Monday, April 10, 2017

GAS, MISSILES AND THE US PRESIDENCY

No matter how many disasters arise, no matter how many miscalculations and frustrations repeat themselves, US foreign policy is fiercely resistant to change.

No two presidents could be more different than Donald Trump and Barrack Obama. One is a would-be dictator with a racist and vulgar misogynist mentality. The other is a humanist intellectual, a liberal (some would say “neoliberal” because of his commitment to the “free enterprise” capitalist foundations of our economic system). 

Both came to the White House pledging to change a failed foreign policy and to withdraw from US entanglement in endless “dumb” and losing wars. Their objectives and methods differ as profoundly as their respective characters, and Trump’s presidency is creating the greatest crisis for American democracy since the Civil War.

But a president is crudely called to order if he seems to stray from fealty to “vital interests” defined by a dominant military-intelligence-corporate complex.  

Obama had Gates, Clinton and the military chiefs to counter his “reluctant warrior” tendencies, so while he opted for diplomacy in matters such as the Iran agreement, the drones and missiles kept flying and no wars came to an end. 

Trump was turned around in one week on military intervention in Syria. Before the horrifying images appeared of gassed families and children, the pressure was on to “normalize” the National Security Council. As the Times comments, “since the forced resignation of Michael T. Flynn…, Mr. Flynn’s successor, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, has been moving to put a more traditionally professional stamp on the operations of the National Security Council.”

Nor was it lost on Trump that his increasingly unpopular presidency could use a “rally around the flag” tonic. And, indeed, the resort to instant unilateral and illegal force seems almost to “normalize” Trump, especially in the eyes of neocons and old-fashioned war hawks.

So in a world that turns up unspeakable atrocities with regularity, the instant response is a military strike — and then what? No time or place for reason, no time to verify facts, no room for the United Nations, no investment in the hard work of advancing the common interests of differing nations whose people hate and fear barbarism and war as much as we do. 

So why is it so hard to change the course of a failed foreign and military policy? Because it is ingrained in a history of imperial conquest, because it is rooted in the undying beliefs of “American exceptionalism” and supremacy — above all because “vital interests” refer not to the well-being of people, but to the demands of the most far-flung corporate and military empire ever.

That’s more than any president can be counted on to challenge, though a Trump can create more havoc even than a George W. Bush. Only relentless reality can force change, but only a finally wised-up and angry populous can bring it about.

Friday, March 24, 2017

ANOTHER GONE

S. Jonathon Singer died in February at age 92. He was a major figure in the biological sciences and a dear friend of mine.

For seven years, 1957-1964, I enjoyed an especially close learning and working relationship with Jon. Almost every day I saw his keen scientific mind at work and experienced the richness of his qualities as a person.

It began in 1957 in the Chemistry Department at Yale when I was hired on a temporary basis as a technician. It’s a tale worth retelling in these worrisome times. A local McCarthy-style campaign had ended my short-lived career as a junior high school teacher by spreading the word that I had been an organizer for the Labor Youth League, one of many organizations labeled as “subversive” by the McCarran “internal security” Board. After being unemployed for two months, I was hired by Julian Sturtevant, a close faculty colleague of Jon’s, as an act of personal kindness and a rejection of McCarthyism  (conditional on whether I could prepare and qualify for Yale’s graduate program in Chemistry).  Sparing details, it was Jon who became my mentor, encouraging me on the difficult journey to qualify, taking me on as a graduate student, then as a post-doc and collaborator at UC San Diego. It was with Jon in La Jolla that an idea I got as a graduate student came to fruition in “Affinity Labeling: a General Method for Labeling the Active Sites of Antibodies and Enzymes”.

I was a little older than Jon, and the mentoring relationship evolved into a deep family friendship.

Jon’s contributions to the understanding of fundamental biological phenomena were many and profound. Early on, while a Fellow with Linus Pauling, he collaborated in discovering the genetic basis of Sickle Cell Anemia.  The most significant of his numerous contributions was in developing a model of the cell membrane that revolutionized previous notions and laid the basis for later discoveries on how cells function and how they interact. A Retrospective on Jon, by Russell Doolittle, will appear in the forthcoming issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

Over the years, Jon became more and more concerned about the “human condition”, the dismal state of affairs in our country and the rest of the world. He was very pessimistic and came to think that the fundamental difficulty was a genetic limitation of human intelligence, encompassing all but the rare geniuses. (He made it clear that his notion of genius did not include himself or others who were just bright and accomplished in various fields.)

So, even though Jon and I shared many values and a commitment to social justice, we often debated his diagnosis of the underlying difficulty.  I argued that it’s more a matter of an economic system that breeds enormous inequality and turns victims against each other to the advantage of neo-fascist demagogues.

