Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Reading

Worst Pro-Gun Argument Ever — Mark Nuckols writes that the idea of the “citizen militia” sounds all Yankee-Doodley, but history proves that armed civilians tend to go after each other instead of the tyrant.

The constitutional government of the United States has never been perfect, but it has repeatedly corrected its mistakes and sometime tendencies to abridge the fundamental rights of its citizens. If this basic order and balance is ever imperiled, it will almost certainly be under circumstances of severe economic stress. And in such circumstances, tolerance and good faith trust in other Americans will likely be in short supply. Even today, numerous public figures routinely characterize their political opponents as enemies of American values. And a quick glance at the comments sections of websites around the Internet reveals that many people in this country already doubt the “Americanness” of their fellow citizens and the legitimacy of existing government institutions.

So a citizen uprising at any point in the foreseeable future would probably not involve like-minded constitutionalists taking up arms to defend democracy and liberty. It would more likely be a matter of one aggrieved social group attacking another. And for the most criminal and vicious members of society, the rationale of “protecting” their own rights would be a convenient justification for straight-up looting, robbery, and bloodshed.

There may never be a time when all the people in this country embrace one another as true Americans or accept the authority of their political leadership. Which may be part of the country’s boisterous — if sometimes overly enthusiastic and even paranoid — democratic tradition. But as we debate the role of firearms in our society, it makes no sense to be sidetracked by the impossible and dangerous idea that a heavily armed citizenry is the ultimate safeguard of liberty in America.

Hizzoner Dishonor — Not everyone remembers former New York mayor Ed Koch fondly, especially those in the gay community who suspected him of personal reasons for being silent on AIDS in the 1980’s.

The gay brief against Koch comes in two stripes. The first is that he should have been out and that had there been an openly gay political leader of national stature urging action on AIDS, the course of the epidemic might have been very different; countless lives could have been saved. I find this counterfactual an exercise in magical thinking and ultimately unfalsifiable and unhelpful. It’s not clear that an out gay man could have been elected mayor in 1977 in the first place, especially given the “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” signs that current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is accused of orchestrating on behalf of his father in that primary, or that an out or outed gay mayor would have won re-election in 1981 or 1985. It’s also not hard to envision a scenario in which an out or outed gay mayor would have driven from office by scandal, perhaps only adding to the shame and ostracization the gay community faced then. The point is, we just don’t know, and there are simply too many variables to plot out what kind of impact an openly gay elected official like Harvey Milk, whom Koch fell short of on many levels, would have had on the epidemic.

What we do know, or can usefully conjecture, forms the basis of a more sober if no less damning indictment of Koch—which is that the particular way in which Koch was closeted shaped his halting, seemingly indifferent reaction to the epidemic. Unlike the coy posture he adopted later in life, Koch didn’t just refuse to answer questions about his sexuality during his years in office. He aggressively—if unsuccessfully—attempted to eliminate any whiff of homosexuality from his profile. If Kirby Dick’s documentary Outrage is to be believed, Koch had a long-term relationship with a man named Dick Nathan, but broke it off before his first mayoral race (this account comes from David Rothenberg, whom Koch appointed NYC’s human rights commissioner). Nathan moved to Los Angeles (where he died of AIDS in the ’90s) and was conspicuously replaced by Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, as Koch’s beard. Koch also proclaimed himself a heterosexual in a 1989 radio show when he was running against David Dinkins, and generally took pains to distance himself from New York’s gay community.

Reading Randy Shilts’s account in And the Band Played On, it’s impossible not to conclude that Koch’s personal paranoia came to determine his policy response to AIDS. According to Shilts, Koch “warmly embraced requests that cost the city nothing,” but routinely rejected any requests—for housing for people with AIDS, for a health center in Greenwich Village, for hospice space—that came with a price tag. Koch, Shilts writes, wanted to avoid the perception that gays would get “special treatment” in his administration. The result is that “for the next two years, AIDS policy in New York would be little more than a laundry list of unmet challenges, unheeded pleas, and programs not undertaken.” “All the ingredients for a successful battle against the epidemic existed in New York City” concludes Shilts, “except for one: leadership.”

Reaching for the Stars — How the dung beetle provides insight — and a warning — about celestial navigation and light pollution.

The cosmos is nothing if not egalitarian; we are all equally small. It seems fair that Earth’s sanitation workers should benefit from the Milky Way, as the rest of us do. And dung beetles likely aren’t alone; crickets, moths, nocturnal bees, and other insects probably share their ability to navigate by the Milky Way and by polarized moonlight. “I’d be surprised if they were the only insect,” Warrant said.

One wonders, then, what will happen as the night sky disappears. Thanks to sky glow, ten per cent of the world, and forty per cent of Americans, no longer view a night sky that is fully dark. This troubles ecologists as well as astronomers. A paper published in 2011 by Christpher Kyba, a physicist at Free University, in Berlin, found that light pollution washes out the polarization of moonlight, which could have a detrimental effect on dung beetles and other insects, at least around urban areas.

“Dung beetles play an incredibly important role in revitalizing our soil,” Warrant said. “It’s a gardener’s dream, to have all this manure pushed into the dirt.” He couldn’t predict what the long-term biological consequences of sky glow might be, “apart from the fact that it probably will have some impact.” But he noted that in Australia, in the first half of the century, millions of hectares of land were ruined by the dung of imported cows. (Native dung beetles prefer the dry fare dropped by marsupials and wouldn’t touch the sloppy, foreign stuff.) Soil quality improved only after the country imported dung beetles en masse from South Africa. “You could see what kind of impact they must have in South Africa,” Warrant said, “and what it would be like if they weren’t there.”

We suppose that we are superior to dung beetles, but are we really? At least dung beetles recycle. We scavenge, hoard, consume…what? Crap, mostly. It piles up around us; increasingly we live on a ball of it. Even light we waste; designed to illuminate, it now obscures. As our celestial guides recede, we risk losing our bearings and will have ever less to consider but ourselves.

Doonesbury — Explain that.