Establishment Clause, Johnson Amendment, War?

So who knew the Establishment Clause could be so complicated? Trump recently signed an executive order (really? he does that? who knew?) that, with a deep dive, is more than a little wrong headed. My reason for saying that is no pulpit should be a soap box for blatant political speech when all of us who pay taxes help fund them because they are tax exempt. I am all for those same religious organizations campaigning for and doing social good; the black churches in the South in the 1960s were both sanctuaries and essential parts of the civil rights movement.

But there are several looming (and perhaps extant) problems. First, the Citizens United SCOTUS decision giving people-hood to corporations.Will corporations be able to claim some religious freedoms thought to be exclusively for actual citizens?

If the proposed tax decrease were to become law, the corporate tax rate would fall to 15% and include mom and pop and other small business entities. If you are a high net worth individual, your personal tax rate at the top would fall from 39% to 35%, but it would fall another 20% if you became a small business. And it would fall another 15%, to 0%, if you became a church.

If religious organizations are able to proactively be political, campaign and promote political ideas and candidates and policies, why have PACs at all? PACs do have some restrictions that would go poof! if they became the First Church of Holy Moley. Engage in any form of political activity, no worries about disclosing donors, no tax consequences, no accountability to anyone.

I’m afraid that sounds a bit like a foreign government to me. How would we ever know?

So who knew, right? Well time to educate yourself. Even if you are the most pious, most devout, most enthusiastic believer, you should be worried that those who might want to cloak themselves in your beliefs in fact are anything but what you would expect.

So start by reading some history and background on the Johnson Amendment which was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954. Yes, way back then. Also start with the idea, if you can, that this is not about a war on religion or Christmas or your religious liberty. I would be the first to champion for you to practice and observer your faith privately and publicly, and that allowing me and others to believe and do so differently is fundamentally the same thing. I offer this as a starting point.

And then there is this:  Mike Pence addressed the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Washington D.C. on Thursday, May 11, saying among other things, that “The freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our conscience is at the very heart of who we are as Americans,” he said. “In a very real sense, America was founded by people who had the courage to cross the Atlantic, motivated in so many cases to come here so that they might have that freedom of religion.”  True enough, but the result was an inconsistent tolerance.  Some colonies permitted wide berth for what people believed and how they worshiped, while others had no tolerance whatsoever from a veer from the message of the pulpit.  Recall that Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter was afixed in Boston, and the Salem witch trials were nearby, both religiously inspired.  Recall also that Christmas celebrations were not allowed: no joyful times to go with the business of keeping the faithful pure.

Pence went on.  “The practitioners of terror harbor a special hatred for the followers of Christ, and none more so than the barbarians known as ISIS.  That brutal regime shows a savagery, frankly, unseen in the Middle East since the Middle Ages.  And I believe ISIS is guilty of nothing short of genocide against people of the Christian faith, and it is time the world called it by name.”  To be fair, there is a sense that many terrorists are Muslim, but he overwhelming majority of Muslims decry these as extremists who contort the beliefs of Islam to their own purposes.

I have never first identified Trump or Pence as curious students of history, but to even the most uninterested students of it, the Crusades is passingly familiar, as is the Inquisition.  We don’t have to dive through that many centuries though to reflect on Uganda’s treatment of homosexuals by the government and religious groups there.  So, Pence, saying repeatedly he was speaking for Trump, conveniently overlooks lots of nasty stuff Christians have done in the name of religion.

The lesson from history is not that being a devout follower is wrong but that religion is intolerant and has asserted time and time again that one version is not just right but must dominate the others. Couple that with governments or rulers who knew that religion might undermine their authority and did all they could to ban and abolish it altogether.

The lessons of Christianity I grew up with somehow avoided all the punishment and retribution teachings that I later discovered were bedrocks of what others were taught.  As a Catholic, I still marvel that I just got the warm, fuzzy, loving stuff and none of the fear.  So my view of Jesus and Christianity is a loving, inclusive and generous one. I am aware that the New Testament often takes the stand of with me or against me, but it is filled with stories of non-believers who do good works.  And believers who do not.

What trouble me about Pence’s speech and the executive order is that this is all a dog whistle to the electorate saying “they are coming after you, vote for me!”  It is a dog whistle that anyone who is not evangelical is against them, Christian or not.  That those of other faiths are those from whom they can take the country back and make America great again.  It got T and P over 80% of the evangelical vote in 2016.  Was this stand on religion what the authors of the Constitution had in mind?  Think about that answer in layered nuanced concepts.

You can watch Pence giving this speech

 

 

Is There a Name for This?

Patty Hearst may be a familiar name to you, but what about Yvonne Ridley?  What about Kreditbanken?  And why are they in adjacent sentences?  Stockholm syndrome.

Kreditbanken was a bank in Stockholm where, in 1973, four hostages – three women and a man – were held for six days days and were tortured during that time.  After being released, they not only refused to testify against their captors but raised money for their defense.  Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist,  was captured and held by the Taliban for eleven days; after her release she became a passionate Muslim  and disavowed Western ways.  Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of publisher William Randolph Hearst, was taken and held hostage by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974, but joined in subsequent bank robberies and captured the next year.

The location of the bank in Sweden  become the name for the behavior of hostage victims who developed if not a strong fondness then empathy for their captors.  Nils Bejerot, a Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist coined the term “Stockholm Syndrome to explain it. Victims develop positive feelings toward their captors and sympathies towards their causes, feelings that often stay with the victims when they return to their normal lives.

