Saturday, June 11, 2016

Cosmos Thoughts

It's been a mostly gray week on the North Coast, not unusual for summer, at least until recent years.  This time the high gray of the marine layer (a more precise name for high uniform fog) was joined by darker and lower clouds that threatened rain but produced only a brief night shower.  On another night the combination also led to the light moisture in the air that accumulated wet touches on the leaves, barely discernible on the street, that's also characteristic of this place.

Today however was bright and windy--days like this seem more frequent.  And since it is the weekend, it was noisy with leaf blowers and lawn mowers, as well as two young men blasting around in what now is called a vintage car, but in the past was known as a hot rod.

Last night the sky was clear enough for me to see the moon and some stars, and a bright pin of red that I knew must be Mars.  It is particularly close now, though receding from its closest point this time around, in May.  Its orbit swings it nearer to Earth once or twice every 15 years or so (though its very closest pass which happened in 2003 won't be repeated until 2287.)

Interest in Mars perked up during a few such close encounters in the late 19th century, when more powerful telescopes picked up surface features, mis-reported as "canals," which were then aided by imagination in suggesting a civilization on that planet.  When Mars came close again in the late 1890s, England and America in particular were in the grip of Mars Mania, and more than 50 novels about Mars and Martians were published, including the one that is still read today: H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

That these novels were popular when Mars was big and red in the sky was not coincidence, but that I was watching episodes of Carl Sagan's 1980 Cosmos series was.  Sagan was a working scientist as well as an inspiring writer and personality, and he was heavily involved in the Viking missions, which landed the first spacecraft on Mars and sent back the first photos of the Martian surface.

His episode on Mars ("Blues for a Red Planet," also a chapter in the book version) begins with the opening of the H.G. Wells story, as emblematic of the hold Mars has had on imaginations.  Since then we've had the Martian rovers, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy that chronicles terraforming the planet and the first generations of Martians from Earth, the hit movie The Martian, and Internet billionaires who are fixated on going to Mars in their lifetime.

Sagan also had that dream of human habitation and some form of terraforming, but he prioritized saving the one planet still known to be "graced by life," the Earth.  I'm not sure the same can be said about some scientists and Internet billionaires.

In another episode, "The Backbone of Night," Sagan tells of being a child in Brooklyn who occasionally saw the stars and wondered what they were.  He went to the nearest library and asked for a book on stars.  At first he was given a picture book of Hollywood luminaries.  But then he got the one he wanted and learned for the first time that "stars were suns, only very far away.  The Sun was a star, but close up."

(You might wonder why he didn't learn this in school.  What he doesn't say is that when he made this first trip to the library he was five years old.  Precocious Carl even had vivid specific memories of being taken to the famous 1939 World's Fair in New York, when he was four.)

"The Backbone of Night" refers to the Milky Way, which is the point of departure for this episode. The particular coincidence of seeing this episode was that, on the same day, I read the melancholy finding that 80% of  North Americans can no longer see the Milky Way due to light pollution.  Almost everyone in the US looks into a light polluted sky.

One of the scientists involved in the study commented: "There are still people that can remember when they used to be able to see the Milky Way when they would walk outside at night, but those are becoming fewer and fewer."  I guess I'm one of the few, though it seems so unusual now that I can hardly believe that the Milky Way was a commonplace sight in my early childhood, as I lived on a hill of a neighborhood that didn't have streetlights, outside a small town.

I probably had a better view than young Carl in Brooklyn, who might not have seen much more of the night sky as I do now, when on clear nights there are only a scattering of stars visible from my backyard.  Carl Sagan, who believed he got his analytical skills and skepticism from his mother but his sense of wonder from his father, combined them as no one else has.  Maybe some of the science in Cosmos is outdated (and there is a more recent series that follows in his footsteps: the 3 minutes of the video above with Sagan's narration from another of his books is from that series) but his voice remains eloquent in expressing this necessary combination.

