Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Parting Thought For 2016

This is my last 2016 post.  I started this blog almost eight years ago, in the early months of Barack Obama's presidency, at a time when all things seemed possible and hope was alive in a way that I hadn't experienced in a long time.  As this year ends, however, hope seems to barely register for many people I know, let alone flicker.  On many days, I am one of those people.

It's worth remembering the many good things Obama accomplished, not the least of which was pulling America back from the brink of a second Great Depression.  Most importantly (and with a loud pu! pu! pu! for his final days in office), he will have served two full terms as the first African-American president in our nation's history.  He and his family have carried an incredible historic weight for eight years, and done so with amazing grace and character.  Whether all of us realize it or not, all of us are better off for that fact.

And, ironically, his presidency has exposed the extent to which America is still a very deeply racist nation, and is still unwilling and/or unable to deal with that fact.  One of the most glaring recent examples of this was provided by Bill O'Reilly, who recently offered this "thought" on one of his broadcasts:  "The left wants power taken away from the white establishment ... ".

That is as breathtaking an admission of white privilege as any newscaster on American media has ever presented.  If there was any doubt about the entrenched nature of bigotry in this country, there can't be any now.  We all need to face this fact every day, especially from January 20th onward. Those who will be in power from then on have no respect for Barack Obama, or anything accomplished by any African-American.  They do not stand for America.  They stand for whiteness. Never be ashamed of opposing them, and never be intimidated by them.

The path to a unified, better America runs through the need to stand up to them.  I hope all of you are ready.  I am.  May your 2017 experience help you to find the way to play your part.

And, Speaking Of Renewables ...

... take a look at this.

The question of renewability is not by any means limited to energy.  Until we perfect interplanetary travel, we've only got one planet, and therefore only one source of natural resources.  This has already started to force us to look at alternative methods of producing industrial and consumer goods, using materials that would not have been even considered previously because other, more usable materials were more abundant, and therefore cheaper.  But those materials are rapidly disappearing, and the need for alternative resources, and alternative methods of production, has never been greater.

The advent of 3D printing offers one potential solution.  In a very short time, this new technology has already grown to the point at which, as shown in the CNN story, it's capable of producing over 200 products, including toys, jewelry and home decorations.  It's not at all difficult to imagine that, as 3D printing is refined and improved, it will ultimately begin to dominate manufacturing worldwide, as robotics have already done.

And it's also not difficult to imagine opposition to the growth of this new technology, from potentially displaced workers in existing industries to the potentially displaced owners of those industries. Likewise, there will be debates about how the profits from this and other, similar advances are to be shared, just as those debates are advancing now with respect to other advances in productivity.

I wonder if we will ever be able to find a way to celebrate and promote our inventiveness while doing a better job of sharing the benefits of what that inventiveness produces.  I'm grateful for new technologies like 3D printing.  Along with that gratitude, however, comes the hope that we can find a way to make sure that everyone benefits from it.

And Cheers For The City Of Las Vegas!

It would be hard to think of a city that consumes electricity more conspicuously than does Las Vegas. And yet, in spite of that fact, this past year saw a major milestone in its history, as well as the nation's history.  Las Vegas is now entirely powered by renewable energy.

I came of age in the 1970s, a time during which oil-producing countries had us in the grip of our dependency on their product.  We were, as we are now, a nation that runs on electricity, and fossil fuels were the only way of producing it in mass quantities.  This fact had an unfortunate effect on our foreign policy, forcing us into overseas alliances that made a mockery of our professed values as a nation.  And many of the nations with whom we had these alliances showed no inclination to show us any real respect, or mercy.  9/11 was a particularly horrible example of that tendency.

Despite what those in the fossil fuel industry, and their supporters in the media (George Will, take note) said to the contrary, it has always been within our power to free ourselves from the grip of overseas despots who used their ability to provide oil to manipulate and terrorize us.  All we had to do is remember that this country was meant to belong to the people, and not the fossil fuel industry. All we had to do is rely on the initiative and resourcefulness that made America great in the first place.  All we had to do is take Jimmy Carter seriously when he said that the struggle for energy independence was the moral equivalent of war.