One explanation of the syndrome is that the victims have a strong sense of survival and use it as a coping mechanism.  By not just co-operating but co-opting the captors and their principals, the victims see a much greater chance of surviving the ordeal.  That the feelings linger after the ordeal is over is a result of how strong the fear or sense of survival was when they coped by co-opting.

Victims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse often, it is claimed, become abusers themselves.  Children who grow up in environments where their father (figure, perhaps) is abusive towards their mother may come to believe that being abuse is how they are supposed to behave in a relationship.  I have always wondered if the effects of abuse on children, and even adults, is related to the Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps driven by the same will to survive, victims of abuse somehow believe they are to blame or that they must give in to preserve their lives and life style.

Recently, it occurred to me that a hybrid of these victim behaviors might be part of our political landscape.  There is a portion of the electorate who has been identified as being angry: at being ignored, left behind, and disenfranchised.  These people are not racial or ethnic minorities who have been the targets of direct or indirect discrimination but white, often rural people who feel marginalized in society.  They tend to be more conservative and deeply religious – Christian.  As a group they are less educated, have fewer transportable job skills, and consider their way of life – their world view – as under attack.  They want it and themselves to survive.

To many, it was and probably still is a puzzle why they saw Trump as their champion.  He is a billionaire businessman who does not live in or share their lifestyles and values.  He has put an administration together that is top heavy with other billionaires and his disdain during the campaign for Wall Street has vanished with a long list of other promises to his malcontent, change-demanding base.  But before all that, he has long demonstrated a character that falls short of what that base has long considered a measuring standard: family values, sexual decency, charity and caring.

Is this a form of the Stockholm Syndrome? It is that voters who feel abused and ignored become the abusers?  How can so many conservative – and evangelical Christians in particular – switch from decrying lack of decency and family values at every liberal Democrat to intractably supporting someone who is devoid of faith, decency and family values?

Polls now indicate that many voters claim NOT to have voted for Trump but voted AGAINST Clinton.  Fair enough, but that begs the question “why?”  The answer to that is vastly more complex that any one simple explanation, but I would toss “punishment” into the mix.  Punishment for perceived and real transgressions as First Lady and for her husband’s presidency.  Punishment of “liberal elites” who look down on the voters, whose intellectual snobbery was far worse than Trump’s actual lifestyle snobbery.  It is a pass afforded to the very wealthy, celebrities and lotto winners provided they don’t act uppity in their snobbery.

This is by no means a criticism of the voters and supporters who said NO to Clinton.  And it is not an absolution to Trump supporters who were blatantly racist, misogynist,  or xenophobic.  Clinton ran a crappy campaign and couldn’t define herself or her base. Trump ran a highly targeted and effective campaign.  And he won.

But we need to take a look at our national character: are we victims or are we going to stand up for our principles?  I may disagree with your policies and you mine, but we should all respect true character.  Or fail to see the lack of it.

Slippery Language on ACA aka Obamacare Replacement

Fox News carried a lead story today on their website:

White House vows plan will offer insurance to every American, downplays upcoming CBO report

I will be the first to admit the story itself was somewhat fair and balanced.  It was about Gary Cohen’s appearance on Fox News Sunday, and he had this to say:

“We don’t think so,” White House Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn said on “Fox News Sunday,” when asked if many of the insured will lose their health care. “We believe if you want to have coverage, we’re providing you access to coverage.”

“We have to make a better plan,” he said

I have been noting with increasing alarm members of Congress of the GOP kind stating something over and over again especially this past week as their bill has come to light.  The oft repeated comment goes something like this:

“Everyone who wants health care insurance can buy it at an affordable price.”

I don’t doubt they can make this statement true, but before I or you go celebrating, why don’t we try and parse the meaning of this?

Off an on as I have listened to Sirius FM in my car, I have heard a commercial that begins with a man calling to make a claim on his home owner’s protection policy for a failed hot water heater.  The lady who seems to have answered his call tells him his hot water heater is not covered.  When he asks what is, she tells him earthquakes and invasions from zombie vampires.  He complains that zombie vampires would never happen, and she cheerfully responds “Yes. but you would be covered if they did!”

It seems hard to not extrapolate the GOP supporters of repeal and replace whispering the same sort of thing to us when they are talking about their plan.  Yes, anyone can buy health care insurance and can afford it.  But what would we get?  A plan that covers care for an attack by zombie vampires?  Not likely; that will probably be excluded, along with preventative care and checkups, lab tests, mammograms and PSA tests, and things that actually bring down health care costs by early preventative treatment.  Also gone will be medical advice on healthy eating and lifestyle choices. Instead, a White House copy cat plan for McDonald’s and taco bowels.

When treatments are covered, what are the co-pays and deductibles going to be?  No one, absolutely no one who wants to repeal and replace, is saying one word about costs to individuals after all is said and done.

Who is going to get hit the hardest?  Middle aged people who will get reduced tax credits, those who are not fortunate enough to have an employer=provided insurance plan, senior citizens?  The answer is clearly “anyone who gets sick.”

Remember the guy from the 2008 election campaign who had a sign saying “Keep the government away from my Medicare!”? Make that “Keep Congress away from my health insurance.”

Don’t be surprised when you hear, next year or the year after that, “We promised everyone affordable health care insurance, and you got it. Sorry about the lack of coverage.  Either ask your parents or your family to pay for that coverage, or stop being a welfare queen and get a job.”

Are Liberals Hypocritical, Especially at Colleges?

The Washington Post recently published an article describing how Charles Murray, a conservative scholar and author of The Bell Curve, met with vitriolic protests last Thursday at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. And not too many weeks before that, some students at Berkeley not only protested but may have been in the riots that  erupted surrounding the scheduled apeech of Milo Yiannopoulos  on campus.  I hesitate to equate these two individuals, because Milos is anything but a scholar as a former editor at Breitbart, and Murray’s book expounded that IQ and race were equated, but both drew the ire of students at liberal universities.

