Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Unintentional Acts of Good People are the World's Greatest Threat

Text from the president's address to the U.N. earlier this week provides a good example of how the greatest threat to our future is being ignored. The text pits the "righteous many" and "decent people and nations" against "the wicked few."
"The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based. They respect neither their own citizens nor the sovereign rights of their countries. If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph. When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength."
There are, of course, people out there with destructive intent who pose a danger. Nuclear weapons will always keep the end of civilization potentially just minutes away. But such a good vs. bad duality leaves the door wide open for the most powerful and insidious agent of destruction to do its work.

Though each one of us may lead a productive and caring life, we remain in another respect like beasts of burden, harnessed to pull civilization closer to the cliff. To the extent that our machines run on fuels extracted from underground, we serve collectively as a team of mad chemists, redistributing carbon and thereby unleashing powerful forces of radical change. Of course, we don't mean to play this role. We are, as stated in the president's address, "decent people." But our participation in the destabilizing of the planet's chemical balance is no less substantive and real for being unintentional. Why, in order to conform and fit in to society, are we essentially forced to wear that harness and daily contribute to destructive transformations of our climate and our oceans?

We know who is keeping us in this bondage. It's the politicians who pretend that all evil is intentional, who pretend that the fuels combusted to run our lives and our vast economy do not have vast and lasting negative consequence, and who, armed with deeply entrenched pessimism, actively oppose alternatives to that bondage.

We won't be free, nor our nation truly defended from danger, until the deniers of human-caused climate change are stripped of their political power. Until then, preoccupation with the evil intent of the "wicked few" will leave us vulnerable to the collective and unintentional impact of the "righteous many."

Friday, August 18, 2017

August Forebodings

August in an incompetent president's first year has become a time of foreboding. That sense of dread is part of the fallout from voters' attraction to presidential candidates who hide their privilege and lack of preparation behind an engaging populist speaking style.

In 2001, George W. Bush was spending the month of August at his ranch in Texas, clearing brush rather than acting on warnings that al Qaeda was preparing to attack inside the U.S.. In 2003, Al Franken, the comedian more recently turned senator from Minnesota, detailed the ignored warnings leading up to the 9/11 attacks in his serious and funny book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. At Amazon, you can read Chapter 16, "Operation Ignore", by clicking on the bookcover.

Now, a president even less equipped to handle the job is taking a long vacation, and it's hard not to wonder at what threat is brewing while a president distracts himself and the nation with outrageous tweets. It's worth remembering that George W. Bush's popularity, like Trump's, was dropping during his lackluster first year in office. When Bush's popularity shot up to 90% after the 9/11 attacks, he used the popularity to launch an ill-advised war, and get elected to a second term that ended in economic collapse.

At a time when the Trump administration is teetering on the brink, it's easy to imagine a scenario similar to the Bush years, when a president's incompetency unexpectedly played in his electoral favor.

Even without attack from outside, the nation continues to be sabotaged from inside, as anti-government ideology allows incompetent candidates to get elected, and then proceed to mismanage or dismantle government operations.

NOTE: Columnist Paul Krugman, whose columns often have an uncanny coincidence with my own thoughts, addressed August's foreboding in a different way:
Despite this, it may seem on the surface as if the republic is continuing to function normally. We’re still adding jobs; stocks are up; public services continue to be delivered. 
But remember, this administration has yet to confront a crisis not of its own making. Furthermore, a series of scary deadlines are looming. Never mind tax reform. Congress has to act within the next few weeks to enact a budget, or the government will shut down; to raise the debt ceiling, or the U.S. will go into default; to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or millions of children will lose coverage.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Trump and Mass Hypnosis

Many of us made it through last year's primaries and election, and the first six months of the Trump administration, without hearing about the techniques of mass hypnosis that may have contributed to his improbable election. A look back, though, shows that a number of people trained in hypnosis were recognizing sophisticated use of persuasion techniques where many of us were seeing coarseness, bullying, and lies. As articles like the New Yorker's How Trump is Transforming Rural America document how persistent is support for the president in some areas, despite all the incompetency and scorched earth policies emanating from the WhiteHouse, it's worth asking how hypnosis might be playing a role.

Scott Adams, the writer of the syndicated cartoon series Dilbert, recognized a method in Trump's madness during a primary debate in August, 2015. He wrote a blog post entitled "Clown Genius", about how the allied techniques of hypnosis, persuasion, and negotiation would win Trump the presidency. When, for instance, Trump declares he's worth $10 billion, it anchors a big round number in your mind. It doesn't matter what the true figure is. Though critics may offer far smaller numbers, the underlying message of all that discussion in the media will be that he is a wealthy man. Adams goes on to describe in detail the logic behind "anchors", "intentional exaggeration", and "thinking past the sale". Though Adams may be naive when he asserts that Trump's talents of persuasion could serve him not only as candidate but also as president, he offers valuable insights into the logic behind the campaign.

In March, 2016, TheHill interviewed hypnotist Richard Barker about Trump's techniques, which include "future pacing" and repetitive words and phrases. At rallies, Barker explains,"he gets them to visualize two problems, then he gets them [to] nod their heads three or four times for solutions."

The transformative power of Trump's use of repetition at rallies is described in this chilling account by a journalist in the New Yorker article:
Last October, three weeks before the election, Donald Trump visited Grand Junction for a rally in an airport hangar. Along with other members of the press, I was escorted into a pen near the back, where a metal fence separated us from the crowd. At that time, some prominent polls showed Clinton leading by more than ten percentage points, and Trump often claimed that the election might be rigged. During the rally he said, “There’s a voter fraud also with the media, because they so poison the minds of the people by writing false stories.” He pointed in our direction, describing us as “criminals,” among other things: “They’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing! They’re doing everything, these people right back here!” 
The attacks came every few minutes, and they served as a kind of tether to the speech. The material could have drifted off into abstraction—e-mails, Benghazi, the Washington swamp. But every time Trump pointed at the media, the crowd turned, and by the end people were screaming and cursing at us. One man tried to climb over the barrier, and security guards had to drag him away. 
Such behavior is out of character for residents of rural Colorado, where politeness and public decency are highly valued.

In May, 2016, TheWeek published a column by James Harbeck with a fine-grained analysis of the rhythm and intonation in the repetition Trump uses at rallies and in tweets to achieve a hypnotic effect. Among the techniques he identifies are the use of "the same words and phrases incessantly and identically", "the same structures over and over and over to set up an automatic cue-response expectation", and "the rule of three". Harbeck ends the column with this: "So there it is: How to hypnotize voters, in six simple moves. Be funny. Be confident. Be a bully. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Close with the emotion. Win."

In October, as the election approached, a college student and budding hypnotist named Kevin Butler wrote in awe of Trump's abilities. He explains that no one can be hypnotized against their will. It's not weak-mindedness that creates vulnerability to these techniques, but an openness to what Trump has to say.

Many of us heard a message of hate, fear, vulgarity, lies, and empty promises, and turned away in disgust. But what made so many others open to the message? The current fiasco has been 40 years in the making, a long marination of minds to make them more vulnerable to emotional appeals and empty promises. People point to the deep despair that has taken hold in economically depressed rural areas. Conservative radio and Fox News, with little competition from more objective news media, have used that despair to stir resentment towards coastal elites. If minds are saturated with lies and spin, and hardened with resentment, then truth, if it be heard at all, will sound foreign to the ear. Anti-government sentiment, which in its virulent form becomes like an auto-immune reaction in which the nation's institutions come under attack, is magnified by insecure religious leaders who view government as a competitor with God for their congregations' loyalty. The sabotage of legislative progress during the Obama years deepens people's cynicism about government's capacity to improve our lives, which in turn has played electorally into the hands of the saboteurs. And then there's the flight from issues during campaigns by the news media, which find that emotion-laden stories draw more listeners.

In an age when a suicide candidate can penetrate the nation's defenses and occupy the White House, and as the status quo creates and becomes increasingly undermined by the destabilizing effects of climate change, no amount of military might, and no wall, can keep a nation secure. A democracy grows weak and vulnerable from within, from lies, festering divisions and deepening resentments. The interior of a nation has its own front lines, defended by teachers, scientists, journalists--all who are willing to serve truth and rationality, who seek commonality and accept difference, who mend rather than thrive on division.

There is no easier way to artificially create and sustain division than to feel entitled to one's own facts. Two months into the Trump presidency, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a profile of the cartoonist Scott Adams mentioned above, who had been so impressed by Trump's hypnosis skills. Despite all the chaos in the White House, he still saw Trump as doing "the people's work", and has written a book, to be published later in the year, "Winning Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter".

