Thursday, June 29, 2017

Baited Expectations

By Bob Ferris

I am thinking about fly fishing today in part because my injured shoulder stops me from taking to my favorite streams and casting for trout this summer.   It makes me a little edgy and angry.  I could probably fake it some by flipping my wrist creatively and focusing on small pools but it is the balance thing that would probably get me.   I could fool myself into trying but not having a stable arm to stop or slow a mossy rock slip could lead to disaster.  And this makes me think about Melania Trump and her response  to the Donald’s very unpresidential (and sad) comments about Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski.  Actually, not so much her response but the response to her response. 

Why?  Since the time of Izaak Walton fly fishing has always been about the throwing out of something showy and attractive disguised as something else.  The feathers, fluff and flashy tinsel also hide great peril for those fooled by the ruse.  It seems a strong metaphor for this situation with Melania, but really applies to this whole administration.  But let’s start with her. 

Our Melania problem is that Americans keep expecting a legitimate first lady and we are fooled just like a trout that mistakes a fly with hook for food when it is not and never was.  In this we are forever hopeful.  And she did appear twice to slap away Donald’s hand and many gained great hope of character from those acts.   But my sense is that this was just the functional equivalent of a rod tip jiggle giving life-like movement to a fly a trout would otherwise swim past because of its artificiality. 

In this I am not endorsing the notion that first ladies (or eventually first men) must live in the shadow of their elected spouses or that they have unpaid obligations that they must fulfill.  My criticism is of the outrage and surprise that some are expressing because Melania Trump is defending these deplorable tweets.  After all, here is a woman who once claimed a degree she did not have and plagiarized elements of her convention speech.  She's also in a lawsuit defending her reputation from slanderous statements claimed that her ability to make money as first lady would be damaged by how she had been characterized.  There is nothing in any of this that indicates that she is a moral or philosophical outlier in the Trump crowd.  She is clearly made of the same fluff and gold tinsel.   We need to keep our eyes open and should not confuse a trademark squint with accomplishment or an attractive figure with fortitude.

This example and the metaphor are important in a broader sense for two reasons.  The first is that we as a nation have to look closer at what is presented to us.  If we do not we will surely perish or be greatly diminished.  Being continually fooled and then outraged does not keep us swimming free.  It only ensures our place in the frying pan or on the grill.  

The metaphor of a fly is important because the image of the fly at the top likely attracted anglers to this piece.  Good, because much of the “barbs” associated with the “hooks” of this Administration such as the attacks on climate action, clean water and public lands will harm the interests of anglers and hunters now and for generations to come.  We as anglers need to learn from this lesson and recognize the false food of this fly.  We need to stir up our various pools and make sure others do not foolishly rise to that which lessens our lives and jeopardizes our pursuits and passions (see above as a reminder of the issues at stake).  Open your eyes and get active.  

In happier times with two working shoulders.  Hopefully we will all heel from our current circumstance. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Jerseys Change and We Need to Notice

Willie Mays in New York.

By Bob Ferris

When I was a kid I used to watch the San Francisco Giants back when Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda played.  The Alou brothers and McCovey too.  I watched in part because my father and grandfather watched or listened and because the Giants were through most of my memory the local team.  But it was not always so because the Giants used to play in New York and started out being called the New York Gothams.  Now my scant sports attention is directed towards football and the Seahawks, but the idea here is that things change—sometimes monumentally.    We need to keep up sports-wise or we run the risk of rooting for the wrong team. 

This comes to mind as I see efforts by those wanting to sow doubt and confusion into our political system playing once again on the intellectually vulnerable by trying to characterize the Democratic Party as the party of slavery and racism (1,2,3). The Democratic Party has had a convoluted history to be sure just as the Republican Party once had shining stars like Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt who would be repulsed by the current elephantine crowd. But parties, like teams, evolve and change—sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.  What matters now is where each is currently located politically and who they think about each time they power-suit up and play.  For that we need to constantly look at current platforms and actions and understand them as throughly as we know baseball or football stats or when what team was moved where.

We all need to undertake this action of political awareness.  But at the same time we have to guard ourselves and our fellow Americans from this general class of actions purposely designed to rip our political system to shreds.  While it would be convenient to characterize these actors as liberal or conservative extremists that really describes their targets more than the players themselves who are simply interested in raw wealth and massive power in its various forms.   Folks should understand that these actors or collection of forces are the same that acted as catalysts for our rebellious dust-up near the end of the 18th Century—overly-entitled elite, power-grabbing corporations and hyper-controlling Churches.   The jerseys might have changed and the logos modified but the intent and potential consequences are identical.  

