Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Quote of the Year

"The invisible hand never picks up the check."
Kim Stanley Robinson

Inside Out

Tom Petty was the third member of the Traveling Wilburys to leave the scene, after Roy Orbison (who was gone by the time this video was made) and George Harrison.  He's in this video, which is also notable for Bob Dylan's performance.  I've seen lots of Dylan videos but the only ones I've noticed that he looks like he's having a good time (at least occasionally) are with the Traveling Wilburys.  Happy New Years Eve.

R.I.P. 2017: Legacy and Endurance

We can match memories to many names of the music makers who died in 2017, like Della Reese and Keely Smith, Tom Petty and Walter Becker, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, Greg Allman and Glen Campbell, Rosalie Sorrels, Al Jarreau, J. Geils...

We can match memories to faces even if we don't always recall the names: Harry Dean Stanton, Martin Landau, John Hurt, Glenne Headley, Bill Dana, John Heard, Dina Merrill, Barbara Hale, Powers Booth, Robert Hardy, Richard Hatch, Bill Paxton, Robert Guillaume and many more, as well as iconic names and faces: Jerry Lewis, Mary Tyler Moore, Jeanne Moreau.

I'll remember Adam West as Batman, and also as the genial guy with great stories who stopped by my office in Pittsburgh, because the wife of the promoter who brought him to a convention in the city worked there.

Jeanne Moreau was the queen of the New Wave and French films generally in the 1960s and 70s, which is when I was avidly watching them.  She is best remembered for the film I remember her best: Jules and Jim.  Her magic on film is mysterious.

Director Jonathan Demme was most famous for Silence of the Lambs but I remember him for Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads movie, after which he made a Bruce Springsteen film and at least three with Neil Young, as well as Melvin and Howard (one of Jason Robards' last great films) and Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia.  A director with range, documentaries, live action (concerts) as well as features, like Michael Apted or Martin Scorcese.

Though George Romero was a Pittsburgh director, I first saw Night of the Living Dead in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a highly educated and film savvy audience.  It was the first time I'd been in an audience of adults and heard screaming.  The Pittsburgh locations, accents and characters (come one, Chilly Billy as a newscaster?) took me out of the story from time to time but mostly I was gripped like everybody else.

Later when I was back in Pittsburgh the alternative newspaper I wrote for had second floor offices in a relatively isolated building on the South Side.  There were film editing suites on the third floor.  Friends working late in the newspaper office reported hearing chilling screams coming from the third floor, but soon learned this meant that the Romero editors were working up there.

Though these are famous people, people who worked in mass media, whose work reached millions over many years, in the end their legacy is personal, and different for each person they touched.

2017 saw the death of several iconic figures of the Civil Rights movement: organizers Roger Wilkins and Roy Innis, and "comedian"/conscience of the movement Dick Gregory, as well as American Indian activist Dennis Banks.  They fought for dignity, opportunity and equality, and their influence is reflected in individual lives--in kids who went to college who otherwise probably would not have had that ambition or opportunity, and so on.  Legacy in a lot of individual stories.

And so it is for the rest of us.  Legacy for ordinary people or less well known and less widely influential people resides most directly in children whose lives are nourished, guided or simply touched or inspired in some way. But legacy can move laterally through friends or even single encounters, and eventually touch complete strangers. In the end we have no idea whose lives we touch, and how that might play out through a generation or two, and therefore what our accumulated legacy might turn out to be.  "The only thing you can do for other people is inspire them," Bob Dylan once said.  An impression, a phrase, an example, who knows what endures in someone's memory, or someone's life?

I have a laptop I don't use very much, except when I'm traveling or my desktop is out of action.  So when I opened this laptop during our Christmas trip, I came upon an email I'd forgotten about, which I received last Christmas. (That is, I'd forgotten where it was.)  It was from Bill Thompson, my friend who died in 2017.   So it was as if I was receiving another, a last, holiday message from him.

Last Christmas Bill was happy, and eager to share his good tidings.  Both his daughter and her husband had serious surgeries.  She emerged from hers cancer-free, and her husband who came within a hair's breadth of dying from heart failure, had three stents installed, and passed his stress test with flying colors.

"Granddaughter Vivia demonstrates daily that life and learning are a joy," Bill added.  "My Christmas is merry.  I want to share my joy with you."

He knew the weight of the 2016 election and all it portended was on me, and he wanted to be encouraging.  He wrote:

There is talk of resistance and I support it. My life has taught me that resistance starts with endurance.
The world need poets and articulate visionaries. We need you. Endure.

I want to share my joy but the joy transfer app is not in the app store. We need one.
So endure my friend.
Tidings of Comfort and Joy


I remember that I emailed him back, noting that I'd had good news as well: after some concern from her doctor about complications, my niece Megan's pregnancy was now predicted to end in a normal delivery in about a month.  Just weeks before, another niece (her sister Sarah) had given birth to a healthy baby boy.

The doctor turned out to be wrong in one respect--Megan's baby boy was born two weeks early but quite healthy.  A year later, both boys and both mothers are thriving.

So we endure.

Friday, December 29, 2017

R.I.P. 2017: Writers

J.P. Donleavy died this year, in September at the age of 91.  His first novel is his best remembered, The Ginger Man.  It was perhaps the last of the books that rose from a scandal to a classic.  I wonder if that will happen again.

Donleavy was born in the U.S. but moved back to his ancestral Ireland.  The adventures of a classmate at Trinity College in Dubin--no doubt mixed with his own--became the basis for The Ginger Man.  It was first published in 1955, though barely.  It didn't really get wide distribution until the 60s, which is when I first read it.  A charismatic classmate of mine (also an American of Irish extraction) at Knox College was its enthusiast.  He took to scribbling his favorite line as bathroom graffiti: "Bang on, wizard."

I loved its verbal invention and Joycean updates.  I read and owned his 9 novels throughout the 1970s plus his collection of plays, but the only volume that seems to have survived in my current collection is his still hilarious The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners.

Since then he not only wrote more novels and other books but saw his work transferred to the stage and a song or two written.  In the 1970s I was working with a fledgling film director who contacted him for movie rights to one of his novels.  Donleavy did his own agent work so David talked to him, but he wasn't interested in having his fiction filmed, and I believe he stuck to that position for the rest of his life.  If he'd given us the rights in this case though, I would have had first crack at the screenplay.

He also lived to reap awards, including the Irish version of a lifetime achievement award in 2015.  He accepted by reading an excerpt from his The Unexpurgated Code on the proper way to accept an award, which includes how to hint that perhaps it could have be awarded earlier.  It's both a funny and a surreal wish-fulfillment moment, as seen on this video, which also includes biographical information and a few excellent tributes.

