Thursday, September 08, 2016

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

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

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

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

Other Troubling Aspects of the Forum

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

Friday, September 02, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Trump, the Suicide Candidate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 27, 2016

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

In Tao Orion's book, you can witness the sorry sight of one faction of plant lovers attacking another. Permaculturists launch a verbal broadside against mainstream habitat restoration. My review here was initially limited to the book's Forward and Introduction (available online)--along with an interview of the author discussing her book--but I have since read and reviewed the whole book, added below.

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

The Book's Title

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

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

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

Forward by David Holmgren

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Song: A Vision

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


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

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

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

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

The Rest of the Book

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

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

Here's the review posted on Amazon of the whole book. The link's still interesting for the comment section, though.

After reading the whole book, I find no reason to change the one star rating, given how misleading the book is in its presentation of evidence and conclusions. Repeatedly, the book comes to sweeping conclusions based on highly selective logic and sources. It categorically condemns all herbicides, regardless of their varying toxicities, while insisting that invasive species are always a symptom rather than the problem. It takes a very pessimistic view of habitat restoration as currently practiced, saving a wildly implausible optimism for an alternative vision. There is a deep confusion in terminology. The words "native" and "invasive" are used as opposites, even though "native" refers to place of origin while "invasive" refers to behavior. These two terms are used throughout the book, yet are periodically said to lack meaning.

The book's ambitious scope and detail will deceive those who lack the knowledge base to notice the conspicuous omissions. The book claims that chemical corporations, seeking profits, have influenced land managers in government and the nonprofit sector to use herbicides on invasive species, yet doesn't even mention the powerful influence of the nursery and exotic pet trades, which view concern about invasive species, and any consequent restrictions on global trade and marketing of exotic species, as a threat to their bottom line.

Coevolution, which helps explain why a plant's evolutionary context matters, and why some introduced species can wreak such ecological havoc, is given credence only in relationship to smallpox and other introduced European disease pathogens that decimated American Indian tribes. The ash tree, in contrast, is somehow expected by the author to have an inborn resistance to the introduced Emerald Ash Borer. As with other polemics against invasion biology, the book states that wildlife benefit from eating the berries and nectar of invasive species, but avoids mentioning that the native wildlife tend not to eat the invasives' foliage. Herbivory is an important means of limiting rampancy, and if wildlife aren't providing that ecological service, then it's left up to us. Having condemned all herbicide use, the author offers a logistically improbable alternative, in which vast numbers of like-minded people relocate to the countryside and nurture nature's abundance, removing undesired plants by hand.

Yes, we need people to reconnect with the landscape, and herbicides should be used as minimally and selectively as possible, and permaculture has much to offer. But this book is trying to squeeze people and nature into an ideological box.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"You Bet Your Garden" Radio Show Spreading Misinformation About Invasive Species

Does misinformation behave like invasive species, spreading into people's minds, eluding normal checks and balances and resisting attempts to root it out? If so, the otherwise entertaining NPR radio program "You Bet Your Garden" is proving to be a primary means of distribution. Surprisingly, its website contains some of the most misleading and needlessly accusatory writings about invasive species to be found. The author and show host, Mike McGrath, is known for his big opinions about gardening--opinions that in this case prove to be wrong in a big way. As can be seen in the critique of two of his postings below, he uses now-familiar techniques to attack those of us who are concerned about the impact invasive species are having on forests, fields, and people's yards. The two postings critiqued here are particularly irresponsible given the apparent size of McGrath's audience.

A closer look at his postings shows that he may have "drunk the Kool-Aid" at some point, because two posts express a mainstream concern about the invasiveness demonstrated by plants like morning glory and Japanese honeysuckle, while two other posts, perhaps more recent, are riddled with conspicuous omissions and misinformation that then lead to reckless accusations.

Because this false narrative about nature is showing up in otherwise respectable outlets like NPR and the New York Times (critiques here and here), it's important to thoroughly dismantle the assertions being made.

Here is the most egregious post on McGrath's website, beginning with a listener's question. Indented paragraphs are quotes from his two posts, interspersed with my critiques. The headings in bold are a means of categorizing the tactics used.
Lesser celandine—for some, a Bitter Buttercup!
Q. We are in the process of restoring a Lehigh River bank with native plants. But the over 2000 beautiful spring natives we've put in are being choked by a thick blanket of lesser celandine that flourishes during the peak bloom of such natives as Dutchman's BreechesVirginia Bluebells, Trillium and Trout Lilies. It was recommended that we use Roundup in February before the natives come up. I understand that the glyphosate in the Roundup is not severely evil. However the size of our area would require a major grant to purchase the amount we'd need. Pulling is tricky as the celandine produces little tubers along their roots that can stay behind. What are your thoughts on this? Literally hundreds of acres are affected.
    ---Ilse in Bethlehem
A. When tested by University of Pittsburgh researcher Dr. Rick Relyea, the active ingredient in the herbicide 'Roundup' (glyphosate) was found to be relatively innocuous to the amphibians he studies. But in real life the active ingredient is never used alone, and when Dr. Relyea usedactual Roundup purchased at retail, it wiped out massive numbers of frogs, toads and other amphibians. The surfactants and other so-called 'inert' ingredients in such chemical herbicides appear to be far from inert—or innocuous. (And they are considered trade secrets by the EPA and therefore do not legally need to be disclosed.) 
Important information withheld: In the paragraph quoted above, McGrath should know, and say, that there are wetland-safe formulations of glyphosate, with Rodeo being the best-known example. He also fails to point out that, since Monsanto's patent expired years ago, glyphosate has long been available from other companies, so there's no need to support Monsanto.