I’m sure Jon felt vindicated, though horrified, by Trump’s rise to power. Surely one’s faith in a better future is being tested extremely. Still, as I wrote in my last letter to Jon, “I don’t think that the wonders of human achievement, especially culturally, belong solely to the occasional genius that randomly appears in our midst. And there’s certainly now a clear majority, of which you and I are still a part, who will resist and hopefully turn the tide against Trumpism and know-nothingism in general.”

With much love and appreciation, goodbye Jon.



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Monday, March 13, 2017

JUST AN ASIDE

While monsters occupy the White House and their minions in Congress are dead-set on robbing millions of health care, one still needs the respite of a good movie — and there are quite a few around.

We have yet to see Manchester by the Sea, but I can't imagine a more striking acting performance than Denzel Washington's in Fences. It took a while to convince myself that this was really Denzel, who is so recognizable in dozens of diverse screen roles. Of course, the play is a masterpiece by August Wilson, one of the great American playwrights of all time. And the rest of the cast is superb, especially Viola Davis.

Monday, February 20, 2017

CAN WE OPPOSE TRUMP AND SUPPORT REDUCING TENSIONS WITH RUSSIA?

I’m worried. Who isn’t?

So many people, myself included, are hopeful that Trump’s extremely dangerous presidency is already in the kind of trouble that could somehow bring it to an early end.

His first weeks are an almost unbelievable shock, highlighted by tirades against the press and all dissent. Thankfully, bold resistance is rising against his anti-immigrant orders and ICE raids, his billionaire cabinet, his racist alt-right “strategists”, and his sexist agenda for Congress and the Supreme Court.

However, his greatest vulnerability at this moment is the undercover dealings of his emissaries with Russians during the election campaign and after when he was still President Elect.  The suspicion that Putin’s government interfered with our elections has galvanized a reaction whose full consequences are yet to be seen.

But the sword of Damocles that hangs over this issue is clearly double-edged. It may threaten Trump’s presidency, but it also threatens peace. It’s one thing to expose and counter a tainted presidential election; it’s another for liberals and progressives to team up with war hawks and neocons to bitterly oppose de-escalation of antagonisms between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.

Michael Gorbachev has just said what’s most important and what must be the concern that towers above all others in our terribly dangerous 21st century: “It All Looks as if the World Is Preparing for War”. The essence of all hope for the planet and future generations is in mounting pressure to promote international relations based on the common interests of humanity rather than on irresponsible greed and risks that lead only to the ultimate catastrophic war. The UN Security Council agreement with Iran is a small step that affirms the possibilities, which is why it drives our hawks and Netanyahu's aggressive "settler" government into a frenzy. It’s a very tall order to restore the broken post-World War 2 commitment to peaceful coexistence and conflict resolution through the United Nations. But that’s the only kind of world that could survive these treacherous waters. Of course it’s also a world without Trump as President of the USA — the sooner the better.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

WILL OF THE PEOPLE

What’s happening now is not just an opening salvo to prove to Trump’s base that he is keeping his campaign promises. This is indeed the early phase of a fundamental transformation of the USA.

Faster than one might expect, if it isn’t turned back, a totalitarian plutocracy is in the making. “Fortress Americana”, projecting violence and white nationalism at home and abroad, would still lay claim to a façade of “democracy”. It wouldn’t have to dissolve traditional political institutions such as Congress and the Courts, so long as its control over them is locked in. But make no mistake, it would strike down dissent and relentlessly persecute opposition.

The battle between democracy and dictatorship is upon us. No one can foresee the outcome or what the next few years will bring. Both sides can wield great power.

The strength of Trump and his alt-right strategists is not merely in the substantial support of the large voting minority that gave him the Electoral College victory. It is in the fact that the GOP and its corporate billionaire sponsors now have a stranglehold on every level of government – federal, state and judicial. The pre-election embarrassment among establishment republicans over Trump’s antics now gives way to their vision of a bonanza his election seems to offer: with Trump’s iron-fist and evermore outrageous voter restriction, they see the way clear to erasing social programs and sealing one party rule (demographics be damned!)

So you have, as David Brooks acknowledges, a Faustian bargain, in which Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell and most of their cohort sell their souls (if they have any) to Trump in return for dreams of a GOP dynasty.  

What is the power of the democratic opposition? It has to have confidence that it is the majority, that it is resisting a coup against democracy. We do not know whether Trump recruited Steve Bannon as his strategist, or Bannon and the alt-right recruited Trump as their candidate. But Trump teamed with the extreme alt-right racists to pilot this coup. As demogogue-in-chief, he effectively exploited the discontent of millions and the vulnerabilities of Clinton and the Democrats. But he fell well short of a majority. He’s the first President with over 50% disapproval in his very first days in office.