Polaritics and Trickle-Down Racism

The extremes represented by Donald Trump make the upcoming election a stark choice between evil and sort of good.  In a binary choice, the politics of polarization--polaritics--becomes inevitable.  Both sides will promote their visions of the Good while mostly bombarding us with the alleged Evil of the other one.  Of course, one of them is Evil, which complicates any argument against polaritics.

But what is usually and somewhat bloodlessly called the polarization of politics and of the American electorate is perhaps the greatest threat to democracy.  And it only takes one example to suggest why: In South Carolina last month, a tow truck driver refused to tow the car of a disabled woman because her car carried a Bernie Sanders sticker.  He left her stranded on the side of the road.

Polls show up to 90% unanimity on many issues according to party.  That's a bit troubling but more important is the lack of tolerance for divergent views.  Internet trolls may be leading the extreme abuse heaped upon people of another opinion, moving quickly to personal threats and violence, but it's becoming widespread.

When it begins to affect the basic social contract, more than symbolized by a tow truck driver whose job it is to render aid to fellow citizens, then society is in danger of falling apart.  Our society might agree that the owner-operator in this instance might be justified in refusing service because of inability to pay him, and in times and places (like South Carolina), such services would routinely be refused because of race.  But this is saying that the political candidate a person chooses to support in a major party primary marks that person as evil, as outside society.

This is just one case, but it is worthy of attention not because of its novelty but by its possible prophecy.  It sounds like the next step, and we do get the feeling that this is happening more than this once.  And once it does happen, it becomes an example for others.

It has its origins in theocratic politics most recently promulgated by the religious right, and in the behavior of Washington politicians, particularly Republicans, who oppose and condemn every idea supported by Democrats--especially by President Obama--even if it is an idea that Republicans recently supported or even originated.  And the easy vocabulary of hate, of hating Obama, of hating Hillary, that has gone mainstream.  There was plenty of Roosevelt hating in the 1940s, but by and large it was fringe.  Now the rabid right fringe is the establishment.

Donald Trump has wakened some Republicans to the danger, basically by being Donald Trump.  In today's news there are remarkable stories about a confab in Utah where party luminaries mixed with big donors, and some of those luminaries were outspoken in their dire warnings about Trump.  Meg Whitman reportedly compared him to Hitler and Mussolini.  An informal poll of big donors showed that only 20% were ready to back Trump with bucks, with others choosing "country over party."

 And Mitt Romney, of all people, contributed to the dialogue by highlighting an effect of Trump's candidacy that others have written about, but Romney gave it a name:

"I don't want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny, all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America."

At the moment Hillary is making this a teachable moment with her "Stronger Together" theme.  But it's about more than diversity as usually defined.  Political diversity, a diversity of ideas, are also at stake.  Our American society has been through this before (as has western civilization, many times, and eastern civilizations as well), for example the enforced conformity of the 1950s, patrolled by HUAC, the Blacklist, J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthyism, with the power to end careers, livelihoods, lives.

But political polarization that affects relationships at the root of society is particularly threatening given the likely future. This climate crisis-dominated near future will provide many tests and challenges (among others not directly related to climate that we can intuit may well present themselves.)  There will be many people who need help from strangers who are also neighbors.  There will be times when trust in each other, and in government and other institutions, will be matters of life and death.

In The Absolute At Large, one of the enormously skillful science fiction novels by the early 20th century Czech writer Karel Capek, a series of catastrophes rends civilization to tatters.  But some of the same people of a small town met at the beginning of the book manage to survive to the end.  They are discussing the reasons for the apocalypse they lived through.  One of them says: "Everyone has the best of feelings towards mankind in general, but not towards the individual man.  We'll kill men, but we want to save mankind.  And that isn't right, your Reverence.  The world will be an evil place as long as people don't believe in other people."

That's part of it.  But one doesn't have to be very optimistic about other people to realize that there's a principle worth putting into action.  Some people call it decency.  It doesn't sound like much, but if you read accounts of people in Europe who sheltered Jews and helped them escape the Nazis, it seems to be the difference.  It is the very powerful ethic of "you'd do the same for me."

