Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Galileo's Daughter

Last week, I started reading Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel.  It is not a new book, originally published in 1999, but presents an interesting perspective concerning religion and science, especially considering the continued presence of people who, almost 400 years after Galileo's encounter with the vagaries of religious dominion over scientific thought, still espouse beliefs that emanate from faith as opposed to facts.

Galileo's Daughter presents the renowned Italian philosopher and astronomer with a mixture of history as well as via the letters which were sent by his eldest daughter Virginia, who took the name Suor Maria Celeste when she took her vows in 1616.  We only have her letters, as his were apparently destroyed upon her death by the mother abess of the convent where Sour Maria Celeste lived the bulk of her life, presumably as a result of the fear of harboring the writings of a "vehemently suspected" heretic.  Fortunately, his side of the decades long correspondence are lovingly preserved, revealing a doting father, a devoted daughter, and a glimpse into everyday life in 17th century Europe.

I am about half way through, but left slips of paper in two spots so far.

The first reminds the reader that Galileo was a staunch Roman Catholic, not a renegade who scoffed at the Bible and its scientific teachings.  For, while Galileo's fate is often touted as the ultimate religions vs science schism, the reality is that Galileo went out of his way to court the favor of the various popes who reigned during his adult life, and in fact, submitted the book which resulted in his ultimate fate, for Church approval and alterations, waiting quite some time for that approval and corrections to be completed, before ultimately publishing his book, with papal blessing, the Dialogue. 

Frankly, more than once I found his actions a bit obsequious, as he clearly valued the good graces of those in power, whether it be those of the Medici family, or of papal authority.  Of course, the Church was far more powerful in those days, having its own army, and wielding influence far beyond just the spiritual.  Whether it be from powerful families or from Rome, those who preferred to study, experiment, or merely observe the workings of Nature and the Universe, sought special titles (and the pensions they provided) so they could concentrate on their work.  Playing the game to provide a certain freedom and easier way of life, while different from today's rules and players, could nevertheless be a twisted path as a means to an end.

The other area which I noted, also speaks volumes about Galileo's love of his religion, and his country.  At this point in his life, he knows that Copernicus is correct in his theories that the earth is not the center of the universe but that it revolves around the sun, and Galileo's own observations with his invention, the telescope, further casts doubts on the Aristotelian view that seems more in line with the bible.  Further, Galileo expects that with time, better telescopes and other inventions not yet created will prove with certainty that Copernicus was correct, and yet he fears, not for his own reputation, but that it will reflect poorly on the edicts of his religion and the reputation of his fellow Italian scientists, who will face future ridicule for holding fast to outdated theories when the proof was clear.  So, while he was willing to present his theories as just that, theories that still needed further proof, he was not willing to remain silent so as to provide future historians grist for possible condemnation of Galileo's faith and country of birth.

Pretty remarkable priorities, when you think about it.  And perhaps a good lesson for us all in this age when personal desires seem to be the only motivation for so many of our leaders, and ourselves.

Knowing Galileo's fate, yet still looking forward to reading of it through his daughter's letters, and her perception of his mental and physical health through the coming ordeal, it struck me, today, at how life is not always fair.  I mean, here is a historic figure, certainly as brilliant and curious a mind of his time, who seeks truth above all, yet pays for his discoveries with his freedom, and ultimately, his life.  Makes one rethink the tiny everyday slights that happen, yet about which we whine and complain endlessly.  Not to mention, his daughter who lives an extremely hard, monotonous life, in service of her God and her religion, only to have the seemingly only person in her life whom she loves and respects, become persona-non-grata by the very religion and religious doctrine to which she has sacrificed her life.  Yikes!!

Certainly as one reads this kind of book, sprinkled with the letters of a real person who lived 400 years ago, it is easy to ridicule the actions of those in power at that time, as if we are immune to such activities today.  The real question is, should we be evaluated 400 years from now, which of our actions, edicts, laws, traditions, will be considered with similar ridicule? What science that we deny today, will be as obvious as the motion of the earth around the sun is to us now?  And whose daughter's letters will be read for a glimpse into life in the 21st century?


Monday, May 20, 2019

Abolish Political Parties?

I purchased "On the Abolition of All Political Parties", written by Simone Weil, translated by Simon Leys, for my wife for Christmas.  In light of the seemingly dangerous partisan politics that is everywhere today, I decided to read it last week.

First, a bit of background.  Simone Weil was a philosopher and political activist who lived from 1909 to 1943, teaching, assisting in the trade union movement, siding with the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, and also spending time working as a common laborer so she could better understand the working class.  Her writings were not recognized for their importance until after her death.  One of her most well known supporters was Albert Camus.  Here is the Wikipedia link of you wish to read about her;

As is so often the case, it is sometimes hard not to imagine that whatever crisis that we are experiencing today, whether local, national or global, is not somehow more critical than any other in history.  Our egos won't readily allow us to consider that we are living in anything less than an historic time, even though it is obvious that some times are more historic than others, and that only after many years have passed, can we truly know if we lived in a watershed time or not.

