Archive for June, 2013

White House Down: Movie Review

June 30, 2013

images-2We never saw Black Hawk Down. But we did go see White House Down, on a lark; a review called it very entertaining. It wasn’t wrong.

My wife labeled it “formulaic.” Well, sure; right down to the ending when, just when you thought it was all wrapped up, there was one last twist. Every narrative work is formulaic: introduce a protagonist, give him a problem, and things get worse before they get better. White House Down followed the formula, and did it extremely well.

John (played by Channing Tatum) is the protagonist – along with President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). The mentioned review said movies featuring a president typically model him on whoever’s in office at the time, and that was certainly true here, right down to the Nicorettes in the desk drawer. Except for his glasses; that was the only difference. And his machine-gunning a bad guy. (Can’t quite see Obama doing that.)

John with sidekick (President Badass)

John with sidekick (President Badass)

John happens to be, with 11-year-old daughter Emily, on a normal White House tour, when it’s interrupted by an invasion of heavily armed baddies. John was there because he’d interviewed for a Secret Service job. He was turned down. Guess what? By film’s end, he’s proven himself overqualified for the job, by saving the president and, indeed, the world – not quite single-handedly, but with of course some indispensable help from precocious and heroic Emily (who will probably be elected the next president after the Constitution’s 35 year age requirement is repealed).

Emily saves the White House with signal flag. (In the movie it was actually a presidential flag.)

Emily saves the White House with signal flag. (In the movie it was actually a presidential flag.)

My wife didn’t think the story was plausible. I worried it might provide a roadmap for real terrorists. But this was actually an inside job, spearheaded by the chief of the Secret Service himself (going rogue for reasons difficult to swallow). I’m not giving much away because his role was revealed quite early in the movie. But he had a co-conspirator at the highest level (the twist at the end) which I won’t divulge.

One thing I never find plausible in films like this is how much physical punishment the hero can take and remain ambulatory, indeed with undented savoir faire. We recently Netflixed Shane, but quit watching after the ridiculous barroom brawl scene where Shane took, like, 1576 punches, any one of which would put anybody in the hospital, and walked away unfazed.

John exiting the, er, health spa

John exiting the, er, health spa

John was similarly impervious to repeated ultra-violence throughout the film, at the end of which he was as jaunty as if he’d just exited a health spa.

The bad guys, of course, did not fare so well. As soon as they burst in shooting everyone in sight, it was a slam dunk that none would get out of this film alive. Of course all the Hollywood liberals oppose capital punishment – but not in their movies, where for real creeps there’s no namby-pamby take-them-alive nonsense. I couldn’t quite follow just how John somehow managed to get a grenade-like thing unremovably in the baddest bad guy’s mouth; but never mind, it was a nice touch.

You’ll also enjoy the fate of the guy who was the world’s greatest hacker, until he wasn’t.

My wife said she felt the movie manipulated her. Well, true enough, but isn’t that precisely why we watch movies? To have our emotions manipulated? That’s the very experience we’re seeking in the theater, and a film that failed to deliver it would be awfully dull.

Manipulating us politically is another matter. Of course the villains here were right-wing. But talk about implausibility: who’s really behind the plot to seize the White House and start a nuclear war? Why, defense industries fearing the President’s peace plan will dent their arms sales! Hollywood does relentlessly portray business people as ruthless villains, but this goes a bit far.

But I wasn’t actually put off by this because it was obviously not to be taken too seriously; this was not a political film, but an action film, with the political plot just a device to get the action going. And go it did. If you like explosions in movies, this one’s for you.

Formulaically, then, it did require good to prevail. And to suspensefully prevail by the slenderest of margins. I couldn’t help wondering whether the film makers weren’t tempted to let that nuclear button get pushed, rather than stopped, at the last second. That would have been a much different movie.

But it is what it is. And it was an enjoyable entertaining experience.

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Round Lake Library Storm: There is Some Justice

June 29, 2013

As this blog’s title proclaims, I’m an optimist; while being rational requires recognizing how dumb even smart people sometimes can act.

Recently, faced with a bad storm warning, the Round Lake library was closed 40 minutes early by employee Theresa Marchione. The library’s director felt she should have been consulted. So she fired Marchione. Fired her!

FishCartoonMarchione had worked there 24 years and was popular with patrons. (Also happens to be sister-in-law of a state senator.)

