The Spirit of Revenge

“Take all the prophets of Baal, and let not one of them escape you;

Bring them down to Kishon’s brook, and there let them be slain”.

Elijah, by Mendelssohn


This example, drawn from a Jewish book written several centuries before the current era, calls also to mind the events of the French Revolution, in which an increasingly violent leadership dispatched priests, aristocrats, and eventually many of their own, plus a large number of ordinary folk who fell afoul of various laws. One could also cite the purges of Armenians by the Ottomans, of Jews and handicapped in Nazi Germany, or of counter-revolutionaries in the Soviet Union.

The Terror of Robespierre was instituted to frighten the enemies of the French Revolution; it was motivated by the fear that the progress made in abolishing royalty and aristocratic privileges would be lost. Perhaps a similar fear motivated Elijah, to capitalize his victory over the prophets of Baal and prevent their ever recovering. The Ottomans were motivated by scorn or hatred for, and perhaps feelings of revenge against the Armenians who had been petitioning for better treatment for decades and were accused of helping the Russians against the Ottomans. The Nazis were motivated by hatred of the Jews and racism, including their twisted ideology of the Master Race and a desire to eliminate impure elements from the population. The Soviets were motivated by a fear of counter-revolution but also, later on, Stalin’s desire for power.

The frequently recurring theme in all this is the fear of losing power and control, often in an extremely fluid political environment.

The United States is not exempt from this kind of thinking. In Trumpism we have a racist movement, motivated by fear of foreigners, especially Mexicans and Muslims, and a spirit of revenge against liberal elites, a resentment of being considered flyover country. An ugly spirit is abroad, under the seductive banner of “Make America Great Again.” The real aim of this movement is to prevent control of the country by a coalition of minorities and progressives. Already orders are being drawn up to remove the most vulnerable Mexicans who are here illegally and have come to the attention of authorities. We have seen the attempt, momentarily thwarted, to discriminate against immigrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Trump himself has shown a contempt for facts and has castigated the press as “the enemy of the people”. This is not merely unattractive or illiberal. It is dangerous to the foundation of our government. If the government takes your newspaper to be an enemy, then you, as a subscriber, are the enemy too.


Time to Get the Ball Rolling

This is the text of a letter I sent to my Republican congressman, John Faso:

“You are old enough to remember the Watergate affair. After six long years Nixon’s criminality was catching up to him in 1974. In the famous words of Howard Baker, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” By August Nixon had resigned under the certainty of impeachment and conviction for a cover-up of the role of his Administration in the burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

We are getting the answer for Trump after only a few weeks! He knew about Flynn’s inappropriate and possibly criminal conversations with the Russian ambassador and kept it to himself and a few aides. He did not relieve Flynn of duty as he should have done immediately. He did not mention the matter to his Vice President. He chose to go ahead with this appointee, probably for political reasons. He knew probably that it would be embarrassing. When the information got out, he was forced to act. True to form he just ignored the culpability of his own behavior.

For sure! But the parallels with Nixon are startling, complete down to the illicit attempt to expose the secrets of the opposition party.

Life would be better for all of us with Pence as President. It is already time to get the ball rolling.”

Woman in Gold

My wife and I watched Woman in Gold on Netflix yesterday. How we missed this in the regular theater I cannot say. It is an excellent film, that depicts the efforts of Maria Altmann, a refugee from 1938 Austria, to recover the portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted by Klimt in the early 20th century. This famous picture was stolen by the Nazis and was displayed as “Woman in Gold” for many years in a Vienna museum.

Klimt’s picture is world famous, and when Maria Altmann recovered it, she sold it for 135 million dollars to a New York gallery where it is on display today. But the story told in the film is much deeper that that, with haunting flashbacks of what it was like in Vienna as the Nazis came in. A truly chilling example of what can happen to decent, even wealthy people in an authoritarian state.

Here is a link to a Wikipedia article on this.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf – a Letter to the president (sic)

Did your parents tell you the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf? It is one of Aesop’s fables. Wikipedia sums it up:

“The tale concerns a shepherd boy who repeatedly tricks nearby villagers into thinking wolves are attacking his flock. When one actually does appear and the boy again calls for help, the villagers believe that it is another false alarm and the sheep are eaten by the wolf. In later English-language poetic versions of the fable, the wolf also eats the boy. ”

The moral of the story of course is that there is a danger in getting to be known for telling lies. That is in not being believed when telling the truth.