"Luckily, Round-Up is not approved for use near water, and I doubt anyone would invite Federal prosecution by writing you that big grant check." 
Threats based on misinformation: In the sentence above, McGrath actually adopts a bullying tone. He's suggesting that the woman seeking to save her watershed from a vast invasion of lesser celandine, and anyone who funded her work, could be prosecuted. He can only come to this false conclusion by remaining strangely unaware of wetland safe formulations of glyphosate.

"And hundreds of acres?! Removal of such a large number of plants along a river bank in any manner would lead to severe environmental devastation. And for what? To be able to risk replacing a plant that produces pretty yellow buttercup-like flowers and does a magnificent job of preventing erosion with different plants that thrived in a different era and may no longer have what it takes to compete in a world that's been dramatically changed by the presence of humans? 
Drinking the ideological Kool-Aid: In the paragraph above, McGrath takes some truth and warps it with propaganda. Lesser celandine is indeed pretty. Any effort to eliminate it over hundreds of acres would be disruptive and almost certain to fail. The hydrology of river valleys has in some cases been altered, favoring invasive species more tolerant of destabilized hydrology. But if you've read other defenses of invasive plants, you'll notice the similarities: An invasive plant's good qualities (beauty, erosion control--the latter may be questionable, because lesser celandine's leaves disappear in early summer, leaving the ground exposed to wind and rain) are offered as somehow compensating completely for the ecological disruption it causes. The interest in bringing back native species is characterized as sentimental, and the natives themselves are presumed too weak to make it in today's world.

By opposing action against invasive lesser celandine, McGrath echoes the logic of those opposed to taking action on climate change. Here is a recasting of his paragraph in terms of climate change, using the same sentence structure and logic: Any attempt to remove fossil fuels from our lives will devastate the economy. And for what? To deny Canada a warmer climate and force us to continue enduring cold winters, while denying us all the comforts and freedom fossil fuels make possible?
"Nature doesn't favor natives—or so called 'invaders'. Nature simply provides a canvas, and the rules of Darwin decide the winners. It's not the same river as when those other plants first flourished; human activity has changed everything about it and the area around it. The best I can suggest is that you establish a nearby area that you can protect with deep edging in which to show off your natives. Any attempts to remove that much celandine will be expensive, time-consuming, immensely destructive to the environment, and run a high risk of failure." 
Denial of co-evolution and ecology: Native plants are characterized, in the paragraph above, like some political ideologies characterize the poor, essentially as losers unfit for today's world, and therefore not deserving of any assistance. He willfully ignores the reason natives are important, and why the nonnative lesser celandine has such a competitive advantage. Through thousands of years of association with native plants, the native wildlife--insects, deer, etc.--have learned to eat them, not only their fruits but importantly their foliage as well. In this way, the solar energy collected by plants can move up the foodchain, supporting a thriving, diverse ecological community. An introduced plant like lesser celandine, poisonous as it turns out, may have had predators where it originally evolved, but has left those behind, and is left uneaten by the local wildlife. In its new environs, it therefore has an enormous competitive advantage. As it displaces native species, there's less and less food for the local wildlife. That's a big problem that McGrath, who is a gardener, not an ecologist, chooses to ignore.
"BUT you might be able to get it out of some small areas to help establish that refuge without causing too much damage. There is a new class of alternative broadleaf herbicide that uses Iron as its active ingredient—and it's specifically labeled for use on this plant (although the label just calls it "creeping buttercup", they clearly mean lesser celandine). Just go slowly, and try and keep it away from that priceless waterway as much as possible, as all herbicides must contain some type of surfactant or they won't work. 
Luckily, the surfactants and other inactive ingredients in natural products like this are designed to be gentle on the environment. And iron isn't a hormonal disruptor, like Roundup and many of the other chemical herbicides.  
And smothering the plants with wood ashes is an ancient tactic I found suggested in the lesser celandine article at a wonderful "Modern Herbal" website, This might be another nice experiment for a small area. But please don't mess with any right near the river; lesser celandine is virtually invulnerable in wet areas, and the erosion you'd cause trying to get it out would be immense. "
Skewed advice: Somehow, in the paragraphs above, McGrath assumes that all surfactants in chemical herbicides are bad, while those in "natural products"--he links to a product he happens to sell--can be okay. McGrath, having sworn off using manufactured herbicides like glyphosate, must then characterize all chemicals as bad, and recommend products that range from the untested to the highly dubious. Ideological purity in organic gardening and farming is commendable, but shouldn't be imposed on land managers dealing with hundreds of acres of nature preserves with little or no budget. In a condescending way, he assumes people trying to restore native habitats have unlimited time to apply untested and almost certainly less effective products. Like medicine, herbicides have differing toxicities, and can be used in an intelligent and carefully prescribed manner. Their abuse and overuse in industrial farming is as terrifying to nature preserve managers as anyone else, because it hastens the evolution of resistant weeds and makes farms less hospitable to species like monarch butterflies.