Round Lake library board meeting

Round Lake library board meeting

“How stupid can people be?” I said to my wife, showing her the news report – which obviously echoed an episode two decades before, when she worked at an Albany library. During a blizzard some librarians decided to close a branch early. The director took disciplinary action against them, provoking a huge uproar – and turbocharging a union movement among Albany library employees. One thing led to another, and ultimately the director’s firing.

Norman Rockwell, "Freedom of Speech"

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech”*

In Round Lake, the director (perhaps she had forgotten the Albany affair) was more swiftly fired; indeed, the whole library board was made to resign basically because they didn’t fire her fast enough. Marchione was reinstated.

So, yes, we see that people are capable of stupid and unjust actions. But while life can be thusly unfair, it isn’t always, and as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In Round Lake the arc was short, the denouement actually predictable. And I do believe we are living in a world of increasing justice.

* The library meeting photo reminded me of this, one of my favorite paintings, which captures so eloquently something so good and so important about this country I so love.

Erdogan Crushes Turkish Protests

June 26, 2013

“Power corrupts and absolute power . . . “ runs the hoariest of clichés. And it’s true of course. But power also intoxicates, inflates the ego, and blinds.

Erdogan

Erdogan

The latest sufferer of this syndrome is Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced “Erdowan”). His AK Party (“mildly Islamist” The Economist invariably calls it) has won three solid election victories, ending a period of political instability. For a long time I considered Erdogan one of the good guys. He’s done a lot right, most importantly confining the army to its barracks and quashing its political meddling; getting the economy on track; and starting to mend things with Turkey’s abused and stroppy Kurdish minority. All this positioned Turkey as the model for how Islam and democracy could be compatible.

Erdogan’s achievements made him Turkey’s most important figure since Ataturk, and had he stopped there, he could have gone off into the sunset venerated as a national benefactor.

But leaders don’t always stop there, do they? Often success goes to their heads, they come to consider themselves the darlings of the gods. And so Erdogan in recent years grew increasingly authoritarian and intolerant, ever more a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. And unfortunately, while Turkey has been pretty much a democracy for a length of time, it hasn’t yet graduated to becoming a mature democratic society. One indication is that Turkey jails more journalists than any other country. And while its judicial prosecution of legions of army coup plotters is good in concept, these proceedings show appalling disregard for norms of fairness and due process. So – even in “democratic” Turkey, there’s a lot of room for a leader’s authoritarian itches to be scratched. (And Erdogan was once quoted that democracy is like a train — you get off when you reach your destination.)

images-1This all came to a head recently with protests over government plans for development in an Istanbul park. A trivial issue, perhaps, but the real grievance was Erdogan’s increasingly arrogant and bullying manner. Demonstrations spread across the country. And Erdogan responded by ramping up to the max his ugliest characteristics. He basically declared, “I was elected by half the voters. The rest can go to Hell.” Indeed, he virtually declared them public enemies. And then he unleashed really horrific police brutality against the protesters. Erdogan now seems bent on making Turkey a repressive police state.

But this is not just about Turkey. The point is that what we’re seeing there plays out over and over: the democratically elected leader for whom success goes to his head, turning him into a monster. We saw this too in Venezuela. Another textbook case is Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa.

Why doesn’t it happen in countries like England, France, (postwar) Germany, or America? Note again my phrase “mature democratic society.” In such societies, the pluralistic, open, democratic ethos has gotten woven into their warp and woof. Having elections is not all there is to democracy. It’s not merely a system – it’s a way of life. And when a country reaches that stage, behavior like Erdogan’s is simply impossible, unthinkable.

UnknownGlobally speaking, it still seems clear to this optimist that democracy is on the upswing; that the great historical tide begun in 1776 is still running, and will ultimately sweep away the world’s Erdogans and Rajapaksas, not to mention its Mugabes and Putins – for the reasons explained in Fukuyama’s The End of History. A liberal democratic society is where human beings can flourish best, and achieve their deepest wants; and in the long view, people will not settle for less.

But nothing in human affairs ever goes in a straight line, and on the road to that utopia, we will still, alas, meet our share of Chavezes and Rajapaksas and Erdogans.

The Great 2013 Death Ray Plot

June 23, 2013

FBI: DEATH RAY PLOT FOILED. This was the supersized headline screaming atop the Albany Times-Union’s front page  Thursday, followed by further breathless lead stories Friday.