I can’t think of an intelligent liberal who would not support including wide ranges of research, opinions and thought, especially at a liberal college.  The whole point as I have always understood it is to be expansive in thinking and inclusive of ideas, with the theoretical goal of weeding out the whacky with concrete thinking and analysis, not by attacks of the physical kind nor shutting someone down before giving them a chance to speak.

I would bolster that argument by saying that over the course of human history, radical, socially unacceptable, and unpopular ideas and theories have ultimately been proven true and have become more than just accepted: the earth is not flat, the earth is not the center of the universe and things revolve around it, Obamacare is not equatable with death panels.

Yet, there does seem to be something more nefarious and hostile afoot today, if not in how far off a thought or theory might be, but how virulent it can be promoted and slipped into everyday conversations and acceptance.  I doubt if Copernicus or Galileo would be given grants by Congress or Trump, and we kinda know what is happening to healthcare.

Myths have become alternative facts, and outright lies have become Twitter fodder and news headlines on “that” section of the media.

Let me shift to a subject matter many  people, even liberals, hate:  Bill Maher.  Two weeks ago on Real Time, he had  Milo Yiannopoulos As a guest and last Friday Jeffrey Lord not as panelists but solo interviewees.  In both cases, he was courteous and polite but tough as nails in his questions and pretty much nailed them on the outrageous things they had to say and had said.  Whether you like him or not, if you watched those two interviews you would be impressed at his demeanor, and I submit it is the correct way to engage with – what should I call them? – different thinkers.  Don’t shun them don’t ignore them and don’t shout them down.  Do have a challenging dialogue with them, politely so if they permit it, walk away if they don’t.

A campus speaker poses a very different scenario.  They get the podium, maybe some questions and answers, but they are on stage looking down at the audience. Students asking questions may, and perhaps almost always are, angry and hostile when they hear something that sounds horrific or offense to them.  Yes, their passion is honorable in many cases, but in no case does it expose the illogical, bigoted or misguided notions some of these speakers might bring.  When viewed by conservatives – the general population, not the pundits – they see bratty spoiled rich kids or illegal looking immigrants acting out: they would like to pull them over their collective knees and spank them soundly.

When this happens it is an always-win situation for speakers like these; no matter how wrong, or bizarre, or just weird their views are, they become martyrs in the battle for mind-share that has swept this country and likely most of the world.  Logic, reason, facts and analytical thinkers are lumped into the marginalized liberal elite and lose like La La Land. Clinton, and the Atlanta Falcons did.

So what’s to be done? Never, ever ban speakers.  School administrations and faculties have to take ownership and responsibility for speaking engagements.  No invited speaker should merely have the stage to his or herself.  A faculty member or administrator (one if not more) should moderate the presentation, and they should emphasize  and enforce campus policies that demand respectful behavior, courtesy and decency to any guest.  That does not mean agreement with the ideas, acquiescence to principles or ethics. But those points can be made, as Bill Maher did, with stinging effectiveness in civil, if disagreeing, dialogs.

When students or faculty or anyone for that matter yells down someone they do not agree with and shuts out opposing ideas, nothing good comes of it.  Such behavior reinforces stereotypes, gives red meat to talk show hosts, bloggers and certain media outlets.  But most of all, it does not offer the opportunity for students to take responsibility for taking in the world around them, processing differing opinions, and learning what their own beliefs and principles are.  That is what ultimately gets shut out.

 

No Man Is an Island, Nor Is a Country Any Longer

BBC America aired a new series, Planet Earth II, last Saturday evening, a long awaited follow on to the original Planet Earth series which aired in 2006.  Both series are narrated by Sir David Attenborough, lavishly filmed and edited, and give us a front row seat to some of the most exotic natural places in the world and, through the spectacular nature photography, a look at animal and plant life we hardly knew existed.

The Planet Earth shows make our natural world particularly clear: polar ice is melting at an alarming pace, sea levels are rising from Miami to Sri Lanka, natural habitats of so many animals and plants are being overrun by human encroachment, and species are dying out at a rate that should get our attention.  Even more surprising is that human intervention, intended or accidental, is disrupting ecosystems and acerbating species loss:  lionfish in the Atlantic probably because they were dumped from home aquariums, pigs in the Hawaiian Islands, and crazy ants and crabs on Christmas Island to name a few.

But I had another takeaway from this first episode, aptly titled “islands.”  It is both a metaphor for society in today’s world, and it is likely a significant cause of how things have changed, and why we are not going back.

Sir David highlights how environments on islands large and small have forged the evolution of species found on them.  Australia, Madagascar, and so many other islands have life that does not exist anywhere else.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, many of these islands were part of larger land masses before breaking off, so they came with starter sets of life.  Others like Hawaii and other South Pacific land masses created by volcanoes had plant, animal and human life reach them by the oceans.  Life being what it is, survival and diversity, things just took off.

People, societies and cultures have long been islands whether or not they were surrounded on all sides by water.  There was trade for thousands of years, and food, religion and culture surely did migrate from one place to another and take hold.  More often than not, the migration of culture and intermix of societies was the result of conquest, not open trade or travel.  Countries, tribes and societies were islands, too.  Peoples were isolated from one another, and ideas, goods and services, language and culture stayed contained, island like.

