Thursday, August 30, 2018


The most recent edition of Lapham's Quarterly is called Water.  Generally, I mark essays or excerpts from books that I find interesting, then comment on them as time permits.  For this edition, while I found the reading enjoyable, I had not left any pieces of paper for future comment until reading almost two thirds of the articles.

The first one which struck me was, in some ways, a summary of many other essays in that it detailed the decline and/or end of a particular environment with water references.  Throughout history, man has harnessed, diverted and drained countless waterways for energy, irrigation, and housing in the name of progress.  And, while it is easy to argue that man's ingenuity in accomplishing such impressive engineering feats has advanced the overall standard of living of humanity, it is also easy to forget the price that has been paid through the destruction of the natural world and the removal or elimination of the indigenous people who previously occupied or employed that water.

Whether it be the Marsh Arabs who lived for centuries in the wetlands create by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, or the million plus inhabitants of the area flooded to create the Aswan Dam, there are numerous examples of the few being sacrificed for the many, along with the water source that had provided life and inspired culture for those few. 

Certainly, there are times when the progress of civilization requires the sacrifice of nature and its specific inhabitants to provide the building block for that advancement.  And, while we can debate whether such progress is truly progress or not, we should not lose sight of the damage that we wreck upon our planet and the inhabitants of those areas we claim through legal (eminent domain) or illegal methods.  They say that history is written by the victors, but fortunately this edition of Lapham's provides at least a glimpse into the beauty that existed before the sharp heel of progress was employed, and the lives of the people who were displaced to provide the comforts never shared with those who sacrificed the most.

The other note I have made so far refers to an excerpt from the book New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson.  According to the author, the book itself is a comedy about coping, set in a time frame decades after the initial disaster, in this case the disaster of rising sea levels.  The excerpt recounts the blindness of the people who ignored the growing threat of climate change as it would effect sea level (one might say, us now!), how sea level rise passed a tipping point and went from inches to feet per year, disrupting all aspects of life on the planet, and then how after that first shock, or Pulse, as Robinson calls it, a time of massive change to combat future ramifications of this new normal in nature, reflected in hindsight, the ultimate example of locking the barn door after the horse had fled.  Which meant that if some were surprised by the First Pulse because they had refused to listen to the scientists (or pay attention to the planetary signs), then even more were surprised by the Second Pulse since they thought they were "handling" it.  Funny how we are all so eager to listen to our leaders when they tell us everything is OK or when they can provide a scapegoat for our problems, but not so willing when they confront us with our own culpability in a problem or the sacrifice we might need to make to address an issue.  The essay ends with the statement that "History is humankind trying to get a grip.  Obviously not easy.  But it could go better if you would pay a little more attention to certain details, like for instance your planet". 

As I age, I occasionally find myself engaging in comments about the "good old days".  A common avocation among all generations who reach their golden years.  In the case of water, I recently had a conversation with someone in which I recalled drinking from the backyard hose on a particularly hot day.  Can you imagine?  Now, perhaps there was a danger even after letting the water run a bit to replace the scalding water with fresh, that some harmful particles from the hose itself, not to mention the aged pipes, might exist.  Still, with the proper procedure, drinking from the hose, not to mention drinking from a neighborhood stream, was safe at some time for previous generations.  Safe and commonplace. 

Today, bottled water is a multi-billion dollar industry, with upwards of 390 billion liters of bottled water sold annually, an increase of about 90% in 10 years.  If you happen to pay attention to any of the numerous bottled water ads, you might be convinced that the water comes straight from the spring into the plastic bottle in your hand, pristine and pure.  Of course, the truth is that, Flint, Michigan water aside, the water from your tap is fine.  Purchasing a reusable water bottle and refilling it at the tap could save us personally and communally, not only in the cost of the water itself, but in the disposal of all those plastic bottles, pieces of which are now showing up in all strata of ocean life as microbits. 

