In pursuit of American stormscapes

October 21, 2017

These amazing time-lapse videos were created last spring by Mike Olbinski, who chases storms each spring on the Great Plains, and has a second job as a wedding photographer in Phoenix. Arizona.   I came across his work on a National Geographic web site.

Background on the North Korean crisis

October 20, 2017

The important things to remember about North Korea are:

  • North Korea for nearly 70 years has been under a totalitarian government which has indoctrinated its people with absolute loyalty and obedience.
  • Its ruling ideology—called Juche—is based on the principles of national independence, economic self-sufficiency, cultural purity and glorification of leaders.
  • Despite loss of an estimated 20 percent of its population during the Korean Conflict, and starvation in later eras, the leaders have never given in to threats.
  • Based on past actions of the U.S. government toward Iraq, Libya and Iran, North Korean leaders have good reason to think that giving up nuclear weapons would be suicidal.

The Hermit Kingdom

Korea at the dawn of the 20th century had little relation with the outside world, except for Christian missionaries.  Japan made it a protectorate in 1905 and annexed it in 1910.  The Korean language and culture were suppressed, and Korea was exploited for the benefit of the Japanese Empire.

Kim Il-sung

Kim Il-sung was born in 1912 to Presbyterian parents.  His name, which is not his birth name, means “Kim became the sun.”  His birthday is a national holiday called “day of the sun.”

The Kim family fled the repressive Japanese regime and settled in Manchuria in 1920.  Young Kim supposedly founded something called the Down-With-Imperialism Union, dedicated to liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, in 1926, at age 14.

He joined the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s and led a guerrilla band that fought the Japanese in Manchuria.  Ultimately defeated, he fled into the Soviet Union, where he became an officer of the Red Army.

As World War Two drew to a close, the USSR declared war on Japan, overran Manchuria and occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel, with Kim as head of the North Korean Communist Party.   US forces occupied the southern party

Supposedly this was a temporary measure until Korea was unified, but an independent Republic of Korea was declared in the south in May, 1948, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with Kim as the head, in August of that year.

In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and nearly conquered the whole Korean peninsula before being driven back.  Max Hastings, a British military historian, said there had been considerable pro-Communist sentiment in South Korea, which might have led to a guerrilla movement as in South Vietnam.   But the brutality and mass executions carried on by North Korean troops soon changed their minds.

U.S. intervention turned the tide, and then Chinese intervention created a stalemate.  American air forces bombed North Korea until there were no targets left, and then they bombed the river dams, flooding the country’s sparse farmland.   General Curtis LeMay estimated that 20 percent of the North Korean population were killed.

The two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1953, in which the division of the country was frozen along existing battle lines.  Part of the armistice agreement was that neither sides would increase the size of its force or introduce new weapons.  That agreement was broken in 1958 when the U.S. brought nuclear weapons into South Korea.

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The trouble with democracy

October 18, 2017

The trouble with democracy is that a majority of the people can be misled as to what is in their best interests.

The trouble with the alternatives to democracy is that a ruling minority usually understands all too well what is in their best interests.

Orwell, Trump and the definition of fascism

October 17, 2017

Back in 1944, George Orwell, my literary hero, worried about the misuse of language, including misuse of the word “fascism”.

As used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.  In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print.  I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

George Orwell

Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning.  To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic.

Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others.

Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it.  By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.

Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.  That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

Source: George Orwell: What is Fascism? (1944)

I worry about the misuse of language, too.  During the 2016 election campaign, I fretted about calling Donald Trump a fascist.

This was because Trump’s movement lacked key elements of Mussolini’s fascism—a totalitarian ideology, a private militia, a parallel governing structure outside the official governmental chain of command.

My fear was that a real fascist movement will come along, perhaps something like the old Ku Klux Klan, and the word “fascist” will have lost its sting.

On the other hand, Donald Trump is certainly cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working class, as well as being a bully, and these things shouldn’t be accepted as normal.