UnknownTwo local guys, Eric Feight and Glendon Scott Crawford, allegedly were building a weapon that, from a van, operated remotely, could direct a radiation beam at a person and mysteriously kill him within days. They are alleged to have been trying to sell the thing to some local Jewish organizations, for offing Muslim targets; possibly also seeking KKK interest, Crawford being an alleged member; and maybe zapping the governor or president. They had built a device, and Crawford was arrested by undercover agents (who had posed as cooperative radiation equipment suppliers) just before flipping the “on” switch.

Pretty frightening, huh?

Yes indeed – frightening that an otherwise respectable newspaper would engage in such overhyped scaremongering.

The first question I thought of, on seeing the story, was the obvious one: could the thing have worked? Then I noticed Paul Grondahl’s smaller story to the left of Thursday’s front page, headed Experts say weapon ‘unfeasible,’ ‘far-fetched.’

Crawford worked for GE, though not in any senior or important technical capacity. Feight had previously worked for some little electronics outfit near Hudson. MIT types these were not.

images-1[Picture: Kid Clowns by Patty Sue O’Hair – Vicknair Artist]

It’s obvious the plan was crackbrained. Were it possible to build such a death ray – let alone using off-the-shelf parts, in someone’s garage – surely some far more sophisticated technologists would have done it long ago. Like the Russians. Remember how they murdered Litvinenko? But they had to physically get the radiation source into his body. How much better a death ray would have been.

Grondahl’s story makes clear why no such device could work. And that these two guys were just total clowns is evident from their idea of selling it to Jews to kill Muslims. As if local Jewish organizations might want to do such a thing. And as if Israel (which has nuclear weapons, by the way) could not have come up with such a device itself. No – the Jews needed these two shmegegges for that!

I predict that someone will make a documentary film about this case – and it will be a scream.

Were these guys even guilty of any crime? That’s actually far from clear. One thing I do remember from my long-ago intro course on criminal law was that “you had to be on the job you thought you were on” to be guilty of an attempted crime. That is, there had to be some non-trivial possibility of the crime’s actual consummation. Otherwise, there’s no there there.

imagesPerhaps realizing this, the government’s lawyers, in court, do insist the death ray could have worked. Please. The defendants may be morons, but the rest of us aren’t. UnknownThe chances of these two goofballs creating a device that would do what they allegedly intended were zero, zip, zilch. The only danger was that messing with radiation they’d harm themselves. (Or that someone might laugh himself to death.)

Is the anti-terror crusade so desperate to justify its existence (and gigantic budget) that arrant foolishness is puffed up as though it’s a deadly threat?

The case is unfortunately reminiscent of the two local Muslims, Yassin Aref and Mohammad Hossain, arrested in 2004 and given long prison sentences for involvement in a supposed terrorist plot entirely cooked up by government agents going to extraordinary lengths to entrap them. It seemed obvious that Aref and Hossain would never have done a thing had the government’s con men not deviously entangled them in the make-believe plot.

If this is how we’re fighting the “war on terror,” I’m going AWOL.

“Unreasonable Searches and Seizures” and DNA Privacy

June 19, 2013

Concerns about privacy are growing in our high-tech age, when governments and businesses are able to know ever more about you. We’ve recently learned of pervasive governmental data collection covering, like, all our phone calls and online communications. Privacy advocates are aghast, yet are you actually harmed if the government knows you phoned Aunt Sally? (Well, you may be harmed as a taxpayer by the cost of this excess.)

UnknownThomas Friedman, in a recent column, endorses the program if it helps prevent another 9/11 – because if there’s another 9/11, say goodbye to our wonderful open society.

Then there’s your DNA.

Alonzo King was arrested in 2009 for pointing a shotgun at people. The process included a cheek swab DNA sample. It matched one from an unsolved 2003 rape. Alonzo King got life without parole.

Maryland’s highest court overturned the rape conviction, declaring the swab an “unreasonable search.” But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, the other day.

images-1An L.A. Times editorial sees here an unjustified violation of the right to privacy. The editorial agrees with Justice Scalia’s dissent, saying police may search an arrested person for evidence relating to the crimes he’s charged with, but not other unrelated ones, which would be a “fishing expedition.”

