Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thanking Michelle

Time Capsule

Everyone I know is depressed.  So only one last downer on the topic before I end this cycle with celebrations of the Obama years.

Everyone I know is depressed about what is coming, and that of course has already started.  This follows the shock.  But maybe it's worth defining what the shock was about.  Because this wasn't just a bad outcome.  This was pretty scary evidence that the entire political system as we knew it is done.

One candidate broke all precedent and refused to release tax returns.  One candidate lost all three debates.  One candidate got almost no newspaper endorsements, including from those newspapers that had endorsed Republicans for a century or more.  One candidate was called--and not just by his opponents--unqualified and unfit for office.

One candidate was widely called out for authoritarian rhetoric, for racist statements, for bluster and bullying, for making fun of a disability.

One candidate was accused by multiple women of sex crimes.  One candidate lied in a documented 3/4 of the statements he made.  One candidate made statements that by any reasonable standards would be called crazy, and those statements were often dangerous.

One candidate talked enthusiastically about reviving torture, and encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons.  One candidate said the climate crisis doesn't exist, that there should be a registry for Muslims in America, that the US must build a wall along the entire length of its southern border to keep out the hordes of Mexicans crossing it illegally, even though illegal immigration has measurably declined.

One candidate called for ending heathcare coverage for millions of Americans, through Obamacare and Medicaid.  One candidate spread easily rebutted falsehoods about the economy, crime and many other topics.  One candidate was clearly ignorant on topics a President must address.

One candidate has no experience in government whatever, on any level. There was evidence that one candidate had ties to a foreign government run by a dictator that he praised, and evidence even before the election that this government of Russia was using illegal means to intervene in the election on his behalf.

That candidate was elected to run the federal government and represent the United States as chief of state.

But that wasn't all--the Republican party held on to majorities in both houses of Congress.  After refusing for the first time in history to even consider a President's nominee for the Supreme Court, that Republican majority will make the balance on the court, and possibly reshape it even more drastically in years to come, for many more years to come.

Every institution involved in this election campaign failed miserably.  But whatever the reasons, the country has gone from a new hope to the Dark Side.

And that's what people are depressed about.  Many are afraid about losing healthcare.  Women, Latinos, Muslims are among the groups with specific anxieties.  But they all see individual rights, the economy, peace and the future of the planet at risk.

Most of the people reading these words today know this already.  I don't know if hearing some of the reasons for their shock and anxiety expressed will help them in any way, or perhaps make things worse.

But for those who stumble across these words in coming years, if you've wondered what people were thinking and feeling about all this, now you know a little more than you did.

For those of us now, a little solace, maybe: An American Tune.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Farewell and Hail

It was President Obama's Farewell Address as President of the United States, and brought him full circle from the themes of his first campaign in 2008.

It was a preemptive attack on the priorities of the next regime.  And it was the outline of a program for Barack Obama, citizen, serving notice that his voice will be heard in the future.

In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned against the Cold War dominance of the military-industrial complex.  It was as prophetic as it was surprising, and prefigured the lasting traumas of Vietnam.  President Obama put his finger on the basic threats to our tottering democracy that will dominate and endanger in the coming years: underneath arguments and political advocacy, the disappearance of a sense of common national purpose and solidarity, successfully assaulted by cynical partisanship that demonizes and shamelessly lies.  And the disappearance not only of a basic agreed-upon set of facts, but the disappearance of the acceptance that there could be agreed-upon facts--in other words, a cynical ignoring of facts themselves.  He said:

"And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.

And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Look, politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other.

And we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible. And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on pre-school for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?

How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, it’s selective sorting of the facts. It’s self-defeating because, as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you."

President Obama was quite clear on the consequences of this in confronting the climate crisis:

"Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, we’ve led the world to an agreement that (at) the promise to save this planet.

But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects. More environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary. Now we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country, the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders."

I haven't heard a single commentator nor read a single story on this speech, but I'm sure somebody said, okay, we all know he gives a good speech, but... Such people should be in a different line of work--the Russians would no doubt hire them, though likely at lower rates.

What made this speech great was not rhetorical eloquence or even elegance (though there was plenty of that) but cogency and precision.  President Obama outlined the clear and present dangers to democracy, though an hour was not long enough--nor was the occasion appropriate--to describe them all, the still-expanding story of Russian influence scheduled to move inside the White House in ten days.  Putin won't (as far as we know) actually be sworn in, but he might as well be.

Though President Obama pointed no fingers, and his speaking of the words "Fascism" and "authoritarian" were historical references, this speech was a positive statement of the beliefs he brought to the office, but the threats to democracy he outlined were all predominant in the 2016 campaign and outcome.  So it was a warning of what to watch for in the coming weeks, months and years of the next regime.

