Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Scott Baio doesn't get the outrage

Scott Baio has gotten fiercely criticized for remarks he made about Erin Moran shortly after her death. Here's what he said in a Monday morning interview, before the coroner had determined a cause of death:
“I’m OK, a little shocked but not completely shocked that this happened,” he said on the show. “My thing is, I feel bad because her whole life, she was troubled, could never find what made her happy and content. For me, you do drugs or drink, you’re gonna die. I’m sorry if that’s cold, but God gave you a brain, gave you the will to live and thrive and you gotta take care of yourself.”
Later, after the coroner asserted that Moran had cancer and that likely caused her death, Baio said he hadn't known about her cancer. He thought the furor over his comments was rooted in his somehow having blamed her death on drugs or alcohol.
Now it seems every news outlet & tabloid wants to paint a different picture of me and of what really happened. They’re stating that I’m saying drugs caused her to die after it was reported stage 4 cancer. This is so wrong! Now I truly understand the meaning of ‘Fake News’. This is crazy.”
I don't know what "every news outlet & tabloid" is saying, but I know what I felt when I saw his original remarks. I felt like he was a judgmental cretin.

It was moralistic and judgmental for Baio to use her death as an excuse to sermonize about drugs and alcohol. Even if she had died from abusing a controlled substance, it would have been morally wrong to make hay for his pet cause over her not-yet-cold body. That's why he got heat, not because he guessed wrong.

I'm trying hard not to conflate Baio's enthusiasm for Trump with his discourtesy in this incident, but it's hard not to think that a certain contempt for those less fortunate than him underlies both.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Stop with the 11 September references, Donnie

Donald Trump boasted of getting better TV ratings than the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

I didn't believe it until I found the original piece. He touted the ratings for his appearances on the Sunday talk shows.

He highlighted Chris Wallace's Fox News show. "It had 9.2 million people. It's the highest they've ever had. On any, on air, John Dickerson had 5.2 million people," he said.

"It's the highest for 'Face the Nation' or as I call it, 'Deface the Nation'. It's the highest for 'Deface the Nation' since the World Trade Center. Since the World Trade Center came down. It's a tremendous advantage."

Here's another set of numbers for you, Donnie: 2,996. That's how many people died in the World Trade Center attacks. Over 6,000 others were injured.

And to you this all boils down to fucking TV ratings?

I know you have scant respect for anyone else (literally — not a single other person in creation matters to you), but ... wow. Just ... wow.

Jesus H. Christ, Donnie, do you have no fucking sense of decency?

Are you such a pustule that you see that tragedy as a fucking entertainment spectacle?

Don't bother straining your tiny, tiny brain to answer.

Just shut the fuck up, you fucking abcess.

Just SHUT ... THE ... FUCK ... UP.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Doubt, not science, is under assault

I was going to join the local March for Science today, but found myself battling a spring cold. Perhaps it's just as well, because the March for Science is kind of ludicrous if you stop to think about it.

Yes, a number of politicians, mostly but not exclusively Republicans, proudly sneer at scientific expertise and wear their contempt for science as a badge of honor. But a march is supposed to show people how much popular support a cause has, and I regret to say that my feeling is that science as a profession doesn't have a lot of support today.

Why not?

I think science and scientists have run afoul of a broader trend: the impatience and intolerance a lot of people have for doubt, or uncertainty.

We don't know where human society is heading. Wars are breeding refugees whose care is straining the ability of neighboring regions to absorb them. Global capitalism has displaced jobs for millions, rendering them near-refugees in their own countries, while governments seem to have reached the limits of the support they can provide. Cultural norms are being threatened as hitherto-marginalized minorities are demanding equitable treatment under the law. Influential pundits are portraying terrorism and loss of status as existential threats to their audiences. Other pundits, perhaps with greater reason but no less emotion, tell their audiences that climate change, resource scarcity and unmitigated pollution threaten our lives.

