Saturday, July 18, 2015

Science v. Killing

We watched one of the Star Talk episodes last evening, with Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking with another astrophysicist about Tyson’s interview with George Takei, about Star Trek. The interview and ensuing discussion was fascinating at many levels.

Watching Takei (Sulu to the uninitiated) speak of his early WW II experiences made me gasp. Takei’s entire family, including the three young children were basically arrested and shipped to an internment camp for the duration of the war, solely because they were Japanese-Americans. Note, please, that nothing remotely similar occurred to, say, Italian-Americans, or German-Americans. And, perhaps as bad, or maybe even worse, after the war ended, his family was simply released back into the ghettoes of America, with no money, jobs, or places to live.  When they were arrested, their entire assets and sources of income were taken away and not returned.  Thus when they were released, they had no wherewithal to continue life as it had been before the war. I have worked with one of those detainees, a remarkable woman who helped to found the Japanese-American Memorial Foundation ( .
What struck me about the discussion with George Takei, and my own discussions with Cherry Y. Tsutsumida was the calmness surrounding the discussions of this awful period of pure American racist policy. Both had moved on and become strong characters in their own right, and each contributing to our nation’s culture in wonderful ways, Cherry as a public health officer, and Takei as a prominent television actor.  Takei was just a little kid—he was interned between the ages of 5-9. Yet, here he is speaking with astrophysicist Tyson about the science of Star Trek and its impact on American life. Remarkable indeed.

Star Trek contributed not only some pretty fancy notions about future science developments, but its cast provided hope for a multicultural universe in our future.  We had Caucasian-Americans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Russians, Scots, aliens of several cultures, and both men and women in key roles. Racism, unlike on planet earth, seemed non-existent.  There were warring cultures, to be sure. Who could forget The Borg? Yet, there was even considerable hope for inter-species cooperation.

The science behind Start Trek ranged from the wholly plausible—personal communicators, doors that sprung open by themselves, fully humanized robots, microwave machines, laser weaponry, talking computer systems—to the not yet plausible – warp drives delivering multiple speed of light velocity, “beaming” people by disassembling and then reassembling their atomic structure in a different place and time. But the science was more fun than serious. It was the interaction among the staff and between that starship staff and other cultures that provided the most entertainment.

And remember, it was only a few years between the beginning of this show and our actual landing of men on the moon. Science was on the march. Could Mars and other planets be far behind? Indeed, could interstellar travel be far behind?

Well, it turns out that we humanoids preferred war to science—think Vietnam, and then our Middle East debacles (it would seem all enterprises in the Middle East are debacles by definition).  We do love our wars. So science has had to take a back seat to killing.

So, watching this program was an exercise in lost opportunities. We could have done so much to advance our knowledge of our universe. But we really do like killing better.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Hate as a Campaign Strategy

Hate seems to be taking hold in this land of ours. Apparently, it is now insufficient to simply disagree politically. We must hate one another. We must describe our competitors in the political arena as enemies of the land.  How has this happened? Has it always been thus?

It may be that my memory has become dimmed over the past 80 years.  I can remember vividly my first election—Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson—the General who brought us victory against the intellectual Stevenson. Eisenhower won of course. How could he not? He had brought the war to a close successfully. And did he decry his opposing forces as the enemy? And did he, having won the office, decide to close down government, or privatize Social Security, or give huge tax breaks to his wealthiest donors? Well, no, instead he took the nation on an investment campaign to build a system of national interstate highways. He ran a civilized government.

And Ike was followed by JFK. Remember him? “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” And then we had the Peace Corps, that wonderful group of activist young people who went out to places around the globe to do good. And, they did good.

Zoom forward to 2015. The GOP candidates most closely resemble a train filled with clowns, but where the clowns are no longer funny, but instead folks who seem to hate everyone who is not inside their little train.
What do they hate?

Anyone who is less white and less radical than they are, which means especially, multiracial folks, Latino immigrants, LGBT folks, trade unionists, LibDems. Oddly, at least to me, they seem also to hate the middle class. They decry the public school system, which is heavily responsible for creating a middle class, and they appear not to understand that the middle class (the 47% who Mitt Romney despises) created the America we know and so love.

