Saturday, October 31, 2020

Please Don't Steal Our Dolphins!

Pay no attention to me, what do I know after all, but I'm increasingly bothered by the way corporate media are speculating obsessively about the prospects of civil unrest and violence on and after Election Day, and the way they're addressing the possibility that the outcome of the election won't be known by midnight on November 3.  The only reason anyone -- except maybe Trump -- believes that the results of the national election must be known right away is that the media cover it that way.  That goes with the obsessive, day-by-day, minute-by-minute, poll-crazed horse race narrative they impose on the campaign.  But with reporters and anchors asking rhetorically with smug condescension, Will we know the results at midnight Tuesday, it's a safe bet that many of their audiences will suppose that the answer is Yes.  Never mind that they promptly explain that the answer is No, because they clearly assume that knowing the results as soon as the polls close is a Constitutional requirement, instead of the result of the rise of mass media.

That assumption feeds the belief that there will be violence in the streets if either candidate wins or loses.  The result of all the talk about it is that people now expect it, and gun sales are up, and Walmart has removed guns from their shelves, which will make consumers worry and go to gun stores instead.  I think I've mentioned before that the local news media, including the student newspaper, used to implore IU sports fans not to steal the bronze dolphins from the fountain near the center of campus when IU wins a championship or some other significant victory.  Of course somebody would do just that, and when they were caught they'd explain that they thought they were supposed to steal the dolphins, like isn't it a tradition or something?  With an endless media drumbeat of fear about the danger in the media, people are already expecting riots on November 4 if not sooner.  Voter intimidation has already begun in numerous places, sometimes by vigilantes and sometimes by police, who know it's what Trump wants.  Today in Texas a bunch of Trump goons in pickup trucks with Trump flags tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road; a Biden event was canceled there as a result.  The police are chuckling.  Most of the fault belongs to Trump, and to the fascist strata of Americans he taps into, but the liberal media have their share. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

Poetry Friday - This Way to the Egress



Are we late?

There’s no hurry.

I’d forgotten.

Of course.

Where are we going?

We’re already there.

I don’t understand.

Don’t worry about it.

It’s dark.

Then open your eyes.

There’s no place to stand.

Then sit.

Where is everybody?

They aren’t here yet; there’s only you and I.

When will they get here?

When it’s time.

There isn’t room.

We’ll have to make room.

Can it be done?

It can and it will.

Is there time?

Time to forget.

Forget what?



So we can remember.

Remember what?


Who are they?

You’ll remember when you see them.

Who are we?

We’re here.



As I wrote the poems for the Quadragesima series, I decided I wanted them to be in chronological order, which gave me a structure to work with.  I wrote "The Peaceable Kingdom" with the newly created Adam and Eve in Eden, and thought about what might have gone before them.  "This Way to the Egress" came to me.  I don't know who the speakers are; perhaps the poet and the reader; perhaps Mr. Interlocutor and Mr. Bones; perhaps the Demiurge talking to itself; whatever makes sense to you.  I imagined it as one of two 'bookends' to begin and end the series, though I don't think I came up with a counterpart for the other end, at least not one that satisfied me.  But I wrote more to fill in the space between.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

I See You; I Hear You

It's a good thing the Average Voter doesn't pay attention to Twitter (so I'm told); the prospects keep looking worse by the day.

The attempts to reassure us aren't persuasive.  Today someone scoffed at Left Twitter's concern about reports that Obama's hand-picked candidate Joe Biden is considering (so we're told) numerous Republicans for his cabinet, for diversity's sake.  The scoffer declared confidently that Biden won't actually appoint Republicans (though Obama did), he's just vetting them, you big sillies. I can't see any reason to vet them in the first place.

Then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered himself of this great gob of liberal compassion:

I was going to link to Schumer's original tweet, which included video of his statement, but it has mysteriously vanished.  Maybe Left Twitter is more effective than we're told?  But let me get into why it was so offensive, not just to me but to numerous other people who piled on. 

That Rochester veteran didn't kill himself because he lacked access to suicide prevention counseling; he killed himself because he'd lost his job, couldn't make his mortgage payments, and was probably going to end up on the street.  Counseling isn't going to help.

Schumer's clueless response is part of a pattern.  Joe Kennedy helped tank his own campaign against Ed Markey by tweeting "Not a single patient should be forced to fight off medical bankruptcy in the midst of a global health pandemic without a lawyer by their side."  That didn't go down well, so next day he backpedaled: "Let me be clear here: We need Medicare for all. We need an end to medical bankruptcy. Period. But until we get there, we need assurance that every patient will have access to legal counsel and aid if they are forced to fight their insurer in court."