People simply feel overwhelmed by the uncertainty they face in their everyday lives. For many, the stress is intolerable. With their backs seemingly against the wall, they clamor for answers. They are ready to embrace anyone who says he or she has answers and the will to do what is necessary. They look to the certainties of the past for salvation. And they either don't have the ability or the patience to tolerate doubt: doubt, after all, either conveys uncertainty (the enemy of decisive action) or the possibility of error (the enemy of received wisdom, one of the crucial pillars for troubled people in turbulent times).

Genuine scientific inquiry, of course, always includes doubt. Measurements always come with margins of error. Theories are always subject to modification or replacement as new information comes to light or as better interpretations are found. Worst of all, it's rare that a single study or finding results in The Answer: just look at the whipsawing back and forth over the last few decades on what constitutes a healthy diet.

If politicians can make hay by ignoring and denigrating science (and they can, spectacularly), it's because millions can't abide its caution and care. Scientists aren't wrong by conducting their work with the caution they do. They are, however, thoroughly mistaken if they assume that merely saying "You should believe us!" in a march or on TV shows will address the forces operating against their profession. What scientists need to do is to make the public more comfortable with, and accepting of, doubt — if that's possible.

Otherwise they might just have to adopt the same resignation their doubters have, and buckle down for a turbulent ride.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Do you guys actually talk to each other?

Last week, we heard the U.S. was sending the U.S.S. Carl Vinson and its escorts to the Sea of Japan. Everybody assumed this was both a response to North Korea's aggressive rhetoric concerning its nuclear weapons program, and in anticipation of what was suspected would be an underground nuclear test, a show of strength to the world commemorating Kim il-Sung's birthday.

Turns out most of us were wrong on multiple counts. North Korea in fact tried to conduct a missile test (the missile blew up almost immediately after launch), and hasn't conducted another nuclear detonation (so far). What was really surprising, though, was that the Carl Vinson strike force wasn't racing for the Sea of Japan; in fact, it was heading for long-scheduled "joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula".

How did we — and by "we", I mean the whole world outside of the Carl Vinson strike force — get the idea that the carrier group was off to waters near North Korea?

It might have been due to the statements from Sean Spicer, the White House spokesperson; James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense; and H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser. Oh, and something Dear Leader Donnie himself said: "We're sending an armada".

Administration statements that turn out to be at odds with reality are nothing new. Nevertheless, every time one is issued, the question must be asked, "Did they lie, or are they clueless?"

The Times piece suggests that the Defense Department screwed up.

White House officials said Tuesday that they had been relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from an ill-timed announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to a partially erroneous explanation by the defense secretary, Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that a flotilla was racing toward the waters off North Korea.
In spite of the smoke coming from numerous suspected misdeeds by this Administration, I'm prepared to believe that the Administration didn't intend to mislead or lie to us. Yet that doesn't comfort me.

Even if you like this President's oft-asserted intention not to telegraph his moves, you want the head fakes to be intentional, not accidental twitches. The Commander-in-Chief has a responsibility not to blunder the nation into conflict. And any way you cut it, this was a blunder of rather scary proportions, even if conflict didn't materialize as a result (or hasn't materialized, yet).

Suppose the Administration decided a deterrent action was needed. Presumably one or more of the national security adviser, the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs gave the President the available options. He chose to send the Carl Vinson and its strike group. The President, the national security adviser, the Secretary of Defense and the White House spokesperson all assumed the strike group was on its way pursuant to the President's decision. That, however, wasn't the case. Why didn't the Navy get the message? Wasn't the Commander-in-Chief's order relayed?

Consider a different scenario. Again, the Administration decided deterrent action was needed, but in the consideration of options, someone — the Secretary of Defense and/or the Joint Chiefs are the obvious candidates — mentioned that the Carl Vinson strike group would be available. Whoever brought this up either forgot to mention the exercises with the Australians, or assumed the President and his advisers knew that the strike group wouldn't be available until after those exercises. Who failed to ensure the Administration understood what would happen, and when it would happen?

