Thursday, February 18, 2021

Rush Limbaugh and the Poisoned Heartland

How to write about Rush Limbaugh after his death? It is a time to learn more about his life, and tally the damage done by a misdirected talent. In reading descriptions in the NY Times, a few things jumped out. One was how closely his rise coincided with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which had "required stations to provide free airtime for responses to controversial opinions they broadcast." After the law was repealed in 1987 under the Reagan administration, a "liberated" Limbaugh moved to NY the next year to start his syndicated radio show.

Freed from legal constraints that had limited the use of public airwaves to spread falsehoods, Limbaugh was further liberated by his growing legion of fans, who "developed a capacity to excuse almost anything he did and deflect, saying liberals were merely being hysterical or hateful." This failure to take responsibility for his own errors, and instead deploy a "right back at ya" redirection of blame, is one of the classic narcissistic traits that, enabled and indulged by a loyal audience, laid the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump.

Despite his physical challenges--deafness, addiction to painkillers, chronic obesity--the NYTimes describes his talent that shown most bright when immersed in the glee of mocking others:
"He moved with surprising grace when showing how an environmentalist skips daintily in a woodland. But his voice was his brass ring — a jaunty, rapid staccato, breaking into squeaky dolphin-talk or falsetto sobbing to expose the do-gooders with his inventive, bruising vocabulary."
Self-inflation, too, gave wings to his tongue:
“This is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of American Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, because I have talent on loan from God.”

On occasion, Limbaugh used his talent and fame to raise millions for good causes, but one can ask what sort of God would invest such talent in someone primarily devoted to using dishonesty to get half the country to hate the other half. The old joke--"How can you tell he's lying? ... His mouth is open."--may be an overstatement, but Al Franken's close study of Limbaugh's program documented just how many lies could be packed into even a few minutes. 

At one time, lies were more commonly used defensively to hide bad behavior, but Rush Limbaugh and his best student, Donald Trump, showed how lies and relentless attack can be used boldly and openly to satisfy the human appetite for a despised Other and feed a sense of superiority, no matter how unearned. Anti-intellectualism and skewering the elites can become its own form of reverse elitism, manifesting for example in a proud denial of climate change that leaves the country increasingly paralyzed and vulnerable in the face of mounting threats.

What can be said? For 32 years on the air, he built a liar's empire, and lived long enough to see his marriage of ignorance and arrogance culminate in January sixth's invasion of the U.S. Capitol. He led a procession of transgression, cultivated schism and reverse elitism, facilitated an addiction to fiction, and remained to the end devout in his deviation from truth.

Liberated from constraints by the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, it was a career that led conservatism away from reality, and embraced a brand of freedom stripped of responsibility. Along with Joe McCarthy, Newt Gingrich, and Donald Trump, Limbaugh forged a rightwing that projected a superficial strength by being hard on others, soft on self. It was a career that taught listeners to direct all skepticism outwards, stirred artificial division, and left behind an American heartland poisoned by lies and corroded by resentment.

Many are the wounds that must heal.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Would Joe Biden Be President Elect Without Jo Jorgensen?

Update, 1.12.21 As time passes, it becomes more and more clear that if not for the pandemic, Trump would have won reelection, and democracy and government would likely be irretrievably damaged. If not for nature's intervention in the form of an invasive species, voters would have focused on the economy, which Trump had poured fuel on much like the dazzling flames that generate a sense of awe in the "man behind the curtain" scene in Wizard of Oz. In the movie, it is a dog that pulls back the curtain and reveals the fraud behind it. In real life, a coronavirus served that role. Without a pandemic, Trump could have continued to project all evil outward onto someone other than himself. With his imperial facade and silky voice, and his skill at playing an audience, the speech and rally format of a normal campaign would have favored him over Biden. 

Update: More recent data show that Biden won 50% of the vote in Pennsylvania. His margin of victory was slightly larger than the 80,000 votes Jorgensen received.

The Libertarian Party played what may have been a crucial role in helping elect Joe Biden to be president in 2020. Though Biden won Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, he won them with less than 50% of the vote. In each case, the difference was the 1% of votes won by the Libertarian Party candidate, Jo Jorgensen. In Wisconsin, for instance, where Biden won by 20,000 votes, Jo Jorgensen won nearly 40,000 votes. In Arizona, where Biden won by only 10,000 votes, Jorgensen received 50,000. Similarly, in Georgia, where Biden's margin of victory was 14,000 votes, Jorgensen received 60,000. In Pennsylvania, Biden's margin was somewhat larger--more than 60,000 votes--but even there Jorgensen won nearly 80,000.

If all or nearly all of those who voted for Jorgensen had instead voted Republican, the nation would be facing another four years of President Trump. If in the absence of the Libertarian Party candidate, Biden had still won Pennsylvania but lost the other three, his margin of victory would have been 270 to 269, a victory achieved only because Nebraska allocates its three electoral votes not as a whole but by district. The whole election would have turned on Omaha, the urban district in otherwise rural Nebraska that gave Biden that one electoral vote. 

A look at Jo Jorgensen's website shows that her candidacy was driven primarily by Trump's massive deficits, continued involvement in foreign wars and the war on drugs, tariffs, and subsidies for oil and coal. Her solution to climate change appears to be encouraging nuclear energy by eliminating government subsidies of fossil fuels.

Jorgensen's 1.8 million vote tally was far less than Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson's 4.5 million in 2016, but still shows how 3rd party candidates can influence elections in a deeply divided country. 

The Libertarian Party, believing that people should be able to do as they please as long as they don't harm others, needs to take responsibility for the harm each one of us does daily while trapped in an economy dependent on fossil fuels. A Libertarian Party truly devoted to its own principals would be doing everything it could to free us from this predicament, in which good people are unintentionally doing harm to others by collectively altering the atmosphere. No human could survive if CO2 increased by 50% in the bloodstream, and yet that is the radical change our collective activities have imposed on the atmosphere, oceans and nature we depend upon, with consequences that are slowly unfolding.

Friday, August 14, 2020

A "Pre-review" of Kurt Andersen's EVIL GENIUSES: The Unmaking of America

Though I haven't read Kurt Andersen's EVIL GENIUSES: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, a review in the NY Times points to some important elements to look for in this account of what went wrong in America beginning in the 1970s. 

What America lost, according to Andersen, is "an openness to the new" in favor of a "mass nostalgia." I experienced this in multiple ways--culturally in music and politically in the resistance to the new technologies needed to spare the world the ravages of climate change. 

Andersen's book is described as "saxophonely written," and since I'm a sax player, I will point out that a look backward is not necessarily a bad thing, if the aim is wisdom rather than nostalgia. Both classical music and jazz spent most of the 20th century pushing forward into ever greater abstraction and complexity until the music became largely unlistenable. If the audience rejected the new music, the composers and performers would point out that past innovators like Stravinski or Charlie Parker had also experienced resistance to their innovations. Ultimately, this means of rationalizing increasingly abrasive music began to wear thin. 

I think of the 1980s as the point when jazz in particular, led by musicians like Wynton Marsalis, began reaching back to the beginnings of jazz for elements of value that had been discarded in the constant pursuit of the new. This for me was a welcome integration of old and new. I remember feeling in a broader cultural sense, leaving the 1970s, that we were entering an era freed of the conformity that nonconformist movements sometimes impose. We had, it seemed, entered an era more broadly accepting of difference, where one could be retro, straight ahead or avant-garde, and style was whatever you wanted it to be. 

There was in the 1970s as well a political sense that government was not proving capable of vanquishing enemies, real or imagined. The "war on poverty" was not going well, or at least that was the perception, and of course the Vietnam War had been a debacle. Liberalism had lost three of its great leaders to assassination in the 1960s--two Kennedys and Martin Luther King--and I would contend that those losses had a suppressing effect on potential new liberal leaders. Stick out and you'll become a target--that was the underlying message. By the late 1970s we had a less than charismatic President Jimmy Carter fighting off a quixotic challenge in his own party by the last and least appealing Kennedy. Teddy Kennedy gave full throated expression to liberalism, and one thing to look for in Evil Geniuses is whether Andersen believes that liberalism fell from favor beginning in the 1970s due to a lack of charismatic leaders or through a national fatigue with liberalism itself. The answer would be more clear if the dynamic Mario Cuomo had chosen to run for president in the 1980s rather than Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. 

When it comes to technological advancement, Andersen's diagnosis of America's loss of "an openness to the new" was most symbolically portrayed for me when President Reagan dismantled the solar panels his predecessor Jimmy Carter had mounted on the White House roof. Saving a planet is much less glamorous than leaving it, which was the galvanizing challenge John F. Kennedy used to mobilize a trip to the moon. Reagan's embrace of fossil fuel extraction and combustion, his turning away from the technologies needed to sustain nature, our climate and coastal communities, will prove to be the most tragic brand of nostalgia that came to the fore in the 1980s. Does Andersen note that America turned away from technological innovation when it threatened the entrenched desire to dominate and extract from nature, when it sought to nurture and sustain rather that exploit or destroy?

