Friday, July 02, 2010

"And how should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don't already have one."
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


As acidly as I might characterize Climate Crisis deniers--especially the professional ones, the moral equivalents of decades of cigarette company shills-- I don't think everybody who professes skepticism about global heating is malicious. I know they are basically and tragically wrong, but I still am interested in getting as many of them on board as possible.

So I was interested to see this Chris Mooney piece in the Washington Post with the headline "If Scientists Want to Educate the Public, They Should Start By Listening." Mooney writes that skeptics aren't necessarily uneducated. "For one thing, it's political outlook -- not education -- that seems to motivate one's belief on this subject." He suggests that instead of just talking at these people, scientists listen to them. For on the Climate Crisis as well as two other examples of issues that aren't controversial among scientists but have substantial and seemingly irrational opposition among the public, Mooney writes:

"These three controversies have a single moral, and it's that experts who want Americans to take science into account when they form opinions on contentious issues need to do far more than just "lay out the facts" or "set the record straight." What science says is important, but in controversial areas, it's only the beginning. It's critical that experts and policy makers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; and in this, they mustn't be deceived by the fact that people often appear, on the surface, to be arguing about scientific facts. Frequently, their underlying rationale is very different."

This article got an angry and typically lengthy rejoinder at Climate Progress. Part of the objection involves not naming the real culprits, which include the corporate media and the disinformation campaign heavily financed by fossil fuel industries and their pr lackeys. While I can understand the frustration--once again, the responsibility is put on the scientists, plus (though they don't say so in this post) climate scientists who do venture into the public typically are met with very organized, very aggressive and practiced deniers who spurt out spurious charges and bogus information so fast and so relentlessly that there is never enough time to properly answer them.

Those deniers aren't sincerely interested in either listening or really in being listened to. But there are some whose opposition, while not really based on questioning the science, have reasons stemming from their lives and sincere attitudes. Apart from those whose reasons are ideologies so strong and automatic that their minds can't be changed, there is probably a subset--admittedly very small (since deniers are a small percentage of the public to begin with), but there are some who are troubled but open enough to profit from dialogue. As long as it is dialogue.

Here's how I put it in my comment on this Climate Progress post:

"We’re once again into a both/and rather than either/or situation about the Mooney piece. Yes, for various reasons the media has misreported on the climate crisis. Yes, corporate power is probably part of why. Yes, science education and communication are weaker than they should be. And very much yes, a highly funded disinformation campaign has provided reasons to doubt climate change for people who are predisposed to want to doubt climate change.

There are other factors that Mooney doesn’t discuss, like the immense psychological barriers to accepting the logical conclusions, the consequences of the climate crisis, like the end of the civilization they know, one way or another. Like the political fact that there has never been a crisis quite like this: a crisis (until recently) of the future that’s invisible or easy to ignore in the present, governed by such apparently unfamiliar concepts as lag time, tipping points and cumulative impact.

But what Mooney does discuss is valid: for repeat deniers not on fossil fuel payrolls, it isn’t all about feeding them information. It is also about listening to them. About understanding where they are coming from, in their lives. Listening allows information to be translated and applied directly to their concerns. It permits analogies and metaphors, specifically meaningful to them. It means taking their real life consequences and concerns into consideration in designing the methods of addressing the causes and effects of climate change. It means allowing everyone in the community to talk about this, without fear of being demonized, and to work it out for itself.

Frankly it is unlikely that scientists or politicians can do this. They need a more neutral but creative third party. The most successful dialogues I know of came after a small theatre company’s piece on climate change, in which they employed comedy that went after everybody’s pretensions. There must be other ways to overcome the mutual not listening of today’s debates. There is very likely a significant subset of skeptics and deniers who must be listened to before they can themselves hear.

Will this convince everyone? Not likely. Will it build support to pass climate crisis legislation? Maybe not, and maybe it’s not necessary because as the polls show there is plenty of support for doing…something. Maybe the extreme rhetoric we’re hearing is sound and fury signifying nothing, which will become apparent in November. But this environment is toxic in more ways that one. We face hard times ahead. We need a wider understanding."

