Sunday, June 20, 2021

June Solstice

This year it occurs at 11:32 pm EDT/7:32 pm AKDT, where I am now.  It signals the longest period of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere, and the beginning of the inexorable trek to the shortest in December.

Sunday Reading

Second to None — Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald.

Conservatives have a special purgatory for uppity black women who dare question America’s founding myths.

New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — her Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” centralized slavery in America’s origin story, a heresy that inspired laws banning her work from classrooms — now lives there. And she’s about to have company.

In her new book, “The Second,” Emory University history professor Carol Anderson takes on an even more sacred cow: guns. She argues that the Second Amendment — which supposedly came about solely as a hedge against tyranny — had at its heart a much less noble concern: Southern states demanded the right to bear arms because they feared rebellions by enslaved Africans.

All that talk about “a well-regulated militia?” Anderson told me in a telephone interview that that was just the cover story. State militias had not performed well either in fighting off the British or in defending against a domestic uprising: Shays’ Rebellion. “What the militia was really good at, however, was putting down slave revolts.”

So the South held America hostage. It refused to join the new nation unless it was guaranteed the right to keep its guns. Not that this was the region’s only demand. Ultimately, the Constitution contained several clauses protecting slavery and slave owners.

It was to be a recurring theme. From the Founders in 1787 to today’s refusal to enact needed voting-rights reform because of so-called bipartisanship, protecting Black people’s humanity has always come in second to other concerns deemed more vital. But as Anderson noted, “When you’re willing to sacrifice Black folks for what you consider to be the larger issue, you end up sacrificing the larger issue as well.”

Meaning that America cannot credibly practice racial discrimination, then tout itself as a beacon of freedom. That’s a hypocrisy with which geopolitical foes have taunted presidents from Kennedy to Biden.

But as Anderson observes, the Second Amendment betrays Black folk not only in its origin but also in its application. Put simply: The right to keep and bear arms does not extend to Black people. If it did, would the NRA — that vigilant defender of gun rights — have kept silent when a John Crawford III or a Tamir Rice, the one a man legally carrying a firearm, the other a boy legally playing with a toy gun, were executed by police?

By its loud silence, the group gave tacit approval of what Anderson calls the “fractured citizenship” of African Americans. “When they were enslaved or free blacks, when they were Jim Crow blacks or when they were post Civil Rights Movement black folks, that did not alter how the right to bear arms, the right to a well-regulated militia and the right to self-defense did not apply to them.”

Yet the same people who keep silent when Black people are deprived of those rights — and their lives — are only too happy to tell us how we all need guns for self-defense. As Anderson noted, when “Black” is perceived as America’s “default threat,” that argument “puts Black folks in the crosshairs.” Indeed, all of us end up enduring daily mass shootings so that some of us can be ready when the hypothetical Black man comes through the hypothetical window.

In “The Second,” Anderson highlights the manifest hypocrisy of the Constitution’s most troublesome amendment. She makes a compelling case that, for all the noble rhetoric, it was created mainly to oppress.

And that it is still working as designed.

Doonesbury – Who’s calling?

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Friday, June 18, 2021

North To Alaska

I’m heading out this morning for Valdez, Alaska, for the Valdez Theatre Conference. It starts on Saturday, but it takes two days to get there. Not surprising, since it’s about 4,000 miles if I went direct. But the route is Miami to Dallas, Dallas to Anchorage today, then on to Valdez tomorrow. But as you can see by the view above, it’s worth it.

The conference is more like a festival of nearly fifty short plays done in readings over seven days, plus some group playwriting, get-togethers, evening performances, and sightseeing, including a trip down Prince William Sound to see some glaciers and maybe a whale or a family of otters.

They’re doing my play Home-Style Cooking at the Gateway Cafe, a short play where “[t]he usual crowd gathers for coffee at their favorite diner in a small western town until a mysterious stranger enters and engages them in conversation. But who’s telling the truth and who’s not? And what’s the lunch special?”

It will be done on Wednesday, June 23 at 9:00 a.m. Alaska Time, which is 1:00 p.m. ET. You can catch it on Zoom at that time.  If you miss the live show, it will be preserved on YouTube for short period of time.

Meanwhile, I’ll be hanging out with the kind of people who love theatre, who love to write, and who enjoy being in a place where the mountains meet the sea and the sun never sets, at least when we’re there. The picture below was taken at 10:54 p.m. on June 9, 2019.

I’ll post pictures and stories throughout the week.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Juneteenth

It’s official.

Congress on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday, elevating the day marking the end of slavery in Texas to a national commemoration of emancipation amid a larger reckoning about America’s turbulent history with racism.