Thankfully, Barack Obama has been a president who took the challenge and opportunity of energy independence seriously.  If this nation ever achieves total reliance on renewable resources, he will have played a large part in making it happen.

And, in the meantime, VIVA LAS VEGAS!

Cheers For The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission!

The Commission entered this year with a backlog of 95 properties that had been proposed as potential New York City landmarks.  Today, the backlog is cleared, and 41 properties (more specifically, 39 individual buildings and 2 historic districts) have been added to the list of amazing structures that do so much to define an amazing city.  Here is a link to the list of 41.

New York, more than ever, is the subject of development pressures, not just from in the city, but from all over the world.  Sometimes, especially in the past year, it seems as if every day brings news of some faceless, charmless megastructure that will do little more than make someone a lot of money from people who can afford to pay it--and, in a decade or so, be torn down and replaced by some even more faceless, charmless megastructure.

Why am I, along with others, so fascinated by older buildings?  Maybe its as simple as the fact that they were built in a time when money wasn't the only reason for putting them up in the first place. They were seen as embodying other virtues--stability, beauty, and designs that allowed them to shine without overwhelming their architectural neighbors.  It's the history of what happened in many of these places, of course, that also makes them special.  And often that history is more significant than the architecture.

Whatever the reason, be it architecture or history, it's important to save as many of these treasures as possible.  They tell us much about where we have been, and can serve as guideposts to the future. Congratulations to the Commission, and also to the citizen advocates who do much to enable their work.  And may all of us look around us, whether we're in New York or anywhere else, and do what we can to save America's past.

And Then, There's The Problem With Higher Education

The next time you hear some conservative blowhard whine about how colleges and universities are turning out one generation of liberals after another, get them to take a look at this.

The sad reality of higher education is that, even at high-prestige schools, there is a constant need to fundraise merely to survive.  This has always been true of privately owned or controlled institutions, but public colleges and universities, thanks to budget and tax cutting, now need to depend upon the kindness of donors who can write large checks.  The increased competition for funding created in the process makes all colleges and university that much more desperate in their fundraising.  And, unfortunately, that much more willing to compromise their principles.

For people like the Koch brothers, this creates an ideal opportunity to buy influcence.  They have seemingly unlimited amounts of money, and no principles beyond promoting their own power and influence.  Put that together with the schools' financial desperation and a fear of being branded "politically correct," and it becomes easy to see how American academia can easily be turned into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries.

If I was a parent looking for a college or university for one of my children, I'd investigate and evaluate schools very carefully with respect to their willingness to accept money from influence-peddlers like the Kochs.  And, if I weren't satisfied that the school was truly committed to academic and intellectual freedom, I'd take my child, and my money elsewhere.  Hopefully, if you're in that position, you'll feel the same way.  Your child's future, and that of the country, depend on it.

The United States Of Privateers

You may, like me, have become accustomed to looking at the world around you, and thinking in terms of the public and the private sectors, of resources owned by some of us, and those owned by all of us.  Schools, utilities, roads, parks--these and others are things we all own.

That's turning out to be less and less true.  Thanks to the New York Times, recently, I had my eyes opened to the extent to which the whole concept of public ownership has been reduced to obsolescence.  Follow this link, and the Times will be happy to walk you though a typical day in your life.  You will find that much of it is not owned by you, me, or the general population.  It's owned by equity firms--private investment firms with clients now willing to look for and profit off of assets formerly owned and controlled by the public.

The reasons behind this phenomenon are transparently obvious.  State and local governments with shrinking tax bases and rising costs, combined with voters less and less willing to pay taxes to governments they trust less and less, are looking for alternative ways to provide services that people need.  Equity firms are willing to provide those services, either through direct ownership or by management of assets still owned by the public.

Sounds great?  What happens to these assets and services in a financial downtown?  Do they just shut down, and leave everyone desperate for help that's no longer available?  Does the government step back in?  Can they do that quickly, if necessary?  And who pays then?  And how much?  Is the government on the hook for bailing out the investors, as was the case in 2008?  Are the taxpayers?

We might want to search for answers to those questions before the crisis hits.  It's only a matter of time before it does.  If we the people ultimately end up getting stuck with the bill when it come due, we might want to have a say about how much we want to pay.

"Common Ground" On Pornography?

