Friday, September 27, 2019

Some Old Slogans for Continuing Debate on Climate Change

• Best pronounced with an accent from southern Scotland or the north of England: "Where there's muck, there's money." There's a history to environmental degradation for profit, and checking out old arguments can be useful to avoid accusations of bias in current arguments.

• "Posterity don't vote (and neither do most young people)."
Encourage them young folk to register to vote and get involved in boring elective politics. And remind old folks they might want to leave a livable world to their grandkids and/or avoid ending up Soylent Grey™ in their last days. On which subject, or part thereof ...
• "Let em all go to hell, / Except Cave Seventy-Six!" — First national anthem, according to Mel Brooks's 2000-year old man. It's preferable to "Hurray for me; and piss on you all," but on a global issue a global-size "circle of concern" is a good idea. Global disasters will take Cave 76 with them.
• "Know how to answer an Epicurean": Talmudic advice meaning a theistic Jew should learn how to argue with a materialist. Similarly, atheists should learn how (when and if) to argue with theists and even Fundamentalists.You don't have to agree on fundamentals to come to some practical conclusions and work together. (Variation from 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness: ""We can pull a sledge together without being kemmerings" [§6] — we don't have to have a bonded, long-term, loving relationship with people [or even like them] to cooperate on specific projects.)
• "Rhetoric: The Art of Ethical Persuasion": That's *persuasion*, getting people to do what you want them to do (and which they should do: that "ethical" part). Winning the argument and/or getting Truth is for philosophy. So let it go with "global warming" and "severe climate change" and drop insisting on "anthropogenic" if it'll get turn the discussion n from survival strategies to the deep causes of the phenomena and/or will have you come across in another in a long line of elitist puritans trying to shame people. Earth is heating up; this is a long-term trend; it's dangerous — What can and should we do about it? Cutting down carbon emissions is one obvious thing, especially advisable since we should be doing it anyway (our descendants might want some handy hydrocarbons of their own and may be very pissed off to learn, "You freaking burned it?!" See above on Soylent Grey™.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Biden and Bernie in 2019: Not a Primary for Old Men

I supported Bernie Sanders in the primary elections in 2016, and I am grateful that he's bringing into respectable political discourse some important ideas on economic justice and just general decency. 

like Joe Biden personally, and he's the only candidate I can literally like personally since he's the only one I've met. (Although with the number of candidates still in double digits, it's possible most Americans will be able to meet at least a couple.) Anyway, in 1984, I attended a conference on — wait to it — George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, in Akron, Ohio, and we all got stuck in the hotel by a blizzard. I ended up in the bar, and was sitting there alone, I think, when the Honorable Joseph R. Biden, U.S. Senator and one of the hot-shot guests of the conference came over, and we had a drink or two and talked. Or, as I recall it, he talked mostly, but he was a good talker, and I appreciated the company. He's a good guy.

But I'm not supporting either of them now, because I want the Democratic nominee to be an anti-Trump; and the major worry we should have with Trump (age 73)  — what should "scare the hell out of the American people" — is that he's a declining old man, losing words and syntax and his train of thought and what he's policy tweets were yesterday … and he has following him the "nuclear football" and immediate access to "the Gold Codes" for launching a nuclear strike. 

I'm suggesting that Democratic Party operatives, not the candidates, should go full Barry-Goldwater 1964, Daisy ad ageist on Donald Trump's ample ass and make clear that you don't want an increasingly incompetent old man making life and death decisions for a large portion of the human species and other complex forms of life on Earth. 

Such attacks are more difficult to make if your candidate is old and tends toward gaffes.

That's my main reason for not supporting Sanders (77) or Biden (76): just too old for the central question of this campaign: United States Doctrine is that we will use nukes first; Who do you want to make that call?

Also, I'm betting that young people will vote heavily against Trump on global warming alone and that the problem there is getting them registered and to the polls. Old people will be where a fair amount of the action is, and I think a lot of old folks just want a rest from the constant mishugaas of Trumpian governance by Tweet and shouted interviews. Part of anti-Trump is being calm and calming, which Biden can do, but not always; and just isn't in Sander's repertoire. 

Also, a campaign against Sanders would get very dirty very quick: an agnostic Jew from the East coast who calls himself a "democratic socialist" and can be easily presented as excitable and extreme. 

He's certainly stubborn: Sander is a social democrat, which has the word "democrat" in the stressed ("climax") position and back in 1967 could be presented casually in a comedy routine on prime-time television as where to locate the US political Center (about 1:45 in in "Mort Sahl Explains Politics"). He can't do it now, but Sanders once couldhave been more prudent and more exact, if less consistent, as in stubborn.

Again, Biden can be comfortable and comforting, but he slips up now and then, and he has a history. Most of that history is good; part of it makes it more difficult to attack Trump for his profoundly creepy — to start with — attitudes and actions toward women. 