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The anti-democracy movement in America

October 16, 2017

Democracy means rule of the people. The Gilens-Page study of 1779 legislative initiatives in 1981-2002 showed that chances of success were strongly correlated with the desires of the affluent, but not at all with average citizens.

For example, polls show z majority of Americans want Wall Street banks to be brought under control, according to Martin Gillens, a co-author of the city.  They want a higher minimum wage, better unemployment benefits and more spending on education.  On the other hand, they are less supportive of abortion rights and gay marriage than the economic elite.   But the political system follows the economic elite, not them.

In other words, the United States is a democracy in that we have freedom of speech and contested elections, but in terms of outcomes, we are an oligarchy, ruled by the rich.

This is not an accident, a matter of how things happen to play out. It is the result of a deliberate campaign that has been going on for decades.   It is not something that began with Donald Trump and it will not end when he is out of office.

The anti-democratic movement has three elements:
• Use the power of money to dominate political discourse.
• Use the power of money to dominate politics and government
• Restrict the right to vote and other democratic rights..

I recently read a good book, DARING DEMOCRACY by Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, and a young friend, Adam Eichen, that ties all this together.

I do have a few reservations about it, particularly the fact that they let Democrats off too nightly, which I’ll get to at the end.  But I’ll first summarize their main contentions.

∞∞∞

The famous Powell Memo—written in1971 by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—called on U.S. business to mobilize to counteract anti-business sentiment in the news media and the educational system.

Right-wing billionaires responded by funding the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks.

They of course have a perfect right to present their point of view.  The problem was that these organizations are dedicated to political warfare, and get to be treated as equivalent to groups who, whatever their unconscious biases, are serious scholars and researchers..

When I was a newspaper reporter, and had to write about something I didn’t know much about, the first thing I’d do was phone experts on various sides of the issue.

When I phoned the Brookings Institution, the person I’d reach would give me a carefully worded opinion, quoting sources and taking into account arguments on both sides.

When I phoned the Heritage Foundation, I’d talk to some young guy who had talking points down pat, but couldn’t back them up. Yet by the rules of my game, I had to treat them as equal authorities.

The Cato Institute, funded by the Koch brothers, consisted of sincere libertarians, who sometimes came down on the side of peace and civil liberties. But when their views closed with corporate interests, the Koch brothers purged the staff.

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The joys of retirement

October 14, 2017

Academic freedom then and now

October 12, 2017

From a young age, I’ve believed in American ideals of freedom and democracy, as I understood them.   But my political thinking crystallized when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-1956 and took part in controversies about academic freedom then.

Academic freedom, as I conceives it then and still do, is the freedom of college faculty to engage in scholarship free from outside pressure, and the freedom of students to discuss and debate issues without restriction.

I regard the defense of freedom of expression as a defining principle of liberalism.  Back then most American leftists were liberals.   Sadly this is no longer true.

A plaque on Bascom Hall, on a high hill in the center of the liberal arts part of the campus, contained an excerpt from the Board of Regents declaration of 1894, when they resisted pressure from the state legislature to fire a professor for his outspoken pro-labor opinions.

The regents’ reply was that scholarship required free inquiry and was incompatible with censorship of opinion.

The academic freedom issues on the UW campus in the early 1950s were: (1) Should a known Communist, or a member of a group on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations, be automatically barred from employment on the UW faculty, and (2) Should Communists or groups on the Attorney-General’s list be eligible to participate in students activities?

In the year 1952, when I enrolled as a freshman, Joseph Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union, the Korean Conflict was still waging and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was at the height of his influence.   McCarthy’s power was based on his charges, which later proved baseless, of Communist infiltration of government and other American institutions.   Interestingly, he represented Wisconsin, but never had anything to say about the University of Wisconsin.

Fear of Communists had a real basis.  It was not just the “intolerance of the intolerant” argument—that enemies of democracy were not entitled to democratic freedoms.