Note, too, that McGrath describes the waterway as "priceless", while not even mentioning the value of the terrestrial ecology that has been altered by the invasion of lesser celandine.

The post continues with a response to another listener's question about lesser celandine:

Q. We have a two-fold invasion of lesser celandine; in my planting beds and throughout our new lawn. There's so much in the lawn that we can't spot spray to get rid of it—it would kill the lawn, too. Thanks for any advice!
    ---Jen in Southeastern PA
Little help for besieged homeowners: In this second question, above, yet another homeowner has lost control over her lawn and garden, due to an invasion by lesser celandine. Many people have told me of the distress this causes them. In response, McGrath offers time-consuming and likely ineffective remedies, described below.
"First, test the lawn's soil; if the pH is low, add wood ashes to raise it to neutral and go heavy on the ashes overtop of the lesser celandine. By all means, try an iron-based herbicide as well. 
And then care for the lawn correctly! Your location—in the mid-Atlantic/Northern part of the country—strongly suggests that, unless its zoysia, your lawn is composed of cool-season grasses. So for you, 'correct' means: never cut it below three inches, never cut it during a dry heat wave, and feed it only in the Spring and Fall. 
And, as lesser celandine craves moisture, make sure you don't overwater the lawn. If we don't get rain, waterdeeply, but only once a week. If you see you're making headway, aerate the turf this fall to improve the drainage. (But if your lawn is always wet, you'll have to install drain tiles to fix the problem and start over to keep the celandine out. This weed beats grass any day in a sopping wet environment.) 
Dig it out of the flower beds relentlessly. Be persistent, get the below-ground tubers, and be sure to get it out earlyin the season—before it drops little seed-like things that also grow new plants, just like the underground tubers. (To quote the Modern Herbal website: "In the early summer, when the leaves and stems are dying down, grains drop to the ground, each capable of producing a new plant." ) 
Then cover any bare ground in the flower beds well with shredded leaves or other non-wood mulch and install deep edging to keep the celandine out. And again, don't overwater!"
More Kool-Aid, and an ugly accusation: Relevant to the paragraph quoted below, part of the ideological Kool-Aid that McGrath has drunk and is now sharing is that action against invasive species is futile. We see similarly pessimistic assumptions driving the resistance to action on climate change. He mentions dismissively a "hit list", which refers to lists of invasive species that homeowners should beware of. These are imperfect lists, but they are helpful to any homeowner wishing not to contribute to the ecological problems caused by invasive species.

Saving the worst for last, McGrath accuses the ecologically-minded people who developed invasive species lists of being in cahoots with corporate giant Monsanto. The land managers I know use herbicide in very small, targeted amounts--a little dab on the cut stump of an invasive shrub, here and there. People looking for someone or some thing to demonize typically imagine a big, pervasive enemy, wanton spraying from giant machines. McGrath's accusation, unsubstantiated of course, is both comic and offensive.
And please dear listeners and readers, don't go around trying to wipe this plant out everywhere you see it because it's on some hit list. It's not going to go away—and that 'hit list' may well have been instigated by Monsanto or some other herbicide producer. Lesser celandine stabilizes wetland areas brilliantly, and the buttercup-like flowers are breathtaking in the Spring, inspiring literary tributes by the likes of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, D. H. Lawrence, and—most famously, the poet Wordsworth who wrote: 
"Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies; Let them live upon their praises;…There's a flower that shall be mine'Tis the little Celandine."

People first, nature second: McGrath ends with quotes about how Wordsworth and others enjoy the aesthetics of lesser celandine. Again, this puts human interests ahead of nature's ecological functions.

In another post, "Another way to look at invasive plants", McGrath's response offers more examples of the strategies people use to dismiss the damage done by invasive species, and to demonize those who take the threat seriously. Here are some excerpts:
"Bottom line: No chemical herbicide is even remotely safe for people and the environment, and the current and unfortunate tendency to spray first and ask questions later (if ever) must be changed if we want to seriously lower the cancer rate and reverse our degradation of the environment."
Zero tolerance, in the name of tolerance: In the paragraph above, he shows zero tolerance for chemical herbicides, lumping them together as all being too toxic to use. Ironically, this zero tolerance is juxtaposed with, and used in the service of, a supposedly open-minded view of invasive species, which he thinks are wrongly maligned. The satirist Tom Lehrer has a famous line that captures this irony of people committing the very sort of prejudice they feign to oppose: "I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that."

