Science, Fiction, Life

Month: November 2016

Truth, the Lesson of the Election, and the Rightward Ratchet

Like much of the country, I have been reflecting on the election in the weeks since Donald Trump’s shocking win. I am of course horrified by Trump and what his administration will mean in terms of policy, but I want to talk about something even deeper than policy that has been bothering me: the lesson that this election will teach the GOP.

The GOP has been steadily distancing itself from reality for years now, but Trump’s campaign took the trend and followed it to its absurd conclusion. According to PolitiFact, only 15% of his statements that they have rated are True or Mostly True . The Earth is warming and humans are responsible, but the GOP doesn’t want to hear it. The influx of illegal immigrants is at a 40-year low and Obama has deported more people than any previous president, but to hear the GOP tell it, we’re facing a human tidal wave of illegal immigration that is threatening our way of life. The vetting process required for refugees is incredibly thorough, but Trump says that Syrian refugees are pouring in and that they represent a Trojan Horse that will lead to terrorist attacks. The unemployment rate has been steadily falling since around 2009 to its present level of ~5%, but according to Trump it is higher than 40%. Our tax rates are relatively modest, and tax rates are currently drastically lower than they were back in the 50s (back when America was, presumably, “great”), but according to Trump we are the highest taxed nation in the world. President Obama is an American-born Christian, but Trump led the charge that he is secretly an African-born Muslim. You get the idea. The man is almost incapable of telling the truth. He lies so effortlessly and fluently that trying to pin down each lie and expose it is simply not possible, and has tied the media in knots.

Meanwhile, upon Obama’s election, the Republican party made its goals very clear: to stop Obama’s agenda dead in its tracks. Never mind that Obama’s proposals have generally been quite moderate. Never mind if some of those agenda items, like Obamacare, borrow many ideas from previous Republican proposals. Never mind if the nation’s credit rating is downgraded and the government is shut down for weeks because congress refuses to fund the government or pay the bills. The most egregious and recent violation of basic good-faith governing has been the refusal to even hold a confirmation hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, leaving a vacancy on the court for an unprecedented period of time.

Like many liberals, I assumed that Trump’s  blatant race baiting and disregard for reality would eventually come back to bite him. Likewise, I hoped that the GOP’s fanatical obstructionism would eventually cause voters to say “enough is enough” and shift the balance of power. In my most optimistic moments, I hoped that this election would serve to sort of “break the fever” of the increasingly unhinged GOP, teaching the party that it needs to return to the real world and work together with Democrats to actually compromise and pass legislation. I hoped the election would teach the GOP a lesson and set our country back on track to a situation with two moderate parties which agree on a common reality even if they disagree on the best course of action.

Instead, the lesson learned from this election is that there is no need to play coy and attempt to disguise the racism and disregard for the truth that has become the signature of the Republican party. You can lie all you want. You can be openly racist and sexist and xenophobic, to the point where the KKK and actual Nazis are celebrating your candidate, and you will still win elections.

The other day, I saw the following image making the rounds on Twitter. It is a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre about anti-Semites, but it resonates strongly with the current political situation in our country:

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This is what fundamentally troubles me about this election, even more than the giant leap backward that we are likely to witness on policies across the board. The Republican party has been learning this lesson for a while now, but Trump’s victory clearly illustrated that the party can make outrageous, racist, blatantly false statements and our media is so fragmented and divided that many loyal Republicans will take these statements to be true and vote accordingly. Meanwhile, those of us on the left are, in Sartre’s words, “obliged to use words responsibly”. We can froth with outrage and fact check until we’re blue in the face, but those fact checks fit neatly into the narrative of a biased “liberal media”, and the outrage serves only to exhaust us and keep us bouncing back and forth from one issue to another.

Meanwhile in Congress, the Republican obstructionist gamble has paid off in spades. The GOP was able to stop almost all of Obama’s reasonable policies, forcing him to rely on executive orders (something which itself sets a dangerous precedent). The GOP can get away with this tactic because it is far simpler to unite in blanket opposition than it is to unite behind actual legislation that is rooted in a complex and contentious reality. The GOP delights in obstructing progress because a gridlocked and useless congress plays directly into their narrative that government is ineffective. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Democrats on the other hand will (I hope) never be willing to act in such bad faith because their goal is for the government to do things to help people, and therefore they cannot pull stunts like shutting the government down or blocking Supreme Court nominees indefinitely.

I worry what the result of this may be. If the Republican party continues this strategy (and why wouldn’t they, given its success?) we will end up with a situation where during Democratic administrations the Republican party essentially shuts down congress, while during periods of Republican control we get a flurry of conservative legislation passed (and liberal policies abolished), gradually ratcheting our country toward the right. The only way I see to stop this is for Democrats to manage to take control of the executive and legislative branches, something made very difficult by poor performance in down-ballot races, along with gerrymandering that favors Republicans.