Sea faring nations built the first of the more modern land bridges in the form of sailing vessels.  In search of new lands, often to exploit their riches and labor, intrepid sailors began to roam the Seven Seas.  Far too often they were the invasive species one sees on Planet Earth II: they plundered for gold, silver, agricultural products, slave labor.  Their muskets and canons had no natural predators.  Their diseases – small pox. syphilis, measles and more – decimated native populations.

It has only been in the last hundred years, though, where large numbers of people could easily travel to almost anyplace on the globe.  Passenger steam ships made crossing oceans and carrying large numbers of people was unlike anything that came before.  Soon, aircraft were able to make the same journeys steam ships required days or weeks to make in a day or less.  And even though planes carried fewer passengers than ships, there were many more of them.  They could also reach land locked areas no ship ever could.

Each day, close to 100,000 airline flights take to the sky. In a year, close to 3 billion people flew on over 375,000,000 flights.  That is astonishing.  That is roughly the entire population of the earth in 1960.  Every man, woman and child.  Going to places near and far.  And yet we take it for granted that such daily migrations are not only possible, bur ordinary and probable.

This same exponential growth in people traveling the world has been copied with cargo.: goods of all sorts grown or manufactured in one place and shipped around the globe to many others.  Globalized container shipping has grown from about 45 million TEUs to over 160 million TEUs from 1996 to 2013, and the rate increases.  This is exclusive of air and truck freight.  (Noe a TEU is the approximate volume of a 20 foot long standard shipping container).

Communications is just as much a factor in cross border exchanges as the movement of people and goods. It certainly takes modern day communications to make all of the physical movement possible,; the logistics, navigation, and transport vehicles couldn’t work without the computers and software systems to support and co-ordinate it all.  But communications also moves ideas, language, and culture.  Video streaming to smartphones and social media has made possible the instant sight and sound of world events, and yes, cats.

What’s the point to writing all of this?  All of our islands have been invaded and their ecosystems upended.  The same technology that drives the invasions has altered how and where we work.  Labor has been redistributed to other places, that is for sure, but the vast upheaval in jobs is due to technology, not cheaper labor and shipping costs.  The sameness of our islands, where everyone looked and acted the same, is being augmented by different foods, holidays, traditions, religions and points of view.  This is, I submit, not a bad thing.

It is also not a reversible thing.  No wall is going to keep any island isolated.  Planes can actually fly over walls.  Gads of border police may keep a lot of people out, but they also keep out some of the most desirable: doctors, scientists, small business developers, people who have been the lifeblood for growth and prosperity for this country, and others around the world.  You can’t have it both ways:  keep ’em out but just let in the good ones.  We don’t often know which is which.  We do know people respond irrationally to vague, oft repeated fears.

Beginning in the 1900s and gaining favoritism in the 1950s, largely as a result of the fears about Communism. there was (and I guess is) a push back against internationalism.  Advocates saw a Soviet crowd behind every bush ready to take over (and last year may have proven them right?) but at the same time taking no head of the exploration of labor and resources more powerful nations wanted for their own.  But internationalism as a concept was a powerful, motivating force for many conservative politicians and academics. It was seen as “brainwashing” by what children were taught in schools, what foundations and other groups did for social good.  An internationalist, in Commie disguise, behind every bush.

Today, those thought echo in populist movements and online rhetoric.  Take our country back is not only a mantra here, but is gaining voice in Europe and elsewhere.  Populist politicians see  the fear of the unknown and uncertainty among parts of the voter class and are far too willing to exploit it.  There is no rollback solution to the fears they play to, but to the fearful, the words sound like manna.

Look at island populations where the introduction of new species has caused dramatic shifts.  Evolution supplies a longer term solution, and evolution takes place more rapidly in isolated island ecosystems.  But islands know that most of their ills are due to man and his meddling, intended or not. So here we are again, man trying to alter the ecosystem, ignoring the things that make it richer and more vibrant.  The terrible thing about being smart is that you sort of know what is going to happen; that takes all the fun out of it (a line spoken by Billie Bob Thornton in “Bandits”).

Me. No, Really – ME! Your Brain at Work

Some Brain Stuff

It may be reasonable to assume just about everybody thinks of themselves as a rational, logic person,  yet each of us is most definitely not.  There is plenty of proof, what some would call pesky facts.   I hope after you read this post, you watch Brain Games, which you can watch on You Tube, or on Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Brain Games originally aired on the National Geographic Channel.

You won’t find academic scientific papers when  you watch Brain Games, but you will see and hear everyday examples that explain why what we hear, see and think is quite often detached from objective reality.  You don’t think so?  Then watch as they show us two bars of equal length, but with railroad tracks behind them.  Because the tracks are really parallel but appear to get closer and closer together the farther away we are, one bar looks very much longer than the other.  Or because of shading and shadows, two identical colors look vastly different.  Think you have a good memory? So did a handful of people who witnessed a “robbery” (done by actors) while watching a game of three card monte.  Were their memories (and yours also watching it) faulty, and worse, could they be manipulated by subtle but wrong clues?  You have to watch this episode, amazing.  Or do you think you can multi-task?  David Copperfield and other illusionists and magicians show you can’t.  But we can, in our minds, right?

This is a circuitous route to some other social science and psychology experimentation and research.  In particular, let’s consider the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. They emerged a few decades ago in the experimental realm but quickly spread to gaming theory interpretations and practical applications like economics, war games, and likely the military (think interrogation methodologies, but I don’t know for certain).

The Prisoner’s Dilemma goes like this: two suspects who are gang members are arrested for a crime, but into rooms that are isolated from each other and have no way to communicate. Despite being in a gang, they have no allegiance one to the other.  Each are offered a deal; rat on the other one, who will get a three-year sentence but that one will  go free.  However, if both choose to rat on each other, they will both serve two year sentences.  If neither rats on the other, then they each serve a one year sentence.  What is the best strategy for each of them?