It is the first new federal holiday created by Congress since 1983, when lawmakers voted to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day after a 15-year fight to commemorate the assassinated civil rights leader.

The vote was heralded by the bill’s supporters as a milestone in the effort to foster a greater recognition of the horrors of slavery in the United States and the long history of inequality that followed emancipation and continues to this day.

“It’s a long journey, but here we are,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), the lead proponent of the holiday in the House. “That racial divide has fallen out of the sky and we are crushing it to the earth. . . . This bill and this day is about freedom.”

If the president signs the bill today, the first actual holiday will be Saturday.

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate — unheard of nowadays — and had only fourteen no votes in the House. And of course those were from fourteen old white farts who grumbled something stupid about “critical race theory,” but I get the feeling these grumps would vote against Mothers Day because it empowers women unfairly.

Anyway, it’s a step in recognizing real history.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

On This Date

Seventy-three years ago today — June 16, 1948 — my parents were married in St. Louis.  It lasted 71 years, 11 months, and ten days until death did them part.

I’m here because of that quiet little ceremony on a Wednesday afternoon.  Thank you.

Coddling Criminals

When the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the insurrection of January 6, you would think that the tough-on-crime GOP would come down on the perps like a ton of bricks.

Guess what.

During a House Oversight committee hearing Tuesday, several Republicans spent their speaking time expressing concern for a specific group of people involved in the January 6 attack: the insurrectionists themselves.

Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) was preoccupied with whether any insurrectionists were being held in solitary confinement, pressing FBI Director Christopher Wray on the matter.

“I am troubled that reportedly dozens of individuals from the January 6 riots have been held without bond in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day,” Hice said, noting that “even Elizabeth Warren” called that form of punishment “cruel and psychologically damaging.”

He asked Wray how many insurrectionists were currently held in isolation.

“I don’t know the number that would be held in those conditions,” Wray responded, adding that it’s a “decision made by the court” and that “I don’t keep up on the terms of confinement or detention.”

“There’s a great deal of concern with this,” Hice asserted, before moving on to ask why there haven’t been investigations into the Black Lives Matter protests from last summer.

I would hope that the “great deal of concern” would reflect the fact that the GOP themselves should be held liable for the crimes of the rioters. After all, they’re blaming BLM for the protests last summer, so let’s just go with tarring anyone you can think of that might be sympathetic with a particular cause — including members of Congress — and let the courts figure it out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Don’t Say He Didn’t Warn Us

Charlie Pierce came across this little bit of anti-democracy plotting from Mitch McConnell.

Something interesting happened on Hugh Hewitt’s electric radio program. (I know, if you need to sit down, feel free.) Mitch McConnell fired on Fort Sumter, shot the Archduke, and bombed Pearl Harbor. In the figurative political sense, of course. From MSN:

“I think it’s highly unlikely – in fact, no, I don’t think either party, if it were different from the president, would confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the middle of an election,” McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt.McConnell was asked if a GOP-controlled Senate would take the same tack in 2024 that it did in 2016, when they refused to give Merrick Garland, former President Obama’s final Supreme Court pick, a hearing or a vote on his nomination to fill the vacancy created by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.Republicans subsequently confirmed Amy Coney Barrett, then-President Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, in 2020, locking in a 6-3 conservative majority. The move, which sparked howls from Democrats, set a new record for how closely before a presidential election a Senate has confirmed a Supreme Court nominee.

Moreover:

McConnell declined to say what Republicans would do if a justice stepped down in mid-2023 and Republican controlled the Senate. “We’ll have to wait and see what happens,” McConnell said, asked by Hewitt if the nominee would get a fair shot.

Stated plainly, Mitch McConnell never will allow a Democratic president to successfully nominate a justice to the Supreme Court as long as he has the power to block it. And I guarantee you that whoever succeeds him as Senate Republican leader will not, either. The Republican Party’s war on the American democratic republic is now declared and open. This is saying the loud part out loud.

There are only three options remaining that I can see:

1. Nuke the filibuster immediately.
2. A completely improbable and massive Democratic sweep in the 2022 midterms.
3. Nuke the Senate.

If you’re not willing to at least threaten Options 1 and 3, then Option 2 will remain out of reach. And Option 1 is still the more peaceable solution, no matter what Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema think. On that radio program, McConnell was double-dog-daring the Democratic majority to do it. Call his damn bluff for once. I mean, geez Louise, even the Washington Post‘s Fred Hiatt is Deeply Troubled.

It’s bad enough that most Republicans continue to defend Trump’s slander on American democracy and use it as a pretext to suppress the vote, instead of looking for ways to appeal to more voters. It’s even scarier that they are trying to write themselves an insurance policy so that, if their vote suppression strategy fails in 2024, they can nonetheless reclaim power. That should be unacceptable to every patriotic American.

