Sunday, December 28, 2014

Czeslaw Milosz and the Case of Brognart

Born in 1911, Milosz lived to his early 90s and his life covered the span of the 20th Century. He's a poet and writer who has never been not relevant, but given the direction of many events happening around the world, he remains essential reading in the 21st Century.

Much of what I like about Milosz, even when I'm not sure I agree with him on some point, is the way he thinks and follows through on specific issues. There's a clarity to his writing I don't often see, though I am at times left with many questions, but there is hunger in those questions, a need for more.

In his book, To Begin Where I Am, he writes about a young man named Gilbert Brognart, a Frenchman swept up by the events of WWII while vacationing in Poland with a friend at the outbreak of the war. Brognart was eighteen and had just finished technical school and was entering a mining college in the fall.

I'm not entirely sure why Milosz chose to write about Brognart. But Milosz had been a government official in Poland in the late forties and he either had something to do with Brognart's case or heard about it from others. The problem is that Brognart managed to avoid the German army as it invaded Poland but couldn't find a route of escape back to France. At one point, he crossed the border to Russia, realized that too was a mistake and then decided to try his luck in Lithuania. But, unknown to him, Lithuania had fallen under the control of Soviet Russia.

When the German Nazis came in 1941 with their own deadly intent, Brognart was pulled deeper into the Soviet system. Despite initially being neutral as far as France was concerned, the Soviets were mindlessly rounding up people and Brognart eventually ended up in indefinite detention and eventually prison. He became one of the millions who were lost in one way or another during the war for no crime or action the Soviets could ever justify. He was simply a random person who wasn't vouched for. But detention camps and prisons in Russia were never good for one's health and Brognart died in prison in 1951.

Brognart was one of those people who write on the walls of his cell. He said who he was, where he was from, and asked that people carry the message however possible back to France. Eventually, word got through and machinery began to move. But it moved slowly and years passed. From 1939 on, he was trapped by the machinery of war and the mindlessness of a rigid system.

After Brognart's death, Milosz eventually went to the man's hometown in France. There's a kind of 19th century sensibility to this, the fact that Milosz would go to such trouble. Milosz talks about this aspect of himself in other places. I've seen this aspect, this need to follow a story to its end. I knew a man once named Gilbert King. He was largely 20th Century in his sensibility but his roots were very much in the 19th century (curious that Brognart and King had the same first name; being someone I knew, I'll use the name Gilbert.)

Born in 1895, Gilbert was the child of an American banker and an American missionary who lived in China. I believe Gilbert was still somewhat religious to the end of his days. But his life took many odd turns, and despite being born to modest wealth, and having made two modest fortunes for himself, he was poor at the end of his life. His adopted children would have gladly helped him out, but in most years he said no to their help, though he visited them more often as he aged. In his early 90s, I lost touch with him and was reluctant to inquire. Gilbert was not a poet like Milosz but he had a similar philosophical temperament and although he was a businessman in China in the first part of his adult life (primarily in Peking — yes, old spelling, to maintain the flavor), he volunteered to travel extensively, sometimes with his wife and sometimes alone to various places in Asia on related banking business. But his interest was talking to Europeans to some degree while he had a greater interest in seeking out local people from Hong Kong to Tokyo and talking about who they were and what they believed. He had a way of returning to old conversations and continuing them, and asking for more explanation of points he had thought about. He also wanted to know how things turned out. And he was a good storyteller (he reminded me a little of Joseph Conrad's Marlowe, though he had the skill to talk to just about anybody with ease. It never took him long to get a person's story.

His habit of revisiting things included a trip to China in the late 1970s when he was in his early 80s. He was still fluent in Chinese and while visiting places he knew, people were intrigued by this elderly American who seemed to know more than the average tourist. They did double takes when they realized how fluent he was.

This business of revisiting things is common in Milosz's work. It's a 19th Century sensibility to some extent, when magazines and books had a slower pace. I'm not sure what Milosz's position was on religion, maybe agnostic like myself, but not particularly cynical about it. Revisiting things, looking deeper into an issue, could also be called the peeling back of further layers, something that Samuel Beckett was good at, particularly in his books. One doesn't see much peeling back on TV, the Internet, or in newspapers these days. One is even embarrassed by reporters who seem to give some background and it's largely irrelevant, hardly to the point. What we often get these days, not always just from the right, is propaganda, or sometimes just the drill sergeant screaming in our faces (Fox News engages in both.)

Peeling back, seeing our flaws, our mistakes is the missing ingredient in American culture in this era, particularly on the right, but no group is exempt. When we jump from abbreviated stories to the even the more ridiculous twitter blurbs — that is, from farce to farce in terms of commentary — what do we learn?