Another Adams, John Adams, the 2nd president of the United States, might counter as he did in 1770, that "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the states of facts and evidence." John Adams spoke those words in a courtroom--one of the last bastions in what is now a rapidly shrinking world where facts still matter. When Ronald Reagan, speaking at the Republican National Convention in 1988, misquoted Adams and said, instead, "Facts are stupid things", his Freudian slip presaged the rising ocean of passion that Donald Trump would so expertly manipulate to send facts fleeing to whatever high ground might somewhere remain.

At the same time, this is the golden age of facts. They are literally at our fingertips, ever more conveniently presented on the internet, for anyone who wishes to find them. Might facts be just one more thing in the world that reaches a state of perfection only to become outmoded? We need someone with the necessary hypnotic powers of persuasion to convince people they still matter.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Is the Republican Party Stuck in Adolescence?

There's a famous quote of Mark Twain's about the illusions of adolescence:
"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
The adolescent mind assumes that adults are clueless, have nothing to offer, and tests the adults to the breaking point. In that respect, the Republican mindset is adolescent in nature, assuming that Democrats, who are adult enough to acknowledge fiscal, healthcare, and climatological realities, have nothing to offer. Through the Obama years, the Republican Congress expressed itself through resistance, defining itself by being against anything Obama was for. This is essentially the posture of a rebellious teenager, as in this quote from an article in Psychology Today entitled "Rebel with a Cause: Rebellion in Adolescence",
"Although the young person thinks rebellion is an act of independence, it actually never is. It is really an act of dependency. Rebellion causes the young person to depend self-definition and personal conduct on doing the opposite of what other people want."
It is only when Republicans take the helm--essentially are forced to enter the adult world of responsibility, with no one else to blame--that the Party's simplistic, easy moralism crumbles in the face of complex realities. With the concocting and rejection of each new Trumpcare bill, Republicans are now confronting the consequences of that long-held adolescent certainty that Obamacare must be repealed and replaced. The rebellion was as emphatic as it was empty, based on the Republican Party's needs rather than the nation's, with no coherent alternative in mind. The cathartic glee of total rejection of all things Democratic worked well to motivate voters on election day, but proves disastrous when applied in the halls of Congress.

For telltale signs of the adolescent posture described by Mark Twain, there was Trump's assessment of his first 100 days ("I thought it would be easier.") and a new cabinet member's surprise at discovering that there actually are some able and dedicated public servants working in his agency. Though it may prove debilitating for the government's functioning, it's no surprise that Trump would appoint cabinet members ideologically opposed to the departments they will lead. For an adolescent defining himself through rejection of the adult world, such upside down behavior makes sense:
"The young person proudly asserts individuality from what parents like or independence of what parents want and in each case succeeds in provoking their disapproval. This is why rebellion, which is simply behavior that deliberately opposes the ruling norms or powers that be, has been given a good name by adolescents and a bad one by adults."
There is, in the rebelliousness of adolescence, and in the radicalization of the Republican Party, an insecurity, a need to define one's identity in a negative way, by creating distance and resistance. 

Obama lost a great deal of time during his presidency entertaining the illusion that Republicans would ultimately work constructively with him. That illusion is understandable, given that the country has problems that need to be solved, but "working together"--a slogan also used by Hillary Clinton--is seen by Republicans as political suicide. Instead, the Republican tendency has been to shift rightward as Democrats offer to meet in the middle. The Republican Party's need to define itself as a rejection of Democrats has motivated its radicalization, and can also explain why Republicans appear to lack any real solutions to real world problems. 

Donald Trump is the ultimate manifestation of this permanently adolescent political stance. He is a master at creating enemies that we must hate, exclude, or destroy, yet offers only the vaguest or most impractical of solutions, like bubbles that pop at the slightest touch. 

One can point to the many initial steps that the Republican Party took in this direction. There was Reagan's drift from fiscal realities, submitting fantasy budgets rather than raising taxes or making unpopular cuts in spending. There was Gingrich's shift in the use of language from denotation to connotation, as he hammered away at liberals as people not only to be disagreed with, but despised. To gain electoral advantage, he encouraged Republican candidates to use words that evoke emotion rather than thought. And, as Communism receded as a threat, there was the unspoken choice by the Republican Party to redefine government as the substitute threat, thus commencing this protracted auto-immune reaction, in which our own government, and anyone who seeks to make it function well, is viewed as the enemy. 

The Republican Party, having so long defined itself by its rejection of government and all things Democratic, is now in a real bind. It can stir enough discontent to get elected, but lacks the reality-based maturity to govern. It has learned how to gain control over a government it has no respect for. The more it demonizes government and Democrats, and gains electoral advantage by opposing tax increases of any kind, the fewer options it has for governing well. The more it denies that tax cuts reduce government revenue, or that climate change is a profound threat, the more it must demand strict loyalty from its members, lest the house of cards collapse and the Party's fraudulence be exposed. This suppression of free, reality-based thinking is the opposite of the freedom Republicans pretend to embrace. As totalitarian thought control takes hold, American victories in World War II and the Cold War, like the planet's climate, appear increasingly vulnerable. 

When I was in my adolescent stage, I tested my father's endurance to the breaking point. Eventually, I found a way to forgive him for what he couldn't give, and to define myself not by rejection of him but by what I could do in the world. That forgiveness opened my eyes to all that was good and wise and generous in him. What I've noticed is that, when it comes to government, all people have complaints, whether Democrats or Republicans. Some regulations, and some programs, are more effective or better administered than others. In a singular way, the Republican Party appears stuck in a rebellion stage that prevents it from acknowledging government's legitimate role. Now, as Trump and his Republican followers sabotage government, embrace lies, undermine trust in the news media, and ignore the gathering disaster of climate change, I see our institutions and planet--the pillars of our shared world--being tested to the breaking point. 

It's a risk for Republicans to, in a political sense, grow up--to define themselves by what they can do, rather than by all they tell us to fear and despise. Electoral pressures have fed this retreat into adolescent rebellion. There is no easy way out of the bind, for the nation or the Republican Party. A kid, if emotionally healthy enough, will eventually grow up, as the parent waits it out, offering the "gentle pressure of positive direction relentlessly applied"--a phrase from the above quoted article that could also refer to Obama's patient but futile overtures to Congress over the years. But that progression is not a given for a political party rewarded for feeding the electorate's appetite for rebellion. For now, the Republican Party continues to lift itself up by tearing our institutions down.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

James Baker Lobbies for Climate Action


A pretty good crowd showed up at Princeton University for James Baker's talk entitled "A Conservative Approach to Climate Change". Years ago, you'd be lucky to get 10 or 20 in an audience for anything having to do with climate.

At 87, Baker looks back on many successes for those he served. He lent competence to the Reagan and Bush 1 administrations, and outmaneuvered the Gore team in the 2000 post-election fight for Florida's electoral votes. Reagan cut funding for climate research, and the Baker-assisted Republican victory in 2000 tragically stalled progress on combatting climate change for 8 years.

Having used his considerable diplomatic and administrative skills in the service of those who sabotaged solutions to the problem, Baker and some of his esteemed Republican colleagues, such as George Schultz, are offering what he calls a "conservative" solution for climate change. He is now, in effect, going up against the monster of denial and political expedience his former employers--Reagan and the Bushes--did so much to create. It's hard to see how even the extraordinary charm and tactical capacity of a James Baker could crack the nut of Republican resistance--a resistance that has served Republicans so well by letting voters off the hook for dealing with a massive problem.

Baker deserves credit for backing a worthy goal--a carbon tax. Essentially, a tax is levied on carbon-based fuels used to create and transport products, whose cost in the marketplace is then affected. The tax would be predictable, starting low and gradually rising. The carbon "content" of imports would be taxed as well. Business would appreciate the predictability, and be motivated by cost incentive to shift towards renewable energy. The tax revenue would be returned to all citizens of the U.S. as a check in the mail. A $40/ton of carbon tax would make that check $2000/year, in Baker's estimation. Regulations--many of which, it should be said, were created because Republicans have resisted solutions like a carbon tax--would be eased as the carbon tax took effect.

Though he claims that he and other conservatives came up with it, the approach sounds remarkably similar to what the Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan group that's been around since 2007, has been working towards. George Schultz is very involved with CCL, and Baker claims to have started speaking about climate change as a problem back in 2004, but it's unclear to what extent they contributed to the development of the approach. There was no mention of CCL in his talk or during Q and A. (Note: I've since been told that Baker's approach gives more emphasis to rolling back regulations, and starts with a higher tax/ton that the CCL proposal.)