We are a nation of immigrants—my grandparents landed at Ellis island and petitioned for admission to this country. Yet, Donald Trump is applauded for saying that the Mexicans here are mostly rapists, murderers, and otherwise evil folks (he allowed as how at least some of them must be normal).  And The Donald was applauded by his minions.

The most amazing thing about all this is that real Americans listen to such hate talk and applaud. Now, The Donald may not get nominated, but he does represent a sizable number of core republicans—mostly white, older Americans who hate folks not like them. The recent "debate" over the confederate flag brought out perhaps the best and the worst of us, and the worst of us seem to represent the folks applauding The Donald.

So, instead of focusing on what we need to do to keep America the great nation it became way back when, the GOP has decided to focus on hating. Mainly, of course, they are focused on ramping up the hate-machine (see Fox News) so as to keep the body faithful in full hate mode. It isn't enough to disagree with Hillary, or Bernie, or Elizabeth. No, it is entirely necessary to hate them for what they represent—all those nasty little, hateful people who are ruining America (folks like you and me).

And it makes me think about republicans madly spinning in their graves for what their party has become.  Poor old Ike. He may never rest in peace again.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Racial Terrorism

Racial Terrorism
Just when you might have thought it safe to attend a prayer meeting in church, a racial terrorist, walks in, chats for a while with the parishioners, and then shoots everyone he can, including the pastor.
Meanwhile, at the South Carolina Statehouse, the Confederate flag continues to fly at full mast.
Now, the closest analogue I can conceive is this: what if a white male walks into a synagogue during Friday prayers, shoots everyone he can find, and walks out, while the South Carolina Statehouse is flying a Swastika at full mast.  What would everyone say?

And please don't argue mental illness. See, Mr. Root is not a mentally ill loner. His act grew out of a whole support system that enabled, and even encouraged him to act the way he did. He was coldly rational, as he opened fire on the innocents in church. He even announced that he had to do it (kill Blacks) because they were taking over, raping our women, destroying everything.  He has the mindset of a Nazi during WW II. He has the mindset of an ISIS terrorist who cuts people’s heads off.  His acts were enabled, arguably by growing up within a community of racists, perhaps within a family of racists, and living in a state, South Carolina, that proudly announces to the world, “WE ARE OFFICIALLY A RACIST STATE”.

Note, it should be clear that, to me, the Confederate flag has only one meaning—“I am a racist”. Whether it is displayed on a bumper sticker or flying over the state capitol, it announces that its owner is a racist.
So, we have a young man who is raised within this environment, and then, because he needs a simple mechanism of destruction, he is provided with destructive means via the NRA insistence that everyone should own a gun to “defend” himself. So, his act, explicitly racial terrorism, is enabled by his family, his community, his state, and the NRA.  He acted the way he was driven to act.

We cannot and must not argue that this person is mentally ill. He is and was coldly rational, again, much like Nazi’s when they opened the gas valves to destroy Jewish lives.

And we probably should not allow ourselves to be distracted by an argument about gun control.  Yes, racial terrorists need guns. Rocks, or even knives, don’t work too well to kill many people at one time.  And yes, the NRA facilitates that transaction, wherein terrorists can obtain easily the means of mass destruction.  But, much as we do not spend our time arguing about the need to control ISIS’ access to weaponry, we should not be distracted here. The central issue is racism, and racial terrorism.  

We need desperately to confront that issue in our Nation.  That is the issue if we are ever again to be treated seriously as a civilized society.  Because, frankly, now, we are not such a society. We behave as a fourth world territory—welcome to Somalia-USA (apologies to Somalians everywhere).
Perhaps one short term answer is for people of color and for whites who have a social conscience to boycott South Carolina. Of course, I think the same about Florida with its stand your ground law that allowed an idiot to kill Trayvon Martin.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The "Race Card" Card