And the worst part about this is that I don’t know what to do about it. When your opponent refuses to act in good faith, and indeed refuses to even acknowledge reality, but somehow manages to convince large portions of the country to believe in his lies, how do you stop that? How do you ensure that truth wins out when facts themselves are seen as inherently suspicious? How do you defeat this strategy without adopting it yourself? I really don’t know, and it is making me despair.

Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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I like home improvement projects and work trips that I can drive to because they both provide me with multiple hours during which I can listen to audiobooks. In the last couple of weeks I have been working on re-tiling a bathroom, and I had a trip out to Los Alamos, and the audiobook I chose to accompany all of that was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

This book falls into the same genre of nonfiction as 1491 and 1493, two of my favorite recent nonfiction reads. Basically, the “big picture history” genre, where the focus is not a single person or war or event, but rather a wide-ranging look at the disparate factors that shape the course of history.

Sapiens is about as “big picture” as you can get, starting off with the evolution of homo sapiens and the long period of time during which we shared the planet (perhaps not peacefully) with other humans such as neanderthals, progressing through the development of culture, agriculture, religion, to the development of empires, science, colonialism, and capitalism, before finally concluding with a speculative look toward the future of our species as science allows us to edit or augment our own genomes or create artificial intelligence.

It’s a fascinating book that touches on many different topics, but it has one core theme, which is the idea that the main thing that gave homo sapiens an advantage over other early humans, and what underlies most of human achievement, is our ability to talk about and collectively believe in things that do not actually exist. Harari argues that this ability led to humans who could work together in large groups, and that is the key to our success. Examples of these things that exist only because we collectively agree that they exist are nations, gods, money, corporations, and human rights, and each of these (and many others) are discussed in considerable detail.

As you might be able to tell based on that list of imaginary things, this is a book that seems to strive to make everyone feel a little uncomfortable at some point. For me, I can nod smugly as he talks about why religion is an imaginary (but nonetheless powerful) human construct, but when he starts talking about how human rights also don’t really exist, or how scientific progress has been inextricably tied to brutal colonialism and heartless capitalism, things become less comfortable.

At times, the book can get somewhat speculative and tends to make grand, weakly-supported assertions and reductive statements that set off some mental warnings for me (and, apparently, for Charles Mann, the author of 1491 and 1493). But despite that, there’s no denying that it is thoroughly thought-provoking, and on the whole I found it to be a fascinating read that presents an interesting way of looking at the history of our species. Also, simply by touching on so many disparate topics (human evolution, politics, science, history, philosophy, religion, economics, etc.), it also serves as an introduction to any of those topics and situates them within the bigger picture of human history, which in my opinion definitely makes it a worthwhile read.

Movie Review: Arrival

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They did it.

I was excited but skeptical when I heard that the brilliant short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang was going to be made into a movie, called “Arrival”. Excited because “Story of Your Life” is among the best science fiction short stories that I have ever read, skeptical because it’s an unusual story and I wasn’t sure how a movie would be able to capture its brilliance. But they did it.

Fundamentally, Arrival/Story of Your Life is a first contact story (in fact, many parts of the movie reminded me of Contact). Mysterious alien ships appear one day all over the world, and linguist Dr. Louise Banks is brought in by the American military to learn the aliens’ language and allow them to communicate. She discovers that they actually have two forms of language, a spoken form, which humans could never hope to speak because the sounds are impossible for us to make, and a written form, different from any written language on Earth in that it has no correspondence to spoken language and has a very unusual structure. As she learns the language it begins to change how she thinks. At the same time, it’s a drama about Louise’s relationship with her daughter, and it bounces back and forth between vignettes of her daughter and scenes where Dr. Banks is figuring out the alien language.

It’s a hard story to describe without giving away what makes it special, so you’re going to have to trust me on this, but you need to experience it. If you can, set aside an hour or so, get your hands on the story, and read it. Once you’ve read it, or if you don’t think you’ll get around to reading it, then go see the movie. The movie is almost as good as the story. There’s a little bit of added geopolitical drama that I don’t remember being as prominent in the story, but that’s ok. The core idea is still there and it’s done well. This is the type of intelligent science fiction that makes my whole brain light up, and is a reminder that great sci-fi is about ideas, not flashy space battles.  Do yourself a favor, take a break from current events, and check out this excellent story.