Communist parties in those days were subservient to Stalin.   In the 1930s, Communist parties all supported the idea of a Popular Front of radicals, liberals and conservatives against Hitler.   Then, after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1940, they all opposed the British “imperialist” war.

After the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941, they became anti-fascist again.   British and American Communists provided the Soviet Union with critical information about the U.S. atomic bomb.

Things are different now, but that’s how they were then.

Nevertheless, I and my friends took the extreme liberal position—the extreme libertarian position—that people should be judged on their individual actions, and not on group identity.

That wasn’t just a matter of justice.   If Communists were outlawed, or denied employment, for being Communists, then they wouldn’t identify themselves as Communists.    The only way to root them out would be to create an inquisition to determine people’s secret beliefs.   The obvious target for this inquisition would be those of us who are pro-labor, anti-racist and pro-civil liberties.

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Reasons why freedom of speech is important

October 11, 2017

A good friend of mine mailed me clippings about free speech controversies on college campuses, and asked me whether I think freedom of speech is an absolute right.

Nothing is absolute.   Even fundamental freedoms are subject to reasonable and limited restrictions that are consistent with their purpose.   These includes laws about (1) libel and slander, (2) incitement to riot, (3) threats and intimidation, (4) harassment, (5) public obscenity, (6) public nuisances and probably other things I didn’t think of.

But I can’t think of a situation in which I would forbid somebody to peaceably express their opinion based on the nature of that opinion.

And if you could make me admit to an exception, I would define that exception as narrowly as possible and not use it as a precedent.

What is the point of freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is an important individual right.   Being able to speak your mind without fear is necessary for human flourishing.   Nobody can be happy if they have to conceal their opinions out of fear.

Freedom of speech is a our social contract.   It provides a way in which people of radically different opinions can live together without violence.    I may think you not only wrong but wicked, and you may think the same of me.   But it is better for both of us, and for those around us, if we agree to settle our differences with facts and ideas, not guns and clubs.

Freedom of speech is necessary for self-government.   Citizens of a free country have a right to hear all sides of public questions.   Your choice is not completely free if someone has the power to limit what facts and opinions you are allowed to hear.

Freedom of speech is most valuable to the least powerful.   The rich and powerful in any framework will be able to make their views known.   Reformers, dissidents and the poor and marginalized are the ones most in need of the right of free speech, and that is true even if they have less of it than the powerful.

And, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, free speech is more than just a good idea – it’s the law.

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Victim of neo-Nazi beating charged with assault

October 11, 2017

Zach Roberts, who took the photo above, and Greg Palast reported for Truthout:

African-American school teacher DeAndre Harris, victim of a beating by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August [shown above], has been charged with assaulting the white supremacists who beat him with boards, iron rods, and brass knuckles.

That is correct.  Harris, who was shown being beaten close to death in photos released by Truthout and carried worldwide, has now been charged with the same crime as his attackers: “unlawful wounding.”

Several of Harris’ attackers remain on the run — and local and federal officials show little interest in going after them. Yet, the Charlottesville Police Department issued a warrant to arrest Harris on October 9.

Harris is accused of taking a swing at a neo-Nazi who tried to stab a friend of Harris with the staff of a flag pole holding a Confederate flag. On the advice of his lawyer, Harris was unable to be reached for comment.

Source: Truthout.

Harris suffered broken bones and had to have 18 staples put in his head, according to Truthout.

The right to self-defense is a basic human right—maybe the most basic of all human rights.   Some Southern states have “stand your ground” laws affirming the right to defend yourself with deadly force.   Surely no supporter of these laws would deny the right to defend oneself with your fists.

Imagine the reaction to the above photo if the man on the ground was white and his attackers were black.

LINK

Charlottesville Victim of Neo-Nazi Beating Charged With Assault by Greg Palast and Zach Roberts for Truthout.

The black and Hispanic top 1 percent

October 6, 2017

The disparity in wealth between black and Hispanic Americans on the one hand and non-Hispanic whites is striking.    The disparities in wealth within each racial group also are striking.