Ever since our President became President, one segment of the American public has gone ballistic—the racist element. Practically before he took office, the right wing billionaire set decided to form a “Tea Party” to oppose him. And the GOP leadership decided that he was not to be treated seriously as a President, but instead, they would do everything within their power to oppose anything and everything he might say or propose.  Their goal—Make Obama a one term President.
In part, I guess, one might think that the far right rhetoric could be construed as simply the “other party” wishing to marginalize a Democrat, so that they could regain the power they had exercised under their right wing GOP leaders—you know, those paragons of American virtue—St. Ronald of Reagan, Bush I and Shrub. But the nearly hysterical quality to the opposition, especially from such as the “Tea Party”, seemed to go way beyond the normal right wing politics.  I finally decided that the only explanation that made sense was racism. And then the “Birther” movement began and it became very clear that racism was not only the preferred explanation, it was really the only plausible explanation, especially since he had not even proposed anything yet.
And then, Fox News (aka the Faux News Network), the PR wing of the far right GOP, began its campaign of hammering the President at every turn, amplifying every statement made by the most right wing of our GOP political establishment.
Finally, other real news commentators began saying the obvious—racism had taken over the GOP and its commentator wing.  And then came the response—“ahhh, they’re playing the “Race Card”.
And so, the “Race Card” card was born.  What, you ask, is the “Race Card” Card? Well, it is the standard reply to a charge of racism, averting the need to actually respond with facts. When someone calls out an obvious racist remark, the standard response now is, “oh, you’re playing the “Race Card.” And what that means is, “ I don’t have to explain myself, because you have adopted the standard ad hominem attack by calling me a racist. Whether I am a racist, or whether I am acting like a racist is irrelevant. If I say you are playing the “Race Card”, I no longer have to explain anything. And so, the “Race Card” Card became the standard rhetorical response by the right wing establishment, and the game continues today, six years later.
When I read articles in various papers and journals about some issue vaguely affecting our foreign policy, I often get distressed at the inevitable comments by the right wing folks in the land.  Think of the right wing  politicians writing to the leaders in Iran, telling them to ignore the President's efforts to rein in any possible Iranian nuclear arms efforts. Or think of the GOP's Ron Johnson, saying, "when it comes to a nuclear deal with Iran, he’s “not so sure” he trusts President Obama over the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei." What might the right wing have said, had any Democrat said something similar about St. Ronald of Reagan?
The level of vitriol against anything the President or his Administration does, or says is amazing. I keep thinking, where were you all, and what were you saying when St. Ronald of Reagan was selling arms to the Iranian terrorist regime, so he could arm the Nicaraguan terrorist thugs? Were you as hysterical then as you seem to be now?  And how about, when Shrub declared victory in Iraq, standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier? Did you huff and puff and threaten to blow the house down? And have any of you begun screaming about Ted Cruz, born in Canada to a Cuban father and American mother? Is there a Ted Cruz “birther” movement? No??? How come? Oh, yeah, he isn’t black is he?
When I read some of the commentary, including especially from people I actually know well, and they yell (writing in caps) that “every action taken by this President had made this Nation less safe—yes, every action,” I have to ask whether they have taken leave of their senses, or is their commentary just a racist rant?  “Do you mean that when the President arranged to kill Osama Bin Laden, and, unlike Shrub,  followed through with an actual kill, he made us less safe?”  
“And were you thinking that, when he signed into law the Affordable Care Act, making health insurance available to millions formerly uninsured, he was making us less safe?”
“Or were you just finding a way to label him as awful without actually calling him a Nigger”?
Is that what we have come to in this nation? We have governors threatening to secede from the country (think Texas), and even considering calling out their National Guard because of some military exercises in their state? Would they do that had John McCain (born in Panama by the way) won the Presidency? Oh, I thought not.
The right wing in this country seems no longer to care about what ordinary Americans think of them. Reminds me a bit actually of Russia and their view of Emperor Vlad. The Russians no longer seem to care what he says, how outrageously and obviously he is lying, so long as he continues to sing the song of the Russia of old (i.e., the old Soviet Empire days).  So, perhaps, the right wing here feels the same way. They hate having a Black man as President, and long for the days of old (when St. Ronald of Reagan was ruling as emperor here). And they don’t care how much they have to lie about that Black man President. They want a return to the days of olde (although in some respects they seem to want to return to, say, 1850, rather than 1980).
I no longer think this schism within this country will heal during my lifetime (increasingly short). In fact, I believe it is getting worse, mainly because the right wing seems to believe that it is ok again to be a racist—after all, that was one of St. Ronald of Reagan’s great accomplishments during his term.