According to the review, Andersen documents well a "shameful liberal complicity" in the conservative shift of the 1980s and 90s. "It is head-spinning to be reminded how much of the nation’s turn to the right and to the rich the Democrats enabled," states the reviewer. Certainly there has been much damage done whenever Democrats try to act like Republicans, but I have mixed memories of this. The left's view of Democrats from that era as having failed to adequately defend liberal values needs to be informed by an understanding of the forces afoot at the time. There was Reagan's charm and political talent, his Trump-like instinct for and success at claiming credit for things not his doing.

There was above all the rise of a relentless rightwing decrying a liberal media and pounding any liberal who dared to lead. Famed editor Ben Bradlee in his memoire admitted that relentless rightwing criticism caused the Washington Post to hold back on investigations of Reagan's scandals. It's all too easy for the left to fault leaders like Bill Clinton for supporting legislation like the odious three strikes crime law, forgetting how vulnerable Democrats were at the time to accusations that they were "weak on crime." The assassination of liberal leaders in the 1960s segued into the character assassinations beginning in the 1980s, with lies and distortions substituting for bullets. Rightwing cable news media were newly ascendent, able to drive national discourse, leaving liberal leaders vulnerable. The left would criticize Clinton for his compromises, seemingly unaware that his capacity to get elected served as a bulwark to hold back a conservative tide. 

The left's "shameful complicity" in the conservative shift could just as easily be identified with the candidacies of Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016, both of whom drew critical votes away from the less than stellar candidacies of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton respectively, enabling the catastrophic depredations of the Bush and Trump presidencies. A more boisterous, relentless left is needed to balance the rightwing's highly effective pushing of the envelope, but when it comes to the election itself, leftist purity is the enemy of the good.

It is at the same time true that presidents Clinton and Obama did not use messaging and sound bytes in the repetitive way needed to effectively shift people's views away from the Reagan model and towards a more positive view of government and the need for collective action generally. The nation's failure to control the pandemic is rooted in an entrenched resentment towards government that conservative media have worked so hard to perpetuate. Rather than using intentional collective action to solve problems, the anti-government posture leaves us only capable of unintentional collective actions--spreading the virus and combusting fossil fuels--that make problems worse. 

The lack of adequate messaging by Democrats may stem in part from the belief that what is true and right will ultimately prevail, that the nation's destiny is sure to be a positive one, like the countless movies in which good wins out in the end. If anything has been learned since 2016, it is that lies are more mobile, marketable and contagious than truth, which is often nuanced and slow to come to light. And the notion that a nation will come together around what is true and right becomes illusory when so many can profit from artificial polarization.

One insight offered by the review is that "we all live in their world now"--meaning a world defined by conservatism and wealth. This is most apparent for me when I walk out the door and see fossil fuels being heedlessly consumed by the stream of vehicles passing by. Regardless of the widespread support for action, the world we live in reflects a rightwing denial of the dangers of climate change. 

There is something chilling about reading President Carter's remarks as he dedicated the solar panels atop the White House in 1979:

"A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people—harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil."

This offering of a stark choice would seem geared to motivate action for the preferred outcome, and yet there is something in us that is drawn more to the poetry of dissolution and complacency than to earnest do--gooderism. I felt the same chill when reading Andersen's description of two futures that we could plausibly choose between:

“For Americans now, will surviving a year (or more) of radical uncertainty help persuade a majority to make radical changes in our political economy to reduce their chronic economic uncertainty and insecurity?” Andersen writes. Or, he wonders, “will Americans remain hunkered forever, as confused and anxious and paralyzed as we were before 2020, descend into digital feudalism, forgo a renaissance and retreat into cocoons of comfortable cultural stasis providing the illusion that nothing much is changing or ever can change?”

There is a danger in describing an undesirable option too well, and making the desirable option sound like a whole lot of work. We're exhausted before we even begin. It's important though to note that Andersen avoids the illusion of America working "together" to achieve an end. Instead, he sees the goal as being to "persuade a majority." This is a welcome shift towards reality.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

How Numbers Drive News Coverage

A picture is worth a thousand words. Though Andrew Cuomo has said a lot of things worth saying through the crisis, this television screen is speaking volumes. As of late April, the pandemic's daily count of infections and deaths had pushed the stock market indexes down into the bottom corner of the screen, where they're barely visible.

The stock market had long been the reigning champion of the screen,  producing a steady stream of new numbers of seeming portent for people to digest. Even when the news was about something else, the digits would parade across the bottom of the screen, rising, falling. Sports and weather also demand attention by generating massive amounts of numbers, but other important aspects of reality simply can't compete. Climate change? Sorry, it may determine the destiny of civilization and much of nature, but it's slow-moving numbers seem disconnected from what we experience day to day, and are either too big for us to fathom or too small to seem of import.

The pandemic on the other hand, offers numbers that reflect a steady shift in daily realities--infections, death--and each day brings fresh meaning as the numbers rise from hundreds to thousands to hundreds of thousands. This is a landscape we can understand, follow and even influence with our own actions as Governor Cuomo explains the significance of each day's new score.

When I was writing and performing climate change theater, I presented the economy and nature as characters in a classic narcissist/co-dependent matchup. The economy would extract whatever it needed from compliant, nurturing, undervalued nature, then tout its numbers, which were far more riveting than nature's boringly gradual buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Unsurprisingly, the man in the play dumps nature for the far more seductive economy, with its ready cash and sexy numbers.

Key to the pandemic's success in displacing the economy and its powerful arsenal of constantly updating numbers is not only the number of people who are dying, but also the fact that the deaths are coming in a steady stream, with each new day providing a fresh tally. A natural disaster, or more accurately an unnatural disaster to which global warming plays a supporting role, does its damage within a few days, and therefore lacks the ongoing drama that a steady supply of numbers can deliver.

Other national traumas were also reported through a drumbeat of numbers. Daily reports on the Vietnam War, whose American death count the pandemic has now surpassed, ritualistically began with a daily tally of dead and wounded. A decade later, evening news anchor Walter Cronkite used a similar daily drumbeat of numbers to dramatize the Iran hostage crisis, announcing each evening the number of days that had passed since the Americans were taken hostage. The number of hostages remained the same, but the passage of time itself became the number factory.

Now that the economy is beginning to reopen, the stock market is reasserting its numerically based power to dominate the screen, displacing the diminishing pandemic numbers with the riveting mania of the market's rises and falls.

In this picture, taken only seconds later, the numbers have already shifted, with each number being the sum of countless other numbers and mini-dramas as each stock constantly shifts in value.

One of the many impacts of the pandemic, then, was its months-long eclipsing of the greatest numerical news factory ever invented. The pandemic numbers have reflected our progress in collectively solving a shared problem. At some point, however, the stock market will once again rule unchallenged, with numbers that reflect not a collective effort to solve shared problems, but a pursuit of private gain.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Repost: Shedding Our Martian Ways: Coronavirus and H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds

This is a repost from

A deserted airport. A civilization shut down by a virus. It makes me think of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, in which Martians conquer England with heat-rays and "black smoke", and seem unstoppable until, suddenly and surprisingly, they succumb to lowly pathogens to which they have no resistance.

We have watched as civilization has been taken over by forces alien to reality, as cold and unsympathetic as Wells' Martians, with a rigid ideology that aims all skepticism outward, and denies the connection between combustion and climate change, between spending and taxation, present and future, self and responsibility, words and truth.

For those of us who imagine a civilization that goes beyond fossil fuels, an incremental shifting to renewable energy sources would have been the least disruptive, but the political opportunists and denialists foiled that approach. Failing an expedited incrementalism, the transition would begin instead like our response to the coronavirus, with a reset in which all unnecessary combustion is suspended. Then, in that unaccustomed quiet and new sympathy for nature and our descendants, we would rapidly build up renewable forms of energy, remake our lives in a vastly saner and more stable economy, one that would give us mobility and comfort in the present without stealing our future.

COVID - 19 has shown that such a reset is possible. We are a fabulously adaptable, resilient, resourceful species, and are surviving this shutdown for a virus as we would survive a shutdown to finally stop abusing the planet. That would be the finest way to celebrate the 50th Earthday coming up in April, as we begin to build our way back to abundance--the right way this time--give back to nature as it has so generously given to us, and reclaim a shared future. Let us shed our Martian ways, and become more human and humane, more of and for this earth.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Anti-Science Ideology Destabilizes Economies

My friends have voiced a broad range of opinions about the coronavirus. Some think it poses a big threat, while others think the whole thing is overblown. Meanwhile, the stock market swoons, and our local university with all its magnificent facilities is switching to virtual education for the rest of the semester, and telling students to stay home after spring break.

The swoon in the stock market brings back memories of a similar swoon during the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. Back then, the great uncertainty was in the mortgage-backed securities--those bundles of home loans. Which loans were bad and which were okay? No one could tell because they came in bundles, sort of like a bunch of passengers on a plane, or students in a classroom. If one person in the group has coronavirus, then the entire bundle becomes suspect.