Baker doesn't admit that carbon emissions are causing the problem, but instead says the risks are too large to ignore. He declares hyper-partisanship to be a problem, but doesn't admit that much of the partisanship is artificially created by his ideological brethren who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change poses a huge risk to our future. Truth is an important source of unity. Denying it creates polarization where none need exist. We do not have, therefore, a "both sides are to blame" equivalence when it comes to political gridlock on climate change.

There seems to be a tacit understanding that Baker needs to label the proposal conservative in approach and origin, in order to avoid being labeled an "Other" by the Republicans he seeks to persuade. Therein lies the greatest sadness, that his political party has embraced the political expedience of climate denial, purging itself of any who dare acknowledge reality, so that Baker must still pretend there is scientific uncertainty, as in "carbon emissions may be causing our problem."

At least Baker dares to use words like "tax" and "liberal" in positive contexts, as in his support for a "liberal global order". These are small victories, coming long after the brutal effort, by Newt Gingrich and his progeny, to burden those words with enough negative connotation that no one dare use them, and to demonize liberals to the point that anything they say is rejected out of hand. Thus is political dialogue rendered dysfunctional, and problems like climate change fester for thirty years. 

At the beginning of the talk, Baker joked about a friend of similarly advanced age who told Baker that they were living "in the fourth quarter". No, Baker replied, "we're in overtime." He's happy to be alive, still active, still relevant. If he contributes to an unlikely last minute victory for climate action, we can cheer him on, while being mindful that he spent most of his life serving those who have set the nation up for defeat.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The New Wild (and crazy ideas about nature)

In this post-2016 election world, many of us are seeking ways to break out of our bubbles and help others to do the same. I have a suggestion. If you have an area of knowledge and experience, seek out the books being written on that subject, particularly those you're likely to disagree with. Amazon.com and Goodreads.com offer a convenient way to do this without necessarily buying the book. You may well find some wild and crazy ideas being peddled, and even more disturbing, large choirs of adherents giving those books high marks in the review section. Perhaps your own views will be challenged in the process, or maybe you will be astonished by how biased, arrogant, and misleading the books are, and how gullible the readers. If the latter, then go ahead, break their bubble. Write a review that will help people think more critically about what they are reading, or about to read. It's better than just preaching to the choir on facebook, and you're impact could extend beyond the bookreading world. Misleading books beget misleading articles by misled journalists, spreading the misinformation far and wide.

Below is my latest contribution to the genre, a critique of The New Wild, by Fred Pearce. The book is described by Beacon Press as "A provocative exploration of the “new ecology” and why most of what we think we know about alien species is wrong." It was "Named one of the best books of 2015 by The Economist." Impressive, engagingly written, and yet it is one of the most skewed books I've ever encountered.

Upsetting the applecart is a great way to sell a book. We cheer for the underdog, the David who slays the scleroticized, conformist, institutional Goliath who wouldn't know the truth if it hit him square between the eyes. What a rush to think ourselves smarter than all those scientists isolated in their ivory towers. Whether denying human-caused climate change or the threat posed by invasive species, the polemics against both of these share many of the same techniques even as they arise from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Yes, we should question authority. But the appetite for contrarianism for its own sake has undermined the nation's capacity to respond to proven threats. Now, in part due to the resulting paralysis, we have an authoritarian occupying the White House.

The critique below draws primarily from The New Wild's Introduction, which is reckless and deeply flawed in logic. Other portions read suggest the Introduction is typical.

(Click below on "Read more" to access the critique.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

When Truth Has to Sit in the Back of the Bus: How Journalistic Conventions Undermine Consensus on Climate Change

If you're wondering how the country became controlled by a science-denying president and political party, it's worth taking a look at how climate change is reported by the mainstream press. Below is an "embedded critique" in which a Boston Globe article on climate change is examined paragraph by paragraph, to see how its structure and content sustain controversy and doubt despite the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, human-caused, and a grave threat to our future.

Here is a summary of what this fine-grained look revealed:
  • Controversy and uninformed, contrarian views are front-loaded--in the headline and first half of the article--while compensatory truth, good news and growing agreement (colored brown to reveal the pattern) is forced "to the back of the bus" (the end of the article, which many readers don't reach). I explain in the critique how this article structure could be serving to perpetuate political polarization and paralysis.
  • Use of the word "skeptic" in the context of climate change falsely implies a tough-mindedness in people who lack any skepticism about their own stubbornly ill-informed views. A more accurate term would be "rejectionist".
  • The article applies a corrupt form of populism, in which the opinions of highly visible but inadequately trained meteorologists are given equal weight with those of climate scientists.
  • Readers are left uninformed about the basic mechanisms that drive global warming. Just as campaign coverage focuses on the horse race, and coverage of forest fires describes the damage while offering no insights into fire ecology, coverage of climate change indulges contrarian views while leaving readers ill-equipped to resist false assertions.
The embedded critique below, of a Feb. 13, 2017 article by David Abel, an experienced journalist with the Boston Globe, shows how misleading this seemingly mainstream journalism can be. My comments are formatted left, while the article's text is indented. 

(Click below on "Read more" to access the article.)

Sunday, February 05, 2017

When Political Cowardice Poses as Strength

This is a highly deceptive time, when cowardice, irresponsibility, and political opportunism are portrayed as tough-mindedness. Even those news media sources that aim for objectivity appear helpless to expose the deception, and instead often perpetuate false assumptions.

Consider a recent PBS News Hour piece on Obama's climate change legacy. Of course, it's exceptional to see 9 minutes of broadcast time devoted to climate change. The NewsHour has done more than most to give the subject visibility.

But what those nine minutes reveal is how warped is the lens through which we view the massive problem of climate change and the efforts to reduce the terrible risks posed. If you follow the link above and watch the piece, the problematic aspects play out in the following order:
  • False Balance: The report begins by telling us that Obama took action against climate change "despite opponents who criticized the costs or doubted the science". That suggests that there's a cost for taking action, but not for inaction, that opponents have no responsibility to offer their own solutions, and that doubting the science is still a defendable position. None of that is true. If one side of the political spectrum is disciplined in its drift from reality, in essence decides to wear no clothes, even respected news sources like the News Hour dare not point out the obvious, for fear of appearing biased. The "opponents" are presented as tough-minded critics, protecting us from costly actions and false alarms, when in reality they are running from a profound threat to the nation and the world.
  • The politician's role in enabling honest reporting: Speaking to a dinner audience, Obama sharply criticizes Republican inaction on climate change, but through the prism of comedy, with his "anger translator, Luther". He calls Republicans irresponsible, but the visual is of a crowd laughing. There's no mention of whether Obama consistently and forcefully, throughout his administration, took Republicans to task for running from the problem of climate change. My memory is that he did not. Without the aid of strong, quotable criticism of Republican obstructionism coming from a prominent politician like Obama, it has been harder for the news media to point out on their own the cowardice and naked political opportunism of climate denial.
  • Climate Change is Not Santa Claus: The "anger translator" scene is followed by the weakest quote on climate change ever, from former EPA administrator Carol Browner--"I think that this president believes that climate change is real." As if climate change were a matter of belief, like Santa Claus! 
  • Stoking fear of big government: Then, we hear criticism of Obama's proposed action as "very intrusive and heavily regulatory". The consequences of inaction, and the lack of Republican alternatives, again go unmentioned. The famous quote from Reagan's 1981 inaugural address began with four oft-forgotten words: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem". Failing to heed those words, Republican leaders have warped national decision-making by drawing false conclusions from the 1980s. Reagan's implication is that, in some crises, government is part of the solution. 
  • When cowardice and pessimism pose as tough-minded criticism: In the next scene, Republican House leader John Boehner plays the tough-minded critic, eviscerating proposed climate legislation, "flipping through and reading pages randomly", finding "something bad on every one." Boehner reads the bills recommendations, "Twenty percent of the electricity that goes into every federal agency has to come from renewable sources. Do we have any idea whether this is possible? I can’t find the answer here." What appears to be tough-minded skepticism is in fact a deep pessimism about the country's capacity to identify and solve problems. Again, a Republican is portrayed as a gate keeper. He need not provide any solutions of his own, but merely find fault in others. The resulting governmental paralysis opened the door for Obama's nihilistic successor.
  • Solution Assassination--Then, playing into the image of skeptics as tough-minded, a West Virginia hunter is shown out in the woods, shooting a hole through Obama's cap and trade bill, pinned to a tree. Will the hunter's gun and macho demeanor fend off oceans lapping at the foundations of Miami resorts? All we're left with is an image of tough resolve expressed by people who are too selfish and afraid to face up to national threats.
  • Connotation Overwhelms Denotation: The piece describes how Obama's proposal of cap and trade became labeled by Republicans as a tax. But the reflexively negative connotation of taxes goes unquestioned. Investing words with strong connotation shifts discourse away from thought and towards emotion, which protects politicians who lack facts to back up their views. Government needs revenue in order to operate. How does one raise that revenue? That is another tough issue that Republicans have consistently run from. Those who oppose Obama's climate legislation, and anything else called a tax, are not held responsible for the consequences of their opposition, whether it be future climate chaos or the rising deficits that have characterized Republican administrations since 1980.
  • Blaming the Problem Solvers: Then, a talking head blames Democrats for legislative failure, while the Republican opposition is given a free pass on even acknowledging the gravity of the threat. The uniformly obstructive, denialist nature of the Republican Party is confused with strength, and becomes in many people's minds an almost geologic entity, an insensate rock that has no volition or free will. Thus, Democrats get blamed for not being deft enough to avoid the rock, while it's the rock that's causing the obstruction. 
The aim here is not to find flaw in PBS news coverage, but to show how deeply embedded a false notion of strength has become in the nation's political discourse. The news media can be more aware of how it perpetuates a false storyline, through its selection of images and quotes, but the media is hampered by the absence of a strong counter narrative, repeated over and over until it begins to sink in, that dares to call cowardice by its name. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