Yesterday’s (February 7, 2017) falsehood about murder rates in the United States being the highest in 47 years is just the latest in a long string of lies you have told. The statistics at the FBI show that as of 2016 the murder rate was the lowest it has been in 51 years – 4.5 per 100,000.

We have already gotten to the point where nobody with an ounce of critical judgment would accept anything you say without checking the facts. Shame.

On the Nazi Track

Dear President Trump:

I was taught at home to treat everyone equally. So even as a child I had friends who were of all colors, religions, and economic backgrounds. My parents taught me to treat everybody the same as far as that goes. But they also taught me to avoid doing bad things, such as bullying other children. I suspect most people all over the world got the same instruction from their parents.

So when I learned about history, I naturally thought that the Nazis were way off base with their treatment of Jews and handicapped people, people of other nationalities and races than their own. They attacked Jews as criminals, and invited citizens to send in stories of bad things done by Jews. Later on of course they actually murdered millions of Jews, foreigners, and handicapped people.

Therefore, when you announced your campaign for President, and denounced Mexicans as murderers and rapists, I figured you were working from the Nazi playbook. I still think this, since in one of your executive orders you have called on citizens to send in examples of bad behavior by groups that are targeted by these executive orders.

Words matter, but actions matter too. You are heading down the Nazi track, only with slightly different target groups. Shame.

Impeach Donald Trump

Trump has been in violation of the constitution’s foreign emolument clause since he was sworn into office yesterday. There are articles in Time and several other mainstream publications with pointers to a site, where people can sign a petition.

The basic problem is that under the constitution, it is not allowed for any government officer to receive funds from foreign sources – clearly a wise provision of our founding fathers, designed to prevent undue influence by foreigners in the conduct of our government.

Unlike other Presidents in the past, Trump has refused to put his business assets in a blind trust or to sell them before taking office. He wants to hang on to his wealth, but this creates a situation of inherent conflict of interest, as to whether a decision he makes is in the best interest of the country or rather serves to enrich himself or his family.

Readers of this blog might well wish to sign this petition by following the link.

Inauguration Speech

I had low expectations for this speech, but it was worse than I expected. Full of nonsense. The idea that people in Nebraska see the same sky as people in Detroit shows that the man has never looked up at night in either place. His vision of the country is the darkest I have heard from any President. He talks of bringing jobs back to this country, but he clearly has no comprehension of economics. We are below 5% unemployment. It does not get better than that. Twenty million people stand to lose their health insurance under Trump and the Republicans. Not a single word about this issue appeared in his speech.

The Trump Hitler Nexus

The Albany Times Union printed a column by Harry Rosenfeld “Trump’s Rise Mirrors 30s Hitler.” He makes the point quite well, citing numerous “congruities” between Hitler’s statements and those of Donald Trump. As readers of this blog know, I was on this comparison quite a long time ago.

Here we are with Trump almost in office. The talk yesterday in the press was about Trump’s plans to create a registry for muslims. What form will this take? Despite all their propaganda, the Nazis were not slow to realize that you cannot tell a person’s religion or even racial background just by looking at them. To identify Jews, they resorted to forcing them to wear a standardized Star of David on their clothing. What will be the modern-day equivalent of this for the muslims? A bar code on their credit cards, their social security or medicare cards, their green cards?

Don’t tell me it cannot happen here. It can.