The crowd cheered him but there was sadness and anxiety at his going. (Especially since the speech proved that he is right in claiming that had he run against the Rs in 2016, he would have won.) That Michelle's dress was black, and daughter Malia in black and white, meant the statement and the mood couldn't be mistaken.

President Obama also paid emotional tribute to his wife Michelle, to his daughters, to Joe Biden, and to his White House staff.  For more complete video of all of this (without annoying commentary), the C-Span coverage is worth exploring.

Not Going Quietly

He may go gentle, but he's not going quietly.  In his last weeks in the White House, President Obama has taken important action, and has made important statements.  That process may climax Tuesday night with his farewell address, but even then, he has 9 days more.

The NYTimes listed some of those actions:

He has banned oil drilling off the Atlantic coast, established new environmental monuments, protected funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, ordered the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay, criticized Israeli settlements and punished Russia for interfering in the recent elections through cyberattacks.

Mr. Obama is continuing to fill the ranks of the government with his own appointees; since Election Day, he has named 103 people to senior Civil Service jobs, boards, key commissions and oversight panels, including the National Council on Disability, the Amtrak board of directors, the Holocaust Memorial Council and the boards of visitors at military academies.

Probably the most important--and lasting--was banning offshore drilling in the Arctic and much of the Atlantic seaboard.  As Time Magazine reported: "The White House maneuver relies on a little-used 1953 law that gives the President authority to block indefinitely oil and gas drilling in some waters controlled by the U.S. federal government. The move may be impossible to undo—at least in the short term. The law does not include a provision for a future president to undo the decision and no president has ever tried such a move. But energy interests could challenge that in courts or a Republican-dominated Congress could revise the original law."

In designating "two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures,"  President Obama also protected not only physical but spiritual resources for Native peoples in the area.  Russell Begaye, President of the Navajo Nation, wrote:

"Today, President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation to protect this land as a national monument for future generations of Navajo people and for all Americans. Thanks to his action, this land will be finally given the legal reverence and protection it deserves.

This action reflects the President’s profound record on conservation: He has done more than any other president in history to set aside more land and water for the future."

Other actions may be ones that Rs will want to reverse, but it won't always be easy.  It will likely be politically difficult to reverse all of President Obama's measures to punish Russia for its (successful) efforts to control the US presidential election, which he announced in late December.

Probably the boldest foreign policy action was the US abstaining from the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements as a substantial and aggressive barrier to a two state solution in Palestine.

Meanwhile President Obama has publicly and--meeting with members of Congress--privately talked about healthcare.  Publicly he's challenged Rs attempting to repeal Obamacare to say what their plan is and begin the process of improving the healthcare system, instead of undermining it and taking away coverage from millions of Americans.  He also urged those Americans who have benefited from Obamacare to tell their stories in public, especially in their own communities.   His long meeting with congressional Democrats reportedly got more political, as he urged them not to not help Rs devise a new health care law, and make them own any changes.

After all that, President Obama has been doing a series of interviews, including a personal one with David Axelrod, but also cogent policy statements such as the Vox interview on healthcare.  He also became the first sitting President to write a feature for Science magazine, in which he argues that the shift to clean energy is irreversible.  Whatever politicians might do, industries and the market are already committed.  There are twice as many people employed in clean energy than in jobs related to fossil fuels.  The US economy has grown in direct proportion to the drop in greenhouse gases emissions.

The Science article is here.  By including seed funds for clean energy in the 2009 Recovery Act to get the country out of the Great Recession, President Obama jump-started these industries. White House support for them continued throughout the Obama administration. They have their problems, but this move may turn out to be his greatest accomplishment.

Defining the Darkness.13

This almost unnoticed act could turn out to be the most serious of recent GOP moves and announcements, and the first step to reactionary totalitarian rule.

Washington Post:

"Members of Congress awarded themselves the power to slash the annual pay of any federal employee to as low as $1, thereby essentially telling government workers to forget about civil-service protection: Their jobs now may rise or fall on political whim."

"The Republican-led House voted to reinstate a procedural rule devised in 1876 that allows Congress to retrench agency spending by singling out a government employee through amendments to appropriations bills. Prior to adoption of the Holman Rule, named for the Indiana congressman who devised it as a hedge against the political patronage that then dominated government programs, an agency’s budget could be broadly cut but specific employees or programs couldn’t be targeted. Now it can be open season."

Monday, January 09, 2017

A Little Light

Defining the Darkness.12

Washington Post:

"Russia carried out a comprehensive cyber campaign to sabotage the U.S. presidential election, an operation that was ordered by Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and ultimately sought to help elect Donald Trump, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in a remarkably blunt assessment released Friday.