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The top 1 percent in Russia

October 6, 2017

I’ve posted many charts about the growing concentration of income and wealth in the United States in the hands of a tiny elite.   Here is a chart illustrating inequality in Russia.

You should take note about what this chart shows and doesn’t show.  The ruling elite in the old Soviet Union didn’t have large incomes, and they didn’t live like American millionaires and billionaires, but they did have special privileges, much like military officers compared to the rank and file or like American corporate executives with huge expense accounts.    They had special stories, special medical care, special schools for their children, etc.

Also, the chart indicates that relative equality isn’t everything.   I don’t think many Americans would have wanted to trade places with the average person in the old Soviet Union.

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Are we still getting smarter? Maybe not

October 3, 2017

Average I.Q. test scores rose decade by decade in most countries throughout the 20th century.   But now, in a few countries, the trend may be going into reverse.

By the standards of today, the average person in the late 19th century would be been on the verge of mental retardation.  By the standards of that era, the average person of today is on the verge of being highly gifted.

This is called the “Flynn effect,” for James R. Flynn, who discovered it.    He doesn’t believe that people today are biologically superior to people of an earlier era, even though they are better nourished and get better medical care.

He believes it is because people today are educated to reason abstractly and hypothetically, which is what I.Q. tests measure.   People in the earlier era weren’t stupid; they just focused on particular things and personal experience.

Higher I.Q., in other words, fits you to function in a civilization based on abstract reasoning.

Now there is some evidence of a “reverse Flynn effect”—I.Q. leveling off or declining in some countries.   This is based on tests of large numbers of British school children age 11-12 and 13-14 in selected years, of military conscripts in Denmark, Norway and Finland, of students in Estonia, of adults in France and the Netherlands.

It is hard for me to think of any reason why this would be so in those countries that would not apply in greater measure to the United States.

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′Deep Space Gateway′ planned by Russia and US

October 2, 2017

Click to enlarage.  Source: Popular Mechanics

Despite geopolitical conflicts, the United States and the Russian Federation are still working together on  space exploration, as this news item indicates.

Work on a joint US-Russia space station orbiting the Moon is to begin in the mid 2020s. The base is intended to serve as a launching point for manned missions to Mars.Deep Space Gateway (NASA)

The station would be serviced by craft such as the Orion space vessel.

The US and Russia on Wednesday [Sept. 27] announced plans to cooperatively build the first lunar space station.

Roscosmos and NASA, Russia and America’s space agencies, said they had signed a cooperation agreement at an astronautical congress in Adelaide.

The agreement brings Russia onboard to the Deep Space Gateway project announced by NASA earlier this year, which aims to send humans to Mars via a lunar station.

The proposed station would serve as a base for lunar exploration for humans and robots, and as a stopover for spacecraft. 

While the Deep Space Gateway is still in concept formulation, NASA is pleased to see growing international interest in moving into cislunar space (between Earth and the Moon) as the next step for advancing human space exploration,” said Robert Lightfoot, acting administrator at NASA headquarters in Washington.  [snip]

Roscosmos and NASA have already agreed on standards for a docking unit of the future station,” the Russian space agency said.

“Taking into account the country’s extensive experience in developing docking units, the station’s future elements — as well as standards for life-support systems — will be created using Russian designs.”

Source: DW

The International Space Station is a joint project of the USA and Russia, and many of the spacecraft visits to the ISS are launched from the Russian-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

I hope this new project bears fruit.  It shows that the United States and the Russian Federation have more to gain through cooperation than ramping up a new Cold War.

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The quest for perfection

September 30, 2017

Source: Incidental Comics.

The South as a culture of honor

September 29, 2017

I’ve been reading and thinking about the differences among American regional cultures, and especially the difference between the culture or cultures of the South and the culture of the New England Yankees.

I believe that one reason for the clash is that the South is predominantly a culture of honor and the Yankee culture is predominantly a culture of virtue.