The anti-Trump must be careful with his or her hands, and Biden has not always been.

So, Bernie and Joe: Thank you for your service; may you long continue it. But not as the Democratic candidate in 2020 against Donald J. Trump.


Having said that — this much for context for Biden's over-active hands: not excuse, but context.

In addition to the gender/power issues, in the deep background of Biden's history may be another turn of the wheel on base-line standards of personal space, modesty, and "touch" (an important word — usually but not always positive — in the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin). 

In the late 20th c., some of my Miami U (Oxford, OH) colleagues and I discussed briefly generational differences on nudity in both the men's and women's locker rooms on campus. The sample was small, but all and sundry from both groups had noted stricter nudity taboos among younger people than with our generation. (Gay liberation and cell phones with cameras both figure in here, but also the principle, "It's never 'just' fashion": there are fashions even in customs and morës [2 syllables], and fashions usually cycle. If the old farts are walking around the locker room with just a towel covering their for-real shame — or over the shoulder — "da younger guys" and gals may not get undressed at all and shower at home, or not.)

And there were tendencies in the late 20th c. sneered at as "touchy-feelie": eliminate the sneer, and there's a significant point here. I like Le Guin's work and her praise of "touch," but personally would prefer that good old republican slight bow in greeting one another and have little patience for the politics of personal physicalcontact ("pressing the flesh," manipulative PDA ["Public Displays of Affection"] where there really can't be more than a bit of abstract affection, as one might have for an actor one likes [rather precisely as for actors]).

So here's a long quote from  Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest (1972, 1976) on Terran ("Earthling") colonists vs. the native forest people (Athsheans) of a world being colonized, on touching and Touch:

Touch was a main channel of communication among the forest people. Among Terrans touch is always likely to imply threat, aggression, and so for them there is often nothing between the formal handshake and the sexual caress. All that blank was filled by the Athsheans with varied customs of touch. Caress as signal and reassurance was as essential to them as it is to mother and child or to lover and lover; but its significance was social, not only maternal and sexual. It was part of their language, it was therefore patterned, codified, yet infinitely modifiable. 'They’re always pawing each other,' some of the colonists sneered, unable to see in these touch-exchanges anything but their own eroticism which, forced to concentrate itself exclusively on sex and then repressed and frustrated, invades and poisons every sensual pleasure, every humane response [...]."

Times change, baselinesfor behavior change. And those changed times on "touchy-feelie" taken too literally is another reason the Presidential campaign against Donald J. Trump is no contest for old men.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Ageist Comment on the Candidacy of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden

 NOTE: I supported Bernie Sanders last time around and still like him. Joe Biden is the only candidate I've actually met (although if the Democratic list gets any longer, most Americans may end up having met at least one candidate, just by probabilities) — and I like Biden. Still:

The advice given to Harry Truman has broader use: To get major things done in the USA, one often must "scare the hell out of the American people." One area for fear may turn out to be economic, another is more immediately existential.

The US has a formal doctrine of "First Use" of nuclear weapons. The US has a formidable nuclear arsenal and has placed great trust in the President on how/when to use those weapons. The relevant laws need to be changed, but the launch codes are currently available to an angry old man of limited stability. 

Donald Trump's opponent should not make the argument her- or himself — it should be less of an argument than innuendo, and such innuendo is the job of VP candidates and "surrogates" — but the Presidential candidate running against Trump must be clearly different from Trump, including not another old man.

The candidate must be someone who can be relied on not just to take the 3 AM call but to take the midnight visit by the officer with the launch codes — and not a visit the President has invited.

Friday, June 7, 2019

"Othering" and iTunes

Note: I've been reading The Mueller Report and have fallen behind on my blogging. Here's a "two-fer": 

It's not just "'I' and 'the Other'" anymore; some places nowadays one can use "other" as a verb or "verbals": "to other" some group, or engage in "othering" them.

Okay, but a more old-fashioned "other" can be used to connect. My favorite since at least 1984 has been "alcohol and *other* drugs": putting ethyl alcohol back among the recreational drugs, reminding recreational drinkers of ethyl alcohol of their community with other drug users (and alcoholics of their community with other addicts), inviting The Straight People to test overly-broad assertions about "drugs" and "drug users" with their own experiences with, say, Chardonnay.

There's also "humans and *other* animals." We may be "the beauty of the world, / The paragon of animals," as asserted by Hamlet and HAIR, but we're still animals: in 20-Question terms of Animal/Vegetable/Mineral or fancier divisions of Earth's life into Archaea, Bacteria, Plants, and Animals <>. As animals capable of reason and even, apparently, consciousness, it's good to avoid cockiness and to keep our kin and kinships in mind.

