Friday, August 15, 2014

News Week: Lows and Highs

The news quite often causes us to wonder just how low human beings can go, and how insane elements of our culture can become.  "Curiosity" about these is likely a big reason the internet is what it is these days.  I'm not generally in sympathy with this obsession for the darkest and most bizarre to tweet and tsk tsk about.  And as farcical as it gets, I don't look for my laughs there either.

But sometimes such evidence is unavoidable, as in the aftermath of the death by suicide of Robin Williams.  Based on very early reporting, the internet and its established news sites (including those associated with long established if now desperate print publications) were flooded with analyses and especially first person comparisons, opinions, etc. of all kinds.  All based, as it turned out but not surprisingly, on incomplete information.  Thursday his wife revealed that he had known he was in the early stages of Parkinson's Disease, of which depression is a common symptom.

But the usual range of opportunism and self-aggrandizement (along with sincere remembrances) were utterly innocent in comparison with the hateful and hate-filled comments by rabid right extremists, including so-called leaders and so-called Christians.  I won't dignify their repulsive and cynical and corrupt commentary by repeating any of it or identifying any of them, especially since their primary goal is to get named.

On top of this, the tendency of internet sites and social media to attract those most twisted with hate, ego and myriad delusions, culminating in one of Robin Williams' daughters being so bullied and abused that she quit all of her social media accounts.

Yet the news also provides us with contrasts, which may be straws to grasp but definitely are loci of hope.  This past week provided at least these:

The Fields Medal, widely regarded as the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematics, was won for the first time in history by a woman:  Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford University professor who was born in Iran.  Her work is called boldly original and it appears to cross boundaries between traditional mathematical disciplines.  To somebody who couldn't understand trig, it sounds as if it can be significant beyond academic math.

The victory of course is as well for all the women who were told, and all the girls who still are told one way or another, that girls aren't good at math, it's for males only.  For them this is the academic equivalent of  Lisa Leslie's first WNBA slam dunk.  And that's before the significance of her work itself can be evaluated in the future.

Then there's the Little League World Series, and the victory of Jackie Robinson West of Chicago in their first game, sparked by three--count 'em, three--home runs (plus a triple) by leadoff batter Pierce Jones.  Representing Great Lakes Region as the Illinois state champs, Jackie Robinson West from the South Side of Chicago is the first all-black team to make it to the LLWS in "over a decade" (according to this ESPN report) and the first Chicago team since the 80s.  The team is part of the league's urban initiative program begun 15 years ago.  

Best of all perhaps, they are the toast of Chicago.  The Jackie Robinson West team doesn't know, said their coach, how big they are back in Chicago.  Another ESPN piece quotes: Gabe Bump, fiction writer and Chicago resident, said of this JRW run for the right to do something seldom seen by any Little League team from Chicago, "It's important because they are the kids Chicago wants to forget about. These are the kids that get their schools closed. I'm rooting for them because they're South Side kids, but it's much more to it than that."

The story concludes: "here's almost a feeling that what is happening now has nothing to do with sports. It's something much bigger. At least, that's the way it is being taken in; that is how it is being embraced. Basically, calling this a feel-good story is underselling the true nature of the weight this story carries at this moment."

Update: On the second day of the Little League World Series, Pennsylvania team pitcher Mo'Ne Davis threw a two-hitter to become the first female pitcher to win a LLWS game.  She's also black.  Apart from the extra-sports significance, these stories are big deals for baseball because the proportion of African American MLB players has been diminishing.  

Thursday, August 14, 2014

An American Tragedy

It's an American tragedy specifically because race is at its center, and despite everything from good faith efforts through wistful hope to obvious denial and political opportunism, it's wearily the same American tragedy it's been for centuries, just the latest chapter.

The events in Missouri began with a police officer shooting down an unarmed teenager in broad daylight.  This--but I strongly suspect not this alone--led to protests, then looting and vandalism, then more protests, and then several nights of police actions that have been widely criticized.