By co-operating with each other meaning both keeping quiet, they only get a one year sentence.  But selfishly, each is tempted to choose giving the other a longer sentence but avoiding one of their own.  If both choose this strategy, they both get the worst possible outcome, three years each.  Gaming theory predicts that co-operation is the logical, rational choice.  In experiments, it is rarely what players choose to do.  More astonishing is that if the same players repeat the choices successive times, the best strategy does not emerge.  Their selfish and non-rational behavior prevails.

The Ultimatum Game also involves two players.  One is given a sum of money, let’s say $100.  That player then announces how the money will be split between the two players, anywhere from $0-$100 for player one and from $0-$100 for player two.  Player two must approve the choice, otherwise neither player gets anything. You might be tempted to think that $50-$50 is the best strategy, but you would be wrong.  It is, however, the preferred choice after many different teams have played the game.  The optimum strategy, on the other hand, is for player one to suggest $99.99 to keep and $0.01 to give to player two.  Why?  Because each will have more than before the game is played. Why doesn’t that work in practice?  Well, play the game in your mind and be player 2, and then answer it yourself.

You probably came up with fairness as the reason why you wouldn’t approve the deal, right?  Why should the other person get so much more than you?  Aren’t you just as deserving?  As good a person? As logical and rational a thinker?

My early thoughts about the Ultimatum Game made me wonder:  is this a uniquely American result, or is it uniform in different cultures and different social structures? What the research has shown is that the offers themselves differ by some cultures as well as gender (men as player two seem to get better offers when women are player one, but you knew that, right?).  There is also some variation in what the threshold split is, about 20% for player two, but less than you would think.  Likely this behavior is just how our brains are making decisions for us we think we are making for ourselves.

Some Politics

How can two people hear the same speech, read the same news story, be faced with similar concerns about the welfare of themselves, their families, and their country yet have vastly different conclusions and opinions, even see the same set of facts differently?  It is our brains, not the lack of them as some would say about “the others.” In the same way a group of people can watch a robbery but remember very different things about it, and later be completely convinced that as their memories were altered by outside influences, still remain certain of what they remembered they saw, we can watch or read something political and then not remember what it was but only what someone wanted us to remember.  It happens, it is not new, and it will happen again and again.

Watch the episode of Brain Games about magic and illusions, discover how we don’t see things so obvious because we have been told to look at something else; maybe you’ll laugh at yourself when you miss the six foot tall penguin.  Now, how is it again that fake news works?

And when we vote for a candidate who gets into office and enacts measures that are against our self interests, but we still love him or her, think about how well we do at the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  We really don’t choose well, do we.  When we complain that we don’t want our tax dollars paying for abortions, for illegal immigrants, or for someone else’s healthcare, it’s just our sense of injustice and not being fair.  Never mind that their tax dollars pays for the roads you travel on, the police and firemen who protect you, buy the goods and services for the company where you work who provides your healthcare, and for the schools you elect not to send your kids to.  None of it, really, is fair, is it?  It’s not fair to pay taxes for FEMA unless it is your house that is flooded or destroyed by a storm.  Maybe there is a pattern here?

So when you want to rant against someone because of their political leanings and opinions, because of their religious beliefs, because of whatever it is that makes them different from you, it is literally all in their heads.  And in you head, too.

Now go watch Brain Games.  Read up on these cool games and experiments.  Science is waiting to help you understand your mind, even if you can’t control it.

 

The (not so) Young Pope

I don’t have much writing to do on this post, save a hopefully brief introduction to an article that does a much better job than I might have.

I have rarely seen eye to eye with my evangelical Christian friends and acquaintances, but for so many of them, I have had great affection as being people of integrity and character.  I did not agree with a lot of their beliefs (positions) that stemmed from Biblical interpretation, and I quibbled with how they could be fluid when they moved between Old Testament texts and ignored contradictory ones in the New Testament. Being Christians, I thought, the latter was, well, more pertinent.

My strongest push back to their positions were in response to  their political activism that would impose their beliefs on all  people regardless of their own beliefs.  I argued that what they wanted to do was not really any different than the theocratic movements in the Middle East, and elsewhere, whose aim was to trample any deviation from what those forces felt was the one, true and righteous way to live.  While their beliefs and perhaps methods of enforcement differed from other extremists, the results seemed too familiar to me.

Whenever my friends would stand on Old Testament principles, or sometimes things that weren’t in the Bible at all but seemed to have become commonly accepted doctrine, I assumed that  Jesus, as their savior who brought a new light to the world as they proclaimed, should trump all else. Last year, I fully expected the faithful and believers to take firm stands in the name of Christ against the eventual nominee and now President when he pushed aside just about every moral red line and religious belief I had been taught myself, growing up, and what I heard as critical from my devout friends.  As it has turned out, Jesus was indeed trumped.

If you are wondering where the title of this post came from, tune into the series on HBO.  A fascinating character study, what I imagine to be a candid look inside the Vatican politics (and what is not real is certainly entertaining), The Young Pope makes you cringe while at the same time you can’t stop watching.  Jude Law and Diane Keaton play characters who  are unlikely pious nor powerful, but they are.  Any number of people who have watched it seem to compare Papa to Trump.  Unfair to Papa, in my opinion.

Mike Pence said during the campaign he was a Christian, conservative and Republican in that order.  His words, actions and influence are turning that around, and I can’t help but wonder if the first one he said has all but disappeared.  And he is not the only one.