From Ronald to Donald--Comparing Inaugural Addresses


For many of us, the 2016 election demonstrated that we now live in an upside down political world, where facts don't matter, bad behavior is rewarded, existential threats can be ignored, nonsense sways more than sense, and cowardice and denial are viewed as mental toughness. Cabinet appointees appear intent on dismantling the departments they are entrusted to lead. Righting the ship means looking back at the ideological currents that swept us over and have now left the nation dead in the water and drifting backward.

Where we are now has a lot to do with where we started heading 36 years ago, so it's fitting to compare the inaugural addresses from when the presidency took these sharp ideological pivots, in 1981 with Reagan and in 2016 with Trump. They show many similarities as well as some sharp contrasts. A deeper look at Reagan's address also shows him, surprisingly, to be praising those who pay taxes, implying that government isn't always the problem, and sounding like Al Gore on climate change. I will use the Ronald/Donald motif, rather than their last names, because of their similar sound.

Donald John Trump rode to victory on the story of America that Ronald Wilson Reagan embedded in the national consciousness through endless repetition. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama--for all their success at leaving the country better off than they found it--harnessed that power of repetition, and so they left the storyline Ronald forged largely intact. To a considerable extent, the country continues to live inside Ronald's brain, where fiction was mightier than fact, science was suspect, and big government was the enemy. With some notable and seldom mentioned caveats, that story gets told in Ronald's first inaugural address, from which Donald appears to have borrowed heavily. A comparison of the two reflects both the continuity and the ongoing devolution at work in the Republican Party. 

PARALLELS BETWEEN RONALD AND DONALD

The Niceties
Both mention the orderly transfer of power, and complement the outgoing Democrats on how gracious they are at ceding power.

Sense of Urgency
Ronald's "We are going to begin to act, beginning today." becomes Donald's "That all changes starting right here and right now" and "Now arrives the hour of action."

Populist Appeal to the Working Class
Reagan's "a special interest group that has been too long neglected ... made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories ..." becomes Trump's "the forgotten men and women of our country".

Patriotism as Gateway to Inclusion
Ronald's "How can we love our country and not love our countrymen" becomes Donald's "through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice."

Purging A Washington Elite
The deep satisfaction of catharsis drove many to vote for Ronald and Donald, whose populist rhetoric seduced even those sure to suffer from the resultant economic policies favoring the wealthy. Voters can be riled up to kick politicians out of Washington no matter how unpromising the replacements. Ronald's "we've been tempted to believe ...  that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people" become's Donald's "a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost."

Dream Big
Ronald's "we're too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams" and "We have every right to dream heroic dreams" becomes Donald's "And we will bring back our dreams." and "we must think big and dream even bigger." Unfortunately, both have equated dreaming big with the extraction and burning of more fossil fuels, which leads inevitably to a big nightmare of radicalized weather, climate refugees, and loss of America's coasts to rising oceans.

International Commitments:
Reagan's "we will strengthen our historic ties" becomes Donald's "We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones"


CONTRASTS

Amped Up Negativity
It's telling, in terms of the respective depth of their intellects, that Donald's inaugural address was about half as long and twice as negative as Ronald's. Even Trump's attempts at positive statements come off as veiled criticism. Though it may sound positive to say that we will "rebuild our country and restore its promise", what is really being said is that our country currently lies in shambles, stripped of promise. To say that we "will make America strong again" is to imply that it is not strong now. Ronald claimed that "we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world", and spoke of "an era of national renewal", which sounds like America needs a renovation, rather than a last-minute rescue from what Donald calls "American carnage".

Past Leaders and Future People Disappear
Unlike Ronald, who mentions Winston Churchill, some founding fathers and a war veteran, and speaks of insuring "happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children, and our children's children", Donald makes no mention of past or future generations. For Donald, there's no need or inclination to link his administration to past or future. He sees himself as singular, an improvisor immersed in the moment.

Speed of Change
Ronald was much more modest about what he could achieve. He was promising persistence above all. His "progress may be slow, measured in inches and feet, not miles, but we will progress"
becomes Donald's "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now", and "terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth."

God's Role Changes
There's been a slow shift in people's view of what God can do. In keeping with his era, Ronald adopted the view that God helps those who help themselves, e.g. "with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us." The tendency among the religious more recently, particularly when confronting big challenges like climate change, is to believe God will do all the work for us. Interestingly, that was Ronald's scathing critique of welfare programs, that recipients were using government aid to avoid putting forth effort. Now, people are using God's supposed omniscience as an excuse to be passive, as in Donald's more absolutist "we will be protected by God."

Compassion
It's been said that Ronald created a lasting deception by putting a kind face on heartless policies. That divide between image and reality, between a candidate who connects with the people but implements policies favoring the privileged, has only deepened with time. Ronald at least made reference to compassion: "We shall reflect the compassion that is so much a part of your makeup. How can we ... not love our countrymen; and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they're sick ..." Donald promises only that "you will never be ignored again." There are a lot of voters out there who like those words, and the emphatic way they are said, whether they mean anything or not.


SOME SURPRISES IN REAGAN'S 1981 INAUGURAL ADDRESS

The Heroes Who Pay Taxes
Like Ronald's language about compassion, there was a time when Republicans were still allowed to say something positive about taxes. Though Reagan spread the illusion that tax cuts could magically increase government revenue, his inaugural speech contained the following: Among the nation's heroes are "individuals and families whose taxes support the government".


A Famous Quote Infamously Misquoted
Ronald's famous quote about government is invariably misquoted. It begins with an important qualification: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." In other words, his view of government as the problem was particular to that time and circumstance, and not to be taken as an eternal truth.

When Reagan Sounds Like Al Gore
Much of the cowardice, political expedience, and pessimism that parades as tough-minded skepticism about climate change is rooted in Ronald's era, but two quotes in his 1981 inaugural address express a more positive, can-do approach to problem solving more associated with Democrats today.

Consider, as the Republican Party continues to run from the problem of climate change with a mix of denial and fatalism, Ronald's statement that 
"I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing." 
Or, at the end of his address, 
"The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow (a soldier) and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us." 
Though Ronald was not talking about climate change, he captured beautifully the spirit of taking on great causes for which, unlike war, no one need die.

PRELUDE TO DONALD'S ADDRESS

The inauguration speech was preceded by several short speeches. Rev. Samuel Rodriguez said "the humble shall inherit the earth", which, given the setting, sounded far-fetched.

The freshly minted president's spiritual advisor, Paula White-Cain, said that the U.S. is a gift from God. 

Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Americans are a "forward-looking, problem-solving" people, a positive outlook that in the election lost out to nostalgia and resentment.

Schumer quoted at length from a letter written by Civil War soldier, Sullivan Ballou. What seems significant in the excerpt below is that the soldier risks his life not only for the country but also for the Government (underlined). Much of our nation's paralysis and polarization is due to the rigid depiction of our government as the enemy of the country, as if our heads were the enemy of our bodies. In addition, the lack of an adequate critique by Democrats of the government--a critique that would identify the government's shortcomings while clearly identifying the government's positive role in our lives--has contributed to the polarizing perception that Democrats want only more government, and Republicans only less. The Civil War soldier holds a much more integrated view of government and country:
"Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure – and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt."
At least early on, Reagan was not reflexively anti-government: "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work--work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."

DONALD'S AND RONALD'S ADDRESSES--FULL TRANSCRIPTS WITH COLOR CODING

After Pence was sworn in as vice president, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir--a sea of white faces--sang about God shedding his grace on thee.