Even purchasing a large, refillable jug of water from the market and refilling your own bottle from that, should you have real proof that your tap water is unsafe, is better than buying a 24 or 36 pack of bottled water.  And, of course, digging into that industry and discovering that an alarming percentage of bottled water comes from the same source as your tap water, says more about our gullibility to believe modern advertising (lies, in other words), than our desire to drink safe water.

Even worse, while most people live with running water that comes from their faucet and proper sanitation that provides a method of waste removal that reduces the instance of exposure to polluted water, there are still upwards of 750 million people who must walk outside their home for water, sometimes miles each way, and not always to a source that is clean.  If we imagine that some of our global conflicts have been caused or contributed to by a disagreement over natural resources, oil, gold, etc, I would not be the first person to suggest that some future conflicts will be over access to potable water. 

Water is the source of all life, it being well documented that a person can survive for a couple of weeks without food, but only days without water.  Its importance is undeniable, yet its value, based on our eyes which see water virtually everywhere, is low.  Let's hope that our assumptions about the availability of clean water will not be undone by our reckless treatment of the planet, and our willingness to remain blind to the limits of Earth's ability to withstand our greed.


Friday, August 24, 2018

Freedom of the Press

Yesterday I discussed one of the main areas protected by the First Amendment, freedom of speech.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Today I would like to touch on freedom of the press, another topic so prevalent in our national debates.

I know its is fashionable to opine as if we know exactly what our founders meant or were addressing with their experiment in democracy.  We cherry pick quotes from one of those great minds to justify whatever particular aspect of our notions for which we need verification, even when the other side can quote another founder whose words seem to exactly contradict our perspective.

Yet we also seem to forget the unique times of the early 1770's.  We were a colony, not a country.  Our laws regarding free speech and a free press were dictated by a country thousands of miles away, a trip which was fraught filled, often resulting in illness and death.  Troops, not of our own people, were garroted in our cities, upholding the laws which seemed to ignore the rights of the colonists in favor of the English.  Being able to say in public or publish articles which were negative about the government across the ocean was difficult.  The simple act of discussing independence could be hazardous to one's welfare, not to mention what would have happened to the founders who encouraged separation, had the effort failed.  Certain death in a not so pleasant way.

Men who had understood the writings of those who laid the foundation of real freedoms, rights which did not depend upon birth right or divine interpretation, could now see the potential of the New World, and determined that true freedoms required specific guarantees, recognized by a government for the people.  Such amazing ideas.

So, freedom of the press, for me, is all about media which respects the people of America to such a degree that their welfare is more important than the leaders who make the decisions.  Which also means questioning our government, from the right when the government leans to far left, and from the left when the government leans to far right.  

It means investigating a minor break-in at a Washington hotel, even if it means the resignation of a president.  Or following the story about a sexual encounter in the White House, even if it means impeachment of a president.  Or reporting the various machinations of a campaign in which many of the players, family as well as hired hands, were willing to do anything to change history, even if that means the indictment of a sitting president.

Attacking the press for doing these deeds, because one voted for the president in power is an attack on the freedom of the press, and therefore a rejection of the founders' beliefs.  This is not to say that I don't understand it, and have even engaged in such activity myself.  I would like to think that the incessant attacks on Fox opinion shows and some news shows during the Obama Administration were evaluated by myself with an eye towards discerning when an attack was legitimate, when Obama made mistakes in policy or action, and when those opinions merely reflected other reasons, such as deep-seated racism, not real policy disagreements.

Likewise, I would like to think that when I watch a report on MSNBC which is critical of President Trump, I view it with a desire for facts.  I look for interviews and guests which discuss both sides of the report, perhaps even with a sense of doubt of a negative report right up until the time when the facts are overwhelming.  

Certainly, this is not an easy task for me when confronting articles which portray Trump in a negative light since I disagree with him on the vast majority of his policies, just as it is for a supporter of our president who prefers not to research those problems with the Trump agenda.