Maybe Schumer is cobbling together a similar clarification.  And yes, I know, the lack of financial assistance to people like that veteran is not entirely Schumer's fault, it's due to McConnell's obstruction.  The proper response is to hammer the Republicans as hard as he can, not to thunder that not a single unemployed American should commit suicide without a professional suicide counselor by their side, with maybe a "Hang In There, Baby!" motivational poster thrown in at cost.  (I mean, how much could it cost? Ten dollars?)

A self-identified mental health professional weighed in too, gently chiding Schumer for insensitivity: 

Such a tragedy. <Broken heart emoji> As you work on matters of suicide prevention, for which we are grateful, it might be helpful for you to know that many of us in the mental health field prefer to say someone "died by suicide," not "committed suicide." Thank you.

I knew I should screencap it, because I expected her to block me for jeering at her; but she deleted hers instead.  (Luckily, I'd quoted the text on Facebook.)  Maybe she realized how close she'd come to Trump's claim that if we stopped testing, we'd have fewer COVID-19 cases.  Incidentally, her response was a reminder that the most laughable "PC" terminology comes not from activists but from mental health professionals; the rest comes from management consultants.  When my employer began downsizing, they preferred the euphemism RIF, Reduction In Force.  They offered professional counseling to those who might be upset about losing their jobs.

Our leaders and their enablers are making it very difficult to miss that they aren't competent to handle a crisis like the one we're in.  How it's going to play out, I don't know, but it doesn't look good.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Naptime with Joe and Kammy

I'm anticipating the upcoming election with dread, partly because there's a real danger that Donald Trump will be re-elected and partly because the alternative is that Obama's hand-picked candidate Joe Biden will be elected.  Apart from Biden's own liabilities, I'm concerned about the class of Democrats who are rapidly becoming known as Brunch Liberals.

For me it began when I saw this tweet:

See that?  335,400 likes, 58,400 shares.  The replies were a mix of agreement from people who wanted to be able to sleep at night, to be bored, instead of "doomscrolling" constantly for fear of "missing something," and disagreement from people like me who remember eight years of Obama bombing wedding parties and hospitals, deporting refugees by the millions, offering Social Security and Medicare as hostages to the GOP, trampling on civil liberties, blocking equal rights for LGBTQ people until the courts took that one out of his hands, and so on.  There's no reason I can see to believe that Biden will be any better, but these people will be able to sleep at night, which is all that matters.

Actually such tweets have been around for some time, but they hadn't crossed my path.  And I think they've been getting more common in the past few weeks.


Some people whined that they weren't saying they wanted to tune out, it wasn't so bad to want like an hour of peace now and then after four years of Drumpf, what's wrong with that?  But they made it clear that they did want to tune out, and not for an hour but for a lifetime.

It went on, getting worse.

When was this, exactly?  Lurie didn't reply, but several commenters chimed in; it was apparently during the Obama years, and one person was more specific: "I totally checked out from 2013 till the 2015 primary-it was bliss."  Not for people being shot in the back by cops, or children being shredded by US bombs we'd thoughtfully supplied to Saudi Arabia, or kids being poisoned by lead in their drinking water; but who cares about them?

And so on, right down to the past week:

It takes some serious stupidity to believe that your crazy Trump-loving aunt and uncle will suddenly shut up if Biden becomes President.  Did they hold their tongues while Obama was in office?

I've been trying to look on the bright side: If Biden tucks these people into bed, gently puts a teddy bear into their chubby little arms, and tenderly sniffs their hair before he tiptoes away, maybe they'll stay out of the way while good people hold his feet to the fire, and yell bloody murder when he does wrong.  But I doubt it: they'll wake up, furious at being disturbed, and curse us out for ruining their peace.  Think of the midterms!  You're just helping the Rethugs!  Think of 2024!  Surely, comrades, you do not wish Trump back?

Friday, October 23, 2020

Why We Didn't Wait

There's been a lot of excitement this week after reports that a new documentary shows Pope Francis telling an interviewer that he supports civil unions for same-sex couples.  As usual when a Pope says something vaguely humane, many people exaggerated its significance, but for once they were roughly in the ballpark.  The interview was evidently snipped from a 2019 television interview that never aired in its entirety, but it appears that the pontiff did actually say it.

There are, as usual, some minor complications.  For example, Francis had spoken in favor of civil unions in 2010 while he was still a cardinal in Argentina, though this seems to have been partly a bargaining chip, a compromise to ward off legalization of same-sex marriage there.