Robert Pirsig also died in 2017 at the age of 81.  He developed his personal philosophy in two books, the first of which became very popular in the mid-1970s: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In that book (if I recall correctly) he wrote that there are basically two kinds of people: the person who notices a dripping faucet and thinks it should be fixed but let's it drip, and the person who immediately fixes it.  There was no question which one I was, but I enjoyed the book anyway.  The style grabbed me and I learned from his point of view, even if motorcycle maintenance would never interest me.  (I'm also reminded that the paperback came in different colors--the first time that gimmick was used, to my recollection.) (Or maybe the second--Future Shock may have been the first.)

In 1968, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevthushenko--already the most famous Russian poet in the West--was a guest at the home of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, then running for President.  The two quoted poetry at each other and attempted to toast in the Russian manner by drinking off a glass of champagne and throwing the glasses to break in the fireplace.  But the glasses didn't break--they were plastic.  Both took this as a bad omen.  Within months, Robert Kennedy was dead.  Yevthushenko lived another 49 years, until he died in 2017.

I've shared thoughts on several other writers who died in 2017: poet John Ashbery, playwright Sam Shepard, columnist Jimmy Breslin, poet Derek Walcott as well as New York Review of Books founding editor Robert Silvers.

Other writers who died in 2017 include Nancy Willard, Lillian Ross, Joanne Kyger, John Berger, playwrights Albert Innaurato and David Storey, Dore Ashton, William Gass, Richard Wilbur, Yu Guangzhong, Bette Howland, Nancy Friday, Eric Newman, Nat Hentoff, Anne Wiazemsky, Nora Johnson, Susan Vreeland, Kenneth Silverman, Thomas Fleming, Michael Bond, Sue Grafton, Hugh Thomas, Jean Fritz, Denis Johnson, Jean Stein, Robert James Walker, Paula Fox, Tzetan Todorov and Bharti Mukherjee.

May they all rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Talking Buddhism and Neuroscience

BEYOND THE SELF: Conversations Between Buddhism and Neuroscience
by Matthieu Ricard and Wolf Singer
MIT Press 

I remember seeing a public television documentary on the brain, in the early 1970s.  It was then orthodoxy that humans could not consciously affect internal workings of the body.  But the final shot was of a Buddhist monk in meditation, as the voiceover mentioned that meditators claimed to affect their own pulse rate and other functions, and this ought to be investigated.

Shortly after that, biofeedback and "the relaxation response" became New Age enthusiasms that by now have entered orthodox medicine.  The relationship of the brain and body continues to be explored, and for three decades now, the relationship of brain and mind has been explored through the agency of the Mind and Life Institute and the efforts of the Dalai Lama.  A series of gatherings of scientists and monks sparked laboratory research in which experienced meditators like Matthieu Ricard (a participant at several of the Dalai Lama's gatherings) wore sensors that recorded brain patterns, studied by neuroscientists (like Wolf Singer.)

These meetings resulted in a series of books (10 of which I've read and reviewed), with many of the more recent discussions viewable on the Internet.  This work profoundly affected some of the scientists involved, notably psychologist Paul Ekman, who wrote a book with the Dalai Lama.  But neuroscientists have also been fascinated by what they found, which clearly includes Wolf Singer.

The basis for dialogue between Tibetan Buddhists and brain scientists has been that both investigate the workings of the mind.  Tibetan Buddhist meditators have complied centuries of data and conclusions, based on what the meditators experienced.  This is the first person perspective, but with such elaborate data and systems that these scientists, wedded to the objectivity of only the third person perspective, could not ignore.  They also could not ignore how different the brains of very experienced meditators worked.

It's all come a long way and this book is one of the results.  It also turns out to be the  best book I've read on neuroscience, period, and the clearest explanation of Tibetan Buddhism and its approach to meditation.  More specifically, this is the clearest discussion I've read so far on the relationship of Buddhist meditation and the brain.  (I've tried to read James Austin but I failed.)

Ricard (in monks robes) at a Mind and Life dialogue in DC.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is speaking to the Dalai Lama.
Ricard, who is a trained scientist as well as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, has done a few of these dialogue books and he's very good at it.  He and Wolf engaged substantively and for the most part succinctly, which must be partly a product of the editing, as this book reflects dialogues over eight years.

 One impression I got is that at least the particular kind of Buddhism that comes from Tibet and neuroscience are very similar in their view of the brain.  Tibetan Buddhism as I observe from the Dalai Lama and others, and now Ricard, is highly logical.  It comports well with the mechanistic approach of neuroscience, though Wolf is pretty clear on where the mechanistic model runs up against limits.

There are six broad topics that expand to inevitable problems of epistemology and perhaps even (in "why is there something instead of nothing?") cosmology. That they agree on so much may surprise some readers.  The expected disagreement on on the ultimate nature of consciousness is minimized, and Ricard leaves it as an area for further research.

The logical rigor of Tibetan Buddhism may also be surprising.  I remember when as a Catholic boy I first read anything about Buddhist tenets (usually in popular literature), the romantic and mystical elements jumped out, like "enlightenment" and Zen koans.  The koan that seemed to capture everyone's imagination was: "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"  It promised such depths of paradox and maybe even, the Answer.

But Ricard uses it in a different context, to explain how a heated argument needs two participants.  "So, as the Tibetan saying goes, 'One cannot clap with one hand."  So it seems that for Tibetan Buddhists the answer to "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" is exactly what common sense tells you: silence.

Within the broad topics and technical discussions, I found at least one answer I've been seeking.  As Ricard says, the concentration of meditation is not rumination--in fact, ruminating is a distraction to be avoided.  I always wondered how a creative person reconciles meditational rigor with the creative fruits of rumination, daydreaming, imagination.

The answer is akin to the sound of one hand clapping--because the relationship is the contradiction it seems to be. Wolf surmises that unstable states (the wandering mind) could be a prerequisite for creativity.  Ricard agrees, citing a neuroscience study: "brain states favorable to creativity seem to be mutually exclusive with focused attention."

Which of course is not to say that writers and other creative people shouldn't meditate, for it certainly helps in many other ways which eventually contribute to the creative life.

For myself, even though Tibetan Buddhism presents the closest thing to a practical and congenial belief and value system, there are limits to its application. (Plus as much as the Dalai Lama laughs, I find Zen funnier, in that paradoxical way.) And there are many more limits to neuroscience, in my view.  It's interesting that to some this book is a revelation that Buddhism actually has something to say about the brain.  That's been clear to me for decades, but if its clarity finally gets through, then it has done its job, with elegant rigor.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Christmas Carol

Update: The Scrooges at YouTube have erased this video and all versions of the Sims' movie you don't have to pay for one way or another.  Bah, humbug!