Then, Donald John Trump addressed the nation. Below, if you click on "Read more" are Donald's address and Ronald's address 36 years prior. In red are the negative sections. In brown, the veiled criticism. And in blue, Donald's particularly momentous statements.

Scanning the two addresses shows the contrast in negativity. Both are negative early in their addresses, but unlike Ronald, Donald cannot let go of the negativity and articulate a positive vision. Afterwards, Rev. Franklin Graham gave a positive spin to the rain that began to fall during Donald's address: "In the bible, rain is a sign of God's blessing."

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Oil "Production"--An Economic Illusion Embedded in the Language


There's an irony in that quote, "Stay humble", which popped up on the screen halfway through a Forbes oped entitled "The Irony Of President Obama's Oil Legacy". The oped's point is that presidents can be unfairly given credit for what was not their doing. But the article's language itself is permeated with a false claim, that people "produce" oil and natural gas. The word "production" is used 22 times.

Go to talks on political science or economics and you will hear no mention that societies and economies are dependent upon a planet. That environment and climate went essentially unmentioned in the recent presidential campaign was not a fluke, but rather indicative of an anthropocentric bias and a long-broken relationship between people and the planet that sustains us.

To begin the mending, and a return to reality, economists and journalists need to stop deceiving people about how we get oil and gas. We don't "produce" it, any more than a baby "produces" milk from its mother's breasts. If the baby, a very precocious baby, rather than drinking the breast milk chose to bottle it and sell it at the local grocery store as a product, would anyone believe that the baby had "produced" the milk? No, the baby is milking its mother for all she's worth. People would question the baby's ethics and wonder how the mother was holding up under all the pressure to produce.

We don't produce oil and gas, we extract it. "Extraction" makes clear that earth is the producer. Although we can refine and repackage what we extract, the ultimate source of wealth is from the earth itself. "Oil production" also creates the illusion that we can simply keep making the stuff. "Oil extraction" makes clear that, once something is extracted from the earth and consumed, it's gone.

These distinctions are a first step in weaning the economy, our language and ourselves of the narcissistic tendency to falsely take credit and claim we exist outside of nature.


Monday, December 05, 2016

The Latest False Revisionism About Invasive Species

Oftentimes, the headlines that catch our eye are the ones that upset the applecart of long-held views. There's something appealing about the rebels who, with their "growing body of evidence", dare to send the stuffy status quo packing. One subset of this genre that refuses to die is the oped or opinion-drenched article that leaps to the defense of much maligned invasive species, and tells us they aren't so bad after all. Even veteran editors can fall prey to these contrarian views, no matter how thin the factual support they offer, in much the same way the nation's president-to-be's scathing attacks and threadbare proposals were graded on a curve.

A recent addition to this genre is "Humans make a mess, but invasive species get the blame", a Boston Globe article written by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. It appeared online Nov. 27, 2016. She's described as an American freelance writer living in London. A better title would be "Humans make a mess, and invasive species are one of those messes".

Though the details of this extensive post will interest only more nature-philic readers, it demonstrates yet again how seductive is any view that let's people off the hook, that helps us avoid taking responsibility and acting intentionally to solve collectively created problems. For those appalled by the mostly rightwing resistance to acknowledging and taking action to slow climate change, you can find a parallel form of denial among a subset of liberal-leaning people who deny the reality of and any solutions for invasive species.

Below is a complete reproduction of the text, along with critiques inserted. Access it by clicking on the "Read more":

Monday, November 21, 2016

Making Sense of Nonsense: Navigating a Post-Logical World

For many of us, something was shattered when we woke up on 11/9, and it wasn't a glass ceiling. When seeking to put a broken world back together, it can help to start picking up the pieces, without worrying yet how they might all fit together.

Sports and Politics: Compare and Contrast
Both are tribal, in that fans maintain loyalty regardless of their team's performance. Both have a system that winnows the field down to two contenders for the prize. Both have pre-game hype, and a final contest that produces a winner. In sports, the outcome is merit-based. The two contenders meet and prove themselves on the same court. Though a political campaign usually includes debates, where the two candidates actually meet, the outcome is determined not so much by head to head performance, but by hype and spin. Past service and accomplishments fade into the background. If sports operated like democracy, it would not matter how many shots Lebron James made. He could be beaten by collecting videos of all his worst moments, and replaying them until people conclude that he is an awful player and deserves to lose.

When all the worst behaviors have been validated
There's a trope out there that some take Trump seriously but not literally, while others take him literally but not seriously. For those who take him literally, the election's stark message is that if you lie a lot, abuse women, encourage hateful behavior at rallies, dish out criticism but can't take it, and don't bother to study up, you too can become president.

Closer to home, New Jersians know what it's like to have school initiatives against bullying while the governor himself exhibits bullying behavior. The difference is that in schools, kids are held accountable for their behavior. In politics, the news media, for fear of appearing to take sides, says "both sides are to blame". If blame falls on all for the acts of some, there's no incentive for good behavior.

The contrasting responses to politicians like Trump and Christie suggest America is split into two moral universes. There may be insecurity and fear underlying that bullying behavior, but others interpret it as a sign of strength and comforting certainty in their leaders. Meanwhile, the victims of lies, abuse and hate--at least for those outside of one's tribe--by this logic should "man up" and "get over it".

Controlling Women's Bodies
Donald Trump's groping hand is transitioning into the hand of government, as a woman's right to choose faces increasing threat.

Rebellion Against Complexity
The election of Donald was a massive rebellion against a complex world. Build the wall. Lock her up. Drain the swamp. Words of three, let him be ... president. Minimal knowledge? No government experience? Take our country, please. In an information age, ignorance becomes the contrarian's rallying cry. With infinite knowledge at our fingertips, people are drawn to seductive fictions.

Government's Functionality is Unreported and Invisible
Much of what will be lost in this transition--from an administration that sought to make government work to one that wishes to dismantle it--will never be widely known. What is working in the world, whether it be a peaceful and prosperous country or a governmental agency that is well run, tends to disappear from view. The news media covers incompetence and dispute. It seeks out what is going wrong. It's like those trees along the road, green and lush, that we don't take note of until one dies, or is blown down across our path.

When Obama took over from G.W. Bush, massive repair of government was required. Agencies had become moribund, run by people at odds with the agency's mission. Now, with an anti-government president coming in, we'll see the opposite process, testimony to the waste that comes when primary voters filter out moderates, and one political party in need of an enemy targets our own government. Agencies cost money whether they are functioning or not. Anti-government control of government can mean the public is quietly billed but not served.

Show Us The Numbers!
Walter Mondale called out Ronald Reagan for phony budget numbers in the 1984 campaign. His slogan, "Where's the beef?", was meant to call attention to Reagan's drift from budgetary reality. It's hard to get much purchase from a campaign slogan that's posed as a question. Better it be a demand, like "Drain the swamp!" And so that drift, for which Reagan paid no political price, turned into a rising tide of deficit spending, which rose during Republican administrations and fell during the presidencies of Clinton and Obama. Voters had no beef with the beefless Reagan, and 32 years later voters seem content with a "Believe me!". Still, for the reality-bound, it nice to fantasize that a snappy little chant like "Show us the numbers!" could stir a demand from voters for accountability that no candidate could ignore. For good measure, literally, there should be a designated accountant stationed behind the candidates, to give a dramatic thumbs up or down as they offer their proposals.

The Unreachables
Though understandable, given all the abuse leveled at her over decades, Hillary's characterization of half of Trump's supporters as deplorables and irredeemable, when taken out of context surely made them all the more determined to vote against her. A more useful category might be a basket of unreachables. My daughter spent a day in Philadelphia knocking on doors of people known to have only sporadically shown up to vote in the past. Out of 60 households, only four people actually came to the door. Even when the front door was ajar, people tended not to respond to the doorbell. Similar experiences were had by canvassers elsewhere in the country. Some people are conditioned now to distrust a knock on the door. But the bigger question is how to reach voters who have withdrawn into their own personal bunkers of hardened views, sustained by a media and internet bubble of their own making.

When Philanthropy is Chastised by the Selfish
One election post-mortem said Hillary's big speaking fees turned off the working class voters she needed to win the election. Much, perhaps most, of that money went to charity. America seems to have lost the capacity to distinguish between generosity and selfishness. In fact, philanthropy is sometimes resented--by those of wealth who think that they as job producers owe the world nothing more. Perhaps philanthropy, like the "A" student in school, makes the rest of the 1% look bad. Philanthropy is a way the wealthy can connect with those less fortunate and give back to a country that made their wealth possible. That connection would seem all the more important as the income gap increases. Genuine philanthropy poses a threat to those who offer a faux version, who attract working class votes with populist rhetoric in order to implement policies that will benefit the wealthy.