Before he was elected pope, Francis served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in that role, he advocated for same-sex civil unions in an attempt to block a same-sex marriage law. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio called a “destructive attack on God’s plan.” But in meetings with other Argentine bishops, Cardinal Bergoglio urged them to support civil unions as a way to keep marriage distinctly heterosexual. Bishops rejected the idea, but an L.G.B.T. activist in Argentina said the cardinal called him to say he personally supported the idea of civil unions.

As you can see, the effort to prevent same-sex marriage in Argentina failed.  It's hard to tell whether Bergoglio "advocated for same-sex civil unions" publicly, or in conference with other princes of the Church.  I don't entirely trust the activist who claims the cardinal called him personally; people have a tendency to hear what they want to hear in these situations.

Anyway, the documentary shows Francis saying "What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered."  This is much clearer than his previous statements.  But here in the US, as in numerous other countries, we already have same-sex marriage; civil unions are beside the point.  And "we"?  The Pope isn't a legislator, and in any country where Catholicism isn't the state religion, his opinions should have no weight, any more than any other religious leader.

Francis also said in the film, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

This is nice, I suppose, but I don't need the Pope's permission to have a family.  And typically, it's ambiguous enough that some people got ahead of themselves. Did he mean that Catholic adoption agencies will have to place children with same-sex couples?  It's hard to say for sure, but probably not:

While the pope did not elaborate on the meaning of those remarks in the video, Pope Francis has spoken before to encourage parents and relatives not to ostracize or shun children who have identified as LGBT. This seems to be the sense in which the pope spoke about the right of people to be a part of the family.

Some have suggested that when Pope Francis spoke about a “right to a family,” the pope was offering a kind of tacit endorsement of adoption by same-sex couples. But the pope has previously spoken against such adoptions, saying that through them children are “deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God,” and saying that “every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.” 

The first thing I wondered was what Francis thinks civil unions entail.  Francis said in the same interview that gay people "have a right to a family," before adding: "That does not mean approving of homosexual acts, not in the least." The Catholic hierarchy aren't known for their knowledge of the real world, so I would bet he thinks that civilly united couples won't do the nasty.  Marriage, whether civil or religious, is supposed to be consummated, but civil unions may not be.  However, it's reasonably certain that they usually will be, and the Catholic position that you can be homosexual as long as you abstain from any genital contact isn't binding in such unions.  Some same-sex Catholic couples may choose abstinence, but I don't believe most will, any more than most heterosexual Catholic couples eschew contraception or abortion.

So my take is that while Francis' remarks are a small advance, they also lag behind the real world -- even much of the Catholic world.  They are already infuriating reactionary Catholics who already hate him.  How much and what kind of effect they'll have will have to be seen, but I don't expect much.

This morning NPR's Morning Edition featured an "openly gay" Catholic priest named Bryan Massingale who was predictably "excited and even jubilant" about the news.  He asserted -- probably incorrectly, as we've seen -- that "I think what the pope is saying is that he is not opposed to the legal recognition of family life and the right for gay and lesbian persons to raise and have families."  And:

He has not changed church teaching regarding behavior or conduct. He still would see that as being morally problematic. However, he goes back to his question, do we focus on behavior, or do we focus on persons? And even sinful persons still have human rights that we're all called to respect and to protect.

This is really reaching, and "morally problematic" is the understatement of the day.  But he was on a roll:

I think for queer Catholics, it's a sign of hope that the church can change. It can grow. It can evolve. I think it's also a sign of hope that especially in places where LGBTQ persons are more actively persecuted, this is a sign of hope that that kind of persecution cannot be reconciled with the Christian faith.

Ah, hope.  That might be more salient for queer people who are "more actively persecuted"; in America and elsewhere, it's too little too late. As I wrote on a similar occasion a few years ago, "You can hope for anything you like, regardless of what the Vatican says, and you can make up whatever fanciful tales you like about what the pope says or believes, but that doesn't guarantee you'll get what you want."

Another thing that annoys me is the way many people scour Francis's statements for what they "hint" or may "imply" or "suggest," as if he were the Delphic Oracle and no one has any business pressing him to make himself clear.  Part of the problem of course is that even when he is reasonably clear, they still overinterpret him to suit their own fantasies.  Maybe that's it: if they got him to clarify, they wouldn't like what he'd tell them.

I kept thinking of the Southern Baptist Convention's very tardy abandonment of slavery and Jim Crow in the 1990s.  The excuses many people -- not only Catholics, to my surprise -- made and continue to make for Francis' footdragging are ironic, really: I recognize that you aren't going to move a dead dinosaur easily or quickly, but the Church claims to be a moral leader, not a follower.  Instead it shambles along in the wake of wiser people, many of them not even religious, and expects to be applauded when the Pope makes a half-assed concession to a better moral stance. Those who want to may do so, but if they expect me to join in, they'll find me with my arms crossed, tapping my foot: What took the Church so long, and why is it still clinging to bigoted positions on so many issues?  I'm glad the gay movement around the world didn't refuse to wait for the Vatican to come around: we not only challenged churches, we attacked them when they tried to interfere with progress.