I submit to a higher power who has written on this far better than I might.

Writing about religious beliefs is the only thing that is more inflammatory and volatile than writing about politics.  But when those two become fused, writing about them is imperative.  If you can use, as one of my friends often suggests, adult words to share your opinions whether they are different than mine or not, I welcome your comments.  If you cannot use adult words, please ask yourself what Jesus would say and do.  I mean really say and do.

 

 

 

Climate, Nuclear Weapons, A New Era

The current issue of the New Yorker magazine has a compelling article  narrating the history of the nuclear arms race from the end of World War II to the present.  The article describes a transition from the Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction (MDA) and the build up of nuclear arsenals to tens of thousands of war heads to their present levels numbering about 15,000.  According to the article, the US has spent over $5 trillion amassing its portion of that nuclear arsenal.  The forecast is that the costs will rise significantly as the arsenal is modernized with improved technology; it predates much of what we take for granted in our current communications and computing power.

The article, which I urge you to read in full, discusses how Regan’s Strategic Defense Initiative began to displace MDA as a stasis between nuclear powers:  if suddenly the US were able to thwart an incoming attack, there would be no MDA.  Today’s nuclear view is at least that hazy: what if state actors aren’t the only ones who can attack with fission or fusion devices?

What astonished me about the article was how it tied the development of nuclear arsenals to the development of climate studies.  The advent of climate research apparently was the military itself in the early 1950s.  These studies led to an understanding of how above ground testing could affect weather, climate, but even more pertinent to the military and government officials was detection of those tests.  If you recall the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland that disrupted air traffic because of the immense clouds of ash that reached the upper atmosphere and spread far and wide, it will come as no surprise that these early military studies keyed on volcanic eruption data.  In fact, most of the climate data agencies that exist today had their genesis from this military research.

Of course, it was not and is not that simple.  If it were, we would likely have no debates going on politically, economically or scientifically today.  Enter Carl Sagen and his nuclear winter theory.  It provided a scary scenario of what would happen around the world if nuclear weapons were used only in specific areas of the wold.  Critics claimed there was too much unknown risk in the modeling assumptions (but may have ignored the risk assumptions in their own models).  Sides were taken, teams drawn up.  Sagen, a true scientist, was an easy target for his critics because he was also widely popular as a writer and as host of Cosmos on PBS.  Yes, I watched it faithfully, full disclosure.

I am writing about this article and asking you to delve deeper into how the climate debate and the nuclear arsenal are so linked together, not to change anyone’s mind.  I do hope, that like happened to me, you will understand a lot more about the complexities and lack of niceties of these two important parts of our history and contemporary problems.

What it also did was to get me thinking about how non-state actors, terrorists, might use nuclear and biological weapons that leverage the weather and climate.

Launching a nuclear weapons attack is no small feat. First you need the know-how to construct the weapon.  Not such a biggie these days, but it also takes sufficient nuclear material and not a small amount of engineering.  And in constructing it, you have to worry about killing yourself from radiation exposure and accidental detonation.  The hardest part, though, is the delivery systems.  They require money, physical size, and must avoid detection until targets are reached.  The dirty bomb in a truck is still hard because shielding the radiation from the weapon is hard relative to detecting it.

Thinking about climate relative to nuclear weapons scared me more than a truck.  Load up a cargo ship with crushed volcanic rock, store a bomb on it, and detonate it offshore before it is detected (please, please have detection systems I am not aware of). Would the ash, not just containing particulates and sulfur but also radioactive material, spread out over the coast line and inwards doing far more damage and deadly destruction than the blast force?  What if the ship were sunk and the bomb exploded underwater?  Would the explosion be large enough to create a tsunami in targeted areas?

Still a lot of uncertainty in the risk assumptions for these and other scenarios.  I worry more about biological attacks.  It probably doesn’t take much of an advanced degree today nor a vast amount of equipment to use CRIPSR techniques to turn mosquitoes into swarms of deadly weapons.  Or lady bugs.  Or whatever.  Borne by the same winds and weather that we debate about as heading us to calamity or oblivion, we have little or no defense or maybe even warning for such malevolent agents.

What lets me fall asleep at night is that however easier this stuff gets, it’s still hard.  However destructive some terrorists might be, the uncertainty and risk of weather, climate, as a delivery system makes it too risky for what they envision as their world afterwards.  That scientific research will not get underfunded and put into the scrap of history because politicians don’t understand or don’t agree with it.  Science has pushed us forward, sometimes haltingly, for centuries. It is capable of so much, but it needs good policy and leadership, not scorn and derision.

The hallmark of science is not that it is always right but that it has self-correction built into its methodologies.  It is meant to be continually tested and challenged, not by opinions but by facts.  What non-scientists have to learn to do is to recognize the difference between the two.  Opinions change all the time, but facts really don’t.  What changes is knowledge, something that sheds light on the boundaries of facts.  We though the earth was flat (and people emphatically stood by that opinion), we though the earth was the center of the universe, that stars were glowing points on some cosmic fabric, that disease was caused by foul air and spirits, and so much more that has been displaced by knowledge and scientific verification.

It may not have mattered to anyone’s day to day life if the earth were flat or round, if there were countless stars and we were at the edge of one part of the universe, but it may matter greatly if our species is impacting the livability of our planet or is someone has the wherewithal to match their desire to destroy a big part of us.  We should not err on the side of inaction or doubt, but to do what we can and do it now to not let that happen.

The popular corporate slogan when the nuclear arms race was “THINK.”  It should still be the number one thing we do.