The report depicts Russian interference as unprecedented in scale, saying that Moscow’s role represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort” beyond previous election-related espionage."

"In the report, the CIA, FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded with “high confidence” that Russian intelligence services penetrated numerous computer systems tied to U.S. political parties and then “relayed” the email troves to WikiLeaks."

"Overall, the report describes a multipronged campaign that involved not only hacking, but overt propaganda on Russian-controlled news platforms and the extensive use of social media and even “trolls” to amplify voter discord in the United States and encourage opposition to Clinton."


"Even as intelligences officials looked back in their reports on the election, they also made a troublesome prediction: Russia isn't done intruding in U.S. politics and policymaking.

Immediately after the Nov. 8 election, Russia began a "spear-phishing" campaign to try to trick people into revealing their email passwords, targeting U.S. government employees and think tanks that specialize in national security, defense and foreign policy, the report said."

"Russia also used state-funded propaganda and paid "trolls" to make nasty comments on social media services, the report said. Moreover, intelligence officials believe that Moscow will apply lessons learned from its activities in the election to put its thumbprint on future elections in the United States and allied nations."

Defining the Darkness.11

The Washington Post:

"For weeks now, nightmares have been jolting Olga Perez Stable Cox awake several hours before sunrise. Sometimes she’s able to fall back asleep, but more often she finds herself lying in the dark, body tossing and thoughts racing, until she’s reduced to tears.

For as long as she has taught, Cox, a professor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., has prided herself on speaking freely. Then a clip of her calling Donald Trump’s election “an act of terrorism” went viral earlier this month, unleashing a wave of violent threats that forced her to end her semester early and flee her home in suburban Orange County.

Now she’s back home, but her life hasn’t returned to normal.

“Now, at 66, I’m paranoid,” Cox said. “It doesn’t feel good at all to be looking over my shoulder and wondering when an unfamiliar car pulls up across the street whether they’re going to take a picture of me or something worse — but that’s my life now. I feel like I’ve been attacked by a mob of people all across the country,” she added. “If they’re telling me over and over again that they want to shoot me in the face, how am I supposed to know if they’re going to do it or not?”

The mob Cox refers to doesn’t wield pitchforks and torches but hate-filled tweets, violent emails and threatening Facebook messages and phone calls. They are a virtual force with limited numbers but a seemingly unlimited supply of hate that has proved just as frightening for the longtime academic.

The harassment crested when Cox received an email from a man named Tim White that showed her home address, phone number and salary and threatened to spread the information “everywhere.” The email referred to Cox as a “libtard, Marxist, hatemonger, nutcase.” It was then, Cox said, that she could no longer stand to be in her home and decided to flee.

The professor turned her final week of class this semester over to a substitute, but Cox said her ordeal continued after the controversial video appeared on the O’Reilly Factor. The host referred to her statements as “gibberish” and “slander” and labeled the professor part of 'the totalitarian left.'”

Guess Who Really Wrote Shakespeare's Plays? (Hint: starts with an S)

The so-called controversy over who wrote Shakespeare's plays has always been irritating, based mostly on the uninformed and class-ridden assumption that a glover's son from little Stratford couldn't possibly have gone to London and written all those plays of genius.

While textual arguments may go on, a writer for the Guardian asserts that new research findings by manuscript scholar Heather Wolfe pretty much prove that the Shakespeare who wrote the plays was indeed the Shakespeare from Stratford, and not some Earl or other.

Whenever the "controversy" is resurrected, with everybody presenting their evidence, it's routinely asserted that alas nobody has the proof and the available information has been so thoroughly analyzed that it's unlikely to be settled unless something completely new turns up.

That turns out to be nonsense as well. Because Heather Wolfe found the evidence in the library. She just looked where earlier researchers didn't--in the controversy over the Stratford Shakespeare's attempts to get a family coat of arms approved. Though she doesn't make sweeping claims, she found enough to settle the matter--contemporaries knew that the Stratford Shakespeare and the playwright were the same.

This adds to what was already a pretty convincing case made by other scholars for Shakespeare as the author of his own plays. Opponents built their doubts on the class system. They assumed that someone brought up in a provincial town couldn't get an adequate education, but the Stratford Shakespeare had available to him a classical education more rigorous than most university students can get today.

So if it wasn't education, it must be because lower middle class provincials, perhaps even raised Catholic, couldn't possibly have that level of verbal expression, let alone genius.

Maybe a strange visitor from another planet with powers far beyond those of mortal men?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Show Me

Ever think at this point you'd watch an hour on healthcare?  I didn't.  And yet...I did.  And it gets better as it goes along.