Remember when John Paul II tried to prevent a gay pride celebration in Rome in 2000?  He delivered a diatribe against it, but it took place anyway, "amid heavy police security after threats by neo-Fascists to disrupt the proceedings."  There were reports, as I recall, of collusion between the Vatican and the neo-Fascists, but in the end nothing happened.  I had some online exchanges with some gay Catholics who asked why the homosexuals decided to have the parade when they did, during a Holy Year?  I reminded them that the celebration was scheduled for the end of Pride Week, commemorating the Stonewall Riots, a very holy day for the gay movement.  (For an entertainingly overwrought paleo-Catholic denunciation of that celebration, see this.)  And that was only one less-effective attempt by the Church to impose its will on people over whom it had no authority.

I don't get why so many gay non-Catholics invest so much emotion in Francis and other Popes.  Those I've talked to try to put in terms of their sympathy for others, but they take Francis' pronouncements too personally for me to believe them.  I think they're authoritarians at heart.  They love authority so much they'll welcome the yoke of people who have no authority over them at all.  It's like Americans who follow the British royal family, except that the Queen isn't telling Americans how to govern ourselves.  It's especially ironic at a time when so many Americans are having conniptions over alleged or (occasionally) real foreign interference in our political affairs.  Francis isn't likely to have much impact on us, but it's the thought that counts.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The Dirtbag Left You Will Always Have With You

Someone tweeted this today in reply to the question "Why do Democrats hate democracy so much?"

As you can see, ANTIFA Jeb didn't even bother to answer the original question, just robotically spewed out a typically elitist meme about the American voter.  Significantly, it's one that the establishments of both major parties would agree with.

Not "the average American," I'd say, but elite commentators.  Rich pundits say elections are all about which candidate you'd like to have a beer or dinner with, and they do love the framing of politics as a spectator sport - bread and circuses, without the bread.  Ordinary voters favor M4A and other "left" policies, but there's usually no candidate they can vote for, hence the low turnout we usually see. 

This isn't news, so why do I see nominal leftists claiming falsely that 'the voters' don't care about the issues?  This year we seem to have real alternatives to vote for in many downticket races, and that should be a positive development.  There are already numerous such people in office at all levels in the US, right up to Congress; isn't that grounds for cautious optimism, and further action to get more such people running and elected?  People like ANTIFA Jeb, who are quite common on the left, seem to prefer the status quo.  Maybe they'd like to be put in charge, so they could tell the ignorant rabble what to think.

Then I remembered something I've quoted before, from the economist Amartya Sen.  Sen was arguing against the common claim that people in poor countries don't care about political and democratic rights, a claim made without evidence by ruling elites in those countries.  Of course they ensure that their claim can't be tested, by having elections for example.

It is thus of some interest to note that when the Indian government, under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, tried out a similar argument in India, to justify the “emergency” she had misguidedly declared in the mid-1970s, an election was called that divided the voters precisely on this issue. In that fateful election, fought largely on the acceptability of the “emergency,” the suppression of basic political and civil rights was firmly rejected, and the Indian electorate—one of the poorest in the world—showed itself to be no less keen on protesting against the denial of basic liberties and rights than it was in complaining about economic poverty. To the extent that there has been any testing of the proposition that poor people in general do not care about civil and political rights, the evidence is entirely against that claim. Similar points can be made by observing the struggle for democratic freedoms in South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma (or Myanmar) and elsewhere in Asia. Similarly, while political freedom is widely denied in Africa, there have been movements and protests about that fact whenever circumstances have permitted, even though military dictators have given few opportunities in this respect.*

To the countries Sen lists, we can now add the people of Bolivia, who just confirmed in a landslide that they prefer democratic socialism to a coup regime.  If only the average American were offered such a choice!  This year our only alternative to Trump is Obama's hand-picked candidate Joe Biden, who is the most minimal alternative and offers nothing to the average voter.  It appears to me that ANTIFA Jeb likes it that way, which means he or she is much closer to our ruling corporatist elites than he or she pretends.

Of course it's possible that most Americans really don't want that kind of freedom; but we won't know until it has actually been tried, and when anyone sneers about our ignorance and persistence in voting against our interests without acknowledging that our interests are not on the ballot, I know they're pontificating in bad faith.