That principle, that assurance is a necessity, which can be a trickle-up or trickle-across phenomenon as well as a trickle-down example by leaders.  In most basic societal ways, "We're all in this together" is a statement of fact as well as a rallying cry of principle.  It's how we act on it that's important, and social norms that support common decency are the social bedrock.  Trickle-down racism etc. starts breaking that down, but polaritics is already eroding it.    

Update: Divided response to the mass killings in Orlando Saturday night might be a tragic illustration of where this polaritics leads.  Both to the murderous violence itself, and in certain responses.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Peace Time

Thursday's meeting between President Obama and Bernie Sanders went well.  In his statement, Sanders thanked Obama and v.p. Biden for keeping their word that they would stay neutral in the nomination race. “They said in the beginning that they would not put their thumb on the scales and they kept their word and I appreciate that very, very much,”Sanders said.

Sanders indicated that after the upcoming D.C. primary, he will meet with Hillary Clinton to discuss the common way forward to defeat Donald Trump in the general election.

President Obama then released his video strongly endorsing Clinton, and the two will have a joint campaign rally in Wisconsin soon.  Clinton's other primary opponent, Martin O'Malley, endorsed Clinton today, and Elizabeth Warren will endorse her tonight.

As for his meeting with Sanders, New York's acerbic voice Eric Levitz commented: "Obama may have finally earned that Nobel Peace Prize."

An additional note: Clinton and Sanders have both used concepts and vocabulary from President Obama's speeches.  But Clinton's theme in her victory speech--"Stronger Together"--may also owe something to Michelle Obama, whose slogan for the upcoming United States of Women Summit at the White House is "Together, We Are Stronger."

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

"We're in This Together":California Primary Conclusion

With all precincts in--but with an unknown number of mail-in votes still to be counted--Hillary Clinton has won the California Democratic presidential primary with nearly 56% of the vote, to Bernie Sanders 43.2%.  So it wasn't close.  And as Ed Kilgore worked the numbers, whatever the surprise AP announcement Tuesday that Clinton had clinched did to turnout, Clinton had enough momentum from mail-in ballots (which is most of them in CA) to win handily.  If anything, Bernie picked up late momentum.  The LA Times analyzes.

As I expected, Bernie pretty handily won Humboldt.  He did well way up here in the northern counties. But that was pretty much it.  His hopes in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley didn't work out.  Apart from a few rural counties in eastern CA, plus Santa Cruz, his southernmost county were Mendocino and Lake.  Except for Santa Barbara county (50/49), Hillary's lead was usually in the mid 50% to mid 60% range.

Apart from other factors, California is pretty comfortable with women candidates. After all, the state has been represented in the US Senate for decades by two women, and in this election, two women will contend for one of those seats, as Barbara Boxer retires.  Thanks to this new non-partisan primary system for non-presidential candidates (the top two vote-getters regardless of party face off in the general), the two women (Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez) are both Democrats.  That was much remarked on, of course, but the fact the race is between two women is too normal to mention.

Clinton earlier won New Jersey (63%-37%), New Mexico and South Dakota primaries.

Bernie Sanders spoke in Santa Monica after the close of voting, when Hillary's landslide victory in California was already obvious.  Wednesday there were conflicting reports on what he is likely to do, and on his state of mind (responding to one set of reports that he remains angry and committed to a convention fight, New Yorker satirist Borowitz posted a column claiming that: Sanders Vows to Keep Fighting For Nomination Even if Hillary is Elected President.)

Eric Levitz parsed the speech in a different way, and isolated this quote: "And tonight, I had a very gracious call from Secretary Clinton and congratulated her on her victories tonight. Our fight is to transform our country and to understand that we are in this together. To understand that all of what we believe is what the majority of the American people believe."