Truth or Consequences

When I was in early junior high, I developed a crush on a girl in my class; I believe her name was Cheryl.  While I may not remember her name, I distinctly remember that I thought she was cute, and she had a more mature figure than just about any other girl in school.  Let me quickly add two key points:  first, no romance ever blossomed between us, and second, she had a younger sister with whom she did not get along.  Her younger sister and I were friendly, though, and she was the one who told me that Cheryl, or whatever her name was, wore a heavily padded bra.

Now this was amazing news to me.  My first recollection of fake news was in fact falsies, themselves fake.

I can’t identify the precise moment other fake news and news-like things dawned on me, but I had a growing sense of the disconnect between what I would later call conventional or accepted views and the nagging sense that something wasn’t quite right.  On TV, all of the married couples slept in twin beds, but when I would go to friends’ houses, none of their parents did, nor did mine.  I applied the early inklings about procreation to this deliminator and figured out that either TV couples wanted no more kids, or it was a contrived situation.

Teenage boy interest in females in the late 1950’s seem to have as its only source of visual fulfillment issues of National Geographic.  We had no real life experiences, no Internet, and not even Playboy or other later liberating publications to deliver us the images we so badly craved.  It wasn’t for a few years later that I realized National Geographic taught me more about the effects of gravity than anatomy.  A bit more fake news.

On the road to early adulthood, I had other occasions to question, and later verify to my satisfaction, other forms of fake news.  Propaganda was a word we all knew and identified with the Soviet Union, and with that bit of real news, assumed that everything from there was just fake news.  Well, maybe.  But the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the political upheaval that took place in the 1960s provided a smorgasbord of fake news delights.  It took a long time, in most cases, for the real news to emerge and be recognized.  A bit later, Watergate, and fake, fake news as real news.

Back then, in that pre-historic time, there were people and places we could turn to and be somewhat confident that what we saw and heard was indeed truthful.  CBS News and Walter Cronkite, Jim Leher and Robert McNeil at PBS, are examples that come to mind.  Plus, when TVs were not ubiquitous but movies were, there were newsreels. Maybe a mix of fake and reliable news, but at least we got to see it with our own eyes.

Also remarkable to me was that some very real news from the era became the source of completely fake news: conspiracy theories.  No moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, on and on.  We once thought this the stuff of crazy kooks. I was always amused and delighted, in a perverse sort of way, going through the checkout lanes at the supermarket to see the headlines on tabloids:  “Mother gives birth to alien” or “Pack of wild dogs take over South American country” or – well turn on your crazy machine.  But now, how different are the tabloids from an immense pool of Internet sites?  Can it be that  the kooks outnumber the sane?  And are running things?

Has fake news always been there? I am no academic historian, but I would bet soundly it has been.  Shakespeare’s plots suggest fake news was a way to vanquish enemies, win love interests, or in other ways to gain power.  Dickens had fake news at the heart of many of his tales.  They were hardly the only writers through the ages that recognized this probably innate human trait;  it’s just the media has changed from secret parchment dispatches to smartphones.

When my daughter was a senior in high school, she came home one day and told me that one of her teachers was looking for parents to volunteer to teach a class.  Insanity gripped one, or both, of us and I found myself in front of a class of mostly bored looking and inattentive high school kids; who wouldn’t at that age be bored when someone’s dad is going to give a lecture?  What I had prepared was a slide deck that I told them consisted of 10 really astonishing things I found on the Internet.  In fact, only one was actual; the other nine I completely made up.  My intent was to make them be skeptical of Internet things, but I was wrong.  When I told them of my “fake news,” no one seemed interested or surprised.  Much less concerned. I wrote it off as teenage boredom.  Probably my second mistake.

Today we might think fake news happens when someone, or some government, puts up a web site that looks authentic and legitimate and pushes out stories that are knowingly false (like I did for my high school lecture).  Those activities, much like government sponsored propaganda from the cold war days, was intentionally designed to deceive and control what people believe.  But maybe there is a lot more to it.

The rise of conservative, and to some extent progressive, talk show hosts has blurred the lines between opinion and news facts.  When they are aggressive, loud, extreme in their opinions and didactic, few of their devotees see them as anything other than authentic and their words relate what no one else will say: the truth they have been waiting to hear.  Sure, they are biased in their beliefs and opinions (or maybe just good entertainers or both), and sure, they want to convince you of their truth, but it doesn’t a priori mean their news is fake.  At least in as much as they openly present who and what they are.  Listeners and watchers have to make judgements on whether what they hear and see is accurate.

And that is a big part of what fake news has become to mean:  my real news is your fake news and vice versa.  You may love the New York Times and believe that it is a publication that strives for fair and accurate reporting, and I may believe everything is made up to rob  me of my rights to liberty and life while I stand by Fox News as the only major media outlet who tells it like it is.  Multiply that on down the line to countless talking heads, newsletters, web sites, and stupid bloggers like me and the result is a couple of parallel universes of truth and fiction, or at least lack of fact.

There might well be other sources of fake news that are not so obvious, that may in fact be part of the divide that creates my fake and your fact:  internal voices.  In the January 9 issue of the New Yorker, the article “The Voices in Our Heads” by  Jerome Groopman discusses how he talks to himself (he is a staff writer on science and medicine) and that a lot of people do the same.  The first reaction might be to cross to the other side of the street if you saw any of them coming, but he suggests it may not always be a pejorative malady but instead part of some people’s neurobiology.  He cites the work of Charles Fernyhough, a British professor of psychology at Durham University, in England, who has researched and written on the subject and who himself has “inner voice” dialogues.