A third possibility is, the Administration wanted to take action but hadn't had a chance to consider the options. Somebody (and in this scenario I have no idea who) heard the Carl Vinson strike group was steaming in the Pacific, perhaps even that it was headed toward North Korea or the Sea of Japan. (I haven't followed the Carl Vinson's movements so I have no idea where it was when it started for the joint exercises. Was it headed west from Hawaii or south from Japan, for instance? I wish I knew.) The Administration assumed the carrier's movement was in response to somebody's order — either the President's, or, in the case of the President himself, the Secretary of Defense's or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs' or perhaps just a suitably aggressive strike force commander's. (I don't pretend to know what might be going through our Dear Leader's head, but by now I'm ready to let my imagination run wild.) In this case, each man who isn't President probably sighed and assumed he'd been left out of some decision loop (again) involving, well, not him. The President — well, maybe he assumed Jared anticipated his needs.

(A fourth option is that the Administration hadn't thought about taking deterrent action, but once somebody found out the Carl Vinson was steaming, the Oval Office thought it was a great idea to tell the world the carrier was sending a message to North Korea. This scenario is so shambolic and inept, I'd prefer not to consider it.)

Any way you cut it, what we have here is a failure to communicate. And it's not funny. It's scary. How much confidence can we have that when we really need it, the U.S. military will be fully under the control of this Administration? I was worried Dear Leader would aggressively lead us into armed conflict, but now I'm worried he will be completely useless in a crisis that actually requires military action. It doesn't have to be a war, either. If the Navy needs to provide humanitarian aid (and under Dear Leader I assume it'll be someplace along the U.S. coastline, not elsewhere in the world), will this Administration have its lines of communication sufficiently unscrambled to get the deed done?

It's not just lines of communication with (or within) the military, either. Duhbya was rightly criticized for botching the response to Hurricane Katrina, due in part to having the hapless neophyte Michael D. Brown in charge of FEMA. Does Dear Leader know how to get FEMA moving if need be? Does he even know what FEMA is and what it does?

Duhbya's screwup (again, rightly) was seen as proof that if you have contempt for government, you cannot govern competently. Dear Leader has at least as much contempt for the functions and agencies of government as Duhbya did, and Dear Leader clearly has failed to get even the military to march in step with him. Is it his fault? The military's? The DoD's? I don't know, and neither do you. Worse, I suspect Donald Trump doesn't know, either.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Giving tradition a bad name

Garrett Epps in The Atlantic bids "Good Riddance to the Filibuster", referring to the Republican majority's decision to abolish the 60-vote minimum needed to end debate ("invoke cloture") on a Supreme Court nominee, and to proceed to a full vote of the Senate. Epps argues that the filibuster has perpetuated bad conditions like separate-but-equal by allowing a determined minority of Senators to obstruct justice for minorities who aren't Senators.
I remember as if it were yesterday those spring months when 18 old white racists in white suits stood in the doorway through which the South, white and black, needed to pass to attain full membership in the American family. Over and over they proclaimed, in the immortal words of George Wallace, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
You can certainly envision nobler uses for the filibuster, but ultimately it's a tool of obstruction rather than construction. In our current political environment, where statesmen are not to be found, it's a tool that casts aspersions on those who employ it.

In much more local news, a school board needs to decide whether Napa High School should change its mascot, the "Indians". In its report on the controversy, KTVU included remarks from those who want to preserve the mascot. The argument they make is that the mascot has been around for over a century and it would somehow harm, or perhaps disrespect, alumni of the school to make the change. Meanwhile, Native Americans argue that the mascot dehumanizes them by reducing them to a caricature.

The ditch-the-mascot movement, I understand. The stick-with-it side? Not so much.

"If you take away the mascot, you might as well take away the name 'Napa High'," implored one parent.
What does that even mean? I truly do not understand the sentiment here.

In both the filibuster and mascot cases, change has been resisted because of "tradition", the idea that because things have been a certain way for a long time, somehow that hallows those things.

I respect the conservative impulse. We shouldn't follow all the wild impulses that occur to us: there's wisdom in not throwing over everything that has been for shiny newness.

However, I very much doubt that George Wallace or his Senatorial sympathizers made a cogent argument for preserving segregation that didn't come down to, "Those nigras don't belong anywhere near us!"

