Friday, February 27, 2015

He has been, and always shall be, fascinating

There was news some days ago that Leonard Nimoy had been rushed to the hospital. A story I read concluded that he was feeling better because his Twitter feed had resumed, but when I saw that the tweets were previously published poems, I had a feeling that all was not well.

Still, it was a shock to wake up to the news today that he had died. It's a major moment that will take time to absorb. Sobering and sad, but occasion to remember his many contributions, especially to the living mythology of Star Trek. Coincidentally I've been focusing recently on that mythology, and those contributions. This event will sharpen and deepen that exploration.

My relationship with Nimoy was brief and pleasant. I interviewed him by phone and met him once in person in connection with a New York Times article I was writing on Star Trek, just as what turned out to be the final season of Enterprise was starting. He emailed me to say how much he had enjoyed the article, and the feedback he'd received about it. We exchanged emails, as he advised me on book publishing matters.

This past week I caught up on his recent interviews on YouTube--I especially liked these, with Geoff Boucher. Also this one with Pharrell Williams. Nimoy had a singular life, and a very full one. He had a lively mind and a complex personality. He was large souled. In many ways he was a keeper of the soul of Star Trek.

Of all the Nimoy photos floating about today, I like the one below, with the Buddha statue in the background (Trek Movie used it, among others.) I ended my phone interview with Nimoy by telling him a story that involved the San Francisco Zen Center.

I stayed there once, a few months before our conversation, in one of the rooms they rent to visitors. My room didn't have its own bathroom, so that night I walked down the hall to the large common bathroom and shower. Monks, many of them young, also lived on that floor. I took a wrong turn on the way back to my room and found myself in the monks' wing. As I turned back in the correct direction I noticed a bookcase in the hallway outside the monks quarters, filled with books. I couldn't see the titles in the dim light, except one: I Am Spock.  It is of course by Leonard Nimoy.

He laughed and said, "Thanks for that." Along with difficulties and travails, he had rewarding careers and a rewarding life, but it turns out that all I have to say today is just that: Thank you, Leonard. It's been fascinating.

May he rest in peace. His work and his legacy live on, into the future.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

This is the month of the 30th year since my book The Malling of America was published.  If memory serves, it's also the official publication date, so it's officially 30 years exactly: February 26, 1985.

Last year I thought about preparing an anniversary edition, a kind of final wrap on an era, with an introductory essay bringing things up to date.  Maybe I'll do it eventually but it seemed too daunting.  Surprising the emotions and memories it can still evoke (the book and publication etc, not the topic.)  The main motivation to do it would have to be mine.  I'd have to essentially publish it myself, as a print-on-demand.

But there still is a paperback edition available through online booksellers, like Amazon for instance. (That's the paperback cover up there.) Amazon also offers a hardback but they don't reproduce the first edition cover, so I have no idea if these are legit, especially the ones called "new."  The used ones are cheap enough to gamble on, though.  The ex-library books are probably pretty nice--I never liked the garish dust cover but the book itself looks quite elegant, with the title in gold on white.  Maybe I'll order one myself--I like that my book was in libraries.  I'd like to have one with that library card envelope in the back.

I let the 25th anniversary go by without even a mention on a blog. Seemed unseemly to be the one noting it, or maybe just humiliating.  Don't know why I mention it this time, except that the day didn't go by without recalling it.

Drop the Denial? Probably Not (Mr.) Soon

Why do some people persist in denying the realities of the climate crisis?  In some cases, the cause is easily named: money.  Last week Greenpeace revealed documentary evidence (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act) confirming that one of the most prominent scientists who insists that climate changes are not caused by greenhouse gas pollution has been generously funded by the fossil fuels industry, and just about nobody else.  The Guardian:

Over the last 14 years Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, received a total of $1.25m from Exxon Mobil, Southern Company, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and a foundation run by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the documents obtained by Greenpeace through freedom of information filings show. According to the documents, the biggest single funder was Southern Company, one of the country’s biggest electricity providers that relies heavily on coal.

Does this mean that the deniers who quote him religiously will soon drop Soon, and maybe even their denial?  Not in the media or in other rabid right institutions, for most of their paychecks also depend on orthodox denying.  The fact that Greenpeace got the documents will invalidate the numbers themselves in the eyes of many deniers.  Because all of their "facts" are 90% ideology, they believe as an article of faith that everybody else's facts are as well.

Beyond those addicted to Koch--and we're all shocked, shocked that gambling has been going on here--there are others who lack a direct profit motive.  But according to Joel Achenbach in the National Geographic  there are other ways to profit--by remaining a member in good standing of your group, your circle of actual and virtual friends, your associates (and not appearing weird to them may also be a matter of keeping your job, moving on up, etc. and therefore also related to money.)  He quotes Dan Kahan of Yale:

In the U.S., climate change somehow has become a litmus test that identifies you as belonging to one or the other of these two antagonistic tribes. When we argue about it, Kahan says, we’re actually arguing about who we are, what our crowd is. We’re thinking, People like us believe this. People like that do not believe this. For a hierarchical individualist, Kahan says, it’s not irrational to reject established climate science: Accepting it wouldn’t change the world, but it might get him thrown out of his tribe.