What Did Posterity Ever Do For Me? (Groucho Marx)
The 2016 campaign was in some ways a contest between catharsis and nurturance, and catharis proved a much more potent motivation to vote. For some of us, Hillary's lifelong devotion to children's issues sounded impressive, but children can't vote, and if voters were concerned about children, they would have demanded that action be taken to slow climate change decades ago. Groucho Marx's joke about posterity has more truth in it than anyone wants to admit. When you're trying to save your own posterior, posterity is someone else's problem.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

9/11 - 11/9: The Mourning After

A builder of tall buildings has proven ascendant, and yet so much appears in free fall. First impressions the morning after:

When the Unthinkable Suddenly Felt Inevitable
Sometimes, when the unthinkable happens, you look back and realize there was a moment when you knew that the unthinkable was inevitable. I had such a moment back in the primary season, on May 3, when Trump won Indiana, and Hillary lost that same day to Bernie Sanders. The news came over the radio, while I was sitting up in bed. Hillary's loss came as a surprise to me, suggesting an unexpected weakness. And then Trump came on with his victory speech, with that smooth voice, so comfortable and confident--a voice I knew then and there people would be tempted to believe and follow. My jaw dropped at the contrast. I felt a chill, recognizing the danger at a visceral level. Then, over the ensuing months, as Trump's flaws became more obvious, and Hillary took the upper hand in the polls and the debates, I forgot that telling moment.

Comedy's Failure As a Force For Change and Enlightenment
One couldn't listen to Jon Stewart and his brilliant offspring--Colbert, Oliver, Samantha Bee--and not believe that humor would save us from cable news' drift into tabloid journalism and propaganda. Humor was the sugar coating that would successfully deliver the medicine of substance and reality to a distracted, escapist nation. Turned out the less urban parts of the country were not amused. When you point out the flaws in people's thinking, they don't change their minds. Being chastened is far less satisfying than getting the last laugh. A column written back in September by Ross Douthat, "Clinton's Samantha Bee Problem", sticks in the mind. Even he underestimated the power of the reactionism he rightly identified.

The Failure of a Nation's Immune System
One important role of the news media is to serve as the nation's immune system. In our bodies, the immune system can fail by not recognizing a real threat, or by attacking a non-threat. Cancer grows because the immune system does not identify it as a threat. Hay fever--that highly distracting annoyance--is the result of one's immune system attacking harmless pollen. During this election, the news media avoided substantive policy issues and the looming catastrophe of climate change, and chose instead to spend its zeal on the highly distracting annoyance of harmless emails.

Women Were Right
At least in my circle of friends and family, though men were disturbed by the Trump candidacy, women tended to show a far deeper distress, sitting for hours glued to cable news, seeking in every new poll some small evidence that disaster would be averted. I was worried, too, but it seemed a bit much, like my wife's double locking of doors at night in a low-crime town. This is Princeton, I'd think. What are the chances of someone breaking in? And, this is the United States. What are the chances that a man so demonstrably unfit to be president could be elected?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Trump Unites the Nation, Against Trump

Simply put, in the final presidential debate, it was the class valedictorian against the rich kid who never had to study up. Hillary looked increasingly poised to break through the glass ceiling, while her opponent went crashing through the floor into the basement. Still, we may someday thank Donald for bringing us together, even if what we share is revulsion.

The following impressions, out of respect for the wide separation between the candidates on stage, takes them one at a time.

DONALD
In retrospect, assuming he loses, Trump will be seen as having done the nation a huge favor, and I mean that "huge" in the outsized Trumpian sense. His campaign could be renamed, Let's Make America Agree Again, and the brilliant strategy all along has been to say increasingly preposterous things until finally the rightwing and leftwing, the Them's and Us's, would come together and speak as one, against Trump. What a challenge he faced! Politicians define themselves through disagreement. Talking heads on cable news are paid to differ. Obama's naive "let's all work together" approach back in his first term had crashed and burned. What's a peacemaker to do?

Well, it took a nut to finally crack that nut. People complain about the endless campaign season, but Trump needed every bit of it to finally break through the lockstep disagreement. First, he tried saying crazy things, like climate change is a hoax, or tax cuts pay for themselves. But a lot of people had drunk the same Kool-Aid, and long-intimidated journalists refused to call a lie a lie. He launched one conspiracy theory after another, each more improbable than the last, but his followers loved him all the more. He spoke disparagingly about women, war heroes, selected ethnicities, and still his supporters remained steadfast.

Seeing he was struggling to fully alienate people, the Washington Post thoughtfully released a video of some of his past braggadocio about groping women. Many supporters wavered at that point, but last night's final debate was truly the breakthrough moment. Not sure he'd accept the results of the election? He'd already extended his political party's contempt for science, government, nature, and minorities to include women, truth, and all leaders present and past, excepting Patton and Putin. There was only one more card to play, and he played it last night: contempt for democracy itself.

Oh, what a joy to see politicians and commentators of all stripes afterwards, speaking as one in their condemnation of Mr. Trump. True, the air of agreement won't last long. Otherwise, the talking heads would lose their raison d'etre. But for one shining moment, the dream of unity burned bright. The unifying power of a universally alienating figure was demonstrated beyond doubt. If we emphatically agree on a negative, might we find a few positives to agree on as well, and finally move forward?

Though Trump questioned whether he'd accept the election results, there was a moment in the debate where he seemed to concede to Hillary. Speaking, as he does so well, in that dystopian, doom and gloom manner, he said, "And wait until you see what happens in the coming years. Lots of luck, Hillary."

I'd like to suggest that President Hillary, in the spirit of Obama's appointment of her as Secretary of State, appoint Trump to be a special envoy to the Middle East, where he will be tasked with saying and doing such deplorable things that all people, Palestinians and Jews, Sunnis and Shias, will lay down their arms and ancient animosities and come together in the public square to say as one, "This person is HORRIBLE!" One point of agreement will lead to another, and peace will blossom in the desert as never before. This diplomatic coup will be called the Trump Triumph. In gratitude, humanity will build in his honor a giant tower 300 conspiracy theories high, lock him up in the penthouse suite, and tell him if he wants to rejoin us he'll have to grow his golden locks long enough to reach the ground.

HILLARY
Could it be that Hillary has grown in the past few months, blossomed and found the joy? Back in July, speaking to legions of devotees during her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, she sounded at times almost angry, as if unwilling to let people love her. Now, with her long time ambition to be president finally within grasp, something in her has begun to relax. She seems more comfortable in her skin, more presidential. The Hillary who is reportedly so personable one on one is starting to show through the lens of a camera and in front of crowds. In the final debate, she said some things that went beyond talking points, things that needed to be said, about her opponent, about the country, about leadership. To listen was healing, and because Hillary's life has spanned so many of the nation's traumas, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam, through culture wars, the drug war, through the Republicans' pivot from the Cold War to a war on government, she like many of us carries those national traumas within her. If any national healing can come, it will come from within and without, with one feeding and informing the other. Hillary stands as the embodiment of both the trauma and the potential for healing. Many, made leery by the endless stream of innuendo, will hold their noses when they vote for her. I view the prospect as much more exciting--a behind-the-scenes policy wonk who finds her voice, progressivism informed by pragmatism, a chance to cut through the pretty lies that have seduced voters of many stripes for decades.

THE MODERATOR
Chris Wallace did a good job, except he somehow forgot to ask about climate change. Strange that a video about abusing women demands response, but denial of our high-risk collective abuse of the planet does not. It's only the only place we have to live. For Wallace and other moderators, "drill baby drill" is just harmless locker room talk.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Attacks at Commander in Chief Forum--Was Clinton Held to a Higher Standard?

A ground rule for the Commander in Chief Forum, hosted by NBC on Sept. 8, 2016, was that the candidates should not use the forum as an opportunity to attack the opponent. Both were reminded of this at the beginning of their respective half hour interviews.
It’s often said that Hillary Clinton is held to a higher standard for behavior and honesty than her opponent. An analysis by your News Companion of the candidates' words at the forum reveals the following:

Clinton criticized Trump on three occasions—143 words out of a total of 2744. Trump agreed to keep attacks to a minimum, “absolutely”, then went negative 18 times--879 words out of a total of 3226. Clinton went negative 5% of the time. Trump went negative 27% of the time.