The good news is that we know the players.  We know that Fox will generally paint everything happening in a way complimentary to President Trump while MSNBC will do the opposite.  The problem isn't knowing that these biases exist, it is in not recognizing them and then doing some thinking and researching on one's own to verify any one story.

In a sense, freedom of the press is incumbent upon the reader.  If we seek to read only what confirms our beliefs, and eschew those which challenge our preconceptions then we are discouraging, even working against this important freedom.

But, as I indicated in my last post, what do we do about publications that are not interested in publishing truth, but wantonly publish articles or express opinions on social media that they know to be false.  I had mentioned that I was not happy with a recent decision by Twitter to suspend the account of Alex Jones due to their belief that his tweets were lies.
If Alex truly believes that the Sandy Hook massacre did not occur, as he has so often stated, then he has every right to state his opinion, on his show or on twitter.  Perhaps it is idealistic to think, but my hope is that as time passes, his opinions will be shown to be worthless; that the facts will bury the reason for those who encourage him by listening to his words.  

But, there is some who believe that Jones knows his assertions about Sandy Hook are lies, and that he does it for notoriety, for money, for influence among the really far right person who disbelieves everything that shows our lack of common sense gun laws in a bad light.

He peddles lies for profit, or at least that is what the CEO of Twitter has decided by giving him a time out.  Jones will continue to express himself on his show, as is his right.  A more permanent solution will only come when the listeners of his show stop listening.

So again, it comes back to responsible speech.  And, even more critically, how we define responsible.  Is it responsible to publish negative reports of a president even when those true reports might lead to temporary uncertainty and lack of confidence in our government, perhaps even some financial distress?  Or is it more responsible to suppress or even attack those articles as unpatriotic or bad for the American people?  I know how I feel, and would like to think that the founders would prefer the former over the latter.

Even worse, if one can believe the recent revelations about the National Enquirer, is a publisher that uses his newspaper to attack those he disagrees with, either politically or personally, while keeping the secrets of those he is friendly with for future "negotiations".

It is still too early to tell how much influence President Trump had over the various negative articles about Hillary Clinton which ran in the Enquirer before the election, or if it was just another way that David Pecker expressed loyalty to his friend, Donald Trump.  Regardless however, if Pecker knew the stories about Clinton were lies, and knew the stories he purchased and buries about Trump to be true, he was in violation of the spirit of the right to freedom of the press.  

I failed to end my post yesterday with my biggest fear regarding the erosion of our freedoms, both speech and of the press, due to our inability to distinguish truth from lie, and our seemingly lack of concern to do so.  I fear we are witnessing, like a slow drip from a leaky faucet, the decline of our experiment in democracy, hence the foundation of our country.  It is a sad cliche that most great civilizations declined and fell from within.  Hopefully these signs are warnings which will inspire change, not the breadcrumbs which will lead to the inevitable fall.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Opinions, Lies and Responsible Speech

If not the most important right guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights, the First Amendment is certainly in the top three.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is a far ranging statement, covering many of the issues which have been hotly debated throughout our history, no less so than in today's partisan political environment.

For this post I would like to discuss the freedom of speech from the standpoint of when we should limit such freedom as was recently done by some social media companies against a  certain far right commentator.

In some ways, it is not that difficult to decide when or if someone's first amendment right should be abrogated, either temporarily or longer.  Never!

Hate speech that inflames prejudice, perhaps even emboldening acts of violence is horrible but it is just talk; those who commit the acts, once tried, convicted and incarcerated, reduces the ground upon which hate speech plants its odious seeds.  As has been said so many times before, shining light on such anti-human sentiment is the best defense against its spread.

Political opinion which castigates those of the opposing party, while divisive, is preferable to political speech which blindly agrees with those in power, either to seek favor by those that rule or because only speech approved by the leader is tolerated.