The modern Christmas story has to be Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  First of all he wrote it just as the kind of Christmas traditions we observe today were becoming standard.  That includes Christmas carols themselves.  The first collection of now familiar carols was published less than a decade before he wrote this, and it would still be another 30 years or so before they were widely sung--by the Salvation Army on the streets first, and then in churches.

It's a classic story, even apart from Christmas.  Some writers and critics have tried to reduce the number of story plots to a basic minimum.  Author Robert Heinlein chose three plots to which all stories adhere, and the exemplar of one is A Christmas Carol--by being confronted with harsh or inspiring facts, the protagonist changes.

Dickens wrote it in 1843, the first of his annual Christmas stories, although he wrote about Christmas--and ghosts--throughout his career.  He depicted a Christmas celebration in his first serialized novel, The Pickwick Papers, which made him famous.

Ghost stories were an even older tradition of the season, probably a remnant of the winter storytelling of the ancestors that was part of Indigenous cultures.  Dickens combined them with a particular social conscience about the gap between rich and poor, and the huge difference in their lives in London.  It was a feature of the industrial age that we have inherited, adding new elements of it to what's being called income inequality in our time--as well as poverty and homelessness.

The shared responsibility to deal with this systematic suffering was becoming a Dickens passion in the 1840s.  He was working on his novel on the theme of selfishness, Martin Chuzzlewit, at the time he wrote A Christmas Carol.  But in Scrooge's memories of his childhood, Dickens worked with memories from his own childhood that he would write about more specifically in a later novel, the celebrated David Copperfield.

There have been many dramatizations of the story, which often turn the empathetic elements into sentimentality. Still, some movie versions do better than others, or have some overriding feature that sets them apart.

Probably the most famous adaptation is the 1951 Scrooge with the most famous performance of the title character by Alastair Sims.  It's the YouTube film at the top of this column, in a very good black and white print.

The most recent retelling I know of is the Disney animation of a few years ago, which I have not seen.  I'm partial to Patrick Stewart's 1999 movie, which I've got on tape but can't find in a decent version on the net for free.  The 1984 George C. Scott version is pretty good.  Scott starts out as a familiar modern Scrooge, with the awful charm of the ruthless businessman--it's not coincidence it was made in the 1980s.

David Warner brings some credibility to Bob Cratchit in this version, and though much of the storytelling is pedestrian, it's all worth Scott jumping on the bed when he realizes he has been given a second chance.  It's not really up to the Sims version but it has its moments.

This video below is the best I could find on YouTube.  You have to deal with periods of commentary (by two western Pennsylvania dudes with the accents I know so well) and there's some distortion in the picture but overall it's a pretty good print with excellent sound. Merry Christmas everyone.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Dark Age Now

The significant holidays in many existing traditions that occur around the time of the winter solstice suggest the enduring importance of this solar event within the living year.  At the center of customs or rituals in most traditions for these particular observances, including those that preceded today's major ones, is some form of light--light in the time of increased darkness.

Light also for warmth in the cold time.  One Indigenous tradition--and probably others, if not all--see winter as a time for the Earth's sleep but also of its pregnancy, the light in the body that will emerge as the new life of spring.
In those older traditions in parts of the world where winter is forbidding, when little grows to be harvested, and hunting and fishing slow or stop, the solstice began a season of people being together around the fire and listening to stories--stories of a people, of its history, of the origins of animals and how things got to be as they are.  Stories that provide the backbone of the living culture.

Though there are cultural values and aspirations embedded in, for instance, Christmas stories as well as religious texts read at this time, they exist more strongly in the institutions of our large scale complex culture, and in shared knowledge--including the standards for judging what is known.

A Dark Age in our culture is a time when such knowledge is forgotten and such institutions slip into chaos.  Late last year I suggested that signs pointed to the likelihood that we are entering such a time, and this past year has only added evidence of that.

I've called the incumbent president by a couple of names, still accurate.  Lately I've settled on "the anti-president," to reflect the complete extent to which he is relentlessly destroying the presidency, destroying the federal government and our sense of being one nation.  He does the opposite of what a president should do; he is the opposite of what a president should be, and even more, he is the opposite force, like anti-matter to matter: the anti-president.  This ongoing process of erasure is the preliminary to the self-reinforcing Dark Age.

The two most important elements are: replacing knowledge with ignorance, and flexible order with alarming chaos.

Knowledge it seems does not alone protect us.  What's being done is known, or at least knowable.  The anti-president's lies are doggedly counted and described every time he opens his mouth, but it doesn't seem to matter.  He keeps lying, about everything (including easily ascertained facts, and what's in his own proposals, etc)  and his White House backs him up.  Each time he lies, the truth dies, including the functional concept of truth.

 We can even identify other strategies that have been defined in popular fiction, like Orwell's Newspeak, which was at least as much the eradication of words as the addition of new mandatory ones.  Early on we've seen the erasure of climate change information from government websites, including the forbidding of the very words "climate change."  It has since disappeared from national security strategy.  Now there's a report of other banned words: the CDC has instructed staff to avoid seven words, including diversity, vulnerable, evidence-based and science-based.

Due in part to the anti-president, and in part to the impact of a certain social movement, right now all of our institutions are close to chaos, with decreasing resilience, and especially with fewer voices that can summon any kind of national understanding, consciousness or dialogue.  There is a leadership vacuum, including in opposing the anti-president and his supporting infrastructure.

But this year was just the preliminary, the softening up.  The possibility of real crisis increases in the coming year, and likely for years after that.  We may well face an authoritarian crisis by this time next year.  Everything is lining up for one.  Nobody knows how events will play out, but the elements are assembling, and we're vulnerable.

Yes, that's one of the forbidden words.  In fact, you can pretty much track where things are going on the right by what they want to forbid, and what say about the left.  They are very good at mirror accusations: being guilty of what they accuse others, or signaling their goals by accusations.  Right now the buzzword on the right is "coup."  It's often the justification for an authoritarian move--an anti-Republic to save the Republic.

Diversity is another forbidden word, for the institutions--including the rule of law and its principles-- that regulate and therefore keep alive a society with a diversity of identities and ideas, are under primary threat in any kind of authoritarian regime or culture.  Apparently rational, authoritarianism is most often driven by basic if not base emotions, from avarice to rage, that determine what may seem to be rational justifiable judgments.  It's pretty clear that such emotions are increasingly taking over.  The question is whether we survive these storms.

Certain kinds of absolute allegiances that are forms of identity can be set in opposition to others, which also sets up the chaos that can lead to an authoritarian "solution."  As we lose knowledge, allegiances, beliefs that we can hold in common, and as we lose faith in the fairness of institutions (particularly when they do become more unfair, more beholden to ideology or favoritism) we invite the chaos that is the pretext.  Then under pressure and in panic we face the dangers of devolving further into smaller group allegiances.

We haven't lost it all yet.  The national response from the top to this year's climate disasters has been grossly inadequate, but on the level of community--as in this southern California fire--there is still the unquestioned impulse to help.

