Thursday, December 31, 2020

2021 Will Be Welcomed as a Liberator, and Will Pay for Itself

I'm going to cheat and fiddle with the timestamp on this post, because I really truly did intend to post it yesterday.

On Wednesday the libertarian writer and Cato Institute wonk Julian Sanchez posted this in response to a deranged tweet from a Trump Republican:

It seems that by "the party that always wants larger, costlier government" Sanchez meant to refer to the Democrats.  It's hardly obscure that although Republicans like to campaign against big-spending and big government, when they are elected they increase spending, raise the deficit, and increase government surveillance into ordinary citizens' lives.  It's arguable that what matters is not the amount of government spending, but what and whom it's spent on.  Or other considerations, as when Barack Obama perpetrated a hiring freeze for government employees in the middle of an economic crisis.

That Sanchez got an obvious point so wrong discredits him, which reminds me of something else.  It's difficult to know whether every Republican who wants to overturn the 2020 presidential election has any evidence or other basis for their belief that the election was stolen.  But it appears that most if not all such Republicans also believe that Joe Biden is a radical-left socialist, which is delusional in a classically Republican way.  The only mitigating factor could be that many Democrats believe that Biden is a "progressive," which is just as delusional but in a classically Democratic way.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

One Karen, Two Karens, an Army of Karens

I spent several hours on Christmas Eve watching video clips of anti-maskers behaving badly.  I regret it, it was a highly toxic experience that left me feeling lousy for a day or two, but it also helped me understand why so many people feel that watching TV news and punditry makes them feel terrible.  Usually I just watch four or five minutes of such material; five or six straight hours of it was painful.  It's also habit-forming, and I'm finding it harder than I expected to stop.

It wasn't just watching mostly middle-aged, mostly white, mostly women bullying store clerks and lower-level managers who are required by their employers to treat abusive customers with courtesy, though of course that was infuriating.  (On the other hand, getting into screaming wrestling matches with them would not be better for their peace of mind either.)  I was also bothered by the mostly amateur pundits who reposted the clips to Youtube.  There were some professionals, such as the lefty channel The Young Turks, whose Rick Strom quickly annoyed me as much as the anti-maskers did.  Strom's smirk makes me think of Rachel Maddow in a scraggly hipster beard - in fact I propose that he and his ilk should be known as Rachels hereafter.  (Or maybe Cenks, after the would-be union-busting star of The Young Turks.)  His commentary adds nothing to the clips, but I guess a guy has to earn a living.  And maybe I'm being unfair: Strom appears on the TYT Sports channel, maybe I'm taking him too seriously.

I noticed that the commentators (let alone those who commented on the videos) weren't really much smarter than the anti-maskers they derided.  The clip above, posted by a guy called Xenoshot, epitomizes the style.  It's framed by several seconds of a video game, then switches to a scene of three (or maybe four, if the person recording is one of them) stereotypical anti-maskers exercising their Freedom in a coffee shop as the young manager patiently, calmly, stands firm on the mask requirement and finally calls the police to remove them.  The invaders are equipped with the usual printouts that they claim prove their right not to wear a mask.  Whether they are from the CDC website, as they claim, should be doubted, but without seeing the printouts I can't be sure.  Their leader claims that the manager is discriminating against them, citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which has no bearing on the situation either.

Xenoshot's world-weary drone is about as irrelevant as Rick Strom's, but the interesting thing is that his grasp of the law is as weak as the anti-maskers'.  The leader lectures one of the cafe workers:

This is not free and equal access, which you have to comply with, that's an established law, so if you are basically treating us differently than other customers, you are violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is a crime.  This is a crime, okay? 
Over more videogame footage, Xenoshot drawls:

Yeah, I'm sure the Civil Rights Act recognizes anti-maskers as a protected class, when are Karens gonna understand that private businesses have every right to refuse service, it's like some insane concept to them. "No shirt no shoes no service," I'm sure they've heard of that. If you don't comply with a business's rules, you're the one who's breaking the law.  They have every right to have you arrested for trespassing.

It's true that the Civil Rights Act does not protect your right to violate public health regulations by refusing to wear a mask: it states which kinds of discrimination (race, sex, religion, etc.) are prohibited and in what domains (education, hiring, public accommodations, etc.).  However, far from giving private businesses "every right to refuse service" according to their "rules," the Act restricts businesses' rights to do so.  Misconceptions about civil rights and antidiscrimination laws are as widespread on the left and in the center as they are on the right, as I've pointed out numerous times.

The sign you see posted above the cashier's station in many small businesses, "We reserve the right to refuse service for any reason" has no more legal standing than the popular Facebook posts declaring the poster's legal ownership of what he or she posts there - that is to say, none.  They can be challenged, and have been.  As for "No shirt no shoes no service", those signs are technically legal, but "their scope is limited."  These decisions are judgment calls, subject to challenge if they are abused.  Which, to avoid confusion, is not happening in this clip.

Businesses that require masks, or try to, are doing so not because of the owners' idiosyncratic disapproval of uncovered faces but to comply with state and local laws and health regulations.  They might require masks in a pandemic even without those regulations, but they can call the police in, as the manager of the cafe in this clip did, because they have law behind them.  Anti-maskers also like to claim that health regulations aren't law, but guess what?  They're wrong about that too.

I'd like to think it would be helpful if Xenoshot, Rick Strom, Karens in the Wild, Kodelyoko and other Youtube Rachels bothered to inform themselves before they post their putdowns.  The same goes for the anti-maskers and the Trump cultists trying to overturn the 2020 election, of course, but we know that.  Just because the anti-maskers are stupid, it doesn't follow that the Cenks are smart.  The Rachels are like MSNBC: they're about tone, not substance; about clicks and branding, not intelligent commentary; stroking the prejudices of their audience, just like Fox News.  If it feels good ... think again. 

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Call of Science

I added an important update and reconsideration below.

In October Scientific American endorsed Joe Biden for the presidency, the first time it had endorsed a candidate in its 175-year-history.  No wonder he's been saying "Trust the Science."

The trouble is that Science is a lot like God, in that we laypeople have no direct access to Its truths.  We have to rely on human intermediaries, and even they admit that they are flawed, imperfect vessels.  Yet we must hearken and obey.

First we have the scientists themselves, but they rarely pollute themselves by speaking to us directly.  So we must also rely on science coverage in the corporate media, despite the fact that scientists constantly attack science news for incompetently or maliciously misrepresenting True Science.  And they're not entirely wrong about that.  Like politicians, though, scientists are apt to claim they've been misquoted even when they have been quoted accurately.

Think again of last week's Great Conjunction, commonly called "the Christmas Star" in even nominally secular news media.  I still don't know why they got the facts -- the Science -- so wrong so persistently, but they did.  Even the scientists they quoted directly mostly bollixed it up.  And this was an event of no worldly importance at all, so there could hardly have been outside pressure from interest groups or sponsors to make them distort the science.  Nor was it highly advanced science on the order of quantum or string theory.

So take something like the novel coronavirus and the new vaccines currently being distributed.  That's very important to people's lives and livelihood, so the scientists and the media would try much harder to get it right, wouldn't they?  No.  There are billions of dollars at stake, and the Science is being filtered through pharmaceutical companies who have an interest in beefing up their prestige and making a return on their investments.  The news media could, in principle, scrutinize their claims, but in practice they rarely do that.  Even 'educational' media like our public broadcasting systems, despite their devout Scientism, identify Science with corporate-branded research and production.  Look for BiDil in this post, a drug marketed (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) as an African-American-specific treatment for high blood pressure: even after it had been discredited and taken off the market, an NPR science program endorsed it to promote a scientific-racist agenda.

This post from Naked Capitalism makes some important criticisms of the promotion of the Pfizer vaccine, and this one shows that Pfizer carefully made important information almost inaccessible in the published report on it.  Does that mean that Pfizer's vaccine is bad?  No, it means that we don't and can't know things we need to know about it to try to decide whether it's good or not.  By "we," I mean not only you and I but medical and other scientific professionals who couldn't get at the data.

[UPDATE: A reader sent me a link to this post by Marcus Ranum, which is a good critique of the Naked Capitalism post I linked above.  The writer doesn't address the question of data exclusion (though one of his commenters does), but his arguments against the post are good.  He shows that the anonymous doctor who wrote the NC post misrepresents some of his examples, notably the Cutter Incident of 1955 in which a batch of defective polio vaccine caused 40,000 cases of the disease; "within a month the first mass vaccination programme against polio had to be abandoned."  This was, as the blogger stresses, a production failure, not the result of inadequate testing of the vaccine as Doctor Anonymous claimed.  Other errors and disingenuous takes in the NC post pretty much discredit it, it seems.