* In Development as Freedom, Knopf, 1999), page 151.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Both Sides Now

There's a Saturday-night radio program out of Chicago that I listened to when I was in high school.  It featured a range of music I hadn't heard before, from show tunes to cabaret to folk to blues to jazz, and occasional standup.  Rock was the only genre it excluded, because there were plenty of other outlets for that.  I first heard Tom Lehrer on this show, Tom Paxton, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and many other performers.  When I moved to Bloomington it was too far out of range to listen to, though I'm surprised I never looked for it when streaming became an option. When I moved back to northern Indiana last year, I tracked the station down on the Internet.  The host I remembered was long dead, but it continues in the same format.

I find it less fascinating than I did fifty years ago, probably because other stations and programs offer the same kind of musical variety, and the rock press and Bloomington record stores had encouraged me to range even further.  If anything, the program now seems parochial to me, with too many sanctimonious folkies preaching love and brotherhood and too many cabaret artists serving up toothless satire.

Last night the problem started with the song above, and I nearly shut off the station.  It's intolerably dishonest. What's wrong is summed up by a comment under another video of the song posted to Youtube: "i really wish people on both sides of the argument would listen to this song. if we want change, we MUST be that change".  It's a paradigmatic example of "both-sidesism": the song puts George Floyd on one side, and Derek Chauvin on the other, and blames them both equally.  It puts Andrew Jackson on one side, and the Cherokees trudging along the Trail of Tears on the other, and blames them both equally.  It puts Harriet Tubman walking to freedom on one side, and her former owner, deprived of his lawful property, on the other.  It puts Richard Speck on one side, and the eight student nurses he murdered on the other.  It puts the Klan on one side and the NAACP on the other side.  It's reminiscent of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's infamous duet "Accidental Racist" with its iconic rhyme "If you don't judge my do rag, I won't judge your red flag" -- "that whole let bygones be bygones" thing, as Paisley put it.

Now, I admit that there is a problem with some people on the left (for lack of a better word) stereotyping people who may or may not be their antagonists, by assuming that all West Virginians are Donald Trump supporters, ignoring West Virginia's tradition of left-wing activism; or gloating that poor whites are suffering under Trump's destructive policies.  This is what Patricia Roberts-Miller calls "demagoguery", the radical division of people into mutually exclusive groups, with all humanity on one side and none on the other.  But rejection of these tendencies in no way obliges me to postulate that the racist and the anti-racist are equally at fault, equally intolerant in the same way.  Bigots have been pushing that false equivalence for decades, and it's not only fair, it's necessary to reject their tactic.  I don't quite know how to contend with someone who thinks that black people demanding to vote is as intolerant as white people refusing to let them vote, but if you grant them that claim, you've already lost.

Copeland didn't write "Uncivil War," as you can see if you last till the video's end credits: it was written by her producer.  But she chose to record it.  I think perhaps she didn't really listen to the words, didn't think through what she was singing.  That itself would be a moral failure.  The song itself certainly is.

Friday, October 16, 2020

He's Not the Boss of Me

It's a venerable political tradition by now:

I can remember seeing people -- not only celebrities -- saying that they'd move to Canada or Australia or the UK if they didn't like who was elected president, since 2004 at least.  They always pick the wrong countries, too: Australia's current Prime Minister is a Christian fascist, and Republicans wanting to flee Obama's socialist Obamacare chose Australia (which has universal healthcare, like most developed countries) or Canada (Obama's bugbear too).  Or they threaten to shut down their businesses, like the Atlas Shrugged Guy of blessed memory.

As some people pointed out, moving to another country doesn't fit very well with Springsteen's blue-collar persona; nice for the rich, not really an option for real working-class paycheck-to-paycheck shlubs.  It's all just talk, like a child threatening to run away from home.  They never actually make the move; I don't expect Springsteen to be an exception.

Nor will this guy, at least not voluntarily.  He might need to flee to someplace like Riyadh; they owe him.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Get Your Park Geun-hye Tote Bag with Your Pledge

Recently YouTube has been sending a trove of vintage Korean TV music programs my way, from the 60s through the 80s.  They offer a whole extra perspective on Korean society and entertainment in the darkest years of the Park and Chun dictatorships.

This one is different, but it especially delighted me: it reminds me of PBS pledge drives that put elderly classic rock stars up there to bring in the bucks.  I remember when WTIU first showed Woodstock during pledge drive: the hosts were very apologetic, and looked terrified that their regulars would burn the station down.  They got record donations instead. The fall of Western culture followed immediately.

I recognize the first song in this clip, but I don't remember where I heard it. In a movie, I think, but which one: Waikiki Brothers? GoGo 70? Miss Granny?