Someone wanting to protect society and the economy from uncertainty would want to be able to quickly determine how lethal the coronavirus is, and that means aggressively testing the population to see who has it and what percentage die from it. That's where those opposed to science, fact, government, and coordinated global action leave our country and its economy vulnerable to new potential threats like coronavirus and longstanding threats like climate change.

The statistics show just how badly those currently running the US government bungled the job of protecting the nation and economy from uncertainty. In this data from March 1, South Korea has already tested more than 100,000 people, while the U.S. has tested less than 500. South Korea's death rate of 0.6% would seem more accurate, given their aggressive testing of the population, and less worrisome than the US death rate of nearly 6%. But because the US took a dismissive approach towards this global threat, we're forced to make decisions based on poor data that breeds fear and uncertainty.

One other thing to point out: The cancelling of unnecessary travel is reminiscent of what a nation and world would do as part of weaning itself from fossil fuels. Knowing that all that combustion and the resultant supercharging of the atmosphere with extra CO2 poses a big threat to our collective future, economies would aggressively reduce fossil fuel consumption while rapidly building up alternative sources. We are incredibly resourceful and resilient, and would quickly adapt, just as we are adapting to the changes being imposed in response to the coronavirus threat.

In response to threats, the government is to the nation as the brain is to the body. A nation controlled by those opposed to science, fact, government, and coordinated global action is like a body without a brain--essentially unable to foresee threats and react effectively to protect itself. Two presidents--George W. Bush and now Donald Trump--have often preferred to "go with their gut" rather than with facts and data. Even though they have claimed to value the economy above all other concerns, their anti-government, gut-driven approach has left the nation essentially decapitated, and the economy vulnerable to collapse.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Scandalizing, Minimizing, and the False Objectivity of "Both Sides" Journalism

News headlines and opinion pieces flash for a moment on our consciousnesses like fireworks in the evening sky, each making its momentary splash before quickly being displaced by others in an endless stream of efforts to light the darkness. One of the more illuminating opinion pieces, and one whose insight is worth capturing in a bottle to light one's long walk home, is a piece by Nicole Hemmer called "Scandalize! Minimize! Repeat as Necessary." It offers a quick history of what it calls the "conservative media's scandalization project." Dating back to the 1940s and gaining momentum in the 1990s and 2000s, it describes the conservative "effort to create an air of nonstop scandal around previous Democratic presidents and presidential hopefuls."

The scandalization of Democrats is combined with a minimization of Republican wrongdoing, most graphically in recent days by Fox News placing the impeachment of President Trump in a small box in the corner of the screen while Hannity tells his audience that none of it matters.

Now, one could point out that people and political parties are inherently apt to point out others' faults while minimizing their own, and it is this natural human inclination that causes many journalists to declare "both sides do it" and then go home thinking they have fulfilled their obligation to be objective.

But what if pathology seeks cover within the natural variability of political behavior, just as fundamental changes in climate remained disguised for decades within the normal variability of weather? If one political party is primarily responsible for an ongoing abuse of political norms, then the "both sides" meme shows not journalistic objectivity but an overt bias in favor of those who exhibit the worst behavior. As journalists seek safety within a false "all sides" pose, the mainstream media provide cover for a mounting threat to democracy. Periodic opeds like Henner's cannot compensate for the hardwired "both sides" orthodoxy that controls daily reporting.

A healthy political climate depends on conscience, regulation, judgement, truth, and a sense of decency and fair play to keep behavior within bounds. That political climate, like the earth's climate, is vulnerable to the cumulative effect of relentless abuses small and large. The normal background tendency to accuse or minimize has morphed into a steady stream of lies and fabrications intended to erode our capacity to recognize bad behavior and reward good.

Henner's conclusion:
"To write off Mr. Trump’s wrongdoing as run-of-the-mill politics, then, requires both minimizing what he has done and scandalizing what other politicians do. As an added bonus, the strategy damages Americans’ faith in government and public service, bolstering the Republican Party’s anti-government agenda. As such, it’s a powerful, effective political strategy — and a deeply nihilistic one."

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

False Strength and the Artificial Polarization of Our Era

Most of the polarization of our time is due to people's failure to direct their skepticism inward. Skepticism is associated with strength of mind--an ability to resist and scrutinize what others accept as true. But people who claim, for instance, to be climate skeptics are merely pretending to be tough minded, because they practice one-way skepticism, aiming it all outward. True skepticism, the kind that demonstrates strength of mind, is directed inward as well. The current president is an extreme example of directing criticism outwards but none inward. He's tough on others, soft on self. Scientists have an incentive to practice two-way skepticism, because the rigor of their profession requires that they look for flaws in their own data and conclusions, lest they later be discredited by their peers. They have to be tough on themselves, as well as others.

Independence of mind runs deep in the American tradition. It, too, is associated with strength, since it involves resisting the mainstream flow. But for those who don't want to accept that we are faced with a climate crisis, the pose of strength is in fact a clever game rigged to make the denier always win. The usual tactic is to find flaw in the overwhelming consensus by cherry picking which evidence to pay attention to. That demonstrates not tough mindedness but rather a finding of excuses to continue thinking what one wants to think, a clinging to false notions that generates artificial polarization. Though resisting the herd mentality can be a useful instinct, there are also times when accepting consensus is justified. We become stronger, as individuals and collectively as a nation, by confronting tough realities rather than running from them.

Truth is a potentially unifying element in society, and thus is a threat to those who wish to promote and sustain division. To survive, those who thrive on political polarization must find ways to dismiss truth by creating resentment towards those who are most likely to speak it. When one political party ignores the overwhelming evidence about the cause and risk of the climate crisis, and additionally continues to claim that tax cuts will pay for themselves, the result is artificial polarization rather than an authentic divergence of views.

There is dismissiveness towards truth, and then there are active lies, which are meant to fill the void left by the rejected truth. When a political party fails to call out its president for being a prolific liar, the solidarity is sometimes interpreted as strength, but is another indication that a political party is artificially creating polarization where none need exist. In a way, the American tradition of independent thinking has been hijacked. Truth has become the new oppressor from which people must gain freedom. In the information age, when truth is so close at hand, just a click away, false reality built on lies is the new frontier people are being encouraged to populate.

In recent years, politicians who make false claims have chosen not to acknowledge their mistaken views, but instead to double down and become even more fervent in their false claims. This brand of stubbornness and rigidity can also be mistaken for strength--a tribal solidarity that becomes its own truth. The sort of humility that we value in friends and associate with quiet strength does not play well on the political stage. The double down behavior is another step in the unmooring of politics from reality and traditional values.

Harsh criticism of others also comes across in the political realm as strength. The harsh critiques that Trump supporters view as strength most clearly originated in Newt Gingrich's training of fellow Republicans to use emotion-laden language that was aimed not at disagreeing with a political rival but at burying liberalism altogether under a sea of negative connotation. That weaponization of language, that shift from fact-based to emotion-driven thinking, from denotation to connotation, and the refusal to consider the possibility that the other side had any legitimacy at all, has continued to this day among Republican leaders. It is rooted not in strength but in insecurity, for acknowledging that the other side has validity is the start of a very slippery slope back to the pre-Gingrich era of Republican minority status.

The result is an increase in the nation's vulnerability as liberal concerns about climate change and pandemics are summarily dismissed, and an entrenched, artificial polarization. These weaknesses and vulnerabilities are sustained by counterfeit notions of strength.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A-Team and B-Team Politicians--Looking and Listening Beyond the Words

Looking back across the tattered landscape of American politics, in my case extending back to the 1960s, is like having witnessed a six decades-long military convoy under attack. Politicians from Kennedy to Clinton slog forward as potshots and straifings generated by media and political opponents come from all sides. Some endure the onslaught, while others lie burning along the roadside. Some politicians in the 60s were dropped by real bullets, but character assassination has proven just as potent for eliminating potential leaders. The focus here is on candidates' varying capacity to survive intense scrutiny and brazen lies.

Across that arc of six decades, it's possible to see that some had a gift that lifted them above the rest--a resonance of voice, charisma, a compelling message that allowed them to survive attacks by connecting at a deeper level and with a broader swath of voters. While some of us vote according to which candidate best represents our beliefs, there seem to be many who are drawn more by an emotional connection to the leader, and this can cause the ship of state to lurch back and forth, from left to right, from election to election, according to the political heft and magnetism of those running for office. As the rightwing in particular becomes more radicalized, whether in the U.S., Brazil or elsewhere, these swings from left to right develop an increasingly destabilizing quality.

Gifted politicians at the presidential level, what are here called the A-Team, are rare. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama--they may have been attractive to some, repugnant to others, but they had a quality of voice, and something consistently present in their faces that drove home a message and lifted the spirits of their followers. Donald Trump also has that combination of vocal resonance and dependable facial expression that may help keep him politically afloat.