[Rather than revise this post to eliminate mention of Doctor A, I'm leaving him in.  If I hadn't linked it, I wouldn't have learned about Ranum's critique; so I, and I hope readers, will be better informed as a result.  The reader who sent it to me accused me of too much skepticism; it should be obvious that I wasn't skeptical enough. Ranum begins by noting, "It’s hard to tell contrarianism from disinformation or just ignorance and usually my approach is to try to detect the signs of dishonest or motivated reasoning."  I agree, though I feel that at times Ranum skates close to authoritarianism with his references to "heroes" and the like. Reliance on experts is often a necessity, because there's too much we need to know, but it's an unfortunate one. I think that one warning signal of what Ranum calls "contrarianism" is a refusal to question one's own authority.  As Nietzsche wrote, the important thing is having the courage for an attack on one's convictions.  Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, Trump cultists aren't really skeptics in that sense, and don't really reject authority.]

This post, which I found in Vagabond Scholar's annual blog roundup, also discusses a question that had been stirring in my mind ever since the first announcements of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines: Just what does "95 percent effective" mean?  The explanations I heard didn't really add up.  Out of curiosity I looked up the effectiveness of polio vaccine: according to the CDC, "Two doses of inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) are 90% effective or more against polio; three doses are 99% to 100% effective."  That makes me feel a little better, but then we have sixty-five years' experience with polio vaccine.  The flu vaccines now in use are much less effective, though I'm not sure by how much: the CDC fudges by using a different criterion of effectiveness: "recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine."

Like Thomas Neuberger, who discussed effectiveness in the post I linked to, I'm not saying that people should not get vaccinated when they get access to it.  "This," Neuberger wrote, "is not a recommendation not to be vaccinated against Coronavirus. It’s an encouragement to decide for yourself and your family when to be vaccinated and which vaccine to choose based on the most accurate information available."  The trouble is that Pfizer's and Moderna's promotional material, or media reports that simply repeat it, are not necessarily the most accurate information.  I'm not gloating over the limitations of science, I'm very concerned about them and their ramifications for ordinary people like you or me.

Think again of Doctor Anthony Fauci and his public claims that Santa Claus is immune to COVID-19 (true of the fictional Santa, not true of the human beings who play him during the Christmas system) and that he personally had vaccinated Santa.  The latter is a flat-out lie, but most adults think it's cute to lie to children. I just finished reading the historian Stephen Nissenbaum's book The Battle for Christmas (Knopf, 1996), which traces the development of Christmas in (mostly) the US since the colonial period.  Nissenbaum makes an interesting suggestion about the importance of Santa Claus to adults: although he was a commercial figure, he stood for a pre-commercialized ideal of gift-giving outside time and history.  "In that sense, it was adults who needed to believe in Santa Claus" (175).  Many adults, including Fauci, need to lie to them.  Besides, Fauci thinks of the public as children who must be ordered around by men of Science like him, so he has no compunction about lying to us. See him lying to the naughty children in the clip Krystal Ball plays a few minutes into this commentary; the whole clip is worth watching for its catalog of institutional failure during the pandemic.  As Ball says, Fauci is far from the worst high-level figure in the story, but the adulation liberals are heaping on him has nothing to do with his real virtues.  It's because of his grandfatherly manner and because they see him as an anti-Trump figure.

This isn't just about Fauci, of course.  If we're to trust duly credentialed experts, our government, Science, they must earn our trust.  If the vaccines blow up in our faces, it will detonate trust in them, and they won't be able to blame anyone but themselves - not that they won't try.  Again, though: it's not about them, about their status, about saving face.  Human lives are at stake.  That basic reality keeps getting lost.

P.S.  Because I evidently haven't made it clear, let me stress that I am not against vaccination, not an "anti-vaxxer."  I get a flu shot every year, I've had anti-shingles and anti-pneumonia vaccinations as my doctors have prescribed. I got polio and other shots as a child, and though that wasn't my decision, I have no regrets about it.  I probably haven't stressed enough that I accept the FDA approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, though as I think I said, I am concerned about the necessary rapidity of the process, and I think everyone should bear in mind the "emergency" nature of the approval.  I thank Marcus Ranum clarifying the precautions being taken against allergic reactions when someone gets the vaccine: someone is standing by with an epipen in case of trouble, since allergic reactions show up show up almost immediately.  I think many people would be reassured if the media pointed this out in their video coverage of people getting the vaccine; so far I have not noticed them doing so.  That would take precious time away from speculation and baseless predictions about What the President Will Do or What Senator McConnell Might Do, however.  What I was ranting about in this post was bad science reporting, and poor communication from medical spokesmen like Fauci.  But just as I find I'm too naive when I'm accused of cynicism, I find I'm not skeptical enough.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Vagabond Scholar's Jon Swift Memorial Best of 2020

Once again, Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup, carrying on the good work of the late Al Weisel, alias Jon Swift.  Bloggers choose their own favorite post of the year, and Batocchio posts them.  I'm in there, of course, but so are a good many other writers you might not have heard of.  Take a look and see what you think.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Cthulhu Loves Me, This I Know


A friend posted this story this morning: 

Deputies were called Sunday when a Christian prayer group and Native Americans faced off Sunday at the Great Serpent Mound, the Native American national historic site in southern Ohio.

The Native American leader who was there says they were trying to protect a sacred site that belonged to their ancestors.

The leader of the prayer group says the mound is a place where dark energy is released into the world.

"I'm not calling the Indians dark," Dave Daubenmire told The Enquirer. "This has nothing to do with the Indians."

It's shocking how much Daubenmire concedes to the Satanic forces of Political Correctness here. In the past Christians would not have hesitated to call the Indians "dark," and worse.  Denouncing pagans and calling their gods demons is an ancient Christian tradition.  Jesus even called his Jewish (that is, not pagan) opponents sons of the Devil.  At this rate, before you know it Daubermire will be saying that there are many religions but they all believe in the same God.

Spirituality is so beautiful.  Each man believes that the other has spiritual power that he has to cancel, and which his own god can protect him against, though Daubermire seems to feel more protected than Yenyo.  Are the Indians' gods so weak that the Christians can exorcise them?  Is "sacred space" so fragile?  These are serious questions.  I've often seen writings by adherents of the old religions complaining that they had their own earth-based gods of great power and holiness, but then the Christians came along and destroyed them.  Why didn't all the earth-based gods get together and give Jesus a wedgie?  Why did their power depend on the existence of their temples and shrines, even when their members were an overwhelming majority?  It's possible to give secular answers to such questions, but the non-Yahwists should answer them in their terms.  Mostly they just whine.  If I were a theist, I'd prefer gods who aren't losers; and make no mistake: these disputes are about power and winning, about honor and shame, not about "holiness" and "the sacred."

If a Christian prayer group is such a threat to the Indians' sacred site (owned by an unnamed "nonprofit"), why not counter them with the Indians' own rites -- dancing, chanting, burning sage?  Executive Director of the American Indian Movement Philip Yenyo told the Cincinnati Enquirer:

"It's a sacred site for us, but other people with other faith beliefs think they have the right to go there and do their ceremonies. In our opinion, they don't," Yenyo said. "It would be like me going into a church and doing my ceremonies in that church – disregarding and disrespecting their believes."
This is as disingenuous as Daubermire's claim that he wasn't calling the Indians dark.  I hope that Yenyo does "disrespect" Christian beliefs; why the hell shouldn't he?  If he can't lead a purification ceremony in a Christian church, why not do it on the lawn, in the parking lot, even across the street if necessary?  No wonder the sacred sites are under attack: he doesn't care about them that much.

It's also great to see the tranquility and peace that Faith and Spirituality bring to both sides, as shown in the lovely photograph above. Thanks to Dave Daubermire and Philip Yenyo for strengthening my atheism on a cold morning.

Monday, December 21, 2020

What Can You Do With a Boy Like Pete?

When President-elect Biden announced his first batch of staff and cabinet nominees, there was a great surge of celebration among liberal Democrats online.  So wonderful! they exulted. He's appointing competent, qualified adults! and so on. I had the feeling something was wrong, but concentrated more on what the reporters I trust were saying about the appointees.

As time went on and more nominees were put on display, a reasonable amount of skepticism about some of them emerged.  Biden-Harris loyalists angrily rejected discussion, which didn't keep it from continuing, but basically they were trolling: Who cares, they're all better than Trump's people, I'm just so glad I don't have to think about what he's doing! I suppose you wish Trump had won the election, you dirty Bernie Bro!

This came to a head with speculation about what role Pete Buttigieg would play in the Biden administration.  Word was that Buttigieg insisted on a cabinet post and wouldn't settle for less. Excited Mayor Pete fans tossed out possibilities.  An ambassadorship?  China, maybe?  He speaks so many languages, he could pick up Mandarin in no time!  Or how about the United Nations?  He's so smart, he's qualified for anything and everything!  He's got this youthful energy!  He went on Fox News and shut them down!