And why does the singer, Ham Chung Ah, look like former South Korean president Park Geun-hye?  (A Korean friend agreed with me on this.)  Old Korean men often dye their hair black -- I was planning to do it myself on my next trip -- but I think we're looking at hairpieces here.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Take Off and Nuke Lake Woebegon from Space; It's the Only Way to Be Sure

I've had a bad opinion of Garrison Keillor for quite a while now, but he'd largely slipped from my notice until today, when he evidently posted this on Facebook and it found its way onto Twitter:

This is basically gibberish.  It is false that 40% of Americans believe that the world is flat; Keillor seems to have pulled that number from his capacious ass.  What he considers "cultural war" issues, and it's interesting that a poetry fan would consider culture to be trivial, are not trivial to most Americans.  Only a minority want to overturn Roe v. Wade, a majority are okay with same-sex marriage, and I don't think a majority want to "criminalize LGBTQ" either.  And those are matters of life and death for many people, even if they don't matter personally to him.

"The economy and tax policy and environment," etc. are not going to become easy issues if the "cultural war" ends tomorrow.  The Republicans would only take it as a sign that they'd won a significant victory and move to destroy everything else.  Since liberals like Keillor have already surrendered to them, they can be sure they'll get everything they want in no time, and they'll be right.  The economy, tax policy, the environment, education, homelessness, etc. are not areas "where we agree" -- who is "we" here?  Maybe he means the rich elites like himself, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, who agree that that the lives of the vast majority of citizens don't matter.  From his conclusion it's clear that Keillor is a Brunch Liberal who thinks that once Trump is out of office, everything will be fine.  It won't.  By the same token, exiling Keillor to a bare rock in the middle of the ocean would be satisfying, but it wouldn't solve all our problems either.  Like Trump, Keillor is just a symptom of a more profound, more pervasive rot.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Good Parts

Yesterday was the first day of Amy Coney Barrett's COVID-19-laden confirmation hearings before the US Senate.  I didn't watch or listen to them, of course.  Whatever I need to know will be reported in the news media -- what else are they for?  And she will most likely be confirmed, because Mitch McConnell wants it done and even if there's anything the Democrats could do (which there is), they aren't interested in doing it.  So here we are.

In the meantime, I've been impressed by the liberal caterwauling over Barrett's religious beliefs.  I take for granted that she wants an American theocracy as run by far-right Christian theocrats, which I don't want either, but Mitch McConnell wants her on the Court and the Democrats refuse to do anything but wail and gnash their teeth.

So, for example, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez added to her recent run of righteous indignation: "When politicians use faith as an excuse to pass and uphold laws that seize control of people’s bodies but not guarantee them healthcare, feed the poor, shelter the homeless, or welcome the stranger, you have to wonder if it’s really about faith at all." Right-wing theocrats do a lot of charitable work, and Barrett is apparently no exception.  It's a safe bet that she would agree with AOC about the importance of feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, and welcoming the stranger; but she wants that work left in the hands of private charity, which is always inadequate over the long haul -- that's why we have government programs.  Not for religious reasons, but for practical ones.  Even though I might get along better with AOC than ACB on theology, I don't like her using her faith as the norm for government or social action.  It is worrisome that she takes for granted that "faith" means her faith, to the exclusion of anyone else's.

And I don't think I really do get along with Ocasio-Cortez theologically.  She exhibits the usual liberal-Christian bad faith about Jesus:

Sick and tired of Republicans who co-opt faith as an excuse to advance bigotry and barbarism.

Fact is, if today Christ himself came to the floor of Congress and repeated his teachings, many would malign him as a radical and eject him from the chamber.

She's probably right on that point, but she'd be among the many.  If Jesus stood up before Congress and proclaimed, "The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand!  Repent and believe in the good news!" and denounced them for not keeping every jot and tittle of the Torah, I don't think she'd find it any more congenial than most of her colleagues would.  If he ranted about plucking out their eye if it leads them to sin, I'm sure she'd consider that radical.  And if he singled her out and said, "Go, woman, and call your husband," she'd have to reply that she has no husband.

Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.
Would that go over well?

I suppose she was thinking of the usual stuff about love and charity, and ignoring all the less cuddly stuff, as liberal Christians do.  When they imagine Jesus appearing in our midst, they never imagine him reading them the riot act, or demanding that they hate their own families if they want to be his disciple.  That's for the bad, false Christians, the Pharisees, not for good noble Christians like them.  It's pointless to tell them to read the Gospels, because they'd just skim, looking for the good parts about love and suffering the little children and stuff.  Which is there, but it's not all there is, and if you claim you follow the teachings of Jesus, you're stuck with all of them: fire and brimstone, the final judgment coming soon, the self-mutilation (it doesn't matter whether it's literal or figurative, it's still draconic).