 I still think the United States is the one essential country. Why? Because there is no other. These days, particularly after the fiasco of the George W. years, that concept is challenged. I know that. The right wingers have lost their way and the politicians and operators simply line up for their share of the booty. It's a shame because many people were at one time able to look a little deeper, to stop and reconsider, to recognize their neighbors as not all that different from themselves, to recognize that we often have a similar fate when those who fail us lead us down a mistaken road.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hey Google: We Need Balanced News

The story on Cuba is being covered by just about every news outlet in the United States. But why is it that Fox News and The Wall Street Journal are so often the first in line at the top of the page of Google News? If I want a link to Fox News or the Journal, I'll create my own. Google News needs to stop genuflecting to Murdoch's news empire so much. There are other news outlets and many of them write better stories and more informative stories. Give us more variety on that first look at a international or national story.

Anyway, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal are vastly overrated (although in the case of The Wall Street Journal, it's been sliding backwards only since its takeover).

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Missouri May Tighten Rules on the Use of Deadly Force

What gets lost in the news, particularly on the talk shows on the right, is the need to make sure our laws are enforced fairly while ensuring equal protection under the law. No group should receive special privilege, though of course, privilege is sometimes what we see, particularly if someone who is accused of a crime also happens to be rich or receives consideration other groups don't receive.

But we also don't want to see people be treated more harshly because those who enforce the law lose sight of their official obligations. Rightly or wrongly, nearly everyone has biases. But it is part of our law that our biases cannot become part of our official duties.

The reality is that the enforcement of laws also require laws and training in the exercise of enforcing the law. I'm glad to see that the Attorney General of Missouri has decided that the laws may need to be tightened in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown (story from NBC News):
Missouri's attorney general called Tuesday night for a change in state law to make it tougher for law enforcement officers to justify the use of deadly force, a week and a half after a grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
I'm glad to see NBC News follow up on the broader Michael Brown story. We have a case in Ferguson of a predominately black community policed by a police department that is predominately white. That in itself is not the problem. The problem is a pattern of policing by centurion, confrontational methods than by the more effective method of community policing. The confrontational attitude presented to protestors on several occasions spoke volumes of the leadership and the general attitude of Furgeson police department. There was also the issue of city officials, the prosecutor's office and other resisting a close investigation of what exactly happened to Michael Brown and why an unarmed young black man was shot 12 times. That nine witnesses said Michael Brown had raised up his hands in surrender raises the question why the witnesses were ignored and what exactly it was that the officer was supposed to have seen or experienced. Transparency was not delivered to the members of the community.

It is also impossible not to think of the example of the French novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The hero is sent to the galleys for thirty years of hard labor for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. Generations of readers have been moved by the harshness of the sentence given to Jean Valjean and his attempts to redeem himself.  We learn that Michael Brown may have stolen a box of cigars. If Brown was guilty, as his detractors claim, no opportunity for redemption was offered him. The last I heard, Americans don't execute people for misdemeanors, let alone execute them without trial.

The officer claimed he felt threatened by Mr. Brown but many questions remain.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

It's Time for Congress to Reengage

I'm a Democrat but I'm a strong believer that our country needs two parties. Although I theoretically favor third parties, the truth is that even third parties at the end of the day need to understand how to put together a coalition of votes. It's obvious that Tea Party Republicans are frankly behaving like a third party, though for reasons not well understood, they are dominating the Republican Party. It seems a combination of wealthy right wing Republicans and very conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and news organization like Fox News give cover to Tea Republicans.

It's been apparent for some time that a growing number of rational Republicans recognize that they have a problem and that problem is that Tea Party Republicans cannot govern, largely because of their unwillingness a vast majority of the time to work with Democrats.

In Politico Magazine, Steve LaTourette has an article arguing that the Republican Party needs to get back to governing:
The governing wing of the Republican Party understands that compromise is not the root of all evil in Washington—indeed, it is the essential ingredient in moving forward any set of conservative policies like those that Reagan fought for.
While the grifters hold a great deal of sway over the Republican Party for now, they are not the majority—not by a long shot. As with any good Ponzi scheme, there are relatively few grifters; the challenge is exposing their scam.

All politicians argue their position. All politicians in our country take money from campaign donors. But at the end of the day, representatives in Congress need to get down to business and take the job of government seriously. For the past four years, Tea Party Republicans have shown they cannot do that.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

How to Win on Progressive Causes

Maybe this post should have been called how not to win on progressive causes. I'm always astonished at people who lose sight of what they're trying to accomplish by pursuing side arguments they poorly understand while their style of argument undermines even the side issue.