“Take a barber in a rural town in South Carolina,” Kahan has written. “Is it a good idea for him to implore his customers to sign a petition urging Congress to take action on climate change? No. If he does, he will find himself out of a job, just as his former congressman, Bob Inglis, did when he himself proposed such action.”

This article has many other observations and theories, some I would argue with, some I'd give a "yes, but..."  And I sense I wouldn't agree with much else that Kahan writes (what does he really know about rural South Carolina towns?), but since this agrees with my own observations I'll endorse it.  A lot of what people say--including almost all gossip--is really about being recognized as a member of their group, even if it is not a group of their choice but of circumstance, like (most often) in the workplace.

How does any of this change?  Global heating as an "issue" is so difficult because it is part of a bundle of issues that define politics and groups.  Republicans won enough in 2014 that they're not budging from any of their stands, no matter what the consequences.  But more generally, big changes on apparently intractable issues happen underneath the surface noise, person by person, then group by group, until suddenly it's all over.  It happened with South Africa and apartheid, it happened with cigarette smoking.

One of the most effective anti-apartheid tools was disinvestment, and it was incremental over years.  As was noted before here, disinvestment in fossil fuels have been accumulating even faster.  One of the big academic holdouts has been Harvard.  Last week some 30 prominent alums signed a letter in support of disinvestment:

The alumni included Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam war memorial, Nobel laureate Eric Chivian, Pulitzer prize-winning author Susan Faludi, academics, preachers, former US senators and Securities and Exchange commissioners as well as Bill McKibben, the founder of the group, which has driven the campus divestment campaign.

And the dance goes on.

One more thing...

President Obama vetoed the bill Congress passed to force him to approve the Keystone pipeline.  A flurry of emails ensued, including from environmental groups.  The Climate Reality Project claimed total victory, but got it right--the veto was not on the merits of the pipeline, but on Congress usurping an executive branch function.  Though it seems more and more likely that this administration will not approve the project itself, that decision hasn't happened yet.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Torture Games

The Senate Intelligence Committee's Report on Torture has been published in paperback, though it is apparently a 549 page executive summary--the documentation running into the many thousands of (heavily censored) pages.  An excellent summary and commentary on the Report--what it does and doesn't say and do--can be found at the New York Review of Books in an interview with Mark Danner, who knows the topic from having covered it for some time.

Even given the tenor of the initial coverage of the report's findings--chiefly that the torture imposed by the CIA was even worse than previously known, and that despite CIA and GOPer claims it resulted in no important information--Danner highlights even more hair-raising contexts.  For instance, that torture was a first resort, done without any real planning or investigation into precedent and results, and that the prime suspect involved gave lots of good information before he was tortured, and none during or after.  Here's Danner:

"What I think is strictly speaking new is, first, how amateurish the torture program was. It was really amateur hour, beginning with the techniques themselves, which were devised and run by a couple of retired Air Force psychologists who were hired by the CIA and put in charge though they had never conducted an interrogation before. They had no expertise in terrorism or counterterrorism, had never interrogated al-Qaeda members or anyone else for that matter. When it came to actually working with detained terrorists and suspected terrorists they were essentially without any relevant experience. Eventually, the CIA paid them more than $80 million.

The second revelation is the degree to which the CIA claimed great results, and did so mendaciously. Sometimes the attacks they said they had prevented were not serious in the first place. Sometimes the information that actually might have led to averting attacks came not from the enhanced interrogation techniques but from other traditional forms of interrogation or other information entirely. But what the report methodically demonstrates is that the claims about having obtained essential, lifesaving intelligence thanks to these techniques that had been repeated for years and years and years are simply not true. And the case is devastating."

It remains a puzzle to me--as it does to Danner--why the Obama administration hasn't pursued prosecutions, or even why the President kept this report at arms length.  The Senate report itself doesn't include recommendations for any actions. Danner suggests it's melancholy evidence of the power of the CIA.

Another fact I didn't know: the Senate committee got the votes to conduct the investigation only when Democrats agreed to limit it to the CIA, and to stay away from the Bush executive department.  Even so, while the FBI comes off pretty well in this report, and the Justice Department not as badly as it might have, the fingerprints of Dick Cheney and G.W. Bush and their minions are all over this.

As Danner says, without prosecutions that involve judicial decisions, all that prevents the US engaging in torture again is President Obama's executive order, which can easily be disregarded by a future presidency.

Meanwhile, it appears that US police have taken more than surplus military weaponry from the so-called war on terror. The depravity unleashed by torture and other abrogation of rights justified by the Bushites has come to the United States, perhaps in racial attitudes, but specifically (according to one report) in the adoption of police state tactics and familiar CIA "black sites" but for American citizens in at least one major U.S. city.

The only positive in this is the fact that the Senate committee did investigate, and that after all the roadblocks thrown in their path by the CIA and allies, it has actually been published.  We'd all like to forget this happened, that our leaders could be this cowardly and depraved, or that people who did it are still politically powerful.  But what we'd better remember is that it could easily happen again.