On the MacBook Pro I use as a very expensive radio, I listened this morning to a recorded episode of NPR's discussion show _The 1A_ in what may technically be podcast format. The topic was the demise of Apple's iTunes and its replacement by three apps: Video (?), Music, Podcasts. At least until the last five minutes of the show, the word "podcast" occurred only once I can recall, and that was when they named the three replacement apps. At no time did they mention audiobooks (a word Spell-Check rejects).

Interesting given that the _1A_ audience skews old and that as recently as one of the Gulf Wars DOONESBURY could have a gag on US enlisted personnel listening to music while a playlist for their older officers was precisely audiobooks.

Do fish know they're in water? Do large numbers of people walking around in bubbles of their own tunes realize that some people who appear to be in similar microcosms are actually in semi-permeable membranes of words? (And will Apple think it worth their effort to include audiobooks in their instructions for "migrating" to the new apps?)

One bit of irony: The audiobook I'm currently listening to again — on my iPhone operating as a very expensive iPod — is Benedict Anderson's IMAGINED COMMUNITIES. I suspect there are ways in which Apple vs. PC and the various music communities have more reality than, say, The United States or The United Kingdom or the other national "imagined communities" that are at the heart of Anderson's book.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"No In-Between in Abortion Debate" — For a Very Dangerous Conflict

A long letter to the editor of, or submission for a short column in, The Ventura County Star, in a continuing debate on abortion:

Re: Noel D’Angelo’s May 22 letter (part of a "thread")

By recent definitions of life, a fertilized egg is alive with a specific individual life, as is the ball of cells that it forms and on through the stages of embryological development to a fetus and newborn. However don’t say, "All life is sacred" and we can’t destroy such life if you’re eating a bacon burger or a carrot or just used a hand-sanitizer.  Unless you’re a very strict Jain* or vegan, you routinely kill various forms of life or have them killed for you (and often eat them); and even the most life-respecting among us usually wants a robust immune response to invading bacteria, which will kill those bacteria.

If you want to go back to old ideas of life, one idea would be whether or not an embryo or fetus is nephesh for the Hebrew word or the Greek equivalents: So is a fetus a "living being" in a Biblical or more generally ancient sense? Well, one answer is that "living beings" have the breath of life — note Adam’s story in Genesis — and one interpretation there is that a fetus takes on that sort of life with the first breath.**

Necessarily if perhaps arrogantly, we humans usually declare human life is special, and the question with abortion on one side is when and if a human zygote, embryo, or fetus is or becomes human: a person under the law with rights that can be balanced against those of the fully-human mother.

A consistent, coherent, and logical argument can be made if you go from "life-breath" to soul and have humans special because we are "ensouled" and place the moment of ensoulment early in fetal development or perhaps at the moment of conception. Doing so, you have unborn babies in the womb and, to push the argument, unbaptized unborn babies, possibly damned to hell if not allowed to be born and baptized.*** Q.E.D.

A consistent, coherent, logical, historical, and powerful argument can also  be made on how abortion laws have become a fairly recent twist in the millennium-long patriarchal efforts to control and oppress women, and must be opposed if societies are to recognize the full humanity of women. Also Q.E.D.

And people can argue that the United States Constitution sets up a secular Republic and that serious efforts to inflict upon it the rules of a Christian nation is an attack upon that Republic, to be opposed by all who’ve sworn or affirmed to defend the Constitution and our Republic "against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

All of which is why abortion is a highly divisive and dangerous conflict. And it is why we need America to move into the mushy middle and continue to accept the Roe vs. Wade compromise. That position is not logically consistent and elegant and historically informed, but it is tolerable to most Americans.

First trimester of so: We don’t feel that there’s a person yet.

Approaching the time of birth: Not yet with the rights of a full human if weighed against the mother, but getting there, and not to be killed unless that death is really, really necessary.

In between: Some reasonable regulation, which respects the rights of that fully-human mother.

And meanwhile we need a major campaign for effective contraception so that abortion is legal, safe, and indeed rare.

We are dealing here with definitions of "human being" and the nature of our country. These are issues about which people feel very strongly and over which they have killed one another: killing fully-developed, obviously human, human people, and in large numbers (this is part of what World War II was about, and the US Civil War).

Roe v. Wade isn’t intellectually neat and pretty, but it has worked. Most Americans can support it, even against our more logically rigorous fellow citizens. It’s something we can live with.