Dark Age Ahead.2 Family and Community

Continuing discussion of Dark Ages Ahead (2004)by Jane Jacobs.  First part is here.

In warning of the dangers of a Dark Age ahead, Jane Jacobs singles out "five pillars of our culture that we depend upon to stand firm, and discuss what seem to me ominous signs of decay."

Her five pillars are community and family, higher education, "the effective practice of science and science-based technology," taxes and government, and "self-policing by the learned professions."

She immediately recognizes that these are not the most obvious, which would include "racism, profligate environmental destruction, crime, voter distrust of politicians and thus low turnouts for elections, and the enlarging gap between rich and poor along with attrition of the middle class."

She feels these second five have been recognized, and also sees them as results of the first five.  Elsewhere she notes that while her choice of five may not be the biggest threats leading to a Dark Age, they are the stabilizing pillars of the culture that we depend on to make corrections in our cultural course---so if we're on the way to catastrophe, these in a healthy state would help us change direction.

 But if they are weak, we are less able to change culturally to confront such challenges as racism and environmental degradation, and so we're left helplessly watching ourselves head into the Dark Age, knowing what the problems are, but unable to address them.

At the end of the book, Jacobs makes practical suggestions to reverse some of the deterioration in these five pillars.  In interviews about this book she insisted she is basically an optimist, and that despite the title, this is an optimistic book.

First pillar (chapter 2) Families Rigged to Fail

Jacobs makes a distinction between the family as a biological unit (whether nuclear or extended family) and the household, which is an economic unit.  A household can include renters and boarders, or be non-families altogether--from monasteries to armies.

She discusses some of the threats to the nuclear family that are well known, but one of her particular virtues is how she uses statistics.  She finds averages nearly useless, as the so-called divorce rate at 50%, which is made up of averaging very long marriages with very short ones.  But she acknowledges that there are higher proportions of divorce across all income classes, and postponements of marriage and having children, which contribute to lower birth rates.

But her major emphasis is economic.  For 40 years starting in the 1930s, the median income (meaning half made more, half made less) of a family was sufficient to buy a median-priced home or rent a median-priced apartment.  That changed in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, 90% of America families could not afford a median-priced house.  Rents also took up larger proportion of income.

This led to an epidemic of homelessness, and a middle class dependent on low inflation and the paper wealth of mortgages on their homes.  Families depended on at least two incomes to support a household, but it was a losing fight, for expenses increased--especially the need for a automobile or two.

In addition: "Two parents, to say nothing of one, cannot possibly satisfy the needs of a family-household.  A community is needed as well, for raising children, and also to keep adults reasonably sane and cheerful."

Here we're on traditional Jane Jacobs ground, as she describes all the resources a family needs, including those usually provided through government (roads, parks, public health, schools, libraries, emergency services) as well as non-profits and commercial establishments.

Then there are "thoroughly informal, thoroughly intangible, and probably the most important [resources]: speaking relationships among neighbors and acquaintances in addition to friends."

She describes why these are important, and how they function.  But these relationships are less likely in car-dominated suburbia, which also tends not to have a diversity of residents.  She notes how highways obliterated city neighborhoods and how, without mentioning her own substantial role, that kind of city planning was defeated in New York, saving the now fashionable neighborhood of SoHo.

She also describes in some detail how the triumph of the automobile was hardly market-based, it was the work of General Motors in stripping American cities of public transportation, especially the more efficient trolley systems.  (I did a detailed article on trolleys and light rail including the history, and while Jacobs' stats are damning, the history is a little more complicated.)

Some people would find this nostalgia or a quaint memory, but she insists on trolleys as "quieter, faster, more comfortable and more durable and economic" as well as less likely to destroy neighborhoods, and reminds us that when China capriciously jettisoned its ships, people soon forgot them.

Other factors could be added to those Jacobs outlines to contribute to loss of community, but an important concept here is that it is indeed a loss, and not a theoretical one.  For her, the mark of the Dark Ages is a societal forgetting--so that the memory of what was lost is also lost.  That includes specific knowledge (how to do things, how to fix things as well as facts and theories) and it includes what once had physical form, like communities and their landmarks.

Now with more migration and immigration, flexible and strong communities are needed more than ever.  She notes that these observations are fairly obvious, and that she will return to the problem of communities again.  But she warned:

"If the predicaments of North American families continue mounting and climb further up the income ladder, I have no idea what kinds of households will emerge to deal with needs that families are at a loss to fill.  My intuition tells me they will probably be coercive.  This is already true of the most swiftly multiplying and rapidly expanding type of American households at the turn of the millennium--prisons."