A few good qualities supposedly compensate for any invasive properties: In the paragraph below, his woods "is full of" multiflora rose because the wildlife can't, or won't, eat it. Therefore, the sun's energy captured by plantlife, which to a large extent now consists of multiflora rose, isn't moving up the foodchain, and the local web of life suffers. It's nice that his wife likes the flowers, the rosehips may provide some food for wildlife, the shrub provides cover and erosion control--all good. But native plant species, meaning those that have evolved with the wildlife over thousands of years, provide all of these benefits plus foliage vital to the wildlife. And thick walls of thorny multiflora rose have transformed our nature preserves into daunting, menacing places for anyone wishing to experience nature.

"Multiflora rose is, like many now-unwanted plants, a deliberate import that was heavily promoted for agricultural use as a 'living fence' and erosion controller. My woods are full of it, and this season it bloomed like mad, making me a liar for saying so often that the flowers are unattractive because they looked sensational. And they so heavily scented the air with a wonderful fragrance that my wife asked me what smelled so good. "A bad plant", I told her. "Really?" she responded, "we need more of those." Multiflora rose provides essential cover for birds and other wildlife, and copious food for wildlife and people via its super-nutritious rose hips (an excellent natural source of vitamin C). It is unsurpassed at erosion control."
Confusion of unintentional consequence with natural processes: One of the hardest things for people to grasp is that, even though we aren't intentionally changing the earth's climate, it is in fact our collective fault. Similarly, in the paragraph below, a meadow is said to be controlled by "Darwin and Mother Nature". In reality, that field is tremendously influenced by human impacts. Periodic fire was once a natural part of the landscape, but now excluded. We removed all the predators of deer, so their numbers have exploded, and their preference for browsing on native species has given nonnative species, which we have introduced to the continent in numbers far greater than could ever be termed natural, a competitive advantage. Past farming obliterated the native seedbank that once would have favored native species. To compensate for all the historic human-caused transformations that continue to affect the meadow, what is needed now is intentional action--the very sort that McGrath would describe as "unnatural". 
"Ah, but Darwin and Mother Nature are in control that meadow. As Peter Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University explains in his excellent new book, "Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast", your unwanted plants are succeeding there naturally. (And perhaps because you are unnaturally mowing the meadow in the fall, which probably favors the 'bad' plants immensely.) It is possible to remove and replace such plants, notes Del Tredici, but not without tremendous environmental destruction and endless intensive care for the replacement plants. You can't just spray the "weeds" and have wanted plants suddenly thrive; the reworked area would have to tended like a garden. (But it would require much more work than a regular garden.)"

Confusion of intentional action with "dominating Nature": McGrath and other apologists for invasive plant species are essentially offering us excuses for inaction--a tremendously appealing option, given our hectic lives. But the people asking him for help are feeling besieged by invasive species, and want to act. He offers them instead a skewed, rigid ideology and dubious advice that leads to a sense of futility. Past human impacts are downplayed, excused, or repackaged as "natural", useful tools for intervention, such as herbicides, receive blanket condemnation, and any intentional action to undo past ecological trauma is attacked, e.g. in the paragraph below, as an attempt to "dominate Nature". 
"The plants that are there now are stabilizing the soil, managing storm water, protecting the creek and watershed, and providing food and shelter for wildlife. Before you remove those plants, take a careful, objective look at the plants you propose installing in their place. If they won't do a better job, you'd just be trying to dominate Nature, not manage it."
The accusation of emotional bias: One last thing to point out. The word "objective" in the quote above implies that people who are concerned about invasive species are somehow blinded by bias and emotion. Similar accusations have been made by others critiqued on this website. McGrath, at least, doesn't confuse nonnative (origin) with invasive (behavior), and though he makes reckless and unfounded accusations, as far as I know he hasn't flung the word "xenophobic" around. This detailed critique shows, however, that McGrath has lost whatever objectivity he may once have had to speak about ecological matters.
For more on glyphosate from the perspective of land managers, here's an informative post:

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

More Skewed Logic on Invasive Species--Bradford Pear

Soon after writing a critique of the NY Times article that demonizes those of us who are concerned about invasive species, I received an email saying "They've done it again!" The email pointed to a NY Times oped by a science writer, Gabriel Popkin, about the Bradford Pear. Called The Ups and Downs of the Bradford Pear, most of the oped tells the standard story of how this tree, introduced by the nursery industry with great fanfare, became an ecological problem years later. Only at the end does the oped take a bizarre turn, using strange math and selective pessimism to conclude that, in a world full of bigger problems, we need not take any action.

The Bradford Pear turns our towns, and increasingly our countrysides as well, white with its intense, incandescent blooms in the early spring. It seems like a beacon after the long voyage of winter, telling us that the comforts of spring are close at hand.