** Ward, Roy Bowen. "The Use of the Bible in the Abortion Debate," Saint Louis University Public Law Review 13.1 (1993); 391-408, here III.A.1, "Person" in the Bible, "Nephesh and Breath."
*** — On those unbaptized babies:

The Day of Doom
By Michael Wigglesworth (1631–1705)
Then to the bar, all they drew near
  Who died in infancy,
And never had or good or bad        235
  Effected personally,
But from the womb unto the tomb
  Were straightway carried,
(Or at the last ere they transgress’d)
  Who thus began to plead:

[answered at length by "the judge most dread, ending"]
"A crime it is, therefore in bliss
  You may not hope to dwell
But unto you I shall allow        355
  The easiest room in hell.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Abortion: Long-Range Compromise plus High-Tech Quick Fix

It's now behind a paywall, but long ago — back when Roe vs. Wade was more clearly "settled law" — I had a guest column in The Cincinnati Enquirer suggesting a combination of long-term compromise and technological/sociological quick fix.
The technological parts were (1) the development of effective birth control for both men and women, where the ordinary condition would be sterility until one took active steps to become fertile; and (2) the ability to remove and store a living embryo or early fetus until an appropriate surrogate mother (perhaps a male, although that hadn't occurred to me) could be brought on line, so to speak, or the fetus brought to term "ex utero, in vitro" — artificial wombs as satirically handled in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and a utopian possibility in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.
A fetus at X-months would be assigned personhood under the law, with a right to life but no right to development in the uterus of an unwilling woman.
Unwanted pregnancies would need to be rare and would be; and removal, storage, and transplantation of the embryo (ideally) or fetus would be paid for by the State unless the couple had refused contraception (or changed their minds), in which case they'd — both of the genetic parents — would pay for the procedures with community service (as a matter of equity for people without much money).
I freely admitted this was a desperate resolution, but noted that abortion involves definitions of "human being"/"person under the law," and of the nature of the United States, which some of us have sworn to defend as a secular Republic, others value as a Christian Nation, and most just accept the mushiness of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag (of all things) that throws together the US as a Republic and a Nation (lately "under God") and claims "liberty and justice for all" when it's obvious a guilty convicted criminal got justice but loses liberty. Clafifying such matters can kill off a lot of people.

I think you can find the Enquirer article here.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Politics and the American Language: Clarity and/vs. Squishiness

Part of what makes working political systems work is occasional squishy lack of clarity. In the US, one swears or affirms loyalty to the Constitution of the United States, but the far more frequent patriotic exercise is pledging allegiance to a flag that represents the Republic that is also a Nation and (lately) a Nation under God, claiming liberty and justice for all (even though people justly imprisoned are clearly without much liberty). And neither the Pledge nor our oaths or affirmations mention "the American State," with "statehood" usually applied to the various American states federated into a Union that may or may not be as indivisible as the purported Nation.

We are now engaged in a not-so-great, not-so-civil figurative war, much of which is getting down to what the US is.

Donald Trump and his core followers have claimed the emotionally-compelling romance of "the Nation"; his opponents often talk of "our democracy." I think opponents to Trump should concede that he and his followers have effectively seized the great Myth of the Nation and could attempt to claim a pure People's Democracy, with the Leader embodying and channeling the will of the People ("Folk," "masses"), by-passing the moribund and/or pernicious institutions of "the Deep State."

It's time for opponents of a potential Trumpian mass movement to claim "the Republic" and talk about "crucial democratic institutions in our Republic." That avoids the embarrassing fact that the US is obviously not a direct democracy and only intermittently a participatory democracy and has un- and anti-democratic elements we're still working on (and some of which — like an independent judiciary, some form of a Senate — are good ideas). The Republic can also be a potent idea: a social contract one chooses and re-chooses, not just gets born into; an ideal to strive for, a way of governing and way of life we need to preserve, protect, and defend — as many of us have sworn to do — against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Saving Our Nation's Democracy from Enemies of the People: An Exercise in "Red-Teaming"

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice 
have each of them several different meanings which cannot be 
reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy,
 not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to 
make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally 
felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: 
consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, 
and fear that they might have to stop using that word 
if it were tied down to any one meaning. 
Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.  —
George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" (1946)

“Well, Doctor [Franklin], what have we got—
a Republic or a Monarchy?”
  “A Republic, if you can keep it.” — 
Exchange with Benjamin Franklin leaving  the
Constitutional Convention of 1787, as reported

There is one and only one official democratically elected by the American Nation: the U.S. President. And that President represents, embodies, and implements the spirit and will of our Nation. The purest democracy, therefore, consists in ensuring the People's will is fulfilled, allowing the majority — the true Nation bathed in the blood of patriots and rooted in native soil — to rule.
The Deep State of bloated bureaucracies and corrupted institutions must not be permitted to thwart the will of the People, the demos in "democracy." These enemies of the People are to be circumvented or pushed aside, and if the Congress or a political party or lying media consistently attack the People embodied in the President, these enemies are to be neutralized.
"Lock them up!" and let them be happy they are no longer taken out and guillotined or shot as a matter of Revolutionary Justice or Racial purification.
Perfect democracy is direct and spiritual: the Rule of the People — the real Nation, purged and purified — not that of law or moribund assemblies. 
And that, brothers and sisters, is why I for one repeat the line of 1950s conservative curmudgeons that the US is not a democracy but a republic, and not a nation in the sense that, say, Japan is a nation: pretty much one people with one religious tradition (in two main strains in Japan), one history, one Emperor, one language — which at least so far the US is not. This is why I recommend to the Blue Team stressing our Republic, the rule of law, and a tradition that includes an ideal of majority decision, not majority rule (where you ignore and/or screw minorities), within a "mixed constitution" that includes Federalism and divided governments with a law-making legislative branch, an executive, and a judiciary (in that order).