I continue to hope that my grandchildren will work to overcome this racist element within our nation. But I am not any longer certain. One of my worries is that the worst elements in this nation actually take over the government in 2016 (think the British elections), and they encounter that Emperor Vlad Soviet Empire place, and that really bad things happen. But that’s for the kids to sort out. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Growing Up Poor

I grew up somewhere between poor and lower middle class. Raised in a largely single parent household, by a working mom who had a high school education (maybe).  Pops was there occasionally, mainly when he had finished his drinking spree and wanted the comfort of a home and good woman. Sometimes, my mom would let him in, sometimes not. Mainly, though, he was missing in action.
So, we had a tenuous grasp on an apartment in midtown Manhattan, once having to change apartment buildings quickly, to stay one step ahead of the collection agency.  There were three kids, me being the youngest.  My sister tired of the education game, dropped out of Julia Richman high school and went to work in the same company employing my mom—it was the War, and worker bees were much in demand, even undereducated ones.  
Note that education was not a large issue, at least not a spoken one.  My mom’s folks, Scottish immigrants to the US during the late 1890's, were not educated beyond the 8th grade, and that could be a stretch. Similarly, on my dad’s side, education did not figure prominently.
But, there were no pulls away from continuing our education either. My brother was extraordinarily bright and was granted access to Stuyvesant High School in New York. My sister, through luck, charm, and good looks, hooked up with a med student attending Columbia. They were married and began their life together, a life very different from my sister’s early days.  Because Bill was so bright, he propelled himself towards college, graduating fairly young.  With him as my male role model, I went off to college, with nary a thought about how to pay for it. Happily, with loans from my sister, and working a job or two, I also managed to make it through my days at my small college in what is now Silicon Valley.
Our lives growing up poor in Manhattan provided little trauma, aside from the occasional broken arm, or other assorted street accidents—we played on the streets, and wandered all over the city, did my bro’ and me.  Will even was mugged once in Central Park, but it never stopped us from walking there with great frequency to play.
During this growing up absurd phase of our lives, never once were we hassled by the police; there were no gangs harassing us, and nobody got shot on the streets, aside from our cops and robbers games.  It was not that we were never “armed”. We made "brass knuckles" out of garbage can handles. My brother and I used to play War, and we would sometimes duel with real steak knives—I have a V scar on my hand to prove it. And we learned to make a flame thrower—turns out, if you load a water pistol with a flammable fluid (lighter fluid??) and then shoot that liquid through a lit match, you get a magnificent flame thrower—of course, we almost burned down the bathroom door, but what the hell . . . we were armed and ready.
But throughout this period, when we were forming our personalities, no one harassed us, no one told us we were thugs, or stupid. Our apartment, though modest, was not rat-infested (lots of cockroaches, though) and our plumbing worked.  My mom earned enough as a bookkeeper to pay the rent and keep us fed. We attended school every day and then played in the streets after.

We knew nobody who got shot, or otherwise assaulted/killed.  We were just modestly poor, like a lot of people during the War in New York City.

And then we went off and got educated, married, had kids and the kids got an education, and then they married and educated their kids. That’s the way it is in Middle Class White America, at least for most of us. We didn't know any Blacks growing up in New York City, and later in Rockland County. Black residents mostly lived above 125th Street and largely stayed there. If police were hassling folks north of 125th Street, we didn't know about it.

But I’m fairly sure, had we been Black and living in Harlem, our lives would have been different.  I don’t know how different, but different they would have been.  And I’m pretty sure that the people of color growing up now in the segregated sections of Baltimore live very different lives than we did as poor White folks growing up in 1930-40's Manhattan.  And I’m equally sure that those people of color have a different view of American privilege than we do.  And that many of them do know someone who has been shot and killed. And they do know about police harassment—DWB, and even Walking While Black (WWB) are real things, even if not to me.