Now, most of these recommendations didn't amount to much, certainly not as qualifications.  I noted that Buttigieg's polyglot brilliance was exaggerated; the two languages he speaks that I know (without calling myself fluent in either Spanish or French), he doesn't speak very well.  The United Nations has a corps of interpreters so that ambassadors don't need to try to master dozens of languages.  Even if Buttigieg were as fluent in seven languages as his fans believe, it's not a qualification for a prominent government post.  Nor are most of the qualities his fans gushed about.

I haven't watched his appearance on Fox News, but I do remember that when he was asked a pointed question by a New York Times reporter, he got flustered and tried to cuss and lie his way out of it, without success.  In general he doesn't seem to deal well with disagreement or criticism; his blundering encounter with angry black voters in South Bend, for example. I see no reason to suppose that he's cut out to be a diplomat, even on the rather soft level of an ambassador.  He's simply too inexperienced for any important post on the level of China.

His inexperience is the sticking point for a cabinet post too.  Two terms as mayor of a small city -- I was going to call his tenure undistinguished, but even that might be too kind -- are not enough to let him lay claim to any national office.  Buttigieg's a fairly adroit and mostly lucky self-promoter, but most of the image he projected when he began running for President crumbled under press scrutiny.  It was widely held, this past week or two, that he thought he'd earned a place in the cabinet simply by quitting the primaries to clear the way for Joe Biden; I began to wonder if he might be hurting himself by his entitlement.  Importunate troublemakers with little to offer tend not to get what they want.

But no, Biden tapped Buttigieg for Secretary of Transportation.  Stress was laid on his homosexuality, on what a historic first it will be for an openly gay man to head DoT.  It is that, but homosexuality is not a qualification for a cabinet post.  Biden's been touting the diversity of his cabinet choices, and I bet he's going to try to distract attention from the inadequacy of several of them by pointing to it.  Certainly his toadies and trolls will do it, as Obama's and Hillary Clinton's did for them.  I don't think it will work too well, but what else has he got right now?

I've been arguing about this with a lot of people on social media, and it's fascinating (as well as dispiriting) to see how quickly Democrats have abandoned any concern that the Biden administration should be competent or qualified.  It's all the more remarkable when you recall how exercised they were by the inadequacy of Trump and his people, right up to the present.  That's one of their rebuttals in fact: Who cares, he's better than the trash Trump put into those positions!  Which may be true, but it sets the bar absurdly low.  Someone actually argued seriously that Buttigieg would lower the average age of Biden's cabinet.  So it would, but you could say the same about Ivanka or Jared.  (Most defenses of Biden, as with Clinton or Obama, could be made as fairly of Trump.)  As someone pointed out, "The defense of the centrist establishment of how Pete Buttigieg is qualified to be Transportation Secretary is pretty funny to watch & akin to Trump saying how Dr. Atlas was qualified."

Ryan Grim and David Sirota, who are among the left journalists I rely on these days, have made cases that some of Biden's nominees are pretty good, just as some are very bad.  They're still being attacked by Biden-Harris trolls for their lack of obedience and submission, but the trolls have no real arguments and are getting a lot of good pushback.  On the other hand, I just had a depressing exchange over Buttigieg with my old friend the ambivalent Obama supporter, who at first defended Buttigieg as smart enough to learn to do the job -- quite a weak defense.  When I leaned on him a bit, he conceded that Buttigieg wasn't a good choice, but Biden could have done worse.  That's not even a defense; it's capitulation to the Dark Side.  Of course Biden could have done worse, but this country may not survive four more years of "could have done worse."

I've seen several statements (including long threads) like this:

The doublethink is impressive; these people are dedicated servants of Big Brother.  I'm beginning to realize that they don't know what qualifications are, and they don't care.  They want to forget that the Trump years ever happened, though as with George W. Bush, it's difficult at times to figure out precisely what they objected to about him.  Policies that liberals claimed to hate from Dubya became virtuous when Obama took them up, and I expect we'll see the same pattern with Biden.  I also expect that Biden won't get the same indulgence that many progressives extended to Obama, which hindered resistance to his worst policies. It may even be that liberals' expressed intention to shut off their brains for the next four years while Uncle Joe takes care of them will keep them out of the way to some extent.  Not many people are genuinely excited about Biden, as they were about Obama, so he may have fewer defenders.

"Even if our country goes off the rails," a DJ on the community radio station just said a moment ago, "we have a heritage of music that delights and inspires."  That doesn't make me feel even a little better; Trump Derangement Syndrome is a hell of a thing.  Fasten your seatbelts, liberals: we're all in for a bumpy ride.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Take Your Medicine!

I should have posted this several days ago, but I don't think it's outdated yet.

As everyone probably knows, Pfizer's vaccine for COVID-19 has been approved for emergency use by the FDA, and the inoculations have begun.  (The Moderna vaccine seems poised for approval within a day or two.)  Not without some glitches, of course, especially as our rulers and betters have tried (often successfully) to jump in line ahead of unimportant, disposable people such as frontline healthcare workers.  And there have been some mixups in shipping sufficient numbers of doses, at both the Federal and state levels.  But it's okay, everything will work out eventually, we have to trust the experts and other authorities, especially now that Joe Biden has been elected and Science will save the day.

Once again, NPR's Morning Edition gave me food for thought, with indigestion, three stories in one day.  This one, for example, though it began by giving me a laugh when the host, Rachel Martin, said that most of the patients served by her interviewee are "first and second-generation Latinos."  Yes, I know what she meant, and it isn't entirely her fault since American discourse on ethnicity stinks to high heaven, but still.  She's using "Latino" as a racial category opposed to "whites," which is problematic for many reasons.  Imagine if she'd said "first or second-generation whites."  Really, Rachel, "first or second-generation Americans" would have done the job admirably, and it's what you meant anyhow.

Anyway, the physician Martin interviewed, Eva Galvez, gave this example of inadequate information among her patients.

It was a family who came in to get care for their children. And so the visit really was not a visit for Mom and Dad. But Mom asked me if the vaccine was safe, and she had heard some information on a social media platform that the vaccine had long-term side effects and that the vaccine was actually risky. And then she asked me, how can you ensure that this vaccine is safe? And then what I told her was that we had done very many studies, and it had gone through a rigorous process and that, based on my reading, that it was safe. And what I conveyed to her was that all vaccines have side effects, but that the risks of the side effects generally are less than the benefits of getting the vaccine. And that was how we ended up leaving the conversation. So she didn't tell me that she was going to get the vaccine, but she certainly seemed open to the vaccine. And so it's really fighting two battles here. One is trying to convince people that the vaccine is safe and that it is important, but at the same time is also trying to rectify all of those messages that they have been getting from other sources. So these conversations really do take time.
This is good, because instead of telling the woman she was stupid and anti-science, she took her questions seriously and tried to answer them.  But look at the bit about hearing on a social media platform that the vaccine had long-term deleterious effects.  That's not unreasonable or alarmist, though it's unavoidable given the rush to produce and certify the vaccine.  It should be remembered and stressed that the approval is for an emergency situation.  (It occurs to me also that flu vaccines, which must be revised each year, also don't get long-term studies before they're approved.)  The discussion I've found always focuses on immediate effects, such as pain at the injection site for a day of two afterward.  That, if I recall correctly, is also a possible effect of the flu shot and other vaccinations I've gotten in the past several years, though I've never experienced it.

So I appreciate Dr. Galvez' candor with her patients.  I'm not so happy with the next doctor Martin interviewed, Anthony Fauci.  Martin began with a typically dumb reporter's question, if the first inoculations "feel like the beginning of the end to you?"  Fauci responded with some vacuous platitudes.  Martin then asked wouldn't it be terrible if people refused to get the vaccine, and what should we do?

It isn't only African Americans. It's Latinx and many white people feel the same way. We've got to get the message across and explain to them what their hesitancy is and what their reluctance is and try and reason as to why they're understandable, but they're really not based on facts. If you look at what goes on historically with vaccines, overwhelmingly they are the safest and most effective interventions in medicine when it comes to infectious diseases. We've got to keep trying to get that message out because it's to the benefit of the individual, but to the benefit of the entire society.

I haven't been impressed by Fauci as a spokesman for Science.  There's no reason why he should be any good at it, I guess, but communication is part of a physician's job, and on top of that he has been anointed by the media as the Anti-Trump of the pandemic.  So it's not good that he says here that "we" should "explain to people what their hesitancy is and what their reluctance is and try and reason as to why they're understandable."  This is authoritarianism, understandable in a physician of Fauci's generation but unacceptable.  First you have to listen, to let them tell you what their hesitancy is.  Even if their hesitancy is irrational, as it often is; sometimes it isn't, though.  