The words “fishing expedition” have such negative legal connotations that legitimate anglers ought to demand use of a different metaphor. But let’s remember what’s really at issue here. It’s the Fourth Amendment’s protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” images-3Now, some people actually dislike the Bill of Rights, seeing it as unduly protecting criminals. However, those amendments were not adopted to get criminals off the hook but, rather, to protect the innocent from judicial railroading. The principle is that better ten guilty folks go free than one innocent go to jail. And we need those protections, because even with them, innocent citizens are still too often railroaded by the criminal justice system, which is too often abused by prosecutors more intent on notching up a conviction than convicting the right person. For example, heavy-handed tactics can make people confess to crimes they didn’t commit. That’s why we have the Fifth Amendment, Miranda warnings, etc.

So, considering all this, the test I’d apply in a case like King’s is whether the procedure in question can be abused to railroad an innocent person. The answer here would seem to be no. DNA swabbing should catch only guilty people and no innocents.*

images-4Hence I am not outraged that King was caught this way. Ordinarily you might have a right to keep your DNA private, but raping someone puts a dent in that right. True, nobody knew King was a rapist till after the DNA test. But being proven a rapist should retrospectively vitiate this privacy right. Rapists don’t have a right to avoid DNA tests. Again, this should prejudice no innocent person.

Maybe the real lesson here is that if you’ve committed rape, then don’t get arrested for some minor thing so your DNA will be taken. (Similarly, don’t drive with a broken tail-light if you’ve just blown up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.) We’re lucky criminals tend not to be the most prudent souls. But if they’re going to be both criminal and stupid, let them suffer the consequences; the Bill of Rights was not enacted to ensure a different result.

But seriously, whatever right Alonzo King might arguably claim for DNA privacy, under the Fourth Amendment’s “unreasonable searches and seizures” clause, is overwhelmed by society’s far more compelling interest in deterring and punishing rape. If modern technology, like DNA identification, gives law enforcement newly improved capabilities for nailing perps, that’s no bad thing, and if we have to give up a tiny bit of privacy in exchange for this, it’s a small price to pay for the benefit we all get from reduced crime. We might, in a limited sense, be less free; but freedom from crime and the fear of crime are important freedoms too.

Unknown-1Nothing in the Constitution is absolute; balancing is always required. Not even the most rabid Second Amendment zealot would claim that the “right to keep and bear arms” includes nuclear weapons.

But meantime we have a much bigger “unreasonable searches and seizures” problem than Alonzo King’s, when confiscations by police, under the pretext of the drug war, have become an out-of-control racket. Like when they tried to seize the motel owned by an elderly Massachusetts couple on the grounds that drug dealers had supposedly rented rooms. (Read this.) In such cases the rights and interests of the individuals clearly overwhelm the (altogether dubious) societal interests being asserted. I’m still waiting for the Supreme Court to issue a ringing denunciation of such blatant governmental violations of the Fourth Amendment.

* This assumes the DNA identification is scientifically on the up-and-up, which admittedly could be an issue. But a different issue. For present purposes it should be assumed that a DNA match is a match.

Infinite Jest—All Too Finite

June 15, 2013

imagesReaders may recall my recent post about hunting for David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, finally snagged at a used book sale. I have now attempted to read it. I read about 100 pages before making a decision that the remaining thousand or so would not be a good use of my time.

Here is a sample sentence taken more or less at random (pp. 63-64):

“His strategic value, during the Federal Interval G. Ford – early G. Bush, as more or less the top applied-geometrical-optics man in the O.N.R. and S.A.C., designing neutron-scattering reflectors for thermo-strategic weapons systems, then in the Atomic Energy Commission – where his development of gamma-refractive indices for lithium-anodized lenses and panels is commonly regarded as one of the big half-dozen discoveries that made possible cold annular fusion and approximate energy-independence for the U.S., and its various allies and protectorates – his optical acumen translated, after an early retirement from the public sector, into a patented fortune in rearview mirrors, light-sensitive eyewear, holographic birthday and Xmas greeting cartridges, videophonic Tableaux, homolosine-cartography software, nonfluorescent public-lighting systems and film-equipment; then, in the optative retirement from hard science that building and opening a U.S.T.A.-accredited and pedagogically experimental tennis academy apparently represented for him, into ‘apres-garde’ experimental- and conceptual-film work too far either ahead of or behind its time, possibly, to be much appreciated at the time of his death in the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar – although a lot of it (the experimental- and conceptual-film work) was admittedly just plain pretentious and unengaging and bad . . . “

Those last words can serve as my review of the book: just plain pretentious and unengaging and bad.