That being the case, it is not far-fetched to imagine that Weil's time on Earth was indeed an historic time to be alive.  WWI, the Russian revolution, the global economic collapse, the rise of nationalism in Europe, and WW2 all occurred during her brief lifetime, and certainly helped shape her political views.

"On the Abolition..." is her logical argument that very little good has come from the tribalism that infects political parties, while much bad results in their existence.  But Weil's explanation of why political parties are not productive, focuses more on the individuals who comprise the party than the party itself.  She acknowledges that the party, as a whole, might have ideas that serve their nation well, might promote policies that uplift the everyday worker.  Her problem with political parties is best illustrated by the following quote from the book.

If a man were to say, as he applied for his party membership card, "I agree with the party on this and that question; I have not yet studied its other positions and thus I entirely reserve my opinion, pending further information," he would probably be advised to come back at a later date.

In fact - and with very few exceptions - when a man joins a party, he submissively adopts a mental attitude which he will express later on with words such as . "As a monarchist, as a Socialist, I think that..."  It is so comfortable!  I amounts to having no thought at all.  Nothing is more comfortable that not having to think.

Of course, in today's language, we might say "As a conservative, or as a liberal, as a Democrat or as a Republican," but the intent is the same.  The party affiliation helps us identify ourselves for the listeners (and voters), but more importantly creates boundaries for our opinions.  For instance, a Democrat who is pro-abortion, may have a hard time campaigning with that platform, while a Republican who readily acknowledges that climate change is real and that we must embrace the new Green Deal, may find it difficult to gain votes.

This doesn't mean that pro-choice candidates tend to become Democrats, or that climate change deniers Republican simply because the party leans that way, but it does indicate that when a candidate disagrees with a basic party tenet, even if it is only 25% of the time, he/she may not find the party support necessary to win election.  Weil just takes it a step further than some, indicating her belief that the party member stops thinking, and merely adopts the party opinion on all topics, regardless of their personal opinion.

Weil notes the "free" or "conscious" vote as proof of her logic.  As defined,

conscience vote or free vote is a type of vote in a legislative body where legislators are allowed to vote according to their own personal conscience rather than according to an official line set down by their political party.

The fact that this is a real thing should alarm us while her point, obviously, is that all votes should be one in which the elected leader considers his/her conscious, not the exception.

In the US Congress, we see this type of vote exercised by each party when they allow a certain member to vote against the party's preference, knowing that they have enough votes to pass the legislation anyway.  In this way, members with constituents who might be against a particular proposal can be mollified with the knowledge that their representative stood up to the party and respected their viewpoint.  The bill still passes, but the representative saves face, and, most likely, adheres to the party line the next vote so someone else can appear independent.  And, even worse, it doesn't even mean that a "conscious" vote was cast, just that a vote which acknowledges that public opinion, was cast.  The representative may, in fact, be more worried about re-election than their conscience, and by getting a pass from the party, they get to retain their seat in government.

It all adds up to party loyalty above the nation, and, again, even when a particular party may have good intentions, there will eventually be capitulation by the party members to the party's will, rather than a considered vote which places the nation above all else. 

Once you read this book, you may conclude that Weil was right, and that nothing short of the abolition of all political parties is the only answer.  Certainly, some of the founding fathers were worried about this very issue.  But how could this be accomplished, and an even more critical consideration, is the American electorate ready for such a change?

Perhaps addressing the second question first, will provide an answer to the first. 

Can our electorate enter the voting booth on a consistent basis with a general understanding of the candidates and their opinions, vote for the person who best represents their own viewpoints, but also accept when another candidate wins with the knowledge that at least some of their concerns and opinions will be considered when new laws are created?

I ask this because it seems very clear to me that we frequently put our elected officials into 2 all-or- nothing boxes;  agree with me all the time, or, at the very least, agree with my party all the time.  This is a very elementary position, and in and or itself, discourages "conscious votes". 

I have severe misgivings that we are ready for such responsibility, as voters, considering that only just above 60% of us vote in presidential elections, barely 40% in midterms, and that a far too big percentage of voters select all of one party or the other, not necessarily knowing anything about the candidates other than their party affiliation.  In other words, we need to shake off our complacency about our democracy, and invest time and energy when exercising our right to vote, or no solution will be successful. 

Enter the educated voter.

I recently commented to a friend of mine that the educated voter was not the friend of any political parties because an educated voter knows that no party will be in agreement with their personal views, but that the best choice is one where there is the most agreement.  An educated voter understands the importance of compromise, because their neighbor's ideas of what is fair and right are just as important as their own, even when they are polar opposites, and that common ground should be  the starting point for all discussions and debates.  An educated voter does not take the word of the candidate, whether that candidate is the incumbent or in their first campaign, but fact checks what is said.  (Also good advice for Facebook posts and Twitter retweets).

Perhaps a starting point would be to eliminate all reference to a candidate's party on the ballot.  Make the voter research the candidates rather than handing them an easy tool, the party vote, so they at least know the names of those they are choosing.  Removing all the restrictions to voting might also be a good idea, especially when it comes to primaries that are only open to party affiliated registered voters, expanding the rules on absentee ballots, expanding the actual voting day to a weekend with a federal holiday on that Monday, establishing an online voting system that allows people with handicaps or difficult work schedules to vote, and who knows, maybe even a fine for not voting. 