By word count, Trump broke the rule five times more often than Clinton, and yet only Clinton was called out for breaking the rule, when Lauer interrupted her, saying, “And we tried to have an agreement…”

Other Troubling Aspects of the Forum

This was the first time the two candidates appeared on the same stage on the same night, first one, then the other, with their contrasting styles very much in evidence. Clinton gave long, detailed answers, while Donald Trump's responses were clipped.
  • The Emails: Hillary Clinton's half hour began with an extended grilling about her emails and whether they suggest she is unfit for the presidency. This is part of a long, judo-like tradition of using Clinton's strength's against her. For anyone who believes public servants should be working hard for us, the impressive number of emails, in the tens of thousands, could be taken as evidence of her work ethic and extensive experience with foreign affairs. Instead, by alleging wrongdoing, her opponents make us think not of hard work and deep commitment to country, but of some vast impropriety. Though not mentioned at the forum, Colin Powell had also used a private email account, because the State Department's email system was slow and cumbersome. 
  • Trump's Secret Plan: Trump, when asked repeatedly about how he planned to solve this or that problem, gave few or no specifics, quickly veering instead into attacks on Obama and Clinton. Asked how he would defeat Isis, he claimed to have a plan, but then said he'd ask generals for a plan. The interviewer pointed out that Trump had earlier claimed he knew more than the generals about Isis. That inconsistency led to more attacks on Clinton and Obama. In other words, we have a candidate more comfortable with attacking his opponent than offering coherent proposals. 
  • Dictatorial Tendencies?: Trump suggested that, given our huge investment in money and lives in Iraq--he said $3 trillion--that we should have taken all of their oil. "To the victor belong the spoils," he said. That way, Isis would not have had oil to fund their terrorism. Speaking positively of Putin, who has invaded and claimed other countries, Trump noted Putin's high popularity rating and said, "the man has very strong control over a country." Trump portrayed our country as currently weak and embarrassed by other nations. We have a "depleted military" and "We’re losing our jobs like we’re a bunch of babies." Obama is poorly treated by other countries, e.g. when the Chinese failed to provide stairs for him to walk down from his plane. In his convention speech, Trump had claimed that "our citizens ... have lived through one international humiliation after another". The world's most notorious dictator, prior to World War II, portrayed his country as "defenseless", and a victim of "the most humiliating treatment ever meted out to a great nation." Similarity in speech does not necessarily equal similarity in intent (a survey of language used by other dictators would be instructive), and yet, when Trump portrays our country as humiliated by foreign powers, and praises a foreign strongman, and speaks of extracting foreign oil as "spoils", what does he mean when he says he'll make our country great again?
  • No Mention of Climate Change: Our military leaders see climate change increasingly as a destabilizing influence in the world, and therefore a security threat. Climate change likely played a role in the extended drought that contributed to destabilization of Syria. Trump's denial of climate change raises questions about his ability to identify threats, and yet the subject was not raised.
Below are the candidates’ words (all questions removed), with attacks in red. For each candidate, the words in attack sentences in red were counted and compared to the candidate's total verbal output.

Friday, September 02, 2016

A Borderline Solution for the Border: Build That Retirement Community!

I have a dream. Two dreams actually. The first is that Donald Trump not become president, in part because being president requires having an attention span, but also because his dream of a secure border with Mexico can best be realized if he remains in the private sector.

Building the wall is important to him, at least for the energy the slogan generates at his rallies, but is it important to us? You can watch this PBS News Hour report to learn that "illegal immigration from Mexico is at an historic low". 21,000 agents patrol the border, aided by ground sensors and cameras, with 650 miles of wall strategically erected along the 2000 mile border.

But even if a politician is trying to scare us with a diminishing problem in order to avoid grappling with steadily growing problems like climate change, we could always do better with border security, and that's why my dream is that Trump in his post-election defeat pulls himself together and takes on the biggest, best, most fabulous real estate project of his career. Rather than a wall, which will only drain more public treasure while drug smugglers tunnel underneath it, private citizen Trump should buy the Mexican border, then build a linear retirement home that will run its full 2000 mile length. Don't worry about logistics. He'll make it work. That the building's extraordinary length is expressed horizontally rather than vertically may not sit well, but horizontal will become the new vertical as the population ages and heat exhaustion on a warming planet lays us low.

The building will have all the best accommodations for all the best people who have lived all the best years of their lives and now desperately need all the best care from all the best Mexican workers willing to deal with their ever expanding debilities. Our increasing number of seniors will enter from the U.S. side, while Mexico's increasing number of care givers will enter and leave each day on the Mexican side. Some will view the separate entrances as a nod to an era when America was supposedly greater than it is today. We're talking nothing less than a ribbon of prosperity and employment along the border so great that no one will ever want to cross the border again.

There's only one man for this job, and it will require his full inattention.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Trump, the Suicide Candidate

One way to understand Donald Trump, in his new role as Republican nominee for president, is as a suicide candidate who has gained entry into the Republican Party. Hidden underneath that improbable hair is a brain with the potential to blow up the Party, and take Trump with it. This is assuming he proves so alienating that he loses the November election, but there remains a chance that he could penetrate the nation's defenses and blow it up as well, figuratively or literally.

While the Russians have hacked the Democratic Party's and Clinton campaign's computers, Trump has successfully hacked the Republican Party itself, showing it to be uniquely vulnerable. Disguising himself as a brilliant dealmaker, his first step was to hijack the news media, then use its apparatus to get free advertising. Since news media give bombings top billing, he remains the lead story by dropping one verbal bomb after another. In the process, he has served the media's purposes well, providing easy stories for journalists, easy jokes for late-night comedians, and endless fodder for the opinion industry. Rivaling a trip to the movie theater, the spectacle conjures powerful feelings of validation or disgust, hope or horror, depending on whether he's viewed as a savior or charlatan.

Unlike a suicide bomber, who exits with the first splash of carnage, Trump sustains prominence by miraculously surviving each verbal bomb he detonates, buoyant no matter which segment of the population he alienates--religions, ethnicities, women, gold star parents. Whereas Superman was able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Trump is able to alienate whole constituencies and rally the base in a single out-of-bounds statement.

While Republican Party leaders are themselves uneasy with his candidacy, they have spent decades preparing their Party for takeover by someone like Trump. Is he indifferent to facts? Welcome to the Party where tax cuts pay for themselves. Does he lack empathy for the disadvantaged and believe nature exists only to be exploited? Welcome to the Party that mocked the phrase "I feel your pain". Does he harshly criticize others while showing no capacity for introspection? Welcome to the Party that, while Newt Gingrich was having an affair of his own, focused its energy and the nation's attention on impeaching a president for lying about an affair. Does he stoke fear and resentment by conjuring false threats? Welcome to the Party that led the charge into Iraq. Does he offer no real solutions to real problems? Welcome to the Party that believes climate change is a hoax. The Party of Ronald, Newt, George and Rush needs to ask itself why it has proven such a good fit for a Donald with clear narcissistic tendencies. Could it be that the Party itself has a character disorder?

But the real groundwork for Trump's ascendency was laid by the low bar the Republican Party has set for public service. Because it defines government as the enemy--an inherently inept institution that does little more than take people's money and hamper the economy--the Party's mission has devolved into sabotaging any effort to make government work well. The resulting paralysis and national frustration set the stage for a candidate who claims that he alone can fix problems. Combined with the stultifying conformity demanded of Republican candidates (deny climate change, demonize taxes of all kinds, government regulation always bad, free market always good), the Party's low bar attracted a field of uninspiring candidates among whom Trump could prosper. Having occupied government with the professed goal of dismantling it, the Party now finds itself occupied, by a candidate whose goals are similarly anarchistic.

There's an emptiness at the center of it all. The news media chases one foul Trumpism after another, while real problems fester. Trump himself has been described by his biographer as a "black hole". It would be nice to think that, in this election season, the nation is bottoming out, and will begin to unify around a deep revulsion for the intolerance and recklessness on display, not only in a candidate but also in the Party that proved so well suited for his raw ambitions.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Book Review: Tao Orion's "Beyond the War On Invasive Species"

In Tao Orion's book, you can witness the sorry sight of one faction of plant lovers attacking another. Permaculturists launch a verbal broadside against mainstream habitat restoration. My review is limited to the book's Forward and Introduction (available online)--along with an interview of the author discussing her book.

Unlike others who criticize invasion biology and restoration ecology and claim that invasive species aren't such a big problem after all, Orion may have some relevant ecological training--an agroecology degree--but voices many of the same dubious opinions analyzed here in previous posts. It would be nice to think that the rest of the book, given the topic of ecology, would mention food chains, plant-insect associations other than pollination, and co-evolution, and provide evidence to substantiate the author's inflammatory charge (in the interview) that the concept of invasive species was a product of marketing by pesticide manufacturers. Permaculture has so much to offer the world. It's unfortunate to see its positive vision hijacked to serve a polemic.