Maha at Mahablog has written extensively and wisely on the subject. Here's one of Maha's careful but blunt comments that comes right to the point as about clearly as one can:
Years ago I formulated a basic rule for successful demonstrating that I call the “Bigger Asshole” rule. The job of public protesters is not to change the minds of the powerful people they are opposing, but to gain public sympathy for their cause. Especially in politics, the powerful won’t change until they are compelled to do so by a sufficient critical mass of public opinion saying they must.

Maha elaborates further in the comment section of her post:
This is the whole point of the Bigger Asshole rule. You are not trying to change the minds of people you directly oppose. You are trying to win everybody else to sympathize with you more than with the people you oppose. Public support and sympathy give you some leverage to actually change things. Not having it means you are whistling in the wind.

Years ago, I talked about a related issue concerning what I called persuadables, the small but important percentage of people who are actually willing to listen. But Maha's point is a larger one involving a much larger group. One way to look at it is that when you argue with an opponent, you need to remember who the real audience is: the people who are looking over your shoulder and are listening in. How you conduct yourself is as important as what you say (as an example, you don't put up with bullying, but you work hard to make sure you don't become a bully yourself).

Monday, July 14, 2014

Reminder from the George W. Era

In 2004, near the end of George W. Bush's first tern, my wife and I were among several dozen people being honored for volunteer work for a government agency that has major environmental responsibilities in the local community. It was more a social occasion, but like a number of other volunteers, we were receiving our ten year pins.

There had been concern that some staff changes had been made and that one of our favorite people was more or less being kicked upstairs and sideways into a research program that kept him away from environmental issues. Weirdly, his replacement spent twenty minutes "honoring" Ronald Reagan, who had passed away a couple of weeks earlier. This was the year the Bush Administration spent an entire month honoring the former president. I can't recall anything like this in my lifetime. The period of mourning was usually a week or less when a former president died.

It didn't take long to figure out what was going on. We already knew that the longer than usual "mourning" was being cynically used by Bush to distract from his many problems. It quickly became clear that our new manager was a Bush person and she was thoroughly pleased to be spending twenty minutes talking about Reagan. Many in the audience, including myself, found ourselves looking at one another.

It was clear the new manager was a political appointee and not someone who had earned her way up through management. To this day, I'm not sure how many people realize many of these low level appointees from the George W. Bush years are still in positions that they might not have earned otherwise. In addition, it is highly probable that some of these appointees were illegal. The early 2000s were a strange era. We are in serious danger of that era returning if voters don't start paying closer attention to the radical right.

Why do I mention this? Because many politicians and officials on the right are bending and sometimes breaking the law to get their way. Even the Supreme Court, with Scalia apparently leading the way, is coming up with rationales that haven't been seen in almost a century.

Monday, June 23, 2014

46 Countries Are More Than 60% Renewable

Momentum for renewable energy is growing. Solar and wind are now competitive with fossil fuels. And the rate of innovation for solar cells, storage systems, more efficient wind turbines and other cost saving measures in alternative energy systems is expected to increase for the next few years, dropping prices even further. Around the world, many countries take global warming seriously. And many countries are discovering that renewable energy has a longterm future while fossil fuels are simply getting harder and more expensive to produce and bring to market.

On a site called Lenz Blog is a list of 46 countries that are now more than 60% renewable. (Thanks to  Cleantechnica for the link).

It's a shame that the U.S. has so much opposition to alternative energy coming from the fossil fuel industries. Global warming has been seriously on the radar for 25 years. That's 25 years that fossil fuel companies could have spent making the transition to a diverse energy portfolio. Luckily, there's still time to diversify. The sooner fossil fuel companies start diversifying, the easier the transition to alternative energy will be. And the less risk we will pose to our planet from excessive fossil fuel emissions.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Is Cheney Running for President in 2016?

My apologies to anyone with a heart condition who reads the title of today's post. Cheney, who was less than honest with the American people in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003…. and yes, 2014, has never acknowledged the blunders made during the George W. Bush presidency, nor has he acknowledged the many inaccurate statements he made and continues to make.

Please see:

Look, I'm not a pacifist but war is not an option that should be treated as lightly as Rumsfeld, Cheney, Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Bill Kristol did in 2003. I can say they treated the war in Iraq with less than due diligence for the simple reason that in March 2002, they stopped trying to get Osama bin Laden. In fact, they simply abandoned any coherent policy in Afghanistan. Their attitude, which I'm admittedly surmising since they never clearly explained themselves, seemed to be: Okay, never mind that the bullets are still flying, and that we didn't catch bin Laden and that Afghanistan is a mess: we won and we're moving on to the next war.