As James Comey pointed out during his testimony and the above clip from the movie Selma exemplifies, we are a country that is often troubled and far from perfect, but while we fight among ourselves in division we also must fight those who would destroy us in a united fashion.  That passage which Ms. Winfrey’s character is asked to quote is the vision statement of the founding document of this country.   This vision was not realized then nor is it now, but this is where we should be headed.  Unfortunately, that is not our current course which brings us back to the posts in question.

Many actions compromised our last election.  If we want our country to adhere to our founding principles and protect Americans from the catalytic threats that formed our nation we cannot afford to ignore the carefully-crafted chaos currently polluting our public airways and bandwidths. In this it is an odd irony that our steadfast support of free speech, enterprise and religion is being used to fill us with destructive propaganda, compromise our average fiscal well-being and restrict our beliefs, behaviors or choices.

While I am encouraged that the Senate is making a clear statement about Russian election interference as the Trump team, the Attorney General and some enabling commentators act like the iconic monkeys portrayed above.  Of note too are poll results showing an American public, including many CEOs, less that amused by these antics (1,2,3). But we still have those who gravitate to these specious news sources thinking they are ultra-conservative or hyper-progressive rather than rabidly anti-American which is what they truly are.  (Hint to those still buying into these stories: They are wearing your favorite jerseys but are playing for a different ideological team.)

The Giants example or the Oilers-to-Titans switch are easy to follow and understand.  But I truly struggle with the logic that catapults a flamboyant, Islamophobic, British college dropout into a position where he becomes any sort of an influence on American politics .  That seems more than a jersey change but not all that different than Americans embracing a Russian-owned news source or a website located in Bulgaria with posts from a person who engaged in insider trading.  Come on! 

But this is also a time when a faith ostensibly based on kindness, charity, tolerance and enlightenment is at least partially co-opted by those forwarding a platform of greed, intolerance, hatred and ignorance (1,2,3).  Shocking? But then I remember a time when the National Rifle Association (NRA) was all about gun safety rather that arming everyone or fighting against the sports enthusiasts who brought them to the dance.  It is hardly a surprise that wealth, power and checkbooks are at play in these changes (1,2). 

So this is where I should insert a shining solution, but I do not really have one.  I could urge folks to check their sources and only promote those posts from proven entities, but many think they are already doing that and even the profound evidence of the failure of this presidency has not seemed to dampen their boundless enthusiasm for unfounded conspiracies, manufactured paranoia and stuff that is down-right silly.   The Giants no longer play in New York, but the likes of RT , Breitbart, The Gateway Pundit, Zero Hedge, True Activist  and others continue to carefully feed some just enough truth so they will also consume the country-killing poison these outlets really want them to eat and share.  We will not proceed with this country’s vision statement of broad freedoms and public welfare unless more of us wake up and realize this.     


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Use and Abuse of Science

Friedrich Nietzsche

By Bob Ferris

In college I struggled (like many) with Nietzsche’s On the Use and Abuse of History for Life.  Four decades later, and taken in its complete context, it makes more sense to me.  I think about this work—more pamphlet than book—as I talk with folks about science.  This idea of discipline abuse applies particularly to those who incorrectly apply or twist science to defend their strongly-held religious, political or moral beliefs.  All of these are realms where science does not comfortably tread and certainly does nothing to provide sign posts. 
"Many endorse the view of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which stated in 1981 that the existence of human life at conception is “a question to which science can provide no answer.”  Since that time, scientists and physicians have remained more of less mum—or self-censored—on the issue." When Does Human Life Begin? by Arthur Caplan.
Here abortion comes first to mind.  I have read a few pieces where those trained in the sciences have claimed that human life starts at conception.  This is a not something that science per se can or would argue (1,2,3) and they should know that from their training.  They should know that science is not about holding a belief and then assembling those findings that support your a priori position.  Science is a squiggly beast and more likely to lead to questions and doubt than a brass-bound or iron-clad answer.  The immutable, unquestionable and un-blurred are denizens of the lands of faith and law not science.
Hair follicle.
What questions? How, for instance, is a fertilized egg any more “human” than a hair follicle or sloughed cell traveling out your intestine? All of them hold the same compliment of genetic material. And all of them could be converted into viable human beings with some assistance and intervention. Subjected to any of the DNA analysis techniques such as fingerprinting they would all yield the same basic results.