That theatre company--called Human Nature--was on my mind because I attended an award ceremony honoring them over the weekend. They are from the nearby and ironically named town of Petrolia, California. Despite the name (and the fact that it was the first place in the state where oil was discovered, though there wasn't much), it is in a rural-to-wilderness area of the Lost Coast, the Mattole valley. There were a lot of people at that ceremony from that community, which has supported Human Nature for a generation.

True, many of these are ex-hippie back-to-the-landers, not your typical denier profile. And true: Human Nature started doing theatre about local environmental issues, like salmon in the rivers. But they did make fun of the pretensions of both sides, and they still do. Still, I think it's remarkable that the community is so much behind them, when the show they've been doing for the past four years (as well as the new one) is about the worldwide phenomenon of the Climate Crisis.

And it's also true that the dialogues that followed their shows often happened on college campuses. But people with doubts did show up (as did climate scientists) and they did talk, and their views were honored. And sometimes, that's how it has to begin.

As I mentioned at the end of my comment, we're facing tough times as the Climate Crisis effects become more obvious and need a lot of attention. I worry about that. On the one hand, we have a country so apparently divided, with really extreme, really barbarous views being openly advocated--with a lot of hostility expressed in very violent terms towards people of color, of poorer circumstances as well as contrary political views. And there's the Supreme Court arming their "revolution." Along with government being vilified, and too broke and broken down by years of being bled for profit, that it's ability on any level to address an emergency is pitifully diminished. All that tends to suggest these communities can't survive a crisis--that they'll get the violence, selfishness and panic our Social Darwinist apocalyptic mythologies assume.

On the other hand, there's Rebecca Solnit's book, documenting the positive ways people respond and help each other in a crisis. And there's the hope that once people are listened to, they can themselves listen. And the people trying to talk to them can speak to their concerns, at least enough to convince everyone of basic good will.

What the efficacy of dialogue can be on the current efforts to get a climate bill through Congress is an open question, and I have my doubts. That seems to have it's own momentum, and it may be more important that it is an extremely hot summer so far in Washington, as well as elsewhere in the world. And that whatever temporary stall there was in the statistics has ended, and this year we're clearly again in record-breaking global heating.

Speaking of heat, the first stories on Senator Robert Byrd said he'd been hospitalized for heat exhaustion and dehydration. That was quickly forgotten when the eulogies started, but maybe it shouldn't. Lots of unnamed older people are doubtless dying in the DC heat, and elsewhere. Denying this and related effects is murderous, and eventually suicidal.


Remember Climategate, the scandal involving stolen emails exposing supposedly rigged data that discredited climate scientists and their entire generation-old conclusion that the globe is warming dangerously? That was red meat to the hungry stupid media?

Anyone who took a second look at it could see that there was nothing there, certainly nothing that discredited any important overall findings. And now the whole house of cards has tumbled.

The Times of London, the paper that "broke the story," this week retracted the key elements of the story.

Then the U.S. climate scientist most consistently and virilently vilified by the fossil fools was completely (and unanimously) exonerated by an investigative committee of faculty at his university, Penn State.

Maybe the credibility problem of the fossil fools and the deep pockets that finance their relentless lies will finally penetrate the members of the media that still care about accuracy, not to mention the planet, however few or otherwise silenced they may now be.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

One Good, Two Bad

Keeping our daily non-climate news bites at three, namely, one good story: After looking like the congressional agreement on Wall St. and financial reform was a case of premature congratulations, things look to be back on track: the House passed it, and the Senate is looking like it will.

Now for the ever-present bad news...The prospects for wildlife in the Gulf took a turn for the worse. Not completely unexpected really, but mournfully bad. And also not the only bad news there, but why belabor it.

And finally, while the House managed to pass the extension to unemployment benefits, the Senate--even with a last ditch effort that almost worked--did not, before leaving for vacation. Enjoy your weekend, bloodsuckers.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

So It Goes

"Writing was a spiritual exercise for my father, the only thing he really believed in. He wanted to get things right but never thought that his writing was going to have much effect on the course of things."
Mark Vonnegut

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“I have seen so much death and never understood before that so much of the terror of death is terror of dying without having given. Without even finding what one had to give.”
Michael Ventura
The Zoo Where You're Fed to God


For ten years, between 1984 and 1994, Jeremy Brett played Sherlock Holmes in a series of 41 stories for Granada TV in the UK. His performances earned him the reputation as the definitive screen Holmes for his time, perhaps for all time. Any starring role in a long-running television series tends to absorb the life of the actor, as well as define these actors for their careers, and beyond. Often as well, these roles change the personalities of the actors, sometimes thoroughly and permanently. Jeremy Brett exemplifies all of these possibilities, except perhaps for one. The role of Sherlock Holmes did not change his subsequent career, for he had none. A year after he completed the Holmes series, Jeremy Brett was dead.