Range of facial expression, by the way, would be an interesting phenomenon to study in past and current leaders. Is that range particularly limited in Reagan and Trump, and does that give voters an impression of strength, a steadfast quality that people want in a leader? The capacity to communicate a broad range of emotions, from joy to despair, which is an advantage in private life, may not translate well to leadership, where people may seek an unflappable, granitic consistency more akin to Mt. Rushmore.

The shift in the Democratic Party from A-Team to B-Team candidates was particularly apparent at the ends of the Bill Clinton and Obama presidencies. During those campaigns in 2000 and 2016, the outgoing presidents had by then honed a compelling message that somehow went missing in their chosen successors. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, for all their extraordinary A+ abilities and experience, lacked the qualities of voice, aspect and message to connect with a sufficiently broad swath of humanity. They still might have won if not for lie-based character assassination and electoral quirks, but they would have won despite themselves.

And so, as Democratic candidates debate on stage in Iowa over who has the best plan for healthcare, it can be useful sometimes to listen not to the words but to the quality of voice that carries them, and sometimes to turn off the sound altogether and scrutinize the visual. Who, for instance, has a sufficiently resonant voice? Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg, maybe Klobuchar, sometimes Warren but sometimes not. Certainly not Steyer. I thank him for making climate change his number one issue, but somehow all those billions have not been able to buy him a clear throat. In terms of facial expression, most are consistent, but Steyer keeps nodding in a way that makes it hard to connect with his eyes. Buttigieg's face is destabilized in less obvious ways. His eyes can change quickly, in mid-sentence, suddenly smiling then shifting to something more complex and not necessarily supportive of his words.

Ideally we'd look beyond voice and facade and make judgements based on vision, knowledge, and temperament, but an emotional connection matters more and more in determining who will show up to vote and who they'll vote for. There are ways to learn some of this. Though I've never run for office, I've found that training in acting helped me to connect more directly and authentically with people. Someone unfamiliar with acting might think it teaches you how to be something you aren't, and Reagan's acting experience may well have enhanced his capacity to put an appealing face on cruel policies. In my case, it helped me grow a voice, and open up inner and outer channels of communication, so that the words I spoke were better connected to the emotions behind them. Maybe I was just lucky to have a resourceful and creative director, or maybe this sort of training could help some of these candidates reach beyond the political choir and connect with the non-believers deep in the balconies.

As an example of an A-Team politician, check out Barack Obama's "Fired up? Ready to go!" speech.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

George Will Criticizes Those Who Don't Praise

As part of the 2019 graduation ceremonies, political columnist George Will gave one of the more curious speeches ever to bounce off the ornate walls of the Princeton University Chapel. Enrobed in orange and black, he chose to praise praise. "Intelligent praising is a talent," he said, "It is learned. Like all virtues, it is habitual. It is a habit. And it is a virtue we need more of, right now." Speaking as a 1968 graduate of Princeton University, Will told the graduating seniors, many accompanied by their parents, that he hoped they had "learned to praise." He said that many Americans "seem to think that expressing admiration for someone or something is evidence of deficient critical faculties." Instead, he posited that the habit of giving praise is evidence that one is sufficiently secure to celebrate others "without feeling oneself diminished."

Then, rather than give examples of praise, he proceeded to unleash a flurry of criticism. He criticized "the infantilization of America," a nation he described as "awash in expressions of contempt and condescension." He criticized what he called the "anti-social media", and its "snarky expressions of disdain". He criticized our "age of rage," and those Americans for whom "disparagement is the default setting."

He criticized the "habitual disparagers," for whom "maturity means a relentlessly-exercised capacity for contempt." He criticized an "unpleasant surplus" of anger, an eagerness "to be angry about something — anything." All of this Mr. Will believes to be evidence of a "culture of contempt."

How could a speech in praise of praise slip so frequently into criticism? Praise is a wonderful thing, to give and to receive, but it is not what got George Will to that pulpit in the Princeton Chapel. He reached that level of distinction through a career dedicated to finding fault in others, whether it was every other week in Time magazine, or twice weekly in the Washington Post for some 40 years. 

Through the decades, those columns have oozed with contempt. The following example is indicative, as he mocks leaders concerned about climate change.
“Consider Barack Obama’s renewed anxiety about global warming, increasingly called “climate change” during the approximately 15 years warming has become annoyingly difficult to detect. Secretary of State John Kerry, our knight of the mournful countenance, was especially apocalyptic recently when warning that climate change is a “weapon of mass destruction.” Like Iraq’s?”
This is not the first time George Will has returned to his alma mater to preach a gospel distant from his own conduct. Back in 2015, he shared the stage at McCosh 50 with faculty member Robert George to tell the audience that we should, in John Stuart Mills' words, "be willing to entertain reasons why we might be wrong." That capacity to reflect and question one's own beliefs is vanishingly rare in George Will's writings, most strikingly in his denial of human caused climate change. 

Interestingly, Mr. Will's newfound religion of praise coincided with an occasion at which he likely knew he would be criticized by many in the audience--students who stood with their backs turned to him throughout his speech, to protest a 2014 column in which he criticized those concerned about rape at universities. Given that context, Will's declaration that "there are deleterious political consequences from the weakening of the adult culture of confident, measured and generous judgments about people and events" can be seen as a dig at the protesters in the audience. After a long career dedicated to criticizing others, Will cast as immature those who criticize him.

A local news source, Planet Princeton, published an account of the speech that didn't mention the 100+ demonstrators in the chapel. If the comment section was indicative, many readers, unaware of the context of the demonstrators and George Will's history of serial contempt, took his speech to be thoughtful and positive, rather than a verbal spanking of Will's critics that was drenched in irony and hypocrisy. It was a chilling reminder of how easy it is, for instance, for political candidates to sway voters who lack the time or inclination to look beneath the surface of the words.

There is a good speech that could be given about the paucity of praise and our preoccupation with people worthy of contempt. It would point out that government is seldom praised when it works well, which plays into the hands of those seeking to undermine it. The speech would note that headlines and our conversations tend to gravitate to bad actors, and acknowledge how the incompetence shown by leaders actually has a payoff for us as individuals. Misdeeds and malaprops provide fodder for late night comedy that entertains us while making us as individuals feel more competent by comparison, even as poor leadership endangers our collective survival. The speech would point out that, if people focused some of their skepticism on their own views rather than always looking outward for fault, then someone like George Will would pause before showing such overt hypocrisy, and would find suspect the cherry-picked evidence of the climate deniers. The rise of conservatism that George Will worked so hard to promote in the 1980s and 90s has been built on an increasing contempt for government, for liberals, nature, truth, democracy, the downtrodden. Will's call to "neuter" the presidency of Obama was part of a larger denial that Democrats have any right to govern. 
Praise is certainly praiseworthy, but as George Will's career and the Republican ascendency has shown, people and ideologies most consistently rise by tearing others down, avoiding self-scrutiny, and projecting their own failings onto others.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Hidden Life of Trees -- A Review

A surprise bestseller this past year in the U.S. was "The Hidden Life of Trees," a book that gained popularity in Germany before being translated into english. In a progression of 36 short chapters, the author, forester Peter Wohlleben, draws big conclusions from his experience in a forest he cares for in Germany. Using heavy doses of anthropocentric language, he portrays trees as feeling, communicating and interrelating in surprisingly human ways. It's an appealing notion, and he claims to back it up with a list of sources in the back of the book.

As a naturalist trained in botany and water quality, with decades of involvement in nature preserve management and other environmental issues, I've read and reviewed a number of books that claim to give you the inside scoop on what nature is really like, and have noticed some similar themes. A book will garner more interest if it has an applecart to spill and an "Other" to dislike. In this case, the applecart is antiquated views of trees, and the "Others" to look down upon are narrow-minded scientists and commercial foresters. Another common ingredient is to let the reader off the hook by suggesting we as individuals need expend no energy to compensate for all the ways human activity has thrown nature out of balance.

Nearly all of these books are written by non-scientists and reviewed by non-scientists, leaving the public unprotected from any misinformation the books may carry. Though I share the author's sense of appreciation and wonder for all that trees do, the Hidden Life of Trees comes across as a mixed bag of laudable sentiments and cringeworthy anthropomorphism, truth and appealing fiction, nice descriptions and gross generalization. Readers will come away informed and misinformed. Two German scientists who started a petition objecting to the book's claims characterized it as a "conglomerate of half-truths, biased judgments, and wishful thinking derived from very selective and unrepresentative sources of information.”

Where, one wonders with books like this, are those who might check a manuscript for accuracy? Reviews in the mainstream news media, however, tended to minimize the book's problematic aspects. Perhaps impressed by the book's popularity, believing the book's overall message to be medicinal in our age, they cast the scientists who found flaws as mere flies in the ointment.