A Quick Primer on Climate Change

The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents a consensus of scientific assessments of a wide body of evidence. Some of the key elements that people need to understand are as follows:

  1. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. This means that it absorbs radiation from the sun and dissipates the energy by moving more energetically. This movement is what we feel as temperature.
  2. The concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from 285 ppm to over 400 ppm since the beginning of the 20th century. Climate models of increasing accuracy have estimated the effect of this on temperature and produced estimates of increases of several centigrade degrees. These models accurately describe past temperatures, and they agree that in the future the temperature will continue to rise, by anywhere from 2 to 5 centigrade degrees by the year 2100.
  3. The increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere arises from combustion of fossil fuel. Scientists know this because they have done the math. The amount burned so far accounts for the increase in the concentration of the gas in the atmosphere. Another piece of evidence is that the extra carbon bears the signature of fossil fuels, in that it has less of the isotope carbon-14. This isotope is constantly produced in the upper atmosphere by irradiation of nitrogen gas. Plants pick this up and ultimately pass it along to animals and other organisms. When organisms die, the spontaneous breakdown of carbon-14 is not compensated by any further uptake of new carbon-14, so the amount of carbon-14 declines in their remains. Coal, gas, and petroleum are the remains of organisms long dead, and thus thoroughly depleted in carbon-14. So what do we expect to happen over the course of decades of burning this material? We expect the relative amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere to decline. That is exactly what is happening, and furthermore the decrease agrees with the amounts of petroleum gas and coal that we have burned.
  4. Worldwide temperatures have increased by about one centigrade degree since the beginning of the 20th century, and in places the temperature rises have been considerably greater. The effects of this have been manifold: glaciers have melted, sea ice has decreased, tropical marine ecosystems have migrated away from the equator toward the poles, and the ocean itself has gotten warmer as it equilibrates with the air. There are many additional signs of the effects of increased global temperature cited in the IPCC report.
  5. The character of a biome, that is the organisms that live in a given area, is determined by temperature and rainfall. As temperatures rise worldwide, whole biomes will be affected. The response will be largely an increased number of extinctions, because, despite evolution’s tendency to favor the emergence of more adaptive forms, this emergence is generally not rapid, even for a single species, much less so for the large collections of species that make up a biome such as a tropical rain forest or a temperate deciduous forest like the one I live in. Evidence indicates that when there is an extinction like this that is spread over the whole planet, it takes about 10 million years for evolution to restore the original level of biodiversity. The new organisms will not just re-create the old ones. They will be very different for a host of reasons. The world of that distant era will be unrecognizable to us and possibly inconsistent with our survival, just as the world of today is different from that of the dinosaurs.


How Do We Know What is Established by Science?

What does it mean when we say that something is scientifically well established? Scientists who seek to learn something new do not know what others are studying at a given moment. They thus work with some degree of urgency, because others might discover the answer to the question they are exploring, and publish it first, getting the credit for it. Being second to publish an important finding is like kissing your sister. Nice, but not a thrill, for most. There is another force at work though, and that is the need to get it right the first time. If your evidence is poor, or poorly interpreted, and you manage to publish it, you are at considerable risk of somebody else publishing a correction. This is like getting spanked in front of house guests. Embarrassing, mortifying even. People have been known to change fields or get out of science altogether. Now and then there are frauds who deliberately publish false results. They are quickly detected and debunked by other scientists who are only too eager to show them up. Most often such people are unable to find work in science after that. What does not cause problems is if somebody discovers something new that causes a revision in current theory. This is the point of scientific inquiry.

The December 11 Albany Times Union ran an article about various comments Donald Trump has made on climate change. Most recently he said nobody knows if climate change is real. At a rally he asked for a show of hands to see how many believed in climate change. Another time he claimed he jokingly called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Other reports say he is about to name a climate change denier from Oklahoma as head of the EPA.

This shows not only Mr. Trump’s ignorance but also that of a large part of the public. Sadly, many people do not understand science and technology, even though their lives depend on these endeavors. We all drive cars, use electricity, and most of us get our annual flu shots, all of which depend absolutely on science and technology. People act as if they believe in science and technology, even if they say that they do not, or are they not sure, or that “nobody really knows.”

People with an investment in outmoded ideas on evolution or climate change are apt to say – “Oh, that is just a theory.” This exploits a simple error of language, where a single word can have two quite different meanings. In layman’s language a theory is a hunch, even an unlikely hunch. But in science a theory is a collection of well tested ideas that explains a large body of information, such as evolution, or gravity, electromagnetic radiation, or climate change. It is extremely unlikely that any scientist, let alone a lawyer or a politician, could come up with a scientifically credible refutation of any of these theories.


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