I saw this article recently published by the Washington Post and, after reflecting on what it had to say, wondered if it didn't have larger lessons for all of us.

The boundaries of what constitutes pornography have always been hard to define.  For that reason, it's always been difficult to address much of the social harm it creates, except indirectly.  For example, the porn industry has often been connected other activities, such as human trafficking and substance abuse, that are by common consensus activities that must be criminalized.  By prosecuting those activities, we effectively put some sort of boundaries around the problem.  We don't, however, get at the problem itself--or, even more importantly, at the root causes of its existence.

Direct bans on pornographic materials and exhibits have always been overturned on First Amendment grounds, for the simple reason that it is impossible to craft language in a ban that would allow mature depictions of sexual activity and relationships while forbidding ones that are designed to do nothing more than arouse our most physical instincts.  (Example:  I had to write that last sentence with extreme care, so that I could be as clear as possible about making a distinction to what are commonly reduced to the words "art" and "smut."  I hope I was successful.)

However, this is where social and psychological research has been helpful, in identifying the personal characteristics that lead people to not only create porn, but consume it as well.  One example, from several decades ago:  Time magazine published an article about a research study conducted by interviewing strippers, attempting to find out whether their were any common characteristics that might have led them into that particular career.  The study found that many of these women came from backgrounds with absent or abusive men as fathers.  This suggests the possibility that a combination of low-self-esteem with a negative perspective on men might be a factor in leading a woman to choose stripping as an occupation.

It's obviously difficult to generalize about human behavior from the results of a single study, or even from many.  But there is enough out there to suggest that porn is a industry largely fed on reduced self-esteem, especially when it comes to sexuality.  A person with a strong sense of sexual self-esteem doesn't need to watch other people having sex; they'd rather be a participant than a spectator. If that's the case, than it makes sense to treat the problem as the gentleman from Virginia suggests--not as a problem to be addressed through the criminal justice system, but as one to be addressed through the public health system.

If his bill is passed and, at some point, it simply becomes a pretext to enact some sort of ban on certain types of media, then those of us on the other side of the partisan divide can and should fight every effort to enact such bans.  If it passes and, instead, it becomes the framework for addressing the social and personal harms connected to porn in a positive, proactive way, and leads to a healthier society, sexually and otherwise, then it deserves to be supported now.  Perhaps, one day, it can lead to the framework for legislation on a national basis (that is, if we can ever get Congress to work on something other than its own re-election).

I hope that Democrats in Virginia will work with Delegate Marshall on his bill.  He seems likely to accept such support, as he has apparently worked across party lines in the past.  If that happens, it could lead to two positive results, besides the passing of the bill.  First, it would illustrate the value of research in helping us all to learn more about ourselves, and therefore more about how to solve our problems.  Second, it would show that, even now, when it comes to a truly hot-button issue, democracy can still find a way to bring people together on a solution.

In any event, when I read this, I felt that perhaps, even in the coming year, when our national government threatens to become a reality show at best and a fascist nightmare at worst, there are still some small glimmers of hope in the darkness.  I root for many more in 2017--for you, for your loved ones, and for all of us.

The Real "War Against Christmas"

Of all the battles fought in the so-called "cultural wars," the most ridiculous one is the so-called war against Christmas.  What exactly is this war, anyway?

It's not a war against religious observances; no laws have been passed to stop these, and they took place this month as they have taken place for literally thousands of years, in the United States and around the world.  Nor is it a war against shopping.  Granted, more of that takes place on the Internet now than it does in bricks-and-mortar stores.  But take place it does, in lean and fat years. And it certainly isn't a war against decorations.  I live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, yet it takes very little effort to find holiday displays in and outside of many houses nearby.

Ah, "holiday."  There's the real rub, isn't it?  This "war" isn't a war about the holiday, or much of the activity surrounding it.  It is at best a war about words.  It's a war about the modern tendency to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."  But why should Christians feel threatened by it?

"Happy Holidays" is a phrase of inclusion.  It presumes the inclusion of Christmas; that's why it's frequently used in connection with displays that feature a variety of Christmas symbols, even ones that are specifically religious.  It simply recognizes the fact that America is a nation of many religions, and not just one.  It embraces not only other contemporaneous spiritual celebrations, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but also a secular holiday, New Year's Day, that everyone celebrates. What is it about inclusion that is so offensive?  Tolerance and diversity are supposedly the foundation of the free society in which we all live, and from which we all benefit.