Even opinions with no facts to back them up, should be tolerated.  Education, information and truth will eventually bring to light those statements without merit but even then, when an opinion is not worth the time it takes to utter the syllables, it should be protected if uttered sincerely.  Engaging someone with an opinion that differs from yours is the cornerstone of our democracy; shout downs do not offer substantive proof of one's thoughts.

But what about lies?  Are lies also protected by the First Amendment?  

To me, opinions, honestly stated, whether based on fact or fiction, whether dipped in prejudice or spirituality, must be separated from statements made with full knowledge that it is based on falsehood.   And there lies the problem.

When a commentator, whether far right or far left, knowingly spreads information that has no basis in fact, is that speech still protected by the first amendment, or does this precious right assume a truthfulness in the speaker?  Everyone says things that are wrong, without awareness, but what of those who lie to garner fame or power or money?

During the years when Donald Trump questioned the birth country of President Obama, did he truly believe that Obama was not born in America, or merely use that lie to achieve popularity among people all too willing to delegitimize the presidency of the first African American?  If the former, Trump is blameless, even supported by me to say something that I do not believe but that he did believe.  But if the latter, then that is where the rubber hits the road, that is where responsible speech must be demanded by the electorate of its politicians and political commentators.

And, this is not just limited to politics.

What about those con men among us who use religion to peddle lies and misinformation, not because they believe in some of the nebulous tenets of religion, but to make lots of money?   Or the corporation or institution that spews advertisements and public proclamations about the safety of their product (cigarettes, fracking, pedophile priests)?    

One might say that telling non-truths, whether it be in politics, business, religion or even with one's spouse of family, is an everyday occurrence, almost expected.  

I saw a poll which asked if the President had lied about his involvement in an extramarital affair.  Almost 60% said Yes.  Then, a follow up question, should he be impeached, and less than 40% replied in the affirmative.  But guess what, that poll was done during the Clinton Administration!  Even then, we were OK with a lie if we supported the liar, as, at the time, Clinton's popularity was a bit over 60%.
Similarly, those who support President Trump today, even those who admit they think he has lied about his involvement with Stormy Daniels among others, are OK with a lie and do not support impeachment.  

If we are OK with lies, with the lies that we expect, and sometimes embrace from our politicians, the lies that are the basis of all advertisements from the business world, the lies that we tell ourselves, the big one we believe that we can ignore our democracy by staying home on election day and still get good governance, down to the little ones we believe when we think we can eat or drink whatever we want then take a pill to assuage the negative consequence of doing so, then what do we make of our belief in the first amendment?

Opinions do not need to be fact based, but we might want to educate ourselves when our opinion runs contrary to evidence as opposed to being proud of our ignorance.

Lies eat away at our freedom of speech but creating a false equivalence between an honest, but uniformed opinion and an attempt to sway perspective for personal gain is not a reason to default to the first amendment to justify our lies.

Responsible speech is the ultimate protection, the ultimate guarantee that our freedom of speech will remain a right that is worth the paper it is printed on.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Battle Stations

A couple of nights ago, my daughter knocked on our bedroom door and, in a voice mixed with excitement and anxiety, told us there was a bat in her room.  My wife and I dutifully arose from our slumber and followed her upstairs to her room which she shares with her two pet cats.  While searching her room for evidence of the intruder, she related the story of the bat's repeated flights across her ceiling then its attempt to find egress down the stairwell, followed by the male cat, while the female cat cowered in a corner.  Since we had just come up the stairwell and did not see the bat, we concentrated our search in the main part of her bedroom, and the closet which was open.  No bat.  We also looked under the bed, in the corners of the room, and gingerly tossed any clothes that were laying upon chairs in our search for the elusive mammal.  Still no luck.

Nora and I retreated back to our room after about 20 minutes of searching, suggesting to Rachel that perhaps she had dreamt the episode, but also encouraging her to alert us if the bat returned.  As we did not hear from her anymore that night, I started to discount her story.