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer — One Nation (or People), One Empire, One Leader — is Nazi German stuff; Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality is Czarist Russian (now making a comeback). "We are the wretched refuse" as Bill Murray's character says in STRIPES, the mongrels of the Earth; and a good part of our good traditions is rule of law, and the institutions of the Republic.

If we can keep it. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Student Essay in the 1960s, Russian Interference in US Election 2016 — And "Misprision of Felony"

I learned the phrase "misprision of felony early in my teaching career when a student in Rhetoric 101 — think 1st semester College Composition — responded to a personal narrative assignment with the story of a young woman who'd joined heR friends in perjury and maybe insurance fraud in a context I've long-ago forgotten.
I sought advice from older colleagues and was told that since the event was in the past and directly harmed at most only a fictive individual — a corporation — and indirectly only their other customers for small sums, my duty to protect the confidentiality of student work outweighed my other social duties, and, if necessary, I should go to prison rather than betray the student/teacher relationship.
"Prison?" I asked.
I was told prosecution was highly unlikely, but it looked like a felony was committed, I had information about said felony, and, if I didn't report it, I might be guilty of "misprision of felony," at that place and time at least, itself a felony.
When the student came in for our "tutorial" conference, I started out with how we should talk a bit about her very nice development of the Persona of the essay, her "I", the protagonist-Narrator of the story who, in the story, committed perjury and what just might look like insurance fraud.
And after a moment for that to sink in, that is what we talked about.
Okay, so much for confession for me. (In my adult life I also advocated draft resistance and apparently violated Federal and possibly Provincial election law in Canada going with a group to have a great time in Toronto and informally advise on the Pierre Trudeau campaign. "But that was in another country, / And besides" — we yanks were with the George McGovern campaign and, as the US election worked out, maybe didn't have much advice to give.) But —
But what about the Family Trump and people representing Russia and the possibility that members of the 2016 Trump campaign new that a foreign entity or two were messing around in a US election. Is there "misprision of election-law violation"? Did they have a legal as well as a civic duty to report what could have been some sort of crime. Is even the non-action of silence a crime far more a crime here as it could have been for me as a writing teacher?
I did say I taught Rhetoric 101; so the question may be rhetorical.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Editing/Ethics (Legal) Issue: Royal Pudding Jingle from Long Ago

Rich, rich, rich in flavor!
Smooth, smooth, smooth as silk,
More food energy than fresh, whole milk!"

The folklore, anyway was that Royal Pudding was required by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or other regulator to remove their eminently memorable jingle because it was misleading. The two main ingredients in Royal Instant Vanilla, e.g., are "SUGAR [and] FOOD STARCH MODIFIED, " with some cottonseed oil lower on the list, but there, for your desert basics of sugar and fat. So of course mixing Royal Pudding with "fresh, whole milk" yields an enticing dish with "more food energy" per unit weight than even pretty high-caloric "fresh whole milk."

The FTC — or whoever — ruled that the ad was misleading, making Royal Pudding sound downright healthful as opposed to a high-calorie dessert suitable for only occasional eating, unless one wanted to gain weight (a high-calorie pudding helped save the life of one of my cats when he needed to start eating again after a serious jaw injury).

But "food energy" is what is at issue here — the thing in itself — and "calories" just the unit of measurement in colloquial American; so the ad as it stands should be preferred, one might argue, to stating that the prepared pudding has "more calories per unit of weight than whole milk" (ca. 19 kcal per ounce in one on-line chart, vs. 100 per ounce for Jello Chocolate pudding according to another).

Sooo ... folks who edit now and then or for a living — how would you come down here? Exactness of meaning as stated, or what most of an audience will hear? And lawyers out there (or just fans): Should it be illegal to mislead an audience speaking truth to their ignorance or just failure to think through a jingle?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Equality Before the Law: One Idea, and Not Always Dominant

There was a pre-Watergate turning point in US popular culture in a film where Harry Morgan, who'd played straight-arrow Detective Joe Friday's partner, and Peter Lawford, JFK's brother-in-law, were agents of the law facing the problem of getting sensitive (medical? psychiatric?) records. The Harry Morgan character said the only way he knew to do a search was to get a warrant. The Peter Lawford character gave him a look — and quick cut to the two of them with small flashlights going through records in a darkened office. Then the Charles Bronson character in DEATH WISH (1974 f.) and a line of figures responding to the rhetorical question and the misquoted answer, "Rules and regulations — who needs them? / Throw them out the door." 