Well, of course, the problem is that a segment of our society does not see the foundation of our society that way.  They see that foundation in purely tribal terms.  Skin color.  Gender. And, of course, the religion that was the religion of the nation's majority for a long time.  I think the word in this war of words that most deeply offends them is was.  Being white, male and Christian was at one time a badge of power.  That is no longer the case--or, at least, not as true as it used to be. And that's the fact that bothers the "Merry Christmas" people the most.  Force people to say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays," and white male Christians will be on the comeback trail.  If there's a war that's being fought against Christmas, these are the people who are prosecuting it--the ones obsessed with words.

But winning that war wouldn't put them back in the saddle, even if it were winnable.  Even if it were possible to dictate the words of others, it wouldn't stop the demographic changes that have and will continue to take place in this country.  It would just take us further away from the real meaning of the word "Christmas."

Christmas is a holiday about giving, not taking, in its most fundamental religious elements, and even in its secular ones.  It is not a holiday about building oneself up.  It is a holiday about sharing what we have, and, in the process, reshaping the world in accordance with G-d's wishes.  It is not a holiday about seizing power.  It is a holiday about relinquishing it in accordance to the wishes of a Higher Power.

Pope Francis, who may be presumed to know a thing or two about Christianity, clearly gets this.  But Donald Trump does not, and neither do many of his followers, even among Catholics.  Another person who gets this:  the woman who recently resigned from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rather than perform at Trump's inauguration.  The supreme irony of this is that evangelical Christians, four out of five of whom voted for Trump, do not regard Mormons as "real" Christians, because of their specific beliefs as outlined in the Book of Mormon.

Evangelical Christianity is not particularly noted for its ability to accept criticism or criticize itself. This is a quality that has gradually undermined whatever spiritual authority it once had (during Abolition, for example), and has reduced it to the point where American evangelicals have replaced Jews as the most reflexive supporters of Israel, even though that support is undermining Christians in Jerusalem.

Regardless of what your faith may be, we need to stop worrying about words, and a great deal more about deeds.  Never in the whole history of the world have wealth and technology been more powerful, and yet human suffering has also never been more widespread.  And words are, more often than not, misused to mask the sources and the extent of this suffering (see, e.g., the subject of "fake news").  If you are a Christian, and care more about what God thinks about that claim than you do, you need to find the power of your faith in action, and not speech.  You need to get over yourself, and get on to serving others--not on your terms, but theirs.  You need to make Christmas a holiday in which the words "Merry Christmas" stand for something other than a claim to secular power.  You need to make those words stand for love made visible.

Oh, and Happy Holidays to you all.

A Tale Of Two "Leaders"

One craves power above all else, while the other craves decency above all else.  They come together in the middle of a heated election season, at which information is disclosed indicating that a foreign power hostile to the United States is attempting to use the Internet in order to hack into databases, e-mail accounts, and other sites that store sensitive political information.  The obvious purpose of this hacking:  to disrupt the election process in a way that benefits the foreign power responsible for it.

This would be concerning for everyone in any election season.  It should be particularly so in this election season, in which one of the two major candidates for the Presidency has not only shown an affinity for the leader of the aforesaid political power, but has even invited that power to hack into the e-mails of his opponent.  This should have been an obvious moment to put aside partisan politics and think about the future of the Republic, and perhaps of democracy itself.

Except that it wasn't.  Because one of the "leaders" is Mitch McCONnell, the current and future majority leader of the U.S. Senate.  And the other is Barack Obama, the outgoing President of the United States.

Obama, of course, was the one providing the information.  Strictly speaking, he did not have to, because his authority in foreign affairs under Article II of the Constitution is enough to allow him to unilaterally act to stop the hacking.  However, Obama decided to confer with McCONnell before releasing any information about it to the American people, to be able to present a united front in the face of a material threat to the integrity of our government.

Either he forgot who he was dealing with, or underestimated the indecency of his opposite number. Because McCONnell informed him that any public disclosure of this information would be treated as a partisan disclosure on behalf of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.  So Obama made no disclosure.