But like many species introduced to our continent with great hopes,

Monday, March 14, 2016

Skewed Logic Thrives in NY Times Article on Invasive Species

One expects quality from the NY Times, but for some reason it periodically weakens its standards to publish an oped or article attacking native plant advocates and biologists who study biological invasions. (See list and previous detailed critiques here.) The tactics are always the same: a blurring of important distinctions, a failure to explain to readers the basic concepts of invasive behavior in plants and animals, the creation and tearing apart of strawmen, an embedding of bias in word choice and sentence structure, and a lot of mean-spirited pejoratives. This curious, recurrent smearing of those who seek to understand and tend nature's garden is fueled, as best I can tell, by a never-ending stream of resentment emanating most stridently from a couple California-based websites, then given undeserved validation by journalists who lack training and field experience in biology and ecology.

The latest, by veteran science writer Erica Goode, is a polemic loosely disguised as an article in the Science section. Entitled "Invasive Species Aren’t Always Unwanted", it portrays invasion biology as a xenophobic, militaristic, quasi-religious cult that has invented a false enemy and caused people and governments to behave in violent ways. We are asked to accept this dark psychological portrait largely on faith.

Like attacks on climate science, the article claims to shake the foundations of a major area of scientific study

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Longstanding Optimism of Al Gore

A recent piece about Al Gore in the New York Times displayed an unwitting bias that turns reality on its head. The bias stems from a faulty notion of what constitutes optimism, and a confusion of perpetrator and victim when discussing the agents of polarization in political discourse.

In "The New Optimism of Al Gore" (Science Times 3/17), John Schwartz suggests that Al Gore may be becoming an optimist. In fact, he has always been one, in that he long ago correctly diagnosed a dangerous threat to the nation and the world, and offered a way to combat it. Pessimism is instead exemplified by Gore's critics, who say at every turn that we are helpless: that scientists cannot know what lies ahead, that we have no influence over climate and therefore no control, that even if America took action it couldn't possibly influence other countries to do the same, and that any effort to slow global warming will fail.

Similarly, a quote by Anthony Leiserowitz in the piece, characterizing Gore as "one of the country's most polarizing political leaders", falsely implies that Gore has done the polarizing. Polarization occurs when a large and noisy political faction chooses to reject well-established knowledge and base its views instead on falsehoods and wishful thinking. Given that science is a pillar of our civilization, the divide in political discourse on climate is not an inherent one, but is artificially constructed by unilateral secession from the overwhelming consensus of scientists on the issue.

The article, though thoughtful in many ways, still reflects a common bias in mainstream thinking that protects the political right from taking responsibility for the pessimism and polarization it generates.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ben Bradlee--After Watergate

There's a big gap in obituaries for Ben Bradlee, the gutsy, charismatic icon of journalism who passed away October 21st. We hear plenty about the journalistic heights of the Watergate investigation that led to President Nixon's downfall, and the embarrassing depths of the fabricated Janet Cooke story, which led to the Washington Post returning a Pulitzer Prize. But with the exception of one blogpost at, little is said of the years 1981 to 1991, which coincided with the Reagan/Bush era and Bradlee's last ten years as executive editor of the Post.

The reason for this gap can be found in the "After Watergate" chapter of Bradlee's book, "A Good Life", where he describes the "post-Watergate caution of editors". "What the newspaper did not need", he felt, "was another fight to the finish with another president--especially a Republican president, and especially a successful fight. Without the suggestion of a formal decision, I think the fires of investigative zeal were allowed to bank."

The scandals of the Reagan era, which Bradlee describes as "unconstitutional adventures that threatened democracy more than Watergate", came in the protective shadow of Nixon's resignation, an increasingly passive public, and the never-ending stream of accusations of liberal bias aimed at newspapers like the Washington Post. "That criticism," wrote Bradlee, "that suggestion of bias, wore me down over the years, I now think, and I know we walked the extra mile to accept the official versions of events from the White House--explanations that I doubt we would have accepted from the right-hand men of Democratic presidents. And the public was glad to go along." 

Bradlee notes that the alleged liberal bias, if anything, went the other direction: "at the Post anyway, we were always praying for good Democratic scandals". That reverse bias, along with the need in some political circles to avenge the resignation of President Nixon, contributed to the investigative excesses of the Clinton years.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, famed for their reporting of the Watergate story, said that Bradlee's “one unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of that pursuit. He had the courage of an army.’’ And yet, one aspect of Bradlee's truthfulness is his admission that, even for him, the journalistic pursuit of truth could be compromised, blunted, worn down by relentless ideological attacks and public apathy.

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish monuments from gravestones. In a country that remains paralyzed and artificially polarized as the global threat of climate change gathers power and momentum, the World War II monument on the National Mall becomes more like a gravestone for a lost era of national unity and sacrifice for the greater good. Given the timidity that crept into journalism in the 1980s, the courage and commitment to truth that marked the Watergate investigation, too, stands as both monument and gravestone.