A reporter who witnessed the fourth night of protests wrote:

"What transpired in the streets appeared to be a kind of municipal version of shock and awe; the first wave of flash grenades and tear gas had played as a prelude to the appearance of an unusually large armored vehicle, carrying a military-style rifle mounted on a tripod. The message of all of this was something beyond the mere maintenance of law and order: it’s difficult to imagine how armored officers with what looked like a mobile military sniper’s nest could quell the anxieties of a community outraged by allegations regarding the excessive use of force. It revealed itself as a raw matter of public intimidation."

The events in Missouri brought focus to the increasingly "militarization" of US police forces, the willing dump for the Pentagon's surplus weapons designed for combat and antiterrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thursday the governor of Missouri ordered the state police to take charge, and its commanding officer (black and who grew up in this town) seemed to have calmed things down.

But the racial element of the shooting is the true focus (though this militarization is obviously part of it, as non-whites--especially black and brown people-- are treated as the equivalent of foreign enemies and terrorists in their own cities.)  Writing about the killing of Michael Brown that precipitated the Missouri protests, Amy Davidson in the New Yorker:

"Michael Brown was black and tall; was it his body that the police officer thought was dangerous enough? Perhaps it was enough for the officer that he lived on a certain block in a certain neighborhood; shooting down the street, after all, exhibits a certain lack of concern about anyone else who might be walking by. That sort of calculus raises questions about an entire community’s rights. One way or the other, this happens too often to young men who look like Brown, or like Trayvon Martin, or, as President Obama once put it, like a son he might have had."

These incidents are deeply related to the white gun culture.  This Daily Kos diary makes this point while contrasting two situations of the previous week: of a white young man openly carrying a loaded shotgun on a public street, refusing to relinquish it to police officers without penalty, and a young black man who was toying with a toy gun in a Walmart toy section while talking on his cell to his girlfriend, and was shot down and killed by police.

In an internet culture keyed to oddity, the Walmart story went viral for awhile, soon replaced by next "bizarre" tweet-worthy photo or tale.  But many black people take greater note of such a happening, and they do not forget so quickly.

Racism is alive on American streets and endangers us all.

(Top photo is from the New York Times.)

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Big Dry

It's not just the brown grass in the front yard, or the brown fields along 101 that look more like southern California or the Bay area than our far northern California home.  It's the latest stats: the US Drought Monitor has placed us in the Exceptional Drought category, the highest possible. (It's marked in the darkest color on the map.)

The entire state of California has been in some category of drought conditions for awhile.  But as recently as January, no part of the state was in the Exceptional Drought category.  Now 58% of the state is, including almost all of the coast.

Update: Drought and climate change threaten our redwoods, and the big trees in general, which a scientist says could be completely gone in a century.

The latest reports and scientific speculation on El Nino (that it is less likely to be the strong one that often brings rain to California, and it is less likely to occur at all) was the top story on the local newspaper front page, along with predictions for a dry winter.

Meanwhile there are so many fires--10 in northern California, to the north, east and south of us, as well as in Oregon--that our skies have a hint of red.

Water policy has become a statewide concern, reflected in the state legislatures.  After the Brown administration resisted restrictions on water-wasting fracking, some sites are being shut down for fear of contaminating aquifers.

 Cities are adding personnel to police water use restrictions that went into effect statewide on August 1. And in yet another dubious use of new technology, if you want to report your neighbor for wasting water--there's an app for that.

 In a more positive response, municipalities are becoming more interested in water purification, especially since in many cases the purification and reuse of waste water costs less than desalinization or even purchasing water from remote locations.

In the short term California tends to be more extremist than some other places, so water consciousness and conflicts are going to ramp up quickly.  But in the long term, changes that have long been discussed will need to be really considered, and the best of them implemented.  Extraordinary drought doesn't look like it will end soon, and in any case the climate crisis is going to make dry cycles and "normal" times dryer in most places for the foreseeable future.  If we held out hopes up here in the far northern coast of the state that our unique climate would be immune, it's clear now that it isn't.