Had he done so, voters on both sides of the partisan fence would have had an important piece of information to use in weighing their choices.  Some may still have voted for Donald Trump, under the misguided theory that having a President friendly with Vladimir Putin, the leader of the foreign power in question, would be good for the U.S..  (Obviously, those voters have never seen "The Manchurian Candidate.")  Many others might have decided that it would be best for the country, and the world, not to have a President who might effectively be a foreign agent rather than a patriotic

In any case, the outcome of the election, and the short-term and long-term future of the nation, might now be materially different.  They won't be, because of the bizarrely bipolar nature of our national politics.  McCONnell leads a party motivated by nothing but a craving for personal power, heedless to the dangers of misusing it. That might not be so terrifying if Obama did not lead a party worried more about obeying the rules of Hoyle than they are about winning the game.

I have nothing but the greatest respect for Obama and most of what he has accomplished, while carrying a demographic burden that would have crushed a lesser leader, but he shares with other members of his party an obsession with clean hands that overlooks the occasional need in politics for sharp claws.  This article sums up the predictable result: the other party holds the government in its hands, while the other side has nothing but cleanliness.

If I were Obama, I would give serious consideration to making up for his mistaken confidence in GOP decency, by going through Robert Reich's checklist before he leaves office, and make sure to check off every single item on it.  And if I were leading the Democratic Party, I would give serious consideration to taking the advice of Sean Connery in the movie "The Untouchables," as outlined here.

My fear is that neither Obama nor the Democratic leadership will take Reich's or Connery's advice. Rather, they will continue to try kicking the football the GOP "holds" for them.  And the Russians will not have to bother taking American democracy prisoner, because it will already be dead.

It's up to us, in that case.  Are you prepared to fight back.  If you're not, do yourself and all of us a favor.  And learn.  Because Obama was right about one thing   we are the change we seek.  We always have been.  We always will be.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

And One More Thing ...

It's hard to remember four or five weeks back at this point, but some of you may remember that the winner of the popular vote in the past presidential election got there because she kept saying, over and over again, that we are stronger together.

She didn't win the election, of course, thanks to the Electoral College, and who knows what shenanigans went on in battleground states.  If you don't believe me regarding the latter point, just ask former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who bragged before the election that "we have some tricks up our sleeve."  Too bad for him (but good for the rest of us) that those tricks aren't going to let him become Secretary of State.

But there are others who are happy to prove her point for her.  This past week, a large number of them celebrated a victory that is likely to be fleeting, but nevertheless proves Hillary Clinton's point:  the willingness of the Army Corps of Engineers to consider an alternative route for the Dakota Access pipeline, one that would protect the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

It would take a few words from Donald Trump later next month to reverse this victory.  But this still illustrates the key to stopping Trump from getting away with hijacking our democracy.  It takes more than just standing up.  It takes standing shoulder-to-shoulder.  And it takes total indifference to how tough it gets.  There are no easy victories in the history of this country.  But that's part of the reason why every one of those victories was and is worthwhile.

Who knows?  Perhaps something like this is the next step.  Perhaps it may take even stronger steps. But, when a world-class narcissist who can be baited with a tweet can start a nuclear war, all of us have to ask ourselves to find our inner warriors.  All of us have to be prepared to stand as strong and as long as the Standing Rock protests.  All of us have a country to save, before it's too late.

Another Election, Or A Step Back From The Brink?

First Brexit, then Trump.  And everyone was waiting to see if Austria, the birth country of Adolf Hitler, would follow suit.

Only, it didn't.

Who knows?  Austria's history is a litany of failure when it comes to fascism's historic ancestor, empire.  Perhaps there is enough political memory in the population to overrule the kind of madness that has swept first Britain and now the U.S..  Perhaps it's not so much that as it is--or was--the specifics on the ground:  the candidates, the parties, an economy very heavily dependant on tourism and therefore especially sensitive to international opinion.  It's problematic at best to use the results of elections in one country to try to understand the results in other.  Or, for that matter, to try to predict the results of the next one.

This much can be said, apart from the fact that the Austrian results offer a small note of cheer in what is otherwise a bleak landscape in international politics:  nothing is inevitable, especially when it comes to elections.