Those protesting the mascot change didn't use such language. However, they were short on rational reasons to keep the current mascot. They resorted pretty much exclusively to nostalgia, to an appeal to preserve tradition. And really, what other argument could they muster? Even if they believed it was acceptable to treat Native Americans with less regard than, say, African Americans, they wouldn't say so with a TV camera present.

(One "Indians" supporter argued that the harm to Native Americans had been done and nothing we could do today would change that. He is grossly mistaken that the harm is "done": the offensiveness of being reduced to a literal caricature is ongoing.)

But in both cases, citing "tradition" as the reason to resist change just gives tradition a bad name.

Traditions bind us; they give life meaning. But you sometimes have to take a step back and ask, is what you're preserving of such worth that it justifies exploiting or degrading others?

The change to the filibuster is contentious and we likely won't arrive at a consensus in my lifetime. The mascot is a different matter.

Changing the Napa High mascot will not change the school's athletic records. It will not change or diminish individual students' achievements. It will not alter or eliminate people's memories of their time as students. The pride students and alumni take in the school is rooted in their accomplishments, not the mascot.

So, anti-change Napa High alums, I ask you: what harm is it going to do to you if the school changes its mascot?

Can you not, for just a moment, put yourself in the shoes of Native Americans, and understand, however imperfectly, how it feels to be associated with a grotesquely reductionist caricature that crowds out the reality of who you are?

Can you not get beyond your desire to keep things as they are, and recognize that changing the mascot will be a small but positive step toward reducing ignorance of, and prejudice toward, Native Americans?

Isn't that worth overturning tradition?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Silencing the arts

Eve L. Ewing penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times that convincingly laid out the real danger behind defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, which Dear Leader has proposed doing in his budget:
Much like the disappearance of data from government websites and the exclusion of critical reporters from White House briefings, this move signals something broader and more threatening than the inability of one group of people to do their work. It’s about control. It’s about creating a society where propaganda reigns and dissent is silenced.
Dear Leader and his advisors don't like critical voices. Dear Leader wants to drown them out, as he repeatedly showed during his campaign. He has a thin skin and absolutely no respect for those who disagree with him. But it's our government, not his.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Mitch, you're going to hell

That would be Senate Majority Leader, world-class hypocrite and first-class asshole, Mitch McConnell, who said:
“How that happens really depends on our Democratic friends, how many of them are willing to oppose cloture on a partisan basis to kill a Supreme Court nominee — never happened before in history, the whole history of the country.”
"That" would be a vote on whether to end debate over the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. By longstanding Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to end debate. Republicans can only provide 52 of those votes.

I'm not wild about Judge Gorsuch's philosophy and attitude toward many issues, but I have no objection to him as a nominee. He's not insane, which at this point is refreshing for someone nominated by Trump.

The problem surrounding Gorsuch's nomination has nothing to do with him. Rather, it has everything to do with the unethical and outright despicable stonewalling by Senate Republicans in 2016. After Antonin Scalia's death in February 2016, Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, flatly refused even to give President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing. They had the gall to claim that eleven months was "too near" to the end of Obama's term for him to be able to appoint another Justice.

Bullshit, ladies and gentlemen. Bullshit. That's what you tried to make us swallow. And you didn't care that we knew it was bullshit, because you also knew that in the end, the country — the people who rely on you to do your fucking jobs, whether or not we voted for you — had no legal recourse.

World's greatest deliberative body, my ass!

Every single Republican Senator who didn't spit in Mitch McConnell's eye and call him out as the despicable opportunist he is, deserves the same opprobrium he does.

McConnell himself deserves debilitating, humiliating, long-term and terminal sickness for sacrificing the people's business on the altar of his political gamesmanship. He saw his duty, and denied it, and had the gall to protest that that wasn't what he was doing. Not only is he nakedly and witlessly partisan, he's a liar and coward, to boot.

Now he has the gall to chide Democrats for considering action that has never before been taken? After he presided over the first flat refusal of the Senate to do its goddamned duty of advising and consenting to the President's nominees?

At one time, country came before party. Not any more. And we can thank Mitch McConnell for that debasement.

Fuck you, Mitch. You are a despicable, small-souled man and have disgraced the legislative body you lead.