In the Granada episodes, now available in restored condition on DVD, Brett created a more intense and mercurial Holmes, his sudden stillness exploding in quick motion and flamboyant gestures. Brett was a close student of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories and felt his interpretation was accurate, but it also reflected his own personality, as such long-running roles often do. But in his case, it's difficult to find the line between character and actor.

Biographical sketches as well as DVD commentaries and interviews emphasize how deeply Brett delved into the stories and the character, and how relentless were his efforts to use the TV medium and make the best possible films to serve them. It became his obsession.

In contrast to other Holmes incarnations on film which eventually invented new stories for the Holmes character (including the classic Basil Rathbone movies, and certainly the recent Robert Downey feature), the Granada series based its stories closely and exclusively on the original Conan Doyle stories. His first series of stories ended with Holmes apparent death, though popular demand would cause Conan Doyle to revive the character and write many more stories about him. Brett had just finished filming that death of Holmes episode when his own wife died of cancer.

Soon after, due to popular demand, the second Granada series was commissioned, and Brett's identification with Holmes grew even stronger. The qualities that he had already perceived as similar in Holmes and himself became overwhelming--especially that contrast of periods of fierce energy with periods of lassitude-- until Brett was forced to seek treatment for manic depression. (The symptoms apparently became pronounced during the "Return of" series, and he'd begun undergoing treatment just before starting the "Casebook of" final series.) But he kept up his concentration and his exhausting schedule, playing Holmes on screen and on stage. Yet the lithium he took for his illness began to change him physically, as became apparent on screen. The later episodes chronicle these physical changes--such as weight gain, especially in his face, gaunt and spare at first, then puffier, wan and haunting.

Though overwork and his overwrought obsession as well as effects of lithium and the manic depression itself probably contributed to physical deterioration, in the end it was his enlarged heart and scarred heart valves, basically from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, that led to his death in his early 60s.

I first saw Brett's portrayal of Holmes when the A&E cable network--back when it actually was an Arts and Entertainment network--ran the Granada series late at night (during the period it also ran the UK Lovejoy series.) I was lost in the wilderness of western PA then, and the Holmes series was an oasis. Brett's portrayal was riveting, and inspiring.

Now I'm somewhat obsessed with watching episodes on DVD, particularly the second, Return of Sherlock Holmes series. The clarity of the DVD--much better than the prints of cable--show Brett as even more of a revelation, as well as showcasing the visual splendor of the series. And I ponder the question of whether Brett's obsession was wholly tragic, or perhaps a little to be envied. In various ways, he gave his life to being Sherlock Holmes for millions of people, including me. He'd been a fairly successful stage, TV and film actor for years, but the chance to star in an iconic TV series comes to few. He made the most of it. He made the best of it, at least as his work. He undoubtedly sacrificed something, including probably years of his life.

On the other hand, in pouring himself into Holmes, he also made the best of his own personality, and eventually of his illness. We can speculate that identifying so completely with Holmes exaggerated these tendencies into a true illness, or the opposite, that he turned the illness into something incredibly creative.

In the end, it seems to me that his tragedy is not so bad as more ordinary tragedies, of lives unfulfilled. An excellent, iconic series of 41 televised stories--of intriguing and entertaining but hardly profound popular art-- may not be the greatest accomplishment, but it is a great one. Is it worth a life? I think so--that is: I think I'd take that bargain.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

On the Road to Change

President Obama had an eventful week, and a pretty good one politically. But two of the events--his handling of the Afghanistan command situation, and particularly the congressional agreement paving the way for final passage of a financial reform bill--prompted several pundits to step back and look at his accomplishments so far. I've highlighted a few that don't get much attention.