Yet this all is unraveling at a time when life as we know it on our planet is in mortal peril from the climate crisis, and we're all but ignoring it, and certainly failing to do what we should be doing with the required urgency, attention and sense of purpose.  Some people talk of the next step in human evolution. Chances are slipping by that we will ever get to a next step. So far the prevalent evidence is that humanity is flunking evolution altogether.

At this time of year, people still gather to renew bonds, share stories and hope to provide a sense of light to the young.  As the new calendar year gets closer they may consider how they can represent the light and bring it to their times.

 These holidays in contemporary America are normally fraught with the resurrection of old conflicts, dashed if unreal expectations, push buttoned reminders of past hurt, and traditions of our culture that are conflicting to a point well beyond irony.  This year we have the added anxieties of deep turmoil in our country that is spiraling out of control, apparently headed to a Dark Age.  We huddle one more time around the light, hoping we're with the people who will still be with us in that different darkness.  

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Interview

Bill Moyers is retiring--again.  But at age 83, this time he may mean it.  He's been away from TV for a few years but he continued his unique brand of journalism at his website, Moyers & Company.  But now he's shutting that down, too.  We're losing another significant voice, with a breadth and depth and point of view that we need.

Among the many things he did well was the interview.  First of all, who he selected, and then, how he conducted the interview, the questions he asked, the kind of dialogue he elicited.  I've watched, heard and read his interviews since the original Bill Moyers Journal and through all his minseries, like World of Ideas.  Moyers has been a key player in my relationship to these times.

He posted what may well be his last interview, and it's major.  Here's how he introduces it:

"Our times at last have found their voice, and it belongs to a Pakistani American: Ayad Akhtar, born in New York, raised in Wisconsin, an alum of Brown and Columbia, actor, novelist, screenwriter and playwright, with an ever-soliciting eye for the wickedness and wonders of the world."

The occasion is the play now ending its run in New York, by this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.  It's called Junk, and the subject is high finance in the 1980s.

Moyers asked him why he set his play in the 80s--why not another era of financial mania, like the 1920s or the 19th century Guilded Age?

Akhtar: Oh, there could be a fascinating play about the robber-baron era and maybe even the relationship between JP Morgan and Teddy Roosevelt. There was a back and forth then between politics and capital. But in a way, those stories are not as relevant ultimately to us today as what happened in the 1980s. I think the difference in the ’80s was that the philosophical soil of the earlier American psyche was ready to embrace unfettered individualism as the rubric of behavior and decision-making. The collective mindset experienced a fracture in the ‘80s that we are still dealing with."

Okay, I quote this partly because I have known this since the 80s, and so have others of my generation, but it's exciting to hear it from a younger voice.

The 80s created the church of finance, worshipping the god of the economy, for the economy really is:

"... an abstraction that we placate and that we observe with holy attention on a regular basis whose well-being tells us more about our well-being than our own well-being tells us. When the economy is healthy, we are a hopeful people. When the economy falters, presages of doom are never far off. It’s mythic thinking. Through statistics and analysis we have substituted an abstraction that somehow is speaking eloquently about every aspect of our national and political and personal lives."

Akhtar and Moyers talk about this out loud--this assumption that is so basic that it's just accepted as "reality," as if nothing else ever existed.  To say this stuff is like fish defining water.  It's the reality we swim in, without questioning it anymore.

Moyers quotes lines from the play and Akhtar repeats some of them in explaining the premise:

"Those oppositions go to the heart of a money-obsessed culture: Upgrade your place in line or your prison for a fee. Rent out your womb to carry someone else’s child. Buy a stranger’s life insurance policy and wait for them to die. What she’s suggesting is that the entire compass of human existence is now defined by the imperative to monetize every possible interaction. This is what the system has created; it’s created this aberration where everyone is looking to benefit in a financial way off of every transaction they are having with everyone else. This is the ideal. And then people wonder why don’t we have a society anymore. Why is there no sense of mutual well-being? Because we are pitted against each other like merchants."

Akhtar defines in stark terms what this means for people in the prime of their working lives:

If you are a person of endowment confronted with fears about how to make your way in the world, Bill, there are really not enough opportunities for you to exhibit your excellence and secure your future. So you make the choice that puts you into the system. The system is the thing redistributing wealth. When you are in the system, the system works one way. It does not work two ways; it does not work five ways. It works one way. And working that way, with maybe a flavor of compassion if you want, or a flavor of ruthlessness if you want, depending upon your personality — that’s what’s going to ensure your success."

He talks about the scary implications for the future, as the ways to earn incomes shrink through technology, and capitalism eats the world.  There's more and you can read it, at least for awhile (I'm not sure what all will be eventually archived, but that's the ultimate fate of this site.)  But if for nothing else, the interview is classic for this one insight about why people who don't get wealthy support this culture, what benefit do they expect to get?

"What could be that benefit? And again the answer hit me: The lowest price. Offering people the lowest price has become the new promise, the new covenant, socially. Once that was usually offered to a member of society as a citizen: You have the right to representation, to certain social goods. No longer. What you have the right to now is the lowest price. So you see the rise of Amazon as the corporate centerpiece of contemporary life, because it’s servicing the only system that any longer makes sense: a system of customers. We have all been transformed, fundamentally, from citizens into customers."

Could this be the defining statement of this era?  Once again, Moyers is on to something.  We're really going to miss him, even when we don't realize it.  In fact, especially then.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Oumuamua and This Ocean Earth

Here in December 2017 Terran scientists are watching an unusual celestial object from outside the solar system just cruising past Jupiter.  They're calling it Oumuamua.  Part of what has them fascinated is its strange and yet somehow familiar shape.

Some are studying it as an asteroid but others, especially at the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, are checking it out as a possible alien probe.  (It also turns out that the Pentagon has been keeping its eye on potential alien visits for at least the past decade or so.)

So far they're frustrated because they aren't hearing anything.  My answer to that is (quoting Spock to Doctor McCoy): "There are other forms on intelligence on Earth, Doctor. Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man."

If this probe is an earlier version of the one that appears in the 23rd century, it may be in the neighborhood to chat with old friends, the humpback whales.

As you recall from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a similar alien probe threatens Earth when it cannot contact any humpbacks in the 23rd century, because they'd gone extinct by then.

 Because of global heating and other large scale problems, it is still likely the whales will disappear from the oceans in the next century, along with most species on land larger than rats. But right now the humpback whale population is in pretty good shape.

Thanks in part to whaling bans and the awareness represented by that popular 1987 Star Trek feature, the humpback population has slowly recovered. Most species of humpbacks were removed from the endangered species lists about a year ago.