It's hard to look at Donald Trump and make peace with the fact that, for at least the next four years, this charlatan is going to be responsible for our destiny in an uncertain world.  But that's all the more reason not to give up, especially when you remember that his percentage of the popular note equals that of Michael Dukakis in 1988.  Remember his Administration?  Yeah, me neither.

Trump doesn't represent most of us.  Most of us are better than that.  And the world needs what most of us have to offer.  So take a tip from Austria:  don't follow the crowd.  Follow your head, and your heart.  If all of us do that, we just may get through this, and come out on the other side of this disaster to pick up the thread of our destiny again, and follow it.

It's Not "Intel." It's Lies

"No one was injured during the incident."

The fact contained in that quote, from this story in the New York Daily News. is about the only good thing that can otherwise be said about the overarmed idiot who invaded a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor because of a lie about the parlor serving as a front for a child-hooker ring in which Hillary Clinton was involved (I can't believe I just typed that, but I had no choice; that's actually why this happened).

Two facts, then, based entirely on a lie.  Of course, the overarmed idiot didn't call it a lie.  After all, if he did so, he'd be admitting that he was an overarmed idiot.  Instead, like all gun-toting half-wits, he decided to give a paramilitary gloss to his nearly-tragic misadventure.  You know what he told the press?

"[T]he intel on this wasn't 100 percent."

No kidding, Sherlock.  And here's another fact:  no one with any authority to do so deputized you to investigate or avenge the lie.  You did that entirely on your own, based on rubbing one brain cell against another after reading something on the Internet that tickled your fancy about Clinton being the source of all evil in America.  Without consulting with any law enforcement officials, without making a single credible attempt to verify what you call the "intel on this," you put innocent people in harm's way.  (You also put yourself in harm's way but, frankly, at this point I'm not 100% certain I give a damn about that.)

And this leads us to a third fact:  you came this close to being a public menace and a national tragedy based upon a lie.

Not "intel."  Not "fake news."  A lie.  An easily falsifiable, baldface, libelous lie.

And all of this happened because of the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, which took the concept of relativity as it relates to subjectivity, and pretended that it could be applied to objective reality.  Nothing exists unless Trump says it exists--and he's allowed to change his mind about what exists on a day to day basis.  One day, he's a climate-change denier; the next day, he's rushing to Scotland to save his golf courses from rising tides.  And then, the day after that, when he needs money from the oil industry and votes from coal-mining states, he's a denier again.

And once the white nationalists saw that this could work for them, they joined in, helping Trump to create a "reality" that neither the Democrats nor what's left of the mainstream media had either the will or the wit to successfully contradict.  Even about facts staring people in the faces.  (And climate change is very much one of those facts).

The truth is, this isn't particularly new,  During the second Bush Administration, one of its lesser lights offered a lecture to the effect that the United States was now an "empire" that can "create its own reality."  We all know how that worked out.  An unsustainable war based upon a non-existent threat (oh, I'm sorry, I keep forgetting:  a lie).  A lie that nearly destroyed this country--and, instead, put a short-term dent in the plans of the would-be emperors.

Well, they're back, just in time to try and hijack the fruits of Barack Obama's labors.  And they've acquired enough practical power to pull it off and claim credit for all of it, even as they dismantle it for the benefit of their contributors.  And, when it comes to hiding their dirty work, they've devolved below reality creating.  They're now trying to sell a world without facts.  Any facts. Except the ones they need us to believe in.  Today.  And, maybe tomorrow, something that will be equally true--or false.

It's easy to blame this state of affairs on the Internet, a medium that allows everyone to publish and consume the information they want without ever being upset by aspects of reality that offend them. Except that those aspects exist.  And sometimes, they can be lethal.  Especially when a man who thinks we don't believe to need in facts is about to control the nuclear codes.

Reality isn't relative.  Not after a certain point that matters to all of us.  Reality exists, whether we want it to or not.  All we need to do is not be afraid to face it, and know how to do it, and help others learn how to do it.  Before it's too late.  Before the next person who decides to act on the "intel" isn't lucky enough, and the rest of us aren't lucky enough, to be stopped in time.