There is no conclusive evidence yet to fully understand why this is true for some people, or whether it is important (you see, real science doesn’t work like fake news although some fake news grabs onto science and connects dots not there).  But history (another fake news source?) has lots of anecdotal tales that relate to it.  Joan of Arc heard God speak and command her to lead the French in an uprising against the English rule (burning at the stake has fallen out of favor with talk show hosts I’m afraid).  The Old Testament of the Bible is replete with conversations between men and God, and Muhammad was the Prophet guided by God according to the Koran.  These contrast a bit more favorably with the guy carrying the sign about the end of the world on the street corner downtown, but we don’t know for sure.

We can be fairly certain that most people, hearing a voice certainly different from their own, coming from no discernible specific location, and whom they attribute to God or even some other strong force (any number of sci-fi movies covers this very well) wouldn’t hesitate to believe what they hear in their heads.  It’s not pathological per se, but it is understandable.  And you think there is any way you are going to convince them those internal voices are speaking fake news?

I heartily suggest reading the article at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/09/the-voices-in-our-heads.  It is wide ranging, does not focus on conversations with divine entities, but instead sheds some new light on how our brains might work.  Never ever a source of anything but amazement and wonder to me.

For the foreseeable future, fake news in all its forms of delivery and acceptance is here to stay and part of the fabric of our daily lives.  Vice News did a clever video gathering clips from dozens of news shows basically joking that fake news is fake itself.  Sigh.

I love being around smart, really smart people.  There is so much to learn and know.  One of the signs I look for in really smart people is their recognition of what they don’t know.  They are humble in that regard, healthily skeptical and inquisitive.  It is, I believe, a significant part of what makes them smart.

I would like to hang out around you, so please try and be smart in that humble, inquisitive and skeptical way.

 

It’s Almost Christmas – Our Traditions

Today, I spoke to a friend who is Jewish.  I wished him a Happy Hanukah, and I got a small earful of comments I found I pretty much agree with.  He said that Hanukah by traditional standards was not a religious but an historical occasion, and there was even some disputes about exactly what it commemorated.  Was it the stretch of oil in the temple to an eight day supply?  Or something else.  What he disliked, he said, was how the festival seemed to have been torqued to become a substitute for Christmas for Jews with all the commercialization of it and the gift giving; this is a guy who is big in retail!

What he said got me thinking about Christmas.  I realized that what we think of as enduring Christmas traditions are pretty recent things.  Although St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in much of Europe on December 6, his feast day, Santa Claus was first popularized by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822.  He was an Episcopal minister who wrote “The Night Before Christmas” as a poem for his daughters.  Our modern image of Santa Claus arose from that.

Christmas trees are even newer as home decorations and traditions.  Although trees were brought into homes in Germany as far back as the 1500s, they were considered as odd by most Americans well into the 1800s.  However, in 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were shown with their children in an illustration in a London newspaper around a Christmas tree.  They suddenly were all the rage.

Gift giving was long a tradition for St. Nicholas Day.  The actual saint was considered a pious and devout man who looked after children and the poor.  Giving was done in his honor.  Now of course, gift giving is as much a part of Christmas as Black Friday.  You get the picture.

But what about Christmas itself?  Easter was a sacred religious holiday from the time of Christ, but it wasn’t until Pope Julius I set Christmas to be celebrated on December 25th that it was more than just another day.  Even then, it took centuries for it to become a universal celebration.  Oliver Cromwell wanted to ban it as a pagan festival, and from 1659 to 1681, it was banned in Boston in the Pilgrim colony there.  And certainly December did coincide with many pagan rituals somewhat clustered around the solstice on December 20 or 21.

Back to my Jewish friend and his comments about gift giving.  His real point was that when  you give someone a gift for their birthday, anniversary, or as a thank you for some kindness, it is a sincere acknowledgement of your relationship with them.  To give a hoard of people gifts because you work with them, belong to the same book club, that they teach or coach your kids or hail you cabs demeans the idea of giving.  He claims, and being in retail probably knows better than the rest of us, that getting a wide swath of gifts can produce anxiety: did I spend as much on them as they did on me, will they like it, what if they don’t get me one in return?

I think he has a point.  As a family, we have decided this year to give presents only to the youngest kids among us.  For each other, we will do experiential things during the year, like get togethers, travel, maybe make something for no good reason.  Also, more donations to needy families and charitable organizations that do social good.  That seems like the real spirit of giving.

I suggest you do a bit of research into the history of some of what we call treasured traditions to see what is really behind them, and Christmas seemed like a natural place to start.  Most of us have enduring childhood and family memories about this time of year, and those feelings run deep.  They seem to suggest things have always been the way they are.  TV, movies, ads and everything else done to propel us to retail outlets at this time of year only reinforces that feeling.

Before I conclude, I wanted to address salutations and wishes at this time of year.  Much has been been made by some about a “war on Christmas” because some people say “happy holidays” even if they also say “Merry Christmas.”  My personal perspective is, well, not worth putting in the vernacular that I am thinking of.  I am an atheist in that I believe in no deity, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who are religious or those who are not.  I gladly wish people Merry Christmas, as I would gladly wish them Happy Hanukah, or in other times of the year, glad greetings for whatever they might celebrate that I do not.  If someone wishes me Merry Christmas or anything else pleasant, I gladly accept it in the spirit and hopefully love with which it was given.

Now that I know a bit more about what we have come to know as Christmas, how it has not been a straight line back to the birth of Christ, it seems even more important that if you believe in Him, that you would think of the reasons why you believe he was born: to bring love and salvation to mankind.  Not to make us wary of one another and doubt us as neighbors because we might be a bit different in what we believe and do.

So have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah, and all of the other wonderful days in the year ahead.