As I started reading the replies, I noticed something else. Some of her antagonists accused her of claiming to know what was in their hearts.  And you know, they were right.  But then, they did the same, accusing her of not being a Christian, for example.  But that doesn't let her off the hook for being judgmental, it just means she's not as different from them as she wants to think.

Then there's "faith," as in "You have to wonder if it's really about faith at all."  Ocasio-Cortez assumes that faith means what she thinks it is, just like her antagonists.  But faith has no specific content.  The word means trust, loyalty, without regard to what or whom you trust or are loyal to.  A Mafia goon is loyal to his boss, and trusts his boss to take care of him and his family.  The religious Right are loyal to Yahweh as they conceive him, and they trust him to take care of them.  He doesn't, but they don't let that weaken their trust.

Somewhere along the line "faith" came to refer to sectarian affiliations, and it always sets my teeth on age when I encounter that usage.  But it has no inherent content either.  It contains whatever doctrines and ritual practices a sect pours into it, and that's historically a source of "interfaith" friction, best avoided by not thinking about the weird things Those People do: how they pray, when they kneel and when they get up in services, whether they cover their heads or not, the hymns they sing, the foods they won't eat or how they prepare the foods they will eat.  It's like what your married neighbors do in the sack at night, better not to think about it.  Better indeed not to think about what you do in the sack at night, because it's simultaneously beautiful and holy and gross and unnatural.  Better not to think at all.  

Ocasio-Cortez and Barrett are both Catholics, which shows you how little it means to share the same "faith."  It's like "gender," which quickly shatters into a million pieces if you examine it too closely.

It bothered me to see Ocasio-Cortez carrying on so shallowly, because she's usually very good at demolishing Republicans.  Religion is something else, though.  People of faith confronted with people of a different faith generally try to paper over their differences under a vague ecumenicalism; if they have to deal with differences, they don't do very well.  You're supposed to pretend that all roads lead to the same god, so you discreetly don't specify which god.  Politics has a better tradition of debate, and anyway Ocasio-Cortez isn't trying to pretend that they're all brothers and sisters in America.

It doesn't matter what Jesus taught, or what Christianity demands, as Amy Coney Barrett sits before Congress determinedly refusing to answer pertinent questions, because we have separation of government and religion here.  We don't have it because secular humanists tried to drive God out of the public sphere, but because the framers knew from recent history that without it, Christians will literally tear each other apart: it was Christians who wanted religious freedom the most, for just that reason.  But the same applies to Ocasio-Cortez.  

If someone declares their intention to use their office to advance the will of God, they've disqualified themselves.  It doesn't, of course, take much intelligence to avoid such a declaration. Arguing about the proper relation between Christians and the state, or about what Jesus really wanted, breaks down that uneasy truce among the cults.  It's also a waste of time that should be spent sorting out policy, especially in the cocktail of crises we're in now.  It's not up to the government to decide what is true Christianity, or what President Jesus would do. I've been bothered by Ocasio-Cortez' occasional flaunting of her faith, but she's going further now, and that's disturbing.  I expect and demand better from her, as I do from all people who are concerned about the threat posed by the religious Right.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Hugh Briss Is Back in Town

Sometimes you encounter a book that, for various reasons, sends mixed messages.  For me today it's A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).  Doudna and Sternberg are among the scientists who developed a technique for gene editing known as CRISPR, though I see that just who should get credit for it has had to be litigated in some messy patent cases.  I discovered the book because the electronic version is on sale today, so this is not a review, just some thoughts about its marketing and the selling of science in general to the public.

I'd like to know who's responsible for that title, which is misleading in numerous ways.  It's very common to refer to "creation" and "god" in and around popular science writing.  In the first instance, if you're talking about evolution, you're ruling out creation.  I take it that the publisher figured that many readers are content to blur the two concepts together.  Or they hoped to reassure some of the public that although the book is about Science, it still maintains a stance of hushed reverence before the Mysteries of the Universe, giving us the worst of both domains.