David Blight

The other day my e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a link to the text of a lecture by David Blight, a history professor at Yale, that is an excellent discussion of this.   I link to it today.

A culture of honor teaches you to behave in a way that people are forced to respect you.   A culture of virtue teaches you to follow moral rules no matter what people think.

These are not polar opposites.  An honorable person and a virtuous person will do the same things most of the time.   But a person of honor will not tolerate an insult or a slight that a person of virtue might shrug off.   A person of honor will usually put loyalty to kindred over loyalty to principle.

When I write of the culture of the South, I mean specifically the white people of the South.  But I think the African-American culture is, in its own way, also a culture of honor.

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Bernie Sanders’ baby steps toward peace

September 27, 2017

On foreign policy, Democrats in Congress fall into two broad categories.   There is a small group that is anti-war under Republican administrations and pro-war under Democratic administrations.   There is a larger group that is consistently bipartisan and pro-war.

Bernie Sanders was relatively silent on foreign policy during the 2016 election campaign.   He was less militaristic than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but did not question the fundamental assumptions behind U.S. global military intervention.

Recently he made a foreign policy speech and gave an interview to The Intercept criticizing some bad aspects of American foreign policy.

Most importantly, he questioned the long-standing U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, which goes back to Henry Kissinger and the Nixon and Ford administrations.   Kissinger made a deal in which the U.S. would support and protect Saudi Arabia militarily in return for the Saudis assuring the U.S. of an oil supply and recycling its oil profits into purchases of arms made by U.S. companies.

This long-standing policy continues in the form of U.S. support for the Saudi government’s struggle with its rival, Iran, to be the dominant power in the Middle East.

Sanders said he does not regard Saudi Arabia as an ally—in contrast to President Trump, whose praise for Saudi Arabia contrasts with his hostility toward European democratic allies.

He correctly pointed out that the Saudis support jihadist terrorists and the radical jihadist ideology and he opposed U.S. support for the murderous Saudi attack on Yemen.

In contrast, Sanders supports the agreement with negotiated by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, in which Iran agreed to stop its uranium enrichment program  in return for listing of international sanctions.

Mostly, though, Sanders criticized Trump administration policies mainly on procedural grounds, much like Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s criticism of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.   The criticism is less of what is being done as the way it is being done.

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Can Trump be removed via the 25th Amendment?

September 26, 2017

The Constitution provides another way besides impeachment to get rid of a sitting President.   This is a determination by the Cabinet and Congress under the 25th Amendment that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.

I wrote a number of times during the election campaign that I do not think Donald Trump is intellectually, temperamentally or morally fit to be President of the United States.

His behavior is growing more erratic by the day.   Could this be this grounds for removing him, as the officers of the Caine removed Captain Queeg in the novel and movie The Caine Mutiny?

The process allows a President to declare himself unable to discharge his office and to delegate his power to his Vice President.   It also allows the Vice President, with the support of the Cabinet, to declare the President unable to serve.

I think the kind of situation they had in mind was President Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955 and his stroke in 1957.

Normally the President would resume the duties of his office when he declared himself able to do so.

But the Vice President and Cabinet could ask Congress to overrule him.

Congress would have 21 days to bar the President from resuming his powers.

This would require a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote a superb article on the subject—The Madness of Donald Trump.

It covered both how deranged President Trump seems to be now and the legal obstacles to applying the 25th Amendment to overthrow him.

In fact, the procedure specifically can’t be about politics.  John Feerick, a Fordham law professor who helped work on the original bill with senators such as Indiana’s Birch Bayh and authored a book titled The 25th Amendment, goes out of his way to point out the many things that do not qualify as “inability” under this law.  The list reads like Trump’s résumé.

The debates in Congress about the amendment, Feerick writes, make clear that “inability” does not cover “policy and political differences, unpopularity, poor judgment, incompetence, laziness or impeachable conduct.”  When asked about the possibility of invoking the amendment today, Feerick is wary.  “It’s a very high bar that has to be satisfied,” he says. “You’re dealing with a president elected for four years.”