As Bradlee is rightly celebrated for his long and iconic journalistic career, and the personal and financial risks taken in pursuing the Watergate scandal, it's good to remember that the greatest monuments to past glories are not built of stone, nor of words. They come not in the form of passive, ritualistic celebration--an annual parade, a comforting eulogy, or a ribbon slapped on the back of a car--but in emulation. These are the living monuments America seems to have forgotten how to build.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two Conservatives Find Fallibility

In a forum at Princeton University's McCosh Hall entitled "Higher Education and the Intellectual Culture: Is Reform Possible?", columnist George Will and Robert George, director of the James Madison Program, presented themselves as tough- and fair-minded intellectuals in a sea of liberal academic group-think and political correctness. Universities, said George, should be encouraging thought rather than shutting it down. Conservative students, he alleged, express their views in term papers at the risk of being penalized with a lower grade by liberal professors.

George praised those who speak out against the majority view, even the supermajority view, mentioning climate change on several occasions. "Someone who questions your view is your friend", he said, recounting his one-on-ones with Cornel West. In the best encounters among intellectuals of different viewpoints, "the need to win an argument dissipates. When that happens, we're in business, we're on the right track."

Both spoke highly of, in John Stuart Mills' words, being "willing to entertain reasons why we might be wrong." George Will, who in personal appearances softens his hard-edged intellect with a ready, self-deprecating sense of humor, referenced a book he had written, "read by dozens, half of whom are in this room today", in which he wrote about the "spirit that you're not too sure you're right."

This idealized image of intellects in the pursuit of truth, humbled by an awareness of human fallibility, is appealing, but could not contrast more with the world George Will inhabits, where terse, mocking dismissal of opposing views is the norm. Read a George Will column such as this polemic against liberals, and you will see no evidence of readiness to be wrong. Dismissing the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, Will portrays himself as an Einstein fending off Nazi conformists. There is precious little in Will's writing style that encourages reflection, exploration, open-mindedness, and humility.

One thing George Will excels at is tossing out memorable phrases, like "the manufacture of synthetic indignation", or a "saving multiplicity of factions." The latter refers to James Madison's apparent promotion of "a varied means to buy property", which could be taken to mean we should encourage great wealth and great poverty in order to avoid the tyranny of middle class conformity.

If George Will and Robert George were truly serious about considering their own fallibility, and not just that of academia, they could begin by exploring where their arguments lead. In a surprising number of cases, they lead to letting people off the hook. Conservative arguments can be boiled down to this: "Don't let liberals make you feel bad." Don't worry about the collective impact of our lifestyles on global climate. It's all a hoax. Don't worry about the plight of the poor. They deserve it. Don't worry about trying to make government work well. It's dysfunctional by definition. Don't worry about regulating markets. They'll take care of themselves. Don't worry about species other than our own. They don't matter. And are you fabulously wealthy and want to feel good about paying a lower tax rate than your secretary? Congratulations. We have recast you as a champion of economic diversity.

Hovering over these two prominent conservatives, as they lectured academia on the importance of fighting against group think, was the conformity exhibited by conservative leaders in refusing to acknowledge human-caused climate change, and the propaganda techniques used by one of Will's employers, Fox News. For instance, leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Fox News cleverly switched to images of Saddam Hussein brandishing a rifle when opponents of the Iraq invasion spoke. Image overwhelmed whatever words were being spoken. Similarly, a "Green Tyranny" logo hung in the background while Fox host John Stossel pretended to have an open-minded discussion of climate science. Having invested so much of his reputation in denial of human-caused climate change, what would be the consequences for George Will's career if he were to change his view? Is a pundit who is hired to fill a certain ideological slot and dependably feed red meat to an expectant audience really free to reflect and reconsider?

Will and George spoke repeatedly of the dangers of tyranny. To guard against these dangers, we must promote and sustain divergent views. This raises the question: At what point do we know enough about a potential threat to take unified action as a nation? As the paths of commercial jets began to diverge from their established routes on 9/11, at what point should those charged with defending the nation have considered further debate foolhardy and taken decisive action, given the potential consequences?

And when, as atmospheric CO2 concentrations have diverged radically from established patterns and headed with tremendous speed into territory humanity has never before witnessed, do we see danger not in group-think but in a lack of group action?

Diversity of opinion is an admirable goal. We should be on guard against conformist thinking. But what Will and George are offering, in the guise of intellectual rigor, is an easy way out, a sugar-coated way of avoiding tough issues and thorny questions of shared responsibility for collective consequence.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Climate March, Start to Finish

If you weren't able to make it to the Climate March, or only got to see the portion of it you were a part of, click below for a showing and telling of the whole progression, all four hours worth, as it passed down 42nd Street. Included are its many themes, a compilation of the most memorable slogans and chants, and serendipitous visual interactions between the march banners and the commercial billboard mega-images that served as a visual frame for the marchers. Having long ago realized that human-caused destabilization of the planet was the overarching issue of our times, I was deeply moved by its spirit, its sounds, diversity, and sheer scale.
(Click on that little "read more" below, then click on "Home" when you've had your fill.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Joining the March for Climate

On Sunday, Sept. 21, beginning at 11:30, people from all across the country will gather at Columbus Circle in New York for what's being billed as "the largest climate march in history." I've never taken part in a march, but I'll go to this one, and I encourage everyone else to head to the Dinky that morning with plenty of time to spare.