So a probe would have no difficulty contacting some.  And after their conversation, the probe might simply continue on its way, silent to our listening ears.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Disappeared

On December 10, I read a column  in the New Yorker by staff writer Masha Geeson titled Al Franken’s Resignation and the Selective Force of #MeToo.  She writes:

"The accusations against him, which involve groping and forcible kissing, arguably fall into the emergent, undefined, and most likely undefinable category of “sexual misconduct.” Put more simply, Franken stands accused of acting repeatedly like a jerk, and he denies that he acted this way."

"Franken did not apologize. In fact, he made it clear that he disagreed with his accusers. “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true,” he said. “Others I remember very differently.” Earlier, Franken had in fact apologized to his accusers, and he didn’t take his apologies back now, but he made it plain that they had been issued in the hopes of facilitating a conversation and an investigation that would clear him. He had, it seems, been attempting to buy calm time to work while a Senate ethics committee looked into the accusations. But, by Thursday morning, thirty-two Democratic senators had called on Franken to resign. The force of the #MeToo moment leaves no room for due process, or, indeed, for Franken’s own constituents to consider their choice."

The next day that same New Yorker magazine fired its most prominent reporter Ryan Lizza for what the magazine called "improper sexual conduct," according to the Washington Post and other reports. CNN promptly eliminated Lizza from its stable of commentators, and Georgetown University, where he had been teaching, announced he would not be teaching next term.

Lizza called the decision by the New Yorker "a terrible mistake," and denied any such conduct.  The conduct was not specified, but accusations seem to have come from one woman, represented by a lawyer. "The New Yorker was unable to cite any company policy that was violated,” Lizza said.   The New Yorker's website has been completely silent on this matter, as have his colleagues at the New Yorker.  Lizza has simply been disappeared.

Recent revelations that began with the entirely odious Harvey Weinstein affair have exposed appalling workplace cultures that have for years allowed and covered up various kinds of degradation of women, including likely criminal behavior.

But other allegations, like those against Franken, were quite different, or almost entirely unspecified.  The result however was similar if not identical. Men in relatively powerful positions in movies, television, political office, academia and elsewhere have been accused and banished.  A day doesn't go by without at least one more prominent name.

Masha Geeson wrote that this is about policing sex.  While calling Geeson's columns perspicacious, Rebecca Traister in New York magazine wrote This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex, It’s Really About Work--that is, about inequality in the workplace.

It seems to be about alot of things. Inevitably it has become political.  Already the conventional wisdom is scoring the Roy Moore defeat (with Al Franken as a sacrificial victim by Democrats) because of allegations against him, and Jonathan Chiat suggests it may come around to get the anti-president even before Mueller does.

I've been reading Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities about the French Revolution.  This too is a kind of revolution: victims of oppression rising up to fell their oppressors.  Like the French Revolution, eventually it will change the social order but in ways that depend on what happens next.

The oppressed in France had been at the mercy of the aristocracy.  They had no rights.  In a dispute between them and the aristocracy, they were not believed and the aristocrats were.  They suffered in silence to survive, and their anger built until it exploded.

Their rebellion led to the government's fall, and to liberation movements elsewhere. But it also led immediately to the reign of terror.  There were many crimes against the oppressed, real and not so real, but there was only one punishment for alleged oppressors: the guillotine.

The all-encompassing nature of today's sudden revolution, for at least a portion of the American public, is suggested in another New Yorker piece by Masha Geeson: "we are living with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, but we seem to be spending significantly more time discussing the sexual misbehavior of a growing number of prominent men than talking about North Korea or climate change."  That indicates the extent and power of the emotion behind this moment, as well as its galvanizing effect on news consumers.

Today no man has actually been executed, although one apparently killed himself after denying accusations.  But many have instantly lost their positions, their main livelihood and their good names.  That last item inevitably suggests John Proctor in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.  Falsely accused of witchcraft, he refuses to confess to save his own life: "Because it is my name."

The range of alleged behaviors is itself overwhelming: from a pattern of actual and attempted rape and professional blackmail over decades, involving aides, private investigators misrepresenting themselves to victims and the press; to unspecified incidents and behavior that are open to various interpretations, such as the accusations that got reporter Glenn Thrush suspended by the New York Times.  But the response has been the same: the guillotine, the loss of a name.

Moreover, these decisions have been made in secret by a variety of organizations, without transparent due process, or a single known procedure.  In law we have crimes that recognize degrees of severity, and upon conviction produce proportionate penalties.  Not this.  It's the guillotine every time.

There's been pushback, though it doesn't generally get the same splashy coverage. Garrison Keillor fell spectacularly in a single day.  On the basis of unspecified allegations, Minnesota Public Radio not only fired him, but they disappeared everything he was part of, including his past.  A San Jose Mercury News opinion piece notes:

"Garrison Keillor has been disappeared into the Memory Hole. If you look for his biography or the archived shows from a half century of “A Prairie Home Companion” on the website of Minnesota Public Radio since his fall from grace, you’ll now find only this: “Sorry, but there’s no page here.”

Keillor and his entire body of work from “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Writer’s Almanac” have been effectively erased from the archives of MPR, along with the work of all the other storytellers, singers, poets and production staff who made the shows successful."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that PBS has even pulled a segment involving Keillor from the Henry Louis Gates series on exploring your roots.

Among the disappeared features was the daily Writer's Almanac that Keillor started.  Ironically enough, just after the 2016 election, I started checking it first thing on the Internet every day as an alternative reality to the relentless march of the new Dark Age chronicled on Google news.  I even wrote an email to make a correction and to say how much I liked the site.  I got a reply from one of the producers, a woman.  I expect a number of women lost their jobs when the site disappeared.

Keillor, who says he has not been told what he's accused of, reacted at first with bravado, but then posted on Facebook: “It’s astonishing that 50 years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation,” he said in a Facebook post Wednesday evening. “I always believed in hard work and now it feels sort of meaningless. Only a friend can hurt you this badly. I think I have to leave the country in order to walk around in public and not feel accusing glances.” (He later deleted this as a public comment.)

Maybe he's guilty of something, maybe he isn't, but thanks to MPR's secret decision, this 75 year old American icon is presumed to be guilty of something so heinous that it taints everything he ever did.

However justified the "Me, Too" movement is, there's also the appearance of a feeding frenzy and some career-burnishing.  John Oliver got sweeping praise for his confrontation with Dustin Hoffman over alleged misconduct, as he mouthed today's cliches, saying he believes the women, because they have no reason to lie.

Can he actually believe this--that no female accusers ever falsely accuse or mischaracterize?   He apparently is not familiar with divorce and child custody cases, where the most heinous false charges are made-- by both genders.

Then there's politics.  The Washington Post outed one right wing group's attempt to discredit Ray Moore's accusers.  Arne Carlson, a former governor of Minnesota wrote: "Now reports are surfacing that Leeann Tweeden, Franken’s prime accuser, may have been coached by Roger Stone, a major Trump operator. Since there was no vetting, we heard only her story."  