Combine that with the literally ancient idea that laws are for the little people, or, from at least The Code of Hammurabi on, the idea of different laws for different classes and classification — and there's a point many of us need to deal with. Equality before the law is one theory. And sometimes it's "All the people who (fully) count" are equal before the law. There's a line in a play by Aristophanes of a young citizen claiming his rights: "I'm Athenian, male, of age, and free" — democracy was for men and citizens, not resident aliens, women, girls, boys, or slaves. 

"No one is above the law" is an ideal, and not one everybody supports all the time.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Few Words on the Anti-Vaccination Movement

At least since people figured out that PLAGUE!!! is contagious, public health issues have been special cases where community safety overrides what are usually individual rights. So long as herd immunity is enough to ensure the health of the group, we should defer to people's: 
• (highly justified) suspicions of Big Pharma, 
• somewhat less justified dedication to the unsapped power and purity of their precious bodily fluids,
• desires to keep out of their bodies the artificial, "unnatural," and/or toxic or related to the toxic or pathological,
• beliefs in belief and the healing power of faith and/or Nature,
• usually true and useful ideology that their bodies are their own to do with as they will,
• usually true and useful ideology that "Freedom isn't free" and requires taking risks and the occasional literal or figurative blood of patriots and/or the innocent to figuratively water and fertilize the tree of Liberty. 
When herd immunity is insufficient, however — uh, no. Then we-all usually understanding and peaceful folk should use social pressure to encourage and if necessary State power to coerce getting the goddamn shots already.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Climate Change / Political Changes: The Need for Historical Background

We need more books like Brian Fagan's 2008 The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations: history books, mostly, that help us understand that climate change isn't just  about changes in some abstract "the environment," but about great changes in human politics.

This book is about "the Medieval Warm Period," ca. 800-1300 C.E. and its generally positive effects in, e.g., northern Europe and utterly devastating effects elsewhere, e.g., in already warm, dry places such as long-term droughts in what's now the U.S. southwest.

These Medieval data can cut different ways, as a warning to try to reduce the speed of global warming and try to mitigate its effects — or to say that climate change ca. 900 obviously wasn't caused by human industrial activity, so we needn't reduce current economic activity with its benefits and irrelevant, or even beneficial greenhouse gas emissions. 

To quote for background one on-line pundit, "Climate scientists now understand that the Medieval Warm Period was caused by an increase in solar radiation and a decrease in volcanic activity, which both promote warming. Other evidence suggests ocean circulation patterns shifted to bring warmer seawater into the North Atlantic." So why should we try to reduce greenhouse gasses?

The question isn't rhetorical. For one thing, the article linked last paragraph notes that there's no evidence for a recent increase of solar radiation, nor, in our times, significant decrease of volcanic activity;, and I'll note that currently there's not a damn thing the human species can do about either. We can reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses, which will slow the rate of warming, and we should reduce those emissions anyway to save some easily extractable hydrocarbons for our descendants. They might find safe and efficient ways to use petrochemicals and need some — and be very pissed off at earlier generations who went and burned them. 

They may also be pissed off at a re-run, but worse, of, especially, long-term, catastrophic droughts. 

In addition to the obvious, some of the effects of climate changes indeed include the geo-political. William Grimes's New York Times review of The Great Warming has an arresting sentence indicating that what was so good for much of Europe may have had negative effects: "Although data remain sketchy, it seems probable that extended droughts dried up pastureland on the Central Asian steppe, propelling the armies of Genghis Khan westward." The career of the Great Khan (1206-1227 C.E.) achieved some impressive empire building that, in Europe, arguably set the stage for what was once called the Renaissance, but unarguably resulted in an extraordinarily high body-count. Matthew White tallies up Genghis Khan's "multicide" score at 40 million, which puts the Mongol invasions just behind World War II (1939-1945) for destruction of human life. 

And destruction of the great Muslim civilizations at the center of Eurasia — which in a twisted way brings me to where I started thinking about this post. 

I had typed out on Facebook a quotation from Introduction to Medieval Europe: 300-1500 by James Westfall Thompson and Edgar Nathaniel Johnson (New York: Norton: 1937). In an early chapter on "The Empire of the Arabs," Thompson and Johnson give Mohammed and the early leaders of the Umma credit for organizational genius and make the point that medieval Europe was a side-show as civilizations of the time went. They are far from "climatic determinists," with an Index innocent of such references. And they fully recognized the arrogance and stupidity of the remaining Roman Empire and Persia in their continuing wars and machinations. Still, Thompson and Johnson asserted (in 1937!) that "The expansion of the Arabs is best understood in the light of previous movements out of the desert [...]. These were constant phenomena, to be explained by the vicissitudes of climatic conditions, which always drove nomadic peoples outwards. [...] The [Arabian] peninsula itself was experiencing a periodic desiccation, which made life within it ever more unbearable and drove its inhabitants to seek relief elsewhere. It seems, accordingly, highly probably that what occurred would have happened even without Mohammed and Islam" (p. 166). 