Source: Matt Taibbi  – Rolling Stone

Even if deemed unable to serve, Trump would still be President.   No doubt he would have many choice words about how Vice-President Mike Pence administered the office.

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Trump was once very astute: What happened?

September 26, 2017

The young Donald Trump, whatever you think of his ethics, was an astute operator.   He had the benefit of his father’s millions and political connections, but he used them effectively and became an important operator in the New York City real estate market.   When he chose, he was capable of great charm and persuasiveness.

He was able to hold his own when he worked with organized crime figures and corrupt politicians.   Whatever you think of his ethics, he knew what he was doing.

He appeared from time to time as a guest on TV talk shows, on which he expressed himself intelligibly, often in complete grammatical sentences.

That Donald Trump was very different from the Donald Trump of today—very different in terms of intelligence, I mean, not different morally.

He won election as President by being able to articulate the grievances of a segment of the American public who felt themselves ignored, but since he took office, his administration has gone through a continuing series of crises, almost all of them of his own making.

His staff worry about what he is going to say overnight on his Twitter account.   He seems more interested in feuding with journalists and celebrities than in advancing a program.

I have a theory as to why this might be so, which I can’t prove and which you probably will find far-fetched.

My theory is that a person whose aim in  life is to gratify their desires and appetites—for pleasure, for sex, for luxury, for acclaim, for taking revenge—and who has no purpose beyond that will lose the ability to think about anything else..

The end point is something like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings stories or the hungry ghosts of Buddhist cosmology—a creature in which there is no personality left, just the desires and appetites.

Has Trump committed impeachable offenses?

September 25, 2017

Impeachable offenses, according to Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, are “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors”.

I happen to believe that President Trump is unpatriotic and dishonest, but I’m not convinced that he has committed an impeachable offense..

What Are Impeachable Offenses? by Noah Feldman and Jacob Weisberg in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, a good review of the law on the topic.

Feldman and Weisberg point out that, back in 1789, a “high” crime did not necessarily mean an extra-serious crime.   A “high” crime was a crime committed by a public official in the performance of their duties.

A crime committed by a President before taking office, even a very serious one, is not an impeachable offense unless it is, in some way, connected with actions while in office.

So even if it could be proved that Russian individuals or intelligence agencies tried to help Trump during the election, that would not necessarily be an impeachable offense.

An impeachable offense would be Trump, once in office, using the power of the Presidency to pay the Russians back for their help.

It also seems to me that a quid pro quo would be almost impossible to prove.

Take Hillary Clinton’s six-figure speaking fees for speaking to Goldman Sachs officers.  Was this bribery?   She challenged anyone to prove that she changed a single vote or made a single decision in return for these fees, and, of course, nobody could.

This was not bribery.   It is simply that the financiers approved of Clinton and her record.

Vladimir Putin made no secret of the fact that he approved of candidate Donald Trump’s hope for better relations between the United States and Russia if Trump were elected.

Maybe he helped Trump by means of leaking hacked e-mails or propagandizing for Trump on social media.   Maybe not.

But even if he did, that is a long way from bribery, treason or other high crimes and misdemeanors.  It is just that he felt good about Trump and his promises.

By the way, treason under Article III of the Constitution is fighting for the enemy or giving aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war.  An act of treason must be an overt act that is witnessed by two people, or is admitted in open court.

The United States has not declared war on Russia, so being friendly to Russia is no more treasonable that being friendly to Saudi Arabia, Israel, China or any other foreign country.

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Jeff Spevak’s farewell

September 25, 2017

Last week the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle, which is my local newspaper and former employer, laid off Jeff Spevak, its arts and entertainment reporter.  Here’s what he had to say about it.

MY OBITUARY MOMENT

by Jeff Spevak

Last week I had caught my bus for the usual ride downtown and found a seat next to another fellow. He looked at me.  “Hey,” he said. “You’re the guy. The newspaper guy.”