After all, Fauci has been saying that Santa Claus "is exempt from this because Santa, of all the good qualities, has a lot of good innate immunity," a line that sounds as if it were composed by Pete Buttigieg's platitude AI.  USA Today explained, "But with millions of Americans already sick with COVID-19, children have been worried about Santa, especially this Christmas Eve when he visits millions of homes. And there's no denying that Santa, because he is older and overweight, would at first glance appear to be at higher risk of developing severe disease from COVID-19."  Speaking of "not based on facts," this is the trouble with impressing children with the reality of a mythical being: when something goes wrong, you have to come up with crap like Fauci's reassurance. But grandfatherly Dr. Fauci knows what's best for you.  

And today he told the nation that he'd given Santa the vaccine; even that he "measured [Santa's] immunity," which is how you say, not a thing.  I know he's a grandfather in private life, but Fauci comes across as the kind of patronizing adult who neither understands or likes children very much.

The fictional Santa is safe from COVID, it's true, but unfortunately he's not the only Santa.  On that same morning, Rachel Hubbard reported on Morning Edition that her parents play Santa and Mrs. Claus every year.

My dad is not a mall Santa. He and my mom live in Cordell, a small town about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City. Working in rural Oklahoma, my parents spend their time visiting with people at community events, in nursing homes and at schools. Most years on Christmas Eve, dad is visiting people in their homes. People just expect to see him around town.

"They've always seen Santa, and he's always been around when they need him, and he can just come by their house," my dad said. "It's just not the same this year." 

NPR is not usually kind to religious people and others who don't want to give up their traditions because of the pandemic, but apparently Santa cosplayers have special status.  However, as Hubbard acknowledged, Fauci's claim that Santa is immune isn't true.  I wonder if it even occurred to him that there are real people out there who have to cope with children's beliefs about them.  But Doctor knows best.

Stephen Arnold is president and CEO of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS). He says at least three of the organization's 2,200 members have already died from the coronavirus. (One in Florida and two in Texas.)

"That has created consternation amongst ourselves. Whether we cancel the season altogether, whether we ignore the warnings or whether we find a compromise," Arnold said.
Many of these men rely on the Christmas season to supplement their income, so it isn't just a matter of self-regarding ego. 

According to an informal survey IBRBS did of its membership, about one quarter has decided to proceed with Christmas appearances without masks or social distance. Another quarter has canceled their seasons altogether, and the rest have landed somewhere in the middle.

Hubbard and her siblings are properly concerned about her parents' health.  Santas around the country have been creative in coming up with creative alternatives, and even Hubbard's parents have had to bend to reality.  If they are valuable to their community, and they clearly are, they need to be around next year too.

In a recent digital event, children were able to ask Santa questions. While there were questions about what kind of cookies Santa likes (sugar cookies with lots of sprinkles) and whether Rudolph always leads the sleigh (yes, his nose lights the way), kids also expressed anxiety about what was happening.

My dad told them this: "I know some of you are having to do school at home, and your parents might not be working right now. I just want to let you know that Christmas is going to be OK. Everyone is going to make it; we're going to make it through this."

I don't say this because I don't care about kids, but because I do.  It is a pity that Fred Rogers isn't with us anymore: he could have helped find ways to explain the pandemic to children without condescending or lying to them.  He's dead, though, so the rest of us must grow up and be helpers ourselves. Where children are concerned, Fauci isn't helping.

Resistance, even antagonism, to authority has its upside and its downside.  I think we've made a lot of progress in the past half-century when it comes to holding authorities accountable, requiring them to explain and justify themselves.  They still don't like it, and NPR is on their side, along with most corporate media.  We have to be responsible about it, not just yelling "No" like two-year-olds; we have to exercise critical thinking, as difficult and unpopular as that is with authoritarians.  There's no easy way to do it.  

I myself intend to be vaccinated when it becomes available to me, which will probably be in a few months.  But I'm glad for the interval, so I can wait and see how it goes in the meantime.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Civilization - A Good Idea?

The other day someone shared this story on Facebook:

It looked like something I'd seen before.  It had the feel of a sermon illustration, and even though it was going against Science to question a doctor, I looked it up, and sure enough, it is probably bogus.

First off, Mead probably didn't say it.  No one seems to have been able to track it to a named source close to Mead, let alone Mead herself.  One of the benefits of attributing a story to a student is that you don't need to provide a reference.  But that's also one of the hallmarks of an urban legend, that you heard from a friend of a friend of a friend.  It doesn't prove it isn't authentic, but it makes it suspicious. That malicious little voice in my head crowed triumphantly, "And that student's name?  It was Albert Einstein!"

Byock's version was published in 2012, as you can see.  Someone has, however, found a variant from 1980, two years after Mead's death, "in the surgeon Paul Brand's Christian memoir Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Zondervan). This screenshot is from page 68."

This at least seems to be an eyewitness account by someone who'd attended a lecture by Mead, recalling what he remembered she'd said at some remove.  I'm trying to make sense of that "I was soon to be reminded", but maybe it would be clearer in context.

Second, there are problems with its account of "civilization."  One is that Brand's characterization of "primitive" societies is false: modern capitalist societies are "savage, competitive societies," yet we do treat broken bones and other injuries.  It's false that "primitive" societies don't treat injuries or care for ill or wounded people, and "clues of violence" inflicted by arrows and clubs are not limited to such cultures -- just read the accounts of warfare by the children of Israel in the Tanakh, or the fantasies of mass bloodshed by the Lamb in the book of Revelation. Nowadays, of course, we have added guns, explosives, napalm, and nuclear weapons to the armory.  I don't believe that Mead, who spent a fair amount of time among "primitive" people, would have uttered such a falsehood about them; at best this must be a fabrication by Brand.

While looking up the story, I found this blog post about it by a paleoarchaeologist, Stacy Hackner, who corrects some of its numerous factual errors.  (See also this post from a Christian blog, which not only perpetuates the Mead legend but distorts what Hackner said about it.  The blogger also seems to misunderstand or misread the word "truthiness."  Then there's this version from Forbes magazine online, which adds its own embellishments and distortions to the mix.)

The quote has a bit of “truthiness” to it. The general idea of the quote – other versions have her saying “in the law of the jungle, if you can’t hunt, you die” – is that all animals but humans live in a tooth-and-claw Darwinian world where literally only the fit survive. This is not so. Animals are adapted to living within their environment, and the most fit to their environment survive. Femoral fractures in wild animals can be survivable if they happen to juveniles who heal fully in few weeks (and are taken care of as a matter of course, at least in primates). A review of such fractures in primates was conducted by Bulstrode et al (1986). The authors examined wild animal skeletons in natural history collections, finding the healed fracture rate higher than expected.

I'm not a naturalist, nor do I own a pet, but I knew it was false that non-human animals don't exhibit compassion or care for one another.  A day ago on the street I passed a cat that caught and killed a squirrel.  In a nearby tree another squirrel was chittering angrily at the cat; it was aware that its fellow had been hurt, and was upset about it.  A couple of years ago I found a dead squirrel lying in the middle of a sidewalk near my apartment.  Another squirrel had spreadeagled itself flat on the concrete a few inches away and was chittering noisily in what I took to be distress.  It fled as I approached, but returned as I walked away and continued its cries.  When I returned later, it was gone, having apparently given up.  I don't know exactly what these squirrels were feeling, of course, but they certainly weren't indifferent to the fates of other squirrels.  (A quibble: "Nature red in tooth and claw," to which Hackner alludes, is Tennyson, not Darwin.)

Hackner adds:

Another key point about the quote is that only humans have the tools to actually fix a broken limb. (I mean, only humans have the tools, period. We invented tools.) If a wild animal has a broken limb, it can heal, but it will heal improperly.
Among human beings, bonesetting is at least 3000 years old.  Other animals don't have bonesetters, surgeons, antibiotics, or vaccination.  We didn't have such things ourselves for most of our history and prehistory, but that didn't mean people didn't care about the suffering of others.  When people stood by helplessly watching someone suffer and die, it didn't necessarily mean that they didn't care, only that there was nothing they knew to do about it.

Hackner concludes:

We tend to think of people before us as cruel and barbaric, a fallacy I continue to address in my teaching. But they’re only as cruel as people today, and also as compassionate. There’s a whole field exploring archaeology of disability, including the social treatment of people with injuries and conditions that affected their mobility.

It's significant, I think, that this distortion and attempted erasure of human (and animal) compassion should have been spread by a palliative-care physician and a Christian surgeon.  It seems clear to me that Brand's reference to monks caring for the injured is meant to suggest (to a fundamentalist Christian readership, who'd welcome the suggestion) that only Christians care for the sick and hurt.  That's also false: pre-Christian Greek and Buddhist temples, among others were places of medical treatment.  But leave their motivations aside: the key point is that both projections of non-human and "primitive" human responses to suffering are false.

