Friday, March 13, 2015

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Backwards Since Selma

Evaluating American capacity to respond to challenges, fifty years after Selma,  George Packer in the New Yorker pointed out the most telling difference, without getting into the relative change in racial attitudes.  The gist:

"As brutal as the Alabama state police and the Dallas County sheriff’s department were on Bloody Sunday, as violent as the vigilantes were who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo in those weeks, as much progress as America has made in fifty years, something has gone seriously backward since 1965: the quality of American institutions." 

[photo above is President Obama embracing a granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma.  This and photo below are White House photos.]

Packer illustrated the difference with examples literally from that day's news.  Here are the concluding paragraphs of this trenchant piece, with my emphasis:

"There may still be ordinary Americans as brave and committed to justice as the civil-rights movement’s foot soldiers, but we no longer have a national government (or a federal bench, a press corps, labor unions, businesses, religious groups, universities) capable of coming together with the imagination, wisdom, and self-restraint necessary to achieve something on the scale of voting rights. These days, Congress can hardly keep the Department of Homeland Security open without tearing itself to pieces. As Charlie Dent, a Republican representative from Pennsylvania, said to the Times, “We really don’t have two hundred and eighteen votes to determine a bathroom break over here on our side.”

On Monday, forty-seven Republican senators addressed an open letter to the Iranian leadership, declaring that “we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” The senators noted that Obama will leave office in 2017, while many of them will go on serving for decades—so why should the clerics pay any attention to the executive branch? The senators didn’t release classified U.S. intelligence on the nuclear negotiations, but it’s not altogether clear what stopped them. They’re doing all they can to sabotage their own country’s position in the talks, practically making themselves the de facto ally of hardliners in Tehran. Try to imagine such actions by America’s elected leaders during the Cold War.

It may be that the postwar decades, with a booming mixed economy, middle-class prosperity, and an agreed-upon enemy, created unique conditions for Americans to address some of the country’s deepest problems, such as a century of Jim Crow. Our problems today, from climate change to economic inequality, seem immovable not because they’re so much harder, but because we no longer have the political tools to budge them. Perhaps that’s why, last Saturday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama spoke more about the daring spirit of the American people than the greatness of constitutional democracy. If solutions arise from this generation and the next, they seem unlikely to come from Washington. They’re more likely to start in obscure places like Selma."

It's a sobering conclusion.  One hopes that these problems are not so deeply embedded in today's institutions, or in today's national culture, that they cannot be overcome relatively quickly.  But recent events, and of the recent past, suggest he's right about solutions for at least this generation.

A large part of the problem may also be defined as the lack of quality in the people who are in positions of leadership in these institutions.  I keep thinking about the nearly 900 pages of the book by Robert Sherwood I read, called Roosevelt and Hopkins, which deals in literally documentary detail with high level decisions and activities in the White House just before and during America's participation in World War II.  The immense undertaking in such a short time, the immense dangers of failure, with surrounding politics nearly as idiotic as today's, required near-genius from our leaders, and unrelenting dedication (several died soon afterwards, including Hopkins and FDR.)  We got it then.  It's not clear that we would get it now.

One more thing... Elizabeth Cobb Hoffman at Reuters chimes in on the Republican Senators letter to Iran:

"What happens when senators and congressmen go around a controversial president to communicate directly with the enemy? They undermine the stability of their own party — and the integrity of the nation.

That’s what happened to the Federalists, the glorious political party of George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Could the same thing happen to today’s Republican Party?...

The American people never forgave the Federalist Party for flirting with treason during that war. Today, Cotton and other Republicans court similar disgust with their disloyalty toward the nation’s sitting president."

Monday, March 09, 2015

The Accelerating Climate Crisis Future

A new study by climate scientists published today affirms that the rate of global heating will increase dramatically in the very near future, and keep on increasing.  Scientific American summarizes:

"By 2020, warming rates should eclipse historical bounds of the past 1,000 years — and likely at least 2,000 years — and keep rising. If greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trend, the rate of warming will reach 0.7°F per decade and stay that high until at least 2100.

The northern hemisphere will be the first region to experience historically unprecedented warming. The Arctic, which is already the fastest warming part of the planet, will see temperatures rise 1.1°F per decade by 2040. North America and Europe will see slightly lower, though equally unprecedented, warming.

“With those high rates of change, there’s not going to be anything close to equilibrium,” Smith said, underscoring the profound potential impacts on both the natural world and society."

  This study is independent of those that looked specifically at ocean capture of heat that probably accounts for the slow (but steady) rate increase in recent years, below what was predicted.  Those studies also conclude that there will be a compensating temperature spike in the same time frame--beginning around 2020, or before.

As these conclusions reach policymakers and the public, the pressure to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis will probably increase, but the refusal to deal with causes--to even recognize them--continues to be a barrier to addressing both consequences and causes.

Live Science chronicles some extreme instances in the US, such as Florida where an unofficial ban directed by its governor forbids even using the words "climate change," "global warming" or even "sea level rise."  There and in other coastal southern states, the fear of fall real estate prices and rising insurance costs outweighs the fear of rising waters.

 "Sea level rise" is re-branded as "nuisance flooding."  If the seas do rise to the worst case levels anticipated, Miami will be underwater by the end of the century and eventually pretty much the entire state of Florida will follow.   Quite a nuisance, at least if you live in Florida.  Some of this rise is still dependent on current and near future greenhouse gases pollution.  But if we just close our eyes real tight, it will all go away.  Though not for the grandchildren.

The Rabid Right Dispensation

Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show, so he's doing some summing up within his segments these days.  As part of his response to  Fox's reaction to his leaving, he sums up exactly what's been going on for years: the "conservative" or rabid right movement has been jihading reality for being insufficiently rabid right, and most everyone has been appeasing them.

  But as he says, they will never be satisfied by any appeasement, only complete surrender--only a rabid right reality.  That they intend to take the rest of us down with them into their self-destructive pit of ignorance and insanity is no secret.  They'll literally destroy the planet as we know it to make their points. But the extent to which our institutions and zeitgeist are cooperating is almost as bad.

And even if he's exaggerating a bit, I believe there's truth in it when he says that one reason he is leaving The Daily Show-the most consistent bulwark against the rabid right, using the best weapons ( truth, analysis and ridicule)--is that fighting this fight with an unrelenting and ever more obsessive foe is enough to drive anybody crazy.  We haven't figured out the appropriate balance of smacking them down and ignoring them entirely.

On a different but related manifestation of the rabid right's manipulation of an equally craven media, here's Steve Almond at Salon about the obsession with meaningless scandals, concluding that "scandalizing is the journalistic equivalent of spam."

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Today the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday was marked by thousands marching across the bridge in Selma.  President Obama is holding the hand of Amelia Boynton in a wheelchair--she was among those beaten on this bridge.  Here's a fine piece on the anniversary and the march itself, with links to the text of President Obama's speech Saturday.