The next day, as luck would have it, we were scheduled for our quarterly pest control visit.  We generally get ants in the house in the spring, and have found that regular treatments keep them at bay, or if it is an especially rainy year as this one has been, occur just about when the ants come a calling.  In this case, we had seen a few in the past week so the timing was perfect, but to be honest, I had forgotten all about the bat sighting. 

After the technician left, I took a shower.  As I exited the shower I glanced up and saw the bat, hanging from the end of the decorative tile which sits about 6 inches from the ceiling.  It seemed calm, perhaps even comfortable in the moisture laden bathroom.  I was not however.  I can't recall ever having seen a bat this close, certainly not wet and naked, but I did manage to get a brief glimpse of the animal by standing on my toes, brief being the important word.  It was about 4 inches long, steely eyes, dark color.

I quickly exited the bathroom, grabbing a towel and a pair of pants as I closed the door behind me and rushed downstairs to find my cell phone.  I called the pest control technician hoping he might answer and/or still be in the area.

"Hey Joe, what is up?"

"Are you still close?"

"Yes, only about a block away."

"I found a bat in my bathroom.  Can you stop by?"

"I don't do bats; they are endangered and cannot be killed".

"Notwithstanding that as a male I am supposed to be manly, can you stop by and help me, or at least give me some advice?"

"Either shoo it out a window or catch it in a bucket and bring it outside".

I said thanks (for nothing, in my mind), and hung up.  I finished drying myself, decided that I was not about to shoo a bat out our bathroom window, and thought about finding a bucket.  I went outside to our barn, and found a white bucket about 10 inches in diameter, perhaps 16 inches deep.  Seemed like a good size.  I also ripped a piece of cardboard from a box which I thought might approximately fit over the bucket, then went back inside and up the stairs.

In the bathroom, the bat still hung peacefully, its teeny little legs clinging steadfastly from the tile top.  I had already called Rachel to tell her that I had found the bat, and to ask her if she wanted to help me, but received an answer not unexpected.  I recalled the advice from Meryl Streep's assistant to his fellow workers in expectation of Meryl's arrival from The Devil Wears Prada, to gird my loins, and, so girded, placed the bucket over the bat while sliding it down the tile.  It fell easily into the bucket and I slapped the cardboard lid over the top, noting with pounding heart that it was just big enough, barely. 

My successful hunt rush was quickly diminished as I realized that the bathroom door was closed and I would have to remove my hand from the cardboard to open the door.  I managed to accomplish this task, but not before realizing again just how close I had estimated the size of the cardboard in relation to the width of the bucket.  Yikes!  Fortunately, as they say, the "they" being people not generally with you at the time, I imagine that the bat was more scared of me than I of it, (poor thing), and it did not attempt escape as I hurriedly re-positioned my hand on the cardboard.

Moving down the stairs at a cautious yet speedy pace, I conquered two more instances where I had to open a door to get outside, then I rather unceremoniously flung the bucket and cardboard lid onto the grass and retreated to the relative safety of the house, my manhood bruised but not broken.

That was just yesterday.  Since then, we have spent more than a few minutes researching bats, how many babies they have (usually one of two) and when (summer), how big they are (this one was an adult), how they might enter a home (through various holes and nooks in the roof and eaves) and whether the adage about roaches (there is never just one roach) was true of bats. 

As of now, we have convinced ourselves that this was a one and done sighting (not rare, but also not common).  I have assured Rachel that, while she may want to check the corners of her room for the next few night, she will most likely not experience a repeat performance.  She did not seem satisfied with this advice, but slept without incident last night.  I also assured both daughter and wife that if there was another incident, we would call the experts, whomever that may be.

As to how the bat moved from the third floor to the 2nd floor bathroom remains a mystery.  Also, since I was not the first person in the bathroom that morning, it seems clear that the bat was not in the place I found it, earlier that day.  We have decided to pretend that it is the same bat, and that its stealth exceeds our ability to detect its motion.  Any other conclusion interferes with our heart rates.

I will keep you informed should anything change.