Cliven and Friends

Kathleen Parker in her column in the Washington Post (April 27 2014) seeks to put some distance between the Republican Party and Cliven Bundy, the tax-dodging rancher who recently suggested in public that black people would be better off as slaves. She mentions a whole bunch of Republicans who have done the same as her, including Rand Paul, although, as Maureen Dowd said in her column in the Times, it took him more than a day to get around to it.

It is a real problem for the Republicans, because they are without doubt the largest party of racism in America. I will leave out the fringe groups, not because they don’t matter, but because I don’t want them to get more internet hits. And I will not go into the ancient history in which all parties were racist.

Now Kathleen Parker is right when she says that not all Republicans are racist. But the truth is that the Republicans have played the race card ever since the passage of the Civil Rights Act under Lyndon Johnson. That was what Richard Nixon’s Law and Order campaign was really all about. (Nixon was of course both racist and anti-semitic). Fast forward to the ruthless and racist attack on Michael Dukakis when he was running against GHW Bush for President. And of course today we have the compounding of racist religious hatred that motivates the drooling, livid right wing attack on Barack Obama, which overflows into so-called respectable Republican rhetoric about how foreign his policies are.

Being the only major party where racism has any kind of home is not the only difficulty the Republicans face. They are also the party of ignorance. It is among their candidates that you will scarcely find a single one that admits to the scientific validity of evolution or the human responsibility for global warming. It is the Republicans who are signing up to block any studies on gun violence funded by the government.

But let us get back to Mr. Bundy. A self-styled libertarian, living in the heart of America, protected from any real danger by the immense power of the United States government, he thinks it is OK to freeload off public land and threaten government officials with firearms. Where’s the reciprocity? And then, supposedly valuing his own liberty, he thinks that black people would be content with slavery? It could be that he thinks they are not human. Or maybe he is just a hypocrite; just a suggestion.

Hitch 22

I thought Christopher Hitchens was on the wrong side of the aisle. For example, he was scathing in his opinions about Bill Clinton, during the sex scandal over Monica Lewinsky. Not that I approved of Clinton’s dalliance, but still I thought it was a grotesque over-reach by the Republicans to impeach him, and I felt that Hitchens was helping the wrong people. In his memoir Hitch 22 (Twelve, New York, 2010) he says almost nothing about his stance on that, but he repeats many of his other criticisms of the former President. Nevertheless he approved Clinton’s decision to intervene in the Bosnian war.

Hitch 22 goes back to Hitchens’ school days and rolls forward through a journalistic career that took Hitchens very far afield, and brought him into contact with some of the brightest lights in literature and politics of the last half century. He goes into depth about these encounters, keeping careful score of what was said by whom and who turned out to be right or wrong. Some of these accounts are droll, such as the time when a famous female politician swatted him on his backside in public, others sad, but all interesting. The book shows, step-by-step, how Hitchens went from being an active socialist to a neocon critic, defender of Bush I and II for intervening in Iraq, while criticizing their incompetence – Bush I for failing to take out Saddam, and Bush II for botching the occupation of that country.

In a number of places he refers to his well-known atheism, but he also writes of having learned as an adult that his mother was Jewish, and how he did some research on the origins of that side of his family. His criticism of what he called Islamo-fascism preceded 9/11 and was based on his observations as a journalist covering events in the Middle East, especially Iraq. He was active in promoting the idea that Iraq would have to be invaded, long before 2003.

A quick wit on television, Hitchens had what his friends called a Rolls-Royce mind. His books on religion and Thomas Jefferson showed his commanding intelligence and that is on full display in Hitch 22 as well. The depth and seriousness of the reading he did as a boy and as a student are impressive, and the content very different from what Americans are given to understand as the accepted canon. One might think that language differences were the main reason for variation in education in different countries, but if Hitchens is any example, the real reason is that people in different countries give different books to their children.