So, as I read about the riots in Baltimore, my mind goes in two directions simultaneously. One side says, “God, why burn down your own neighborhood? How will that solve anything?”  But then my other side says, “I no longer care what you think. I’m fed up with the whole shitload called America. My life is always going to be in the toilet, so if I feel like burning something down, I will.”  That’s what can happen to folks when they feel as though they have nothing left to lose. When you lose all hope, then anarchy reigns, and anything can happen.

So, as much as I want to see rational behavior, including even peaceful protests, I need to understand that many people are beyond that point. And I am reminded of another conflict, the one that has been raging in that benighted place called the Middle East. I ask the same questions there of that conflict raging now since, at least 1947.  Why do you keep shooting rockets at Israel, when you know they will return the compliment tenfold? And the answer is, “because we no longer care.”  And Israel, why do you keep up the Settlements, and why do you level apartment buildings with all those innocents inside?  And the answer is, “because we can.”

Maybe we’re dealing with basic human nature in these awful conflicts, whether here in Baltimore, or around the world. Maybe people will continue killing one another. But I keep wondering, isn't there anyway to call a halt? Can’t we find some way to treat other people as humans, capable of hurt and love? Can’t we for God’s sake just stop what we’re doing and quit pretending that we’re better than “those other folks” just because it makes us feel bigger?  Can’t we try people???

Monday, April 27, 2015

Shit Happens

The awful act of nature that comprises the Nepal earthquake—3700 dead and counting—causes many people to question their concept of God. As usual, Christians with no brains have linked the earthquake with “paganism” and God being angry.A former Los Angeles police officer and self-styled preacher, has sparked outcry by suggesting that Nepalis should not rebuild their “pagan shrines” and instead convert to Christianity. Tony Miano, an outspoken conservative who has previously been accused of homophobia, triggered angry responses when he posted a series of messages on social media, expressing sympathy for the people struck by devastation in Nepal, but suggesting God was angry.”

And lest the thinking Christians begin imagining that they possess the only emptyheads in the universe, it clearly is not so. In India, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Sadhvi Prachi kicked up yet another controversy when she came up with her logic on the recent earthquake that devastated Nepal. Commenting the most unreasonable statement that could come at this tragic time, controversial BJP functionaries, Saksha Maharaj and Sadhvi Prachi have linked the earthquake in Nepal to Rahul Gandhi’s Kedarnath visit. Speaking to media persons in Haridwar, Sakshi Maharaj said, “Rahul Gandhi eats beef and goes to the holy shrine without purifying himself, the earthquake was bound to happen.” It may be mentioned here that the lady was in the news recently for calling the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi a British Agent.

See, every religion has its emptyheads.

Apparently, every tragedy, such as the Nepal quake, begets some idiot who has “the explanation” and it is never based on facts, reason, or science. Instead, the emptyheads of the universe almost always ascribe the event to some failing on the part of the folks affected. One could only hope that organized religion, if it won’t be helpful, then perhaps it could refrain from opening its mouth at all.  It all makes me wonder whether they would ascribe Jesus’ “problem” (that nailing to the cross thing) to some awful failing on his part—he must have committed some unspeakable act to so offend God/poppy that his nailing was ordered.

But back to Nepal. The tragedy continues to unfold, with the death count continuing to rise. Partly, the destruction is simply a result of a 7.9 quake, which is huge. By way of example, here is a quote from Wiki about that 1906 California quake: “Since the 1906 earthquake preceded by more than 30 years the development of the Richter magnitude scale, the most widely accepted estimate for the magnitude of the quake on the modern moment magnitude scale is 7.8, values from 7.7 to as high as 8.25 have been proposed The main shock epicenter occurred offshore about 2 miles (3.2 km) from the city, near Mussel Rock. Shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, and inland as far as central Nevada”.

So, we have a quake equaling the San Francisco quake, which really destroyed the city.  Is it any wonder that so much damage was done in Nepal? Kathmandu is an old city by any standard, with its history spanning some 2000 years. Many of its key buildings, especially its temples, are several hundred years old. As such, the building standards did not include any technology that might withstand such a powerful quake. So, it may even be surprising that the buildings survived at all. One assumes there are geologic explanations for why some buildings collapse, while others standing nearby remain unscathed.  But the ancient buildings are vulnerable, God’s wrath notwithstanding.  But for the newer buildings, we have less good explanations.  It seems clear, that building standards capable of withstanding powerful quakes exist, but have not been used throughout the country, including the capital, Kathmandu. For that we can blame, not God, but building contractors who wished to save money. These days, money is almost always a preferred explanation for disaster, and Nepal is no exception.  

