Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sunday Reading

Reasoning with Scalia — Bruce Hay clerked for Justice Scalia and lived to tell the tale.

In the two weeks since his death, many have spoken about Antonin Scalia’s undeniable impact on American law.  As attention shifts to filling the vacancy he has left on the Supreme Court, I would like instead to talk about his less appreciated impact on contemporary physics. But first, a bit of background.

Antonin Scalia generally detested science. It threatened everything he believed in. He refused to join a recent Supreme Court opinion about DNA testing because it presented the details of textbook molecular biology as fact. He could not join because he did not know such things to be true, he said. (On the other hand, he knew all about the eighteenth century. History books were trustworthy; science books were not.) Scientists should be listened to only if they supported conservative causes, for example dubious studies purporting to demonstrate that same-sex parenting is harmful to children. Scientists were also good if they helped create technologies he liked, such as oil drills and deadly weapons.

His own weapon was the poison-barbed word, and the battleground was what he once labeled the Kulturkampf, the culture war. The enemy took many forms. Women’s rights. Racial justice. Economic equality. Environmental protection. The “homosexual agenda,” as he called it. Intellectuals and universities. The questioning of authority and privilege. Ambiguity. Foreignness. Social change. Climate research. The modern world, in all its beauty and complexity and fragility.

Most of all, the enemy was to be found in judges who believe decency and compassion are central to their jobs, not weaknesses to be extinguished. Who refuse to dehumanize people and treat them as pawns in some Manichean struggle of good versus evil, us versus them. Who decline to make their intelligence and verbal gifts into instruments of cruelty and persecution and infinite scorn.

I worked for him early in his tenure on the Supreme Court. He had visited my law school when I was a student, and I was smitten by his warmth and humor and sheer intellectual vibrancy. When I applied for a clerkship at the Court, my hero Justice Brennan quickly filled all his positions, so Scalia became my first choice. He offered me a job and I thought I’d won the lottery. I knew we differed politically, but he prized reason and I would help him be reasonable. A more naive young fool never drew breath.

I can attest to the many nice things people have said about the Justice. He was erudite and frighteningly smart. He said what he thought, not what was expedient. He was generous to friends and family. He loved his clerks and helped them get dream jobs. And we returned the favor by not thinking about what we were doing, then or afterward. What I took for the pursuit of reason in those chambers was in fact the manufacture of verbal munitions, to be deployed against civilian populations. From the comfort of our leather chairs, we never saw the victims.

Anyway, about his contribution to physics. I am close to one of the victims of his operation, a transgender woman named Mischa Haider, whom I got to know during the course of her work on a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard. She’s an extraordinary polymath — gifted violinist, writer and novelist; fluent speaker of a half-dozen languages; math genius. And physicist. Her intellect would have made our brilliant Justice want to hide his head in a bag, to borrow his charming words from last year’s marriage equality ruling. Those who have any doubt about trans mothers should meet Mischa’s children.

Since coming out as trans a few years ago, this remarkable woman has suffered a debilitating depression. Partly from the transphobia she encounters daily at the allegedly enlightened Harvard; from the constant stares in public; from the indignity of worrying about things the rest of us take for granted, like walking in the street or using a public bathroom without fear of taunts or violence, or taking her children to the park without fear of being humiliated in front of them.  And from the pain of rejection by family and former friends who, despite her prodigious achievements, are somehow ashamed to be associated with her.

Beyond all that, it’s her knowledge of what the “culture war” means for trans women across the country, women who are shunned by their families, who are often unable to get jobs and therefore live in poverty, who face shocking levels of assault and murder (2015 was a record year), who attempt suicide at a rate greater than 40 percent. Who are generally excluded from the protection of antidiscrimination laws. Who, on the contrary, are at this moment the subject of dozens of pending pieces of transphobic legislation around the country, such as bills to stigmatize trans children by forcing them to use separate locker rooms at school or to jail trans women for using public bathrooms that match their identity. The drumbeat of organized hatred, calling to mind yellow stars and separate drinking fountains and worse, makes my friend feel like a nonperson, unwelcome in her own country. All this, for the crime of not matching someone else’s idea of how women are supposed to look.

She’s decided to leave academic physics after finishing the doctorate. She has become too absorbed in the struggle for equality – for being accorded the most basic human dignity – to think of anything else. She could not live with herself, she tells me, if she did not devote her talents to helping the many trans women whose lives are decimated by the bigotry and ignorance of those around them. Bigotry and ignorance inflamed by demagogues like Antonin Scalia, whose toxic rhetoric has done so much to incite and legitimate fear of gender nonconformity and elevate it to the level of constitutional principle. She is resolved to become a trans rights activist.

So that is Antonin Scalia’s contribution to physics. To drive a woman with a luminous mind from the study of quantum theory and statistical mechanics and condensed matter, and into the urgent project of safeguarding vulnerable people from the inhumanity he dedicated his life to spreading. An inhumanity that survives as his true legacy, safeguarded by deluded acolytes and admirers.

Scalia passed away in his sleep at a luxurious hunting lodge. He died as he lived, gun at hand, dreaming of killing helpless prey from a position of safety and comfort. May his successor on the Court have a loftier vision of law, and of life.

Bernie’s Bumpy Road — Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on what lies ahead for Sen. Sanders.