He notes that Franken was one of the most effective critics of the anti-president and Republican policies.  It might also be added that reporters Ryan Lizza and Glenn Thrush, among others, are no longer holding this administration to account.  Garrison Keillor's valuable (and funny) point of view expressed in his Washington Post columns is missing.

Then on Wednesday it was revealed that Senator Chuck Schumer was the intended victim of purported court documents accusing him of sexual harassment.  In this case the woman alleged to have filed the documents denied she did, and so no damage is likely.  But in an atmosphere in which accusations seem to lead to instant and dire consequences, surely there is a temptation to deploy them as weapons, for political gain or money or a moment of fame.

As author and law professor (and woman) Zephyr Teachout wrote in a New York Times oped: "Zero tolerance should go hand in hand with two other things: due process and proportionality. As citizens, we need a way to make sense of accusations that does not depend only on what we read or see in the news or on social media.

Due process means a fair, full investigation, with a chance for the accused to respond. And proportionality means that while all forms of inappropriate sexual behavior should be addressed, the response should be based on the nature of the transgressions."

She wrote this to express dismay at the forced resignation of Senator Al Franken.

Some of these cases of dismissal are likely to end up in court, and so the accusations will linger.  Eventually these companies and institutions are going to have to come up with stated policies and regular procedures for judging their violation, and more is going to need to be made public knowledge.

 I've seen it suggested that there will be casualties, men who lose their livelihoods and reputations unjustly, but considering the need for change, a few casualties are worth it. Or even that because many men have gotten away with transgressions, it doesn't much matter if the wrong men get disproportionately penalized now.  Looking back from an historical perspective, one might consider that view.  But in the middle of it, it is a very dangerous view.  Justice is about individuals.  So is injustice.

It seems that in the past, the policy and practice in such cases was "believe the men."  To replace that with nothing more than "believe the women" is not justice, and in the end corrodes society. If our ideal was a nation of law, not of men, then our ideal must now also be a nation of law, not of women.

We've had plenty of examples in history and in living memory of societal spasms of injustice, like the 1950s Blacklist. Those instances, like the experiences of women speaking out today, involved both personal pain and societal ills.  Governor Arne Carlson's piece begins with a personal accounts of how he suffered a relatively minor incident of being unjustly accused as a child.  That kind of empathy, perhaps not as powerful as collective rage, needs to be part of this revolutionary moment.

But there is more than empathy involved here.  Injustice for the accuser doesn't excuse injustice for the accused--and sooner or later, such injustices for the accused will taint the cause of the accusers.

For as society has painfully learned many times: when we lose the presumption of innocence, we lose everything.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Senator Jones

A Democrat wins in Alabama, and there's plenty of credit to go around.

 Nominating Doug Jones, with an appealing and admirable track record, well-known in the state, and bold enough to be pro-choice in the deep red South.

The party's commitment in cash and star power, with Obama robocalls and appearances by Cory Booker and other black leaders all weekend.  That may well have helped African American turnout, comparable to the Obama victories--pretty impressive in a special election on an unfamiliar voting day a few weeks before Christmas.

A big gender gap, which may or may not have a lot to do with the substantial allegations against Moore for predatory sexual behavior and worse.  Some interpretations of exit polls say it was a big influence, but others say that most voters had made up their mind before the allegations were made.  In any case, Jones won the female vote by a bigger margin than Moore won the male.

Republican dissatisfaction with Moore probably contributed to the number of votes for write-in candidates that about equals Jones' winning margin.  And while not as numerically significant, the lopsided youth vote (which went to Jones by more than 30 points) suggests this may not be the last Democratic victory.

The media are universally calling this a major blow to the anti-president and the Republican majority.  We'll see if it has any immediate influence on Senate votes for the rejiggered tax bill, which sounds worse and worse for the economy. Senator Jones likely won't be seated for the final vote, which the now universally unpopular Mitch McConnell is continuing to rush towards.  So it looks like the next Democratic administration will spend most of its time trying to repair the worst of the destruction left by the Republicans, just like the last two Democratic administrations did.

This election result becomes one weighty element among others in the continuing drama, as the Mueller investigation continues and the ongoing revolution over behavior towards women suddenly circles the anti-president, as no fewer than six Senators on Tuesday (before the vote count in Alabama) called for his resignation.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Climate and the Dog in the Night-time

It's a sobering story that quantifies the obvious though elusive.  It shows that the state of the climate crisis is not about crying wolf.  It is about the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.

The Guardian headline and subhead to the story by Lisa Hymas provide the premise: Climate change is the story you missed in 2017. And the media is to blame/Some of Trump’s tweets generate more national coverage than devastating disasters. As the weather gets worse, we need journalism to get better"

That the media doesn't cover the climate crisis with the frequency, depth or urgency it deserves is of course not new.  It never has, just as even our best leaders did not talk about it enough or with the appropriate urgency.

But the story doesn't focus on covering the topic of climate change--it looks at the easier aspect to cover, which is the visible, tangible real world result: the devastating storms, fires and other weather-related phenomena, directly related in occurrence, severity or in some other meaningful way to global heating.

This is in a way astonishing.  If it bleeds, it leads is the supposed journalistic law--though it trotted out mostly as an excuse for not covering more complicated stories with greater impact.  But now it's a law being routinely violated, at least in this case.

For a lot of people bleed due to hurricanes, floods and fires.  But these days those stories can't even compete for the lead.  (Or "lede" in the new oafish spelling.)

The Guardian article begins: Which story did you hear more about this year – how climate change makes disasters like hurricanes worse, or how Donald Trump threw paper towels at Puerto Ricans?

If you answered the latter, you have plenty of company. Academic Jennifer Good analyzed two weeks of hurricane coverage during the height of hurricane season on eight major TV networks, and found that about 60% of the stories included the word Trump, and only about 5% mentioned climate change. Trump doesn’t just suck the oxygen out of the room; he sucks the carbon dioxide out of the national dialogue."

In terms of reality this is more important because of the anti-president's climate crisis denial, and because scientists are more confident than ever that these disasters are causally linked to global heating.

 But it's also not really shocking because underplaying if not virtually ignoring the climate crisis has been going on forever.  If you really factor the extent to which the climate crisis threatens people, their places and the long term existence of civilization, as well as a lot of life on this planet as we know it, there's virtually nothing else we're obsessed with that measures up.

But the surprising difference in this year of multiple disasters is that not only didn't the role of global heating in these disasters get a lot of coverage, neither did the disasters themselves, and especially the "aftermath," or the longer term consequences.