The most troubling thing about climate destabilization is that so little is being done to slow it down. The worst sorts of problems, whether at the level of the individual or global, are those that languish and deepen for lack of action. Once a problem is acknowledged and the first few significant steps are taken to solve it, there is an immediate sense of relief.

For instance, there was no lack of scary pronouncements on the world’s prospects at a meeting of Princeton's chapter of the Citizens' Climate Lobby this past weekend. Yet, there's comfort in participating in a national organization working patiently for positive, bipartisan action.

At this month’s meeting, we gathered in a Princeton living room to hear via speaker phone from retired Rear Admiral Len Hering. It felt reminiscent of President Roosevelt's fireside chats during WWII. During his career in the Navy, Hering led a successful effort to reduce the Navy's energy consumption by 40%. I felt some kinship, having reduced our home energy consumption by a similar amount without sacrificing comfort.

Hering sees a clear and present risk to the world his three grandchildren will inherit, and says "we're not having the adult conversation needed." He described how a 12 year drought in Syria and the resulting social and political instability had opened the door for radical elements like ISIS. Dramatic sea level rise this century, combined with storm surges, will create millions of refugees, further destabilizing governments around the world.

These grim prognoses will be far less depressing the moment we take action and shift course. Staying with the status quo may feel safe, yet it is creating huge risks. Climate destabilization, collectively created, is a shared enemy. Action to slow it will be a unifying force, and that action must come at all levels, from the global down to the individual.

The march is timed to precede the U.N. Climate Summit later in the month. Details on how to participate in the march (e.g. no wooden sticks for banners!) can be found at

Note: Below are a book and links recommended by Rear Admiral Len Hering.

A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin

Other reports mentioned:

Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict

Center for Naval Analysis

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Soft Core of Hard-Core Conservatism

The brand of conservatism practiced by Republican leaders is generally thought to be hard-edged. It offers a harsh critique of government, characterizing it as indulgent, wasteful, and to be largely dismantled. The assessment of any Democratic president is unremittingly dour. A conservative is tough on crime, or at least blue collar crime, advocating severe consequences for breaking the law.

Liberals by comparison are usually portrayed as softies--soft on Communism, soft on crime. Their hearts bleed, their positions shift. They are wracked by guilt, constantly coming up with new things to worry about--the plight of the poor, global warming, polar bears, spotted owls. They seem to be making excuses for people, often portraying them as victims of circumstance. That would be the stereotype.

A conservative argues instead that people are wholly responsible for their fates, that success or failure is a product not of circumstance or opportunity but of character, initiative and determination. Poverty implies laziness. Drug addiction is due to a lack of will power. It's easy to think, then, that a conservative point of view places high standards and high expectations on the self.

And yet the core of hard-core conservatism is in fact very soft. Behind that facade of toughness is an ideology that largely lets people off the hook. The critique of government and the Democratic Party is so fervently pursued that no room remains for self-critique, for reflection. Conservatism is hard on others, soft on self. The legacy of the George W. Bush era--the Iraq War, expanded debt, the financial meltdown--begs for reflection and reappraisal, but prompted instead an even more extreme and defiant version of conservatism to emerge.

The soft core of conservatism allows the individual to take a pass on any number of issues. Climate change doesn't exist, and if it does, it's not our fault, and if it is our fault, we can't do anything about it. At every step in that logic, the individual and the nation are excused from taking action. The belief that government is destined to fail excuses a conservative from trying to make it work. Rather than taking on the tough issue of how to balance government revenue and expenses, a conservative maintains the illusion that tax cuts pay for themselves. The complex abstractions of statistics can be avoided by basing one's views on one's own limited experience. A conservative need not question beliefs, nor care about the poor, nor care about the impact of our lifestyles on future generations and the natural world that sustains us.

These are some serious perks. They excuse the individual from a responsibility to study, to understand, to reflect, to reappraise, to empathize, or to consider one's impact on others. And they go a long way in explaining the popularity of conservatism in its current manifestation. They indulge and satisfy like a chocolate whose hard shell obscures a soft, seductive center.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Cheering for the World

A question inspired by the World Cup: What if the team was all of us, together, and the trophy was a magnificent, life-giving planet orbiting through space?

The World Cup final was, for me, nerve-racking to watch. It was of more than idle curiosity, as my wife is from Argentina, thoroughly trumping my mostly German ancestry. In its semifinal against the Netherlands, the Argentine team was victorious but took a physical beating. Heads collided; bodies took jarring blows; legs were pushed to their limits. The hard road to the finals entails attritions large and small. Players reach the most defining game in their careers depleted, battered and bruised. The Germans, so ruthlessly efficient against Brazil, offered the Argentines the game with some early and glaring mistakes. But perhaps the Argentines lacked a killer instinct, and let the opportunities vanish as quickly as they were presented.