What Bernie Sanders is trying to accomplish is ludicrous. His age (seventy-four), political label (socialist), disposition (grumpy), and aesthetic (rumpled) make him the most improbable Presidential candidate of 2016 not named Trump. At the start of the race, the gap between Sanders and Hillary Clinton when it came to name recognition, élite Party support, polling, and fund-raising was nearly as wide as it could possibly be between two candidates vying for the nomination. Sanders has been maddeningly vague about how he would pass what would be the most ambitious and expensive Democratic agenda in modern history. When he’s forced to talk about foreign policy he seems hesitant and uncertain. Nearly every answer involves some reference to his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War.

And yet his campaign against Hillary Clinton has defied all expectations. Iowa was essentially a tie, and in New Hampshire he defeated her by twenty-two points. Saturday in Nevada, he kept the race close, losing by just five points in a state where he started behind by fifty-four points in the state’s first poll last year. While raw vote totals have not been reported for Iowa and Nevada, which hold caucuses, it’s certain that if the first three states were combined, Sanders has won many more votes than Clinton has so far in 2016.

Sanders has also already fared better than two recent Democratic insurgencies: Bill Bradley’s 2000 campaign against Al Gore and Howard Dean’s campaign against half a dozen Washington insiders, in 2004. But there’s been only one successful Democratic insurgency in recent decades—Barack Obama’s, in 2008—and Sanders is not on the same trajectory. There were two major components to Obama’s success. First, Obama expanded the Democratic electorate. This started in Iowa, where turnout hit a record in 2008 when Obama attracted young voters, independents, and even Republicans to caucus for him. If the traditional Iowa electorate of a small number of older Democratic partisans had shown up, Clinton would have defeated Obama. After Obama won Iowa, he opened a crucial second front against Clinton when he began to win over non-white voters. Even after building that strong coalition, he barely defeated Clinton; depending on how you count, she ended up winning more over-all votes than Obama.

Sanders has been expanding the electorate, but not by enough, and the over-all turnout numbers in 2016 are not meeting or exceeding the Obama milestones. Sanders is dominant with young people and political independents—according to the latest figures, he won voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine by eighty-two to fourteen in Nevada—but it’s not enough to make up for his deficits among other groups. The Nevada results show Sanders is having trouble breaking into traditional Democratic constituencies, like African-Americans and older voters, especially among women. Clinton won African-Americans by seventy-six per cent to twenty-two per cent in Nevada. Voters over forty-five years old made up sixty-three per cent of the Nevada electorate, and Clinton won that group by more than two to one.

There was one bright spot for Sanders in the Nevada results. He appears to have cut into Clinton’s support among Hispanics. As with other groups, it was younger Hispanics who came out for him. The more well known Sanders is among younger voters of all races and backgrounds, the better Sanders performs. His problem is that, as the total number of primaries held accelerates over the next few weeks, he might not have enough time for voters to get to know him, and, even given his impressive fund-raising, he might not have the resources to truly compete in dozens of states.

Nevada is a quirky state—it has a transient, overwhelmingly urban population—and the outcome there shouldn’t be over-interpreted. Sanders could still pose a challenge to Clinton for many weeks to come. Insurgencies usually fail, but they often tell us something about the shape of politics in the near future. Clinton may defeat Sanders’s millennial army in the primaries, but to succeed she and other Democrats will need its support for years to come.

Florida Flush — Lake Okeechobee’s dirty water hits the beaches.  By Sarah Rathod in Mother Jones.

Just in time for tourist season, both of Florida’s coasts are being flooded by dark, polluted water that’s killing ocean creatures and turning away would-be swimmers, fishermen, and other visitors.

Last month was South Florida’s wettest January since 1932. Because of the heavy rain, the water levels in Lake Okeechobee in central Florida rose to about a foot above what’s normal for this season. On top of that, water managers began to pump dirty water from flooded farms into the lake, adding more pollution to a body of water that already contains fertilizers and other chemicals from the state’s cattle and sugar industries. At the same time, officials began to worry that the rising lake waters would put stress on its aging dike, so they decided to drain the lake toward the east and west coasts. Some 70,000 gallons per second flowed into the St. Lucie River and the Caloosahatchee River all the way through to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. And as the toxic runoff spreads, it’s threatening sea grasses and oyster beds and adding to harmful algae growth.

Now the tourism industry and small businesses on the coasts are worried they’re going to see their business slump as a result of the pollution. Local politicians are calling on Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency, and mayors are traveling to Washington, DC, to demand action from Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers. And Floridians are snapping pictures of the polluted water and dead sea creatures and sharing them on social media.

According to David Guest, managing attorney of the Florida branch of the environmental law group Earthjustice, the pollution is not going to end anytime soon. He blames lax regulations, not the unseasonable rain, for the current crisis. “The lake is basically a toilet,” Guest says. Florida’s powerful sugar industry has stood in the way of the state purchasing land south of the lake that could be used to build a waterway to direct dirty water to the Everglades, cleansing it along the way.

According to John H. Campbell, a spokesman for the US Army Corps of Engineers, state and federal officials are unable to divert the polluted water south to the Everglades at the moment. The marshes between the lake and the Everglades are too flooded, and it could be a matter of weeks or even months before the water levels come down. In the meantime, the polluted water will keep being diverted to the coasts, where Florida’s tourism industry lies. “We really don’t have any other options,” Campbell says. “That’s all we can do.”

Doonesbury — Seemingly Happy.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. I want to wish Mr. Hay’s friend all of the luck in the world.

    We might have lost a brilliant physicist, but it looks like the world gained a great activist for basic human rights!

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