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.