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

Actually, I didn’t even quote the full sentence, it went on a bit further. Now, Wallace has been compared to Proust, who also wrote some very long sentences. But (apologies to Lloyd Bentsen), I’ve read Marcel Proust. I’ve studied Marcel Proust. Marcel Proust was a friend of mine. Wallace, you’re no Marcel Proust.

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

The book has been called clever. And there are indeed some droll linguistic and imaginative touches. But the kind of stuff quoted above I don’t find clever. It’s just sophomoric logorrhea. A little like this might be mildly amusing, but 100 pages of it became insufferable.

What is the book actually about? It’s set in a near-term future wherein America has been subsumed into some larger geopolitical union, and corporate sponsors now buy naming rights to calendar years. (That sort of satire on “corporate culture” I find tendentious and lame.) Infinite Jest is the title of a film created by a character, the late James Incandenza, that’s so infinitely entertaining that viewers are literally entertained to death. images-1Again, a passingly clever conceit, though perhaps derivative of the classic Monte Python bit about WWII’s joke warfare (which itself had antecedents), and in any case a thin pillar to support a 1000+ page novel. There are efforts by some Quebec separatist quasi-terrorists and others to get hold of the original film. Also, a private tennis high school run by the Incandenza family, with their teenaged Hal a disturbed genius. (Some of this I frankly cribbed from Wikipedia, as the book itself is somewhat opaque about these matters, at least in the 100 pages I read.)

images-2A big book should have a big theme. “A profound study of the postmodern condition,” said Steven Moore in Review of Contemporary Fiction. “Postmodern” evokes a mindset of effete cynical detachment, and frankly I consider anyone who uses the word seriously to be an intellectually unserious poseur. I might be interested in the modern condition, but what the “postmodern condition” actually might refer to, I haven’t a clue. This book certainly didn’t provide one. Meantime, the back of my copy says it’s “about the pursuit of happiness in America.” I didn’t see that either. Maybe my reading comprehension isn’t up to snuff.

One theme, at least, was pretty evident: substance abuse. Perhaps that’s the “pursuit of happiness” in question. And Wallace seems to speak from intimate knowledge of this subject, I’ll give him that. However, as I’ve said before, I’ve pretty much had it with the bottomless pit of substance abuse literature. And, speaking of substance abuse – regarding all those critics who label this book a great landmark of American fiction: what are they smoking? If they’re right, it’s a sad commentary on the state of said fiction. But I don’t think they’re right; rather, a bunch of postmodern poseurs whose ululations Wallace himself must have laughed at.

images-1In sum, the book doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a plot, let alone dramatic tension, nor any characters that remotely resemble human beings, or possess any other aspects that engage the reader’s concern (mine anyway). But it is certainly a masterpiece of verbiage of the kind I’ve quoted above, and if you have an inexhaustible appetite for such, then Infinite Jest is definitely the book for you.

The Feckless Poor Versus the Selfish Hogs

June 10, 2013

images-2A 2012 worldwide Pew survey asked whether success is due to hard work or forces beyond one’s control. Most Brits, Germans, and Czechs agreed that success can be achieved through your own efforts. Guess who disagreed? The French, Greeks, Italians.

This is important to economic policy debates. We’ve been hearing much about inequality. Now, if you believe prosperity and hard work are correlated, you’re apt to think the best answer for inequality lies in broadening opportunities for people to be productive. images-3But if you’re in the other camp, believing success and wealth are matters of mere luck and not merit or effort, then you may favor just taking from those with more to give to those with less. (Especially if you yourself have less.)

This is indeed the mindset in countries like France, Greece, and Italy. They have simply lost sight of the connection between what’s in their wallets and someone, somewhere, somehow producing something. They march in the streets demanding to be maintained in their lifestyles, regardless.

What about the U.S.? Now here’s real American exceptionalism. Whereas Brits, at 57%, topped Europeans in linking work with success, in America it’s a whopping 77%. This strong consensus cuts across wealth classes and both political parties.