I say this last thing, because it seems that money is our great yardstick, so perhaps, rather than pretending that our right to vote is "priceless" we should put a price on that right, and extract its cost for those who choose not to participate.  At least we can then use it to fund election campaigns, which, knowing what we now know, also means reversing the Citizens United ruling which allows even more money to flow into our elections.  If failing to stand at attention before a symbol made of cloth is such an unpatriotic expression, how is failing to vote any less egregious?

I guess, at this point, I am saying that we cannot abolish political parties, yet.  Yes, we might see some progress in the partisanship fiasco that we are experiencing today, but without a governor on the money being spent in our elections, without less voter restrictions that our current trend towards more, without an educated voter who can talk as fluently about the candidates and the pros and cons of their positions as they can about the latest GOT episode or the hottest sports stars' stats, then our votes will still add up to a dysfunctional government that answers to big money, party loyalties, and special interests rather than we the people. 

Sadly, it is up to we the people, and I am finding it difficult to see us demanding the changes that will help us preserve our democracy, with or without political parties.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Dear President Trump

Dear President Trump,

I suspect that your time as president has not been what you might have expected.  The open antagonism by many representatives of the press, the betrayal by some of your former employees and appointees, the less than 50% approval rating by your constituents to date, and the seemingly pointless Mueller investigation, not to mention the lack of credit you have received for the booming economy, might all add up to a low job satisfaction score.  While you may have expected this different response when compared to the rarefied air of the CEO boardroom, and the sets of your various entertainment shows where the Boss is respected, never questioned, always obeyed, you most likely associated more obedience towards the president and his words when you took the oath of office, than what you have experienced so far. 

When I accept that you ran for President out of concern for America and its future, I truly feel sorry for you and for the obstacles that you perceive.  In many ways, being President is a no-win job, where a large percentage of citizens will disagree with every one of your decisions, and where reverence and/or
historical glory is very rarely realized until well after your time has passed.  I don't believe there is any job on Earth which includes such a high degree of outside criticism than President of the Untied States, yet I don't see that understanding exhibited in your reactions.  In that regard, I think you held incorrectly conceived presumptions, despite the love and adoration you experience at your rallies.

America is not run by the words and good feelings of a rally, but by digging deep into the problems that we face, gleaning information from multiple viewpoints, and arriving at solutions that provide the best course of action, then explaining those actions to the people who might need to understand their share in any one particular solution may be limited, but will be accounted for in a future solution.  That we all take steps forward together, even when some steps are smaller than others.

I know that sacrifice is not one of your favorite words and is certainly not consistent with your Make America Great Again message, but it is nonetheless an important aspect to all major initiatives.  It is why it is critical for those of us who believe in a more environmentally conscious direction for America, need also to assuage the fears of those who feed their families via work in the fossil fuel industries.  Coal, in particular, is not our future, but that does not mean we should ignore the real pain that some Americans will suffer as the coal industry fades away.

At this point, after reading the redacted version of the Mueller investigation, after 28 months of your relentless attacks on our environment via cabinet appointments, regulation rollbacks and treaty withdrawals, after the thousands of tweets which belittle your political rivals, and those Americans who support their viewpoints, after the insidious results of your scapegoat tactics which dehumanize those born south of our border, and have done irreparable harm to countless families through the child separation policies that you initiated, and yes, even after the continued strength of our economy, I respectfully request that you resign as President of the United States.

Resign, Mr. President, not because you are a quitter or might be perceived as running from a fight, not because you admit to any wrong doing, and certainly not because you might be impeached.  Resign because it would be good for America.

Resign so we can avoid 18 more months of congressional hearings into the mistakes of your 2016 presidential campaign. 

Resign so we can avoid another year and a half of hearing about Russian interference in our elections, and spend that time creating a firewall in our social media industry to prevent future incursions.

Resign so we can join the rest of the world in addressing the real emergency of climate change rather than avoiding the cost and sacrifice that we need to face.

Resign so that there is no excuse for those in Washington to address our crumbling infrastructure, especially our outdated electricity grid.

Resign so we can look our burgeoning national deficit fully in the face and make the hard choices which will protect our most vulnerable citizens, while continuing to provide entrepreneurial opportunity to regrow the middle class, even if that means asking the super wealthy to care more about America than their personal wealth.

Resign so that the American electorate might pause in its love affair with party affiliation, might realize that America is greater than the sum of its parties but only when they work to advance the country, not just their tribe.

Resign so the Republican Party can turn fully away from the selfish populism that has convinced almost half of Americans that immigrants are evil, money is all that matters, and that cooperation is a sign of weakness.

Resign so that the next election is about the future of America, and ideas that catapult us into that future, as opposed to a ideas that represent a last gasp attempt to relive the past, despite the false narrative that nostalgia provides when the bad times and injustices are ignored. 

Resign because it will confirm to your devotees that you were a great man, and help convince some of your critics that you were able to put America First, even above yourself.

Regards and respect,

Joe Pugnetti