Wohlleben's advocacy for old growth forest taps into our wish for some oasis of stability and peace in a radically changing world. There's an appealing call to let trees grow slower and live longer. His dream is "ancient forests free from any human interference." But if you read the book, note how little he demands of us in terms of intentional effort to restore nature. The index doesn't even include a reference to restoration. It seems it happens on its own, over hundreds of years, and that "no real sacrifices need to be made." For example, conspicuously missing from several references to fire-dependent forests in the U.S. is any mention of the need to conduct prescribed burns in order to maintain them. He squashes a few exotic insects he accidentally brought home after a trip, knowing that introduced species can do harm, but doesn't grapple with the larger issue of how to reduce the import of potentially invasive species, or how to reduce the harm done by those already established.

A deep love of trees needs to be mixed with an understanding that, for many smaller species that cannot tolerate shade, trees are the enemy. Though the author acknowledges this, that in "deep shade, wildflowers and shrubs don't have a chance..., " and that pollinating insects find little food in forests dominated by species with wind-pollinated flowers, he often speaks of deep, unbroken forest as the all and end all. Any discussion of biodiversity must mention not only forest, but grasslands, savannas, and shrub habitat as well. If anything, our preserved open space in central New Jersey and elsewhere in the east is too uniformly dominated by trees to the exclusion of other needed habitats.

Below are some examples of the mix of information and misinformation to be found in the book.

Chapter 1 Friendships
Here, Wohlleben makes broad pronouncements about forests. Since trees in a forest benefit from the "consistent local climate" they create, they have reason to work together, even to the point of nourishing their competitors through interconnected roots. He describes forests as "superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies." Being someone who believes in the importance of cooperation and collective action generally, I certainly sympathize with such a portrayal of the forest. But the author offers as evidence a very misleading story about encountering an old stump in the forest being kept alive by the trees around it. Are the younger trees showing reverence for their elders? Remarkable, you might think, unless you happen to know that the stump and trees he is talking about are beeches. Since beeches create clones, the older and younger trees he describes are not separate trees, not "friends" as he later calls them. They are in fact one tree with many trunks, connected underground by a root system that sends up new stems as it spreads. That he doesn't point this out is a considerable sin of omission.

Wohlleben then overreaches by declaring, "Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible." There may be some forest somewhere on earth where this is true, but none that I know. Certainly not in the fire-dependent pine forests of the southeast where pines would be rapidly shaded out if hardwood trees weren't kept at bay by periodic fire, or the Ponderosa pine forests of the northwest, which require adequate spacing between trees to reduce the risk of wildfire leaping up into the crowns. Certainly not in the many second growth hardwood forests of central New Jersey that are clogged with stunted trees. The author believes openings in the canopy to be the enemy. The sunlight, he says, will heat the soil and cause loss of humus. Wind will get in and blow down the surrounding trees. There may be some truth to the increased vulnerability to wind, but if sunlight never reaches the ground of our forests, only the tree species that can survive in shade will regenerate. There are many kinds of forests, some of which thrive on periodic disturbances like fire. Though he gives a useful description of such forests on page 208, he often presents his forest of oak and beech as somehow universal.

Chapter 4 Love
One thing that baffles people wanting to know nature better is its mind-boggling diversity. They've heard that diversity is a good thing, but the long learning curve can be intimidating. Wohlleben gets around this by making broad pronouncements based on the apparently paltry number of tree species in his forest. He seems to have only two main types of deciduous trees--oaks and beech--but then often writes of them as if they are representative of all the deciduous trees in the world. With this approach, and by speaking of trees as if they were like people who "plan" and "agree" and "go for it," he can simplify nature, make it seem easily knowable, familiar.

Sometimes he begins a paragraph with a misleading statement, like "When beeches and oaks put blooming on hold for a number of years, this has grave consequences for insects as well--especially for bees." Now, anyone familiar with tree pollination will know that beeches and oaks are wind pollinated, and are therefore of no use to bees. He eventually explains this, but not until after he's had the reader imagining starving bees dropping out of the air for lack of pollen.

It's also a bit comic to note that he describes girdling trees in the previous chapter as "brutal," then in the Love chapter describes beeches and oaks as colluding to starve pregnant boar and deer in order to limit their numbers. That's some tough love.

One tidbit I was glad the author included was the tendency of genetically isolated populations to die out over time. "Completely isolated stands of rare species of trees, where only a few trees grow, can lose their genetic diversity. When they do, they weaken and, after a few centuries, they disappear altogether." Some of my more satisfying work involves taking seed from isolated populations of a species and planting them in other conducive locations around town, essentially creating a pollen corridor of sorts, bridging the gap between otherwise isolated populations.

Chapter 16, Carbon Dioxide Vacuums
Here, Wohlleben attempts to debunk the notion that the carbon that trees absorb while living is simply rereleased to the atmosphere after death. It can be discouraging to realize that trees are not some magic fix for climate change. Figuring out how best to sequester carbon in plants and the soil is a vital subject, given its potential to lessen the damage we're doing to the climate, but unfortunately this chapter offers up appealing fictions. For one, he claims that most of the CO2 absorbed by a tree "remains locked up in the ecosystem forever." A dead tree trunk, he writes, is "gnawed and munched" and "worked, by fractions of inches, more deeply into the soil."
"The farther underground, the cooler it is. And as the temperature falls, life slows down, until it comes almost to a standstill. And so it is that carbon dioxide finds its final resting place in the form of humus, which continues to become more concentrated as it ages. In the far distant future, it might even become bituminous or anthracite coal." 
It's a lovely image, and largely fictional. For one, half of the atmospheric carbon fixed by a tree is rereleased as part of the living tree's ongoing respiration. The author acknowledges the tree's need to respire later in the book, in Chapter 33, Healthy Forest Air, where he directly contradicts his earlier description.
"It's not only the trees that are exhaling large amounts of carbon dioxide in the dark. In leaves, in dead wood, and in other rotting plant material, microscopic creatures, fungi, and bacteria are busy in a round-the clock feeding frenzy, digesting everything edible and then excreting it as humus."
That "feeding frenzy" means those organisms are respiring, turning lots of the dead wood's carbon back into CO2. There's also sloppy use of terms. Carbon dioxide doesn't "find its final resting place" or "sink into the muck," because carbon dioxide is a gas. Rather than getting cooler and cooler as one goes down, the deeper soil layers are a fairly uniform 55 degrees, plenty warm for biological activity.

He actually blames commercial logging for preventing coal from being formed, after having explained that the coal we now use was formed under primeval conditions completely different from the upland forests where most trees are harvested, and over a time span that is useless for our predicament. I'd be glad to blame commercial logging for all sorts of things, but preventing coal creation is not one of them.

Another deception quickly follows when the author claims that old trees grow faster than young ones. Ongoing growth among the well-aged is an appealing concept, whether for people or trees. He's got our sympathies as he sets out to upset the applecart of "scientific assumptions," by saying that "Trees with trunks 3 feet in diameter generated three times as much biomass as trees that were only half as wide." But a tree with a trunk twice as thick is not twice as large. It's more like four times as large, given that a trunk twice as thick has four times the area in cross section. It's the younger tree, then, that grows faster for any given amount of space taken up in the forest.

Chapter 30 Tough Customers
This chapter asks a useful question: How do long-lived trees in a forest adapt to rapidly changing climate? His answer is that genetic diversity within a species will allow the trees in his forest to survive even sudden changes in climate. He points to a sudden, dramatic cooling that occurred 14,000 years ago, and to the long north-south range of beeches, extending from the Mediterranean to Sweden. At least concerning the latter, I find some common ground with the author, having myself pointed out the long north-south ranges of species in the eastern U.S. when people claim we need to move southern plant species northward in order to adapt to a rapidly warming planet.

Chapter 32 Immigrants
Anthropomorphism, that is, attributing human characteristics to non-human things, can be charming and comforting. It can help us empathize with other living things. But when it comes to invasive species, that tendency to anthropomorphize has gotten a lot of authors into trouble. Introduced species are not like immigrants. Human immigrants are of the same species as the other humans they join. Introduced species are, by contrast, more analogous to martians--a different species that if they showed up might just mingle among us and look cute, or they might start taking over our homes, in which case we'd think them less cute.

Giving this chapter on introduced species the title of "Immigrants" therefore misleads readers from the get-go. The author then proceeds with some of the stock arguments used by invasive species deniers, whom I know well from having reviewed multiple books, opeds, and articles in the genre. There's the claim that "nature is constantly changing," and the pessimistic view of "attempts to conserve particular landscapes." And there's the seeming reassurance that "most introduced species pose no threat to native trees." He claims, falsely, that the human spread of species is not much different in degree from what has occurred naturally, and that "there is always a sufficient number of individuals that can rise to a new challenge."

But along with these familiar denialist tropes are descriptions of the problems that introduced species have caused. The solution he offers for some invading plant species--plant more trees to shade them out--is less than convincing, but at least he doesn't deny the distinction between introduced and native species, and the potential for introduced species to cause major problems.


The NY Times noted the author's "humble narrative style and the book’s ability to awaken in readers an intense, childlike curiosity about the workings of the world." The author indeed has a gift, but that gift is misused, compromising truth in favor of eliciting the desired response from his readers.