This was especially true of Hurricane Maria, probably because it struck Puerto Rico and nearby islands, no longer on the beat of reporters or news bureaus, which hardly exist anymore outside of Washington and New York:

"The weekend after Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, the five major Sunday political talk shows devoted less than one minute in total to the storm and the humanitarian emergency it triggered. And Maria got only about a third as many mentions in major print and online media outlets as did Harvey and Irma, researchers at the MIT Media Lab found."

Coverage bulged during the anti-President's noblesse oblige paper towel-slinging visit and declined to nada immediately afterwards-- "even though many residents to this day suffer from electricity outages and a lack of clean water, a dire situation that deserves serious and sustained coverage."

If the media needed a news hook for this coverage, Hymas provides one: the nature and severity of these weather events were exactly as climate scientists predicted.  That might mean something, do you think?

Sure, the anti-president is viscerally as well as actually a clearer and more present danger, but failure to link these storms etc. to the climate crisis allows people to continue to believe that the consequences of the climate crisis are far in the future:

"But while nearly three-quarters of Americans know that most scientists are in agreement that climate change is happening, according to recent poll, only 42% of Americans believe climate change will pose a serious threat to them during their lifetimes. Too many still believe – wrongly – that climate disasters are just something that will happen in the future. They are happening now."

And they are happening a lot:

"In the first nine months of 2017, the US was assailed by 15 weather and climate disasters that each did more than a billion dollars in damage – in the case of the hurricanes, much more. The combined economic hit from Harvey, Irma and Maria could end up being $200bn or more, according to Moody’s Analytics. And then in October, unprecedented wildfires in northern California did an estimated $3bn in damage."

Credit some coverage, including that of the current horrendous fires in southern California (that's right, in December), for relating disasters to the climate crisis. But against the overwhelming noise of relatively trivial stories, it's not nearly enough.

That the climate crisis is happening now--and is only going to get worse-- is the biggest reason why this lack of attention is harmful.  But failing to cover the consequences as they unfold as well as the causes signals to people that unless they live in a big media market, when disaster strikes they will be ignored, abandoned and forgotten.  This is precisely how not to deal with an unfolding era of disasters, what James Kunstler called the Long Emergency, especially at this stage.

Economics may be the unstated excuse for news organizations, and what news media people are left must feel pressure not to upset their consumers lest somebody more amenable take their place.  Disasters are so exhausting for news consumers as well as reporters (all that standing outside in the hurricane and getting blown around like a fool too stupid to come in out of the rain, just to prove you're really there.)  So let's get excited about this tweet I can instantly inflate the importance of without moving from poolside, so to speak.

But there's no excuse for this craven disregard, especially of the consequences--of what's being done and not being done to help those suffering and in need.  And of the role of global heating that ensures there will be a lot more of this in our climate crisis, now playing near you.

This is the "curious incident of the dog in the night-time."  "But the dog did nothing in the nighttime."  "That was the curious incident," said Sherlock Holmes.  Because an intruder was committing a crime, and the dog did not bark.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Senator Moore (with updates)

What little chance that Democrat Doug Jones had of winning the Alabama Senate seat up for special election next Tuesday probably disappeared this Tuesday.  And it wasn't because the Anti-president's endorsement resulted in the RNC turning the money taps back on for Ray Moore, though that's a factor.

On Tuesday Rep. John Conyers retired or resigned from Congress under pressure from Democratic Party leadership because of sexual harassment and related accusations.  Conyers, age 88, is a senior black member of Congress and one of its last ties to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  He is a hero to many black Americans.

Black members of Congress are already voicing resentment that white members facing similar accusations have not resigned, and that Conyers is the first to do so. House D leader Nancy Pelosi publicly called for his resignation over the weekend.

But black congressional members aren't likely to be the only ones resenting this.  Some black voters will as well.  Doug Jones' only chance in Alabama was a combination of Rs disgusted with Roy Moore's behavior staying home or writing in another candidate, plus a heavy black turnout.  Jones was already having trouble motivating black voters.  This won't help him do so.   They certainly won't vote for Moore, but they can stay home.

Update: Another factor is the very active black voter suppression government and culture in Alabama.  

Could women make the difference for Jones?  It would likely mean many more Dem women are especially motivated to vote by the charges against Roy Moore, along with many Republican women motivated to either vote for Jones or stay home, for the same reason.  But this is a combination that has so far eluded pollsters.  Republican women don't seem to have abandoned Moore.

The only slim hope for Jones is that voters have really had it with the tax bill, the attacks on healthcare and the toxic chaos of the current administration, so bigly as to send a message out of Louisiana.  This too is unlikely.

Though we are talking about dead red Alabama here, these are problems that may recur in the 2018 midterms.  Whatever else there is to be said about the current frenzy over this wide range of accusations of sexually related misconduct, they are very unlikely to improve electoral outcomes for Democrats.  Higher motivation for some women (mostly white, upper middle class) may not be enough.

It's becoming clear that no Republican is going to resign from anything over such accusations, unless or until they become indictments or convictions.  Republican voters will not penalize them for this, especially in this atmosphere.  The election of Roy Moore next week will make this a self-fulfilling prophesy.

 One Democrat has resigned now because of this and other Democrats may.  In terms of numbers, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to lose seats over this issue.

Further updates: Rep. John Lewis, an even more revered black leader and icon of the Civil Rights movement, is personally campaigning in Alabama for Doug Jones.  That may mitigate some of the damage.  

By Thursday, a Republican actually did resign from the House, along with a Democratic Senator, both white, which may also slow further damage to the black vote in Alabama.  More generally I note the essays by Dahila Lithwick and Laura Kipnis on the various political ramifications, and this earnest, thoughtful and yet sadly comic attempt to explain differences over time on culturally accepted sexual behavior. 

Monday, December 04, 2017

Suicide of a Nation.2

As more is learned about the Senate tax giveaway to the stupidly wealthy and other assorted crimes, the worse it gets.

It's clear now, if it wasn't before, that there isn't a Republican in the Senate worthy of any respect.

And December is just beginning, with more disasters piling up, and even more in the offing.

Looking at it strictly in political terms, the daily flood of consequential accusations of sexual improprieties against prominent men has become overwhelming, and might well be having the paradoxical effect of inoculating Alabama's Roy Moore and the Anti-president for their offenses, in the eyes of enough voters to protect them.

Maybe it's time to concentrate on Christmas shopping.  Or back to the late 19th century, when the future was beginning.

Why this melodramatic, apparently hyperbolic title--Suicide of a Nation?  The serious perils of the present will only increase in the near future.  For civilization to survive will require concerted will and wisdom.  Without a strong and wisely-acting America, the chances for that survival are severely diminished.

As our division into not only separate parties but separate realities suggests, the margin for error shrinks.  With the exception of the Civil War, our constitutional institutions have protected us from destroying ourselves in the past.  The received and active respect for those institutions by all but the most extreme elements has preserved enough to allow for this far from perfect country and society to survive and make incremental progress.