“Yeah,” I said.

A few days ago I was watching Paterson, a beautifully subtle film about a bus driver who writes poetry. After a conversation about William Carlos Williams, a Japanese tourist who was sharing a park bench with the bus-driving poet asked him if he wrote poetry.

“No,” the bus driver said.

Twelve hours later, the connection between these two scenes, one from a movie, one from my life, fell into place.  In Paterson, the bus-driving poet’s dog had shredded his notebook filled with poems.  How can you be a poet when you have no poems?  So no, he answered honestly, he was not a poet.

It was the same thing when I got called into the Democrat and Chronicle Human Resources office on Tuesday.  “We’re eliminating your position,” the editor said.

So now my answer to the guy on the bus will be, “No, I’m not the newspaper guy.”

Two characters, a New Jersey bus driver and a newspaper arts and entertainment writer, who no longer knew who they were.

It’s a dangerous thing to tie your identity to your job. I’m not sure where the tipping point came, but somewhere during my 27 years at the Democrat and Chronicle I could no longer tell the difference between my personal life and my professional life.  Maybe it was the day at the jazz festival when a guy asked me for my autograph.  I looked at him and said, “Are you joking?”

The editor was wrong when she told me they were eliminating my position.  Someone else will have to write the long Sunday feature stories about the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpet player whose wife didn’t get proper treatment for breast cancer and died, because the cult-like church they belonged to believed God heals all.  Someone else will have to interview Brian Wilson, carefully navigating his drug-ravaged brain to discover the genius within.  Another writer will have to find the words to describe the giant spermatozoa floating over the heads of 10,000 people last weekend at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.

The newspaper wasn’t eliminating my position. It was eliminating me. That’s just the language corporations use so they don’t have to deal with the humanity in the situation.

I believe I said, “I’ll go get my shit and leave.”  My language might not have been quite that coarse, I can’t remember now.  But that’s what I was thinking.

As my fellow newsroom employees gathered around my desk for the uncomfortable condolences and hugs, I couldn’t find the words to explain how I felt.  Which was… I felt like nothing. I’ve always taken my job so seriously.  Now that I didn’t have the job any longer, it was like I didn’t care.  I hear 27 years of being rode hard and put away wet does that to a horse.

If they live that long.

I wonder what parts of me have gone missing, and which ones will return. A few months ago, I was told I couldn’t use social media for political comment, and I was not allowed to appear at public rallies; not as a speaker or anything official, I just couldn’t be there to see for myself what was going on.

As a condition of employment, I had to be someone other than who I am.

Big companies guard their images closely, and I can’t blame them for that. There are millions in CEO salaries to protect, shareholders must be rewarded for their investment. Yet news organizations use social media for political comment, and they are often observed at public rallies, if only to report what’s going on.

They aggressively protect their First Amendment right to do so. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people too, my friend.”

More so, I think.

My final act before walking out the offices of the Democrat and Chronicle for the last time was to go on Facebook.  I typed:

Myself and two of my newsroom colleagues just got laid off at the Democrat and Chronicle. After 27 years here, I feel… relief.

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Fall foliage in New York’s Central Park

September 23, 2017

These time-lapse photos were taken by Jamie Scott. over a period of six months in Central Park in New York City.  He visited 15 locations, two days a week, just after sunrise, from August, 2011, through January, 2012.   The music is by Lower Dens.  I found this video on the Colossal website.

Repealing and replacing Obamacare

September 22, 2017

Two Democrats—Senator Bernie Sanders [1] of Vermont and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan—have proposed bills to do something that President Donald Trump promised to do, but can’t and won’t do.

That is, they would repeal and replace Obamacare with something better.

I applaud what they’re doing, and I think Sanders deserves credit for making universal health care politically possible.

Tom Price

I don’t think Sanders or Conyers can get their bills through Congress at the present time, and I think President Trump would veto them if they did.