What a fickle and capricious game is soccer. First it strips players of the appendage that most defines humanity. With both hands figuratively tied behind their backs, they must channel a nation's aspirations unnaturally through foot and head. The result is a mix of grace and grit, tap dancing on turf alternating with bursts of speed. Its emphasis on endurance and nimbleness rather than brute strength also takes us back to our distant beginnings, as lean hunters who had to either outsmart our prey or chase them until they collapsed from heat exhaustion. There are echoes of the hunt, too, in the diminished role of the coach. No time-outs, only three substitutions, few set plays. The players have a basic plan and individual positions, but the rest is patience, improvisation and spontaneity.

Then there's the combination of nonstop effort and fleeting opportunity. Players push against a wall of impregnable defense for an hour, then through chance, clever maneuvering, or sudden defensive lapse, an instant of opportunity opens up. The World Cup, so elusive a prize, is suddenly there for the taking, the door wide open. In that moment, everything must go right, the ball struck at just the right angle, or the door slams shut, the opportunity gone, very possibly not to come again. This, too, is reminiscent of the hunt--the long prelude of stealth and savvy that leads to the moment upon which all depends. How hard it is to be in the moment when the moment arrives. As it happened, experienced players on both teams missed their chances, leaving it to a young German off the bench to be in just the right place, and make just the right kick in that one moment he was given.

Americans criticize soccer for not having enough scoring. And yet, when Germany routed Brazil, scoring easily and often, the game was cheapened. Soccer thrives on slowly building tension. The harder a goal is to score, the more it is prized. Because one goal can make the difference, and danger or opportunity can evolve very quickly, the game could be decided at any moment.

In basketball, another game that combines grit and grace, players get immediate gratification. Make a good shot, you get a point or two or three. But soccer at the World Cup level is full of excellence--perfect passes, deft touches, clever deceptions--all done with no promise of anything to show for it. In that way, it more accurately reflects our dreams and values, as we expend effort and seek to do the right thing with no certainty of reward. There is no quid pro quo in soccer, only a striving, and a hope that it will all lead to something worthwhile.

Soccer, too, with its uninterruptible stream of play, defies commercialism to interject itself into the fray and compete for the fans' attention and affections. For 45 long minutes each half, no softdrink or car brand can intrude on that sacred space between fan and national team and say "Buy me!"

I was surprised when my wife, who is working this summer in Argentina, called after the game and said that the streets of Buenos Aires are filled with celebration and national pride. Not the wild joyous frenzy of victory, but a pride in and celebration of their team and the extraordinary effort the players put forward. Though goals dominate the replays, the brilliance in this World Cup was in defensive efforts, particularly those of Argentina, and also of the U.S. team as its goalie and defensemen repulsed wave after wave of attacks in its loss to Belgium. Our national anthem, after all, is primarily about surviving relentless attack, not delivering the decisive blow.

And as the players gave their all for their country, fans cheered as if their cheers and hopes and passions might make a difference. That is what was so refreshing in this World Cup, the feeling of unity, the coming together of a nation to support its team, each fan invested in a shared outcome that will reflect positively upon the nation. In contrast to the intransigent polarization of politics, the pettiness and relentless effort to diminish any shared national achievement, it is deeply moving to see countries coming together for their respective teams, cheering together, wanting to be part of something larger than themselves. How extraordinary it would be if Americans defined themselves less by difference and more by shared interest, and sought a common goal, something whose lasting meaning and consequence would not be symbolic but have a substantive impact on our collective fate as a nation and a planet.

We've seen the dangers of national unity and collective endeavor, in the environmental atrocities of China under Mao Zedong, or the German imperialism and genocide in the 30s and 40s. But we desperately need to act collectively in an intentional way, to counteract the massive and unintentional negative impact we are having, collectively, through the biproducts of our day to day lifestyles. That unity will depend on everyone accepting reality, as soccer teams do. Unlike in politics, where denial of scientific findings is now entrenched, one soccer team doesn't unilaterally opt out if it doesn't like the facts. Regulation in soccer--the boundary lines and rules of the game--is calibrated not to weaken the game but to help channel the energy of the players in constructive directions.

It would have been hard to imagine, back when I was growing up, that the biggest of World Cups is being played every day. We have, it turns out, tremendous collective power to transform the planet. We really are, each day, playing to decide the fate of the world, and each one of us is a part of that power. The more of us there are, seeking understandably to live the good life, the more collective power we wield. Many people seek to deny responsibility for that power and its consequences. Some pretend it's negative impact is a hoax, or hope we'll get lucky, or are content to leave our fate in God's hands. In soccer, there is room for luck and for God, and yet the players do everything they can to influence the outcome, knowing the folly of assuming everything will turn out all right.

So imagine a world where, despite our differences, we are all rooting for the same team, and that team is us, with the planet's web of life and elemental powers as our allies. And rather than just pretending we each can have an influence on the outcome, we actually do. And imagine all hands on deck, not to tear each other down, but to raise the most precious trophy of all, spinning gloriously in space, and whose miraculous gifts to life are in our hands.