UnknownThis doesn’t mean Americans are social Darwinists who believe the poor should be left to their fate. Nor even, for that matter, do Republicans, despite insistence to the contrary by President Obama and his party. No; Americans of all stripes strongly back the social solidarity of a safety net for those less fortunate (and do recognize that Dame Fortune plays some role). But what Americans mostly do not buy into is the left’s idea of social justice a la Robin Hood, plundering the rich to benefit the poor. Americans don’t think robbery serves justice.

The Pew poll was discussed recently by The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist (who covers America and its politics). Unknown-1Comparing against Europe, Lexington opined that the heart of the Euro problem, with all the bailouts of grasshoppers by ants, is that they don’t like each other enough to make their economic union work. And, Lexington says, “America should fear the spread of the crudest poison paralyzing Europe: mutual dislike between citizens.”

In Europe, it’s regional. The Germans don’t like the Greeks and resent having to bail them out, and the Greeks resent the Germans for bailing them out. images-5In America, it’s ideological; hardened zealots demonizing opponents as motivated by evil, stymieing any compromises to address the nation’s problems.

Both parties are at fault. Republican sin is exemplified by Romney’s “47%” comment, branding almost half of Americans as unwilling to be responsible for themselves. (This in a nation where 77% believes success and hard work are linked!) images-6But Lexington considers Obama and Democrats equally guilty, stirring up division and resentment against richer people cast as selfish hogs.

You don’t have to believe wealth is ill-gotten, and should be equalized, to justify taxing the rich more than the poor and helping the less fortunate. images-1Nor must you deem them feckless and irresponsible, to justify believing that a society where the successful can enjoy wealth is a better society for everyone.

Proof That Heaven IS Real!

June 5, 2013

I’ve written – quite critically – about people who claim to have seen Heaven. Well, lo, now I’ve had my own visit. And it IS real!

imagesI won’t bore you with medical details, I’m fine now. But, in brief, I did go through the standard experience with the tunnel, bright light, and numinous beings beckoning. Next thing I know, there’s the guy with the big ledger book. Just like in all those New Yorker cartoons.

So I hand up my driver’s license, and he checks off my name. “Okay, Frank Steven Robinson,” he says, “Welcome to Heaven. Go right in.” No search, no full body scan, nothing; hadn’t these guys ever heard of, like, security?

But meantime I smelled a rat because my Christian friends had always assured me that, as a non-believer, I was bound for the other place. Unknown-2And Saint Pete must have noticed my skeptical look, because he added, with a wave of his hand, “Oh, you’re fine. The Lord is a forgiving God.”

(Guido Reni, Wikipaintings)

(Guido Reni, Wikipaintings)

You wouldn’t know it from reading the Bible, I wanted to say; it still seemed fishy, but I shrugged and proceeded inside. And it was like that car ad guy says – huuuge. A zillion people, all in white robes with wings, all of whom I could see simultaneously in some trick of vision. Even weirder, despite the robes, most were somehow at the same time naked, and in the throes of all kinds of enthusiastic sex. A huuuge orgy in fact. images-1I guess once you’re admitted to Heaven, “sin” ceases to be an issue. Now that’s what I call safe sex. With Heaven really being (as the expression goes) to die for.

Then I noticed one fellow I couldn’t fail to recognize, even without his customary uniform.

“Hitler?” I exclaimed. “Hitler is here?”

An angel nearby heard me and explained, “Son, the Lord is a forgiving God.”

images-2It was beginning to sound like a campaign slogan. Was the Lord up for re-election?

Just then, a stooped, bearded old man with a hooked nose shambled by, obviously Jewish. Hitler kicked him, hard, in the nuts (he wore jackboots under his robe) and when the old guy folded in agony, images-3Hitler went on to kick him senseless. Then he danced a little jig (just like at the French surrender).

The angel saw my consternation increasing. “In Heaven, of course, everybody gets their heart’s desire. Hitler loves kicking Jews.”

I had to ask: “Does the old man love getting kicked?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” my angel friend whispered, with a conspiratorial chuckle, “he’s just a hologram. But don’t tell Adolf, it would spoil his fun.”

“So,” I blurted, “Heaven is built on lies?”

“Well, duh,” the angel answered, grinning sardonically.

“One more question,” I ventured. “Does anybody go to Hell?”