"What occurred" was the end of Late Antiquity, with the final end of the Roman Empire, and the Persian — and Rome in the East (the Byzantine Empire), reduced to a regional power. T & J and those with similar theories may be wrong, but it's a point to consider, along with the possibility that the following round of "desiccation" in the Medieval Warm Period led to that drying out of parts of the Eurasian steppe leading to the western thrust of the Mongol invasions and, let's say, a figurative arrow from a powerful bow through the figurative heart of "The Empire of the Arabs."

It's possible that two major changes in the course of human history had as one basic cause the long-term droughts — the "desiccation" — brought on by global warming. Mohammed and Genghis Khan count, and their decisions are important. Still, one thing Karl Marx got right was that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please [...], but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." And those circumstances include a physical environment that is both beyond human control and influenced by our actions.

Unless we want some really bad circumstances for the next generation, we'd better get right some important decisions — and soon. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Democratic Authority (Mostly Small-Scale)

"We elected you, and we can diselect you." —
Member of Chicago Grammar School Club to
President of the Club (me,  mid-1950s)

“And this took place in the United States, a
culture that educates its children against
blind obedience.” — Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt
on Milgram obedience experiments, in Ethology:
The Biology of Behavior(1970: p. 448; ch. 18)

Part of the lore of US warfare in Iraq is that the neoCons et al. who devised it didn't plan much for the aftermath in part because they firmly believed that the default setting — the universal ideal — for human government is what we in the US vaguely call "democracy." Get rid of oppressors like Saddam Hussein or the Taliban, and voilà! soon, very soon the society is moving toward becoming Denmark or even the greatness of America. Similarly for the disintegration of the USSR and Warsaw Pact — and, for a while, it indeed did look like a number of countries would “have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people” might actually expand. 

That Big Idea didn't hold up well, which did not surprise those who studied the development of actually-existing societies we call, still very loosely, democratic. That's mostly because the range of what we (loosely) call "democracy" does develop and has social and economic and cultural roots, roots that may not go down as deep as we believe — but it needs those roots.

I'm not going to deal much with Big Ideas, though there is an idea here: by age 20 I knew that democracy is far from natural and the general culture does not do a good job teaching it.

Back in high school Civics — and in grammar school before that — back in a time and place where one had to pass an exam on the US and State Constitutions and governments to get a grammar school or high school diploma — in Chicago in the mid-1950s, Mr. James Connelly taught us in Civics that the United States was a federal republic, where sovereignty rested in the People, who established a constitution giving authority to a government of elected and appointed officials, officials who then ran the government but served the People. That was our official ideology, our small "r" republican doctrine, and I believed it and figured most Americans believed ... except —

Except there was that memory from back with my grammar school club and the doctrinally ambiguous challenge to me, personally, "We elected you, and we can diselect you." Okay, "potestas in populo, auctoritas in senatu" in a formula I'd later learn from Hannah Arendt and have driven home in street demonstrations: as Mr. Connelly said, the People always retained sovereign power, from which they conferred authority  which they could take back. Except that my grammar-school classmate had questioned my authority precisely because it had been given to me by him and the other members of the club. The very limited authority of club officers was something he understood and figuratively owned and ... therefore, it seemed didn't see it as very binding.

Weird. We were taught and told and, well, indoctrinated that legitimate authority came from the People. The kid back in high school accepted — willingly and perhaps too eagerly — the authority of parents and teachers and others he had no say about, but resisted even highly limited peer authority over himself that he himself had granted.

The old “consent of the governed” bit wasn’t working out, and my fellow American youngster preferred authority over him to be built into the system and pretty much based in age and status and other criteria beyond his control. I saw that, felt it a bit as disrespect, and then did what most of us most of the time do when dealing with contradictions and what I much later learned to call cognitive dissonance: I mostly ignored it and moved on.

Mostly, but the experience stuck, and moving on included high school and college fraternities where I served a term as secretary of each and used the office to rewrite portions of our constitutions and make sure the guys debated the matter and voted on it. Get them to "buy in" as we would later say by exercising their power over our organizing documents, acknolwedge the authority and feel the worth of the group by participating in governing the group.

My college fraternity chapter in the 1960s, though, offered additional opportunities. At least back then, and on our campus, pledges lived in the house, which offered ... well, some pretty obvious opportunities. Our pledge-training (sic) policy was laisse-faire through the class of 1965: laisse-faire combined with occasional strong punishments for screwing up (“PT,” “sweat sessions”). The class of ’65 had problems, and it became clear we, the fraternithy Chapter, were doing things wrong.

So a few of us checked out how parts of the military handled training, and in my course work I was also studying some relevant anthropology. We went over to a system of “little things”: rules for minor behaviors, none of which individually worth rebelling against but all of which together were practice in accepting the Chapter’s authority.