I don't believe that Margaret Mead actually said anything like the words that these men put into her mouth.  For one thing, Mead was constantly accused, during and after her life, of being too positive about "primitive" societies, of seeing them as better than modern "civilization."  As it happens, I also found this transcript of some of her remarks about culture and civilization, which reads much more like what I would expect a world-class anthropologist to say on the subject.

What annoyed me at first glance in Byock's and Brand's parables was their misuse of the word "civilization," a misuse typical among non-anthropologists.  Generally when a non-specialist talks about "civilized" behavior, or "true" civilization, they mean that the society in question exhibits values and conduct they approve of.  You can see this when someone uses "normal" as a normative term: they might be referring to a trait or conduct that's found in a minority of people, or even quite rare.  That doesn't matter to them: it's how people should be.

Similarly, "civilization" and "civilized" are not normative terms.  They refer to certain structures of human society.  As Mead described it:

When we start to distinguish between cultures and civilization we come up against a quite different problem. Over the last ten thousand years and possibly longer—we don’t know yet—there have periodically appeared in different parts of the world dense populations, a tremendous  increase in the number of people and a corresponding increase in the ability to grow food and to store it. Under the impetus of people living with far greater density, we have developed—this has been developed several different times in different  parts of the world—our capacity  to  manage such large groups of people.  This means keeping accounts, keeping records. It means some kind of taxation and revenue. It means a great deal of division of labor so that large groups of people can divide among themselves all the skills and tasks and knowledge that are necessary to manage a large civilization—like  ancient China, like the civilization of the Incas in South America, or the civilization of the Maya and Aztecs in Mexico, like ancient Greece or Rome, and like our own complex civilization today.
I've read a fair amount of anthropology over the decades, and this fits with everything I've read about what civilization is.  You might think (and many people do) that large, complex, densely populated societies with a specialized division of labor are a bad thing; you might prefer to live in a "primitive" kinship-organized society (as long as you can have your iPhone and a good 5G signal).  But that means you don't think civilization is a good thing.  It's okay, I'm tolerant.

So to repeat, I don't believe Byock and Brand accurately present what Margaret Mead said about civilization.  I certainly agree that caring for other people is an essential element of a good society, but it doesn't matter whether it's called "civilized" or not.  Telling the truth does, and that brings me back to why I refer to this legend as a sermon illustration.  When someone is caught spreading misinformation online, the most common defensive move is to say something like, "Who cares who said it?  It's true, and I like it."  Just as a matter of truth-telling, which is also a universal human value no matter how often it's violated, we should all care that we are accurate about who said something, and whether they said it.  But in this case as in so many, it also matters that the story being spread is not true.  It misrepresents animals and human beings alike.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Saving Facebook

NPR's Morning Edition had a segment this morning on the antitrust lawsuits against Facebook.  Host Noel King went after Connecticut Attorney General William Tong aggressively.  Her opening line was  "Facebook crushes the competition. That's one of those cliches we use to talk about big, successful companies."  In other words, it's not true, just a cliche, probably thrown around by envious losers who can't cut the mustard.

When Tong tried to explain how Facebook crushes competition and takes away users' freedom of choice, King interrupted.  (The transcript doesn't convey her snotty tone, so it's worth listening to the audio.)

Let me jump on you there. Facebook argues that there is competition. And I will tell you, the young people in my life - the teens, the tweens - they don't care about Facebook at all. They're all on TikTok. Is it possible that in five, 10 years, Facebook will be kind of irrelevant or at least not the behemoth it is now, and that this is just sort of panicking over something that - companies become dominant for a few years, and then they tend to fade? 

And so on.  Tong was stoical and answered King patiently.  But I noticed something unusual.  Ordinarily whenever NPR does a story about Facebook, the host begins by acknowledging that "Facebook is one of NPR's financial supporters."  This story, posted on Wednesday, includes the disclaimer as an editor's note.  But Noel King never mentioned it, nor was any note to that effect added to the transcript.

One of the other trials of my morning patience is Marketplace Morning Report, which also had a segment this morning on the Facebook antitrust actions.  Marketplace is an American Public Media product, so maybe Facebook isn't one of its underwriters and a disclaimer wasn't needed.  At any rate the program was clearly pro-Facebook, though not as stridently as Morning Edition was. Missing from the linked audio is an interview with an academic who predicted derisively that nothing was likely to come from these lawsuits and investigations, any more than the Microsoft antitrust case twenty years ago.  He neglected to note that what stopped that process, which began during the Clinton administration, was George W. Bush's accession to the presidency: he (or his lackeys, which amounts to the same thing) announced that the action would be dropped.

To belabor a dead horse, Morning Edition also had a brief segment on the December 21 Great Conjunction today.  They talked to a planetary geologist who gushed,

You cannot help but notice these incredibly bright stars. And every night, you can go outside, and you can see them getting closer and closer. And just a couple days before Christmas, they'll kiss. And then they'll wander apart again.

Noel King explained that the planetary geologist was "describing a phenomenon that's known as the Christmas star."  No, it's not, since this conjunction only happens every several hundred years.  Cohost David Greene continued:

The Christmas star, even though we're not talking about a star or two stars, it's actually two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, closely aligning in the sky. Astronomers call this a conjunction. And this year, its peak will come on December 21st. Jupiter and Saturn will appear to be right on top of each other.

 "Kiss"?  "Right on top of each other"?  Sounds hot, but it won't be, any more than it'll be a Christmas star.  Next up was an astronomer, who explained that "They are nowhere near each other. The separation between the two is something on the order of 400 million miles."  Just another Christmas Grinch, throwing the ice water of fact on people's lubricious fantasies.

Noel King concluded with another reference to "the Christmas star."  That can't be meant to suggest anything but the (probably mythical) star over Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth, which is not what viewers will see as Jupiter and Saturn align in the southwestern sky this month.  That's NPR for you: sober, just-the-facts, professional journalism.

That Is What Fiction Means

One of the additional pleasures of reading fiction is the occasional passage that stands out for its humor or wisdom or information.  It may not advance the narrative, but it's memorable, and I like to quote them here when I encounter them.

I'm in the middle of Sue Miller's new novel Monogamy (Harper, 2020).  I've read Miller's first several novels, starting with The Good Mother (1986), whose rapturous reviews persuaded me to give it a try when it first hit the best-seller lists, and continuing through its first few successors.  Miller is a solid, intelligent chronicler of late 20th-century white heterosexual American middle-class life.  She's never spectacular, which is partly why I let myself lose track of her, but I appreciate her insights into a milieu foreign to me.

At any rate, this passage snagged me.  Annie (I'm not sure her surname is ever mentioned), the photographer-protagonist, has been happily married for thirty years to bookseller Graham.  It's the second marriage for both of them.  They have a daughter, as well as Graham's son from his first marriage.  One night Graham dies peacefully in his sleep at the age of sixty-four, and this scene takes place a few days afterward, as Annie struggles with her grief.  Her longtime friend Edith, "possibly the most beautiful person Annie had ever met," pays her a visit.

It seemed [Edith] was conscious of this, of her beauty.  She always dressed elegantly, if simply -- tailored slacks on her long, long legs.  Silk shirts.  Bright lipstick.  But she said all this to please her patients - she was a pediatrician.  It mattered to children, she said, how you looked.  "Remember how much you loved pretty ladies when you were a child?" she asked Annie.  "'Pitty ladies,'" she said in a little-girl voice, and then laughed.  "It's only when you grow up that you learn you can love what's ugly, too."

Annie had been unable not to smile -- this, from a woman whose husband had been as gorgeous as she was, so that when they came into a crowded room together in the old days, there was an almost collective intake of breath, a kind of group sigh [151].

Though it sounds like it, Edith's husband isn't dead, except perhaps to Annie.  He's very much alive, living with the man he left her for.  They are friends now, having worked at it for the sake of the children initially, but so far he hasn't appeared directly in the book and I rather doubt he will.  It's a salutary reminder to me of how I, a gay man, appear in Sue Miller's imaginary, and the milieu she writes about.

As I reread this passage, I have second thoughts about it.  I took for granted that the claim about how children perceive adults, that prettiness matters, was true, gleaned perhaps from a pediatrician Miller knows.  But now I think there's something a bit off about it.  We're seeing Edith through Annie's eyes, it's true, but I don't know: I haven't been to a pediatrician in about sixty years, and I don't think the ones who saw me as a kid were ever women.  I don't recall loving "pretty ladies" as a tender young fagling, but it was a long time ago.  Maybe it's just me.  If I'd been a real gay boy in training, I not only would have noticed the silk shirts and bright lipstick, I'd have known the designer's name and the name of the exact shade Edith wore.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Much Ado About Nothing

The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction coming up on December 21 continued to bug me, so I browsed around some more.  This video clip from the Astrophysics Group at the University of Exeter in the UK is one of the best things I found, especially for its information about binoculars and telescopes generally. 