He claims to be on the forefront, pushing against entrenched views of nature, as in this call for plant rights on p. 244:
"Although this point of view has elicited a lot of head shaking in the international community, I, for one, welcome breaking down the moral barriers between animals and plants. When the capabilities of vegetative beings become known, and their emotional lives and needs are recognized, then the way we treat plants will gradually change, as well. Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species."
I have seen, though, how this activism for the rights of individual animals and plants can lead to a dismissive attitude towards the larger ecological workings of nature. Though seemingly progressive in his thinking, Wohlleben also steers us backwards, towards a passive, hand's off relationship to nature--witnesses rather than informed participants.

Skepticism and Self: Science's Role in Sustaining Democracry

This is a repost from another blog of mine.
"It's a readiness to be wrong that motivates the study needed to be right."
- Yures Trooley

Andrew Zwicker, one of Princeton's two representatives in the state house, spoke this week to a full room at Mercer County Community College. It was part of a monthly series of talks hosted by the NJ Sierra Club. Assemblyman Zwicker is one of our few, perhaps the only, representative in government who is trained as a scientist. I attended not only because Zwicker is a gifted speaker, but also because of the subject.

The title of the talk, "Scientific Literacy and Democracy," struck a chord with me particularly because the plight of nature has increasingly found a parallel in growing threats to democracy. Both are at risk in a time when truth is being attacked, denied, ignored, downgraded, and generally dismissed. There is the national reality of a leader who cannot see beyond his own skin, and a broad-based, corrosive and paralyzing polarization that thrives on a dismissive attitude towards evidence.

Andrew Zwicker is a rare breed, a scientist who is also comfortable in front of an audience, and he has taken that extra step of bringing his scientific abilities into the political realm. An evidence-based perspective could be a unifying influence if it caught on among his colleagues at the statehouse.

Having a couple science degrees, I have found myself increasingly aware that my mind works differently from many who lack science training. Most significantly, that training can help direct skepticism not only outward but inward as well, at one's own views.

Most of the world's polarization and radicalism would disappear if people directed as much skepticism inward as outward. Science, and its pursuit of truth, is like a lifeline being extended to a world fractured by unfounded opinion. The political polarization we suffer through is artificially created by people who refuse to adjust their views in the face of evidence.

My views are built on varying degrees of knowledge, experience, and observation. Some of those views are better supported than others, and all are subject to revision in the face of new evidence. Scientific training is liberating, in that it allows facts to exist independent of what we might wish were true. Unentangled from our emotions and sense of self, facts need not be feared or clung to, but can be built into an evidence-based view of the world.

My older daughter went through a phase in which she'd periodically declare, with a mixture of surprise and pride, "I changed my mind!" There's pleasure in that flexibility, that openness to new evidence, and my sense is that many people have lost that openness. Recently I was on an advisory committee, developing a list of proposals for action on climate change. The subject had everything to do with science, but only a few of us appointed to the committee had scientific training. A couple of us with a scientific background made suggestions, with some supporting evidence, expecting that if others disagreed, they would provide counter evidence. Being open to new evidence, I might have changed my mind if someone had a more convincing argument. Instead, people simply didn't respond, and continued to stick to their own views without feeling compelled to defend them. They'd mention something they'd read in a book that they liked the sound of, and it would turn out that even the book, though about science, was written by someone who lacked training in science.

During Q and A with Assemblyman Zwicker, I mentioned this curious phenomenon, that science-related advisory committees and science writing can be dominated by people lacking science training. A science editor for the NY Times once wrote a deeply flawed oped denying the threat of invasive species. Turned out he was a Princeton grad with a PhD in english. There are no doubt science writers who know much more than I do about many aspects of science, and yet there's something about science training that cultivates a healthy two-way skepticism, inward as well as outward. It's a readiness to be wrong that motivates the study needed to be right.

After the Q and A, a woman came up to me and said that data is the issue. Most people don't know what to do with data. Maybe she was referring to an analytical ability that develops over time. Science presents you with data, and you have to figure out what the data is suggesting, if anything, and whether it's strong enough to be conclusive. The process requires a great deal of patience, but it also requires an acceptance that there is a reality outside of oneself that really doesn't care about us and our emotional needs at all.

It's possible to experience that reality out in nature, when one gets far from the ever-expanding footprint of lights and noise, far enough that the only human presence is within one's own skin. For me, it's happened a few times, most strikingly while on an ocean shore late at night. The ocean waves crashed against the sand with a symphony of sound, and the stars shone bright in unfathomable numbers overhead. It was glorious, and yet I was aware that this rich nature cared not a wit about me. The same might be said of truth.

Assemblyman Zwicker, whose first slide included a quote from an astronomer, ended his talk with a quote from Carl Sagan, an astronomer who studied at the observatory I grew up next to:

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Memories of George H.W. Bush

The recent death of George H.W. Bush has prompted many of us to navigate back in our memories to the years when he was president, after being elected in 1988. It's tricky time travel, because those four years of his relatively self-effacing presidency are squeezed between monumental eras defined by the provocative, self-aggrandizing figures of Reagan and Gingrich. A clear sense of George H.W. is further hampered by the legacy of his son George W's administration, marked by the monumental disasters of 9/11, subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic meltdown.

George H.W. was the last Republican with moderate leanings to be elected president, and the last Republican president who cared enough to study up for the job. He represented a brief pause in the Republican Party's radical evolution or devolution from Reagan to Gingrich to Trump. Lacking charisma or an appealing voice, the only way George H.W. could get elected was by channeling Reagan during the campaign, and hiring hit men like Lee Atwater to do the political dirty work that an instinctively kinder, gentler man like George H.W. could not stomach.

To understand his presidency, it's helpful to realize that along with the voluminous letter writing and other acts of thoughtfulness, George H.W. was also highly competitive, which was on full display in his showdown with Dan Rather, who one evening aggressively and fruitlessly questioned him about the Iran-Contra debacle. Many of us wanted answers to Rather's questions, but the powerful political spin in the days that followed made Rather's behavior the issue, rather than Bush's lack of candor. Though I was never a fan of Rather as news anchor, and wished he had stayed in the reporter role at which he excelled, his confrontation with President Bush seemed a turning point for journalism, as the rising power of conservative cable news stations put journalists on notice that anyone pursuing uncomfortable truths would be punished.

George H.W.'s administration also marked the last time a Republican president would act responsibly on tax policy. Having channeled Reagan during the campaign with stirring words like "read my lips, no new taxes", George H.W. chose a more responsible approach to governance. He broke the campaign pledge, and raised taxes in order to deal with the rising deficits he had inherited from the Reagan era. No good deed goes unpunished, and the rightwing flexed its muscles to insure that no Republican president would dare act responsibly in the future.

George H.W. also, unfortunately in this case, broke a campaign promise to act on climate change, despite strong calls for action coming from his EPA chief and James Baker. He listened instead to his chief of staff John Sununu, an early denier of this existential threat to the nation. When looking back on all the failures to act on climate change, I particularly grieve for the tragic side of James Baker's career. Beginning as a Democrat, he married a Republican and shifted to that party to work with George H.W. in Texas. Baker's extraordinary competence was not allowed to serve the cause of slowing climate change in the George H.W. administration, and Baker's talents later contributed to clinching the 2000 election for the younger Bush over Al Gore, setting back action on climate change another eight years. Only recently has Baker been able to emerge from this long eclipse of his principals, advocating for a carbon tax.

During the 1992 campaign against the intimidating talent and intellect of Bill Clinton, George H.W. seemed to lose the will to win. After four years as a moderate leading an increasingly conservative political party, he couldn't find it in his nature to channel Reagan one more time. His defeat would confirm for Republicans that the road to power is not paved with bipartisan agreement and compromise. Attempts to compete with Democrats for the middle ground were considered from there on pointless.

Eulogies tend to mention his having been the last president from the Greatest Generation--an unfortunate term, given the implication that America's greatest generation, and therefore its greatest days, lie in the past. Back then, sacrifice for the country was considered the ultimate expression of that which one hold's dear. Freedom was valued over consumption, and people from all walks of life signed up to fight against totalitarianism. That great mixing of people and economic classes during the war years created a sense of unity and common purpose in the country that survived, at least to some degree, in people like George H.W. Bush.

While serving in the Navy during WWII, he was rescued at sea after having to bail out of the bomber he piloted. The rope used to pull him back on board was reportedly made of hemp, an extremely useful plant that American farmers are prevented from growing due to its similarity in appearance to marijuana. Reading about Bush's term as president, I had hoped to find evidence that he had sought a kinder, gentler approach to drug addiction and drug-related crime, but couldn't find any. What we know for sure is that no rope of any kind is being thrown to moderate Republicans now, wherever they may be.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Future as Mirage

When did the U.S. give up on the future? Or, to rephrase, when did the Future stop being a galvanizing possibility and become instead a mirage fed to the masses to make people feel better about an increasingly dystopic present? Think of all those articles about technological and medical breakthroughs that sound world-changing but never seem to make the leap from lab to mainstream. America fiddles while the world burns, literally, for those living in California.