It worked. 

Usually it worked, and in one case that impressed me, with a guy in the class of ’66 I’ll call Terry. 

Now, a couple of upperclassmen in the chapter were outright geniuses. Terry wasn’t, but he was brilliant, going on to Harvard Law after graduation and not long after that doing some pro bono work that established some important law. Me? Well, an eminent Medievalist, after a couple or more gin and tonics once corrected some self-deprecating remark I made with, more or less, “No, Rich; you’re bright. Not brilliant, but bright” — and that’s about right. I was also a house officer when Terry pledged, and he kind of almost sort of respected my intelligence. He was smarter than I was or am — and as ... let’s say as firm in his opinions as I — but I had more experience; and as ambiguous as we arranged for pledges to feel about their status, he could figure out I outranked him. And the one time he screwed up (under the rules we’d set up), I was the one who quietly, privately, but in some detail, clarified for him that he was less clever and generally estimable than he thought. He was furious while being chewed out, but he submitted to it. 

We became friends, and one night after he initiated, and we were talking in my room, I said I really had to get to sleep and said good night, and he responded, “Good night, Mr. Erlich” — and then proceeded to pound his fists into the walls, while I said, “We got you! We got into your head!” 

As we had: I was a house officer, and when Terry was a pledge he called me to my face “Mr. Erlich” and threw in the occasional “sir.” (We hadstudied the military and some ideas on child-rearing of the traditional, though non-abusive, sort.)

Little rules, fairly easy to remember, very easy to obey, none worthy of rebellion — but often just there, frequently, calling for obedience and functioning to instill, figurative drop by figurative drop, some acceptance of the authority of the chapter.

I helped set up the program, but with a condition for my participation, one necessary for my integrity as someone who had issues with authority, even when I was in authority.

Between the end of Informal Initiation (“Hell Week”) and formal, ritualistic initiation, the guys undergoing initiation cleaned themselves up and then had this especially liminal period — I saidwe’d looked at some anthropology — marked by time alone in a quiet room, sitting for their Pledge Test. The test covered the usual quasi-useful history of the fraternity and such, but had one and only one question they had to get right, and keep taking the damn test until (sometimes with coaching) they did get. I had insisted that they answer the question, “What is the rationale for the pledge rules such as?”, and here some were listed. 

To initiate they had to figure out that many of the rules were arbitrary and intentionally so. If they studied during study hours that was in part because we told them to study, but also in part common sense. If they ordinarily used the back door to the house and the back stairs — that was onlybecause we told them to do so.

Part of the goal with a fraternity (beside and along with more serious partying) is to control to a fair extent where we lived: at least being able to paint a room the color we wanted and set rules for behavior. For that we needed pledges to go from being trained to accept authority of those above them in a hierarchy to active brothers — full citizens, so to speak — who would accept consciously the authority of the constituted group as group, and of peers they’d elected. We needed them to sit in a circle of approximate equals as a chapter and accept the authority of rules they’d help make.

And there was nothing inevitable or all that natural about the process, and it didn’t always work even for a small fraternity chapter, with well-schooled if not necessarily educated guys, who lived in a Republic with an official policy of popular government and official democratic ideals and vocabulary.

Note the official. About the time Terry was learning to call me “Mr.” and throw in the occasional “sir,” Stanley Milgram was conducting his problematic experiments on Obedience to Authorityand demonstrating how easy it is to get obedience where there’s mystique, in the Milgram case the mystique of “Science” and an authoritarian acceptance of rank. And Milgram et al. did that even “in the United States, a culture” far less than Austrian Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt thought “that educates its children against blind obedience.” We are a culture that trainsmany in obedience, to those with real power over us — as in the ability to help or hurt us — but also to those with the right mystique.

Fraternity chapters are short on mystique. And the moral here, if you’re still with me, is that one of the obstacles to achieving democratic-republican ideals is that (statistically) normal humans are like that kid in my grammar school club with little respect for authority he understood and had granted — even if all too willing to obey people just there, over him in a hierarchy over which he has no power. N = 1, proves very little, and not more with N = 75 or so for my fraternity chapter over a couple of years; but these small experiences were enough to get me accept the possibility that even Americans really aren’t that big on democracy or republicanism but are susceptible to confident fanatics like the Taliban, or “strong-men” like Saddam Hussein or authoritative bullies like Donald Trump, even when those strong-men/bullies have only the most limited charisma. 

We need more teaching of Civics and teachers like Mr. Connelly. And we need more parents and teachers and administrators and coachesand other older folk more often stepping back and letting young people function in organizations of the kids, by the kids, and for the kids — even when the kids may seriously mess up. We need to provide training starting very young in choosing which authority and authorities to accept, and to prefer authority based in the ideal of republics with liberal-democratic aspirations.