If you're really interested, the University of Exeter Astrophysics Group will attempt to livestream the conjunction through their telescope, but as the narrator says, it's winter in the UK, and there's no telling whether weather will permit a viewing.  You can send them your email address through their website, and they'll notify you when the livestream will be tried.

But the video still doesn't explain, to my satisfaction anyway, why this conjunction is so significant.  The closest it comes is to note that "the aim is to see both Jupiter and Saturn together in the same field of view."  That doesn't seem like a big deal to me; nor does it explain why such conjunctions would have caused excitement for most of human history, before the telescope was invented.  I understand the fascination of eclipses, comets, meteor showers -- events which cause changes in the sky in real time, and which make a more distinct spectacle.  The narrator, Professor Matthew Bate, says that the livestream will include a commentary, which indicates that without a knowledgeable guide a layperson would not see much of interest even through a telescope.

The DQ, or Dementia Quotient, of the comments, isn't extremely high.  Bate responds kindly to the most explicit one:

Wow!   Very excited about this Great Conjunction, heralding in the very earliest stages of the birth of the New Age.  Your video is wonderful and explains everything so easily and so clearly. At last somebody,  somewhere is showing us what to look for in the sky.
Thank you so very much for this.  Will be watching it again and again.  xx

Of course this conjunction heralds in nothing of the kind.  Similar, even closer alignments have happened numerous times for millennia without initiating new epochs or anything else.  (I suddenly remembered that a great Reset, as some other commenters call it, was supposed to happen in, I think, the 1980s.  New Age groups were very excited about it, but nothing happened and it sank into oblivion as most failed predictions do.  The Village Voice published a big article in the aftermath; I'll try to remember what the event was called, maybe I can track it down.

I point this out because it confirms my suspicion that the real "significance" of conjunctions belongs to astrology, not astronomy.  That astronomers are talking it up indicates that the field hasn't entirely left its astrological history behind.  As I looked for more reasons to take the Great Conjunction seriously, more and more astrological sites turned up in my search.  This one, for example, bills itself as Science Frontiers Online.  The post acknowledges that past conjunctions have stirred up a lot of anticipation, but brought forth zilch.  Nevertheless:

This does not mean that historical upheavals are never correlated with planetary conjunctions. If a society believes strongly enough in the power of the stars and planets to shape human destiny, events may be correlated with the heavens. Such was the case in ancient China.

    In China, the "Mandate of Heaven" concept has been used since ancient times as both a framework for history and a guide to future actions. The basic idea is that Heaven awards ruling power to a sage-king because of his virtue. His descendants remain as Earthly deputies until they become corrupted, whereupon outraged Heaven gives signs in the sky that the Mandate has passed on to a different sage-king to continue the cycle.

Three transfers of the Heavenly Man-date marked the beginnings of the Hsu, Shang, and Chou Dynasties. In fact, the tightest grouping of the five visible planets in the period from 3,000 B.C. to 5,000 A.D. (8,020 years!), occurred, on February 26, 1953 B.C., when they were aligned in a 4.33° arc. This was seen by the Chinese power brokers as a celestial command to begin a new social order. Thus was born the Hsu Dynasty. Similar, but looser, conjunctions ushered in the Shang Dynasty (December 20, L576 B.C.) and Chou Dynasty (May 28. L059 B.C.).

So, astrology can influence human destiny, if humans believe in it strongly enough. 
If you believe that the novel coronavirus is a hoax, that belief may affect your behavior, but that doesn't prove your belief true, as numerous people have learned to their sorrow.

The Astronomy Domine blog also turns out to be an astrological site, and its discussion of conjunctions relies on astrological assumptions.  It has charts and lots of numbers, which is a handy reminder that numbers and calculations may not prove anything or have any meaning, no matter how impressive they look.  This article, which has some historical interest, is from an astronomical journal, but it refers to astrological interpretations of conjunctions.  It seems, then, that fascination with the Great Conjunction is at best a hangover from astronomy's astrological roots.

The Old Farmer's Almanac has a nice post on the Great Conjunction by astronomer Bob Berman, noting that some say that "the two giant planets will seemingly merge into a single star or rare double planet."

The truth? Well, if you skipped your last optometrist appointment, you might indeed perceive the two planets as a single brilliant object.

But those with normal vision should see them extremely close together, but as separate-looking “stars,” with Jupiter brilliant and Saturn as merely bright. Let’s call it a “double planet.” No matter...

The writer stresses that the two planets will be visible in the same telescopic field, so that seems to be the main if not only payoff to the event.

But remember, this is not an occurrence that’s threatening in any way. They seem close together, but Saturn is actually far behind Jupiter—twice as distant, in fact—so those giant worlds are actually nowhere near each other.

This is so much better than prattle about the two gas giants sidling up for "a close slow dance."  Aside from the fact that they won't move visibly, that bit implies that there is some interaction between them, as between the members of a slow-dancing couple. Part of the problem might be that many working scientists have no idea how to talk to laypeople about their highly abstract or rarefied subjects, so they just talk down to us.  Bob Berman and Matthew Bate show that it's not necessary; go, O scientists, and do likewise.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Only Trouble With Science Is That It Has Never Been Tried

Geocentrism lives!  And so does the oldest science, Astrology.

A friend of a friend posted on Facebook about a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that will take place on December 21.  "Conjunction" sounds like they will occupy the same spot in the sky, but in practice it means that the two planets will appear quite close to one another: "At their closest," according to this popular-science website, they’ll be only 0.1 degrees apart. That’s just 1/5 of a full moon diameter." To me, that's not completely without interest, but 1/5 of a full moon means that they'll still be distinct to the naked eye.  

The web post calls it a "glorious sight", and that Jupiter and Saturn "will look like a double planet."  I think that's a bit hyperbolic. Even if you follow the movements of the planets regularly, which I haven't done since I lived in the country fifty-some years ago, you'll be used to the fact that they seem to move close to one another from time to time: they only move within a fairly restricted band of the sky. But they won't be close to one another, any more than they will be close to the "fixed" stars of the constellations they are conventionally said to pass through.

I've watched for a few conjunctions in the past, and found them less than spectacular.  I doubt it's just me, because the articles I've found on the subject don't provide any photos of the glorious sights.  The article just linked offers this artist's conception, for example:

Needless to say, the disc of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn won't be visible to the naked eye on December 21.

Nor, it turns out, will this "great" conjunction be visible in the night sky.  According to this Boston Globe article, their closest "approach" will be at 1:20 p.m. Eastern time: you'll need "a really good pair of binoculars or a backyard telescope."  They'll still appear close to each other after sunset, but they'll drop below the horizon soon after dark.  The astronomer the Globe talked to rhapsodized that "It’s like teenagers at a high school dance: They’re getting closer and closer together.  It’s been a year of watching this, of them getting closer, and now they’re going to have a close slow dance."  No they aren't: they'll never get close enough to embrace (maybe a cosmic chaperone will be holding a ruler between them to ensure it), and you won't see any motion.  The Globe article is illustrated with NASA photos of Jupiter and Saturn and another simulation:

Nope, it isn't going to look like that.  I can't help thinking that any child, and probably many an adult, who goes out in the cold for a look at the planetary "close slow dance" is going to be disappointed.  Not the best way to interest the public in Science.

"Two thousand twenty has been a great year for astronomy and lots of really wonderful things have happened in the night — and daytime — sky," [astronomer] Oliver said. "In part, we’re so very focused on everything that has not been so great about 2020 that we’re forgetting to take in these moments that are a lot bigger."
I'm a scoffer and a skeptic and a doubter, so I will suffer whatever penalty befalls those who speak lightly of Science.  But I think this is bullshit.  I don't see what's "bigger", let alone "a lot bigger," about this conjunction.  I don't see what scientific interest it has, for example; it might interest astrologers, but if it has any more significance than a "conjunction" between a planet and a fixed star, it would be nice to know what it is. 

But the conjunction isn't going to look like this either, from the Facebook post that got me started:

It's on a Christian website, of course.  The information about the conjunction is accurate enough, though the article begins by saying falsely that Jupiter and Saturn "align into a beautiful bright star," and concludes:

Alignments like these, called "conjunctions" are not necessarily rare, but some of them are impossibly rare or only come around once in hundreds of years. Astronomers speculate that the Star of David written of in Matthew was an exceptionally rare triple conjunction between Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus. One such astronomer was Johannes Kepler, one of the greatest astronomers of all time.