Halfway down a NY Times article about why the whole town of Paradise, California, was lost to unprecedented wildfires, an ad by Shell Oil offers a seductive view of the future, featuring a streamlined truck with solar panels on top.  The article was entitled, "Why Does California Have So Many Wildfires?", and explained that climate change (caused in part by the products Shell Oil sells) is one of the causes.

That sleek truck looked familiar, not so much like the future as like something 80 years in the past. Researching a renowned astronomer from the early 20th century, I had been reading about the 1933 Worlds Fair in Chicago, which they called "The Century of Progress." Exhibited at that fair was the Pioneer Zephyr train. This was not some mockup of a possible future, but was a real train that had just made its maiden trip from Denver to Chicago, averaging 77 mph. Within a year, innovations in diesel-electric engines and stainless steel construction had been incorporated into a train that was lighter, faster, more efficient, and actually used to carry real people to real places. Incredibly, according to wikipedia, the train carried 72 passengers plus 50,000 pounds of freight at high speed while powered by one 600 horsepower engine. That's less power than in a souped up SUV unveiled by Jeep last year.

Interestingly, that innovation and quick adoption of new technology happened in the middle of the Great Depression, associated more with frugality than gleaming progress. Why? Because people were buying less stuff, railroads sought to lure passengers to fill the void in freight business. Gleaming new high-speed trains were an enticement to travel.

But other factors played a role as well. The First World War had served as a model of quick mobilization of people and technology. Even beyond the victorious involvement in the war, collective effort and personal sacrifice for the greater good were more deeply embedded in the national psyche. That was before the 1980s, when the relentless demonizations of government, collective effort, taxes, and personal sacrifice began eroding the national will to take on great projects. When intentional collective effort to solve problems is undermined, we are left helpless to counter the unintentional collective impact of billions of carbon emissions that are undermining nature and ultimately ourselves.

Another picture in the Shell Oil ad showed solar panels on top of the truck that is supposed to carry our economy into the future. The panels look great, and trucks really should have them, but an article on the subject explains that the panels can provide power for everything except making the truck move. The image, then, is intended to make us feel good about a future that logistically remains a mirage.

Yesterday, 11.11.18, was the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, and one of the news reports recalled a French town totally destroyed during the war. Fast forward to the present, and witness in our era the obliteration of the town of Paradise, CA, by a wildfire said to be the worst in California history. Climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels sold by Shell Oil and others, is playing a big role in making wildfires more destructive.

America, increasingly paralyzed and torn by economic and ideological disparities, can find unity only in grief for lives lost and possessions destroyed. Its vulnerability to apocalyptic damage from hurricanes and wildfires has been on full display--threats our massive military is helpless to protect us against. Warnings dating back 30 years have been ignored, while many passively put their trust in God's will, and an economy indifferent to the future. Bereft of government action to address the underlying cause of mayhem, we as individuals are given little choice but to continue feeding a dystopic future, even as a sleek, attractive mirage is suspended in front of us.

Only when government makes it in everyone's economic interest to stop poisoning the planet will necessity kick in, and be the mother of true invention.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

"Losing Earth" and the Socialization of Blame

It's been weeks since the publication of Nathaniel Rich's "Losing Earth", the much-hyped article that went cover to cover in an August issue of the NY Times Magazine, but its giant contradictions are as jarring now as when I first read the article.

First, there's the title, which suggests that we are despoiling and ultimately losing the most precious of all things--a habitable planet upon which to live. If true, and the evidence is strong, you'd think it would have been front page news for decades, not something that pops up in the magazine as a done deal after forty years of sporadic coverage, like a jack in the box. The logic of that is, let's not worry about this climate change thing too much until we can safely feel it's too late to do anything.

Second, the premise of the article is that there was a decade--the 1980s--when action to solve the climate crisis was nearly taken, but that human nature kept us from acting. Here, again, there's a comfortably safe logic that avoids pointing fingers: it was nobody's fault and everybody's fault at the same time. The premise contradicts itself. If action was nearly taken, that means that a lot of people wanted to take action. Either those people are not human, or the article's premise is wrong.

The body of the article is well written and contains some useful research that, surprise, further contradicts the premise. In 1980, as it was becoming clear that strong U.S. leadership was needed to generate international action on climate change, Ronald Reagan was elected president. According to Rich's telling, Reagan moved to expand coal production, appointed "an anti-regulation zealot" to lead the EPA, and considered eliminating the council that had just warned him about the disastrous effects of global warming. "Reagan’s violence to environmental regulations alarmed even members of his own party," Rich declares.

This vivid telling, in which there were people who wanted to act, and others like Reagan who did not, completely undermines the article's central premise that "Almost nothing stood in our way--except ourselves."

It's often said that capitalism has a socialist element. It seeks to privatize profit while socializing loss. Pollution, for instance, is dumped on the global commons--in the atmosphere and waterways. Unlike profits, pollution's many costs and impacts are shared by all. We as individuals are allowed to operate under a similar logic, enjoying personal comfort and mobility as the CO2 rises from our chimneys and exhaust pipes to mix in the shared atmosphere. Rich's article does the same with blame, spreading it across all of humanity even while animating the text with the dramatic tension between those who wished to take action, and those who scuttled progress.

Particularly dramatic is the account of the first months of the George H.W. Bush administration, following a campaign in which Bush called for action on climate change. Soon after Bush took office in 1989, Secretary of State James Baker and EPA administrator William K. Reilly called for the U.S. to lead on climate change, but Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu shut them down while President Bush looked the other way. Again, the article's narrative clearly points not to some universal defect in human nature but towards particular individuals whose ideologies blinded them to the existential threat posed by a warming planet.

Though some blame goes to citizens who didn't pay attention, who listened to what they wanted to believe rather than a harder truth, it is the leaders who are ultimately to blame. They are the ones who take the solemn oath to protect the nation, and who ignored the evidence in order to let the voters off the hook. They are the leaders who failed to lead, and who chose the easy way, who opted out, who in a bout of reverse elitism decided they knew more than the scientists who have devoted their lives to studying the planet.

Journalism has long had trouble pointing the finger of blame, particularly at conservatives who since the 1980s have been battering the media with accusations of liberal bias. There's a palpable relief a journalist feels upon declaring "both sides" are to blame. But spreading the blame equally around when the facts suggest otherwise is hardly objective. It is a form of bias that provides reprieve for the guilty and smears the innocent. "Both sides" journalism leaves the public unprotected from malefactors, while offering no incentive for politicians to do the right thing. If extended to a schoolyard, a no-blame policy would lead to mayhem where bullies never face consequences. That, in essence, is what national politics has descended into.

Take Rich's surprise declaration: "Nor can the Republican Party be blamed." Rich defends this statement by mentioning a handful of Republicans who supported action, as if a small and ultimately powerless minority within the party somehow compensates for the behavior of the party as a whole. It is breathtaking to see how a political party that lectures the disadvantaged on personal responsibility is so easily let off the hook for its primary role in sabotaging action on climate change. Interestingly, insofar as generosity and forgiveness are liberal traits, then the forgiveness of the Republican Party for obstructing climate action supports the claim that the news media has a liberal bias. The Republican Party, then, benefits from an externalization of blame in much the same way as industry benefits from the externalization of costs like pollution.

Perhaps the least sympathetic to Nathaniel Rich's logic will be those who, fifty or a hundred years hence, look back in disbelief on decades of inaction, followed by self-serving attempts to wash our generation's hands of responsibility by chalking it all up to human nature.

12.13.18 Update: A "We're all to blame" sub-title was attached to an oped by John Kerry. The title was later changed to "John Kerry: Forget Trump. We All Must Act on Climate Change. If we fail, it won’t be just the president’s fault." The titles of opeds are chosen by editors rather than the oped author, suggesting an editorial tendency towards socializing blame for climate change.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Counterfeit Optimism: A Supplementary Book Review of "Inheritors of the Earth," by Chris D. Thomas

If someone wrote a book about women or a minority, saying that mistreatment of them by those in power is perfectly natural and has in fact made them more resilient, that efforts to help them are futile, and that if we wait a million years they will be fine, the writer would not be hailed as an optimist. Yet a remarkable number of book reviewers have accepted as optimistic a similar logic about nature, as described by Chris D. Thomas in his book Inheritors of the Earth.

That a book can be so flawed in logic and still be reviewed favorably in the news media and on book-selling sites makes clear just how vulnerable society has become to skewed thinking. Even the science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, whose New Yorker essay "The Darkening Sea" is one of my all time favorites, is advertised on the front cover as having given the book her imprimatur. Unlike most other authors who try to let readers off the hook by claiming that invasive species aren't a big problem after all, Thomas has actual degrees in biology and ecology, so his misrepresentations of nature are all the more puzzling.

The professional journal, Biological Invasions, recently published a review I wrote of Inheritors of the Earth. As author, I was given this link to allow access for readers who lack a subscription to the journal. That's the best, most concise read, but because that review may not be otherwise easily encountered, here are some additional thoughts, and some more detailed examples of the book's many deceptions.