 

What I’m Doing About the Election

Image from here

  1. Quitting the news and social media. Like most of the rest of the country, I spent this election watching in horrified fascination as the media relentlessly covered Donald Trump, providing free publicity for his campaign of lies, hate, fear and divisiveness. The media, like many of us, thought that exposing Trump for what he is would surely stop him. But instead, that non-stop media coverage is responsible in large part for his victory, because a significant portion of our country saw his behavior and instead of being appalled, saw a man giving voice to their own thoughts and fears (facts and decency be damned). Staying up to date with the latest news brings me little joy in the best of times, but now with the election still so fresh, I cannot look at the news without feeling physically ill. So I’m not. I was already considering quitting social media after the election because it was so addictive and was sucking up precious time, but now it’s not just a matter of saving time. It’s an act of self-defense and an act of protest. I’m going to try to use time I normally would have spent on social media on reading, writing, and family instead. I won’t be fully stopping social media – it’s still a useful tool – but I will be restricting my social media usage to posting things that I created and responding to notifications, direct messages, and the like. Yes, I’ll miss out on the cute animal memes and babies and jokes and other things that make social media enjoyable, but I think this is a necessary step for now.
  2. Donating. This is the easiest way I can fight back against a Trump presidency, a GOP-controlled congress, and a nation in which white supremacy, bigotry, and hate have surged into prominence. If you are feeling as sickened as me, here are some worthy causes to donate to. If you have others to recommend, post them as comments below:
  3. Writing. I have gotten so many kind and encouraging comments whenever I write about something emotional here on the blog, whether it is personal or political. I know it’s foolish to think that posting my thoughts and sharing them with the liberal echo chamber of my social network will make much of a difference, but the truth is, I need to do it anyway. Writing  helps me think, and lets me channel negative emotions into something cathartic if not necessarily positive. I’ve always thought that I wanted to write fiction (and I still do) but I always want my fiction to be perfect and it never is, so I get discouraged and stop. On the other hand, posting here about issues that are on my mind anyway is easy, and I think this may be one instance where doing what comes easier is the better choice. I have a LOT of thoughts rattling around in my brain after the election, and I plan to share them here for anyone who cares to read them. Maybe they will help in some small way. I will also be writing my representatives a lot more often than I have in the past. They are going to get sick of my letters.
  4. Volunteering. I don’t have time to volunteer. To be honest, much of the time I feel like I’m barely holding my life together, and we’re about to throw a baby into the mix. And yet, this election has made it clear that we can’t just sit back and assume that progress will happen. We have to fight for it every step of the way. I am not sure in what capacity I will volunteer, or how much time I’ll be able to devote to it, but I want to try doing something more than throwing money at groups that do good work and posting impassioned essays for my liberal friends to read and agree with. The challenge with volunteering, beyond just finding the time for it, is choosing from among the many worthy causes how to spend that time. Of the items on this list, this one is going to be by far the hardest, but I want to at least give it a try.

So that’s my list. What are you doing to cope with the election?

A Letter to my Unborn Son

Hello son,

You are due to enter the world only a few days after the presidential inauguration in January.

I’m sorry.

This is not the world I wanted to greet you. Your mother and I were looking forward to welcoming you to a country electing its first woman president. An optimistic, forward-looking world in which toxic masculinity was finally, gradually, being eroded, and equality and love and truth and knowledge and ideas were valued. Instead, we have elected a man who is the personification of toxic masculinity. A living monument to misogyny and bigotry and hatred and fear and lies. A narcissistic demagogue whose temperament and ignorance puts the future of this country and the world at risk.

None of this was a secret. This was all made clear time and time again, but instead of electing the most qualified presidential candidate in modern history, more than half of this country saw this horrible man who brags about assaulting women, who insults war heroes and mocks the disabled, who was openly endorsed by the KKK and actual Nazis, and determined that he was just the man for the job. I am sickened.

I was blind. I did not know that our country was so very hateful.

We were supposed to be better than this.

Our family will be fine. We have all the privileges. We are white and educated and employed and financially secure. We don’t fear being murdered by the police, or rounded up for our religion, or losing our health insurance. But others do. Because a segment of this country could not abide the idea of a black man as president, and certainly wasn’t going to let a woman follow him in making history, lives will be ruined, families will be torn apart. People will die.

You will, mercifully, be too young to be aware of all this. But your mother and I will be aware, and even as our country is undoing decades of progress, we will be teaching you to be a good person. We will do our best to protect you from the hatred and bigotry. We will teach you to be loving and honest and curious and inclusive and kind, because the fight to reverse the damage that will be done to our nation in the next four years will last well into your adulthood.

Your mother and I, your family and our friends will all be fighting to change the disastrous course this election has set us on. You will be born in the eye of the storm, and the storm will be long. When you are old enough we will need your help to take the wheel and steer the course. It is not fair to place this burden on your generation, but we have no choice. I hope you will forgive us.

Love,

Dad

 

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