31 August 2009

The Most Powerful Senator of the 20th Century?

I nearly lost it in the days after Ted Kennedy's death. It was all I could do not to throw the radio against the wall or swerve into a lamppost just to end the agony of Ted's canonization. He was a man after my own heart; many of the bills he sponsored or supported in his long career, I too supported or support. But as I look over all the verbiage and bandwidth devoted to his legacy, I am struck by his ineffectiveness.

Yes, there's some landmark legislation to his credit - Title IX and other civil rights law from 30 years ago - but much is like the little Dutch boy who tried to stop the flood. Where Kennedy could stick his liberal fingers the water was stopped, but the conservative flood overwhelmed the levee and the country is demonstrably worse off.

While this post is a response to the general tenor of the Kennedy hagiographies, it specifically plays off two blogs at the Rude Pundit, where the author (who I like and follow) lists some of Kennedy's achievements, many of which illustrate my point.

1. State control over school curricula. Nice concept but because of the way the school-book publishing industry is gamed, the nation's schools' curricula is largely determined by a few school districts in Texas, that bastion of enlightened, rational thinking.

2. Getting to vote at 18. Considering the usual turnout of the 18-21 crowd at election time, does this really signify? And considering the voting patterns of the 40- and 50-somethings who first benefited from this amendment, can we consider this the wisest piece of legislation anyway?

3. Cheap airfares (aka, deregulating the airline industry). Talk about mixed blessings. And, this was the opening salvo in the senseless and disastrous assault on any form of government regulation.

4. Mental institutions should treat people humanely. A no-brainer by any standard of morality but this was also the era of Reagan, when such institutions were defunded and their patients dumped on the streets.

5. Minimum wage. This is one fight I was personally involved in. In 1987/88, during my junior year at college, I interned with the Americans for Democratic Action in Washington. One of the big legislative pushes for that year was a Kennedy-sponsored increase in the ludicrously inadequate minimum wage to increase it to a slightly less inadequate wage. The legislation went nowhere (I don't think we got a federal increase until the Clinton era).

6. Health care. For this latest round, I have to give Kennedy a pass - he had his own crisis to deal with - but he was fully competent in 1993 when Clinton introduced his disastrous solution, and he was fully competent for most of the intervening 15 years. I guess we should be grateful he helped block "medical savings accounts" and privatizing Social Security and Medicare.

7. The war(s). Kudos to the man for voting against the original "war" resolution (in 2002 or 2003) but where was he for the next 6 years? Where was he at the anti-war rallies? Where was he on the PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, immunizing the telecoms from illegal wiretapping charges, the legality of rendition, and the other successful assaults on civil liberties and justice? Small comfort to imagine how much worse things might have been if Kennedy hadn't been in the Senate.

His heart was in the right place and he will be missed in the Senate but he never commanded the respect and support he needed to effect his policies, a political tragedy with more far reaching results than either of his brothers' legacies.

06 August 2009

Hiroshima Musings

I hope it doesn't need to be said that today and Sunday will mark the 64th anniversary of the days we instantly incinerated 100,000+ people and condemned even more to lives scarred by cancers and other fallout from dropping the "Bomb" on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If not, you can refresh your memories here, here and here.

But it also terrified the Japanese into ending then and there a war that had lasted nearly five years and had claimed its own enormous share of casualties.

And that's the moral question: Considering the qualitatively different nature of atomic weaponry, were we justified in using the A-bomb? (Actually, it raises the broader question of bombing at all when we know full well the targets are primarily civilians but I confine myself today to the "atomic" aspect of the question.)