Though Levitz didn't note this, the phrase "we are in this together" indicates not only a common effort to defeat Trump which Sanders had begun his speech saying is the number one objective, but it is a phrase that Hillary emphasized in her victory speech.  "We are all in this together" is a major expression of her "Stronger Together" theme (which wasn't quite...together in the speech, but it's getting there.)  I notice this phrase--which again is one that President Obama uses--because I've long advocated it as the theme we need, to face the challenges of this century.

Whether and when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are in it together is yet to be seen.  But Sanders meeting with President Obama Thursday, and Obama's endorsement of Hillary as the nominee shortly after, will suggest the shape of that eventuality.

Doozy Tuesday

It was a doozy of a Tuesday.  For Hillary Clinton, it was time to claim the Democratic party nomination for President.  She won New Jersey big, New Mexico, South Dakota and was far ahead in California, where mail-in votes will be counted for days.  That's enough votes to give her a majority, even without superdelegates.  Bernie Sanders has begun the deliberate road to the end of his candidacy.  

Meanwhile, Donald Trump was taking more fire--from Republican leaders.  Senator Paul Kirk took back his endorsement, Senator Jeff Flake decided he could never endorse Trump, Senator Graham and others suggested the party could still look elsewhere.  Even wiggly Paul Ryan said that Trump's attack on the judge presiding over a Trump U. case were textbook racist--though he still backs Trump for President, because apparently he doesn't mind racism in the White House as long as he gets a GOPer hand to sign his dumb bills into law.

Trump, facing the prospect of being head of a party without nobody in it,  tried awkwardly to reign himself in.  Not a lot of people were buying it.  There was a sense of the dimensions of Trump's potential fall in Hillary's victory speech, which was the kind of appeal that LBJ made for consensus in the face of the scary Barry Goldwater in 1964.  (Whereas in 2016, Goldwater would be way too moderate, professional, conciliatory and sensible for the GOP.)

Clinton talked about her mother, who would have been 97 and just missed seeing her daughter make history. Hillary is not my favorite candidate of all time and I'm uncomfortable with her aggressive military policies, so I was surprised that my response to the unexpected news Monday night that she had clinched the nomination as the first woman presidential candidate of a major party was so emotional.  I've voted four times for the first African American President, and today for the first woman President.  It's wonderful.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Campaign Reverb

Update: As of late Monday afternoon, the AP is reporting that Hillary Clinton has secured enough delegates to claim the Democratic nomination, becoming the first woman nominee of a major party for the presidency of the US.
As the new week begins, the import of several events last week becomes clearer, regarding the presidential campaigns.

Hillary Clinton's speech on foreign policy in which she dissected Trump's candidacy of the absurd is turning out to be her most significant, and perhaps a turning point in her candidacy as well, both within the party and in general.

As one indication of its resonance, it was amplified and praised in Washington Post columns both by liberal E.J. Dionne, and the Post's designated conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin.  Rubin's column contains the most extensive description of the speech as a whole, with quotes in more context than offered in news stories. (She followed up Monday with a lacerating column on the delusions of Republicans who think they could control a Trump in the White House.)

Rubin also reproduced a quote I hadn't seen before that's one of the best because it cuts to the core of Trump's rhetorical style: "He also said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” You know what? I don’t believe him."  It's the "You know what?  I don't believe him."  Trump never even attempts to back up his simple declarative statements with any facts.  Everything is an assertion, or more specifically, a boast.  This especially was a naked emperor moment.

I wrote about nuclear weapons recently, when President Obama visited  Hiroshima.  Clinton made several references to the dangers of Trump having the nuclear codes, and the casual way he discusses nuclear war.  Here's the heart of it in an extended quote:

"Making the right call takes a cool head and respect for the facts. It takes a willingness to listen to other people’s points of view with a truly open mind. It also takes humility – knowing you don’t know everything – because if you’re convinced you’re always right, you’ll never ask yourself the hard questions.

I remember being in the Situation Room with President Obama, debating the potential Bin Laden operation. The President’s advisors were divided. The intelligence was compelling but far from definitive. The risks of failure were daunting. The stakes were significant for our battle against al Qaeda and our relationship with Pakistan. Most of all, the lives of those brave SEALs and helicopter pilots hung in the balance.