For example, Steve Benen in the Washington Monthly: "And in the larger context, this will add to an impressive list of historic accomplishments spanning President Obama's first 18 months in office, a list that will now include Wall Street reform, health care reform, student loan reform, economic recovery, Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanded civil rights protections, expanded stem-cell research, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, and the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, among other things. Taegan Goddard noted this morning, "Not since FDR has a president done so much to transform the country." That's not a hyperbolic observation in the slightest."

But the most impressive was Rachel Maddow ending her MSNBC show on Friday. I'm now going to quote it at length.

She began by describing the accomplishments of an unnamed President: "He signed a bill that gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants. He grew the size of the federal government and the budget, added a whole new cabinet level agency and added tens of thousands of government workers to the federal payroll. He tripled the deficit. He bailed out and expanded social security with a big fat tax increase. He raised corporate taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars. He raised taxes on gasoline. He, in fact, signed into law the largest tax increase in history. He supported federal handgun controls. He called for a world without nuclear weapons.

He was Ronald Reagan.

As a conservative saint, as the right-wing rock star, as king of the Republican prom in perpetuity, as a transformative figure for people who call themselves conservative, the facts of Ronald Reagan`s legislative record are awkward. Ronald Reagan`s record has in it a lot of things that would get him kicked out of today`s Republican Party, which is not to say that President Reagan was a secret liberal. He was not. What he was, was complex, but accomplished in his own way."

Rachel then turned to President Obama, took a step back to simply list many of his major accomplishments:

"It turns out that a lot of things that have happened in the less than two years of this administration are the biggest or first or most important in generations... Even before today`s historic Wall Street reform agreement, President Obama, of course, did what politicians have been trying to do for more than 60 years. He passed health reform, which, for the first time, establishes government responsibility for the health care of American citizens.

Consider also the stimulus bill. It didn`t just throw a lasso around our entire economy and yank and yank it back from the brink. It also pumped about $100 billion into the crumbling embarrassment of our national infrastructure and transportation system. It was the largest investment in infrastructure since Ike. For solving our country`s energy problems, something Obama has compared to man walking on the moon, it contained about $60 billion in spending and tax incentives for renewable and clean energy, also a historic investment.

It also included an unheralded but giant investment in science and tech, amping up the budgets at NASA, the National Science Foundation, and an experimental energy research agency that was created under President George W. Bush, but never funded until now.

President Obama also expanded state kids` health insurance to cover another four million kids. He signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act amending the 1964 civil rights act for equal pay for equal work.

He signed a nuclear arms deal with Russia that would reduce both countries` arsenals by a third. He created a new global nonproliferation initiative to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists.

He set forth an international way forward on that radical left-wing proposition of Ronald Reagan, a world without nuclear weapons. Then there are the legislative and policy achievements that don't just build on precedents, but set new ones.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act. It had languished in Congress for years. The Food and Drug Administration permitted for the first time to regulate tobacco. Better late than never, he dismantled the scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service, broke it into three parts so that the folks who collect money from oil leases aren`t the same ones regulating the industry. And now, it will actually investigate the industry that it was busy schtupping and doing drugs with during the last administration.

Obama fired two wartime commanding generals in little over a year. He overhauled the astonishing stupidity of the student loan system in which banks were being subsidized to give loans that were guaranteed by the government anyway, a license to print money. That was ended in the savings put toward actual aid to students.
He canceled a weapons program that was bloated, unnecessary and totally irrelevant to either of our current wars, the F-22. Why even mention the cancellation of a single weapons system? Because that never happens. Weapons systems never get canceled. The F-22 did, which is itself a miracle.

In each of these achievements and in the list of things he has yet to do - "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," closing Guantanamo - in each of these things, there is room for liberal disappointment. I sing a bittersweet lullaby to the lost public option when I go to sleep at night.

But presidential legacies are complex. Not even the Reagan administration's legacy is pure as the conservative-driven snow. But Taegan Goddard at "CQ Politics" was right today about nothing this big happening since FDR.

The list of legislative accomplishments of this president in half a term even before energy reform which he`s probably going to get to is, to quote the vice president, "a big freaking deal." Love this administration or hate it, this president is getting a lot done.

The last time any president did this much in office, booze was illegal. If you believe in policy, if you believe in government that addresses problems, cheers."