And how is abortion different than miscarriage or the failure of a fertilized egg to implant which is the most common outcome?  All have the same end result and would be considered equal outcomes by science.  Yet these folks claiming to be guided by science see some as a natural happenstance and have judged others as a mortal sin.  I would argue that when scientifically-identical outcomes are seen differently some additional lens must be in play.

In point of fact science and emerging technologies makes clear delineation of this even more problematic as we understand that being a human is more part of a complexly-woven journey than a single destination.  So when someone presses me to say when science tells us human life begins, my head is filled more with questions than answers.  I often wrestle with the concept of species and whether we serve ourselves well using an abstraction just because it translates fairly easily to a legal concept.  If there is a moment of pure human-ness then are those with Neanderthal genes, Down Syndrome or mutations less human?  And what about those males or females with extra X chromosomes? It is interesting to note here that those with purely Africa origins have no Neanderthal material making them actually more purely “human” than those from Europe or Eurasia. Imagine that?

There is also something disturbingly authoritative and patriarchic about all this that brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.   How can science on one hand document the myriad impacts of over-population and then suddenly act to enable policies and postures that would tend towards making the matter worse? It’s as if these scientifically-trained religious adherents feel they sound more rational when they say science dictates this rather than God.  It is an abuse of science and dishonest intellectually.  Moreover science exists more in the realm of "could" and "might" than in those milieus where "should" and "must" are most comfortable.   In short, science is not a bludgeon for making women act as mere vessels, but more likely a means for making wanted pregnancies and the alternatives more risk-free. 

Bottom-line is that folks need to be honest about who or what brought them to the dance.  This is as true about abortion as it is with climate change, vaccination resistance and even fiscal policy.  Science informs but does not dictate.  That said, analyses would hardly argue that religious strictures of reproductive obligation penned when global human populations were climbing towards 30 million would still make sense as our trajectory pushes us near 9 billion.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Washington Condition and the Neglected Armpit

By Bob Ferris

My life seems to be a metaphor.  Why?  I recently tripped over a campsite fire ring which I could not see in the dark because I was blinded by a bright fire at a nearby camp.   My one-point landing sent me immediately to an Emergency Room and caused me a bucketful of pain. Turns out crashing to the ground can cause a Type III shoulder separation.  Now dressing myself is a nightmare and I cannot clean my left armpit adequately while showering because my right arm is impaired.  I am a sad, lop-sided soul and completely reflective of the current state of the US body politic under Trump.

How can I say this?  The parallels are simply inescapable.  My right shoulder is a relative small part of me yet it seems to impact all aspects of my life.  It intrudes.  It causes me great discomfort.  My sling affects my balance, bunches my clothes and often prevents me from getting past half-mast with my pant’s zipper.  All make me an object of pity and derision. (Starting to sound familiar?)

Need more?  How, for instance, is the flood of Alt-Right and Russian fake news any different than the yard-high flame that stopped me from seeing the pending peril underfoot?  How too was my disoriented assessment of my relative condition following the fall dissimilar than where we find ourselves now buried under near constant shovelfuls of scandal? Luckily for me there were two ER nurses nearby to help and calm me, but the US body politic has nothing like that.  We are saddled with ends-justify-the-means ostriches who are supported by a chorus of evangelicals calling on demons to attack dissenters. (Of special note here is the sharp contrast between those rushing to the aide of an injured stranger in the dark versus those wanting to strip health care and societal support from the most needy in the light of day.)

Shoulders and our system of government are both the complicated.  Shoulder separations are all about the ligaments that hold the collar bone (clavicle) and shoulder blade (scapula) in place and near the shoulder socket not unlike the US Constitution’s role with the legislature, judicial and a executive branches of our government.  My monumental faux pas materially suspended that function.  It does not seem difficult at all to make the argument that the Trump election has similarly stretched and in many cases ripped the legal and legislative ligaments of our nation.  And while George Washington made it clear that he did not aspire to be king or emperor, Trump is much more Napoleonic in his desires. Perhaps this is why Andrew Jackson hangs now near the Oval Office desk rather than the Father of our Country.   

My sense is that this country was formed to protect us from three basic threats: abusive rule by an entitled elite, undue corporate influence (think Boston Tea Party), and a Church too fully participating in governance.  Setting all the other noise aside our structural “ligaments” need to protect us from these fundamental threats.  My healing and the course of treatment for the US body politic need to start and end with the restoration of original function.  For me that means a long road of rest and physical therapy—perhaps surgery.  Parallel actions need to be taken for the US body politic and there is no doubt that they will take work, be messy and be frequently painful. There is also keen certainty that these actions are necessary.