The subtitle is even worse: is the ability to edit genetic material - or, more broadly, to fiddle with biology - really "unthinkable"?  On the contrary, it seems to be pretty easy to think about, even if an aura of superstitious dread still attaches to it.  (But maybe it's just the self-promoting author who wants you to think it does, to magnify his or her daring: I, a Scientist, dared to think the unthinkable.)  Just a few centuries ago, it was quite daring, even for free-thinking intellectual rationalists, to climb a mountain: high places were for the gods, and mortals trembled when they approached the tree line. Would they be struck dead for their irreverence? (I think that's part of the appeal: it gives you shivers, like a ghost story or a horror movie.)  Hans Blumenberg tells in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (English translation, MIT Press, p. 342) how,

Even when Goethe climbed to the summit of the Brocken in December 1777 and saw "the environs of Germany" spread out below him, this had not yet become a commonplace diversion but was still, as he stylized it in writing to Merck in August 1778, "naturally a most adventurous undertaking."  The forester responsible for the area "could be persuaded only with difficulty" to guide him to the summit, and the letter writer claims to have observed that the forester "himself was lost in wonder ... because while living many years at the foot of the mountain, he had always considered the ascent impossible."  Goethe carries no Confessions with him [as Petrarch did on his own ascent of a mountain 400 years earlier]; he has to meet his own needs in this respect, through half a month of painstakingly staged withdrawal from the world: "There I was for fourteen days, and no man knew where I was."  The great gesture of Sturm und Drang still presupposes a 'position' of extraordinary behavior that had once been labeled blasphemous lingering.

Aside from that, gene editing does not confer "the power to control evolution." At most it might make a sneaky end-run around evolution.  Selective breeders can't produce traits that aren't already somewhere in the genome.  Directly manipulating DNA could perhaps produce something new in the gene pool, but that's not controlling evolution, any more than wearing corrective lenses is.  To do that, you'd have to be able to cause the new phenotype to multiply and become prevalent in the environment, which we can't do. The new phenotype would have to pass muster before natural selection, by being tossed out into the wild to participate in the struggle for existence over a long period of time.  It would help a lot, I think, if science fans would stop using the word "evolution" when what they mean is "descent with modification through natural selection," Darwin's preferred term; but I doubt most of them understand the difference.  The popular understanding of "evolution," even among many scientists, is the opposite of Darwin's.

The description of A Crack in Creation at Amazon surprised me when I looked at it, however:

Not since the atomic bomb has a technology so alarmed its inventors that they warned the world about its use. Not, that is, until the spring of 2015, when biologist Jennifer Doudna called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the new gene-editing tool CRISPR—a revolutionary new technology that she helped create—to make heritable changes in human embryos. The cheapest, simplest, most effective way of manipulating DNA ever known, CRISPR may well give us the cure to HIV, genetic diseases, and some cancers, and will help address the world’s hunger crisis. Yet even the tiniest changes to DNA could have myriad, unforeseeable consequences—to say nothing of the ethical and societal repercussions of intentionally mutating embryos to create “better” humans.
Writing with fellow researcher Samuel Sternberg, Doudna shares the thrilling story of her discovery, and passionately argues that enormous responsibility comes with the ability to rewrite the code of life. With CRISPR, she shows, we have effectively taken control of evolution. What will we do with this unfathomable power?

That Doudna called for a moratorium on use of CRISPR is interesting, though not enough to make me want to read the book.  Nor does the concern-trolling about the "ethical and societal repercussions of intentionally mutating embryos".  Despite all the talk about the unprecedented problems in ethics, I don't see much serious engagement with those putative problems from scientists or professional ethicists.  Where the genome is concerned, what interests them most is who's going to make money from it.  That editing DNA "could have myriad, unforeseeable consequences" is a familiar concern, but it has less to do with evolution than with researcher- or physician-caused failures in the modified organism.  If the subject grows leafy branches from her back, or her head becomes water-soluble, it's not going to have evolutionary consequences.  As usual, I see a scientist overstating the magnitude of her new knowledge, and there's little real concern about the ethical ramifications of such false advertising.  (Mary Midgley once joked that there had been interest in prosecuting Daniel Dennett's book Consciousness Explained under the laws against false advertising; the joke, though I'm not sure she realized it, is that it would never happen.)

A Crack in Creation got a blurb from George Lucas, touting "the celebrated biologist whose discovery enabled us to rewrite the code of life.  The future is in our hands as never before, and this book explains the stakes like no other."  I don't think Lucas is an authority on this subject.  The hyperbole is typical though: first you inflate the significance of the science wildly, then you fret about "the stakes."  There are stakes, but they're rarely acknowledged.  Scientists and commercial interests insist on their inalienable right to experiment on the world, to pollute the planet with the detritus of their products, and to make vast amounts of money on discoveries that wouldn't have been made without taxpayer support.  Laypeople are allowed to quibble about this, but they will dismiss our quibbles out of hand: as hostility to Science, to Socialist hatred for business, as a superstitious desire to turn back the Clock of Progress.  

It's to Doudna's credit that she called for a pause in this normal order of business, but did it have much effect, or did it amount to virtue-signalling?  I don't know how responsible she is for the presentation of her book and her work.  But that presentation is part of what's wrong with the place of science in media and society.