OK, Fred. Here’s some homework. Find out why “most Republicans” find this strategy so everlastingly tasty. I realize some of us have about a 30-year head start on you, but it’s nice to have you on board. As for the Democrats, it’s time to show us all that you understand the threat to the republic posed by those who are now declared enemies of it. Listen to Euripides’ Ion, who reminds us that, “Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head.” You’re a battered, timid, occasionally miserable political party, but you’re also what’s left between our democratic republic and whatever horror comes next.

I take McConnell at his word. I firmly believe he will try this, and if the Democrats are in the minority, he will succeed. And at that point, the jig really will be up.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Saving Bacon Grease

The masks are coming off, the theatres and restaurants are re-opening, and like people slowly re-emerging from the storm cellar after the tornado has passed, we’re looking around at the damage and trying to put our lives back to what we used to call “normal,” even if normal was not that great to begin with.

Part of our human nature is the desire to move on, to find the reminders a tad annoying or mystifying as to why they were important in the first place — or at best nostalgic — and then look to replace them.  But I don’t think that this pandemic and our response to it will be left behind.  At least I hope not.

If it sounds gloom-and-doom to say that it’s not over yet and still keep a mask handy when you get in the car to go to the store, or hesitate for a moment when someone suggests going to a movie or the mall, it’s not just about health and preventing the spread of an infection.  It’s about a reminder of the 600,000 lives lost and most poignantly, those who almost made it but were lost even as the precautions were going away.

Monumental events change our lives in small ways.  All my life my mom saved bacon grease in a coffee can in the refrigerator.  I was something she learned as a child during World War II when things like cooking oil and meat were rationed for the war effort, and that was a way to extend the means of living.  Something as small as that is more permanently ingrained in our programming than all the WPB posters about Victory Gardens and the Buy-A-Bond Today campaign ads tacked on to a newsreel.  So maybe from now on, we won’t stand so close in a crowd, we will monitor our health and those around us, we’ll even try to understand how science works and that an ocean doesn’t keep the danger away, any more than it did eighty years ago when the virus wasn’t a germ but a deadly ideology.

I hope that in a year or two from now when I dig through my school tote bag and come across an unused mask or the old app on my phone for the daily health check, I’ll remember why we did it, who we lost, what we lost, and what life was like.  And like that old can of bacon grease in the Folgers can in the back of the fridge, I won’t be quite ready to throw it out.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Sunday Reading

Not Welcome At All? — Mark Buchanan in the Washington Post worries about contacting aliens.

In April 2020, the Defense Department released videos recorded by infrared cameras on U.S. Navy aircraft that documented the planes’ encounters with a variety of “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Pilots reported seeing objects flying across the sky at hypersonic speeds and changing direction almost instantaneously, capabilities far beyond that of any known aircraft.

What were the pilots seeing? Bizarre atmospheric phenomena? Alien spacecraft? Something else? Several branches of the government have been investigating the events, motivated in part by concern that adversaries such as Russia or China might have made some spectacular technological advance, and later this month, the government plans to publish a report revealing what they know. Reportedly, the government will say there’s no proof of extraterrestrial activity, but that the incidents remain unexplained.

Chances are, though, that we should all be grateful that we don’t yet have any evidence of contact with alien civilizations. Attempting to communicate with extraterrestrials, if they do exist, could be extremely dangerous for us. We need to figure out whether it’s wise — or safe — and how to handle such attempts in an organized manner.

Some scientific circles have already been debating questions around whether to try to contact other civilizations. It’s a topic of profound importance for the entire planet. For 60 years, scientists have been searching with radio telescopes, listening in for possible signals coming from other civilizations on planets orbiting distant stars. These efforts have largely been organized by the SETI institute in California — the acronym stands for Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence — and so far, they’ve had no success. Getting impatient, some other scientists are now pushing for a more active program — METI, for Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence — that wouldn’t just listen, but actually send out powerful messages toward other stars, seeking to make contact.

The search for aliens has reached a stage of technological sophistication and associated risk that it needs strict regulation at national and international levels. Without oversight, even one person — with access to powerful transmitting technology — could take actions affecting the future of the entire planet.

That’s because any aliens we ultimately encounter will likely be far more technologically advanced than we are, for a simple reason: Most stars in our galaxy are much older than the sun. If civilizations arise fairly frequently on some planets, then there ought to be many civilizations in our galaxy millions of years more advanced than our own. Many of these would likely have taken significant steps to begin exploring and possibly colonizing the galaxy.