Much of that is going or gone, as we are seeing this year and this month.  In less than a year we as a nation have gone from a strong position to meet the future, thanks most recently to President Obama and his administration, to a situation poised at the near edge of breakdown and chaos.

There are positive developments in political activism and the response of some of our media institutions.  It's not over yet.  But everything that this tax bill does is likely to further weaken this country as its already weak points--such as the effects of income inequality and the natural environment. Already we're seeing renewed and emboldened threats along the same lines from the White House, the cabinet and the extremist Republican Supreme Court.

 This mortal threat does not come from outside as murder (not even from Russia necessarily) but as a result of our own politics and political institutions.  It is at least attempted suicide.  That's the point.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Suicide of a Nation (with Update)

December second, 2017--a day that will live in infamy.

Senate Republicans voted to increase the federal deficit by one trillion dollars in order to give tax breaks to billionaires.  The bill repeals the individual mandate for Obamacare, predicted to result in 13 million people losing healthcare.  Other provisions within it cripple education from K to college, state and local governments and a lot more.  It will effectively raise taxes on most Americans.  And for no related reason, it allows oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If this bill becomes law, which is all but certain, remember what it was like on December 1: nearly full employment, low inflation; a deficit and debt greatly reduced by 8 years of the Obama administration, an almost full recovery from the Great Recession of 2008, and a robust economy, with manufacturing--particularly green energy production--robust and still growing.

How like Utopia that will likely look in the near future, as a result of this shameful legislation, accomplished in a manner that violates every Congressional norm.  Without a single public hearing, and with language inserted by lobbyists, it was passed in a partisan rush in the dead of night. For Congress it is its most shameful hour since World War II. This is the moment most feared, when this administration commits the nation to a kind of suicide.

And as has been reported--and Senator Sanders just said--this is only the beginning.  To make up for this massive giveaway, Republicans will be coming for Social Security, Medicare and all other social programs that help people who aren't billionaires or measly millionaires.

Every Republican but one voted for it, and no Democrats  A similar bill had already passed the House with Republican votes.

Thanks, chumps.
It's a temporarily great day for oligarchs.  And for everyone who wants a weakened America--like, I don't know, Russia?

An optimistic update: Jonathan Chiat: Of all the horrors Donald Trump has (and has yet to) inflict upon the republic, a huge tax cut for the rich was the most inevitable. But it is also the most easily reversible. Lifetime court appointments, carbon pollution, the degrading of democratic norms — all of these will prove difficult or impossible to undo, and leave costs deep into the future. The Trump tax cuts will not."

But that works only if and when the Dems take back control of Congress, not nearly a sure thing.  But Chiat is certainly right that Dems should make a major issue of this terrible and also unpopular bill, relentlessly next year.  Meanwhile the damage and suffering will begin.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Homegrown Hitler Before the Bunker

The kind of insanity that Homegrown Hitler is currently exhibiting seems ominously reminiscent of the latter stages of the original Hitler, when his made up reality was imposed on the world.  The difference now is that people in established media are freely saying that he is insane, but the outcome is basically the same: his power is not threatened.  Being crazy without consequence is the proof of dictatorship.

And if you wondered how Germany could follow a crazy man even before his power to destroy anyone who dissented was fully established, just look around.  Insanity is contagious.  There isn't an institution (beginning of course with Congress and its crazed tax bill but including the media) that isn't showing signs of some form of insane behavior.

By now it's becoming clear that we aren't going to get out of this unscathed.  The damage is growing and could accelerate beyond anyone's ability to control it.

But let's find comfort in this sweet old song.  Try to ignore the visuals.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Calling Bullshit

Bullshit abounds, but sometimes there's just enough new about it to merit a rejoinder.  Two recent instances:

1. The Atlantic's article/review entitled What Godless Says About America by Sophie Gilbert.  (I hope this is no relation to the several Gilberts I used to know, cause I'm not going to say nice things about this.)

It's about a Netflik original western (called "Godless") that I have not seen and have no plans to ever see.  Hype usually inflates newness or difference but this is supposed to be journalism.  To be fair however, what Gilbert says about westerns has become cliche.  Problem is, it's not true.

Here's the paragraph:

"Westerns celebrate the heroic individual rather than the well-ordered—but inevitably vulnerable—community. They glorify domination, whether over Native Americans or the treacherous terrain of the frontier. And they fetishize guns, which unfailingly allow heroes to safeguard democracy—never mind the collateral damage of bodies littered in the streets after each epic confrontation."

 Given the reality of settlers subduing the land as any farming, grazing or urban civilization does, I don't recognize any memorable western movie or television series in this description--certainly not from the years when the western was a major genre (which it hasn't been for more than fifty years.)

The classic western plot did involve a threat to the community, but it was posed by outlaws (who might be otherwise respectable businessmen as well as masked bank robbers) and the hero was the hero precisely because he (and occasionally she) defended the community against the outlaws--often enough by identifying and arresting them.  From Gary Cooper and John Wayne to Marshall Dillon.

The first conflict in High Noon in fact was between the man who felt his duty was to stay and defend the community and the woman who wanted him to abandon it.

As for guns, of course western movies often centered on gun fights, as did Eastern urban crime stories, and just as war movies had something to do with guns and bombs, space operas with phasers and light swords, etc. And yes, the spectacle of those battles sometimes mocks any sense of proportion.  But in most, the test of quality was the surrounding story.

I might also mention that the first and really only dramatized examples of gun control I recall seeing were in westerns, where the law banned guns in town.  It was deemed a sign of civilization.

Dominating Native Americans--the cowboys and Indians westerns--was certainly a theme (as it was a reality), but so was protecting Native Americans from greedy whites (a bit more fictional).

All of this was most obvious in television, especially in the 1950s. The very first television western hero, Hopalong Cassidy, often found greedy white men threatening the community, or threatening Indian tribes.  The theme of the first Lone Ranger feature film was uncovering a plot by white men to drive Indians off their land and steal their gold.  Essentially it was also the plot of the second Lone Ranger feature film.

Hopalong, the Lone Ranger and other early western TV heroes fired their guns a lot but they seldom shot anyone dead.  There were more fistfights that fire fights in TV westerns, even in the era of the "adult westerns" of the late 50s and early 60s.

So: bullshit.

2. The NYTimes Nazi story controversy.  Both the story and the controversy have the same problem: reporters and commentators who apparently have never lived in middle America, or more to the point, aren't old enough to remember when overt white racism was normal there.  It helps to have black journalists, and it also helps to have a knowledge of history.  More generally it might help to have those older experienced journalists they sent packing when the staffs shrunk.  No institutional memory, no memory at all.  All bullshit.