When my brother and I were kids, we collected quite a bit of WW2-related stuff - from Time-Life books to Avalon Hill's plethora of war-related games (remember "Axis & Allies"?). The question of the Bomb's morality and whether or not there had been alternatives hardly signified. (Let's be honest, at least in American literature, the Bomb was "good" and "justified.") As I've grown older, though, my feelings about war and the military have changed; I've read a wide range of views on the subject, and I've thought about it (particularly during those first weeks of August when it seems no one but the survivors and their kin remember Hiroshima). When it comes down to landing on one side of the issue or the other, I have to say that dropping the Bomb was both a moral and a (long-term) strategic mistake. Morally because waging war is an obscenity (a mortal sin, if you want to go Catholic about it). Even though we were forced into conflict, our moral imperative was to limit the damage inflicted on ourselves and our foes. Strategically because we set a precedent: If the putative "leader of the Free World" saw fit to use a device of such destructive power why can't a similarly righteously motivated nation use it? Or, far worse, why can't atomic weapons simply be counted as just another sword in the arsenal?


There's a scene in Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns where the retiring Commissioner Gordon is explaining to his replacement why she shouldn't oppose the Batman. The context is the beginning of World War 2 and Pearl Harbor but I think the point is still valid:

GORDON: A few years back, I was reading a news magazine. A lot of people with a lot of evidence said that Roosevelt knew Pearl was going to be attacked and that he let it happen.

Wasn't proven. Things like that never are. I couldn't stop thinking how horrible that would be, and how Pearl was what got us off our duffs in time to stop the Axis.

But a lot of innocent men died.

But we won the war.

It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn't judge it. It was too big. (page 96 in my edition)

Without the benefit of hindsight, can we legitimately judge Truman and his advisors?

Perhaps not. Perhaps - no, definitely - where we've failed as a country and as moral agents is facing the consequences of the action, and deciding that it will never happen again, and taking the necessary steps to ensure that it doesn't.

Rethinking the Universe?

There is an article in the July/August 2009 of Discover that has proven to be a frustrating disappointment to me. It's titled "The Return of the Invisible Man," and the abstract says, "Stephen Hawking, the master of time, space, and black holes, steps back into the spotlight to secure his scientific legacy - and to explain the greatest mystery in physics." On top of that, the cover's teaser: "Stephen Hawking Rethinks the Universe."

All this would lead the reader (at least this reader) to expect an essay about Hawking's latest efforts to explain how the universe works. Instead what we get is a little-over-six pages of Hawking biography, a peer review of his legacy and three measly paragraphs that suggest what Hawking is up to but leaves us hanging.

The chief offending paragraph:

"Hawking is now pushing a different strategy, which he calls top-down cosmology. It is not the case, he says, that the past uniquely determines the present. Because the Universe has many possible histories and just as many possible beginnings, the present state of the Universe selects the past. `This means that the histories of the Universe depend on what is being measured,' Hawking wrote in a recent paper, `contrary to the usual idea that the Universe has an objective, observer-independent history.'" (Discover, July/August 2009, p. 51)

The paragraph after intimates how this may save string theory (which has come under increasing attack in the last few years as it continues unable to experimentally prove any of its claims); and graf three suggests where scientists might look to confirm Hawking's predictions (the background cosmic radiation).

And that's it. There's no further exploration of the practical consequences for our understanding of the universe if Hawking is right or if he's even in the right neighborhood.

I hope that Hawking (who's not in the best of health) or one of his students can further explore the hypothesis and generate a book friendly to an amateur cosmologist like myself because I'm still trying to wrap my brain around that first paragraph.

The Gates/Crowley Affair, Part 2 (or, Another Reason to Hate Cops)

"Lethal Sting," in the August 2009 issue of The Progressive, reveals the cops' use of civilians in sting operations. Author Vince Beiser focuses on a young woman facing jail time for possession (of marijuana) but was told she could avoid t if she participated in a sting to nab some dealers.

She died.

The cops "lost" her at a critical moment, and she was gunned down. Beiser discusses similar operations with similarly fatal results.

I'm simply stunned that this is permitted. That untrained civilians are sent into potentially lethal situations and (so far) no one has objected. Typically, though, the death of a white, middle class girl with outraged parents has galvanized some action to restrict if not outright ban this stupidity - at least in Florida. "Rachel's Law" now requires police departments to make an informant's safety "the highest priority" but I still shudder to believe that anyone considers this a rational policy.