The secular media I looked at also hedged about the impressiveness of the alignment, though.  It's true that astronomers have speculated about possible "scientific" explanation of the star over Bethlehem (not "the Star of David") in the gospel of Matthew, and their fantasies get coverage during the holiday season.  The hard-science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote a short story, "The Star," on the premise that the star over Bethlehem was a supernova.  None of these ideas work, and they probably aren't supposed to, they're just attempts to snow the rubes.  First, we do not know exactly when Jesus was born: the gospels contain two inconsistent legendary accounts, and I don't believe the authors knew when he was born either.  Second, Matthew's star could not have been a conjunction, a supernova, a comet, or any other astronomical event, because it moved through the sky to lead the Magi to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus and his parents were staying.  Attempts to provide a scientific-sounding explanation for the object are just scientists and religionists trying to mooch off each other's prestige, and do neither religion nor science any service.

Especially at a time when there's so much handwringing about the loss of Faith in Science, one would think scientists and science journalists would aim for more accuracy in their outreach to the public.  But it doesn't work that way.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Prophets? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Prophets!

Today a friend linked on Facebook to this tweet by the Canadian blogger Ian Welsh.  It's part of a longish thread, really a sermon, on religion, a subject on which Welsh has shown himself to be careless in the past.  That makes this remark ironic at least:

As I'll try to show, Welsh hasn't done the necessary work either.  On just a factual level, he wrote in an accompanying blog post containing some of the same materials:

Jesus, poor bastard, had his teachings bastardized more than almost any great prophet I can think of: a Christianity which includes the book of Revelations has lost the plot, and I suspect the Old Testament should be ditched as well, because the God of the Old Testament acts in ways opposite to what Jesus teaches.

Either Welsh hasn't read the New Testament or he's imposed his own preconceptions on what he did read.  First he takes a popular position, that Jesus had a pure (i.e., not "bastardized") set of teachings that his followers twisted.  That wouldn't be surprising, but how does Welsh know what Jesus' original teachings were?  He left no writings; we know him only through the New Testament, which is not a reliable source (or rather, collection of sources), but there's no way to get behind it to Jesus himself.  Scholars have been trying to recover the "historical Jesus" for over two centuries, and they're no closer to solving the problem now than they were when they began.

As for the Revelation of John, which is a bugbear to many, it certainly poses many difficulties, but Welsh doesn't indicate why he objects to it.  It appears he doesn't know that its themes of violent judgment and punishment run throughout the New Testament, including Jesus' own teaching as the gospels report it.  You could ignore or remove the Revelation altogether, and you'd still have to deal with an end-of-the-world cult. As the great historian Morton Smith declared in a 1955 review of a scholar who tried to get rid of the end-times material in Mark, "to accept the great majority of the sayings in [Mark] as substantially accurate reports of Jesus' ipsissima verba [i.e., his own words] ... is implausible. But to do this and also get rid of the apocalyptic sayings, is impossible."  Welsh is ready to criticize his "great prophets" for teachings he disapproves, so this shouldn't be a problem, yet he prefers to blame all of the bad parts of Christianity on everybody except Jesus.

As for ditching the Old Testament, once again Welsh expresses a view that is shared by many who haven't done the work necessary to have an opinion worth respecting.  Jesus situated himself in "Old Testament" religion: he quoted the Hebrew Bible frequently, and claimed to be its fulfillment.  When he rejected parts of the Bible, he usually did so to make them harsher: it is not enough to refrain from killing, you must not even get angry; not just to refrain from adultery, you may not even feel erotic desire, so it's better to make yourself a eunuch if you can.  The Hebrew Bible demands the death penalty for some offenses, but Jesus threatened endless punishment after death, to be visited on the overwhelming majority of humanity.  Jesus' more attractive teachings, such as "Love your neighbor as yourself," are often direct quotations from the Hebrew Bible -- Leviticus 19:18, in that case.  Teaching care for the poor is a major theme in Hebrew religion, as in most religions, even if it's honored more in the breach than in the observance, but it's not the core of Jesus' teaching any more than it is of Hebrew religion or any other.

Welsh refers to Jesus as a prophet, along with Confucius, Mohammed, and the Buddha.  But of those four, only Mohammed actually was one.  A prophet is a person through whom a god speaks.  Jesus never said "Thus says Yahweh," as the classical Hebrew prophets did; when he set aside parts of Torah, he did so on his own authority: "But I say to you..."  His disciples reported that some thought Jesus was a prophet, but that's treated as a misconception: he wasn't a prophet but the Messiah, the Son of God.  Perhaps Welsh would dismiss this as another bastardization of Jesus' pure teaching, but if he wants to be taken seriously he would have to give good reasons for dismissing it.  As it is, he doesn't seem to know what a prophet is; he seems to use the word to mean "a really cool guy."

In another tweet in that thread, Welsh declared that "Nobody is God's only or final prophet. Anyone who says or believes otherwise is spreading evil."  This is strangely religious language, but except perhaps for Mohammed, no one seems to have claimed to be only or final prophets.  If Welsh had actually read the Bible, Old and New Testaments, he'd know that ancient Israel was crawling with prophets; much of the Hebrew Bible is the work of some of them; for some reason Welsh never mentions Moses, the prophet par excellence of Israelite religion.  Also, "prophet" was an office in the early Christian churches, as worshipers were possessed by the spirit of Jesus and spoke on his behalf.  And of course, there were prophets and oracles in ancient Greece, from the Delphic Oracle to Socrates and beyond, none of whom was "only or final."  Welsh doesn't seem to know much about the history of religion.  "I have a lot of respect for Confucius, Jesus and Buddha," he writes, but respect born of ignorance is an odd kind of respect.

"The person of reason," Welsh declares,

the moral person, takes these beliefs as arbitrary and inquires as to what parts are good and bad, rather than bowing down before tradition and authority.

This is the path of respect for the great prophets, each of whom came into an imperfect world, was unwilling to accept it, and tried to make it better. Buddha saw suffering and sought a way to end it. Confucius saw rulers savagely mistreating their subjects and sought to bring better rule. Jesus saw people following “the law” and missing the spirit of love and care for fellow humans that was the essence of the love of God. Muhammad’s first followers were mostly women and slaves (as was true of early Christianity) because he offered them a better life than the one they had.

This is a tendentious misrepresentation of all these men.  Welsh's take on Jesus, for example, is a variant of Christian anti-Semitism; Jesus' criticism of those "following 'the law'" was standard "Old Testament" prophetic teaching.  The core of Jesus' teaching was the imminence of the final judgment and the importance of escaping hellfire.  The Buddha was concerned first about his own suffering, the suffering of others was a mirror in which he saw himself, and social justice was not his priority.  About Confucius and Muhammad I know less, but I see no reason to suppose he's any more accurate about them.  I wonder where Welsh got this stuff; it sounds as if he had read a couple of popular books about religion, and never bothered to go any deeper.  He claims he spent "a good 15 years meditating," and denies that he's an atheist, but his take is basically that of the kind of people I call Village Atheists, who picked up their information from crank literature and spun it into conspiracy theories, and who pay lip service to the great teachers they evidently identify with but know nothing about.

I agree with most of Welsh's expressed values, such as his opposition to caste (though he has nothing to say here about Hinduism) and the oppression of women (though he has nothing to say about the deeply entrenched sexism of Western secular science).  But you don't need prophets to take those positions.  Moral positions don't come from gods, and someone who says you shouldn't oppress women because a god says so is part of the problem.

In another tweet Welsh declares "All most religious followers are is indoctrinated slaves; born into a religion they did not choose. It's just another form of identity politics, usually combined with authoritarianism."  Of course, because a prophet is by definition an authoritarian figure: "Thus says Yahweh!"  But does Welsh seriously believe that you can eliminate indoctrination and authoritarianism by getting rid of "religion"?  The real and probably intractable problem lies in the fact that human beings are born helpless and must spend years being brought up in families.  Children don't choose their parents, the language they speak, the culture in which they grow up -- all of which they learn to accept as "nature," the way things are.  "Religion" is just a part of the matrix of indoctrination that goes with being human.  I hope Welsh knows better than to believe that you can raise children without indoctrinating them; that's a fantasy, one that could fairly be called religious.  It's certainly not based in science or reason.

Welsh also either ignores or is ignorant of all the scholarly work that shows how unsatisfactory, misleading, and impossible to define the word "religion" is.  But ignorance never keeps people from pontificating, does it?  Given the ex cathedra quality of his remarks, I wonder if he sees himself as a prophet.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

What's in a Name?

I feel for writers and journalists who cover politics, because they have to attend to the corporate news media: Fox, CNN, the corporate broadcast networks, public broadcasting, and a range of print media.  Just listening to NPR for an hour or two each morning makes me climb the walls: how much worse would it be if it were my job to follow it and all the others?