Unknown-1“Actually yes,” the answer came, with a hearty chortle. “But it’s a very select group. God has a sense of humor, you know. ld1.jpgefef5ce6-ecf5-461b-ba2f-c14d60e95524LargerHell is reserved for people who write books claiming to have seen Heaven.”

I didn’t get a chance to ask whether that applies to blogs, because that’s when I suddenly woke up. But I am figuring that a blog post won’t count.

Bill McKibben, Climate Change, and Who’s the Real Enemy?

June 1, 2013

images-3Bill McKibben (leading climate change activist) now decrees that a cause needs an enemy to mobilize against. Apparently climate Unknownchange deniers are not a big enough enemy, so McKibben solemnly proposes that the oil and fossil fuel industries be declared the enemy, to moralistically crusade against. He says searching and drilling for oil is wrong and should stop.

Unknown-1This might make more sense if that pied piper and his followers stopped using it. Stopped driving cars, riding buses or trains or planes; stopped heating or air-conditioning their homes; or using any electricity, which is mostly generated with fossil fuels like oil or coal (so even electric cars still actually use those fuels). McKibben talks as though oil drilling is solely for (horrors!) profit; as if our using oil were irrelevant; as if we’d quit if the evil oil companies just bowed in contrition and stopped foisting it on us.

Unknown-2If only we could wave a magic wand and convert to all-renewable fuel use, with economic efficiency. Of course that’s the rub. We could displace all fossil fuels tomorrow — but at horrendous cost.

Pish tosh, McKibbenites might say, planetary health trumps money concerns. However, money buys food and other conveniences of life, and in a world where too many people still endure poverty and hunger, they’re the ones who’d suffer the most. McKibben and friends may shed Unknown-3crocodile tears about the plight of the world’s poor (“victims of capitalism” they imagine), but when it comes to their climate obsession, the world’s poor are thrown under the bus.

In fact, McKibben has actually said economic growth is a bad thing; and even technological progress we’ve had enough of, it should all be stopped. A breathtaking idea when in the past few decades economic growth, accelerated by technological advancement (and our use of energy), has lifted billions from poverty.

imagesPish tosh comes the retort; the problem is too many rich. Just redistribute their wealth to the poor; problem solved. But we live in the real world, and if this “solution” were actually implemented (not bloody likely), then afterwards why bother making efforts and investments to produce wealth? We’d have equality all right – equal poverty. At least it would remove that splinter (rich people to envy) from the left eye.

But back to the original point of declaring war on oil companies. We have enough demonization of “enemies” in our political discourse. Should we make “enemies” of those who produce commodities we all use and need, in fact a vital underpinning for our whole living standard? As if we could or should give up modernity itself. Some like McKibben romanticize an agrarian past; but that pesky point of poverty again poops on their party. Before modernity, the vast majority lived in wretched squalor. We’re not going back there.

images-1The  fixation on curbing atmospheric carbon to combat global warming goes hand in hand with the McKibbenites’ bizarre vendetta against, once more, economic growth and the whole industrial economy. Despairing of actually slaying that dragon, they hope at least to put it on a starvation diet (for some human beings, alas, that would be literal), by cutting its energy supply. This (a) won’t happen and (b) would be bad for human progress if it did, but also (c) won’t solve the climate problem. If tomorrow we slashed carbon emissions to zero, scientists’ climate models show temperatures still rising, and rising only slightly less than if we do nothing. Yes, we should nevertheless try to limit carbon as much as possible, but to combat climate change a more rational strategy would shift the focus to preparedness, mitigation and adaptation, and exploration of geo-engineering (like adding particulates to the upper atmosphere) to recool the planet. All this will cost money, so anything impeding economic growth (like capping emissions regardless of the economics) would be self-defeating.

These realities McKibbenites don’t want to hear, because they detract from their anti-industrial, anti-technology, anti-growth, anti-progress, and ultimately anti-human crusade.

images-2Finally, climate change is not our biggest challenge. People’s future lives will be impacted far more by those age-old but prosaic nemeses of poverty, disease, and ignorance. Our chief weapons against them are economic and technological progress – fueled by energy use. This is humanity’s main battle. Which side is McKibben on?

POSTSCRIPT: Just after posting this I got the latest Economist, focusing on world poverty reduction. Great strides are chronicled. “Most of the credit,” The Economist says, “must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow – and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution.”