Once the new war started, what was supposed to happen at that point? We know Rumsfeld had no plan after taking the city of Baghdad, but let's say the Iraqis had miraculously greeted Americans as liberators and miraculously ended the animosity among Iraqi factions and had actually created a democratic government in two months. What was supposed to happen next? Does anyone know? Were we headed to Iran? Syria? Pakistan? Where were we headed next? That's a question that neither Cheney or Rumsfeld have the nerve to answer. Why? Because we would quickly begin to understand how flawed the thinking in the Republican Party has become.

Smart people learn from their mistakes. Even smart conservatives. Winston Churchill wasn't a conservative purist but he was certainly very fond of colonialism and the manner of the British Empire and all its pomp and ceremony. He made a number of mistakes in during World War I. But he learned from them and was instrumental in holding off the Germans long enough for the Germans to change their target to Russia. He also gave the United States enough time to make an enormous difference in the outcome of the war.

So, is Cheney running for president in 2013? I hope not. There's absolutely no sign that he has learned anything.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

West Virginia Governor Says: It's Your Decision

In the age of global warming and rising fossil fuel production costs, the paralysis of pragmatism among many right wing Republican politicians is becoming more evident. For Republicans, it's the age of do-nothingism.

But Democrats also need to make sure their politicians don't go down that road. Democratic Gov. Earl Tomblin says to West Virginians that 'it's your decision' whether to drink the water that was recently contaminated by a chemical spell. I'm sure many Americans have noticed many chemical spills, refinery accidents, oil spells and exploding fertilizer plants have occurred lately across the nation.

With all due respect, I disagree with the oddly lax attitude of the governor (he sure sounds like a Republican to me). Making sure the water supply is healthy and communities are livable should be a major goal of every state. But making sure the United States has a responsible energy and global warming plan going forward for the coming decades should be the highest priority of our nation.

It's a fact of life that we now have two critical issues facing us. No one in the world is more impacted by the two critical issues than the United States. We are, first of all, the world's biggest energy user per capita. So the need for new forms of energy is crucial. If we wish to remain economically healthy, we need over the next 10 to 25 years to turn to other forms of energy in a major way.

We are also one of the largest countries in the world. It would be an illusion to think that global warming will not affect us. We have three large climate change issues and a not so small issue. The not so small issue is in Alaska where the permafrost in the north is melting and homes and communities are literally sinking into the ground.

A big second issue is that the American West is having repeated bouts of drought, and the computer models expect more of them. Keep in mind that in places like California, the weather tends to be feast and famine. In the years that California gets rain, it gets far more than it wants. This may happen more often in other areas of the country.

Actually, the Gulf states and the Eastern seaboard at times will also have an increased number of the largest hurricanes, but possibly not more hurricanes in general (the science of our new changing climate isn't always going to be able to read exactly the changes and timing of what will come; but the energy pouring into the Earth's various climates is already having measurable consequences; and one of the major consequences is the way warm water is moving north in the late summer — warm water fuels hurricanes).

The final issue involves our coastlines. One part of the issue is already here: the rising seas are sending a great deal more water inland when big hurricanes and even thunder storms drive water inland. But the seas will continue rising and over the next few decades we will lose a certain percentage of our coastal lands. No one can precisely predict what will happen and when for a number of reasons; the biggest wild card is when the production of fossil fuels will begin to significantly drop.

The reality is the age of light sweet crude is over. We can no longer produce the best quality oil cheaply. Cheap oil is gone and is not returning. One call also see growing stresses in the refinery, fossil producing, and chemical sectors. And keep in mind that fossil producers have known about climate change for at least two decades. Most of them made a political choice to ignore the science. The smartest thing many of these companies should have done was take their enormous wealth and diversify. Some did, but most chose not to (curiously, there is still time to diversify but the window is on the edge of closing).

We have many politicians in the United States, particularly on the Republican side, who are currently in the back pockets of fossil fuel producers. Many of these producers interested in politics have been warned for years. Or rather decades. They have largely chosen not to listen. They refuse the evidence of global warming. And they refuse the evidence of the older issue: that we need new sources of energy. The first call for diversifying into other forms of energy, made purely on economic grounds, came in the 1970s. Here's something many people don't know: many of those calls came from those in the fossil industries, particularly those who had been in the business for 20-40 years.

In the end, maybe Gov. Tomblin is right, it's your decision. It's the decision of every American. Except the decision involves more than West Virginia. Do we push harder to begin the changes we need (there are exciting changes for cheaper sources of energy happening for those who are observant), or do we let the United States slip into irrelevance? I can virtually guarantee other nations will push for the new forms of energy that are falling rapidly in prices while we let fossil producers fantasize about dreams that have no relevance during the growing crisis we are facing. American genius is still alive. But the ground has shifted. The future no longer lies in fossil fuels that now cost four more times than what they cost just in the early 21st Century.