It was a decision only the President could make. And when he did, it was as crisp and courageous a display of leadership as I’ve ever seen.

Now imagine Donald Trump sitting in the Situation Room, making life-or-death decisions on behalf of the United States. Imagine him deciding whether to send your spouses or children into battle. Imagine if he had not just his Twitter account at his disposal when he’s angry, but America’s entire arsenal.

Do we want him making those calls – someone thin-skinned and quick to anger, who lashes out at the smallest criticism? Do we want his finger anywhere near the button?"

Though she was reportedly reluctant to go after Trump so directly now, and not certain of the response to this speech (she didn't pick up its themes in stump speeches right away), Clinton has reaped praise and a collective sigh of relief from Democrats.  With this speech she provided confidence in her candidacy just as she is about to cross the threshold to the nomination.   (And it's likely to help her in California Tuesday.)

Lacking only 30 pledged delegates for a majority (after weekend wins in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands), Clinton will cross one numerical threshold on Tuesday.  By the end of the counting she may well also have won a majority without super delegates.  In any case, today's news is that her nomination will be affirmed by party leaders immediately, including an endorsement by President Obama, followed by very active campaigning on her behalf.

For Donald Trump, the revelations concerning Trump University hurt, but Trump made it far worse by questioning the impartiality of the judge presiding over the current Trump U. case on racial (or if you prefer ethnic) grounds.  That charge met with immediate rebuff from Republican leaders, which indicates just how beyond the pale it is, giving how much other stuff they're able to put up with or even promulgate.  These included the House Speaker Paul Ryan (just moments after it became known that Ryan was endorsing Trump) and Senate Majority Leader McConnell.

But Trump did not recant or say he misspoke and he certainly didn't apologize.  He doubled down, and added Muslims to those of Mexican heritage who would be biased judges.  On Sunday, Newt Gingrich, one of his biggest boosters who based in speculation that he might be Trump's v.p., said Trump's statements were "inexcusable."  On Monday, Trump went after Gingrich,  saying his criticism was "inappropriate."  He then tripled down by countermanding an advisory by his staff to let the issue cool off by insisting that his supporters should continue his claim that the judge is biased.  (He also reportedly insulted members of his staff, which is already so small that it may well not be adequate to conduct a general election campaign.)

All of this plays into other stories over the weekend and today, indicating that GOPer leaders are increasingly alarmed by Trump and his prospects.  We've heard those stories before, but it clearly is going to be hard for them to conduct campaigns the way they usually do with Trump trampling over everything, not only improvising but thereby at times being untrustworthy even to his allies.  On the other hand, they had plenty of warning--and aren't fooling anyone but themselves by being shocked that Trump is a racist.

These are the leaders who are supposed to go out and campaign for Trump, as his "surrogates."  These are also the people in the pool of vice-presidential candidates who can help him where he needs it: political experience, reputation, knowledge, and access to the party's billionaires.  All this makes Trump's v.p. choice really up in the air.

As for Trump's charges regarding judicial impartiality, Garrett Epps (who I had the pleasure of editing in Washington long ago) summarizes the complete lack of legal basis in the Atlantic.

At least one opinion writer sees another recent event as pivotal to this campaign: Trump's press conference where he denounced investigative reports on Trump U., calling one reporter "a sleaze" to his face.  Trump has triumphed so far mostly because of the free media he gets, because he knows how to get it.  But in the past week at least, media coverage has not been so sweet for him, as reporters no longer simply give him a forum but are following up on his falsehoods (Hillary raising this issue in her speech also gives the media reason to follow up) and on more detailed reporting.  Waldman writes:

"Put together this series of developments coming one after another, and I suspect that many journalists are deciding that the way to cover Trump is just to do it as honestly and assiduously as possible, which would itself be something almost revolutionary. If the tone of his coverage up until now has been “Wow, is this election crazy or what!” it could become much more serious — as is completely appropriate given that we’re choosing someone to hold the most powerful position on earth."