Last Sunday, for example, NPR's Weekend Edition gave airtime to an instructor in government at Dartmouth College, to opine on Donald Trump's refusal to concede the election to Joe Biden.  Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Brendan Nyhan "Why is he doing this? Is this a soft coup? And what I'm hearing you say is that this misses the larger picture of what's happening to democracy itself."

NYHAN: That's right. I think coup is the wrong way to think about this. We're not seeing an attempted military takeover. What we're seeing instead is a violation of the norms of democracy that we depend on to make the peaceful transfer of power possible. And as those norms get called into question, we start to see more of what political scientists call democratic erosion, where a system of government remains a democracy, but the norms and values that make democracy work start to be called into question.

Most of this is unexceptionable, a string of the buzzwords you'll hear on any network.  I do take serious exception to Nyhan's claim that "coup is he wrong way to think about this."  While most Americans probably do think that "coup" (short for "coup d'├ętat") refers to a military takeover, it actually means any sudden and extralegal seizure of power in an institution.  Violence is optional, the icing on the cake.  An academic should know better, and clarify the issue rather than obscuring it.  Instead the one substantive assertion Nyhan made was false.  But this is NPR we're dealing with.

Later in the week, on Friday, Morning Edition brought in a heavy-hitter, an intelligence officer in the Trump regime until 2019.  Host Steve Inskeep asked Sue Gordon, "I'm thinking about the fact that you have briefed presidents. If this event were happening in a different country and you were briefing the president about it, what would you call it?"

Gordon worded her response with some care:

SUE GORDON: We would talk about it as basically - if it were a purported democracy, I think we would say the democracy's teetering on the edge. If I were briefing the president on this at this moment in time, and this White House were doing what this is doing and I happen to be in the Oval, I would say stop it.

"If it were a purported democracy"?  This is hard to take seriously.  Whether a country is a "purported democracy" has little to do with its political institutions and practices and a lot to do with how the US views it.  During the Trump years the US has backed and even participated in at least two coups against elected governments, in Venezuela and Bolivia.  Harking back to Brendan Nyhan, in Venezuela the military didn't back the coup, much to the indignation of US commentators, so by his standards it may not count.  In Bolivia the military carried out the coup with considerable violence, so Nyhan would presumably be satisfied.  Mainstream US and UK commentators and political authorities were reluctant to label either action a coup, partly for reasons I'll into presently, but for now the fact that two democratically elected governments were overthrown, with various degrees of violence, didn't concern the media or the US government: they denied the legitimacy of the elections instead.  (Does that sound familiar?)  Contrary to Sue Gordon, in such cases US intelligence would not say to "stop it."  Nor would NPR or other mainstream news media.

We all know that Trump is a very bad man, though.  President Obama was good, right?  Actually, no: he supported numerous oppressive dictatorships and backed the far right-wing Venezuelan opposition with millions of taxpayer dollars.  He hedged a bit when the Honduran military overthrew an elected President, fiddling with aid payments for a little while, but eventually gave in.  

Obama's initial response to the 2013 military overthrow of the elected president of Egypt was somewhat firmer.  Obama wasn't pleased, but many in his regime were.  President Morsi was unpopular in US government circles because he was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and his incompetent governance seems to have turned the populace against him.  There were street demonstrations demanding that Morsi step down, much like those that had led to the removal of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.  Back then Obama had been

naturally inclined to side with young, Internet-savvy protesters against an 82-year-old dictator who ran a cruel police state. But Mubarak was also a longtime U.S. ally who opposed Islamic radicals, honored a peace treaty with Israel and gave the Pentagon vital access to the Suez Canal. Younger aides like Rhodes, Power and Antony Blinken, then Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, urged Obama to get “on the right side of history” and give Mubarak a decisive push. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would later describe them, in her memoir, as being “swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment.” 

I wonder, though: if Morsi hadn't inspired such intense personal dislike in US rulers and their clients, couldn't they have cut him some slack, as they would for any struggling new leader?  Morsi "spent much of his energy struggling against resistance from an entrenched establishment — the soldiers, spies, police, judges and bureaucrats left in place from six decades of autocracy."  If he failed "to fulfill the promises of the Tahrir Square uprising" that removed Mubarak, shouldn't wiser heads have urged that Morsi be given more time?  Two years in office against six decades of dictatorship isn't that long.  I can't help thinking that our champions of democracy were relieved to have a "strongman" in charge again - the kind of person US elites and their cronies are accustomed to doing business with.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose rulers feared elections and dreaded them even more if they were presented as Islamic, lobbied hard to convince Washington that Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were a threat to American interests. And American officials later concluded that the United Arab Emirates were also providing covert financial support for protests against Mr. Morsi.
Wait a minute - Saudi Arabia is afraid of Islamism?  That does not compute: the Kingdom is a notorious Islamist regime.  And the UAE were undermining Morsi?  Who's at fault here, really?

When a murderous autocrat is a longtime ally to the US and a friend to Israel, his country becomes an honorary "purported democracy."  Democracy is all very well until the wrong people win an election, and then "drama and idealism" must be set aside.  Obama wasn't exactly pleased, we're told, when General Sisi massacred at least a thousand pro-Morsi demonstrators, but what can you do?

Supporting a military coup would hardly send a positive message about democracy. But declaring Sisi’s power grab a coup would, by law, cut off all U.S. military aid to Cairo. So be it, argued Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who wrote in the Washington Post: “we may pay a short-term price by standing up for our democratic values, but it is in our long-term national interest to do so.” Obama wasn’t prepared to go that far. The administration publicly danced around the word “coup” for weeks until, at an August 6, 2013, briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki memorably announced: “We have determined that we do not have to make a determination.” (“What is a coup?” Wael Haddara, a senior adviser to Morsi, asked the New York Times. “We’re going to get into some really Orwellian stuff here.”)

At first Obama dug in his heels, freezing military aid, cancelling joint military exercises, demanding "credible progress" toward a "democratically elected civilian government."  John Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and Kerry

declared a few weeks after the coup that Egypt’s generals were “restoring democracy” to the country and quickly worked to reverse the aid freeze. Kerry had an ally in Hagel, who had developed a relationship with Egypt’s top general. Both men believed they could moderate Sisi’s behavior. “Kerry thinks he can get guys to do things because they trust him, even if it’s not necessarily in their interest,” says one former State Department official. Hagel sent Sisi Ron Chernow’s 904-page biography of George Washington, urging him to read a chapter about Washington peacefully relinquishing the presidency.
(I love that last bit - it reminds me of Ronald Reagan sending a copy of the Christian Bible to Iranian leaders in 1986.)

As it turned out, Kerry was wrong: he couldn't get Sisi to "do things."  He announced after a 2014 meeting that Sisi  'gave me a very strong sense of his commitment' to human rights issues."  The very next day, Sisi cracked down violently on dissent, but it all turned out okay: he "was officially 'elected' Egypt’s president with a reported 96.1 percent of the vote."  So Egypt was officially a "purported democracy" again.  In 2015 Obama restored military aid to Sisi's regime, personally calling the General to pledge his fealty.  As Glenn Greenwald wrote at the time,

Obama’s move is as unsurprising as it is noxious, as American political elites — from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright — along with the Israeli Right have been heaping praise on Sisi the way they did for decades on Mubarak. (“I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” said Hillary Clinton in 2009. “So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”)

Two things to notice here.  One is that the wise adults running US foreign policy, who sneer at youthful idealism, have a vastly overrated estimation of their competence.  That's familiar from more than a century of American imperialism and support for repressive dictators, aka "the Free World."  There's something about swarthy men in uniform forcibly holding down the primitive brown-skinned masses, who just don't know what's good for them, that makes our leaders go all moist.

The other is that the word "coup" isn't just a word: using it has legal consequences.  If a coup overthrows a government you dislike, for whatever reasons, then you simply don't call it a coup, because then you'd have to take action against it.  And that wouldn't do.  Maybe the remedy is to stop pretending that the US cares about human rights; our historical practice down to the present proves otherwise.  The law clearly doesn't place any constraint on our government, let alone others.

It's pointless to fret about how the US media, intelligence agencies, and government officials would react to Trump's current efforts to overturn the 2020 election, because we know how they feel about coups.  If it were happening in a different country, there might be some division in their ranks -- some unrealistic idealists -- but the sensible, responsible, realistic ones would hail Trump for "restoring democracy," and Trump as the savior of freedom.  Hillary Clinton would remind us that she considers Mr. and Mrs. Trump to be friends of her family, as indeed they are.  John Kerry would send Trump a copy of Barack Obama's new thousand-page memoir.  Obama himself would order idealistic young people to stop complaining and learn to work within the system.  We wouldn't want to alienate our good allies by stirring up trouble.