So, we should think about the Nepali people who are currently sitting out in the open, or in tents, with little food or water, as disaster aid groups try desperately to reach them.  If you can, send some money to their aid—there are many private relief agencies now gearing up who can be contacted and would welcome your money. If not, then at least keep them in your prayers or your thoughts. And if you hear or see a religious emptyhead trying to blame these people, please tell them to shut up and go find a bank or a republican to blame.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Big Government

I was having a discussion the other day and a friend made some comment about ‘big government” when referring to some government action he didn't like. It occurs to me that we really need to think a bit more about this term, “big government”.

First, we have four levels of government in this country—town, county, state, and federal.  From having worked with all four levels (in addition to working with governments of others countries) I have concluded that there are significant variations in the relative competence displayed by each of those four levels, with the county and state being at the bottom.  But any of the four could be described as “big”, and certainly the four in combination qualify for that term.  We have a lot of government in this country. But, to be fair, we have a lot of people—pushing 320 million at this stage.  If we don’t want anarchy (Rand Paul notwithstanding) we need government at several levels.

We also need government to provide many of the services we require to exist as a civilized nation—education, roads, defense, home security (policing, et al), protecting us from commercial predators, and the many other issues that require intervention on our behalf. So, yes, we have and need a lot of government.

But the term is used often to describe some policy or rule we don’t like. And often, the folks who use the term do so by decrying the “bureaucrats” who carry out the policies of government.  In fact, most of the stuff we don’t like has been conceived by one segment of that “big government”—the elected officials at each of the four levels.  It’s even a bit mind-blowing, when I hear an elected official—generally someone at the state or federal levels, blowing off steam by yelling about “big government”.  This is a common cry now in republican circles. While trying desperately to get onto that federal titty-sucking, they yell about big government, by which they mean all the “other guys” sucking on the federal titty.

Mainly, I have come to understand that “big government” really is elected officialdom at whatever level.  It used to be that the feds—i.e., Congress—were really the target of that term. The more obnoxious the action, the more disgust accompanied the “big government” expletive.  In recent years, however, the Supreme Court—I now refer to them as “Tony and the Supremes” to denote that most corrupt justice of all time, Tony Scalia, and his “houseman” Clarence--has entered the realm of "big government". Their Citizens United ruling that gave our government over to big commerce (see the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson) has almost destroyed the concept of a true representative democracy in our country.  So, does that square with the term “big government”?  It does, in my view, but it now means something different. It means that our government is being directed by a very small group of super wealthy commercial beings, much as we might imagine the old systems of royalty. The various kings, dukes, et al were still “big government” entities, but the folks they ruled didn't have much say. It’s getting that way again and “big government” per se has very little to do with the ultimate decisions that are made.

So, we need to rethink this term and the underlying concept of “big government”.

First, “big government” has relatively little to do with the thousands of working stiffs who work every day in the various halls of government, and carry out the whims of their elected officialdom bosses.

Second, if we don’t like the results of some policy/law that has been written and voted upon by our elected officials, we need to tell them about our dislike. We do that in two ways. First, we vote and we tell them by voting the rascals out of office when we don’t like what they produce. Second, we write or call or e-mail them to tell them we don’t like what they are doing.  If we don’t speak up, or we don’t vote, we don’t get to complain.

So, maybe it’s time to retire the “big government” epithet. As I have noted in the past, our government is only as big as we agree to make it. Second, my view is that most things that grow very large become both inefficient, and often behave in stupid ways—see “big banks”, big oil companies, big airlines, big commerce in general. Remember, when banks become “too big to fail” they are also too big to exist and should be broken up. That’s when we need “big government” to intervene and break them up.  See, we often need “big government” to protect us from our own worst instincts, which include placing too much trust in “big commerce”.