Without underestimating Trump’s base — the many Americans with illusions in him as the “fixer” and the determined minority consciously out to remake America as a racist dictatorship — the opposition to Trumpism is huge, a clear and definite majority. That’s why the Women’s March, with supporting marches in so many cities and around the world, was so important. Of course it’s only the debut of the many-layered resistance. But what a beginning! It unhinged Trump, who blustered and tweeted for days because it overshadowed the Inauguration. In the tough times ahead, the opposition to Trumpism has to be confident in its strength and ability to represent a growing majority.

(At this point, I shut the computer down and went to bed, ‘to be continued’. Lo and behold, I woke up this morning to a rare bit of good news: a federal court judge blocked Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration order. Trump responded characteristically by attacking the judge and vowing to defy his ruling.)

There is some speculation that Trump’s presidency may self-destruct, that he will quit or be impeached before this term is over. That’s wishful thinking at this point. He and his cabinet of super wealthy capitalists and ex-generals will not go quietly into the political night. An impeachable opening may occur as it did for Nixon, but that depends on how the battle in the public arena goes. The more Trump relies on dictatorial methods to stifle dissent, the more people he fires for defying his rule, the more he strikes out against non-compliant journalists and political rivals, the more vulnerable his regime becomes. The most critical test, and most likely area of  “overreach”, will come when the regime resorts to violence to counter rising protest. How far will Trump, Bannon and Sessions go when people rise up against a foul pipeline venture, or mass deportations that break up families, or police killings of more young people of color?

Resistance takes many forms. There is no way to guarantee agreement and coordination throughout. But most should agree that the “off year” elections of 2018 must not go the way of 2010 and 2014. About that, and examination of the factors that gave us President Trump, younger generations have more to contribute than mine. But we do have some relevant experiences to recall, among them the ignominious fate of Joe McCarthy and the impeachment of Nixon.

When democracy is in grave danger, the will of the people can be both powerful and wonderful.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

ON THE MARCH

I'd hammer out danger,
I'd hammer out a warning,
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land....


Nothing could have hammered out danger more forcefully; 
nothing could have rallied hope more convincingly. (Click here)











Tuesday, January 17, 2017

POEMS FOR AN ASTERISK PRESIDENCY*

* For non-sports fans: an * is placed beside a record that is tainted because unusual circumstances or some kind of cheating contributed to it.

THE SECOND COMING
by: W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
                                  ________________________
                    
Rafael Jesús González 2017:

                  A woman said I was not polite
                   to the opposition,
                      that I was harsh
                        and did not encourage
                   discourse.

                      Perhaps if I were Christ,
                       I could say, "Forgive them
                              for they know not what they do."
                        Or the queen, and apologize
                     for stubbing my executioner's toes.

                     But only if I knew
                      the executioners
                                were mine only.

                What courtesy have I the right to give
                  to them who break the bones,
                                the souls of my brothers,
                                                    my sisters;

                          deny bread, books
                               to the hungry,
                          the children;
                                   medicine, healing
                                       to the sick;
                    roofs to the homeless;

                  who spoil the oceans,
                           lay waste the forests
                                   and the deserts,
                        violate the land?

                       Affability on the lips
                  of outrage
                      is a sin and blasphemy
                          I'll not be guilty of.

             © Rafael Jesús González 2017

Thursday, January 12, 2017

MORNING MUSINGS

Still thinking about the movie, Hidden Figures, which we saw a couple of days ago. It's an important story and deserves the widest audience. 

Most important, of course, is the belated recognition of the achievements of some truly remarkable black women. Then there are the circumstances they had to overcome, especially the generally ignored and scandalous fact that huge programs of the federal government were run according to the rules and practices of Jim Crow. Also, it's worth thinking about the cold war culture that fueled the space "race".

For now, I find myself thinking about what we take from the fact that rare individuals can overcome the most incredible obstacles. Surely that's a source of wonder and pride and deserves celebration, particularly when it's the "norms" of society itself that individuals have to overcome. 

In addition to the "hidden" heroes of this story, I think of others throughout history who rose to rare heights of human achievement despite their circumstances, despite slavery, poverty, or being condemned by cruel institutions of government and church. I think of current examples. Who can fathom a B. J. Miller, a triple amputee due to a ghastly accident as a teen-ager, who went on to become an outstanding MD and innovator in palliative care? When I read Charles Blow's book, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, I marveled at how a black kid born and raised in the rural Jim Crow South could in his early twenties become a widely read and admired columnist for the NY Times.