Hitchens’ principles were libertarian to a large extent, and his reactions to infringements were visceral and sharp. This sent him down a surprising path, given his early socialist leanings.



Krauthammer on Free Speech…

Friday Charles Krauthammer came out with a column criticizing the left for its alleged penchant for suppressing free speech. Well, I guess we cannot expect him to criticize the right for the same thing. Try teaching evolution in Saudi Arabia, for example – or some places in the US for that matter. What Charles seeks to obfuscate is that the reason for suppressing free speech is usually to retain power, and the sinners can be either on the right or the left. Now I hold no brief for loonies on my side of the political spectrum. But I think we do not let them dictate our policies. Which is more than one can say for, um, John Boehner!

Update on this: a terrific letter to the editor appears in the April 18 edition of the Albany Times Union, by Karl Felsen of Guilderland New York:

Letter: The pot calls the kettle totalitarian

Charles Krauthammer is right that the greatest threat to progressivism is its growing intolerance for civil discourse and diversity of opinions. But this trend has been metastasizing for some time.
When Democrats were soundly defeated by the scorched earth tactics of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, instead of finding their own way to victory, they adopted the Rovian way. When viciously pilloried by the rabid ranting of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, instead of turning the other cheek, they sought champions who could mindlessly scream as loud.
And when it comes to silencing dissent, the right, although still using boycotts, petitions, Darrell Issa hearings, talk radio, Fox News, etc., has pioneered a much more efficient technique.
Voter suppression is the most effective silencing tool of the modern age. No one can say with a straight face that these new laws are meant to deal with voter fraud. As one Pennsylvania Republican official unwittingly admitted on camera, these laws are intended to keep people who don’t look like, or agree with, me from exercising their right to vote. I hope the progressives never abandon democratic principles so completely, as to follow the right in suppressing the right to vote. But as Krauthammer’s column points out, modern progressives are willing to imitate and adopt the undemocratic, uncivil tactics of the right without a glimmer of recognizing the hypocrisy and moral decline they are engaging in.
I know Krauthammer was as shocked as Captain Renault in Casablanca at the intolerance displayed recently by progressives, but isn’t his column just a good example of the pot calling the kettle totalitarian? Or might it not have been better slugged, “Embrace conservatism or just don’t vote.”
Karl Felsen

In Search of Lost Genomes

I was in search of a book for my wife in the science section of Barnes and Noble tucked way in the back, opposite children’s books, and along the way picked up a copy of Svante Paabo’s Neanderthal Man, subtitled In Search of Lost Genomes (Basic Books, 2014). It is a compelling read, although too long to absorb in a single sitting! As a young man Paabo began studying Egyptology, but found it too static. He went on to molecular biology, but did not drop his interest in ancient humans. He got the idea of looking for DNA in mummies, and from there pursued an increasingly successful career in studying ancient genomes, both of mammals and humans. In this book he describes the intense effort over a four-year period to decipher the genetic material of Neanderthals. Unlike many popular books on science, this one leads the reader into the intricacies of analysis, describing in detail the painstaking process of going over and over the ground, searching for errors in his team’s procedures, interacting with other groups, trying out different techniques, discarding the failed ones along the way, and finally getting the key methods and the sought after information. It is a remarkable story. The principal result is that when comparing the Neanderthal genome to those of several other modern humans and, for reference, the chimpanzee, Paabo’s team discovered that a significant percentage of the DNA of Europeans and Asians derives from Neanderthals. But none is detected in Africans. This answers an important question in paleontology that scientists have debated fruitlessly on anatomical grounds: whether Neanderthals mixed with modern humans. The simplest explanation is that modern humans migrating out of Africa encountered the Neanderthals in the Middle East and mixed with them before spreading to Asia and Europe. The Neanderthal genome is now publicly available for anyone to reference, and people are already doing that in diverse projects. To quote a blurb from Ed Wilson on the jacket: “..if you want to learn how real science is really done, I suggest you read it.”

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