INHERITORS OF THE EARTH, by Chris D. Thomas--a supplementary review

In a dark time, when so many problems linger unsolved, and when coordinated action to solve these shared problems is thwarted by political sabotage, hope becomes a scarce commodity. Competing for market share in the hope industry that has sprung up on the outskirts of this void is a book by Chris D. Thomas called Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. The book seeks to absolve us of any species guilt we may feel, as our accelerating alteration of climate, land, and sea propels nature towards the predicted apocalyptic extinctions of the Anthropocene. Thomas erases responsibility and associated guilt by declaring humans and everything we do to be perfectly natural. His version of optimism is to claim that mass extinctions have happened before, are happening now, and will happen again, but that evolution has always patched things up over time. Check back in a million years and everything will be fine. That this logic is being sold as optimistic shows just how much the fabric of the future has unraveled, and how desperate is the search for silver linings in darkening clouds.

A close look at “Inheritors” reveals an underlying, abject pessimism, along with the now familiar techniques used by previous books in this applecart-spilling genre to discredit mainstream science and the work of conservationists. Once again--as in previous books, by Marris, Pearce, Orion and others--invasion biologists and conservationists are portrayed as emotion-bound sentimentalists who are wasting money and effort on a futile attempt to take us back to some past idyllic state of nature. Thomas takes the skewed logic of those antecedent books further, portraying nature not as a highly evolved, complex web of interactions among species, but as a random assemblage of winners and losers. Rampancy by invasive species is viewed as a sign of success. Human needs in this unmoored landscape are paramount, but, surprise, it turns out according to the author that the radical changes we have imposed on nature will benefit nature in the long run. Check back in a million years and you’ll see. If it sounds like an elaborate and too clever way to rationalize irresponsible behavior, well, it is.

Here are some of the techniques Thomas and his predecessors use to create false controversy about invasive species:

Claim conservationists are driven by emotion rather than knowledge

Conservationists seek to restore ecological functioning and protect habitats from radical change. But in this book they are told to “throw off the shackles of a pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world." They are cast not as nurturing and sustaining, but rather “referees and arbiters of how nature should be.” Conservationists, according to Thomas, are "not happy", they harbor a "hatred of foreign species", and are "poised to kill.” "How long,” Thomas asks in one of his more provocative moments, “will it be before the environmental police force of ecologists and conservationists is prepared to step back and decriminalize introduced species that have had the temerity to be successful." Another quote, "Environmentalists may dislike them (invasive species) for their newfound success,” exemplifies how the book repeatedly portrays conservationists in negative, emotion-drenched terms, rather than explaining to readers the scientific basis for a conservationist’s work. And rather than grapple with the findings of invasion biology, the author wraps mocking quotes around “invasion biologists”, and returns to his polemic.

Overstate conservation's goals in order to declare them impractical

Imitating previous books in this genre, Thomas manipulates readers by repeatedly exaggerating the aims of conservationists. Here’s an example: “... to maintain our ecosystems and species in some idealized state is not possible.” Or, “No change is not an option…” Thomas adds his own additional pessimistic twist, claiming that even less extreme goals will prove impossible to achieve: “... we will fail if we attempt to keep things exactly, or even roughly, as they are.”

(Interestingly, conservationists are seldom if ever quoted in books of this genre, the better to sustain them as strawmen for Thomas’s ire.)

Intention vs. unintention: 

In order to relieve readers of any feeling of responsibility and guilt for the degradation of nature, apologists like Thomas make an unspoken distinction between intentional and unintentional action. Since so much of the damage done to nature is unintentional (the CO2 coming out of our exhaust pipes, the invasive species that are accidentally spread around the world by unregulated global commerce and travel) the author must portray unintentional acts as innocent and natural. Secondly, intentional action to right the unintentional wrong must be portrayed as futile, arrogant, dangerous, or all the above.

The strategy of forgiving our unintentional collateral damage while eschewing intentional, organized remediation can be seen at play in the following paragraph from the book. Nature is portrayed as damaged goods, our destructive impacts as natural, and attempts to remedy as futile.

"... we will fail if we attempt to keep things exactly, or even roughly, as they are. This dynamic perspective of biological change might sound like capitulation, but, in fact, it releases us. The earth was not in some perfect or final state before humans pitched up. Life is a process, not a final product. So we need a conservation philosophy that is based on natural change, with humans centre stage: partly because we have already brought about so many changes to the world that cannot be ignored, and partly because humans evolved naturally and we are part of the natural system."

By Thomas’s extreme definition of natural, even nuclear holocaust would apparently be deemed as natural as a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower. People are relieved, through this perspective, from any responsibilities that might come with our enormous power to pollute and transform.

Abject pessimism

Thomas claims to be an optimist, but the book's prologue is extraordinarily pessimistic about any intentional action to spare nature the worst of our abuses. Check out this stirring call to inaction: "There is no point in taking on a never-ending fight with the inevitability of eventual failure." Think of any movement, whether it be civil rights or women's rights, or to sustain nature or democracy, and ask yourself if those are the words of an optimist. In any struggle, social or environmental, there are always countervailing forces against which one must fight, and victory is never assured. And where's the optimism in "come back in a million years”? If said of any other problem humanity faces, “come back in a million years” would be considered a cruel joke.

Thomas saves his deepest pessimism for page 241, where he declares that any "urge to fight a specific biological change" must meet the following test: "Will our efforts have made much difference a few hundred years hence? If not, this means we are fighting a battle we will inevitably lose. Next, will our great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren be that bothered if the state of the world has been altered, given that they will not know exactly how it is today? If the answer to this second question is no, this means we are fighting battles we do not need to win." Again, it seems heartless to rationalize inaction on the grounds that our descendants surely won’t miss what they’ve never known.

The nature of evolution and diversity

The central tenet of the book is that human disruptions and translocations of species around the world, while causing many extinctions, are also speeding up evolution of new ones. Invasive species are said to have caused few extinctions in the areas they invade, and so can be said to actually increase the total number of species in any particular area. But the book doesn’t examine the possibility that invasive species are undermining the ongoing evolution of indigenous species. If, through competition from invasives, a species becomes more and more rare, gene transfer between scattered remnant populations will decline, and the species will lose the capacity to evolve and adapt to changing conditions. Invasive species and habitat fragmentation due to development deliver a one-two punch, undermining evolution when it is most needed for adaptation to rapid changes in climate.

Thomas holds conservation in such low esteem in part because he sees no web in the web of life. Diversity is presented as a straight numbers game, a body count. For a book that is banking on evolution to compensate for the damage we are currently doing, he shows next to no interest in relationships like symbiosis that suggest a deeper interconnectivity between co-evolved species. Only the most mundane examples of mutualism are given. In “Inheritors”, species are portrayed time and again as free agents that can be jumbled together from all corners of the world, and left to duke it out for dominance. "Mix the species up and see who wins,” he declares. "The history of life on earth is one long story of successful animals and plants replacing those that proved to be less successful."

And yet the book calls for preservation of habitat.

Sprinkled through the text are occasional, almost parenthetical calls for protection of remaining habitats around the world. These calls for preservation sound jarring in a book that repeatedly defines species as winners or losers whose fate is of no concern to us. Preservation, it seems, helps Thomas make the claim that introduced species add to local diversity, "as long as there are still sufficient remnants of the earlier vegetation to act as refuges for the most sensitive species."

Thomas views remnant populations of indigenous species as “spare parts”, “building blocks” that should be saved “to maintain flexibility for future change.” And yet his indifference to the stress invasive species exert on remnant native populations, along with his abject pessimism about the conservation efforts needed to keep remnant populations alive, make these calls for preservation ring hollow.

Conspicuous omissions and blurred distinctions

Thomas claims that, outside his window, "the basics of biology remain. Regardless of their origin ... plants still capture energy from the sun and convert it into leaves, rendering the world green; animals consume plants and their seeds and in turn are killed and eaten by other animals." The part about "animals consume plants" is often not true. Introduced plants that become invasive tend to be those that the local animals won't eat, whether due to texture, taste or toxins. This gives the invasive plants a competitive advantage, so that they displace the native species, making the habitat less edible for wildlife as time goes on. Herbivores are proving incredibly slow at evolving a taste for stiltgrass, or the poisonous fig buttercup, or any number of other highly invasive species. What Thomas calls a successful species may not be superior, but merely have escaped, through human transfer to a new continent, the predators, herbivores, or diseases that kept its numbers in balance where it originally evolved.

Elsewhere in the book, Thomas describes how forests moved north as the glaciers receded, displacing grasslands. He believes that the human transfer of species from one continent to another is no different from this historic north/south shift of plant communities. But those historic shifts were not only gradual, over thousands of years, but also involved the shift not of this or that individual species but of whole communities of plants and animals that had evolved together, establishing checks and balances over time.


Click on “read more” to access my detailed notes on the book, including page numbers for various claims and contradictions.