We rightly glory in the marvels of human achievement against all odds. But all the achievers and the rare genius are never the whole story. Hidden Figures should raise hopes and expectations for all young people, those of color most of all. It should also enhance our social conscience, our refusal to bow to those elements of our social order that crush hopes and opportunity for the millions.
__________

We listen to music often during breakfast, and sometimes we happen on to a wonderful surprise. Today it was the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra playing Mozart Piano Concerto 17.

I have a strong preference for Mozart performed with the modern piano and orchestra rather than early instruments, so the joy I felt today was genuine surprise. The concerto is sandwiched in between two other concert pieces. The setting in Freiburg is old and gorgeous. But the biggest thrill is in the sheer joy of the performers. They absolutely love what they’re doing; the first violinist is irresistible, playing beautifully while bouncing almost out of her chair.
__________

Am I the only one who often “thinks” and engages in political encounters in my dreams? Bizarre. Another weird one last night, near morning: I talked with an old man. (I was not old in the dream.) He told me that he had the solution for Israel/Palestine: just declare that everyone throughout the land is both an Arab and a Jew. On the spot, it sounded good to me, but then I woke up.

Seems the problems of the world can’t be solved in dreams; I wish they’d stop interrupting my sleep.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"JUST MERCY"



The book Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson was presented to every new student at UC Berkeley in 2016. If it were to be read by every young adult across the country, it would change America profoundly.

In comments appearing on the book’s back cover, Isobel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, describes Stevenson as “a real-life, modern-day Atticus Finch”; and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, writes that he “is one of my personal heroes, perhaps the most inspiring and influential crusader for justice alive today…” And if that can be topped, Desmond Tutu calls Stevenson “America’s young Nelson Mandela”.

Brian Stevenson went to Alabama as a young lawyer in1983 even as he was still earning his law degree at Harvard. There he went on to establish the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). To this day, that project has challenged an incredibly cruel and pervasively racist “justice system” at its very heart in the deep South, as well as before the US Supreme Court. (It’s that system from which Jeff Sessions emerges as Donald Trump’s Attorney General-select.)

Stevenson and EJI focused on death penalty cases, of which there are so many in Alabama and other southern states. Death rows are loaded with victims who never stood a chance before Jim Crow courts and customary “legal” procedures. Thousands were condemned to years of cruel and destructive punishment as they faced eventual execution.

Despite the odds, Stevenson and his EJI coworkers made significant headway, saving some victims from prison and death, winning Supreme Court judgments against application of the death penalty to juveniles and to mentally disabled. They continually broadened their legal battle, for example successfully defending poor women charged astoundingly with “murder” after a miscarriage.

As my son liked to say when he gave a book report in grade school: "if you want to know more, read the book."

But I still want to say what struck me most about Brian Stevenson himself.

I’m in awe. I’ve known many people selflessly devoted to a just cause. But from his very first case, Brian was completely engaged with the human being he was defending. However important the cause or the issue at stake, it was the human connection that would never be diminished for him. He was as one with the person in trouble; he sought out and linked up with the family, sensed and responded to changing health and emotional problems.

Yes, I’ve known people as active and devoted to a just cause as Brian Stevenson — not very many. Also. a few of these good people might be less than exemplary in their relationships and attitudes toward others. But, although I’ve never met Brian, I think I may never have known anyone with a deeper sense of humanity.

If there are such, I think the guy is a saint.

Monday, January 9, 2017

ON TO 'MUSINGS OF THIS OLD MAN'

It’s time to shift this blog away from almost exclusive commentary on current political issues. That’s despite the fact that our country is at a turning point that may prove more fateful than any since the Civil War.

Resetting the focus of this little blog of mine is a personal need, not a political statement. It has to do with being 95, staying engaged without ignoring the realities, minus and plus, of aging. I could go on about the negatives of old age, but perhaps there are some positives that I can call on exactly because I’m a lucky old man. I’m in relatively good health, with lots of time these days for musing and many exciting years to look back on.

My intentions are tentative and not ambitious: comments on books and movies, more sharing of responses to music; reflections on experiences I’ve had and choices I’ve made. I’ll continue to think about politics (the “big picture”) and won’t be able to resist an occasional essay on a hot political issue. My practice has been to email a list of interested people when I post a new blog. I’ll do less of that now so as not to attach undue importance to casual musings. I imagine some of my readers will look in on my blog from time to time without frequent email prompts. I hope some of you will stay in touch, emailing me comments, questions and suggestions.

I suppose what I have in mind lends itself to Face Book, but I’m more comfortable with this familiar setting.

Tomorrow, or in the next couple of days, I’ll start the shift with a few musings about the movie, “Hidden Figures”, and a great book, “Just Mercy”.