The Book's Title

Here is the first irony. The book is supposedly about a more peaceful approach to dealing with species that aggressively spread across landscapes, but the book cover shouts war in big bold, red letters. War is being used to sell the book. Of course, that’s the way we humans work. We say we love peace, but the headlines we tend to go for are about conflict. Readers open the book expecting a war, and the book delivers one, whether it’s real or not, with descriptions of bulldozers, chainsaws, helicopters, and herbicides being used to control invasive species. But is that depiction representative of habitat restoration in the U.S.? As a botanist and preserve manager, I’ve been involved for 30 years with restoration work in Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey, and the tools utilized are much less dramatic.

The “Praise for Beyond the War on Invasive Species” bookcover

Here is the second irony. The book claims that calling a plant “invasive” is a form of demonization. So what do those who praise the book do? They demonize the demonizers, using accusatory language like “deep ethical corruption”, “the military-industrial invasive species complex”, “invasive species ideology”. The book, telling us we shouldn’t see invasive species as the enemy, creates a new enemy out of other people, which is not really a step forward.

Forward by David Holmgren

Holmgren describes a conflict between permaculture and botany/environmental types—a conflict I didn’t even know existed until I encountered this book. The conflict supposedly began in permaculture’s early days in Australia. For me, being enthusiastic about both permaculture and habitat restoration, news of this conflict is like finding out that two of your siblings have secretly hated each other since they were kids. Holmgren is co-founder of the permaculture movement, and as such is worthy of great respect and gratitude. But the forward he writes pushes lots of hot buttons to trigger our reflexive resentment.

Skirmish over nomenclature: Believing the word "invasive" to be laden with negative connotations, Holmgren seeks to use the less judgmental adjective “spreading” for species that expand aggressively across the landscape. And while the word “naturalization” is, in my experience, typically used for a non-native plant species that becomes part of a landscape without displacing native species (red clover would be an example), Holmgren wants to generalize the term to include all nonnative species, regardless of differences in their behavior.

Conjuring a grand deception is a common technique used to stoke outrage. Holmgren claims that governments and taxpayers have been hoodwinked by an ideology that “demonizes spreading species”, and mobilizes “armies of volunteers in a ‘war on weeds’”. It’s an ideology “corrupted by corporations selling chemical solutions”, that considers herbicides “a necessary evil in the vain hope of winning the war against an endless array of newly naturalizing species”, creating a “rapidly expanding market” that “began to rival the use of herbicides by farmers”. All of this is evidence of an “ethical corruption at the heart of both ecological science and the environmental movement” that coincided in the 1980s with cheap oil and the “Thatcherite-Reaganite revolution”. A whole “restoration industry” arose to counter a “perceived problem of ‘invasive species”.

Holmgren drops the "nativism" bomb, saying that he worked in New Zealand with Haikai Tane, who “branded the war against naturalizing species as nativism, an ideology that sought to separate nature into good and bad species according to some fixed historical reference.”

The third irony: Having used words sure to trigger liberal’s negative emotions—corrupt, corporation, chemicals, Thatcher-Reagan, unwinnable wars, nativism—Holmgren calls for “abandoning emotionally loaded and unscientific terms such as “invasive” and “weed”. Ironic, is it not? But this is what happens when people conjure enemies. It is human to become that which one hates. We’ve seen it in conservatives who perceive communist conformity as such a threat that they, too, demand strict adherence to a rigid orthodoxy, mimicking the very enemy they seek to oppose. And we see it in Holmgren’s attack on the science of invasion biology.

Seeming to mimic the “We report, you decide” slogan of Fox News, Holmgren claims that Orion’s book uses “measured language and open questions” allowing “the ordinary reader to judge”. Strange, then, that the book’s Forward wishes to be judge, jury and executioner.

Work Song: A Vision

After the Forward, there’s a lovely poem by Wendell Berry that envisions a very deep healing of land. That’s one of the sad things about these attacks on invasion biology and the native plant movement. Both “sides” in this manufactured controversy care deeply about nature and wish to see it healed.


Introduction

Author Tao Orion describes the job she undertook near Eugene, Oregon to create a wetland on a 64 acre site that had been farmed for 50 years. It’s an interesting project, though not necessarily representative of restoration projects in general, which can involve anything from denuded land to fairly intact habitats.

Here are some troubling aspects in the book's introduction:
  • Orion says that words like “nuking” (with herbicide) and “moonscape” are “common terms in the restoration lexicon”, though I’ve never heard them used. 
  • She says Roundup was used on the site, which is strange, because a wetland site normally requires using a wetland-safe formulation of glyphosate such as Rodeo. 
  • She confuses readers by saying that restoration casts native species as good, invasive species as bad. This is like comparing apples and oranges. Native refers to origin. Invasiveness refers to behavior. In my experience, most nonnative species do not show invasive behavior, and in a few situations, a native species can behave invasively. 
  • Orion is not trained in ecology. This has been a chronic problem with criticisms of invasion biology and native plant advocates: the critics come from other disciplines. We’ve seen this also in attacks on climate scientists, coming from people who may be brilliant in their fields, but have no actual training in climate science. Orion at least worked in the habitat restoration field for awhile.
  • Orion suggests that scotch broom's capacity to fix nitrogen and thus increase soil fertility is an unalloyed good. In farming and gardening, we think of greater fertility as a good thing, but oftentimes the most diverse native habitats exist on poor soil. Nutrient inputs can actually be destabilizing in some cases. Many invasive species gain advantage and disrupt local ecologies by altering the chemistry of the soil. 
  • Regarding herbicide use, Orion states “…I have never considered using herbicides ... As individuals, we have to take responsibility for the land. We have to draw the line.” She admits to having a bias, and my own preference is to find ways to avoid using herbicides when possible. But in calling for us to stop judging plants by their origin and behavior, in effect to stop drawing lines, she chooses to draw a rigid line between manufactured chemicals (bad) and the soil-altering chemicals a plant may release (presumably all good). 
  • Orion contends that the whole-systems approach of permaculture has much to offer for better understanding the way introduced plants behave in an ecosystem, and claims that “invasive species aren’t the actual problem, only a symptom”. This can sometimes be true, for instance when lands that seem natural have in fact been thrown out of balance by underlying, largely invisible factors: altered hydrology, past traumas like agriculture, elimination of predators, or suppression of natural fires. One can’t simply battle the invasives and think the land will heal. We see a very similar approach used in holistic medicine, with the big exception that holistic medicine has no taboo against using manufactured medicines when need be. An understandable ban on manufactured herbicides in organic farming becomes problematic when extended to complex natural systems. Why are organic methods hard to use in a nature preserve? Because you can’t plow up a nature preserve, or mulch it. Many methods used in organic farming simply don’t translate. 
Creating strawmen: Critics of invasion biology and habitat restoration tend to create strawmen they can then tear apart. They state that habitat restoration seeks to eradicate all invasive species and turn back the clock to recreate a historic assemblage of native species, neither of which is possible. By claiming that habitat restorationists have extreme goals (I’ve never seen any actual quotes offered in the many critiques I've read), critics like Orion can portray restoration as a radical pipedream.

Denial of the problem: Christian Science teaches the unreality of evil, that disease is an illusion. Critics of invasion biology make similar claims, suggesting that invasive species are a consequence of our thinking rather than a real threat, as in this quote from the Introduction: “In this light, the idea of “invasive species” is peculiar since all plants and animals are native to our singular and unique planet. Bill Mollison, co-originator of the permaculture concept, states, “I use only native plants, native to the planet Earth. I am using indigenous plants; they are indigenous to this part of the Universe.”

Denial of co-evolution: To make such a statement, that all plants are native everywhere on earth, one has to deny co-evolution. While claiming to want to work with nature rather than against it, critics pretend that plants don’t develop deep associations with the plants and animals they evolve with over thousands of years. Evidence of these deep associations is vast and easily available to anyone who wishes to learn about them. The intricate relationships that have evolved between insects and plants, for instance, are an endless, fascinating study. From what I've seen, denial of co-evolution among critics of invasion biology has been as universal as it is mind-boggling.


The Rest of the Book

This review of Orion’s book is a detailed look at the sections available for reading online. I’m hoping the book’s interior is less biased and misleading. It would be nice if the chapter entitled “A Matter of Time” grapples with how long it takes for a newly introduced species to become integrated into an ecosystem, and whether the damage done in the interim is reversible. Permaculture’s perspective could potentially contribute to the shared goal of healthy habitats in which a diverse nature can thrive. I couldn't agree more with Orion's desire to see native plants thrive not only in areas officially pegged for restoration but in the landscapes where we live our lives. Unfortunately, the narrative offered is warped by the very dismissiveness, demonization and denial it perceives in the mainstream restorationist “Other”.

Update: I posted a review of the whole book at this link on Amazon, which is followed by an extended back and forth with the author in the comment section. Review sites at outlets like Amazon and Goodreads provide an opportunity to pop other people's bubbles.