Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sunday Reading

When Lies Win — Leonard Pitts, Jr., on the consequences of letting lies trump the truth.

Indeed, falsehoods are harder to kill than a Hollywood zombie. Run them through with fact, and still they shamble forward, fueled by echo chamber media, ideological tribalism, cognitive dissonance, a certain imperviousness to shame, and an understanding that a lie repeated long enough, loudly enough, becomes, in the minds of those who need to believe it, truth.

That is the lesson of the birthers and truthers, of Sen. Jon Kyl’s “not intended to be a factual statement” about Planned Parenthood, of Glenn Beck’s claim that conservatives founded the Civil Rights Movement, and of pretty much every word Michele Bachmann says. It seems that not only are facts no longer important, but they are not even the point.

Rather, the point is the construction and maintenance of an alternate narrative designed to enhance and exploit the receiver’s fears, his or her sense of prerogatives, entitlement, propriety and morality under siege from outside forces.

This is the state of American political discourse, particularly on the political right, where a sense of dislocation, disaffection and general been-done-wrongness has become sine qua non, coin of the realm, lingua franca of the true believers — and of their true belief in the desperate need to turn back the unrighteous Other and his unwelcome change.

To score Palin for being unfactual, then, is to bring boxing gloves to a knife fight. The death panels are not about fact. They are about fear and the shameless manipulation thereof for political gain.

The result of which is that Americans increasingly occupy two realities, one based on the conviction that facts matter, the other on the notion that facts are only what you need them to be in a given moment. That ought to give all of us pause because it leads somewhere we should not want to go. When two realities divide one people, the outcome seems obvious.

They cannot remain one people.

Eric Holder, Contempt, and Race — Alex Koppelman on the reasons the right goes after the Attorney General.

There’s a reason that Holder is, next to the President himself, the member of the Obama Administration that the right most loves to hate. It’s not necessarily racism—not stemming, that is, from a belief that Holder is somehow inferior or ill-willed because he’s black—but that doesn’t mean it’s not about race.

In an economy where people are still struggling, no argument works so well as “It’s not your fault you’re doing poorly—someone else is getting what should be yours.” This is what’s going on when Rush Limbaugh compares the Affordable Care Act to “reparations” and talks about “a chip on Obama’s shoulder about the founding of this country … and his opportunity here now to finally make it right,” or when Dinesh D’Souza writes a whole book about President Obama’s beliefs coming from his father’s Kenyan anti-colonialism. The message is simple: Obama has a grudge against white people, and now that he’s President he’s taking it out on you. Sometimes the accusation is that Obama’s doing this indirectly, that he’s inciting black people to racial hatred and retribution—the Trayvon Martin case was a prime example for this theory—as a way to win reëlection, without regard to the consequences for innocent whites.

The message has transferred over to Holder as well. It works principally because of his race, of course, but also because of some of the controversies he’s been involved in, like the New Black Panther Party voter-intimidation case—the furor surrounding that incident, notably, starts from the idea that Obama and Holder would actually ally themselves with the N.B.P.P., a group that gives new meaning to the word “fringe”—and lawsuits against voter I.D. laws. At a 2011 hearing at which Holder appeared, John Culberson, a congressman from Texas, told him, “There’s clearly evidence, overwhelming evidence, that your Department of Justice refuses to protect the rights of anybody other than African Americans to vote.” In a piece published by the Daily Caller, Troy Senik, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who’s now a senior fellow with the Center for Individual Freedom, psychoanalyzed Holder based on comments he made at that hearing and diagnosed “racial tribalism.” “The attorney general’s obsession with race has been monomaniacal,” Senik wrote. Similarly, last month, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page slammed Holder for his “racial incitement strategy,” and accused him of “using his considerable power to inflame racial antagonism.”

Fast and Furious itself doesn’t have the same kind of racial undercurrent—the conspiracy theory that Obama and Holder plotted it as a way to bring back gun control is more than enough. But it has plenty of appeal just the same, simply because of Holder’s role in it. In an election year, going after him will energize the base, and could help Republicans with white independents. On top of that, Congressman Darrell Issa has now spent a year and a half investigating the Obama Administration, and he still doesn’t have any major scandals or takedowns to show for it. If he can make anyone fall, it will have to be someone who is, like Holder, already weakened.

Keep Looking — Jill Tarter on her search for E.T.

Our 50 years of searching is equivalent to scooping a single glass of water from the Earth’s oceans to examine it for fish. It is an experiment that could work — but if it fails, the correct conclusion is that there was inadequate sampling, not that the oceans are devoid of fish.

Today, our searches are getting exponentially better. If we are looking for the right thing, it will take only a few decades to conduct a search that is comprehensive enough to be successful or to yield conclusive negative results.

Is there actually someone or something out there for us to find? This is another question without an answer, yet. In the last two decades of my career, what we’ve learned about exoplanets and extremophiles — organisms that inhabit environments once thought to be incapable of supporting life — has made the cosmos appear more friendly to living creatures.

The census of potentially habitable cosmic real estate has continued to expand. This is not the same as knowing that the real estate is inhabited, of course, though that conclusion could be part of our near future. After all, things do look good.

When I was a student, additional planets were just a good theory. Today, it’s beginning to look like almost every star hosts planets — some seem tantalizingly familiar, but some of them are unlike any in our solar system. We used to think that the limits on life were between the boiling and freezing points of water, at neutral pH values, at pressures not too different from those on the Earth’s surface. The detailed study of life in extreme environments has pushed those limits aside.

Life has evolved to thrive in environments that are extreme only by our limited human standards: in the boiling battery acid of Yellowstone hot springs, in the cracks of permanent ice sheets, in the cooling waters of nuclear reactors, miles beneath the Earth’s crust, in pure salt crystals, and inside the rocks of the dry valleys of Antarctica.

What will my granddaughter know about the limits of life before her student days are over? It’s possible that she may learn about a second genesis of life on Mars or within the ice-covered oceans of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn; possible, that is, if we continue our exploration of the bodies of our solar system. As for intelligent life — for that we need SETI.

Doonesbury — Keeping at it.