaking Pirates evened their won/lost record Saturday with a second consecutive victory over the Marlins on the road.  Andrew McCutchen homered--he's extra base hits in seven straight games.  And the Pirates' latest addition, rookie sensation Gregory Polanco had two hits and two RBIs the afternoon after his phenomenal game Friday night, with five hits and his first Major League home run that won the game in the 12th inning.  All that plus a run-saving catch, while his mother watched from the stands--the first time she'd seen him play as a pro in the US.  Polanco is another great story and helps make the Pittsburgh Pirates one of the most thrilling teams to watch in baseball.

Meanwhile the SF Giants are in a horror movie at home.  With the best record in MLB, they've lost 5 out of their last 6, and two this weekend in the ninth inning with their closer on the mound and poor fielding behind him.

In the NBA finals the San Antonio Spurs are one win away from the championship, having dominated Miami Heat in the past two games, losing only one game by two points.  I'm rooting against Miami, and have to hand it to the old guys in San Antonio.  I don't think the next game is a lock, though.  But they'll win the series.

The big NBA news is that Derek Fisher is the new head coach of the New York Knicks, working with head guy Phil Jackson.  I don't know if this means I have to become a Knicks fan but I will no longer be ignoring them. What a string of characteristically New York bullshit teams they've had.  Fisher was always one of my favorite players with the Lakers, and of course I've followed Phil since the Bulls.  Meanwhile the Lakers still don't have a coach, and it's more and more likely that Kobie has seen his last NBA finals unless he gets himself traded to, say, the Knicks.