That’s just as well.   Implementation of both programs would require the cooperation of Tom Price, the current Secretary of Health and Human Services.   He is an opponent of traditional Medicare, which he would replace with a voucher system, and favors cutbacks in Medicaid.

But under both the Sanders and Conyers bills, he would appoint the administrators of the new program, and, under the Sanders bill,

The Secretary is … directed to develop policies, procedures, guidelines, and requirements related to eligibility, enrollment, benefits, provider participation standards and qualifications, levels of funding, provider payment rates, medical necessity standards, planning for capital expenditures and health professional education, and regional planning mechanisms.

Source: Health Affairs Blog

I’m pretty sure that neither Sanders nor Conyers intends to give Secretary Price the power to sabotage and discredit their plans.   Their proposals are talking points to rally support for universal health care and encourage thinking about how to make their bills better.

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President Trump and his new axis of evil

September 20, 2017

President Donald Trump said this to say in his address to the United Nations yesterday—

We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government.  But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.

He went on to say—

Rogue regimes represented in this body not only support terrorists but threaten other nations and their own people with the most destructive weapons known to humanity.

I think these would be excellent points, if only he had applied them to the United States as well as the rest of the world.

He called for an intensification of economic and diplomatic warfare against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, his new axis of evil.

How is this in the interest of the American people?  How is this consistent with respecting national sovereignty?   Are not North Korea, Iran and Venezuela sovereign nations?

The United States has paid radical jihadist terrorists to overthrow the government of Libya and is attempting to use them to overthrow the government of Syria—two sovereign states that never have threatened the United States.   The result has been to reduce these two countries to chaos and misery, as the cost of thousands of innocent lives.

President Trump in that very speech threatened another nation with the most destructive weapons known to humanity—

The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

He accused the North Korean government of starving and torturing its own people, and various other crimes, which were real though not necessarily current.  But then he threatened an even worse atrocity.

To be fair, it is not clear whether he is threatening North Korea with attack merely if it fails to disarm or whether he is threatening retaliation in the event of an attack, which is different.

This ambiguity may be deliberate on President Trump’s part; he may think keeping others guessing is a good negotiating strategy.   Where nuclear weapons are concerned, this is dangerous.  It may lead the other person to think he has nothing to lose by launching an attack.

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North Korea: totalitarianism in action

September 19, 2017

When I was young, I was haunted by the specter of totalitarianism—the idea of an all-powerful state that not only could regulate its subjects’ every action, but get inside their minds and convince them this was normal.

As a college student, I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984 and most of his essays.

I thought the future held three great perils: (1) the collapse of civilization due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, (2) the destruction of civilization through nuclear war and (3) the triumph of totalitarianism, as manifested in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China.

None of these fears came true, although the first two are still very much with us.   As for totalitarianism, there are many cruel and bloody governments in the world, but they are not, in the strict definition of the word, totalitarian.   Totalitarianism exists in only one place—North Korea—where it has endured for 70 years.

I got an inside view of North Korea by reading WITHOUT YOU THERE IS NO US: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.   She is an American of Korean heritage who taught English for six months in 2011 at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUSH).

The title of the book is taken from an anthem the students sang at different times each day.    The “you” was Kim Jong-il, then the ruler of North Korea, and the “us” is everyone else in North Korea.

Suki Kim said the whole idea of individual thinking was alien to her students.   For example, they found it incredibly difficult to write a five-paragraph essay, because this involved stating an argument and then presenting evidence in support of the argument.   What they were accustomed to writing was unstructured praise of their country, their leaders and the official Juche ideology.

PUSH was founded and financed by evangelical Christians, many of Korean extraction, who agreed to build and staff a university at no cost to the North Korean government, and to refrain from proselytizing.   Presumably their hope was that they could subtly plant the seeds of Christianity and that they would be on the scene when and if North Korea ever granted religious freedom.

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Wit and wisdom on church signs

September 16, 2017

These photos of church signs were collected on the Bored Panda website.

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