Hence, it’s a profound mystery — known as the Fermi Paradox, after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi — why we haven’t yet seen any such aliens. Many resolutions of the paradox have been proposed, among them the suggestion that all civilizations, once reaching sufficient technological capacity, eventually destroy themselves. Or perhaps aliens are so alien and unlike humans that we simply cannot interact with them.

More alarming is the possibility that alien civilizations are remaining out of contact because they know something: that sending out signals is catastrophically risky. Our history on Earth has given us many examples of what can happen when civilizations with unequal technology meet — generally, the technologically more advanced has destroyed or enslaved the other. A cosmic version of this reality might have convinced many alien civilizations to remain silent. Exposing yourself is an invitation to be preyed upon and devoured.

I’ve written about METI in the past, suggesting such activity takes a huge risk for very little gain. But these concerns don’t convince supporters of trying it, who have some counterarguments. Douglas Vakoch of METI International argues that it’s unrealistic to worry about the danger of an alien invasion. We have, after all, been sending radio and television emissions into space for a century, and a civilization far more advanced than our own will probably have already detected these. If they wanted to invade, they already would have.

He also argues that, in assessing risks, it’s important not only to consider the risk coming from taking an action, but also from not taking that action. Our world faces a number of potentially existential threats, including global warming and destabilization of the environment, and it’s possible that far more advanced civilizations may have already faced these issues and found solutions. If we don’t send out signals, Vakosh writes, we risk “missing guidance that could enhance our own civilization’s sustainability.” It’s also conceivable, he suggests, that we’re making a spectacular misjudgment — and some super-advanced alien civilization may attack us precisely because we haven’t reached out.

For obvious reasons, much of the thinking about these issues has to be rather speculative. The best way forward, perhaps, is to broaden the discussion. If all of humanity is exposed to the possible consequences trying to contact alien civilizations, then more people should be involved in making decisions about what is wise and what isn’t. It shouldn’t be left to a handful of radio astronomers.

One vocal critic of the idea of reaching out to aliens proactively — astronomer John Gertz of SETI — has developed proposals to move toward more inclusive public consideration of these activities. What we need, he suggests, are laws and international treaties to govern more explicit contact attempts. Without prior broad agreement from some globally representative body, Gertz says, contacting extraterrestrials should be considered “as the reckless endangerment of all mankind, and be absolutely proscribed with criminal consequences, presumably as exercised at the national level, or administered through the International Court of Justice in The Hague.”

Currently, no such prohibitions exist. Some informal protocols for interacting with alien civilizations have been adopted by researchers involved in SETI, but these are far from legally binding governmental regulations. That’s mostly because, up to now, talking about meeting or contacting aliens has seemed widely speculative — if not a little deranged — despite the apparent scientific plausibility of such an event.

It’s not easy to weigh the pros and cons of activities around which so much remains unknown. We don’t know if there are any aliens. They might be friendly. They might not be. Given the potential risks involved with trying to make contact, perhaps it would be safer and wiser to just wait — we can always reach out later, and meanwhile, our abilities to do passive listening are rapidly growing more powerful.

In 2015, SETI launched a new 10-year program called Breakthrough Listen, funded by a $100 million donation from Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. As a result, SETI is now recording more signals than ever before, over a frequency range some tenfold larger, and bringing more computational power to bear on analyzing the recorded signals. It’s impossible to know how close or far from making a discovery we may be, but Gertz estimates that our chances are at least 100 times greater than they used to be.

The search is also benefiting from astronomers’ knowledge of exoplanets — planets in orbit around stars other than the sun. Since the first exoplanet was found in 1992, we’ve identified nearly 5,000 more, and the rate of discovery is accelerating. Each one give SETI researchers new promising targets to scrutinize.

Personally, all of this makes me dead-set against any experimentation with attempting to contact other civilizations. Why take cosmic risks when we may have a far safer pathway to discovering them, if they’re out there? Of course, even listening comes with some potentially fraught governance issues also: If and when someone really identifies an alien signal, we’ll need to decide if we should reply — and if so, how. Surely such an act — putting all of humanity at risk — ought to be the result of some collective decision. But there’s no mechanism to encourage that now. Any individual or nation could take the human response into their own hands.

Both paths — listening for aliens or trying to call them — have reached the stage where they require broader public discussion, with an eye to developing sensible regulation. That’s going to take the efforts of leaders from many nations, presumably coordinated through the United Nations or some similar international body. It should happen now. Or soon. Before it’s too late.

I’m fond of the theory that aliens have taken a look and decided we’re not worth contacting. They’re probably telling their friends that Earth is the trailer trash of the galaxy. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Doonesbury — Not getting through.

Saturday, June 12, 2021